In This Land
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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Continued from part one
Selorin had spent long hours in his office, studying the details of upcoming cases, going over his schedule with his clerks and assistants, and meeting with lawyers. He’d returned to the palace late, and gone to the temples to kneel before the altar of Okanoti, the god of safety and travel, who would bring his brother safely home to him.
He didn’t know how long he’d been there when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder and a calm, low voice said, “Praying won’t bring him home any faster. Have you eaten anything since this afternoon?”
Remin. Sighing, Selorin stood and turned to face his older brother. “I had lunch.”
“In other words, no. Starving yourself won’t bring him home any faster, either,” Remin said, putting an arm around his waist and guiding him along. “We’ll have dinner, and then you’re going to bed.”
Sometimes he suspected that his brothers and assistants conferred with each other on how many hours he spent at work, how often he ate, and how he slept. It was true that he devoted a lot of time to the office, to his cases and decisions, but that was necessary for the job. Besides, it kept his mind off of Orinakin, sometimes. “Haven’t you already had dinner?”
“I was giving counsel,” Remin said. “There are some Anorians who have distant relatives and friends in Vafiance who have been affected by the drought there.”
That would explain the lines around his eyes. “For how long?” He didn’t like how pale Remin looked.
“A few hours.”
Selorin translated that to mean roughly six hours, and likely more. “You could have let some of the other priests speak with them,” he said. He slid his own arm around Remin’s waist and found, as he’d suspected, that Remin had lost weight again. One of Remin’s favorite activities was eating; he loved to eat, loved to try new dishes, loved sweet things, loved spiced treats, loved the most common foods and the most exotic. Despite the amount of food he ingested when any was in sight, he was thin as a stick. He invested so much of himself in his work, in honoring the gods, in bringing the gods and the people closer together, in discerning divine will and bearing the people’s burdens and praying and interpreting, that his body couldn’t sustain any kind of bulk, and he often missed meals in favor of work. His constant and unwavering devotion to the priesthood took its toll, and after he’d lost a dangerous amount of weight during his first year, Kudorin had ordered him to spend time, at least occasionally, working with Desin. Desin took pleasure in ensuring that those days were filled with a great deal of physical labor, and now Remin had a sleek layer of muscle over his slender body, although he still didn’t like spending so much time away from his own work.
“There are times when the people wish to be as close to the gods as possible. They find comfort in my presence that they don’t find with the other priests. During times of tragedy, I cannot deny them any solace that it is in my power to offer.”
“Orinakin’s letter said that he pledged our help,” Selorin said. “Kudorin will do whatever he can.”
Remin murmured a few words of prayer and thanks, then said, as they stepped into the dining hall, “You cut your hair.”
“It looks terrible,” Selorin said, running his fingers through the blue strands. “I’ll probably just grow it back out.”
“You miss Orinakin,” Remin said, servants entering with platters of food as the two of them seated themselves.
“Of course I do,” Selorin said. “We all do.”
Remin nodded, waiting for the servant to fill the goblet at his
hand. “The four-legged table does not stand on three legs alone.”
“A seven-legged table could stand on six,” Selorin pointed out.
“Eight.” Rini sat on the edge of the table at Selorin’s elbow. “An eight-legged table.”
“Seven,” they said. “You know,” Selorin told Remin, “that
Orinakin wouldn’t be doing his part to steady the table if he stayed home.”
“He could,” Rini said. “He could stay here and let people come to him, instead of going to see them. Kings, presidents, and prime ministers come here all of the time.”
“It’s important for him to see, first-hand, how other people live,” Selorin said. “He needs to see their conditions. He needs to judge them for himself, so that he can present Kudorin with an accurate description. And, it’s important for us to show respect and interest in other societies. We want to help people, Extra, and we can’t do that properly or generously if we make them come to us. Sometimes we have to go to them.”
“It doesn’t always have to be Orinakin,” Rini said. “Talin could go sometimes.”
“You’d miss Talin if he were gone,” Remin said, as the servants refilled his plate.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Rini said, taking the fork from Selorin’s hand and feeding himself. “Anosanim would,” he decided.
“We all would,” Remin said, as one of the servants stepped forward to hand Selorin another fork. “Would you like a plate?”
“No, I’m fine,” Rini said, taking another forkful of potatoes. “I can’t wait to see Orinakin again. I hope that the suitors are fun this time. That last set, those guys were boring. That governor was hot, though. I wish that he’d stayed longer.”
“I don’t envy Orinakin his task,” Remin said.
“Finding men within Kudorin’s age range who not only are homosexual but also are willing to leave their home countries, their families and duties, to travel here for the possibility of becoming the pharaoh’s husband, it is not a simple task,” Selorin said.
“And even after that, Kudorin never marries any of them,” Rini said. “He just sends them back home.” Shaking his head, he took a sip from Selorin’s goblet. “It’s too bad that he can’t at least have sex with them first.”
“You mean, it’s too bad that you can’t have sex with them first,” Selorin said with a smile.
“Well, sure,” Rini said. “I’d never have sex with anyone Kudorin was still considering, but if he isn’t going to marry them after all, why not - - I mean, there’s no reason that we have to send them home without - - they’re hot! They’re good-looking, attractive guys. If Kudorin isn’t going to have sex with them, why can’t we?”
“It’s disrespectful,” Selorin said. “To them, to Kudorin, and to the process.”
“The process?” Rini repeated. “The process doesn’t care.”
“The process always cares,” Selorin said.
Chewing and swallowing, Remin said, “If you wish to disgrace the honor of the pharaoh and the ways through which he seeks love, the way through which your pharaoh mother found your queen mother, as pharaohs have done for generation upon generation through the ages, then do as you will. Only remember,” he added, “that while the wind answers not to the rock, the-”
“You’re just upset that you can’t have sex with them, either,” Rini said.
Reaching for his goblet, Remin sighed. “The things that I could’ve done if I’d only had five minutes with that governor…”
Despite having gone to bed late, Bade was still among the first to awaken. Once dressed, he joined T’rin and Orinakin at the breakfast table. Sitting, he stared at Orinakin as servants placed food before him. “Your hair’s long again.”
“Good morning,” Orinakin said with a smile.
“Good morning,” Bade replied automatically, getting back up and walking around to stand behind Orinakin. His hair was down below his shoulders again, a bit shorter than it had been yesterday morning, but much longer than last night. “How did you do that?”
“I told you,” Orinakin said. “I grew it back.”
Taking Dillane’s customary seat at Orinakin’s side, Bade leaned in, trying to see where the extra length came from. It had to be a wig, or some of those braided-in hair extensions that the women of Linnere used.
“I cut my hair short last night,” Orinakin was explaining to T’rin. “To show Prince Bade how quickly it was capable of growing back.”
“He still doesn’t seem to believe you,” T’rin commented.
“No, he doesn’t,” Orinakin agreed. Bade leaned closer, narrowing his eyes, trying to see if the roots really were purple. They certainly looked purple, but an Anorian prince who dyed his hair wouldn’t do an inferior job of it.
“I find that people who don’t believe their eyes will believe their hands,” T’rin said. “What one sees is not as real as what one touches.”
“Very wise,” Orinakin said. “Prince Bade, would you-”
He’d been concentrating on locating the point where the real hair ended and the fake began, but suddenly the meaning of their conversation caught up with him, and he realized what Orinakin was about to offer. “No, thank you,” he said quickly, sitting back.
“I will say that people have stared at my hair for all of my life,” Orinakin said. “I know that they’ve wondered about it. Among some of the less advanced societies, I’m referred to by the color of my hair and the mark on my hand, not by my name.” T’rin nodded casually in confirmation. “But no one’s ever outright asked me if the color was real before.” He smiled at Bade. “Thank you.”
“The people talk and wonder,” T’rin said. “But you are understood to be marked by the gods, and therefore you are accepted.”
“I can’t be the only person who’s ever asked you,” Bade said. “Someone must have said something.”
“They’re all too polite,” Orinakin said.
“You aren’t offended at the insult to your honor and your gods that he doesn’t believe you?” T’rin asked.
“No,” Orinakin said. “There’s no malice in it. Bade is simply curious, and he means no offense, therefore I take no offense.”
“Anyone who questioned my honor and the power of my gods would find his blood on my knife,” T’rin said. He paused to eat a slice of fruit. “If I took offense,” he added, swallowing.
“Then I shall take great pains not to offend you,” Bade said.
T’rin shrugged dismissively. “You do not offend me. You are, as Prince Orinakin says, without malice. You are also not without intelligence, and so your questions are not dull. I do not choose to be plagued by the prattling of idiots.”
“You may have trouble being King of Orina Anoris, then,” Orinakin said. “One of your main duties will be to host the pharaoh’s guests, and not all of them fascinate.”
T’rin’s gaze was direct. “When I pledge myself to Anosukinom, I shall commit myself to fulfilling any duty that he lays before me. If it falls to me to host and entertain the palace’s guests, then I shall do so.”
Bade admired T’rin’s confidence. “Does your father entertain many official guests?”
“Yes,” T’rin said. “More than yours.”
Bade was so surprised by T’rin’s boldness, he laughed. Beside him, Orinakin joined in, and the corners of T’rin’s mouth lifted. “If you would like me to view you as a formidable opponent, you need only say so,” Bade said. “Or, perhaps no words are needed. The marks on your body speak for themselves.”
“That is their intent,” T’rin said. “You bear no tattoos, no scars?”
“It isn’t customary for Nosupolins to tattoo themselves,” Bade said. “I do have a small scar on my knee, from when I was very young. My older brother dropped a plate, and I was so little I crawled right over the shards of it.”
T’rin nodded. “My first scar is from when my older sister dropped me and I cut my leg on a rock.”
“Perhaps I should thank the gods that my older brothers did me no harm,” Orinakin said.
“You have an older sister?” Bade asked T’rin. “But you, as the oldest male, will become chief?”
“Yes. Would not your brother become king, whether or not he had an older sister?”
“Yes,” Bade admitted. “Women only take the throne if there is no male heir.” He turned to Orinakin. “But whoever is first-born becomes pharaoh.”
“We do not assign roles according to sex,” Orinakin said. “Just as my mother was pharaoh and my aunt was royal diplomat, we have men and women in all occupations. All that matters is capability.”
“Our people would not follow a woman,” T’rin said.
“If the pharaoh chooses you,” Bade said, “do you have a younger brother to take over?”
“My father has many sons,” T’rin said. “They are qualified.”
“Chief Y’nalin has nine wives,” Orinakin explained.
Nine?! “That must make for a very large family,” Bade said, trying to sound conversational and not shocked. He’d heard of such things, but he’d never met anyone who lived that way. “Then you, as chief, would also be expected to take several wives?”
“I should have at least three already,” T’rin said. “But I have refrained. I hoped to elevate my tribe by marrying the pharaoh, and I knew that I would not be considered eligible if I had either a wife or a child.”
Bade was fascinated. “Then you’ve been preparing for this for a while.”
“The pharaoh is both my sex and my age,” T’rin said. “To wed him has been my goal.”
Bade had never even considered it. He’d never imagined that anyone would find him interesting or accomplished enough. He wondered, though, about T’rin’s sexual interests. The pharaoh was obviously a man, but T’rin kept talking about having wives, not husbands. Orinakin wouldn’t select someone who preferred women, would he?
“The Kelan chief always takes several wives, to ensure that there will be many healthy male warriors,” Orinakin said. “T’rin would, like his father and grandfather before him, do his duty and father many children.”
“Yes,” T’rin agreed.
“But he prefers men,” Orinakin added.
“Yes,” T’rin said again, nodding. “I have bedded many warriors. I have selected several men from among our captured nations and made them my,” he glanced at Orinakin, “the word for,” and he said something that Bade didn’t recognize.
“Harem,” Orinakin said. “Or belam.”
T’rin nodded. “I have made a belam for myself,” he told Bade. “To meet my needs.”
“You have a harem?” Bade could hardly get the word out. How could anyone discuss such things in public, in the open air of day, during a meal?
“Does not the pharaoh?” T’rin asked.
“He has two,” Orinakin said. “One male, one female.”
A wife, a husband, and two harems? How much sex did one man need? Bade wouldn’t even know what to do with a harem. Well, there was always the obvious, but wasn’t it embarrassing, to have sex in front of other people? Or maybe the other people in the harem didn’t watch? He’d never even heard of a male harem before, but apparently they were popular. “My education is sorely lacking.”
“Good morning, everyone,” Dillane said, joining them, taking Bade’s seat since Bade was in his. “Your Highness, Your Highness, First Son of Y’nalin. What are we discussing on this bright and sunny morning?”
“Belams,” T’rin said.
“One of my favorite subjects,” Dillane said. “I, myself, have not been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the pharaoh’s infamous favorites, but I must say that, if they’re anything like Prince Orinakin’s, I can see why he hides them away.”
“He doesn’t hide them,” Orinakin said. “He simply, oh, go on, ask me,” he told Bade.
“You have a harem?” Bade asked, shocked.
“It’s not my harem,” Orinakin said.
“It’s also more than one,” Dillane said with a wink.
“There are seven belams in the palace,” Orinakin said. “One male and one female, for the pharaoh, shared by his husband and wife. Three for the siblings. Two for honored guests, one of each sex.”
“You have three harems?” Bade asked. “What do you do with three harems?”
Dillane snickered. T’rin chuckled. Orinakin smiled and said, “I’m sure that you can figure it out.”
Bade wanted to fall out of the balloon. “I didn’t mean to phrase my question so badly.” Three harems? They had to be filled with some of the most beautiful women in - - or were they? Maybe one of them was populated with men. Handsome, sexy, half-naked men who, oh, yes, Bade was going to fantasize about that for quite a while.
“I have to share them with my brothers,” Orinakin said. “But there are fifteen people in each belam, so I can’t complain that I lack attention.”
“Fifteen people?” Dillane repeated. “Let us be more candid, Prince Orinakin. Fifteen men. Fifteen beautiful, tempting, highly skilled young men who captivate with a smile. I wonder how your brothers ever get anything else done.”
Orinakin had crammed his harems full of men? Exclusively men? Bade gazed in wonder and envy. He couldn’t imagine rooms full of attractive young men whose only occupation was to pleasure and satisfy him.
“They’re nothing compared to the pharaoh’s belams,” Orinakin said, almost in self-defense.
“I am not, I fear, too much gentleman to admit that I have sampled the rich offerings of the palace belams,” Dillane said. “I trust that, even though we are honored guests, during this visit we will be expected to eschew such pleasures?”
“Anosukinom would make no such claims upon you,” Orinakin said. “The belams are there for your enjoyment. Should you be chosen as his future husband, the situation will change, but as long as you are simply suitors, seek your pleasure as you would.”
T’rin made an agreeable grunt, but Bade was trying to grasp the concept that he’d just been offered the pleasures of a harem. A harem? Him? He was allowed to visit a harem? An actual harem?
“Our guests often prefer to have someone sent to their rooms,” Orinakin said. “It is more discreet than a public visit to the belam itself.”
“Wherever you go in this world, you will never see any people more beautiful than those in Orina Anoris,” Dillane said. “Even Aiae would be lost in a crowd there. Our royal host,” he gestured to Orinakin, “is a perfect example.”
Orinakin really was strikingly beautiful. His aunt, even in her later years, had been quite beautiful as well. Orinakin’s high cheekbones, straight nose, and sensuous mouth put sculpture to shame, and those captivating amethyst eyes-
“I appreciate the compliment,” Orinakin said with a smile, “but I’m not nearly as handsome as that. I do trust, however, that you will not find Anosukinom lacking.”
Dillane shook his head before taking a sip of water. “I would be hard-pressed to find any human being to rival the pharaoh. The brilliance of his eyes alone makes me blink every time I look at him.”
Bade frowned. The priest was gold, Orinakin was purple, Orinakin’s twin the judge was blue, there had been green and orange and red and, what was the eighth brother? Black and white hair with silver eyes? “What color is the pharaoh?”
“What color is the pharaoh?” Dillane repeated. “He-”
Orinakin put up a hand, silencing Dillane. “I would prefer that Prince Bade wait to meet Anosukinom for himself before being offered too much information.”
“You,” Dillane said with a broad smile, “are in for quite a surprise.”
Bade didn’t like the sound of that.
The morning passed quickly, and after lunch, the servants began to pack up everything to prepare for descent. Soon enough, the balloons crossed the river, the great, wide, and generous Edi. Lush, vibrant fields rolled before them. “Orina Anoris,” Orinakin said, as the others gazed over the land. “May the gods forever bless it.” Already, his heart felt lighter, his mind clearer. The sky was a pure blue, the air fresh, the sun bright. The landing fields were in view, with the great palace just beyond; the sight of those familiar white walls brought warmth to his chest. He’d only stepped into his role as royal diplomat almost two years earlier, and he still wasn’t used to spending weeks and months away from home. Wherever he was, Orina Anoris called to him. According to his aunt, it always would.
Sparing a glance for his guests, Orinakin saw that Dranz and T’rin stood with their feet planted apart, arms crossed over their chests, impassive expressions warning the basket not to test their will. Dillane sat on one couch, talking to Aiae; Bade sat on another, clutching the side of the basket with both hands, looking a bit pale but otherwise all right.
As the balloon began its descent, on its way in for a gentle, easy landing, Orinakin found himself walking closer to the basket door, eager to step onto his homeland again.
“Selorin!” The sight of his brother gripped Orinakin’s heart. Scrambling over the edge of the basket, he hit the ground before the conveyance did, laughing and throwing his arms around his twin. “Selorin.”
“You finally made it,” Selorin said, a tight squeeze cutting off his air. “It’s good to see you.”
Selorin. The sight of the river had told him that he was home again, but now he truly felt it. “How are you?” Orinakin asked, finally releasing his brother. Still in formal judge’s robes, Selorin must have come directly from court. “What have I missed?”
“The Alanohi Festival was a grand affair this year,” Selorin told him. “Libi did very well in his last turn as festival leader.” Selorin’s blue-eyed gaze drifted past Orinakin to the balloon. “Is our future king among these men?”
“It is my hope,” Orinakin said, dropping his hand as he turned. “Let me introduce you.”
As they’d crossed the river into Orina Anoris, Bade had been stunned by the lush beauty of the land before him. Was it something in the soil that created such rich greens? He’d been admiring the scenery when he’d caught sight of an enormous, sprawling complex, shimmering white in the bright sunlight; realizing that it could only be the palace, he’d wondered how anyone could call such an elaborate structure “home.” It was several times larger than the castle he’d grown up in, and he could only imagine how ornate it would be up close.
Realizing that the servants were preparing to land, that the balloon was losing altitude, he’d quickly seated himself, holding on to the side of the basket for security. While he’d managed to become somewhat accustomed to being airborne, he still wasn’t sure about the safety of the landing process. He’d been watching the ground come closer and closer, eyeing it uneasily, when, as the basket came within a few feet of the grass below, Orinakin had vaulted right over the side!
Disbelieving, Bade had gasped, while Aiae said a few surprised words beside him. Orinakin had landed safely, however, and immediately stepped forward to embrace someone.
This new man was dressed in fancy, formal, layered blue robes, with long hair in varying shades of blue braided back from his hairline tightly to his scalp before hanging loose over his shoulders. This must be the judge, Orinakin’s twin brother.
The basket landed with a surprisingly gentle thud as servants bustled around, tying down the basket and carrying trunks. Bade stood carefully, testing his legs. He felt a bit weak in the knees, but it was a relief to have solid ground beneath him again. Joining the others in walking from the basket, he stepped onto soft grass with firm dirt beneath, and sighed with relief.
“Your Highness,” Orinakin said, giving him a smile, “may we offer you a chair?”
With a quick glance, Bade determined that Orinakin was amused by his wobbly gait, but wasn’t truly mocking him. He also noticed that, despite the obvious difference in coloring, Orinakin truly did look exactly like the blue-haired man. They both shared the same height, build, and bone structure. The straight nose, the arching eyebrows, the soft pink lips with the same little amused quirk, it was uncanny.
Immediately missing his own twin, he said, “No, thank you, at the moment, I’d rather enjoy feeling the ground beneath my feet.”
“As you wish,” Orinakin said with that same amused smile. “Prince Bade of Nosupolis, may I present my brother, Prince Anosakim Inanodat Selorin A Diki, royal high judge of Orina Anoris?”
“Hello,” Bade said, a bit distracted by the variety of hues in the man’s eyes. There were at least five shades of blue in his hair and ten in his eyes. “It is an honor to be here in your country.”
“Thank you for gracing us with your presence,” Selorin said.
“I look forward to a very happy stay,” Bade said. As Orinakin and Selorin moved on for more introductions, Bade admired the way the sunlight played across the rich purples of Orinakin’s hair, then gazed towards the palace. The servants already had begun to load carts with the trunks from the second balloon, presumably for transport to the palace. He wondered how many people lived there. How many people attended the pharaoh? It was such a large complex, what did it contain?
A carriage was coming along the smooth road from the palace. As it drew nearer, and Bade realized that it was coming straight towards him, he paid it more attention. An open carriage, it was pulled by three side-by-side horses. The impeccable grooming of the horses, the shine and polish of the carriage, and the driver’s neat attire suggested that this was a royal conveyance. A young man lounged on one of the benches, and Bade stared at him with stupefied fascination. Black and white hair stood all over his head; he wore blue pants with a red scarf about his neck. Over his finely detailed musculature, the skin of his chest and arms was as smooth and perfect as delicately poured cream. As the horses slowed to a stop, he stood and called out, “And how many of those trunks are filled with gifts for me, Orinakin?”
Surprised at the young man’s boldness, Bade saw Orinakin excuse himself from Aiae. This must be the eighth, youngest brother.
“Where are your manners?” Orinakin asked, approaching the carriage. His smile was warm; his tone was indulgent.
“Where are your clothes?” Selorin asked, with the same patient tone.
“I have on more than he does,” the young man pointed out, his gaze flickering over T’rin. He licked his lips, shifting his weight from one foot to the other with sensual fluidity. “Orinakin,” he said, stepping down from the carriage with a suggestive smile, “introduce me to our guests.”
Humoring him, Orinakin put an arm around his waist, guiding him forward to Bade and the others. His eyes were a remarkable pure silver; the way his gaze lingered on certain parts of Bade’s anatomy brought a blush to Bade’s cheeks. “Prince Bade of Nosupolis,” Orinakin said, “may I present Prince Anosalim Inanodat Kuladin A Rini, youngest brother of the pharaoh?”
“It is an honor,” Bade said, attempting to hide his curiosity.
“It’s a pleasure,” the young man corrected him with a sultry smile.
A few minutes later, after the eighth brother, who asked them to call him Rini, had been introduced to all of the suitors and had flirted with each one, they all got into the carriage for a ride to the palace. Selorin invited Bade and T’rin to sit along the first bench with him; Dranz, Dillane, and Orinakin sat on the second bench; Rini sat in the back with Aiae.
Under the guise of checking out the scenery, Bade glanced back there halfway through the ride. Talking softly, wearing a slyly flirtatious expression, Rini was sitting very close to Aiae, slowly tugging his scarf loose; it slipped free of his neck and pooled in his lap, baring the smoothness of his neck, exposing the strength of his shoulders. Aiae didn’t seem to know where to look; Bade quickly faced forward again.
The closer they came to the palace, the more detail Bade noticed. Huge, elaborate carvings covered the walls; smaller ones decorated the rooflines. The people of Orina Anoris didn’t believe in depicting their actual gods, but they had symbols to represent each god’s essence or purpose, as Bade understood it; he assumed the palace decorations to be those symbols. They were incredibly detailed, like nothing he’d ever seen before, surpassing even the greatest carvings and sculptures from the castle at home.
As they neared the palace, they passed more and more people; everyone bowed as the carriage rolled by. Anorians had dark eyes, dark hair, and various kinds of clothing - - pants, skirts, robes, gowns, in all fabrics and colors. Nothing as fine as what Orinakin and Selorin wore, but nothing quite peasant-like, or at least like what peasants wore in Bade’s experience. Legend and rumor had it that even the poorest in Orina Anoris had an enjoyable way of life. Their bows didn’t seem perfunctory; they smiled, as if pleased to see the carriage pass. Legend and rumor also had it that no leader was as beloved or revered as the pharaoh.
Traveling under an enormous archway decorated with nineteen distinct symbols, they entered the palace walls, coming into a large courtyard. The horses came to a stop, and servants stepped forward as if silently summoned, letting down the carriage steps and unhooking the horses.
“You have come a long way,” Orinakin said, as everyone disembarked. “These women,” as women in long brown gowns materialized out of nowhere, “will show you to your quarters. I will be honored to dine with you tonight, and in the morning, I will be pleased to introduce you to the pharaoh.”
They wouldn’t see the pharaoh until tomorrow? The nervous knot in Bade’s stomach tightened unpleasantly. He wanted to begin, wanted to make progress. As Orinakin discreetly translated, Aiae looked disappointed, too; T’rin and Dranz, as always, appeared to take the announcement in stride.
One of the women separated herself from the others and approached him with a benign smile. “Your Highness,” she said with a respectful bow, “if you will permit me, I shall show you to your rooms. My name is Beneta, and if you should ever want for anything, it shall be my honor to provide it.”
Filing her name away in his memory, sure that he’d need to recall it, he followed her into the palace and nearly stopped short.
Massive. Elaborate. White and gold and every color of the rainbow. Huge. Ornate. He hardly knew what to look at first; he could barely comprehend what he saw. High ceilings, as if extra space were needed to house gods. Beautifully arched doorways; brightly shining white; exquisitely detailed symbols on the walls; rich splashes of color: red, orange, gold, green, blue, purple. Long hallways stretched out before him, and huge rooms sprawled out from each archway. Along with the overwhelming splendor, he saw touches of life: vibrantly green plants and brightly colored flowers in large urns; gorgeous fountains running with water like shimmering crystals. One white dove flew overhead, then another. Servants passed dressed in warm shades of brown, light layered over dark; he saw a few rather official-looking people in pink whom he decided were something like royal advisors. They didn’t look as pinched and worried as his father’s advisors, but there was something about their demeanor that suggested that their job was to worry and offer advice to someone who didn’t have to take it.
After taking him down a few hallways that were more beautifully constructed and decorated than his father’s throne room, Beneta opened a door of thick, dark, highly polished wood. “The pharaoh would like to offer you these rooms to be your quarters during your stay.”
The carpet was the most lush and inviting thing he’d ever stepped on, even through his sturdy boots, which he immediately wanted to take off. The rooms were bright, with white walls and colorful touches; the main room boasted comfortable couches and chairs and a broad table; there was a bedroom and bathroom to one side. Both the bedroom and the sitting room bore expansive windows; there was a door leading to a huge courtyard of green grass, winding pathways, tall trees, and sparkling fountains. Bright, exotic flowers sprouted in the courtyard and in tubs in Bade’s rooms by the windows. There was a wooden staircase spiraling up to a second story, with well-furnished rooms and a small balcony.
Bade’s trunks sat, waiting for him, in the bedroom.
“Should you desire anything, if you would be so good as to twist this, I will be happy to assist you,” Beneta assured him, gesturing to a knob on a panel by the doorway. “I will be honored to provide you with any sort of food, drink, or service that you would like. If you would let me know what sort of sexual entertainment you prefer, that can be supplied, as well.”
Sexual entertainment? Was she referring to the harem? In their case, the belam. He couldn’t imagine calmly describing his desires and having her rummage among the belam’s occupants until she found someone who matched his preferences. How did Dillane do such things with easy acceptance? These people and their customs were utterly foreign to him; he barely knew how to speak to them.
“Dinner shall be in the twenty-first hour,” she continued. “If you would like to run water or light a fire, simply read the prayers in the bathroom and over the fireplace. When it is time for dinner, I shall come to direct you to the banquet hall. Will you require anything before then?”
“No, thank you,” he said, wanting to be alone to think, to digest. “Everything seems fine.”
“As you wish,” she said respectfully. With a bow, she left.
Wait. Had she just told him to read prayers?
“A diverse group,” Selorin remarked, as the hostesses led away their guests.
“That must have been a fun little trip,” Rini said, winding his scarf back around his neck as he watched the suitors leave. “The six of you stuck up in that basket together. T’rin must have been cold up there. I suppose that you were hospitable enough to offer him some…heat?” he asked with a glittering smile.
“He did make use of a few blankets,” Orinakin said blandly. “Does Kudorin have time to see me now?” he asked Selorin.
“Not for another hour,” Selorin said. “He’s meeting with Remin and the priests. But everyone’s eager to see you.”
“They were all gathering up in your room to wait for you,” Rini said.
“How has everyone been?” Orinakin asked. The hostesses had led the guests through an archway that would bring them closer to the guest quarters; Orinakin, Selorin, and Rini took a different archway, walking through hallways that led to the royal family’s private section of the palace. The brothers’ suites were there. The pharaoh had his own wing of the palace, with rooms for his current wife and future husband.
There was less bustle in the family’s section than in the more public parts of the palace; access was restricted here. In previous years, when the brothers had been rowdy boys and their aunts and uncles had lived here with their own children, there had been much more noise and activity. Now that the brothers had come of age and taken over their destined roles, and their aunts and uncles and cousins had moved out and moved on, the halls were still and quiet as Orinakin walked through.
“Selorin’s missed you,” Rini said. “He works all of the time. Anosanim’s so excited to have you home he’s been crying all morning.”
“He cried once,” Selorin said. “We are glad to have you here,” he added.
“I’m glad to be here,” Orinakin said. Stopping to embrace Selorin, he confessed, “It’s good to be home.”
“There he is,” Desin’s voice said, and suddenly Orinakin was grabbed in a rib-crushing embrace that lifted him from the ground. “It’s about time you got back.”
“Oh, Orinakin!” He was barely back on his feet before Anosanim flew at him, throwing loving arms around him. “You’re here! Oh, Orinakin, we’ve missed you. It’s so fantastic to see you again! You look fabulous! It’s been so awful without you, we’ve missed you terribly, it’s absolutely wonderful to see you again.”
“I missed you, too,” Orinakin said, smiling with affection as Anosanim stepped back.
Talin handed a handkerchief to Anosanim, then clapped Orinakin on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”
“Oh, Orinakin,” Anosanim said again, blotting tears and then hugging him again. “It just isn’t the same here without you. We’ve missed you terribly.”
Smiling, Orinakin disentangled himself from Anosanim’s long hair and flowing orange robes. “It’s good to see all of you, too.” As they all went into Orinakin’s rooms together, he looked his brothers over, hungry for the sight of them. Desin, his green hair cut short as if he’d taken his own pruning shears to it, seemed to have packed on another layer of muscle while Orinakin had been away; his green pants and short-sleeved shirt were too tight again. At least his boots hadn’t tracked mud onto the carpets this time. Anosanim, who smelled of light spices today, had chalk all over his hands and was as emotional as usual. Talin, Anosanim’s identical twin, wore red pants and a shirt that stopped above his navel. His long red hair was in a messy knot at the back of his head, as though he’d tied it back there out of sheer irritation just to get it out of his way; although Talin never said anything about it, Orinakin knew that the only reason no-nonsense Talin kept his hair long was as a show of loyalty to Anosanim, who was at once the person most and least like himself.
“How have you been?” Anosanim asked.
“How was your trip?” Desin asked.
“Where are my presents?” Rini asked.
“I’m fine, and the trip went well,” Orinakin said. “I’ll discuss the most pressing points with Kudorin this evening, if you have time to sit in on our meeting.”
“Great,” Rini said. “Presents?”
“How’s the temple?” Orinakin asked Anosanim, leading the way into his bedroom, where servants had placed his trunks. “I didn’t get a good look on the way in.”
“It’s almost finished,” Anosanim said, following with the others. “Liri is overseeing the final touches.”
“Tell him about the accident,” Rini said.
“Inanodu blessed us,” Anosanim said, as Talin gave Rini a dark look. “One of the builders fell from a ladder, but she wasn’t up very high, and she only broke her leg. The healers say that she’ll be fine.”
“Praise to Inanodu,” Orinakin said, briefly touching his fingertips to his chest, lips, and forehead as he knelt before the trunks. “Which one of these is which?”
“You expect us to know?” Rini asked.
“Your clothes are in that one, the gifts are in that one, and everything else is in that one,” Selorin said, gesturing.
“You put all of my gifts in one little trunk?” Rini demanded, as Orinakin unlocked the second trunk Selorin had pointed to.
“Our gifts,” Desin corrected him.
“With one trunk, he didn’t have room to bring back something for everyone,” Rini said. “Sorry.”
As Orinakin opened the trunk, sudden gagging and choking noises indicated that the scarf around Rini’s throat had suddenly become a bit too constricting. Coughing, laughter, and slapping and shoving ensued, as Orinakin lifted the cloths he’d laid overtop the presents. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t here to see the paintings,” he told Talin, as Desin and Rini pretended to fight behind him and Anosanim tried to break it up.
“They’re still up,” Talin said with his typical bland candor. “I’m working on the murals and sculptures for the new library, now. As soon as the year turns, work will begin.”
“The new library!” Orinakin exclaimed. “Is that to be your first project?” Anosanim’s building, decorated with Talin’s art; an enormous undertaking, especially for anyone newly appointed, but what would it be like? Talin’s art tended to be literal, even severe; reading his poems gave Orinakin the sense that each word had been deliberately chiseled out of granite. Anosanim’s buildings, meanwhile, flowed like a beautiful melody. If it weren’t for the undeniable shades of their hair, Orinakin would think that they’d been switched at birth. Anosanim was meant to be an artist, a writer and poet and composer, a painter and sculptor and dreamer; Talin seemed destined for solid, heavy buildings and steady, sturdy construction. Still, they blossomed with what the gods had given them, and Anosanim’s beautiful buildings seemed as brilliant as Talin’s almost too-realistic paintings. Despite Talin’s apparent lack of emotion during daily life, when he put his brush to the canvas, he painted what he saw, without softening it or idealizing it, and the stark realism he laid out, the truth that he exposed, made even a familiar, common scene suddenly beautiful, heart-breaking, sublime.
“We’re still in the earliest planning stages,” Talin said.
“I can’t wait to get started,” Anosanim said breathlessly. “I’ve been so excited, sketching the library, and it’ll be so wonderful to see my work and Talin’s work side-by-side. You have to promise that you’ll be home for the grand opening, Orinakin. We can’t possibly do it without you there.”
“I’ll do my best,” Orinakin said. “You know that I’m looking forward to it.” Taking carefully tied bundles of seeds from his trunk, he handed them up to Desin as everyone clustered around him. “These are for you.”
“Gallery fruit and kernden bulbs!” Desin said excitedly, reading the labels. “This is perfect! We can plant these next month!” His eyes widened as he opened the last small bag. “Orinakin! You got me juanego! Kudorin’s going to love this! I’ll have to plant some in his garden.”
“A little advice?” Rini said to Orinakin. “Don’t get me a gift
that’s going to make someone else happy. Give me presents that are all about
“He doesn’t have to bring you anything at all,” Talin said.
“Of course he does,” Rini said, insulted. “I’m his favorite brother.”
“Oh, you are?” Selorin asked, amused, raising arched blue eyebrows.
“I can put these bulbs beside the roses,” Desin said. “And these we can plant in a few weeks, although I’ll have to get these currigo seeds into the ground right away, because-”
“Nobody cares!” Rini exclaimed. “Get on with it, what else did you bring?” he asked Orinakin.
“I’m pretty sure that Ebanosa cares,” Talin said dryly.
“He’s the god of crops and plants and flowers and whatever, he has to care,” Rini said.
“And would you like to apologize to him now?” Desin asked, curling one muscular arm around Rini’s neck. “Or once you regain consciousness?” His tone and expression were perfectly polite as his arm tightened.
“Okay! Okay, I’m sorry, plants are great,” Rini said, pushing at Desin’s arm to no avail. “Crops are terrific, I love flowers, seeds are the most fascinating thing ever! What are you made of, iron? There’s no reason for you to be this huge unless you’re five people.”
“Thank you for the seeds, Orinakin,” Desin said pleasantly, uncoiling his arm as Rini pretended to gasp dramatically for air and then ineffectually smacked at his shoulder.
“You’re welcome,” Orinakin said, amused. “Here, Talin, this is for you and Libi, it’s a gift from the President of Haffnasia,” he said, handing over a large, thick book. “It’s four hundred years old, they just uncovered it in an old building they were tearing down. It’s a collection of ancient love poems translated from the original thousand-year-old Corcadian.”
“This is priceless,” Talin said, opening it carefully to reveal exquisitely penned words decorated with elaborate depictions of flowers and lovers. “I wish that we had it in Corcadian.”
“You couldn’t read it if you did,” Rini pointed out.
“Kudorin could,” Talin said, turning a page.
“Kudorin has better stuff to do than read dusty old books,” Rini said.
“I’ll write to the President to thank him,” Talin told Orinakin.
“He mentioned to me that Haffnasia is about to enter its six hundredth year as a nation,” Orinakin said. “He hinted that he’d like to have a poem of some kind to mark the occasion.”
Rini snorted. “They turned six hundred, so they’re throwing a party? Good for them, but maybe they should wait and get back to you when they’re actually old enough to know what they’re doing. No nation under a thousand years old is competent.”
“Extra, you expect us to throw you a party when you wake up in the morning,” Talin said.
“That’s because I,” Rini explained, “am a child of the gods. I was born the son of Anosukinom Mutotanosa Situkabulanin Elanilanulanori Banotuda Kudorin A Rituliri. I am blessed by Adanotu. They’re a country. How hard is it to scrape together a country? You get some land, you throw some people on it, you call yourself their leader, and you make up a couple of rules. Any idiot can do that.”
“Are you sure?” Talin asked. “I haven’t seen you pull it off.”
“I’m a child of the gods,” Rini snapped. “I don’t need a country. Every inch of this planet is mine.” Drawing himself up, Rini glowered at them with contempt and disgust. “I would walk out right now and never speak to you again,” he said coldly, pausing to fling the end of his scarf over one shoulder, “if I weren’t such a good, forgiving, generous person.”
“You’re staying because you want your presents,” Talin said.
“It’s almost your turn,” Orinakin said kindly, reaching up a hand. “Come and sit down. I’ve missed you. I think you’ve grown since I saw you last.”
Taking another minute to glare at Talin, Rini condescended to take Orinakin’s hand, relenting and sitting beside him on the carpet. “I’m almost as tall as you are, now,” Rini said.
“You’re still the shortest,” Talin said. Orinakin quickly wrapped an arm around Rini’s waist to keep him from shooting to his feet. He knew that Rini was only on edge and easily riled because of loneliness; their pharaoh mother, queen mother, and king father were traveling and had left him behind this time. Orinakin, too, had been away, and one of Rini’s favorite cousins had recently taken a position far down the river. Rini required a lot of attention, a lot of affection, and a certain amount of reassurance. He got a lot of that from the belams, but Orinakin didn’t mind spoiling him a little bit, too.
Visiting foreign lands, seeing the people there and admiring their cultures, was a great source of interest for Orinakin. Since all of his brothers but Rini were tied to the land, they couldn’t venture beyond the borders of Orina Anoris, so he did it for them, bringing back stories and treasures. He enjoyed seeing the fascination on their faces when he offered them gifts, just as he’d been excited when Riturihi, his aunt and the diplomat before him, had brought home presents. Rini, of course, absolutely adored gifts; his rooms were filled with them.
Orinakin’s own quarters, luxuriously decorated in purple, held many unique items from foreign lands, from Mehhan masks to Grunnon bowls to some sort of musical instrument called a “klarinet” that made the most atrocious noises when blown into.
Reaching into his trunk again, he handed Anosanim a roll of papers. “Please pass these on to Liri for me. They are, I’m told, the original designs for the House of Shonshwung in Morrain.”
“Shonshwung?” Anosanim repeated with great interest, unrolling the sheets. “Oh, Talin, look at this. Look at those sweeping lines. I would love to design something this breathtaking.”
Standing beside Anosanim, Talin studied the sketches, then nodded. “Nice.”
“Oh, Orinakin, thank you,” Anosanim said, crouching down to embrace him. “They’re absolutely beautiful, I adore them. I’m going to study these tonight, they’re the perfect inspiration!”
“You’re welcome,” Orinakin said, as Anosanim rose again. “Selorin, this is for you,” he said, passing his twin a thick tome of ancient Leonase laws that he knew Selorin would spend days reading over and over again, “and, Extra, this is for you.”
Snatching up the cape with both hands, Rini stood, twirling it
about himself. Silk, lined with ajana fur, the red cape bore delicate gold
embroidery. Shedding his scarf, Rini swirled around in circles, making the cape
flare. “How do I look?”
“Strange,” Talin said.
“Oh, Rini, that’s utterly gorgeous silk,” Anosanim said, stroking it.
“It feels so good all over my skin,” Rini said, wrapping it around his naked upper body. “I could wear this every day.” Eyes lighting up, he grinned. “I should have sex on this!”
Selorin sent Orinakin a look that said, “You should’ve known better.” To Rini, Orinakin said, “Porrassean dignitaries wear that for-”
“Can you imagine having this against your skin while you’re-”
“You’re not having sex on a ceremonial cloak!” Orinakin protested. Selorin was right; he really should have known better. Well, with any luck, the Porrasseans wouldn’t hear of the disgrace.
“What else did you get me?” Rini asked, petting the cape.
Sighing, Orinakin handed over a pair of boots. Made of snakeskin and nuya hide, they laced up over the thigh, and Rini immediately adored them. Then Orinakin gave him a pair of bright yellow pants; Rini liked bright colors, and since the pants were of a supple material bound to cling to each inch, he changed right into them, then and there. Rini was very fond of clothes that made people think of sex when they looked at him. Ignoring Selorin’s rolling eyes, since Selorin indulged Rini just as much as he did, Orinakin next gave a blanket. Soft and thick, it had been decorated with small panels around the outer edges depicting scenes of lovemaking. Studying the embroidered images, Rini snickered and giggled, showing them to Desin, who grinned and tilted his head to one side for a better look. Last, Orinakin gave him a game.
“You’ll show me how to play?” Rini asked, examining the game pieces.
“I’ll teach you,” Orinakin promised.
“It’s not too hard, is it?” Rini asked warily. They’d all learned to be suspicious of anything offered by an elder as entertainment since their tutors’ “games” had turned out to be sneaky lessons.
“It’ll make you think,” Orinakin said, “but not too much.”
“Good,” Rini said with a smile. “Let’s play it now.”
“Now,” Selorin corrected, “Orinakin’s going to speak with Kudorin.”
While Orinakin gathered a few things together in preparation for that meeting, Rini groaned. “You just got back. Don’t go to some boring meeting, come have dinner with me. You can tell me all about those guys you brought home.”
“I’m going to tell Kudorin about them, if you’d like to come,” Orinakin offered.
Considering the idea, Rini adjusted his load of gifts, weighing the concept of trying out his new clothes and showing off to his cousins with the concept of learning about the new men in the palace.
“Come with us,” Anosanim coaxed. “We haven’t all been in one place in too long. It’s been forever since we all sat down together.”
“I wouldn’t call that a bad thing,” Talin muttered.
“If you come with us, you’ll be more informed than anyone else on the suitors,” Selorin pointed out.
Convinced, Rini smiled brightly. “Let’s go!”
Kudorin | Remin | Orinakin | Selorin | Desin | Anosanim | Talin | Rini
Continue on to part three
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