|The Tale of the Trader
Author: Guede Mazaka
Zlatan was very good with horses. Presumably he had other talents and skills, for the Privy Council of Sweden was a somber, hardheaded, ruthless body and was not prone to entertaining quacks or lightweights even for the most mundane matters. And the Regent Sten Sture was even less so, and it was he who had recommended the man to the Council. Although some might point to the very public lack of any contact between the two men, it was still undeniable that the Regent had entered into written record his favorable opinion of Zlatan—at least in regards to the business Zlatan did with the government stables. For it was also true, and this truth was not limited to only those with access to the archive of Council documents, that in the generally conservative, retiring, taciturn community of Stockholm, Zlatan was flagrantly eccentric, forward and prone to expressing himself with extraordinary clarity to all and sundry, from Regent to washerwoman.
“I—can’t—bend—my--hair.” The lock Zlatan yanked to illustrate his point was indeed so stiff with salt that it gave beneath the pressure with an audible crackle, and when he removed his hand, it remained doubled up so its end pointed at the sky. “So obviously I’ve just got off the damn ship, and before that it was storming all the way back, and so how the fuck, exactly, was I supposed to know what was going on here?”
“A messenger should have met you at the docks,” Ljungberg stiffly replied. He held his head up and back so his chin appeared to be addressing the high afternoon sun, and when Zlatan passed him on the way to the trough at which Council couriers watered their horses, the man’s nostrils flared. Then he hitched his head and shoulders back in an audible sniff.
As tempted as Zlatan was to escort Ljungberg around the corner to the piles of soiled hay that had been mucked from the stalls and demonstrate what a truly horrible smell was, he instead quickly splashed handfuls of water against his face, and then over the top of his head and down the back of his neck. Then he scrubbed at his skin, digging in hard with the tips of his fingers, and eventually it began to feel as if he were covered in that and not a thin layer of rusty iron.
Ljungberg was still talking, and likely with that lip of his curling at where Zlatan was choosing to wash up, but the couriers faced a brutal interrogation by the treasury any time they had to report the death of one of their mounts. So they took care of their horses, and the water in the trough was probably cleaner than the stuff that the poor bastards in Ljungberg’s household staff brought him every morning for his toilette. And, of course, Zlatan simply didn’t care about Ljungberg’s opinion of him.
“I didn’t see any messenger. Nobody shoved anything in my face or chased after me when I rode into town.” Zlatan squeezed what water he could from his hair, then riffled his right hand through the strands as he straightened up again. A few trickles still dripped into his collar, sticking it to his neck, but by the time he got to wherever he apparently needed to go, it’d be dry. “So are you going to waste another half-hour scolding me, or are you going to tell me what is it?”
An audible click signaled the shutting of the other man’s mouth. His eyes narrowed and his lips pressed themselves into a flat little line, and for a couple moments Ljungberg simply looked as if he were truly, seriously torn by the choice. Then he snorted and fiddled about with his fancy cape, making its fur-trimmed edge twitch as if Zlatan really was going to look. “Two or three fine stallions. The absolute best possible, not the best you can find. We need them as soon as possible.”
“Aren’t you contradicting yourself?” Zlatan asked. He gazed about till he spotted half a bale of hay, then took a handful of straw from it to wipe the water from his hands. “You know, quality and haste—”
“First thing tomorrow is the latest that would be acceptable. You should aim for tonight after dinner.” Ljungberg did, in fact, tap his heels together as he turned. “If you find the task too daunting, of course the Council can always look towards the native traders…”
After a moment, Zlatan released the wet straw so the clump fell to the ground as if it was a stone. Every stalk was doubled over on itself, and quite a few of them had actually broken in half despite the softening dampness. “Maybe if you weren’t so busy putting words in my mouth, you’d have more time to figure out how to fix your problem.”
“And what would that be?” Ljungberg queried, tone as delicate as a snowflake. He left the challenging to his arched eyebrow.
“That if you can’t get me to help, then you’re more out of luck than a dog with a broken leg in a well.” Zlatan kicked the straw into the corner, then pushed past Ljungberg for the second time and went into the stables. He heard the other man swear at his impudence, and then the clattering of those precious boot-heels as Ljungberg hurried after him in spite of all those defiant words. “Because I’m not just the best of the native traders—I’m the best, and that’s it.”
Wide-eyed stablehands, off-duty pages and all the manner of other bystanders hastily scattered into stalls—some not empty, as a flurry of squeals and whinnies erupted—and lofts before them. That was hardly new, for the constant tensions between Sweden and Denmark had everyone keeping their ears to the wind, but generally the Swedes were more discreet about it. So whatever the uproar was about, it really was as serious as Ljungberg claimed it was.
For a moment Zlatan’s blood ran a little cooler, but then he shook away the chill: if the discovery of Il Mago was the cause, then it’d hardly be Ljungberg the Council would send. They knew about war up here, in the bleak northlands where countryfolk still sometimes swore by the old pagan gods, and unlike the Italians they didn’t dance about it. “What kind of horses?”
“I told you—” Ljungberg reappeared at Zlatan’s right elbow, cheeks reddened and breath coming a little short. To his credit, he didn’t whine about the pace—he wasn’t the most useless piece of court frippery Zlatan had ever met—but the expression in his eyes suggested he was more than ready to substitute other complaints.
“You said stallions, you said the best. Best at what? Farming? Hunting? Carrying soldiers? Looking pretty in parades?” So some unexpected dignitary had shown up and thus gifting was required, Zlatan guessed. Swedish horses weren’t the most beautiful in the world, except to idiots who’d never seen Arabians, but they were justly famed for their other qualities of steadiness, strength and intelligence.
After sputtering for a few more yards about manners and the kindness of the Council, Ljungberg finally settled down to mix in some business with his scolding. By then they’d reached the section where the horses Zlatan had brought from Germany had been stabled, so Zlatan could half-listen without seeming unduly rude. He nodded whenever he heard an important word, and in between those he pulled down lips to check gum color and cast a scrutinizing eye at legs and hooves for any damage taken there. It really was a shame that whatever brainless functionary that had been sent to the docks hadn’t found Zlatan, since these German horses were the overall best he currently had. But while he was relieved to find them all healthy, even he couldn’t get them presentable by dinnertime.
He did have a few likely native horses, but from what he gathered of Ljungberg’s words, height was a concern and that, unfortunately, was not one of the Swedish breeds’ distinguishing traits. So they probably wouldn’t be acceptable, at least to Ljungberg’s stiff little nose, and Zlatan grudgingly admitted the other man could make things difficult for him. Well, in Stockholm, and more difficult than they already were. If Ljungberg ever got out of a snit long enough to think about actually getting his hands dirty with some effort, Zlatan could always go into the countryside and find the little village in which he’d been born. That far from the cities, it’d be easy enough to evade anyone sent after him.
Originally Zlatan had meant to go there anyway, but he’d landed at Stockholm first and had needed a lot of soap, for one, to recover from traveling through Germany—he’d picked up fleas and lice, and in the end had had to shave his head to get rid of all of them. And then…well, the place was dull when it wasn’t utterly ridiculous with its bristling over anything remotely entertaining, but it was better than the backwards, isolated little farms outside of it. Somehow Zlatan didn’t remember Sweden as being so…primitive.
“…listening?” Ljungberg’s voice soared like the twittering of a bird, only without the pleasant melody.
Zlatan frowned, then gave himself a shake. He pushed off the stall-door on which he’d been leaning. “And thinking, all right? If you’d told me before I left, I could’ve…why the hell didn’t you, anyway? Then you wouldn’t be running around like a scared chicken and I’d already have the horses here.”
“Look, you buy and sell horses. You aren’t responsible for formal arrangements, and so you should…you should…” The ire in Ljungberg’s voice trailed sharply off, and then he abruptly walked away.
In counterpoint came the tromping of boots, the stamping of startled horses, the rising chatter of human voices. Some large group was approaching, and as a quick look about revealed that Zlatan was now alone in this part of the stables, he assumed that it contained somebody of high rank.
He was still fuming over Ljungberg’s insults, no matter how hard he’d been trying to distract himself, and so was in no mood to deal with all the ceremony and groveling nobles considered necessary to life. Even when he was feeling kind towards the rest of the world, he didn’t much like that nonsense. So the sensible thing for him to do would be to take the chance and leave while Ljungberg was preoccupied.
Except that pompous little shit had walked off on him.
Ljungberg was a steward who occasionally got to have a glass of wine with Sten Sture, and he thought his realm included the whole world. Whereas once upon a time a whole country—the fucking Pope himself had been waiting with bated breath to see what took his fancy, Zlatan sourly thought. Of course that had been accompanied by far too much trouble to make it worth his while, but sometimes he…well, he wanted rub Ljungberg’s nose in it and then snap the man’s damn neck.
He was still thinking longingly of that when the neck in question came running back around the corner, and nearly ran itself into a pitchfork leaning against the wall. While Zlatan was grimacing at the miss, the head to which it attached glared and squawked. “What are you still doing here? Do you know who’s—never mind, it’s too late to get you away now. Good God, your clothes…”
Zlatan blinked a few times before truly looking at the other man. “What about them?”
Ljungberg’s mouth fell open, which was a look that fit him rather well. Then his eyes narrowed and he drew back his shoulders, preparing for a fine blustery roar. And then the first noble walked in and Ljungberg instead nearly broke his back as he spun about and bent as if he wanted to see what sort of acquaintance his nose and the floor could strike up.
Frankly, Zlatan thought looking at the bastard’s ass and considering only in his head what a push to it would do to help along that cause was rather restrained of him. But he still somehow earned himself a sharp kick to the ankle and a hiss to show some respect, and so he sighed loudly and stepped aside. Then he lifted his head to see what sort of puffed-up prig in clown’s clothes could send Ljungberg into such a fit, and saw Paolo.
The eyes were still that green, and even brighter with surprise. Though that was the only betrayal: not so much as a blink or a twitch of the cheek marred the rest of the man’s face. He was a little paler and there were a few more lines about his mouth and his eyes, but otherwise he looked healthy. Well, to be honest he looked like a born king, so comfortable with his power that he didn’t even seem to notice it, and that was before Zlatan got around to noticing his clothes.
“…stables. You’re welcome to any horse you fancy, as a mark of the high honor your presence confers upon the Council, my lord,” said somebody.
Zlatan shifted onto his trailing foot, feeling a little like he’d been swimming in the icy sea and had just tossed his head above the surface. Then he was himself again, only a little irritated with himself for being so pathetic as to get taken up in fashion, of all things. “Though I wouldn’t pick here, actually. These are still seasick.”
Ljungberg shot up from his bow with eyes blazing. “Zlatan!” he hissed. And then, with remarkable quickness, he turned an apologetic face on Paolo. “My lord, I have to apologize for this man’s rudeness.”
“Well, I have no idea who he is, and no Swede is used to bending his head lightly,” Zlatan snorted. He pulled his mouth into something like a smile and nodded towards Paolo.
Of course Ljungberg was infuriated, but to judge by the quick grins and amused murmurs, the comment played rather well with the Council members escorting Paolo, and it certainly brought a rare glint to Sten Sture’s eye. He still made a reproving gesture to Zlatan when he stepped out beside Paolo, but he didn’t call for the guards and a set of chains.
“This is the Duke of Milan,” he told Zlatan, and then jerked his head once in approval when Zlatan slowly bowed. A man beside him was rapidly translating everything into Italian for Paolo’s benefit. “My lord, this is the most knowledgeable man in Sweden when it comes to horseflesh. I was already going to leave the choosing of a small gift to you in his hands, and if I may be so bold, I’d like to commend him to you for any other queries you may find on that subject.”
Paolo’s eyes flickered so Zlatan had to surreptitiously dig his nails into the small of his back, but he merely offered a very graceful thanks through the interpreter. He and Sture went back and forth a bit more before they got around to the formal introductions between Paolo and Zlatan, and for that Zlatan was briefly glad of Ljungberg’s presence, as it made for an easy alternative preoccupation of his thoughts. After telling Zlatan rather perfunctorily not to worry about rank with him, Paolo asked for advice on picking a temporary mount he could use for a hunt being held the next day. Zlatan suggested a stallion in the next line of stalls, whose coat wasn’t a particularly fashionable color but who possessed good speed and an excellent sense of balance, and then Paolo, Sture and everyone else including Ljungberg walked on to see the beast.
For a few moments, after the dust had settled from their passing and the horses no longer stirred restlessly in their stalls, Zlatan simply stood there and stared at all the retreating backs. Then a noise made him start and he half-turned, picked up his foot. Then he put it down. His jaw hurt and so did the flesh of his palms, and even when he pried his nails out of those, a stabbing pain still lingered there. He kicked at some stray wisps of straw, savagely wishing he was doing it to the post he was eyeing, but two years of trying not to be a soldier had apparently softened him, since he was actually thinking about how that might disturb the horses for which he’d paid so much damn money, and at that an intense flash of heat went through him. His vision momentarily blacked out.
It cleared much more slowly, the world coming back in splotches and stinging bright dots till finally Zlatan was looking about the stables again. Nothing seemed out of place, no damage was evident, and upon that realization the last remnants of his rage chilled away. In its place was a strange aching, but he breathed a few times, and soon that eased as well. He even managed a snort at himself for acting exactly like the foppish courtiers he despised, and with a contemptuous flick of his hand over his shoulder, he started off in the opposite direction. Let Ljungberg and the rest chase after Paolo; Zlatan had long since learned better.
* * *
As much as Zlatan disliked the nobility, he generally found their household staff more irritating with their airs and their assumption that merely holding a certain position, and never mind the actual effort needed or put in, raised them to God’s right hand. But he hadn’t been so disdainful as to not establish a few contacts here and there, and as he ransacked Stockholm for horses over fifteen hands he made use of them.
By the time he delivered two stallions and a mare to the building where Paolo was staying, he knew the other man had shown up without any notice to anyone except possibly Sture—when diplomatic visits were normally arranged months in advance—and had only a few servants with him. Zlatan didn’t recognize the descriptions of any of them, and the one he did meet at the stables clearly had no idea who he was, though the man spoke the Italian of Milan. It would have been easy for Paolo to hire outside of the army Zlatan had left him, but a little more difficult to find Italians who didn’t know something of what Il Mago looked like, even thirdhand and distorted by gossip. Though that task might possibly be easier in Milan than in the rest of the country, since Zlatan had assiduously avoided fighting near there till the last campaign.
Either way, it was curious that Paolo would go through the trouble to do that, as if he cared as much as Zlatan did about avoiding identification with the supposedly dead condottiere. Of course, that presumed that he’d considered the possibility of meeting Zlatan in Sweden in the first place. In Germany Zlatan had heard all about Paolo’s very recent visit with King Maximilian, but had assumed that Paolo had then returned to Milan; so had the Privy Council, but there was already gossip going round that the Duke carried some sort of message from the German king, or was here to discuss Swedish iron exports, or some combination of the two. That quick meant somebody had had a plan waiting for Paolo’s arrival, and in Stockholm nothing happened without Sten Sture having a hand in it.
So maybe, Zlatan thought as he sat down to a very, very late dinner, it was coincidental. Paolo and Maximilian and Sture had some political ruse simmering on the hearth, and there was some unrelated reason why Paolo hadn’t brought anybody who knew Zlatan on sight. The people who could immediately recognize him were all soldiers and badly needed at home, with that brat Cesare Borgia having turned out such a success on the battlefield. Or after two years of reportedly loyal service, Paolo still didn’t trust them, and was finally in a position to do something about it.
Or Zlatan had become one of those perpetually hopeful idiots who rummaged around in even the deepest shit for a glimmer of future good fortune. Those people always reminded him of chickens, and well, that happened to be his dinner tonight.
He looked at the breast and half a leg that remained on his plate. Somehow his stomach still managed a half-hearted grumble, but he ignored it and shoved the plate across the table. This far off the spice-trading centers, his meals had become a bit plainer so he could spend the money saved on things like good hay and grain, but he still was a long way from having to eat when he didn’t like the taste.
Instead he shoved his chair back from the table and got up. One of the chair’s legs caught on a knot in a floorboard and spun about to kick him in the calf before falling over with a clatter. He instinctively jerked away from it, then dropped one hand to his hip as he turned to see what had happened. For a moment he looked at the chair and thought about how satisfying it might be to reduce it to kindling, but then the sheer stupidity of it all was too much. So he shook his head, and righted his chair, and then he got his cloak off the wall and went back to the stables to check on the new German horses.
A sleepy stablehand hailed him, then scuttled off when Zlatan barked at him. Hopefully the boy would warn his fellows, and the lot of them would avoid this stretch of stalls till the morning. Though then, Zlatan irritably thought, he’d probably have to track one down and yell at him to get them to come back. The little bastards already had forgotten to dole out the mash with the evening feed like he’d asked.
For the moment he let that go. He found a clean nook in the loft to stow his cloak and the leather jacket he wore over his shirt in place of the more fashionable doublet, and then he mixed up the grain and water himself. Zlatan poured the mash into a kettle, then went in search of a fire.
He found one in the next building, where a few of the grooms were lodged. They were all out or asleep, so he poked the smoldering cinders in the hearth into a red glow, then hung the kettle so it was directly over the hottest part of the fire. Then he leaned against the side of the fireplace and waited for the mash to boil, with only the occasional stir at it to break up the monotony. A good distraction it was not, but it gave his body something to do while he pulled together a few unpleasant thoughts.
If Paolo had wanted to talk privately with Zlatan, he’d have sent a message by now. If he had wanted to merely unmask Zlatan, he also could’ve done that already, though to what good was hard to guess. When it came to Italy, and its greedy Popes and petty wars and all that that involved, the Swedes generally expressed disgust. But at the same time they were desperate for the kind of international recognition even little Siena got, and they were increasingly willing to pay for that in blood.
Like the war with Denmark that the smallest child knew would come soon…and that was another area where Sweden had failed to live up to Zlatan’s memories. He’d not enjoyed fighting under the banner of any of the Italian nobles who’d hired him, and they at least were cheerfully honest about their savagery and selfishness. Whereas even Sten Sture when he talked about how he worked only for Sweden’s good and his passion for his homeland sounded terrifically dour. Zlatan tried to imagine the man making a business proposal to Il Mago like Ercole d’Este had and had to slap his hand over his mouth to keep his laughter from bellowing out.
But then he imagined Sture telling him it was his duty, as a Swede, and what the consequences of a faint sense of patriotism would be, and the moment of humor quickly slipped away. In its place came a grim chill, so cold that Zlatan nearly let a stray flaring of the fire catch his sleeve as he leaned towards its warmth, and he had to admit that that scenario was far too likely.
He’d have to talk to Paolo, and damn the man for that. Standing around here and trying to tease apart whatever intentions Paolo had wasn’t working any better than it had years ago. Anyway, that had been why Zlatan had listened to the man, after all—mediocre was a kind way to describe his ability to fend for himself outside of a fully-staffed and –stocked palazzo, but he was far better at all that intricate chamber-room plotting.
Some of the Council members were taking Paolo on a hunt tomorrow, Zlatan recalled hearing. There was only one suitable location for that, and it’d be easy enough to slip in from a different part of the woods. Cutting Paolo out from the mob of nobles, hounds-masters, beaters and various other servants would be harder, but luckily, Zlatan had advised Paolo to take a horse he’d personally trained. If the man did follow the recommendation, then they could have their discussion and finish before anyone noticed Paolo’s absence. Or, if the circumstances decided to be that unfavorable, before anyone could keep Zlatan from vanishing into the hinterlands.
A large bubble had formed on the surface of the mash and now it loudly popped, making Zlatan start. He took a step back, then shook his head and bent forward to pull the kettle off the fire. After he’d fed his horses, he could go home and try sleeping.
* * *
Zlatan owned some good grazing land near the edge of the forest and there he had built paddocks and a small farmhouse for the occasional night he spent out of the city. He also used the place to store a few things he didn’t want in the middle of so many potential prying eyes, like the sword Luís had given him.
It never chipped and never rusted, and so when he pulled it from its hiding place beneath the hearth, he wasn’t too surprised to find that it’d survived two harsh winters without any dimming of its gleam. He did briefly think again about how strange the sword was, and how excited that Venetian who’d wanted to buy it off him had gotten so many years ago, but when all was said and done, it still was just a sword. And the damn thing did need sharpening: when Zlatan put his thumb to the edge, he found he could press down quite hard without receiving a scratch.
Quite a few people would’ve said the blade, broad and heavy and long in a way that whispered of a time even harsher and bleaker than the worst Zlatan had known, didn’t need a good edge to do damage. Of course, they were probably also the sort who’d knock down a man and then stand about gloating while he recovered enough to stab them in the back; when Zlatan hit somebody, he wanted them to get up again when he made them.
But the weight of the sword meant nothing short of a sharpening wheel would do, and that meant a blacksmith, and that meant riding back into town. The hunting horns weren’t blowing yet, but they’d be before Zlatan could make the trip, even flat-out racing on his fastest horse that he hadn’t brought with him.
Zlatan squatted among the ashes and grimy hearthstones scattered on the floor, holding the sword in his hands, and actually did consider the idea. He absentmindedly turned the blade over and over as he thought, and then happened to glance down.
The steel flashed, far too bright considering the weakness of the early morning light, and Zlatan instinctively jerked away, squinting. Then he stopped and looked again, looked at his reflection all squashed and fattened in the flat of the blade, and he had to laugh at himself. Dragging it out in the first place had been silly, when he’d first picked his cleverest, quietest horse and then gone through the trouble of fitting wooden overshoes onto its hooves to further dull the sound of its feet. Debating how to get the sword sharpened was simply ridiculous. He wasn’t planning to kill the whole damn hunting party, after all.
So Zlatan put it back and replaced the stones over it. He carefully piled up ashes on top so the hearth didn’t look as if it’d been disturbed, swept away the remaining dust, and then dug another sword out from its hiding place beneath the cot in the corner. This one was lighter and thinner, clearly no more than a few years old, and short enough so that if he strapped it to his back under his jacket, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious to an onlooker.
He did waste a few minutes looking at it before he stripped off his jacket: it was one of the few things he’d taken with him from Italy. On his way out of the ducal palace in Milan, still tasting Sandro’s mouth and Paolo’s skin, and he’d been kicking everything he saw so it was a wonder nobody had heard and come running to challenge him when this sword had clattered away from his foot. Maybe he should just not bother, or hunt about for the crossbow instead.
Zlatan made a face, and then was glad that this one’s scabbard hadn’t rotted away so he could see himself in its blade. Without thinking about it anymore, he tossed the sword onto the cot and then yanked his arm out of his sleeve. It was a sword, and he was going to be creeping about where he shouldn’t be. That was all.
* * *
The crashing in the underbrush reached Zlatan long before any voices did. He slowed his horse so he could listen, but didn’t dismount till he heard a familiar whinny—this was the third time he’d slipped up on members of the hunting party and the last one had nearly caught him at it. Sometimes it was hard to remember, with all their sermonizing and humorlessness, that some of the nobles were in fact decent hunters and not completely awful on the battlefield, either.
After loosening his jacket so his sword wouldn’t snag if he had to pull it out, Zlatan carefully slid the reins over his horse’s head. The beast snuffled a bit as his hand dipped near its nose and he went still, listening hard. Then he flipped the last loop of leather over and eased backwards to straighten the reins out before him, and as he did he stroked his other hand down the horse’s neck. It nodded, then silently stood in place as he got ready to tie the reins to a low-hanging branch.
“Damn! I can’t hold—”
“My lord, look out!”
A great cracking noise whipped through the air, and then from a clump of bushes to Zlatan’s left burst a brown blur. Zlatan dropped the reins and threw himself to the side, then rolled as Paolo’s horse rammed into his own. The animal was frothing at the mouth in its panic and as it stumbled back a huge gobbet of spit swung from its lip into Zlatan’s eyes. He cursed and clawed at his face, branches snapping and horses screaming all around him, and then human shouts were added to the chaos.
Instinct made Zlatan go to the ground where he was. His knee struck something and instantly throbbed with pain, but he gritted his teeth and shoved himself back till he came up against a tree. Then, shoulder braced against that, he slashed at his eyes with one hand and with the other yanked his sword a few inches free of its scabbard.
He left it that way and used that hand to balance himself against the tree as the roaring noises finally began to fade. His vision began to clear, then was nearly wiped away again by a clattering of dirt clods, but Zlatan got his arm up in time. Then he could see, and he was looking at nothing but twisted and snapped twigs and torn earth.
His horse had been well-trained and experienced, but even it couldn’t take the panicked bucking of Paolo’s mount and both animals had fled. Only God knew where, and He’d have to take care of them now, since though Zlatan no longer felt as if he were standing in the middle of a storm, the woods hadn’t fallen silent by any measure.
The first shout had been Paolo, and the second voice had been vaguely familiar but no more than that. Now the two men were talking, breathless and loud with lingering shock, about what could have spooked the horse. Paolo was farther away, the other man nearer. Both of them sounded sufficiently distracted for Zlatan to risk getting up and, with a disgusted look in the direction the horses had gone, sidling behind a tree just to the left of the stranger. He checked himself over for any serious injuries, listened till the other man’s voice had faded a little— the man was turning to address Paolo—and then looked around the tree.
Paolo was bent over so the top of his head met Zlatan’s eyes, examining something on his leg. “We went quite far from the others, it seems.”
“Probably too far to raise a hail,” said his companion. He brushed a shaky hand at a streak of dirt on his left thigh, then started towards Paolo with a strange crab-like motion, half-crouching while taking strides too long to be comfortable. Halfway across he picked up a branch that had snapped so it ended in a splintery knob. “Are you all right?”
His voice broke in the wrong place and Paolo stilled, then looked sharply up as the other man whipped the branch over his head. He was already shifting his weight and so his duck and lunge carried him out of the path of the branch’s swing, but then something caught up his foot. Paolo couldn’t keep from falling, but when he realized that that was inevitable he threw himself down and rolled. The moment he could he twisted onto his feet, eyes going to something on the ground, but some movement distracted him and he threw himself backwards with a cry, his arm flinging up.
It helped him avoid the blood that sprayed all over the damn place. His attacker had been so clumsy and amateur that by the time he’d gotten to Paolo, the dagger Zlatan had thrown had reached his calf. But something in his boot had skewed the blade aside so it cut only a little into his leg before falling away to leave him still mobile. So then Zlatan had drawn the sword and come out to deal with the idiot—he probably should’ve done that in the first place—but the dagger had given enough warning for the other man to see him.
Of course that didn’t save the bastard, but it did mean that Zlatan’s first pass merely slashed open his abdomen instead of immediately dropping him. The man finished turning with a terrified gurgle, then flung the branch away to clutch at his out-spilling guts. He fell to one knee and Zlatan’s second pass sent his head smashing into a tree five yards away. It tumbled down, then got stuck in a tangle of bushes. The sword likewise wedged into the neck-bones as the toppling body caught the blade on the backswing, jerking Zlatan off one foot. Then the body fell towards Zlatan so in an instant his hair was matted into his eyes with blood and more of it was plastering his shirt to his chest. He flinched and jerked wildly at the hilt, hissing, and something snapped before he was suddenly free to stumble backwards.
It only took a few seconds for the arteries to run dry, but Zlatan was too busy slapping at his cheeks and yanking handfuls of blood from his hair to be thankful. Anyway, he was utterly disgusted with himself for making such a fucking hash of the whole thing, as if he was some farmer just pressed into the army. He hadn’t gotten so soaked in a single-man duel—in any fight outside of a full-on battle, actually—since before he’d met…
He paused, his fingers still knotted in his hair, and took a slow breath. Then he pulled his arm down and turned on his heel, and found Paolo looking wide-eyed and grey-faced at the body, one hand clamped to his mouth so tightly the flesh around his nails and the flesh beneath his fingers were both whitened.
“Oh, God’s balls, Paolo, you still aren’t used to this?” Zlatan snarled. He looked down himself and discovered the sword had broken to leave barely four inches in the hilt. He started to curse it for being worse than a useless piece of shit, but that made him think about…about everything that had just happened, and so instead he sighed, long and loud. “Two years. Two years, damn it, and the worst I did was knock out this ass of a thief in Holstein. And you come and on the second day I’m cutting off heads of…”
Zlatan frowned, then spun about and went to have another look at the head. Then he sighed again, pushing his sticky hand into the rapidly stiffening hair over his right temple.
“Not really, though I think I’ve gotten better at pretending otherwise. But you surprised me.” Paolo grunted, and when Zlatan looked over one shoulder, he found Paolo slowly getting to his feet. “Sorry.”
“For still being rude about things like that, or for the fact that I just killed a fucking chamberlain?” And not only that, but if Zlatan remembered correctly, this bastard had belonged to the household of Svante Nilsson, Sten Sture’s greatest rival in the Privy Council. Sture might turn a blind eye to Zlatan’s tongue, but he wouldn’t bother getting into a real fight on Zlatan’s behalf. He’d just let Nilsson have Zlatan. “Shit. I think he might’ve been important.”
“Thank you,” was Paolo’s odd reply. He still seemed to be catching his breath when Zlatan turned, though he straightened a moment later to look Zlatan in the eye. Then he frowned. “Oh. I meant for saving me.”
Zlatan absently scratched at the drying blood on his scalp, staring at the other man. “Did you fall before I got here, and hit your head?”
“No, I—” Paolo stopped, his eyebrows pinching out a deep furrow between them as he thought. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heels of his hands to his wrinkled brow. “Did you know he was going to try and kill me? Is that why you’re—”
“If I’d known this sort of thing was going on, he never would’ve made it here,” Zlatan snapped. “What’s wrong with you? You just had somebody try to assassinate you, and you’re standing around asking me stupid questions? Did your wife die, or Sandro go back to Rome or—”
“I know!” The hands came down and Paolo’s head went back, his eyes so blazing that Zlatan almost wanted to step back. “I know I almost d—”
He jerked forward, then retreated a little. His shoulders hitched up before abruptly slumping, and the light drained out of his eyes so precipitously that Zlatan started to lift a hand, thinking Paolo was about to faint. But no, the other man was merely collecting himself: Paolo brushed a lock of hair out of his face, swept a hand down his disheveled clothes, and though he actually didn’t tidy himself much, the impression one got was that God had peeked in and restored a little order to his madly spinning creations.
“Adriana and Sandro are both fine,” Paolo said for some reason. He lifted a cool, assessing gaze to the impatient noise Zlatan made. “Sandro actually had something he wanted me to tell you, should he come up, but I’ll spare you that. So you know him?”
He was referring to the body, and when they both looked at it this time, Paolo blanched so little that Zlatan wouldn’t have seen it if he hadn’t been waiting for it. Zlatan shrugged and knelt down to knock at the other half of the sword with the hilt till he’d gotten it unstuck from the neckbones. “He serves Svante Nilsson, I think. Didn’t you get introduced?”
“Not formally. We both went after the same deer, and then…my horse suddenly bolted, and he chased after me. The only one who could keep up.” From the tone of his voice, Paolo was going over the memory very closely for any early sign of suspicious doings. “It was a very good horse, by the way. It tried to keep me on as long as it could, but I think the man kept spooking it, and finally I had to jump off.”
“Of course it was a good horse. I told you so,” Zlatan muttered. He tossed the hilt down next to the rest of the sword, then kicked the pieces out of the way so he could turn over the body.
A quick search revealed nothing that struck Zlatan or Paolo, who reluctantly watched, as significant. So Zlatan put everything back, then stood up. By then the blood on him was congealing so it was cold and thick and revoltingly sticky; he absently scraped some off his cheek and began to flick it away. Then he looked at his hand again.
“Do you know anything about Nilsson’s political inclinations?” Paolo asked.
Zlatan vigorously flapped his hand so the blood clots on it went every way that was possible. Then he raised both hands and, after squeezing as much blood as he could from his shirt onto them, repeated the motion while walking in increasingly wider circles around the body. He stopped to pick up the halves of the sword, then continued bloodying the underbrush one-handed as Paolo hastily moved back. “He’s a great Dane-lover. He…well, to be honest, he basically loves everything Sten Sture doesn’t, and hates everything Sture loves.”
He pulled off his jacket and turned it inside-out, then wrapped the sword fragments in it along with the scabbard. The next time he passed Paolo, he gave that to the other man. Then he hunted down his dagger and after flipping the corpse back onto its stomach, he added more slashes to it so it looked as if several men had been at it. When he thought that that looked convincing enough, he moved on to their surroundings, ripping up plants and digging jagged grooves in the dirt with his heels.
Paolo had watched the mutilations in silence and taken the sword pieces with only a thinning of the lips, but now he cleared his throat. “Zlatan, what are you doing?”
“You were set on by a bunch of robbers, or what you thought were robbers, anyway. You just got here, so it’s not like you can tell the difference between them and…and I don’t know, disgruntled barons. Or whatever you like. I wasn’t here, and you didn’t really see what happened anyway. You got away while everybody was fighting.” Zlatan stripped off his shirt and used it to wipe off as much of the remaining blood from himself as he could, then balled it up so it wouldn’t drip as he carried it. Then he took Paolo by the elbow and pulled them into the half-tunnel that Zlatan’s and Paolo’s horses had smashed through the underbrush.
He looked back once to see how believable his work looked, then kept on at a steady pace. After some initial resistance, Paolo had the sense to simply turn around and walk alongside Zlatan, albeit with more than a few curious looks. “Well, when I get back it should be interesting to see who looks disappointed at that story.”
“You’re welcome,” Zlatan snorted.
Paolo looked at him, and then the other man smiled. It…well, it fit Paolo very well, all warm humor and easy grace, and that was why it struck Zlatan as odd. He’d never seen that particular expression when it was directed at him.
He belatedly became aware that he was grinning himself, and immediately put a stop to that with a half-jerk away from the other man. Zlatan scrubbed at his mouth before noticing that that was causing bits of clots to fall from him. He was trying not to leave a trail now, so instead he began to knock stones and wrench weeds out of their way with his boots. The itch under his skin was due to more than the gore on him and he wished it had been a group, after all. Killing the lot of them would’ve taken longer to clean up, but at least he might have had the chance to work himself into a calmer state of mind.
“This looks familiar,” Paolo murmured. He was peering into the bundled-up jacket as he moved it about in his hands so the halves of the sword clinked against each other. His voice had flattened a little, as if he’d suddenly experienced the same discomforting realizations Zlatan had, and when he lifted his head, it was to watch Zlatan as closely as the lead stallion of a herd would a lurking wolf.
Zlatan smiled mockingly, which felt a good deal more like what he should be doing. “Well, it’s from the ducal palace in Milan. Never bothered asking who it belonged to, though.”
Paolo stiffened slightly, the way he used to when Zlatan would pet his cheek in front of other people. He looked at Zlatan, at the sword, and then he quietly wrapped that back up in Zlatan’s jacket. Then he pursed his lips a few times before giving himself a short, sharp shake. “I have a feeling that back there was Maximilian’s doing. He’s looking to gain a toehold in Italy…he would’ve married Bianca Maria Sforza and claimed Milan if—”
“—you hadn’t had her killed?” Zlatan lightly said. He raised his brows at Paolo’s flinch. “Well, even up north we get the news. And maybe I just should’ve dragged that ass off before I cut off his head, if that would’ve sat that much better with your stomach. Though maybe he would’ve had time to get to you, then.”
“It wouldn’t have. I did have her killed, and I’ve had others killed, and I’m no closer to liking it than I was when my family was massacred, but I won’t lose Milan a second time,” Paolo quietly replied. He tucked the bundle beneath one arm and lifted somber eyes to Zlatan. “I don’t naturally have the stomach for killing, I know that. And I don’t like the fact that I’ve had to learn to have it. But I don’t think I’m better than you because I still gag sometimes.”
He continued to gaze up at Zlatan long after he’d finished speaking, but not as if there was anything else on his mind that he was trying not to say, or that he didn’t want to say, or frankly, as if he had any intentions whatsoever. But his words made for a nice little piece of flattery, so that couldn’t be the true case. So Zlatan stared back, but saw nothing to which he could form an easy retort, and in fact the longer he looked, the more the lack of anything suspicious worked on his nerves.
A crackling in a nearby bush gave him a reason to look away and he did even though he already knew it wasn’t anything bigger than a hare. He absently rolled his shoulders, then swiped his fingers over an itchy spot on his cheek. They came away covered in dull red flecks. “There should be a creek around here. I need to wash up, and then I’ll show you how to get back to the road into town. If you try and get back to the other hunters now, they’ll probably end up spearing you by accident or something like that…what? I’m not joking. This is the most fun those stiff old shits have had in months and they’re going completely mad.”
“I wasn’t laughing at the warning,” Paolo hastily said, dropping the smile from his face. He glanced up at Zlatan, then looked away into the woods as he pursed his lips once, twice…three times. “Pity I didn’t bring any soap with me.”
“Why? So you could make some point about how uncivilized we are up north?” Now that Zlatan was thinking about it again, the blood in his hair and all over his chest was becoming increasingly itchy. They were far enough away now to not need to worry so much about their tracks, so he ran his hands through his hair, giving his scalp a good raking. He didn’t bother looking to see Paolo’s expression.
“No. I didn’t mean…” Though curiously, Paolo sounded more chagrined than disgusted. “I assumed you still…preferred to use that when you washed yourself.”
Zlatan’s finger hooked into a gory half-dried knot, then abruptly ripped through the strands before he could stop himself. He winced and pulled his hand down to pick off the broken hairs. “Of course I do. What, you thought two years away from grand refined Italy was going to turn me into some—”
“I had no idea what you’d be like,” Paolo said very quietly. He cleared his throat and Zlatan glanced at him then, but the other man was gazing about them with no particular expression on his face. “It was a bad joke. Last night I was sending out samples of Milanese soaps as gifts, examples of what trade with us could bring. I was still thinking about that.”
If he really had been, then the hint that he had indeed meant to run into Zlatan could have been accidental, and therefore telling. But finding out if that was so would have to wait a moment, since Zlatan’s ears had finally detected a distant gurgling.
He immediately swerved towards it and had plunged several yards through the brush before he remembered he had company. For a moment Zlatan considered simply going on anyway, but in doing that he’d stopped where he was and so had already eliminated that choice. He pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering if that vague thumping in his temples was an oncoming headache, and then turned around.
Paolo had kept up rather well, considering the roughness of the ground and the usual impression he made of silk and fine wines and nothing much harder than figuring out seating arrangements at dinner. Of course Zlatan had seen him often enough in difficult situations to know not to believe too much in the man’s smooth refinement, but the sight of Paolo scrambling over a moss-slick fallen log and cursing as his heel skidded on the pungently rotten wood was still entertaining.
Though then Paolo was safely down on the ground, and looking at Zlatan like he wanted to continue talking. Zlatan turned on his heel and began scratching at his cheek. “So that’s why you’re here? Some trade deal?”
“Hopefully. We could use the iron.” A few deceptively languid strides put Paolo back at Zlatan’s elbow, and then he slowed so he was always slightly behind. It was rather irritating, as occasionally his voice would dip and Zlatan would have to drop back to hear. “It’s also because of Maximilian. He hasn’t given up on Italy. Or Milan, though now that Charles in France looks interested in trying to push his claim to it.”
“And he pays good money for Swedish iron. If you’re trying to start hostilities up here, you should’ve gone to Denmark. They and the Germans are always bickering over Schleswig and Holstein,” Zlatan muttered. Now he could see the gleam of water through the leaves and he quickened his pace.
They shortly emerged onto the bank of the stream, which was barely deep enough to cover the tops of Zlatan’s boots if he stood in its middle, but which was as clear as the finest glass. After tossing his bloody shirt on a rock, Zlatan got down on his knees and was about to scoop up a double-handful of water when he heard, very faintly, the brassy cry of a hunting horn. He paused, listening hard, and when nothing followed, decided that the main hunt was still too far away to bother worrying about.
“If I were, I’d hardly have signed a peace treaty with Maximilian and then come up here,” Paolo commented in a mild tone. He carefully laid the wrapped-up sword next to Zlatan’s shirt, then retreated out of Zlatan’s sight. “He wants land in Italy, but more than that, he wants to keep France out. So for the moment we’re allied, and he’s more than happy to let me talk to Sten Sture about closer trading ties. Everything has to go through his territories, after all.”
A few splashes seemed to get rid of all the gore on Zlatan’s face, but mere seconds later he glimpsed a red trickle running off the tip of his nose. Then he touched his fingers to his damp hairline and understood, and with a sigh bent over further so he could rinse out his hair first. “And then the first time he seizes a caravan before you can pay for it, the merchants here will be furious. Not bad. So you think France is going to attack first? I hear Charles isn’t too bad of a general.”
“He’s not.” Paolo’s boots walked back into the edge of Zlatan’s sight, as if the other man were staring down into the water. “He’s already sent some scouting parties, claiming they were bandits. Sandro’s likely going to be out on that border till winter closes the mountain passes.”
“Well, that’ll take care of it. He fights better when he’s too cranky to think about things,” Zlatan snorted. A thick crust had formed behind his right ear and he scrubbed hard at it till he could work a thumbnail beneath the stuff. Then he managed to peel most of it off and flicked that into the swirling water.
When he turned back, Paolo was crouched quite close to him with one hand dangling to trail its fingertips in the water. The furrows in Paolo’s brow were deep enough to have held a coin inserted into them, and he didn’t seem have to noticed Zlatan’s slight start. “But it ties him up there, and I think you’ve heard of Cesare Borgia’s successes in the Romagna. He’s starting to eye the north as well.”
“Then why are you up here? For a trading treaty you could’ve sent some lackey, and gone to be depressed back home where you could do something about it.” Zlatan put his hand down for balance, but the first place he chose was too soft and his fingers slipped when he leaned over. He moved his hand a few inches, then dipped his head into the water.
The icy current shocked the blood from his scalp, leaving behind a violent tingling that verged on almost painful as he pressed his fingers into his head. He hissed and worked as quickly as possible, and then when he pushed himself back up, he made sure to vigorously shake his hand through his hair before he flipped his head up, so then not so much water would sluice down his back.
Some inevitably still did and the chill of the dribbles made Zlatan shiver. Water got in his eyes and turned the world blurry and distorted larger than it should be; he squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. Then he surprised himself by gasping, for the cold had stolen the breath from him.
“I came,” Paolo was saying, slow and measured—almost too measured, to the point of hesitancy, “Because I did have to be there in person to sign the treaty with Maximilian, so I thought I might as well come here.”
Zlatan blinked again, hard so the corners of his eyes burned. Then he pulled his wet hand over his face, feeling his skin drag before it plumped back after the pressure had gone, and looked at the other man. “You’re lying.”
Paolo was still ripple-gazing, but at that his head came sharply up. He stared at Zlatan, his eyes slightly widening, and then he looked back down, but not before Zlatan had glimpsed the rueful smile on his face. “And not even needing an audience and a tease to know that now.”
“You’re not so different either, even if you’re a great enough lord to pretend I’m nobody when we meet,” Zlatan said. The words came out rather more harshly than he’d meant, and the harshness wasn’t a result of contempt either. He pushed two knuckles hard into his left cheekbone, but the flesh there was already warming.
He didn’t need to look, and he knew he wasn’t mistaken this time, to know that Paolo was staring at him in surprise. “I asked before I came and I hadn’t heard anything about a shockingly good new general in the Swedish army, so I assumed you weren’t still plying that trade, or going under the same name.”
“What, Il Mago? That was never my name anyway—that’s just what you Italians felt like calling me.” Zlatan dug his nails into his cheek, then abruptly jerked his hand back into the stream. The water splashed violently up, almost to his elbow. “If you wanted to talk about hiring him, you could’ve just sent a letter or an envoy. Showing up yourself doesn’t impress me.”
“I don’t want to talk about him,” Paolo snapped. He sucked in his breath so quickly that the last word was almost dragged back into his mouth. Then he exhaled, slow and long and frustrated. “No, I do, but—I didn’t come here solely to discuss war and politics.”
“That’s all you have been talking about. Besides, why else would you keep complimenting me?” Zlatan laughed. He grinned at Paolo and Paolo grimaced and pressed two fingers to his temple, and suddenly the course of the conversation was much more familiar to Zlatan. The tension in his back, particularly between his shoulders, lessened and he leaned forward again to slosh off the blood from his chest and neck. “I watched you charm plenty of people, remember. I know how that works.”
Paolo started to reply, then roughly stopped himself. His feet shifted about, sending a few pebbles bouncing into the water. Then he twisted, as if about to stand and go off, and Zlatan rolled his eyes and reached for him, not wanting to have to add a foot chase through the forest to the day’s miseries.
Except Paolo wasn’t there, but instead was down on his knees and right up against Zlatan, his hand falling on Zlatan’s outstretched arm and his eyes crowding the trees from Zlatan’s sight. His breath ghosted over Zlatan’s face and Zlatan started backwards, but lost his balance and merely sat hard on his heels. The hand on his arm slipped lightning-quick to curl around his neck, and another one pressed against the side of his face, and then Paolo was kissing him, hard and demanding like Zlatan had never let happen before.
Zlatan stiffened. His arms snapped down to his sides and he jammed his fingers deep into the stony muck so buried rocks and roots bruised and cut at them. His knee went up in instinctive counterbalance, just brushing past Paolo’s hip, and suddenly the other man went slack, mouth still feverish against Zlatan’s own but clinging there only thanks to its passion. He pushed his fingers into Zlatan’s hair and Zlatan gasped, jerking his head aside. Then he yanked Paolo’s hands off and twisted away from the other man in the same motion. The moment he felt Paolo’s balance go, he released his hold so Paolo would continue his fall and threw himself over, onto his hands and knees.
“God damn—” Paolo hissed, pebbles clattering and water splattering “—Zlatan! Wait!”
“What was that for?” Zlatan hissed back. He grabbed at a plant, then slammed his hand down over a rock. But instead his palm met leather with a loud smack, and beneath the leather things moved so he lost his grip. He slid back to his knees, then cursed and scrambled to push up the flap of his jacket before the sword fragments rolled out of it.
He had the bundle remade in a trice, and then he had to breathe before the black spots in his vision grew any larger. He pressed his hands down on the rock on either side of the bundle, staring blankly at the ground—something reddish presented itself, and a second glance proved it to be Zlatan’s bloody shirt, fallen into the mud. For a few moments Zlatan couldn’t remember how it’d gotten stained.
And then he did, and after that the ridiculousness of running from Paolo’s idiot idea of a negotiation shone forth in all its glory. So Zlatan stayed put, and looked warily up.
Paolo had gained a few more dirty swashes on his legs and arms, but otherwise seemed unharmed. Though he was still down on one knee and gingerly touching the other, as if—he glanced up, met Zlatan’s gaze, and in the moment before he controlled himself, he looked embarrassed. “I twisted my knee when I jumped off my horse, and did it again just now. So by the time I could get over to you, you could have gone to the other side of the forest, if you wanted.”
“You’re trying to charm me again,” Zlatan said.
“I know. I know and…” A flash of irritation went over Paolo’s face. He stopped probing his knee and carefully sat back on the other, rubbing one hand over his cheek. “Look, I’m not entirely sure how you feel about my being here and I’m trying not to offend you before I have a chance to explain, and this is how I’m used to doing—you know that, you said so.” He was more mumbling to himself than to Zlatan, and to judge from the deepening of his grimace, less and less pleased with himself as he went out. “I don’t know how to do this.”
Zlatan told himself this would be the perfect time to needle Paolo into losing his temper, and then they could probably keep up the arguing till they got to the road. Then he slowly edged around the rock instead. “Did you come here looking for me?”
Paolo stopped rubbing at his face. He hesitated, then dropped his hand and lifted his head. “I did.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything in the stables? Or send a message later?” After tossing his shirt back on the rock, Zlatan went down to the stream and swished his hand through the water.
The other man watched, but didn’t move. “It seemed like you didn’t want anyone to know who you’d…been, and I wanted to respect your wishes.”
“Really. So you came here, you’ve seen me, and if I tell you I don’t want to talk to you, you’ll just leave?” Zlatan asked. “If that’s my wish?”
“And I sent no message because you—you seemed unhappy to see me, and so I thought it’d be a little quick for that. Better that we meet in public a few more times so you could see my intentions weren’t harmful,” Paolo went on, as if Zlatan hadn’t spoken. But when Zlatan turned, Paolo clearly had been waiting for it. “And no, I’m not about to leave now. I haven’t said everything I’d like to.”
Zlatan snorted, then dashed his hand across the water as he pivoted on his toes to fully face Paolo. “Are you sure you want to talk? What was that just now?”
The color flared in Paolo’s cheeks, then lessened. His chin jerked as if he were going to duck his head, but in the end his gaze stayed steadily on Zlatan. “That was because I was glad to see you.”
“Because Sandro can’t keep up, and you need another general,” Zlatan muttered. He looked at the cords in Paolo’s neck, at how stiff and taut they were and wondered that they didn’t snap. “You’re a duke now. It’s not like you can’t offer other things.”
Paolo looked at him for a moment longer before putting a hand behind himself. Then he craned his head about, searching the ground for something. Eventually he found it—a flattish rock large enough to take him—and adjusted so he could sit on it and stretch out his injured knee. But his leg wasn’t more than half-straightened before he winced, and hard enough to nearly lose his seating. He grabbed at a clump of grass, then swore under his breath as that pulled free and forced him to dig his nails into the mud.
Zlatan glanced up at the sky, trying to figure out whether the odd clamped feeling around his throat was his temper or a laugh wanting to break loose. “Anyway, that wasn’t enough to keep me around to see your…do dukes have coronations?”
“No, and I know it wasn’t. Why do you think I’m resorting to flattery?” Paolo said, mostly under his breath. He was still flexing his knee, leaning all his weight on one arm as he pressed about the joint with his free hand.
“I don’t know, because I keep killing people for you? And I’m better at it than anyone else?” In the end Zlatan couldn’t simply sit back. It didn’t look as if Paolo was making any progress, and if the man couldn’t get back up and walk the rest of the way…well, first Zlatan needed to know if that was the case.
He leaned over to put one hand down in front of himself and Paolo started to glance up, so Zlatan stopped. But then the other man instead jerked his head about and pulled at his collar, as if that pained him—a moment later, the top of his very fancy, very closely-tailored doublet was hanging open and he was breathing much more freely. Zlatan shifted his weight off his feet and onto his outstretched arm, then eased himself across the rest of the yard and a half separating them. He grabbed Paolo’s ankle, waited for the other man to regain his balance, and then pulled off Paolo’s boot. Then he started rolling the hose up the leg so he could actually get a look at the knee.
“Sandro’s gotten rather good at that himself, actually,” Paolo commented. After his scramble, he’d managed to brace his hands against the rock and pivot forward so he could speak nearly straight into Zlatan’s ear. His breath was warm, and tickled its way across Zlatan’s cheek whenever he moved.
Zlatan lifted his head quickly and caught Paolo looking at him with that…with the same look he’d always directed at Alessandro whenever the other man hadn’t been watching, softer than lust but still with that initial pull. And then a slow, wary withdraw, as if Paolo had something to fear from getting what he wanted.
He certainly reacted that way, his eyes widening before his chin jerked halfway to his chest. Then he stopped. He breathed, low and shallow, and his hand came up to just feather fingertips across Zlatan’s left cheek. It paused there, but Zlatan didn’t move and then it drifted on, back till Paolo’s fingers had sifted into his hair up to the first knuckle. Paolo tilted his head up and to the side—his eyes flicked up to Zlatan’s, then dropped to fixate a little lower—and at the same time he tipped forward so gradually that Zlatan didn’t notice till their mouths were touching.
Even then it took a moment, because Zlatan was still trying to understand Paolo’s expression and because, to be completely honest, Paolo’s mouth was so soft this time that its pressure was almost invisible. By the time Zlatan did notice, Paolo’s eyes had closed and for some reason Zlatan did nothing but stare at the man’s lashes, little more than a blurry brown fringe from so close, but still distinctly curling. Then something warm and wet brushed over his lower lip, like a finger dipped in honey. He was startled enough to part his lips and it ran over his lip again before slipping further into his mouth, slow and inviting. Paolo’s hand slid down, the palm grazing Zlatan’s ear, to curve over Zlatan’s shoulder.
Zlatan put up his hands and got them around Paolo’s neck, and against his right palm he felt a muscle jump sharply, but instead of withdrawing Paolo kissed him more deeply and he didn’t quite tighten his grip. He heard pebbles crunching as their feet and knees stirred those about, heard the slight whistling inhale Paolo took before pressing forward again. His thumb slipped on Paolo’s throat, sliding across the harder ridge of the Adam’s apple, and Paolo made a low noise that wormed its way into Zlatan, curling so hotly in his gut that he twisted about in discomfort. His lips inadvertently shoved back at Paolo’s and the other man suddenly opened his mouth, let Zlatan’s tongue into it and then wrapped around that before Zlatan really knew what had happened. Then Paolo somehow leaned closer while dragging his head back, his forearms braced against Zlatan’s chest now, his lips wrapped around Zlatan’s tongue and pulling down it in a lewdly promising way.
That itself felt so unexpectedly good that Zlatan nearly forgot himself, but overall it was a mistake, for it took Paolo’s mouth off him and then—he yanked his head back, tearing his tongue out of the other man’s mouth, and then hit Paolo back by the shoulders. Then he jerked his foot out from underneath himself, but the slippery ground meant he sat down hard instead of getting one step away.
At least it got him fully untangled from Paolo. He slapped the back of his hand over his mouth, then ripped it across; his lips went numb, then burned in pain. That was fine with him, if it reminded him why he’d never let Paolo do that to him. “That wasn’t funny.”
“It wasn’t a joke,” Paolo said, eyes flashing. But his anger couldn’t get him enough breath in time and so he had to fall back. He panted a few times, glowering at Zlatan like Zlatan had stuffed his family into another monastery. “And if it is an offer, it’s the kind that has nothing to do with business. What do I have to say to make you understand that?”
“Well, you weren’t saying much anyway,” Zlatan retorted. It was terribly weak, but he needed to say something, needed the retreat talking provided. “Is your knee even hurt?”
Paolo hit the heels of his hands against the ground, as if he was about to lunge. And he did rise a few inches, but then he stilled, staring hard at Zlatan. Then he slumped back, pulling up one knee so he could rest his elbow on it. He dropped his head into his hand, muffling the meaning of his mumbles but not the exasperated, disappointed tone of them.
“Why the hell do you keep trying to do that?” Zlatan had intended to continue in a mocking vein, but much to his surprise, he ran out of breath as well. He gasped a little, then made himself breathe in long gusts. “Why…”
“Because I want to. God—” Paolo added something else, his head tipped back so he could address the sky, but it was soundless. Then he put his face back in his hand, massaging his fingertips along either side of his nose. “Because I’m happy to see you, and I want to—do something about that, and because I like—liked doing it, actually. I missed it. Is that clear enough?”
“Except for where you never did that before, so how would you know you’d like it enough to haul yourself to Stockholm?” Zlatan snorted.
For a long while Paolo didn’t answer, but instead muttered to himself. But eventually he seemed to run out of complaints and fell silent and still, so even his hand merely pressed over his nose. Then his shoulders went up and down, and he sighed and looked up. “All right, I didn’t. But I wanted to, even though…you never seemed to want that. And I liked it just now, but you…do you still not?”
Zlatan jerked up his arms without thinking, and had to hastily pretend he’d always meant to pull his hands through his hair. Then he lowered them and wrapped them around his wrists, twisting his fingers back and forth, and told himself he didn’t care about Paolo’s skeptical, watchful eyes. “Since when do you care what I like?”
“Since I wanted you to be happy to see me,” was Paolo’s nonsensical answer. But he looked utterly serious, to the point of actually being pained about it.
No immediate reply presented itself to Zlatan. For that matter, no immediate idea about how to react came to him, and so he simply sat there like a rock—no, worse than that, since rocks couldn’t help not being able to move. He and Paolo stared at each other.
At least Paolo gradually changed, the expression on his face turning briefly disconsolate before filling with curiosity, no doubt because Zlatan was still frozen. His eyes narrowed a little as they carefully examined Zlatan from top to bottom. Then he bent over and did something at his waist—he was undoing his belt. After pulling that off and freeing it of any twists, he threaded the end back through the buckle, then slipped his right wrist into the loop. He tightened that till the leather was snug against his skin before flipping the free end towards Zlatan.
Zlatan reflectively followed the motion with his eyes. A moment later, he started as his mind began to add meaning to movement. “What are you doing now?”
“All right, I am the Duke of Milan now. I have an entire duchy who’d care whether I come back from here or not, and a few people in particular who would take great delight in hunting you down if I don’t, and you don’t have an army anymore. But there’s no one in hailing distance, and my knee really is hurt so I can’t do more than hobble, and…” Paolo shook his arm so the belt rippled in the light. “Would this make you less nervous?”
“No, actually it makes me wonder just how mad you’ve gone,” Zlatan muttered. Though he reached out so he just touched the leather, feeling its quality in its softness and flexibility, and then suddenly he had the strap lying across the palm of his hand.
He looked up, but Paolo still wasn’t laughing at him. So he returned his gaze to the belt, and watched as he very slowly closed his fingers around it, and as it did not pull away but instead remained slackly hanging between them. Zlatan pulled till it went taut, then let it slip loose through his hand. Then he picked up the very end and wrapped it once around his hand. He waited a moment before coiling the rest around his fingers, moving forward till he was nearly pressed to Paolo again, with only Paolo’s arm between them.
A tug at the belt brought that up and out, and then behind Paolo as Zlatan abruptly jerked them together. He intercepted Paolo’s free hand as the other man swayed and tried to catch himself on Zlatan’s arm, then twisted that back to join the other one. A moment’s work had the man’s wrists secured, and then Zlatan settled back, sliding his hands to Paolo’s upper arms, to look.
“Well?” Paolo said. His eyes were darker, and despite himself there was a hairline crack in his voice.
“Well, what? Well, are we supposed to talk now? Or am I supposed to like this so much that I can’t help myself?” Zlatan dropped a hand between them and pressed his finger over the topmost fastening of Paolo’s doublet that was still done up. He twisted the finger, then undid the tie and pushed in his other fingers, curled so their knuckles were what stroked over the silk of Paolo’s shirt. He felt the shiver of the other man and chased the trembling down beneath the doublet. “Or is this what you really came looking for? You liked it so much and couldn’t get anybody else with the balls to do it for you?”
Paolo opened his mouth, then closed it. He pressed his lips together as Zlatan’s hand drifted back up to undo another fastening, and when Zlatan went further, roughly plucked at a nipple through his shirt, the tips of his teeth dug into his lower lip. Then Zlatan raised his other hand and pushed Paolo’s head to the side, and ducked down to put his own teeth in the flesh behind Paolo’s ear. And Paolo hissed and arched up, his shoulders and arms flexing, his nipple turning as hard and round as the little stones beneath their knees under the attention of Zlatan’s fingers. He turned his head back enough to press his cheek to Zlatan’s, his mouth open again; he lipped at the side of Zlatan’s face, sometimes going so far as to mouth Zlatan’s ear, as Zlatan flicked the rest of his doublet open.
The weight of its brocade made its halves pull away before Paolo even rolled his shoulders, letting the folds of his shirt billow out. Zlatan smoothed them back with his hand, feeling how the silk soaked up the dampness from his chest and belly, how it changed from soft to raspy when stroked against the weave, cool and slippery to warm and clinging. He moved his mouth a little lower, then further back, and then forward again till Paolo abruptly twisted, and then he fastened his teeth into the man’s flesh again. Paolo let out a wordless, hoarse noise from deep in his throat and Zlatan brusquely pushed his hands between the man’s thighs, pulling at the tight hose before teasing away that barrier. He ran his hands through coarse, crinkly hair that was already slicked back against the skin with sweat and Paolo moaned, pushing up his hips. And so Zlatan shoved him down, then pressed his hand over Paolo’s prick so it was forced into the thigh, and Paolo first sucked in breath and then let it back out in a long, rough groan. His elbows jerked inwards, banging his own ribs, and from behind him came the faint creaking of leather.
Zlatan lifted his head and bit at the join of jaw and throat, just under the left side of Paolo’s chin, and then raised his head the rest of the way so they were looking at each other. At the same time he rubbed two fingers back along the curve of Paolo’s ass, pushing high till Paolo stiffened. The vague awareness that had been coming into Paolo’s eyes vanished, but as Zlatan merely ran his fingertips about in tight circles against the other man’s flesh, frustration began to bring it back.
Paolo’s mouth was partly open, his lips shining from spit and his skin from sweat. The flush in his face touched at his brow, his eyelids and about his mouth, but was reddest along his cheekbones and then faded a little beneath so their arching lines unexpectedly made Zlatan’s fingertips itch. He ignored the urge and looked down, slowly taking in the haphazard cling of Paolo’s shirt to his body, the silk transparent enough now for him to make out the deeper brown of the nipples against the olive skin. The shirt-tails bunched up about Paolo’s hips in mounds, and below them rose the blushing head of his cock, its slit marked out by a light gleam.
“You always could look like a whore, even if you couldn’t act like one,” Zlatan murmured. He swept his eyes back to Paolo’s face in time to watch it tighten ever so slightly. “I could leave you here and anybody could find you, and one look would be all they’d need to know what to do with you. They’d fuck you till your teeth rattled from your head.”
Paolo drew in a sharp breath. He held it, then breathed out almost normally, and the glint that had suddenly came into his eyes softened again, turned hazy and hot. “I know.”
“Or I could do that, do that and then shove your face in the creek. And nobody knows I’m here, and even if they did somehow figure it out, I’d have left long before then,” Zlatan added. His voice was a little louder, and he spoke a little faster without quite meaning to. He pulled his hands off Paolo and nearly started to rub them against his thighs before he caught himself. “Or I could just skip that, since I’ve already had you. Had you and left, and didn’t think twice about it.”
“I know,” Paolo repeated, softer and gentler. He tilted his head back a bit, showing the spreading dark red blotches on his throat a little better, but otherwise seemed content to wait.
Zlatan stared at him, at his calm green eyes and his hotly flushed prick, at the shoulders wrenched back and the long throat, held high and open. “So how do you know I won’t do any of that?”
“I don’t.” Paolo’s brows went up, as if he’d surprised himself. But then he smiled, and shook his head a few times before dropping forward to rest his forehead against Zlatan’s shoulder. A moment later, the graceful sloping line of his back gradually relaxed into the new position, and at the bottom of it his bound hands let their fingers lie straight and flat. “I don’t, I really don’t. I’ve had two years to think about how this might go and it hasn’t turned out like any of the ways I thought, so I don’t know how it’ll end. But I still wanted to see you, so I’m here.”
And to that…Zlatan had nothing to say. He did try for a few minutes, opening and shutting his mouth like a newly-landed fish, as if the mere motion would spit out a couple words, but finally he gave up.
He looked down at Paolo’s head, at one curling lock straggling along the man’s neck so it overlaid a bite Zlatan had left. When he touched it a few strands instantly sprang free of the damp skin to coil about his fingers; Paolo shifted slightly and Zlatan scratched up the rest of the tress with a nail, then tugged at it. Then Paolo lifted his head, letting Zlatan’s hand slip beneath his jaw, and Zlatan touched the side of his face as lightly as possible, almost thinking it might shatter. But instead Paolo turned his head, and Zlatan chewed at his lip and was still doing that when he bent to kiss the other man.
So he made it awkward, but Paolo was still waiting, just lightly moving his lips over Zlatan’s, and eventually it slid into something like what Paolo had been doing to him before, something slow and perfect and beautiful. Zlatan stiffened the moment that happened, sure that it’d slip away—and it did, but Paolo was pressing forward now and somehow he did something that brought it back, and better. He bent into Zlatan and Zlatan reflexively grabbed his shoulders, but it was still good. So Zlatan’s hands shivered down Paolo’s arms, and clumsily picked at the belt till it fell away, and then he held his breath to see what would happen.
Paolo’s shoulders twisted, and then he pulled his arms around. His mouth skipped off Zlatan’s, but brushed against Zlatan’s jaw just as the blood in Zlatan’s veins ran icy. The touch felt like a white-hot poker and Zlatan flinched away, hissing.
He briefly lost his balance and had to put a hand down. He looked at it, at the dried blood beneath his chipped nails and the mud in the wrinkles of his knuckles, and then he slowly lifted his head again. There was a plucking at his left arm and he looked there, at Paolo’s hand hesitantly settling on him, and then at the other man. More like at Paolo’s other hand, since that was hovering near the side of Zlatan’s face, just below his eye. He started to flinch again, then held still as Paolo’s fingers curled, as their backs came to lightly run along his cheek while Paolo watched his face, somber and yet so very, almost desperately questioning that Zlatan wanted to hit him. To shove him down and fuck him till he stopped asking, till he stopped acting so oddly and simply writhed and moaned and gasped like anybody else.
But he didn’t, for some reason. He let Paolo trace out the whole round of his cheek with two knuckles, and then uncurl those fingers to lay their tips against the side of his jaw. Then Paolo pulled his fingers back a few inches, frowning. “Do you truly not like that?”
“I don’t see why it matters to you,” Zlatan said tightly.
“Because I like how you look, when you like something.” Paolo eased forward a little, put his hand on Zlatan’s thigh, and when Zlatan didn’t kick him off, slid up so he could push a few stray hairs back from Zlatan’s eyes. He was nearly straddling Zlatan’s leg and his cock grazed against Zlatan’s other hand, heavy and hot with blood, but the touch of his fingers was strangely languid. “I want to do this, but if it’s against your will then there’s no pleasure in it for me.”
Zlatan snorted and turned away, looking over Paolo’s shoulder. He felt something drift over his jaw and down his throat and clenched his teeth, and then a warm mouth covered the exact place where the muscles were tensing. Soft and sucking, it teased Zlatan into unlocking his jaw, and so instead he irritably pulled his hand out from between them, deliberately knocking it against Paolo’s prick along the way. “Why would you want me to like it?”
Paolo stiffened, then relaxed again. He put his other hand on Zlatan’s waist, just resting it, and worked his mouth down the line of Zlatan’s jaw, onto the throat where the cords were jumping with each hard swallow Zlatan took. His tongue drew vague patterns over Zlatan’s skin that Zlatan could feel, like the lingering prickle of a burn, long after Paolo had moved on. “Because I want to know what you taste like, what your skin feels like. If it turns softer here—” he kissed the point of Zlatan’s collarbone “—and here—” ghosting over the top of Zlatan’s shoulder “—if it’ll hurt you for me to touch these—” his hands slipped around onto Zlatan’s back, delicately overlapping the old whip-scars “—if it’s anything like I’ve been thinking it’s like. You never let me find out before.”
At that Zlatan’s hands jerked themselves to Paolo’s shoulders, then dug in so Paolo stilled. His mouth was on Zlatan’s shoulder, and his dampish hair sticking to the crook of Zlatan’s neck, and his hands barely floating over the scars on Zlatan’s back. Zlatan breathed through his mouth, ragged and harsh. “Like that would’ve done any good. You had enough trouble keeping your mind on Milan, and with you and your family’s lives depending on it.”
“I know, but now I have that and—and I’m more used to fighting for it. Them. So…” Paolo hissed a little, then muttered to himself. His hands twitched against Zlatan’s back, as if trying to fly through Zlatan to his face. He moved his shoulders uncertainly before looking up.
Zlatan caught his mouth on the rise, and then followed it for the fraction of an inch before Paolo stopped himself, sank into the kiss. Paolo’s hands dropped onto Zlatan’s back, spreading their fingers wide, and then began to carefully lap their way upwards, over the thick rough scars. In truth there wasn’t any particular sensitivity to them, and most of the time Zlatan forgot about them till he showed his bare back to someone and they gasped. He didn’t even really remember what they looked like.
But now, with Paolo’s fingertips mapping them so carefully, he was being reminded and he didn’t like the memory, he didn’t like the ghosts it raised and the old pain. But he did like the way Paolo’s hands felt, their warmth and lightness of touch, the way they lingered instead of flinching away. He liked it, and enough to let Paolo keep stroking his back, and to keep kissing the other man—actually, enough to bury his hands in Paolo’s hair and push his tongue into Paolo’s mouth, hard enough to make the other man rock backwards.
Paolo’s fingers suddenly dug into Zlatan’s shoulders and his mouth slipped off. He didn’t immediately come back up, but as Zlatan was looking to see what was the matter, his knee skidded and he barely caught himself on one hand. He’d jerked it free of Paolo’s hair so roughly that a few broken strands were twined around his fingers, and he was glancing at them when the hands on his back pulled forward and down.
Long before he fell onto his elbows, Paolo had rejoined their mouths and this time the other man wasn’t so patient. He still yielded to any pressure Zlatan put on him, but in between he was hungry and sucking, and his hands were moving over Zlatan’s back and hips with increasing urgency. Then he twisted, jerking his knee out from under Zlatan; Zlatan pulled in his arms, then put a hand on Paolo’s belly and Paolo arched so his prick rubbed along the underside of Zlatan’s arm. He moaned into Zlatan’s mouth, and then to the air as Zlatan drew himself down the other man’s body. Paolo didn’t seem too averse to that, but his hands dragged and clutched at Zlatan’s back, arms, shoulders, head. Then they twisted into Zlatan’s hair as Zlatan pressed his mouth down over the head of Paolo’s cock.
It’d been a very long time, and it—it was odd. It was nowhere near as bad as Zlatan remembered, but it wasn’t only that that was strange. Somehow the fit wasn’t like he remembered, and not only because the men had been different. He’d been younger, too, and his—he began to grimace, trying to put that out of his mind, and Paolo bucked sharply so Zlatan gagged. He spat out Paolo’s prick and ground his nails into Paolo’s thigh, and Paolo looked blearily down. Then his eyes cleared, and he started to say something before he just snapped his head back onto the ground. His hips shifted restlessly before he somehow stilled himself, one hand dropping to grab at the dirt.
Zlatan looked at him for a while, at the shivering Paolo couldn’t quite stop, at the black streaks of mud on Paolo’s hands and on the surprisingly pale insides of Paolo’s thighs. He touched one and Paolo jerked, then resettled himself, breathing so hard that Zlatan glanced about to make sure they were still alone. They were, so he bent back down.
He took only the head into his mouth and held it there for a moment, adjusting, before he tried for the rest. And that was easier, though the way Paolo seized up so Zlatan had to hold down his legs was the same. The hand Paolo still had in Zlatan’s hair tugged and scratched, but it didn’t grind at him and so Zlatan could ignore it. Some other things began to come back to him, and when he tried a few tricks he found they still worked—better than he recalled. Paolo groaned and gasped, and ran his thumb around and around Zlatan’s temple, more than liking it and showing it, too. He took it for what it was, and not for something he was owed, and then there was the moment where he tapped hard at Zlatan’s cheek and Zlatan didn’t understand at all, just thought Paolo wanted him to go faster. And then Paolo nearly flipped himself over in trying to pull out of Zlatan’s mouth, but he was too late and anyway, Zlatan had already started to swallow the sticky salty stuff, and he found he wanted to instead of resenting that chore.
He pushed back on his elbows, wiping at the outside of his mouth and rolling his tongue around the inside. Paolo was taking great heaving breaths, so deep he should’ve burst his lungs, but they were already slowing in pace by the time Zlatan looked up so Zlatan didn’t worry overmuch about it.
The other man was half-twisted on his side, lying slackly on the muddy ground in all his finery and apparently not noticing. His eyelashes were fluttering, but snapped up to reveal a steady, if a little hazy, gaze once he saw that Zlatan was watching. “You didn’t have to do that, at the end.”
“Well, I felt like it.” Zlatan grinned. He saw the corners of Paolo’s mouth twitching, then begin to curve and he jerked away, realizing what he was doing. Then he half-crawled, half-dragged himself back to the stream. After a loud hawk into the water, he swirled his spit away and dipped up a clean handful to rinse out his mouth. “Doesn’t taste any better, though,” he muttered. He gargled the water, then let it trickle out from between his lips. “You look terrible. They’re going to think your horse dragged you through half the woods before you fell off.”
“Jumped off,” Paolo corrected, and raised a challenging brow at Zlatan’s look. He’d pushed himself up into a sitting position, but hadn’t moved to tidy his clothes. “Do I need a bath before you’ll do any more?”
After a moment, Zlatan pivoted on his feet and looked sharply at Paolo. “Don’t act like you—”
But Paolo was already grimacing, pushing one dirty hand over the side of his face as he gazed at the ground. “Sorry. I—”
“Do you want me to fuck you?” Zlatan asked, terse and harsh.
Paolo’s eyes rose, and the heat they held was answer enough. But then he looked to the side, pursing his swollen lips. He lifted a hand, began to lower it, and then raised it again. “Zlatan, I don’t—”
When Zlatan pushed his shoulder, Paolo jerked his head back and seemed surprised. He started to talk again and Zlatan shoved him all the way down, then put his now-clean hand between Paolo’s sprawling thighs. Then he stopped, hunched over the other man.
“I’m not really sure I want to,” he finally said.
For a moment he thought Paolo would hit him, but the other man’s frustration only flared up and didn’t blaze. Instead it faded away, and in its place was disappointment so bitterly wistful that Zlatan stopped again to stare. He watched Paolo hastily pull himself together, make his face into something closer to graceful acceptance, and then he leaned down, and had a closer look as Paolo’s composure shook apart into a surprisingly open hopefulness.
Paolo lifted his hand, then twisted it so he could lay its back against Zlatan’s cheek. He waited a moment, then carefully extended his fingers so they fluttered into Zlatan’s hair. “You don’t seem to like it whenever I try to talk you into something.”
“It depends. Sometimes you’re not so proud of yourself when you do that,” Zlatan said.
The hand on his cheek turned over and cupped his face, then moved to curve against his neck. Then Paolo pushed himself up and covered Zlatan’s mouth with his own, and his hand drifted down over Zlatan’s chest. It reached Zlatan’s belly and gently teased at the muscles there till Zlatan pushed his hand further between Paolo’s legs. Paolo wrapped his arm around Zlatan’s neck, then leaned back, and as Zlatan went down he began to pull at his own clothing.
So he did fuck Paolo, right on the stony muddy ground, and Paolo wrapped his legs around Zlatan’s waist and urged him on. It was strange, hearing the other man give full voice to his moans and cries instead of choking them back, and having Paolo’s hands move freely around on him. Strange and good and yes, something Zlatan liked. More than liked.
* * *
Of course Zlatan had gotten fond of things before and hadn’t seen them turn out well. He’d liked the sword enough to have taken it from Milan with him, and now here it was in pieces: the fragment left in the hilt wasn’t long enough to have the blade reforged for anything but decoration, or even reground into a dagger.
“What are those?” Paolo said suddenly, looking at the sky.
He was actually referring to the horns that had begun to blow in the distance, higher-pitched than the ones used for hunting. Zlatan tossed his jacket back around the sword pieces, mind half on calculating how far away the blasts were, and then shoved it at Paolo. “Those are search parties. For you, I’d think—we’ve been here for hours.”
Paolo absently took the bundle and then dropped it so he could fuss with his clothes. He’d rinsed off some of the mud and made himself decent, but only just. “Well, if bandits attacked me then I could have reasonably been chased a very far distance, and taken this long to walk back. Especially with a bad knee.”
“That’s nice,” Zlatan muttered, searching about. He finally turned up his shirt and balled it up beneath his arm, then scrubbed at the dirt and rocks with his boot till the traces of blood it’d left on them were gone. “Then you might as well head towards them instead of the road.”
“When I don’t know why Nilsson or someone else ordered that man to lure me off and kill me?” For some reason Paolo still hadn’t gotten up. It couldn’t have been comfortable sitting there on ground that was muck where it wasn’t unforgivingly full of pebbles, and he certainly didn’t look as if he enjoyed it. On the contrary, he continually shifted his weight and also let the occasional wince escape him.
Zlatan sighed and stood up to face the direction of the horns. He listened more attentively, then pointed. “That’s the main party. The deeper-voiced horn, the one that sounds like a constipated cow. Sten Sture’d be with it, and there’d be enough other nobles around so that nobody would have a chance to take a second try.”
Now Paolo was trying to do something with his hair, combing his fingers into it and then twisting a few curls around them at a time, as if he were some high-born lady sitting before her mirror. When Zlatan cleared his throat, the man didn’t even look at where Zlatan was pointing—he looked at Zlatan, frowning a little. “Where are you going?”
“Why?” Zlatan blankly asked. Though in truth, he was watching Paolo’s face very carefully for a particular sort of emotion to flick through the man’s eyes.
It came, and surprisingly enough, Zlatan was angry that it had. Then he thought about it, and understood that he’d been hoping it wouldn’t, and then he was disgusted with himself. He yanked himself around on one heel, then kicked at the dirt so a shower of pebbles plopped into the stream.
“Well, this is later. Are we talking now? Because I’m not going back into the city tonight.” Another kick saw a twig describe an arc from the tip of Zlatan’s boot to the opposite bank, where it briefly snagged on a jagged rock before tumbling into the water. “You weren’t so good that I forgot about what we talked about before that.”
Paolo exhaled sharply, then started to say something that was even sharper. Then he stopped, and he was quiet for so long that Zlatan almost turned to see what was the matter. But just as he was thinking about it, he heard the clatter of rocks skipping away from boot-soles and the rustle of clothing as Paolo got up. “I do need another general. Sandro has more than he can handle, and there’ll be even more coming—I went to Germany to delay things, and I can’t do more than that. If everything works out as I hope, Maximilian and Charles will end up fighting each other to a standstill, but I don’t doubt that eventually foreign armies will be in Italy.”
“There are plenty of condottieres still in Italy,” Zlatan muttered. “Cheaper, too.”
“And they’re condottieres still, and not true generals. Even after the way you defeated Il Moro’s army. The French and the Germans don’t fight like them—they fight like you did.” A pebble rolled into the back of Zlatan’s heel, and Paolo’s voice rose till it was almost like a shake at Zlatan’s arm. “Sandro—even he can’t fight like that. He fights his way, and it’s the best for some things but not for—against the French especially he wouldn’t be—”
Zlatan set his shoulders against the words, but they didn’t come. He almost wished they had, since the telling silence that followed only reminded him that Paolo had a problem with certain aspects of life. At least, of Zlatan’s life. “Vicious enough? As short as his temper is, he’s still a picky little blueblood, isn’t he?”
“They also fight for money,” Paolo said after a moment. “It makes them too unreliable. I know that you don’t.”
“Too bad, since that would’ve been simpler for you.” The horns came again, and on the heels of their echoes was the crunching of the gravelly mud beneath Zlatan’s boot. He spun and took a quick step forward, quick enough so that Paolo flinched, and then he stopped. Right before Paolo, close enough to kiss his forehead if Zlatan had had a mind to. If he ever did, then directly afterward the gates of Hell would burst forth before Armageddon. “I never fought for you either. Not really. Since I stepped foot in Italy I never fought for anyone but myself. And right now I don’t want to go back and fight your fucking wars.”
Paolo jerked his head up and stared at Zlatan, eyes burning and lips in a thin whitened line. Then, just as abruptly, he bowed his head and his shoulders slumped. “You have the right to say that.”
“I earned that too many times over,” Zlatan snarled.
Then he made to pass the other man, but a hand seized his elbow. It kept its hold despite his hard shake, and then pulled at him so he had to face Paolo again. “Would you come back for anything else? Not fighting?” Paolo said quietly. His head was up again and his eyes bright, but not with anger. “I didn’t come here to ask just for the sake of…for the sake of Milan.”
Zlatan drew in a breath, and for a long time he held it. But…but thinking Paolo meant certain things was foolish, when it didn’t really matter what the hell Paolo thought since other things, like kings and politics and birthrights, would always intervene. And anyway Zlatan wasn’t used to considering what only might be true; he shook himself and the idiocy faded from his mind. “You can’t ask that. You’re the fucking Duke. If I came to Milan and I could save it from the French or Borgia or whoever else, you’d try and make me do it. You know that.”
He saw the pain come into Paolo’s eyes, and right on its heels the acknowledgment. And maybe there was bitterness as well, but bitterness never changed anything, so it meant nothing.
“I do know,” Paolo eventually replied. He glanced down, then took a quick step forward and looked up again. His hand loosened, then slid from Zlatan’s elbow to his forearm and recurled around that. “But I didn’t lie just now either.”
“And I don’t want to go.” Very slowly, Zlatan twisted his arm free. He hesitated, his hand still angled towards Paolo, before turning a shoulder to the other man. His eyes swept across the woods, and then down to their feet, and finally fell on his bundled-up jacket.
He stretched out his leg and toed it over to Paolo, who was still steadily gazing at Zlatan. So Zlatan pushed it into Paolo’s ankle, and finally the other man started. Then he looked down at the bundle as if he’d never seen it before.
“It was in the ducal palazzo, so it was the duke’s. And you’re that now,” Zlatan muttered.
Paolo lifted his foot, then put it back down. Then he bent down and picked up the jacket and sword pieces, and held that out towards Zlatan. “So I’m giving it to you.” He waited a moment, then stepped forward and pushed the bundle into the middle of Zlatan’s chest. “If you still want to think of it as mine, then consider yourself as holding it in trust.”
“You have no idea what I’d do with it.” Zlatan put up his hand to knock it away, but Paolo was actually quicker and let go so he had to catch it.
And then Paolo was walking away, towards the call of the horns in the direction that Zlatan had indicated. He was limping heavily but his pace was fast enough for Zlatan to have to lunge if he wanted to catch up, and that was clever, since Zlatan wasn’t about to.
“I know,” he called over his shoulder. He almost sounded like he was laughing, the way his voice lilted, but the glint of his eyes wasn’t right for that. “I know, but I trust that you’d know what’s best for it.”
So Zlatan watched him go.
* * *
That night Zlatan stayed in the house on his grazing land. He did loiter near the road till dark, on the pretext of examining the fences along it, and cursed himself for his stupidity between the travelers that he asked for news. In that way he heard that Paolo had been found by Sture’s party and taken back to the city, and that the whole government was in an uproar over what had happened. In fact it was bad enough so that—
--and Zlatan stopped asking there, for after the mess that had been Italy, he was determinedly uninterested in politics. He’d never liked that much anyway, and now he didn’t need to be knowledgeable about it. Paolo did and he was not only good at it, but also decidedly preferred court machinations to wielding a sword, and so he should have no problems now that he was back in his element.
So Zlatan continued to stay outside Stockholm, doing his business from his house. He hired a few men to drive the horses he’d stabled in town out to the pastures, then trained them under the open air. And he rather enjoyed seeing the pompous underlings that the households of his patrons sent arrive there, for they were invariably coated in dust and aching from their fancy, impractical riding gear. Of course that meant they complained all the more, but they let plenty of gossip slip in the midst of their ranting and made it easy for him to keep an eye on the little he needed to.
Nilsson and Sture had a few snappish public encounters, and their men and allies a handful of more violent ones, but the threat of Denmark kept them from allowing the government to completely go to pieces. In the end Nilsson relented, though with a good deal of dire warnings about involving themselves beyond their true reach, and that started up the old rumors that the Danish king was paying him handsomely to thwart anything that might benefit Sweden or Germany. But despite Nilsson’s whining, Paolo got his trade treaty and so it appeared that Sweden would side with Germany over the matter of Schleswig and Holstein, and furthermore that they’d now take an interest in Italy as well. That accomplished, Paolo left. He’d only been in the country a little less than two weeks.
The night of Paolo’s leaving, Zlatan embarrassed himself by restlessly pacing about the house with only the occasional vicious kick at the wall to forcibly try and restore his sense. But it never worked, and in the end he went outside and woke up one of his horses, and then rode it as fast and hard as it could go down the road. Away from the city, and so when dawn came his horse was thoroughly blown and it took him till midday to walk it back. Then he rubbed it down, fed it, stabled it, and went inside to collapse on the floor and have his first real stretch of sleep since Paolo had come.
When he woke up, his back was cricked seven different ways—all painful—and his mouth tasted as if he’d been eating shit, and his stomach felt as if it’d shriveled away into nothing but a hollow ache. But he could put one thought before another again, and seeing to himself got him back into the habit of remembering who and where he was. He didn’t have an army, he wasn’t leaving Sweden, and arrogant bastards like Ljungberg thought he was nobody because they were idiots. The next day Zlatan got up and he was fine. He went out and trained his German horses, and that night he went back into Stockholm to sleep.
He did dream. He dreamed about Italy, about a cathedral in Milan and a dark little road in Ravenna. But he always woke up, and after the first few moments, he could get up and go about his day.
* * *
That idiot Källström was still calling, even though Zlatan had shouted back a half-dozen times that he’d heard him. He couldn’t get out of the loft right away to meet them unless he broke his legs and maybe his neck, and maybe Källström would’ve liked that, but Zlatan didn’t live to please the man.
When he finally came down the ladder, the other man had his fists jammed into his hips and seemed ready to burst the stitches of his fashionably tight clothing with every snorting, shallow breath he took. He jerked his chin at Zlatan, then opened his mouth and so he got a good taste of all the dust that rose as Zlatan jumped off the last rung. Källström coughed his way back a few steps, then sneezed violently into a lacy handkerchief that had appeared from nowhere. Then he drew himself up. “You’re required—”
“This is the lazy bastard who’s supposed to find me a horse?”
Fortunately, Källström appeared to be so upset at having his reprimand stolen from him a second time that he didn’t look at Zlatan till after Zlatan had composed himself. It was harder to tell if Alessandro, just now ducking out of the shadows, had seen anything, since the irritation on his face masked anything else he was feeling.
He looked exactly the same. The hair was the same length and slightly tousled instead of carefully styled into individual curls and waves like Paolo’s had been. The contemptuous uptilt of the chin was at the same angle, and the eyes were that snapping black, like freshly-broken volcanic glass, and even the clothes appeared to be the same. Of course they weren’t, but they were so near in cut and color to what Alessandro had been wearing the night they’d met that Zlatan reflexively looked for the crest on them, and experienced a moment of confusion when he saw it was Paolo’s and not that of that cardinal friend of Alessandro’s.
“He was calling for a good ten minutes,” Alessandro added. “If that’s how quick you are to respond, then I shudder to think of what your horses are like.”
“I was up in the loft and not interested in killing myself to get down. So believe me, the horses I train are smart enough to know not to listen to a stupid command,” Zlatan unthinkingly retorted. He slid back a foot and grabbed the sides of the ladder, then shook it to get the top free.
Källström cleared his throat and attempted to push before Alessandro. “This is the Milanese ambassador, so I suggest you apologize for your—”
“And what would their, or should I say your, idea of stupidity be like?” Alessandro effortlessly shouldered Källström out of the way and walked around the other man while Källström stared at him open-mouthed. He tossed his head back so he could look down his nose at Zlatan, despite the disadvantage in height. “Do you always treat potential patrons so rudely?”
After a moment’s thought, Zlatan let the ladder drop back into place and put his foot on the first rung. He didn’t particularly relish knowing that Källström would think that he was running away, but he was about to punch Aless—the Milanese ambassador, and he didn’t want to give Källström an excuse to go running to Sten Sture on his account. Better to let that ass think what he wanted and straighten him out later, and for now get some distance so when he did hit Alessandro, he’d have enough time to also remind the man why he shouldn’t yell for the Privy Council to take Zlatan to task over it.
“Are you leaving? I don’t believe we were finished. In fact, I don’t believe you answered me at all,” Alessandro sniped at Zlatan’s back.
Several seconds passed. Zlatan resisted the urge to simply yank his feet off the rung and risk blisters and splinters by sliding back down into the other man, who sounded as if he’d moved to stand at the foot of the ladder. Instead he continued to climb, and then the ladder bowed slightly as more weight settled on it.
“My lord, he’s really not worth—”
“Thank you very much for showing me where to find this idiot—”
Zlatan’s hand took a sudden detour from its intended placement on the floor of the loft, dropping instead to his hip. It would have gone on to the dagger in his boot if the ladder hadn’t shaken just then, startling him into realizing what he was doing. He jerked himself over the edge of the trapdoor, then scrambled to his feet.
“—appreciate your services. I believe I can find my way back to my rooms, so I’ll not impose on you any longer.”
“But my lord…”
“In other words, leave. Or when I’m done with him I’ll come find you.” On the last word Alessandro stripped away the polished haughtiness and addressed Källström like the direct, impatient, honest soldier he was.
It was much more menacing than when he’d been…been playing the annoyed aristocrat, and so Zlatan wasn’t surprised that the noises that followed were nothing more than the creaking of the ladder under Alessandro and a fading flurry of footsteps as Källström made a hasty retreat. While he waited, he idly pushed about some hay with the toe of his boot and reconsidered the entire exchange.
The top of Alessandro’s head rose, then bobbed down out of sight. Then his body to the waist abruptly hitched itself through the trapdoor, and in another moment his legs followed. He’d already spotted Zlatan and had twisted himself in that direction, his lips parting.
“You learned Swedish?” Zlatan said in Italian.
Alessandro paused, then swung himself onto his feet. In the minute or so it’d taken him to follow Zlatan up, his anger appeared to have considerably diminished. “So did Paolo, but he’d rather that that wasn’t common knowledge. He got quite a few trade concessions here pretending he couldn’t understand their whispers.”
“No wonder he got out of here so quick. Then again, here you are, so I’m guessing there were a few parts he missed.” Zlatan ran his hand through his hair and pulled out a few stalks. He pulled them out, then began to twist them into a tiny doll, like the ones the farmers nailed up on their barns after the last of the harvest was in. “Well, no, that can’t be it if he sent you. And I thought he didn’t want any more countries ready to make war on him.”
A little color touched Alessandro’s cheeks, and the abrupt way he kicked the trapdoor shut said more about how much he liked Zlatan’s words. “He doesn’t. You shouldn’t be so shocked—you walked out and left us an army with nearly half the captains Swedes, and only Larsson speaking an Italian we’d no difficulty in understanding.”
“And you’re here when you should be speaking Swedish to those men, telling them how to deal with Borgia and Charles and Maximilian. The fighting season’s not even over,” Zlatan snapped. Something crunched between his fingers and he glanced down to find he’d decapitated his little doll with a thumbnail. He began to grimace, then rejected that—the action was fitting, after all—and merely flicked the ruin to the side. “Who the hell is running that army now?”
“Larsson and Pirlo.” Alessandro raised his brows at Zlatan’s look. “Andrea Pirlo. He’s…oh, well, you haven’t been in Italy. You didn’t think we could last so long without hiring others, did you?”
Zlatan rolled his eyes. “Don’t lecture me about how to take care of an army. I built that one, and had the whole of Italy fearing it. And who’s Pirlo? I’ve never heard of him, so he can’t be that good. And when Paolo was here he was complaining about how he didn’t have generals.”
“I know. He told me about his visit, so don’t start feigning interest when you don’t really care. It’s a little late to win over my respect now,” Alessandro snorted. He strolled across the loft till it seemed he was going to try and walk straight through Zlatan, but then swerved at the last moment. His head stayed turned towards Zlatan as he stopped to Zlatan’s right, head up and shoulders thrown back.
“Oh, he did? How many tries did it take you to get that out of him?” When Alessandro started, Zlatan leaned in close, so close their noses nearly bumped, and sneered a grin into the man’s face. “He never does like to talk about his failures, I remember. You almost have to beat them out of him.”
Alessandro’s jaw tightened and his eyes sparked. His hand fell to the sword strapped at his side.
Zlatan likewise dropped his gaze, then looked long enough for Alessandro to notice and yank off his hand. Then he looked back up, and laughed when he saw the flush that had come into the other man’s face. “Oh, it’s nice to see you too.”
To give the man credit, he didn’t betray his intentions at all. One moment he was standing there, stiff and glowering, and the next his fist was connecting with Zlatan’s jaw. It was a credible blow as well, knocking Zlatan nearly over and then stinging like hell. But unless somebody had a fist like a rock—and those freaks of nature were few and far between—the side of the jaw was a bad target. It only stunned, and Zlatan was used enough to that feeling to trust in his reflexes as he tossed himself blindly forward.
His shoulder hit something soft. He took a few more blows on his back and side, probably an elbow or two, but Alessandro was already folding backwards and so they had no strength. As Zlatan had never bothered recovering his balance, the two of them fell over very quickly.
The hay both softened their landing and hampered it, for it was so thick beneath them that they promptly sank down and couldn’t get the leverage to do much more than push ineffectually at whatever body part presented itself. A hand smacked at Zlatan’s forehead and he instinctively shut his eyes, then spat out some stalks in that direction. Then he clawed at Alessandro, trying to get across the other man so he could dig down through the straw and get a hand or foot braced on the floor, but Alessandro somehow wrenched himself about so he could get Zlatan about the waist. He couldn’t drag Zlatan back, but Zlatan couldn’t move forward either and in the end Zlatan had to turn to deal with him. And then Alessandro got his foot down on the floor and rolled them over.
He was on top for a mere second. Before his weight had even settled, Zlatan was slamming back his elbows and heels, and those found enough purchase for them to flip over again. The moment the world righted itself, Zlatan got hold of the nearest of Alessandro’s shoulders and threw the rest of his body fully on the other man to pin him down. Then he could catch his breath, and blink away the itchy motes of dust that all their thrashing had raised into the air.
Alessandro twisted hard, then fell back when he realized he couldn’t move. He gasped once before lifting his eyes to Zlatan. “I would’ve thought you’d been around Paolo long enough to at least know how to act around visiting dignitaries. You’d better hope people simply think we’re that forgiving and don’t ask why we haven’t demanded your head already.”
Zlatan stared at him. “God’s balls, but I forgot what a nag you are.”
“And you’re still an ass,” Alessandro snorted. He tipped his head up and smiled, open and amused, the fierceness vanishing from his eyes, and Zlatan stared because the man’s whole face had transformed.
His arm swung up around Zlatan’s shoulders, then dropped tight across Zlatan’s neck and Zlatan started. But that merely pulled Alessandro, who’d already been raising himself, up even more quickly and before Zlatan could finish the breath he’d been drawing, Sandro was kissing him.
He went at it very differently than Paolo, even when Paolo was feeling a bit lordly—Sandro raked his nails over Zlatan’s shoulder and let his lips slip sometimes because he pressed too hard, but when that happened he’d simply drag his mouth back without any attempt to turn that into another caress. His teeth clacked against Zlatan’s when they weren’t nipping at Zlatan’s lips, and whenever Zlatan’s mouth ground down Sandro would push back or bite or turn his head and then attack at a different angle. Only a few seconds had passed, but he was already moaning a little in his throat, both hands now gripping Zlatan’s shoulders and his knees drawing up to run along Zlatan’s sides.
Zlatan put one hand flat on Sandro’s chest and Sandro moved beneath it like a twisting piece of silk, his left knee skittering across Zlatan’s belly before sliding straight down to push into Zlatan’s groin. A warning, maybe, and then suddenly a provocation as the pressure lessened, as Sandro straightened his leg so more of his shin rubbed up between Zlatan’s legs. Grunting, Zlatan clenched his hand in the other man’s clothes, then jerked his other hand between them and shoved it down to grab Sandro’s thigh.
His fingers had barely closed around it when Sandro arched, the bend rising slowly from his hips up his body to press his shoulders and head back into the straw, and the way Sandro’s leg pressed against Zlatan then almost made him lose his balance. He bit at Sandro’s mouth, at whatever part of it was teasing at him now, then at his own lip to remember what he was doing, and then he wrenched himself upwards.
The hands hooked into his shoulders pulled the other way, and for a moment Zlatan was stuck. He hit at Sandro’s shoulder, snarling and jerking, and suddenly the other man released him so Zlatan nearly fell back down. He stabbed out an arm, his hand going down a hair to the left of Sandro’s head, and barely caught himself.
Then the only sounds were the fading rustle of the hay as it settled back into place and the occasional restless whinny drifting up from below. When Sandro had let go of Zlatan, he’d simply allowed his arms to fall backwards where they pleased and so now he sprawled there, the lines of his body carelessly inviting the eye to follow them to the narrow-eyed, tight-lipped expression he wore.
“Paolo mentioned this too,” he finally said.
Zlatan shifted a little to get some of his weight off his arm and knocked a couple wisps of straw out of his hair. He reached up and ruffled out more, then suppressed a laugh as Sandro blew quick puffs at them to get them away before they fell on his face. “So you did talk to him. I would’ve thought you’d know better, in that case.”
“What, than to waste time waiting on you?” Sandro pushed an elbow behind himself and began to rise up on it, but the hay beneath him gave way and he flopped unceremoniously back. He made a face, and another one when Zlatan did snicker this time, then tried to push himself up again. This time he managed it. “I am perfectly capable of handling an assassin or two in the time it takes you to show up. Should there still be any, after our preparations.”
“So you actually took some this time?” Though in truth, most of Zlatan’s annoyance was directed at himself for not paying enough attention to the talk around the Council to have found that out. He had made a point of keeping out of the gossip, but the arrival of a Milanese ambassador should’ve made enough noise for even him to have noticed.
A hand coming at him startled him out of his thoughts and he jerked away, then went still. After a moment, Sandro did not try to grab Zlatan’s shoulder again, but instead stuck his arm past Zlatan into the hay and pulled himself fully into a sitting position that way. He absently pulled at something by his waist, then muttered irritably and yanked till he’d freed himself from his sword-belt and lifted that out of the straw. “Enough to ensure I don’t have to go on any pointless hunts. But Paolo didn’t think it was a good idea to make my arrival public.”
Well, Alessandro would have been sent by him, Zlatan sourly thought, and told his gut to stop twisting. That was one unpleasant surprise that Zlatan could’ve guessed at, with or without advance notice. “Is the trade treaty already unraveling? I thought Maximilian let the first iron shipment go through.”
Alessandro looked sharply at him, then pulled his sword over his lap. He rested his arms on top of it, crossed at the wrists. “You have been keeping an ear to the ground.”
“I live in Stockholm, and do a lot of business with the nobles. It’s hard not to hear things—sometimes I wish I were deaf,” Zlatan said. He shoved a hand through his hair and felt yet more scratchy stalks of straw flutter down his back. Then he did it again, and more roughly, and more came out. Hissing his annoyance, he raked both hands through his hair till he was sure he’d gotten them all out. “So if you’ve prepared correctly, you should already know which idiot you’ve got to yell at. Mind telling me so I can avoid his lackeys? They tend to try and cheat you in a bargain when their master’s upset.”
“I’ll tell you later. I don’t want to talk about that right now,” Alessandro replied, and far too calmly. He continued to sit there, watching the straw fall from Zlatan’s head, as if his own black hair wasn’t littered with little strips of yellow. “I didn’t chase you up here to talk about commerce.”
At that point Zlatan seriously considered leaving, and in the end only rejected the idea because Alessandro was between him and the trapdoor. “Then why are you here?”
For a long moment Alessandro looked at him, gaze moving so slowly about Zlatan’s face that he had to have been studying every part separately. Then he sighed, and leaned forward to—Zlatan went still and so did Sandro, his hand hovering a few inches from Zlatan’s forehead. It dropped a little, then moved across the last bit of space and plucked out a piece of straw Zlatan had missed. “Paolo thinks I’m here because you like me better.”
Zlatan had thought he’d known what the other man was going to start talking about, but this…this was related but not quite it. “What?”
“I know. He’s so intelligent and perceptive, and then sometimes he can completely miss the point like that.” Sandro looked at the bit of hay with a mixture of exasperation and hopeless affection, then tossed it over his shoulder. Then he shrugged and sighed, and began dusting himself off. “When I’m not trying to resist the urge to hit him, I’m wondering how Adriana manages to be so patient, and with Christian and Daniel to worry about too.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” Zlatan eventually said. He got up onto his knees, shedding straw like a wet dog did water, but then had to stop as the hay that had gotten stuffed into his boots made its presence scratchily apparent. He didn’t particularly want to sit back down since Sandro might take it as a signal to keep on like this, but then he thought that at least he could edge a little closer to the door. So he lowered himself back to the floor and shook out his boots. “Look, I don’t really care what problems you and Paolo have. You’ve known him so long that you should’ve figured out how to deal with them by now, anyway. I just want to know what you’re doing here.”
The snort Alessandro made was faintly patronizing in its amusement. “Of course you don’t care. You’d just like me to make an offer to come back and general for Milan so you can throw your fit and leave.”
Zlatan considered his boot. Then he grudgingly put it back on his foot, then dropped that and lifted his other leg. “It’d save time.”
“Except I’m not about to make that offer. Paolo already did, and nothing about it has changed, so it’d be redundant,” Sandro said, his voice suddenly a good deal closer.
A few bunches of straw tumbled down into Zlatan’s hip, making him put his foot down and glance that way as well. Then he looked up, and Sandro was on his hands and knees and twisting his way across the loft, his hair and clothes richly dark against the shining yellow hay. The long elegant line of his back sloped into hips that moved easily from side to side as he crawled over, their unconcerned sway holding Zlatan’s eyes for longer than he would’ve liked. It all should have looked ridiculous and awkward, but instead Sandro made it mesmerizing.
When he reached Zlatan, he lazily drew himself up with his head pushing over Zlatan’s left shoulder. His hand grazed Zlatan’s thigh, then slid over its top and gripped it, and he leaned on that as he dipped so close to Zlatan’s face that the air Zlatan inhaled was still warm from Sandro’s lungs. “Though I really want to break your idiotic neck for turning it down,” he murmured, eyes half-closed. The tips of his lashes tickled the underside of Zlatan’s eyebrows. “And more than that, because what you did to Paolo this time…if you know you’re going to say no, you don’t take first, you coldblooded bastard. You don’t make people think you might change your mind.”
“It’s not my fault. He wouldn’t get to the point so it took me forever to find out what he wanted with me, and then he wouldn’t leave me alone,” Zlatan said, just squeezing the words through his barely parted teeth. He tipped his head back a little, and slipped his hands under Sandro’s arms when the other man likewise rose. The gold thread on Sandro’s doublet rasped over Zlatan’s palms when Sandro moved and so Zlatan pressed his hands into the other man’s sides, stopping him with his mouth just short. “You know, I don’t think he did tell you everything. With the way you’re acting…it’s like him mentioning his wife exactly once, and you more times than I could count. He thinks I don’t like her at all, doesn’t he? And you think I like you insulting me. Like I like having shit shoveled into my fucking mouth.”
Sandro paused, then retreated far enough so that they could look into each other’s eyes. His voice was soft and curling and smooth, like the tail of a snake coiling in the dust. “And how am I acting?”
“You’re pretending. You’re not angry—I’ve seen you when you are and then you really are vicious,” Zlatan said bitterly. He was a little surprised at himself, since a truly enraged Sandro was not any more pleasant to be around than…than this seductive mockery. But at least in anger Sandro was truthful. “You’re just trying to get me to like you.”
A flicker went through Sandro’s eyes, and then they opened all the way to show rather more seriousness and less frustration than Zlatan would have predicted. After another moment, Sandro took his hand off Zlatan’s leg and sat back on his heels. He looked down, gaze flicking over Zlatan’s arms—Zlatan promptly dropped his hold on the other man, but Sandro snatched back his left hand. And held onto it, despite Zlatan’s sharp tugging, and stared at it.
“Of course I am.” He looked up then, his thumb sliding across the underside of Zlatan’s wrist. “I’m also furious with you, believe me, but I don’t want to be. I don’t like being angry, but you’re so damned—difficult. Just once I’d like to be able to kiss you and not wonder if I’m going to end up trying to strangle you before we finish.”
“Why?” Zlatan pulled at his hand again and Sandro pulled back.
So Zlatan pulled again, and this time Sandro wrapped his other hand around Zlatan’s wrist. He held it oddly, with his thumbs lying alongside each other against its underside when the grip would’ve been stronger if he’d overlapped them. “What’s wrong with trying to get you to like me?”
“It—because it doesn’t make sense. You don’t like me. You just like the fact that I helped Paolo with Milan, and—and I don’t know, maybe you have that problem Paolo has where you like getting fucked but you can’t get anybody to do it for you,” Zlatan snapped. The pulling wasn’t working so he tried twisting his hand, but all that seemed to do was drag Sandro closer to him. He jerked away, then realized how useless that was and had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from saying something stupid that’d let Sandro know about it. “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you answering my question? Because you think I won’t like the answer—”
“Because I want to kiss your stupid tactless mouth. Because I do like you, somehow, and I think the fact that I’m still annoyed by that tells you I’m not pretending. Because I’d like to like you without being annoyed by it, because being annoyed all the time is exhausting and I have better things to do.” Sandro abruptly let go of Zlatan’s hand, but it was more the slash of his words that rocked Zlatan back. Then he shoved forward and sat on Zlatan’s leg, and before Zlatan could push him off, Sandro had wrapped his arms around Zlatan’s neck and knotted one hand firmly in Zlatan’s hair. “And fine, yes, because you got Milan for Paolo and you saved his family and you saved him, and somehow you can do things for him that Adriana and I can’t but that he needs, and since I love him, I appreciate that. But also because I just want to kiss you again, damn it.”
Zlatan jerked his head to the side, then stared pointedly at Sandro’s shoulder as he hit at the man’s hips and knees. But Sandro was considerably better than Paolo when it came to physical reflexes and he simply shifted about till it became clear Zlatan was just pushing his weight from one thigh to the other. “Why the hell would you?”
“Why do you think I shouldn’t?” Sandro riposted. “You damn well deserve that, at least.”
They both stopped, thinking that over. Sandro half-stifled a curse and abruptly ducked his head, and Zlatan couldn’t help but grin at him. “That really hurt to admit, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sandro snarled.
It was a true snarl this time, and the sudden lunge Sandro made for Zlatan afterward was much more in line with it. Even though it made him lose his balance, Zlatan laughed instead of fighting it off. He knew the hay would get in the way of anything else Sandro tried to do, and then he could retaliate while the other man adjusted.
But…nothing happened. They went over, and so many stiff stalks were poking Zlatan in the scalp that he might as well have not bothered shaking out his hair, and—Sandro stopped just short of cracking their heads together. He took a ragged breath, his arms trembling with the effort it’d taken to do that, and then he slowly drew up his legs and pushed down on his hands till he was crouched above Zlatan. The fire in his eyes didn’t quite dim, but it lost its glinting edge of rage, and as he stared down the muscles in his jaw slowly loosened till his lips were slightly parted.
“I kissed you goodbye,” he finally said, so soft Zlatan had to strain to hear. “What’s wrong with kissing you hello?”
Zlatan didn’t say anything. He looked up at Sandro. A gold-speckled lock of hair fell from behind the ear down Sandro’s cheek and Sandro slightly twisted his head to get that out of his eyes. He brought up a hand and laid it along the side of Zlatan’s face, his fingertips lightly petting the cheekbone. Then they pressed in as Sandro bent down.
After the first few moments, Zlatan had to move his mouth a little. But he kept his hands in the straw, even when Sandro pushed back up and the fading tickle of his breath made Zlatan’s palms itch. Instead he curled his fingers into fists, and anyway, it turned out Sandro was only moving so he could kiss the side of Zlatan’s jaw, and then so his mouth could feather light touches down one side of Zlatan’s throat while on the other, his fingers moved in slow, looping strokes.
Eventually Sandro reached the top of Zlatan’s collar, and then he hunched up his shoulders and craned his head so his tongue could just flick beneath the leather of Zlatan’s new coat and the coarse wool beneath that. His hips began to slide and Zlatan raised his right hand, then put it down. Then he lifted it again as Sandro just let himself twist over; if he hadn’t moved his arm, it would’ve been crushed. And now it was wrapped around Sandro’s waist so his fingertips accidentally touched something—something softer and thinner than the stiff embroidered silk of Sandro’s doublet, which had flapped up over his back with all their wrestling.
Sandro stretched so Zlatan’s knuckles were pressed into the small of his back, between the bottom of his doublet and the top of his hose, and a fold of his shirt fluttered over Zlatan’s fingers. So Zlatan uncurled them to push that away, but instead found himself fingering the slippery stuff, and then he was feeling the warmth of Sandro’s body filtering through the cloth. He shifted, turning onto one shoulder, and at the same time Sandro rolled over so he half-spilled off Zlatan into the hay, his long legs tangling with Zlatan’s so they didn’t fall apart. He stretched again, like a cat in the sun, and pushed his face up into the crook of Zlatan’s neck.
“You acted like this with Paolo,” Zlatan said. He watched Sandro’s shoulder stiffen, then roll back. “I watched you two for long enough. I should know.”
The shoulder stayed thrown back for a moment, but then began to relax into a slouch. Then Sandro raised his head and looked at Zlatan. “Because I happen to love him. Not because it’s Paolo.”
“That…doesn’t make sense.” Zlatan jerked himself back, then wormed his arm out from under Sandro. Then he kicked his legs free and got to his feet; his right boot still had hay in it, and now he could feel bits of straw itching all over in his clothes, but he could strip off somewhere else and shake that all out. “If you’ve yelled enough at me, my lord, I’d like to go. I have a business to run and you’ve got politics to look after.”
“I think that makes less sense,” Sandro called to him. The tone of Sandro’s voice was full of that bridling irritation that always came before he exploded, but for once he didn’t come after Zlatan.
Though Zlatan looked back, just to be sure, and found Sandro sitting up but still where he’d left him. He turned away before he could make out the exact details of the scowl on the other man’s face. “Don’t forget your sword. You’re going to need that more than a fuck in the hayloft.”
* * *
After that meeting, the day only grew worse. Ljungberg showed up wanting a full refund for a horse some stablehand’s idiocy had injured beyond recovery, and was shortly joined by Källström wanting to deliver the scolding that Alessandro had appropriated. And then Sten Sture himself came by to warn Zlatan about his manners, and Zlatan had to listen to him. Normally he didn’t mind, since he’d seen enough to accord Sture a good deal of respect, but in this case…well, he wasn’t the truly rude one. Of course he couldn’t explain so, and that left him feeling sourer than usual towards Paolo, Sandro, and fucking Milan.
Then Zlatan burned his dinner. He stared at the foul contents of the pot for several minutes, wondering if praying would at least get him all the other misfortunes due to him right now so he could get them over with. But then his stomach growled and he was reminded of how pointless wishing was. So with a curse and a kick at the kitchen table, he walked out to get his dinner in a nearby tavern.
He went home afterward, but only to saddle up a horse. Zlatan knew full well he wouldn’t get any sleep in Stockholm, and anyway it was Sandro so he didn’t know that he’d even get an undisturbed night. It was rather late for riding out to his grazing land, but he thought it was the best he could do.
The night watchmen at the city gates gave him a bit of a time, but finally let him through, and then Zlatan could let his horse out on the empty roads. He simply crouched as low as he could over the beast’s neck before giving it a sharp slap on the flank, and then he allowed the horse to do its business and just watched the dark hills and clumps of forest blurring by them.
By the time they arrived at the farmhouse, the moon had risen high over the trees and both Zlatan and the horse were damp with sweat. It was a good runner; it fought a bit when Zlatan reined it in, then grudgingly settled for its cool-down walk even though it was wheezing for breath. When he finally saw it to its stall, it tried to lip his hair before he pushed its muzzle away, laughing lowly.
So he was in a much better frame of mind when he unlocked his front door and walked into the dark house. He reached for the candlestick he’d left on the sideboard the last time he’d been up, then lunged for it while whirling about. The moment his fingers closed on the heavy brass implement, he had it up and before him, and was going to lob it at the strange shadow in the corner when it moved into the pool of moonlight spilling through the window.
“You don’t have a monopoly on obnoxious surprises,” Alessandro said.
After a long, tempting moment, Zlatan turned back around and put the candlestick back on the sideboard. Then he scrounged about till he found the tinderbox, and carried that and the candle into the next room where the hearth was. “Why would you want to imitate somebody you think is horribly annoying?”
Alessandro inhaled sharply, then sighed and walked after Zlatan. He paced about in the back while Zlatan set the candlestick on the fire grates, then clacked about with flint and steel till a spark finally caught the wick. The wool string turned black before a flame flared into life around it, throwing yellow light into Zlatan’s face.
“I don’t want to. But I will if I have to, and I’m not Paolo. I won’t gracefully retire when you get uncomfortable, so you might as well give up on the petty insults. Even if I get upset, I’ll just come back once I’ve calmed down.” A series of scraping noises indicated Alessandro was taking a seat. He probably was gazing around the room, silently noting how crude and un-Roman the house was. “And Paolo already asked, but I asked again just to make sure you didn’t have anywhere else to run to besides this place.”
Zlatan shut the tinderbox and got up to put it on the mantel—it was a warm night and he didn’t need a full-fledged fire—then picked up the candlestick. He took it over to the far side of the room where a couple more were sitting and lit those too, so when he turned around, the light was bright enough for him to see the entire space. “Do you have the time for all that?”
“No.” Alessandro wasn’t wearing a sword. He followed Zlatan’s gaze to his hip, then rolled his eyes towards the windowsill, and there that was. “But I’m here anyway, and why you aren’t immediately seizing on that as further evidence of your innate wonderfulness is beyond me.”
“I thought we weren’t doing insults now,” Zlatan muttered.
For that he received an arched brow and Alessandro leaning forward on his knees. “That was sarcasm. There’s a difference.”
“You know, I’m always thinking about punching you in the face,” Zlatan started irritably. Then he forgot what had been supposed to come next and for a moment he stared at Alessandro like an idiot, mouth half-open and hand hanging pointlessly in the air.
He swerved back around, looked about for something to do, and saw nothing. So he put his hands down on the shelf in front of him, pressing till the wood creaked and the metal supports groaned. Then he lifted his hands, belatedly remembering that he could always go out and fuss over his horse, but a bare second later he felt a floorboard twist beneath his foot and reflexively slapped his hands back on the shelf.
Alessandro went another step towards him, and then another so Zlatan half-turned to look. At that the other man stopped, head high but eyes wary. “When I go home Paolo’s there. I know he’s alive, I know he loves me. I don’t need to look for a substitute.”
“So what are you doing here?” Zlatan asked. He hadn’t meant to sound so exasperated, but once the words were out he couldn’t really disagree with their tone. This pestering of him wasn’t really pestering now, and the way it was being done wasn’t merely ridiculous.
For some reason, Sandro went very still and quiet. His eyes widened slightly, then narrowed as he searched Zlatan’s face for something. And then he exhaled, shaking his head, and took a gigantic stride that put him right before Zlatan. “To see you. My God, how thick are you?”
“As thick as I fucking had to be to listen to Paolo moaning in his sleep every damn night, to pretend I didn’t already know something about you when you finally showed up. Even if he could help looking at you the way he does, and if—if you hadn’t crawled on top of him every night, waiting for me to come and try to force you away.” Zlatan twisted all the way around, then pulled himself to his full height so Sandro had to tilt back his head to keep their gazes locked. When the other man did, Zlatan snapped his fingers into Sandro’s chest and then flipped them against the underside of Sandro’s chin. “And you’re saying too that it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he wants me as a damn general again, only under him. Well, I know better. Don’t lie.”
“I never said that, you—God.” Sandro stopped his hand a mere inch from Zlatan’s shoulder. Then he snatched it back so quickly he knocked himself with his own elbow before he pushed his hand against his temple. A moment, and then his fingers were carding back through his hair as he looked up again. “Fine, I won’t lie. Milan would love to have you back because you’re that good on a battlefield, and we’re that needy. Paolo would like you back because you were with him for four years, through so much that frankly, I think he’s still busy realizing how much. I would like you back because you’re bloody-minded and have no manners or tact and I miss that.”
His hand dropped from his head to curl loosely by his jaw, then drifted further down between them. Zlatan watched it go till it had passed Sandro’s shoulder before closing his eyes. He put up his own hand and pushed his thumb and forefinger into his eyelids till it began to hurt. Then he dropped his fingers to pinch at his nose. “That isn’t better.”
“It’s the truth. It’s usually like that,” Sandro said unsympathetically. He drew in a breath, then let it out slowly. When he spoke again, his voice had quieted a little. “They’re linked, yes, but what Milan wants didn’t cause what I or he want. If there was no Milan, then I think I’d still be here. And for that matter, I’m not here now for Milan, or even for Paolo. Milan doesn’t require me to give up my honor when I don’t care to, and Paolo already had his chance.”
“Do you even remember what I did? What it was like?” Zlatan hissed, jerking his hand down and snapping open his eyes. He stared disbelievingly at the other man.
Sandro pressed his lips together till the flesh around them whitened, then turned his head to the side and slightly down. He straightened the fingers of the hand he was holding between them till their tips just touched Zlatan’s chest. “Are you saying you feel sorry about that?”
“No.” Zlatan grabbed Sandro’s wrist, but didn’t push it back like he’d initially intended to. “No,” he said more slowly. “I did what I thought should be done with you and him. But you always disagree with me on everything.”
“You need to stop exaggerating,” Sandro muttered, faintly scolding. He turned his hand so he could stretch his fingers down till they covered Zlatan’s thumb, then looked up. “And I do remember.”
He put his hand back on Zlatan’s chest, and fully flat against that this time. His other hand came up to rest at Zlatan’s right hip as he leaned forward, then slowly slid across that to the small of Zlatan’s back as their mouths adjusted to fit each other. The hand he had on Zlatan’s chest moved up to Zlatan’s shoulder, then onto the back of Zlatan’s neck where its thumb rolled circles around the bumps of the spine. Sandro took the half-step forward he needed to in order to lean his body against Zlatan, his lashes tickling Zlatan’s right cheekbone as they fluttered down.
Zlatan slung an arm about Sandro’s waist, then reached down to pull the other man’s hand off his back. He squeezed it hard, the only warning, before shoving off the wall and pushing them backwards. Against his mouth Sandro muffled one protest, then bit another into his lower lip. Then he twisted his hand free and planted it on the back of Zlatan’s left shoulder, nails digging in as he suddenly turned to dead weight hanging off Zlatan.
The ploy did make Zlatan stumble, but he would have recovered if Sandro hadn’t kicked his uncertain ankle. Then he couldn’t stay up and they tumbled clumsily to the floor, and how they avoided a sprain or a concussion on the hard uneven stones was a miracle. As it was, Zlatan’s left palm and both knees went numb on impact, then blazed with pain when Sandro shoved them over. It didn’t seem as if Sandro had suffered similarly, considering the rapidity and eagerness with which he was now mouthing at Zlatan’s jaw. And his hands were even more impatient, laying out the halves of Zlatan’s coat to either side of them before Zlatan had even caught his breath. Then his fingers were plucking at Zlatan’s shirt, teasing the tails out of the waistband before sliding beneath them in long, sweeping motions.
He was so quick Zlatan didn’t have the time to tense, and then his mouth was back and Sandro could kiss to draw blood, could kiss to crush the blood deep back into the flesh where it fouled to black, could kiss to demand blood but he never could kiss to order it. Noble he was, and usually showing more pride in it than Paolo, but he was always too hot-blooded for that. He couldn’t lie back and wait—and expect--he had to get forward and press for it. Probably why he was the one who sat on the general’s horse. Why Zlatan was letting Sandro’s hands roam his chest and belly and sides unopposed, why when Sandro’s fingers slipped further back Zlatan just smashed his mouth harder into Sandro’s teeth, ignoring the half-stifled hiss.
It didn’t matter if it hurt Sandro for a moment, anyway. Because the next moment he was sucking Zlatan’s lip over those teeth, scraping it raw, and Zlatan allowed it because he was bracing his foot so he could roll them over again. Then Sandro was under him, and looking annoyed about it so Zlatan laughed. “I have a bed in the other room, you stubborn bastard. You and Paolo, you complain about my manners and then you want to fuck in the filthiest places.”
“He sent some soap,” Sandro said, eyes glinting. “I didn’t bring it because I tossed it over the side of the ship from Germany.”
“He didn’t send it as a joke, did he?” The warmth of Zlatan’s good humor began to chill. He lifted himself on his elbows without thinking about it, then stiffened as Sandro’s hands suddenly clutched at his waist. “You can tell him I don’t like you better. Actually, I never even thought about that.”
For a moment the glint in Sandro’s eyes was brighter, but not entirely from amusement. He put his head back, his chin rising a little so the candlelight caught the length of his golden throat. “He thinks too much about what other people want sometimes, what’s going to please them. It’d be easier if he talked more directly about what he wants.”
Zlatan was curiously hesitant to provide the obvious reply, for looking into Sandro’s suddenly solemn eyes made him wonder. In the end he snorted and glanced away, at a crack in one of the floorstones that gleamed with little bright flecks embedded in the edge. “Well, if he didn’t care he’d be dead by now, wouldn’t he? Know what somebody wants, then you know where they can be hurt.”
“That’s not always the intention,” Sandro said quietly. He pushed up off the floor, the warm puff of his breath curling against Zlatan’s cheek like a gentle touch, and then his fingers stroked there in truth.
They lingered for a moment before dropping to curve around Zlatan’s jaw, nudging it back so Zlatan had to look at the other man. Sandro leaned up a little more, then turned his head at the last moment so his lips missed Zlatan’s parting ones and instead grazed the point of Zlatan’s jaw. Then they pressed to the spot more firmly, but the touch was still soft and wet. When they moved on, they only half-lifted so they skimmed their way to the next place on Zlatan’s throat.
Zlatan tipped his head a little, letting Sandro get at the underside of his jaw. Then he pushed up on one arm and put his hand on Sandro’s chest, just below the throat so his fingers lapped over the collar. He curled them so their tips touched Sandro’s skin, then drew his hand down a few inches. The flesh beneath it arched into his palm, then flexed away as he plucked at the first tie of Sandro’s doublet. Then Sandro pushed his face into the curve of Zlatan’s neck, mouthing it gently, and put up a hand to join Zlatan’s. He undid the next fastening, so Zlatan leapfrogged his hand to the one after that; Sandro snorted and jerked his hand down, knocking it into Zlatan’s before he latched onto the next tie, and suddenly they were fumbling and cursing, racing each other like children.
So very soon the doublet was barely hanging from Sandro’s shoulders, and then, with a sinuous twist that made Zlatan stop to watch, Sandro had it on the floor behind him. Zlatan reached for Sandro’s shirt, but his hand was blocked by Sandro’s arm lifting; Sandro seized the side of Zlatan’s coat and yanked hard so half of it was suddenly down around Zlatan’s elbows. The sudden constriction made Zlatan jerk his arms hard to get it away, and Sandro was still pulling as well so before Zlatan knew it, the folds of his shirt were falling free and his jacket was dropping with a soft smack on the other side of the room.
And Sandro didn’t stop there, but got a double handful of Zlatan’s shirt in his hands and Zlatan’s tongue in his mouth, and then he pushed them over while kissing Zlatan so deeply that it was a wonder he didn’t fall in. Though Zlatan wasn’t so distracted that he didn’t throw back his elbows and catch himself well before he would’ve been beyond hope.
By then Sandro had his shirt yanked halfway up his body, and had hands busy beneath it. At first Zlatan tried to trap those in the cloth, but the loose folds fooled him too easily and so he reached for Sandro’s shoulders instead.
He’d just gripped one when Sandro abruptly sat back, then stared hard into Zlatan’s face. Then he shook off Zlatan’s hand, but took his own out and lifted them to where Zlatan could see them. “I want to do something here. You can roll us back over afterwards if you want, but can I…”
“Do what?” Zlatan asked sharply. But his hands were settling on the floor, the traitors, and when Sandro put his fingers back beneath Zlatan’s shirt, he jammed his nails into the stone instead of into the other man.
A wave of white suddenly came at him and he flinched back before it, then jerked up his arm. His sleeve went taut, then painfully tight around his arm before abruptly slipping free. Then the rest of his shirt was drifting over his head and other arm and Sandro’s hands were down at his groin, doing things that made Zlatan hiss and twist so much it took him absurdly long to get his other arm free of his shirt.
After that he could see, and what he saw—what he saw—
Sandro with his head back so it was the point of his chin flowing into his throat, the muscles there working in time with the man’s slight swaying, clenching when he came forward and then relaxing as he leaned back, and then into the uneven vee of his open shirt collar. The shirt billowed at the sides so Zlatan couldn’t distinguish arms from body, but in between it was stuck to Sandro with sweat, molded to him so Zlatan could see the lines of the belly, the hazy brown of the nipples. And then lower, where the tails were bunched up over Sandro’s erect prick, the white silk nestling about the head that was red-gold and not merely flushed, and the black hair, and the shadows sweeping back into Sandro’s spread thighs.
“Beautiful,” Zlatan whispered. In his father’s tongue, in the language with which he couldn’t speak to anyone he knew, in the speech he remembered not because he needed to but because he wanted to.
Even if Sandro didn’t understand, he did hear. His head came down so slowly, as slowly as the movements of a sleepwalker, but his eyes were very much awake. They gazed lazily at Zlatan, like the languid heat of high summer, and so when the space between them wavered it seemed perfectly natural. They held him while Sandro brought his hands from around his back, while he delicately stroked a few places over Zlatan’s ribs before finding two he liked and spreading his palms over them. Then he shifted, movements smooth and seamless, and his hands slipped up Zlatan’s chest as his hips went down.
He paused once, waiting for Zlatan to finish bucking, and then he slid onto Zlatan’s cock as easy as one took a breath. Sandro breathed a little more deeply, but other than that there wasn’t a ripple across his face. His hands continued on to round over Zlatan’s shoulders, and his head dropped, and then his mouth was soft and teasing on Zlatan’s and Zlatan was pulling up his knees, wrapping his hands around Sandro’s arms, pushing his hips up.
Long and deep, and then Sandro eased back with a smile on his face that was smug, yes, but so warm about it that Zlatan wasn’t as tempted to slap him as could be expected.
Besides, Zlatan was smiling himself. “No sense of privacy. You took your time poking about my house before I got here. Did you leave me any saddle oil?”
Sandro blinked, started to scowl, and then tossed his head instead. “Ass.”
Zlatan rolled them over, muffling his laughter in Sandro’s neck, and Sandro only hit him once on the shoulders, though he had time for a few more before Zlatan could get his knees down and rock into the other man. Then Sandro gasped his curses, and took them back with the clutching of his hands on Zlatan’s back, and Zlatan first revenged himself and then forgave the man. He wanted to, annoying as Sandro could be. He wanted to, so he did.
* * *
And later—a shockingly long time later—when they were too tired to even move to the bed, Zlatan sprawled on the knobby hard stones, Sandro’s legs too twisted with his own for him to lie fully on his belly, and let the other man run light fingertips over his back. He didn’t think Sandro had had a chance to really see that before, but no comment or even a gasp came from the other man.
“Why won’t you come back?” Sandro asked. He spoke so softly that at first Zlatan thought he’d imagined it, but when he looked up, Sandro was staring at him too seriously.
He closed his eyes, and moved his head off his arm to the cool floor. “As what?”
It took a while for Sandro to answer. An unpleasant truth could do that, as he’d said earlier. “It’d be as a general. But Paolo wouldn’t…he can’t rule you even if he wanted to. It’d defeat the point of getting you for that instead of some other condottiere. He knows that. Fine, you’d have to be a little politer in public, not pet his cheek all the time when you’re annoyed…”
“What do you do in public? When he’s got to be seen with his wife, do you dig up some poor woman to parade around?” Zlatan pushed his forearms against the floor and arched his back, feeling a few bones pop, before looking at Sandro again. He raised his eyebrows. “Will you have to get married eventually?”
“I’m not getting married,” Sandro said rather stiffly. He bit at his lip and looked away, then back. “It makes the rumors reflect worse on me than him, but I don’t listen to those anyway. As long as the people still support him and my men follow me, I don’t care what’s said behind my back. And I thought you didn’t much care for gossip either.”
“You’re from Rome, and you’re a noble. You can do that. I don’t care for rumors, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what they can do,” Zlatan muttered. He lifted himself onto his elbows, then pulled at his legs till he’d gotten them free of the other man.
Sandro released him there, but the man’s gaze still held on Zlatan. “It’s not that you don’t want us, and don’t tell me it’s because you don’t like fighting either. I’ve seen you go into battle. And even here—everybody I talk to tells me that you’re always picking an argument, like a wolf in a trap snapping at everything. You don’t like this better than you would Milan.”
“Don’t tell me what I’d like!” Zlatan shoved himself up on one arm, then yanked it out from under him. When he fell back, he did so hard enough for his teeth to snap against each other, but he didn’t mind. Better his jaw ache than give Alessandro the opening to list his shortcomings again.
“Then tell me what you would like. Tell me that and I’ll let you be,” Alessandro hissed, rising himself. He pushed himself forward till he was looking almost straight down at Zlatan.
He was asking for a reply, so Zlatan gave him one: Zlatan jerked back up and looked down his own nose, showing the man there wasn’t a monopoly on that either. “I’d like to stay here,” he gritted out. “I wouldn’t like to go to Milan.”
Alessandro’s eyes flashed wide and hot, and his nostrils flared. For a long, long time he looked at Zlatan, so unmoving Zlatan wasn’t even certain the man was breathing. Or needed to breathe, since the fury and contempt in his face seemed livid enough to carry its own life.
But then it began to fade, and the tight lines around his mouth disappeared. Then Alessandro turned away, starting to reach for his clothes. “Liar. You’re worse than Paolo. You’re lying, and—and God, I wish it’d make me hate you.”
His hands clenched on his shirt, then flattened. Then he twisted back and had his hands around Zlatan’s face and his mouth crushed to Zlatan’s lips, and he was making noises as if he were still talking. But no words could have been that angry, and then that bitter, and finally that…sad.
“Why?” Zlatan asked, when their lips finally slipped apart.
Sandro closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Zlatan’s, his nails scratching a little at Zlatan’s temples. They dug in harder before Sandro abruptly took his hands away. “Because I love you, somehow,” he said quietly, and turned his shoulder to Zlatan.
By the time he’d picked up all his clothes, he was angry again and he stalked into the next room without a backward glance. Zlatan was looking at the doorway when the door suddenly slammed into place so he flinched. Then he put one hand over his face and did some gouging himself at it.
He listened to Sandro get dressed and then leave. Then he got up, gathered his own clothes, and was just stepping out the back door when he glimpsed a figure marching across one of the pastures. So Zlatan went back inside and gave Sandro time to retrieve his horse.
When he was sure the other man was gone, he hunted up a piece of soap and took that and his clothes out to the well. He dipped up a bucket of water, wet the soap, and thoroughly scrubbed every inch of himself before rinsing himself off. Then he did it again, and again, and again till he noticed little bloody fissures were opening across his fingertips and along his calves and forearms.
Zlatan snarled, squeezing the soap, and then flung the damn thing down the well as hard as he could. Then he dropped down on his knees next to the well and ground his forehead into its rim, eyes shut as hard as possible and mouth sealed so nothing would pass it. Not that there weren’t a few tries, but he resisted those and finally he could just kneel there. But not in peace. Not in peace, and damn both of them.
* * *
Even though Zlatan didn’t think Sandro would be back, he still didn’t want to stay anywhere near Stockholm. He got Christian Wilhelmsson, who wasn’t a bad horse-trader himself and one of the few people he’d met in Sweden that he liked, to take over his business for a few weeks and then rode out to find the village where he’d been born.
It was rather more difficult than he’d expected, and not only because his memory of leaving it was too old and blurred to guide him. Only a few people seemed to have heard of it, and they seemed strangely reluctant to talk about it till finally Zlatan lost his temper in a roadside inn and screamed at nobody in particular for a few minutes. When he was done, everyone was stock-still and staring at him like frightened sheep. He sighed in disgust and turned around, only to find a little wizened ball of a man offering to show him the way.
The place was only a half-day’s easy ride away. They went the next day, and then Zlatan understood: the village had been abandoned for years, and the weather and neighbors had decimated its buildings till little more than a few posts here and there remained. The brush had grown in and there were even a few sizable saplings. Zlatan walked about for hours and hours, and in the end he had to give up on figuring out where his family’s house had been.
There still was his mother’s grave: his father had carted her all the way to the nearest town so she could be buried in a proper cemetery, then had never spoken of her again. But it was still there, and the priest that kept the chapel to which the cemetery belonged was dutiful and had kept it clean of weeds. He talked to Zlatan for a while, telling him about the disease that had swept the area ten years ago, when Zlatan had still been in Egypt. When Zlatan passed him a small bag of coins, he looked surprised before he accepted it.
Zlatan looked at his mother’s tombstone and…couldn’t manage to feel much in particular. It was a rock, over a plot of earth with a rotting body in it, and his mother was long dead. If there was a heaven, then she was there, and if there wasn’t, then she was still suffering less and either way Zlatan didn’t need to worry about her.
So he went back to Stockholm. He was there a day before he finally told Christian he was back, and then he took up his trading again. He spent more time out at his pasturelands, but not because he really liked it more than the city; it just had less people. But he never slept there—in fact, after he’d moved out his swords and a few other belongings, he locked the door and never went inside again.
* * *
By the time Zlatan got to the door, it’d been quite a while since the last knock and he almost didn’t open it, thinking that whoever it was had to have left. But he did, and standing there with a patient expression that became quietly pleased was Henrik Larsson.
“Hello, Zlatan,” he said. He was dressed in well-made but plain clothes, looking like any reasonably prosperous merchant from half a dozen possible countries. No obvious signs of Milan. “Are you busy? I’m in Stockholm for a few days and I wanted to visit with you, but there’s no hurry. I can come back.”
Zlatan leaned against the jamb and irritably told himself not to be so surprised. “Are you still working for Paolo?”
“Of course, but the fighting season’s over.” Henrik answered not too quickly and not too slowly, in a tone that was simply matter-of-fact.
He looked and sounded the same, Zlatan thought, and then noticed he was twisting the door-handle rather hard. “You still like women, right?”
A few faint furrows appeared in Henrik’s brow. “I’m getting married when I get back, actually.”
“Really?” Zlatan raised his brows and stepped back without thinking. He stopped, then shrugged and waved in the other man. He still had his suspicions, but it was Henke, after all. No point in trying to leave him on the front step when he’d taught Zlatan more about surprises than anyone else.
Really, Henrik told him, and proceeded to talk about his intended while he knocked the mud off his boots and Zlatan closed the door, and then along the way to the kitchen where Zlatan hastily threw together a cold lunch. Then they sat down to eat.
Henrik took a bite, nodded approvingly, and washed it down with a mouthful of beer. Then he looked up at Zlatan. “The Duke and Signore Nesta are very confused. To be honest, I’m not too clear myself.”
It took Zlatan a moment to avoid choking. He grabbed for his mug and took a healthy swallow from it, then set it down and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. “Do you call them that all the time?”
“Well, it’s something like a law since they’re my lords. And they’ve proven they can hold the titles,” Henrik calmly replied. He continued eating with every evidence of a good appetite; he had to have been here a while, since it always took him at least half a day to recover from a sea voyage. “At first a lot of the men were a little disbelieving, since they’d seen the Duke bow to your decisions, but he won them over. And the few he didn’t, Signore Nesta saw to.”
“He probably did,” Zlatan snorted. He looked at his own food, then pushed his plate away. Maybe later he could eat it, but right now he didn’t feel like it, even with the sharp pangs beginning to twist his stomach. “God’s balls, but I don’t understand Italians. You do something nice for them and they lecture you on all the ways you did it wrong. So you treat them like shit, and they won’t stop chasing you…all right, which one of them sent you?”
Henrik didn’t hurry up to finish his current mouthful. Instead he chewed slowly and thoroughly while thoughtfully looking at Zlatan. “They didn’t. I asked to come, when I overheard that they’d run into you. And before you ask, I managed to leave before either of them swallowed their pride enough to try and discuss with me whatever happened between you and them. I think it’s better if they and I just act as if our business began with the taking of Milan.”
Occasionally Zlatan had wondered how the captains that had been there since the beginning, Henrik and Marco and Olof, had gotten along with Paolo. He’d assumed that all three were too smart to try to use what they’d seen or heard or guessed against Paolo, but beyond that there had to have been quite a few tricky moments. “Then how do you know they’re confused? And about what?”
All Henrik did was look at Zlatan, but that was enough to make Zlatan regret he’d asked such stupid questions. Not that the other man pointed that out—Henrik never was that vindictive, or that wasteful of time and energy.
“…are you?” Henrik was saying. He blinked, then began to scrape up a last spoonful…he’d eaten quickly. “How are you?”
“Fine. You want more?” Zlatan slid his plate over to the other man, then held it there when Henrik raised a hand in protest. “Oh, there’s plenty left for me. I’m looking after myself.”
The hand dropped casually to the plate, then switched it with Henrik’s now empty one. “So I heard in town. You’re rated very highly by people who really know horses.”
“And what about people who really know people?” Zlatan asked, grinning. He let that become a laugh at Henrik’s resigned look, then got his elbow up on the table so he could rest his chin on his hand. Then he turned his head to rub at his mouth a few times. “So why are you here, then?”
“Well, to see how you are, and because I’ve been a little curious about some things for years. I figured this might be my only chance to ask about them.” Henrik had a last mouthful before carefully setting down his silverware. He pushed himself from the table a bit so he could lean comfortably against the back of his chair, then lifted his eyes to Zlatan. They were somber, a little on the concerned side, and also a little cautious, but not as if he thought he’d need to jump quickly if Zlatan didn’t like what came next.
And he also didn’t start right away, but instead gave Zlatan time to begin thinking about everything he could ask about, have his temper flare, and then quash that as he realized how nervy he was being. It was Henrik. He wouldn’t spare Zlatan unnecessarily, but he really truly wasn’t out to get anything from Zlatan either. If he said he was curious, then it stopped there. Whatever Zlatan said wasn’t going to end up haunting him later.
So Zlatan sighed and flipped his hand, and Henrik sipped some beer to wet his lips. “Why didn’t you kill Paolo Maldini in the Milan Cathedral?”
Zlatan blinked, then stared, but nothing else followed. Apparently that was the whole question. “He…he had really pretty eyes.”
After a long moment, Henrik slowly put his mug back on the table.
“I was nineteen!” The plates clattered as Zlatan’s arm hit the table; the mug didn’t only because Henrik had snatched it to safety. Then Zlatan jerked up his other elbow and ground his hands over his face before attempting to look at the other man. “I was nineteen, and I’d finally earned back the money those bastard Venetians stole from us so I could’ve…I could’ve come back here, except I had this company of men I couldn’t just leave. So I took us to Milan, to settle with Il Moro, and I thought I’d see this cathedral Luís always talked about, and…”
Henrik was just looking back, a touch of surprise lifting his brows, but nothing else on his face. He was simply listening, and for some reason Zlatan felt as embarrassed by that as he was grateful.
So he turned away, stared at the grain of the table planks. “…they were mine. My men. I wasn’t just free—I had things, for once. I could get things. If I wanted something, I could get it, and they dragged Paolo out and I’d never seen eyes like that before, eyes that color. I thought they were more beautiful than the fucking cathedral. I wanted them. Him. So well, I took him. I was fucking nineteen, all right?”
“Oh,” was all Henrik said.
“And to hell with Ludovico Il Moro. Nobody could tell me what to do anymore—I might fight for them for a while, but only as long as I wanted to. I didn’t want to give Paolo up to that bastard, so I didn’t.” Zlatan pressed his fingertips into the side of his nose. Then he tried taking a breath and he could barely force the air through, but he didn’t lift his hand.
Something scraped, then plopped: Henrik was nibbling at his food again. He really must have been starving, though he was too polite to say so. “Did you let Alessandro Nesta come along with us because Maldini asked for that?”
“Paolo never asked. Never would’ve. He was trying so damn hard to pretend Sandro didn’t mean a thing to him, and the whole time he was more afraid of me than since he thought I’d let his wife die,” Zlatan muttered. A laugh leaked into his voice, but it had no humor in it, light or dark. “And Sandro was just glaring at me, like he would be madder if I didn’t kill him. Even Paolo doesn’t look at me like that, even when he’s so angry he forgets he’s an aristocrat and tries to hit me. I thought it was funny at first, and figured why not. Four years of fighting and Paolo was getting so depressed he wasn’t even arguing with me anymore, but he got his backbone back over Sandro. I was curious about what kind of man could do that to him.”
“There’s one more question,” Henrik said, and then didn’t immediately ask it. He waited till Zlatan looked at him, and then till Zlatan rubbed at his eyes and pushed the hair from his face and breathed deeply a few times. “Why did you spend four years trying for Milan and then leave it the moment you had it?”
This time Zlatan didn’t reply right away, and not because he didn’t want to. Actually, he didn’t want to, but the delay was because he had been determinedly ignoring that question for longer than four years and now he had to think about it. He didn’t like it at all, but…but even if Henrik had apologized and left right away, it wouldn’t do any good. The matter had sprang free from the corner in which Zlatan had shut it and it was going to stare him in the face till he killed it, and he could only do that with an answer to it.
“I’ve got a question first—Luís said something to me once. We were talking about how you get somebody to say…well, how you get somebody in bed with you, so that they want to be there.” Zlatan put the back of his hand to his cheek. It felt warm. “He said one thing you could try was bringing them the keys to a city they want.”
Wood creaked. When Zlatan glanced up, Henrik had moved to fold one arm across his chest as he leaned back in his chair. With his other hand he was absently scratching the top of his head while staring at the far wall. Then he noticed Zlatan looking and hitched himself up a little. “If that’s what you’re wondering, that actually happened. It’s how Luís and Zizou—Zinedine—finally stopped dancing around. They were besieging a town on the Syrian border together and it looked like they were stuck, which meant Zinedine could’ve gotten forced into retirement in Jerusalem. But Luís figured out a way to get inside, and then gave all the credit to Zinedine. So Zinedine trusted him from then on.”
“Till Zizou got them both killed over stupid politics,” Zlatan muttered.
Henrik glanced at him, then took a second, slower look. “Luís knew, or guessed, at what Zinedine was doing with that rutter. The trust went both ways—if he thought it really wasn’t going to work, or wouldn’t be worth the risk, then he would have told Zinedine so, and I think Zinedine would have listened.”
“Luís couldn’t have known everything. He was too smart, and he’d been through too many campaigns. Zinedine must have lied or left something out.” Zlatan laid one arm flat on the table and leaned his head on his other hand.
“Zinedine would’ve told Luís everything that Luís couldn’t have guessed for himself. No, Zizou wasn’t perfect, and his plan failed. But it’s not that he wanted it to. He liked life too much to have treated death lightly, and he loved Luís. The last thing he would’ve wanted was for Luís to die.”
“Well, still. If Luís had known what was going to happen, he probably would’ve changed his mind about waiting for Zizou and gotten on the ship faster.”
The sharpness of the thump made Zlatan start. He looked down at the still-rattling floorboard beneath Henrik’s boot, then up at Henrik who was actually betraying some frustration. “Zlatan. Of course Luís would’ve preferred not to get a spear in the gut. And if he had known that that was what he’d get, he would have done his damnedest to avoid it and avoid Zizou’s death, and since it was him, he would have found a way. But he couldn’t have known, Zizou couldn’t have known, and you can’t act on what you don’t know.”
“I know. God’s balls, you sound like one of those hellfire-and-brimstone priests. ‘No one knows what misfortune the future will bring, so let the Church have your money today for the sake of your soul,’” Zlatan snapped.
“Then why let that wondering tell you how to act?” Henrik looked at Zlatan a little longer, then turned back to the food with a little rolling shrug. His exasperation was gone, but in its place was a gentle confusion that made Zlatan shift about even more restlessly. “What Luís did know was that he wanted to spend as much time with Zinedine as he could, and that he didn’t know how much time he’d have with the man. So he didn’t waste any chances he got. You can sit and wonder about how much it’ll hurt to lose someone, and when you look up they’re gone. And then it hurts—it hurts so much more.” A trace of pain filtered into Henrik’s voice. He wasn’t looking at the food he was still putting into his mouth. For that matter, he wasn’t even looking at this city, or this year. “Because you weren’t there, and you could have been, and when you wonder about how the past might have been different it’s worse than wondering about the future, since you can’t change it. It’s not a piece of wisdom you could find in a book, but that’s the truth.”
Zlatan pressed his lips together, then pulled at his hair a few times. “Are you sure—”
“They didn’t send me. I came because I wanted to know for myself, and when I go back I won’t be telling them anything. Actually, I’ll probably tell them I never managed to run into you,” Henrik said. He shrugged again. “Or whatever you’d like me to tell them.”
“I never answered you,” Zlatan slowly replied. He twisted his hand back in his hair and pulled it round, then watched the strands fall back as he let them go. “I…came back here because it’s what I wanted ever since my father made us leave. Mother died here, and Father said we’d be back when that didn’t hurt so much anyway. And I liked it so much better than all the places my father dragged me, looking for work. But then—in Egypt they were telling me who to worship, and trying to break me into what they wanted, and then just trying to break me. And I kept thinking about Sweden, and that’s how I remembered I wasn’t a fucking Mameluke and didn’t belong there no matter what they said. I swore I’d get back here and held onto that. Then Luís died and the Venetians cheated us out of his money, and I couldn’t leave Italy right away, and thinking about coming home was what let me put up with all those bastards that hired us. All those stupid nothing campaigns. The politics. The backstabbing. It didn’t fucking matter because at the end I was coming back here.”
When he finished he let his hand fall to the table. This time Henrik didn’t grab his mug, and it jumped and rattled with the rest of the dishes while the other man looked at Zlatan, and Zlatan looked at his hand.
“Well, now you’re here,” Henrik eventually said.
Zlatan laughed. It was short, sharp and nasty. “And it’s boring. God. It’s not what I remembered at all.”
Henrik didn’t say anything. He could have. He could have said a good deal, and had the right to, and wouldn’t have gotten the kind of snarling that anyone else could have, but he didn’t. Of course, that was why he wouldn’t have gotten snarled at.
“What if it goes wrong with them, because of them? Oh, I know, don’t spend all your time thinking about it, but if I didn’t think about what could go wrong once in a while I never would’ve lived long enough to meet you and Luís,” Zlatan muttered.
After a moment, Henrik reached out and grabbed the edge of the table. He pulled himself towards it, then began eating again. “Then go back to Sweden. I might do that someday myself.”
Zlatan blinked. “But you’re getting married in Milan.”
“I am, and I’m unbelievably happy thinking about it. And this is where my first wife died, where she’s buried. It hasn’t always been pleasant here, and right now it’s not where I want to be, but that could change.” Henrik gazed around the room, then smiled ruefully as he turned back to his plate. “If it does, then I’ll come back. This is where I was born, this is where I can always return no matter what happens, and in the meantime Sweden’s not going anywhere. Not the parts of it that really make it Sweden.”
For a while Zlatan watched Henrik eat. The other man didn’t seem to mind, but steadily finished off the plate. Then he started to ask Zlatan for a little more, but Zlatan was already getting up. After finding half a loaf of bread and some butter, he left that with Henrik and walked out.
When he came back, Henrik looked up, mildly curious. Then he frowned at the large, oddly-shaped bundle Zlatan had just set on the table. “Wouldn’t a chest be better?”
“I don’t have enough that I care enough about to haul across Germany to bother with a chest.” Zlatan stood there for a few seconds, then was reminded of his own hunger by a low growling in his gut. He waved away the hunk of bread Henrik offered and poked about the kitchen till he found some apples; they would tide him over till he had a chance to stop in a tavern for a proper meal.
Henrik cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable. “I’m not leaving for another three days.”
“Oh. Oh, good. I need to chase down Christian and sell off everything else, anyway,” Zlatan mumbled, crunching into the first apple.
* * *
For a good minute, Henrik and Zlatan simply looked at the man. Then Henrik blinked a few times and pinched his nose, and Zlatan rolled his eyes. “Are you joking?” he asked.
The gateman stiffly shook his head. “No guests are expected today and neither the Duke nor Signore Nesta want to be disturbed for anything less than a state emergency. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can’t let you in. Please come back tomorrow.”
“He’s new,” Henrik muttered. “I’ve never seen him before.”
Then he got off his horse and reached for his saddlebag while trying to explain things to the gateman. Unfortunately, this guard was particularly thick and thought Henrik might have been reaching for a weapon. So he immediately grabbed his pike and ordered Henrik to get back on the horse and leave when all Henrik was trying to do was get out something with the crest of Milan on it.
“Look, I can’t take a message inside. I’m the only one out here.”
“Where’s your partner? Even at a back-gate there should always be two.”
“…not that it’s any of your business, but he suddenly took ill. He’s over there, behind…hear him throwing up? So he can’t run inside either, even if I were interested in…”
Zlatan had his horse side-step left a few feet, squinting up at the lines of windows. Nearly all of them were dark, but one or two seemed to have a little light glimmering behind them. And if he remembered…well, he’d only walked through the place twice, but he was fairly sure that that one belonged to the library, and that that vertical dark stripe was a bookcase right behind it. He dug into his own saddlebag—the gateman was too damn busy arguing with Henrik to notice what he was doing—till he found the hilt of the Milanese sword; he’d had the pieces of the blade melted down into a lump for when he found a decent swordmaker, but the hilt had seemed fine so he’d let that be.
After another look at the window, he backed up the horse a bit. The shuffling of its hooves attracted Henrik’s attention and he looked up, then opened his mouth and raised his hand. The guard raised his head as well, but Zlatan had already swung back his arm and that way he was so precariously balanced in his stirrups that he couldn’t have stopped anyway.
He threw the hilt, and watched it soar in a perfect arc to crash into the window. The glass smashed and the hilt teetered on the crossbar, then tipped inside. “Paolo! I brought your damn sword back! It was broken—what the hell was I supposed to do with it?”
“Really, Zlatan,” said Henrik. A thump and a gasp followed hard on the man’s words, and when Zlatan looked over, he found the guard crumpled at Henrik’s feet. “I’m probably telling this man what to do tomorrow morning.”
“Well, nothing to make you listen like an aching head,” Zlatan grinned. He grabbed the pommel, then swung himself out of the saddle and onto the ground. After grabbing the reins of Henrik’s horse, he led it and his own through the gate and he was even nice enough to swerve them wide of the groaning guard.
By then lights were flaring behind almost every window, and accompanying that little show was the rising cacophony of muffled shouts, banging doors, other thuds and clatters—a door only four or five yards away burst open and a lanky figure stumbled out of it, nightshirt flapping about their boot-tops.
Too tall, Zlatan thought, and then the glare of a torch fell on the man’s face and Zlatan briefly forgot about that. He stepped forward, arms spread and smiling, and a moment later Marco crashed into him, laughing so hard his voice was breaking. “Ibra! You cunt! I knew you’d come round. Your fucking Sweden’s got no wine.”
Zlatan told Marco a bit about his fucking Italian wine, wrapping his arms around the other man till he heard ribs protesting. His sight was briefly obscured by Marco’s flapping shirt, but he eventually shook his head free and looked up. Marco let him go so he could step back to see better.
The lowest and next-lowest row of windows were all open, with plenty of curious heads and arms dangling out. More people were trickling into the courtyard, but they were a little warier since Paolo was in front, wide-eyed and clutching up the hem of his nightshirt with one hand. Slightly behind him was Adriana—
“Do you know how close this came to hitting me?” Sandro came storming through the scattered clumps of onlookers, waving the hilt so his sleeves snapped their folds about his head. Not that that did much to block his attempt to glare Zlatan into bursting into flames. “And the window! That was a beautiful piece of—no, damn it, Paolo, if he wants to fling—”
To his credit, Paolo didn’t stop at a polite push at Sandro’s shoulders, but went ahead and grabbed the other man by the waist when he tried to lunge forward. Then he held on, though Sandro forgot a few things about dukes and manners and nearly threw an elbow into Paolo’s face, and hissed in Sandro’s ear and yanked till Sandro finally fell back with ill grace.
With a last look at him, Paolo came forward. Then he turned to Zlatan and his mouth opened, and it stayed open as Zlatan made a very nice, sweeping low bow. Off to the side Henrik was calmly explaining to the groggy gateman who they were and why he should have let them in right away.
“Inside,” Paolo finally said, curt and tight. His feet pivoted on their heels, then went off.
Zlatan straightened up and threw the horses’ reins back to Henrik, then started after Paolo. When he went past Sandro, the man refused to move so their shoulders jarred against each other before Zlatan twisted his out of the way. Sandro sucked in a breath, then stomped off somewhere else, muttering about glasswork and idiots. And then Zlatan had to go past Paolo’s wife.
She did pick up her skirts and glide back before him, but her head was up and turned to follow Zlatan as he passed her. Her eyes were smoothly unreadable; to be honest, she was better at and more consistent about hiding her emotions than Paolo was.
Then she swirled about, and with a few flicks of her hands and a quiet word or two, she went about settling down the household. They all hurried to do what she said, but they were smart about it and not blindly obeying. Probably put her first in their prayers every night, the way they looked so adoringly at her, and of course not a one of them piped up about how irregular things were or how unfashionably unladylike, actually, her lack of hysterics was.
She’d have to be someone Zlatan faced later, and with all the damn talking that had gone on, they’d never discussed that. For a moment he wanted to go back and stable the horses himself, have that one moment more, but then he gave himself a shake and had a very low laugh at himself. If he did that, he’d be putting three people off, and so he might as well cut it to two while he had the chance.
* * *
“I aimed for the bookcase, not the—” Zlatan started.
And Paolo turned around from shutting the door to his study, reached up to Zlatan’s shoulders, and yanked those down while rising up on his toes. His hands leaped to the sides of Zlatan’s face, then slid back into Zlatan’s hair as Zlatan reflexively grabbed the man’s waist. Then he let his own hands drop, stooping a little so he could get them around the backs of Paolo’s thighs, before pulling up.
Paolo’s back hit the wall beside the door rather hard, but he only twisted a bit, his mouth never lifting from Zlatan’s. One of his hands stopped ripping strands from Zlatan’s scalp to push round Zlatan’s neck. He moaned, his knees jamming up into Zlatan’s ribs before his heel thudded into Zlatan’s back, and he was starting to pluck at Zlatan’s coat when Zlatan dropped him.
A flash of startled eyes, and then Zlatan had to snatch quickly at Paolo’s elbow to keep him from toppling over. The moment Paolo had his balance back, he jerked his arm back and irritably shouldered his way out from between Zlatan and the wall. Then he seemed to remember that wasn’t terribly elegant of him, but he needed a visible effort to show Zlatan a composed, faintly questioning face.
“Shall I have one of the guest chambers aired out for you?” he asked.
Zlatan rolled his eyes and flopped back against the wall, rubbing at his thighs. “Oh, honestly. I just came through the fucking Alps, and the passes all were nearly snowed in. I’m exhausted. Put me in the stables or wherever you have room, and let me get some sleep so I can tell you about the Germans tomorrow.”
Paolo absently smoothed a hand down his nightshirt, which was really absurdly long over his mismatched boots. He came forward half a foot. “What about the Germans?”
“Well, they’re building up for a big campaign, it looks like. Henke and I ran into one of the bluebloods I think will be generaling in it,” Zlatan said, shrugging. He ran a hand through his hair, then took it down to sniff at the palm. Then he grimaced and pressed that hard against the wall behind him. “Complete bastard. I’d like to introduce Cesare Borgia to him and see which one sneers better, except Borgia would probably slaughter him and I want to do that.”
Paolo took another step. The planes of his face were still smooth, but not rigidly so, not because he was forcing himself to present a blankness to the world. He lifted his hands and Zlatan instinctively edged into the wall, then pushed himself back that fraction of an inch. Then Paolo carefully laid his palms against Zlatan’s sides. He waited a moment before tipping up his head.
When they had to breathe, Paolo’s fingers were twisted in Zlatan’s hair again. He was looking down between them, his forehead sliding to rest against Zlatan’s cheekbone. “So you’re staying.”
Zlatan bit at his lip and flexed his hands against Paolo’s back. He nodded.
“Oh,” Paolo breathed quietly. His fingers uncurled, slipped down past Zlatan’s ears and then stretched to fit the curve of Zlatan’s head. He moved his shoulder, nudging it into Zlatan’s chest. “The next time you break a window in my palazzo, I’ll have the guards lock you out till morning.”
“Then I’ll stand there and keep breaking them till you come down and let me in yourself.” Zlatan snorted, then grinned into Paolo’s face when the other man lifted his head. Then he blinked and sniffed the air. “What is that, sandalwood?”
“Mostly. I don’t really like it, but it was a gift from the soapmakers’ guild and they were in today. Adriana tossed it all out afterward,” Paolo said, easing away. He frowned at Zlatan’s snickering and began to ask what that was about, but then he sighed instead. “Never mind, it’s probably better if I don’t know. So how are you introducing yourself now? I think Marco and maybe a few others are about who’d know you as Il Mago, but the rest of your old army is still coming back from Parma with Andr—oh, you wouldn’t know who Andrea is.”
Once Paolo was far enough away, Zlatan bent down and dug into his boots. He teased open the fake lining, then patiently worked out the papers that had been stuffed between that and the real one. “Pirlo? Well, Sandro gave me his name, but nothing else. Here, these are notes on Maximilian’s…oh, wait, no, these are on France. We got a little lost going through Switzerland.”
Paolo took them without hesitation, though they reeked even worse than Zlatan’s head. He flicked his eyes over the top sheet, then straightened out its creases with his other hand and began to read it. Then he mumbled something to himself and turned slowly around, vaguely in the direction of his desk. He did stop and put a hand back for the bundle Zlatan pulled from his other boot, but his eyes didn’t lift from the notes. “This explains…sorry, who is it?”
The knock at the door made him look round, but he only started when he saw Zlatan, still crouched on the floor and laughing into one hand, as if he’d forgotten anyone else was there. A mixture of annoyance and apology put the pink into his cheeks as he crossed the room and opened the door. “Yes, I’m that worried about…Adriana?”
Zlatan stopped laughing and pressed his hand over his mouth. He held it there for a moment, then turned and stood at the same time.
She had a candle with her and had thrown a thicker wrap around her shoulders. Her hair also was bound up behind her head: the locks looping messily from it spoke to her haste, but apparently she cared about preserving some measure of propriety. “I just came to see if either of you needed anything.”
Paolo shifted his weight onto his back foot, his eyes dropping from Adriana’s level gaze. He pursed his lips a few times, parted them, and then went back to pursing them.
“I’d like to know where I’m sleeping,” Zlatan finally said. He still didn’t really want to have this conversation, but Paolo was becoming ridiculous, and at this hour Zlatan didn’t feel up to working through that to the actual man.
“Oh. Yes.” The look Paolo tossed over his shoulder was edged with more than a little irritation, but that swiftly went to a surprisingly awkward kind of apology as he turned back to Adriana. He bent his head a little more, then slipped his hand out to lightly take up hers; her fingers immediately began to curl around his. “Adriana, would you mind showing him?” he quietly asked.
“Not at all.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, murmuring something about when was he coming back to sleep and he began to answer, but Zlatan didn’t listen past that. The next he knew, she was asking him if he’d like to go now while moving back to let him come into the hall.
He didn’t hear the door shut behind him, but he made a point of not looking to see when Paolo stopped watching. And he gave her most of the hall, which was wide enough so that that wasn’t actually all that difficult, but he still did have to make an effort. He hoped Paolo appreciated that—well, Paolo would. Actually, he should have waited for Sandro to come back from wherever he was sulking, and then prove that it wasn’t because he didn’t know about manners that he didn’t bother getting tangled up on those.
“Did you have a good journey?” Adriana asked. She was still looking coolly at him, her voice perfectly polite.
Zlatan moved the shoulder closest to her back and forth. “I’ve had worse.”
“Are you going to disappoint my husband again?”
They went on a few yards at a fairly slow pace. Then Zlatan looked at her, and found the coolness was now all in her voice. Her eyes were sharp and watchful, and the lines of her face were holding themselves as tightly as a clenched fist, ready to release any number of expressions.
“I don’t know,” Zlatan said. He wondered where Henrik had gotten off to, and then grimaced at himself for that. “I think sometimes he’s disappointed just knowing that I’m how I am, and he’s got to put up with it if he…look, I’m here. I’ll lead his men. I’ll kill who I’m supposed to. I’m here to fight for him, not to please him all the time.”
The corners of Adriana’s mouth twitched. Then she turned away, smoothing her skirts and tightening the sash of her wrap about her waist. “I apologize. I think I asked the wrong question—are you going to keep hurting him?”
“Same answer.” Zlatan rubbed at the side of his face. His skin felt gritty; the road dust had mixed with his sweat and then dried there. “Well, no, not—you don’t have to be so nice, all right? You know what I can do, and I think you’re a little more clear-sighted when it comes to memory than Paolo is. I’m not a saint and I never will be. I probably will hurt him, whatever I do. I don’t want to, but it happens.”
She looked at him again, long and thoughtful. Her mouth thinned, then gradually relaxed so the flesh about it regained its color, and then she nodded at something. “As long as you don’t want to,” she said. “As that isn’t what you like best.”
“It’s not.” Then Zlatan thought about that, and didn’t take that back. Instead he rubbed harder at his temple and cheek, frowning at Adriana. “Why are you being so nice? Did he—”
“He told me he’d like very much to have you here.” What her tone told Zlatan was that he’d better not ask for more details. But then Adriana sighed and the hard line of her jaw softened, and when she looked at him this time, it reminded him of Henrik sitting there and asking those questions in Stockholm. “I love Paolo very deeply, and I want him to be happy, because then I am as well. I wish I could do that for him all the time, but I can’t, and really, there’s nothing I can do about that. He had a life, had friends and loves before we were married—so did I, to be honest. And he has lives and loves away from me, and it’d be foolish to pretend he didn’t and selfish to rail against them. Actually, that’s foolish as well, as then neither of us would ever be happy. And happiness is such a rare thing that I’d rather not waste my time being jealous.”
Zlatan stared at her. “You really mean that.”
Adriana slowed a little so she could turn more towards him. Her eyes glinted harshly for a moment, and then she gave him a smile that was rueful and a little bitter, but that was also surprisingly gentled by humor. “Well, you gave me a lot of time away from him to think it all through. I actually owe you some thanks there, and also for helping him to tell me…because the one thing I do want is simply to know. I want to know who Paolo is, what parts there are to him. Even if they aren’t mine—if I can know they’re there, then I don’t lie awake wondering.”
“I’m sorry,” Zlatan muttered. He turned away from her startled look to stare out some of the windows they were passing, watching the bright white spots of the stars blur through the slightly uneven glass. “For…I didn’t need to do that as much as I did. You and those boys probably could’ve seen him more, except I wasn’t thinking about you most of the time.”
Her laugh, low but genuine, made him whip about so quickly his boot-heels squealed on the marble floor. But no, Adriana was really smiling at him, and this time with pure pleasure. “Oh, thank you. That convinces me more than anything else that he really matters to you. Him and Sandro.”
“Did you have this talk with Sandro too?” Zlatan asked, voice made sharp with his discomfort.
“Not quite, but I did talk with him.” Adriana’s good humor faded a little, but not so she could look resentfully at Zlatan. She hesitated, then angled herself a bit nearer. “Zlatan, the children don’t remember you as a horrible monster. They don’t understand what exactly happened—Christian is a little young yet to try explaining—and they never knew quite what to say to you, but they don’t hate you. I do remember what you did, but that includes that, and whatever happened to convince Paolo to tell me about things, and bringing us back here. Speaking of which…”
She stopped, and there seemed to be no reason for it so Zlatan nearly continued on into the wall. Then he pulled himself up short and turned back, only to find Adriana with the door already open for him. He glanced through the doorway and saw what appeared to be a richly appointed antechamber, with the door to the bedroom just across.
“But there’s one last thing I’d like to say.” When he looked at her, Adriana came slowly forward so she could gaze up into his eyes. She put two fingertips on his shoulder, her fingers straight out and stiff, pinning him in place as if her hand had become a dagger. “I’m now the Duchess of Milan. If you make me a widow and my children orphans, I will make you more than regret it. If you deprive my sons of their uncle Sandro, I will deprive you of more than happiness.”
“You know, marrying you to Paolo was probably the smartest thing his father ever did,” Zlatan said after a moment. His voice sounded a bit constricted so he swallowed and the tightness in his throat lessened, but didn’t entirely go away. “I’ll remember what you said.”
Adriana gazed up at him a little longer, then smiled again. Her whole expression changed, and so much that it was tempting to forget what it’d been like a moment before—but Zlatan wasn’t an idiot.
“Thank you. Now, have a good night’s sleep,” Adriana said. Her fingers crooked, then tugged at Zlatan’s shoulder and he reflexively stooped. Before he knew what was going on, she had already pecked him on the cheek and then started off down the hall, her skirts swirling gracefully around her.
Zlatan watched her go, mostly because he was still working out the past few minutes but also because he honestly was impressed. Fucking nineteen, and he’d shipped her off to a monastery with that Senderos, he thought. He knew what he was doing more often than most people thought, or liked to admit, but he had to say that he’d been lucky with that decision.
Eventually he got tired of standing around and he went into the room, which already had its candles lit so it was obvious this was no guest-chamber. Someone used it, and they had a collection of boots and shoes in various stages of disrepair in one corner. On their desk were maps and half-written letters, with a very nice astrolabe as the sole piece of decoration. But his bags were on the floor as well, probably brought there by Henrik since the wrapping around Zlatan’s sword hadn’t been tampered with.
The bedroom was tidier, the bed neatly made up with a set of towels piled on top of it and all the clothes apparently put away in the huge wardrobe to the left. In the doorway to the toilet was a large, steaming-hot tureen of water.
No one else seemed to be in, so Zlatan went ahead and stripped off. It still seemed a little odd that he’d be taken to a room that was already occupied, but he thought Adriana could be trusted to know what she was doing more than…probably anyone else in the palazzo besides Henrik. Anyway, the hot water and soap were there and ready to be used, and he didn’t like to waste either.
It wasn’t long before the tiles in the toilet were slick beneath his feet and the little water left in the tureen was the color of a bay horse. Zlatan let a last handful sluice down his back, still pondering the talk with Adriana. “‘Uncle’ Sandro?”
“What?” Sandro had come in so quietly Zlatan hadn’t heard him, and at Zlatan’s startled turn, he looked more than a little smug. “You’re a little old for that, aren’t you? Not to mention that incest isn’t a vice I indulge in.”
“Like that’d be your only objection if we were related,” Zlatan muttered. He looked around before remembering the towels were in the next room. “Actually, I think that would be fun. You couldn’t say anything about my background then, but I could throw things at you all I want. I’d be family. It’s what they do.”
The satisfaction in Sandro’s face rapidly soured to a disgusted grimace. “That’s not what family should be like, and all the glass from that window came down only this far from my head—”
His hands rose to illustrate the distance, but somehow ended up on Zlatan’s chest and shoulders instead. The stubborn bastard wouldn’t get out of Zlatan’s way again, so he could put up with all the water soaking into his nightshirt. At least then it didn’t float out as much at the slightest little push, as if Zlatan was trying to fight his way through a bag of wool. “God’s balls, your eyebrows look fine. Stop going on about that already—”
Sandro didn’t, but he was half-kissing Zlatan at the same time so it was somewhat tolerable. His hand dragged through Zlatan’s hair, pulling long trails of water down Zlatan’s neck, and he hitched up oddly, then dropped about an inch lower on one side than he’d started at. Then he wriggled out of his other boot, Zlatan still busy yanking up his damn nightshirt by the handful, and Sandro slung his arm around Zlatan’s neck and really kissed him, sharp with hunger and soft with longing.
The bed was somewhere behind Sandro. Zlatan pushed them that way till Sandro jerked, then fell over backwards and cursed at him. At the same time the bunches of cloth had ripped from Zlatan’s hands so the billowing shirt somewhat muffled that. Of course, very little could stand up to Sandro when he wanted it not to, and in a bare second he had the nightshirt on the floor and was cursing Zlatan to his face as he dragged Zlatan over him and onto the bed.
Zlatan pushed his head into the other man’s neck and sucked hard at the first spot his mouth touched, then took advantage of Sandro’s shudder to pin him down. “Missed me?”
“Of course I did, and then you show up in the middle of the night without sending a letter, or—I thought you were staying at that awful little farm.” For a moment the anger gave way to something rawer, and Sandro’s upward stare hurt to meet. But then the other man tossed his head, and then his hips and so he managed to roll them over before Zlatan could stop them. “You bastard. You—you say one more word and I swear I’ll break your mouth.”
Sandro pushed his lips down hard against Zlatan, openmouthed and rough. Their legs up to the knees were hanging over the side of the bed, but every time Zlatan tried to pull them further up, Sandro bit his lip. And then the man would nurse it, his tongue squeezing away the blood from the tears, and a groan pulled out from so deep in Zlatan that he thought he might have ripped something in his belly.
Eventually breathing became desperately necessary. After a last lick at Zlatan’s mouth, Sandro kicked the knee he was trying to move onto the mattress before languidly twisting himself all the way up, sprawling so his own legs were on either side of Zlatan’s waist and his elbows were gouging Zlatan’s chest.
“That wasn’t a punch,” Zlatan said. “I can still talk.”
“So shut up,” Sandro muttered, and bent back down, his hands cradling Zlatan’s head.
* * *
Zlatan moved his arm, then waited to see what Sandro did. The other man remained slackly tangled in the sheets, so Zlatan eased the rest of his arm from under Sandro’s head. Then he slid to the edge of the bed, slow and smooth so the shift of his weight wouldn’t shake the mattress. He eased his feet to the floor just as carefully before he finally got off the bed.
A few towels were scattered about right there, so Zlatan bent to pick one up. As he was straightening back up, the bed creaked. He stiffened, then raked one hand through his hair and turned around.
Sandro was awake, but his eyes were still surprisingly hazy, gazing up at Zlatan without any real understanding in them. He rolled lazily over onto his back, as unconsciously sensuous as the curl of smoke from a candleflame, so his head was by Zlatan and the rest of him stretched over the bed’s width, a flap of sheet drifting over his belly and nothing else covering him. “What are you doing?”
“You made me waste a good scrubbing,” Zlatan said. He tossed the towel in his hand a few times before reluctantly sitting down on the edge of the bed. He felt something touch his hip, but ignored it as he began to wipe at his stomach and thighs.
“In the morning you can send for more hot water, and that’s only a few hours from now.” A hand flopped over the bed, then pointed at the bell-pull. Then Sandro turned over again, so he was on his side facing Zlatan. “No, what are you doing?”
Zlatan balled up the now-soiled towel in his hand. Then he shook it out and re-bundled it so all the stains were on the inside. His toes curled and uncurled against the chilly floor.
Sandro sighed, pressing his forehead against Zlatan’s leg. “What did Larsson do that we didn’t?”
“Jealous?” Zlatan said, snorting. He did glance down then, but looked away the moment Sandro’s irritation began to fade—and that was quicker than he would’ve expected. “Henke’s getting married soon, Sandro. Honestly. It’s not that I like him better—he just came and we talked, and he asked a couple better questions than you or Paolo did.”
Zlatan rolled his eyes, then pitched the towel towards the doorway to the toilet. “Don’t go off and pester him about that now.”
To that Sandro said nothing, but instead made a huffing noise. Then he twisted over a little, looking up at Zlatan. “Were you just about to go off and…where did you sleep back then, anyway? In four years Paolo never managed to figure that out.”
“Wherever. A chair was a lot better than what I got for…never mind,” Zlatan muttered. He put his hand down without thinking and Sandro immediately pushed his head over it.
Zlatan stared at him, Sandro stared back, and then Sandro shifted off, but at the same time he brought up his arm so he could gently touch the side of Zlatan’s thigh. He drew his fingertips up towards the hip, then back. Then up again, and this time he let them run off before he curved his arm around Zlatan’s waist. “Why don’t you like staying to sleep in the same bed?”
For a long time Zlatan looked, but he found no traces of mockery or any other kind of judgment in the other man’s face. “I don’t know if I like it or not,” he finally said. “I didn’t get to try it that often—in Egypt beds weren’t for sleeping in. Not for me, anyway. I never was allowed to stay that long.”
He didn’t try to squeeze the bitterness from his voice. Of course the first thing after shock to come in Sandro’s face was pity, and then Zlatan wished he’d at least gotten off the bed. He did start to get up, but his foot slipped on a towel and he had to sit back hard. Then he made a fist of the hand he had on the bed and ground that into the mattress, twisting till he thought he felt the sheets start to tear before he let up.
Sandro still hadn’t said anything, but instead was still looking up at Zlatan. “What?” he snapped.
“Are you trying it now or not? Can you make up your mind? Because I do want to get some sleep,” Sandro said. He was trying to sound sharp about it, but his heart wasn’t in it and so he mostly mumbled the words.
“Oh…” Zlatan hit him. On the shoulder, and not that hard compared to Sandro’s retaliatory lunge, which saw a few more sheets to the floor before they finally gave up, both of them too tired.
Miraculously enough, they were lying the right way, even though only one pillow was left on the bed. Sandro tried to get it, and when he couldn’t shift Zlatan’s head, he irritably dropped on top of Zlatan, all elbows and knees, before pulling up the blankets that still remained. Mostly over and around himself, with only a few folds drifting out over Zlatan. “I have a feeling you’ll turn out to be the stealing type, so don’t even try that,” he said when Zlatan tugged at a corner. “This way I should still have half by morning.”
“And I’ll have a cold. The one time I skip a wash afterwards…” But to be honest, Sandro was big enough so that most of Zlatan was covered, and the man was warm. Warm and unexpectedly pliant, aside from his possessiveness over the sheets. “And I told Paolo I was too tired for him…he probably would’ve let me have all the blankets.”
“He does,” Sandro said, voice muffled by Zlatan’s arm. He shifted, turning over so he could fit his head into the curve of Zlatan’s neck, before settling down as firmly as a lead weight. “It’s a cold night and you’re younger, so he needs them tonight more than you. Maybe it’ll be warmer tomorrow, and then you can have his blankets.”
Zlatan stared at the ceiling. “I can’t believe you call me an ass.”
“Shut up.” Sandro breathed slowly, then again but even more slowly. Then his eyelashes fluttered against Zlatan’s neck, and his fingers slowly uncurled where they were lying on Zlatan’s other shoulder.
It wasn’t going to work, Zlatan thought, and he closed his eyes and fell asleep without thinking about it.