Cascadiaus or Bust

By Kerensa

Rating: FRM

Warnings: This takes place sometime in the Middle Ages, so all the names will look odd. Also, there is a character death, not Jim or Blair though.

Disclaimers: I don't own them. I'd be willing to buy them, however, I doubt PetFly would sell them for the $1.98 in my pocket.

Feedback: Uh, yeah! <g>     strifesmistress@yahoo.com

Archive: Sure, just let me know where

 

Dedicated to my Moonridge Auction winner, Jayne Wilks, for her donation.

 

A/N: Thanks to my daughter, Caitlin for all her help with the names and information on dogs. Thanks, as always, to my mother, Vivian, for her advice and suggestions.

 

A/N: An especially big thanks to my beta reader, Bobbie Turnbeaugh.

 

J’em felt the ground vibrate, just slightly, through the souls of his feet, a moment before he heard the thud behind him. The tall man whirled around, hand reaching for the sword at his side, senses on the alert, as he waited to be attacked. The expected assault never occurred, because what he had heard was not a group of wild ruffians planning to attack their group. Instead, it was one of Lord Saimon's men, tripping and falling to the hard, dirt packed ground.

 

The young man in question sat up and flushed painfully as he ducked his head in embarrassment. To be fair, it wasn't young Donal's fault that he had missed seeing the partially exposed root and fallen. The young page had been injured two days previously in another fall and he was still a little woozy.

 

Lord Saimon was beside the smaller man in an instant. Outwardly, the lord was a very large and imposing man, who had a gruff, no-nonsense exterior…which was really a protective shell covering a heart of pure gold. The lord squatted down beside Donal and spoke softly to him. Donal’s little dog, Georgi, a Cairn Terrier, laid down by her master, gazed up at J’em reproachfully and nuzzled his little brown head into the young man’s side. The Sentinel sighed. It was a sad state of affairs when a small dog showed you how insensitive you were being.

 

J’em looked at the still weakened young man, glanced around at the coming night and sighed. They would have to stop for the day and he didn't want to. However, in good conscience he couldn’t make them push on, even the people who weren’t injured were tired from the long day’s journey. So, he gritted his teeth, making the little muscle on the side of his jaw twitch, and made the announcement.

 

"We will make camp here for the night," J’em said loudly enough that those nearest him could hear.

 

Saimon smiled and gave him a grateful nod. Donal looked up embarrassedly. J’em felt a twinge in his heart and smiled reassuringly at the young man, who blushed under the most Senior Sentinel's regard. Most people didn’t think J’em had a heart to ache, but they were wrong. J'em's demeanor was also that of the take-no-prisoners variety, however, J'em's inner layer of softness was there too, only it was much deeper and harder to find than Saimon's.

 

"Yes, this seems a good place to stop," Saimon agreed, as he looked critically around at the small clearing they were in and at the much larger one just beyond the next stand of trees. Over to their left was easy access to the riverbank and fresh water. There was plenty of space for their large group to spread out and still enough time in the day for the hunters to search for game.

 

Saimon reached a large hand out and carefully tugged Donal to his feet. The young page's paler hand was dwarfed by Saimon's large and dark one; indeed, Donal's whole body was dwarfed by the big lord. The lord held on to the page until he was steadier on his feet. Saimon covered up his show of concern, out of deference to Donal’s embarrassment, not his own, by brushing dirt and fallen leaves off of Donal’s long tunic and breeches.

 

The bigger man didn't let go of Donal's hand, even after the page was steadier on his feet, and led him over to a fallen log, so that the smaller man could sit down. It wasn't unusual to see the warrior aiding one of his men, but this young man was especially important to Saimon; he was Saimon's lover of three years. The young man had become a page in Saimon's household when he was only 12 years old, but it was almost five years later before the lord of the household laid eyes on him. After that, there was no going back.

 

Donal's slender build had virtually guaranteed that the young man would never be the soldier his father wanted him to be, but it was that same delicacy that appealed to Saimon, who towered over Donal by a good foot, at least. The smaller man's pale skin and long, lightly red hair contrasted nicely with Lord Saimon's dark skin and short black hair. Everyone agreed that they were a striking pair.

 

Saimon held his lover close and prodded the grass around the downed tree, looking for snakes or other predatory animals before he risked sitting his young lover there. He gave J’em a quick, questioning look and waited as J’em used his superior senses of smell, sight and hearing to make sure nothing was waiting to strike. A quick shake of J’em's head had Saimon lowering himself to the ground and swinging his young lover up onto his lap. The tired young man laid his aching head on Saimon’s strong, but soft shoulder.

 

Georgi gave his own look around and barked when a grasshopper jumped. The little dog gave chase to the small insect and came prancing back self importantly. His gaze seemed to say, “look at me, I just saved my master”. He trotted over to thump down at Saimon’s feet.

 

“Good boy,” Saimon reassured the little animal. Georgi thumped his tail against the ground a few times happily.

 

In J'em's opinion, his friend Saimon was a lucky man to have such a devoted lover. After the death of Lady Joane, Saimon's loving wife, the older man had been lonely for a great many years. But now, he had his beloved son Darryle and his most attentive lover to keep him happy.

 

J’em watched on in carefully hidden envy for a few moments, surrounded by the bustle of his men as they set up camp. Like the two men he was watching, the Sentinel prince was also handsome. But, although he liked to look upon beauty, J'em disdained to care about such things about himself. J'em was tall, but did not have quite as an imposing height as his friend Saimon. He had short, light brown hair and eyes that were the color of a robin’s egg. The Sentinel was well built, not overly muscled, but obviously strong. On the whole, Prince J'em made up a very attractive figure and didn't lack for bed companions; companions for the night or week, but no one to be with him full time.

 

J’em's men, including Saimon and Donal, were completely devoted to him, but of course, that was hardly the same thing. Likewise, his failure of a marriage to Lady Carolyn had been a disaster from the wedding night. His lady wife had lain there like she was a sacrifice to a higher calling, and although J’em was a very skilled lover, making love to a martyr held no appeal. Her death, almost two years later, had been a tragedy, but also a blessing for the miserable prince and Sentinel.

 

What the prince desperately wished for was to find a Guide; someone to be there by his side during the day and warm his blankets in the cold of the night. Since reaching his majority, many years ago, J’em had been approached by numerous Guides who wanted to be The Guide of Cascadiaus, but none had ever appealed to his heart or his soul. Due to necessity, J’em had used some of them as temporary Guides, such as when he was going into battle and absolutely needed someone to keep his senses from going wild. But the experiences had left J’em upset in the end and his temporary Guides sick and unwilling to do it more than once.

 

Swinging his bow off of his back and unsheathing an arrow from his hand tooled leather quiver, J’em left, giving Saimon and Donal some well deserved privacy. The prince headed off into the woods, away from the loud, at least that’s how it seemed to him, camp preparations. Although they didn't like it, J’em's men knew better than to object when their prince headed off on his own. No one doubted that J’em could take care of himself, after all, he was a Sentinel and an excellent soldier, but the kingdom of Cascadiaus had many enemies and they were known to attack in large numbers.

 

The Sentinel kept this all in mind as he began to follow the tiny tracks in the grass that pointed to a herd of deer somewhere close by. J’em could tell that he was the only one of his group so far that was following this particular herd and reasoned he might be able to bring down a buck or two before they were startled off.

 

Using his superior sight, J’em was able to walk very quietly. He could see where to put his feet so that no leaves crackled or twigs snapped. He wanted to extend his sense of smell and hearing, in addition to using his enhanced sight, but he couldn’t. It irritated J’em that he had to keep a close rein on his senses lest they get away from him and he had a fade away experience.

 

'If I had a Guide, I would be able to track for miles around myself,' he reasoned to himself. ‘I wouldn’t have to bother with temporary guides and fade aways would be virtually unheard of.’

 

However, even without the help that bonding with a Guide would give him, J’em could still use his senses better than anyone in his kingdom. Even the older and more experienced Sentinels were amazed at what J'em could do.

 

That only made J'em bristle more, to know that he was capable of so much more, but couldn't use his senses to their full extent. And it had been long enough that J’em was beginning to despair of ever finding his soulmate. He was, after all, over 37 winters old. That was a great many years older than any Sentinel had ever taken to find a bondmate; the ones that lived that is.

 

There had been a great many Sentinels who had died over the centuries for lack of a bondmate. The men and women, who were unbonded and had been for a long time, would be found in the middle of a battle where they had died because they had lowered their senses and been caught unaware. Sometimes the Sentinels would be come upon by a friend, lying on the ground somewhere, lost forever in a fade away. Eventually those people died as well, because most of the time, no one could bring them back and they died from lack of drink. Still more often, a Sentinel would be found in his or her favorite place, dead for no reason.

 

The prince’s good friend and mentor, Jacque had been found in his room one day, sitting in his favorite chair by the window, dead for no obvious reason. J’em had been the one to find him and the young boy of fourteen had been severely traumatized by the discovery.

 

J'em reasoned that the pain of out of control senses would drive the desperate Sentinels to force a fade away, thus ending their wretched lives. Either that, or the overwhelming loneliness of having no one to share their minds with had pulled the Sentinels down and forced them to take drastic measures. J'em could understand their pain and, to some extent, agree with their decisions.

 

That was one of the reasons that J’em had been pushing his group on. The Sentinel could feel a pull, a calling, urging him onward. His head and heart were telling him that up ahead was his bondmate, his soulmate, his Guide.

 

*****

 

"Your majesty."

 

Prince B’Lare stopped walking immediately and turned back to see what Lord Yoel wanted to say to him. The prince was a younger man, only twenty five summers, and short in stature, with amazing, light sapphire blue eyes that made even his worst enemies pause to stare. Those eyes had unintentionally seduced some of the most hard bitten warriors in the countryside and made them want to drop their weapons and join with him and his kingdom. Long, curly, red-brown hair trailed down his back, well past his waist. People had literally begged to be allowed to touch the beautiful mane of hair and several, mostly Sentinels, had been driven to violence when not allowed to do so.

 

"Yes, Yoel?" B’Lare's voice was a soft, mellow tenor. It flowed over you like a thick stream of warm honey and soothed people when they were upset or hurting. When they weren't in pain, it had the reverse affect and served to inflame the senses.

 

Because of B’Lare's physical beauty and deep seated kindness, the young prince had to have a at least one body guard at all times, because even some of his own devoted people couldn't resist the urge to just touch him. That wouldn't necessarily have bothered the young prince, except that those touches usually led to more touching and, in some cases, outright molestation, hence the body guards.

 

"This seems to be a good area in which to rest for the night." Yoel spoke quietly, not wanting to usurp B’Lare's authority with the people following them. As B’Lare’s advisor, it was up to Yoel to steer him in the right direction. Most times that meant giving him a nudge when he was lost in his own little world. Yoel’s voice was melodic and his soft, dark eyes sparkled as he watched his good friend and waited for B’Lare’s very acute mind to stop solving the problems of the kingdom and actually hear what Yoel was saying. It didn’t take long.

 

B’Lare blinked at Yoel, noticed the laughing eyes, and looked around. He recognized how dark it was getting and sighed. "Yes, of course. Thank you, my good friend." He nodded to the larger man, who smiled back. Speaking louder, B’Lare addressed the rest of his people. "I can see that it is getting late. We will camp here for the night."

 

People immediately dispersed to set out the tents quickly, before it got too dark to see. Luckily, they had just replenished their supply of drinking water earlier in the day. The hunters, knowing how distracted their prince could get, had been quietly breaking off from the traveling party and then tracking and killing game since mid-afternoon.

 

There wasn't any grumbling, well, not much anyway, from the little traveling community. It was only the people who had never been with the prince before who dared to complain. The entourage that normally traveled with B'Lare was used to the hit and miss pattern and took it in stride. In fact, there were several indulgent smiles from a few of the older men and women. They loved their prince and were more than happy to put up with his slightly eccentric behavior.

 

It wasn't that B’Lare was insensitive to his people's needs.  On the contrary, the young prince cared very much for his people and their comfort. It was just that his mind got caught up in thoughts and theories, or distracted by something along the path, and he didn't pay attention to what was going on. It was well known that Prince B’Lare sometimes forgot to eat when he was in his rooms at the castle and if it weren't for his pages and people like Lord Yoel, he would keep working until he became ill.

 

As a matter of fact, B’Lare was still recovering from an illness of the chest that the physicians said was due to poor eating and sleeping habits. B’Lare wasn’t convinced. He didn’t see how eating sporadically could make him cough. However, he bowed to his physician’s superior knowledge and agreed to listen to Yoel more.

 

B’Lare’s dog, a beautiful white Borzoi with long, whiteish-blond hair, came bounding up to stand by her master. The large dog came up to B’Lare’s waist and was as much of a companion to the prince as she was a watchdog.

 

“Hello, sweet girl.” The prince with the long curly hair ran an appreciative hand across the dog’s head with its own very long and silky strands.

 

Dexhiana, nicknamed Dexi, butted her head underneath B’Lare’s hand for a moment, tongue lolling out from her exertions and tail wagging happily. After a moment, the young man heard some dogs barking in the near distance. Dexi heard it too. Her ears perked up at the sound and before B’Lare could even move his hand, she took off after the other dogs in their party. B’Lare knew that they were probably going to cool off by jumping in the nearby creek. He only hoped that they didn’t jump on any of the people in the creek as well this time.

 

The prince gave an indulgent smile and shook his head before sitting down in a clear spot underneath one of the towering trees that dotted the landscape. He had extended his empathy just a fraction and could not detect anything living within a few feet, other than a few insects, so he knew it was safe. B’Lare also knew that it was best for him to keep out of everyone’s way. B'Lare didn't hunt unless it was a matter of life or death. He hated to kill living things and only rarely ate the meat that such kills generated. His people knew how to quickly and efficiently set up camp and B’Lare knew that the presence of their prince would only distract them.

 

Speaking of distractions...B’Lare wasn't sure what was going on, but he was even more preoccupied than usual lately. The further away from Sandrium he got and the closer he came to Cascadiaus, the prince could feel the tug of someone else's mind. He hoped that the person whose soul was calling to him was that of his intended, Prince Stefen, because otherwise there would be a problem.

 

As a Guide, he was destined to be a helpmate to a Sentinel. To B’Lare's way of thinking, there was one Guide for one Sentinel and he didn't want to risk missing his. That was why he had resisted all offers, no matter how vigorously they were made, to bond with other Sentinels over the last few years.

 

According to Sandrium law, and that of most other kingdoms as well, a Guide needed to be mature enough to handle the daunting task of helping guide a Sentinel, therefore, Guides had to be at least 21 years of age before they could officially bond. The day B’Lare reached his majority, their kingdom had been inundated with Sentinels. Some were sincerely looking for their one true Guide. Others were more interested in the prestige that bonding with the favorite son of that wealthy kingdom would bring them. And some people saw it as an opportunity to get B’Lare into their beds.

 

Despite the many and varied attempts at wooing him, B’Lare had declined to join with all of the Sentinels he met. None of them were his Sentinel. Now, however, it was almost 5 years later and B’Lare was beginning to despair. The Guide had thought that he and his Sentinel would have met by now. It was hard to maintain his empathy without the help of a Sentinel's strong barriers, but B’Lare was determined to wait for the right Sentinel to come along.

 

Unfortunately for him, B’Lare’s mother, Queen Nyomi, had other ideas on the subject. She and King Willyam, of Cascadiaus, had communicated by proxy and decided to unite their kingdoms. This unification would come about when Prince B’Lare married the prince from Cascadiaus.

 

B’Lare was disgusted when he realized that his mother had brokered away his life, but for the sake of peace for his people, he would follow through. The two kingdoms weren’t at war themselves, but together they stood a better chance of withstanding outside forces.

 

The Sandriums were a peace loving kingdom who gave their energies more to solving problems of the mind, rather than problems of the world. Many a time, people had traveled from far away to ask the advice of a Sandrium seer to resolve their disagreements. Likewise, Sandrium mediators had gone to different kingdoms and were known to have prevented at least three different wars over the last year alone.

 

The Cascadians were just the opposite, temperament wise. Their segment of the many different realms was geared more towards wartime and fighting, rather than introspection. They were the guardians of several kingdoms and were often approached about protecting smaller and more vulnerable principalities. There could not have been two sets of more different people.

 

B'Lare had no way of knowing that the people of Sandrium were just as put out at their queen as B'Lare was. They didn't want their beautiful and generous prince exiled by marriage to the far off kingdom of Cascadiaus. The Cascadians were known to be a cold and unfeeling group of people and B'Lare was warm and outgoing. Their prince would be miserable and there had been some talk of confronting Queen Nyomi. It was only B'Lare's seemingly calm acceptance of the situation that stopped there being an outright rebellion against the usually popular queen.

 

As he was leaning back against the rough bark of the tree, the slight awareness of something cold and predatory entered B'Lare's mind. He cast out his empathy carefully and followed the trail back to its originator. In a flash, B'Lare had his knife out and he whirled on his perch. The shining blade arched through the air and was quickly imbedded in the snake that had been slithering down from the tree at the back of him. The knife went through the reptile and into the tree behind him.

 

B'Lare waited until the snake had stopped twitching before he retrieved his knife, letting the dead snake slide off the end and slither to the ground. The reptile was jewel toned, in bright reds and greens, and might have been attractive to look at, if you weren't aware of how deadly it was. One bite from its venomous fangs and B'Lare wouldn't have even been able to yell for help.

 

B'Lare stepped back a pace and squatted down to wipe his ornate gold and jewel blade on the grass. Smears of bright red blood contrasted with the vibrant grass and ironically matched the coloring of the dead snake. B'Lare's bright blue eyes appraised his knife critically and once again he found himself grateful for the weapon.

 

While it was true that the prince didn't like to kill anything, he could if pressed to by necessity. Yoel, among others, had taught B’Lare how to defend himself in countless different ways. The use of a dagger was only one of many.

 

That particular skill had saved him from rape a great many times, much to the surprise of different attackers. Even people who thought sitting beside him at a dinner or other functions earned them the right to see what kind of underclothing B'Lare wore had been surprised. There were a lot of groping people, both men and women, scattered throughout the various kingdoms, that sported scars where B'Lare had stuck them with his innocuous looking jeweled dagger. They made the mistake of underestimating B’Lare, but nobody ever underestimated him twice.

 

"I had better take care of that," B'Lare said, still eyeing the snake. "Before Yoel starts to worry."

 

He tucked his knife into the belt on his tunic, where it went back to looking like an ornate jeweled buckle, and glanced around at the surrounding foliage. Using a long, forked stick, which had fallen from the tree at some point in the past, B'Lare scooped up the snake. Its long body was almost twice as long as B'Lare was tall, making it about 11 feet long. He carried the dead creature a few steps further, in among a dense growth of trees, and threw it and the stick away. He was fairly certain that none of his people would venture in that far and be startled by it; his duty to his people, as always, top priority in his mind.

 

Wiping his hands off, B'Lare nodded in satisfaction at a job well done and wandered over to the fire that some of his people had already stoked up. His mind had already dismissed the threat and was concentrating on some of the problems of the kingdom. B’Lare just knew that something could be planned to help that irrigation problem…

 

He didn't notice that Henraoi, his personal bodyguard, or Lord Yoel were standing in shocked silence at opposite ends of the clearing. The danger had been spotted and taken care of by B'Lare before either man could even think of moving. Realizing how close they had come to losing their prince, both men were horrified and more than a little shaky. Henraoi, along with his own dog, a beautiful Irish Setter named Parthalon, followed his charge with a whimper. Yoel, still staring at where the snake had been tossed, had to sit down before he collapsed.

 

Yoel's warm and seductive eyes eventually narrowed in speculation, as his own vastly intelligent mind went over what had happened. "I've never seen a snake such as that one around here before." He pulled his bottom lip in between his teeth and chewed on it a bit as he contemplated. "In fact, I've never seen a snake like that at all."

 

Realizing that this was too much of a coincidence, Yoel resolved to watch over his prince even more thoroughly. It was possible that someone from Sandrium didn't want a treaty with Cascadiaus. 'Or perhaps the people of Cascadiaus aren't thrilled with the idea of B'Lare as a mate for their prince,' Yoel wondered. Either way, they were going to have to keep an ever more diligent eye on B'Lare for a while.

 

Yoel’s dog, a large, fawn colored, Irish wolfhound, came bounding up and flopped down beside her master on the ground. She was wet, although the run to where her master was had dried the animal off somewhat. As B’Lare had thought, the pets and guard dogs of their traveling group had jumped into the water to refresh themselves, much to the irritation of the people trying to clean off themselves.

 

Serenah seemed to sense her master’s unease and, with body still low to the ground, she inched forward until her head nuzzled its way under Yoel’s hand.

 

Yoel patted his furry companion’s head distractedly. “Girl, I need you to help watch out for the prince. He’s in more danger than ever.”

 

Serenah seemed to understand what Yoel was saying to her. The dog raised her head and growled. She looked over where the snake had been tossed and gave another low growl in her throat. Sitting up beside her master, the guard dog looked over to where B’Lare was sitting and seemed to nod in agreement.

 

*****

 

The two days that followed were interesting, for both traveling parties.

 

The closer J’em came to the group from Sandruim, the more agitated he became. His senses were all over the place. One minute, J’em could hear a bird across the valley, the next he didn't hear Donal asking him if he wanted the water skin. Sometimes J’em had to walk with his eyes all but closed, because the dim light of early evening was blinding him. The next morning, the Sentinel stumbled because he didn't see a shallow depression in the earth; one that every other person in their party had seen and stepped over. Smell and taste were as bad. The food either smelled rancid, or was so bland as to be tasteless. And touch...

 

*****

 

J’em wanted to tear his skin off. The Sentinel’s sense of touch had spiraled farther and farther out of control since the midday meal and he didn’t know what to do. The techniques that the prince had been taught since childhood weren’t working.

 

Pain stabbed him in the shoulder and shot all along J’em’s arm, making him wonder if he had been knifed. The Sentinel whirled around, his fist raised to strike. It was only J’em’s superb reflexes that saved Donal from serious harm. That and the sight of Donal's frightened green eyes peering up at him from where the young man had fallen to the ground in fear. J’em realized that he had almost backhanded Donal because the young man accidentally brushed against him while they were walking side by side.

 

“Donal!” Saimon’s cry broke through J’em’s horror.

 

“By the maker, are you alright?” J’em could barely speak, his throat had tightened up painfully.

 

“Y-yes.” Saimon’s young lover was still lying on the ground, as if he were afraid to move. He turned and took Saimon’s extended hand and stood up. “Yes, I’m fine. I am so sorry for whatever I did wrong.” The young man lowered his eyes deferentially and leaned against Saimon.

 

J’em moaned at the subservience. He had known Donal since the young page was a baby, and to see him cowering in fear was positively painful.

 

“No, Donal. I’m the one who is sorry. My senses are going crazy and I struck out without even thinking. You have done nothing wrong.”

 

“Yes, your majesty. Is there anything we can do to help?”

 

J’em was happy to see the fear leave Donal’s face. Saimon’s countenance was less forgiving, but then, if Saimon had almost attacked his beloved, J’em would be mad too. They all knew how strong the Sentinel was and one blow from his fists could easily have split the younger man’s skull.

 

“No, thank you anyway. I’ll be alright.”

 

After J’em had apologized, numerous times, the prince decided to walk a little ways off from the rest of the group. For once, his loyal followers didn't object. They loved their prince, but were afraid of his quick temper and superior fighting skills.

 

*****

The group from Sandrium wasn’t faring much better. Not because of B’Lare's temper, but because of his pain…

 

 

B’Lare moaned and rubbed his forehead. It felt like pressure was building up inside of his skull and if it kept up much longer his head was going to get bigger and bigger until it exploded. Worry and rising feelings of anxiety washed over the younger man, growing stronger with each passing second.

 

The curly haired man hurried to one side of the path and retched into the bushes. He could feel Henraoi holding him up. The larger man had wrapped one arm around B’Lare's chest, above his heaving stomach and kept B’Lare's long hair out of the way while he vomited. Henraoi's worry slid up a notch and when that concern hit B’Lare, along with Yoel's, who was standing to one side worriedly, B’Lare gave a small cry and threw up again and again, until there was nothing left to come up but some watery bile.

 

“I’m okay,” B’Lare whispered, his voice raspy. His throat was burning from the vomiting he had done, which had also aggravated the pain in his head. He wiped the pain induced tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. “Let me rest a few minutes.”

 

B’Lare sat down on the soft grass and leaned back against a small boulder. Yoel laid his cloak over the back of the rock, so it wasn’t too uncomfortable. The young prince tried to relax, knowing that would help more than anything. B’Lare’s dog could sense her master’s upset and settled down on the grass beside him, her large head resting on his bent knee. The uncomplicated feelings from the animal were soothing to B’Lare’s overstressed brain.

 

A deep breath in and the faint smell of wild onion drifted in his nose. It replaced the sour odor of his illness. The wisp of a breeze floated over his skin, cooling his body slightly and easing his discomfort even further.

 

He closed his eyes and slumped down until he was lying on the grass. Dexhiana snuggled up next to B’Lare, the big dog offered warmth, as well as comfort.

 

After a little while, B’Lare’s head felt better; throwing up as he had done had eased the pressure to some extent. The short nap that he had taken had also done wonders. Now that he was rested, B’Lare had retaken control of his empathy. He opened his eyes and was relieved to see that only Henraoi was standing by.

 

‘That’s a relief,’ B’Lare thought to himself. ‘I’ve humiliated myself enough for one day.’

 

Not really wanting to, but knowing they needed to press on, B’Lare slowly pulled himself to his feet. His stomach muscles let their displeasure be known…so did Yoel and Henraoi. Dexi was silent on the matter.

 

“Your majesty, you shouldn’t be up yet,” Henraoi said, as he took hold of B’Lare’s elbow to steady him.

 

“I…” B’Lare never got to finish what he started to say, because Yoel came hurrying up at that moment.

 

“Your majesty!”

 

B’Lare had to smile. Only Yoel, who had been around as long as B’Lare could remember, could say so much in so few words.

 

“I’m feeling better now, Yoel.” B’Lare looked up into the much taller man’s face and felt his neck twinge as it protested the strain being placed on abused muscles.

 

“That may be,” Yoel said with a raised eyebrow, showing how much he didn’t believe B’Lare. “However, we could stop here for the night and let you rest. I don’t like not knowing what caused you to be ill.”

 

B’Lare felt the love and worry and warmth flowing off both men. Each man had a firm grip on one of B’Lare’s elbows and was eyeing their prince.

 

“It was my empathy,” B’Lare said and watched amusedly as Yoel and Henraoi quickly stepped back, as if that extra hand’s-breadth would make a difference. “It built up in my head and made me ill. I have meditated now and am feeling fine.” At their incredulous looks, he amended his statement. “Alright, I feel better.”

 

Yoel started to speak again, shaking his head uncertainly. “Are you certain?”

 

“Yes, I am.” B’Lare looked around and made certain that they were still alone. They were. “I feel like we need to press on. I’m not sure why, but I need to get to Cascadiaus soon.”

 

He was finally able to convince them to continue with the trip, but it wasn't easy and arguing with them sapped his energy further. B’Lare’s two friends seemed to realize this and finally agreed.

 

The prince knew it was only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed again. Already, B’Lare could feel the voices trying to crowd into his head. However, there was nothing he could do to prevent it. B’Lare knew that if he warned his two most loyal attendants that it was going to get much worse before it got better they would be even more worried, and B’Lare didn’t think he could handle that right now.

 

*****

 

However, as the day drug on, things only worsened for the prince from Sandrium. The closer B’Lare came to Cascadiaus, the stronger his empathy became. It wasn't long before he could feel and hear what his people were thinking. All of his people, all of the time.

 

B’Lare finally couldn’t stand anymore. He stopped in the middle of the path and clutched his head in both hands. The loud groan that unwillingly escaped from his lips had everyone watching him fearfully.

 

Lady Meaghan, B’Lare's good friend and tactical advisor, started towards him, intending to help him lay down. The young prince cried out in pain and clutched at his head even harder. Meaghan naturally stopped as soon as she realized that she was hurting him.

 

"Damn," she cursed. "His empathy must be completely out of control."

 

Meaghan and Yoel exchanged worried glances. Around them, the pages, warriors and other concerned followers gasped at the news. They turned to tell the people behind them and word spread like a fire along dry grass.

 

B’Lare had been taught how to control his gift and practiced daily to perfect the talent, but he quickly became overwhelmed, especially when his friends realized what was happening. The strong burst of feeling that he received from their worry and concern literally knocked B’Lare off his feet. With a scream, B’Lare fell over backwards. He was unconscious before his body hit the ground.

 

*****

 

When B’Lare finally regained consciousness several hours later, he realized that his head didn't feel like it was forcibly being pulled off of his neck any more. Yoel and Henraoi had moved his tent far away from the rest of the camp. With only the two of them to contend with, B’Lare was quickly able to get his empathy under control.

 

The rest of that day and the long night that followed were spent in isolation, something that B’Lare hated with a passion. He loved to be around other people, craved it in fact. But this time, there was no help for it. For the first time in years, B’Lare spent the night without a companion by his side. Even Dexi was relegated to Yoel’s tent in an effort to minimize the emotions he was feeling. Henraoi also had to sleep in Yoel's tent, which was back a ways from B’Lare's.

 

His bodyguard was not happy with the situation. It was his sworn duty to protect his prince and Henraoi didn't see how he could accomplish that if he wasn't by B’Lare's side. However, Henraoi the friend was even more worried. Being around others was literally hurting the young prince. The feelings of Yoel and himself weren't as bad, but when B’Lare was sleeping, his body relaxed and his mental barriers lowered, leaving him susceptible.

 

After two times of trying to sneak closer and hearing B’Lare begin to whimper in his sleep, Henraoi had to be satisfied with standing guard over B’Lare from outside of Yoel's tent. He could see the opening to his prince's tent and could hear enough to know that B’Lare was safe.

 

Henraoi was a demi-Sentinel. He had the sight and hearing of a Sentinel, but not the other senses. This made him an excellent guard, because he wasn't overtaken by too much stimulation like a true Sentinel would be. The young guard had never suffered from a fade away and probably never would.

 

B’Lare spent the rest of the night in a semi-relaxed state. Henraoi made sure that no one came any closer to his tent than necessary, although the bodyguard had to threaten Meaghan to keep her from checking on the prince. Henraoi thought he and the red headed woman were going to end up fighting before it was all over, but she soon realized the situation and backed off.

 

Henraoi watched her tall figure as she walked away. With his enhanced vision he could keep an eye on her until she was back to her own tent. It wasn’t that he mistrusted the woman; no, he just wanted to watch her. Meaghan was a beauty, with a body that was all long, slender lines, smooth, creamy skin and long, red tresses; she was worth a second glance from anybody.

 

A quiet moan from B’Lare’s tent snapped Henraoi’s attention back to his charge. He deliberately blanked his mind of more lustful thoughts, just in case they were bothering B’Lare.

 

*****

 

Suffice it to say that by the time the two sets of travelers met, things were a little tense.

 

*****

 

It was almost evening on the fourth day of travel for B’Lare and the sixth day for J’em when the two groups finally met. With a Sentinel leading the way, J’em's party knew that they were approaching the Sandriums long before they could actually see them. J’em had heard the faint sound of people talking first thing that morning. He had told Saimon, who spread the word.

 

B’Lare had sensed a large group of people approaching when they stopped for the midday meal. Possibly he would have noticed them sooner, but since his collapse, Yoel had begged B’Lare to use his empathy only a couple of times a day. So, B’Lare only extended his barriers at morning, noon and nighttime to see if anyone was around.

 

B’Lare's warning had sent his people fluttering around. Camp was broken from the lunch break much later than usual that day, as men and women straightened and cleaned, themselves and the camp gear. Everyone wanted to make a good first impression on the Cascadians who were known to be very fussy about such things.

 

*****

 

They rounded a bend in the path and saw the other group waiting for them. It was a good thing the Sandriums had been warned, because the Cascadians were standing as silent and still as statues. Even their pack animals were quietly chewing the grass. For a moment, both groups stood and waited. Then, almost at the same time, J’em stepped forward from one side and Yoel from the other. The two men met at the halfway mark.

 

J’em eyed Yoel and was dismayed at what he saw. This couldn't *possibly* be the man his father wanted for his brother. Stefen had only been born 26 years before and the dark man in front of him was closer to Lord Saimon's age than J’em's.

 

"Good day," Yoel said with a slight bow.

 

"Good day," J’em's reply was tense. "Are you Prince B’Lare?"

 

Yoel's lips quirked at the abruptly asked question. Now he understood why the younger man was upset. "No. I am Lord Yoel, Prince B’Lare's advisor. And you are?" Yoel twitched an eyebrow questioningly. His own tone was slightly disdainful. Yoel had to show that his group was not going to stand being treated as anything less than equals.

 

"I am J’em, brother to Prince Stefen and lead Sentinel for Cascadiaus."

 

'And a prince himself.' Yoel realized as he nodded and bowed more fully than he had before. Now that he knew J’em's rank, Yoel knew that it surpassed his own. 'He's the next in line to the throne,' Yoel surmised as he took note of the lines on J’em's face and realized he was several years older than the prince B’Lare was to bond with.

 

"And where is Prince B’Lare?" J’em asked. Yoel waited a beat, indicating his disapproval at the lack of respect.

 

Yoel's attitude seemed to amuse J’em, who had relaxed. He realized that the young prince must be hidden in among the throng of people ahead of him.

 

"How can we be certain that you are indeed from Cascadiaus and not an enemy in disguise?" A loud voice cut through the conversation and a woman separated herself from the rest and walked towards them. J’em saw Yoel close his eyes as if in pain.

 

"Who are you, my lady?" J’em stressed the word lady, showing that he didn't really see her as much of one. She certainly looked the part of a lady. Her dress was long and flowing, with wide, bell shaped sleeves. The whole ensemble was dripping with yards of lace that drug through the dirt. J’em could tell that she would have no problem wearing clothes that would be extremely hard to clean, not caring about the extra work that would make for the servants.

 

"Forgive me, your highness." Yoel waved a hand, indicating the woman standing to his left. "This is Lady Eleanor from the land of Edwards. She is one of Prince B’Lare's counselors."

 

"I see. Well, you will just have to take my word for it that we are from Cascadiaus. After all, how can I tell you are Prince B’Lare's group?" J’em raised an eyebrow at her.

 

Lady Edwards gasped indignantly. "Don't be ridiculous. Who else would we be?"

 

"Exactly," J’em said tightly.

 

"Oh." The lady had the grace to look embarrassed. "Yes, I suppose it would stretch the imagination for there to be more than two rather large groups meeting up on this path."

 

J’em’s head snapped to one side when he heard a man’s voice coming out from the middle of a knot of people. After only a moment, some of the Sandriums stepped to one side, clearing a narrow path between them, to reveal a small, smartly dressed man.

 

The Sentinel’s senses flared up for one agonizing moment and then settled down. For the first time in his life, J’em’s abilities were working like they should. His breeches weren’t making his skin crawl and the air wasn’t burning J’em’s skin. The prince could see and hear great distances without being overwhelmed. Everything hyperaware faded into the background until needed, as it should be, instead of hovering in J’em’s face all the time like an annoying insect.

 

Prince J’em’s eyes roved over the other man hungrily for a moment and then narrowed in contemplation. He knew that his counterpart was a prince and strong Guide. There was no way that this handsome, but still somehow fragile looking man, was destined for his brother.

 

J’em was glad in a way. That left a possibility for him to claim the other man who was…he sniffed the air delicately…yes, he was a Guide. The passionately overpowering scent of an unbonded Guide filled his nostrils. J’em blew his breath out deliberately, getting rid of the scent before he forgot all about his mission and claimed the curly haired man walking towards him.

 

“I am Prince B’Lare.” The young man’s voice was as intoxicating as his scent and for a brief moment in time, J’em let himself be lost in it; then he really listened to what the other man was saying.

 

“You are the prince and chief Guide of Sandrium?” J’em’s disbelief snapped out of his voice like a bow and arrow, trying to pin the other man in his own lie. He gave the prince a pointed look up and down. He heard one or two of his people snorting in the background, adding their assessment of the other man.

 

The prince let his disappointment color his thinking. The thought that this intoxicating creature was destined for his brother Stefen, and therefore forever out of his reach, angered the Sentinel. It was unthinkable that they wouldn’t be together; therefore he and the people from Sandrium had to be lying.

 

If these people thought they could make a fool out of him…

 

*****

 

For his part, B’Lare just stood in the middle of the path, stunned at the change in Prince J’em. He too had felt the connection between them and had hoped against hope that this was the man he was destined to wed. Apparently he was dreaming in vain.

 

He could feel the anger and upset rolling off his people and it was making him nauseated again. B’Lare had been feeling better. The moment he peeked through the circle of his loyal subjects and saw Prince J’em talking with Yoel, B’Lare’s empathy had settled down. The voices in his head had faded to a dull background noise and he’d been able to relax, even though he missed the first words spoken between the two groups.

 

B’Lare felt his heart speed up and blood flow in a decidedly downwards way. He just had to move closer to the tall and fine-looking man. Added to which, he couldn’t let his people hide him forever.

 

As soon as he stepped into the clearing, B’Lare could feel hunger and arousal go wild and the younger man had the most desperate desire for this man to be his intended. That hope was crushed when he introduced himself. B’Lare could see the disdain on the other man’s face and knew that he hadn’t measured up to whatever standard the cerulean-eyed Sentinel had expected.

 

“Yes,” B’Lare stated with certainty, “I am Prince B’Lare.”

 

The Cascadian crossed his arms over a brown leather jerkin and shook his head in disbelief. B’Lare felt himself go cold all over and then white hot anger surged up. B’Lare was honest, sometimes too honest, in most people’s opinions. To have this man, this Sentinel, call him a liar on their first meeting was an outrage.

 

B’Lare felt his desire and connection to the other man shutting down. Luckily the emotional assault didn’t renew itself at the same time. B’Lare’s empathy was back under his control, at least for the time being.

 

Yoel came to stand beside him, with Henraoi at his right flank. “Come, your majesty. You have no need to be insulted this way.” Yoel gave a slight, but unmistakable tug on his elbow. Henraoi kept one gloved hand on his sword and back just a few more steps, Meaghan was swearing under her breath.

 

B’Lare knew that the next few minutes would determine how he was treated for the rest of his life. If he wanted to, B’Lare could turn around and go back the way he’d come. None of his people would object and Nyomi wouldn’t dare say anything, not considering the insult that had just been delivered. If he didn’t leave, the Cascadian people would think him weak; weaker than they already did, anyway. The young prince seriously thought about leaving for a few moments, not certain if he wanted to stay around such narrow minded people.

 

“No,” B’Lare said finally. “We are all civilized people. I see no reason to run away because of bad manners.”

 

Prince J’em’s eyes flashed at that, but considering that he threw out the first volley of insults, he couldn’t object too much. B’Lare watched as a muscle in the corner of the other prince’s jaw twitched in suppressed anger.

 

“Sire…”

 

“No, my Lord,” B’Lare said and raised his hand in a warding off gesture.

 

Yoel immediately bowed his head in submission. Fanning out behind him, B’Lare’s people either bowed or dropped to their knees at their prince’s gesture. Even people like Lady Edwards, who thought she was almost on equal footing with the prince, which she most certainly wasn’t, bowed in respect.

 

*****

 

J’em watched with wide eyes as everyone genuflected to the short, curly haired young man. That kind of spontaneous gesture couldn’t be faked. That meant three things, none of them good.

 

The smaller man was the prince they were waiting for.

 

His chances of bonding with B’Lare were nonexistent.

 

And…he had just insulted the other royal family and almost destroyed the peace between their kingdoms.

 

J’em relaxed his stance and let go of some of his unreasoning anger. Realizing that he’d better make nice to the Sandrians before they changed the prince’s mind, J’em gave an unobtrusive move, echoed by Lord Saimon, and the Cascadians made their own gesture of respect. Prince B’Lare turned from waving his people to their feet and gave a quick glance around.

 

The Sentinel waited until the Guide turned to him. Blue eyes met blue eyes and J’em bowed to B’Lare. Seemingly unfazed, B’Lare bowed to J’em.

 

Inside, one part of J’em breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t ruined everything. Another side, the Sentinel part of his mind, howled in pain at the brief, wonderful connection it’d had with its Guide; the connection that was virtually nonexistent now. The side of J’em’s brain that had just found its mate wanted to hurt the other side of itself that had just caused his future mate pain.

 

The Sentinel had seen B’Lare’s open and interested countenance falter and close up when questioned. While J’em felt bad about his open dismissal of the other prince, the Sentinel was growling.

 

At the edge of the forest, a black panther paced back and forth, unseen by even the man he was spirit guide for.

 

*****

 

The two groups were now traveling as one. It wasn’t an easy truce. B’Lare’s people were very upset at the way their prince had been treated and J’em’s people, for the most part…were too. But they all tried to make nice, because the two kingdoms were soon to be joined together, for better or worse, from now on. So, together they traveled. To be certain, they still maintained a healthy distance from one another, making sure to stay with their own people, but they were all together.

 

J’em and B’Lare were setting a good example. The two men walked together at the head of the delegation. Neither man was alone; they didn’t trust the other side that much yet.  There were always at least two guards and/or advisors for either man at any given time. However, the others walked back a ways and they at least had the illusion of privacy.

 

The Sentinel and the Guide talked as they walked along. J’em was trying to see if B’Lare was good enough to be his brother’s mate. He could see that the Sandrium man was smart and gentle, but was he a good man?

 

“And what would you have done about that?” J’em asked as he watched B’Lare out of the corner of his eye. The longer legged man was amazed at how well the shorter prince was able to keep up with him.

 

J’em had revised his earlier opinion that B’Lare was fragile. Up close, he could see how strong the dark haired man was. It was just that he appeared to have been ill recently. The man with the unfashionably cropped hair extended his senses to check B’Lare over, because that wouldn’t do at all.

 

No, as far as J’em could tell, the prince wasn’t ill. ‘That’s a relief,’ the hunter thought to himself.

 

“I would make the one man pay restitution and a fine for damaging the other man’s home,” B’Lare said.

 

J’em kept his face neutral as he tried to figure out what his walking companion was talking about. It only took a moment for his memory to catch up. He’d asked B’Lare’s opinion about a domestic matter that his father had dealt with the week before and hadn’t been paying attention then to the answer. J’em really didn’t care, he was just seeing how differently the younger man thought.

 

“If the offender couldn’t make the monetary restitution, he would be made to arrange for and help rebuild the room himself. Then he and the man whose house was damaged could come to an arrangement of extra work he could do in compensation.”

 

B’Lare spoke matter-of-factly, like he was used to dealing with these sorts of issues all the time. J’em wondered if he was and compared that idea to how he and Stefen functioned as princes in their own kingdom. The two Cascadians had very little to do with the day to day running of the realm and J’em couldn’t honestly say how he would have answered the query he just gave B’Lare.

 

J’em listened to the wise advice and wondered what his father would say. Willyam’s slightly less even handed royal decree had ended with Councilman Jadney’s daughter, Prissilla being given in marriage to Lord Gracion. A pretty high price to compensate for the accidental damage to one of Gracion’s lesser, outer buildings, in J’em’s opinion.

 

“That seems to be very good advice,” J’em stated.

 

“Indeed,” he heard Saimon mutter. “I’m certain Lady Prissilla would agree.”

 

J’em pretended he couldn’t hear his advisor’s comment and that he didn’t notice Donal scooting closer to his big lover. The arbitrary way that the king had traded a lady under his care had worried many of the less well placed people in the kingdom.

 

The Sentinel unobtrusively sniffed the air and could tell that B’Lare was telling the truth and not just saying what sounded good. J’em was glad of that and hoped his brother appreciated the good man coming his way.

 

*****

B’Lare was secretly amused by the prince’s subtle attempts to find out more about him. He was a little unsettled as well. B’Lare was used to honesty in all things, in fact he demanded it. His mother, Queen Nyomi, was well known for her machinations and B’Lare had lived through her games all his life. He couldn’t abide insincerity and was surprised that J’em was playing mind games with him.

 

He had noticed the Sentinel scenting him too. That meant J’em thought he was lying and was trying to catch him out.

 

As soon as B’Lare realized that, any and all amusement he’d been feeling fled. For some unaccountable reason, he felt betrayed, even though there was no reason for him to. He and J’em had only met the day before, after all. The Cascadian prince had no reason to trust him.

 

And now, B’Lare felt he had no reason to trust J’em.

 

****

 

“Please come in.” J’em waved an arm, indicating his sumptuous tent. It befitted someone as regal as a prince, but it was clear that J’em was uncomfortable in such luxurious surroundings. B’Lare guessed that the Sentinel was better suited to roughing it in a warrior’s tent instead.

 

“Thank you.” B’Lare ducked under the tent flap and saw that there were several dishes of food set out on a rug on the floor. J’em indicated that B’Lare should sit opposite him and B’Lare gracefully lowered himself to his own, smaller rug. He watched as J’em sat down, followed by the other, older man, who was the only additional occupant of the tent.

 

B’Lare smiled politely at the gray haired man and waited. J’em seemed to catch himself. “Forgive me,” he stated. “This is one of my protocol chancellors, Aleksander.”

 

“Chancellor.” B’Lare nodded to him.

 

“My lord.” J’em didn’t notice the slip up, but B’Lare did.

 

As a prince he should have been addressed as Your Majesty. A lord was farther down on the royal hierarchy. As a chancellor in charge of protocol, Aleksander certainly knew better.

 

B’Lare extended his empathy just a tad and realized that the slip had been intentional; Aleksander was waiting for him to be insulted. The prince decided to keep the chancellor wondering and deliberately didn’t take offense. Instead he smiled congenially and was glad to see the older man frown in confusion.

 

Cups of a thick, heavy mead were handed around. It was too rich and sickly sweet for B'Lare's taste, but naturally, he took it anyway. Aleksander picked up a bowl of fruit and passed it to J'em, who looked it over carefully before picking a small red morsel. The bowl was then handed to B'Lare. The chancellor had a smug, superior look on his face, and B'Lare realized there was something more to this than just sharing a meal. He extended his empathy slightly and read the older man.

 

This was another test! The ceremony was an all important part of the Cascadian culture, and if B'Lare failed to follow the intricate eating ritual to the letter, he wouldn't be welcome in J'em's camp, let alone in their kingdom.

 

B'Lare eyed the pair in front of him. J'em was waiting patiently, while Chancellor Aleksander's mind radiated confidence that B'Lare, the northern barbarian, would be too ignorant to know what to do. Since B'Lare's kingdom had no such ritual, he quite obviously had no inkling what the ceremony should entail. However, what the stupid man didn't think about or take into consideration, was that all B'Lare, as a strong empathic Guide, had to do, was read his emotions to know what was needed. Very simple really...like the chancellor, apparently.

 

Looking into the bowl, B'Lare spied the tiny bit of yellow fruit that he was supposed to pick. It was so miniscule that if B'Lare hadn't specifically been searching for it, he would have missed it. The look of consternation on the chancellor's face gave B'Lare a strong sense of satisfaction.

 

****

 

The Miari Ceremony lasted for more than an hour. J'em thought the ritual was pointless and time consuming, but his people insisted on such ceremonies and had quite a few that had to be followed. The Sentinel didn't mind them that much; he usually took the time to plan out his next military campaign in his head as he waited. This time, however, he was paying strict attention. Chancellor Aleksander was such a stickler that he would insist that B'Lare and his people not be allowed inside Cascadiaus if the prince failed even one moment of the ceremony.

 

J'em frowned at B'Lare, concerned with the way the prince was acting. He realized that the younger man hadn't made eye contact with him since he walked into the tent. J'em had grown accustomed to the forthright man looking him straight in the eye all the time. The Cascadian missed seeing those deep blue eyes looking back at him.

 

The Sentinel pushed up his senses to see what was wrong. B'Lare's heartbeat was thundering in his chest and his breath was coming out in puffs. J'em could see a slight flush to the other man's skin. He remembered how ill the prince had looked when he first met him and began to wonder if B'Lare was ailing again. J'em took a deep breath and decided that what he was sensing wasn't the beginnings of illness, but rather...anger. A lot of it.

 

'What in the world?' J'em wondered. He looked at the feast laid out in front of them and belatedly wondered if one of the foods was offensive to the other man.

 

The final cup of sonalar, the very rich mead that was used in the ritual, was passed around, indicating the end of the ceremony, and J'em relaxed. He gave the two men a smile and was surprised when neither one reciprocated.

 

"Is that all?" B'Lare's voice was cold and deadly.

 

Aleksander heard the danger in B'Lare's voice and swallowed hard. "Yes, your majesty. You and your people are now officially welcome in the kingdom of Cascadiaus and its outlying territories. O-of which this camp is consider to be."

 

"I see." B'Lare stood up, back straight and glared down at the older man. "So, now I'm addressed correctly."

 

J'em shot his irritating chancellor a questioning look and saw the man shrinking away. He thought back through the time they'd been together for the ritual and realized he must have missed a slight somewhere. An intentional one, or B'Lare wouldn't be making a point of it now and Aleksander wouldn't be worried.

 

"How dare you sit there, like a smug little toad, and give me a test over something that I could not have known about, since my kingdom doesn't waste our time with such things. It is degrading to us both." B'Lare's anger was coming off of the prince in such thick waves that J'em could literally taste it. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but B'Lare wasn't paying attention and missed the abortive gesture.

 

"You're kingdom approached mine, not the other way around. Do not make the mistake of thinking that I need..." B'Lare snapped his mouth shut, leaving whatever he'd been about to say unsaid.

 

J'em was impressed. He'd thought B'Lare and his people were extremely passive and had actually been worried about the prince being able to stand up for himself. In point of fact, now that he thought about it, they really hadn't been that passive at all. B'Lare had defended himself when J'em was rude the first time they met, and of B'Lare's people, Yoel, Henroai and Meaghan definitely couldn't be considered passive. J'em's ears still burned with the scathing comments Meaghan had made that first day.

 

"A word of advice, chancellor," B'Lare snarled out the man's title. "Giving a test to an empath is a waste of time. All I had to do was read your emotions to know what not to do."

 

"My apologies, your majesty." Aleksander cringed under the onslaught, realizing the meek, pampered puppy he'd thought B'Lare to be was, in reality, a snarling, hard scrabble war dog instead.

 

J'em could tell the moment when B'Lare realized he was letting his anger control his words. B'Lare straightened up and carefully smoothed his long tunic down on the sides. "Yes," he drawled out disdainfully. "I can tell just how apologetic you really are." With a final, disappointed look at J'em, B'Lare whirled around, making the bottom of his tunic swirl around him in an arc, and slapped the tent flap out of the way on his way out.

 

The Sentinel watched the still swinging flap for a moment and then turned to glare at the chancellor. J'em was stunned to see that Aleksander had a knowing, smug look on his face. J'em's anger boiled over, not only at the treatment B'Lare had received, but also at the deceit to himself. He had unwittingly hurt the other man and that was not acceptable.

 

"Where do you get the temerity to pull such a trick?" J'em's snarl wiped the grin off the older man's face. "He is a prince, not some diplomat that has to dance to your tune."

 

"Your highness, the ceremony must be performed. It is the law..."

 

"Do his people have anything similar to this in their culture?" J'em interrupted. He waited and watched as the man tried to think up a lie. "Come now, you lived in Sandrium for three summers. If anyone would know their way of life, it's you."

 

"N-no, sire, they don't. However..."

 

J'em interrupted again and was pleased to see a flush of irritation creep up from the older man's collar. After all, no one likes to be interrupted, even if it is by their sovereign leader.

 

"Don't however me. He knew nothing of the ceremony, but you expected him to pass it anyway. That is ridiculous. I know of several military leaders whom father waived the ceremony for." J'em straightened up proudly. "Besides, he did pass the test, despite your best efforts."

 

Aleksander shook his head. "No, your majesty. He cheated. By using his empathic skills, Prince B'Lare invalidated the test."

 

The chancellor gasped, his eyes going wide and terrified, when J'em snarled and actually grabbed hold of him by the front of his jacket. The older man's impeccably frothed lace was crushed beyond repair.

 

"No. By using his empathy, Prince B'Lare showed ingenuity. That more than affirms his right to be included in our company; here and in Cascadiaus."

 

J'em shoved the man away. The gray haired man fell back against one of the cushions behind his back and accidentally knocked over a couple of bowls of meat. The brightly colored cushions caught J'em's eye. It was only then that he realized that B'Lare hadn't been afforded the courtesy of a backrest and the rug he'd been sitting on was for second use at best.

 

"He is going to be your prince before long, so you better get used to it." J'em stood up and towered over the cringing man. "Never insult him again, or you will face the consequences."

 

The Sentinel grabbed up his personal weapons and went out to hunt. He needed time to think how to apologize, yet again, to the other prince.

 

****

 

"I beg of you, your highness, let us leave this place," Meaghan's softly accented voice and vivid red hair pointed out her Irish heritage. Her fiery nature and quick temper had as much to do with her personally as it did her native people's temperament.

 

B'Lare's boiling anger was softened to a low simmer when he looked over and saw how livid Meaghan was for him. The younger man’s nature wouldn’t allow him to stay mad for very long, and when he had such vehement champions on his side, he didn’t need to.

 

The tall woman striding along at his side had come to Sandrium to be a lady-in-waiting for Queen Nyomi when she was just 18 years old. That position had quickly proved to be untenable, due to the young woman’s tendency to speak her mind, so Meaghan was instead trained to be one of B'Lare's body guards. Even her dog, Belynda, a Norwich Terrier, who was a tiny, but feisty little thing, was an excellent guard.

 

"You don't have to stay here and be treated this way," Meaghan encouraged.

 

The prince stopped walked and tilted his head back, looking up through the canopy of green leaves. "It is tempting," he admitted. "Very tempting."

 

Meaghan waited, not adding any more. It was up to B'Lare to decide and she'd already given her opinion, several times, about the way the Cascadians were acting.

 

B'Lare shook his head and Meaghan sighed in frustration. The prince sighed with her; this situation was all a lot more complicated than he'd been led to believe by his mother.

 

"I didn't sense any duplicity in Prince J'em. He seemed puzzled by the whole situation and, I think, just as mad as I was when he realized the truth." B'Lare bent over and patted Belynda 's light brown head absentmindedly. Meaghan's dog liked to comfort her prince, as well as her mistress. "I don't think he knew what his chancellor was doing. It would be unfair to punish J'em...and his brother, Stefen," B'Lare added his intended's name after a moment’s hesitation, "for what one person did."

 

"You are too nice." Meaghan tucked a long strand of hair behind B'Lare's ear when he straightened up. There was nothing even remotely sensual or seductive about the move; it was a sister taking care of her brother. "Just look at the way you treated Lord Brackett."

 

B'Lare winced, not happy at being reminded of the other lord. Lord Brackett, from the kingdom of Leigh, had tried to woo B'Lare several years earlier. The younger prince had just turned 17 years of age and was still considered too young to bond, marry, or otherwise attach himself to anyone.

 

Brackett, an extremely handsome, powerful and rich man, wasn't used to be turned down...by anyone. After trying for several weeks to win B'Lare's favors, the blond haired, green eyed, and much larger man, had changed tactics and attempted to force himself on B'Lare.

 

"After that bastard tried to rape you, you were too lenient,” Meaghan continued her rant. She whacked at a grass frond with the flat of her sword, cleaving the innocent ground covering in two. “You should have let them push for final retribution instead of insisting on banishment.”

 

He shuddered at the idea. Final retribution involved either hanging or beheading. In this case it would have included both punishments. Brackett would have been hung until he was almost dead, been allowed to recover slightly, and then beheaded. Such total and cruel measures should only be used in extreme cases, such as murder; at least that was B’Lare’s opinion. B'Lare's argument for leniency for his attacker had been that there is basically good in all people, you just have to search for it. If someone is dead, they can’t learn from their mistakes.

 

B’Lare shook his head decisively and pushed back the hair that flopped in his face when he moved. “No, he was stopped before he could do anything.” That had been due to Henroai’s vigilance and had led to the page being made into B’Lare’s full-time body guard. The prince knew that if Henroai hadn’t heard his cries for help, Brackett would have succeeded in his attack.

 

At the time, B’Lare had been untrained in defense and a much smaller man; the next year B’Lare had grown several inches. But during B’Lare’s 17th year, he’d been over a foot shorter than Brackett and weighed a little more than half the weight of the very muscular man. He had been no match for the trained Sentinel and had suffered for the differences.

 

B’Lare absently rubbed at his left arm, just below the elbow, where there was a lump of uneven bone. Brackett had broken B’Lare’s arm during the assault, when he had twisted it behind B'Lare's back to hold him still. The bone had been damaged enough that it had left a knot, despite the royal physician's best efforts.

 

He still remembered the feel of the bone snapping and the sound of it, inside as well as outside of his body. B'Lare remembered lying on the cold marble floor of the far off room he'd been drug into, trying not to throw up, and feeling the other man's hands all over his body. The prince had known he was helpless and was going to lose his virginity and his empathic bondability at the same time. The loss of his potential True Sentinel had been the more devastating prospect of the two. Sometimes the terror of that moment still caught him unawares.

 

“Besides,” B’Lare continued, interrupting his painful memories, “the damage to his pride and the loss of custom was more painful to him.”

 

Brackett's people were traders, not in goods, but in information. They would seek out knowledge, not only of political news, but of new ideas, potions and medicines, and sell the information to less knowledgeable kingdoms. The information they obtained wasn't always done in a strictly moral way, but no one dared question the sometimes unscrupulous people. They also, amazingly enough, told of fashion news, so the women, and men, in the outer edges of the kingdoms would know when trends changed.

 

In this way, the kingdom of Leigh made a very profitable living, because everyone wanted to have the newest and the best the world could provide, and most people weren't picky about how they got the ideas. Well…most of them made a good living.

 

For all these years, since the attack on B’Lare, Brackett himself has been unable to travel in B’Lare's kingdom and has lost some of his social standing. Even other kingdoms were leery of having the blond man traversing their territory. If he would attack a much smaller, young man like he had, what would he do to the defenseless people in their nations?

 

The once much sought after trader, was now shunned by many people. Those that did approach him were farther down on the social scale and usually wanted him to do something nefarious, not that Brackett objected to that. He did, however, object to the loss of his much cushier lifestyle. Such people couldn't pay nearly as much as lords and ladies, and even kings and queens, could. By now, Brackett’s interest in B’Lare had changed from the desire to possess, to an obsession for revenge.

 

“I don’t care how much he’s suffered, I still say it wasn’t enough.”

 

B’Lare smiled at Meaghan. The argument was an old one, but B'Lare knew that Meaghan's worry for his well being kept her arguing on his behalf, so he tried not to get irritated at her obsession with Brackett. “I know you don’t, my good friend. Knowing then what I know now, I might have acted differently.  But that is all behind us and there is nothing that can be gained from hindsight.”

 

“Huh.” She raised her sword and eyed it speculatively. “I could give his hind a little sight with my…”

 

“Meaghan!” B’Lare laughed at the red headed woman’s joke. At least, he thought she was joking.

 

****

 

Raff leaned against the tree he’d just relieved himself behind and thought over what he’d just overheard. The tall, good looking Sentinel was one of Lord Saimon’s soldiers and a staunchly loyal one of J’em’s followers.

 

When he’d first heard about the proposed union, Raff hadn’t been sure whether he was for it or not. After some consideration, the soldier had decided that he neither cared for, nor was he against, the Sandrium prince wedding Prince Stefen.

 

Now, of course, it seemed obvious to him that the prince should be bonded to Prince J’em. The Sentinel desperately needed a Guide and Prince B’Lare sent out strong empathic feelings. That powerful of a Guide would be wasted as a mate to the unSentinel Prince Stefen. And Raff wasn’t the only one to think so.

 

After hearing the young man and his lady guard talk, Raff was definitely in favor of such a union. B’Lare was not only a strong Guide, but a fair one too. The soldier had heard of Lord Brackett and knew the ruthless way he treated his lovers. He'd even heard about the older man's attack on a prince in one of the far off kingdom's, but hadn't connected that young boy to Prince B'Lare. Meaghan was not the only one who thought the young prince had been too forgiving of his attacker. 

 

Raff knew that if his abilities were stronger, he’d offer a challenge for the Sandrium man. But someone that capable would be too much for his weaker Sentinel skills.

 

He sighed in disappointment and took one last sniff of B'Lare's alluring bonding scent. Straightening his clothes, the handsome man turned away from temptation. As the Sentinel headed back into camp, he idly wondered if Prince J’em would try to claim the Guide, or would he let him slip through his fingers.

 

****

 

J’em stepped into the enemy camp and braced himself for attack.

 

Alright. Actually, he walked into the Sandrium part of the sleeping tents and readied himself to grovel if need be. The way B’Lare’s people were glaring at him, made the Sentinel feel as if he were the enemy, though.

 

The prince glanced over his fellow prince’s tent and hid a smile. It was surprising that the supposedly more material loving Sandrium’s had practical, down-to-earth tents, while his people, who were supposed to be more militaristic and therefore, supposedly less interested in fripperies, had the opulent tents.

 

J’em knocked on one of the framework poles to B’Lare’s tent. He only had to wait a moment.

 

“Yes?” B’Lare’s voice was muffled by the heavy cloth.

 

“May I come in?” J’em asked and there was a pause. The Sentinel wondered if he was going to be refused permission to enter. He wouldn’t blame B’Lare if he didn’t.

 

“Yes, come in.”

 

J’em let the door hanging close behind him and automatically pushed up his eyesight to compensate for the dark interior. B’Lare was sitting, cross-legged on the floor, his beautiful white dog lying stretched out beside him.

 

“How may I help you?” B’Lare asked in a polite, if not very encouraging, tone of voice.

 

Not one to let himself be discouraged so easily, J’em nodded politely. “I would like to apologize for my chancellor’s behavior. He had no right to treat you that way and has been reprimanded for it.”

 

“Like a naughty child?” B’Lare asked sardonically.

 

“No, like a grown man who is now missing part of his hind quarters,” J’em answered back in a serious tone of voice.

 

B’Lare snorted at the joke, but smiled up at J’em; the Sentinel felt his knees weaken at the sight. The shining blues eyes, framed in masses of curls, sent J’em’s libido shooting through the tent top. He again felt his body urging him to lay claim to the Guide, and his brother be damned.

 

“Very well then.”

 

J’em felt his heart lurch and for one brief moment thought B’Lare had read his intentions and was agreeing with him. When the younger man gestured for J’em to sit down, the disappointment was so intense that it actually hurt the Sentinel.

 

Aching inside, J’em became irrationally annoyed with the empathic man. How could he not feel J’em’s hunger? How could he not be overcome as well?

 

****

 

B’Lare had a tight control over his empathy. That was the only way he could handle being around the other man right now.

 

On the one hand, B’Lare was still upset at how the Cascadians were treating him. Yet, on the other…on the other hand, B’Lare was fiercely attracted to the Sentinel. J’em was his Sentinel, B’Lare could feel it deep in his bones, and it made him ache. Yet, he was promised to Prince Stefen, J’em’s brother, and that wasn’t a commitment he could break easily.

 

He’d been meditating when the prince had knocked. It had taken B’Lare a few moments to wrestle down the mating urge that hearing the older man’s voice had drug up. Seeing J’em’s large and well formed figure framed in the tent opening hadn’t helped anything.

 

B’Lare gave J’em what he hoped was a welcoming smile and waved for him to sit down. J’em’s apology was unexpected and nice. Unfortunately, B’Lare didn’t realize that the Sentinel’s rather mercurial mood had shifted once again.

 

“I was just about to eat, would you join me?” B’Lare asked.

 

“All right.” Preoccupied with his own feelings, and keeping his empathy tamped down, B’Lare missed the odd tone in J’em’s voice and the searching look that was being sent his way. Dexhiana raised her head and gave J’em an odd look; her canine mind, used to being in close proximity to B'Lare's empathy, picked up on the anger when her master missed it.

 

B’Lare handed the platter, with several pieces of cut up bread, cheeses and meat slices on it, to the other prince. The moment their fingers touched, B’Lare’s emphatic abilities surged up, without any intention on his part.

 

The platter dropped to the ground, food scattering everywhere, as J’em’s strong emotions raced into B’Lare’s brain. Anger, suspicion and hurt hit him in the chest.

 

“You think this is a test,” B’Lare said incredulously.

 

“Uhm…” It was apparent that the Sentinel didn’t know what to say.

 

“You think that I’ve decided to turn the tables on you and give some bizarre ritual that you don’t even know about, just to get my own back at you,” B’Lare’s voice rose in indignation.

 

J’em’s own face darkened with suppressed anger. “What do you expect me to think?” The Sentinel waved at the ruined food. “The first time in your tent and you’re giving me food to eat.”

 

“I expect…” Dexi stood up and barked. B’Lare took a deep breath and deliberately lowered his voice, not realizing that they’d been shouting. “I expect you to realize that you came to my camp, uninvited, in time for the evening meal and I graciously offered to share my dinner with you.”

 

B’Lare patted his dog on the head and with a final warning bark at the other prince, she sat back down. Far off, another dog answered her bark.

 

"Do not judge my actions by that of your fellow," the smaller man said. "I don't play games." B’Lare stood, bowed to J’em and stated his intentions of retiring early. He stared at J’em and waited for two seconds for the Sentinel to move. “Please leave now.”

 

B’Lare was so engrossed with the anger he was feeling that he missed the pained look on the Sentinel’s face when he shoved him out of the tent.

 

****

J’em winced at the cold coming off the younger man. He could tell that B’Lare was normally a very warm and friendly person, to realize that he had upset and hurt him yet again was distressing to the Sentinel.

 

Even through they were once again walking side by side; it felt like J’em was standing by himself…in an icy spring. He hadn’t realized how soothing the other man’s company was until B’Lare closed himself off. The Sentinel had tried to apologize, but after so many insults, B’Lare wasn’t in the mood to be placated.

 

J’em didn’t blame the other prince. If he or any of his people had been treated the way B’Lare had, they’d have packed up and left immediately. The Sentinel realized that B’Lare sticking with the arrangements made by their parents, instead of leaving because of the verbal abuse, wasn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.

 

He watched as Donal walked closer and began talking with B’Lare. The Guide gave the young page a friendly smile. Donal’s sweet and innocent nature wouldn’t allow anyone to be unhappy or sad for very long in his presence.

 

The two smaller men looked positively fragile in among the much bigger warriors. B’Lare was several inches shorter than J’em, who was by no means the largest among his people, and Donal was yet again a great many inches shorter than B’Lare.

 

B’Lare laughed at something Saimon’s lover said and J’em’s heart sank down into his leather boots. ‘If I hadn’t been such an ass, that laughter could be mine.’

 

The Sentinel heard a growl and slowed down. He glanced around warily, because the growl hadn't sounded like one of the numerous dogs running around, and finally spotted something black at the edge of the forest. J’em’s hand twitched with the urge to draw his bow, but the warrior in him decided to wait and see what danger appeared. He looked closer with his superior eyesight and saw a large, sleek, black form.

 

It was a black panther.

 

‘It’s my spirit guide,’ he realized with a start. The animal turned and snarled at him, before looking back at B’Lare. ‘I was right!’ J’em exalted. ‘B’Lare is my Guide!’

 

His happiness was short lived though. B’Lare was Stefen’s intended. How could he betray his own brother?

 

****

 

B’Lare could feel J’em staring at him. It felt like the man’s pale blue eyes were following him wherever he went. In the two days since their last argument, J’em had apologized for his behavior and been very solicitous towards B’Lare. The Guide had long since forgiven the other prince; he knew that a suspicious nature was normal behavior for Sentinels. However, it was difficult for B'Lare to relax around the other prince now. Not knowing when J'em was going to get mad over some imagined slight put an unwanted tension between the two of them. Still, B'Lare tried to be as friendly as he had been.

 

J’em couldn’t seem to forgive himself though, and had been in a bad humor because of it. The Cascadian’s ill temper transferred itself to J’em’s people, which in turn, transferred itself to the Sandriums. B’Lare realized that he should do something to break the tension before it caused problems between the two groups.

 

‘I live with children,’ B’Lare thought with a roll of his eyes, as he watched people avoiding one another. ‘Very small children,’ he mentally amended.

 

They had stopped for the evening and B’Lare was doing one of his favorite things, watching people interacting. The ebb and flow of the two independent camps was amazing to see. The prince watched as Lord Saimon expertly supervised the setting up of camp for J’em and Lord Yoel did the same for B’Lare. The two men, both large and dark, were completely absorbed in their work.

 

B’Lare got up from the fallen log that he’d been sitting on and wiped bits of dead moss off his behind before he wandered over to talk with Saimon. If he was going to be living around the man from now on, B’Lare knew it would be a good idea to be on speaking terms with the man.

 

“Good evening, Lord Saimon.”

 

The lord turned and gave B’Lare a slight nod. “Good evening, your majesty.” Saimon’s tone of voice was not very friendly and he immediately turned back to watch the activity around him.

 

B’Lare tried to think of something to break the strain. He knew that Saimon had not been impressed with B’Lare from their first meeting and now blamed the Guide for J’em’s ill humor. He was too good of a diplomat to actively express those feelings, but his cold attitude said enough. The empath rubbed between his eyes where the weight of all the ill feelings in the groups seemed to have settled.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, B’Lare could see Yoel keeping watch on them, and poor Henroai was positively twitching because he wasn’t nearly close enough to protect B’Lare if Saimon were to…go wild and attack B’Lare in the middle of the camp.

 

The smaller man cast his mind around, trying to think of something he and Lord Saimon could talk about, some common ground. He walked over to one of the larger tents and touched it tentatively. B’Lare leaned closer and peered at the material as he rubbed it between his fingers.

 

“Is something wrong, Sire?” Saimon grated out the honorific reluctantly.

 

“No.” B’Lare frowned at the hide. “What is this made from?” He turned back to Saimon and pointed at the tent. “I’ve never seen any animal skin like this before.”

 

“It is from the yamari.”

 

“Yamari?” B’Lare arched his eyebrows at the unfamiliar name. Considering how much of B’Lare’s life had been devoted to studying other cultures, that was saying a lot. 

 

“Yes, it is a bear-like animal in one of the very far northern countries,” Saimon admitted reluctantly. “My son, Darryle, and I hunted the animals.”

 

“Oh, you have a son.” B’Lare glanced around the camp, but didn’t see anyone who resembled Saimon. “Is he traveling with you?”

 

“No, I decided that it would be better for him to stay back in Cascadiaus for this trip, rather than interrupt his studies.”

 

B’Lare nodded, but didn’t say anything. He took a step back and looked at the size of Saimon’s tent, taking in the places where edges were stitched together. The prince could tell that the yamari were huge animals and that even with that, there were several needed to make up a tent of this size.

 

“That must have taken you both quite a while.” B’Lare petted the edge of the tent flap. The skin had an oily feel to it, in addition to the softness of the fur; water would run off of it instead of soaking in.

 

“Yes, it did.” Saimon watched the much smaller man and how he seemed to admire the work it had taken to cure the skins, inside and out. “It was after my wife, Joane, died of the fever. I thought that Darryle and I needed some time together. We spent most of a year in the north, before coming home.”

 

“Your son is very lucky,” B’Lare said quietly, a touch of envy coloring his voice. “To have a father who cares so much.”

 

The older man stood up straighter at that and seemed pleased. “Thank you.”

 

“So tell me,” B’Lare asked conspiratorially. “How hard was it to catch a beast of this size?”

 

Saimon laughed and leaned closer. “Pretty hard, your majesty.” With a twinkle in his eye, Saimon began to regale him with the many adventures he and Darryle had gone through that year. Unknowingly, the lord began to thaw towards the Guide.

 

****

 

J’em heard the most wonderful sound of his life. It tickled at the edge of his hearing and pulled him back to the camp like a marionette on a string.

 

The Sentinel had headed out to hunt, as was his wont, as soon as they started to make camp. This time he would have preferred to stay near B’Lare, but things were still awkward between the two of them, so the older man was keeping his distance.

 

When he walked into the camp, the sound floated around his head again, like musical notes from a lute. It was B’Lare’s laughter. J’em realized that he’d seen the young man smile many times, but had never actually heard him laugh with such carefree abandon.

 

B’Lare listened to what Saimon was saying and said something back that made J’em’s friend laugh too. J’em let himself be carried over to the two men, hoping that his presence didn’t spoil the merriment.

 

Absently, he noticed that young Donal was sitting on a fallen log. He let his senses roam over the young man and was pleased to note that he didn’t seem as exhausted tonight. That injury to his chest finally seemed to be healing. J’em was glad; Saimon would have been devastated if something had happened to his lover. The Sentinel admitted to himself that they would all have missed him.

 

J'em stopped by the log for a moment. Donal smiled at J’em and they both watched Saimon and B’Lare for a moment, enjoying a rare moment of camaraderie. B’Lare glanced over and smiled at J’em. Emboldened by the seeming encouragement, J’em walked over to the pair.

 

“Hello, J’em.” B’Lare’s welcoming smile said it all.

 

****

 

B’Lare thought he was going to injure himself, he was laughing so hard. Who would have thought that the, oh so serious, Saimon, would be so humorous?

 

And J’em…

 

The Sentinel was actually laughing and smiling as well. Maybe living in Cascadiaus wouldn’t be so bad after all. He already had a friend in Donal. Now Saimon was becoming friendly too. And J’em…

 

A sense of something twitched across his mind and B’Lare paused, his laughter dying away. It seemed almost familiar. B’Lare closed his eyes and concentrated…

 

****

 

Saimon exchanged an uneasy glance with J’em. One moment B’Lare was laughing and the next he went still and quiet, his eyes closed. Not having been around a strong, empathic Guide very much before, Saimon didn’t recognize someone who was reading the feelings around him.

 

J’em looked as puzzled as Saimon was. The Sentinel was reaching out to touch B’Lare on the shoulder when the younger man’s eyes popped open. He whirled around and a flash of multi-hued light was all Saimon had time to see.

 

Saimon spun around and saw a knife imbedded in the log where his young lover sat, not six inches from Donal’s right leg. The blade was still quivering from the impact; its jeweled handle sending out sparks of light in the fading afternoon sun.

 

The large man gasped in surprise. Had Prince B’Lare just tried to kill his lover? Saimon raced over to where the man who held his heart had scooted over and off the log to land on the ground.

 

“K-kill it,” Donal’s voice cracked with the strain.

 

Saimon dropped down to one knee and pulled the smaller man to him protectively. The lord look over in time to see J’em take out his own weapon and finish killing off the lizard-like creature that B’Lare’s hastily thrown blade had pinned to the log.

 

“Great heavens! What is that thing?!” Saimon shrieked as he scooted Donal farther away. The great and powerful lord didn’t care that he was scooting along in the dirt; his main priority was to get his lover away from the danger.

 

“I don’t know,” B’Lare admitted as he pulled his knife out.

 

“Neither do I.” J’em said grimly.

 

“Your majesty! Are you alright?” Yoel asked as he raced up. Saimon saw the other man’s eyes flash from the obviously unharmed prince to the frightened and shivering young man in Saimon’s arms.

 

“Yes, I’m fine, Yoel,” B’Lare reassured his advisor with a quick smile.

 

Yoel gasped when he saw the dead creature that had been cut into several pieces by J'em's sword. He quickly knelt down beside Donal and Saimon. The big man gave a reassuring smile to Donal and reached out an inquiring hand. He didn’t touch Saimon’s lover, but instead waited for permission. Saimon nodded, realizing that Donal was too upset to know what he was silently asking.

 

The Sandrium man carefully took Donal’s very slender arm in his big hands and moved the sleeve around, looking it over carefully for any tears in the fabric. “Did it bite you?”

 

The advisor’s voice was calm, but didn’t fool Saimon for a minute. They might not know what the lizard thing was, but Yoel obviously did and was really worried. That, in turn, made Saimon clutch Donal even tighter.

 

“Son, did it injure you?”

 

Donal finally looked at Yoel. He blinked a couple of times as the question worked its way past the shock and into his brain. In the meantime, Yoel was carefully looking over Donal’s side and leg as well.

 

“N-no.” The young man’s voice quivered with fear. “P-P-Prince B’Lare saved me. I,” he swallowed convulsively, “I didn’t even see it there. Right…there…beside me.” Donal’s face drained of what little color remained in it.

 

Saimon had Donal up and over to the bushes before the young man had time to realize he was going to be ill. The tall man held his lover easily as the others discretely disposed of the deadly body.

 

“Shhhh, little one. I have you.”

 

Donal was shaking so hard that Saimon had a difficult time holding on to him as he helped the young man stand back up. “We’re going to retire for the night,” Saimon announced to the others.

 

J’em and Yoel murmured something unintelligible. B’Lare gave an encouraging smile. “Thank you,” Saimon stated, staring straight at B’Lare. J’em might have actually killed the lizard, but it was B’Lare who had saved Donal.

 

“You’re welcome.” B’Lare’s voice drifted along behind the couple, like smoke from the fire.

 

****

 

“This isn’t the first time B’Lare’s life has been in jeopardy on this trip.”

 

J’em’s ears perked up at Yoel’s statement. He looked over to where the advisor was standing with Henroai, Meaghan and Raff, on the other side of the tent. The Sentinel could tell from B'Lare's nonreaction to what was being said that he hadn't heard anything. Pushing up his senses, J'em was able to listen to the conversation without too much effort. It was easy to do, standing beside B'Lare; his senses were under the best control they had ever been in J'em's life.

 

"What do you mean?" Raff asked with a quick, concerned look over his shoulder.

 

"A few days hence," Yoel began to explain, "a very large, and very rare, snake tried to attack B'Lare."

 

"Yes," Henroai agreed with a nod of his head. "B'Lare's quick thinking, and excellent throwing skills, saved himself that time." The bodyguard thought for a moment. "And wasn't B'Lare just sitting on that log a few minutes before Donal came up?"

 

"Yes, he was." Raff bit his lip. "I've never seen a reptile such as that one before," the soldier admitted.

 

"It is from the far, far eastern provinces. I saw one once in my youth when I was traveling for Prince Thomas, B’Lare’s father," Yoel stated. "Before his father died and he became king," he clarified.

 

"What did the snake look like?" Meaghan asked with a huff, more than a little put out that she hadn't known about the previous incident.

 

Henroai described the colorful snake to the others. J'em was stunned to hear the size of the thing. Not that size mattered in such cases. The prince knew of several varieties of very tiny animals that were the deadliest of all.

 

"...need to keep an even more vigilant eye on Prince B'Lare," Meaghan stated with determination.

 

"Yes," Raff agreed. "As well as those around him."

 

The group on the other side of the fire nodded their heads in agreement. On his side of the fire, J'em silently added his own accord. Looking over at B'Lare, and watching the way the flames from the fire set his curls aglow, the Sentinel was determined that nothing more would happen to the empathic prince.

 

****

 

Donal and Saimon were so close as to be thought one person. Their limbs were intertwined around one another, pale flesh sliding into dark.

 

Saimon had comforted and soothed his lover the best way he knew how, by holding and kissing the red haired man. Donal had cried into the side of Saimon's neck until he had fallen into an exhausted sleep. After that, Saimon had carefully unclothed the small man and laid him on their sleeping furs.

 

As he undressed, Saimon had cried a few tears of his own, as how close he came to losing Donal really hit him. Sitting down on the pallet, Saimon was never more aware of how young Donal really was. Lying, pale and naked, on the dark furs, Donal looked like a very delicate flower; slender and insubstantial. And just as easily broken.

 

The dark bruise in the middle of Donal's chest was only now fading in color. It had gone from deepest purple-black to purple-green. The fall Donal had taken in the early part of the trip was right over his breastbone and could easily have stopped the smaller man's heart.

 

Saimon wrapped himself around Donal, arms and legs, and held him close. He was keeping the young man and his own heart, safe from harm.

 

****

 

J'em and B'Lare were walking along the trail, surrounded front and back by their intermingled traveling companions. The two groups were indistinguishable anymore. Since the two princes were getting along so well, their people had relaxed enough to become acquaintances, friends, and in some cases more than friends, as well. The loneliness of travel and quick couplings in the river advanced relationships quickly.

 

The long day was stiflingly hot. There hadn’t been any rain in the area for several days now. What little breeze there was couldn't make its way through the heavy, dense underbrush that lined the sides of the path. To top it all off, they had been traversing a lengthy stretch of path where the overhanging trees weren't overhanging. The places that were open to the sky, instead of helping cool off the travelers, heated them up instead. Heat rose from the dry, dusty earth and scorched their feet, even as the sun baked the tops of their heads.

 

B’Lare, with his much longer and very thick hair, was hotter than the rest of them…and kept fiddling with his hair. He kept raising the long tresses off the back of his neck and then dropping them back down when he’d cooled off. The curls twined and curled up and down his back. The dark locks reflected in the light, showing up the hundreds of different shades of red and golden brown contained in it.

 

J’em thought he was going to go insane.

 

Up the hair went, exposing the back of that neck; the soft part that he wanted to nibble and mark as his. B’Lare alternated holding his hair up with one hand or the other, until the fine beads of sweat evaporated in the hot air.

 

Down the hair would go…ending just above the swell of his buttocks. The hair would bounce with each step, teasingly caressing where J’em wanted so desperately to touch.

 

“My lord?”

 

J’em turned to Aleksander in relief. He could stop watching B’Lare for a few moments and possibly get his composure back. The Sentinel saw B’Lare pause a moment and nod understandingly before he kept walking.

 

“Yes, chancellor?”

 

J’em couldn’t keep from sneaking a look over at B’Lare. It was as if his eyes were being pulled there against his will. Aleksander touched J’em on the sleeve and got his attention. The older chancellor lowered his voice and began to speak to the prince in a Sentinel soft manner, telling him about a problem with one of the young soldiers.

 

The Cascadian frowned at Aleksander, wondering why the older man had chosen now to discuss this with him, or why he felt it had to be in private. J’em knew all about Lysander’s temper; Saimon had informed him about the fights the young soldier was getting into and they had dealt with it two days earlier. Besides which, handling the lower ranked military echelon was not part of the fussy chancellor’s duties.

 

Nevertheless, the Sentinel listened to the persnickety man as he detailed the problems that Lysander had caused, while still keeping a watchful eye on B’Lare. J’em was becoming twitchy, not liking how far ahead the other prince had gotten. For the first time in a long time, B’Lare was alone, even while in the middle of the traveling party. The prince’s dog wasn’t even around; J’em could hear her barking off somewhere with J’em’s own dog.

 

An out of place noise slipped into J’em’s ear. He held a hand up, indicating that Aleksander should stop speaking. Amazingly enough, the older man ceased in the middle of his sentence.

 

J’em pushed up his sense of hearing and heard it again at the very edge of his senses. It was the sound of creaking wood and stretching leather. That could only be one thing! A bow being pulled taunt!

 

He took a quick step to the side, pulled out his own bow and arrow and tracked the thwacking sound back to its source. The Sentinel spun, his senses zeroing in. There, high up in a tree, dressed all in green so as to blend in, was an archer with an empty bow.

 

The Sentinel had an arrow notched and flying before the archer had a chance to realize he was in danger. The arrow unerringly found its target; the assassin was hit in the middle of his chest; he screamed and fell to his death.

 

****

 

B’Lare let his hair drop down again and wondered silently if Henroai had one of B’Lare’s hair ties easily accessible. The always prepared bodyguard usually tried to keep one or two tucked in his belt pouch, because B’Lare tended to lose them.

 

The prince bit back a groan when he was almost immediately hot again. He gave serious thought again to cutting his hair shorter, but remembering the times he’d caught J’em watching him tend to his hair, he dismissed the idea without a second thought. B’Lare might be forced to forget his dream of bonding with his True Sentinel, but that didn’t mean he could forget the longing he felt.

 

‘If only the wind would blow.’ B’Lare thought he was going to melt in the mid-day sun. ‘That might make the day a bit more bearable.’

 

The area they were currently traversing was mostly cleared land, with not many trees to filter out the harsh sunlight. Dust kicked up in little puffs with every step they took. B’Lare managed not to cough, but it was a near thing. He wondered how the Sentinels in their midst were faring.

 

“My lord?”

 

B’Lare automatically looked back, even as his brain told him that the voice didn’t belong to one of his people. Aleksander called out to J’em and B’Lare saw J’em stop to speak with his chancellor. B’Lare hesitated a moment, but he could tell that the older man wanted to see J’em alone, so he kept walking.

 

****

 

Ever vigilant, Henroai saw that his prince was becoming separated from the main group and hurried to catch up with him. It wasn’t that the dark skinned man distrusted the Cascadians, but the snake, and then the lizard, had come from somewhere…

 

Henroai could tell that B’Lare, intent on the trees up ahead, and their welcoming shade, wasn’t paying attention to anyone or anything else.

 

****

The attack and J’em’s reprisal were over in seconds. Not everyone even knew that something had happened and the rest were stunned by the suddenness of it all. Those in the know were more than a little on edge, in case there were more assassins lurking about. The soldiers in the two groups immediately drew their own weapons, whether they were arrows or swords, and stood ready to defend the defenseless members of the group.

 

The remnants of the attacker's death cry were still echoing through the clearing when another cry had J’em jumping and spinning around. B’Lare and Henroai were standing in the middle of the path. The prince was hunched over and his bodyguard had a tight grip on B’Lare’s elbow and a horrified look on his handsome face.

 

J’em frowned. He looked at B’Lare and realized that there was something wrong with what he was seeing; something beyond the obvious. The Sentinel realized that he could see something bright red on the back of the Guide’s dark green tunic.

 

The Cascadian prince rushed forward and saw to his horror that it was an arrow he’d seen. B’Lare had been shot.

 

The Sentinel caught hold of B’Lare’s arm just as the prince’s legs gave way under him. Together, he and Henroai slowly lowered B’Lare to the ground.

 

The young prince’s frightened blue eyes met J’em’s and the Sentinel wished he hadn’t been so hasty in killing the archer. Right at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to tear the other man limb from limb for daring to hurt B’Lare.

 

B’Lare’s eyes closed and he gave out a moan of pain. J’em grabbed hold of the younger man’s hand when it reached out to grasp at the wound. He wanted to both give support to B’Lare and stop him from jarring the arrow and cause himself more pain.

 

J’em rethought his earlier regrets. Killing the attacker slowly was the second thing he wished he could change. Stopping him before he’d had a chance to hurt B’Lare was the first.

 

“Easy, B’Lare; we’ve got you.”

 

The Sentinel's reassuring voice and soothing touch helped to calm B'Lare. The younger prince opened his eyes and looked up at J'em from where he lay on the ground. The deep blue eyes showed a thousand emotions, chief among them was trust. B'Lare knew that if J'em possibly could, he'd save B'Lare.

 

Yoel's large and reassuring form raced over. Meaghan came to stand right behind Henraoi and placed a supportive hand on the big man's shoulder. The bodyguard was very upset and looked upon the attack and injury to his prince as personal a failure. As B'Lare's personal bodyguard, he should have been right at the younger man's side and, if possible, have taken the arrow himself.

 

The scene was very chaotic, as people ran around trying to help B'Lare. Saimon and J'em were pressing on B'Lare's abdomen, front and back, trying to stem the steady flow of blood coming out of the wound. B'Lare was trying to stay still, but it wasn't easy to do. In his head, he knew they were trying to help him, but all his mind knew was that they were making him hurt worse.

 

"We need clean cloths and some water," Yoel ordered. One of the ladies of the court hurried to find something.

 

"Donal, get the medicine bag out, please." The young man whirled and pulled his and Saimon's bags off the pack animals. He quickly found the smallish, brown leather bag that contained medicines and bandages.

 

"Here." The auburn haired man slipped in between the knot of men helping B'Lare and opened the bag for his lover; his slender form easily maneuvering between their much bigger ones.

 

"I need the styptic," Saimon directed him.

 

Donal nodded and began to root among the packets in the bag. He absentmindedly rubbed the sweat from his eyes and handed the appropriate bundle to the large man. Saimon took the jug of water from Yoel's helper and poured some of the powder out of the bag into a bowl that Donal held and the young man stirred the mixture until it was a thick paste. Saimon quickly removed his hand, the one that was still on B'Lare's wound and smeared some of the substance at the base of the arrow. He made a waving gesture with his hand and when J'em removed his own hand, Saimon did the same on B'Lare's back.

 

They waited for a moment and were all glad to see that the bleeding had slowed substantially. That part of the crisis was over; B'Lare wouldn't bleed to death before they could even help him.

 

Donal stood up and stepped back. He staggered and rubbed another hand over his red and sweaty face. J'em saw him almost falling over from the heat and gave B'Lare a quick look. Sure enough, the prince was sweating profusely and very red. Not only was he on the hot ground, but the young man had several people swarming all over him.

 

"Wait! This is not right!"

 

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, afraid that they were going to somehow harm the prince more than he already was. They turned to see Lady Eleanor of Edwards hurrying towards them, with something clutched in one hand. When she got closer, J'em could see that it was a pillow.

 

"A pillow?!" At that moment, J'em wanted to eviscerate the older woman. How dare she interrupt their healing efforts over something so trivial.

 

"Yes, a pillow." The impeccably dressed woman waved a hand at B'Lare. "He is a prince and shouldn't be lying in the dirt. I know he can't be moved yet, but we can make him more comfortable."

 

"It's fine," B'Lare's voice was rough with suppressed emotions. "If it will appease her..."

 

J'em didn't care at this point. Right now, all he wanted to do was help B'Lare and he couldn't very well do that with this deranged woman waving bedding around. The Sentinel took the pillow, rather ungraciously, out of Lady Eleanor's hands. Henroai took the pillow from J’em and slid it underneath B'Lare's head.

 

"cool," B'Lare said quietly.

 

The Sentinel considered it a moment and gave the lady an apologetic smile. He hadn't thought about it, but the hot ground must be very uncomfortable to lie on. At least this way, B'Lare's head would be cooler.

 

Donal handed J'em a cloth that was wet with cool water and J'em began to bathe B'Lare's face and neck. B'Lare gasped at the shock of the sudden coolness on his skin, but leaned into the touch. Everyone that could took several steps back, trying not to add their body heat to the hot young man.

 

Again, it was Donal who looked at B'Lare and seemed to think a moment. J'em wondered what was going though the younger man's mind. Donal walked around and positioned himself so that his shadow fell across B'Lare's head. It wasn't much of a shadow, what with Donal being a very slender young man, so Meaghan and Henraoi moved to stand beside him. The combination of their shadows was enough to give B'Lare a decent sized shelter from the strong sun.

 

****

 

"We need to get him in out of the heat," Meaghan stated. B'Lare was still obviously miserable from the heat.

 

"He needs that arrow out first," Henraoi pointed out.

 

Saimon shook his head. "We would need to pack something around the arrow if we moved him," the lord argued.

 

"This still isn't proper," Lady Eleanor stated snootily. "Someone of his royal standing shouldn't be lying in the dust."

 

J'em glared at her. What did she think B'Lare should have done, waited until he was conveniently over an expensive carpet before he was attacked? The prince didn't say anything to her about what he was thinking and bit his tongue. Actually what he wanted to do was bite her instead. In the edge of the woods, an otherworldly form paced and growled. Something of Jem's and his spirit guide's anger must have penetrated her brain, because the elegantly attired woman sniffed haughtily...and beat a hasty retreat.

 

"What do we do now?" Donal's quivery voice cut through the arguing quite effectively.

 

J’em looked over at Saimon and Yoel. They all knew what had to be done. It was just that none of them wanted to be the ones to do it. The Sentinel looked down at the crumpled prince and the fast growing pool of blood underneath him and stiffened his resolve. Despite the styptic and the bandages, B'Lare was still bleeding quite a bit.

 

“We know what to do, but who is going to do what part?”

 

Saimon and Yoel’s size made it fairly clear who should actually be removing the arrow. Plus, the two advisors both knew something about medicine and would be the best ones to tend to B'Lare. J’em would naturally be the one to comfort B’Lare as best he could.

 

The Cascadian prince whispered the plans into B’Lare’s ear. Even though B’Lare muttered something back to him, J’em wasn’t sure that the younger man was coherent enough to understand him. The Sentinel didn’t like doing anything without B’Lare knowing what was going on.

 

“J-J’em.” The Sentinel leaned closer to listen to the other prince. Certainly, he didn’t need to move, not with his superior hearing, but he wanted to feel the prince close to him and thought that that same closeness might bring a little relief to B’Lare as well.

 

“just…do it,” B’Lare’s voice was fading.

 

“Alright. We’ll be as quick as we can.” B'Lare nodded his understanding.

 

J’em held onto B’Lare’s shoulders and braced himself. Yoel was in front of the injured man, while Saimon was kneeling behind him. Henroai and Meaghan were standing off to one side, unable to get closer to help the prince they both loved so much.

 

Yoel took a deep breath and forced himself to take a firm grip on the shaft of the arrow. They all tried to ignore the cry that the touch evoked from B’Lare. It was muffled from where B’Lare’s fist was pressed against his mouth, but Yoel flinched anyway.

 

Saimon reached down and took hold of the section of arrow that was sticking out of B’Lare’s back. The cry was louder this time, as the young man tensed, the pain getting to him. With a quick flip of his wrist, Saimon snapped off the arrowhead.

 

B’Lare screamed and jerked against J’em’s side. The Sentinel held him tightly and they waited to let the young get himself back under control. J’em felt B’Lare shudder and wished he could take the pain onto himself.

 

“It’s almost over,” he promised. The promise was to all of them, but everyone knew that the hardest part was still to come.

 

Saimon dropped the pointed, bloody bit of shaped rock from his hand and took hold of B’Lare’s body, at the hips and under the ribs, to help J’em hold him as still as possible. Yoel, who was still holding the shaft, gave his prince an apologetic look.

 

With a quick yank, Yoel pulled the arrow out of B’Lare’s side. The young man’s scream was terrible to hear. Underneath it all, J’em could hear the awful scrape of the wooden shaft dragging along bone.

 

Almost immediately, Meaghan surged forward and pressed two thick cloths against the entrance and exit wounds. B’Lare slumped against J’em’s side abruptly, scaring the Sentinel.

 

“He’s passed out,” Saimon stated. “Thank heavens.”

 

J’em nodded shakily. “I wish he’d done so before we pulled the arrow out,” he admitted.

 

Yoel’s pain filled eyes agreed with J’em. The Sandrium man realized he was still holding the bloody arrow and was about to throw it away in anger when J’em stopped him.

 

“Wait. Let me see that.”

 

Frowning, Yoel handed the weapon over to the Sentinel. Everyone’s eyes widened when J’em began to sniff at the arrow.

 

“I don’t smell any bowel.” J’em opened his eyes and gave an almost-smile. No bowel smell meant that B’Lare’s intestines probably weren’t damaged. The young prince might not die a slow and agonizing death from the inside out. There was hope.

 

****

 

Yoel insisted on being the one to carry B’Lare to the tent and J’em agreed, although not very graciously. The young prince ended up being taken to J’em’s tent though, instead of his own.

 

While they had been working on B’Lare, Aleksander had corralled some of the men and ordered them to set up J’em’s tent. He would have ordered the injured prince’s own tent erected, but the chancellor had no authority over the Sandrium people. He had little enough authority over the Cascadians.

 

J’em, of course, was thrilled to have B’Lare on his sleeping pallet. His Guide's scent would permeate the skins and blankets and be a comfort to the Sentinel when B'Lare wasn't around.

 

Yoel, Meaghan and Henroai were antsy at having their prince not in their territory. However, B’Lare was bleeding too much and already overheated from the warmth of the day, and lying on the hot ground, for them to dither around. They wanted to get B'Lare inside and tended to as quickly as possible; hopefully before he woke up. The cleaning process would be painful, although not nearly as painful as anything he had endured so far.

 

They quickly stripped the prince of most of his clothes, which was neither as hard as it sounded, nor as wonderful. The lovely hunter green jacket and pale green shirt were blood soaked and ruined anyway, so cutting them off was no great loss. Yoel, who had taken care of B’Lare from when the prince was a little boy, thought nothing of removing B’Lare’s pants. In no time at all, B’Lare was clothed only in his thin undergarments. Luckily, no blood had seeped through to them.

 

While all this was going on, Meaghan had managed to keep pressure on her friend’s injuries. Clothing was cut and slid out from under her hands. Water that had been saved from earlier in the day was brought in and poured over the open wounds. They were trying to clean out the site, and hopefully get any foreign debris, like bits of wood and dirt, out before they caused an infection.

 

J’em carefully watched the water as it flowed over the wounds. Once he didn’t see anything other than red tinged water, they turned B’Lare onto his stomach and did they same with the puncture on his back. Even though it made J’em nauseated to do it, he used his enhanced sight to look past the open wound and into B’Lare’s body. At one point, the Sentinel had to use the tip of a knife to pull out a tiny piece of bark.

 

Inside his mind, J’em and the panther were screaming just as loudly as B’Lare had been.

 

****

 

B’Lare’s whimper of pain was the first sign they’d had that the prince was regaining consciousness. In a way, J’em was glad that the steady walking in a hot day had obviously worn the prince out, because it kept him out of it long enough for them to clean and bandage the wounds.

 

“My prince?” Yoel’s soft voice questioned. If B’Lare were still asleep, it wouldn’t disturb him, but if he was waking up, then he’d know he wasn’t alone.

 

The young man’s eyes opened and he looked around dazedly. J’em watched and was thrilled when the unfocussed blue eyes finally settled on him. It was only then that B’Lare seemed to be contented.

 

“…take care of you here.” Yoel waited for a moment. “Is that acceptable?”

 

B’Lare gave an indistinct murmur that could have been anything from “yes” to “I want a piece of venison”. They chose to believe he was answering in the affirmative. After all he’d been through, to have B’Lare able to participate in the conversation at all was a blessing.

 

For his part, B’Lare had no idea that he’d just agreed to stay in J’em’s tent and basically let the other prince tend to him. Of course, there would be helpers and Henraoi would never be very far away, but for the most part…it would be J’em and B’Lare alone.

 

****

 

J'em was adding more wood to the fire when he looked over and noticed that B'Lare was shaking. He thought the Guide was crying because of the pain, or possibly even because he was cold; the nights got chilly despite the heat of the day. He leaned over so B'Lare wouldn't have to strain while talking to him.

 

"Do you need more pain draught?" J'em asked quietly.

 

"y-yes," B'Lare said with a shudder. The movement made him moan in pain and close his eyes.

 

J'em could tell that Yoel had heard them talking. He and Saimon had a hurriedly whispered conversation about what would be best to give B'Lare. The Sentinel ignored them after that, knowing they would bring relief soon.

 

The warrior sat down beside the injured man and slowly lifted him until B'Lare's good side was next to J'em. B'Lare gritted his teeth and moaned when being moved, but quickly burrowed into J'em's side when he could get close enough. J'em could feel how cold and clammy B'Lare's skin was and realized that it wasn't only the pain that had B'Lare shaking, but shock as well.

 

"Donal," J'em called. The page stepped forward quickly.

 

"Yes, my liege?" The young man was so quiet that J'em almost couldn't hear him.

 

"Hand me that cloak please." He nodded at a lightweight traveling cloak that had been pulled out of one J'em's bags. Donal draped the soft material over B'Lare's shivering form.

 

Donal moved to one side and Yoel took his place. "Drink this, B'Lare. It will ease the pain."

 

B'Lare didn't even bother to look up, he simply opened his eyes and drank the mixture. He trusted all of his people implicitly, but especially Yoel, who had always been there.

 

"Rest now, sire." Lord Yoel's eyes filled with tears as he watched B'Lare shaking and in pain.

 

"a-alright," B'Lare did open his eyes then and gave a reassuring smile to the man who was like a father to him.

 

Yoel had to leave the tent to compose himself. Having B'Lare, the one who was so seriously injured and in pain, comforting him was almost too much to bear.

 

"Do you want to lie back down?" J'em offered. He was thrilled when B'Lare shook his head no.

 

One by one, the others either retired to their own tents or lay down at the far end of J'em's tent. J'em waited until B'Lare had stopped shaking and the younger man was fast asleep before reclining them against his own sleeping pillows. He kept B'Lare in his arms all night...just in case he started shaking again, of course.

 

****

 

He was in heaven and hell, all at the same time.

 

J'em moved the covering back and bathed B'Lare's chest once more. It was heavenly to touch the younger man's body. J'em wanted to lie down beside B'Lare and touch him all over.

 

He was memorizing every bit of the young man that he could; every scar and mole. The lump on B'Lare's arm was caressed and soothed. J'em wanted to know how it had been broken and why it hadn't healed properly. He wanted to take away the pain of that injury, as surely as he wanted to take away the pain that B'Lare was experiencing now.

 

It was hellacious to hear B'Lare cry out in pain when he moved, or to see the frown that graced his handsome face even while he slept. J'em's touch was the one that seemed to give B'Lare the most comfort, so the Sentinel hadn't left the tent for almost two days.

 

Despite their best efforts, by the first morning, B'Lare had developed a fever from the arrow. Yoel and Saimon combined their accumulated knowledge of herbs and medicines to treat him. While they determined what to use, J'em worked tirelessly to keep B'Lare's fever down.

 

The young man was bathed and fanned. Even his more basic bodily functions were lovingly tended to by the other prince. J'em thought nothing of cleaning B'Lare up when the water that had been oh so carefully sipped and the painstakingly coaxed food came back up again. J'em had helpers, of course. But it was easy to see that B'Lare was embarrassed to have Meaghan seeing him naked, even covered by a thin blanket, so J'em had her stay outside. To be fair, Henraoi and Donal left as well.

 

After a few hours, B'Lare's fever began to abate, much to the relief of both camps. The wounds were already healing, thanks to the remarkable properties of some of the medicines he had been given.

 

****

 

Every time B'Lare woke, J'em was there. The prince knew that others were there too, but the important one was J'em. He kept the pain at bay and fought off the demons that B'Lare saw when he was feverish.

 

B'Lare reveled in each and every touch he felt on his body; the ones from J'em that is. Yoel's were nice, but not as soothing. Saimon’s, Donal's and Henraoi's were acceptable, but made him twitch for some reason. And for some unknown reason, Meaghan's touches were positively painful.

 

All of them, with the exception of J'em, pushed against his emphatic barriers relentlessly. B'Lare knew they didn't mean to, but worry and fear were the hardest of emotions to block out. Except for anger, this one was the worst, and the one that B’Lare felt most abundantly from everyone around him.

 

B'Lare was immensely grateful when J'em sent the others out of the tent. Not only because he could relax his barriers, and thus his body, but also for modesty's sake. In spite of people like Brackett's best efforts, B'Lare was still a virgin. He was expected to stay pure until he was married and/or bonded to someone. B'Lare took his virginity seriously and wasn't comfortable being unclothed in front of everyone.

 

J'em was the exception to that interdict. In B'Lare's mind, J'em was his Sentinel. That meant that the older man was free to see and touch as much as he liked. Now if only...

 

****

 

The Sentinel could tell how much better B'Lare was feeling. There was very little excess heat in his Guide's body and B'Lare seemed to be resting comfortably, so J'em decided he could take a nap.

 

The two men were alone in the tent, just the way they both preferred it. J'em had helped B'Lare eat earlier in the evening and had dressed the younger prince for the first time since he was injured. The shirt was loose enough that it wouldn't aggravate his injuries and the pants were pulled low enough to not be a consideration at all.

 

J'em lay down and watched B'Lare sleep. Dressing had worn B'Lare out and J'em had insisted that the prince take a small dose of the pain relieving potion. B'Lare had tried to argue, but in the end had relented. Now he was fast asleep.

 

'And dreaming,' J'em realized. He watched B'Lare's eyes twitching back and forth under his closed eyelids and wondered what his Guide was dreaming of.

 

The Sentinel took a deep breath and smelled the unmistakable scent of arousal coming off the sleeping man. He gasped at the smell. When he opened his mouth, the taste of it hit his tongue, making him harden instantly.

 

Lifting the covers, J'em pushed up his eyesight to compensate for the darkness and sure enough, B'Lare was aroused as well. J'em couldn't take his eyes off the bulge between the other man's legs and he began to whimper as it grew even more, pressing against the soft cloth of the trousers B'Lare was wearing. J'em's own body responded to the mating call that B’Lare was unwittingly setting off.

 

J’em dropped the cover and leaned closer. He buried his nose in B’Lare’s soft hair and breathed in the sweet scent of him. Nudging aside some of the hair, the Sentinel let his tongue slowly trail up the side of B’Lare’s bristly neck. He whimpered again as his senses escalated, going upwards in ever increasing spirals.

 

The out of control Sentinel slid a hand underneath B’Lare’s shirt and onto his bare skin. This was the first time that he’d touched the Guide to simply touch and he indulged himself. J’em felt the soft, warm skin and silky chest hair and wanted to taste that skin too.

 

B’Lare gave a breathy moan as the touches aroused him even further. Unbeknownst to the Sentinel, his Guide was dreaming of J’em touching him.

 

J’em leaned up onto one elbow, so that he was over his Guide, showing his dominance, and prepared to bite B’Lare on the shoulder. The small wound would show the world that B’Lare was his.

 

The change in position moved J’em’s hand over the wound on B’Lare’s abdomen. J’em didn’t realize that he was now vigorously rubbing the healing puncture.

 

B’Lare’s moan became a whimper and then a little gasp of pain. J’em heard the sound of pain and stopped moving. After a moment, the Sentinel’s eyes snapped open and it was his turn to gasp.

 

‘What am I doing?’ J’em thought in horror.

 

He sat up and gazed down at B’Lare. The younger man’s face was still a little pink from the slight fever caused by his wound.

 

J’em raised himself off the sleeping mat and backed away carefully. ‘I almost bonded with him,’ J’em realized. ‘B’Lare is all but unconscious and I almost made us one.’

 

Not trusting himself, J’em backed out of the tent and hurried away. He deliberately lowered his hearing and didn’t hear the distressed cries that came from the partially open tent flap.

 

****

 

“Where is J’em?” B’Lare asked quietly.

 

“He, uhm, needed to hunt for more food, your majesty.” B’Lare didn’t need to use his empathy to know that something was wrong. Aleksander’s fumbling and the way he wouldn’t meet B’Lare’s eye was telling enough.

 

“I see.”

 

B’Lare let the chancellor leave without asking any more questions. It wasn’t fair to upset the other man and B’Lare figured that he would find out what was wrong when J’em returned.

 

It had been very upsetting to wake up and find himself all alone. Upsetting and very painful. Not only did he hurt from missing J’em, but he couldn’t get up from the low pallet and reach his pain draught. It had been mid-morning before J’em’s chancellor had come in and reached the water and drink for him.

 

Now that B’Lare wasn’t physically hurting as much, he wondered what was going on.

 

****

B’Lare gave a sigh of relief. J’em hadn’t returned at all the day before and the Guide had been afraid something had happened to the Sentinel. But now he could hear the Cascadian prince outside the tent.

 

A smile graced his face as B’Lare heard his Sentinel’s wonderful voice. He closed his eyes and could feel the ghost of J’em’s hands on his body.

 

“…good care….can’t stay…”

 

The Guide strained to hear what J’em was saying. It wasn’t easy through the heavy material of the tent walls.

 

“Are you sure, Sire?” Saimon’s muffled voice was a little clearer.

 

“Yes,” J’em hissed and B’Lare was surprised at the vehemence he heard. “I cannot be around Prince B’Lare any more.”

 

B’Lare’s heart skipped a beat at what he was hearing. He didn’t understand what was wrong.

 

“…he’s in my tent, I will sleep…somewhere else.”

 

“You may share a tent with Donal and I, sire,” Saimon said sincerely.

 

“Thank you, my friend. It won’t be for long…” The two men’s voice’s trailed off as they walked away.

 

B’Lare was stunned into immobility. He was shocked at what he’d overheard and devastated to realize that, not only were the feelings he’d thought J’em shared with him a lie, but that the Sentinel had come to hate him.

 

****

 

He didn’t know how long he lay there, but B’Lare was still shaking when Colin, one of J’em’s young colleagues, came to help bathe him for the day.

 

“That won’t be necessary, Colin.” B’Lare was pleased to note that his voice was steady. Inside he was screaming, but outside all seemed well. The happiness that had been such a part of his life the last few days had died.

 

“Sire?” The young man smiled questioningly.

 

“I’m going back to my own tents today. Someone can help with my ablutions later today.”

 

“Of course, your majesty.” The boy bowed.

 

“Would you summon Henroai for me please?”

 

“Certainly, sire. Whatever you desire.” Colin jumped up and raced off to do the prince’s bidding.

 

B’Lare’s lips started trembling as soon as the young man was out of the tent. His desire was for J’em, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

 

Henroai hurried in a moment later, a frown on his handsome face. “The page said that you want to move back to your tent today. Are you certain that’s wise, sire?”

 

The Guide tried to think of a plausible excuse, because it really wasn’t smart of him to be moving around yet. He looked up into the standing guard’s eyes and saw understanding blossom there.

 

“Oh. Oh, B’Lare.” Henroai gave B’Lare the saddest look the young prince had ever had directed at him and he felt himself crumbling inside.

 

“P-please help me up.”

 

Without another word, Henroai wrapped his outrageously muscled arms around the smaller prince and easily stood him up. B’Lare gasped at the pain and would have collapsed to the ground, but Henroai never wavered.

 

“Are you sure, sire?”

 

B’Lare gasped into Henroai’s shoulder. The pain was so intense that his vision was wavering in and out. “no. not really.” His voice was a breathy whisper. “but we’re…going anyway.”

 

Henroai’s strong arm around his waist got B’Lare across the compound and into B’Lare’s own tent. Along the way they saw several people, both B’Lare’s and J’em’s. Everyone was curious about the move; it was easy to see that B’Lare was barely hanging on to consciousness. However, a quick shake from Henroai’s head discouraged even the most inquisitive.

 

B’Lare did make it to his tent…just barely. Henroai got him inside and down on his own sleeping platform before B’Lare passed out.

 

The last thing the brokenhearted man heard was his bodyguard yelling for help and Yoel’s running footsteps.

 

****

 

J’em heard about B’Lare’s trip across the camp and was worried to death. He hadn’t intended for B’Lare to leave before he was better. It was just that the Sentinel was afraid to be around the younger man. Once a bonding was started it was next to impossible to stop it; that was why J’em had fled in the night and stayed away. He knew that if he got very close to B’Lare he wouldn’t be able to help himself.

 

The Sentinel needed to stay away from B’Lare for a full day and then he could be near him again without fear of claiming him, whether B’Lare wanted it or not.

 

The older man returned to his tent, only to find it desolate and cold. Without B’Lare there, waiting on the skins, there was nothing. And just like he’d predicted, B’Lare’s scent lingered on, long after the Guide was gone.

 

****

 

“I saw that Prince J’em was having all his bedding aired.”

 

Meaghan’s quiet voice drifted into the tent where B’Lare was lying. The Guide felt like he’d been stabbed in the chest.

 

‘J’em needs to rid himself of my scent,’ B’Lare thought with a spasm.

 

He curled up in a ball and gasped at the pain. His early and untimely departure from J’em’s tent had caused the wound on his stomach to reopen. The next day it was red and infected.

 

B’Lare had a slight fever, nothing that Yoel’s herbs and remedies couldn’t cure…only they weren’t. The prince would feel better and then quickly backslide. The prince’s advisor couldn’t understand what was happening.

 

The young prince didn’t care that much. He’d had his Sentinel and lost him, anything else was irrelevant.

 

Outside the tent, Meaghan continued to talk; he wasn’t sure who she was speaking to though. B’Lare turned his face deeper into his pillow and tried to ignore what she was saying. The last thing he wanted to know was just how badly his lingering presence was bothering the Sentinel.

 

****

 

“Yoel,” B’Lare called softly.

 

The large man was on the far side of the tent, but heard B’Lare easily. He put down the food he was preparing and walked over to stand by the injured man. B’Lare patted the covers in invitation and Yoel sat down on the edge of B’Lare’s bed.

 

“Yes, your majesty?”

 

“How far are we from Cascadiaus?” B’Lare sounded as tired as he looked and that was saying a great deal. The last several days had been especially tough on the young prince. The Sandrium man had dark circles under his now faded blue eyes and had visibly lost weight.

 

“About a days travel,” Yoel said, after he thought about it for a moment. He needed to calculate how far they’d traveled already. “Maybe a little longer,” he amended as he eyed the weakened prince critically.

 

B’Lare nodded. “I thought it was something like that.”

 

“Why do you ask, sire?” Yoel placed one large hand on B’Lare’s forehead, checking for a fever. He frowned when he realized that B’Lare was still a little hot.

 

“I want you to have everyone pack up. We are going to start out again in the morning.”

 

Yoel gaped at the younger man. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, B’Lare probably would have laughed at the dumbfounded look on the older man’s face.

 

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” B’Lare arched an eyebrow at that. “Sire,” Yoel ground out the honorific through clenched teeth.

 

B’Lare swatted his advisor on the arm. “Yoel, stop with all the siring. You don’t call me that unless we are in court.”

 

“Alright.” Yoel smiled in a very fake manner. “B’Lare…are you out of your mind?!”

 

The prince winced at the shout, but was secretly glad to hear it. He was used to Yoel being more like a father or a favorite uncle to him, not merely a court counselor.

 

“And to answer your questions; no, I am neither insane, nor have I lost my senses.” B’Lare shrugged resignedly. “We need to finish this damnable trip. I-I just need to get it over with.”

 

Lord Yoel looked at the slumped and thoroughly dejected figure and lost his anger. “I understand.” The advisor paused, not certain how to continue. “Perhaps in time, Prince J’em…”

 

B’Lare interrupted him, “I don’t wish to discuss him.” The prince looked away and swallowed hard. Dexi gave a tentative, comforting lick to her master’s hand.

 

Yoel didn’t say anything. He knew B’Lare wasn’t being imperious with him; the younger man was just hurting. He touched the prince on the chin, causing B’Lare to look back at him. His velvety dark eyes looked into B’Lare’s and saw immense sadness.

 

“Alright,” Yoel agreed. “On one condition.”

 

“And what is that?” B’Lare gave a tired smile.

 

Yoel patted his prince’s arm. “You let us carry you in a litter.” The advisor raised a finger and wagged it back and forth when B’Lare started to protest. “Unh uh,” he reprimanded. “You are in no condition to be going anywhere and certainly aren’t ready to walk.”

 

B’Lare took a deep breath to protest and winced as his side pulled at the movement. “Agreed.”

 

The advisor was about to launch into a further argument for his plan when he realized that B’Lare had just agreed with him. That alone showed how badly the prince was feeling.

 

“Actually, I have one more request as well.”

 

“What’s that?” B’Lare was fighting to stay awake by now and blinked sleepily at the other man.

 

“We will need to extend the journey to two days…at least.”

 

Yoel watched as B’Lare frowned at this new stipulation. The older man had to smile, because B’Lare looked as petulant as he had when he’d been a small child and hadn’t wanted to go to bed.

 

“But…”

 

“You will need to rest more. And…” he stopped B’Lare’s protest before it could even start, “the people carrying you will need to rest often.”

 

It was the most blatant form of manipulation that the advisor had ever used, but it worked. Even if B’Lare didn’t take decent care of himself, he was always conscientious about those around him.

 

“Okay…’oel,” B’Lare slurred, as his eyes slid closed.

 

The old nickname warmed Yoel’s heart. When B’Lare had been a child, he’d had a difficult time pronouncing the letter ‘y’, so Yoel had been ‘oel for a great many years. The older man still missed that sometimes.

 

****

 

Yoel strode up to where Saimon and Donal were eating their evening meal around the crackling fire. The younger man smiled up warmly from where he sat on the ground and Yoel had to smile back. Donal was as sweet and innocent looking as the small dog sitting beside him eating scraps.

 

Saimon had immediately stood up when Yoel approached, not only to show his mutual respect for the other lord, but to protect his mate if need be. Both reactions were done without conscious thought; Yoel understood and respected both instincts, as he would have done the same thing.

 

“Lord Yoel.” Saimon gave a nod of his head.

 

“Sir Saimon, Donal.” Yoel returned the gesture.

 

“Is anything wrong?” Donal asked worriedly, as he glanced back towards B’Lare’s side of the camp.

 

“No,” Yoel reassured him, not entirely truthfully. “Prince B’Lare is feeling somewhat better.”

 

That much was true. B’Lare had been sick again that morning, throwing up and his fever on the rise, but Yoel had sent everyone away and tended to the prince himself and B’Lare had rallied. Now, Henraoi was watching over the young man, with strict orders not to let anyone else disturb him. Yoel wanted B’Lare as rested as he could be before the next day’s trip.

 

“That’s good to hear.”

 

Donal smiled and began to poke at the fire with a long stick. The younger man was still blessed with innocence and only listened to the words being said; he didn’t feel the need to look for hidden meanings. The Sandrium man hoped the young page never lost that naiveté. Yoel saw the hard look the other lord was giving him and could tell that Saimon wasn’t as convinced about what he’d said.

 

“I wanted to inform you that we will be breaking camp in the morning.”

 

Yoel heard a noise over to one side and glanced over. Prince J’em was standing, just back from the fire enough that he couldn’t easily be seen. The lord’s jaw clenched when he saw the other man. J’em had done something to cause his prince pain and Yoel wasn’t about to forgive that easily.

 

“Fine,” Saimon’s voice brought Yoel’s wandering attention back to the big man. “We’ll be ready.”

 

“Good.” This time, Yoel’s answer was a little more curt than it was before J’em walked up and he didn’t care.

 

****

 

B'Lare walked slowly into the meeting hall. J'em was in front of him and that was the closest B'Lare had been to the Sentinel since leaving the other man's tent almost a week earlier. The Guide made certain that he didn't get too close, because he didn't want to be a bother to the older man, and the situation was difficult enough as it was.

 

The young prince was exhausted; physically, emotionally and spiritually. Traveling by litter wasn’t as nice as it sounded. Being carried around was embarrassing and nauseating, at first, then it was just painful.

 

He followed his fellow prince across the long hall, barely noticing anything of the regal furnishings or the people lining the room. His mind was totally focused on getting this over with. They stopped in front of the throne and B'Lare saw a slightly older man with gray hair and J'em's light blue eyes. J'em gave a nod of his head to his father. B'Lare's delegation, excepting the prince, each dropped to one in respect.

 

"Father," J'em greeted him. "May I present, Prince B'Lare of Sandrium."

 

"Your Majesty." The Sandrium man bowed as deeply as his wound would allow him; as a prince he didn't need to kneel to show his respect. The bow wasn't nearly as deferential as he would normally be, but his wound still pained him a great deal. B'Lare hoped that the king would understand.

 

"Son. Prince B'Lare. Welcome to Cascadiaus."

 

"Thank you, sire. I..." B'Lare broke off in surprise when he looked up. "Mother?"

 

"Hello, sweetheart." B'Lare's mother, Queen Nyomi, was standing to the side of the king's chair.

 

"How?" B'Lare sputtered in astonishment. It wasn't that surprising that she could have arrived before them. After all, they had been delayed by several days because of B'Lare's being injured. What was surprising was that she had come at all. "What are you doing here?"

 

"Now, B'Lare honey, do you really think I'd miss seeing my only child getting married?" Nyomi managed to chide B'Lare and smile seductively at several of the waiting men at the same time.

 

"But..."

 

“How are you feeling? Any better?” His mother eyed B’Lare’s stomach critically, as if she could really see the wound through several layers of cloth and leather.

 

“I’m…better.”

 

B’Lare hesitated. He hated to lie, but he didn’t want to admit that he felt almost as bad as he had right after he’d been injured. J’em’s head swung around and B’Lare knew the Sentinel heard his heartbeat change and had been able to realize that B’Lare wasn’t telling the absolute truth.

 

“But how did you know about my injuries?” B’Lare’s look included the king, as well as his mother, in the question.

 

“We received word, days ago, that you were hurt.” Willyam’s concerned look was nice.

 

“I sent a couple of scouts ahead on the trail to make certain that there weren’t any more assassins lying in wait,” J’em explained.

 

Nyomi squeaked and her eyes widened in distress at the term. “Assassin,” she gasped.

 

“Yes, mother,” B’Lare stated the obvious. “Someone tried to kill me, that makes him an assassin.” The prince smiled and patted his mother on the arm, trying to calm her down.

 

J’em nodded. “I instructed the men to come all the way to Cascadiaus to inform my father of the delay. They came back to the camp then to let me know that the way was clear.”

 

“Oh.” Even B’Lare could hear the surprise in his voice. J’em looked hurt and B’Lare still cared enough about the other man to not let the pain stand. “I hadn’t even thought about that. Thank you.”

 

Again J’em nodded. The king and queen looked at one another and a silent communication passed between them. B’Lare wondered what was going on, but decided to ignore it until he could get Nyomi alone.

 

B'Lare took a fortifying breath and let it out. "Shouldn't I meet my intended now?"

 

The Guide exchanged a quick glance with Yoel. King Willyam and Nyomi had looked surprised at the question. Both looked back and forth between J'em and B'Lare as if waiting for the Sentinel to protest the request. B'Lare didn't know what was going on, but he knew that he needed to sit down soon or he was going to fall on his face...and that was getting old fast!

 

"Uhm, yes, of course." Willyam waved a hand regally and motioned a stuffy looking man forward. "Geeves, please show Prince B'Lare to my meeting chamber.” Willyam hesitated for a moment. “And then summon my youngest son.”

 

"Yes, sire." The older, regal looking man, bowed deeply. He turned to B'Lare and bowed again. "If you will follow me, your highness.

 

B'Lare followed the servant, who stopped at the doorway, turned and bowed again to the various members of royalty. The prince tried to get his mind off the Sentinel he was leaving behind and that same man's stare that he could feel following him. He concentrated instead on the figure he was trailing behind.

 

Even though he was an older looking man, Geeves had the posture and carriage of someone J'em's age or younger. The straight back and shoulders squared stance gave evidence of either years of soldiering or years of waiting on royalty. Watching the way the older man searched every doorway and corridor they passed for danger, B'Lare guessed it was the former instead of the later. Possibly his position now was a reward for valor in the field.

 

Certainly his clothes showed his advanced status in the household. A deep crimson velvet doublet covered lacy cuffs and collar and topped a very well tailored pair of leather jerkins and boots. The whole ensemble would have been beyond the means of many noblemen, let alone a servant. Walking at his side was a small white, tan and black beagle.

 

The presence of so many dogs, in the castle and around the camps, wasn't unusual. While traveling or hunting, a dog could be a tremendous help in fetching a kill. The barking and antics of many different animals had the effect of keeping away snakes and small prey as well. B'Lare's own beloved dog Dexi was as much of a guard dog as she was a companion. B'Lare assumed that J'em's dog, Oluvor, was the same.

 

"This way, Prince B'Lare."

 

Snapping back to the here and now, B'Lare followed the man into a large room. He only had a moment to look around before Geeves had followed him in. The little dog took advantage of the lack of motion to dart over to B'Lare and stand on his hind legs. Paws on B'Lare's knee, the friendly animal panted and wagged his tail invitingly.

 

"Good boy." B'Lare patted him on the head and was rewarded with a lick to his wrist.

 

Geeves smiled congenially. Apparently the way to this man's heart was through his pet. "If you will be so good as to wait here, I will summon Prince Stefen."

 

"Thank you." B'Lare gave him a tired smile.

 

The older man hesitated at the doorway. "May I get you some food or drink, sire?"

 

B'Lare shook his head and smiled genially. "No. Thank you anyway, Geeves."

 

He brightened and B’Lare wondered what he had done that was so wonderful. Geeves must be happy that someone had remembered his name. B’Lare knew that most people didn’t bother to learn servant’s names, preferring to think of them as part of the background, like furniture.

 

"Very well, sir. Come Goggle." The older man bowed and again and backed out of the door.

 

Grinning, B'Lare sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs. "I wonder if all that bowing is the reason he's still got such a good figure?" B'Lare speculated whimsically.

 

Now that he was alone, B'Lare was able to indulge himself and look around. The room he was in was a library, an honest to heavens library. The studious man longed to look at some of the texts that lined the walls, but he was too exhausted to make the effort at the moment. Although he had his own extensive library at home, the opportunity to read new books was like a siren's call to his inquisitive mind.

 

'Besides,' B'Lare thought to himself, 'after I bond with the prince, I won't have access to my former library.'

 

That thought depressed B'Lare. It was possible that the king and Prince Stefen might indulge B'Lare and have some of his tomes transferred to Cascadiaus whenever someone traveled back and forth between here and there, but even if they did indulge him in that way, it would, in all likelihood, just be a fraction of the volumes he possessed.

 

The door opened again only a few minutes later. B'Lare heard Geeves speaking and realized his fiancé had arrived. The prince used the arms of the sturdy chair to lever himself up and turned to meet the man he would be spending the rest of his life with.

 

Prince Stefen was a handsome man. The resemblance to J'em was slight, but there. He wasn't quite as tall or muscular as his brother, but still a fine specimen. Stefen's eyes were not the same color of blue as J’em’s; they more closely resembled their father's.

 

'Not as handsome as J'em though,' B'Lare thought.

 

"Hello." Stefen smiled and reached out to clasp B'Lare's forearm in greeting.

 

"Hello, Prince Stefen."

 

The two men touched and...there was nothing.

 

No spark.

 

'Like there was with J'em,' B'Lare's disappointed mind supplied.

 

No instant connection. No longing for more. Nothing.

 

'Because he isn't your Sentinel,' B'Lare's traitorous mind prodded him.

 

B’Lare tried to ignore the voice, because there wasn’t anything to do. If J’em had still wanted him, B’Lare would have refused the marriage to Stefen and done his best to salvage the accord with the king.

 

“There’s someone I would like for you to meet.” Stefen beamed.

 

It was then that B’Lare saw the young woman standing behind Stefen. She was a tiny little thing with masses of long red curls and bright green eyes. The young woman was so small that even B’Lare, who was himself not very tall, had to look down several inches at her.

 

“Prince B’Lare, this is my fiancé, Lizbeth.” Stefen reached back, hooked an arm around her slender shoulders, and pulled the young woman forward. “Darling, this is the prince from Sandrium.”

 

“How do you do, your majesty.” She executed a perfect curtsey.

 

B’Lare’s mouth fell open as he gaped at the pair. “I beg your pardon?”

 

****

J’em fidgeted. He didn’t like the way B’Lare had looked. The wound in B’Lare’s side and back had been healing quite nicely when J’em had been tending him, so what happened?

 

After the almost bonding debacle, J’em had deliberately cut himself off from the other prince. Whenever he heard B’Lare’s name being spoken, the Sentinel had pushed down his sense of hearing, lest he overhear something that would send him running to the Guide’s side.

 

But when he was standing beside the prince, J’em had smelled something off about his scent. No, that wasn’t right. It was not B’Lare’s scent that was disagreeable, but something on or around him.

 

J’em shook his head to clear it. He would figure out what was going on with B’Lare after he found out what was happening with his father and Queen Nyomi.

 

He eyed the pair by the throne speculatively. “Father, what’s going on here?”

 

“J’em, could you tell who sent the assassin?”

 

“Yes, who tried to kill my baby? And why?”

 

The Sentinel frowned at the two of them. He recognized a diversion when he saw one, but was willing to let it go for the moment, but only for a moment.

 

“Ye-es,” he drawled out the answer, letting them know he hadn’t been fooled. “The attempted killer was Medial from the kingdom of Dragas.”

 

The king sighed and nodded in understanding. He turned to Nyomi to explain. “The Dragans have wanted an alliance with our kingdom. They have been offering their third youngest princess as bondmate to J’em for years. Medial is, or rather was, one of their best praised warriors.”

 

“Oh, I see. They obviously have some unspoken hostilities, but to take it out on my son is not right!”

 

J’em watched as Nyomi ranted on. It was easy to see where B’Lare got his fire and verboseness. The Sentinel ignored the queen; she wasn’t saying anything he didn’t already know. When the talking died down, J’em began to speak once more. He never got the chance, because the doors to the throne chamber flew open and B’Lare stalked in, followed by a worried looking Stefen and an upset Lizbeth.

 

The Sentinel frowned as he watched B’Lare’s very mad face as he stomped toward the royal duo. B’Lare’s color was hectic and he was clutching at his side, obviously in pain. Just as obviously, he was too mad to care at this point.

 

“How dare you!” B’Lare snarled at his mother and King Willyam.

 

Nyomi looked too stunned to answer. She didn’t know what to do with a son who wasn’t peaceful and loving like he normally was. Willyam bit his lip and refused to meet the prince’s eyes.

 

B’Lare whirled to confront J’em. “This was all a set up,” he spat out irately.

 

J’em stepped closer and took hold of B’Lare’s arm. Absently, he noticed that B’Lare was trembling and his fever was back.

 

“What do you mean, a set up?” J’em asked.

 

B’Lare waved an arm at Stefen and the now crying Lizbeth. “Prince Stefen is engaged, happily engaged, to that young woman.” B’Lare noticed her crying and slumped guiltily. “Please don’t cry, it’s not you that I’m mad at.” Stefen looked up inquiringly. “Nor you either.”

 

J’em was stunned. “What? I thought the two of you broke off your engagement.” Stefen shook his head, looking stunned at the mere suggestion. “Father?!” J’em snarled.

 

“Everyone leave,” Willyam commanded. “I want only myself, Queen Nyomi, Prince B’Lare and J’em to remain.”

 

The room emptied quickly. When the king gave a decree, it was instantly obeyed. The people of Cascadiaus knew all too well how capricious their king could be when crossed.

 

“Father, what in the creator’s name is going on here?” J’em’s voice thundered through the mostly empty room.

 

Nyomi stared at him wide eyed and gave her son an imploring look, as if he should protect her from this brute. B’Lare ignored the look and shook his head at the attempted manipulation. The queen frowned and looked away. She dabbed at her eyes with a lace edged handkerchief.

 

J’em gave a soft snort. He did not believe the wounded act that the queen was putting on for a second. She and his father were like a pair of jugglers, tossing balls up in the air and back and forth to each other, in an attempt to distract you from the game they were playing.

 

Willyam sighed and propped his elbow on the arm of the chair in the most laid-back pose J’em had ever seen him in. "This hasn't gone the way we'd planned at all," the king explained.

 

"Planned," J'em said in a low and dangerous tone.

 

Nyomi sighed. "No," she agreed.

 

"What plans?" B'Lare snarled.

 

"You and J'em were supposed to meet and bond."

 

B'Lare actually staggered over to one side at the king's pronouncement. J'em automatically got a better grip on the younger man, although he was no less stunned.

 

“We were supposed to have what?” J’em’s eyes were two pieces of icy fire.

 

"J'em, you are an exceptionally powerful Sentinel, B'Lare, you are a very strong Guide; it would be a waste and a sin for the two of you to end up with anyone else," the king explained. You could see on his face that the machinations seemed completely logical to the king and queen.

 

"Besides which, my seer, Incacha, said that the two of you were destined for each other; he saw it in a vision." Nyomi smiled, certain that her argument sealed the deal.

 

"This was..." B'Lare belatedly realized that he was leaning quite heavily on the Sentinel and decisively pushed himself off. "This was a waste of time." B'Lare shook his head and gave his mother a disappointed look. "I cannot believe you did this. You have tried to twist my life to your suiting ever since I can remember, but this..." He rubbed his eyes, trying to keep the tears back. "You have gone too far, Queen Nyomi."

 

B'Lare turned and walked slowly out of the room, one hand holding his side. At the doorway, he steadied himself against the door frame a few moments before forcing himself through.

 

J'em turned on the couple at the dais. "You can't mess with people's lives like this," he complained.

 

"If I had told you that I had found a Guide for you, you would have run, just the way you have every other time a prospective Guide was placed before you."

 

The Sentinel started to argue, but stopped himself. What Willyam said was true; his stubborn nature resisted being matched with anyone.

 

"That still doesn't make what you did right," J'em told them acerbically. He left to follow his Guide and hoped they'd be able to salvage their relationship.

 

****

 

B’Lare leaned against the stone castle wall and tried to calm his frantically screaming mind. He couldn’t believe that Nyomi had done this to him! But then again, when he thought about it, it seemed perfectly normal that she would; his mother had a tendency to do whatever she wanted and hope the consequences would overcome destruction that came beforehand.

 

‘Unfortunately, the destruction usually happens to me,’ B’Lare thought with a grimace.

 

“B’Lare.”

 

J’em’s soft voice had him jumping in surprise. The pain that shot through his side wasn’t unexpected, but still made him gasp. B’Lare didn’t turn around immediately, because of the pain, and the Sentinel seemed to take that as a sign that he didn’t want to talk. Nothing could be further from the truth. He did want to talk; he just didn’t want to hear what would be said. It was bad enough to know that J’em had pushed him away without hearing the other prince telling him he was unwanted.

 

“B’Lare, please come in here.”

 

He followed the Sentinel into one of the meeting chambers. It wasn’t the library, thank goodness, just another empty room. B’Lare sat down in the proffered chair and leaned against the table, weariness finally catching up with him.

 

“Please forgive me.”

 

The Guide looked over at the Sentinel in surprise; that was certainly unexpected from the taciturn man. “For what?”

 

“Because I was a coward.”

 

B’Lare blinked several times in astonishment. “I don’t understand.”

 

“I knew you were destined for Stefen and I panicked when I realized how strongly I was coming to care for you.”

 

The Guide looked up hopefully. J’em had a penitent look on his face, so B’Lare knew that wasn’t all of the confession.

 

“What changed so abruptly?”

 

He listened as J’em explained the almost bonding in the tent and how the Sentinel had been afraid he’d take B’Lare without his consent if he didn’t leave.

 

“Why did you leave me all alone though?” B’Lare’s mind was feeling a bit fuzzy again and he wondered if his fever was on the rise once more.

 

J’em looked at him in astonishment. “What are you talking about? I wouldn’t leave you by yourself, you were far too ill.” He sat down beside B’Lare abruptly. “I told one of your people that I was leaving and was reassured that she would stay with you.”

 

B’Lare watched J’em getting upset and wanted to reassure him, but his brain felt like it was drowning in thick mud. He took a shallow breath, because a deep one was beyond him, but that didn’t help.

 

“I thought you hated me,” B’Lare gasped out.

 

J’em sucked in a horrified air and turned to answer him. “I never hated you. In fact, I… B’Lare?”

 

J’em sounded worried and B’Lare wanted to tell him everything was alright, but it wasn’t. His throat didn’t seem to want to work. As B’Lare’s vision faded out, he saw J’em reaching out to catch him and the sight of J’em worrying so much for him warmed his heart.

 

****

 

The Sentinel paced back and forth in the hallway. After B’Lare had collapsed, J’em’s yells for help had brought a great many people running. It turned out that Henraoi was a demi-Sentinel, something that the prince was irked about not knowing, and one of his enhanced senses was hearing, so he’d heard J’em’s calls from way across the castle.

 

“What is wrong?” Willyam asked tensely as he hurried up. The king’s regal attire was still as elegant as ever, but the king was looking a bit frazzled around the edges.

 

“B’Lare’s fever has shot up again.” J’em didn’t even glance over as he paced.

 

“I’m certain that Saimon and…what was the prince’s advisor’s name?”

 

“Yoel,” Nyomi supplied helpfully.

 

“Thank you. I’m certain that Saimon and Yoel will be able to cure him of this affliction.”

 

His father’s smug words and condescending attitude, at least that’s how it seemed to J’em at that point, made the Sentinel want to turn around and punch the older man in the face. J’em was saved from making that decision when he heard B’Lare moaning in the other room.

 

J’em had had enough of waiting and pushed the door open. He then rudely shoved the two men around the bed out of the way and knelt down beside B’Lare.

 

“B’Lare,” he whispered. The semi-conscious young prince turned towards him; even in his fevered state, B’Lare was searching for his Sentinel.

 

“I will tend to him,” J’em stated. The determination in his stance and voice quelled even the most foolhardy of protestations. “When it’s just me taking care of him, he gains ground.”

 

“I agree,” Yoel said. It wasn’t easy for the counselor to give over like that; he’d been taking care of B’Lare for all of the prince’s life, but J’em was right in his observation.

 

“Hmmm,” Saimon hummed. “Yes, but one of our group will be right outside, just in case you need any assistance.”

 

J’em nodded, already rubbing a wet cloth soothingly over B’Lare’s sweaty skin. The older prince pulled the covers down to expose the Guide’s chest. He frowned at the slightly swollen abdomen and the angry red area surrounding the reopened wound. J’em carefully cleaned there, hoping the cool water would soothe the painful looking wound.

 

B’Lare flinched and moaned incoherently when J’em’s bare hand got close to the enflamed skin around the wound on his side. J’em stopped long enough to reassure B’Lare, murmuring quiet nonsense words in his ear.

 

****

 

Saimon was about to follow Yoel outside to give the two prince’s a little more privacy when he noticed something odd. J’em was now sitting on the side of B’Lare’s sick bed, but he was swaying back and forth like he was dizzy.

 

“My lord?” Saimon asked questioningly.

 

“I…Saimon, something’s wrong.” Even J’em’s voice sounded odd.

 

Yoel and Saimon hurried back into the room, followed by Henraoi. J’em was shaking his head and waving his hand around like a fly was buzzing his head, but there was nothing in the room.

 

“What in all that’s holy…”

 

Saimon looked from his prince to B’Lare who was twisting his head back and forth on the pillow in a similar manner to the way J’em was acting. He looked at Yoel who was just as puzzled. In the end, it was Henraoi who figured it out.

 

“There’s something on Prince J’em’s hand.” The dark skinned man caught hold of the Sentinel’s waving hand and pushed up his sight to look at it more closely. “I don’t know what it is, but there is definitely something out of place on his hand.” Henraoi looked down at B’Lare’s side, where J’em had just been working, and peered at the skin around the wound. “It’s on Prince B’Lare’s wound as well. All around it and…even in it!”

 

As he had been examining B’Lare, Saimon had taken the opportunity to scrub the Sentinel’s sensitive skin to get rid of the contaminant.

 

“Can you tell what it is?” Yoel asked as he got a clean cloth and new bowl of water.

 

“No,” Henraoi growled in frustration. “Damnation! I wish my enhanced senses included smell. All that I can see is something that looks powdery and glitters slightly in the candlelight.” He leaned forward and peered at the wound more closely, but finally had to sit back in frustration. “I don’t recognize it.”

 

“It’s Floracius powder,” J’em said faintly. “I can smell the faint almondy scent, now that I know what I’m looking for.”

 

Floracius powder was a particularly insidious and difficult to obtain poison. It had the same appealing scent as almonds without the bitter smell that arsenic had. It was undetectable to all but Sentinel eyes and nose, so unless someone with enhanced senses were summoned to a sick bed, it was easy to commit a murder. In fact, many people were rumored to have gotten away with murder over the years. Now, the law in all the kingdoms was that to even own Floracius powder was punishable by death.

 

J’em took a cleansing breath and was glad when his senses went back into their proper order. As Saimon had been cleaning his hand, the Sentinel’s out of alignment senses had stopped assaulting him. Now it was time for B’Lare.

 

“We need to clean the wound, get the poison out, otherwise he’s just going to keep getting worse.” J’em knew he was stating the obvious, but couldn’t seem to stop himself.

 

“Wait!” Saimon grabbed the Sentinel’s hands when he reached out to being ministering to the very ill Guide. J’em gave his counselor an astonished look…and growled.

 

Everyone in the room, except for B’Lare, stilled. They recognized all the signs of a Sentinel going territorial over his Guide and knew how dangerous the situation was. Many had been killed for less.

 

“It is too dangerous for you with your senses to touch any of this. Let us cleanse him for you,” Saimon offered. He still hadn’t moved, not even to release J’em’s arm.

 

The Sentinel eyed his friend, glanced down at the suffering B’Lare and back at the other two men. Finally, he nodded his assent. Saimon let out his breath in a woosh of held air and let go of J’em’s arm.

 

“How are you going to do it?” Henroai asked, giving his friend a sympathetic look. B’Lare would have appreciated it, if he’d been more aware of what was happening around him.

 

Yoel had placed several thick towels around B’Lare’s side and along his stomach, outlining the wound and several inches around it.

 

“We’re going to have to…flush it out.”

 

They all winced at that, even the barely controlled J’em. Water on an open wound would be very painful, especially one that was so inflamed already. Knowing that there was no way to warn the semi-unconscious young man only made things worse.

 

J’em held B’Lare’s head and shoulders tightly against his chest. Saimon and Henroai stood by to help and poor Yoel was the one to torture his almost son.

 

****

 

With B’Lare’s screams still echoing in their ears, Saimon, Henroai and a shaking Yoel were unceremoniously pushed outside the door by the overwhelmed Sentinel.

 

It hadn’t been easy, but they had managed to clean the poison off of B’Lare. The slight film of powder on the water had been abundant enough that even the non-Sentinels had been able to see it.

 

"I count that as the third time someone has tried to kill him on this trip," Saimon said. The large man was standing in the middle of the hallway, hands on his hips.

 

The three dark skinned men were all large and imposing, but Saimon topped them all. His presence was so intimidating that several servants rounded the corridor and turned back around and headed back the way they'd come, rather than cross his path.

 

"Four, actually," Yoel said with a thoughtful look on his face.

 

"You're right." Henraoi was thinking hard. He was very distraught to realize that B’Lare had been attacked again, this time under their very noses.

 

"So," Saimon rubbed a hand across his chin thoughtfully. "It has to be one of us who has been attacking him. Someone close to him." He paused a minute and then offered, "Aleksander?" It was obvious that he didn't like naming the man as a suspect.

 

"He hasn't been very happy to have B'Lare around," Henraoi agreed.

 

"It couldn't be him," Yoel said. The other two turned to look at him. "He wasn't with us yet when that unusual snake attacked; that was several days before we met up with your group. So…" he trailed off.

 

“It was one of our own people,” Henroai said in disbelief.

 

“Yes, someone who could get close enough to the prince since he’s been hurt.” Saimon looked sorry for the two men.

 

“M-my lords, I…” Henroai shook his head as he tried to deny any culpability.

 

“No, Henroai. I don’t believe it was you.” Yoel patted Henroai on the back to reassure the panicking man. “For one thing, you wouldn’t have brought the poison to our attention. With J’em overcome by the affects, we most likely wouldn’t have figured it out in time without your help.”

 

“Besides,” Saimon interjected, “you never actually tended Prince B’Lare. There were only two Sandriums who regularly took care of B’Lare. Yoel, who could have finished him off easily the first night, and…”

 

“Meaghan,” Yoel said flatly.

 

Henroai’s eyes widened dramatically as he gasped. “Meaghan?!” He gaped at the other two men. Yoel looked just as astonished, even though he’d been the one to suggest it, and Saimon sympathetic.

 

“I-I find that hard to believe,” Henroai stated quietly. “I’ve known Meaghan for many years. She’s saved B’Lare’s life on at least two occasions where no one else could have gotten there in time.”

 

Yoel eyed B’Lare’s door speculatively. “She changed,” he said. “After her last trip back to her family’s kingdom…she was different.”

 

“Well…I guess that’s true.” Henroai still wasn’t convinced of her guilt, but the red-haired woman had been acting oddly lately.

 

“Perhaps we should find her and question her.” Saimon was the voice of reason. “There might be a perfectly simple explanation for what has transpired here.”

 

The expression on Yoel’s face showed his disbelief. “I don’t see how,” he stated.

 

“Neither do I, but we should at least give her a chance to explain before J’em gets hold of her,” Saimon reminded the other man.

 

Yoel paled, thinking of what J’em would do to the person who deliberately tried to murder his Guide. Henroai gave a quick nod and hurried down the corridor.

 

****

J’em hadn’t been out of it quite as much as the others had thought. It had been almost impossible to hold the writhing B’Lare still long enough for his wound to be cleaned out. The other prince had cried out and tried to twist away from the loving hands that were saving his life. Luckily, B’Lare had passed out not too long into the process and had been spared most of the pain.

 

Seeing his Guide so vulnerable had pushed the Sentinel side of his mind over the edge. He hadn’t been able to stand having others in the room; J’em felt that he couldn’t properly protect his mate with them around, so he ejected them from the room.

 

It had only been a few hours, but already J’em could tell a difference in the way B’Lare looked. The area around the wound wasn’t as irritated looking and the puncture itself was closing back up; the Sentinel could actually see a difference every time he looked.

 

B’Lare’s fever was down and he was resting better, so J’em decided to lie down beside him on the bed. A noise in the corner of the room had his head snapping back up.

 

A large, sleek body was hunched over in the corner. It was J’em’s spirit guide. Between the corner and the protective animal lay a small, gray wolf. The poor animal’s coat had that oily look they get when they are really ill. It was lying on its side, panting and whimpering.

 

The panther used its long, pink tongue to give a tentative lick to the wolf’s side. The gray animal’s eyes closed to bare slits happily and the black head dipped down to do it again. It turned and looked over its shoulder at the Sentinel and gave a low growl.

 

“It’s going to be fine,” J’em reassured the guide. “We found what was hurting them.” The Sentinel touched his Guide on the arm protectively and nodded at the wolf to include him. “They will be fine now.”

 

A tentative whine from the wolf captured the panther’s attention again. The bigger cat lay down in front of the smaller animal, all but obscuring it from J’em’s view. It got close enough so that it could lick the wolf without having to hover over it.

 

Before long, the panther was cleaning the wolf with long, broad strokes of its powerful tongue. The gray hair was tamped down on the wolf’s head and the happy animal had a grin on its wolfly face. The panther was purring just as happily.

 

J’em lay back down beside B’Lare and did his own, human version of grooming his Guide. The wet cloth ran over B’Lare’s skin and J’em was delighted to note that the younger man had a smile on his face that was very similar to the wolf’s.

 

The Sentinel wrapped himself around his soon-to-be Guide and unknowingly began to purr.

 

****

 

“Well?” King Willyam asked with quiet authority.

 

Henroai bowed his head to the regal figure. “She has disappeared, your highness,” the bodyguard admitted. “Meaghan was seen leaving through the castle gates not long after Prince B’Lare collapsed.”

 

“Did she take anything with her?” Saimon asked with a glance at his king.

 

“Yes,” Henroai said with a deep sigh. “A bag with most of her clothing and her heavy cloak are missing.” The rest of her things, the more unnecessary items, were still in her room; she hadn’t even had time to unpack before she ran.

 

“I suppose there’s no doubt then.” Nyomi was pale and very distressed to realize how close she had come to losing her son.

 

“No, ma’am.” Henroai hesitated a moment in the face of her inner pain. “I found this.” He held out a small leather pouch. The guard had a cloth wrapped around his hand to protect it.

 

“Floracius powder?” Yoel asked.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Damn.” Yoel’s cursing assessment summed up the situation nicely.

 

****

 

B’Lare didn’t take the news well, as could be expected. After all, he had known Meaghan for many years and had trusted her with his life.

 

J’em was livid. He insisted that his father send troops out to find the murderess wanna be, and would have accompanied them if he weren’t leery of leaving B’Lare alone.

 

The king had already sent out two different squads of men and added another two at his son’s behest. Each group of soldiers was led by a fully online Sentinel, but no trace of the disappeared woman could be found.

 

****

 

“You failed me.” The cold voice matched the iciness of the stare.

 

“Yes, Brackett, I’m afraid I did.” Meaghan looked down, not wanting to see the disappointment in her lover’s eyes.

 

“Well, I suppose we’ll have to try again.” The tall, handsome man smiled reassuringly at the bodyguard.

 

Meaghan sighed in relief. “You’re not mad at me?”

 

“No.” Brackett shook his head and motioned her closer. “We all make mistakes.” She laid her head on his shoulder and relaxed. “My mistake was in using you,” he said as her head was abruptly jerked to one side.

 

Meaghan’s neck snapped with a slight crack. She was dead before she even had a chance to know she was in danger.

 

“Your mistake was in trusting me,” Brackett said to her corpse. Staring blue eyes gazed back at him unseeingly.

 

He pushed against her side with his toe, just to be certain that she was dead. Even though he was a Sentinel, Brackett didn’t use his abilities. Ever since B’Lare had turned him down, no other Guide would even consider bonding with him, so it was safer for him to ignore his enhanced senses completely.

 

It had been relatively easy to arrange an accidental meeting between Meaghan and himself. The young woman had not realized that her drink had been drugged at the tavern she’d been staying at, or that Brackett had kidnapped her and plied more of the suggestive drug on her for several days. From Meaghan’s point of view, she had met the love of her life and they had spent many happy days making love.

 

When she was finally released, several days later, Meaghan was convinced that B’Lare was the enemy and when the time was right, she should try to kill him. A small bottle of perfume, supposedly a gift from her beloved, contained a concentrated amount of the drug and kept Meaghan under Brackett’s long distance control.

 

“Yes, now I’ll have to try again. B’Lare must be held accountable for my change in status.”

 

Brackett turned and walked away, leaving Meaghan lying on the carpet of old leaves and dirt; her purpose and usefulness being over with. He’d forgotten her by the time he reached the path’s edge.

 

****

 

Meaghan, once body guard to Prince B’Lare, traitor and attempted murderess, was given an obsequy befitting her new status. She was buried in a quiet ceremony with only the bare number of attendants.

 

B’Lare insisted on coming, despite J’em’s protest. He chose to remember the friend he’d known for all those years and truly believed that something had been done to the young woman to change her so drastically.

 

It had been Raff who found Meaghan’s body, after a few hours of looking. The broken neck showed her falling out with whomever she had met up with.

 

B’Lare leaned against J’em’s arm and silently wept. Meaghan had been a friend for so many years. It hurt to know that she was dead and it hurt to know that she had betrayed him.

 

J’em propped B’Lare up, literally and figuratively. The young prince shouldn’t be out of bed yet, because of the lingering affects of the poison, but he had insisted on coming to the funeral. If J’em had had his way, the traitoress would have been tossed into the garbage dump and let the carrions deal with her body.

 

When the caretaker started to fill the dirt in on the lowered coffin, J’em led B’Lare away. That was another thing B’Lare had insisted on; Meaghan had a fine coffin, lined with soft bedding, not a cheap box with nothing to cushion her eternity. The young prince had also slipped the caretaker a few gold coins to ensure that her body wouldn’t be dug up in the night and sold to unscrupulous experimenters.

 

A carefully spread word by J’em, via Saimon, reiterated B’Lare’s wish. The traitor’s body would remain unmolested throughout all time.

 

****

 

“Damnation!” Saimon’s curse hit Donal in the face like a slap when he opened the door. The young man peeked around the frame and began to giggle uncontrollably at the sight that greeted him.

 

Saimon was dressed in a very fancy, black velvet tunic over a lacy sleeved shirt and long black leggings. Tying the jabot of ivory lace that spilled down the front of the shirt was what was causing the lord to curse.

 

The elegantly attired black man heard his lover’s laughter and frowned at him through the mirror he was looking into. The grimace on his handsome face had Donal repressing his mirth. The younger man knew how much Saimon despised dressing up. This time, however, he couldn’t get out of the occasion.

 

“Let me help with that, my lord.”

 

Donal positioned himself in front of the other man and reached up to untie and then retie the jabot. It was a stretch, since Donal was so much shorter, and eventually Saimon sat down so he could reach easier.

 

“Ah, that’s better.” Donal sighed in relief. “And it’s done.” A quick fluff to puff out the lace and he was finished. “You are a fine figure of a man, Lord Saimon,” Donal flirted.

 

Saimon wrapped his arms around the younger man’s waist and pulled him close. “As are you.” He gave Donal’s burgundy covered behind a quick squeeze.

 

Donal laughed again. He gave Saimon’s very muscled shoulder a quick swat. “We don’t have time for that, the wedding is in less than an hour.”

 

Sighing regretfully, Saimon nodded and let his lover go. “Alright, but afterwards…” Saimon leered suggestively.

 

“Oh, definitely,” Donal promised just as pointedly.

 

****

 

“Are you ready, darling?”

 

“Yes, mother.” B’Lare watched his mother fussing around amusedly. He had forgiven her, to a degree. After all, he was marrying the love of his life because of her interference, but B’Lare still didn’t trust her completely.

 

“There’s nothing to be worried about,” she said as she fretted.

 

“I’m not worried.”

 

B’Lare turned away and bit his lip in amusement. After all that he and J’em had been through, a wedding and the bonding later in the night would be a blessing, not something to worry about.

 

“I-I’m sure he’ll be…gentle.” The look on Nyomi’s face betrayed her fear that the large Sentinel wouldn’t be all that careful when taking her son’s virginity.

 

“I know he will.”

 

J’em being rough with him during sex never even entered B’Lare’s mind. He knew how much the Sentinel loved him.

 

“Oh…well good.” Nyomi smiled encouragingly and B’Lare smiled back.

 

There was a quiet knock at the door. Yoel opened it and peered in. “It’s time, your majesties.”

 

****

 

“Don’t let him try to take control.”

 

J’em’s eyebrows shot up at that statement. He gave his father an incredulous look.

 

“He will you know, they all do in the end.” The last was muttered under the king’s breath. The Sentinel wasn’t too surprised at his father’s bitterness. J’em was all too aware that his mother had not been a good companion for his father. She had not really died from the pox, but had instead run away when Stefen was a baby.

 

The Sentinel didn’t bother to answer his father. J’em knew B’Lare well enough to know that the younger man wouldn’t try to control their relationship, neither would he. They would be equal partners in all things. But the prince knew that his father would never believe him. He had given the same speech to Stefen a few weeks earlier when he and Lizbeth had married.

 

J’em was glad that he and B’Lare had waited to marry and bond until they knew each other a little better. Their long talks and quiet evenings spent in each other’s company had shown that they were attracted to one another as more than just Sentinel and Guide.

 

To be certain, the talks hadn’t been all quiet. He and B’Lare had carried on some lively arguments, but even that had been more exhilarating than irritating.

 

The Sentinel walked over to the door, patting his worried father on the shoulder to say thank you as he passed by. He pulled the door open just as Saimon was getting ready to knock, startling the bigger man.

 

Saimon glared at him, he did so hate to be preempted like that. J’em hid his grin. He loved to keep the other man on his toes. Behind Saimon, Donal gave a small, knowing smile to the prince. J’em winked at him conspiratorially.

 

“Damn, I hate it when you do that,” Saimon grumbled. He ran a hand down the front of his tunic, straightening an imagined crease in the fabric. “It’s time, sire.”

 

J’em nodded happily. “Yes, let’s go.”

 

****

 

B’Lare and J’em stood, side by side, in front of the altar in the impressive cathedral. Being two men, the ceremony was conducted a little differently than the one for a man and a woman. For one thing, neither one walked down the aisle to a waiting groom. J’em had come in from one side of the cathedral and B’Lare entered from the other.

 

As the two men had walked towards one another, J’em had time to get a good, long look at his husband to be and had almost fallen to the ground in shock. B’Lare was wearing a bright blue tunic, just a few shades lighter than the color of his eyes, which made B’Lare’s eyes glow like jewels in the flickering light. His glorious hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, but several tendrils had been left to curl around his neck and jaw.

 

B’Lare had been similarly stunned and had actually felt his legs wobble when he got his first look at J’em. The Sentinel was in super soft brown leather that wouldn’t irritate his sensitive skin. Being so supple, the leather hugged J’em’s muscled body, accentuating every muscle and bulge. The sight of him made B’Lare’s skin oversensitive.

 

The Sentinel and Guide met at the middle of the walkway, joined hands and walked down the main aisle together. A tingling started from where their hands touched and began to spread outward throughout both of their bodies. By the time the marriage ceremony was finished, both men were shaking with the affect.

 

Neither one of them could have told you what the abbot said during the ceremony, but J’em could have told just exactly how many locks of hair B’Lare had tumbling around his face. B’Lare had memorized every strand of short hair framing J’em’s pale blue eyes.

 

“I now pronounce you husband and husband.” The abbot’s voice sounded amused and J’em guessed correctly that the clergyman realized neither man had paid a bit of attention to the all important ceremony. “You may kiss.”

 

B’Lare smiled at that and leaned forward eagerly. J’em gave him a grin and followed suit. The kiss was very restrained. It had to be in order not to trigger the bonding reflex in both of them.

 

****

 

J’em breathed in his lover. B’Lare’s scent washed over him, making the skin all over his body tingle with the flavor. He could taste B’Lare in his ears and smell him on his tongue. The Sentinel’s senses were mixed together in a delightful way.

 

B’Lare smiled in his sleep. The bond deepened even further and he was able to experience the Sentinel’s senses and J’em was able to feel what B’Lare heard. They were forever as one, yet still both themselves. Joined in mind and body; Sentinel and Guide.

 

In one corner, the wolf and the panther lay curled around one another. It was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

 

The End.