For love's sake, he started a war. For peace, he could lose it all.
Ballot's Keep, Book 2
Three armies are converging on the isolated town of Ballot's Keep, and a harsh, icy winter is just around the corner. Xeras and his infant dragon are heading out of town, but not to escape. It was his meddling that caused all this trouble for his lover, Carly, and for the town. And it's his job to set it right. Or, as his companion ghost likes to remind him, get killed trying.
Carly, the duke of Ballot's Keep, would like nothing better than to protect his troubled, magic-tainted lover. But what dragon magic has wrought, dragon magic must repair--and Xeras insists on facing the consequences of his actions. Alone.
The fate of thousands of innocent people rides on Xeras's talent for causing trouble--only this time, in turning their enemies against each other. But his need for secrecy could be too much of a betrayal for Carly to forgive...
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September 06, 2010
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Excerpt from Lover of Ghosts by Emily Veinglory
When Xeras had been wounded, the baby dragon had given him the strength to heal rapidly, but now he suspected he was paying her back with interest. As she nursed from his blood, he slipped into a daze filled with illusory warmth and a scent he never managed to find any apt comparison for. It was the smell of comfort, sweetness and death all rolled into one. Xeras leaned back into the corner between the outer wall of the manse and the balcony wall, and let his eyes fall shut.
The euphoria ebbed away only slowly. Drinia detached like a sated tick and curled by his side, digesting. As she had grown, Drinia had taken to nibbling at more normal types of food, and the others never seemed to question how she cobbled together sustenance from that. Dragons were magical after all; people did not expect the simple feeding equations of livestock to apply. And somehow he did not want to admit what had proved necessary, even as he felt it weakening him more with every passing day.
As his senses returned, he became aware of a wintry chill that had seized his lean body. Dusk had begun to fall and the nights were always cold, but torpor clouded his mind and he still did not move. It was easier to stay where he was than to discover whether he had the strength to stand. Xeras hunched into his corner and watched the small sliver of sky that he could see slide through shades of rose and crimson and finally indigo edging towards abject black.
He felt the great expanse of the night descending like a great hunting raptor swooping from above. Somewhere out there in the dark, the plainsmen were waiting beyond the gate for a chance to burst through into the more arable lowlands. Their scouts had been seen slipping through the town at night, peering and prying at the keep's meager defenses. The lowland towns beyond were each too small and inward-looking to take an interest in a threat emanating from beyond the gate--or any place beyond the shadowed confines of their huddled eaves. And those with greater ambitions, the denizens of his own home state, the island of Tirrin, would only protect Ballot's Keep if in the process they could possess it, and most of the surrounding land as well. Indeed, they had helped provoke this very conflict in the hope of profiting from the resulting chaos. If the towns suddenly felt the need to band together, who better to lead them than the rump of the empire to which they had all once belonged?
Fate offered a precipice and it seemed likely they were going to stumble right off it, blinded by self-interest or locked step-in-step by people all around. Xeras had never felt more helpless. What could he do? Carly, the town's duke, was a good man, and when this town fell, he would fall with it. Xeras had always been taught that the loss of one village more or less was a matter of no importance in the great, cold scheme of things. In his father's eyes, only Tirrin mattered. But his father had deserted somebody he was meant to love, his wife, in obedience to his nation--and Xeras had done the reverse.
And now here he was. What he felt for Carly was warm and true and real. That alone might be enough to try to fight for a town in which he had no other role but love. It was quite possibly the only untainted love for another human being he had ever felt. And he had to believe that mattered. He was torn between that flickering promise of love and the towering darkness that seemed to close in all around. Xeras grappled with a host of unfamiliar, all-too-obtrusive feelings, and when they overwhelmed him, he had to push them away as a whole, even the love.
After all, the past offered more hints of doom than hope. Xeras had loved Drin too, the man after whom the little dragon had been named. It had been a difficult matter, a nobleman and a servant, a crime of miscegenation--a relationship between high and low--for which Drin had ultimately been executed.
But that was hardly Drin's fault.
You have to tell him about me.
Drin's voice seemed sharper, somehow coming as a surprise after almost a whole day of uncharacteristic silence. Typically, the ghost had counted a day as the period of light, not the more generous accounting to the turn of midnight.
But Drin's return could not cut through this growing hopelessness that was a weight upon Xeras's whole body and even his mind. He only needed to think his words to answer the ghost, but he did not. Telling his living lover about his dead lover really did not strike him as a pressing and necessary act; life was complicated enough already.
It is cold, darkling. Take yourself inside, at least.
Xeras knew that self-pity really wasn't getting him anywhere. He wasn't even very good at it, lacking the soft good looks of a troubadour's tragic hero, or indeed the moral high ground from which to proclaim the world so terribly unfair. There was nothing that had happened to Xeras that he was not somehow complicit in. What vexed him most was the chaos he was causing in the lives of others with his choices and entanglements.
It was fully nighttime when Drinia finally stirred, stretched and worked her way out of his clothing, dropping down onto the ground and letting in even colder air as she did it. She trotted over to the door, the faint starlight glinting off her scales as she waited there for him.
"I suppose I was meant to be scolding you," Xeras mused. He sat up stiffly stretching his shoulders and arms. Was it just his imagination, or the biting chill or autumn in the mountains...? While he had never been a paragon of strength, there seemed less strength in his limbs than there once had been. "So here you go. You are a disruptive and useless creature." He paused and sighed. "But you are a rare creature and an infant at that, of whom nothing more should be expected. I have no such excuse."
Xeras, must you really be so...
The door cracked open from inside and Drinia slipped through. Carly stood in silhouette. "Xeras, have you been sitting out here all this time? You must be mad."
"Have you ever known me to deny it?"
Carly reached out and all but scooped Xeras into the room. There was no light inside beyond the hearth fire at the end of the room opposite the bed. The duke wore just a robe tied tight at his waist. He was a big, broad man with an honest face and ruddy hair, curling on his head and coarse in his beard, which Xeras secretly disliked. Sometimes he wondered if he disliked it simply to have something to dislike in a man who was otherwise quite unreasonably patient and virtuous, not to mention attractive.
"I was wondering where you had got to." Carly closed the door with a shudder and reflexively went to let Drinia out as she scratched at the door that led into the rest of the house. She trotted off, apparently with her own ideas about where to spend the night. "It seems we are alone," he said.
"After a fashion."
"Apart from each other," Carly chided. "Which is more or less my point. And besides, if love makes two people one, wouldn't that make us alone?"
Xeras smiled wanly but turned away from Carly's touch. Drin stayed quiet but he was still there, he was always there. Being a ghost and haunting Xeras, there was nowhere else he could be, even if he wanted to.
Xeras felt Drin not saying anything in response to that thought. No doubt he was trying to be discreet. Drin approved of the match with Carly. The ghost saw sensible Carly as someone who might keep Xeras out of trouble and supply him with life's sundry necessities now that Drin was not longer part of the corporeal world. But somehow Xeras felt Drin would still be hurt if theirs proved to be a truly deep and romantic love, rather than a relationship that swarmed with ambiguities and secrets.
Xeras's hands were numb as he pulled his cloak tight around him, but it was as if the cold he carried with him defeated the warmth of the chamber. Carly was not so easily dissuaded; he took Xeras gently by the shoulder and led him to the bed. Xeras looked aside but allowed himself to be guided to sit on the edge of the pallet. Carly stood before him, unfolding the length of the cloak thrown over Xeras's shoulder. His touch was careful, solicitous, and his hand were always most undeniably warm.
"It may seem a strange complaint," Carly mused. "But it disturbs me how polite you have been of late, and how biddable. That is not the Xeras I know...and love."
Xeras closed his eyes. Drin had indeed been arguing that Carly's interest was not some passing fancy--that somehow he truly did like Xeras despite his spiky ways, or even because of them.
"Is it such a painful proposition?" Carly pressed. He pushed Xeras's cloak back off his shoulders, revealing the frayed and gape-necked tunic beneath. It had been black once and now sunk in to an indiscriminate, dejected brown.
Why do you do this to the poor man? Tell him you love him too. Lie if you must, but at least be kind.
It was not that he did not love Carly. It was not even that he did not want to say it, but with Drin there listening he could not. How could you say that to one man, when the last one you said it to stood invisibly in the room? When the last man you loved died horribly because of it?
So you continue to torture me by destroying your own happiness.
It's what I do best, Drin. Xeras tried not to let Drin feel his other thoughts, that Drin's haunting distractions would probably always make it impossible to form new relationships with people who were still alive.
Xeras glanced up, belatedly, and saw how Carly's smile had faded. But the duke pressed on, glossing over Xeras's lack of response. He was a strong and foursquare man, but his touch was light, untying Xeras's belt and lifting his tunic up and over his head. Yet another person who seemed to recognize that despite looking like a full-grown man, inside he was little more than a child.
Every place Carly touched Xeras, true warmth blossomed and endured. But Xeras clasped his arm down over the line of faint bruise-rosettes and tiny scabs left by Drinia's nursing. Barely evident by touch, and probably invisible in the near darkness, but just one more thing he had no desire to divulge or discuss in the absence of any possible solution. The duke had troubles enough with war and winter both on his doorstep.
"Love is a strange thing," Carly said, apparently giving up entirely on Xeras participating in the conversation. "It makes me feel...light and invincible and full of optimism." He continued to undress Xeras is if he were nothing more than a large doll from which any great degree of cooperation was not to be expected.
Look at him, at least. How can you be so indifferent to this man and what he offers you?
Because, amongst so many other things, if he fell into the complacency of new love, Drin would leave him. The ghost would feel his task complete. Xeras's happiness and future somehow secured, he would move on to whatever lay beyond. The exact nature of that fate seemed unclear even to Drin--perhaps it was simple oblivion. And for all that was probably the proper thing to happen, Xeras wasn't ready to give him up. He let Carly settle him into the bed, folding the covers over them both, lying side by side, untouching.
"Maybe it doesn't have that effect on you," Carly said quietly. "Maybe it does and you just haven't found it yet. It would be nice to think the world gave every lover that same love in return. But I know that isn't always true."
Xeras could feel Drin seething. The ghost was angry at him--but angry, disappointed or even despairing he would stay. The question was, how much would Carly put up with? He was already being tolerant beyond all reason. Xeras was caught. He did not want the love of the living to cost him the companionship of Drin's ghost, but he feared what would happen if he was left only with the love of the dead.
In the darkness Xeras stirred. He turned towards Carly's warmth and reached out under the heavy blankets. Carly was lying on his back. Xeras's hand curled over his broad forearm. What Xeras could not say in words he offered in gestures, brushing his lips over Carly's shoulder. He reached out and laid his palm lightly on Carly's chest, just at the base of his rib cage, sliding down to his abdomen.
Xeras felt anxious tension trembling in his own hands. Carly was not moving in response to his touch. In the darkness Xeras closed his eyes, grimacing. He was used to his own morose nature, but there was no need to sink into maudlin fits of tears at the least provocation. He felt wetness beading in his eyes and tried, angrily, to push those feeling away. He had indulged them far too much already. Even he was sick of himself.
But Carly finally sighed and reached his arm out and around, gathering Xeras up against his body.
"You're so cold," Carly said, tucking the blankets up around them both.
Xeras rested his head against Carly's shoulder. The first time he had done that, it had felt like coming home. But he knew he was cold in a far broader sense of the word. He was like Drinia, sucking the warmth out of Carly and giving nothing back. Carly, for some inexplicable reason, allowed it, but that did not make it right or fair, and unlike a mindless little beast, Xeras had it within his power to give more...or break free. His need was after all his need, not any obligation on Carly, let alone this entire town.
Xeras moved his hand back up across Carly's chest, just idly considering the solid bulk of his form and the generous warmth that radiated from it, more like a hearthstone than a man. Muscles ran under his skin in smooth forms, like some deity had sculpted them. With his eyes still closed, Xeras got control of himself again, feeling the soft grain of Carly's sparse chest hair swirling out from the center of his chest, brushing over his nipple and contemplatively tracing down the gentle ripple of his muscular rib cage.
With a soft moan Carly rolled towards him, all but pinning him down with a full, warm kiss. All his life Xeras had fought so hard to stand up, to be his own person. His father Harus was a member of Triton's ruling counsel, and no one ever seemed to see Xeras as more than a misbred disappointment who would always be an unwanted drain and disappointment, not a fit heir and continuation of his esteemed lineage.
But in Carly's arms, he felt subsumed and overwhelmed, and caught in the moment, he didn't care at all. Carly's substantial body felt like a safe harbor, a place he could consider being only himself, no matter how frail and flawed that self might be--and if possessing no great strength, at least constituting a light burden. Xeras pressed against Carly like a vine against the tree, molding to that greater strength. Carly's hardening cock pressed against his thigh. He ached for it, kissing Carly hungrily and pulling him in. Sliding one leg around Carly, he urged his lover on.
In the darkness he felt a furtive whisper, not even a real sound just a feeling...the feeling of being watched. Drin was always somehow there. Xeras tried to drive it from his mind, digging his fingers into Carly's broad back. Carly was slow to respond, being by nature a deliberate, gentle man. But he kindled, pressing Xeras down, his lips becoming gentle bites. He was hard now and insistent. Xeras raised his knees, Carly hesitated again. Xeras hissed in irritation, wanting Carly inside him to drive the constant worrying out.
"You're like mountain weather, Xeras. You have a sudden way about you."
"I can only hope it is part of my charm," Xeras whispered. "Else I have none at all."
Carly exhaled in a muted semblance of a laugh, and he pressed forward, into Xeras, in a completion that felt, for that one long fleeting moment, like they truly united into one--and no other person was present, or existed at all.