“So then, what year did the Great Unification take place?”
“F– fourteen hundred. And fifty … sir …”
“Summer or winter?”
“N–neither–it was spring–early spring–”
“Ha ha, very good. Then, the Treaty of the Five Kingdoms?”
“Summer the same year–ah–Master Frest–”
“Who signed the treaty for the House of Quertis?”
“M–my honorable great … great-grandmother, the Duchess Maria Valia Quertis. Master Frest, please–”
“Very good, Winter. You may finish.”
Winter falls in love when he is twelve years old.
The day after his twelfth birthday–the last of such childish celebrations–he is summoned to his father’s study before breakfast. His manservant dresses him in gray and white and ties a black ribbon in his pale hair; the clothes are new and stiff and terribly uncomfortable. He wants very much to wriggle out of them, but an audience with his father is a rare and important thing, and he knows better than to be anything but absolutely impeccable when he arrives.
When he does, there is a second man in his father’s study. He’s tall and lean but broad-shouldered, with heavy blue eyes and a tousled shock of dark gold hair. He wears all black and a heavy silver cross lies in plain sight against his breast. It surprises Winter a little to see: his father is a practical man, one who hates wasting time or effort in things that don’t have any sort of tangible payout. To invite a priest to the estate is a rare thing, and he looks to his father.
“Your new tutor,” his father says, solemn as always, a faint twist to his mouth, as if something sour lingers on his tongue. The look in his eyes is equally unpleasant, something dark lurking behind his pale gaze. “Father Samuel Frest, lately from the capital. He’ll be your history and religions tutor.”
“Charmed,” the stranger–Frest–drawls. He crouches down, which brings him very nearly to Winter’s eye-level, and holds out a hand. He wears black gloves with weathered fingertips and palms, and he smiles like the sun coming out. “Winter, right? I’ll take care of you.”
Winter stares at that hand for a moment before he reaches out and accepts Frest’s handshake. Even through his gloves, his hands are warm. He shakes Winter’s hand like they’re both adults, with an easy strong confidence. Up close he smells like tobacco and incense.
Winter follows the line of Frest’s arm up, into those blue, blue eyes, and falls in love.
Winter confesses when he is sixteen years old.
He is considered an adult now, in the eyes of the law and his family–even his mother comes for the celebration feast–but it will be years yet before he’ll be able to begin taking the reins of power from his mother’s hands. His lessons will escalate, he is told, and he is expected to apply himself to the very best of his abilities. The next generation of the Quertis family will be his to shape and guide; he must be a worthy leader by the time his mother retires.
The thought is both terrifying and exhilarating. After the festivities are over and most of the revelers have found their ways to beds, Winter slips from his room, down the long corridor and down a flight of stairs to Frest’s room. He doesn’t knock, just opens the door.
What he sees is Frest’s long broad back, naked, curved in a graceful arch; what he sees are two slim white legs hooked around his moving hips. What he hears is a girl’s voice whimpering and gasping (Hipa, he recognizes, one of the kitchen-girls who brings him meals from time to time); what he hears is Frest also moaning, low and deep in his chest.
As quietly as he can, Winter closes the door. He does not run, but he walks quickly, up the stairs, up and up until he’s in the highest attic-chamber. Once there he opens the windows and he leans out halfway, the ledge pressing sharply against his lower belly, and he looks out at all the scattered stars. Frest taught him those patterns too, he thinks–the Singer, the Sage, the Fallen King, all bright and cleanly visible tonight.
He does not berate himself for foolishness, though he is embarrassed for his impoliteness. He turns his feelings over and thinks that he’s not even angry–just disappointed. That in itself is embarrassing; it is hardly as if he has any actual claim to Frest’s affections beyond being a talented student. Though he has his mother’s delicate coloring and finer features, he still feels awkward in his own skin more often than not, these days: that’s not a lot to offer any lover, let alone one older and more experienced.
He’s not sure how long he stands there, leaning out into the cold air, before he hears a door open and close. Automatically he straightens out of his loose slouch, but before he can turn, a heavy black coat is draped over his shoulders. It smells like tobacco and smoke and incense.
Winter looks up; Frest looks back.
“Knock, next time,” he says.
“You scared the hell out of me, kid.”
Winter’s lips twist a little at that, but he keeps his voice even. “Sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.”
Frest’s eyebrows rise and stay arched in disbelief. “What, you don’t agree with me?”
“I didn’t say that, sir.”
“You don’t have to say a damn thing.” Frest prods a finger into the center of Winter’s forehead. “You’d be a terrible card player, you know? Everything you’re feeling’s right there on your face.”
Winter bites the inside of his cheek. He steels himself and looks up to meet Frest’s eyes, then holds that gaze steadily for long moments. Understanding dawns slowly in Frest’s expression, and as it solidifies, his hand drops away to hang loosely by his side. Only then does Winter reply, his voice quiet, “Not everything, Master Frest.”
“I’ll be damned,” Frest says. His voice is not stunned, but heavy nonetheless. “A brat like you …”
“I’m sixteen today,” Winter says. Something about the words feel strange and heavy in his mouth, like stones dropping from his lips. He doesn’t look away from Frest’s face–he can’t even make himself blink, as if losing eye-contact will destroy this entire fragile scene. “I’m not a brat any more.”
Frest is the one who blinks now; he raises his gloved hand and presses it to the curve of Winter’s cheek. “You’re not,” he says. “I guess I should have been paying better attention.”
Winter allows himself a ghost of a smile; he lifts his own hand and presses it to Frest’s wrist. His fingers find the gap between glove and sleeve and rest against warm skin. It gives him a bright little thrill to have that contact. “You should have,” he agrees. “As long as you know now.”
Frest’s other hand comes up and hooks into the collar of Winter’s shirt; a little bit of tugging and the first button loosens itself. Lower still and another one pops free, and then another, and another, until Winter’s shirt is half-opened. “I do,” he says, and there are dark and thoughtful things in his eyes that Winter wants very much to ask about and refrains. “You know, this is the point where you tell me you’re joking and you don’t want this to happen.”
Winter’s shirt is fully open now; his skin is tight with goosebumps both from the cold and from anticipation. “I’m not joking,” he says, “I want this to happen.”
It’s like something clicks into place with his words; Frest’s eyes go dark and thoughtful. The hand against Winter’s chest pushes, nudging him back until his shoulders hit the wall. “You can still stay no, though,” he says. “At any time. In fact, I’ll teach you how to make a proper fist, and when you don’t like it, you can pop me one. Break my nose.”
“I wouldn’t mind learning,” Winter says. He watches with bright-eyed nervous interest as Frest begins to open his pants, “but I won’t say no. Not now, not ever.”
“Things can change,” Frest says, and then he draws Winter’s cock out, using the tips of his fingers and delicate touches. Anything Winter might have said in reply is lost in his startled gasp; he scrabbles a little against the stone wall with both palms, stunned only into watching. Frest glances up and smirks, all teeth now.
“Hey,” he says, “tell me about Valentine’s War.”
The question is so unexpected, so out of place, that it takes Winter a moment to parse it and respond. “The–what?! Why–?!”
“I want to see if lessons actually stick in that pretty head of yours,” says Frest. He drags the tip of his index finger along the length of Winter’s cock, root to tip; the soft leather catches a little against the soft skin. “If you’re good, you’ll be rewarded.” He flicks his finger a little against the head of Winter’s cock. “Tell me about Valentine’s War.”
“Va,” Winter begins, then squeezes his eyes shut when Frest leans in, nuzzling at the soft join between his leg and body, “Valentine’s War … was the first o-of the many–that led to Unification–it–Master Frest, why do we have to do it this way?!”
“No good?” Frest asks against his skin.
“It’s–shouldn’t it be at least–I don’t–”
“Is that a no?”
“No!” The exclamation rips from him before he can think; he grabs for Frest’s head before he can pull back. “I just don’t understand why …”
He cracks his eyes open and sees Frest looking back, something thoughtful in his expression. After a moment, he starts to rub at Winter’s hips, almost soothing.
“All right,” he says. “This time we can do it without the rest. I’m still your teacher, though; it’s my job to make sure you keep learning.”
“Master Frest …”
“Happy birthday, Winter,” says Frest, and leans in to take the entirety of Winter’s cock into his mouth in a single smooth motion. It happens so fast that Winter can’t even summon up the breath to cry out; the most that escapes him is a single weak gasp before his head thumps back and his hips move in clumsy desperate instinct. Frest’s mouth is hot and wet and his tongue is clever and obscene. It takes almost no time at all–to Winter it seems like only a few seconds, and if he is entirely honest, he’s not certain that isn’t the truth. He comes with a strangled gasp and a low whine, and then it’s only Frest’s hands on his hips that hold him up.
Winter opens his eyes to see Frest licking his lips. There are still teeth in his smile, and his eyes are hooded and dark. He rises, sliding his hands up Winter’s body as he goes; when he’s fully on his feet, Winter finds himself tucked against Frest’s body, his cheek against his tutor’s chest and an inescapable hard pressure against his hip.
“We’ll teach you endurance, too,” Frest says. “That’s next on the list.”
“I’d like that,” Winter manages in a small voice, and says nothing about love.
“I hear your grades are improving,” his father says to him one morning, as breakfast is being cleared away.
Winter ducks his head a little, keeping his eyes politely downcast–his father’s lessons are always ones of propriety, and one’s proper place in the world, and Winter has learned those lessons long ago. “Yes, Father. I’ve been told so as well.”
“Good.” There is no warmth in the approval, or in the thin smile on his father’s face, but there is acknowledgment at least. The years have not been especially kind to the Lord Quertis, and the servants have learned to speak softly around him, except for Frest. It has not come to an actual confrontation yet, but the rumor mill is buzzing like flies, and there is no one who does not see it as only a matter of time–least of all Winter himself. “See to it that it stays that way–if not, well. There are others out there that I’m sure would be more than willing and qualified to oversee the rest of your education.”
“Yes, Father,” Winter says. He sits back to let the servant-girl take his plate and rubs his hands together, feeling as cold as his name.
“Recite the Hymn of Annamarie.”
The light that slants in through the closed blinds is weak and watery, slicing lines across Frest’s exposed arm; it blends with the paler patches of scars that lie across the outline of muscle and bone. He uses that to brace his weight against the wall; his other arm is wrapped halfway around Winter, that hand pressed to Winter’s belly, his glove warm against bare skin. He moves with an exquisitely careful slowness and an inescapable rhythm, in and out, forward and back, arched over his student.
Winter curls both his fists into his discarded shirt, his head bowed until it nearly touches the blinds. Most of his hair has escaped its neat ribbon at this point and lies pressed in damp curls against his neck and cheek. His eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth works several times before he can summon his voice:
“A-and lo, I saw a garden in full bloom, in which–i-in which–”
Frest snaps his hips forward in a sudden sharp jab; Winter’s voice rises to a squeak and dries out. When he doesn’t continue, Frest slides his hand up to brace his palm against the center of Winter’s chest and tugs until they’re back-to-belly. He leans in until his mouth moves against Winter’s ear. “In which?”
Winter gulps a few times, fingers flexing. He arches his back, eyes slitting half-open. “I-in which I … I saw … a flock of white birds g–gathered in the arms of an oak tree, and these I knew t-to be … the souls of those who had come before me …”
Long fingers press gently at the very base of Winter’s throat. There is a smile in Frest’s voice when he answers: “Come before you?”
A hiccuping sob breaks from Winter’s throat. “Master–”
“And I looked upon them in their multitude,” Frest says, his voice low; he shifts his weight until his hips are pressed snugly to Winter’s own, dragging his fingertips down until he can fist Winter’s cock, hard and tight, “and I saw joy and I saw grief, but more than anything, I saw–continue, Winter.”
“I–!” Winter twists a little, but Frest’s grip is nearly like iron, inescapable. “I s-saw–the breadth and weight of their lives lived, and the shedding of their sins like feathers and–!”
“You’re doing fine,” Frest soothes. He starts to move his hand now, slow and easy, matching the previous rhythm of his hips. “Keep going.”
“You’re doing fine,” Frest repeats. He rolls his hips once, sighing against Winter’s ear and drawing out an answering shiver. “It’s not that much more, is it?”
Winter swallows hard enough to be audible. “N-no …”
“Then keep going.” Frest presses his teeth to the soft spot behind Winter’s ear–not biting, but a vague half-promise, half-threat of their sharpness–and begins, in incremental degrees, to move his hand faster. “All the way to the end.”
Winter flexes his fingers a little. He shifts himself, pressing his hips back, a little more tightly against Frest’s, and feels an answering movement. He licks his lips, tasting salt. “And I saw … that the branches of the tree were the arms of the Lord of Heaven, who w–welcomed them all … to a place where no boundaries exist and no … n-no laws remain but ‘be at peace’ a-and–”
Frest bites Winter’s ear, a short sharp gesture, and gives a quick little flick of his wrist. As Winter cries out, high and startled, his entire body shaking, Frest finishes: “And I knew that there was nothing to fear, for I knew at the end of things, my reward would come. Amen.”