In This Land

Part 1

Copyright September 29-November 1, 2006
by Matthew Haldeman-Time

I am writing about men having sex with other men.  You must be eighteen or older to read my fiction.  This site is for consenting, responsible adults only.

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            “The pharaoh,” Bade said.

            “Of Orina Anoris,” Vade said.

            A few minutes passed in baffled silence.

            “The pharaoh,” Vade said.

            “Of Orina Anoris,” Bade said.

            A bug crawled across the granite step beneath their feet, taking its time in traveling behind Vade’s boots.

            In search of a reassuring point, Bade offered, “He’s very wealthy.”

            “And very powerful,” Vade said somewhat dubiously, not sounding comforted at all.

            “Immensely powerful,” Bade agreed.  He wanted to consider that to be a good thing, a selling point, but in his gut, it made him uneasy.  Nosupolis was small and rather poor, all things considered, while Orina Anoris was the oldest, wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world.  Bade would only reach the throne if his older brother, Tiko, met with an unfortunate and sudden end, while Anosukinom, the pharaoh of Orina Anoris, was the most powerful man alive.

            “Especially if he really can raise the sun,” Vade said.

            “That can’t possibly be true.”  Everyone knew that only a god could move the sun.

            “To them, it’s reality,” Vade argued.  “Do you want to live in a country where all of the citizens believe that their pharaoh makes the sun rise and set?  They believe that their pharaoh is a god, that their pharaoh’s siblings are children of gods, that-”

            “People here believe that stepping on three spiders before midnight is good luck,” Bade said.  “All it’s ever given me is a mess to clean up.”

            “They think that he sets fires with his mind and breathes underwater,” Vade continued, ignoring his comments.  “They say that when he cries, it rains.”

            “He’s powerful, wealthy, and beloved,” Bade said.  He might as well defend the pharaoh now; he had to get used to the idea.  Besides, Vade was only bringing up Orina Anoris’s eccentricities to be irritating; normally, they both found what they knew of that country to be fascinating, if mysterious.  “I imagine that he’s intelligent and well-educated.  His brother is charming and very handsome.”

            “Prince Orinakin?” Vade asked.  “He has purple hair.  Purple hair, Bade, he has purple hair.  And purple eyes.  Have you ever seen anyone with purple hair?  Have you ever heard of anyone having purple hair?”

            No, but it was a captivating sight.  “His aunt had purple hair,” Bade said.  “And her uncle before her.”

            “And that doesn’t seem strange to you?” Vade asked.

            Of course it seemed strange.  It seemed downright bizarre and somewhat creepy.  The rich, silken, varied purples of the prince’s hair were intriguing, though.  The previous diplomat, the prince’s aunt, had worn her hair in tightly braided coils pinned close to her head, but the new one, a young man near Bade’s age, wore his long and loose so that, caught on the wind, it shimmered in the sunlight and-

            “You’ll have to go,” Vade said.

            “It’s an honor to be asked,” Bade said.  He’d never been invited to anything nearly so important in his life.  He’d barely left his own country.  He didn’t spend much time away from the castle.  And now, suddenly, to be whisked off to Orina Anoris?  To meet the most powerful man alive?  To be considered for marriage?  Not that he’d ever be chosen - - he had no idea how to court a pharaoh - - but it was a tremendous honor.  He did, though, harbor many reservations about the entire enterprise, chief among which was how to get there.  “You don’t think that we’ll have to travel by balloon, do you?”

            “That’s how they go everywhere,” Vade said.  “They’d be insulted if you refused.”

            Orina Anoris’s diplomats always were very careful to respect local customs.  It would only be correct of him to respect theirs in return.  “But it’s a balloon.”  He’d watched the diplomat ascend and descend.  Those balloons went up so terribly, terribly high, they couldn’t possibly be safe.

            Idly scratching his shin, Vade said, “I wonder how many accidents they’ve had.”

            With a shudder, Bade asked, “Would you like to go in my place?”

            “I’d like to visit Orina Anoris,” Vade admitted.  “I’m curious about what it’s really like there.  But they asked for you, not for me.”

            The lack of animosity, the complete absence of bitterness in Vade’s tone, eased Bade’s guilt.  “He only invited me because I’m older.”  Six minutes and thirty-two seconds older, to be precise, but it had long been considered an important distinction.  He and Vade looked so exactly alike, they’d often switched places and easily fooled their tutors and guards.  He was sure that if Vade took his place this time as well, the deception would be simple.  There was no real danger of either one of them making it through the elimination process and being chosen as the pharaoh’s husband, anyway, and Vade would enjoy the adventure.

            “He said that he invited you because of your ethics, humility, and generous nature,” Vade said.

            Uncomfortable with the praise, Bade pushed it aside with the wave of one hand.  “He had to say something nice.  I’m not a suitable candidate, and if they don’t know it now, they’ll figure it out soon enough.  He should’ve invited Tiko.”

            “And leave you to rule the kingdom?” Vade asked, almost offensively amused by the thought.

            “Thrones have been abandoned before,” Bade reminded him.  “You’re expected to leave behind country and family to sit at the pharaoh’s side, and someone does exactly that in every generation.  Tiko would do it if he were called.  I’d be a better king here than a pharaoh’s husband there, anyway.”

           “Tiko would never leave Nosupolis,” Vade argued mildly.  “He was born to be our king.”

            Bade didn’t know what he, himself, had been born for.  He deeply loved Nosupolis, but he’d never been given a role to fill.  Tiko, destined to be king, had a place in the world.  Bade was a prince, yearning to give to his country and its people but lacking any real power or position.  Quizzing his tutors and shadowing his father had only resulted in irritated sighs.  The important people who truly ran the country didn’t want a sheltered and shallow prince pestering them with clumsy attempts to help.

            “When is Prince Orinakin coming back for you?” Vade asked.

            “In two weeks,” Bade said, studying the worn toe of his boot.  “I may bring as many trunks as I think I’ll need, but no people.  It’s customary to come alone.”

            Vade was looking down at his own feet.  “It’s also customary for the one who’s chosen not to come back, not for many years.”

            Taking a deep breath, Bade let it out.  “Yes, he mentioned that.”

            Another period of silence.

            Bade had never been away from Nosupolis, or away from Vade, for more than three days.

            “He probably won’t choose you, anyway,” Vade said.  “Anyone who tells people that he can move the sun is too interested in himself to notice great things about you.  He’ll just look for who can bring him money and power.”

            “Yeah.”  Bade didn’t look over, didn’t want to meet Vade’s eyes.  “I’ll probably be put out on a balloon coming home as soon as I get there.”

            “Yeah,” Vade agreed, his voice so cool and calm that Bade knew he was a wreck inside.  “We won’t even have time to enjoy your absence.”

            Anosalim Inanodat Kuladin A Rini was on his way to the temples when he saw a few young men loitering in an archway.  He didn’t remember their names, but their athletic, muscular builds and blue-and-white uniforms gave them away as members of one of the soccer teams.  Smiling, Rini slowed to an easy stroll, making eye contact.

            One of them gave him a sexy little wave.  The second made the sign to the gods; the third winked.

            “Hello,” Rini said, casually veering in their direction.

            “Prince Rini,” they said, bowing.  While Wave and Wink looked him up and down, the middle one turned a flustered red.

            “You must be on the Korigan team,” Rini said, standing too close to Red, smiling, licking his lips a little.  “You’re playing Gonoset at the festival.”

            “Yes, we are,” Wave said, stepping closer to his left side.  Wave seemed to be having trouble looking above Rini’s neck, and was absent-mindedly rubbing his own thigh; definitely an ass-grabber.

            “We’ve come to the palace to ask for your blessing,” Wink said, closing in on his right, dark eyes burning with sexual intent.

            “I’d love to give you everything that you’ve come for,” Rini said.  “Gonoset’s a strong team, though,” he added, toying with his silver necklace, which happened to be the only thing he wore above the waist.  Swallowing hard, Red stared at his deft fingers and naked chest.

            “We’re strong,” Wink said.

            “Very strong,” Wave added, licking his lips, eyeing Rini’s ass.

            “You do look fit,” Rini admitted, his other hand giving Red’s muscular arm a few quick squeezes.  Nice.  Leaving his hand there, stroking slowly, he turned his gaze on Wink.  “Do you think that you’re up to the challenge?”

            A few minutes later, Rini was plastered to Red’s hard, muscular body, stealing fervent kisses and moaning happily.  Wave was behind him, squeezing his ass, kissing the back of his neck, rocking against him, thickening erection snug against him through his tight pants.  Rini’s dick hardened by the second, his undulating body caught between their firm, athletic physiques, Wink’s hands snaking around and darting in to tease his nipples and stroke his skin.  As he broke away from Red to kiss Wink, his hands slid beneath the back of Red’s shorts, gripping the muscular globes of Red’s ass to-


            Caught between three bodies, tucked between an archway and a statue, Rini cursed under his breath and looked over his shoulder - - and Wave’s - - at Lukil.  “Is this important?”  Rini totally outranked Lukil, but Lukil himself never seemed to recognize that, like being the pharaoh’s assistant and cousin was somehow better than being the pharaoh’s brother, the previous pharaoh’s son, a prince, and, hey, a child of the gods.

            “The pharaoh wishes me to inform you and your brothers of some news,” Lukil said.

            Red’s hard-on no longer pressed against Rini’s stomach as insistently, which was just irritating.  Rini gave Lukil a dark and impatient look, the kind that his brother Talin was always giving him.  “What news?”

            Lukil grinned at him.  “Prince Orinakin’s coming home.”

            “Orinakin?”  Taking his hands off of Red’s ass, Rini turned, easing Wink and Wave aside to devote all of his interest to Lukil.  He hadn’t seen Orinakin in months!  “He’s coming?  When?”

            “Five days,” Lukil said.  “He’s bringing home another round of suitors for Anosukinom.  Once he picks up the last one in Nosupolis, he’ll come here.”

            “Five days!”  He turned back to the soccer players.  “Do you want to meet me in my room tonight?”

            Red looked a little surprised, casting a nervous glance at Lukil, but Wink and Wave said, together, firmly, “Yes.”

            “Great.”  He kissed them with a quick, “See you then.”  He didn’t want to neglect the athletes, not with the tournament so close, but Orinakin was coming home!  Without wasting any more time, Rini took off, running across the palace to the family’s wing.  It was almost time for dinner, and his brothers would be home from work.  Rushing through an archway and around a corner, he skidded on his flimsy new sandals and collided with Desin.  Cursing - - the guy was so muscular he was solid as a boulder - - Rini hopped on one foot, then the other, pulling off his sandals, as he said, “Orinakin’s coming home in five days!  Lukil just told me.”

            “Orinakin?” Desin asked, grinning.  “It’s about time.  He’s been gone for months.”

            “I know!” Rini exclaimed.  “I was never going to forgive him if he missed the festival!”

            “He has to be home by the fourteenth, anyway,” Desin said.

            “Yes, but I want him home for my festival,” Rini insisted.  Do you know where Selorin is?”

            “He was talking to Talin.”

            “Great.”  Carrying his sandals, Rini hurried to Talin’s room.  Talin wasn’t there, but Anosanim was.  Stuff like that was what irritated Rini about his brothers; the twins were always acting like they were interchangeable.  Whenever he was looking for Talin, he ran into Anosanim; whenever he needed to find Anosanim, he stumbled across Talin.  Orinakin and Selorin were even worse, always talking over each other and spending as much time together as possible.  At least Anosanim and Talin were nothing alike; Orinakin and Selorin acted like they were the same person most of the time.  Well, if anyone would know where Talin was, it was Anosanim.  “Where’s Talin?”

            “In Remin’s room.  Which one do you like better?” Anosanim asked, holding out two completely identical red ribbons.

            “It doesn’t matter,” Rini said.  “Talin’s never going to let you put that in his hair.”  He didn’t have time to waste on Anosanim’s frills today; he wanted to be the first to break the news to Selorin.  “Did you know that Orinakin’s coming home?”

            “Oh, Extra!”  Anosanim hugged him, happy and excited.  “I can’t wait to see him!  How soon?”

            “Five days.  He’s bringing a bunch of new boyfriends for Kudorin.”

            “New suitors!” Anosanim exclaimed, walking with him to Remin’s rooms.  “He must have so many new stories to tell!  I hope that he hasn’t been too homesick.  We’ve missed him so much!  Selorin’s practically a wreck!”

            Calling Selorin a wreck was kind of an exaggeration - - Anosanim was the one who’d cried like a baby when Orinakin had left - - but Rini knew what he meant.  “Hey,” he said, interrupting whatever Talin and Remin had been talking about.  “Have you heard?”

            “Heard what?” Talin asked.

            “Orinakin’s coming home!” Anosanim exclaimed.  “Oh, Talin, I can’t wait to see him again.  And he’s bringing suitors for Kudorin!”

            “He’ll be here in five days,” Rini said.

            “Praise the gods,” Remin said, reflexively touching his fingertips to his chest, his lips, his forehead, in the sign to the gods.  “Just in time for Tilidohatuk.  Have you told Selorin?”

            “I’m trying to,” Rini said.  “Do you know where he is?”

            “He’s in the belam,” Talin said.

            Right, like that was a lot of help.  “Which one?”

            “Suitors from where?” Remin asked.

            “I don’t know, somewhere,” Rini said.  “Nosupolis.”

            “The lesis belam,” Talin said.

            “The sulatim belam,” Remin said.

            “He told me that he was going to the lesis belam,” Talin said.

            “I saw him walking into the sulatim belam,”  Remin said.

            If Selorin had just gone into a belam, he was undoubtedly busy, but news this good couldn’t wait.  Rini wanted to tell him right away, to make him happy, to make him smile.  They’d all missed Orinakin, had all strongly felt the difference when he was gone, but Selorin had missed him most of all.

            Handing Anosanim his sandals, Rini went to check the belams.  There were three of them in the family’s wing, and he tried the second one first.  Opening the white door and stepping inside, he glanced around.  “Is Selorin in here?”

            “We haven’t seen him all day,” Tepeni said, rolling onto his back.

            “We haven’t seen you all day, either,” Kelano murmured, approaching with a smile.

            Rini grinned, enjoying the way Kelano’s gaze rolled appreciatively over his body, checking out Kelano’s attributes in return.  “Maybe I’ll come back after dinner.”

            “Why leave for dinner?” Kelano murmured, running his hand down Rini’s stomach and, oh, yeah, that felt good.  “You can eat right here.”

            “I have to,” Rini paused for a few burning kisses, his body going up in flames as Kelano’s experienced fingers unfastened his pants and slipped inside, “find Selorin.”  His own fingers slid through Kelano’s thick, black hair as he moaned softly.

            “Prince Selorin,” Kelano murmured, licking that spot on his neck that always made his toes curl, “will return here, sooner or later.”  A soft chuckle as he nuzzled behind Rini’s ear, his palm warmly cupping Rini’s balls.  “Everyone always does.”

            “You can wait for him here,” Tepeni offered, as Kelano licked sweetly, wetly, hotly, up and down Rini’s neck.  “We’ll help you to pass the time.”

            Groaning, throbbing in Kelano’s knowing hand, Rini panted out, “I’m sure that you will.”  Oh, this was too good to turn down.  “I’ll be back in ten seconds,” he promised, weakly prying at Kelano’s fingers, trying to extricate himself.  If he didn’t tell Selorin right away, someone else would get there first, and he liked breaking news too much to let that happen.  “Five seconds,” he vowed, tucking himself back into his pants.  “Go ahead and start without me.  I’ll be right back.”

            Kelano kissed him, licking at him gently.  “We’ll be waiting,” he whispered, looking at Rini with luscious dark eyes.

            “Two seconds,” Rini said, and ran out, rushing down the hallway and into the lesis belam.  “Selorin?

            Everyone pointed to the corner.

            “Selorin,” Rini said, picking his way through the assorted mats, pillows, and almost-naked bodies.  A thin curtain had been pulled around one of the beds for a bit of privacy; Rini stopped by the curtain, and when Panori, lounging on the next bed, ran a hand up his thigh, Rini ran his fingers through Panori’s hair.  “Selorin,” he said distinctly, impatiently.

            “Extra,” Selorin said, sounding tired but patient, “is this important?”

            “Yes.”  Snatching the curtain aside, Rini opened his mouth to impart the news, then grinned.  “Hi, Jekari.”

            Jekari smiled at him, looking very comfortable on his back under Selorin’s naked body.  “Prince Rini.”

            Lifting his head from Jekari’s shoulder, while Jekari caressed his chest and pressed loving, attentive kisses to his jaw, Selorin gave Rini a deliberately patient look.  “Is the palace under siege?”

            “Of course not.”  He grinned.  “Orinakin’s coming home.”

            “He is?” Selorin and about ten other guys asked.  Jekari started laughing.

            “In five days,” Rini said, loving the light that filled Selorin’s blue eyes.  “He’s bringing a bunch of suitors for Kudorin.  Once they pick up the guy from Nosupolis, he’ll come straight home.”

            “Five days,” Selorin repeated, like that was wonderfully close but not nearly soon enough.

            “Kudorin might know more,” Rini said.  “I came to you as soon as Lukil told me.”  Now that he’d made Selorin light up, he could go back to Kelano.  “I’ll let you two get back to whatever you were doing.”  He winked at Jekari, who blew him a kiss, and let the curtain fall back into place.

            “Where are you going in such a hurry?” Panori asked, slipping quick fingers into the waistband of his pants.

            “To have sex,” he said, letting his gaze drift down Panori’s perfect, slender, muscular body.

            “But you can do that here,” Panori reminded him with a smile, tugging him closer.

            Rini grinned.  “Meet me in my room.  There’s someone I want you to get to know better.”

            Orinakin couldn’t wait to get home.  He did enjoy his work, and he couldn’t imagine undertaking a different occupation, but he missed home with a dreadful ache.  He’d only been the royal diplomat just shy of two years now, and his predecessor, his aunt Riturihi, had assured him that he’d grow accustomed to long weeks and months of travel.  The travel in and of itself didn’t bother him; he was at ease in each country, comfortable with the different foods and languages, interested in the variety of cultures and the variety of people.  He didn’t mind long hours in the balloons, either, going from one country to the next.  But he missed home.  He missed Orina Anoris and everything about it.  The people, the palace, the language, the river.  He missed his family, especially his brothers, especially Selorin.  He constantly found himself turning to Selorin, only to find the seat beside him empty, or occupied by someone else; he was used to having Selorin’s familiar, constant presence at his side, and didn’t know what to do with himself when Selorin wasn’t there.  He talked to his assistants, and he wrote letters home, but it wasn’t the same.  Nothing could replace his brothers.  He missed Anosanim’s enthusiasm and Talin’s dry sarcasm and Desin’s comfortable, casual, normalcy.  He missed Remin’s even calm and Rini’s energy and Kudorin, he missed everything about Kudorin.

            He’d found five suitors for Kudorin on this last trip.  It was his responsibility, as the royal diplomat, to find the pharaoh a spouse of the same sex from a foreign land.  Kudorin already had an Anorian wife, Anikira.  Kudorin had been on the throne now for almost four years, and Orinakin had been on the hunt for two; so far, Kudorin hadn’t been satisfied with anyone Orinakin had offered him.  Orinakin had consulted with his aunt Riturihi, who had found his mother’s wife, and had prayed to the gods for guidance.

            This set of five suitors had turned out to be fairly diverse, but Kudorin was fairly diverse, himself.  There was T’rin, the first-born son of Y’nalin, chief of the Kela.  Tall, muscular, and tattooed with his own accomplishments, T’rin had a direct, predatory gaze.  He spoke in fairly short, concise sentences, and stood and walked with a great sense of inborn pride, his shaved skull gleaming.  Like all Kelan men, he wore only a vest, loincloth, and low boots.  His only bit of luggage was a small sack that seemed to contain more of the same.

            Dillane Naelt was the Mannillean ambassador.  Very knowledgeable in international matters and interested in foreign cultures, Dillane was one of the friendliest people Orinakin had ever met.  He tended to be rather chatty, but he also liked to listen and to learn, and had already befriended everyone in Orinakin’s entourage only a few hours into the journey.  He wore layers of colorful robes and had brought along several trunks full of belongings.  Since whoever married the pharaoh didn’t leave Orina Anoris until the next pharaoh took the throne, and pharaohs tended to have at minimum a thirty-year reign, if Kudorin chose Dillane, he’d have only what he brought with him or had sent to him, and Dillane was not a man who would be caught without his accustomed finery.

            Commander Dranzhicthin Whzurchitz of the Grintzadiwtchian army was a tall, imposing man.  His short, clipped brown hair was turning to gray at the temples, and his gaze was, at times, cutting and severe.  He wore his dark green uniform and had packed lightly.  He and T’rin seemed to have a mutual if tacit respect for each other; he had little interest in the other suitors.  Dranz was a man who approached new tasks as if they were missions, and his current mission was to marry Kudorin.  The other suitors were merely competitors to him.

            Aiae was the royal painter of Ilaeia under King Ouia.  Having been born a country peasant, he didn’t know Anorian, which was a part of every proper formal education; as a result, he could speak only with Orinakin and with Dillane, who had a basic understanding of Ilaeian.  He was uncommonly handsome, his glossy black hair always tied back neatly, his cheeks rosy, his gestures almost pretty.  Famous for his remarkable landscapes, he spent many of his hours in the balloon gazing down at the land passing below or sketching the horizon.

            The fifth and final suitor was Prince Bade of Nosupolis.  King Mindo’s second son, he was not heir to the throne.  He had brought fewer trunks than either Dillane or Aiae, which immediately told Orinakin that he didn’t expect to be chosen.  Bade was a prince, but Nosupolis was a poor and cold country, so he dressed in warm pants and sturdy boots.  His short hair was both blond and curly, neither of which was common in Orina Anoris, where most people had straight hair of brown or black.  His eyes were a glittering dark blue that reminded Orinakin of Selorin.  For a prince, he was remarkably unpretentious, making no distinction between his rank and that of the other suitors; he possessed a natural curiosity and asked the other suitors about their countries and their cultures.  He didn’t ask Orinakin many questions, although he did spend a fair amount of time glancing in Orinakin’s direction.  Whenever Orinakin approached, he made polite and pleasant conversation but seemed relieved when Orinakin turned away again.

            He was nervous.  He wouldn’t get past that anxiety until they reached Orina Anoris and he saw for himself that he had nothing to fear.

            Bade also seemed to have some trepidation about the balloons.  Nosupolins did not journey by air, and Bade had never ascended before; he had grown very pale at first, and kept both hands on the side of the basket.  Now, however, he seemed to have grown accustomed to the movement, although Orinakin predicted that his anxiety would return when it was time to descend.

            The balloons were, of course, perfectly safe.  Anorians had traveled by balloon for hundreds of years, and other countries had adopted the habit.  Orina Anoris still sent out the largest baskets, and their balloons went higher and faster than others.  Each basket was inscribed with a prayer to Etanoda, the god of air and flight, and the priests blessed each stage of the journey.  Most of Orinakin’s trips were made with one large balloon, but he had brought along a second this time, keeping one for himself and the suitors, and using the other for the rest of his entourage.  He wanted the suitors to have the space that befitted their station, and the chance to grow comfortable around each other.

            Orinakin’s entourage was fairly simple.  Three assistants in purple, three priests in white and gold (one priest of Etanoda, the god of air and flight; one priest of Okanoti, the god of safety and travel; one priest of Setanoto, the god of peace and diplomacy), a small band of guards, and five servants in warm shades of brown, light layered over dark.  He had a few more servants along this time, to tend to the suitors.  Aiae had yet to grow accustomed to being waited on, and watched the servants nervously, holding still until they were finished.  Dranz preferred to do things for himself and often dismissed his attendants, shooing them away and tending to his own needs.  T’rin was used to people doing such things as bringing him food, because a Kelan chieftain’s son would never prepare his own meals, but he certainly didn’t require anyone to help him dress, and in two minutes of negotiation on his first day of the journey, he told the servants how they could help him and when to leave him alone.  Dillane took having servants for granted, but he also chatted with them as they worked, pleasantly discussing his own experiences and asking about theirs.  Bade seemed used to being waited on but also was surprisingly capable of taking care of himself.  Apparently, like Orinakin, he’d grown up with servants dressing and grooming him, but had learned how to do those things for himself simply for the convenience of it, and preferred it that way.  Orinakin made a note that when they reached the palace, Bade wouldn’t require personal attendants.  He’d never made that adjustment for a prince before.  He wondered how many ways Bade would find to surprise him.

            After two days in the balloon, Bade was dreaming about walking on stable ground, feeling grass between his toes, and running across hard-packed dirt.  He missed the ground.  He missed walking on something that didn’t move.  He was tired of trying to gauge the distance between the basket and the ground to see if it was widening or narrowing, to figure out if they were drifting too high or beginning to descend at a time that they shouldn’t.

            What were they going to do if the balloon failed or the basket fell?  Jump out?  That wouldn’t exactly help.  He asked Dillane, who simply laughed and told him that a basket from Orina Anoris that held Prince Orinakin would never, ever fall.  Being in that basket with Orinakin, according to Dillane, was even safer than sleeping in his bed at home.

            Maybe the gods had taken special interest in Orinakin.  That might explain the purple hair.  And purple eyes.  Vividly purple, lighter violet around the edges darkening to a deep plum color.  His hair was at least five kinds of purple, different shades all blending together.  Bade knew that in some cultures, people dyed their hair to change its color, and if any country had that kind of ability, Orina Anoris would, so he suspected that Orinakin’s hair wasn’t natural.  After all, no one’s hair was actually purple.  Although his eyebrows were purple, and so were his long, thick lashes, light as lilac at the tips.  Even the hair on his forearms looked kind of purple, although his long sleeves tended to cover it, so Bade couldn’t be sure.

            Everyone in Orinakin’s entourage was Anorian, and they had regular brown hair and brown eyes like normal people, which was comforting.  Still, Bade wondered about Orinakin.  He wondered about a lot of things, and he had dozens and dozens of questions, but he didn’t know how to ask.  He didn’t know where to start.  He didn’t know what would be insulting.  Orinakin seemed like a kind and friendly person, but Bade couldn’t risk offending an Anorian prince.

            Nosupolis was considered insignificant, so much so that all more powerful countries overlooked it and other small countries dismissed it.  Bade’s father had given up on trying to get other nations’ attention and was simply working on conditions within his own borders with the country’s own tools, but Tiko had visions for the future that depended heavily on rejoining the international scene.  This trip was Bade’s chance to make a favorable impression on the pharaoh of Orina Anoris, whose ear was too distant even for Bade’s father, the king.  Bade knew that he should take advantage of this incredible, unlooked-for opportunity and ingratiate himself with Anorian royalty, beginning with his most immediate companion, Prince Orinakin.  But he was so aware of how important this chance was, he was too intimidated.  He wasn’t sure how to begin.  He didn’t even know why he’d been selected for this trip in the first place.  Simply because he was a prince?  Orinakin had said very nice things about him, but wasn’t that merely pleasant flattery?

            The other suitors had fine accomplishments.  Dillane was well-educated and an experienced ambassador who was used to moving in powerful circles; he would be an asset to anyone.  Aiae was not only a famous painter - - according to Dillane, he was the most celebrated artist outside of Orina Anoris - - but he was extremely handsome, with smoothly chiseled features and wide, darkly lashed eyes.  Dranz was a hero credited with winning an entire war for his country.  T’rin was set to be a Kelan chief and had his achievements tattooed across his muscular, lightly scarred body.  Bade couldn’t read them, but they certainly looked impressive.  In comparison with all of that, Bade had nothing to offer but his title.  He didn’t even have money, not that the pharaoh needed it.

            The closer they drew to Orina Anoris, the more Bade realized that his one great opportunity was slipping from his grasp.  This was his chance to do something for his country, to contribute something of value.  He’d been waiting for this all of his life; he just hadn’t expected it to be this big.

            He had to make a good impression on the pharaoh.  On everyone that he met, on all of the princes and advisors and priests.  He had to win the pharaoh’s heart, or at least the pharaoh’s hand in marriage.  If he became the pharaoh’s husband, became King of Orina Anoris, it could be the best thing that had happened to Nosupolis in hundreds of years.  It would bring prestige to his country, would attract the attention of not only the pharaoh but all leaders.  It would give Tiko just the right edge to make great things happen.  He trusted his brother, and Tiko was counting on him.  His entire country was counting on him.

            Before he got there, he had to be prepared.  He and Vade had, before he’d left, sat down together and gone over everything that they remembered from their lessons, but he’d already guessed that his information was woefully lacking.

            Taking a deep breath, he decided to speak with Prince Orinakin.  Questioning Dillane would be productive, but if he wanted to convince the pharaoh to marry him, he was going to have to convince the pharaoh’s brothers that it would be a good idea.  Avoiding Orinakin wouldn’t get him anywhere.

            He waited until the others had gone to sleep, until Orinakin sat up alone on one of the couches, writing by flickering lamplight.  Drawing his thick, long coat closer around himself in the cool air, Bade approached.

            Looking up, Orinakin smiled.  “Your Highness.”

            “Your Highness,” Bade said, returning the smile.  “Do you mind the intrusion?”

            “Not at all,” Orinakin said, setting aside his pen.  “Please, have a seat.”

            Sitting beside him, Bade privately admired the way his hair rippled in the breeze.  Nosupolin men hadn’t worn their hair long in recent centuries, confining such styles to women, but Bade liked the way it looked on Orinakin, whose hair was thick and healthy.  It probably felt silky.

            “We shall reach Orina Anoris tomorrow afternoon,” Orinakin said.

            “You must be looking forward to going home,” Bade said.

            “I’m very eager to get there,” Orinakin admitted.  “I’ve never been away for five months in a row before.”

            “Five months?” Bade asked.  On the Anorian calendar, that would be, he thought, one hundred forty days.  He couldn’t imagine being away for that long.  “Your family must miss you.”

            “I miss them, as well,” Orinakin said, and for once, his warm smile held a hint of sadness.

            Bade thought of his own family, of Vade, and wondered how Orinakin could stand it.  “I suppose that comes with your position.”

            “And it shall come with yours,” Orinakin said softly, “should you marry the pharaoh.”

            Despite his inner pang, Bade lifted his chin, making himself smile.  He wouldn’t admit to any insecurity; he couldn’t let them think that he wasn’t up to the challenge.  His homesickness wouldn’t get in the way; he wouldn’t let it.  “It would be an honor to wed Anosukinom.”

            “Yes, it would,” Orinakin agreed with what looked like an amused smile.  Was Orinakin laughing at him?  “He’s very special.”

            “I’ve never before had the honor of meeting him,” Bade said, seeing his chance to work in a few of his questions.  “Is there anything in particular that I should know?”

            “About Anosukinom?” Orinakin asked.  “I find that it is best to let people meet him for themselves before I explain too much about him.  But I would be happy to answer any specific questions about Orina Anoris.”

            Bade had plenty of those.  “Do many Anorians have purple hair?

            Orinakin burst into surprised laughter.  Quickly composing himself and tucking his hair behind his ears, he said, “No, there are only two of us, my aunt and I.”

            “Then most Anorians have dark hair,” Bade said.  “Brown and black.”

            “Yes,” Orinakin said.  “All native Anorians, except the pharaoh and the pharaoh’s children, have brown and black hair.”

            Bade wanted to ask if the purple was natural, but decided against it.  Too likely to offend.

            “Although,” Orinakin said, as if amused again, “my youngest brother does have some black in his hair.”  Shaking his head, he said, “I’d better start at the beginning, or I’ll confuse us both.  How much of our history are you familiar with?”

            “We studied the Dynasty of the True Rule, the Dynasty of the Scepter, and the Dynasty of the Twins,” Bade said.  “You are now in the Dynasty of the Seven Siblings?”

            “And have been for six thousand years,” Orinakin said.  “The details become more complicated, but the premise of it is simple.  In each reign, there are seven siblings.  Each of the seven is born with a divine purpose and an inherent position in our government.  We each have a unique hair and eye color.  A mark on the back of each sibling’s hand marks his or her number in birth order.”

            When Orinakin raised his hand in the lamplight, Bade could make out the Anorian three.  He’d seen it there before, of course, but he’d assumed that it was a tattoo.  “You were born with that?”  It was purple.

            “Yes.  I am Anosamim, child of the gods, third-born,” Orinakin said.  “Anosukinom is Anosarim, child of the gods, first-born, and therefore is the pharaoh.  His full name is Anosukinom Mutotanosa Situkabulanin Elanilanulanori Banotuda Kudorin A Rituliti.  Second is Anosatim Inanodat Anoremin A Hiti, the royal high priest.  His hair and eyes are golden.”

            “Blond?” Bade asked.

            “No, not like yours,” Orinakin said.  “Not as light.  Yours reminds me of sunlight.  His is more like gold itself, more…metallic.”

            “And he has a two on his hand,” Bade said.

            “Yes,” Orinakin said.  “My twin brother, Anosakim Inanodat Selorin A Diki, is the royal high judge.  His hair and eyes are blue.”

            “You have a twin?”  Bade couldn’t believe it.  “I had no idea.”

            “Oh, yes,” Orinakin said, with a smile apparently just at the thought.  “He and I are very close.  Seeing you and Vade together made me miss him very much.  The two of you have a strong bond.”

            “He’s my closest friend,” Bade admitted.  Frowning, he asked, “Your twin has blue hair?  Then you aren’t identical?”

            “We are, in every other way,” Orinakin said.  “Our hair color is unmistakable, but our faces are so alike, we don’t need mirrors.”

            Bade smiled; he knew what that was like.

            “The fifth sibling of our generation is Anosabim Inanodat Ebutadesin A Rituriti,” Orinakin said.  “The royal agriculturist.  His hair and eyes are green.”

            “That’s appropriate,” Bade said.  Green hair?  Blue hair?  “You have a very colorful family.”

            “In more ways than one,” Orinakin said, laughing.  “Then there’s another set of twins.  Anosanim Inanodat Hanibulatin A Ritusiri shall be the royal engineer, and his hair and eyes are orange.  Anosadim Inanodat Nisutalin A Lini shall be the royal artist, and his hair and eyes are red.”

            That made a second set of twins.  “What if they were born out of order?” Bade asked.  “What if your twin had been born before you?”

            “Then he would have purple hair and a three on the back of his hand, and I’d be the royal high judge,” Orinakin said.  “Throughout the generations, there have been many sets of twins among the seven siblings.  We are always born in correct order.  We have a divine purpose chosen for us by the gods.”

            Bade couldn’t begin to form a reply to that, so he focused on something that he’d noticed earlier.  He considered himself fluent in Anorian; the siblings’ names seemed to be pieces of words he knew.  “Your names are very musical.  What do they mean?”

            “They are ancient Anorian.  Do you want me to go through all of them?” Orinakin asked.

            “What about your name, specifically?” Bade asked.

            “Anosamim Inanodat Orinakin A Nimi,” Orinakin said.  “Anosamim is ‘child of the gods, third-born.’  Inanodat is ‘brother of the god among us.’  Orinakin is ‘one who is the face of the land.’  A Nimi is ‘the sixty-third,’ because I’m the sixty-third male diplomat in the Dynasty of the Seven Siblings.”

            “Brother of the god among us,” Bade repeated.  “Your people consider the pharaoh to be a god.”  He’d known that, but it was an odd thing to have confirmed.  He still wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of treating a man like a god.

            “Anosukinom is a god,” Orinakin said quietly.

            Bade nodded and changed the subject.  “Your generation has eight siblings, doesn’t it?”

            “Ah, yes.  It certainly does.”  Orinakin smiled now, fondly.  “Anosalim Inanodat Kuladin A Rini.  His name, as he’s eager to point out, means child of the gods, eighth-born, brother of the god among us, one who is more, the sixteenth.”

            “One who is more?” Bade asked.  “Does he have a destined occupation?”

            “No,” Orinakin said.  “Prince Rini is a gift to our parents, according to them, and a blessing to the world, according to him.  It is traditional, after years of apprenticeship, to come of age at twenty and step into an occupation.  He’s still eighteen, so he has time to decide, but he doesn’t have a god-given position in our government.  He does have an eight on the back of his hand, and his hair is black and white.  His eyes are silver.”

            “Black and white?” Bade asked.  Both?  “He’s only the sixteenth eighth male?”

            “He is only the sixteenth eighth sibling in the dynasty,” Orinakin said.  “In six thousand years, we have had only sixteen eighth siblings and three ninth siblings.  It is very rare for the pharaoh to have more than seven children.”

            “Then Prince Rini must be very special,” Bade said.  “Only one eighth sibling every three hundred seventy-five years?”

            Orinakin’s eyes widened in pleased surprise.  “Did you just calculate that?”

            “Yes,” Bade said.

            “That’s fantastic,” Orinakin said.  “Selorin and I are terrible at math.  We’re so bad at it, our tutors thought that we were faking it, because they’d never imagined that any of the royal siblings could ever be that stupid.”

            Bade laughed.  “Arithmetic’s always been easy for me and Vade,” he said.  “We raced right through our lessons.  Our history and language classes were harder, but math is mostly calculations, and those are simple.”

            “Simple?” Orinakin repeated.  “Five times seven plus two minus eight times twenty-one divided by three is not simple, it’s impossible.”

            Bade grinned.  “It’s two hundred three.”

            Orinakin’s purple eyes narrowed.  “You’re making that up.”

            “Do it backwards,” Bade said.  “Two hundred three, times three, divided by twenty-one, plus eight, minus two, divided by seven, is five.”

            “Is that what I said?” Orinakin asked, at a loss.

            Laughing, Bade said, “Yes.”

            Fascinated, Orinakin asked, “How did you do that?”

            “It’s a series of simple calculations,” Bade said.

            “But math isn’t simple,” Orinakin protested.  “I’m going to make you do this in front of Selorin.  He’d never believe me.”

            “Are your other brothers good at math?” Bade asked.

            “Ebutadesin, Anosanim, and Nisutalin are,” Orinakin said.  “The three younger ones,” he clarified.  “But they need math more for their work, so I suspect that the gods had something to do with that.  When we come of age, and go through the ceremonies to bring us fully into our destiny, the gods bless us with the experience and wisdom of those who came before us, and the skills necessary to perform our duties.  I spent years studying to prepare myself for this life, learning all about languages, geography, history, cultures, everything that I might need.  But when I became, officially, the royal diplomat, and Riturihi passed on her knowledge to me, and the gods blessed me, suddenly I could speak all languages fluently, I had a much greater understanding of geography and distances - - there’s information in my mind that baffles and amazes me.  And I’m much better at understanding people than I used to be.  I sense their moods, their needs, their interests.”

            “That must come in handy when you’re dealing with temperamental rulers,” Bade said, not sure how much of that he believed.

            “You’re skeptical,” Orinakin said.

            “Your gods seem to work much more directly and obviously in your life than I’m used to,” Bade said.  “They must be very…powerful,” he added, for lack of a better word.

            “The gods are very strong,” Orinakin said.  “They actively bless us every day, with health, with prosperity, with everything that we need.”

            Orina Anoris had lasted through wars, plagues, droughts, earthquakes, and famines.  Disaster after disaster had rocked the ancient worlds, had arisen even more recently, and Orina Anoris had never fallen.  Bade couldn’t help but wonder about their gods.

            “Orina Anoris is,” Orinakin said, “by far, the oldest nation there ever was.  We have survived when others have not.”

            Was Orinakin reading his mind?  Was this part of his “sense their moods, their needs, their interests” trick?

            “Your skepticism is all over your face,” Orinakin said with a small smile.  “Talk to me.  Ask me what you want to know.”

            “Is your hair truly purple?” Bade asked.  “How can you call a man a god?  What makes your gods more powerful than anyone else’s?  What makes Orina Anoris so ancient and powerful and different?  What can I do to win the pharaoh’s heart?  Why am I here?”

            Laughing, Orinakin said, “Now we get down to it.  Yes, my hair truly is purple.  I don’t know how to prove it to you.  You think that I dye it?”

            “It’s possible,” Bade said carefully, surprised at Orinakin’s continued good nature.

            “Yes, it is possible,” Orinakin said.  He frowned, as if honestly trying to figure out a way to prove himself.  “Anorians aren’t very hairy people, and I don’t grow facial hair,” he mused.  “If I-”

            “You don’t grow facial hair?” Bade asked.  Wasn’t Orinakin twenty-one?

            “We’re not very hairy by nature,” Orinakin said.  “My brothers and I, my mother and our aunts and uncles, we can, if we choose, exert control over the growth of our hair and nails.  If we don’t want to have facial hair, it’s easier to decide not to grow it at all than bother with shaving every morning.”

            “You can control whether or not your hair grows?” Bade asked.  This, he couldn’t accept.

            “A test,” Orinakin said, pleased.  “We’ll cut off my hair and you can see if it’s grown in the morning.”  Raising his hands, he swiftly began to braid his hair.

            “No, you don’t have to do that,” Bade said.  This was bizarre.  “Please, don’t cut your hair.”

            “It’s no bother to me,” Orinakin said.  “It’ll grow right back.”  His hair in a long, single braid down his back, he asked, “Do you happen to have a knife?”

            “You have nothing to prove to me,” Bade insisted.

            “You don’t believe me.”

            “You say such crazy things, people must fail to believe you a large percentage of the time,” Bade said.  “This one instance of it can’t be much more of a problem.”

            Orinakin laughed so hard, Bade worried that he’d waken the others.  “I’m going to enjoy speaking with you.”

            “Because I insult you?” Bade asked, baffled.

            “Because you’re honest,” Orinakin said, smiling.  “You say things and ask questions that other people are too polite or too shy or too slick to attempt.  You’ve forgotten to impress me and are simply being yourself and saying what’s on your mind, and I miss that.  My family does that with me, my brothers do it even when I wish that they wouldn’t, but other people don’t.”

            “You’re an Anorian prince,” Bade said.  “Everyone has to be on his best behavior with you.  Your brother rules the world.”

            “He doesn’t rule the world,” Orinakin said.  “He simply influences it.  Your second question was, how can I call a man a god?  Because he is both man and god.  Not half-man, half-god, but completely, fully a man and completely, fully a god.  Anosukinom is all men and all gods.”

            “That,” Bade said, “is impossible.  It also doesn’t make sense.”

            “Gods don’t make sense,” Orinakin said.  “Nothing has to make sense to be true.  Anosukinom means ‘living god among us.’”

            “Our tutors made us memorize his name,” Bade said.  “Vade could manage the entire thing.  I always got lost somewhere in the middle and had to put ice on my tongue.”

            Laughing, Orinakin said, “Anosukinom Mutotanosa Situkabulanin Elanilanulanori Banotuda Kudorin A Rituliti.”

            “That’s just showing off.”  Bade tried to remember the correct translation.  “Living god among us, highest child of the gods, ruler of all within…”  Wincing, he went over it in his mind again, picturing his tutor’s pinched little face.  “Ruler of all within our borders, most sacred, precious, divine, and holy gift to all in this land.  The one hundred eighty-second.”

            “I can’t convince you that he is a god,” Orinakin said.  “You will have to see it for yourself.  Or, you may want to speak with Prince Anoremin.  As royal high priest and Anosukinom’s brother, he is very qualified to speak on the subject.”  Looking amused again, he said, “I haven’t managed to convince you that my hair is purple or that Anosukinom is both a man and a god.  What was your next question?  What makes our gods more powerful than anyone else’s?”

            “Something like that.”  Bade mostly remembered blurting out a now-embarrassing blather of questions.

            “I wouldn’t say that our gods are more powerful,” Orinakin said.  “They are very present in our daily lives, but so are the gods of other people.  We put a lot of emphasis on being grateful to the gods, on serving them and praying to them and thanking them and offering tribute, but so do other people.  I think that we’ve been very blessed to have clear lines of communication between the people and the gods.  There seems to be a much more direct and obvious level of action and reaction, of question and answer, of prayer and response.  That doesn’t make our gods more powerful, or even more attentive.  That just demonstrates that our ways work well for us.  And that, to answer your next question, may be what makes Orina Anoris ancient, powerful, and different.”

            “You’ve found systems that work for you, and you’re following them,” Bade said.

            “Yes.  After six thousand years of the Dynasty of the Seven Siblings, we’ve worked out a lot of the details, and we stay with what produces good results.  The gods are happy, and the people are happy, so why make large changes?”  Absentmindedly tugging at the long sleeves of his purple robes, Orinakin tilted his head to one side.  “As for how to win the pharaoh’s heart, I don’t know what to say.  I would only want him to give his heart to someone who loves him, and you don’t love him.”

            “I’m sure that I’ll love him once I’ve met him,” Bade said.

            “Most people do,” Orinakin admitted with a brief smile.  “I can tell you,” he offered, “which tactics have failed the other suitors.  Do not court his brothers or his advisors.  We are not the ones you must impress.  Anosukinom is perfectly capable of making up his own mind.  We’re likely to appreciate your company, and he will of course hope for his future husband to get along well with his brothers, but if you only flatter us for his sake and are insincere, we’ll know.”

            “I’m not very schooled in charm and flattery,” Bade said.  “I wish that I were, but it’s not one of my strengths.”

            “Dillane adores that about you, and I must admit that I do, too.  I would like to have someone as well-intentioned and candid as you at some of my meetings and dinners.  It would be a nice change for everyone there.”

            “Thank you,” Bade said.  He’d never guessed that he was well-suited for international relations.

            “You may want to avoid spending too much time with Queen Anikira,” Orinakin said.  “Some suitors try to ingratiate themselves to her, but she often doesn’t appreciate it.  She is, obviously, very important to Anosukinom, and he values her opinions, and he’d prefer to marry someone she likes.  However, his relationship with his wife and his relationship with his husband are, in essence, separate.  The king and queen often become quite good friends, but their marriages to Anosukinom are distinct from each other.  You’re no more marrying Anikira than you are me.  You’re marrying Anosukinom, and he’s where all of your focus should be.”

            “But we will see her,” Bade said.  He was still trying to comprehend marrying someone who was already married.  Such a thing was unheard-of in Nosupolis.

            “Yes,” Orinakin said.  “She won’t judge you too harshly, because she wants Anosukinom to come to his own conclusions.”

            That was a relief, he supposed.

            “Your last question was, why are you here?” Orinakin asked.  “You’re here because you struck me as a special, unique kind of person.  You’re very generous.  You have a strong sense of duty.  You burn with the desire to make yourself useful, to accomplish great things for your country, for your people, for your king.  I don’t know what your destiny is any more than you do, but I sense that it will be a great one, and I don’t believe that it sought you in Nosupolis.  I believe that you are meant to be out in the world.”

            “My destiny?” Bade asked.

            “You’re going to be someone,” Orinakin said.  “Someone larger than the second son you’ve been.”

            “King of Orina Anoris?” Bade suggested.

            “If so, it would be a blessing for you and for us,” Orinakin said.  “Hand me the knife in your boot.”

            What?  “How did you know that I had a knife in my boot?”

            “You used it earlier.”

            Oh, yes.  So much for Orinakin’s uncanny insight.  “I’ve carried it for years.  Vade and I used to sit outside on the steps and whittle pieces of wood.  We still do, sometimes, but we’re not any better at it now than we were as children.”  Slipping his knife from his boot, he gave it to Orinakin.  It was small and simple, not as large or as deadly as the ones that T’rin and Dranz carried.  “We seem to be a rather well-armed group of suitors.”

            “You needn’t be intimidated,” Orinakin said, turning the knife over in his hands, studying the handle in the flickering light.

            “By what?” Bade asked.

            “T’rin and Commander Dranz.”

            “They remind me that I have no experience with life,” he said.  “Or with death.”

            “Having experience with death is not always a good thing,” Orinakin said.  “It is also not always a bad thing.  Experience with life is something that you have a lot of.  Haven’t you been alive for twenty-two years now?”

            “Only in my small world,” Bade said.  “I’ve barely been anywhere outside of Nosupolis.  I’ve never done anything.”

            “You’ve lived,” Orinakin said.  “You’ve loved.  You’ve cried.  You’ve laughed, shouted, celebrated, defended, and sang.  You’ve played and fought and struggled.  You’ve grieved.  You’ve hoped.  That’s living.  You had the chance to expand your world, and you took it, and now you’re here.  So are they.”  He rubbed his thumb over the letters inscribed on the blade.  “This is your brother’s.”

            “We traded a long time ago,” Bade said.  “His got a knick on the blade when he fell down the stairs, and since it was my fault that he fell, we traded.”

            “You don’t fight often,” Orinakin said.

            “No,” Bade said.  “It’s hard for anyone to stay mad at Vade.  He has an infectious smile and an even more infectious laugh.”

            Orinakin smiled at him.  “You realize that they say the same of you.”

            He blinked.  “Who?”

            “Everyone I talked to about you.  Your parents, your brothers, your old tutors.”

            “You did research on me?”  He should’ve guessed that, but no one had said a thing about it.  Orinakin had talked to Vade about him?  What had his old tutors said?  Well, since he was here, they must’ve said good things, so Orinakin must not have spoken to his old history tutors.

            “I wanted to know that I was making the correct choice.”  

            “Why did you choose me, and not Vade?”

            Orinakin’s eyes glittered like amethysts in the darkness.  “He didn’t call to me the way that you did.”

            Bade suddenly realized how very close to each other they were sitting.  And how very cold the air was, but how very warm he felt.

            Lifting the knife, Orinakin reached back and, with a few quick flicks, severed his braid.

            Oh, no.  “You cut your hair,” Bade said senselessly.  He’d cut his hair.  His gorgeous, gorgeous hair.  Orinakin offered him the knife, but he took the braid instead, and of course it was gloriously soft and silky against his skin.  “You shouldn’t have done that.”

            “It’ll grow back,” Orinakin said, carelessly ruffling what remained.  It fell just to his jaw now, framing his beautiful face.  “Maybe I should keep it short.  Ebutadesin always has short hair, and he looks great.  He works out in the fields a lot, and if it’s too long it gets in his way,” he explained.

            Bade took the knife from him, tucking it safely away.  “When’s the last time your hair was above your shoulders?”

            “Years ago,” Orinakin said.  “Maybe when I was fifteen.  Our older brothers had long hair, and Selorin and I decided to grow ours out, too.”

            Orinakin’s hair had been the most captivating thing that Bade had ever seen on an actual human being.  Now that half of it was gone, his eyes took the prize.  Bade wished that there were more light, so that he could get a better look, but, “I’ve never seen so many different shades of purple.”

            For a moment, Orinakin looked puzzled; then he blinked self-consciously.  He hesitated for so long that Bade realized: Orinakin didn’t know what to say.

            Bade grinned, wanting to laugh.  This was a priceless moment.  Orinakin’s career was all about speaking, conversing, communicating, and for once, he was speechless.

            Seeing his humor snapped Orinakin out of it; he smiled back and said, “On behalf of the gods, I thank you for your compliment.”

            “You’re welcome,” Bade said.

            “It is late,” Orinakin said, glancing around, tucking his hair behind his ears.  The smooth, firm line of his jaw was highlighted by the frame of his hair, and his long, elegant neck was exposed.  Bade wondered if it could feel as satiny, silky-smooth as it looked.  “It would be best for us to retire for the night.”

            “Of course,” Bade said.  “Thank you for your time.”

            “It was a pleasure,” Orinakin said.

            It really had been.  Rising, Bade bid him good night, then went to the back corner of the basket where a few small tents had been arranged.  Crawling onto his, he realized that he still held Orinakin’s braid.  Deciding neither to toss it overboard nor hand it back, he tucked it under his pillow and went to sleep.

Kudori|  Remin  |  Orinakin  |  Selorin   |  Desin  |  Anosanim  |  Talin   |  Rini

Continue on to part two

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