Sorry to disturb Your Grace, but the gentleman over there sent these to you. The waiter didn't pause for a response and offered no further explanation, leaving as soon as he'd set the two glasses down on the table.
Puzzled, Ioder glanced in the indicated direction. The man seated in the corner was dressed well enough, if not up to the standards of Ioder's tailor, and he wore his hair unfashionably long. He was also completely unfamiliar — at least, he was until he caught his gaze, grinned, and nodded.
Ioder's eyes widened and he glanced swiftly at his companion. Had he noticed?
Isn't that the same man? The highwayman, from two months ago?
He remembered it as if it were yesterday. The weather had been terrible, the mud so bad that at times he'd wondered if the carriage were going to make it safely back to the manor at all. It must have made it easier — not only were they moving slowly, but no one was even looking for an ambush, not in weather no sane man would be out in.
And yet, that man — he was almost certain it was the same — and his companions had successfully stopped the carriage. He'd never seen the rest of the group, just the one soaking wet and masked man, who'd opened the door and demanded their valuables.
Captain Scifo had begun to argue, but Ioder had stopped him.
Let him have it. Anyone who would rob a carriage in weather like this must be desperate indeed.
The highwayman had smiled at him then, so sincerely and unexpectedly that he had not quite known how to respond. He was a Duke; people smiled at him all the time. But none like that.
It's not me who's desperate. But he took their money all the same, then tilted his hat and gave a little bow that scattered water over the carriage compartment and its two inhabitants.
We appreciate your generosity, Your Grace.
It was the expression that had given him away now — even across the room, Ioder was certain it was the same smile. He glanced back and found the man already gone, but it didn't disturb his certainty.
He was sheltered; he knew that. Well-educated and yet ignorant of many things. But Captain Scifo's continued silence only confirmed his suspicion, though Ioder had no answer for the question he finally asked.
Why would he be in your club? And why would he call attention to himself?
I don't know.
It was the only answer he had.
He'd found the highwayman hard enough to forget after he'd been robbed, though he'd refused to contact the authorities afterward. Now, after this encounter, it was even more difficult. He found himself thinking of that smile at the oddest times, wondering who this man was and why he did what he did.
Ioder hadn't the slightest idea how to go looking for the information himself, but that was no great handicap — he had the money and influence to hire others to do it for him if necessary. He wasn't so proud that he was unwilling to ask for help when he needed it.
His first choice, of course, was his friend, Captain Scifo - the soldier who had been a trusted enough subordinate of his father's friend that he had been invited to the manor. And who had, once there, befriended the lonely and isolated heir and his sister. Perhaps he had merely been seeking advantage, but Ioder didn't think so. He trusted him and there were so few people he could trust.
Please, Flynn, he asked, abandoning the formality of rank when it was just the two of them.
Find out what you can.
Flynn looked oddly uncomfortable, but he didn't refuse.
I can tell you what he's said to do — it's common knowledge. He and his companions model themselves after the story of Robin Hood — stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
As one of the rich people in question, he should probably be offended, or at least alarmed by this mission, but the truth was, Ioder found it fascinating, even a little exciting, like something out of the stories his sister Estellise so loved. He'd never imagined a man like that really existed and he wondered what she'd say if he told her.
There have been bets on when he'll be captured on the books for months. Flynn stopped and looked at him, expression serious.
Is that why you wanted to know?
No. It was silly, really, but he could feel his heart beating faster even as he shook his head.
I want to meet him.
Silence, then, long enough that Ioder looked away, cheeks flushing. It was stupid, wasn't it? Even Flynn thought so.
But his answer surprised him.
I'll see what I can do.
It was two weeks later before Flynn finally said he'd found him, that the highwayman had agreed to meet Ioder, as long as he met certain conditions. He probably should have been suspicious then, but he was too nervous to question it, not even during the long carriage ride that Flynn insisted he had to be blindfolded for.
It wasn't until he heard a door open and a young voice exclaim,
Flynn! Yuri, Flynn's here! that he began to wonder. Had Flynn known all along? Was this some kind of trick?
Feeling a little stupid, he still held by the letter of his agreement, letting Flynn guide him inside. He heard the door close, but Ioder just stood there, waiting. No one had said he could remove the blindfold yet and, foolish as he was beginning to feel, he didn't want to go back on his word.
If it isn't Captain Scifo. You didn't mention you were bringing company. Ioder recognized the voice as soon as he heard it; it was obvious, especially in the dark, and he tried to stifle his shiver of excitement. This could still be a trap, but at least it hadn't all been a lie.
He heard the footsteps approaching, but stayed where he was, waiting.
Guess I can't say you didn't abide by the agreement. Gently, the blindfold was removed, and he found himself blinking up into the face of the man he'd wanted to meet.
Welcome, Your Grace.
It was only then that he realized he had no idea what to say.
Maybe the highwayman — Yuri — read it in his face, because he nodded, just as though Ioder had actually spoken.
Come in and have some tea.
He felt shy as he obeyed, peeking around the room he was led to as though he'd never seen its like before. It was the truth — he hadn't. It was cozy enough, but the furnishings were worn, and Yuri served the tea himself.
No servants, he replied to Ioder's questioning look, but he didn't seem offended or ashamed. It felt strange; most people were embarrassed by even the appearance of poverty, but Yuri didn't seem to care at all.
It took half the cup of tea before Ioder finally found his voice. He'd watched Flynn and Yuri together, the certainty growing in his mind until he couldn't keep silent.
You already knew who he was. He wasn't quite angry, but he did feel betrayed, as well as embarrassed that it hadn't occurred to him before.
Flynn looked uncomfortable again; now that he knew the truth, Ioder realized the only times he'd seen him look like that were when he'd asked about this man.
I'm sorry, Your Grace. I couldn't tell you.
Yuri just laughed; Flynn might be apologetic, but he clearly wasn't.
We grew up together, he explained.
But the great Captain Scifo doesn't approve of me.
Yuri! This isn't the time! Ioder stared in fascination as Flynn blushed — he didn't think he'd ever seen that before.
Guess he's right. So, Ioder — he started a little at the familiarity, but Yuri ignored both that and Flynn's protest,
why did you want to meet me?
He opened his mouth to reply, but the trouble was that he didn't really have an answer, at least not one that could be put into words. Yuri didn't seem terribly surprised. Grinning in that way he had, the one that Ioder couldn't seem to look away from, he stood and leaned over the back of the sofa, one hand on Flynn's shoulder and the other on Ioder's. He wasn't expecting to be touched and he started to move away, but he stopped himself once he realized what he was doing. It was overly familiar, but he'd almost expected that. It wasn't hurting him.
Let me guess — everything's always the same in your manor and you're looking for a little excitement in your life?
Ioder felt his cheeks burn as he looked away. Put like that, it made him sound like a spoiled child, but he couldn't deny it.
Yuri laughed again and returned to the sofa, sitting just that little bit too close, close enough that Ioder thought he could feel the heat of his body. He wasn't used to that, either. Despite how badly he'd wanted to meet this man, now that he was here, he could barely look at him, not when he was still feeling this self-conscious.
You're not the type to rob carriages. There was no mockery in his voice, it was simply an observation, though Ioder thought Yuri still sounded a little amused.
But I think you knew that. You must be looking for something else.
There was something suggestive in his tone, something Ioder had only heard in passing, never directed at him. He glanced over, curiosity overtaking his shyness — just in time for Yuri to press his lips to his.
For a moment, he was too shocked to think anything at all. He had never even considered the possibility; hadn't really realized men might kiss each other like this outside of ribald jokes he hadn't been supposed to overhear and laws he'd never expected to apply to him. His first actual thought was,
But this is illegal! But even Ioder realized that was a ridiculous thing to think about a man who robbed carriages. The second was that this was his first kiss.
He pulled away, eyes wide and a little panicked. Yuri didn't even try to stop him.
Not what you had in mind?
Yuri! There was warning in Flynn's tone, but he didn't actually move from his seat. He'd tricked him, but Ioder still felt that meant he must be safe here. Captain Scifo wouldn't let anyone harm him.
Where are Karol and Judith?
Yuri shrugged, but he didn't move away.
Probably hiding somewhere and watching us.
Ioder made a small, horrified sound before he could stop himself. Someone had seen that?
Relax, Your Grace. They won't tell anyone.
You're moving too fast, Yuri.
Am I? Ioder wasn't even looking at him, but his toes curled just imagining the look Yuri must be giving him.
If that's not what you want either, then why are you here?
It was hard to answer that question. Ioder wasn't quite sure what he'd expected before he arrived — maybe that they'd talk? That Yuri would keep giving him those smiles and he'd feel that same thrill, but nothing beyond that. It was only now that he realized how naïve that had been.
I think— he licked his lips nervously, but he'd managed to lift his head to actually look at him now. Yuri's eyes were dark and hard to read, but he didn't see anything there to change his mind.
I think I want you to do that again.
You had only to ask.
This time, Yuri put his arms around him, tugging him close enough that their thighs were touching. His arms were strong enough that Ioder didn't think he could escape, but he found that more exciting than alarming. Flynn trusted this man and he followed his example.
So far, he saw no sign that his trust had been misplaced. When he jumped back at the first hint of tongue, Yuri let him go without a struggle.
Don't worry. We'll go slow.
You can leave whenever you want to, Your Grace. Flynn's voice made him jump; he'd forgotten he was there. This whole situation was absurd; Ioder knew that. He should leave right now, stop this before it went any further. He'd just met this man; he had no idea who his family was or where he'd come from. And what little he knew didn't speak well of him — whatever else he was, he was a thief. Ioder had both money and social standing — this could be a scheme to blackmail him. He knew that, just as he knew he'd never before been the sort to take risks. But here he was—heart pounding, but he didn't want to leave.
He couldn't stop himself from blushing, but he still made himself look Flynn in the eyes.
I'd like to stay.
Just when Ioder thought Yuri was done surprising him, he did it again.
What do you think about Flynn joining us?
He hadn't had much idea of what to expect from something like this; most of his preconceptions were shaped by stories and things he'd overheard in passing. But even if he'd been more experienced, he'd never have expected that question. Ioder looked quickly between the two of them, trying to figure out if they were serious. He wasn't sure he knew Yuri well enough to tell, but while Flynn looked a little uncomfortable, he didn't look like he was in on a joke and he didn't protest.
You don't have to agree. I can just wait here if you'd prefer.
It was the reassurance that made up his mind.
I think I'd like it if you joined us. Without pausing to let himself think about it, Ioder leaned forward to kiss Flynn.
It wasn't something he'd always wanted to do; he'd never even thought of it before Yuri had suggested it. But once he had, the idea was appealing. Why hadn't he thought of it before? Actually kissing Flynn, however, was a lot more awkward than kissing Yuri had been, but maybe that was just because he'd taken him by surprise.
After, he had no clue what to say. He'd never initiated a kiss with anyone before and wasn't sure what to do next. But no one looked upset, so he must not have done too badly.
Come on. If we're going to do this, my room is more comfortable.
Even as he stood up to follow Yuri, Ioder couldn't believe he was doing this. This couldn't be him going to the bedroom of a man he'd just met. He didn't do that sort of thing. Yet while he was nervous, he was more excited than afraid, even when Yuri turned back to scoop up the blindfold.
Never know when this might come in handy.
Yuri led them down a short hallway, pausing before a scarred wooden door.
It's not what you're used to, he warned.
Next time, if you promise not to have me arrested, I'll come to the manor.
Next time? Ioder was still nervous about this time; he hadn't even considered that this might happen again.
But it was Flynn who actually said something.
That's getting ahead of ourselves.
Wouldn't want to do that. Too much looking toward the future and you forget to enjoy the present. There was a weight in Yuri's voice, a hint that the statement went beyond the obvious meaning, but Ioder couldn't guess what else he meant and it would be rude to ask.
You've never forgotten to enjoy yourself in your life.
They kept talking, but Ioder was only half-listening to their conversation; he was too busy staring at the room in shock. Yuri was right — it was very different from any room he'd seen before. He'd told Ioder they had no servants, but he still hadn't expected this kind of mess — clothes strewn haphazardly around the room and the bed unmade, blankets hanging off one side and onto the floor. He'd never seen a room that wasn't cleaned regularly before; surely they weren't all like this?
He was still staring when he heard Yuri's voice again, but this time it was close enough that he jumped, so close he could feel his breath in his ear.
Don't worry. If we were going to rob you again, we'd have done it already. Another kiss, this one just below his ear, right over the pulse that accelerated at the touch.
You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. He smiled, lips still against his throat so Ioder could feel it even though he was behind him.
Yuri's arms slid around him, but it was Flynn who kissed him. This time, Ioder was more prepared and he didn't back away at the gentle pressure of a tongue against his lips. He was still uncertain, but he parted them obediently.
Pressed between them like that, he could have felt trapped, but Yuri's whispered words were still ringing in his ears. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Ioder wondered if Yuri could have any idea how rare that statement was in his life. For all his money and influence, his life was full of things he was required to do, no questions asked. No one had ever asked him if he wanted to do them; that wasn't even considered. His father had had strong ideas about propriety and duty; even after his death, Ioder had tried to live up to them. He'd never considered doing otherwise.
Now, as he felt Yuri begin to undress him, he leaned into Flynn, kissing him with more enthusiasm and a boldness that surprised him. He'd just met one of these men and was beginning to wonder if he'd ever known the other one at all, but Ioder believed them. It was just a kiss and, at that, a kiss that he knew society would never greet with approval, but somehow, it tasted like freedom.