The Ways of Ritual

It was not an obvious thing, nor a constant one; it was not even a regular thing. Weeks could slip into months before anything happened.

However, it was always a consistent thing. It would always start once Miss Merryweather was seen to her bed, tucked away with a smile and a kiss from her brother and a maid snuffing out the candles. The servant-girl would excuse herself, a curtsy for the master and a smaller one for Riff before she scurried off, and before he could follow, there would be a hand upon his elbow. All God’s angels did not have the strength to stay him as well as that one touch, and he would hold himself still, counting seconds until Master Cain would finally release him, requesting a drink, a snack, some book — any manner of small inconsequential thing, to be delivered to his room. Riff could watch as his master slipped past, a slim elegant shadow with flashing eyes, and he could try to calm his restless heart, but there was nothing left to it but to do as he was asked.

To-night it was a book: the very one that Master Cain had been reading before shepherding Miss Merry to her bed, some treatise on the poisons of the Orient, whose pages were yellowed and crackling with age. Riff held it carefully in both his hands, for it would not do to damage the master’s newest book acquisition. He met no other servant upon the stairs, for even when it was not *this* sort of night, he was still traditionally the only one permitted to approach either the master bedroom, or Miss Merry’s chambers. (For a while there had been lazily vicious gossip on the matter — and there still was, if one knew where to listen — but then Lord Weston and Lady Brimmerton — both married, and not to each other! — were found in quite the compromising position, and so society had moved on.)

The master bedroom door was ajar when he arrived, but still he knocked, one hand holding the book to his breast. The door opened and there was Master Cain, with the devil’s own smile lighting his eyes; matrons had been known to mourn how young Count Hargreaves could have such an angelic appearance when his — habits — left so much to be desired in polite society, a demon wrapped up in sweetfaced trappings. Riff himself had seen enough to know better, but he was merely a man, and not generous enough to share his master’s true smiles with tearoom gossips.

“Aha, there you are,” said Master Cain. “And with my book, good, good. I think I’m ready for bed now,” and he stepped aside, so there was just enough room for Riff to enter, if he did not mind his arm brushing the lean slant of his master’s chest.

He did not.

Riff handed the book to his master. He did not wince when it was simply thrown aside, pages fluttering noisily as it landed upon the bed, but he did lift an eyebrow and say, “Master Cain, you should be more careful with your books.”

“It’s boring, anyway,” his master said. He tilted his head just so, and the moonlight through the windows was caught in his eyes. “I’m not sure I believe a word of it.” He put his hands on Riff’s and drew them up, till his palms were pressed to the sharp rise of his master’s thin shoulders. Master Alexis had been tall and broad-shouldered to match; his son was slighter, finer, and he would grow, but he would never quite match his father. Riff could fit his thumbs into the dip of his master’s shoulders, and he does, marveling: that delicacy was such a standard thing in women, but it was a strange and marvelous quality in a man, in a master, in *Cain*.

And for just a moment there was a flicker in Cain’s bright eyes, a corner-twist to that wide smile, and Cain said, “*Riff*,” like a drowning man, and Riff closed his eyes and leaned down.

He didn’t quite touch, his mouth hovering a hairsbreadth from the rise of Cain’s cheekbones. He counted the breaths against his cheek, quick and soft and scented with the wine from dinner, until at last Cain folded against him, long fingers sinking into his hair. Riff held fast, locking his knees to keep his balance, and let his hands move down to support the arch of Cain’s back. He knew this body well: where smooth skin faded into the rough crisscross of old scars, the softness of the belly and the sharp point of hips, those arms and those legs and everything. Cain’s face pressed into his neck, lips moving in the outlines of prayer against his skin.

“I’m not,” he said, and he opened his eyes to see Cain’s face below his own, flushed and staring. He wanted to touch the brightness he saw there, to curl his fingers around it and pull it into his own breast to protect. Even as he spoke, he pulled at the buttons of Cain’s shirt, pulling it loose and exposing whiter skin beneath; he reached up to card his hands through silky dark hair until it fanned out between his fingers. His hands were large and rough from work, clumsy against this young nobleman’s fair skin. “I’m not, I’m not really …”

“You are,” Cain promised. He smiled, and there was that sweetness that society rebuked, the kindness that his peers would never believe of him, that warmth that only Miss Merry also knew. He touched his mouth to Riff’s forehead, benediction and forgiveness and asking, and Riff put his hands on Cain’s narrow hips, pulling them down to fit against his own. With his hair disheveled and his face flushed, he could have passed for an angel, for an incubus, for some fey-creature only pretending to be human. This was a creature who could devour a man’s soul without even trying, this lithe young man whose golden eyes saw straight through him.

Riff fitted his hands to the arch of Cain’s back, his fingers spread wide across the mapped network of scars, and closed his eyes.

In the morning, as the end of the ritual, he woke early enough to pull the blankets back around his master, touching the wave of Master Cain’s soft hair, and left, closing the door behind him. He bathed without bothering to heat the water first, and shaved staring himself in the mirror, counting the marks of teeth upon his throat. He dressed with his collar turned up and his cuffs pulled down, and when the time came to wake Master Cain, he brought the tea-tray breakfast upstairs, and let nothing but affectionate respect echo in his voice.

It was not an obvious thing, not a constant thing, nor even a regular one. Riff’s bruises were often long-faded by the time it came around again.

He still held the memories close, and holds his voice steady and his back straight until Master Cain’s hand touched his elbow and smiled around the request for wine, for food, for a book forgotten at the dinner-table.

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