Eli correctly guesses that his changing body would be of great interest to the dragon-obsessed Lord Esilrud, but a play at seduction to entice the duke quickly spirals out of Eli’s control as Lord Esilrud plays his sensitive body like a fiddle.
"And the dragon, Sir Blackblade. Tell me about the dragon!" said Lord Esilrud, eyes shining so brightly that they might have blinded Eli had they actually shed light.
Eli chuckled. He had to admire Lord Esilrud’s childish curiosity. Anyone else would have been bored to death after he spent the better part of the last hour explaining the finer details of the cave system surrounding the dragon’s lair—just like Alric, who’d returned to his position at the side of the room and was in the process of nodding off.
The caves weren’t anything Lord Esilrud had asked about, but Eli had decided to talk about them, anyway, to gauge the depths of Lord Esilrud’s obsession with dragons. He was pleased to find that Lord Esilrud hung on to his every word.
It was time to reward the duke for his patience.
"It was asleep when I entered the lair," said Eli, in a low voice.
Alric stood up with a start as soon as Eli started. He crept closer, again, even though he didn’t have to.
Lord Esilrud leaned forward, eager to hear more.
"Its every breath was like a windstorm in itself, howling so loudly through the caverns that I could hear the roar from without," said Eli.
Alric stumbled over his own feet, startling Lord Esilrud.
Alric froze as Lord Esilrud looked over his shoulder at him. "I-I beg forgiveness, my lord," Alric stammered. "I-I did not mean to—"
Lord Esilrud waved his hand and shook his head. "No, no, it is perfectly alright…" he said.
The duke was about to turn his attention back to Eli when it seemed he realized something. "Were you interested in Sir Blackblade’s story as well?"
Alric glanced at Eli, a look of utter panic in his eyes. "Um… Uh…" he said.
A small smile tugged at the corner of Lord Esilrud’s mouth. Gently, he said, "Forgive me… What is your name?"
"A-Alric, your lordship. Alric Dale."
Eli watched the interaction with great interest. He had not intended to test the compatibility between the two until later but supposed now was as good a time as any.
It was something Eli needed to know, anyway, one way or another. Although it had not started that way, Alric was his partner. His mate. His.
Even if Eli managed to win Lord Esilrud’s friendship, it was the duke’s compatibility with Alric that would ultimately decide how much Eli would rely on him. Alric would be by his side as he built his empire, and he didn’t need anyone who would dare challenge that.
"It is good to meet you, Alric," said Lord Esilrud. "I believe I have seen you around the palace whenever I have visited. Thank you for your dedication. Your service has been impeccable."
Alric blushed. "T-thank you, my lord," he stammered.
Eli had to suppress a laugh. He hadn’t seen Alric act so meek and mild since their first night together. The boy looked positively star-struck.
"Would you like to listen, as well?" said Lord Esilrud. He glanced in Eli’s direction. "As long as it is acceptable to Sir Blackblade, of course?"
Eli chuckled. "I do not mind in the least, my lord," he said.
"Good!" said Lord Esilrud, turning his attention back to Alric. "You may speak freely, Alric. I do not much care for the proprieties of aristocratic society, especially in the private company of friends."
Alric stared, dumbfounded, at Lord Esilrud for a moment. He snapped to his senses, soon after. "I-if it’s alright with your lordship then I should like to take advantage of your offer."
"Come," said Lord Esilrud, patting the couch next to him. "Sit and listen. More people ought know about the wonder of dragons!"
Alric sat down, hesitantly. He kept some space between him and Lord Esilrud, but his efforts were in vain as the duke slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close.
Eli almost lost his composure when he saw the look of utter bliss in Alric’s eyes. For all that they had been through together, all the times the massive cock between the boy’s legs had speared him, Eli often forgot that Alric was relatively young.
Judging by the way Alric was acting around Lord Esilrud, Eli suspected that the young footman had some history with the lord. He noted that he would probably have to ask about it, later.
"Now, wait just a moment," said Lord Esilrud, distracting Eli from his thoughts. "Why did I have to sign a contract, but this one didn’t?"
The question took Eli off guard. He hadn’t thought about that. Fortunately, he came up with a plausible excuse. "Alric has been the one serving me for the majority of my stay at the palace…" Eli started.
"…So therefore you’ve already had him sign such a contract, I got it. Continue. I want to know more!" said Lord Esilrud.
What Lord Esilrud had said wasn’t even the justification Eli was going to use but he wasn’t about to complain. "Thank you for your understanding, my lord," he said.
With a small, conspiratorial grin, Eli leaned in and said, "Common wisdom dictates that caves ought be cold and damp, wouldn’t you say, my lord?"
Lord Esilrud raised an eyebrow and nodded. "It does," he said. "Don’t tell me…"
Eli smiled and nodded. "Indeed. The dragon’s lair was not so. It was as a furnace. The very air shimmered in the heat. The dragon’s every exhalation was like a bellows, pumping scorching air into the cavern."
"I-I had not considered the potential effects of dragon breaths on their lairs but… I have not read of anything in the literature to indicate that this is a common phenomenon…" said Lord Esilrud.
"To affect the environment with its breath alone, the sheer volume of breath that the dragon needs to output would be…" Lord Esilrud’s eyes widened. "Sir Blackblade, how big was the dragon?" he breathed.
Alric looked at Eli with wide eyes as he realized the implications of what Lord Esilrud had just said.
"Colossal, my lord," said Eli. "Bigger by far than any of the stories."
"Really?" Alric blurted out.
Eli glanced at his mate and smirked. "Really. It was so big that for a moment I thought the bulk of its slumbering body was merely a part of the hoard. By my estimation, its eye was as large as I am tall," he said.
"You speak the truth?" said Lord Esilrud, eyes wide and unbelieving.
"I cannot lie, my lord," said Eli. "The contract binds me to the truth!"
"But… But that’s preposterous!" said Lord Esilrud. "If we presume its proportions remain the same compared to the average dragon, then that would make it… roughly the height of a watchtower!"
Eli nodded. He had not seen Aellir stand upright but if his memories served him correctly, Lord Esilrud’s estimation was rather fair.
"The stories do not do the dragon’s magnificence justice. Even in sleep, its expression was regal, its posture noble. The way it held itself, resting atop the mountain of its unfathomable riches, was almost as if to say ‘I own all the world and all you are beneath me,’" said Eli.
Lord Esilrud and Alric both leaned forward. They sat at the edge of their seats, riveted by Eli’s description.
"To stand before the dragon was to bask in its majesty. I should hope you take no offense, my lord, but not even the queen could inspire the awe and humility that I felt in the face of the dragon’s countenance," said Eli.
"No, not at all…" said Lord Esilrud, trailing off. "I wish only that I had had the chance to behold the dragon’s glory with my own eyes!"
"It was awesome and terrifying all at the same time, my lord," said Eli. "Even in the deep darkness of its lair, the dragon’s scales shone like glittering gold. With every earth-shaking breath it took, its powerful muscles rippled, sending coins cascading down the sides of its hoard. This produced a gentle tinkling to accompany the low rumble of its exhalation."
"Did it not wake when you stole from it?" said Alric.
Lord Esilrud watched Alric while he spoke and nodded as he finished. "I should like to know this, as well," he said, turning his attention back to Eli. "The stories say that the Dragon Sovereigns’ ability to perceive the world around them is so profound that should anyone so much as think of stealing a single coin in their presence, they would see it."
Eli paused again, for effect. He looked both Alric and Lord Esilrud in the eye, allowing the tension to build until it was palpable. "It did," he said, eliciting gasps from both.
"But how did you get away?" Alric exclaimed.
"How are you able to be here, before us, to tell us of this story?" Lord Esilrud shouted, in alarm.
"Did the dragon not give chase?" said Alric, before the lord had even finished speaking.
"I should like to know this, as well!" said Lord Esilrud. "Did you use some profound Mysterium art to escape?"
In a small voice, Alric whispered, "Are you a ghost come here to haunt us?"
Eli couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
Alric looked indignant. Lord Esilrud, surprisingly, jumped to his defense. "Sir Blackblade, we are speaking of a creature of myth with a legendarily bad temperament, from whose hoard you managed not only to steal treasure but also escape unscathed."
"That is right!" said Alric, in a huff. "I do not think it is unreasonable at all to imagine that you did not escape unscathed at all, but rather persisted as some sort of vengeful undead in the aftermath!"
Eli fixed Alric with the flattest gaze he could. Not that he was complaining the young footman and the duke were getting along rather well, but if anyone was to know that Eli was the furthest thing from cold and dead, it was Alric.
It was a petty little thing, but Eli could not suffer it to stand. It was time for some small measure of revenge. "Alric, you should know better than anyone that is untrue," he said.
Lord Esilrud’s eyebrow shot up.
Alric’s eyes widened.
"As I recall, the last time you indulged me, you made mention of how tight and hot I was," said Eli, with a small, self-satisfied smirk.
"S-Sir Blackblade y-you!" Alric stammered, looking utterly mortified. "R-rest assured, m-my lord, S-Sir B-Blackblade i-is merely j-jesting!"
Eli didn’t think that Alric was particularly embarrassed about their sex life being made public. If anything, Alric was likely more embarrassed that Eli had been so crude in front of an esteemed member of the nobility and that he had been implicated in said vulgarity.
Lord Esilrud did not look fazed in the slightest. He laughed and patted Alric on the shoulder. "I had been wondering what the relationship between you and Sir Blackblade was that he personally asked for your service during his stay," he said.
Turning to Eli, Lord Esilrud continued, "I rather think my opinion of you has improved, now that I know this, Sir Blackblade."
Eli smiled. He had wondered where Lord Esilrud’s preferences lay. Knowing that he was likely of the same persuasion as Eli also elevated the duke in Eli’s eyes.
"Now that the matter is settled, I should like it if you answered our questions, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud. Beside him, Alric sputtered, unable to process the events that had just unfolded.
"The dragon stirred as I was about to leave the cavern," said Eli.
As soon as Eli started talking, Alric’s attention snapped back into focus. The look in his eye promised retribution at a later time, which Eli could only look forward to.
"Naturally, I froze. I had used skills to suppress my life signs, my presence, my aura, and any noise that I could have made by moving around but I thought it would be prudent to do nothing in the hope that the dragon would instead slip deeper into its slumber," said Eli.
"That sounds reasonable," said Lord Esilrud.
"Then what happened?" said Alric.
"It cracked open one of its eyes."
Both men gasped.
Eli had to stifle a laugh.
"It was like a miniature sun. Bright gold. Glowing with an inner light. Like a beautiful ember split down the middle by a thin reptilian slit."
Lord Esilrud’s fingers clenched on the edge of the couch, his knuckles going white from the severity of his grip. "Did it see you?" he whispered.
Eli nodded. "I had thought it would not see me as the skill I had used to render myself invisible had fooled even the most powerful mages I have ever encountered. ‘Twas not so. The dragon looked right where I stood."
Alric gasped, hand clasped over his mouth.
Eli leaned forward and spoke, in a low voice, "I felt the specter of death loom over me. I was certain that my destruction would come in moments."
There was a quiet squeak. Eli couldn’t tell which of the two men it came from.
"Then, the overwhelming pressure of the dragon’s attention passed almost as quickly as it came over me," said Eli.
"What?" said Lord Esilrud, baffled.
"It went back to sleep," said Eli.
"It looked at you. You felt you were going to die. Then it went back to sleep?" said Alric.
"Yes," said Eli.
"What?!" Lord Esilrud repeated, as if somehow asking twice would make the situation make any more sense.
"I was able to walk out of the lair. Casually. As if I were taking a stroll down the middle of the square," said Eli. He chuckled. "I did not dare tempt fate, however, and I used every skill and art at my disposal to leave in haste once I was no longer in the immediate vicinity."
"The dragon… did not… pursue you?" said Lord Esilrud, face awash in confusion and disbelief.
"It did not," said Eli. "It was almost a year ago, now, when I spirited away the Stars from the lair of the dragon. It did not pursue me then, and it has not made any attempt to seize its treasure back since."
Alric stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed at Eli. He seemed at a loss for words, though Eli could imagine why.
Lord Esilrud, on the other hand, seemed perturbed. "I can see why you would think this matter inconvenient," he said. "Now that I am privy to the details of your heist, I can understand your desire to tightly control this news."
"I had hoped you would come to this realization, my lord," said Eli. "Even I do not know what to think of the dragon’s inaction that day."
Lord Esilrud nodded. "When first I heard that the queen intended to accept the return of the Stars, I and some of the other lords begged that she reconsider. We feared that to do so would be to invite despair and calamity to our kingdom," he said.
Eli took a breath. "I had imagined such discussions transpired. When first I made my offer to return the Stars, the ministers rebuffed me. They were not quite as inconsiderate when I showed them my proof. Even so, I fully expected that the queen would refuse out of fear that it would bring a dragon to her gates."
"The queen was resolute in her decision," said Lord Esilrud, with a shrug. "For all our pleading, it fell on deaf ears."
"Oh?" said Eli, tilting his head. Any sign of disunity in the court was a flaw to exploit. Of course, he wanted to hear about it.
"Her majesty believed that the Stars were too important to the kingdom and well worth the risk. She could not be dissuaded, and had managed to draw some of the other lords to her side," said Lord Esilrud.
The duke pinched the bridge of his nose. "It seems too much time has passed since the last time one of the Dragon Sovereigns awakened. The people have forgotten the destruction they could wreak."
Eli shrugged. "The memories of men are transient things, my lord," he said. "With every passing generation, the wounds of the past fade away until hardly anyone remembers, and we are free to make the same mistakes again."
"That is only too true, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud, with a bitter laugh. "The others are convinced that we have grown enough as a race. They think, now that our technology and magic have advanced, that we are able to stand toe to toe against even the threat of a Dragon Sovereign."
"Perhaps we do," said Eli, with a small smile. "If a humble thief like me can comprehend the profundities of Mysteria, what of our master mages and swordsmen? Surely their achievements cannot be disregarded."
Lord Esilrud fixed Eli with a rather complicated gaze. "I suppose you are right, Sir Blackblade," he said, with a sigh. "We had a falling out over this matter, the queen and I. I retreated to the Northman lands to cool off. It was only after months, with calamity nowhere in sight, that I realized she may have been right."
"For what it’s worth, my lord, I agree with a sentiment Sir Blackblade shared earlier: I do not think there is such a thing as an overabundance of caution," said Alric, who seemed to have recovered from the shock.
"I must concur, Lord Esilrud," said Eli. "You sought only to do your duty to your country, and that is to be admired. Siblings quarrel over petty matters, what more when they are both influential people? His lordship need not feel regret over his actions."
"Thank you, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud, with a genuine smile. "I appreciate your faith. You would not, perchance, have any notion as to why the dragon failed to pursue you, would you, Sir Blackblade?"
"I have some faint ideas, my lord. Does his lordship, perchance, have any of his own thoughts on the matter?" said Eli.
Alric leaned in, most likely eager to hear their theories.
"I just so happen to," said Lord Esilrud. "Perhaps the dragon had taken ill. It stands to reason that if it suffered from some sort of ailment, it would not be able to take action against you. Perhaps it also succumbed to its illness shortly thereafter, explaining why it has not come in swift pursuit."
Alric nodded along, seeming to think that the theory was rather feasible. Eli might have thought so too, had he not known that the dragon in question was one of the mightiest in all of existence.
"Perhaps, but would an ill dragon not display some signs of illness?" said Eli.
"Yes… Yes it would," said Lord Esilrud. "All other creatures do, and we know that the Dragon Sovereigns’ lesser brethren do, so there is no reason to believe that the Dragon Sovereigns themselves are an exception to this rule."
Alric turned from Lord Esilrud to Eli, a serious expression on his face, and said, "Pray, sir, try and remember if there was any sign that the dragon was in ill health."
Lord Esilrud glanced at Alric, smiled, and said, "Yes, please do, Sir Blackblade. Any detail, however small, might help us solve this mystery."
Eli pondered for a moment. If anything, what he remembered of Aellir was that the dragon exuded a terrifying aura of vitality. Though he understood, intellectually, that the dragon was slumbering, the sensation Aellir gave off was that of a predator lying in wait, not that of a bear in hibernation.
"Not that I could recall," said Eli, shaking his head. "Its scales were lustrous. Its eye was bright and clear. Its breathing was smooth and even. Its breath did not even smell particularly terrible! It smelled of smoke and spice, of brimstone and molten rock."
"It does sound like this particular dragon was the picture of health," said Lord Esilrud, sounding almost disappointed. "What does Sir Blackblade think, in that case?"
Eli pursed his lips. He had to think for a moment, collect the words with which to convey his meaning. "I simply think it did not care," said Eli.
"Pardon me, my lord?" said Alric.
"Yes, I’m afraid I do not understand, either, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud.
"When the great beast cracked open an eye and looked at me, I felt neither hatred nor anger. I felt its extraordinary apathy," said Eli.
"I think perhaps it simply thought I did not rise to the level of its consideration," Eli continued, remembering how small and insignificant he’d felt in the face of the dragon’s overbearing presence. "Though the Stars are priceless to the kingdom of Bællad, perhaps my theft of it was little more than an ant stealing a single grain of crumb of bread in the eyes of the dragon."
Alric visibly shivered. "Is that not a good thing?" he said. "If what Sir Blackblade says is true, then we would not have to worry about the dragon seeking revenge."
"Indeed it would be," said Lord Esilrud, "and I do think it is more likely, but…"
Alric’s eyes widened. He seemed to have discovered something.
Eli looked at him, expectantly. He wanted to hear what his mate had to say.
Alric met his gaze with a meaningful look of his own. "Pardon the interruption, my lord," he said, casting a glance toward Lord Esilrud and briefly ducking his head in an apologetic manner. "It is only that realized there may be another explanation…"
"Go ahead," said Lord Esilrud, with a small, encouraging smile. "I did say you could speak freely."
"Thank you, my lord," said Alric, returning the smile. He cast that meaningful look at Eli, again, and said, "It simply occurred to me that perhaps the reason you escaped with the Stars without being molested is that the dragon wanted you to."
"Yes…" said Lord Esilrud. "Yes. That is indeed a possibility. A rather unsettling one, at that."
Eli nodded. "Such a notion had occurred to me, as well. Dragons are known to be cunning creatures, after all. But why wait so long to do nothing?"
"I do not think speculation will take us any closer to the truth at this junction," said Lord Esilrud. "All we can do now is wait and see what tomorrow holds."
"Perhaps," said Eli.
After a moment’s silence, Lord Esilrud drank the last of his tea and lowered the cup onto its saucer. "Now, I think I have asked Sir Blackblade to indulge my… academic fascinations long enough. If you still need the opinion of a physician, then I shall be glad to provide my services."
"His lordship need not feel obliged!" said Eli, pretending at a humility he did not feel in the slightest. "Truly, my lord, it is no urgent matter."
"Nonsense," said Lord Esilrud, leaning forward across the table, silver eyes flashing. "I must insist, Sir Blackblade. It is the least I can do for all that you’ve shared with me, today."
"If his lordship insists," said Eli.
"Then if you please, Sir Blackblade, what can I help you with?" said Lord Esilrud, with a small smile.
Eli stood. "I am afraid I have not been entirely honest with you my lord," he said, a devilish smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.
That he was allowing Lord Esilrud to perform the examination was a calculated risk. The duke was steadfastly loyal to his country, which was admirable, but his obsession with dragons also ran so deep that he could be talked into bending his principles.
There was great potential for disaster with what Eli was about to reveal, but at the same time, what he would gain if the gambit worked was priceless.
Lord Esilrud raised an eyebrow, shoulders tensing as he met Eli’s gaze. "What do you mean, Sir Blackblade?" he said. "I had thought the contract obliged you to speak only the truth."
Eli nodded. "It does. But it does not oblige me to speak the whole truth."
Lord Esilrud frowned, clearly displeased. "I had not taken you to be so conniving, Sir Blackblade," he said. "Though I suppose one ought expect as much from a master thief."
It was not an insult. Not to Eli. Granted, he did not think Lord Esilrud had meant it as one, anyway. "I needed to take the measure of his lordship’s loyalty, and willingness to keep a secret," he said.
Lord Esilrud’s expression only darkened further. "I hope you get to the point soon, Sir Blackblade. I am afraid I do not have much patience for word games."
Eli only smiled. He closed his eyes and focused for a moment to deactivate his [Mercurial Mysterium: Phantasmal Veil]. A cool sensation, not unlike water, washed over Eli’s body from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.
Lord Esilrud gasped as Eli opened his eyes, revealing their golden, reptilian splendor. "S-Sir Blackblade, y-you…" he stammered. Awe, wonder, and terror in equal parts clashed in the duke’s stormy gray eyes.
"Do you like what you see, my lord?" said Eli, planting a hand on the table as he leaned over to bring his face close to Lord Esilrud’s.
Lord Esilrud gulped. Audibly. His eyes were locked with Eli’s unable to take his gaze away. "H-how?" he stammered.
Eli licked his lips and smiled, baring his teeth. "A curse, perhaps," he murmured. "It does not feel like one. I know not for certain, in any case. I was hoping that a physician could… enlighten me."
"A-ah, I-I see," said Lord Esilrud, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. A heartbeat later, he seemed to realize that the physician in question was him.
"I-I’m a physician!" Lord Esilrud blurted out. He blushed, embarrassed, right after.
Eli couldn’t help but laugh. He reached up with his free hand, tracing the underside of Lord Esilrud’s robe collar with the sharp tip of a claw. "So you’ve said, my lord," he murmured.
A low whine escaped Lord Esilrud. The thick scent of arousal filled the air around him, while his pants seemed all too tight in the front all of a sudden.
Eli crept forward. His knee knocked into his teacup as he planted it on the table. Alric, to his credit, swiftly intervened and moved the porcelain out of harm’s way.
Lord Esilrud’s eyes fluttered shut as Eli leaned in. He shivered as Eli’s hot breath ghosted over the sensitive skin at the back of his ear.
Eli smiled and murmured, right into Lord Esilrud’s ear, "Does his lordship think he could… Perhaps… help me discern the root cause of these… improvements?"
Lord Esilrud’s eyes snapped open. "I can!" he said, a palpable hunger in his voice. He placed his hands on the sides of Eli’s shoulders and held him at arm’s length.
This time, there was a look of fiery determination intermingled with no small amount of lust in the grey of Lord Esilrud’s eyes. "I can help," he said, voice low and gravelly. "I must conduct a… thorough examination before I can draw any conclusions, however…"
Eli smirked. "How thorough, my lord?" he whispered.
"Very," said Lord Esilrud, with a devilish grin. It seemed the thought of the potential danger posed to the kingdom by a man afflicted with a dragon curse never even crossed his mind.
Had Eli not had the scales and eyes of a dragon, Lord Esilrud would not have even batted an eye at his attempt at seduction. And yet, all the discipline and restraint the duke had cultivated through his life had no choice but to crumble in the face of a deeply-held fantasy finally made real.
"What would you have me do?" Eli whispered. The gambit had paid off. He had Lord Esilrud in the palm of his hand.
Eli could practically already feel the heaps of coins and other treasures running through his fingers. Even just the imagined sensation elicited a low groan. It slipped past his fingers before he could suppress it.
A brief look of surprise crossed Lord Esilrud’s face at the sound, but all it seemed to do was inflame the duke’s passions. "I would have you strip off your clothes," Lord Esilrud murmured, tracing the thin patch of scales on Eli’s cheekbone with his finger.
Eli pulled back, a small smile playing on his lips. He straightened, back arched, knee still planted on the tabletop. "Does his lordship not think it a little… inappropriate?" he said, practically purring as he reached up to untie one of the laces holding his tunic closed.
"Not at all," said Lord Esilrud, rising from his seat without taking his eyes off Eli for one moment. "If I am to make any pronouncements about Sir Blackblade’s condition, I must see everything."
Eli chuckled. With the deftness one might expect of a master thief, he made short work of the laces that held his tunic closed.
Already loose to begin with, the loosened silken garment slid down, exposing Eli’s shoulders. He’d lost a lot of the muscle definition he used to have. His shoulders were more slender, paler, and more delicate than they had been when first he arrived, adorned with patches of glittering golden scales.
As Eli’s shoulders were exposed, Lord Esilrud’s breath hitched in his throat. He reached out and touched the scales, a noise of wonder escaping him as he traced his fingers along the curve of Eli’s shoulders.
Lord Esilrud’s touch was electric. Eli couldn’t help but gasp. The feather-light pressure, gliding across the glossy scales on his shoulders, sent shivers cascading down his spine.
It was tender. Intimate. It tugged at Eli’s heartstrings and made his cock jump.
Not that Alric was a careless lover, but he was rough—confident but inexperienced. Lord Esilrud was masterful. The way his fingers plied across Eli’s shoulders was reminiscent of a harpist plucking at strings. The sensitivity of Eli’s body, which had only increased since the day he started changing, only made the sensation of Lord Esilrud’s touch all the more intense.
"Beautiful…" Lord Esilrud whispered, under his breath.
If not for his augmented hearing, Eli might not have heard it. "Pardon me, my lord?" he said.
Lord Esilrud took a moment to respond. His gaze was fixed on Eli’s fair skin and glimmering scales. He looked enamored. Enchanted, even. His eyes drifted lazily upward along the curve of Eli’s shoulder and neck before meeting Eli’s.
"Nothing," Lord Esilrud murmured. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he said, "I was simply admiring your glowing complexion, Sir Blackblade."
"Thank you, my lord," said Eli, returning the smile. He could practically feel Lord Esilrud’s discerning silver gaze on him. He felt exposed. Vulnerable. It was as if the lord’s eyes could bore through him right into his soul.
Eli felt naked, even when the only thing he’d done thus far was loosen his shirt. It wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. He had no qualms feeling this way in Alric’s presence. It was just that he hardly knew Lord Esilrud.
"Shall I take that as a promising sign, your lordship?" said Eli.
Lord Esilrud chuckled. "It’s a good thing, Sir Blackblade," he said. After a lengthy pause, he elaborated, "A dull complexion is the first sign of ill health—if you did not know."
"I see," said Eli. "I shall take note of that for the future."
"As you should, sir. It may not tell you what is wrong, but it is an important marker that something is," said Lord Esilrud. "Might I have your hand, Sir Blackblade?"
Eli raised an eyebrow and lowered a hand into Lord Esilrud’s palm. "It seems I misjudged how thorough his lordship intended this examination to be," he said, with a quiet laugh.
Lord Esilrud smiled again. He wasn’t as handsome as Alric when he smiled, but he looked rather good all the same. "Sir Blackblade can rest assured. I take my work as a physician rather more seriously than I take the rest of my responsibilities. I do not wish to miss even the smallest thing."
Eli shivered as Lord Esilrud examined his hand. Even there, Lord Esilrud’s touch was light, gentle, and almost-sensual. He couldn’t help but chew on his lower lip to bite back a groan as Lord Esilrud’s thumb rubbed circles on the patch of scales on the back of his hand.
"Exquisite," Lord Esilrud murmured, as he traced the backs of each of Eli’s fingers. "Do your claws ever get in the way?" he said, as he raised Eli’s hand to his face to examine it closely.
Eli wiggled his fingers. "No," he said. It took some concentration and a little bit of mana, but he was able to retract his claws and round them off into more or less normal fingernails at will. He demonstrated for Lord Esilrud.
Lord Esilrud looked positively thrilled. "How convenient!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, it is," said Eli. "Though I have to take care to maintain my composure. Upset brings the claws out, whether I like it or not. I have yet to master them."
"I can see how that might be concerning," said Lord Esilrud. He let go of the hand he’d been examining and gently took Eli’s other hand in his.
While Lord Esilrud was examining his other hand, it struck Eli as rather odd that Lord Esilrud had made no mention of his tail yet. It was one of the more prominent aspects of his transformation and he’d imagined that it would catch the duke’s attention first.
It seemed that Lord Esilrud was so occupied by Eli’s hands, face, and shoulders that he’d failed to notice.
Suddenly feeling rather mischievous, Eli decided he’d play keep-away with his tail for as long as he could. He tucked it against his leg, hiding it from Lord Esilrud’s view as best as he could manage.
"If it please Sir Blackblade, I should like to continue with the examination," said Lord Esilrud, allowing Eli’s hand to fall out of his grip.
"As you will, my lord," said Eli, promptly. He grasped the bottom hem of his tunic in both hands and cast a sidelong glance at Alric, who was watching the scene play out from the sidelines.
Eli had feared that Alric would be jealous but it didn’t look like he was. His expression was one of vigilance. He was watching Lord Esilrud closely, but there wasn’t a trace of resentment or envy in his eyes.
It was reassuring to see Alric being so attentive. The feeling of vulnerability, of exposure, that Lord Esilrud’s gaze gave Eli had sent a thread of anxiety worming into his stomach but Alric’s presence helped to settle the nerves.
Eli worked the loose silken shirt up over his body. The cool air made the skin of his slender torso prickle and made his arms break out in goosebumps—where there weren’t scales, anyway.
In one smooth motion, Eli slipped the shirt up over his head and let it fall to the side. It dropped into the gap between the couch and the table, landing in a crumpled heap on the cold stone floor.
Lord Esilrud wasted no time at all. As soon as the tunic hit the ground, he’d slipped into Eli’s personal space. Eli couldn’t help but groan as Lord Esilrud gently grabbed him by the upper arms.
"Magnificent," Lord Esilrud breathed, thumbs tracing the patch of thick, resilient scales on the sides of Eli’s upper arms. His eyes roamed up and down Eli’s body, hungrily devouring every exposed inch of skin.
Lord Esilrud’s hands swept onto Eli’s chest. Eli was never the most muscular, in the past, but very little of the definition he once had remained. His chest was still very much masculine, with a gentle cleft down the middle. Like the rest of his body, however, the firm muscle that had been there in the past had been replaced with soft, supple flesh.
A mischievous glint in Lord Esilrud’s eye was the only warning that Eli got. His back arched and a moan slipped past his lips as the duke pinched his nipples.
"M-my lord!" Eli laughed, covering his nipples as Lord Esilrud’s hands wandered further down his torso. "To take advantage of a medical examination so shamelessly! You scoundrel!" he exclaimed, playfully.
Lord Esilrud smirked. He did not even deign to meet Eli’s mock-scandalized gaze. "Perhaps Sir Blackblade did not know but establishing the sensitivity of a patient’s nipples is a standard part of any medical examination," he said.
Alric stifled a laugh of his own.
"I should think not, my lord!" said Eli, shaking his head. He had not expected Lord Esilrud to get so familiar so quickly. Not that he was complaining.
"Perhaps not," the duke relented, as his slender fingers brushed across Eli’s flat stomach. "But the contract only necessitates that I disclose nothing of what transpires here. It does not bind me to speaking the truth as it does you," he said, with a grin.
Eli sucked in a sharp breath as Lord Esilrud’s fingers lingered at the sides of the patch of scales poking out of the top of his breeches. It was one of the most sensitive parts of his body. Just the light graze of Lord Esilrud’s nails was enough to make his cock throb.
A squeak escaped Eli before he could stop himself as Lord Esilrud’s fingers drifted from his midriff to the sides of his waists. The tinge of pink that had crept into his cheeks darkened even further.
Eli squirmed, uncomfortable, feeling as if control was slipping out of his hands for the first time since Lord Esilrud started touching him. As good as Lord Esilrud’s hands were on his body, he could maintain his composure but this—this was a problem.
"Is everything alright, Sir Blackblade?" said Lord Esilrud. There was a trace of genuine concern in his voice. He looked puzzled, too. No wonder, as it was a noise Eli had not made before.
Out of the corner of his eye, Eli spied Alric perking up as well. The close attention he’d been paying to Lord Esilrud quickly switched over to Eli.
"Y-yes," Eli managed, through gritted teeth. Silently, he cursed those slender, dextrous fingers. They hovered just above his skin but he had never been more acutely aware of their presence.
"If Sir Blackblade says so." Lord Esilrud turned his attention back to Eli’s body. His fingers brushed ever so slightly against Eli’s sides.
"Nnnh!" Eli moaned, back arching. He felt as if he’d been struck by lightning, sparks jumping from the tips of Lord Esilrud’s fingers and his sensitive, tender flesh.
Lord Esilrud stopped again, his fingers remaining where they were. Had they been perfectly still, Eli would not have minded, but they weren’t. They moved, little by little, and it took all of Eli’s self-control not to burst into high-pitched peals of laughter.
"Is everything alright, Sir Blackblade?" said Lord Esilrud, seemingly oblivious to the distress he was causing Eli.
"Y-yes," Eli panted, as the flush in his cheeks crept down his neck and spread along the top of his chest. He looked down at the ground, sweat beading on his brow.
Eli struggled to maintain his composure. As if to heap insult on injury, the light brush of Lord Esilrud’s fingers on his sides also sent bolts of pure pleasure straight to his cock.
Though he was only half-hard before, Eli was fully erect now. His cock was as rigid as a steel-rod, straining in his breeches. The loose fabric tented out between his two legs as he squirmed, fighting to contain himself.
"I-it’s just…" Eli managed, through gritted teeth. "I-if his lordship keeps his fingers there—Nnnh…"
Eli moaned. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face. This was a losing fight. He wouldn’t last for much longer.
In front of Eli, Lord Esilrud’s eyes widened. At the periphery of his vision, he saw Alric standing at the side with a look of utter bewilderment.
"H-his lordship w-will have to t-t-take r-res—Nnnh!—responsibility!" Eli whimpered. In his haste to pull away, Lord Esilrud’s knuckle had brushed up against one of Eli’s ribs, almost shattering the last dregs of resistance Eli could muster.
"I-I see," said Lord Esilrud, taking a quick step back. There was a strange look in his eyes, one that quickly turned mischievous as he processed the events that had just transpired.
Once he recovered from his initial confusion, a very similar expression crossed Alric’s face. Eli had gone to great lengths to hide his ticklishness from his lover in the past couple of months. Now, thanks to Lord Esilrud, all that effort had gone to waste.
Eli had not had any trouble at all, with the rough way that Alric handled him in bed. Even when those calloused fingers dug into all the parts he was most ticklish in, he’d been able to maintain his composure at all times.
Everything had been perfect until Lord Esilrud came with his rough boyish charm, his pretty silver eyes, his stupid, gentle hands, and his dumb, titillating touch.
Eli slid his knee off the table and planted his foot firmly on the floor with a huff. He crossed his arms over his middle and covered his sides, just in case Lord Esilrud got any more ideas about touching him there.
A wry little smile danced on Lord Esilrud’s lips as he turned toward Alric and said, "I think you owe me some gratitude, Alric. It appears I have stumbled upon a rather interesting fact about our favorite master thief."
"I do think so, my lord," said Alric, with a toothy grin to match Lord Esilrud’s. "You have my humble and most heartfelt thanks."
Lord Esilrud met Eli’s gaze and said, "Do me a favor, Alric, and the next time you enjoy some private time with Sir Blackblade, do make him writhe for me."
Eli gulped. Audibly. Perhaps he should not have twisted Lord Esilrud’s arm so much in trying to secure a contract of secrecy. He had an inkling this was retribution for his daring to outplay Lord Esilrud in the great game, earlier.