First sentence, as usual:
Sweat ran down Herald Vanyel's back, and his ankle hurt a little--he hadn't twisted it, quite, when he'd slipped on the wooden floor of the salle back at the beginning of this bout, but it was still bothering him five exchanges later.
The first two or three chapters of every book of this trilogy are a total waste of words. Like, these books start soooo slowly. This one's not much of an exception, so I'll just sum up the salient points for you:
- There's been another 8-year timeskip, which makes Vanyel around 35 years old. He's still single and broody because he's convinced that he can't have any weaknesses, and his lovers would only be in danger.
- King Randale of Valdemar is dying of fantasy cancer. Jisa (Vanyel's daughter that he fathered with Randale's consort, if you may remember) is not in the line of succession, but her boyfriend Treven is.
There, I just saved you 30 utterly stupefying pages.
Vanyel's nephew Medren, who's in Haven studying to become a rock star, comes up to Vanyel and is like, hey unk! I think my roommate's better than pain drugs for the King! So Vanyel goes to check that shiz out:
Vanyel's first impression was of fragility. Stefan was slight; had he been a girl, he'd have been called "delicate." He was a little shorter than Vanyel, and as slim. That didn't matter, though--Vanyel could tell that Stef's appearance was as deceptive as his own. Stefan was fine-boned, yes, but there was muscle over that bone; tough, wiry muscle.
I wouldn't care to take him on in a street fight, Van observed, eyes half-closed as he studied the boy. Something tells me he'd win.
Dark auburn hair crowned a triangular face; one composed, at first impression, of a pair of bottomless hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and the most stubborn chin Van had ever seen.
Before you ask, yes, Stefan is gay. He's also 18.
Stefan's had a rough life: he spent his whole life on the streets, living with an old lady who forced him to play for money, before he was discovered by a real Bard and kidnapped off to Haven. Turns out he also has the ability to play off people's hangovers, migraines, and--they're hoping--the King's pain. Stef goes along with it, figuring this'll earn him the favor of the Court, because hell if he's going back to living on the streets, and also because he'll be able to get closer to Vanyel, and he thinks Vanyel's dreamy. Guess he has a thing for older guys. Lackey spends a significant amount of the book writing from Stefan's POV because she's kind of a lazy writer.
Stefan's playing works wonders, of course; King Randale's able to hold an audience for the first time in ages. Stefan plays his fingers to the bone while in a musical trance, and Van's the only one who seems to notice long enough to pull him out and into his room, where he "rubs" some "salve" on Stefan's "fingers."
A distinctive, sharp-spicy scent rose from the jar as soon as he opened it. "Cinnamon and marigold," he told the boy, and took the most maltreated hand in his to spread the salve on the ridged and swollen fingertips, feeling the heat of inflammation as he began his doctoring. "Numbs and heals, and it's good for the muscle cramps you'd be having if you hadn't played your fingers past that point. I'm surprised you have any skin left."
Much to my surprise and disappointment, they don't start using the salve as lube for the next part of this scene. Rather, Vanyel notices that Stef seems to have a touch of hero-worship and for some reason decides that the appropriate course of action is to call for wine and food and strike up a conversation. They get ridiculously drunk, Stefan makes a move, and Vanyel...puts Stefan to bed and sleeps on the floor. Party pooper.
The next morning, Vanyel picks himself up off the floor and goes to get some magical work done. There's many pages of boring description as Vanyel restructures the magical web that protects Valdemar from danger so that it's fed by all the Heralds and not just the Herald-Mages, and also summons a bunch of air-elementals called vrondi to help keep an eye on things. Basically, every mage in Valdemar will now feel vrondi CCTV on them. Innocent mages will, of course, have nothing to fear, while evil foreign mages will feel themselves being driven slowly insane by the sensation of thousands of tiny invisible eyes watching them at all times. The only reason I'm telling you this at all is because it's related to the plot later, or at least I hope it is, otherwise I read all that nonsense for nothing.
Meanwhile, Stefan wakes up in Vanyel's room, remembers last night, and wonders WTF is wrong with Vanyel. Did his reputation as a slut precede him? Does Vanyel not like sluts? Stefan slinks back to his own quarters and promptly discovers that he's being made the youngest Master Bard ever, because he's going to be the King's personal Bard from now on, that is, when the Healers aren't studying him. Also, it turns out Medren's been trying to set Stefan and Vanyel up.
"I set you up," Medren said casually. "The opportunity was there, and I grabbed it--I knew Van would try anything to help the King, and I knew you think he hung the moon. I figured neither one of you would be able to resist the other. Gods know I'd been trying to get you two in the same place at the same time for over a year, so--" Now he paused, and frowned. "So what went wrong?"
So Medren doesn't care about the King at all! He just wants his uncle to get it on with his roommate. Has nobody noticed that Vanyel is twice Stefan's age? Is this not a problem for anyone?
Stefan decides to try playing hard to get and starts ignoring Vanyel. This seems to work, because after a few days, Vanyel invites Stefan back to his room for a "game" of "chess." No, it really is chess, which Stefan loses spectacularly at, and after a few weeks they actually become friends. Just friends, much to the chagrin of Stefan and Medren. (Medren apparently has no problems visualizing his uncle having sex.)
"So, what have we tried so far?" Medren said aloud. Stef at least stopped pacing long enough to push his hair out of his eyes and count up all the schemes they'd concocted on his fingers.
"We tried getting him drunk again. He didn't cooperate. We tried that trip to the hot springs. That almost worked, except that we got company right when it looked like he was going to break down and do something. We tried every variation on my hurting himself and him having to help me, and all I got were bruises in some fascinating places." Stefan gritted his teeth. "We tried my asking him for a massage for my shoulder muscles. He referred me to a Healer. The only thing we haven't tried is catching him asleep and tying him up."
I'm sorry, but why didn't Lackey write all this out? I would have loved to read that 5+1 fic. Please tell me someone has written this 5+1 fic, and it's up on AO3 somewhere.
But we interrupt these zany antics with some seriously boring political shit:
- The neighboring country of Karse is on an anti-magical crusade, and refugee mages are fleeing across the border. (Why they're not being driven insane by Valdemar's new vrondi CCTV is beyond me, and possibly beyond Lackey as well.)
- Jisa and Treven just got married against basically everyone's wishes, placing Jisa in the line of succession (which doesn't bother her at all) and sending her mother and, more importantly, King Randale into fits.
Vanyel and Stefan spend a few weeks smoothing this out, and when they're just about ready to fall over, Vanyel gets a letter from home telling him the latest news and asking him to visit and to bring his very special friend Stefan with him. Sounds like Medren's been gossiping.
"Well--they want me to bring you with me. They want to meet you. And knowing my father, he's already assumed the worst about our friendship." Vanyel picked up the letter again, but the last paragraph hadn't changed.
Stefan yawned and closed his eyes. "Let him assume. He asked for it--let's give it to him."
"You mean you'd be willing to go with me?" Vanyel was astounded. "Stefan, you must be crazed! Nobody wants to visit my family, they're all insane!"
"So? You need somebody they can be horrified by so they'll leave you alone." Stefan was drifting off to sleep, and his words started to slur. "Soun's like--me--t'me..."
OMG is it gonna be TIME FOR FAKE COUPLE? I love the fake couple trope, you guys, you don't even know. But the next few pages are all boring journey to Forst Reach (Vanyel's aunt Savil comes too) and then, once they get to Forst Reach, some boring political talk. Things don't get exciting until Vanyel goes back to his room and discovers that yup, they put Vanyel and Stefan in the same room, and of course there's only one bed.
I am going to type up the whole bloody page for you, because it's just that good.
"Vanyel Ashkevron," Stef said, hoarsely, "I am shaych, just like you. I've known what I am for years now. I'm not an infatuated child. What's more--" Now the Bard flushed and looked away, off to Vanyel's right. "I've had more lovers in one year than you've had in the last ten. And--and I've never felt about any of them the way I feel about you. I--I think I love you, Van. I don't think I could ever love anyone but you."
He looked back up at Vanyel. The Herald could only gaze back into the darkened emerald of Stefan's eyes, eyes that seemed in the dim light to be mostly pupil. Vanyel was utterly stunned. This--this was considerably beyond infatuation...
"Bards are supposed to be so cursed good with words," Stefan said unhappily, looking into Vanyel's eyes as if he was looking for answers. "Well, all my eloquence seems to have deserted me. All--all I can tell you is that I think I'd love you if you were a hundred years older than me, or a deformed monster, or--or even a woman."
The Bard's voice had lost any hint of training; it was tight and rough with tension and unhappiness. For his part, Vanyel couldn't seem to speak at all. His throat was paralyzed and his chest hurt when he tried to breathe. He felt alternately hot and cold, and his heart pounded in his ears. Stefan didn't notice his unresponsiveness, evidently, for he continued on without looking away from Van.
"Since you aren't any of those things," he said, his voice unsteady with emotion, "since you're w-wonderful, and w-wise, and beautiful enough to make my heart ache, and dammit, not old, I--I can't take his much longer." A single tear slid down one cheek, shining silver in the candlelight; Stefan either didn't notice it, or didn't care. "I'm--I'm only glib when it comes to making rhymes, Van. I love you, and I'm not a Herald. I can't show you how I feel--except physically. I want to be your lover. I don't want anyone else, not ever again."
When Vanyel didn't respond, a second tear joined the first, slipping silently from the corner of Stefen's eye; he swallowed, and broke eye contact to look downat his feet. He relaxed his hold on Vanyel's shoulders, but didn't release him.
"I suppose--I guess I must revolt you," he said bitterly. "All my...other lovers...I don't blame you, I guess. I--"
That broke Vanyel's paralysis. That, and the ache his Gift of Empathy let him feel all too clearly, an ache that was matched by the one in his own heart. "No," he whispered. "No--Stef--I just never knew you felt that strongly."
Never knew he felt that strongly even though he's an Empath. Makes perfect sense to me.
(I was actually kind of disappointed that it got consummated so fast, because I was really hoping for some awkward pining in the hallways of Forst Reach as everyone assumes that Stefan and Vanyel are a couple, but they're not actually, and yet they both secretly wish it were true...)
They bone (not explicitly; Lackey's not that kind of writer) and then fall asleep. Vanyel has that weird ice-dream that he used to have in the first book, about facing an beautiful evil bishounen named Leareth in an icy pass. Except this time, Stefan's with him. Vanyel wakes up, understandably freaked out, and falls back asleep to find himself dreaming about talking to Tylendel. He feels guilty about falling in love again, but Tylendel assures him that it's okay; people are capable of, you know, loving more than once in their lifetimes, and also Tylendel's been dead for ages. He also makes some remark about how he didn't love Vanyel enough, and how he hopes he's learned better. Like, present tense? Like he still has the opportunity to do better? What?
Vanyel wakes up again and gets all freaked out when Stefan calls him Vanyel-ashke, which was Tylendel's old pet name for him and which Stefan couldn't possibly know. The implication is that Stefan is somehow Tylendel's reincarnation. The math even adds up: Tylendel died 18 years ago, if you count up the timeskips, and Stefan is 18 years old.
Then they bone again and discover that they're lifebonded. Isn't that nice.
Part II coming soon. Are you excited? I'm excited.