Saturday, May 16, 2009

Aneshu's Folly by L.E. Bryce

Once he returned from the palace, Aneshu drew his master aside and told him everything. Tahrun grimaced and nodded. “Yes, I’d heard the High Prince wanted you for some special performance, but I’d no idea it meant sending you out of the city.” Balling his hand into a fist, he indicated a scroll lying on his desk. Thanaj’s lion seal marked the broken wax. “I don’t suppose you had anything to say about it?”

“He didn’t ask me whether I wanted to go, if that’s what you mean,” replied Aneshu. “Elami can play most of my parts while I’m gone—”

“Not Gaval the trickster,” said Tahrun. “Even if he could manage it, apparently I’m to send the mask and costume along with you. Why the High Prince has to involve actors in this mess, I don’t know. You’re not even trained for this work. This young prince doesn’t sound worth the trouble, and no one will bother about the sister. She’s not the only princess Thanaj could marry, and he certainly doesn’t have to keep us all waiting another four or five years to produce a son.”

Nearly sixty now, Tahrun had not improved with age, and he tended to ramble when upset. Aneshu raised a cautionary finger to his lips. “It’s only been two months since the High Princess died. Besides, you and I weren’t asked our opinions. What I told you can’t go outside this room. The understudies are gossips, and Elami would pitch a fit if he knew the truth.”

On the palanquin ride back to Tahrun’s house, Aneshu had rehearsed a carefully crafted version of the story for his lover. Monogamy suited Elami, and the hysterics that once marked his youthful love affairs he now poured into his roles. That did not, however, mean he could not make a scene when agitated. “I hate the idea!” he cried. “Why do you have to go? There are hundreds of performers throughout the city. The High Prince didn’t have to choose you.”

Aneshu tried his best to keep the mood light. “Thanaj didn’t exactly ask for your opinion, my dear, and I like to think I’m a cut above the other hacks.”

Elami, standing behind his chair, bent down and wrapped both arms around his neck. “You’ll miss the last of the summer festivals, and the desert will utterly ruin your complexion.”

“The mask paste already does that,” said Aneshu. “Honestly, I don’t know how you put up with my horrid looks.”

“Fortunately, the paste doesn’t do anything to your cock.”

Laughing, Aneshu reached up and kissed him, slowly at first, then deeper, letting his tongue slide into Elami’s mouth. The vizier who took charge of him following the interview explained that a courier would collect him tomorrow, and that he and the other performers would leave for Malassar the day after. Tonight would be his last and only chance to spend time with Elami.

Breaking off the kiss, Elami shook his head. “It’s almost supper. Tahrun won’t let us be late.”

“Later, then,” promised Aneshu.

At the table, the understudies deluged him with questions, while Merash looked on in thinly concealed amusement. He won’t miss me, Aneshu reflected sourly. Now Merash could lord his first actor status over Elami and the understudies without the second actor’s scornful teasing. Aneshu ignored the queries about his trip to the palace, tucked into his meal, and smiled at the thought of his rival finally overreaching himself and trying Tahrun’s patience.

“Oh, come on, Aneshu!” protested Salo, the eldest understudy, and the one most likely to take on the third actor’s roles while Elami covered the second’s absence. “We all know you saw the High Prince, and that you’re going away. You’ve got to do better than ‘nothing much’ or ‘there’s nothing to say.’”

“Yes, Aneshu,” Merash drawled slowly, “you’ve got to tell us what Thanaj sees in your skinny carcass that he had to interview you personally. Did he want a private performance?”

Aneshu grinned through clenched teeth. “Had he wanted to see the trickster make an ass out of somebody, he surely would’ve sent for you as well. You’re so funny when you’re fuming and about to piss yourself.”

“Boys,” rumbled Tahrun. “That’s enough.”

Salo continued to press the issue. “Why you, and not the rest of the troupe?”

“I have no idea,” replied Aneshu. “And if you absolutely must know, Merash, the High Prince is courting a young princess. He’s sending actors and dancers to entertain her and her family.”

Merash snorted. “By sending the trickster to steal her away?”

“Well, nobody said he was eager to marry again.”

Once the meal was finished, Aneshu left the table and led Elami upstairs to his room. How many evenings had they done this—slipped away together to fondle each other and make love in the drowsy dusk, then come downstairs again to play at dice with the understudies, talk, or filch a snack from the kitchen? Only tonight was different, the air laden with hushed anticipation that dared not speak of tomorrow or things to come.

Aneshu did not wait until the door was closed. Pushing Elami back against the jamb, bracing his arms on either side to pen his lover in, he bent down to claim a kiss. When Elami twined both arms around his neck and pressed up against him, Aneshu still did not move, but used only his mouth to tease, to taste, and give pleasure, until Elami, cursing softly in frustration, pulled back. “Oh, you’re going to make me beg for it, aren’t you?”

“Would you have me do it any other way?”

“You don’t plan to fuck me here in the hallway, do you?”

Aneshu kissed his cheek. “Not unless you want half the household to try to join in.”

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Around the World by Jade Falconer

Stephan strained to look out the streaked window as the cab inched down the road. Traffic seemed unusually bad for this time of day. “What’s the holdup?” he asked the driver. He was annoyed after meeting with his publisher and hearing of the delay of his latest book release, and out of sorts—of course—because of Gary.

“Some bloody idiot’s double parked, looks like they’re unloading something,” the cab driver complained.

Stephan sighed, finally glimpsing the problem. “It’s right in front of my building. I’ll walk from here.” He paid the driver and got out, grabbing his briefcase.

He walked down the sidewalk, watching the scene. A tiny red car was parked haphazardly, with several young men gathered around, pulling out boxes.

A young man with fluorescent orange hair took two steps backwards, reeling from the weight of a particularly large box, and nearly fell right on top of Stephan. “Oh, sorry,” he said in a soft, sweet voice.

Stephan automatically reached out to steady him, one hand on the box. The young man was tiny, and the box looked like it weighed more than he did. His hair clashed with his red jeans, and his thin, wiry arms emerged from a loose shirt with the arms cut out. His face was pretty in an elfin sort of way. “Are you all right?” Stephan asked with concern.

The young man stared levelly into Stephan’s eyes for a long moment. “Yes. Thanks. I’m fine. Just clumsy. Do you live here, too?” he asked.

The look in the boy’s eyes made Stephan’s breath hitch. He must be imagining things. “Yes. You’re moving in?” he said, realising it was an unnecessary question.

Patrick smiled. “Yeah. I’m renting a room from Stanley. On the second floor? I’d offer a hand but they’re full at the moment. I’m Patrick. Nice to meet you.”

Stephan couldn’t help but smile back. Patrick was really adorable. And half his age. He reined in any inappropriate thoughts with effort. “I’m Stephan,” he said warmly. “I’m on the fourth floor.”

“So we’re neighbours. I’d love to chat, but I’ve got to get my things inside before it rains. Maybe I can come borrow a cup of sugar later,” he said with a smirk.

Stephan raised an eyebrow. The young man was certainly charming, but he was sure he’d never see him again, unless in passing. “Anytime. Flat 4B. I have lots of sugar.” He stepped back and held the door open for him. He tried not to ogle the boy’s ass in the tight pants.

Patrick gave Stephan one last sweet smile over his shoulder before he struggled through the door.

Stephan held the door until Patrick had gone in and disappeared. He sighed and went up to his flat. It was foolish to think of Patrick, but with his current mood he couldn’t help it. The boy was almost certainly gay, but what would such a pretty young thing want with an old man like him? Even Gary, who had been his age, had left him for someone younger.

He wandered around his large and much too empty flat. All of Gary’s things were gone, and the empty spaces made him remember more than he wanted. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen it coming, though. They’d been drifting apart for at least a year. But, endings were always sad.

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Slaves of Shebwai by Scarlett Vaughn

Within the large but modestly decorated wooden home’s foyer two soldiers waited. Eron knew that they were royal guards in disguise, so she left Corine with one while following the other deeper into the house. She studied the back of the man’s breastplate and then the backside of his breeches as he walked, realizing with a pang of regret that her sexuality had been awakened, as much by Corine’s kiss as by the fear and power that surrounded her now. Resisting the urge to comment on the long-sword slung at the handsome guard’s hip, Eron bit the inside of her cheek and silenced herself against the coming meeting.

In an office of deep oak, behind a desk littered with the brass tools of ocean navigation, sat the most prevailing man in the Five Kingdoms. Henrick, monarch of Capriana, was an attractive if slightly overweight man. His beard had been peppered with gray in recent years and he had let his hair grow, much to the chagrin of his wife. His robes were of the finest weave of gold and red.

King Henrick II was by definition the most powerful man in the world, as his seat held sway over the lesser, smaller kingdoms. This man and the land that he ruled stood for the things that Eron had come to believe in, so in a strange way she loved him. It was neither a father figure nor lover she saw in him, but an ideal within herself that the king represented. She had been so star-struck the first time they had met, but their relations had always been of Capriana business, which sometimes included pleasure. Ultimately it had all resulted in respect and what Eron called friendship, and it had given her position and power, though in truth she longed for further stability even in a land as fertile as hers.

“Eronica,” the guard quietly announced, “Lady of Tibeth.”

Eronica bowed and her king smiled, excusing the guard with a simple wave of his hand.

“Beautiful, as always, Lady Eronica,” the King said. He openly appraised the ample portion of cleavage that her bodice afforded him, then sat back to study her from behind steepled fingers. “Eron,” he began, dropping any pretense of protocol between them for their conversation. “You still have this chance to stay and not involve yourself in such dangerous matters. You could always become the lover of myself and the queen.”

He offered it with seriousness and a welcoming nature that nearly shook the Lady’s resolve. The king was giving her one last chance to say no, she knew, but Eron was aware of the importance of this mission and the trust he was secretly placing in her for the sake of his realm.

Capriana was the largest and richest of the Kingdoms, and the ornate marble castles and cities and the richly carved woods of its ports and towns could attest to that. Henrick’s monarchy had birthed, built and expanded since antiquity, and the line of kings could still be traced to Henrick’s blood. The First Kingdom enjoyed the imported riches of the other four it had settled as well, leaving few within Eron’s homeland in any true state of poverty. Tragedy could befall anyone, as well she knew, but still she had been able to rise to a point where, had she chosen, she could have become the concubine of the king himself. As the queen still lived and commanded Henrick’s attentions, Eronica passed on this idea. But still, she had risen to a state of importance, and for all it had given her, she would defend her nation and its ideals to the death.

Now a shadow from the lower provinces loomed over Lady Eronica’s beloved homeland. The fleets and armies of the province of Shebwai, that strange desert land far to the south, threatened Henrick’s dominion. Already, the sultan of Shebwai’s greed for conquest had swallowed two Kingdoms: Granelayde and the Grey Isles. Shebwai’s power had consumed them and enslaved each quickly, yet so much of that powerful desert nation was still a mystery to Eron. She had heard tales of its debauchery and cruelty, that women and men both were made unwilling slaves to the nobility or the sultan, and that torture and foul magic was practiced with regularity. The sultan lived in opulence, conjuring black spells with his necromancer in a bid to rule the world while his slaves were forced to pleasure them both. The whole place sounded prickly and dangerous. Despite this, she felt a strange attraction to its mystery and peril, as well as the wonder that its treasures must truly hold to keep men of such power there in oasis palaces surrounded by a wasteland and a growing army.

Eron had to push such darkly enticing thoughts from her mind before the king noticed the quickening of her breath. She realized that a moment of silence had passed while she had pondered her fate, and she became determined to look as well as sound resolute and brave.

“My lady?”

“Thank you, Your Majesty, but I have already given you my word. Just as I promised myself long ago that I would find a husband of importance to take as my own.” Eron smiled as warmly as she could muster for her king, but the butterflies in her stomach were positively buzzing now. It was a sensation that she had been trying to ignore until now, but it was impossible to do so any longer. As with all important decisions, it felt somehow wrong at that moment when you actually signed the dotted line. Eron suddenly wished desperately that she could sit down or loosen her corset, but protocol demanded otherwise until the king commanded it so.

“And we thank you for your perseverance, my lady. When you return, you can name your prize. The simple Lady need not be your title much longer.”

“Yes, Your majesty.”

The King’s countenance became serious at last. “What you are about to undertake is treacherous in the extreme. I need not remind you that there is always the possibility that you will not even make it to Shebwai—that pirates with no loyalties still prowl the waters you shall be crossing. Should you not be picked up before reaching what is your documented, official destination, make your way to Shebwai however you must. You will have only a limited time to find your way into the sultan of Shebwai’s graces before my agents make your escape route apparent to you.” He shook his head, but told her, “I admire you, Lady Eronica. This is a very brave thing you are doing. I am not even certain that I agree with your choosing this task. As I have told my spellweaver, so much could go wrong.”

“Your Majesty, I understand the risks. It will work out, you will see.” Eron looked up, smiling genuinely for but a moment at Henrick III, prince and only heir, as he entered through a side door. She continued, “If your harbormaster has done his work properly, then my ship will drift into waters smart merchants avoid, knowing that the privateers there are in the employ of the sultan. Within a week, I’ll be on the block, and my beauty and skill will put me on our enemy’s lap within a month.” Even as she said it with what she hoped was confidence, Eron thought the words were strange and hollow in her own ears. How could she take on this task? What was she doing? Putting herself in this enormous amount of danger was insane! But she kept her chin up, said the words, impressed her royal masters, and prepared to march out of the office in glorious homage to her duty as a Lady of Capriana, the most civilized nation in the world.

“We both sacrifice much,” the king said finally. “Even though the Black Kettle is a foreign ship, I am loathe to do this to her crew. With luck, they will escape death and simply be put off and robbed by whatever ship meets you all out there. But you must not concern yourself with such matters. Just do your duty to the crown, and you will survive this and help to end the tyranny that threatens this nation and her people.” Eron nodded, swallowing down the lump of pride and fear that threatened to bring tears to her eyes or bile to her mouth—she knew not which. King Henrick II rose from his seat and kissed Eron’s cheeks, bidding her farewell. Eron turned on her heel to leave, and it was all she could do to stay balanced on her shaky legs.

Even as the door closed behind her, she was again contemplating what had led her to this task. “Mother, Father,” she whispered to the heavens, “I only want to honor you and the legacy you gave me. Please understand.”

Eron’s parents had been rich, but their deaths had left her orphaned at the age of fourteen. Fiercely independent, she had used her relatively meager titles to associate herself with those who could get her into the palace. Whispers here, advice there, and blind desire for elevation no matter what the cost had made her decide to attend at the Chateau, so that she would be a more appealing prize when her time within the palace came. Eron spent two years locked away in a den of indulgence and expensive tastes, both carnally and esthetically. Then, with her faithful new servant Corine in tow, she had left, rising quickly from the depths of the Chateau De Shaines to the center of her realm. But with the king’s palace and the proximity to royalty had come knowledge and time-consuming experience. Suddenly Eron was part of a world where the prince himself was within her grasp, but she was too busy doing her part for king and country for either party to notice until it was too late. The prince had become arranged in the last month, and as usual Eron was left doing the paperwork and spending nights with lesser men with smaller ambitions and mundane desires. As always, Eronica wanted so much more.

Eron’s mind was frozen with the staggering prospects now laid out before her. She let her feet carry her forward, placing one step before the other as though in a trance.

“Eron!” The prince caught her in the halls leading back to where Corine waited. Turning her bodily, he pinned her to the wall, letting his size keep her from escaping any longer. Eron gasped when his mouth came down on hers. They had never before had the chance to kiss, but she was too nervous and he too impatient to gauge the chemistry of the joining. Besides, Eron thought, he was a betrothed man now.

“Your Majesty, please,” she said, turning her head away. It only left her earlobe open to attack. She tried not to smile, then pushed him away at last. “Please,” she said again.

“You would deny us?” Prince Henrick III asked, his blue eyes serious and scrutinizing. He was ever so much more handsome and less boyish in this close proximity. “I may never see you again.”

“And now you want me?” she admonished. “You have had years to make your feelings known. This is not a land of secrets and scandals, Your Majesty. You had your chance, if I may be so bold.”

“And I was always too afraid of your beauty.” He sounded genuine enough. Even then, Lady Eronica was not royalty, and therefore could never have married him. Perhaps it had been she who had stayed away. “Now you’re leaving.”

“I’ll be back,” she promised. “Perhaps then you can take me as your lover for a time before I find some duke to marry, but I’ll not be your concubine, Majesty. I’m sorry.”

The Prince calmed, but he was obviously disappointed and perhaps honestly worried for her. “And tonight?”

Eron bit off a loud, uneasy laugh. “Tonight? Tonight I need my sleep if I am to have any sea legs worth a damn tomorrow, Majesty.” Enticed as she was by his offer, her mind screamed at her to let rest come before pleasure or duty, lest she no longer be able to stand. Eron smiled apologetically to him. “I would be so ill at ease, and if I drank my fears away, well, heaven and gods forefend what the consequences on the deck of that ship might be tomorrow.”

They both laughed at that. After a brief quiet, Henrick III said, “I don’t know yet what mission it is my father sends you on. Perhaps he will tell me tomorrow, when you’re gone.” Gods, she thought. How long had he wanted her? How long had the king, a man who openly wanted her for himself, known and still sympathized with his son?

“Just be careful, Lady,” he said, “For all our sakes.”

The Prince kissed Eron’s hand, and reluctantly turned away.

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