The foxling soldati, p.5
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       The Foxling Soldati, p.5

         Part #2 of Soldati Hearts series by Charlie Cochet
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  Toka leaned in to Riley with a sweet smile. "Would you care for a drink, Your Highness?" He looked to Khalon. "Your Majesty?"

  "I'd love some of that fruity wine-not-wine thing Nestore makes," Riley replied. "And maybe a couple of those meat-and-cheese pastry things. They are so freaking good. Okay more than a couple. Like, five."

  Khalon chuckled. "I'm fine, Toka. Thank you."

  Toka nodded and stood, his fingers brushing Rayner's knee as he left, sending a jolt through him. Rayner managed to suppress a groan. He coughed into his fist and straightened, composing himself. Had the little imp done that on purpose? Surely he wouldn't have. Pavoni returned, resuming his seat just as Toka approached with Riley's drink and a plate of treats. He clearly knew Riley very well by now, seeing as how the gold plate included more than the five pastries.

  "I must say, Khalon. Visiting your realm is always such a pleasure to the senses."

  Rayner gritted his teeth, doing his best to remain unaffected, as if he hadn't noticed the way Pavoni placed emphasis on the word "pleasure" when raking his lewd gaze over Toka as Toka handed Riley his glass and a plate of treats.

  "Thank you, Toka. You're amazing," Riley said with a bright smile, sitting forward and blocking Pavoni's view of Toka as he sat. Pavoni's attention was seized by a servant standing before Princess Verity with a silver tray of drinks. He brushed his fingers down the servant's arm, and the poor foxling gave a start. He managed to regain the balance of his tray before anything spilled. Rayner felt for the foxling. Any intimate touch a foxling servant received in Khalon's care was done so with their consent. They were unaccustomed to being manhandled.

  "Perhaps later this evening, you might allow me the company of one of these tantalizing creatures."

  "Our servants are part of our court. They're not whores," Rayner said through his teeth, aware of Khalon's wince.

  Khalon quickly stepped in. "What Rayner means to say is, the servants of the Soldati court are held in high esteem. They have been serving my family for generations. I'm certain we can find other ways in which to entertain you and your court."

  "I look forward to this. Perhaps, to start off, you might allow me a dance with your enchanting prince?"

  Khalon's jaw clenched, his eyes darkening. The challenge in Pavoni's gaze was not lost on Rayner. He was pushing Khalon. To Rayner's surprise, Riley placed his hand on Khalon's arm, his smile bright but not reaching his golden eyes.

  "Of course. What's one dance?" Riley stood, handing his plate and drink to Toka, who swiftly took it from him. "Could you hold this for me, please?"

  Toka nodded, and Pavoni laughed heartily. "Well, now I've seen everything. A prince asking a servant rather than commanding. I can't wait to see what other surprises you have in store for me, Your Highness."

  Riley's regal cape billowed behind him as he descended the stairs. He held his head high, an intensity in his eyes Rayner had never seen before. Rayner sat in silence, aware of Khalon's subtle hints of annoyance. The music started, and Pavoni swept Riley up in an animated waltz.

  "I see Riley's lessons are going well," Rayner commented, impressed by Riley's grace and fluidity as he moved. Khalon grunted, his eyes never leaving Pavoni and Riley. Pavoni's hand moved from Riley's back down to just above his ass. Khalon's fingers clenched into a fist. It was clear Pavoni was attempting to stir a reaction from Khalon. He held Riley closer to him than was necessary, his grin all teeth, his hand squeezing Riley's, and his face far too close to Riley's.

  Rayner shifted his gaze between Khalon's growing fury and Pavoni's blatant disrespect and lack of boundaries with a Soldati prince. Murmurs broke out through the banquet hall, the guests looking on in concern. Then Riley turned the tables on Pavoni. He spun Pavoni and took the lead. Rayner held back a smile. Pavoni had no idea what the hell had just happened. Riley pulled no punches, putting Pavoni through his paces, and at one point Pavoni looked as if he might not be able to keep up, even stumbling over his steps for a slip of a moment. When the dance was over, the hall cheered, and Riley bowed. He gave Pavoni a hearty pat on the back and walked off.

  Riley winked at Rayner before he took his seat beside Khalon. The prince was a quick learner. If there was one thing Pavoni despised, it was being made a fool of. He had asked Riley to dance in order to vex Khalon, but in turn, it was he who ended up aggravated.

  "Your prince is quite the dancer," Pavoni said through panting breaths. He pulled a handkerchief from his tunic and dabbed his brow. He cleared his throat before resuming his seat. "Must be exhilarating to have a mate so young and full of vigor. I hear he's not even half a century old. He's the youngest Soldati prince to date." His gaze raked over Riley while Riley stood removing his cape to drape it over the back of his throne. He was brazenly eyeing Riley's backside.

  Thankfully Khalon hadn't noticed. He'd stood, allowing Riley to sit first out of respect for his prince. He placed Riley's hand to his lips for a kiss. When Pavoni met Rayner's gaze, Rayner made certain the bastard was aware Rayner was watching him.

  "Tell me, King Pavoni," Riley said sweetly. "Do you always talk about someone as if they're not present? Because I'm right here. You can speak directly to me if you have a question." He arched an eyebrow. "Do you have a question?"

  Pavoni grinned. He turned to Khalon. "He must be a spitfire to keep up with in bed."

  Khalon squeezed the armrest of his throne, his knuckles white. When he spoke, it was through gritted teeth. "That is highly inappropriate."

  "Of course. Forgive me. I forget how stuffy you Soldati are." Pavoni chuckled, and Rayner wished he could plant a fist in the smug bastard's face.

  The banquet continued, and soon it was time to dine. The tables were set up before their thrones, the servants moving swiftly and efficiently. The decor was stunning, in black and gold, Khalon's royal colors. The food soon came out, and thankfully Pavoni was too distracted by the delicious meal to speak much.

  Throughout the evening, Pavoni continued to try their patience, whether it was making snide remarks about other monarchs in neighboring realms, criticizing Khalon's rule in the guise of "friendly advice," or making inappropriate comments. Rayner could see Khalon's patience dwindling, but Rayner had to give his friend credit. Khalon was determined not to lose his composure. Rayner was certain that was down to Riley.

  After their meal, once the tables were removed, Riley stood. "Will you excuse me? I have to visit the little prince's room."

  Pavoni arched an eyebrow at him. "The what?"

  "The potty. Restroom."

  Pavoni's eyes narrowed. "I don't know what that is."

  "Where you take a piss."

  Khalon almost choked on his drink. Riley patted his back, and when it was clear Khalon wasn't drowning in his wine, Riley kissed his cheek. "I'll be back."

  "I'll accompany you," Pavoni said, getting up.

  Khalon frowned. "Why would he need an escort?"

  "Your home is currently filled with dozens of guests unknown to you. It's merely a precaution."

  There was no reason for Pavoni to insist on escorting Riley in his own home, other than wanting to be alone with him. Khalon narrowed his eyes at Pavoni. "Are you suggesting someone in your court may pose a threat to my prince?"

  Pavoni bristled. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm simply--"

  "It's okay," Riley said pleasantly. "Toka will come with me."

  "Such beauty should be accompanied," Pavoni insisted once again. "You never know what lurks in the shadows."

  Khalon stood and turned to Pavoni. "Your concern for my prince is commendable, and noted. Rayner can accompany them while you tell me more about your soldiers. I hear your army has grown since last I visited your kingdom."

  Pavoni preened at having his ego stroked, and he quickly took a seat, followed by Khalon. "You've heard right." As Pavoni went on to boast about his army, Rayner walked alongside Riley with Toka close behind them. As they left the banquet hall, Rayner leaned in to Riley.

  "You don't really need to use t
he washroom, do you?"

  When they were far enough down the corridor and away from guests chatting outside the banquet hall, Riley turned to Rayner. "Oh my God, I had to get away from that guy before I lost it. I've never met anyone I wanted to punch so badly in my life!" Riley paced, working through his frustration. "I don't know how Khalon does it. I mean, I can see how hard he's trying not to rip the guy's head off. He's disgusting. Not only is he full of himself, but the way he talks about the servants, the way he looks at them." Riley shivered with revulsion. "I feel like I need a shower to wash all the gross off."

  Rayner smiled in sympathy. "I know. He'll be gone soon enough."

  "I hate that we have to put up with his bullshit." Riley stopped pacing, and turned to him, his brows drawn together in worry. "I can't believe we have to associate ourselves with this guy. How can one man's ego be so out of control that he'd risk the obliteration of an entire world just to get his way?"

  Riley's genuine distress concerned Rayner. "I'm sorry, Riley." He placed his hand on Riley's shoulder. "This is clearly upsetting you. Perhaps tonight, before you and Khalon go to bed, when you're in your bedchamber together, you should speak to Khalon. Make your concerns known to him."

  Riley released a heavy sigh. "You're right. I should talk to him. I don't want this guy back here. He's so... volatile, and we're walking on eggshells around him. He keeps poking and prodding, like he's trying to start something."

  "That's my fault," Rayner said, his jaw muscles tightening. "I've brought this on us."

  Riley stared at him like he'd gone mad. "The guy wanted you to marry someone you didn't want to, and you said no. His douchebaggery is not on you. If he decided he wants to be an asshole about it, that's his decision, but we shouldn't have to put up with it." Riley sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Man, and I thought politics where I came from was a pain in the ass. Could you do me a favor?"

  "Of course."

  "Could you let Khalon know I'll be back in half an hour? I'll be in the garden. I just need to get away from... everything, for a bit. Too much noise." He turned to Toka. "Would you mind coming with me? I always feel calmer when you're around."

  Toka smiled. "Of course, Your Highness. It would be my pleasure."

  The relief was instant, and Rayner was glad to see Toka had such a calming effect on Riley. Rayner bowed and excused himself. He chanced a look around, and seeing the corridor clear, he took Toka's hand in his and brought it to his lips for a kiss.

  "Take care of yourself, and our prince."

  Toka blushed, his eyes going soft as he nodded.

  "For crying out loud, just kiss him," Riley whispered, looking around the hall. "There's no one here."

  Rayner hesitated, but Toka didn't. He threw his arms around Rayner and brought their lips together in a heated, passionate kiss.

  "I miss you," Rayner murmured against Toka's lips. "You look striking."

  "As do you," Toka replied, breathless. He smiled up at Rayner. "I miss you too."

  A door resounded somewhere, and Rayner reluctantly pulled away, though not before brushing his fingers down Toka's cheek. "Be safe."

  Toka nodded, then hurried off with Riley as they made their escape to the gardens. Riley was the most courageous human Rayner had ever known. Well, he was a Soldati, really. He still behaved as a human, despite his newfound immortality. At times their prince could be skittish, and too much noise or activity could become overwhelming to his senses. The gardens provided the peace and solace their prince needed.

  Rayner returned to the banquet hall. It was getting on in the evening, and Rayner looked forward to retiring for the night. Perhaps he might try and sneak down to the servants' quarters and spend the night with Toka. He shouldn't while Pavoni was here, but Rayner was desperate to hold his foxling in his arms and make love to him.

  When he reached the platform, he was grateful to see Pavoni was dancing. Khalon looked like he wanted to shift and curl up in his tiger form under the table.

  "Where's Riley?" Khalon asked the moment Rayner sat.

  "In the gardens."

  "Oh." Khalon's eyes were gentle, and he nodded his understanding, knowing the reasons Riley sought out the gardens. He sighed. "I'm thankful he finds solace there."

  "He's a complex creature," Rayner admitted.

  Khalon smiled, his love for his prince evident in his expression. "That he is. Such a gentle soul."

  "Except when he's angry," Rayner replied, chuckling at Khalon's wide eyes.

  "Goddess above, you don't need to tell me." His eyebrows drew together. "Is that why he's gone to the gardens? Has something upset him?"

  Rayner motioned to the dance floor where Pavoni was dancing. Khalon's jaw clenched.

  "Of course."

  "He doesn't understand why we associate ourselves with the likes of him, and if I may be honest, I am starting to wonder the same. When did we begin fearing tyrants like Pavoni?"

  Khalon narrowed his eyes at Rayner. "I do not fear him or anyone like him."

  "Forgive me. I chose my words poorly. What I meant to say was, when did we begin to tolerate creatures such as he? I know the risk is great, but by appeasing him, are we not giving him even more power over us?"

  Khalon did not reply. He simply turned his attention to Pavoni, his expression guarded, though Rayner knew his dear friend was giving serious thought to his question, which was good. The fact Khalon had not dismissed him meant progress.

  Riley returned, looking more cheerful with Toka at his side. He sat beside Khalon and kissed his cheek. Khalon took Riley's hand, concern in his eyes. Although the question remained unspoken, it was clear as day.

  "I'm okay," Riley said, smiling warmly at his mate. The two placed their heads close together to murmur soft words.

  "You throw such wonderful parties, Khalon. A little tame for my tastes but very sweet. If you'll excuse me, I feel a change of scenery is in order." Pavoni ran a tongue over his bottom lip as he leered at Toka. "I don't suppose His Highness would allow me the company of his pretty foxling companion?"

  Rayner clenched his teeth, though he needn't fear Toka joining Pavoni, not if Riley's indignant glare was anything to go by. The man's scowl was impressive. Rayner was surprised Riley didn't try to choke the bastard.

  "Toka is my personal courtier. He doesn't leave my side."

  Pavoni arched an eyebrow at him, most likely surprised by Riley's curt and swift refusal. He was obviously not expecting Riley to be so protective. "Oh. I see." He bowed and turned to go, then paused. He met Khalon's gaze. "You really shouldn't encourage your prince to get so attached to a servant. Might give some the wrong impression." He chuckled as he walked away.

  Was the man insinuating what Rayner thought he was?

  Riley took a step forward, but Khalon quickly drew Riley into his arms. "Come, my Prince. Let's go to our bedchamber." He nuzzled the side of Riley's temple, and Riley relaxed against his mate. His pout was adorable. Riley nodded, then turned his big eyes to Khalon. Rayner held back a smile.

  "I'd really like it if Toka stayed in my old room next to yours. Please. I want him to be close."

  Khalon gaped at him. "You want your servant--"

  "My courtier," Riley corrected. "And my friend. I want him close, Khalon." There was a determined set to Riley's shoulder and an intensity in his eyes. There was no budging him.

  "Of course." Khalon kissed the top of Riley's head. "Toka may stay in your old room."

  "Permanently? I mean, he's a courtier, right? He shouldn't have to be downstairs."

  "We'll discuss this later." Khalon gave him a pointed look, and Riley didn't argue. Instead he smiled up at Khalon and stood on his toes to kiss his lips.

  "I love you."

  "I love you too," Khalon replied gently. He took Riley's hand and placed it on the crook of his arm. "Come. It's been a long day."

  "Tell me about it," Riley muttered before he waved good night to Adira and Ezra, who were busy chatting with some of the guests, before h
e turned to Rayner with a big smile. "Good night, Rayner."

  Rayner bowed. "Sweet dreams, my Prince." He met Toka's gaze. "Good night."

  "Good night." Toka's eyes lingered on Rayner before they were forced to part ways. The guests all bowed as Khalon bid them good night, some of them leaving the banquet now that the king and his prince were departing for the evening. Rayner stood and watched them go. Unable to help himself, he followed Toka with his eyes. Hours. It had been but hours since he'd kissed Toka, since he'd had him in his arms, his body pressed to Rayner's, his soft skin beneath Rayner's touch, and yet Rayner yearned for Toka like a starving man hungered for his next meal.

  Rayner almost growled when someone stepped in front of him, blocking Toka from his sight. It was Prince Merlo. The bear prince was much smaller than his brother, with big brown eyes and a full mouth. He was rather strapping and quite attractive, with wavy brown hair reaching just below his ears. As an Orso prince, Merlo was tall and muscular, but not to the extreme of his kingdom's warriors or his king. He was also gentle and quite shy, which was uncommon with the Orsos. It was a shame Merlo did his brother's bidding without question. He seemed like a good man. Was it possible Merlo was afraid of his own brother? It would certainly explain a lot. Pavoni was known to have quite the temper. Rayner wouldn't be surprised if the man treated his family as poorly as he did everyone else.

  "Rayner, how good to see you again."

  Rayner bowed. "Prince Merlo."

  "I'd been hoping to at least get the chance to talk to you. The evening went so quickly." Merlo ran a hand over his sleeve, his cheeks somewhat flushed. He looked uncomfortable.

  "How are you enjoying the festivities?" Rayner summoned a smile and reminded himself that Merlo was not Pavoni. He deserved the benefit of the doubt.

  "I'm not fond of these sorts of things, but my brother insists I attend. He says stuffy books are for weaklings." Merlo frowned, clearly disagreeing, but again not speaking against his brother.

  "My king loves a good book, and he's hardly a weakling," Rayner said gently. He might as well be polite. It wasn't Merlo's fault he had no backbone or that his brother was who he was.

  Merlo's eyes went wide, and he shook his head. "Oh, I wasn't implying that, um, forgive me, I--"

  "Calm yourself, Your Highness. I was merely implying that perhaps your brother is mistaken in that regard. Khalon is a powerful king, and he finds much joy in a good book. If you would allow me to be so bold," Rayner prompted, smiling when Merlo nodded. He leaned in and whispered to Merlo, "Keep reading." He winked at Merlo and made to leave when Merlo caught his arm.

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