The foxling soldati, p.2
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       The Foxling Soldati, p.2

         Part #2 of Soldati Hearts series by Charlie Cochet
 
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  Having been raised human, Riley had some peculiarities, but they only made him all the more endearing. Riley knew what Toka felt for Rayner. He also believed the Soldati law concerning Soldati and servants was antiquated, and he never failed to let his husband, Khalon, know as much. Although the relationship between servants and nobility in the Soldati Realm was not as rigid as it was in some other kingdoms, each knew their place. Dalliances with the servants was highly frowned upon by the king, but provided a servant consented and the tryst was kept quiet, the king was willing to turn a blind eye. He had far more important matters to deal with and expected everyone to behave with honor and dignity, or they would answer to him. No one dared try the man's patience. Except for Rayner. He seemed the exception to every rule. Yet not even Rayner could challenge Soldati law.

  Toka shifted and pounced through the grass as he made his way over to Riley. His prince smiled from behind his book, undoubtedly catching Toka's scent. With cheerful barks, Toka approached Riley. When he reached his prince, he perked his ears and rose on his hind legs in play. Riley laughed, his golden eyes sparkling as he playfully shoved Toka over. Toka rolled onto his back, and Riley scratched his belly. With joyous panting, Toka knocked his brush against the grass in happiness.

  "You're too adorable. Change back so we can talk."

  Toka did as asked, shifting swiftly and then sitting up. "Isn't it a most beautiful day, Your Highness?"

  Riley smiled knowingly. "I wonder if it has anything to do with a certain suave and sexy individual who emerged from the same part of the forest you just came from."

  Heat rose in Toka's cheeks, and he bit down on his bottom lip, averting his gaze.

  "I knew it!" Riley cackled as he dropped onto his side. He looked up at Toka, who dared peek at him. Riley waggled his eyebrows, and Toka couldn't stop his giggle. "You two are so stinking adorable." Riley sat up, his golden-amber eyes intense and his expression determined. "I'm not giving up, you know. That law is ancient, and it needs to be changed. Why shouldn't you and Rayner be allowed to be together? It's ridiculous."

  Toka let out a sigh. "It's how it's always been."

  "Doesn't mean that's how it should stay. Believe me. I know a thing or two about shitty laws." Riley slumped back against the tree. "Khalon's just so damn stubborn when it comes to tradition. I might not understand all the rules and laws of the Soldati Realm just yet, but I know this whole 'can't mate with someone below your rank' nonsense is bullshit. If two consenting adults fall in love and want to be together, why the hell shouldn't they be?"

  Toka stifled a laugh. Riley wasn't one to mince words. Toka admired that about him. Because Riley had been raised in the human world--his true nature only being revealed a little over a year ago when Khalon found him, and only after his death--he had a certain way about him that differed from anyone else in the realm. He said what he felt, refusing to hold his tongue, propriety be damned. Especially when it concerned something he felt passionately about. Like the fact he believed Toka and Rayner should be together.

  "Even if the law was to change," Toka said, his heart aching at the thought, "who's to say Rayner wishes to keep me?"

  Riley blinked at him, as if the thought hadn't crossed his mind. "Why wouldn't he keep you? I've seen the way he looks at you. Rayner might joke around, but when it comes to you, he's different. Believe me. The first time I even said your name, I thought he was going to skewer me."

  Toka was surprised by that. "Really?"

  Riley nodded, his eyes wide. "Yeah, the dude can be scary. I was commenting on how quick Tura, his tailor, was, and Rayner said something about foxlings being captivating creatures. I thought I might get a little out of him, so I said, 'Like Toka?' And you should have seen his eyes. They were almost black. I don't know if he thought I was interested, but when I said you were very sweet and I felt calm around you, his expression changed. He was... soft again. He agreed. Said you had a way about you."

  Toka's heart skipped a beat, and he couldn't stop from smiling like a loon. Was it possible Rayner cared more for him than he'd originally believed? One thing was for certain. He couldn't wait to find out.

  Chapter Two

  "YOU LOOK ridiculous."

  Rayner blinked at Adira as she joined him in the corridor on the way to Khalon's study for their usual afternoon council meeting. He smiled sweetly. "And a good afternoon to you. Why am I ridiculous this time?"

  "You're smiling like an idiot," she groused.

  Rayner chuckled. "It's good for the soul. Perhaps you should try it sometime."

  Adira released the most indelicate, unladylike snort. "The moment I start smiling like that, I'll hang up my sword. You and Khalon are worse than fledgling Soldati. One smile from those pretty boys and you're stumbling over yourselves."

  Rayner shrugged. "What's wrong with smiling? Or pretty boys?"

  "Nothing is wrong with either. Smiling is fine, in moderation. There are times I wonder if Khalon has lost his senses."

  "It's called being in love, Adira." Had his dear friend ever been in love? He couldn't recall her ever speaking of it, much less displaying any signs of amorous affection toward male or female Soldati, or anyone else for that matter. No, wait, there had been that one time during the Soldati Summer Solstice Festival, where Rayner had spotted Adira tucked behind one of the tents kissing a stunning Soldati warrior with silky dark skin and the most incredible gold-green eyes he'd ever seen. What was her name? Fiorentina.

  Adira's eyebrows shot up near her hairline. "Are you telling me you're in love?"

  Rayner puckered his lips as if to kiss her. "Why? Would it make you jealous?"

  "Not even if you were the last Soldati in the realm." She narrowed her steel-gray eyes at him. "Are you?"

  "The last Soldati in the realm?"

  Her exasperated sigh was music to his ears. "You exhaust me."

  "Did Fiorentina exhaust you?" He waggled his eyebrows, and the scandalous expression that crossed her face was too much. Rayner threw his head back and laughed. Teasing Adira was always such fun. Not nearly as fun as aggravating the hell out of Khalon, but still quite fun.

  "You're an insufferable bastard."

  "Is that a yes?"

  Her noise of disgust was admirable, but the twinkle in her usually hard eyes gave her away. Like Khalon and Ezra, Rayner had known Adira since childhood. As hard as she might try to hide it from him, her eyes could not conceal the truth. It would seem the beautiful Fiorentina did a good deal more than exhaust Adira.

  They entered Khalon's study, and Rayner winked at Riley when the prince waved cheerfully at him from his regal seat beside Khalon, who was busy shuffling through several letters. Rayner had grown fond of the young prince from the moment they'd met. Riley was exactly what Khalon needed. He was high-spirited, kindhearted, and more often than not, had a big boyish smile on his face. Most importantly, he was as stubborn and strong-willed as Khalon. Riley had no qualms about speaking his mind, and he wasn't about to put up with nonsense from anyone, not even the king of the Soldati. As for Khalon, he wouldn't have it any other way. He was madly in love with Riley, and although at times Riley drove Khalon mad, he'd confessed to Rayner how he wouldn't change one hair on the man. Riley brought a lightness to Khalon's heart that Rayner feared his friend had lost some time ago. The two were perfectly suited for each other, despite their less than amicable beginning.

  Toka entered from the side door, a silver tray in his delicate hands, and Rayner once again found himself captivated. Foxlings were stunning creatures. Toka's large amber eyes were rimmed in black kohl, and his silky hair was a fiery red, falling over his brow and at times his eyes. He was often brushing it aside. His heart-shaped face suited his sweetness, and his plump lips called to Rayner. How he relished kissing those lips. Like most foxlings, Toka possessed delicate features. He was sinewy, graceful, and agile. His beauty--in Rayner's opinion--was unrivaled. He was kind, gentle, and playful. Toka's smile stole Rayner's breath away. Rayner's thoughts went to ear
lier that morning when Toka had writhed with want against him, how his lips parted as he gasped Rayner's name.

  As if sensing his thoughts, Toka's cheeks flushed a lovely shade of pink. His eyes met Rayner's, and he smiled shyly before turning to place the tray on Khalon's desk. Rayner followed Toka's movements, enjoying the way the cream-colored embroidered tunic shifted against his slender frame. The leather belt accentuated his slim waist, and the gold long-sleeved shirt underneath his tunic stretched over the defined muscles of his arms. The tunic fell just above his knees, his bare legs smooth and silky to the touch. The leather straps of his sandals crisscrossed up his shapely calves. Rayner itched to divest Toka of his clothes and run his hands over all that smooth bronze-colored skin. Toka arranged the tea set on Khalon's desk, followed by the plates of treats--a new addition to afternoon tea, thanks to Riley and his sweet tooth.

  Riley picked up one of the cookies and took a bite, then released a low moan that caught Khalon's attention in the most endearing way. Khalon turned his face to Riley, fire burning in his eyes for his prince. With a chuckle, Riley held the remaining cookie up to Khalon's lips, and Rayner held back a smile as Khalon opened his mouth, allowing Riley to place the cookie on his tongue. He chewed it happily. Riley leaned in to kiss Khalon's cheek, laughing when Khalon turned his head and stole a kiss from Riley's lips instead.

  Adira whispered in Rayner's ear. "If they start gazing into each other's eyes, I may be sick all over your boots."

  Rayner chuckled. Khalon waved at them to sit, and Rayner occupied the cushioned wingback chair to the right of Khalon's desk as Adira took a seat in the chair across the room. Where was Ezra? He was usually the first in attendance when Khalon summoned them, unless he was completely immersed in a book and hadn't even heard Khalon's roar. Wouldn't be the first time.

  Toka approached Rayner with a cup, his back to Khalon and the others. With his bottom lip between his teeth, he handed Rayner his tea.

  "Thank you." Rayner's fingers brushed a caress over Toka's hand before he took the teacup from him. He loved the subtle intake of breath he caused. Rayner winked at him, chuckling when Toka released a small huff and walked off to carry on with his duties. The mere sight of him was enough to make Rayner hot under the collar. It was only fair of him to share that heat with Toka.

  Ezra dashed through the door, his face flushed. His grim expression didn't bode well. The quiet, gentle healer was never flustered, and although he often appeared contemplative, he was rarely anxious. Ezra was the least likely to be caught unawares, seeing as how the Soldati Eye flowed through him. He was the voice of the all-seeing, all-powerful Eye, which was why any concern of Ezra's became a concern for Khalon.

  Khalon straightened, his eyebrows drawn together. "What is it?"

  Ezra stopped before Khalon's desk and handed him what looked like a royal message, judging by the wax seal. Khalon quickly took it. The study was silent as Khalon opened the letter and read it. The only movement in the room came from Toka as he finished serving Adira her tea, then moved on to serve Ezra.

  "Blasted hell." Khalon released a heavy sigh, tossing aside the letter. "King Pavoni is requesting a visit to our realm. He would like to bring the prince and princess with him. If accepted, they would be here in two days."

  Rayner's blood turned to ice, and he gritted his teeth. The day had started out so well. He supposed it was only a matter of time.

  Riley blinked at Khalon. "Who's King Pavoni, and why don't we like him?"

  "King Pavoni is from the Kingdom Dell'Orso, our neighbors to the west," Khalon informed Riley as he removed a sheet of parchment from his desk drawer.

  "Orso?" Riley looked thoughtful. "That means bear, right?"

  Khalon nodded. "The Orsos date back nearly as far as the Soldati and possess magic similar to our own. They were once honorable bear warriors and our greatest allies."

  "Were?"

  "Several decades after I was crowned king of the Soldati by my father, Pavoni became king of Dell'Orso. Rumor has it he killed his father for the crown, but an investigation yielded no evidence of this. He has ruled the Kingdom of Dell'Orso since, with his sister, Princess Verity, and their youngest brother, Prince Merlo, at his side."

  Rayner scoffed. "King Pavoni is an arrogant, greedy bastard who believes everyone should kiss his boots. He doesn't merely allow his warriors to behave in a deplorable manner--he encourages it. He takes what he wants and treats his servants like slaves and playthings. It's disgusting."

  "Rayner," Khalon warned gently. He lifted his eyes from his letter to meet Rayner's gaze.

  Rayner cleared his throat. "Forgive me. There is no love lost between us."

  Riley frowned, puzzled, and Khalon let out a sigh.

  "Pavoni wished to unite our kingdoms through marriage. As I was destined to mate with a Soldati prince, that left Rayner as the next most powerful Soldati. Pavoni suggested--"

  "Insisted," Rayner corrected.

  "Insisted," Khalon acquiesced, "that Rayner marry Prince Merlo."

  "But you didn't love him?" Riley offered.

  Love? The question perplexed Rayner for a moment. Then he remembered Riley had lived among humans who chose their mates. Not everyone was so lucky. Rayner fortunately had some say in who he wed, due to his rank. He frowned deeply. "Worse than that. If I agreed to the marriage, Merlo would have power within the Soldati Realm through me, which would mean Pavoni would have power over the Soldati because Merlo is his puppet. Merlo has never had a singular thought of his own in his life. Pavoni isn't interested in uniting our kingdoms. He wants power. I wasn't about to give the bastard control over me or the Soldati." Thankfully, Khalon had agreed with Rayner on all accounts.

  "What happened?" Riley asked, eyes wide. "I'm guessing he didn't take the rejection well."

  Khalon sat back with a sigh. "Pavoni is known for getting his way, always. So no, he did not take it well. Especially when someone below his station tells him he would rather, um--" Khalon winced. "--get sucked off by a demon and have his cock rot off than marry Prince Merlo."

  Toka coughed into his hand, clearly an attempt to keep from laughing. Riley had no such luck, and he was soon in tears from laughing so hard. Khalon was trying desperately to keep his frown in place, but Riley's laughter was obviously making it difficult, and Khalon's lips twitched up in the corners.

  "Oh my God, Rayner, you said that?" Riley wiped a tear from his eye. "The dude must have been so pissed off."

  "That would be an understatement," Khalon informed him. "As you can imagine, Pavoni has held a great deal of contempt for Rayner since that day."

  "The feeling is mutual," Rayner muttered.

  "I don't suppose we can just say no, huh?" Riley asked hopefully.

  Khalon shook his head. "Doing so would only provoke Pavoni, and I'm afraid we cannot afford to lose our alliance with the Orso. The demons are growing in number, and with every passing day, the wards deteriorate more and more, allowing an increased number of demons to slip into the human world. The Soldati are struggling as it is." Khalon ran a hand through his hair, releasing a heavy sigh. "The Orso have been at war with many kingdoms. If we were to become one of those kingdoms, it would leave both our world and the human world exposed. We almost lost the human world once to demons. I won't allow that to happen again."

  "When was this?" Riley asked, concern filling his kind eyes.

  "Humans refer to it as the Black Death."

  Riley held up a hand. "Wait. You're telling me the Black Death was actually demons?"

  Khalon nodded somberly. "Since the beginning, the Soldati have been tasked with keeping the human world safe, but a terrible war between realms forced us away from our duty. General Segreti served Pavoni's father at the time, and now he serves Pavoni. He's a good man, and a dear friend. He and his formidable army helped ensure our victory, but by the time the war ended, millions of human lives were lost." Khalon met Rayner's gaze, heartache in his amber eyes. "If Pavoni were to declare war, Segreti would have
no choice but to obey his king and lead his army against us. Every Soldati warrior currently residing in the human world, every warrior on patrol, every squad on the hunt would be summoned home. I fear the human world would not survive the devastation."

  "Great," Riley muttered, biting into another cookie. "Guess that means Pavoni's coming to visit. How long does he plan on staying?"

  "As long as he bloody feels like it," Rayner grumbled, taking a sip of his tea. With any luck, he'd be sent to the human world after a hoard of demons, giving him a perfect excuse to bugger off. It was an awful thing to wish for, but damned if he didn't hate Pavoni that much. The man was vile.

  "All we can do is hope he has a pleasant time and goes home quickly and without incident," Khalon said, handing a letter to Ezra. Most likely his reply of why yes, do come to our kingdom to grope our servants, make a nuisance of yourself, and be a pain in our asses. Or more likely a simple we look forward to your visit. Rayner would happily shave his tiger stripes off if it meant avoiding a visit from Pavoni.

  Ezra hurried off, and Khalon turned to Toka.

  "Please inform Arrigo of the impending visit so he can begin preparations with the other servants. Pavoni will be expecting a banquet in his honor, so let's arrange it for the evening of his arrival. Inform Nestore I'd like to see the menu before he and his staff begin preparations. Have Luka begin bedchamber arrangements. He's to give Pavoni the larger of the rooms. Leave the tea and cookies. Have someone come back for them later."

  Toka bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty."

  Khalon excused him, and Toka was off to pass on Khalon's message, informing the head servants of the household of their new duties. Rayner would most likely see Toka darting from one end of the castle to the other until everyone was apprised of the situation, and then Toka would return to Riley's side. The castle was going to be a flurry of activity, with servants dashing around in preparation for their guests.

 
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