Call me Eild

by c m

Chapter 2

My new dwelling was impressive. I wondered how it would go down with some of the other courtiers. Mikka was waiting for me and showed me round.

Off the impressive entrance hall ran a series of rooms. First was an office which led through to a library, the shelves of which, on inspection, already held a number of works with which I was familiar and a small group which I had not seen before. There were two spacious living rooms, one of which had access to an exterior courtyard with views out over the hills surrounding the city. There was a formal dining room - for entertaining, so Mikka informed me – and then, at the back and out of the way, the rooms used for the preparation of food, doing the washing ad all the other services that run a house.

There were, in addition, four bedrooms and a magnificent bathroom with a sunken bath. Mikka took particular pleasure in showing me the hidden door that led from my bedroom to his.

'Perhaps we will have a chance to test that later,' he suggested.

'I smiled. 'Perhaps.'

In the meantime, Mikka had laid out on the bed my formal dress for the meeting. I was relieved to see that it was nothing too odd, but the cloak looked a little cumbersome and heavy.

'If you're ready, sir, it would be timely to get changed. May I help you out of your clothes?'

'I'm sure I can manage, Mikka, but I'd appreciate your help with the things on the bed.'

As I stripped down to my underwear, the scratches and marks from the previous night became all too apparent.

I saw a broad grin appear on Mikka's face.

'Ah, a good night I see. The lord king is very...energetic, no? I have some cream that would help with those.'

In truth, I was feeling a little sore (in several places) and the cream Mikka produced was cool and soothing. The touch of his fingers on my skin as he applied it was sensuous and I was already looking forward to more of the same later.

'Do you need this…down there…as well?' he asked.

I nodded, and despite my exertions of the previous night, as he pulled my underwear down to apply the cream, my growing arousal became clear. Mikka's grin got even bigger.

Fortunately or otherwise, the pressing need to get ready for the meeting meant there was no time to do anything other than put the new clothes on and head back to the palace.

Once there, I was briefed by the officer responsible for ceremonies, the Master of Protocol.

'You are being inducted as the King's Ambassador. The role has lain vacant for the past four years and it is a very senior position. You won't have to say or do much in the course of the ceremony other than to swear loyalty to the king and to accept the position. I have already placed a number of volumes in your personal library which may assist you in your new role, and there is a brief description of the responsibilities – and privileges -here.'

He put his hand on a folder on the table beside him.

'If I may speak to you in confidence, it goes without saying that your appointment is extremely…aah…unusual. I trust the king with my life and I trust his judgement, but not everyone feels the same. Please know that you can count on me. If I can be of any personal assistance to you, please just ask.'

'Thank you, I appreciate that. Is there anyone in particular who thinks that perhaps they should have had this role?'

He paused.

'I believe Lord Joran had always had…aah..hopes that the post might fall his way.'

Joran. Interesting.

'Thank you.'

The ceremony was blessedly brief and there was applause at the end of it. Most of it warm, but some that looked rather more dutiful. I suspected that the Master of Protocol was right.

My new role provided me with an office in the palace as well as my one at home. I had a staff as well - many of them seasoned foreign affairs veterans. I knew that they would serve me because they had to - but I wanted them to do it because they wanted to. I called them all together.

'Gentlemen, I daresay that my appointment has come as much a surprise to you as it has to me. I am sure that you think me too young, too inexperienced and frankly too foreign for this role.'

I saw a number of them look at each other, and there was a ripple of laughter at my last remark.

'The only reason I have accepted it is because the king asked me to. Yes, I am young and inexperienced, but fortunately I have you to help me with your wisdom, your knowledge and your advice - and I shall be leaning heavily on you for it.'

I saw another look pass between them and there was an almost audible sigh of relief.

'My only gift, if I have one, is that I know the people I have been charged with negotiating with. I am sure you all know of the way I am viewed by my people - or I should say my erstwhile people. Now I serve no one but Tibor and have love and loyalty for no-one but him and you - my new people. He is a man of peace - and so am I. I - we - have been tasked with a commission of a significance neither this nation nor my former one has ever seen the like of before. If we succeed it will not be MY success but OUR success and I will take only a share of the credit for what I hope will transpire. We can write a new page not just in the history of our two peoples, but of the world. But I cannot do it without you. Will you help me?'

The applause that broke out spontaneously was genuine enough, and I saw smiles where there had been doubt. I hoped that I had done enough.

Mikka and I had not yet spent the night together. The pounding I had taken from Tibor left me needing a few days to recover - and Mikka had realised that from seeing my body that day when he dressed me for the Council meeting.

There followed a few days when I had expected him to come to my bed, but he had not done so. So one day, as we were both working in my office, I spoke to him.

'Mikka, if it's that you do not wish to do so then that is of course fine, but I had hoped you might share my bed with me at least occasionally.'

I saw a flicker of surprise cross his features.

'But you have not invited me into your bed, sir.'

And that brought home to me more forcibly than anything else could have done the change in my status. Two weeks earlier, as men of equal rank - or rather lack of it - Mikka and I would have grabbed each other and rolled into bed given any sort of a chance, but now he saw me as his superior - which I suppose I was - and that he therefore needed me to make the first move.

I shook my head at the realisation.

'I'm so sorry, Mikka. I should have thought. Now here we are both waiting for the other and wondering what the heck is happening.' I looked around. We were entirely on our own.

'Come here.'

I opened my arms and he flew into them, giving me a huge hug.

'And Mikka, when we are on our own, please call me Eild. I know that you have to call me 'sir' in front of the other staff, but when it's just the two of us, I like 'Eild' better.'

'Thank you...Eild.'

And he kissed me. And I kissed him back. I desperately wanted more - but I had responsibilities and this was neither the time nor the place.

'Does that mean I'm invited into your bed tonight, Eild?' he said with a slightly crooked smile.

'Tonight and any night you want, Mikka.'

That evening, once all the servants were in bed and I had retired to my room, I could hear Mikka doing the rounds and performing the final checks. There was a brief period of silence and then the door that connected our rooms opened quietly and Mikka slipped into my room. He was wearing a cream silk robe that he slipped out of as he reached the side of my bed. It was the first time I had seen him naked and he was simply stunningly beautiful. I held open the covers and he slipped in beside me. It was a cool night and he quickly cuddled up close to me as I pulled the rugs over us. His skin was warm and silky against mine. He laid his head on my shoulder and reached one arm over my chest, pulling us more tightly together.

I was in no rush and clearly neither was he.

'This is nice,' I said.

''s perfect Eild. You know, I've wanted this ever since I first saw you.'


'Oh yes. One of the boys you worked alongside when you first came here and were set to work on the translations is also from my country - we are both here as hostages - and he knows me and my nature. He told me that someone had come to work alongside him who he thought I would like. I sneaked in and watched you. And then Tanna - that's the boy I know - told me how clever you were, and how kind, and I heard the Lord king speak of you as well when I was serving him, and I knew that I had to get to know you.'

It had taken me a while to process some of what Mikka had been saying.

'Hostage? Tell me more.'

'When Tibor became king, my people stupidly thought that this was the moment to assert themselves. I mean, how could a boy of sixteen lead an army against us? We soon learned just how wrong we were. The peace settlement involved us sending twenty sons of our most senior nobles to work here for twenty years. As educated boys we could contribute as more than just servants - although that was effectively what we were - and we are held as guarantors of our people's good behaviour.'

'So why did you end up as a servant to the king?'

'I asked if I could serve the king. If I were to be here, I wanted to work where I might learn something of the man and the nation who had beaten us. Servant to the king was better than clerk to some dull official. That and the fact that I found the king enormously attractive. I knew he had a reputation for taking beautiful boys into his bed and I not ashamed to say that I hoped that might include me. I hadn't ever slept with a man but I knew that that was where my desires lay.'

'So you were a virgin?'

He nodded.

'Yes...and that first time he took me into his bed, I think he was surprised when I told him that he was my first. He asked me if I was sure it was what I wanted - which made me love him even more. He could have just taken me but he didn't - even though I could see from his...state...that he wanted me very much.'

He giggled - and I laughed too. Then I saw his face cloud over.

'He tried to be gentle with me, Eild, but that first time he entered me hurt so much. I tried to stay quiet and to be brave. I had assumed that it would be pleasurable - after all, why would you do things that were not so? And I knew that that was what boys like me did with each other. But it hurt so much, Eild and when I screamed as he drove all the way into me...I think part of him wanted to stop know what he's like - I saw from your body - he seemed overtaken by his feelings and he kept going and going and going...I thought it would never stop. When he'd finished I was crying and then he was suddenly back to being the loving man that he is. He was distraught that he had hurt me and he made sure that I was attended to. And after that, although I often went to his bed, for many weeks he never tried to enter me again. He was happy to enjoy all the other ways boys can enjoy one another. When he eventually asked if I would be prepared to try again of course I agreed - I wanted to make him happy and I hoped perhaps it would be alright this time. But it wasn't Eild, it still hurt - but this time he stopped and just told me that he was happy for us to do other things. But I think it might also be why he agreed to let me become your boy and not his. But now I've told you all this, I'm afraid that you won't want me either.'

He turned those beautiful green eyes up to mine and I could see that they were moist with tears.

'Mikka, I do not have to be inside a boy to enjoy sex with them. Maybe it will happen and maybe it won't. But you don't have to worry about that affecting my feelings for you - or the pleasure I am getting from having you here beside me.'

I stroked his hair and felt him relax.

'Thank you, Eild.'

'And we don't have to do anything now. You're beautiful and you're naked and you're here beside me; that's enough to make me very happy.'

I kissed him on the forehead and saw his eyes close. His breathing slowed and I realised he was asleep. I wasn't going to wake him. Sex could wait.

And I also understood what Tibor must have meant about apologising to Mikka ; he'd simply had no idea how painful a first time could be.

In the morning, the space beside me in the bed was cold, so Mikka had obviously slipped out some time before; he doubtless had all sorts of duties to attend to and staff to organise. I looked forward to talking with him later; something told me that the unexpected turn things had taken the night before would all be good for us both in the long run.

The preparations for the negotiations proceeded swiftly. The position of my former people was not strong; they had been defeated on land, their cities were blockaded by sea and their neighbours to the North were already bound by treaty to Tibor.

Tibor had explained to me what he was after:

'I need a lasting peace and not a sort of extended truce. That means I need the culture of your people to change. I want them to see a better future as traders and investors than as warriors. For that, they have not just to accept that there has to be an end to any military ambitions but need to be encouraged to embrace a different view of the world. I am happy to give any and all support to make that happen. You may concede ground on any aspects of trade in exchange for things that change their culture. I want them to see the more comfortable life that can come from opening their minds, their businesses and their practices to diversity and change. Perhaps even,' he said with a smile, 'to a change in the way they see men like you. That is why you are the perfect ambassador. When they embrace you and what you stand for, then they will have created the type of peace I want.'

'So far as security is concerned, they would be extremely foolish to do anything that would imperil our talks, but I have asked Joran to select you a personal guard of six soldiers to accompany you if and when you are out on the streets. Should you wish to make private arrangements for visits either to your family, your friends – or for private negotiations -then all you need to do is to make them aware of where you will be and when.'

'May I ask a question - perhaps an impertinent one?'

I saw Tibor's eyes narrow. He looked at me, then nodded slowly.

'Not too impertinent I hope.'

'I hope not...but I apologise now if you feel it is.'

'Ask. I prefer men who speak their minds.'

'Joran. Does he...did he...have hopes of being your Ambassador?'

'What makes you think that?'

'I have heard...rumours.'


I felt flustered. This wasn't going well - I could tell.

'I'm sorry, Lord king, I shouldn't have said anything.'

He stepped over and put his hand on my shoulder.

'When a man who calls me by my name reverts to calling me 'Lord king', then I think there are things I should know. Tell me what you have heard, Eild. Nothing bad will happen, I promise you.'

'I had heard that Joran had hopes of being given the role you have given me.'

He paused and nodded, lost in thought for a perhaps half a minute.

'It is possible. He has ambitions. But he is a General and not a statesman. He would be a terrible ambassador. But I see that he might be jealous. And perhaps you refusing him was more serious than I thought - not that you should have done anything different. Don't worry. he is one of my most loyal friends. I'll see if I can find a bone to throw him to make him feel more important. Now...tell me how you and Mikka are getting along.'

'He is running my household most efficiently, and he is a fast learner. He will be a real help to me in my work.'

Tibor laughed. 'I am sure that that is so...but I am just as sure that you know that that is not what I was asking.'

I smiled at him. 'Ah, that. Well. You are right that he is easy to love, Tibor. And if there is nothing hidden from you in the palace, I'm sure you already know the answer to that question.'

'Touche, Eild. But tell me anyway.'

'He is a very gentle boy, Tibor. We are still exploring each other and taking our time. Making love with him is not like the lovemaking we had. I loved our night together, but he is different. '

'I know, Eild. I was too rough with him. I wish I could go back and start again.'

'No, Tibor. You are what you are. And you were not rough with him any more than you were rough with me; you were passionate and your passion overwhelms you and all those caught up in it like a tidal wave. He bears you no ill-will and now, for me, it is like the love I discovered with my cousin Brygg. A slow voyage of discovery. I would not change a single thing about the night I had with you - indeed I treasure it - but I would not change what I have with Mikka either. And what about are things with your love life?'

'I like you very much Eild, but there are some things even you should not ask.'

I looked up suddenly fearing I had overstepped the mark very badly - but he was smiling.

'But the night we had is going to take some beating.'

It had been agreed that the discussions would take place at the summer residence used by the rulers of my former country. The legation would also be accommodated there. This suited me as there was every chance that I would know some of the those who would be in attendance on the other side. Like administrations all over the world, the high-born were at the heart of it and my contemporaries, the sons of the other nobles, would almost certainly be present. While none of them had shared my sexual preference, not all of them had hated me. If there were private discussions to be had or secrets to be learned, they were near the top of my list.

Tibor had said nothing of who would be conducting the negotiations as his ambassador, and my arrival in the room on the day the negotiations started was predictably dramatic.

As I sat down, Lord Ambrey, the chief negotiator for the other side and one of the Triumvirs - and a man who knew my family well - made the mistake of saying, with ill-disguised disgust in his voice:

'You have no doubt been included in the delegation to cause us maximum discomfiture and embarrassment - but I think you'll find THAT seat is for your Ambassador.'

'Indeed,' I replied - and smiled at him.

As the import of my words struck him, he went purple and then white.

'This is an insult. We do not negotiate with teenaged, deviant turncoats.'

I simply stood up and turned to my team;

'The negotiations are over. We will return and report to the king.' Then, turning back to Lord Ambrey, 'I will inform him that you have decided to insult his ambassador rather than negotiate with him. Good day.'

And I walked out.

As I left the room, an absolute furore broke out. As we walked down the hall, I heard a voice shouting 'Ambassador! Ambassador!' I smiled and kept walking. 'Ambassador! Eild, please listen to me, Eild. It's Gylan.'

I stopped and turned and there was Gylan, the boy who had been gelded next to me. The boy who had shown me some kindness. I held up my hand.

'Let him through. Gylan, I am happy to see you. Sorry for what happened to you, but happy to see you.'

'Eild...that lord...err Ambassador...'

'Call me Eild.'

'I cannot apologise enough. None of wanted that old fool to be the main negotiator. Please...can we start again?'

'On two conditions. First that Ambrey publicly apologises to my whole delegation for each and every one of his words individually, and second that he is replaced immediately and without question by someone else.'

'Please give me a few minutes, Eild.'

'Why don't you get someone to bring us refreshments while we wait in the state drawing room. I think you may need more than a few minutes. We will reconvene in one hour - is that acceptable?'

'Thank you. I will return as soon as I have news.'

Whilst I had not expected quite the reception we had actually received, we had anticipated that something of that order might happen either right at the start or at some point during proceedings, and I had agreed with Tibor that we would simply walk out. No surprise so far, then. We waited, and while we waited I explained to the other about Gylan.

About forty-five minutes later, Gylan returned.

'We have a new negotiator but Lord Ambrey has asked if he might apologise to just you and in private.'

I looked at him and smiled.

'No. He will apologise in public to all of us and explain what he meant by each of his words.'

' know him...he won't do it.'

'Then he will be about to cause his country and his people an enormous amount of suffering. I suggest he thinks carefully about whether a little humiliation now is better than being strung up by his testicles when the people of this country find out that he is responsible for an incalculable increase in their miseries. Miseries brought on by his personal arrogance and stupidity. Miseries that can be avoided by him just saying sorry. Properly. Perhaps you could convey my words to him. Accurately.'

I saw Gylan doing his best to hold back a smile.

'Another few minutes then?'

'As much time as you need.'

The second thing we had anticipated was that some of the Old Guard might be too stiff-necked to change. Tibor's view was that we needed to get the younger generation into positions of power and influence within the regime if lasting change was to take place. I concurred. So the humbling of the Old Guard was also part of the plan. We had other measures waiting, but this somewhat unexpected gift-horse was not one to be looked in the mouth.

It took nearly two hours for Gylan to return.

'Eild...that is, Ambassador, gentlemen, we humbly apologise for the delay and for getting off on the wrong foot, but Lord Ambrey would like to apologise for his mistake before handing over to our new negotiator.'

'Then I think we should join him.'

Back in the Ballroom, which was being used as the negotiating chamber, Lord Ambrey was standing in front of the line of desks at which we sat down.

'I understand you have something to say, Lord Ambrey.'

His mouth opened and closed once or twice. It reminded me of a goldfish. He cleared his throat and tried gain.

'I apologise for my words, Ambassador.'

'Which words, Lord Ambrey?'

He stared back at me sullenly.

'Then let me assist you. 'Let's start with 'teenaged', my lord. What are you implying with that insult - for you surely meant it as one.'

'I was only suggesting that there is perhaps a lack of experience...'

'Are you suggesting that the men of your age and experience have conducted affairs for this country without flaw these past few years?'

'Well no, I didn't mean...'

'Are you suggesting that four years of war, the loss of thousands of young men's lives and an economy on the brink of collapse are achievements to be proud of...'

'Well no, of course not but...'

'So perhaps it might be time for a different approach?'

'Perhaps, but not...'

'I think we should move on. Tell us about 'deviant'.'

'You know perfectly well what I mean. You prefer to sleep with men. You cannot deny it.'

'I do not, my lord, but I do dispute that that is 'deviant''

'Then what the fuck is it.'

'Please keep you language moderate. It is normal, my lord, that is what it is. Or do you accuse King Tibor of being a deviant as well?'

'Lord Tibor? He doesn't...he can't...'

'I assure you that he does. Men and women. In his words, 'love is love'. And is sending young men to their deaths for something that harms no-one the act of a normal state? I suggest that anyone who approves of that is the one who is truly deviant. Now, let us turn to 'turncoat'.'

'That you cannot deny.'

'Really? Let's be honest, by making me a Dog Soldier, you hoped I'd die. You care nothing for me, and my life is worth nothing to you. Do you think it unreasonable that I should give my love to those who love me? That I should put my trust in those who trust me? That I should honour those who honour me? Love , trust and honour are what a country asks of its children. That is what patriotism is. If you have never given me these things how can I have turned away from them? No, my lord, I am no turncoat for you never gave me a coat in the first place. Now apologise properly.'

I saw him weigh my words. And I could see only hate in his eyes. But he summoned up all his willpower and said, through gritted teeth:

'You commanded me to apologise, so I do. I apologise for my words. I apologise for impugning your youth. I apologise for calling you deviant and I apologise for calling you a turncoat. I ask your forgiveness.'

'But will you change, Lord Ambrey? Will you seek to give your young men a greater say in how this nation is run? Will you cease from persecuting those of your sons who love other men? Will you seek peace and not war?'

'I will remove myself from anything to do with the running of this nation, I cannot promise more.'

'That, my lord, is hardly a concession. You have already been removed. And I see no compassion in you. Indeed, I KNOW that there is no compassion in you. What, for example, did you do to your son when he returned after being captured?'

I saw his face snap up, and the resentment glitter in his eyes.

'Oh yes, I know about him' I continued, 'I was there alongside him when he was gelded. And I do my homework. I know you rejected him. You said he was no longer your son. That was not the act of a man who has compassion. It was not the act of a man who is ready to change. Forgive you, my lord? I don't think so. But I do accept your apology.'

Ambrey was escorted out of the room, and I turned back to face the table where the replacement negotiator now sat. He looked vaguely familiar, and before I could say anything, he spoke.

'Ambassador, my name is Tyccho. I was commander of the barracks where you did your first training as a soldier. I hope that you will find me a more receptive audience.'

I had made the connection even before he had announced it. And he had been a reasonable man I recalled.

'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I would like a few private words with Tyccho before we resume if I may.'

Everyone else filed dutifully out, and I sat down opposite Tyccho. He was a man of forty or perhaps a few years more. An experienced soldier. He already had a touch of grey in his well-trimmed beard. He was a handsome man - although not one who made my heart beat faster. More importantly, I had thought him sympathetic to us Dog Soldiers - not that he could have ever shown that overtly. I thought that this might be a man who would embrace change. I wanted to find out.

'So, Tyccho,' I said, 'tell me how you differ from the fool who preceded you.'

'Ambassador, I am a soldier - but one who yearns for peace. I am the father of a son who shares your...inclinations...and I do not wish to see him die. I am a man who would welcome some change. But...I am also a loyal patriot who will not see his nation humiliated. Forgive me for speaking plainly.'

I smiled. 'I welcome plain speaking, Tyccho. And I think we are already not so far apart. We have no wish to humiliate you. We want a lasting peace, on sensible terms. A former enemy who resents the terms of a treaty will always be seeking to undermine – even undo - it. My lord king wants a treaty that you and your people will want to reinforce rather than scrap...and if it makes any difference, I want that too.'

'Thank you, Ambassador. You were a skilled soldier - perhaps the best I ever saw - and you are clearly a man after my own heart as well.'

I stood up, went over to him, and shook his hand.

'Shall we call the others back?'

'I think we should.'

I won't bore you with the details of what followed. Suffice to say that whilst Tyccho made show of resisting our demand that the army be limited to five thousand, he agreed it against a pledge to remove trade tariffs. He made show of resisting our requirement that any man who would formerly have had to choose the draught or become a Dog Soldier should now have a third option of serving King Tibor but conceded it in exchange for free trading passage through our lands. There only remained the issue of our demand that any who had served in the government over the past four years should resign. We expected this to be difficult, but it was one of the things that Tibor had said was non-negotiable.

After hours of discussion we seemed no nearer a solution. But as both delegations filed out of the room after the third day, he took me to one side.

'Ambassador... I know this is unorthodox, but would you care to join me for dinner tonight at my house. Perhaps we will find a way through between us over some food and wine.'

In truth, I had been waiting for such an approach, but it didn't do to look too eager.

'You really think this might be of benefit? Whilst your company would be pleasant, I have many things that require my attention.'

'I believe that nothing could be more important than resolving this...issue. And there are things I can say to you in private that I cannot say in the negotiating room.'

'Then let us meet.'

'Shall we say eight o'clock?'

'I look forward to it. I assume that you will be able to feed and water my bodyguard? I apologise, but I may not go anywhere without them.'

'It will be a pleasure.' And I will send two of my own men to join yours and show you the way.

That evening, shortly before six, two men in the military dress I recognised from my time in the army arrived.

'Lord Tyccho has sent us. When you are ready, please join us and we will escort you to his house.'

When my bodyguard saw the two men, I noticed glances pass amongst them, but thought no more of it. A few minutes later we all set off. It was about a twenty-minute walk and the air was still warm from the heat of the day. The route turned out to be somewhat circuitous, and I was glad that Tyccho's men were with us to act as guides.

The house itself was a grand affair - in effect a bigger version of my own home. Tyccho welcomed me and introduced me to his son, a very good-looking boy of fifteen. If what Tyccho had said about his nature was right, I could see that it would be a powerful personal incentive to make the changes he had agreed.

Rather than heading for the grand dining room, we went past it and into a smaller, more personal room that was filled with books along two walls. A table had been set for two.

'I thought that we would be more comfortable in here - and it is more private. If that is agreeable to you?'

'Most agreeable,' I said.

Rollo, Tyccho's son, poured us both a glass of cool white wine and then left the room with a bow of his head to me.'

'He is a good boy and a dutiful son. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that there seems to be a better future for him than I could ever have anticipated a year ago.'

'He is a very handsome young man, and I will see that he is well looked after should he choose to come to our country.'

'Thank you, Ambassador.'

'Please, call me Eild.'

A pleasant-looking servant girl brought food and Tyccho himself poured the wine - although after one further glass I stopped drinking. Keeping a clear head was essential; despite Tyccho's seeming good-nature this was, after all, still state business of the highest order.

God manners dictated that we did not discuss the real business of the evening until the table had been cleared.

'Thank you, Tyccho. A most pleasant meal. Now, to business, I think. I assume we are here because you have a proposal - the outline of the game that we will play tomorrow perhaps?'

He smiled. 'How very astute of you. Yes. We have a proposal but it needs to look as though we are not simply giving in to your demands. There are two parts; first, we need to agree the outcome and second we need to agree the process by which we get there.'

I nodded, signifying my assent in principle.

'There are many people who would be happy to see a wholesale change at the top, but there are also practical considerations; if everyone were to go, then there would be no experience or continuity even in those areas where it would be beneficial to have it. We would be prepared to agree a staged change which would end up with the overall change you seek, but over a period of time. Say two years.'

'Say a year.'

He spread his hands and shrugged.

'That might be possible.'

'And the head of the army, the Grand Vizier and the Triumvirs must be in the first tranche.'

'Do-able. But you must give me something in exchange.'

'What do you want?'

'Might I suggest that an offer of investment to build hospitals and schools might work to both our ends? We get help with infrastructure we need and you get a swell of good will from the people - a swell which will make it hard for any of our politicians who feel...aah...hard done by or rebellious to generate any resistance.'

It was a clever idea. It was also one that Tibor and I had discussed. But it is always better if the idea comes from the other side.

'I think we would find that acceptable. If we agree to this, would we have a solution?'

'I believe so. But in public tomorrow, I will have to say some harsh things and we will leave to consider matters. It needs to look difficult and not easy.'

'I understand entirely. We shall play our part.'

We shook hands .

'And now I will organise two other men to accompany you back to your quarters. I would not want you to get lost - or not until after tomorrow.'

It was said in jest - and I took it that way.

By now it was dark - and Tyccho's men were a welcome addition. They went in front, with my own six men behind me. As we entered one of the twistier parts of the journey, I suddenly became aware that I could no longer hear the sound of feet behind me. I turned - to find my bodyguard had disappeared.

I called to the men in front of me and they turned, immediately taking up a position one on each side of me.

'Are you here to kill me?' I asked

They looked genuinely shocked.

'No sir. We are here to protect you. Where are your men?'

'I don't know,' I said grimly, 'but I don't think anything good is about to happen.'

And then they appeared. Four men, swords in their hands. I saw them pause - and realised that they had expected me to be on my own. Now it was not four against one but four against three. I didn't expect that to stop them - but it did change things. A lot.

'It seems we have company,' I said to my two companions who had both drawn their swords now.

Now, I am a reasonable man. I would prefer people to walk away from me than have to kill them. I spoke to the second man along who seemed to be their leader.

'I don't know who you are or why you want to kill me, but I will find out. I will find out either because you will tell me and walk away, or because I will force it out of the last one of you alive before you die. You are about to make the biggest mistake of your lives - lives that will end here in just a few minutes if you take us on. It is up to you.'

The men just laughed.

The two men Tyccho had sent with me stepped in front of me.

'Go, Ambassador. We will buy you time to get out of here,' one of them said.

'I thank you for the offer. But we will all walk away from here alive, together.'

I drew my sword.

'Let's give them a surprise. On 'three' we charge.1...2...3'

They thought we would be cowering away, waiting for them. By attacking we completely threw them. The look of sheer surprise cost them perhaps a couple of seconds, by which time I had first gutted the man on the left who had been too slow in bringing up his sword. I saw each of my companions engage one of the remaining men, and then I was in a fight.

You know almost instantly how good your opponent is - and the leader was good. He clearly thought that an Ambassador would be an easy kill, and that was his mistake. I did my best to look as though I had no idea what to do; I could see his confidence swell...but over-confidence kills you. Our swords clashed once, twice and then a third time after which I left my sword pointing down, as if unable to protect my head. I saw him smile and step forward swinging his blade at my neck. I saw the slight look of surprise as he realised I wasn't there anymore and then he was screaming in agony as I drove my sword up through his groin from where I had dropped to one knee. His sword clattered to the ground as he put both hands between his legs, trying to staunch the flow of blood that was pouring out of him. He fell to his knees as I stood up.

'Who sent you? Ambrey? The Vizier?'

To my surprise, the sound that escaped his throat sounded like a laugh. He spoke, the words coming painfully.

'Ambrey?....the Vizier?...oh, no, couldn't be more wrong.'

'Then who?' I demanded.

But it was too late, his eyes rolled back and he toppled into the dust. I realised that I had been so busy wanting to know the answer to my question, I hadn't looked to see how my two companions were faring. I looked around. One of the other attackers lay motionless on the ground and I could hear the sounds of another running away. The man I had gutted was also dead, sitting holding the mass of grey and purple intestines that had spilled out of him in his hands. I also noticed that one of my protectors was holding his arm. Blood was seeping through his fingers.

'Well done lads. Have you any idea who they were?'

'No sir. Not men from our army though. I suspect hired assassins. And forgive me...but where did you learn to fight like that?''

'Long story.'

I turned to the man holding his arm.

'Are you hurt?'

'A scratch. And I wounded the man running away badly. I don't think he'll get far. We need to get you back to Lord Tyccho's house, sir. There may be others waiting for you.'

I thought fast. Whilst it was a possibility that this was Tyccho's work, it seemed unlikely. He had no reason to wish me harm. He clearly wanted the deal on offer and wanted change. Either he was playing a very deep game indeed, or he was to be trusted. My instincts told me to trust him.

'Very well.'

We hurried swiftly but carefully back to Tyccho's house where the guards at the gate, seeing the blood on our clothes, swiftly let us in.

Tyccho himself appeared, half dressed. He had been readying himself for bed.

'What in the name of the Gods has happened?'

I quickly outlined the run of events.

'But this is terrible. I hope that you do not think that I had any part in this?'

'I don't know what to think right now, Tyccho, but could it have been Ambley or the Vizier?'

'Ambley is a fool and a pompous one at that - but this does not bear the mark of his hand. And the Vizier? What would he hope to achieve by killing the Ambassador of a nation with whom he desperately needs peace - even if he doesn't much like the shape of what he's getting? No, that makes no sense. But I will put out a hunt for the wounded man and organise a search for your bodyguard.'

'Thank you. And I would appreciate a full guard to see me home.'

'Of course, of course. Please sit here a moment and take a glass of something while I organise matters.'

He was as good as his word, and fifteen minutes later I was once again on the road home, this time with a dozen guards around me. We arrived at my quarters without incident.

I sat down and dictated a letter to Tibor, in a code that I had shown him how to read, telling him what had happened and asking for a watch to be put out for the six guards who had melted away into the night. I had already started to form a theory about the events of the evening - and I didn't like the way those thoughts were taking me. I ordered the courier to set out at first light.

First thing in the morning, I called my delegation together and made them aware of what had happened. A shocked silence was followed by a clamour of voices. I called for silence.

'The one thing of which we can be certain is that the events of last night were designed to upset the negotiations. That will not happen. We will continue as before - and I have high hopes of a settlement today.'

And so it turned out. The negotiations went as Tyccho and I had discussed and by mid-afternoon we had our agreement. All that was left was for to take it home and have Tibor add his own signature to the final document.

As we broke up afterwards, Tyccho approached me and drew me to one side.

'Eild, we found the body of the man my soldier wounded. He is unknown to us. But we have found no trace of your men.'

'I suspect that they are dead, Tyccho. And I think I know who sent them and who will have killed them. But at the moment I cannot say any more. Thank you for bringing these talks to such a successful conclusion. And let me repeat that if Rollo decides to come to serve king Tibor, I will find him a place in my personal household if he would like it.'

'Thank you, Eild, I am grateful. And I wish you well. I think that you may turn out to be an example to more than just those who...share your tastes in the matter of love. People can see that you are respected and that you are talented. They may wonder why we threw such a man away.'

'You are too kind, Tyccho. I hope that this is the start not just of a peace but a new path for both our nations.'

He smiled and we shook hands. And then I headed home. To Tibor. To celebrations (I hoped). And to Mikka.

As we journeyed back, our mood was jubilant. Things really could not have gone much better - if you discounted the attempt on my life, of course. I felt that we had got far more than an agreement to terms. I felt that there was real hope for change.

The border between our two nations was formed , in part, by a river, and as we approached it I could see men hauling something out of the water. As we got closer I could see that it was a body. A body dressed in the uniform of a soldier. I called a halt to our procession and rode down to look more closely.

As I approached the group of men, who had clearly been fishing, I noticed that there were already two other bodies lined up on the bank. I was now certain who they were.

'Where did you find them,' I asked.

'First one snagged on my line close to the reeds over there,' said one of the men, pointing, 'then we noticed one up there,' he added, pointing to a bar of shale and rock that jutted out of the water a little further up, 'and then this last one just came floating past so we gaffed it and brought it in. Suppose there must be a boat overturned somewhere upstream.'

'Maybe, but I don't think so. And I think you may find that there are three more bodies somewhere.'

One look had told me that these were my bodyguards who had disappeared. And they hadn't had a boating accident.

'Please keep the bodies here; I will send men to retrieve them.'

Back in the city, I sent word to the palace that I was going home to wash and change after my journey , and that I would be with the king presently. I also sent word about the missing bodyguards.

As I entered my house, Mikka was there to meet me. With the others present, he merely bowed his head to me and said,

'Welcome home, sir. We are pleased to have you back.'

He organised two servants to bring in my belongings, saw to it that the men accompanying me were offered refreshments, and then escorted me to my bedroom. As the door closed behind me I turned - just in time to catch Mikka as he leapt into my arms.

'I've missed you so much, Eild. And everyone says that the negotiations were a triumph.'

'I've missed you too, Mikka. And yes, things went very well. But I need a bath and clean clothes and then I need to go and see the king.'

'Your bath is run, and clean clothes are on your bed. Is there anything else?'

I could see the hope in his eyes.

'Why don't you join me in the bath and wash my back.'

A big grin spread across Mikka's face.'

'As my lord commands.'

He helped me strip before letting his own tunic fall to the floor. I took his hand and led him through to the bath from which steam was gently rising. We both stepped down into it. And then I pulled him to me and kissed him.

He did as he had promised and washed my back. And my front. And everything in between. We both wanted each other so badly, but I gently removed his hand from my erection when he touched it.

'I want you so much, but we don't have time now - and I want to save it for later.'

He pouted.


'I promise I'll make it up to you. Now get me a towel and let's get things moving. The sooner I'm there, the sooner I'll be back.'

As he turned to walk up the steps out of the bath, I smacked him on the bottom. He turned his head back towards me over his shoulder and just poked his tongue out at me.

I suddenly realised just how much I'd missed him.

Clean, refreshed and sweet-smelling, I made my way to the palace. As I was shown into Tibor's private apartments, he came over to me and embraced me.

'Eild! It's wonderful to have you back and congratulations - although I was most distressed to learn of the attack on you. I want to know more about that later. But first, tell me the story behind the story. Come, sit.'

I sat, and a very handsome boy - evidently Mikka's replacement - brought me a glass of what turned out to be lemon sherbet. I waited until he had left.

'I think we got everything and more we had hoped for. The document is the document, but there is a real appetite for change behind it.'

I went on to tell him all about Tyccho and Rollo, and how I'd met Gylan and the words we'd exchanged. he listened intently, asking questions and nodding.

'Very good. Now tell me about the attack on you. I understand your guards have turned up dead in the river at the border?'

'Yes. And I don't think you're going to like what I'm going to say.'

'But that isn't going to stop you, is it?'

I smiled. 'No...and let me say I have no proof - yet.' I paused. 'Tibor, who would have been in a position to tell my guards to leave me and to arrange for foreign assassins to be waiting for me when they did?'

'Anyone could have bribed them, Eild.'

'Not just anyone, I think. Someone would have to be wealthy and in a position of some influence. But let us suppose they were bribed. What would be the purpose in having me killed?'

'To bring negotiations to an end.'

'And who would want to do that - and why?'

'The Triumvirs, the Vizier, the people we were determined to see removed from office.'

'And what would have happened if that were the case?'

'We would have invaded, arrested and executed them.'

'Quite. Not a great plan then.'

I saw Tibor nod thoughtfully.

'Who, then?'

'Suppose the men were not bribed - but following orders?'

I saw Tibor process the thought. Then his eyes widened.

'You cannot think Joran is behind this?'

'Why not? He has no cause to like me. I have taken the job that he thought might be his and I have refused his advances. He is a proud man, I think. And what better way to be rid of me than to be able to blame a defeated enemy? If Tyccho had not sent two men with me, he might have succeeded. And why and how have the guards ended up dead? Surely to prevent them talking. They return following the route and timings given to them, so Joran knows just where and when to ambush them, kill them and throw their bodies in the river.'

'I can't believe that, Eild. Joran has been my friend since childhood. He has served me faithfully.'

'I know, Tibor. And perhaps I am wrong - and it will certainly be very hard to prove...but to me it is the only explanation that makes sense.'

'I hope you are wrong, Eild. But there is much for me to think about. must be exhausted and I'm sure you must have missed Mikka too. Go and spend some time at home. Take a few days off - you have deserved them. We will talk again in five days. I will prepare for the formal treaty ceremony. And I will talk with Joran.'

'Thank you, Tibor.'

We both stood, and Tibor came and put his hands on my shoulders.

'Thank you Eild. You have repaid my trust a thousand times over. I will see that you are rewarded.'

And then, to my surprise, he placed the lightest of kisses on my lips.

'Now, Ambassador, go and make Mikka happy,' he said with a smile.

'I'll do my best, Lord King.'

'I just bet you will.'

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