He rapped smartly on the door, not expecting to hear a response right away, and after waiting a few moments he knocked again. Then he heard shuffling and stirring within, and the scrape of a deadbolt being thrown back; the door was jerked open, and Mandorallen stood there, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
"Yes, Goodman?" he said, polite and well-bred even in his drowsy state, and Durnik opened his mouth to speak, only to find he'd gone dumb.
Mandorallen was naked.
He didn't seem to realize he was unclothed; he stood, scrubbing at his face, blinking stupidly in the light from Durnik's lamp, his black curly hair a tangled mare's nest around his face. The darkness behind him served only to emphasize his nudity in the dim light, which flickered over his chest and torso and glimmered on his hair. His cock and sacs hung dry and limp between his legs, and his bare feet stood out starkly white against the obsidian floor.
Durnik's mouth worked futilely a moment, then he managed to say, "Er."
Mandorallen blinked at him, clearing the cobwebs from his brain; realizing at last the smith was for some reason speechless, and that he was displaying his assets for anyone who might pass (unlikely as that would be at this hour), he opened the door further and stepped aside to let Durnik in, shutting the door behind him and returning to the huge canopied bed, which lurked in the gloom behind them. The lamp that the smith carried was insufficient to illuminate such a huge room, and only a small circle of light stood about them; the rest of the room – rafters, corners, furniture and bed – was in complete darkness. Mandorallen shuffled sleepily back to the bed and sat on the edge of it, resting his hands upon his knees and staring groggily at the smith, waiting with unwavering patience for Durnik to find his tongue.
Durnik himself had no idea why he was so flabbergasted by the sight; he had vague memories of seeing Mandorallen unclothed many years ago, but for some reason it hadn't affected him in quite the same way. He wrestled with his reaction a moment, then discovered, as he stared thunderstruck at the knight sitting nude on the bed, that he was aroused.
Aroused by the sight of another man. A shameful thing – not just to a conservative Sendar, but in the eyes and minds of all races. It was unspeakably evil, morally reprehensible, unforgivable. Durnik swallowed hard, shut his eyes to block out the image of the Mimbrate seated there in his rumpled glory: the ball of muscle at the shoulder, the dusting of fine hairs between two pink nipples, the curl of the pectoral over the flat stomach, and with a wrench forced himself to not look at the soft penis and testicles resting against the brawny thigh; he was shocked to realize he had not only opened his eyes but was staring avidly at the knight. Durnik dragged his eyes upward to Mandorallen's face, blankly acquiescent, two pale blue eyes glinting in the lamplight, straight nose, high smooth cheekbones and full red lips. For the first time in his life Durnik had to acknowledge that he was affected by another man's beauty, and it was a painful admission. A thousand emotions, all of them dreadful, raced through him: Shame that he even considered a member of his own gender attractive; fear his wife would discover his reprehensible secret; horror at the implications upon his own inner preferences; apprehension at what Mandorallen's reaction would be, were he to realize why Durnik was looking at him like a starving man looks at a piece of bread; guilt that he was desiring another man, especially an old friend of his.
But he couldn't seem to shake the compulsion to stare. He stared at Mandorallen's glossy black hair, roiling and tumbling about his head. He stared at the outline of light traveling down Mandorallen's throat, across his collarbone into the dip between his nipples. He stared at the ripple of muscle beneath his skin, stretched from his shoulders to his lower abdomen. He even stared at the dark wrinkled skin of his private parts, lying idly below his torso. Fortunately Mandorallen was either too fuddled with sleep, or too innocently unsuspecting, to come to the right conclusion; he just sat and stared back, blue eyes trusting and a little vacant, blinking sluggishly at the smith, waiting for him to speak. At last, after Durnik swallowed a few more times and cleared his throat, he managed to say:
"King Korodullin's having some trouble in Asturia with the rebellion. Garion wants you up in the council room to discuss his next move."
Mandorallen closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them; Durnik could see him struggling to regain sensibility. "Oh?" he said, and stifled a yawn, saying something like "Ah oo eg eye ar-uhn."
"Not at all," gulped Durnik, still trying to tear his eyes away from the sight the Mimbrate made, stretching luxuriantly, arms over his head, distending his belly and tipping his head back, exposing the underside of his throat to the smith – stubbled, elongated, biteable. Durnik sternly quashed the unbidden query as to the taste of the knight's skin and backed against the door, heart pounding as though he'd run a race. Then, to make matters worse, Mandorallen stood, rubbed his eyes and said sleepily: "Wait thou upon me, good Durnik, whilst I find mine undergarments," and bent over, rooting around in the bed linens, his smooth muscular backside cocked pertly up in Durnik's face, mocking him with its proximity. Durnik inhaled sharply and looked up at the ceiling, frowning fiercely.
"Take your time," he said, his voice thick; he wondered why Mandorallen was sleeping in the nude, and reflected perhaps it was due to the heat of the room – he was certainly sweating enough; why was this particular chamber so sweltering? After a moment the knight appeared to have found his recalcitrant underlinens, which he stepped into clumsily, still wobbly from drowsiness. He pulled them up over his cock and sacs and laced them sluggishly together, then cast about a little haphazardly for his clothing, eventually locating his breeches hanging on the back of a chair, and his shirt crumpled in a heap on the floor. He was just digging around for his tunic, which for some reason was under the bed, when Durnik realized Mandorallen was still muzzy with sleep and probably could use a little assistance; swallowing his fear he stepped forward to help him button his tunic. Mandorallen stood obediently, allowing the smith to dress him; Durnik could feel the heat of his chest through the cloth, and found himself spending an inordinate amount of time smoothing the fabric down over the knight's torso. Shaking himself, Durnik forced himself to step back; he looked at the Mimbrate's dark tangled hair, and after casting about a moment found a wide-toothed comb on the vanity and offered it to the knight, who rubbed his eyes, yawned again and said, "I thank thee – um – Goodman," and proceeded to make a complete hash of pulling it through the tangles. Heart pounding in his throat, Durnik took the comb and gestured the knight back to the bed. Mandorallen sat, compliant and bemused, while the smith knelt behind him on the bed, carefully tugging the comb through the mess, starting at the tips as he'd watched his wife brushing her own hair, and working his way up to the scalp. Soon Mandorallen was sitting comfortably in front of him, eyes closed, humming contentedly, while Durnik pulled the comb through the long glossy curls, one hand lightly bracing the knight's shoulder, his breath coming short and shallow in his throat. It was almost hypnotic, watching the teeth of the comb split and part and resolve those long twisting coils – they were pulled straight, only to spring back in tight spirals, glistening and luxuriant. They looked soft, though Durnik was sure hair that curly ought to be coarse – he reached out, touched it – soft. He ran his fingers through it. Silky, thrumming under his fingertips. He heard the knight sigh, watched the broad shoulders sag. Durnik was at last forced to admit Mandorallen was presentable – besides, if he sat there much longer he could not be held accountable for his actions – and stood up, put the comb back on the vanity and held out his hand to the Mimbrate. Mandorallen smiled lethargically and placed his hand in Durnik's; his palm was very smooth, but Durnik could feel the calluses at the base of his fingers, where those strong sure hands were accustomed to encircling the hilt of a sword. Resisting the mad urge to kiss the knight's knuckles Durnik pulled Mandorallen to his feet.
"Ready?" he asked carefully, his voice feeling thick as glue.
"Yes, I thank thee, Goodman Durnik," smiled Mandorallen. His eyes were a tad more present and focused; some of the haze of sleep looked to be dissipating. Swallowing a surge of disappointment, and fighting the stab of guilt it engendered, Durnik gestured him to the door, and the knight passed through it, straightening his tunic absently. Durnik noticed – then berated himself for noticing – how well Mandorallen's breeches fit round his backside and accented the muscles of his thighs; his fingers itched to touch the knight but he shoved his hands resolutely in his pockets.
Just as he was about to exit the bed chamber he heard a soft susurration behind him, and he turned cautiously, eyes searching the darkness for the origin. He saw a shadow detach itself from the deeper gloom behind the bed hangings; then a thin sinuous figure crawled out from beneath the coverlet. The lamplight etched a silhouette of gold that resolved itself into a long lean torso, long dark arms, a glossy shaven crown topped by a shivering scalp lock. A hawklike face thrust itself out of the shadows into the light, its onyx eyes glittering malevolently; Durnik's first relieved thought, "Hettar!" was replaced by a sudden oppressive dread – that sinewy sinister form was unclothed, the limbs shaking off the twisting covers titillating; the hips with their limp swinging members supple and lissome, dark, provocative. Durnik's voice shriveled in his throat and he stared, hypnotized like a bird stalked by a venomous snake; Hettar crawled forward into the circle of light, his lean dark body and ropy muscles gleaming. His thin cruel mouth curved into a humorless smile beneath the hooked nose; the black eyes gleamed, reflecting back the flickering light. Breathlessly Durnik looked around for Mandorallen, but the knight had already gone.
He turned back to the horse lord who crouched there on all fours on the bed, bleak eyes hooded, wiry torso twisted; Durnik braced himself, backing away.
"I saw him first," growled Hettar. His long tongue flicked out over his lips, feral, possessive. With a last strangled noise Durnik turned and fled.