Last night’s wine thundering behind his eyes, Prince Tel lay in bed, pondering the naked athlete’s jaw. Like the rest of him, it was muscled yet pretty. He was half girlish comeliness, half feral masculinity. It was a heartbreaking balance seen only in certain males—and only for a short time after they crossed into manhood. Tel’s latest conquest was pure roughness straining against the underside of smooth skin.
Even such loveliness could not keep the prince from growing bored for long. He fingered the Doe pendant on his mother’s delicate chain, as he had done in anxious moments for half his life. Consciousness still gauzy, he called on the power in his blood, knowing it would relieve his hangover a bit. He did not understand this effect but would gladly accept the reprieve and ponder the connection another day. The magic required to conjure or disappear—a flame, a bit of light, a simple object—came to him with ease and cost only a small amount of strength.
A gold marble of energy appeared and spun over the pad of his right index finger. He coaxed it to rotate faster, then slower. As expected, his headache abated. Over his left index finger, he made a twin. Soon, he had one lazily chasing the other. He felt even better.
The beautiful young man next to Tel seemed to awaken all at once, rolling to face his bedmate. By the time he completed this maneuver and opened his eyes, the balls of light had shivered out of existence. He would not find out today that, impossible as it was, Prince Tel of Feigh was a stagsblood dynast aged forty years.
“Your royal highness,” he croaked. An attempt at a smile burst apart into a great yawn. The stretching of limbs was even greater.
“Formal this morning, are we?”
Tel fingered a blue swoop of hair from his companion’s face, tucking it behind an ear. Most of the lad’s facepaint had worn off. Only the kohl around his orange eyes remained, smudged into smoke and fog. “You are extraordinary. Even hungover, I can see this.”
A quick laugh chuffed out of the athlete. “Me? You’re a future king. Besides, bet you can’t even tell me my name.”
“Nor mine.” Tel looked at him as if in profound contemplation. The gorgeous competitor rolled his eyes. Tel allowed a few more seconds to pass as he pantomimed an agonizing search through his memory. “Of course I remember your name, Turo. Turo the Champion. Turo the Titleholder. Turo, favorite of the Queen of Omela herself. An ordinary farm boy, his family working the land located just a few days outside the capital. At twenty, catching the notice of ladies and lords at the games. By twenty and three, one of the greatest to ever participate. Talented with the spear and the disk. A master of escape on the mat. Speed and strength and grace and stamina to rival centuries of the best. All this and unforgivably attractive.”
“Are you teasing me?”
“You are a demigod, Turo. A demigod almost two decades younger than me. Surely I am the one being teased.” At this, the younger man twisted his nose. The expression made Tel chortle, which he regretted instantly. By reflex, his hand flew to his temple. He let out a breath in a short, pointed burst.
“You know, there’s an old Omelan saying about hangovers.” Turo rolled away from Tel, onto his belly. He looked back at the prince, silken blue brushing the perfect mole on his shoulder. “Get your head right with a taste of last night.” With a playful lack of speed, he eased the covers down, exposing the robust, symmetrical hillocks of his backside.
“Precious Doe and Stag,” swore Tel in whispered appreciation. He shook his head to escape the trance. His whole body twitched and heated. In a single motion, he threw himself out of bed.
“Where’re you going?”
“Nowhere,” said Tel.
The heir to the throne of Feigh, cock heavy and bobbing in the warm air of the room, stood facing the prizewinner. He felt foolish. Despite this, within seconds, the awakening of his flesh was entire.
“Mm. How’s a prince your age built so solid?”
“You know what I mean. By your age, most highborns go soft. In Omela, at least.”
Tel scoffed, looking down the length of his torso. “I am…not what I used to be.”
“You are solid. Solid as some I compete against.”
“In Feigh, princes train. Sword work. Archery. Grappling. Sparring. And often. Seems to be an expectation of the role.”
“Just pretending to be modest, then? And I already know you can handle that sword of yours.”
“Very funny. I am much better with a bow.”
“I like the black hair on you,” said Turo. “Just the right amount. Not too much. Not too little.”
The flattery worked on Tel. His cock jumped.
Turo’s gaze settled on the insistent thing pointing at him. “Come here,” he growled.
“Today is too important a day, even for—”
“No day’s too important for a quick fuck.”
“There will be no taste of last night,” said Tel. “Neither you nor the wine. I need a clear head.”
“No. Day. Too. Important.” Turo kicked his feet with each word.
Tel stepped to the bed and threw one knee onto the mattress. He brought his mouth to Turo’s right ear and said, spanking him with each word, “Today. Is. Too. Important.” He left him pouting in the bed and searched for his clothes. His wine-addled, dodgy memory of the previous night made this quite an ordeal. Swearing under his breath, he found the bottom half of his outfit balled and stuffed between the seat cushion and back of a luxurious chair. His body tipped a bit while stepping into his under-breeches. He prevented himself from falling and cursed again. Sliding the bright green woolen hose up his legs, he looked toward the bed. “I would also prefer not being pursued all the way back to Feigh by a jealous lover of Turo the Terrible. Certainly not if he’s the powerful beast I have conjured in my mind’s eye. I must not be killed. I am to be king.” He chuckled.
“I don’t prefer men,” Turo said. “And I don’t have a woman. There’s nobody to kill you.”
Tel snapped an eyebrow into a peak. Turo’s performance last night had been more than competent. It was skilled, enthusiastic. “Then, why? Twice.”
“Feighans have too many rules about it. Black and white. Too strict.”
“Point taken, but my own reputation suggests this does not apply to all of us.” He tilted his head and allowed a hint of a smirk.
The Feighan prince’s appetites were well known, even here in Omela, across an ocean. If anything, he had tended to be more insatiable during his extensive visits over the years. One Omelan or another was always eager to accommodate. “It’s one of the things I like best about this place. The sensualism. The openness. The refusal to feel shame about pleasure. Still, why? Did somebody—”
“Nobody paid.” Turo rolled to the edge of the enormous bed and swung his legs over, covering his lap with a pillow.
Tel noted the unlikely grace of even this mundane set of movements and pushed out an almost imperceptible moan wrapped in a more noticeable sigh.
Turo appeared to weigh something in his mind. “You never fucked a woman?”
Tel’s laugh blasted out of him, but memory turned his amusement into a numb gloominess. He caught himself after a few seconds and willed a lighter expression onto his face. “Once. Only once. And a very long time ago at that. I was a handful of years younger than you.”
Spotting his shirt on the floor next to the bed, Tel crouched to grab it. “And,” he answered, standing up and shouldering himself into the linen, “it was the perfect thing to happen at the time. Not to mention, I was seventeen. I would have japed a pumpkin, then japed another before finding my way out of the patch.”
Turo snorted and convulsed with laughter. He quieted and considered his hands as they smoothed the pillow on his thighs. “You needed it. Company, I mean. You weren’t looking for it, exactly, even when I was offering. But you needed someone. You were hiding it, but you were…you didn’t want to be there. Like me. Like you wanted to escape. So, you talked with me.” He shrugged. “I don’t have as much to say as the rest of them. Being good at the games makes me like a pet to them. A dog. A horse. I’m easy.”
Tel attempted to protest, but Turo silenced him with a small gesture.
“I’m simpler. I know it. You don’t have to work as hard with me. None of them do. I’m the horse and they’re them. I liked you. You listened to me talk about the farm for an hour. Really listened. And I wanted to give you something. Not what you were looking for, but something. It seemed like you should’ve been happier. I’ve given it to men before and wanted to, but not as much as I wanted to give it to you. So, accept it and know it at least made me happy.” He appeared surprised the words came out of him, like they had forced their way past the gate of his mouth.
The crown prince of Feigh was, for the first time in a long while, speechless. Still, he couldn’t let the moment pass in silence. “Mm.”
Over the next hour and a half, Omelan servants scurried in and out with breakfast and unnecessary offers of assistance. Although they moved across marble, noiseless, their presence worsened Tel’s headache. He traveled with as few people as safety and practicality would permit. Both at home and abroad, he seemed to spend as much time dismissing staff with a smile as he did making use of their services. In his younger years, he had tried to speak to his attendants like friends. He realized it made most of them uncomfortable and decided if they did not want to chat with him, and he had no tasks for them, they would be happier elsewhere. Thank you. You may go.
Turo ate his breakfast like a forest hog attempting to mind its manners. Tel drank hidybrew and eyed him, utterly charmed. His balls sang until they ached. He daydreamed Turo was a Feighan champion. The proximity would be dangerous, the distraction too great. Taking him twice would not be near enough. He prayed to the Doe that the athlete would not be in his sightline at the ceremony later that night.
Once the boy left, Tel cleaned his teeth and buffed his face with a damp cloth. His headache eased slower than it would have forty or even twenty seasons ago, but it eased. He moved about his guest rooms for a while without any purpose and, not for the first time, noted they were almost as grand as his chambers at home. The tapestries were brighter, in fact, and the windows larger, even if the space itself was not quite as generous as his own. He stepped to one of the windows and inhaled the steaming early autumn air. Although the summer was hot in Feigh, it was never as extreme or long-lasting as it was here in southern Omela. He let the sun heat his cheeks and beard while he considered what he might say that evening, when his land and Omela would formally make peace after two centuries of war.
He should feel elation and relief, but a sharper sadness rose out of his usual dull, secret melancholy. He would miss this place. Over the last dozen years, a sincere and inmost love for it had grown. Peace won, it was time to turn to the next phase of his life. He could not imagine what it was. Stretching before him was only blankness. The thought of it made his stomach fill with sand. His attention to and obsession with these stuttering negotiations had taken much of his time and intellect. He had never found the energy to decide what should come next. Where will I be in four seasons? Even a vague idea of the next year eluded him.
Knowing whatever the future held, he should meet it fully dressed, he searched about for a few moments until he found his crumpled doublet near the fireplace. Next to it was the thin, green scarf Turo had made him take off last. He covered his bare neck with a loose twist and buttoned the quilted jacket over his linen shirt, noting the skillful embroidery on the padding, done in both vivid and subtler oranges. The colors brought pumpkins to his mind. Laughing, he thought of Turo again. My antlered master, he was wonderful.
Returning to the window, he looked across the rooves of the city below and connected to the magical dynasty again, seeking the drops of stagsblood in his veins. He continued to mull what to include in his remarks before the treaty signing. Another sphere, warm yellow, appeared above his upturned hands, bigger and brighter than the ones he had made in bed. At this height and in the light of midmorning, no one could see, even if they were looking. With his mind as much as his hands, he flicked the ball from left to right, spun it, and made it grow and shrink. Moments passed, and he found himself unable to imagine a single sentence with enough gravity or elegance to mark the occasion.
As an idea began to form, three heavy thuds came from the door. The knocks pleased Tel. Solitude never sat well with him while the sun was up. He could not think when he was alone because he could not stop thinking. At night, with a book and a fair supply of ale or cider in his chambers, he had no such difficulty. “Caip,” he said, hearing the smile in his own voice. He snapped his open hands into loose fists, and the magical globe was extinguished. “Come in.”
Correcting his posture, he turned to see the chief of his personal guard and closest friend cross into the room. As tall and brawny as Tel, her strides were long, her footfalls assertive.
“Your royal highness.” She showed him the top of her head.
The formality of the entrance dissolved his smile. No one was present to see them. “Rightmajor,” he said, figuring her solemn carriage meant he was in for a lecture of one kind or another. He braced himself for her harangue. Although he did not know the nature of her disappointment, he guessed he deserved it. She raised her inflamed eyes and swollen, spotty face. He had missed the state of her features when she walked in.
“The Crunadam has arrived,” said Caip.
“What is—Already? But we were supposed to have three weeks of rest after the…” He looked at her face again.
Silence, but within it, an abundance of language—the language of too much history, of shared traumas and achievements. In the total quiet, the beginning of a conversation passed between them. Something terrible had occurred. He thought he knew exactly what. “Father?”
“Started a cough right after we sailed,” said Caip. “It wouldn’t leave him. Four weeks ago, he went to the black.” Collapsing into a chair, she seized and sobbed on the cushion.
Tel felt cold. “You will take a place at Table.” He inspected the enormous tapestry opposite his temporary bed. “You will, in effect, be Head, but the title will go to my brother, of course.” He squinted. “Lag will gripe I lean so heavily on you, but he possesses neither the ambition nor the intellect to cause you much trouble.”
In pained and deliberate croaks, Caip spoke again. “Sit with me. There’s more.”
“I am thinking. I cannot afford to let sentiment take me now. Goddesses and gods, I will not allow it. It will have to come later. If it comes at all. I would like you to choose your own replacement to lead my guard.”
He searched the face of the crowned man in the tapestry, who stood in flawless, gleaming armor on a patch of tall grass on a dusty bluff. From his perch, the figure surveyed a distant battle, an orgy of scarlet. “What pile of stones or worthless title or faithless lover did you win or lose that day?” He sat next to his weeping friend.
Tel watched her struggle for composure. Her uncharacteristic lack of control made his gut sick with fear. She seemed to shape her sadness into angry authority. “Stay there. Don’t interrupt again.” The tone surprised and quieted him. He watched her gather her strength again. “Your brother. Has taken. The throne.”
“Lag. Is king.”
“Table are unanimous,” said Caip. “Lord Craid wasn’t present. You weren’t present. But they need only ten for quorum. They’ve declared you of unsound mind.”
“Unsound mind?” He tried to take her eyes, but they dodged, finding the marble floor.
She said, “The drink.”
“The drink.” He felt a bit dizzy and settled further into the cushions of his chair. “I will not be king.”
“You won’t.” She began wailing.
Tel had never seen her so shattered, even when she lost her own parents. He reached toward her and stroked the middle of her back. She moaned. “Caip. This is a surprise. A shock. I cannot even think. But I know it will be—”
“A nightmare, Tel. And you’re relieved.”
“You are upset.”
“Your brother’s a fool. Dishonest. Even as a child, he never passed up an opportunity to cheat. He’s weak. Lazy. Vulgar.”
“They could take your head for that, rightmajor.” He chuckled.
“I am no fool,” said Tel, “but I am weak, lazy, and vulgar by some estimations. Inherited, I think. Skips a generation.”
“You joke? You joke?” She was on her feet, spitting.
“It is only partially in jest. I will have a life of leisure. Pursuit of my diversions. Good men and good wine.”
Caip raised a hand. “Stop it. Lag isn’t suited. No ideas of his own.”
“He will have advisors.”
“Who’ll too easily manipulate him.”
“We will be two of them,” said Tel.
“Cat leavings! You’re a leader. He’s never made one decision of consequence without your uncle whispering in his ear. You can’t see his true nature. Under the wine and the fucking you’re wise and decent. Under—”
“Under it is less than you think.” He sprang from his chair. “It has felt like a burden, anyway. Since my balls dropped and my observations of my father became more sophisticated than blind hero worship. How much happiness do you think my father had? How much sleep?”
“You think you were put on the world for happiness? That you were born to your parents, that you’ve had everything you ever wanted brought to you on a pillow, that you were given your station by the Stag and Doe so you could be happy? No. No. All you need do is bring your drinking under control and…”
He moved to her, lowering his voice. “Do you not see? You have placed too much faith in me. And it does not matter. There is no altering it. Table have decided. I am surprised, but there is nothing to do.”
“There is something to do, Tel. Go to Table. Go in sobriety. You can convince people of anything. I’ve seen it. Convincing them of the truth is nothing. Your brother’s no good for Feigh. Backward and prejudiced. Greedy and vain. He’ll try to erase the work of the last two generations of your family.”
“I would have been the third reformer monarch in a row. This is the nature of history, Caip. Things lurch in one direction for some seasons, then another.”
“Not too many seasons ago, prince or not, your head would’ve been taken just for bringing that Omelan to your bed last night. Is that what you want?”
“Then you must press your case with Table. If you can’t win them over…”
“What?” asked Tel, unable to stop a dark chuckle. “What then?”
“Fight? Silence your tongue. You speak of my brother like he is a monster. He is ignorant, but he is not evil. And he is your king now. It pleases neither of us, but he is. I will not hear this disloyalty again. Silence your tongue.”
She obeyed her prince.
A fraction of Tel’s new reality settled in his chest. He would never again discuss a poem with his father.