Florian slipped out of Ray's embrace, leaving the warm bed with reluctance - and a bit of stiffness. But, he had promised to reveal the Rochefort family secret to Ray and, if nothing else, Florian was a man of his word. If the result was his being thrown out into the streets, then at least he wanted a set of clothing and the few mementos he still possessed.

He considered waiting until morning to retrieve his belongings, but decided that it would be better to tell Ray while they were still in the privacy of Ray's rooms. Florian didn't want to chance Laila or anyone else overhearing. It would be difficult enough to break a generations old promise by revealing the secret to Ray.

He navigated the drafty corridors quickly and quietly, with a single candle for light. Oddly enough, Florian found the faint light comforting, as he'd often traversed his family home by candlelight, saving expensive lamp oil for his mother's use.

Retrieving the items he wanted, Florian returned to Ray's rooms, extinguishing the candle before he entered. The low fire in the fireplace provided enough light for him to set his packed valise down on a chair and walk to the bed.

Lifting the comforter, he eased himself onto the thick mattress and settled back against the pillow. Some of the nervousness that had plagued him all evening had eased into resolve; in a few hours he'd be free of the burden his family had carried for generations. No matter what Ray's reaction might be, Florian would accept it with dignity.

His mind settled at last, Florian turned towards the man who had become his lover just a few hours ago.

"Welcome back." Ray said softly, his eyes glittering in the near darkness of the room.

Florian smiled and reached out to caress Ray's face. It wasn't dawn yet; no matter what happened once the secret was revealed, for this moment Ray was his. Florian moved closer and kissed him, responding eagerly as Ray's hands strayed downward, pushing cloth aside to touch bare skin.

"Did you get what you needed?"

"I did." Florian almost stuttered as Ray's hand teased him. It would be so easy to give in to this, just as he had a few hours ago. He could let Ray seduce him, pretend for few more hours that he belonged in this house and in this bed. But that would only make things harder when Ray learned the truth. No, better to do this now.

"I thought you wanted to know my secret," Florian whispered, trying to make his voice seductive and hoping he didn't sound like a fool.

"By now, I believe I know all your secrets," Ray teased. "But if you are referring to the famed secret of the Rochefort family, you have my full attention."

"May I turn on the light?" Florian shifted away from Ray's embrace, reaching for the lamp on the nightstand. He lit it without waiting for Ray's answer and pulled himself up so he was sitting up against the headboard, clutching his pillow. He leaned over and picked up the handkerchief-wrapped parchment he'd taken from the old Rochefort castle ruins. He stared down at it for a long moment before looking up at Ray with misty eyes.

"This is what my Mother died for." He handed the parchment to Ray, knowing the man would understand Florian's devastation. He'd lost his family and nearly lost his life for the sake of a diamond that no longer existed.

Ray scanned the ornate writing, a proclamation from the king thanking the Rochefort family for safeguarding the legendary one- hundred-twenty carat diamond, and for returning it safely to the king. It also commanded that they never reveal the true whereabouts of the diamond, or the fact that it had been returned. In exchange for this, they would receive a piece of the diamond when it had been cut into smaller stones. According to the date, this had all happened long before Florian was born, at a time when the monarchy was struggling. The king must have known there would be a scandal if the legendary diamond was sold, so he'd publicly given it to the Rochefort family for safekeeping, then taken it back in secret and had it cut. Selling the pieces wouldn't have been as profitable as selling the diamond intact, but it would have been easier and more discreet.

"What happened to the piece of the diamond your ancestors received?" Ray wondered setting the parchment aside and resting one hand on Florian's leg in a silent gesture of comfort.

"It was passed down through the family as an heirloom. Mother sold it last year to pay for one of her parties. She never knew; she wasn't a true Rochefort and wasn't allowed to know. The secret was passed only to me, and I was forbidden to tell anyone." Florian wiped the moisture from his eyes, drawing strength and determination from deep inside himself before continuing. "It doesn't matter now. My family line will end with me; family secrets, family pride no longer have any meaning."

"They meant enough for you to keep them, even from your mother."

"That's not it at all." Florian corrected, his face pale but his voice strong, with a hint of bitterness. "The diamond was the pride of the Rocheforts, a symbol of their nobility and honor. It would have killed her to know the truth."

"It killed her anyway."

"And my Aunt and Uncle. If I'd realized.... It's my fault that they're dead." He looked at Ray with haunted eyes.

Ray pulled Florian into a tight embrace, holding him in silence, knowing that it was too soon to try and convince Florian he wasn't to blame. Eventually Florian relaxed against him, turning blindly towards Ray, his lips seeking contact.

"Not like this." Ray pressed a hand gently against Florian's face, to stop him. "I won't be your escape."

"There is no escape." Florian conceded, pulling back. He lifted his chin, his eyes meeting Ray's, determination in their depths. His manner changed from that of a lover to that of a man repressing all emotion."I accept any punishment you deem appropriate, my lord. Is it the basement? Or will you cast me out or even call the police?"

"That's my decision to make. You'll know when I tell you and not a moment before." Ray gripped Florian's wrist tightly, unhappy with this sudden change. "You will not question me again. Now get out of my bed and put on your shoes. You have two minutes in the bathroom and then you will return to this place and wait until I am ready for you." Ray's voice was clipped, his eyes hard as he commanded Florian. The blond seemed almost grateful for that as he obeyed Ray's orders.

While Florian was in the other room, Ray slid out of bed and dressed quickly. He glanced at the abandoned parchment that had caused so much trouble, then picked it up and put it in the drawer of his nightstand. He wasn't looking forward to what he needed to do next, but it was necessary; he would not let Florian slip into the madness that had claimed his mother. Taking up his whip, Ray prepared himself for Florian's return.

"Head up." Ray barked, the whip whistling through the air until the end wrapped itself around Florian's neck. The blond gasped, unable to control his reaction. Ray laughed coldly and pushed Florian forward. "To the basement, quickly. I don't have all day."

Obediently Florian led the way downstairs, past Laila, Jacques and a few of the house servants. His face was crimson with embarrassment but he continued to walk, with as much dignity as he could muster with a whip around his neck like a leash. When he arrived in the basement, he went to the center of the room and stopped, waiting.

"Remove your shirt. Hands up." Ray commanded, taking Florian's shirt and then motioning for Pierre to come forward. He closed the manacles around Florian's wrists and stepped back. Pierre had been ordered to accompany them as they made their way to the basement. Now he had claimed his crop and was swinging it, preparing to use it on Florian as he had once before.

"Ten lashes. Twenty if he makes a sound."

Ray moved around to stand in front of Florian as Pierre made the first strike. Ray's race remained impassive as the blond was whipped. He didn't want to hurt Florian, but he knew the blond felt he needed and deserved the punishment. Ray wouldn't allow him to wallow, even if it meant witnessing Florian's pain.

The tenth lash was particularly fierce and Florian's body arched, his face dripping sweat and tears. When Pierre stepped back, mopping his brow, Ray nodded to dismiss him. The man went gladly, his expression making it clear that he wasn't happy to have had to whip Florian again.

"You've been properly punished for what happened with the diamond. If you continue to insist that you are at fault, I will take it to mean that you are questioning my judgment in that matter." Ray tilted Florian's head up, forcing the blond to meet his eyes. "Do you understand what that would mean?"

Slowly Florian nodded, knowing that those who questioned Ray Courland did not remain in his house for long. Beyond the pain there was a flicker of gratitude in his eyes; he finally accepted that he wasn't going to be sent out into the streets to fend for himself. He sank into Ray's arms as soon as he'd been freed from the manacles.

"You'll spend the day in bed. Nothing but broth and tea for now, perhaps something more tonight." Ray said as he helped Florian upstairs to his room. "I'll send Laila up to tend you and then you should sleep."

Florian nodded obediently, his manner more of someone who was distracted, rather than in pain. He turned suddenly, reaching out to grip Ray's arm.

"I can stay here?" He had to ask - he needed to hear Ray say it. "You're not done with me now that... now that you've had me?"

"I never cast aside a precious jewel." Ray said, turning and putting his hand on Florian's cheek. "Especially not an Amethyst of such rare quality." He shook his head and leaned in. "You are mine, Florian. Even if you could pay off your debt in full, I still wouldn't let you go. But I won't allow you to blame yourself for others' mistakes and I won't tolerate your melancholies. If you doubt yourself again, you'll find yourself back here, and next time you won't be lef off so lightly."

Ray pressed his hand against one of the unmarked places on Florian's back. The remains of the older whipmarks hadn't completely faded, but thankfully they didn't seem as if there would be any scars. The new batch, however, might not fade so completely. He'd have to make sure Laila used the healing ointments regularly.

Florian studied Ray's face for a long moment before nodding slightly and lowering his eyes. He took a step towards the bed, but Ray stopped him.

"You've done nothing to tarnish your noble family, Florian. You will not lower your head to anyone."

"Not even you?"

"Only if you choose to. I am still your master." A smile curved Ray's lips and amusement lit his eyes but his next words were serious. "You kept your family's promise at great cost. Not many would have been able to do the same. Remember that."

Florian nodded, but his expression was still unhappy. He understood what Ray was saying, but he didn't fully accept it. Not yet. He reached up and cupped the back of Ray's neck, urging him into a kiss that Ray returned enthusiastically. No, Florian didn't accept Ray's words yet, but he would eventually √ with a little persuasion.

::end::