"Congratulations," Beruka says, appearing at Laslow's left as he takes a sip of his wine.
Her presence surprises him, and the liquid sloshes about in his glass as his arm jerks to the side. He smiles uneasily as Beruka's impassive expression bores into his eyes.
"Thank you," Laslow manages to bite out, after several seconds too long. It felt odd to be congratulated by so many people for his promotion, considering the circumstances in which it had been granted.
Just yesterday the lead retainer of the crown prince of Nohr had been found dead in his home, two daggers slit neatly through his eyes. There had been chaos in the citadel, with suspicions of treason and threats to the crown, but the main question on people's lips was who would serve as his replacement.
The job of lead retainer was quite often an honour, a coveted position that set one high above the ranks of any other commoner in the city. Usually there would be arguments and thrashing at the mere chance of taking this opportunity, however this time, every soldier was oddly subdued. Perhaps the unease in the kingdom, as well as the brutal way in which the former had died, had led many to shy away from the promises of luxury and riches.
It turned out that such competition would have been useless, regardless, for the prince had his own ideas. He cared not for displays of strength or beauty - no, as it turned out, he had already the perfect candidate for the position in the palm of his hand.
As of two hours ago, Laslow was now officially the new retainer of Lord Xander of Nohr.
It had been a grand affair, with an official ceremony and public showing, and now the banquet he found himself in which was a jovial setting. He can still taste the words on his lips, of the official statement he'd given, promising to guard the prince with his life and everything that may come with it. He had been forced, in front of the entire royal council and their delegates, that he would not go back on his word.
"I wonder why he chose you, though?" she asks, folding her arms across her chest. There's a slight bite to her words, as if she's doubting his abilities, and Laslow tries his best to ignore it.
Truth be told he has no clue as to why, either. He'd only arrived in this city several months prior, and after being arrested for a bar fight in which he'd done nothing but protect himself in, somehow found himself in the palace guard instead of jail. It was definitely the favourable outcome, but he felt strange nonetheless, as an outsider. And now he was to serve as Lord Xander's lead retainer?
"My guess is as good as yours," Laslow replies, a frown settling on his face.
"Maybe he's a slave to a pretty face," she says with a slight chuckle, the most expression Laslow had ever seen grace the woman's features. "Don't worry, though," she says with a smile that makes Laslow shiver, "I'm sure you'll be able to handle whatever the job throws at you, right?"
And then without another word she takes her leave, returning to Princess Camilla's side.
There had been something in her voice that had left Laslow unsettled, but he could not pinpoint what it was exactly. He goes to sleep that night with her tone of voice ringing through his ears, and he does not rest well.
Working for the crown prince is every bit as exhausting as Laslow had expected, with early mornings and late nights and paperwork in between. Combined with that Laslow was expected to show his face at training five times per week, in order to be prepared for any warfare that may reach their steps unexpectedly.
It was such a stark change from the life style he had been accustomed to previously that he's pushed to the brink of exhaustion within a week, slumping against his bed with large effort each night. However, that was what he had signed up for by accepting the position, and honestly, he was surprised that they didn't force him to do anything out of the ordinary.
The change in pace must have reflected on his face, however, as he finds himself joined at dinner one night by Niles, a dark-skinned man he'd had the pleasure of conversing with several times prior.
And by pleasure, he quite meant displeasure, as Niles sent him a crooked grin that was every bit unsettling as he sounded. "You don't look too hot," he says, his lazy smile unwavering.
"Yes," Laslow agrees, "it's been quite tiresome lately," he says.
"The late nights, huh?" Niles says, nodding his head before reaching into a small pack that he had wrapped around his waist. He procures a package of dark leaves and presses them into Laslow's palm. "Brew this with some hot water," he suggestes. "It helps with the wooziness."
Laslow has no clue what he is suggesting, but he accepts the leaves anyway with a puzzled look on his face and a thanks on his lips. They're wrapped in a cotton sheet and are dried, and have a faint smell of earth and spice to them when he raises them to his nose.
He hangs on to them for the rest of dinner, and puts it on his desk when he returned back to his chambers that night. He forgets about them promptly after, under the piles of paperwork that no doubt followed in the days following.
Xander is unceremoniously strong.
Siegfried launches into Laslow's chest, sending him backwards and landing on the stone flooring of the coliseum with a grunt. It had been a particularly powerful strike, cracking his breastplate in two, and Laslow is quite surprised he managed to get through it unscathed.
"You leave yourself unguarded," Xander told him from where he stood right above him, the magical blade pointing dangerously close to Laslow's neck.
"I apologize, my lord," Laslow says. He does not let his eyes waver from his lords, and a few seconds more pass before Xander tosses the sword away.
"Your step is remarkable, however," Xander adds, holding out his hand to hoist Laslow to his feet. Laslow grabs at the two ends of his broken armour, heading back to the sides to place it in for repairs. "You are incredibly quick on your feet, to the point where it is hard to strike you."
"Is that so?" Laslow says, his voice somewhat absent. He knows he has a peculiar order to his steps, an offset perhaps of his innate rhythm from dance. He'd like to stray the topic, before it becomes any more personal.
"And your swordplay, too," Xander says. "I have never seen a warrior who fights the way you do."
Laslow laughs. "Some call it untrained," he says. He calls it Ylissean, but he does not speak that aloud.
Xander shakes his head. "No, you are a master at it, I can tell. The way you hold your sword, and the way it listens to you - only someone who has put in the right amount of work can have a sword obey them the way it does you."
Laslow feels himself beginning to blush; he turns, dropping his weapon back onto the rack.
"You flatter me, my lord," he says with a voice quiet.
Xander watches him for a moment more, before a small smile breaks his lips. "I don't sing praises that those do not deserve, Laslow," Xander says, his voice dropping an octave.
Laslow feels himself go rigid, gooseflesh lining his arms. "Truly," he murmurs, and behind him, Xander smiles.
Laslow is about to head to sleep, his fingers ready to quash the candle in his lantern, when he hears the sharp knock at his door. Lacking forethought he opens it immediately, and finds himself face-to-face with the maid he often saw perusing Xander's chambers in the mornings while he outlined his plans for the day - Felicia, was her name?
"Lord Xander has requested that you report to his chambers at once," the servant says, bowing her head.
Frowning, Laslow checks his pocket watch - it's half past eleven. "What could he possibly want this late?" he mumbles, and the servant looks away.
"It is not the maid's place to know, I am merely the messenger," she replies, before excusing herself with a blush to her face that Laslow can't quite place.
Perhaps he could not sleep and wanted to spar. With a frown, Laslow straps on his breastplate and pulls his sword from it's casing. Regardless of what it is the prince wants, he'd best be prepared.
Locking the door to his room, he makes his way down the corridors of the palace. He'd never been outside this late, and the corridors were dimly lit, with only every second lamp lit up. Even those, however, had their oils wearing thin, giving an odd flicker to the light they gave out. It gave the castle an eerie feel, combined with the heavy winds outside causing a loud rustle in the trees outside. It howled as it entered through narrow spaces, and it sent a chill up Laslow's spine.
If he was not mistaken his liege's chambers were not too far. If he took a left at this intersection, he'd find the garden... and then it would be the third door to the right.
"Lord Xander," Laslow calls as he stands outside the door. "You requested me?"
There are a few seconds of silence, and Laslow hears the scraping of a chair against the cobblestone flooring. "Enter," he hears Xander say, and Laslow obliges.
The room is dimly lit, with only a singular lantern hanging above the window. It encases the room in an orange hue, and it smells faintly of apple blossoms. And then Laslow realises, that Xander is not at his desk. He turns his head, scanning the room, and finds his liege laying on his bed and watching him closely.
"You look dressed for a fight," Xander muses, rising from the bed and walking over to Laslow.
"I... I thought I'd best come prepared," Laslow says quickly.
Xander chuckles. "You don't need to be that afraid," he says, "I'm not going to attack you."
Laslow shakes his head, "I- I didn't mean it like that," he says.
Xander's hands reach up towards the fastenings of Laslow's breastplate, and he slides it off. The armour hits the ground with a loud sound, and Laslow yelps as the prince's hands the reach lower, to the sword-belt that was slung around his hips, his fingers gracing dangerously close to the curve of his ass.
He slides the weapon off and it too, falls, hitting the stone floor with a noise that makes Laslow wince. But the prince's hands do not falter, instead trailing upwards and under his white shirt, and Laslow shivers at the feeling of skin against skin, and...
"Wait, hang on, what are you doing?" Laslow asks before he can help it, taking a step back from his lord.
Xander looks at him with surprise. "What do you mean?" he asks.
Laslow swallows. Was... was it part of his job to be... intimate with the prince? As far as he was aware he wasn't, but Xander was staring at him with as much confusion as he did, which did not help him at all.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realise that my duties included..." Laslow begins, and understanding dawns on Xander's face almost comically.
"Ah," he says, a wry smile gracing his features. "I forget, you aren't from this country, are you?" Xander says.
Laslow feels a hand on his, and he feels himself lifted into the air and swung around in a single movement. His back lands against the soft mattress of the prince's bed, and opening his eyes, Laslow is aghast to find Xander above him, staring down at him with a grin he could only describe as predatory.
In those few seconds Laslow had prepared himself for intimacy, but not for what followed.
"There's a bedtime story that children hear on dark nights here in Nohr," he begins, his hand reaching up towards Laslow's face. Laslow squeezes his eyes shut, expecting pain, but instead feels the tickling of his hair as Xander wraps his finger in it's dark grey tufts. "That bad children who enter the forests at night will find themselves face-to-face with a demon."
Xander's fingers leave Laslow's hair, and trace down his cheek.
"These demons look just like people, and are charmingly beautiful. They speak sweet words and promise joys... but when the children agree and come closer, they see skin as pale as death and teeth as sharp as knives."
Xander smiles, and Laslow's eyes go wide. His canines are longer than he had ever thought possible, and seemingly glint in the low light.
"But by the time they realise that they need to run, it's already too late."
Xander leans forward to the crook of Laslow's neck and presses his mouth there. Xander can feel it, the pulse under Laslow's skin, speeding up and thumping with adrenaline as the full situation dawns on the mercenary.
Laslow is hyper aware of the touch on his skin, the fingers that are flush against his and sliding up his shirt. He is also aware of his liege's tongue, laving hot and wet against the exposed skin of his neck, and the sharpness of his teeth against his flesh, testing, teasing.
"May I?" Xander says, his voice just loud enough for Laslow to hear, and Laslow pinches his eyes shut.
This situation is, by Naga's name, unbelievable, but real all the same. Of course, Laslow is scared - no, he is terrified, of his liege above him with a sharp pierce to his neck, his heart racing and fingers burning, but yet in that moment there is nothing he can do but lean his head backwards and expose his neck, baring it raw for Xander's taking. He almost wants to.
It hurt as did any flesh wound, the initial pierce causing Laslow to jerk in reaction, but his body is held down by the strong feel of Xander's against his. He can't move, frozen in place, and his head feels faint as he listens to the sound of Xander drinking his blood as if it were some finely aged wine.
The smell of it cloys him, the smell of warmth and metal, and the reality of the situation is begins to set him into a panic.
But despite it all, the feeling of Xander's hand, strong and calloused and resting against his shoulder calms him. Distantly he can feel fingers carding through his hair, the soft movements soothing him, and Laslow lets his eyes fall shut, before he falls into darkness completely.
Laslow awakes some time later to the prince staring sitting beside him, a thick tome in his hands and reading silently. Laslow stirs, and seeing the movement Xander shuts the book and places it beside him.
"How do you feel?" he asks.
Laslow tries to sit up, but for some reason cannot. He feels heavy, like lead, and there's a dull ache to his neck that he can't quite place... His fingers jerk up to his neck, and he feels it; two raised bumps just shy of his Adam's apple that are sore to touch, and a gasp falls from his lips before he can suppress it.
"Apologies, I assumed you already knew," Xander says, and, to his credit, he does in fact look apologetic. "I saw you carrying a pouch of trevett leaves the other day, so I thought you were preparing yourself."
"Trevett leaves?" Laslow asks with a frown.
Xander blinks. "You were carrying some, wrapped in a towel the other day at dinner. It's common to brew them in this castle to help with the aftereffects of giving blood."
Leaves... Laslow gasps. Those leaves that Niles had passed to him at dinner and told him to boil into tea... that was what he had meant by late nights. Suddenly, it made sense, the fleeting looks the retainers had all given him at first, the slight comments by Beruka at the dinner party...
"Wait, so you really are a..."
"Vampire, yes," Xander says, a slight amused tone to his voice.
Okay, it's weird, but Laslow can live with it. Maybe. He tries to think back at the stories he'd heard about the so-called creatures when he was a kid, but they're all somewhat different to the tale Xander had told him before drinking his blood. He decides to give it a shot, anyway. "But you go outside at night, and I'm pretty sure you eat garlic with dinner," Laslow says.
Xander lets out a laugh. "Okay, perhaps those ones are a bit more from the storybooks, hm? Honestly we don't even need to feed on blood," he says, "but when we do, it heals us. We become stronger. However we must also control ourselves so we do not become reliant on it. It's for that reason that it's a job we entrust only to our retainers," he explains.
Laslow doesn't reply; he doesn't know what he could possibly say.
"If you wish, you may retire from your position. I will hold no ill over you if you choose to do so, Laslow," Xander says, his voice returning to it's serious tone, the one Laslow was used to.
Oh, Laslow realises; Xander is giving him a choice. He thinks back at the week he's had, at how busy he had been, how exhausted and how stressful it was under the load of his new responsibilities. But throughout it all, Xander had been nothing but helpful to him. He had trained with him, helped him and even praised him, something he as a leader was under no obligation to do.
Xander was a good man, and Laslow had no doubts about that in the slightest.
But he also thinks of how gentle Xander had been with him that night, despite it all. He hadn't forced Laslow, and was quite giving in all that he did, and he thinks he can almost feel the ghost of fingers locking through his hair.
And of course, there is only one answer that fleets through Laslow's mind in that moment.
"I promised you that day, didn't I? I would serve you with my life," Laslow says, his eyes sliding shut.
Distantly, he feels the hand of his liege brush against the slight of his jaw, fleeting and soft.