The foxling soldati, p.9
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       The Foxling Soldati, p.9

         Part #2 of Soldati Hearts series by Charlie Cochet
 
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  Toka did his best to shield his head, his legs pressed together as Pavoni kicked at him over and over. A blow to the face left him with a bloody nose and bloody lip. His muscles screamed in agony, and when he thought he might lose consciousness, Pavoni stopped.

  "Who told you to come in?"

  "Forgive us, Your Majesty, the guard said you were ready for us."

  Pavoni bellowed for his men and ordered Toka be returned to his room. The Orso guards pulled Toka to his feet and dragged him away. He limped as quickly as he could, one arm around his middle, the other in the painful grip of an Orso guard. Toka felt sick to his stomach, and the back of his eyes stung. His head was throbbing, and his body protested any movement. The Orso guards dropped him like a pile of trash on the small bed of straw next to Pavoni's bed.

  Toka curled up on himself, shivering. He shifted into his fox form for warmth, the heavy chains loose enough for him to slip through, but he was in too much pain, too exhausted, and too frightened. Pavoni was sharp and conniving. He would never have allowed such an oversight, unless he was absolutely certain Toka had no hope of escaping. Why else would he not enchant Toka's shackles? Toka brought his brush up over his nose and whined. At least this way, he wouldn't cry. He couldn't lose hope. I must be strong.

  "Why do you antagonize him so?"

  The soft voice startled him, and he quickly shifted back. He sat up, holding himself tight as Princess Verity came to kneel beside him, a cool, damp cloth in her hand. She gently cleaned his face.

  "It will only fuel his anger. He will kill you, Toka. Give yourself to him, and the blows will cease."

  Toka shook his head. "I will never offer myself to him, and I won't lose myself to him either. If I do, it would mean losing Rayner, and our love. It's all I have left. I won't let Pavoni take the hope I have in my heart."

  She dabbed at his split lip, and he caught her hand.

  "If he finds you here.... I don't want you to get hurt. Please."

  "You suffer terribly, yet you... fear for me?" Verity searched his gaze, though for what, Toka couldn't fathom. She pulled back, then reached into her skirt pocket and removed a small glass vial.

  "Here. Take this. It's only temporary, but it will buy you some time."

  Toka didn't know why she was helping him, but he quickly took the small vial and drank down its content. He'd handed it back when the most violent, agonizing pain jolted through his body. He gasped for breath and fell onto his side.

  "I know it hurts. It will make you sick, but only for a day, two at most."

  "Th... thank... you." Toka gave her a small smile before a sharp jab to his gut had him crying out. It was as if his insides were being turned inside out. He shut his eyes tight and gritted his teeth, but each churn of his stomach produced a greater, more agonizing blow to his body.

  Verity shoved the empty vial into her pocket just before the door to the room was thrown open. "What the hell is going on? I can hear screaming from the blasted throne room!" Pavoni narrowed his eyes at Verity. "What are you doing here?"

  "Brother, he needs a doctor." Verity rushed over to Pavoni and took hold of his arm. "I was on my way to see you when I heard Toka's painful cry."

  "What's wrong with the bloody creature?" Pavoni scowled at Toka. "Surely I didn't strike him that hard. Bloody foxlings are such pathetic, weak creatures. Can't take even a little pain."

  "Please, brother. He's very ill."

  "Fetch the blasted doctor, then."

  Verity nodded and hurried off, leaving Toka alone, writhing in pain. Pavoni grabbed a fistful of Toka's hair, forcing his head up.

  "All you've done is buy yourself some time, but it won't stop me from claiming you," he snarled, taking hold of Toka's jaw and squeezing until Toka flinched. "Soon I will fuck you until he's nothing but a faded memory." He shoved Toka down before spinning on his heels and thundering out. Toka cried in both relief and anguish.

  Chapter Seven

  RAYNER FOUND Riley sitting in his favorite spot beneath the large willow tree in the east gardens. It was where Riley often enjoyed an afternoon nap, and where he came to read a book when Khalon was busy tending to business. At times the young prince simply needed what he called a "breather." It amused Rayner how many human words and phrases Rayner, Khalon, and the rest of the court had picked up since Riley's arrival. Although the Soldati had walked among humans since humans first acquired the ability to walk, they rarely interacted or stayed among the creatures long enough to completely pick up their customs. Every so often, Rayner would catch himself using one of Riley's words. Khalon was worse as he was only ever away from Riley when he truly had to be.

  The east gardens helped Riley clear his thoughts. Next to the library and the kitchen, the gardens were Riley's favorite. It was easy to see why. The gardens stretched around the sides and back of the castle and bloomed year-round, regardless of snowfall in the winter. In the forests beyond the gardens, the leaves changed colors and fell, but the Soldati Royal Garden remained perfect. The grass always rich and green, the trees lush, and the many brightly colored flowers in bloom.

  Trails were flanked by hundreds of flowers of all types and colors, painstakingly arranged. Statues of frolicking tigers could be found among the rose bushes and neatly trimmed hedges. Stone benches offered places to sit and watch the trickling fountains. It was breathtaking. Yet without Toka, Rayner found little enjoyment in the majesty around him.

  Riley sat with his back against the large trunk, but this time, there was no book in his hands. He simply stared off into the distance. Rayner joined him on the grass, mindful of not stretching his healing wounds. His Soldati blood would heal him soon enough, even without Ezra's aid, but it was best he not take any chances.

  "Don't be cross with him," Rayner said softly, drawing a knee up to rest his arm on. It had taken Rayner time to clear his head and work through the emotions clouding his judgment, though now he was more conflicted than ever. He understood why Khalon had done what he had, and Rayner was certain it was the most difficult decision Khalon had been forced to make since becoming king, one that was taking its toll on him. And yet Rayner could not help his anger at having his love torn from his life. Despite his grief, he felt responsible for the discord between his prince and his king. Riley had so much to learn without Rayner making things difficult for him.

  "Cross? Oh, I'm beyond cross. He let that son of a bitch take Toka. I can't...." Riley shook his head, his lips pressed together as anger rolled off him in waves. "I love Khalon, I do, but I don't know if I can be with a man who would do something like that. Doesn't he care?" Riley turned his reddened eyes toward Rayner, and it squeezed at Rayner's heart.

  Rayner was touched by Riley's fierce defense of Toka. The man's heart was filled with so much love and compassion. "Of course he does, but you must place yourself in his shoes. Everyone in this kingdom looks to him for protection, to provide for them when they're in need. Added to that, there is the human world to consider. The responsibilities that weigh on his shoulders are great. Khalon has lived centuries, ruling the Soldati Realm as it has always been ruled. What he did was for his people. By giving up Toka, he kept our kingdom in peace. Surely in your world, sacrifices for the greater good have been made."

  "In my world, we don't give up to the demands of tyrants," Riley spat out. "What's to stop the next Pavoni from marching in here and making demands? Threatening Khalon with war. Will he give in to them as well? Who's next? You? Me? Ezra? Adira?"

  Rayner hung his head in shame. "Toka was payment for my crime."

  "Toka is a living being," Riley growled, his voice laced with his frustration. "He shouldn't be payment for anything! And as far as your crime, you didn't do it!"

  Rayner swallowed hard. "The prince and princess gave their word. Their rank surpasses my own."

  "Even if they're lying?"

  Rayner couldn't help his smile. He took Riley's hand in his. "You have such faith in me."

  "I know you," Riley replied softly. "You woul
d never have done what that bastard said you did, and just because their rank is higher than yours doesn't mean their word should be taken at face value. You didn't even get a trial."

  "It doesn't work that way."

  Riley jumped to his feet and threw his arms up. "That's ridiculous! So I can just go around accusing people of shit they didn't do, and because I'm a prince they'll get punished for it?"

  Rayner stared at him. "Um, generally. Even if there are witnesses, they're likely to fear speaking against someone of higher rank."

  "Oh my God, that's such bullshit!" Riley paced furiously before him. "What kind of fucked-up law is that? How does that protect people? We're just relying on those in power to be honest? Yeah, because that always goes so fucking well. The Soldati have been around since the beginning, protecting the human world from demons. Have the Soldati not learned anything from our human mistakes? Like how not to repeat fucked-up history? Humans can't seem to work that one out, but I thought there was hope for the Soldati."

  "Riley, calm yourself."

  "No, what happened to you and Toka is wrong. I won't let this go. How can Khalon condone this?"

  Rayner stood and reached out to take hold of Riley's arm, bringing his pacing to a halt. "It's complicated, Riley. All I ask is that you try to understand. This decision has torn him up inside. Ezra is beside himself. Khalon hasn't been sleeping, eating, or taking care of himself. You are the only one who can reach him. Riley, you are more than his prince. You are his heart. Without you, he will wither, and with him our world. I'm not asking you to forgive him, only to see him. Speak with him. Please."

  Riley let out a heavy sigh. He averted his gaze, his eyes filled with uncertainty and heartache.

  "Do you wish to leave him?" Rayner asked gently.

  Riley swallowed hard. He shook his head, his voice a near whisper when he spoke. "I want to hate him, but I just love him so much. He's a good man. I know he is. I just... I don't understand any of this. And I don't want to try, because it's wrong. I'm not just his prince. I'm his husband. Do I have any say in anything, or am I just something pretty that hangs off his arm for people to gawk at, because that's what it feels like."

  "You are more than that, Riley. Go to him. Speak your heart. You are everything to him."

  Riley threw his arms around Rayner and hugged him tight. "You're too good, Rayner."

  "He is my king and... my dearest friend." There was nothing they hadn't faced together, except this. It was why his heart ached beyond words, but he would fight as he always did, for Toka, and for his friendship with Khalon. Riley pulled back, and Rayner held out his arm. "Come. I'm going to speak with him. It would do him good to see you."

  Riley nodded. He hooked his arm with Rayner's and accompanied him inside. They were silent on their walk to Khalon's study, where Khalon had been sleeping, unwilling to sleep in his bedchamber if Riley wasn't there. When they entered, Khalon was at his desk, and he stood quickly when he saw Riley.

  The last two days had taken their toll on Khalon. There were dark circles under his reddened eyes. His black hair was a mess, where he'd clearly simply run his fingers through it rather than comb it. He hadn't even dressed in full garb, simply his black trousers, boots, and black shirt, the long wide sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Rayner was taken aback by his friend's appearance. He had never seen Khalon in such a state. How foolish Rayner had been, believing his dearest friend was unaffected by what had transpired. To make matters worse, neither Riley nor Rayner had been at his side to keep him from falling into despair.

  Rayner gave Riley a gentle prod on his lower back, and remained where he stood as Riley fidgeted from one foot to the other. Khalon's expression was hopeful as he came around his desk. His fear came through in his voice when he spoke.

  "Riley...."

  The word was a broken whisper, and it must have reached something deep inside Riley to tug at his heart, because one moment he was standing beside Rayner, the next he was throwing himself into Khalon's outstretched arms. Khalon held Riley tight to him, one arm around his waist, and his hand to the back of Riley's head as he buried his face against Riley's hair.

  "Forgive me. Please don't leave me. I don't know what I would do without you. It was not my intention to hurt you."

  Riley nodded. "I know." He pulled back and cupped Khalon's face to meet his gaze. "I'm not going anywhere. I love you, Khalon."

  "I love you too. You are the light in my soul, the other half of my heart." He closed his eyes and let his head rest against Riley's.

  "I'm still upset," Riley murmured, "but maybe we can talk about it? Maybe you can tell me how you feel and help me understand?"

  Khalon nodded. "Yes, of course." He took Riley's hand in his, and brought it to his lips for a kiss before releasing him to take a seat behind his desk. He looked at Riley, who joined him in the seat beside him. The prince's chair. "I know what I've done is unforgiveable. I haven't slept since Toka was dragged away by Pavoni." Tears filled Khalon's eyes, and Rayner forced himself to remain silent as Khalon continued, his eyes now on Rayner. "When I close my eyes, I see his kind face, and I'm reminded of all the ways I have failed him." He turned his attention back to Riley. "But how could I risk another war? I was there after the demons tore through the human world." A tear rolled down Khalon's cheek, and Riley reached out to tenderly wipe it away with his thumb.

  "I watched millions die. Men, women, children. And there was nothing I could do. There was no one to save them. The thought of it happening again terrified me, and it made me sick to my stomach knowing you would be exposed to such destruction. Since Pavoni's departure, I have been at war with my own heart, asking myself what I could have done to save Toka, to right the wrong I have allowed." Khalon closed his eyes, clearly fighting to maintain a grip on his emotions.

  Rayner stepped forward, his heart breaking all over again, for his loss and for the pain in his friend's heart. "Khalon...."

  Khalon sniffed, and wiped at his eyes. Rayner had never known Khalon to show such vulnerability in front of anyone. It only went to show how dire this all was.

  "Yes, Rayner."

  "I'm here to ask a favor."

  "Name it," Khalon said.

  Rayner took a deep breath as the two men he admired most waited patiently for his request. "I ask that you strip me of my position and rank within the Soldati. That way the realm won't be held accountable for my actions."

  Khalon and Riley stared at him in disbelief. Khalon was the first to speak. "And what actions might those be?" There was no anger in his voice, merely curiosity.

  "I'm going to free Toka from that hellish beast and take him far from here. I will send word once we're safe, but it may take some time. I'm not certain what we'll do after that, but what I do know is that I will get Toka back."

  Khalon seemed to be considering his words. "You plan to give up everything for him."

  "I love him, and I would pay any price to have him in my arms again." Rayner kneeled, his head lowered, and his right hand over his heart. "I relinquish my position as your second, and as a Soldati warrior."

  "I cannot grant you your wish."

  Rayner's head shot up, and he rose slowly, his heart beating wildly in his ears. "I beg your pardon? Khalon--"

  "I cannot allow my second to give up his position. I need you at my side."

  "Damnation, Khalon. How--"

  Khalon held up a hand to quiet him. "I haven't finished," he stated firmly, rising to his feet. "I need you at my side, as my brother, as my dearest friend, and as my second as we march into the Kingdom of Dell'Orso. Together."

  Rayner was confused. "But... you would be declaring war."

  "I have already declared it."

  "What?" Rayner stared at his friend. "When?"

  "This morning. I sent word to neighboring realms asking for whatever aid they are willing to provide, whether it be warriors or at the very least protecting the human world in our absence. Until we hear from them, we will march in two waves. The first e
ntering the Orso realm to fetch Toka, the second keeping vigil over the human world. If Pavoni refuses to release Toka, we will bring in the second wave. I signed off on Captain Airaldi's battle plans just before you arrived. Adira informed me preparations are nearly complete." Fire burned in Khalon's eyes as he spoke.

  "I have allowed a dishonorable villain to come into my home and enforce his will on us. I have failed Toka. I have failed you. And for that I beg forgiveness. I pray it's not too late and that my arrogance and cowardice has not robbed you of your love." Khalon looked down at Riley, the adoration in Riley's sparkling gold eyes bringing a sad smile to Khalon's handsome face. "One would think I'd have learned that lesson the first time."

  Riley stood, and took hold of Khalon's hand. He stood on his toes and kissed Khalon's cheek. "You're a good man, Khalon King."

  Khalon swallowed hard, nodding before he turned to Rayner. "Will you fight at my side as you always have?"

  "Of course I will," Rayner said, his voice thick with emotion. Together they would bring Toka home.

  The doors to the study flew open, and Rayner was stunned when Princess Verity came rushing through in a flurry of skirts, her cloak billowing behind her. She dropped to her knees in the center of the room before Khalon's desk. "Your Majesty, please forgive my impertinence, but I must speak with you, and it cannot wait."

  Rayner went to her side, helping her stand. "Princess Verity? What is it? Do you bring news of Toka?"

  Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Rayner. I pray you will one day show mercy and forgiveness. I can no longer stand by and watch my king as he attempts to break Toka's spirit. The light in his eyes dims with every touch." She hurried over to Khalon and clasped his hand in hers. "You have been deceived, Your Majesty, and Rayner and Toka have paid the price for this trickery. My king was behind the ruse. He gave Merlo a potion to slip into Rayner's drink and instructed Merlo on the part he was to play.

  "The potion Rayner was given would take several minutes to take effect. In that time, Merlo asked Rayner if he might assist him to his bedchamber. Once inside, he helped strip Rayner of his clothes and put him into his bed, and then tore his own clothing. Rayner was fast asleep by then. Merlo then alerted my king, who sounded the alarm."

 
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