Geoff, Caleb, Volt, and Koltus stood at attention wearing the silver armor of Jason's Winged Guard as they stood at the pier leading to the Qulos River. "This will all get us in a lot of trouble," Jason said as he looked at each man nervously after he had told them his purpose in leaving the city.
"You are the king, Jason. You have to explain yourself to no one," Caleb replied.
"I have to explain myself to my people and those who love me," Jason corrected.
"Why are you taking such a terrible risk then?" Geoff asked.
"Because those who care about me cannot do what needs to be done," Jason insisted patting Geoff's armored shoulder plate.
"Which is?" Caleb asked.
"To save a dear friend of mine from himself and save myself in the process," Jason replied.
"And who is this dear friend?" Koltus asked.
"He is Philip's brother, Alex. You know he better as Armageddon the Legatio killer."
"That monster," Volt spat. He had been a student at the Academy with Alex. "You should send us to kill, not save him."
"If killing him is the only way he can be saved then yes. If it comes to that it means I will have failed however and I do not want to fail, not on this."
"Understood, we will do all we can to see that you succeed," Caleb promised with a sharp salute. "Now how do you suggest we escape?"
"I have told Philip I wish to spend some time with Gideon to see how far he has progressed in rebuilding Qul Hoth. That will buy us a few weeks at least. We will travel to Qul Hoth but only stay a day. We will then board a ship and continue down the Qulos River until we reach the border cities of Qul Tannith and Tal Tannith. From there we will go on into Tal Sith."
"And from there?" Koltus asked.
"I will tell you more after we reach Vanhal," Jason promised.
"You make it sound so easy," Geoff grunted.
"If I wanted to take the easy route I would just fly there," Jason said sternly. "But as I want to be able to rescue Alex I need to be on the ground so I can see for myself what is really happening in the Empire."
Caleb let out a whistle. "Philip will have our hides if anything were to happen to you."
"Has Qul Hoth really become a city of the dead?" Koltus asked.
"They are not dead but merely emotionally withdrawn. That is why they drink the blood of others to feel, if just for a short moment, the emotions of another person," Jason explained.
"I still don't know why you gave the second largest city in a Qul Tos to Gideon," Caleb said.
"I had no choice," Jason whispered in a cold tone. "The Famulus have already loaded the barge so we can leave at any time."
"You're going to catch hell when you come back home," Caleb warned just before Jason crossed onto the barge.
"Not if we succeed," Jason replied as he boarded the floating platform.
"Are you sure we will?" Geoff asked.
"I'm betting my life on it," Jason replied, stunning the other to silence.
Once on the barge floating down the Qulos River Caleb went over to Jason. "Why didn't you invite Kristen along?"
"Bringing a healer would have aroused too many suspicions," Jason replied.
"That makes sense since you are going to save the life of King Samuel but what is your real reason?"
"I love Kristen, Caleb, but I can't bring myself to trust him."
"Because he used to work for Erik and his Dominus masters? After all, he's done for us I would think he would have proven himself." Caleb said with a frown.
"Yes, but he did once work for the Dominus. You might not see it Caleb but there is much he fears. I do not want to put him in a situation where his loyalty to me might be challenged. The Grau are still out there, playing their little mind tricks on us. Kristen knows this. He fears it. He fears the day the Grau come to claim him so he can be punished for betraying them. We both know it will not be quick or painless unless he gives the Grau something to cool their anger toward him," Jason said, failing not to sound angry himself.
"You really think he will betray you."
"Jacob thinks so," Jason said looking down at his wolf.
"That wolf of yours, you act like the two of you can talk."
"But we can," Jason insisted with a wide smile. "He understands every word I tell him. The tricky part is my understanding him based on his behavior. After three years I've become quite skilled at reading his body language."
"And he thinks Kristen will betray you?" Caleb demanded, triggering a growl from Jacob. "Oh, I see, all I have to do is mention Kristen's name and your wolf gets angry," He said heatedly, Kristen was after all his lover.
"No, Jacob is only responding to the anger you're giving off Caleb. Jacob is very sensitive to the emotions of the people around him."
"It is just hard to listen to you show such distrust of a man who deeply cares about you."
"I know he does. Imagine Caleb that a hot boiled egg has been placed in your hands. What do you think your gut reaction would be?"
"Drop the egg of course."
"Now imagine I am the egg and the heat I give off his Kirsten's fear of what the Grau will do to him. Can you see how his gut reaction will be to let me fall in order to save himself?"
"That's not fair," Caleb said adamantly.
"I'm not trying to be fair. After being king for two years I've come to see being fair is not always best. The people may believe we live in an ideal kingdom but I as their ruler need to be much more pragmatic. Please, Caleb, believe me when I say I am trying to protect Kristen, not punish him."
"But you believe he is a traitor."
"I believe he has the potential and a very good reason to betray me. Of course, there is also a very good reason for him not to."
"His love for you?"
"No, Philip. If my husband were to ever suspect Kristen could be a traitor Saint or no, he would puck his wings clean."
"You're right of course." Caleb apologized with a deep bow. "Better if Kristen is never tempted."
"I would forgive him but I can't force Philip too. In his eyes, Kristen and you are still Famulus. If a Famulus betrays his master his whole family might be killed as punishment. Those are the ways of the Centurions."
"Yet you love them."
"I do... more than their desire to kill is their need to protect. I have come to depend on that sense of security. The Centurions are also my cousins, my family. I would defend them with my life if need be."
"Most Centurions would feel embarrassed knowing that a Legatio is willing to die for them."
"And they love me all the more for it," Jason chuckled. "I am going back to Domus for their sake more than my own. Domus cannot remain under the rule of a tyrant."
"But can it really go back to the way things used to be. Only Field Marshal Marcus remains. The Senate was corrupt and is not shattered. Famulus feel betrayed. The Centurions were supposed to protect them not enslave them in forced labor camps."
"Much will have to be changed once Xavier is removed," Jason nodded.
"You already have a plan, don't you?" Caleb chuckled.
"I do but I dread putting it into place. I never wanted to be king, Caleb."
"But you have become a great king in such a short while."
"That is because I was given no other choice. I would be much happier with a cabin in the mountains with Philip, Jacob, Varrus and a few of my closest friends."
"Would that include me?" Caleb asked, giving Jason a gentle nudge.
"Of course... have you ever tasted Philip's cooking?" Jason laughed.
"So that's why you brought me along on this adventure," the former palace cook laughed.
"No, I needed you because you know more about the ways of the Eastern Kingdoms better than any of my other Saints'."
"I see," Caleb said scratching his chin. "Do you really think you can sneak into Domus?"
"I do." Jason nodded.
"This will take some planning."
"We have time."
"Time enough for a few more swimming lessons?" Caleb asked hopefully.
"That is something I've actually been looking forward to." Jason laughed.
"To imagine you are the young man who entered the Legatio Bathhouse three years ago."
"Imagine you still trying to kill me."
"I never wanted to kill you, only find out who the plotters were," Caleb chuckled. "It has been some time since I've been allowed to be intimate with you."
"We've both been very busy this past two years. Neither of us was lonely, however. As Chief Steward, you and Varrus spent many hours together."
"Varrus... he's almost too much for any man."
"I fell in love with him at first sight," Jason chuckled.
"It was different, my devotion more complete. Philip was and will always be the man who saved me from the nightmare of my childhood. He is dearer to me than any one person or thing."
"I am sure he feels the same about you."
"He does in his own way."
"My husband has an entire legion of Demon Spawn at his command. That is a lot of men."
"How many Saints do you have?"
"Less than a hundred. Most of them are like Volt, young Centurions just graduated from the Academy who were my friends back then."
"Why haven't you picked older Centurions?"
"I have enough older men in my life," Jason said giving Caleb a nudge.
"Yes... it is something I need to change if I am to act as king."
Elbowing Jason gently Caleb gave the king a wink. "We push you around too much?"
"Your advice is always welcome and useful but I have to feel free to make my own decisions. It seems whenever I disagree with you or Varrus you two start pouting."
"Wisdom only comes with age," Caleb insisted.
"It would help if my wise men will agree on saying the same thing then," Jason retorted.
"I guess that would help. Being surrounded by a bunch of stubborn old men must be frustrating."
"It can be but I love you all."
"Oktor and I have had our disagreements in the past but we still like each other."
"He had a fit when you ordered him to allow Tosians and Famulus into the new Academy."
"This is the Kingdom of Qul Tos. Why would I build a school that none of my people can attend? Anyway, in about three years the school would have to close due to lack of Centurion students if I didn't allow Tosians to attend."
"Not to mention word of your new policy has reached Domus. Your love among the Famulus must be increasing with each passing moon."
"It is something I am counting on. I won't be able to get to Alex without their help." Jason replied.
"It is getting dark, shall we go ashore until dawn. Traveling down the Qulos River at night does have its risks."
"As I said we're in no hurry. You can order the captain to head ashore." Jason nodded.
"Good, then we'll have time for a nice long swim." Caleb chuckled as he left.
"That was an interesting conversation," Geoff chuckled from the stack of boxes he was sitting atop.
"I hope you will not use whatever was said against me," Jason winked.
"I live but to serve you, your majesty," Geoff replied with a flourishing bow.
"Don't pretend with me, Geoff. I know you too well. I am glad your heart has healed enough that you are willing to contemplate the idea of love once more," Jason replied.
"Am I wrong but won't Caleb one day need my friendship."
"Yes but Kirsten knows you were once a spy and an assassin."
"More the reason why I should try to keep an eye on him. If he thinks he only needs fear the Grau and Philip he is greatly mistaken."
"Leave him be Geoff. Better the enemy I know than one hiding in the reeds."
"I can prevent him from ever betraying you," Geoff offered.
"He might need to. Attempting to escape a painful punishment is one thing but what if the Grau convince Kristen that betraying me is in both our interests. I have learned that it is not always wise to ruin the plans of the Grau. They tend to react in unexpected ways when they are thwarted. Do not worry I will know when they come for me," Jason said as he scratched Jacob behind his ears.
"May I join you in your swim at least?"
"Of course. I'm sure Caleb will be amused by your attempts at flirting as much as I am."
"Most women find me quite charming." Geoff boasted.
"Women, not men. Caleb has lived much of his life in the company of flirtatious Centurions more skilled than you can imagine."
"I am sure I have learned enough from you and Varrus to stand on my own."
"We'll see," Jason chuckled.
After setting up camp and having a long swim Caleb led Jason to a patch of grass where he had spread out a quilt. Having the king lay down Caleb opened up his leather case, taking out a bottle of scented oil which he warmed in his hands before massaging Jason's back.
"Mind if I help?" Geoff asked shaking the water out of his curly dirty blond hair
"Four hands are always better than two," Caleb grinned moving to give Geoff space.
"It's just not every day I get a chance to do this," Geoff said as he worked the kinks out of Jason's legs.
"A king is rarely given time to himself," Caleb said.
"Even then I don't get to spend it like I want," Jason agreed.
"Now that is unfair... A king should have at least one hour to spend as he likes. I will have to talk with Varrus about this," Caleb said sternly.
"We've just been so busy fighting a civil war and rebuilding the capital."
"Aye you have been busy these past two years but if you wish to reign for another two you need to learn how to enjoy life. You might earn the love of every one of your subjects but little good it will do you if you are too exhausted to take care of yourself," Geoff nodded as he massaged Jason's muscular rear.
"It's just that I've not been feeling very romantic lately," Jason sighed.
"I think you need to forget about romance and just try to have fun. You are still very young for a Legatio," Caleb said.
"I should still be a student at the Academy," Jason nodded.
"I think you've proved you're well beyond needing to be a student anymore," Geoff said. "I know you miss your friends, however."
"I was only a student there for a few months," Jason said in a pouting tone.
"So you feel cheated. How remarkable that you complain about not having to write essays anymore when you could point out to how your entire childhood was stolen by your mother," Geoff laughed.
Jason winced. "That does sound bad, doesn't it?"
"A little," Geoff replied as he straddled himself over Jason, his hands reaching under Jason's wings to massage his shoulders.
"Shall we have Koltus or Volt give you an anima kiss?" Caleb asked as he lay down next to Jason, their faces only inches apart.
"It will only put me to sleep," Jason sighed, his body beginning to relax.
"But when you wake up...." Caleb left hanging.
"I was often told by Oktor that anima makes me reckless," Jason chuckled softly.
"Trying to sneak into Domus does qualify as reckless," Geoff agreed as he kissed Jason's spine. From his lips, his own purple anima left its mark on Jason's white skin."
"I can smell it, Geoff," Jason moaned as the sweet scent of anime hit his nose.
"Will you deny it?" Caleb asked, his own purple stained tongue licking his lips.
"I can't," Jason whispered just before Caleb kissed him deeply on the lips.
"You truly are the embodiment of love," Geoff said before kissing Jason as well as he and Caleb spread out their black raven wings, wrapping them around all three of them as they made love to the object of their only desire.
"We will find Alex for you," Geoff swore after they had made love. "You will be restored."
"It's not for myself I go but for all of you," Jason replied in a soft, tired voice.
"We know," Caleb nodded as he and Geoff watched Jason fall asleep.
"I will stand watch over him," Geoff offered as the sun began its descent.
"When does he not need watching over," Caleb said as he stood up. "Well, I better get supper ready but keep my spot warm for me. I guess I didn't know until now how much I missed moments like this with him."
"This will be a long journey. I don't think any of us will be coming back unchanged." Geoff said.
"How does Jason plan to capture Armageddon?"
"With love of course," Geoff said as he cradled Jason in his arms.