They reached the large, heavy door of the Cellarium. Darviche turned to him. “Pierrepoint is on his way with the oblate. I had Gilmartin take some things out of the armory for you, in case you want to practice while you wait.”

Misha blinked. “You’re not staying?”

“Not this time.” Darviche hesitated, then extended a hand. “Good luck, Puzzle.”

Misha’s mouth went dry as he shook it. Darviche was never like this. It only confirmed what he’d suspected. There was something wrong with Magister Pierrepoint’s oblate. Darviche knew it, just like they both knew this was probably Misha’s last chance.

He released the general’s hand and stepped through the door. It closed behind him with an ominous bang.

Inside the Cellarium was cool and still. Sunlight spilled through a line of small, arched windows along one wall, illuminating narrow strips of the central dirt floor while deepening the shadows everywhere else. At the Peer’s request, the Ministry had left the floor in partial disrepair. It was large enough to accommodate several groups of sparring partners, with plenty of space to spare. He hadn’t used it much himself; his trips here had always been too brief for that.

Now, he found himself wondering what it would be like, weaving between the central row of columns, overlooked by the naked ribs of the vaulted ceiling. Other Peers claimed there was a unique sort of magic to this place. Standing here now, Misha could understand what they meant.

He shook himself. No use thinking like that. Only partnered Peers had the opportunity to practice here. Whatever matchmaking game Pierrepoint and Darviche thought they were playing had failed before, and it would fail again. Either the oblate would reject him, or he would put his foot down and refuse the pairing himself.

After all, even he had higher standards than being Peer to a madman.

He cast an eye over the small cache of swords, staffs, and sticks the cellarer had set out. Before he could make up his mind whether to pick something up, the sound of voices echoed through the door. Without thinking, Misha bolted to the nearest wall and sank back into the shadows. Every fiber in his body thrummed on high alert. He took a deep breath, held it.

The door opened. The figure that stepped inside was wreathed in shadow. He was taller than Misha had expected, and moved with a lithe grace that didn’t fit Misha’s profile of a scholarly madman at all.

He moved deeper into the Cellarium, looking back and forth. Searching for him, Misha realized. The idea sent a strange thrill through him. Then he stepped into a tract of light cast from one of the windows, and Misha forgot to breathe.

He’d assumed the oblate would be young. Most of them were. Even the oldest were teenagers. This oblate was closer to his own age. More than that, he was attractive. Misha felt a brief wash of shame for noticing, quickly squashed it down and packed it into the place where he hid all such uncomfortable thoughts.

The oblate’s hands clenched. His jaw tightened. Then he turned back to the door with a look on his face that was pure war.

It was that look that did it. Misha exploded from hiding place. A second later, his hand was around the oblate’s throat. He swept his leg, and the oblate’s feet went flying. Then they were on the ground, the oblate flat on his back, Misha’s knee on his chest.

A cloud of dust rose around them, individual particles glittering as they caught the sunlight. The oblate coughed and attempted to refill his lungs. Misha felt a twinge of guilt. Then the dust cleared enough for him to see the other man’s face, and he froze.

“Attractive” was too feeble a word. The oblate was beautiful. Blond hair gleamed in the light, and matching blond eyelashes framed eyes the same disconcerting blue as the heart of a glacier. His structural face looked as if it had been carved from the finest marble. He was definitely older than oblates usually were. The angle of his jaw and flexing sinew in his hands were those of a man, not a boy.

His eyes were fixed on where Misha’s knee still pinned him to the floor. As Misha watched, those eyes moved up the line of his leg and took a slow tour of his body before finally lifting to his face. The oblate’s lips parted.

Just like that, they were all Misha could focus on. They were all wrong. Too lush. Too perfect. Lips like that had no business being in a man’s face.

His hand around the oblate’s throat must have tightened, because the other man shifted, and Misha had his first sense of the lithe body hiding underneath the baggy black uniform. He removed his hand. The oblate didn’t move.

Wrong. This was wrong. There had been a mix-up. Even now, Pierrepoint was on his way back with the Mad Oblate, the one Misha was really supposed to have. That oblate would be shorter. Younger. Altogether unattractive and entirely unfuckable.

The instant that thought crossed his mind, his body began to tighten. A quiet urge he’d long taught himself to ignore stirred deep in his belly.

It was instantly followed by a bolt of blinding hot rage. Misha rose to his feet, hands fisted at his sides so the oblate wouldn’t see them shaking. He’d worked too hard to find himself upended by some insane, overaged, wannabe-Minister, no matter how blond his hair or perfect his cheekbones or biteable his lips might be. He was a Peer. There was no room in his life for – what had his father always called them? – his tastes.

Misha was saved from further thought by the sound of the Cellarium door opening, and Magister Pierrepoint’s chuckle.

“I see your first meeting went well.”

Footsteps echoed, then Pierrepoint was standing over the oblate. He reached down a hand and hauled the other man to his feet, clapped him on the back. A cloud of dust rose from the oblate’s clothes.

Pierrepoint turned to him. “Misha, this is Reverend Emil Stone. He will be your Minister.” He turned back to the oblate. “Emil, meet Misha Kaslov, field name ‘Puzzle’. Your safety is now in his hands.”

He should refuse. He needed to refuse. But the oblate – Emil Stone – was already looking at him, and suddenly Misha couldn’t remember why refusing this partnership was so important.

His Minister. Those words seeped through his skin, past blood and bone, into a place inside him he hadn’t realized was there, let alone empty. Misha knew with sinking certainty that for better or worse, those words were now laced into the very structure of his being.

His Minister. He was responsible for this beautiful creature. Emil Stone’s safety, his wellbeing, were his to guard. His to keep.

His, period.

He was totally, inescapably fucked.

Pierrepoint was still talking, as if oblivious that every plate and rivet in Misha’s carefully constructed armor was disintegrating. “From this point forward, the two of you will be partners. Welcome to the field, gentlemen. General Darviche and I expect great things.” He looked from one of them to the other. “The world needs you.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Back to The Smokeless Djinn