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The Thinning Veil
When Niccoli DeLathe was eleven and had been living in the lap of luxury in Lathe at his family's hereditary estate, he'd had the occasion - - his first occasion, in point of fact - - to be offered the fruits of a village girl. He'd been in the company of a cousin and two young lords of close age, who'd been visiting with their parents. They'd taken their ponies into the hamlet outside the estate grounds, looking for excitement not modulated by the strict hand of Lord DeLathe's major-domo and there were always travelers and merchants and possibly some troupe of gypsies to be found in town.
There hadn't been gypsies, but there had been the farmer's market and an over swelling of local farmers and farmer's daughters about it, hawking their produce. Being the son of a lord was a draw in and of itself, being the son of Lathe himself had the girls practically panting after a very inexperienced young highblood in the hopes of what, Niccoli at the time, could not fathom.
His companions had seemed to know. Eleven and thirteen respectively, they'd boasted of experience with the fairer sex. Of servant girls or cow maids, in back halls or haylofts. The oldest even bragged that upon his next birthday, his father had promised a trip to a house of Lhesa. Niccoli, who thought very little of girls in general, and of intimate encounters with them not at all, was baffled. But one thing he'd had in abundance was pride - - overblown, prickly, DeLathe pride and the chiding of three other boys about his lack of experience put his back up.
So he'd tried, he'd really tried to be a man about it, when they'd chatted up a local farmer's daughter - - a pretty girl that must have been fifteen - - who'd been willing - - oh, more than willing - - to teach the Lord's son 'a thing or two' about women.
Only when it had come down to it, when he'd been alone in a room his cousin had paid a handful of copper coins for at the back of the inn, he hadn't been able to. He was no stranger to erections - -he'd been getting them regularly for the last year or so - - and they came all on their own, mostly in the mornings in the company of hazy dreams. Sometimes during his studies when he sat with his brothers listening to master Idrian lecture about Gonethian history and the prominent place the DeLathe line had played in it. Master Idrian had a deep, soothing voice and always dressed nicely, no crinkle ever marring his crisp tunics.
The pretty young farm girl, who eagerly pulled down her bodice to reveal firm young breasts, was not nearly so neat. Her skirt was smudged with grass stains, as if she'd been rolling about prior with some other boy, and her bare feet were dirty, as a girl's might be who tromped around without benefit of shoes in the midst of summer. There was nothing inviting at all about the nakedness under her skirts when she pulled them up. Just soft white thighs, that were a bit too plump, and a lightly haired mound. It was nothing short of intimidating and Niccoli had actually felt a bit of nausea in the pit of his stomach. Fear maybe. Even her hand on him hadn't been able to summon a stiffness between his own legs, and he'd endured her touch for as long as he was able before he'd fled in shame.
She must have told his young companions afterwards, because when they'd found him, they'd had smirks on their faces, and the sort of cruel words that children employed effortlessly, on their tongues.
"Couldn't get it up, huh?"
""Little lord Poshroy."
"Pretty as a girl, but doesn't fancy them."
They found great amusement at his expense, and he'd glared, lips trembling in offense, before swinging up on his pony and riding home as fast as the little beast's legs would take him.
The ribbing went on for days afterward, word spread through the younger set that inhabited the estate like wildfire. A poshroy, they called him and he'd not been so sheltered that he didn't know what that slur meant. He didn't like boys, he didn't. It was simply that he didn't particularly like girls either. The facts of the matter would have little impact, regardless if it reached his father's ears. He shuddered to dwell on the repercussions; the frown of disapproval that no one could deliver so well as his lordly father.
He didn't snap until one of the young lordlings snickered and pointed at him, whispering in the ear of one of the young ladies his mother fostered, in the great formal garden at the rear of the estate.
The boy had been older and bigger and it hadn't mattered a bit in Niccoli's black rage of embarrassment and shame. He'd pummeled the boy bloody and hadn't stopped until several footmen arrived to pull him off. And if events hadn't already reached his father's ears, they most certainly had after that.
Straight backed and red-cheeked from embarrassment, Niccoli nevertheless recounted the majority of the tale, while his father sat behind his mammoth desk, that icy DeLathe frown on his handsome face.
"She was dirty and her clothes stank," Niccoli had declared, his small chin set against how badly his teeth wanted to chatter. "And they called me names afterwards because I'd have none of her."
His father had considered and finally decided that having a discriminating son was no bad thing, Niccoli's elder siblings having a score of bastards around the county already that DeLathe had to deal with.
"See the arms master tomorrow. It is time to begin formal training. No son of mine should have to defend his honor with bare fists like a commoner," Father had declared.
The next boy who dared make a comment met with a beating in the practice yard and after that they were more careful what they said. He'd taken up the sword with a vengeance, learning that a man with the skill to thoroughly wallop another tended to garner respect. His father had approved of his new obsession. There was honor to be had and glory and gain to be won, for a younger son of nobility if he were a knight of some prestigious order.
Of course his father had assumed he'd find a place with the Vermillion Guard or The Order of Denzar, or even the holier than though, Knights of Esclare. The King's knights were the commonest of orders. The Kingdom's first line of defense, and when life and death were on the line and men died meeting the charge of enemy combatants, the commanders were not so picky about who they elevated to positions of honor. There were commoners who held the rank of knight in the King's brigades.
But it got him far removed from the capital and the nearby lands of Lathe, so it was good enough for Niccoli.
He'd spent his life living down that childhood slur. Devoted his career to honing his skills as knight, honing his honor to do justice to his king. Done everything he could to avoid any resurfacing of that old accusation. As pure as an acolyte of Denzar, they called him, as honorable as any priest of that order who'd taken vows to abstain from worldly delights.
No one thought less of him for it. Some might sneer behind his back that he thought himself above them, but that was preferable from them thinking he was some deviant. He cared for his own physical needs when they arose and no one ever need know that no thoughts of women and their soft whiles moved him. On the other hand, neither did thoughts of men. It had occurred to him on occasion, that he might very well be more suited for the life of a Denzarian priest than anyone thought, pure of mind and body.
But he wasn't a saint. Not quite. A man, even one devoted to the dictums of the knightly code, occasionally had stray thoughts.
And never so many rising to the surface as when he'd began keeping the company of Gavin, who damned well made it difficult not to stare overlong, or start with some unprecedented and unwelcome sensation when he invaded personal space, or smiled lazily at some sly insinuation he'd made, long eyes half veiled by those ridiculous black lashes. As if he were trying Niccoli's patience apurpose. Which Niccoli did not put past him, Gavin's sense of humor entirely different than Niccoli's own.
He might come to blows with another man who taunted him so, but Gavin - - Gavin had saved his life on no few occasions in the trails of combat. And Gavin's mockery came hand in hand with a subtle sort of humility, of self-derision that made the edge less harsh. Gavin forgave Niccoli his tempers and his moods and his refusal to engage in frivolous pastimes. Gavin offered understanding in sidelong looks and quiet inclinations of his dark head, as if he knew what lay in Niccoli's heart without Niccoli ever having uttered a word of it. It was relief of a sorts at times, Gavin's company, and unsettling at others, the suspicion that Gavin knew things he ought not. Shameful things.
Goddess help him if he found himself alone in a room with Gavin half unclothed again, much less inclined to the insanity of laying hands on him. He should never have gone, with his head light from so much wine. Xera knew how drunk Gavin had been, welcoming it as he had. If he had. If it hadn't all been in Niccoli's head, aided by the wine. He was embarrassed and no small bit annoyed. At himself. At Gavin for any number of things. Lack of self control chief among them. If he had the sense to avoid brawls in public, there would have been no need to hunt him down and chastise him for it. And hence no sympathy for the aches of a comrade and no resulting fascination in the feel of another man's skin under his fingertips, or the contrast of his pale fingers against the golden hues of Gavin's flesh.
Niccoli was white as milk from the neck down, where leather and armor and mail shielded him from the sun. Gavin's Sekkish blood, no doubt, lent him dark hues below the neckline. Sekks were a dark haired, dark eyed folk, who loved their wine and their music and their romances, so the stories went. Knowing all of one displaced Sekk, Niccoli believed the tales.
Thinking of dusky Sekkish skin did him no favors though, fresh from the embarrassment of making a fool of himself in Gavin's room, so Niccoli did what Niccoli always did when his demons bayed, he fetched his sword and went out to a practice yard deserted in the steady rain and chipped away at foes of wood and straw until the muddy yard was littered with chipped wood and frayed straw.
He was soaked through and through, fine tunic and silk shirt beneath spattered with enough mud that the washerwoman would scold him over the misuse and likely claim them ruined. It hardly mattered, he'd never lacked the funds to buy whatever niceties he needed. What his father withheld, in his rage over Niccoli's 'rebellions', his mother saw to it he received. He had an estate of his own, deeded him from his mother's inheritance from her own father, which earned him a tidy income. He'd never lived there.
He'd lived in the borderlands, on the field, in one garrison keep or another at the edge of the kingdom, defending her boarders or trying to expand them, since he was eighteen. In the intervening eight years, he'd been home exactly thrice. The last time had been tense, to say the least. There'd been a betrothal in question that he'd refused to take part in. Offense given and offense taken. A mother in tears and a father that had been on the verge of disowning him. The girl had been innocent. Undeserving of the incident that had no doubt blemished her reputation. Undeserving more of a potential husband that would never have appreciated her.
Niccoli had too much honor to do her that disservice simply to appease his father and make a political match. He might have liked to explain it to her, shy, sweet faced young thing that she'd been, but how did one go about explaining a thing one hardly cared to admit to one's self to a girl one hardly knew? It had been easier to simply leave and he had, returning post haste to the borderlands.
That had been three years ago. He hadn't spoken to his father since.
The turmoil in his mind had begun to fade, physical exertion driving it away, when Liam came out of the darkness, a large shadowed form in the rain.
Niccoli lowered his sword, breathing hard, waiting to hear the big man call him fool for standing in the rain hacking at a practice dummy. But there was something in Liam's face, something stark and pale, that made Niccoli's gut clench.
"What?" he asked, before Liam reached him, almost afraid to hear, mind whirling with possibilities. Some attack from the Icani from the east, some dire declaration of uprising from the west where Sekkish forces always lurked to stir trouble along the trade routes. But the garrison would have been alive with men stirring if either had been the case. There were other possibilities that made him clench. There had been trouble in the keep, stirred around Gavin and the Duke's knights, men that he reckoned might strike from behind if the chance presented. The moment he thought it the hair on the back of his neck prickled, as if some sixth sense stirred.
"It's the commander," Liam stood in the rain, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, a muscle in the side of his broad jaw twitching.
Niccoli blinked rain away, not understanding.
"He's dead. Murdered," Liam said dully as if the words held little true meaning for him.
Niccoli blinked, not quite comprehending, when that possibility had been far from the list he'd formed in his head. He looked past Liam, to the dark bulk of the keep, dotted with the guttering light of sheltered torches here and there. It was silent. The whole of the world was silent, save for the hushed patter of rain. How could there be quiet if such a thing had happened?
"How?" He felt hoarse asking. The sword dragged at his arm of a sudden, a weight too much to bear. The weight in his chest seemed equally harsh.
Liam shook his head, then again, as if trying to dislodge a bug from his ear. "I don't know. I heard from Thomas of Cade, who said only they'd found him on the tower and that there'd been murder and he'd been told not to spread tales. They've the whole of the south tower sealed off."
"Xera," Niccoli breathed.
"I've a need to see for myself. To hear the truth of it myself. Are you with me?"
Niccoli nodded numbly, sheathing his sword blindly and following Liam across the yard.
There were still the remnants of the feast in the great hall as they passed, servants clearing the chamber, a few drunken revelers sprawled in corners sleeping off the spirits. But quiet in the depth of a rainy night, the common men at arms snug in their barracks, drunk on cheaper ale, bellies full from a feast of their own. It wasn't until they reached the stairs leading up into the tower, and the presence of more guards than usually stood at the door hinted that things were afoot.
Grim faced men, who blocked their passage, when passage had never been blocked before to King's knights.
"Sir Liam, Sir Niccoli, We cannot let you pass."
"On whose orders?" Liam asked.
The man facing them, no knight, but an honest man at arms, swallowed as though it pained him to say. "Sir Simon's."
Liam faced them all, these tense, grieving guardsmen who knew a thing they had been forbidden to tell. He said gravely. "And has Sir Simon fought beside you in battle, Stuart Baker's Son? Or carried you off the field when an arrow pierced your thigh, Adam of Greshire? Stand aside or prepare to defend this passage for pass I will."
They shuffled, torn, and finally gave way to better judgment, because armed or not, it was likely the lot of them were no match for Liam in a fair fight. They shifted aside and let them pass. There were guards aplenty in the upper hall, where the commander had his offices and his rooms. Liam dared them to hinder their passage with a steady glare and having breached the tower already, none were prepared to stop them. There was a press outside Commander Haden's chambers, two knights under Sir Simon's command, men in the livery of Idago, a grey smocked young priest of Xera, a handful of garrison guards. None of them paid Niccoli and Liam much heed as they moved through to the antechamber. Not until Sir Simon, who stood in the corner, conversing in quiet tones with the Duke of Idago looked up and saw them. He said something, to which Liam responded in a gruff growl, but Niccoli barely heard, seeing through the open portal the bed in the inner room and the elder priest standing over the still form that lay upon it.
He moved to the doorway, stared at the body, at the priest making evocations to the Goddess in the air over it, baffled at the stillness. At the pallor of the commander's skin, before the priest finally pulled the shroud up over his head. The hard truth of it hit him then. The commander dead. A man who in all truth had held more of his respect than his own father ever had. The man who had taught him what it truly meant to be a knight and to serve country and king.
He clenched his fists, knuckles popping, anger starting to rip its way past the numb. That this had been done, here in the sanctity of their own garrison, under the noses of their own men. Men loyal to Haden. More than loyal. Men that loved him, as Niccoli had loved him.
"Who did this? How in hell did it happen?" Liam demanded.
"Betrayal," Sir Simon growled. "Betrayal of the worst sort. The hand that did this was Gavin of Genidere."
"The hell you say - -?" Liam exclaimed, even as Niccoli swung around, tearing his gaze from the commander's lifeless form to stare at Sir Simon.
"I say, indeed," Simon spat, snatching a well-worn belt knife from the nearby table and thrusting it hilt first, towards Liam. "I saw with my own eyes, him with the bloody blade in hand. One of our own pages came upon him as he wrenched the blade from his master's body."
Liam took the knife grudgingly, eyes narrowed as he looked at the etched mark on the pommel. A common way for a man in the midst of many men to mark a weapon as his own. Liam's brows drew, his frown deepening and he tilted the pommel Niccoli's way for him to see. No mistaking Gavin's mark. Or the flecks of dried blood where hilt met blade.
"I don't believe it!" Liam voiced the bafflement Niccoli felt. "Gavin would lay his life down for the commander."
"Would not we all?" Simon took the blade back, careful with it, as he might be with evidence of a foul deed. "Men argue. Perhaps the commander offered chastisement for the debacle in the great hall that Sir Gavin found not to his liking. Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps something more."
"We'll find the truth of it from the culprit, when he confesses," the duke drawled, having settled himself into the commander's high backed chair by the hearth. "The king will want a full explanation. The kingdom has lost a great asset in Lord Haden."
Niccoli narrowed his eyes, resenting the man the familiarity. Resenting the man's casual assessment of a situation that rent him to the core. Part of him wanted to crumble, to fall to his knees and wail with grief and anger, but that emotional heart of him very rarely won past the rigid armor of reason and honor that protected him from the ever watchful eyes of the world.
"I would speak with him," Niccoli said softly, having the need to hear from Gavin's own lips what happened. To see Gavin's eyes when he told it and decide the truth for himself.
"No," Simon said simply. "This is high treason, assassination of the King's own Knight commander. No risks will be taken until confession given and witnessed."
"So now you're the arbiter of justice in Lockheer?" Liam demanded. "Who made you so?"
"I did," The Duke of Idago said lazily. "As representative of his majesty, I've awarded Sir Simon power of command until such time as the king appoints a new knight commander over the borderland forces. Do you dispute Sir Simon's ability to govern, having served so many loyal years as Lord Haden's knight Seneschal?"
Simon drew himself up slightly, managing almost to look down his nose at Liam who stood half a head taller than he. "Will you defy me and set this garrison - -set the border forces as a whole - - into more of an uproar than they will be when word of the Knight Commander's assassination gets out? We need solidarity, Sir Liam. We need a chain of command unbroken in the wake of this tragic event, or our forces will be in turmoil. We need Lord Haden's most trusted knights acting as one, to ensure the safety of all in the borderlands."
It was truth. It was nothing but truth that Sir Simon spoke. There would be turmoil and grieving and ranks of angry men who had looked upon the Knight Commander as the best of men. The noblest. The bravest. He clenched his fists to keep them from trembling, suddenly not so sure he did want to see Gavin at this moment, when there was red around the edges of his vision.
Liam clenched his own big fists as well, face twisted with too many emotions to untangle. He nodded his head shortly and said. "You'll have my support there, and my sword, but I'll see Sir Gavin and hear with my own ears this confession you seem so sure of."
Simon seemed to let out a breath of relief. He nodded. "In time. This is a delicate matter."
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