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Biting wind stung Emmanuel's nose and cheeks, the only parts of him exposed to the winter storm. He was mad to do this, to run from the captain into the middle of an icy wilderness, but after a year of hoping, waiting, dreaming that his lover was still alive, Emmanuel had to find Jerek or die trying.
Jerek wasn't--couldn't be--dead, no matter what the Tophet's captain had told him. A year ago, Jerek, feverish and ill, had jumped over the side of the ship naked into the frigid waters of the bay. "No one survives that," the crew had said, but Captain Harper had made them search anyway, combing the waters and asking the Northerners camped on the shore. Nothing. The captain had raged and had taken that fury out on Emmanuel for one terribly long year. At the queen's orders, they'd come back to the North. This time, Emmanuel had escaped, and he was certain the captain wouldn't leave him for dead.
"My dear Emmanuel." The words echoed in his head, as chilling as the air rasping his skin. With them came the remembrance of Harper's hands stroking him, arousing him, and fucking him. And food. There had always been food--chocolate or fruit dripped upon his skin for the captain to kiss away. Thinking of Harper, of the captain's possessive grip around his cock, aroused as much as repelled Emmanuel.
The wind tore the words from his throat. "I'm not going back to you. Not ever. And I'm not going to let you destroy Jerek's dream!"
Emmanuel clung to the thin, fragile hope that Jerek was alive much as he clung to the fur-lined hood of his parka. He stumbled onward, the seal-hide boots too large for his feet. They'd been stolen, like the thick caribou mantle andmittens he wore. It wasn't enough. Cold seeped through every crevice, and his unprotected eyes and face burned from the glare and hard, blowing snow.
Ice King. A legend, nothing more. A childhood fairy tale about a citadel made of ice and full of riches, high in the mountains. A dream for anyone, especially a pair of gutter brats from a Southern city. Emmanuel began to long for the filthy, unpredictable streets he'd escaped. He'd followed Jerek, though, because Emmanuel loved him.
Another step. Another. He forced himself onward, seeking a citadel that existed only in myth. Maybe Jerek had found it. Maybe he hadn't, but Emmanuel was determined to see Jerek again before he died. Somehow.
The horizon went on forever, a vast expanse of bright, painful white. If the privateers decided to look for him, he wouldn't be hard to track. His trail through the snow was obvious. He wondered if Jerek had come this way the first time and how he'd survived. He'd certainly taken nothing from the privateers to help. Clothes had to be bought or stolen from the locals. If Jerek had managed such a feat, he could have lived for a while, at least. If he hadn't...
If he hadn't, then his quest, as well as Emmanuel's, was futile. Their hard life with the privateers was worth nothing.
Emmanuel's knees buckled. Hard flakes pricked his sunburned face. Every time he tried to rise, his arms went shoulder-deep in the snow. After a while, he gave up. Better to die out here than to remain the captain's pet. How easy it was to relax into this cradle of snow while the wind cried above him. Sleep. If he rested for just a little while, maybe then he'd have the strength to keep going.
His fevered, overwrought mind sent him hallucinations. Jerek's blond hair, his lightly tanned skin, the look of wonder he'd worn the first time they'd fumbled through lovemaking. Emmanuel sank down into that memory, warmer than he had been in months. To his ears, the howling winds morphed into human cries as Emmanuel relived his most precious moments with Jerek. Jerek had smiled when Emmanuel had touched him gently, delighted and embarrassed at the way his cock had reacted. But it had been bliss, pure bliss, to lie there and explore Jerek's body. Emmanuel could still smell him, musky and masculine, as well as taste him. He'd been nervous at first, taking Jerek's cock into his mouth, but then it had become easier, more natural. He'd used his fingers to toy with Jerek's balls while swallowing him as deeply as he could. Jerek hadn't lasted long, that first time, and he'd come inside Emmanuel's mouth. Emmanuel hadn't minded, had welcomed the taste and had fellated him plenty of times since. And after that, they would hold each other, reveling in sensation as if nothing else in the world existed...
The warmth and pleasure of the recollections were abruptly stolen from him. Something heavy and furred nudged him. Emmanuel batted at it, desperate to return to his memory, but the creature would not let him. He opened ice-rimmed eyes. A huge, shadowed form loomed over him.
Ice bear, he thought. He wouldn't die from freezing then. He'd be eaten.
King Jerek's steward, Suluk, prostrated himself before the dais. "My liege? We've found a person of interest."
"Oh?" Jerek hardly looked up from the clockwork dog with which he played. His guards had brought him several "persons of interest" over the past few years, and none of them had been the one man he'd hoped to see. Several had fit Emmanuel's basic description--dark-haired, brown-eyed, skin near the color of pine bark, but none had been him.
Piaktok, leaning against the side of the throne, regarded Jerek with the doleful black eyes that mirrored his Seal form. The metal dog awkwardly ambled forward along the arm of his throne. Piaktok caught it when it fell off. He cupped the toy in his hands as if wanting to crush it, but he didn't.
So, if this turned out to be Emmanuel, Piaktok wouldn't be happy about it. Jerek had taken no other lover for the past year. Jerek wished he could have reassured the Seal that he had no intention of replacing him, but they couldn't talk now. Not here.
The steward spoke again. "This one babbles, my liege, in the Southerners' tongue."
This piqued Jerek's interest. "Where is he?"
"Just outside, my liege. The Bears found him."
The king allowed himself a small smile at that. His Bears, Inuq and Nutaaq, were superb trackers, far better at finding the living than ordinary men. "He's alive, then?"
"Yes, my liege, and well enough, except..." Suluk paused, obviously fearing Jerek's wrath.
"He's ... snowblind."
Blind. At least for a while. The bright light on the snow could be brutal indeed to those unprotected. He took the dog back from the unhappy Piaktok and wound it up again. "Does he know where he is?"
"No, my liege. We've said nothing to him."
"Good. Keep it that way. No one is to speak to him without my permission."
The steward bowed. "Aye, my liege."
"Bring him in. I want to look upon his traitorous face."
Suluk left the room. Piaktok placed a hand on Jerek's knee. "It's all right," Jerek told him. "I only want him because he's done me harm. It's time he paid for his wrongs."
Piaktok's mournful expression didn't change. He watched the dog as it ambled along the throne. This time, he made no effort to catch it when it fell. It clattered to the stone floor. After a couple of mechanical seizures, it went still.
Jerek didn't have time to worry about it. Suluk returned, accompanied by two Bears supporting a bent, struggling figure. It wore a thick, hooded parka of caribou hide, decorated in the style of the tribe that lived near the shore. The clothes were stolen; no one of the tribe would have given a visitor clothing laboriously designed for a hunter. Jerek's derogatory opinion of the man dropped even lower. He didn't tolerate thieves in his land.
The two Bears, dressed in parkas of the same white fur as their ice bear counterparts, looked to their king for direction. Jerek waved his arm in an impatient gesture. As soon as Inuq and Nutaaq let go, their prisoner dropped to his knees. He fought again when the Bears stripped him down to a pair of ragged undershorts, but exhausted as he was, he was no match for the two powerful men. Sweat glistened on his bronze skin. Black hair hung in clumps to obscure his face. Iron rings surrounded his ankles and neck. His shoulders drooped in defeat.
The Ice King's heart skipped in his chest. Could it be him? At last? He couldn't be sure at this distance. He kicked the dog aside and took the dais's stairs at speed until he stood before the prisoner. Jerek grabbed the man's chin and wrenched it upward. The prisoner's sightless red eyes blinked profusely. He jerked his head in a failed attempt to loosen Jerek's grip.
Emmanuel. Jerek mouthed the name but did not say it aloud. Angry as he was, he hadn't actually expected to see his former lover, much less Emmanuel's weakened, ravaged condition. Lash marks corded Emmanuel's back, and he'd lost most of the muscle he'd gained while working aboard the Tophet. The skin beneath the iron collar and fetters was raw and bleeding. Jerek's free hand went to the scars at his own neck. He knew full well what the iron collar meant. He'd worn it himself for a time.
The old Emmanuel would have been full of solid support and love, always aware of what Jerek needed. Then Jerek had been the weaker of the two, easily exhausted by the labors aboard the privateer ship while Emmanuel had been the stronger. Strong enough to betray him.
Now they'd traded places. This Emmanuel looked to be little more than a madman. He was filthy and scarred. And like the steward had said, he babbled in the Southern tongue.
"Let me go, whoever you are," Emmanuel said, voice raspy as if his throat was raw. "I'm looking for someone. I have to find him. Have to. I won't give up until I do."
Jerek held his breath. Looking for someone. Him? Possibly. Hopefully. The frigid mountains had a way of twisting a man's greatest need into reality. Jerek said nothing, wishing to draw out Emmanuel's anguish as long as possible.
"Captain?" he asked, tentative. "I'm sorry I ran. I had to."
The mere mention of the captain made Jerek's anger flare. Nails dug into his palms as he made tight fists.
The silence frustrated Emmanuel. "I won't be your slave anymore. At least give me an honorable death instead of letting me die like a mongrel in the street."
Tempting as the offer was, Jerek refrained. Torturing him for his betrayal was going to be far more fun. At last, he let go of Emmanuel's chin. He spoke in Suluk's ear, too quiet for Emmanuel to hear. "This is the one I've been waiting for. Get Tupilek to see to his needs. Make him comfortable. Ensure that he feels safe. I will see to his punishment in time."
"And the collar, my liege?"
"Leave it on for now, but take off the ones at his ankles."
The steward bowed again. He gestured to Inuq and Nutaaq. They hauled the man to his feet. This time, Emmanuel made no move to resist.
The parka lay where the Bears had dropped it. Jerek crouched beside it. He felt Piaktok's gaze upon him. This wasn't betrayal. It was revenge, something the Seal wouldn't understand. Lifting the parka to his nose, he could smell the musk of the caribou and, mingled with it, the scent of the man he'd been craving for the past year.