The foxling soldati, p.6
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       The Foxling Soldati, p.6

         Part #2 of Soldati Hearts series by Charlie Cochet
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  "Would you at least share a drink with me?" Merlo asked, his big brown eyes hopeful.

  "My apologies. I was on my way to my quarters for the remainder of the evening. Sleep well."

  "Please, Rayner. Just one drink." Merlo's expression was troubled, and Rayner didn't have the heart to deny him this one request after he had so terribly humiliated the man. It hadn't been his intent. He doubted Merlo even cared. Pavoni was the one who'd taken it as a personal slight.

  "Of course. One drink." Rayner accompanied Merlo over to one of the tables where he took a seat.

  "I'll have one of my Orso fetch us our drinks. What can I get you?"

  "Surprise me," Rayner said cheerfully. "Thank you. It's very kind."

  Merlo's smile was big, lighting up his face. "My pleasure."

  Merlo stood, and an Orso promptly appeared, taking Merlo's order. Perhaps Rayner had been quick to judge Merlo. He shouldn't have cast the man in the same light as his brother. In truth, Merlo had never wished Rayner any ill will or looked at him with any malice. Regardless, Rayner was eager to see Toka. One drink, a few pleasantries, and Rayner would seek out his beloved. Considering Riley's old bedchamber was in the same wing as Rayner's, no one would think anything of him being there. All he had to do was sneak to the end of the corridor where the royal bedchambers were. The guards would see him, but at this point, he hardly cared.

  "Here you go." Merlo handed Rayner a glass of what looked like Nestore's fruit wine.

  "Thank you." Rayner took the cup and toasted, "To a bright future." He took a sip of the sweet wine, wrinkling his nose at the bitter taste. "It would appear Nestore went a bit light on the sugar with this one."

  Merlo hummed his agreement. "Still, quite delicious. I must admit, the Soldati have the most exquisite food of any realm I have visited. Such mouthwatering decadence." The heat in Merlo's eyes was unmistakable, and Rayner cleared his throat.

  "Perhaps I should be going."

  "At least finish this drink with me, Rayner. Surely you don't loathe me that much?" His expression fell, and Rayner sighed.

  "I don't loathe you at all, Merlo." It was the truth. "Forgive me if I have done anything to make you believe so." He took another sip of his drink and made a mental note to speak to Nestore about this batch of fruit wine.

  "Would it really have been so terrible being married to me?" Merlo placed his hand over Rayner's, and Rayner gently pulled his hand away. "Forgive me." He sat back, looking deflated.

  "Why were you willing to marry me, Merlo? Because you wanted to or because your brother wanted you to?" Rayner pushed his fingers underneath his tunic's collar and gave it a tug. He was suddenly feeling quite hot under his clothes.

  Merlo worried his bottom lip with his teeth and shrugged. "My brother could have chosen worse. You're a good man. You would have been kind."

  Rayner's vision grew blurry, and he blinked away the growing drowsiness. He was certainly ready to turn in for the night. Wait, was Merlo still speaking? Rayner had completely tuned out. He closed his eyes for a moment.

  "Rayner? Are you all right?"

  "Yes, forgive me. What did you say?" His vision blurred again, and he blinked at the encroaching fog. "I'm... not feeling so well. I should go. Excuse me." He stood and threw a hand out to steady himself.

  "Oh dear. I think the drink was a little stronger than anticipated. Perhaps that was why it was so bitter. I thought it was just me," Merlo said, laughing softly.

  Rayner nodded before excusing himself once again and leaving the banquet hall. As he headed toward his room, everything became hazy.

  "I feel awful," Rayner grumbled, uncertain to whom he was speaking. Where was he? What had he been doing just now? "I think... I think I should lie down." An arm wrapped around his waist, and he tried to move away but faltered.

  "Let me help you."

  The voice was soft and gentle. "Toka?"

  "Can you not see me?"

  Rayner put one foot in front of the other. His head was throbbing, his vision a blur of colors. His limbs were heavy, and he felt as though he were drowning in liquor, but surely he hadn't had many. Had he?

  "Everything's fuzzy," Rayner replied, closing his eyes. That helped. "I'm glad you're here." Rayner smiled despite his lethargy. "My little foxling."

  "Your foxling?"

  "Yes," he huffed. "You promised you were mine, remember? You gave yourself to me." He leaned into the warm body, nuzzling the soft hair. Rayner inhaled, frowning at the unfamiliar scent. "You smell different."

  "I came searching for you and ran into Prince Merlo in the hall. I tripped, and he caught me. I must have picked up his scent."

  "Oh. That was nice of him to help," Rayner mumbled. "Will you come to bed with me? Watch over me?"

  "Of course."

  Rayner sighed. "Tell me you love me again."

  "Oh, Rayner. You have no notion of the depths of my feelings for you. Now, take me to your bedchamber, and I'll help you into bed. Poor thing. You can barely walk."

  "I'm okay," Rayner said, his words sounding slurred to his ears. "You're here. Everything's okay."

  Chapter Five

  TOKA COULD barely believe it.

  He sat in the middle of the giant four-poster bed, smiling like a dope. A royal bedchamber! Even if this was the only night he spent in one, he was thankful. He recalled the first night he'd shown Riley to this very room. It was warm, with the soft glow of candles and wall sconces. The wooden four-poster bed was colossal, as was the wardrobe in the corner. Across the room was an expansive stone fireplace with a wine-colored chaise lounge in front of it. The walls were decorated with intricately woven tapestries of tigers frolicking, and beneath the furniture, a matching rug stretched across the wooden floor. Despite the room's size, almost triple that of his bedchamber downstairs in the servants' quarter, along with its opulence, it wasn't imposing. Perhaps because Riley had stayed here, Toka thought of the room as cozy and inviting. If only Rayner were here with him, his evening would be even more perfect.

  Toka wanted nothing more than to go to his love, but he didn't dare. It wasn't his place to do so. Also, Riley had asked him to remain in this room. It was sweet how concerned Riley was for him, and the way he'd protected Toka from Pavoni was like nothing Toka had ever seen. He would always be grateful to Riley. Mostly it was the moment Riley had told Khalon that Toka was his friend that had squeezed at Toka's heart. Although Riley didn't quite understand how a prince and servant could never truly be friends, Toka held the sentiment close to his heart.

  Growing quite sleepy, Toka blew out the candles and turned down the lights. He'd bathed and dressed in the nightshirt and robe Riley insisted Toka take from the wardrobe. As he climbed into bed under the lush duvet and snuggled up into the luxurious feather pillow, he let out a sigh of contentment. With a great big yawn, he closed his eyes and thought of Rayner slipping into bed with him. It brought a smile to his lips. Rayner had looked so handsome at the banquet. It had been difficult to keep himself from sneaking glances at Rayner, and even more of a challenge not to touch him when he sat right beside Toka. Soon, he told himself. Soon he would be in Rayner's arms once more.

  A BELLOW startled Toka awake sometime in the middle of the night, and he scrambled out of bed, his heart pounding fiercely. He threw the bedchamber door open, stumbling out into the corridor, forgetting about his bare feet. His heart stilled at the sight of Rayner on his knees outside his bedchamber, nothing but a blanket wrapped around his waist, which he clutched tight to his naked torso. What terrified Toka most, was the sword King Pavoni had to Rayner's neck.

  Khalon and Riley emerged from their bedchamber still dressed in royal garb. Perhaps it wasn't as late as Toka thought. Had he been asleep such a short time? Khalon and Riley hurried over to Rayner and Pavoni. Toka slowly and quietly followed. He kept close to the wall, knowing he had no business being out here, but he couldn't go back to his room. Everything in him screamed to go to Rayner's side, to bark and snap at Pavoni for daring to thr
eaten his love. Rayner looked frightened and confused, as if he couldn't grasp what was happening. His eyes were red, and his chest heaved. Why was he naked?

  "What is the meaning of this?" Khalon demanded, glaring at Pavoni. Toka edged nearer, making certain not to move too quickly and draw attention to himself. He tiptoed a few feet closer to Riley, remaining against the wall.

  "This jackal is a disgrace to the Soldati and your name," Pavoni growled. "I knew he was a scoundrel, but this is beyond the pale, Khalon."

  "What is his crime?" Khalon ground out through his teeth.

  "In a drunken stupor, he attempted to force himself upon my innocent brother!"

  Riley gasped, and Toka clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle his cry. Anger rose through him, and he gritted his teeth to keep quiet. That was a blatant lie! Rayner would never commit such a heinous act, no matter how into his cups he might be. He was an honorable man. He would never take someone against their will. Never.

  Khalon stared at King Pavoni. After seeming to snap out of his trance, he turned his gaze to Rayner, his eyes filled with fear for him. "Speak."

  Rayner shook his head as best he could with the blade held to his neck. "Khalon, you know me. I would never bring such disgrace to myself, to you, or the Soldati. When have I lost myself to drink? When have I ever behaved dishonorably? I swear to you--"

  "Lies!" Pavoni spat. "You reek of spirits, and my brother said you could barely walk. You asked him for his aid in escorting you to your bedchamber, where you dragged him in and tried to have your way with him. Look at him!" Pavoni thrust a finger at the red-faced, disheveled prince, his shirt collar and sleeve torn and trousers undone. His hair was tousled, and his neck had red marks.

  Princess Verity stepped forward, tears in her eyes. "It's true. I was heading for the guest wing when I heard my brother's distress. I should not have gone in, but I feared for him. I opened the door and saw Rayner... on him. I heard my brother... beg for Rayner to stop. I ran to fetch my king. He dragged Rayner off my brother and brought him out here."

  Rayner met Khalon's gaze, his chin lifted in defiance. "I did not force myself on him," he ground out through his teeth.

  "How did you get to your bedchamber?" Pavoni demanded. "The truth."

  Rayner's eyebrows drew together, and he frowned. "I can't recall. I remember the banquet hall, speaking with Merlo, and then nothing until I found myself dragged from my bed."

  "You see?" Pavoni sneered. "He was so inebriated, he doesn't even recall how he made it to his bed, and he admits my brother was the last person he spoke with. I caught him red-handed, and what's more, my poor sister witnessed the deed herself." Pavoni straightened, his disgusted gaze moving from Rayner to Khalon. "I cannot accept this slight against my family, Khalon. I demand justice. As per Soldati law, I am owed recompense and call upon the right to choose which punishment the criminal is to receive, or the Soldati face war with the Orso."

  Criminal? How dare he! Khalon couldn't allow this. They had known Rayner for centuries, knew his character, his heart. He would never do what Pavoni accused him off. Toka clenched his fists at his sides, tears in his eyes. Even as he knew what Khalon's reply would be, his heart refused to believe it.

  "Why don't we discuss this in my study? I'm certain that between us, we can--"

  Pavoni was indignant. "My brother was almost defiled in your home by one of your men, and you dare attempt to placate me? I will not stand for this, Khalon, and neither will General Segreti."

  Khalon was silent for a moment, his jaw clenched tight. When he spoke, his voice was rough. "What is your punishment?"

  "Twenty lashes before the whole of the Soldati court by my hands."

  Tears rolled down Toka's cheeks, and he shook his head, his heart splintered. Pavoni loathed Rayner. He would surely show no mercy. Rayner hung his head. He was left with no choice but to accept his king's pronouncement, and Toka wished nothing more than to go to him, to hold him close and kiss away his pain. Riley stood stunned, disbelief on his handsome face.

  "And your recompense?" Khalon asked quietly.

  King Pavoni's sneer was terrifying. He thrust a finger at Toka, and Toka's world came undone. His knees grew weak, and he sank to the floor. No. Please, no.

  "You will gift me the foxling."

  Riley rushed to Toka's side, dropped to his knees, and drew Toka into his arms. Toka was numb as Riley ran a hand over his head. This can't be. The horror was too great for Toka to accept, and his chest tightened. Breathing became arduous.

  "How dare you!" Riley fumed. "Toka isn't anyone's to give. What's more he's my personal courtier. You're not laying one repulsive finger on him."

  Pavoni snarled at Khalon. "Your prince has quite the mouth on him, Khalon. Might I suggest a firmer hand, seeing as how your mate clearly does not know his place."

  Khalon straightened, anger burning in his eyes. "I'll have to insist you watch your tongue, Pavoni, when you speak of the Soldati prince."

  Pavoni let out a snort of disgust. "How can I forget when you continuously lord him over us. Regardless of who he is, your prince will gift me the foxling."

  "Never," Riley spat out.

  Pavoni loomed over Riley and Toka. "Then Khalon will simply take him from you."

  Toka began to shiver uncontrollably. His life, his home, Rayner... all gone.

  Riley's eyes widened, and he looked to Khalon. "You can't."

  "I can, and I will. Or you will face a war," Pavoni snarled.

  Riley shook his head in disbelief. "Do you realize what you're saying? You'd be sentencing the human world to death. Without the Soldati there to protect it, it'll be overrun by demons. You'd let an entire species die?"

  Pavoni scoffed. "The human world is the Soldati's cross to bear, not mine. What happens to those pathetic creatures is not my concern."

  "Not your concern?" Khalon fumed. "Who do you think the demons will come for next when the humans are gone and the wards are destroyed? The Soldati keep our world from falling into chaos. You not only risk your own people, but those of every realm."

  To Toka's horror, Pavoni stepped up to Khalon, his voice a low growl. "I would watch the Soldati and every other realm burn just to watch your lapdog suffer. Decide. Turn over the foxling, or I promise you General Segreti and his army will be here before morning."

  How could one man be so heartless? Toka shut his eyes tight, feeling the bile rise in his throat. He opened his eyes in time to see Khalon turn away from Riley, his eyes closed.

  "Forgive me."

  "No!" Rayner grasped the hem of Khalon's tunic. "Please, Khalon." His voice broke, tears in his eyes. "You cannot let him take Toka."

  Pavoni marched over to Rayner and grabbed a fistful of his hair, jerking him away from Khalon. "Begging suits you, you contemptable creature." He released Rayner, growling out the words over his shoulder as he headed to his room, Prince Merlo and Princess Verity quickly following. "Come morning, I will have what I'm owed, or I give Segreti the order."

  Toka scrambled to his feet, ran to Rayner, and threw himself into Rayner's embrace. The tears fell as his world came apart around him. He didn't know what he feared most, being taken by that beast or never seeing Rayner again. Rayner ran a hand over his head, over his face, as if desperately attempting to come to grips with what was happening.

  "How can you do this?" Riley demanded as he faced Khalon, tears in his eyes. "How can you give Toka away like he doesn't mean anything? He's not a piece of property!"

  "I will not risk war for a servant," Khalon roared. "You are not in your world. You are in mine. It's time you learn what it is to be a Soldati prince."

  "If being a Soldati prince means giving people away, giving in to assholes like Pavoni, then you can keep your fucking title!" Riley grabbed the crown off his head and threw it at Khalon's feet. Toka saw Khalon flinch, saw the pain in his eyes, and the wetness that followed as he watched Riley storm away, leaving pieces of his princely garb along the way. He stopped halfway down the corridor an
d turned, a tear running down his flushed cheek. "You're not the man I thought you were. You should have left my soul in limbo. At least you couldn't hurt me there." Riley turned and marched off. A door slammed somewhere in the distance, and Khalon blinked through his tears. He sniffed and straightened, his gaze turning hard. He didn't look at them when he spoke.

  "The law has spoken. Toka leaves tomorrow with Pavoni, after the flogging." Khalon turned and headed in the opposite direction Riley had gone, toward his study. The door slammed shortly after. The king's pained roar resounded through the hall and struck Toka's heart, as well as Rayner's, evident by his jolt. They were all magically connected to their king, and although they would not feel his pain the way Riley would, they could sense it inside them.

  Rayner cupped Toka's face, his bottom lip trembling and his voice breaking when he spoke. "Forgive me. Please forgive me, because goddess knows, I will never forgive myself."

  "I don't know what happened, but I know your heart, Rayner. I know you would never do such a thing. Can you recall nothing at all?"

  Rayner shook his head. "No. I don't understand. I barely drank at the banquet, I'm sure of it. I have never lost my senses. I don't know how this came to pass, or why Merlo was in my room, why I was naked."

  Toka ran a hand over Rayner's hair and kissed his lips. "You are innocent."

  "I have to speak with Khalon." Rayner stood, and Toka followed Rayner as he darted into his bedchamber. He swiftly pulled on trousers and a shirt before running out of the room to Khalon's study. Toka was not permitted without reason, but what better reason could there be than the destruction of his life?

  He slipped inside as Rayner marched over to Khalon, who stood facing the large window overlooking the gardens, the same gardens where Riley's favorite spot was. Toka sat in one of the wingback chairs and remained silent, his arms wrapped around himself.

  "You can't allow this," Rayner said, coming to a halt behind Khalon.

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