"Six of Earth" said Karl-Andre, Margrave of Waesch.
"Nine of Water," responded his partner with a wolfish grin, displaying the card in question. "Get them down."
Flushed with a compound of wine, shame, and a curious excitement the teenaged lord unlaced his hose, and let them slide to the floor. Candlelight danced on his bare, hairless chest as he stepped out of the fine woollen hose to stand in just his short linen underhose.
"White Christ of Tharli," thought the man on the other side of the table, "but that boy is beautiful."
Beautiful, and soon to be his to play with, if their little game of forfeits went on as it was. But: "As well it is a warm night," was all that he said.
The younger man murmured something.
"Your pardon ?"
"I said it was getting hotter, Captain," said Karl-Andre, attempting bravado and not quite carrying it off.
"Oh, and will get hotter still my lord," agreed the tall Helvesch mercenary. The tangle of golden hair on his chest gleamed in the dancing candlelight - evidence that not every draw had gone his way. And - ah, damn.
"Queen of Air," exulted the other. "And you have only the Knave. Your turn to lose something I think, Captain Jansch."
The mercenary captain stood, one flowing movement. He dropped his own hose, saw the youth's gaze rest on what lay outlined under the thin linen, felt himself respond a little: a stirring, no more, like some predatory animal waking from its daysleep, ready to hunt. Their gazes caught, and he grinned again at the young lord.
The boy dropped his gaze abruptly, reddened anew.
"So the last draw pays for all, my lord," said Captain Jansch, mockingly. "Will you take your card ?"
Karl-Andre took a card from the top of the greasy, battered pack, but did not turn it over. Still smiling at him, the mercenary took his own card and turned it over to lie between them like a weapon.
A man crowned with vines and robed in rich dark brocades, holding a horn of plenty and a bag of gold.
"King of Earth," said the boy, his voice gone high and childish.
The mercenary looked at him out of long grey eyes and raised an eyebrow.
Slowly the young margrave turned over the card he had picked.
Four staves, bound together with ribbons the colour of flame.
"Well, my lord," said the mercenary. "They say that the cards can tell a man's fortune, and here I almost come to believe it. Four of Fire. Four sticks, that might raise a fair fire in a bad lad's backside."
"You do remember the terms of our agreement, my lord ? That we should draw, and the loser remove an item of his apparel until one was bare; and that that loser should pay the winner's forfeit ? And you recall what the forfeit I promised you was ?"
The young man nodded, once, his eyes fixed upon the soldier like a rabbit paralysed before a snake.
"Good. Now my lord Karl-Andre - will you drop your linens and come here, please ?"
The boy gaped at him as if he had spoken in some foreign tongue - Mordovan, maybe, or jaw-cracking Kartvely. Jansch held out a hand to him and the younger man took it as if in a trance, was drawn around the table to stand before the bare-chested mercenary.
Strong hands calloused by swords and stained with powder from pistolet and harquebus reached out and pulled the young lord's underhose down in a single swift motion.
He gasped, the spell suddenly broken, made as if to pull back, but was drawn, naked and helpless, down onto the soldier's strongly muscled and hairy thews. A pale, perfect pair of moons displayed themselves for the mercenary captain's pleasure between the long, lithe, feline curve of the youth's suntanned back and legs.
"You can't do this," gasped Karl-Andre. "I'm a nobleman. My father's the Elector."
"Aye, well as to that, noblemen must pay their debts of honour," said the mercenary. "Or is your word of so little value ?"
The long, supple muscles stiffened under his hand.
"Do your worst, then, damn you," hissed the boy.
"Nay, not my worst," responded the soldier equably. "But I'll have another layer off your arse before I'm done." He brought his hand down hard on the right cheek, felt the youth flinch and tauten. The mark of his fingers blossomed in pink on the pale skin.
With unhurried expertise he set to. Karl-Andre was far from the first lad he'd dealt with like this, nor, chances were, would he be the last. As eldest of four brothers, and later captain over a motley crew whose youngest members had a good pair of years to catch up on Karl-Andre, he was well accustomed to dealing out the kind of retribution that brings young men to dancing and howling and sitting with care for a day or two, and had realised early on that it gave him a pleasure that women, or even more usual amusements with boys, did not offer. Not that he would turn down the latter, afterwards. Far from it. A pretty little arse was all the sweeter to take when it was well warmed. Though this one, he conceded regretfully, might be best avoided, given the boy's rank.
The firm, high buttocks were flushed and marked where the mercenary's iron-hard hands fell, mercilessly regular in their descent. The boy had begun to shift and flex, trying to find a more comfortable position and discovering that none existed.
Soon, thought the Captain, we shall have the first, involuntary drawing of breath. Then the muttering, the little 'ows' and 'ouches'. Then - ah, then comes the first faint cry of pain and helplessness, the first realisation that he is mine to deal with as I please, that his backside will suffer until I choose otherwise. Then he is lost.
All of the crown and sides of the boy's backside was now a clear, bright red, as if scalded by hot water, and marked here and there with lines of small, purplish blotches where the leather-hard calluses on the captain's hands had bruised the flesh.
Jansch paused, gently squeezed and released the firm muscle of the buttocks a few times, then drew a fingernail in gentle circles over the hot, red skin. Karl-Andre shivered despite himself at the unexpected gentleness, the sensual pleasure of the sensation.
Then: Whack ! Whack ! Whack ! Three terrific blows, one for each cheek and one across the lower middle part that nearly jolted his teeth out.
Whack ! Whack ! Whack ! Another three, delivered with all the force of a man in his physical prime who had spent nearly twenty years in the field.
Karl-Andre cried out. He could not help it.
As the mercenary had known, it was downhill after that. A drop of sweat trickled down the Captain's forehead, and he paused to wipe it from his eyes, a brief respite for the young nobleman.
It was hot work: the room stank now of men and sweat, where before it had smelled only of beer and the faint smoke and honey odour of the candles. The boy's harsh breathing sounded remarkably like sobbing in the sudden quiet.
The captain stroked the swollen buttocks, more purple now than red. Little blisters had raised here and there. On impulse, the mercenary captain leaned down and brushed his lips across the welted skin, heard the boy make a small indecipherable sound.
"Well, young lord," he said.
"P-please Captain, no more."
"Have you learned your lesson ?"
"I will gamble no more, I promise it."
"Ah, but you have made such promises before, I hear."
"I swear, I shall never lay hand to a card again."
"Good. I believe it. But I will reinforce the lesson somewhat, lest it should slip your mind after I have gone."
"No, no, please . . ."
But it was too late. Remorselessly, the Captain set to, paying special attention to those areas that were still merely scarlet.
When he finally stopped, Karl-Andre was sobbing like a little child. Captain Jansch raised him up effortlessly, held him against him until the sobs quieted. His hands soothed the swollen, inflamed skin with a gentleness that first astounded and then aroused the youth. Eyes still red, his face wet, he raised his head and planted a clumsy but enthusiastic kiss full on the mercenary's lips.
Jansch blinked, then responded. Another part of him responded too, the head of his cock forced itself from his underclothes like a serpent from under a rock. The younger man stood back a little to admire it, his own graceful erection upright in an instant, as taut as if welded to his belly. A pearl of clear liquid, like a dewdrop, stood at its tip.
"Ah, lad - this will never do," said Jansch regretfully. He turned away, forced his painfully hard rod back into his linens.
"Why ?" Anger, confusion, disappointment.
"Because, as you reminded me, you are the Elector's son. Your father hired me to teach you not to gamble, not to roger you."
"My father ? My father hired you ? This was a - a trap ?"
Damn, how had that slipped out ? Still it must be brazened out now.
"Say rather a lesson. Your father is determined there will be no more lost purses and promissory notes - and I hope that lesson is learned, or must I repeat it ?"
The youth skipped out of range quickly enough. "You bastard," he hissed. "You honourless gutterscum. How dare you . . . and how dare my father ?"
The door slammed behind him, and as quickly re-opened long enough for a pair of arms to retrieve the boy's bundled clothes, and slammed again.
Jansch sighed. "Pity," he said, ruminatively. Still, perhaps it was just as well. He dressed quickly, with the efficiency of a man who has spent long years in the field, drained the last of the wine, and snuffed out the candle.
At the castle, the chamberlain Goetz was waiting, despite the hour, in an office so stuffed and piled with books and paper that it seemed cramped, despite its size. Jansch sneezed as he entered - he always sneezed in that room. Book dust. White Christ, but the room even smelled of books. So did Goetz, a musty, damp smell, as if the dust had seeped into him and now flowed in his veins instead of blood.
"So Captain - you have carried out your mission I hear ?"
Jansch raised an eyebrow.
"My lord the margrave has but recently retired to his rooms. The gentleman of the bedchamber tells me that he has chosen to sleep on his stomach this evening."
Jansch smiled. "Aye, the work is done. Well done, I might say."
"Excellent." The chamberlain looked at him, pale eyes mild behind his pince-nez, and said nothing.
After a moment, Jansch frowned.
"There is the matter of my payment," he reminded the old man.
"Indeed, captain, but I am not in a position to make such a large disbursement at this hour. You must return tomorrow."
"By Our Lady of Rinn, old man, if you are trying to cheat me . . ." he began, but the chamberlain shook his head.
"Not at all, Captain. Come tomorrow at noon, and you will be paid."
And that, it seemed, was that. Despite his misgivings, the mercenary had no choice but to leave, and return the next day. He did not sleep well, and as a result, he was in less than his most serene mood when he returned to the palace the following day.
"Well, old man ?" he barked, the parade-ground bark and glare that had reduced hardened soldiers to red-faced boys. Goetz merely glanced up and smiled.
"Ah, Captain, I see that you are punctual."
"I wish I could say the same of your payments."
The chamberlain rose in a swirl of black robes. "Come then, Captain Jansch. Let us go and collect your wages." He led the mercenary through a maze of corridors and rooms that seemed to go on for ever.
"How much further ?" asked the soldier irritably.
"We are there," returned the old man, unperturbed. He knocked on a heavy, beautifully carved door, opened it to the quiet "Come in," and led the mercenary into another office.
There were books here, too, but ranged on handsome shelves, or spread in cases under glass - huge, elaborately bound books, gleaming with gold leaf and jewel-like pictures. At a large desk of dark wood a man was writing. He looked up, smiled.
"So this is the famous mercenary I have heard so much about," he said. His voice was resonant and commanding, his face mature, lined. A strong man, Jansch judged with swift expertise; someone with opinions that would be hard to budge, but sound. A good fellow to have on one's side in a fight. He hoped this particular fellow would be on his.
Jansch dropped in a deep bow.
"Your Highness," he said.
"And quick too," smiled the Elector of Rinn.
"I've seen your portrait," admitted the mercenary. "And too, your son favours you."
"Yes, and of course you have seen rather a lot of him," said the Elector, ambiguously.
Jansch bit his lip and bowed again, uncertain what to say.
The Elector laughed, not unkindly.
"Well, Captain, you have certainly made an impression on him, although he seems uncertain as to whether you are a hero or the very devil. But he is no longer so enthusiastic for the pleasures of the gaming table, so you have fulfilled your commission, if in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Come, Goetz, give the Captain his payment."
Goetz bowed and passed over a heavy purse that chinked as it moved. The mercenary Captain opened it, removed one of the coins and bit it. Satisfyingly soft.
"I think that may be lese-majeste," observed the Elector, viewing the toothmarks that disfigured his Empress's face. "Still, I won't tell her if you don't."
"Your highness is generous."
"Hmm. Tell me, Captain, who holds your contract at the moment ?"
"At present, the company is between engagements, your highness."
"Yes. And you are particular about the jobs you take, I believe. You turned down the Sbitarra."
"The Dukes of Mantega are not careful of their employees, your highness. I have a duty to the company not to lead it into unwinnable wars. Nor unwise ones. Mantega cannot hope to continue its teasing of the Gallian leopard indefinitely without paying a heavy price."
"You think Gallia will invade ? So do I." The Elector sighed. "These are difficult times. Tell me, Captain, would you take contract with me ?"
The mercenary studied him.
"To do what, your highness ?"
"To help defend the passes when the Gallians seek to come through on their way to Mantega. And to teach my son something of the arts of war. He will need that, soon enough. I cannot think of a better teacher."
"Highness, I . . ."
"Think on it, Captain. Consult your company. Goetz will find you a room in the palace in the meantime."
Jansch recognised a dismissal when he heard one. He bowed, and let the chamberlain lead him away. It would save on the cost of the inn, at least, and old soldiers did not turn down opportunities for comfort.
It was a well-appointed room, with a large bed, which turned out, when he sought it very much later that day, to be soft enough to lull him to sleep almost at once. He roused from sleep instantly as a body slipped in beside him, had a dagger to its neck before he recognised who it was.
"Captain," said Karl-Andre. "Will you take my father's commission ?" The boy was naked beside him, his prick as hard as a rock.
"I don't know," said the mercenary.
"Take it," urged the boy. "And take me." He wriggled down like an eel under the covers, his mobile mouth seeking out the mercenary's manhood.
"White Christ," sighed the soldier. He reached down, retrieved the young man by an ear, and examined the buttocks he had so soundly punished the night before. They were still bruised in places, if no longer red. And still gorgeous.
"You realise that I'll thrash you as often as you need it," he said. "Every young soldier learns best with a sore arse."
Karl-Andre smiled. "I'll try not to need teaching too often," he said, and dived back under the coverlet. Jansch chased after him, and smacked the pert bottom, just firmly enough to elicit an 'ouch'.
"Don't con your lessons too hard," he said with a laugh. "I enjoy teaching."