Jarvis's comment about shedding no blood, and Stark's profound relief to hear it, stuck in Steven's mind enough that he was still chewing it over on the evening before the Avengers departed Jumarji, when Steven found himself at a party in the company of T'sar Eor'va, one of the foremost mages of the Duchess of Lojiri's court. The old man seemed fascinated by Steven's own history, asking many questions about the magics which had granted him his remarkable abilities, and was manifestly disappointed when Steven was forced to confess that he had, in truth, fairly little understanding of the magical science behind his own transformation.
"It's a pity you aren't staying in our fair city longer," Eor'va smiled as they strolled along the colonnade overlooking the Duchess's extensive gardens, almost devoid of flowers now but sporting a profusion of trees bedecked in autumn's radiant colours. "I would dearly love the opportunity to examine you more closely, with your permission of course. It's not every day that one gets a chance to investigate the handiwork of Erskine first-hand."
Steven nodded. It was a sentiment he'd heard expressed many times, after all, and he'd become accustomed to being admired not so much for who he was as for what had been done to him. "I'm sure he would have been honoured by your interest," he said politely.
Eor'va nodded as well, a small smile tugging at his mouth under his neatly trimmed white moustache. "You are a work of lasting genius, Sir Rogers. Seldom indeed does one see so elegant and effective an example of flesh-tempering as yourself."
"You're too kind," Steven half-bowed, even though he knew it was nothing less than the truth, and he took the opportunity to change the subject: "And since you're clearly quite knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, would you mind if I asked you a question?"
The mage waved one elegant hand. "Anything you like, dear boy. I have enough excellent R'ravan red in me to feel suitably magnanimous."
"What would happen if a Fae-born were to cause bloodshed?"
Eor'va gave that a moment's consideration. "Through political manipulations, do you mean? Or with their own hands?"
"Either. Or through their magics."
"Ah." He glanced away toward the blaze of autumn colour in the trees, pondering the matter. "The Old Laws permit a half-blood to tempt others into killing on their behalf, under certain conditions. But that's not what you're asking about, is it?"
Steven shook his head. "No. It is not."
Eor'va smiled faintly. "If a Fae-born sheds the blood of a full mortal through direct action, by any means, they become mortal themselves — no, worse than mortal, for their heart will cease to beat within three days and nights of their violation of the Laws."
"And they live long otherwise?"
"For a thousand years, and more." He looked to Steven again, lowering his bushy white eyebrows conspiratorially. "Is this about Lord Stark's manservant?"
Steven nodded reluctantly. "Aye."
The older man chuckled. "The account of his saving of the Virgins has made its way all around the city, Sir Rogers — you're telling no tales out of turn by sharing his identity, since the singing magics are almost exclusively the purview of the Fae-born and their descendants. He does pass well as a human, though, I'll grant him that much. Tell me, does he have a fondness for honey and fresh milk?"
Steven blinked. "I honestly couldn't say."
"Hm. Well, if you ever need to get on his good side, I'd suggest using those as bribe-gifts. Or honey wine, perhaps. The Fae are notorious in their taste for sweets."
It was a tidbit of information that Steven, with his enhanced memory, never forgot, and it was why he was not surprised when Stark, two weeks later, produced a crate of well-aged mead with a flourish and poured the first glass of it for Jarvis, who was smiling more widely than Steven had ever seen before. All the Avengers got spectacularly drunk that night, singing rousing battle chants and maudlin laments about lost love (as well as being treated to all one hundred and five verses of "The Merry Whores of Ibin" as sung by Antony Stark and, shockingly, Bruce Banner), but it was Jarvis who sang them all to sleep around the table with a soft hymn, lyrical as flowing water under moonlight, in what could have only been the language of the Fae.
Waking up the following morning mercifully free of the equally spectacular hangover that everyone else was suffering, Steven noticed that Jarvis had covered Stark with a blanket during the night and slipped a cushion under his head. This thoughtfulness did not, however, seem to improve the Iosian noble's mood appreciably when he woke with a headache fit to kill a herd of Eroan battle-elephants.
When Stark finally fell in battle, struck down by magics even darker than his own, and was carried back to camp more dead than alive, Jarvis didn't waste time with gloves of dragon hide in his haste to tear open his master's iron armour and close the wounds that were bleeding away the mortal's life.
Steven was surprised to discover that even when burning, the Fae-born's skin still imparted the scent of roses.
He'd never seen Jarvis looking paler than this moment, staring up at him in near-shock from the shadow of the shelter of Steven's own body.
"Sir Rogers —" he began, only to have his words cut short by the roar of the inn collapsing behind them, crushing everyone inside — including the man Steven had taken a vow to see safely to Iretall, the man he should have saved instead of the Fae-born currently in his arms.
He closed his eyes, feeling his own honour snap like a bone deep in his chest — and found that in truth, he was not sorry.
"I was young," Stark said abruptly two days later, in a low voice that only Steven would hear over the sounds of revelry about them, "and I was in love."
Steven looked at him in surprise. "Stark, what are you —?'
"The unicorn hearts." He took another sip of his fifth glass of dragon blood wine, smiling with a bittersweet edge. "You asked where I got them. This is me telling you, so be silent, would you?"
Normally Steven did not react well — at all — to being so high-handedly addressed, but he was curious even if the conversation being referred to so unexpectedly was months in the past, so he simply nodded and drank another mouthful of his own ale.
"Good soldier." Stark looked keenly about them, but the tavern was raucous with celebration of the Avengers' latest victory and their corner table was in a shadowed place. He leaned a little closer, dropping his voice to an even lower murmur: "I left my fortress one Midwinter night and rode into the Lurovane Range, where I performed the Ritual of O'everek and laid myself down naked on a bed of fresh roses and long thorns. The scent of my blood falling to the snow drew them like flies to drops of honey, and I was able to take all ten of them by the time dawn lightened the sky."
"Naked? In the Lurovane Range? At Midwinter? By Herakles, Stark! You could have died!"
Stark shrugged, his dark eyes fixed on the shining ruby highlights of his glass. "That's rather the point, Rogers — to prove the depth and purity of one's love by hazarding death itself. And I loved." He polished off the glass and poured himself another, worth three Lion Crowns all by itself. "Oh, how I loved! I would have done anything to win him, that beautiful —"
Stark looked sidelong into Steven's widened eyes, and his smile turned sly. "Ah. You didn't have that piece of the puzzle, did you?"
Surprise made Steven blunter than he would have intended: "You've never consorted with another man in your life."
A significant gaze from under lowered black eyebrows. "Haven't I?"
And then the pieces did fall into place — because who, precisely, had Stark mentioned procuring those ten unicorn hearts to win to his service? Who was at his side, by day and by night, in mind if not in body? With whom did he drink honey wine and share other sweet tokens to suit the tastes of the Fae? "Jarvis?"
"The very same." Stark was smiling like he was proud of Steven for figuring it out on his own.
"But — that's —" Steven drank again to cover his confusion and consternation as the configuration of alliances within his party, or at least the configuration of one set of alliances, underwent a sudden sharp shift. Lovers. Sweet Alkmene's ghost! "He's not even human!"
"That's rather the point," Stark observed, his smile turning lecherous in a way that made Steven's cheeks heat in a blush. "Now, will you listen, or no?"
After a moment Steven nodded. "Say on."
The Iosian inclined his bearded chin in a little bow, then looked thoughtfully again at the way the candlelight played on the wine in his glass. "It happened twelve years ago, almost to the day. I was visiting Soirana Castle for a conference of magic at the Spring Equinox when he came to their court in the retinue of a Ze'haran mage. One glimpse of him across a crowded room — slender as a willow, graceful as a cat, shining like the moon — and I was smitten. It took me a few days to figure it all out, because I'd never before wished for so much as a kiss from another man, but once I did I sought him out at every opportunity that didn't overtly betray my interest… and I found him as intelligent as he was beautiful, as witty as he was charming, and as strong of will as he was kind in spirit." His smile was almost gentle, the smile of a man infatuated. "I learned that he was Fae on his father's side, of noble blood, and that his permanent home was in his father's court in that distant realm — but that he liked to travel, to learn as much about the mortal world as he could between fulfilling his duties in the Twilight Lands. He was a healer and a mage in his own right, and the fact that he was a handful of decades older than I was didn't dismay me half as much as it probably should have."
A glance at Steven, probably to judge just how shocked he was. Seeing that the knight wasn't staring with his mouth hanging open, Stark nodded briskly and tasted his wine again before continuing: "We passed the weeks that followed more and more in each other's company; I should have returned to my own territories when the conference was over, but Jarvis was attached to the mage who now served the Duke and I wouldn't leave his side while the chance to drink him in like honey wine remained. He was Fae-born, able to spend only six months out of every two years in mortal lands, so at the Summer Solstice he returned to his father's realm." Another slow sip of dragon wine, his eyes distant with memory. "We parted with our first kiss, which seemed destined to be our last. I tried to forget him, but his face, his damned beautiful face…" A pause. A deep sigh, wistful and bitter. "I couldn't get it out of my mind, no matter how many gorgeous wenches I topped. And his voice…" Stark shivered although the room was warm, his hard gaze going briefly dreamy. "Every night he seemed to sing to me in my dreams. By the Autumn Equinox I knew that I had to win him back to me, so I sought and learned the rites to call a Fae to one's side and bind them there, beyond the power of their own country to recall. I made all the proper sacrifices and intoned the words that negated the Old Laws, and willingly paid the price those Laws demanded… and Jarvis has been with me ever since."
"And what price was that?"
"Ten years of my life," Stark said, as simply as if stating that he'd paid an Owl copper to some merchant in the Square.
Steven felt the colour drain from his cheeks. "Blood of Zeus!" he cursed, stunned enough to take his own High God's name in vain.
"Yes," Stark grinned impishly behind the rim of his wine glass, "Jarvis had much the same reaction when he realized why he'd suddenly appeared before me in a magic circle on the heights of Wiona Peak beneath a springtime moon, surrounded by the sweet incense smoke of burning unicorn hearts."
"And you've… bound him to your side?" Shocked was rapidly phasing into appalled. "Kept him from his father's people and his homeland and his duty, all for the sake of —?"
Stark scowled. "Of course not. He's free to leave any time he chooses." He looked at Steven with sudden contempt and disgust, his upper lip curling. "You think I'd —? Parta's immortal Balls, are you joking?"
"You're a ruthless man," Steven said bluntly. "I have no doubt you'd do anything to fulfill your desires."
"And you obviously missed the part where I said — four times — that I was in love." He shook his head, laughed without humour, tossed back half his glass. "Can you honestly believe that I would have rejoiced at the sight of him in chains?"
"And yet he's your body servant," Steven pointed out.
"It's in his nature to serve," Stark shrugged philosophically, "intelligent and strong-willed though he is. It is to my perpetual honour that he's chosen to serve me."
He considered that for a moment, taking another pull at his own mug of ale. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because given the choice between saving the man you had vowed to protect and saving Jarvis, you saved Jarvis. I know what that means, coming from a knight like you." Another shrug, devil-may-care. "Maybe the truth is the only coin I have to repay you with, in exchange for your perception of that truth." He drained his glass dry. "And maybe I've talked enough for one night. Time to have a long hot bath and get into clean clothes, and then into a nice soft bed."
"Jarvis knows?" The question came unbidden, for Steven hadn't overheard any request for a bath being issued.
Stark smiled softly as he pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. "He always knows." A small but courtly bow. "Good night to you, Sir Rogers."
He nodded in return. "Good night to you, Lord Stark." Watching the short compact figure weave through the jubilant crowd, only slightly unsteady on his elegantly booted feet, Steven wondered exactly what he was supposed to do with this newfound information.
Lovers, their union bought and paid for with ten years of a mortal man's life and the willing servitude of one who would outlive him by centuries.
And Steven, try as he might, could not recall even seeing them share a single kiss.
Everybody wonders how Lord Stark came by his Fae-born servant, so polite and reserved and perfectly attentive to his needs, although nobody dares ask.
Now that Steven knows, no power in the Realms would ever persuade him to betray the trust that has been bestowed upon him by one of the most cynical men in the Midland Kingdoms — and by the shining being forever at his side, clad in the glamour of roses and moonlight and the lightning that effortlessly cleaves the iron sky.