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 two
The grand throne room was the largest room in the palace. One wall held guarded archways to the main hallway; the opposite wall held the pharaoh’s throne with an enormous engraving on either side: Akanoti, the god of the sun over the pharaoh’s right shoulder, and Odanoru, the god of the moons over his left.
Along the wall to the throne’s right and left were sixteen more large engravings to represent the rest of the gods. The walls were pure, shining white. Before each of the eighteen symbols of the gods sat a short pot bearing a matching symbol and holding a small, strong flame. The tiled, mosaic floor looked as though someone had spilled buckets of paint across it; sparkling like sunlight on the river, the floor was all colors of the rainbow shaded and faded into each other. In the very center, the illusion was broken by a gold-lined circle where red, orange, gold, green, blue, and purple sat in bright, bold color around a circle like a prism, capturing and displaying all colors.
On either side of the pharaoh’s throne was a similar but smaller throne. The one to the left sat empty, but there was a lovely young woman seated to the right: the queen, the pharaoh’s wife, Anikira. With her black hair and warm brown eyes, she was a true native of Orina Anoris; with her long white skirt and well-fitted white top, with white jewels shimmering in her tightly coiled hair, at her neck, at her ankles and wrists, she was a true wife of the pharaoh. It was traditional for the pharaoh’s opposite sex partner, blessed by the god of fertility, to wear white; the pharaoh’s partner of the same sex, blessed by the god of love, wore black.
Before the throne stood a cluster of priests in white and gold. Their leader stood nearest the throne, dressed in a golden robe adorned with the symbols of the gods around the collar and down the front. This was the royal high priest, Orinakin’s brother, Remin.
As Orinakin entered the room, Anikira looked over to him, a smile breaking across her lovely face. “Orinakin,” she said, rising. “You’ve come home.”
“Your Highness,” he said, crossing the room and taking her hand in his to bow over it.
“We’ve all missed you,” she said warmly. “I believe,” she told the assembled priests, “that we are finished for today. Thank you.” As the priests murmured their gratitude and drifted away, Orinakin turned to hug Remin, who caught him in a fierce embrace.
“Where’s Kudorin?” Desin asked behind him.
“I thank the gods that you have come home to us,” Remin whispered.
“So do I,” Orinakin said honestly, finally letting go.
“He went to go speak with some people who have friends and family members in Vafiance who have been affected by the drought,” Anikira said. “He said that it wouldn’t take very long, and he invited you to meet him in his rooms.”
“All right,” Rini said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll join you there,” Orinakin said. “I’d like to visit the temples first.”
“Would you like-”
“No,” he said, giving Remin’s hand a light squeeze. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“We’ll wait for you,” Rini said. “But only because I already got my presents.”
“Thank you,” Orinakin said with a smile. Excusing himself from Anikira, he watched his brothers depart, Desin throwing a muscular arm around Remin’s slender shoulders, Anosanim already chattering to Talin, Rini hugging his gifts to his chest and leading the way, Selorin glancing back at the archway to give Orinakin a brief smile.
Once they were gone, Orinakin walked through the palace to the temples. First entering the temple of Okanoti, god of safety and travel, he knelt before the altar to pray and offer thanks. He went next to the temple of Setanoto, god of peace and diplomacy, and then stopped in the temple of Etanoda, god of air and flight. There had been others in the previous temples, but not even a priest was in sight now, and Orinakin closed his eyes for an extra few minutes, taking advantage of the silence and stillness to order his thoughts.
His problem was, even after he’d closed his eyes, he could still see what he didn’t want to see. Those soft, red lips. Those dark blue eyes. The light blond stubble on-
“Anosamim.” Warmth tingled across his scalp as long, gentle fingers threaded lightly through his hair. “Etanoda would prefer you to indulge in such thoughts somewhere else. Ilanosa’s temple, perhaps.”
Orinakin was on his feet and embracing his brother before another second passed. “Kudorin.”
“Orinakin.” Kudorin’s embrace bathed him in the purest light. Kudorin’s voice was like music, sometimes, and sometimes like smoke, and sometimes like the dew that pearled across the grass in bright drops on early mornings. At the moment, soft by Orinakin’s ear, it sounded like the way that seeing the river again had made him feel: he was at home again, a home he loved, a home that loved him. The words themselves were of no consequence; some of them were unknown even to Orinakin. But the sound of them, the welcome, the depth of affection, the softly joyous emotion, made Orinakin tighten his arms around his brother the pharaoh and close his eyes and simply breathe in Kudorin’s love. Then, after a few minutes, Kudorin whispered, “You have been missed.”
Orinakin opened his eyes, and Kudorin released him. “It is good to be home.”
“You have seen too much,” Kudorin said, studying his face. “The drought pains you.”
“There is a lot of suffering in this world,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “A lot of it is quiet, but it’s no less serious.”
“To me, it is a scream,” Kudorin said softly. “Come.” The rainbow of jewels on his wrist flashed as he offered his hand. “We shall discuss this in my rooms, and we shall see how we can begin to help.”
The pharaoh’s rooms were decorated in a rich blend of colors that always made Orinakin feel as if he’d walked into a luxurious box of jewels. On the first floor alone, he had an enormous bedroom, a spacious bathroom, his own private dining room, his own small temple, a gorgeously decorated sitting room, and a courtyard.
The sitting room was where they settled now, Orinakin beside Selorin on one couch, Anosanim and Talin on another. On thick, soft cushions on the floor, Desin’s bulk sprawled beside slender Remin; Kudorin sat before the trunks the servants had brought in from the balloons, Rini sitting beside him and eyeing the trunks with great interest.
Taking care of business first, Orinakin told Kudorin about the official parts of his travels, sharing what he’d learned, relaying messages. Kudorin listened attentively, nodding, his brilliant eyes never leaving Orinakin’s face. The others took brief notes on what applied to their fields of interest, but Kudorin had no such need.
After only a few minutes, Rini fidgeted impatiently, bored and restless. As Orinakin spoke, Kudorin put a hand on the back of Rini’s neck and murmured, “Ssshhh, Anosalim.” A mere second later, Rini visibly calmed down, relaxing before their eyes. A moment passed; Kudorin removed his hand with a gentle caress, and Rini leaned against him familiarly, idly toying with the edge of the new cape, waiting patiently for the others to finish.
Orinakin had been away for a long time, and had quite a number of issues to discuss with Kudorin and the others. Remin and Selorin were as authoritative as always, and Orinakin was proud of Desin’s wealth of knowledge.
Before, Orinakin had always conferred with Liri and Libi, but Anosanim and Talin were so close to stepping into their roles, they’d been given leave to speak on behalf of the office. He was impressed with how informed and professional they sounded; Kudorin looked pleased.
After they’d covered the most pressing issues, it was time for gifts again. Orinakin gave Remin a box of Furterian delicacies, which Remin took from his hands with great alacrity. Opening the box, he lifted it to his nose and inhaled. “Salted wuetters,” he murmured. “Phrakes. Mmm, dipped in chocolate.”
“Really?” Desin asked, leaning in for a better look.
“Mmm.” Remin selected a phrake and, sitting back, gradually bit into it. With a low, luxurious moan, he closed his eyes, chewing slowly.
Carefully, cautiously, Desin reached-
Remin’s eyes shot open; he pinned Desin with a look. Not a word was said, but Remin’s gaze spoke volumes; Desin retracted his hand, lowering it to his lap, and didn’t try again. Once Desin was still, Remin relaxed; calm and pleased, licking his lips, he took another bite. “Thank you, Orinakin. They’re delicious.”
“You’re welcome,” Orinakin said. “Extra, why don’t you go ahead and open those trunks so I can show Kudorin what everyone so generously sent to him.”
Immediately sitting up straight, Rini began to tug at the straps and catches holding the trunks closed.
“Not to me,” Kudorin said. “To Orina Anoris.”
“They mentioned you by name,” Orinakin said. He and Kudorin went through this every time. He was sure that Riturihi hadn’t had this much trouble convincing Anosadum to accept tributes.
“I’m the representative of the land, of the people, of the gods,” Kudorin said.
“I’m the representative,” Orinakin corrected him. “You’re Anosukinom.”
“Stupid,” Rini muttered, tugging at a clasp. “How do these cursed things open?”
Murmuring a prayer, Kudorin passed his hand over the locks. As he drew his hand back, the lids rose to reveal the trunks’ contents.
“Oh, right, of course,” Rini said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you can’t do it,” Talin said.
Fortunately, Rini was too interested in presents to admit that he’d heard that, so he ignored Talin and began to dig through the trunks. Chattering, he pulled out rich fabrics, glittering jewels, stacks of books, handfuls of scrolls, small statues and figures, and, “What is this? They’re sending you rocks?”
“It’s a precious gemstone, Extra, it’s simply uncut,” Orinakin said, as Kudorin distributed the gifts: fabrics to Talin, most of the books and scrolls to Selorin, most of the small statues and figures to Remin. The jewels he sorted by color.
“It looks like a big chunk of orange rock,” Rini said dubiously. “You want it?” he asked Anosanim.
“I’ll have it made into jewelry for you,” Talin told Anosanim, taking it from Rini’s hands.
“What is all of that?” Rini asked Remin, who was examining the figurines. “Why do they keep giving us their gods? We have our own gods. We don’t need theirs.”
“Their gods are their first priority,” Remin said. “They honor us by presenting us with their most sacred tokens.”
“It’s strange, to look right at a god,” Rini said, taking a small ivory icon from Remin’s hand. “Is this what they look like?” he asked Kudorin.
“That’s what their people believe them to look like,” Kudorin said.
“In other words, no,” Rini said, handing it back, sounding so much like Remin that Orinakin smiled. “People are so weird about their gods.”
“They want to understand their gods and feel closer to them,” Remin said.
“You understand that,” Kudorin said, running his fingers through Rini’s hair.
“Yeah, we all want that,” Rini said. “I guess. Some of us are just a little ahead of others,” he added, lowering his gaze. Meeting Kudorin’s eyes again, he asked, “What do the gods look like, really?”
“You’ll know, someday,” Kudorin said with a gentle smile. “Everyone knows, someday.”
“Yeah,” Rini said hesitantly, “I guess.” Glancing over at the figurines, he said, “As long as they don’t really have giraffe heads, it should be okay.”
Bade hadn’t slept well on the balloon, and the bed in his new quarters was the most comfortable thing he’d ever collapsed onto; he slept very well for a few hours. Colors and numbers and harems and confusion invaded his dreams, however, and he wakened with a knot of anxiety in his gut.
Escaping the bed’s too-comfortable thrall, he forced himself up and attempted to figure out the bathroom. Nosupolis didn’t have running water, but neighboring Granete did, and Bade had visited that country often enough to have a reliable memory of what to do in a modern bathroom. His problem was, his bathroom didn’t quite seem to work. There weren’t any knobs for any of the faucets. He couldn’t get the sink or the bathtub to work, much less the shower or the toilet. He searched for hidden switches, but found none. Finally, he remembered the hostess’s instructions. Something about a prayer.
He’d taken the inscription on the wall for mere decoration, but now, he gave it a closer look. It was a prayer. To the god of the river? Inom anina Edanola na edo. Frowning, Bade read it aloud.
He eyed the faucets.
Putting his hand on the faucet of the sink, he recited the first lines of the inscription.
Cool water trickled out.
“This isn’t happening,” Bade said.
The water stopped.
He said the words again.
A few defiant drops petered out to nothing.
“This isn’t happening,” he repeated. Hurrying over to the door, he tried the button that would summon Beneta.
She arrived with unexpected quickness, hands clasped at her waist. “Your Highness?”
“How do the sinks work?” he asked, trying not to sound suspicious or panicked.
“Your Highness, I am terribly sorry,” she said. “I should have explained it to you more thoroughly. This is entirely my fault. Please, allow me to show you,” she said, leading the way to the bathroom. “I understand that the gods of Orina Anoris are not your gods,” she said, looking at him carefully, clearly not meaning to offend him, “but while you are here, they appreciate your respect. A few simple words, inom anina Edanola na edo, will ensure you a flow of water,” she said. Water poured from the tap. “You see them here,” she gestured to the wall, “so that you need not memorize them.” As she uttered the last line of the inscription, “Anoha Edanola,” the flow stopped. While Bade stared in amazement, she added, “The words to Akanoti are written over the fireplace, should you need to start a fire or light a candle.”
Then he wasn’t imagining things, after all. In this instance, that wasn’t entirely reassuring. “Is there anything else that I should know?” he asked.
“The prayers for water and fire are all that we require for daily life,” she said. “I apologize, Your Highness, for not providing a more thorough explanation to you earlier. Please forgive me.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “Thank you, Beneta.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she said with a bow. “I shall return to escort you to dinner,” she said, and left.
Opening his trunk, he found a box of matches. Approaching an innocuous candle on a table in the corner, he struck the match.
“Inom anina Akanoti na aka,” he said, this time, and even before he struck the match, fire glowed at the tip. Merely a bit of a flame, it flickered, and as he stared at it in disbelief, it wavered. Testing, wondering, he whispered the words again, and the flame grew brighter.
“This isn’t possible,” he insisted, and the flame flared hotly before vanishing in a puff of smoke.
“Tell us about our guests,” Kudorin requested, turning his brilliant gaze to Orinakin again.
“Oh, yes,” Anosanim said, kicking off his soft-soled shoes and tucking his feet up. “Tell us absolutely everything.”
“I’m going to dine with them in an hour, if any of you would like to join us,” Orinakin said.
“Oh, I’ll be there,” Rini said. “I wouldn’t miss a meal with them for the world. They’re all hot, but there’s this delicious little Ilaeian and this half-naked Kelan warrior that I could just devour.”
“He’s more likely to devour you,” Talin said.
Rini licked his lips with an impish grin. “That could be good,
“I brought Dillane,” Orinakin said. “You all know him.”
“Boring,” Rini said.
“Oh, Dillane is so friendly,” Anosanim said warmly. “He just makes everyone feel so at home.”
“He’d make a good host,” Selorin said, which had been exactly Orinakin’s thinking.
“I brought Dranz,” Orinakin said.
“The commander?” Desin asked.
“He has some very interesting ideas about how to gain and keep peace,” Orinakin said. “After the war, I met him at the peace council when we hammered out the treaty.” Orinakin had been invited to host the council, as Kudorin’s representative; he’d mediated between the two sides. “He’s devoted to peace now.”
“A commander who wants to avoid war,” Talin said. “I like that.”
“Peace has always been our goal, for everyone,” Remin said. “It would be good for us to work with him and hear his thoughts.”
“He’s torn,” Orinakin said, “between his hopes for a better world and his deep knowledge and experience of wartime and man’s lower, baser nature. He’s hopeful and cynical at the same time.”
Kudorin nodded. “He needs healing, but he shall be a powerful ally.”
“I brought T’rin, Y’nalin’s son,” Orinakin said.
“He has tattoos everywhere,” Rini said. “And all he wears is a loincloth and a vest. You should have seen his thighs, they-”
“If you don’t want him, I’ll take him,” Talin told Kudorin.
“The Kelan are very highly esteemed among their trading partners,” Orinakin said. “Those who don’t know much about them know only their warrior nature. But they’re one of the oldest nations, with a rich culture and a lot of ancient knowledge. T’rin is so intelligent and so proud, and so skilled and experienced, that-”
“You want to have sex with him, too,” Rini said, grinning.
“I would like to see what’s under that loincloth,” Orinakin admitted, as Selorin laughed.
“Maybe I will come to dinner,” Anosanim murmured thoughtfully.
“I brought Aiae, the royal Ilaeian artist,” Orinakin said. “He doesn’t speak Anorian,” he warned them.
“Oh, Aiae and I speak all of the same languages,” Rini said. “When my eyes said hello, his eyes said yes.”
“Aiae?” Anosanim asked. “Haven’t we heard of him?” he asked Talin.
“He does landscapes,” Talin said.
“Yes, yes,” Anosanim remembered enthusiastically. “Oh, Kudorin, they’re just beautiful, with such gorgeous colors. His sunsets could just make me cry.”
“If you think his sunsets are nice, you should see his mouth,” Rini said. “So red and cute, I could just chew on it.”
“I also brought Bade,” Orinakin finished. “The Nosupolin prince.”
“The twin,” Kudorin said.
“The older one,” Orinakin said.
“His hair’s blond and so curly,” Rini said. “He’s hot as hell, but he was trying so hard to be polite, and his ass is unbelievable, it’s like-”
“He is cute,” Selorin admitted.
“Cute?” Rini asked. “Get him to bend over and then tell me that he’s just cute.”
“I’ve never had sex with anyone with curly blond hair,” Desin mused.
“The Krandian ambassador,” Talin said.
“Mmm, no,” Desin said, shaking his head. “He turned out to be married.”
“I could have told you that,” Rini said.
“Why Bade and not his brother?” Kudorin asked Orinakin.
“Bade is more open,” Orinakin said. “They’re very much alike, and I hated to separate them, but there’s something about Bade that pulled on me.” That tended to be how he chose Kudorin’s suitors; he went with his gut, with his instinct, with the sense that there was something special, something unique, within these men. He’d felt that very strongly with Bade.
“Dine with them tonight,” Kudorin said. “Orinakin, in the morning, I’d like you, Extra, and Anikira to share breakfast with them. After that, I shall meet with them individually.”
“All right.” Orinakin wished that Kudorin would move faster, would take them off of his hands, but it wasn’t his place to rush the pharaoh.
“Are you bored with the process?” Remin asked Kudorin. “You used to be more eager to meet your suitors.”
“There is something different this time,” Kudorin said. “The timing feels more delicate.”
“Why?” Desin asked.
Kudorin shook his head. “It isn’t for me to say.”
By the time Beneta returned, Bade was beside himself. He’d washed and dressed, wanting to look proper for dinner, but he’d spent most of his time experimenting. He’d tried all of the faucets, all of the candles, the fireplace, the toilet; he’d burned up all of his matches. He’d learned that altering the prayers slightly, throwing in a few extra words, worked just fine - - the gods didn’t seem to mind a little variation - - but the traditional prayers were excellent on their own. The gods may have sensed his interest; they were more generous now, and by the end, flame had fairly leapt before the words left his mouth.
While Beneta walked him to dinner, he quizzed her: did everyone use the prayers, peasant and priest and pharaoh alike? Did they work for all foreign guests, or only some? How long had the prayers been in use? Who had come up with the idea?
She told him that Anorians had said the prayers for as long as anyone could remember, since before the recorded dynasties. She believed that the gods had instructed the first people in the way of the prayers. All Anorians said them, even the priests and the brothers, even the royal high priest and the pharaoh himself. The brothers were so blessed that their spirits were strong and the water and fire always came easily for them; the high priest and the pharaoh didn’t need to say the prayers, but they did, out of respect for the gods. There had been a few guests for whom the prayers did not work. Commander Whzurchitz, she quietly added, had chosen not to say the prayers, and his hostess lit his candles and turned on his faucets for him.
Dranz refused to say the prayers? “He must have too strong a belief in his own gods,” Bade said.
“The commander does not believe in any man’s god,” Beneta said. “Many of those from Grintzadiwtch do not. The same situation arose when their ambassador visited weeks ago.”
No gods? How could a man who believed in no gods at all marry a man who claimed to be a god himself? “But your gods are so…immediate,” Bade said. “So powerful. So present. They started the fire for me, and all that I had to do was ask. I’m not even Anorian, and all that I had to do was ask.”
Beneta smiled at him, as if proud of him. “Our gods are generous,” she said. “Please enjoy your dinner, Your Highness.” Bowing, she turned and walked away.
Left alone in front of an archway, Bade looked around, then decided to go with his most obvious option: he walked into the room.
“Your Highness,” a brown-clad servant said, bowing before him. “Please, follow me.” Bade followed the man across a smooth white floor to a large table set on a brightly colored rug. The high-backed chairs of well-polished dark wood stood empty, for the most part, save T’rin near one end and Dillane opposite him. The servant showed Bade to the other end of the table, then bowed and disappeared.
“Your Highness,” Dillane said. “It appears that we shall be joined by a few of the pharaoh’s brothers tonight.”
Bade had noticed that there were more places set at the table than the few of them would need. Now, looking closer, he saw that, at several of the places, there were golden goblets set with bright stones. Seven goblets, specifically, each with jewels of a different color. Five places had no goblet at all, including his, T’rin’s, Dillane’s, the one directly opposite him, and a spot between him and Dillane, one seat away from each of them. “So it would seem,” he agreed with some enthusiasm. He was eager to meet the brothers now, interested in learning more about them.
He was seated at the right hand of what he judged to be the head of the table, where the goblet’s stones were as gold as the goblet itself. The priest, then. Directly to his own right, the jewels were blue. Blue would be the judge, Selorin, Orinakin’s twin. Opposite Selorin was an orange-jeweled goblet: the architect, if he remembered correctly.
He was somewhat disappointed; he’d hoped to speak directly with Prince Orinakin, with whom he thought he’d feel more comfortable.
The servant appeared again, showing Dranz to the seat directly across from Bade. Sitting, he nodded shortly. “Your Highness.”
“We may dine with the pharaoh’s brothers tonight,” Bade said.
“I’m hungry enough to dine with anyone at all,” Dillane said with a laugh. “Travel always increases my appetite.”
“Your Excellency, you’re an ambassador,” Bade said, laughing.
“You can imagine my problem,” Dillane said, patting his stomach.
Aiae arrived just then, and was seated between Bade and Dillane, one seat away from each. He smiled at them, and nodded. They smiled back. Then, just as the lack of food made Bade’s stomach growl, the brothers walked into the room. They needed no introduction; they could be no one else. In their stunning array of colors, they entered with smiles, bringing with them an infusion of light. Dillane was the first on his feet, and as everybody else stood, Bade rose as well.
The tall, slender priest, outfitted in sleek gold robes, walked right up to him. Although the priests in Bade’s own country never lowered themselves before even his father the king, claiming that those who worked for the gods bowed to no man, this royal high priest bowed gracefully to Bade, straightening with a serene smile. “Your Highness.”
“Your Highness,” Orinakin said, coming over to them. “Prince Bade of Nosupolis, this is my brother, the royal high priest, Prince Anosatim Inanodat Anoremin A Hiti.”
“It is an honor to be a guest in your country,” Bade said.
“If you do everyone one at a time, this is going to take forever,” Rini said. His pants were very yellow and very tight and very touchable. He wore nothing above the waist now, and his delicate pink nipples - - Bade found somewhere else to look.
“May I?” Orinakin asked Anoremin.
“Anyone who marries Kudorin will have to become accustomed to our lapses in formality,” Anoremin said.
“All right, then, everyone at once. Prince Bade of Nosupolis,” Orinakin said, gesturing to him. “T’rin, son of the chief Y’nalin of the Kelan. Commander Dranzhicthin Whzurchitz of Grintzadiwtch. Dillane Naelt, Mannillean ambassador. Aiae, royal artist to King Ouia of Ilaeia.”
Behind Orinakin’s back, Rini wiggled his fingers at Aiae, who didn’t seem to know how to respond.
“Royal high priest Prince Anosatim Inanodat Anoremin A Hiti, called Anoremin,” Orinakin said, gesturing. “You remember Prince Selorin. This is Prince Anosabim Inanodat Ebutadesin A Rituriti, called Ebutadesin. Prince Anosanim Inanodat Hanibulatin A Ritusiri, called Anosanim. Prince Anosadim Inanodat Nisutalin A Lini, called Nisutalin. And you remember Prince Rini.”
“Of course,” Dillane said.
“Who could forget?” Prince Nisutalin asked.
“For official dinners with honored guests, we’re usually much more formal,” Orinakin assured them as everyone took a place at the table. “But, as Anoremin said, if one of you marries our brother, you’ll have to get used to how we act when no one else is looking. If you will forgive us for dropping the formality of titles, perhaps we will all have a better chance of getting to know each other as people and not offices.”
As everyone sat, servants swept in, carrying trays of food, bearing heavily filled plates and thick jugs of water and wine. Quickly circling the table, they filled cups and goblets and set down the first course. As the servants discreetly backed away, Bade noticed that Anosanim, seated across the table and one seat over, was gazing at him with interest. Having never seen anyone with orange eyes before, Bade looked back, curious.
“I’m sorry for staring,” Anosanim said to him, as conversation began at the other end of the table, “but we don’t often see anyone with curly hair. And it’s such a pretty shade of yellow.” He sounded somewhat captivated.
“It’s blond,” Bade said, resisting the urge to reach up and touch it. Dranz glanced at him, then away again, apparently unimpressed.
“Blond, of course,” Anosanim said. “Do many people from Nosupolis have curly blond hair?”
“Most of us,” Bade said.
“It’s so pretty,” Anosanim said with a soft sigh. “Oh, Talin, you should paint him.”
“I’ll pose with him,” Rini said with a wink.
“If they end up getting married, Kudorin might not appreciate that,” Nisutalin said. Dranz grunted in apparent agreement.
Somewhat overwhelmed, Bade tried to think of something to say to divert their attention. Fortunately, Selorin intervened. “Orinakin mentioned that you have a twin brother.”
“Oh, it must have been so hard to leave him,” Anosanim said with great empathy. “I could never be separated for so long from Nisutalin.”
Bade had been so busy staring at the variety of color and clothing that he’d forgotten to look, but, oh. Yes. The high brow, the smooth chin, the graceful nose. They were twins. Their hair had distracted him, Anosanim’s such a bright orange and Nisutalin’s such a rich red, but even more than that, they carried themselves very differently. Anosanim was fluid and effusive; Nisutalin was straight and precise. They seemed like complete opposites, but when Anosanim looked down the table and smiled, and Nisutalin offered him a brief but sincere smile in return, Bade knew it. “A twin is a very lucky thing to have.”
Selorin’s blue-eyed gaze, which would have been refreshingly normal if there hadn’t been so very many shades of blue in there, drifted up to Bade’s hair for a moment. “Twins are common in Nosupolis?”
“Yes,” Bade said, “they’re everywhere. I suppose that none of you had the fun of fooling people by pretending to be each other,” he guessed.
Selorin and Anoremin burst into laughter; Anosanim turned red. “I was young,” he protested.
“You were twelve,” Anoremin said, still laughing.
“Anosanim and Talin tried to fool us,” Selorin explained.
“I wanted to go to his classes, and he wanted to go to mine,” Anosanim said. “I was so fascinated by his lessons, and he’s always loved architecture.”
“They dyed their hair,” Selorin said. “They couldn’t change their eyes, but they still tried to get away with it.”
“It almost worked,” Anosanim insisted. “It took hours for anyone to notice.”
“Everyone noticed right away,” Anoremin said. “We were all just trying to humor you.”
“We made fun of them for weeks,” Selorin said. “Especially when the dye wouldn’t wash out and our parents made them shave off their hair and keep it short to teach them a lesson.”
“I looked atrocious bald,” Anosanim said. “Absolutely atrocious.”
“But they were allowed to adjust their schedules and sit in on each other’s lessons,” Selorin added. “Which was what they’d wanted in the first place.”
“And you all think I’m bad,” Rini said. “At least when I dye my hair, I’m smart enough to use colors that I can get rid of.”
There was movement at the other end of the table; Orinakin rose gracefully, coming around to the head of the table. “Bade,” he said quietly, placing one hand on the tabletop and one hand on the back of Anoremin’s chair, leaning in discreetly, “you’re so full of eager excitement that you’re making it hard for me to eat. Is there something that you’d like to ask?”
“I have dozens of questions,” Bade said quickly. “There’s so much that I need to know. I made water flow simply by speaking.” One of Dranz’s eyebrows went up.
“The gods did that,” Anoremin gently corrected him. The other eyebrow rose.
“Yes!” Bade exclaimed. “That’s the best part of it! The gods of Orina Anoris are so very different from the gods that we worship in Nosupolis. But they’re also different from any other gods I’ve heard of. I don’t know any other society where people request fire and water from the gods, and depend upon them so immediately for it.”
“You do not believe that when you draw water from a well, the gods are the ones who put it there for you to fill your bucket?” Anoremin asked, his gold eyes already knowing the answer.
“Yes, of course, but there is a more open and direct relationship with your gods. It seems understood that if you ask, you then receive,” Bade said. He hadn’t noticed until now, but the rapidity with which food disappeared into Anoremin’s mouth was astonishing. “We ask our gods for many things at many times and are not given them.”
“We ask our gods in vain, as well,” Anoremin said. “If you ask for the fire to light a match to burn down your neighbor’s home, that fire shall not come to you.” Dranz made a noise that Bade couldn’t interpret.
“If I went home to Nosupolis, and put my bucket down a dry well, and prayed for water, water would not come,” Bade said, as a servant stepped forward to refill Anoremin’s plate.
“And do you blame the gods for this?” Anoremin asked, somehow eating steadily despite his constant conversation. “Or yourself? What if you tried another well? What if you waited for rain?” Dranz grunted. “Is not rain the answer to your prayers for water? Is not knowing the location of another well the answer?”
Bade gazed at him in fascination, then turned to Orinakin. “Do all of the priests here speak this way?”
“How do your priests speak?” Anosanim asked.
“Orinakin,” Selorin said, rising, “sit here. I’ll take your place.”
“I’m sorry,” Bade said to Orinakin. “I didn’t mean to take you away from your dinner. Please, go and sit down.” He wanted to speak with Orinakin, but he knew that he didn’t have the right to monopolize his time.
“It’s fine,” Selorin said with a smile. “Sit,” he instructed Orinakin, taking his plate and goblet up to the head of the table. A servant placed Orinakin’s goblet and plate in Selorin’s vacated spot to Bade’s right, and Orinakin sat with a rustle of robes.
“How do your priests speak?” Orinakin asked.
“They instruct, but they don’t ask as many questions,” Bade said.
“They don’t eat as much, either, I suppose,” Anosanim said with a smile.
“The ones who do, tend to be much larger,” Bade said. At that, Dranz almost seemed to smile.
Anoremin laughed, reaching for his goblet. “We eat only to sustain ourselves. We ask only to make our listeners think.”
“Their thoughts are what led them to you in the first place,” Dranz said. His voice was gruff but his tone was respectfully polite. “What they seek from you is knowledge and understanding, not more questions.”
“Questions broaden the mind,” Anoremin said gently with a courteous nod. “It is only by asking that true understanding is gained.”
“Then you and Bade should get along very well,” Orinakin said.
“I’m sure that we will,” Anoremin said, his utter calm at odds with his once more near-empty plate.
“How many gods do you have?” Bade asked.
“Ah,” Anoremin said. “There are eighteen gods who have blessed our land and the people within. There is Akanoti, the god of the sun and fire. Odanoru, the god of the moons and stars. Inanodu, the god of health and wellness. Oranomi, the god of death and transition. Esanoto, the god of rain and the weather. Edanola, the god of the river and fish. Matanori, the god of the animals and insects. Ebanosa, god of the harvest and plants. Etanoda, the god of the air and flight. Anona, the god of structure and balance. Tinanosa, the god of fertility and children. Ilanosa, the god of love and friendship. Setanoto, the god of peace and diplomacy. Sutanoka, the god of justice and truth. Itanoka, the god of wisdom and learning. Okanoti, the god of safety and travel. Alanohi, the god of art and poetry. Adanotu, the god of festival and sport.”
Bade frowned. “You have no female gods?” He hadn’t heard the word “goddess” once in that entire list.
“We have no female gods,” Anoremin said. “We have no male gods. Our gods have no gender. Our gods are not people,” he explained, “nor are they animals, nor are they a mix of the two. Our gods are…gods,” he said simply, with an expansive gesture. “We do not know their true form.” Dranz’s grunt this time sounded approving.
“And that’s why you have symbols for them, but no statues or paintings or carvings,” Bade said.
“Yes,” Anoremin said, as the servants cleared away the first course and introduced the second. “That is also why there are no paintings or statues of the pharaoh, either. Not of any generation. We do not depict our gods.”
“The pharaoh is all gods,” Bade said. “He is also a god?”
“The gods have given him their understanding and power,” Anoremin said. “He is a god.”
“But he’s also your older brother,” Bade said. He loved Tiko, but he couldn’t imagine his brother as a god.
“Yes,” Anoremin said calmly. “This is delicious,” he told Orinakin, and a servant immediately stepped forward to pile more onto his plate. “Tell Desin that planting closer to the river was a brilliant decision.”
Orinakin leaned down the table to impart that information, then turned to Bade. “Stop wondering things and just ask.”
“Wondering what?” Bade asked, to see if Orinakin really could read his mind. He certainly seemed able to, and Anoremin’s uncanny tendency not to blink, to gaze at him with utter directness, made him feel looked into more than looked at.
“If, the gods forbid it, anything should happen to your older brother, you would take his place in the kingdom,” Orinakin said.
“Yes,” Bade admitted.
Anoremin nodded. “You wonder if, should anything befall Kudorin, I would take his place.”
Kudorin, that was the pharaoh, yes, that word fell towards the end of his name somewhere. “Would you?”
“The pharaoh is Anosukinom,” Anoremin said. “Living god among us.”
“Yes,” Bade said, “but if he dies with no heir…”
“He is a god,” Anoremin said. “Gods do not die.”
“He’s also a man,” Bade argued. “Men die.”
“You do not believe,” Anoremin said, and his expression didn’t change but his eyes gained focus. Bade could tell that something important was happening, because Anoremin put down his fork.
“I do believe,” Bade insisted. “Your gods-”
“My brother,” Anoremin said quietly.
“You have accepted the strength of our gods,” Anoremin said. “Of all but one of them. Why do you leave him out of your acceptance? Because he has a human form? Do not your gods come in the forms of lions and sheep and birds?”
“Yes,” Bade said, “but-”
“The body of a man with the head of a goat, that you will believe, that you will accept, that you will worship,” Anoremin said. “The body of a man with the head of a man, that you would deny?”
“There is no god born of man,” Bade said. “Anosukinom was born of a man and a woman, just as you and all of your brothers were.”
“Born of a man and a god,” Anoremin said. “Our mother was pharaoh. Our mother was a god.”
“She’s not, now?” Bade asked. “How is anyone a god one day, and not the next? Anosukinom wasn’t born a god, he became a god. Someday, he will be only a man again?”
“The gods chose him,” Anoremin said. “Just as they chose our mother, and her mother before her, and her father before her. You would deny the gods their choice? If the gods should choose to bless my mother, my brother, anyone, with their powers and their wisdom and their divinity, who are you to tell them no?”
Anoremin’s gaze had remained calm, and his voice had remained quiet, but everyone at the table had stopped to hear every word. When he was finished, the hall was silent.
Trapped in that stillness, feeling everyone’s eyes on him, locked into Anoremin’s gaze, Bade was frozen. What could he say? He respected Anoremin, and he was fascinated by Anoremin’s arguments, but he realized that, because of what he’d just said, he could very well be thrown out into the night to find his own way home.
He vaguely heard, from the other end of the table, Dillane and Selorin strike up a conversation, attempting to draw the others in.
“Ask,” Orinakin said quietly.
He didn’t want to ask. He couldn’t afford to offend. He couldn’t let down his country and ruin this chance by-
“Ask,” Orinakin said firmly.
Resisting, Bade said to Anoremin, “I apologize. I meant no offense. The ways of your land and your gods are foreign to me, but I intended no disrespect. I would be honored to meet Anosukinom.”
“He will be interested to meet you,” Anoremin said. “Kudorin has great curiosity about the men who would leave their lives, their homes, their families, and their countries behind to consider marriage to him.”
“We have great curiosity about him, as well,” Bade admitted.
“It must be a difficult thing,” Anosanim said, “to come such a long way for someone you’ve never met.”
“It would be the highest honor to wed Anosukinom.”
“If you all will excuse the rude interruption,” Orinakin said softly, “I would like to speak with Prince Bade in the next room.”
“Try to come back before the next course,” Anoremin said. “I am told that they will serve a new sweet jorgan glaze.”
“We’ll make every effort,” Orinakin said, rising. “Your Highness?”
Feeling like he was twelve years old again and about to be scolded by one of his tutors, Bade excused himself and followed Orinakin from the dining hall. He knew that the others were too polite to stare, but it still felt as though their eyes were on him. Why was Orinakin pulling him aside? He never should have asked those questions, he never should have argued with Anoremin, he - - what had he been thinking, picking a fight with the royal high priest?! He was about to be sent home in shame and disgrace. How could he explain to his father, to Tiko, that he’d ruined all of his chances-
Startled, Bade met Orinakin’s eyes. He’d been brought to a small, comfortable sitting room, expensively decorated with very fine things. This room had no open archways, only two doors, both of which were closed. “Stop what?”
“No one’s going to send you home! Remin isn’t offended, he understands that all of this is new to you. He’s protective because there are only two things more important to Remin than food and sex, and those things are gods and his family, and since Kudorin happens to be both a god and his older brother, he - - what?!”
“You’re upset,” Bade said. “I’ve never seen you angry before.”
“I’m not angry,” Orinakin said firmly. “I’m aggravated.”
“I’m sorry,” Bade said sincerely. “I shouldn’t have-”
“Yes, you should have. I want you to. Say what you want to say. Ask what you want to ask. I love your candor, Bade, I love how sincere you are, it’s a refreshingly charming trait, I wish that I knew more people like you. And the more you wonder and don’t ask, the more questions burn in the back of your brain, the louder your curiosity is, until I can almost hear your questions in my own mind, and I don’t need your thoughts in my head. I have plenty of my own.”
Bade’s eyes widened; then he frowned. “You can-”
“Yes, I can hear you,” Orinakin said, rubbing at his temple and briefly wincing. “I’m used to sensing people’s needs and wants and interests, it’s a god-given blessing that allows me to be much better at my job than I would be normally, but I’ve never met anyone I can feel so clearly and hear so loudly. You’re so noisy, I can almost pick up individual thoughts.”
“You really can read my mind,” Bade said. “I knew it!”
“I’m not supposed to be able to,” Orinakin argued. “I’m supposed to get vague impressions, half-formed ideas, a general sense of things, not clear words and sentences. And the more worked up you get, the more I get this chattering in my head.”
“I’m sorry,” Bade said. “I’m not trying to annoy you. But your country amazes me. I always knew that Orina Anoris meant ‘land of the gods,’ but I didn’t take it literally. And you said a lot of things, you told me about being born with a god-given destiny and all of that, but I didn’t really believe any of it until I made water flow just by praying. And they’re not even my gods!”
“Ask me what you want to ask me,” Orinakin said firmly.
If Orinakin already knew his thoughts, was there any reason to withhold his questions? “Your gods are so immediate and so powerful, how could a simple man convince everyone that he’s a god, too? How does he do it? Who is he, really? Do the pharaohs pass down a secret among themselves that’s some sort of key to fooling the people? What secrets do you all share to continue the deception? Or is it not a deception at all? Is it real? Is that possible? Am I a crazy fool for doubting anything, in a country where words bring water?”
“You aren’t going to believe in Kudorin until you meet him, and you aren’t going to meet him until tomorrow afternoon,” Orinakin said. “Until you meet him and resolve all of these questions and doubts, either you’re going to have to learn how to think much more calmly and quietly, or I’m going to have to figure out how to turn down the volume.”
Bade didn’t want to suggest it, but, “We could avoid each other.”
“We can’t,” Orinakin said. “I have a job to do, and at the moment, you’re it.” Sighing, he sat on one of the low couches; Bade sat on the nearby chair. “I don’t understand this,” Orinakin said, closing his eyes and leaning back. “I’ve never had this problem before. Riturihi never mentioned it, either. Maybe it’s just a sign that my skills are growing stronger. Maybe it’ll begin to happen with everyone, and I’ll have to get used to it.”
“I don’t mean to cause you pain,” Bade said quietly.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Orinakin said, opening his eyes. “It’s mainly disorienting. And I’m sorry for yelling at you. It’s not your fault. It was just so unexpected.”
“It must be strange,” he admitted. “But it would help in international negotiations, at those councils and summits, if you could read minds, wouldn’t it? You would know which people were lying, what they’re really holding out for, what their secret motivations are.”
“I’ll speak with Riturihi,” he said. “And Kudorin.” He studied Bade more closely. “We should rejoin the others for dinner. It would help me if you’d blurt out whatever’s on your mind, because when you hold your tongue, it drives me a little bit crazy.”
“All right. As long as you don’t hold me responsible for whatever comes out.”
A brief smile. “Agreed.”
“You look tired,” Bade said, since the thought occurred to him. “And you have a beautiful smile.”
“Thank you,” Orinakin said. “I think that all of these months away and all of the travel have caught up with me. It will be nice to fall asleep in my own bed.”
“Your hair really is purple, isn’t it?” Bade asked quietly. “The gods really have blessed you. Something powerful really is happening in this country. It isn’t just rumor and legend. There’s something special here.”
“It isn’t something that can be explained,” Orinakin said. “I can tell you about it until I grow hoarse, but you won’t believe it until you see it for yourself and feel it for yourself and truly experience it. T’rin was right, some things simply need to be felt to be believed and accepted.” He stood. “Come back to dinner.”
“And if I say anything terribly embarrassing or offensive, you’ll defend me?” Bade asked, rising. “I can’t go home.”
“You want nothing more than to go home,” Orinakin said.
“I can’t go home,” Bade insisted. “This is the most important opportunity of my lifetime, this is the best chance Nosupolis has had in too many years, I can’t-”
“All right, all right, I-”
“It’s not all right,” Bade protested. “You live here where everything’s bright and everyone’s happy and your gods give you water and over half of the food you produce, you export simply because you don’t need it. Our people are tired, tired of working too hard for not enough, tired of praying to gods who don’t listen, tired of paying priests who don’t care, tired of having a king who can’t help them. I can help them! This is my chance! I can’t go home!”
Orinakin stared at him. “Why didn’t your father tell me any of this?”
“Because he’s tired, too,” Bade snapped. “How long was your aunt the diplomat?”
“Thirty-four years,” Orinakin said, frowning.
“My father met with her three times,” Bade said. “Two of those times were in Granete.”
Orinakin looked surprised. “She was only in Nosupolis once?”
“She was there more often than her uncle was.”
The expression on Orinakin’s face was, briefly, angry, but not at Bade. Shaking his head, though, he said, “It’s a large world. There are countries in worse conditions than yours. There have been droughts, there have been-”
“I know about the droughts, I know about the plagues, I know about the poor nations. Our people have clothes on their backs, and most of them find something to put on their plates. For many years, our kings have turned to their neighbors for help, have tried to get the attention of stronger powers, but to no avail. So they’ve stopped. But Tiko wants to try again. Tiko wants to trade, wants to-”
“Trade what?” Orinakin asked.
“Our blacksmiths can create anything, and their work is much more detailed than what we’ve seen in our neighboring countries,” Bade said. “We have a great deal of natural wool, more than enough to trade, and after so many centuries, our looms can spin a great variety of yarns, clothing, blankets, and I don’t know what else. And we’d trade the sheep and goats themselves, if anyone wanted them.”
Orinakin stared at him. “You have sheep?” he demanded. “You have goats?! Don’t you know how many people need those goats right now? How many people would keep them, breed them, eat them, milk them, wear their wool, and be able to live a much improved life? And you’re keeping them because no one asked you for them?”
“My father offered! But whose ear does he have anymore besides that of the king of Granete, who’s sick of herding our sheep off of his border? You see everything, you go everywhere, you speak to everyone, you know who has a need for what much better than we do.”
“Why didn’t anyone else ever mention this?” Orinakin demanded. “To Riturihi, to Niti, to anyone?”
“It wasn’t always the case,” Bade said. “We didn’t have as many sheep before as we do now, but when he was eleven, Tiko convinced my father to try to increase the number, and my father didn’t want to naysay my brother’s grand plans, so the shepherds have been growing their flocks ever since. Tiko says that as soon as we begin to export and gain a little money, we can do even more.”
“Why didn’t Tiko tell me any of this?”
“He’s not king yet. He won’t ask you for help if my father chooses not to. Now that the diplomat of Orina Anoris is finally paying us some attention, my father is too proud to ask for help on his first visit.” Bade looked closely into Orinakin’s eyes. “You came to us once. Then you returned, to bring me here. Were you ever going to come back?”
Orinakin hesitated. “Nosupolis wasn’t a priority.”
Bade nodded. “Well, it is for me.”
Kudorin | Remin | Orinakin | Selorin | Desin | Anosanim | Talin | Rini
Continue on to part four
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