Blogging From A to Z is a blog challenge where participants post a new item every day (except Sundays), where every item relates to the appropriate letter of the alphabet. You can find out more over at http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com
Word Count: 20,834
The squat, solid inner-city buildings blocked out the worst of the choking yellow dust that rushed up from the desert to beat against the shanty-town outskirts in waves, but the procession set up its own swirling haze that made him, not for the first time, glad to be at its head and not the rear with the rank-and-file soldiers.
The squat, solid inner-city buildings blocked out the worst of the choking yellow dust that rushed up from the desert to beat against the shanty-town outskirts in waves, but the procession set up its own swirling haze that made him, not for the first time, glad to be at its head and not the rear with the rank-and-file soldiers.
Not that it made much difference to his view: the fine golden fabric veiling his face distorted everything into beautiful soft focus, obscuring everything from the sandy bricks of the buildings to the faces of the densely-packed crowd that lined the heavily-guarded streets. It looked like everyone had turned out to see him.
It was only to be expected. It wasn’t every day the prince of an enemy nation was paraded through the capital city in chains.
Not that they were the everyday chains any common criminal might find himself in, no: Gabrys’s entourage had been very firm on that point. His manacles were finely wrought filigree plated in gold, flowing and curving from wrist to elbow, and the chains seemed to emerge organically from the delicate pattern to hang loosely between his wrists, glinting every time they caught the harsh midday sun.
It might only be symbolic, a show of subservience as he approached the fortress to finally make peace, but it had to be memorable. It had to capture the hearts and minds of all who saw or it was as doomed to failure as every previous attempt.
And even if his chains were symbolic, he suspected the guards around him, bristling with assorted weaponry, were quite the opposite. Not for them the polished show pieces: the blade just visible from beneath his veil, hanging in its loose scabbard, was pitted and pocked and its edge was honed to wicked sharpness. The guards lining the streets might be for Gabrys’s protection, but he was under no illusions that the ones surrounding him were to protect the populace from him while, bound, he made his way towards another binding entirely.
The thought of it made him smile quite without meaning to. It might not be diplomatic but it did his heart good to think they were so cautious of a single bound, unarmed prince whose battles had been solely tactical. Had they been so cautious of his brothers too? Though that caution did them no favours: they’d both been cut down on the battlefield and only one body had yet been returned.
“Are you alright, my lord?” The guard to his front-left, the one whose sword had briefly been so fascinating, asked in Gabrys’s own tongue, accented but not unpleasantly.
How kind. Gabrys wondered if this too had been requested by his own side, or if it was provided as a courtesy by the king. The man’s troops were ruthless on the battlefield but captured soldiers spoke highly of him as both a person and a tactician so it wasn't beyond the realms of fancy to think he'd approach this as yet another battle, albeit one involving charm rather than swords. “Thank you,” Gabrys said slowly, enunciating his words for the soldier’s benefit. “I’m quite well.”
The golden blur of the soldier’s head bobbed in something that was probably a nod. Throughout the whole exchange he hadn’t even broken stride. If Gabrys proceeded to make trouble, become a threat, he wondered if they'd break stride even as they cut him down.
Probably not. The procession would march on over his bleeding body and, one way or the other, King Ardashir would get what he wanted.
With that particularly unpleasant thought in mind, Gabrys realised the palace was approaching, and bit down the reflexive swallow. He didn’t need to lift the gossamer shading his face to know that Ardashir would be standing by the doors surrounded by his own entourage, all of whom were no doubt as heavily armed as the ones around Gabrys. It would seem to the crowd like he was waiting to greet his new prize, a show of unity between the two forces; Gabrys had no doubt it was to ensure he arrived at all.
With thoughts like that floating through his head, perhaps this union wasn’t going to go quite as smoothly as he’d intended after all.
Gabrys had been the last brother, the youngest: the one protected by remaining in the palace and organising their forces. He’d never seen Ardashir on the battlefield and no portrait had been provided when it transpired this was their very last course of action. That, on lifting his veil, the man was around his own age came as a shock. That he was handsome on top of it almost knocked him sideways.
From Ardashir’s engaging—if practiced—smile, Gabrys’s reaction had been entirely transparent, and was entirely expected. “My prince,” he said in perfect, unaccented Arvellan, sketching out an impeccable half-bow, “please allow me to welcome you to my humble abode.”
Gabrys felt the corner of his mouth raise into a half-smile. “You do me too much honour, speaking in my mother tongue.” Ardashir’s language didn’t roll so easily off his tongue, but from the brightening of Ardashir’s smile the effort was not in vain. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As a cheer rippled through the watching crowd, he took Ardashir’s offered arm and allowed himself to be led through the massive entrance into Līzahra’s opulent palace.
They were only halfway down the corridor, moving silently in step and still surrounded by soldiers, before Gabrys concluded that opulent may have been too reserved a term. He’d always tried to ensure that his family’s more modest palace was kept as neat and attractive as he could, but it was usually a losing battle when faced with the costs and constraints of war. There was no justification for painted, plastered ceilings and elaborate wall hangings when their liberty was threatened with every breath.
Clearly Ardashir had suffered no such problems. His ceilings were not only painted, but gilded, and porcelain ewers and vases adorned every available surface, stuffed full of strongly-scented blooms chosen to accent each delicate fresco on the walls and the bright rugs that lined the hallway.
Something must have been visible in Gabrys’s expression as Ardashir glanced over his shoulder: he turned mid-step to catch and lift his hands, running his thumbs over Gabrys’s knuckles. “I’ve done all I can to make my home welcoming,” he said in his own tongue, “but if you find any of it less than satisfactory, I can be rid of it easily. You only have to tell me.”
“No, my king,” Gabrys said, “it’s not that.” How quickly Ardashir had gone back to his own language on finding Gabrys could speak it. Still, he couldn’t blame the man. They were in his country, his palace, after all.
“Then what is it? I swear I will do everything in my power to make you comfortable.” Still holding Gabrys’s hands, he lifted them to press a gentle kiss to his fingers.
Gabrys felt his jaw drop, and felt equally powerless to do anything about it. Never mind the arrangement, he’d known this man (this handsome man) less than five minutes and he was kissing his hands. Yes, the arrangement, but, but—
It took him a moment to realise Ardashir was frowning. “Have I offended you, my prince?”
“No, my king. I—I am just tired, that’s all.” The words were more strangled than he’d like; he had the distinctly embarrassing impression he was blushing.
Ardashir watched him intently for a moment longer, then pressed his lips to Gabrys’s fingers again, the tips this time, before dropping them again. “Of course. It’s been a long journey for you and the heat can only have made it worse. The tour can wait, I’ll show you to your rooms.”
“No, my king, it’s fine—” Gabrys protested weakly. If Ardashir thought him a shrinking wallflower the arrangement ran the risk of becoming unpleasantly one-sided. He might not be as physically strong as his brothers but he was hardly a weakling and, worse, the idea that Ardashir might just view him with contempt balled a knot in his stomach.
The smile Ardashir flashed over his shoulder almost took Gabrys’s breath away. “I insist. I was selfish, I had forgotten just how exhausted you must be.”
What could he say to such consideration without making his new fiancé out to be rude, or himself to be a liar? More embarrassed than ever and painfully aware his ears must be flushing pink, he trailed in Ardashir’s wake through the lavish halls, leaving his and Ardashir’s advisors and servants standing agape in the corridor.
There seemed an impossible amount of doors along the way. They were all painted red and adorned with large golden handles and ostentatious hinges; red-flowered garlands twisted along and down the frames of some while others remained unmarked. Gabrys paused to admire one, running a waxy-velvet petal between his fingers, when low voices just ahead caught him by surprise. Looking without looking, eyes flicking to one side as his face remained immobile, he could see Ardashir deep in conversation with a barely-clothed man standing half-obscured by a shower of glittering, rattling beads. It didn’t take a great leap to guess they were talking about him.
The words were too low for him to catch—not that he was trying, no, not at all—but Ardashir’s irritated expression was not. Neither was the soft, urgent tone of the other man, almost pleading despite the evident darkening of Ardashir’s mood.
That one word wasn’t loud, but it cut through the air like a sword. Gabrys didn’t need to see the man’s face to know it looked like he’d been slapped; he felt the same despite it not being aimed at him. When Ardashir spun on his heel his shoulders were hunched; with quick, loud steps he strode away.
The man blended back through the beads as Gabrys hurried through the warm cloud of scent hanging in the air of the corridor, trying to catch up without looking like he’d been eavesdropping. “Are you alright, my king?”
For a moment he could have sworn Ardashir had completely forgotten he existed. His dark blue eyes held only surprise until realisation dawned. “Yes. Yes, my prince, it’s nothing for you to concern yourself with.”
His brothers used to say the same thing, and he’d believed them just as much. “Was that man from your saray?”
“My... saray?” Ardashir hesitated a moment, before a second wave of realisation spread across his face. “My serail? Yes, he was.” His voice was thick with reluctance. “Does that offend you?”
Gabrys let out a distinctly unprincely snort. “Offend me? Amady, my brother, was so looking forwards to building his own saray he had me vetting the local lords’ sons. I am as far from offended as I can be.”
Ardashir’s shoulders sagged, and it took a moment for Gabrys to realise it was from relief. “My serail is only small, but I was so concerned you might be jealous—” When he seized Gabrys’s hand again, pressing a hot kiss to his palm, it was only marginally less alarming than the first time. “Thank you for being so understanding, my prince.”
Ardashir’s smile was even more engaging for its genuine beauty, and even more confusing. Gabrys resumed following the King of Līzahra through the halls of his palace, and for all of Ardashir’s affability and charm felt even more of a stranger than he had when he’d arrived.
He’d expected a room. It wasn’t long before their wedding: politics didn’t allow for a period of courtship; he’d have been more than happy with one of the many diplomat’s rooms a palace this size was bound to have. Instead Ardashir opened the door with a smile that if Gabrys didn’t know better might almost seem shy, and they stepped into a suite larger than some of Gabrys’s subjects’ houses.
It took a superhuman effort, but this time he kept his mouth firmly closed against the surprise. “My king, isn’t this a little... extravagant? I would be perfectly happy with a single room—”
Ardashir dismissed his concerns with a simple gesture. “Nonsense. If I cannot show I can provide for you before our wedding, how could you have any faith I would after it?”
It was a reasonable concern, but it did nothing for the gnawing twisting of Gabrys’s stomach. It was a very beautiful suite, there was no denying it, littered with thick rugs and low tables on which sat bowls of ripe fruits, with fine curtains separating each room and more than enough gilding on every available surface to make Gabrys’s head spin. From this suite alone, it looked as though Ardashir was not just capable of providing for him, but for the subjects of both their countries combined.
That was the whole point, Gabrys supposed.
“If there’s anything you want, no matter how small,” Ardashir said, taking hold of Gabrys’s hand again and giving it a tender squeeze, “there are bell pulls on the wall that will summon your servant to attend to your every wish.”
“Thank you, my king,” Gabrys said, his words softer than intended. No matter he’d only claimed tiredness to cover his faux pas, he could feel exhaustion moving on in waves now. The bed just visible beyond the gossamer curtains looked more welcoming with every second.
After all previous contact, he expected another kiss to graze his hand. When it grazed his cheek instead he felt heat fill his face. “Rest well, my prince,” Ardashir murmured. “I will be waiting for you.”
He was gone before Gabrys could summon another word.
The sun carved orange lines across the floor, turning the dark wood furniture into a rich, warm red and caressing copper tones into the gold fittings, as Gabrys floated back to consciousness. The mattress was as soft as its surroundings promised, the sheets as silky and fine; he’d wasted no time in divesting himself of his clothes and sliding naked into bed.
The genteel rapping at the door in the next room made it suddenly seem a bad idea. “Ah—I’m sorry,” he called out, trying desperately to guess at the time of day from the quality of light. Late evening? Should he dress for dinner? “I—I’ll be there in a moment!”
His heart ceased its pounding as a soft creak filled the air, and only began fresh hammering as Ardashir’s voice drifted towards him. “It’s me, my prince. Can I come in?”
The man was to be his husband. Who was he to say no? He’d see him naked soon enough as it was. “Yes, my king,” Gabrys said hesitantly. “I’m in here.”
The first he saw of him was one tanned hand pushing aside the curtain, then Ardashir himself came into view. “How did you sleep?”
“Very well, my king.” He couldn’t help feeling acutely aware of the way Ardashir’s eyes played over his bare shoulders and chest, and tried to distract himself by examining his future husband instead. At some point Ardashir had changed his clothes, and the powder blue top accented both his bronze skin and blue eyes as well as perfectly complementing his dark blue trousers. Beyond those, to Gabrys’s surprise his feet were bare. “I didn’t mean to sleep so long, though, my king. Is it time for dinner already?”
Ardashir’s laugh was low and husky. “Dinner? My prince, it’s time for breakfast.”
Gabrys stared at Ardashir, mouth uselessly agape again, then at the beams of sunlight. When he looked back to his fiancé, Ardashir’s face had split into a wide grin. “I—I’m so sorry, my king! I really did not mean to insult—you must think me—”
“Nothing of the sort,” Ardashir said gently, crossing the room in quick, silent steps to perch on the side of the bed. “You were bound to be exhausted after such a long journey amidst such pageantry. You did tell me as much, so when you didn’t respond to the servant’s knocking I assured them they were doing no wrong by letting you sleep.”
“Thank you, my king.” He felt like a child again, being lightly scolded by his ever-patient nanny for exactly such a crime. Coming from his husband-to-be, it was a disconcerting feeling. “I’m ready to rise now. I won’t keep you waiting any longer.”
It was the most politely pointed way he could think of to encourage Ardashir to leave his room, and it in no way succeeded. If anything, he leaned further forward instead.
Gabrys tugged the silken blankets further up and smiled innocently at Ardashir until, with a visible sigh, he rose from the bed again. When he leaned down to kiss his cheek again, at least this time Gabrys was half-expecting it. If he blushed, his only consolation was he couldn’t feel it. “The servant will be in to dress you in a moment,” Ardashir said, smiling affectionately down at him. “He will escort you to the breakfast room.”
To Gabrys’s relief, Ardashir left before the servant entered. He was friendly enough, true, but Gabrys had known him only a few hours and the idea of being naked in front of him sent fresh nerves racing through him. It wasn’t that he was innocent: he’d spent enough time messing around with the sons of various lords before the war, as was only expected of the third-born prince, but that was fooling around. It wasn’t important.
This was, and it filled his chest with fear.
The servant obeyed his command to remain in the reception area while Gabrys dressed himself in simple, light clothes, marvelling as he did at the fine fabrics Ardashir had filled his wardrobe with. His own clothes were nice enough, if practical: these were simply stunning. Even in a loose top and trousers he felt overdressed.
“Are you ready, Prince Gabrys?” The servant asked from beyond the curtains.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrys stepped through the gossamer and followed the young man through the door.
Breakfast was taken in an intimate room whose huge doors overlooked a garden area, and consisted of fresh fruits and pleasant conversation. Ardashir was a formidably intelligent man who never let his intellect become overpowering and was plainly doing everything he could to put Gabrys at his ease. Gabrys only wished it worked. Ardashir was nothing he’d expected. Far from settling him, he was actively making him more nervous without intending to.
“Your Majesty, a moment?” A voice cut through Gabrys’s reverie; only a miracle kept his apple chunk in his suddenly nerveless fingers. He twisted in his seat to see a servant standing hands behind back at the door, and to the servant’s credit he only looked momentarily surprised at Gabrys’s reaction before Ardashir rose to greet him. “Your Majesty, you’re needed in the Council room.”
Ardashir glanced at Gabrys, who nodded slightly. “Very well. I’ll be along presently.” As the servant held the door open, he leaned down to press a further kiss to Gabrys’s cheekbone. “If past council meetings are anything to go by, a moment will quickly become several hours. Please spend your time exploring the palace, my prince, and if there’s anything you require then any servant will be happy to provide for you.”
“Thank you, my king.” Tentatively, Gabrys caught Ardashir’s hand and pressed a quick, shy kiss to the palm.
For a moment Ardashir seemed as nonplussed as Gabrys had, then a grin spread across his face. “The time will pass far too slowly for comfort.”
He left before Gabrys could answer. With a faint smile the servant closed the door again, leaving Gabrys alone with his breakfast in a palace he knew nothing about. Well, he decided, finishing off his apple chunk, now was as good a time as any to find out more.
The palace turned out to be bigger than it seemed, and labyrinthine with it. The occasional servant padded through the corridors, pausing to either nod respectfully or perform a sweeping bow of such speed and grace Gabrys found himself wondering how they kept their balance, before vanishing around corners. When Gabrys made to follow, there was no sign of them. It didn’t take long for him to become lost but, for once, it didn’t seem anything to fear.
It took half an hour to find a larger garden than the one adjoining the breakfast room. A trickling sound lured him through three hallways until he entered a courtyard that took his breath away. Plants with vivid, glossy green leaves crept artfully along the walls and flourished in pots that were strategically placed amid coloured gravel swirls. In the center bubbled a small fountain; that was what had caught his attention from so far away.
The place was an oasis of calm inside the already-still palace, and Gabrys loved it immediately.
He’d been settled on one of the low marble benches, chin in palm and elbow on knee as he stared thoughtfully at the fountain, for maybe five minutes when a movement to one side made him slip and almost smack himself in the face instead. Ardashir’s council meeting had to be over, but—
A slight form settled carefully on the bench beside him; Gabrys took a deep breath of a sweet, warm scent. “You must be the tactician prince, am I right?”
Gabrys stared at the young man beside him, and tried to prevent another blush from embarrassing himself. From the curving of the man’s pretty lips, he didn’t succeed. And it wasn’t just his lips that were pretty: all of him was, from his delicate heart-shaped face to his soft-looking shoulder length brown hair, but they all paled in comparison to his eyes.
Gabrys was mesmerised.
He’d heard of heterochromatic eyes and that some of the southern peoples had a particular disposition to them, but he’d never been so lucky as to see a man blessed with them. This stranger’s far exceeded expectations. One was a deep, liquid brown, the other the sky on a brilliant summer’s day, and both were fixed on him with the light of amusement dancing behind them. “Do I have something on my face, my prince?”
Gabrys started. “No. No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.”
Gentle fingertips grazed the back of his hand, sending a jolt of electricity from wrist to shoulder. “No, my prince, you haven’t offended me.” The teasing smile on his lips made it hard for Gabrys not to stare straight at them, and its fading inexplicably constricted his chest. “I only wanted to see how you were settling in, my prince. To see if you are happy here.”
It took a moment, but the realisation of where he’d caught that intoxicating cloud of scent before suddenly dawned on him. “Oh, you’re one of Arda—the king’s—saray, aren’t you?”
For a moment, the other man looked as shocked as if Gabrys had slapped him then he smiled, a rueful smile that didn’t suit him. “Yes, my prince. I am.”
“He doesn’t need to worry about me. You can tell him that—that I’m settling in just fine.”
The sarayi’s brow furrowed. Far from marring his features, it served only to accentuate his expressiveness. “My prince, I’m not here on behalf of my king.” His voice was low, urgent; Gabrys felt his heart climb into his throat. “I’m here for you. Please, you must be careful. Things are not as they seem, and if something were to happen—”
“My, this is an interesting scene,” a voice, warm and rich, cut across the young man’s. “Two of the prettiest men I know, deep in conversation. I wonder what they could be talking about?”
It took longer than Gabrys liked for realisation to dawn: the voice was Ardashir’s. He leapt to his feet, stumbling into a bow that got only halfway before Ardashir caught his hand and brought it to his mouth. “How was your meeting, my king?”
From the corner of his eye, he thought he caught a flash of gratitude over the sarayi’s face; Ardashir’s expression momentarily darkened. “You may go now, Demiah.” Only when the sarayi had bowed and retreated into the building did Ardashir’s smile return. “It was far too long, as always, and kept me away from you. I’ll never forgive them for it.”
Gabrys smiled in return, and prayed it didn’t look as tentative as it felt. “I hope you do forgive them, my king, or you’ll resent them for every meeting for the rest of your life.”
“For the rest of my life?” Ardashir’s smile grew into a grin and another kiss grazed over Gabrys’s palm. “I suppose that would be a long time to sulk, knowing that you were always there waiting for me. It seems you’re already a good influence on me. Perhaps I will forgive them, after all.”
Warmth filled his cheeks again and he turned his gaze to the ground than meet Ardashir’s intense blue eyes. “Thank you, my king.”
It was a nonsense phrase to cover his awkwardness, nothing more, but the hand holding his grew painful for a moment. When he flinched and jerked his gaze back up, Ardashir’s teasing expression had grown serious. “You have nothing to thank me for, my prince.”
Gabrys opened his mouth, but no words seemed inclined to present themselves so he could only close it again. Involuntarily, his gaze flicked across to where the sarayi had vanished.
When he looked back, Ardashir’s expression had clouded slightly, only clearing again when he realised Gabrys saw. “Come, my prince. Allow me to give you the official tour I’d intended for you yesterday.” The gentle pressure of his hand on Gabrys’s brooked no disagreement; he ducked his head in a polite nod and, forcing the brightest smile he could manage, followed Ardashir’s lead into a door that pointedly led away from the direction the sarayi had gone.
The boy’s words settled unpleasantly at the back of Gabrys’s skull even as Ardashir began to talk of the building, flashing his brilliant smile to punctuate certain aspects of ancestors’ heroic deeds that had helped shape its form. Gabrys paid less attention than he knew he ought. He’d been nervous enough without the sarayi’s warning, now his mind was working overtime.
Things are not as they seem.
As if his world wasn’t shifting perilously around him as it was.
A council meeting claimed Ardashir the next day as well, and Gabrys couldn’t help feeling guilty for his silent gratitude to the unseen council. Ardashir was trying so hard to introduce everything to Gabrys that his presence rapidly became cloying; to get away from him was a breath of fresh air.
He enjoyed roaming the halls, exploring everything the palace had to offer without the constraints of Ardashir’s tour. If Ardashir had known that his explanations had been in vain, that Gabrys had totally forgotten them less than half a day after he’d so painstakingly given them, Gabrys knew he’d be, if not furious, then at least disappointed with his fiancé.
So, rather than contemplate Ardashir’s disappointment, Gabrys threw himself into exploration instead.
Much as he’d thought the day before, the palace sprawled. Its deceptive depth made it easy to get lost in, and just as easy to find a place that seemed familiar only for him to discover he’d not been there before. There seemed to be three of the small courtyards he’d found the day before, all of which were unoccupied—though he told himself that was a benefit rather than a disappointment—and countless doors promised untold secrets through their arches. Secrets that would have to remain secret: he had no way of knowing which were open function rooms, which belonged to servants, and which might lead to the council meeting he was so grateful to for sparing him from his fiancé.
Turning a corner brought with it a sudden flash of recognition. He’d passed this way before, in the opposite direction. Tired, blurry memories forced their way to the surface, of a long walk through the heat, to sudden blessed coolness and abrupt intimacy that made him blush even now. These were the corridors with their dimly familiar hangings he’d walked through with Ardashir on his arrival, although the flowers in their bowls had been changed since then. So much for being specially prepared for his arrival.
Curiosity caught up with him with unusual lethargy: not only was he nearer to his rooms than he’d expected, he was also near to the door to the saray where Ardashir had seemed so displeased. He’d never gotten beyond the planning stages of selecting suitable young men for his brother before the war had claimed him. What harm could it do to investigate Ardashir’s now and see how a king’s saray was arranged?
It was easier to follow the exquisite perfume than it was to remember his way around the corridors, moving by instinct alone until the almost-familiar sight of the doorway came into view, its beads shifting and tinkling against each other in the faintest of breezes.
He’d often wondered what part of the palace they would have given up for their saray and now that he had the opportunity to see his caught-up curiosity burned full force. The beads were a combination of exotic woods, gemstones and decorated metals, and rather than rattle as he brushed them aside they let out a scatter of musical notes, not loud but enough to act as an indication someone was on their way.
The air seemed to turn pink as Gabrys stepped into the large quadrangle, and it took him a moment to realise it was due to the coloured glass dome above him rather than the delicate scents around him. The room was dominated by a low chaise with a bolster at one end and two chairs arranged artfully around a table that carried two wine glasses and a delicate glass ewer, all of which, much like the room itself, were empty. Each wall bore an arch, the rooms beyond masked by gossamer curtains; unable to help himself he took a step in, then another, then another—
“My prince, you shouldn’t be here.”
He started, pivoting on one foot to meet the so-almost-familiar voice.
The sarayi stared back. Or at least, he would have done if one eye wasn’t swelling closed, an ugly blue bruise spreading over his face. Gabrys swallowed. His body demanded he recoil; he stepped forward instead, one hand raised to examine the damage.
The sarayi flinched away. “My prince...”
It was an effort to speak, and when he did his voice was thick with anger. “Who did this to you?”
The sarayi did what he could not and stepped back, head bowed. “My prince, you cannot be here.”
“Please, answer me.” What did Ardashir say the man’s name was? That was it; odd how he could recall things that actually interested him. “Demiah, please tell me who did this.”
The sarayi’s one good eye widened, then closed tight. “My prince, please don’t. I fear you wouldn’t like the answer.”
An unpleasantly hard ball of fear formed into a lump in Gabrys’s throat. “Do you want me to make it a command?”
The sarayi, Demiah, stiffened then bowed deeply, his face frozen with fear. “My king...”
A deep voice filled the room. “My prince, I didn’t expect to find you here.”
For the second time in as many days Gabrys almost fell into his own bow. “My king, I didn’t hear you.” And no wonder: Ardashir’s bare feet whispered over the cool tiles as he stepped towards Gabrys and offered his hand. Gabrys took it, swallowing down his nerves. “Your council meeting finished earlier today.”
When he looked up, Ardashir wasn’t smiling. “You shouldn’t be in here, my prince.”
In the face of Ardashir’s quiet anger, his argument sounded weak even to himself. “I—I was never able to arrange for one for my brother, my king. I was only curious about how they looked—”
The king’s blue eyes narrowed as he searched Gabrys’s face, and when his smile slowly returned, it reminded Gabrys of the sun creeping out from behind a dark cloud. “You should have asked me, my prince. I would have been only too happy to show you around. But to be alone here by yourself... I’m afraid you made my poor oudalisc nervous.”
He only knew to whom Ardashir was referring from the way his eyes flicked over to the sarayi. He filed the word away for future reference, along with Demiah’s frightened eyes. It might be uncharitable to say, but the only person seemingly scaring Demiah was Ardashir.
There was no need to compound it. He inclined his head, smiling a smile he didn’t really feel and hoping that Ardashir didn’t notice its half-heartedness. “Maybe in the future, my king. I would love to know more, but if I am upsetting him...”
He let the sentence hang in the perfumed air, just to see how it would be taken. Ardashir took it the same way he took his arm: lightly, and with a smile. Demiah, on the other hand, backed into one of the rooms with a look of deep relief. Interesting. Disturbing, but interesting.
Ardashir led him from the room again, speaking of niceties, lunch and minor details from his council meeting. Gabrys listened with half an ear, and wished he could look over his shoulders, past the beads, to see if the stare he felt against his spine truly belonged to the odd-eyed sarayi with the fearful expression.
The next day brought him one step closer to his wedding—and with it came a veritable flock of tailors and outfitters, all of which piled into his rooms before he was even fully awake. They were spearheaded by Ardashir, as ever, who smiled indulgently as Gabrys peered over his blankets at the crowded room beyond. “Come now, you can’t have imagined my husband would be married in everyday clothes?”
At least after that first awful shock Gabrys had had the sense to go to bed wearing loose, short trousers, to Ardashir’s badly-disguised disappointment. It saved on pulling the sheets up to preserve his modesty, but the way Ardashir’s eyes danced over his exposed chest and stomach felt only slightly less intrusive. “No, my king, but I’d expected to be able to get up and dressed first...”
“And only have to undress again on their command?” Ardashir caught Gabrys’s hand and lifted it for another soft kiss. “Surely, my prince, it’s better to have this dealt with before the day truly starts.”
Arguing would get him nowhere, but at least Ardashir couldn’t say he wasn’t a fast learner. He even managed to keep his grimace to himself as he slid from the smooth sheets, straight into Ardashir’s arms.
He froze. Ardashir’s bare skin was warm against his waist; his nose was inches from Gabrys’s own, his blue eyes locked on Gabrys’s like he was the only man in the world. He couldn’t remember ever being this close to the king before, and it was terrifying.
Ardashir leaned down to brush his lips over Gabrys’s, and he thought his heart would stop.
“My prince, we’re ready for you.”
Never had the thought of being stabbed repeatedly with tiny pins seemed so appealing. Gabrys scrambled free of Ardashir’s hold, turning another stumble into a deep bow. “My king, as you say, it’s truly better to have this done with before the day begins. That way, I can spend more time with you, free from distractions.”
His disappointment was palpable, but Ardashir disguised it well. Catching Gabrys’s hand to press another kiss to its back, he led him through the curtains into the waiting throng of servants and couturiers, and Gabrys had to content himself with the knowledge that at least this discomfort was one he’d willingly submitted himself to.
Another council meeting claimed Ardashir before Gabrys’s first dressing was finished, seemingly to the relief of the tailors as well as Gabrys. They certainly seemed to stop jabbing him so often once Ardashir had left; the whole experience became almost pleasant. When they left too, taking the bare bones of his wedding outfit with them—some women believed men shouldn’t see their gowns before the big day; these tailors seemed to think Gabrys shouldn’t be seeing his own outfit before then either—he found himself strangely at a loss again. It was becoming easier to find his way around now and the thrill of exploration was wearing off a little, but the idea of venturing further afield, into the gardens or, worse, into the city itself, made him feel queasy. The people of Arvelle considered Ardashir the aggressor, but there was a reason Gabrys had an armed escort on his way to the palace.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to return to the saray: his feet wandered and he went with them, but he wasn’t too disappointed to find himself there. The air was as rich and relaxing as before, but unlike last time three men were sat in the chairs sipping at amber liquids in small glasses, and all three hesitated as he carefully entered the room.
“My prince...” Demiah murmured, nervousness clear in both his voice and body language.
“Please, don’t mind me,” Gabrys said, hoping he sounded more calm than he felt as he made his way over to Demiah’s chair. Before the sarayi could object he settled himself on the floor beside it, feet tucked up beneath him, and tried a smile that must have looked as weak as it felt, if Demiah’s faint smile was anything to go by. “It’s... a little lonely here. A little companionship would be nice. Not in that way!” He added hastily, and tried to ignore the embarrassing heat filling his cheeks yet again.
The three exchanged glances, then Demiah leaned down to gently pat Gabrys on the head, fingers stroking through his hair. Despite the vivid bruise, his smile was as pretty as before and his one visible eye just as beautiful. “You’re welcome to stay, my prince.”
The gesture was oddly comforting. “Thank you.”
He had the sense the three sarayi were holding back on topics they would usually discuss and couldn’t blame them for it, but their warm, soft voices were comforting even as they talked about daily life in their section of the palace. He let their soothing tones lull him but kept half an ear on the topics nonetheless. They kept themselves to themselves, barely interacting with anyone beyond their basic needs. It seemed a sad, lonely life; he wondered if his brother’s sarayi would have felt the same, or if his family would have adopted them into the household like extra siblings.
He’d always yearned for more siblings. Now he had none at all.
Occasionally Demiah’s fingers would comb through Gabrys’s hair and that brought with it its own sense of comfort; they were mid-brush when they suddenly tensed, pulling a couple of strands out with it.
Ardashir stood at the door of the saray, eyes narrowed.
He was the king, and was to be Gabrys’s husband, but that was no reason to be scared of him. If he began married life terrified of saying the wrong thing every time he’d be a wreck before the first year was out.
“My king.” The bow he rose into didn’t even wobble. He probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was. “Without you I had no idea what to do with myself, and your servants are all so busy. Please don’t blame your sarayi, they were only being kind to a lost prince.”
For a moment Ardashir’s expression remained harsh. When it gradually softened, Gabrys’s heart resumed beating. “I am sorry, my prince, that I have to keep abandoning you. I promise it won’t be forever.” He took Gabrys’s hand and kissed it, his breath warm and lingering over his skin. “If my oudalisci bring you some form of comfort then I cannot fault them for it. I only wish that you discuss this with me first, that I can better understand your needs.”
“Yes, my king.” Gabrys decided that was the last thing he wanted. “I shall in future.”
“Now come with me.” The hand around his closed, not enough to hurt but just enough to remind him who was king. From the corner of his eye he could have sworn that the two visible sarayi looked sympathetic. “I would discuss the council meeting with you, to better prepare you for life in the palace.”
It was a command that brooked no argument and Gabrys didn’t bother to offer one. Obediently he followed Ardashir from the saray and hoped he was only imagining the weight of three stares on his shoulders.
It came as absolutely no surprise at all that the items from the council meeting Ardashir had been so ardent in discussing with him were all inconsequential nothings. Not that inconsequential nothings weren’t also an important part of running a country, but he’d already dealt with plenty of those on his own while his brothers were at war. He’d known Ardashir simply wanted to remove him from the saray, but the king could at least try to make it less obvious.
Still, Ardashir was back to being his usual charming, flirtatious self and for all Gabrys’s awkwardness the memory of the look Ardashir levelled at him started to fade. There was every chance he’d misread it anyway, so displaced in a foreign castle. Everything seemed somehow bigger and more terrifying than it had at home, even while he was working through battle tactics. Battle tactics were safe: easy enough to work out potential threats and how to dispel them, enough to keep his country and its tiny fighting force afloat against a much larger side; the only comfort he could find in his brothers’ deaths was that they were both due to their own stupidly heroic actions, not Gabrys’s formations.
And Ardashir was responsible for both of them. It should make bile rise in his throat, but every time Gabrys remembered it he could only be moved to dull exhaustion. Ardashir did just as many kings did in trying to expand his lands; Gabrys’s brothers had failed to follow his careful plans. He’d loved them, he’d mourned them, but he was the sole survivor of his family and had to do what was best for his country.
Even if it was unpalatable.
Ardashir didn’t seem to notice that Gabrys had become tangled in his own thoughts. He continued to talk at length about some aspect of Līzahran law that sounded near enough to Arvelle’s to completely fail to trouble Gabrys, gently squeezing his hand at various points. It was the closeness that made him most nervous. Several days had passed but he still barely knew the man...
Ardashir’s voice pulled him back from his thoughts with a bump and a rueful smile. “I’m sorry, my king. I was just thinking how very similar some of our laws are.” Well, Ardashir couldn’t fault him for lying.
“Really?” Another warm kiss was pressed to his hand. Any more and his skin might start to wear away. “When I return you must tell me, I’d love to hear more.” Ardashir’s smile could make even the sun seem cold.
“I will, my king.” He hesitated. “‘When you return’?”
“Yes, my prince. I have to attend to a matter, but it shouldn’t occupy too much time. It’s my dearest wish that you will wait for me to return.” This time the kiss was to Gabrys’s cheek, and as ever it raised a helpless flush. Gabrys murmured pleasantries and his assent, and that seemed to be enough for the king.
The room was quiet without him, although they hadn’t been loud before. His presence dominated, and with only Gabrys left to fill the gap he found himself sorely lacking. Ardashir had told him to wait, but these little matters always seemed to end up taking an hour or more. It couldn’t hurt to rise and stretch his legs a little—and, if he was quick enough, he could exercise them between here and the saray and back again to apologise to Demiah before Ardashir returned.
Not one servant made their presence known as he padded lightly through the corridors and the palace had a ghostly air about it, like it had simply been abandoned and he was the only living soul left prowling the building. It set his nerves enough on edge that even his weak laugh failed to dispel it. If anything, it just made it worse, sounding hollow and distant in the cloying air.
Gabrys didn’t dare made another sound.
As ever, he could smell the delicious scent of the saray before it came into sight. The smile rose unbidden to his lips, only to falter the same way his feet did. Something beyond the eerie emptiness felt wrong, something that made him hesitate even as he raised his hand to brush aside the beads—
A whimper. Only the faintest.
Now he was only a breath from the doorway he realised it wasn’t just that.
A rhythmic slapping. Flesh on flesh. He felt his cheeks burn at the mere thought of it. Well, of course, it was a saray, but—another whimper, hastily muffled. Gabrys frowned, his breath stilling in his chest. He might only have a limited experience with other men, but he couldn’t remember himself or his partners making any such pained noises.
To his intense relief the delicate beads made barely a sound as he slid his fingers between them, parting two strands just enough to be able to see into the saray. Immediately, he wished he hadn’t.
A sarayi, and from the soft brown hair over the figure’s shoulders it had to be Demiah, lay along the chaise. Hips over the bolster pillow and fingers clutching at the fine fabric of the seat, he buried his face into the cushion as Ardashir gripped his waist in a white-knuckled grip and slammed repeatedly into him. Somehow the wet, slick noises sounded twice as loud through Gabrys’s tiny window into the scene; he choked down the urge to retch as a particularly hard thrust jolted another helpless sound from Demiah—and froze entirely as Ardashir leaned across and casually swatted the sarayi around the head. “Shh.”
Demiah nodded faintly and turned his head.
Across the room their eyes met, and Gabrys thought his heart would break. On the opposite side of his face from his black eye, a darkening blue mark smudged the sarayi’s jaw. His wide-eyed expression of surprise looked like it had to hurt. Before Gabrys could move, before Ardashir had a chance of seeing, Demiah stared at him and mouthed one desperate word.
The beads fell from his trembling fingers with a gentle tinkle; Ardashir showed no sign of hearing it. The corridor was as deserted as before as Gabrys backed away. Each breath came quick and shallow. He could barely feel his body. Demiah had told him, had tried to warn him, and in his complacency he hadn’t made a single effort to unpick the cryptic comment, and that wasn’t lovemaking, wasn’t sex. It was punishment.
His back hit something solid and he had no idea how he swallowed his yelp. He was in the middle of the corridor, it couldn’t be the wall—
Gabrys turned slowly, to come face to face with one of the palace guards.
They stared at one other until he thought Ardashir would finish and emerge from the saray behind him, when the guard raised one finger to his lips and murmured on the edge of hearing, “come with me, my prince.”
For all he knew it might be a threat, but even a threat seemed preferable to Ardashir’s anger when he realised Gabrys hadn’t stayed put. He hurried along behind the guard as he strode down the corridors, sneaking glimpses at him as they went. He was younger than Gabrys expected, barely into his adulthood despite his lithe, muscled body and his sandy blond-brown hair cut in the preferred style of the king’s guard, and there was something familiar about him that Gabrys couldn’t put his finger on.
The guard remained silent as he led Gabrys through the winding halls and Gabrys didn’t dare try to break the silence himself. A king’s guard. Ardashir had to know, then, that Gabrys would return to the saray and had set a spy to watch for him.
He was in trouble.
When the guard stopped, it was abruptly enough that Gabrys almost stepped into him and, for a moment, he could barely summon the courage to look around his broad back. But there was nothing for it now. Taking a deep, only slightly shaking breath, he stepped around the young man.
Into the same room he had left only ten or fifteen minutes before. The room Ardashir had told him to wait in, expected to find him in when he returned.
The guard’s smile was tense. “You shouldn’t wander the halls, my prince. It’s very easy to become lost.”
Gabrys lowered himself into his former seat, noticing that the shaking was now a little more than slight; his spiced wine shivered as he raised the glass to his lips. “Thank you, sir, for helping me find my way back.” The drink burned his throat and he found himself grateful for the pain, however slight. When he looked up again from beneath his lashes the guard, against his expectations, remained by the table. Gabrys took a deep breath and steeled his nerve. “Sir, if I may ask... Please could the king not find out about my... disorientation?”
“Of course, my prince,” he said in pleasantly accented Arvellan. His shoulders relaxed, one hand falling to the pocked and pitted sword hanging from his belt, and Gabrys felt a jolt of recognition. The guard from his procession, the only man kind enough to enquire as to his well-being on the journey.
“You speak Arvellan.” Though he supposed it was an obvious comment.
“Yes, my prince.” The guard dropped to one knee in an unexpectedly elegant soldier’s bow. “I was born in Arvelle, though most of my life has been spent in Līzahra. My parents had wished to stay but times were difficult.” He was putting it kindly. Before all-out war, Līzahra had done its very best to choke off trade to the border towns, and by extension the routes into the cities, in the hope of weakening Arvelle. Ardashir was only following in the footsteps of his parents. Gabrys couldn’t help wondering if they too were able to enact such cruelty without remorse.
“I’m—I’m sorry you were forced to move.”
This time, the guard’s smile was genuine. “It’s enabled me to guard Arvelle’s crown prince, so it’s had its perks.”
The sudden informality startled a laugh from him. “You’re quite welcome.”
The guard’s expression grew serious. “And, my prince, in my capacity as your guard, I should warn you—”
“Nothing is as it seems.” Gabrys closed his eyes briefly and wished he didn’t see Demiah’s fearful face behind his eyelids. “Believe me, I know.”
The guard’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Actually, my prince,” he murmured, “I was going to say that I think King Ardashir is a nasty piece of work, but your phrasing is more diplomatic.”
Gabrys couldn’t help his second laugh.
He was about to answer when the guard tilted his head to one side, brow furrowed. “I think he returns, my prince. Please, we didn’t have this conversation, and remember that even if you cannot see me, I’ll still be guarding you.”
Several heartbeats passed between the words leaving his lips and Ardashir’s smiling, unruffled reappearance. Gabrys could only hope that they had been enough for him to miss them. With great deliberation he returned his glass to the table and smiled up at the horrifying man who, in only a few short days, was to be his husband. “My king,” he said in Līzahran, “I’m happy this matter hasn’t kept you from my side too long.”
“I tried to be done with the matter as quickly as possible, though it was a little troublesome.” Ardashir settled himself into the seat opposite and raised an eyebrow at the still-kneeling guard. “Did something happen in my absence?”
“No, my king.” Gabrys leant forwards to pour Ardashir a fresh glass of wine and was gratified to realise his hands didn’t shake at all. “I simply stopped this poor man to ask him some questions about the palace. He was very kind to indulge me, though I’m afraid I may have taken him from his duties somewhat.” He nodded to the guard who rose and, without a backward glance, strode away. Gabrys found himself praying he wasn’t lying when he said he was always watching. The thought of being alone with Ardashir chilled his soul.
Ardashir put on a beautiful show as he resumed their conversation where it had broken off. Gabrys almost wished he still believed it was real. Only almost: he had no doubt ignorance would have served him badly once they were married.
His only problem now, and one he could dedicate no great time to, was exactly what he was going to do about it.
The next morning brought with it warming golden light, and another small army of tailors inside his rooms. Luckily for both the tailors and Gabrys a council meeting claimed Ardashir early and as he went one timid gentleman followed him to break the news that after today, the king would no longer be permitted to enter the fitting room.
Apparently the tailors held the same superstitions as the soon-to-be-wedded brides.
Again everyone seemed to breathe a little easier without the king present. This time the fitting was almost pleasant and involved significantly less tiny stabbing. He could savour the feeling of the impossibly fine fabric gliding over his skin and wish it was being fitted for some other reason than his wedding.
It was such a waste of beautiful fabric. It seemed white but with every bend and flex the sun caught the golden threads and burst warmth over the otherwise cold surface. Gabrys wished he had seen such fabric at home, could have commissioned something that wasn’t this.
But he would have never gotten to wear it, because it was either marriage in Līzahra or death in Arvelle, and his most horrifying realisation was that death was beginning to seem preferable.
When his tailors left again, hustling the outfit through the door with indecent haste on the off-chance Gabrys might actually see the outfit he’d be wearing in only a couple of days, Ardashir didn’t re-enter. The council meeting must be another long one—or he’d gone to visit the saray again. Gabrys’s stomach flipped and his only relief was that he had yet to have breakfast.
The conversation from the previous day came to mind as he fought to forget the scene he’d witnessed. Suddenly curious, he padded across the room to push open the door and peer outside, heart in his mouth in case Ardashir was laying in wait to catch him heading for the saray again.
The hall beyond was devoid of king. For one awful moment he thought it might also be devoid of guard.
“Are you all right, my prince?”
The voice made him jump even as the tone spread warmth through his chest. He smiled weakly up at the young guard and hoped the expression looked more appealing than it felt. “Yes, yes, I just...”
The guard smiled back, so sympathetically Gabrys thought his heart would break. “Don’t worry, my prince. I am watching over you.”
It was more comforting to hear than he’d expected, and left him just a little speechless.
Probably sensing this, the guard bowed and moved to step away again when Gabrys found himself blurting out, “wait, please! Could you tell me what your name is?”
The guard’s spontaneous smile lit up the hallway. Somehow it was so much more beautiful than the ones he’d shown before. “Makary, my prince. My name is Makary.”
Gabrys felt his own smile return, stronger this time. “Thank you, Makary. I will remember that.”
Makary bowed again, more deeply than before, and his eyes never left Gabrys as he retreated into his room again.
In truth the room felt suffocating even without anyone else inside it. The walls were too high, too close; the curtains would make an ideal weapon for strangulation if anyone felt so inclined. It might not be something Ardashir would arrange but he knew nothing of how the Līzahrans felt about the arrangement. Or, for that matter, his own people...
He slumped into one of the comfortable chairs in a most unprincely manner and did his best not to look at the chaise over by the windowed doors lest unpleasant memories surfaced again.
Of course, the windowed doors beyond could prove interesting. He’d not noticed them before, but then the opportunities to be alone here had been few and far between. He padded across the room, skirting as best he could around the chaise, and pressed his fingers against the glass.
The garden beyond was a tiny square and nothing more, but it contained the most beautifully green grass Gabrys had ever seen. Plants in pots lined the edges, some with glossy, spiky leaves, others soft ferns and still more a riot of colour contained in terracotta.
It was stunning, it reminded him of home, and somehow it made him sick to his stomach. To Ardashir it was another frippery, a pointless but charming exercise to ingratiate himself. No wonder he’d been so keen to have Gabrys take this room rather than stay in guest quarters.
A charm offensive, indeed. It was certainly offensive.
A knock at the door almost startled a cry from him and only pressing his hand to his mouth kept it in. Without waiting for his permission the door creaked open and a handsome, tanned face appeared.
“Have they finished already?” Ardashir asked cheerfully. “I was expecting they would be in here all day.”
Very carefully Gabrys prised his hand from his mouth again, and tried to disguise his alarm behind a quiet cough. “No, my king, but they have not long gone. Taking with them more than a few drops of my blood.”
When Ardashir laughed, it came from much nearer to him than Gabrys expected. The man had a knack of moving silently Gabrys envied as much as he found it frightening. “Don’t worry, my prince, it won’t be long before it’s over. I hear there’s only one final fitting?”
Gabrys nodded and forced himself to not bite his lip. “Yes, my king. It will not be long before we’re married.”
When Ardashir’s lips grazed his cheek, he barely restrained himself from flinching away and, luckily, Ardashir made no indication he noticed Gabrys’s reaction. His hand dropped to link fingers with Gabrys’s and before he knew it Ardashir had tugged him away from the window. “Come, my prince. It’s late in the morning and you have had no breakfast.”
As if on cue his stomach let out a single plaintive growl that only emphasised Ardashir’s words. Obediently Gabrys went with him, noticing as they made their way through the corridors to Ardashir’s favourite drawing room that the softest of footsteps kept pace with them. A small flame of hope flared in his chest even as he sat in the seat Ardashir indicated for him and quietly ate the food Ardashir insisted on. Although the guard could be simply a ploy by Ardashir to lull him into a false sense of safety, his instincts told him otherwise. He wasn’t so alone after all.
It only remained for him to work out just what he could do now.
The councilman arrived at the same time as Ardashir delivered Gabrys back to his rooms, bowing so deeply Gabrys was surprised his nose didn’t scrape the ground. The council had a second meeting that required Ardashir’s immediate attention; there was nothing to be done about it.
Gabrys was just glad the councilman had called him away. If Ardashir had left just his word that was where he was headed, Gabrys would have suspected him of returning to the saray to enact more cruelty upon his most troublesome sarayi. He accepted the kiss to the back of his hand, added his own to Ardashir’s soft skin without a single tremble and shut the door to his room as Ardashir left. He knew the king would turn to make sure it was still closed.
There was nothing to do. There was absolutely, utterly, nothing for him to do. And this was going to be his life, from the day he was married stretching on until he died. He did not delude himself that Ardashir would let him help govern in any meaningful way, though he was sure his skills would be called into use the next time Ardashir wanted to try to invade another country whether or not Gabrys wanted any part in it.
This was less a marriage than the taking of a political prisoner. Gabrys sank back into the chair and stared at the wall, trying not to think. Thinking only made him feel worse.
A light tap at the door made him jump so violently he almost fell from the seat entirely. “Come in!” And hopefully the thick wood of the door would mask the too-high, slightly wobbly tone of his two short words...
He’d expected the door to open. Instead there was just another light set of taps, shy and uncertain.
Odd, and very almost enough to set his nerves on edge despite there being no reason for it: if it was Ardashir or any of his men it wasn’t likely they would have knocked at all. Enough to pique his curiosity too: he trotted over to the door, heart in his mouth.
He was glad he managed to keep his mouth shut when he opened it; he wouldn’t have wanted his heart to topple out entirely. Fidgeting in the doorway like he would bolt any minute was Demiah, Makary hovering protectively near.
It took Gabrys a moment to find his voice. “Should you be here? Is it safe for you?”
Demiah’s weak smile was a shadow of the brilliant one Gabrys had first been introduced to. “Probably not, and probably not, my prince. I—I just needed to be sure that you were...”
“Safe?” Though quiet, the word came out a little more bitterly than Gabrys intended. “Don’t worry, he wouldn’t dare lift a finger against me before we are married. I just...” He lifted his hand and trailed it gently over Demiah’s bruised jaw; the sarayi winced, but didn’t duck from him. “I’m just sorry he did this to you because of me.”
This time the smile was even weaker, barely there. “Don’t worry, my prince. It was an excuse for him, nothing more. I acted wilfully by leaving the serail to see you, but I was curious about the man who would marry him. I thought perhaps—hoped perhaps—you might be like him, that you were marrying him for a tactical advantage to exploit and that you would give him everything he deserved. But when I saw you, I realised I was wrong. I had to warn you and hope that you came to your senses...”
Gabrys shook his head. “I cannot leave. If I do, my people will suffer for it. This is all we have left to prevent outright war. But it isn’t safe to have this conversation here, please come in.”
“No, my prince. I don’t know how long we have before he returns and if he catches me here...” A visible shudder ran through him. “But please, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that marrying him will keep your people safe. My father thought he was helping our king by letting Ardashir take me into his serail but in the end it aided no one but Ardashir. He tells me my father writes, begging for me to return, and laughs when he tells me he will never answer. I can never return. I am Ardashir’s, entirely.”
The simplicity of Demiah’s final statement broke Gabrys’s heart. “There has to be something...”
“No, my prince. There is only keeping my head down and doing as I am told.”
There was something so sad in the words, so helpless in his face; Gabrys found himself leaning forward, desperate to do something, anything, that might remove it. He was only aware of his intentions himself when his lips brushed over Demiah’s, feeling their soft warmth and sweetness.
It would have been fully deserved if the sarayi slapped him for his forwardness. Instead Gabrys felt a sharp intake of breath, then the kiss was returned. Only briefly, but enough that he could feel everything in it that was so lacking from every moment Ardashir touched him.
When they parted, the faint smile was back on Demiah’s lips, and Gabrys fancied it looked slightly happier this time. “That was... unexpected, my prince.”
“I’m sorry. I—If you want me to never do anything of the sort again, I just—”
The warmth of Demiah’s palm caressing his cheek startled him into silence. “I didn’t say that, my prince.
Gabrys couldn’t hold back his smile.
“I need to leave now, my prince. If Ardashir should catch me—”
It hurt to see the fear creep back onto his face at the mere thought of the man, but there was nothing Gabrys could do for it. Not yet. “I understand. Please, go with speed and care.” The last word was directed at Makary, who nodded sharply.
Gentle fingers grazed his own, just for a moment, then Demiah was walking down the hallway as briskly as he could without breaking into an outright run, Makary at his heels.
If it was just himself, then he thought he could learn to tolerate Ardashir so long as it kept his people safe. Increasingly, he was starting to believe it wasn’t just him: Demiah was struggling, and if he was then it was likely the other two sarayi were as well. Makary, if caught assisting any of them, would be summarily executed rather than dismissed, in case he should share secrets with any of Ardashir’s enemies. And if what Demiah said was true—and Gabrys had no reason to disbelieve him—then his actions intended to protect his people would do nothing of the sort.
He sprawled back into the chair, heaving a deep sigh. He wasn’t equipped for this. His brothers had been the heirs, gregarious young men full of charm, wit and education; Gabrys had had the education and precious little of anything else except for his battlefield knack, and even that deserted him when it came to society.
Another knock had him opening his mouth to offer an invitation—but the door opened before he could speak. That answered his unspoken question. “My prince,” Ardashir’s sing-song voice called, “where are you?”
He lifted one hand above the high back of the chair, then concluded reluctantly that it likely wasn’t the response Ardashir was waiting for, and remaining sitting when he entered the room wasn’t quite appropriate either. His bowing skills had increased immensely since he’d arrived and he didn’t wobble at all for his king, but then he did have a lot more practice than he’d had at home. “I was waiting for you, my king. How went your council meeting?”
Ardashir’s lips pressed to Gabrys’s cheek, but again there was that curious lack of any kind of emotion and this time he found his blush didn’t make an appearance. In turn he kissed Ardashir’s palm in the way he seemed to like. “It went well, my prince,” Ardashir said, smiling sweetly at him. “I am hoping they will need less of my input in the days after our wedding, so that I can spend as much time with you as possible.”
The thought of it filled him with dread, but he plastered on the brightest smile he could manage. “That would be wonderful, my king. To have you to myself after so many interruptions...”
“I can’t think of anything I would like more.” Again Ardashir kissed his cheek, and again Gabrys failed to blush. Ardashir didn’t appear to notice; Gabrys could only presume he thought the prince was now accustomed to his advances. “But we cannot have you wasting away here. Come with me, I want to show you my gardens.”
“But I have seen the garden areas, my prince,” Gabrys protested. “They are small but beautiful.”
Ardashir’s laugh was low enough to resonate through Gabrys’s chest. “Those are simply decorations, my prince. My gardens are at the back of the palace.”
Despite everything, his curiosity was piqued. He’d believed he had roamed the place and discovered every last secret available to him. That the gardens weren’t came as a slightly alarming surprise. When Ardashir took his hand, the grip again slightly too tight for comfort, he didn’t protest and meekly followed along as he led him from his room into the opulent maze. The twists and turns followed patterns he’d been along before, but he found himself drawing to a halt, tugging on Ardashir’s hand, as they approached one area he was only dimly familiar with. “But my king, don’t those rooms belong to your staff?”
Ardashir laughed, not entirely kindly. “Some do, but we won’t be going through those doors, my prince. This is the one we want.” Without waiting for a response he almost dragged him through a door that looked exactly like all the others along the wall.
Gabrys found himself tense and wincing, half-expecting to hear cries of anger suddenly subdued at the sight of the king. When nothing of the sort happened, his shoulders slowly relaxed and he somehow managed to un-squint.
The corridor, far from being filled with shocked servants, was deserted. Both walls were decorated with high, looping garlands of vines; at the end Gabrys could see they gave way to arches that let the sun inscribe bright sea-snake shapes over the glossy tiles. Beyond that Gabrys couldn’t see until they finally cleared the summer-gloom of the corridor and stepped into the clear midday light. Surprise startled the breath from his body.
The previous palace gardens, small and scattered, had been carefully-arranged ornamental pieces, all beauty with their swirled gravel patterns and intricate stone pathways but contained little comfort. Ardashir’s garden made the grassy patch beyond his rooms seem like an unkempt scrubland. Thick, green grass stretched for far further than Gabrys could have anticipated, stopping only at a distant stone wall decorated with a simple mosaic pattern. Ornamental trees trimmed to the perfect height and spread to offer shelter from the strong Līzahran sun were strategically placed in the lawn: one shaded two iron-wrought seats and a glass-topped table while another, the largest of them all, proudly displayed a large, thick branch which held a swing decorated with flowering vines.
Gabrys wanted to laugh and run across the grass. A quick glance at Ardashir told him that while the king would certainly tolerate him doing it, he seemed unlikely to share in his joy. He had to content himself with a smile as Ardashir led him to the chairs and revel in the simple pleasure of the soft blades beneath his bare soles.
“Do you approve, my prince?” Ardashir murmured, resting his chin on his hand to watch Gabrys with clear amusement.
He nodded absently, distracted by trying to guess at the kinds of trees. Some he was familiar with, but others came from far distant places he’d only read of in books. “Yes, my king. I—I had no idea such a place existed here.”
“So you have not discovered all my secrets after all.” Ardashir settled back into his seat. “I am glad. I would hate for there to be nothing new to surprise you with after our wedding, when everyone tells me the secret to keeping your new partner happy is exactly that.”
Immediately he felt the old heat filling his cheeks and turned his attention to the grass rather than meet Ardashir’s eyes. Not so beyond it as he’d thought. “My king, you don’t need to worry about such things. I will be happy as long as you are.”
“Yes.” Ardashir reached out to graze his knuckles lightly along Gabrys’s cheek, his blue eyes suddenly unfathomable. “I imagine you would be.”
Sheer force of will suppressed his shudder. Suddenly the topic didn’t sound much like one he wanted to remain on. “But my king, how do you not spend all your time in this garden when it is so very beautiful?”
For a moment those eyes remained shadowed, then slowly amusement lit them again. “Unfortunately, my prince, council meetings and other such time-wasting things conspire to keep me from it. After we are married I shall look forwards to spending much more time here with you. As you can see, no one can disturb us if we do not wish it, and there are many pleasurable things we can find to do in such lovely seclusion.”
This time no amount of mental fortitude could keep the shiver from running through him but he could detect no hardening in Ardashir’s eyes. If anything, his gaze seemed to heat. Gabrys could only imagine what kind of shiver he’d taken it to be. The shiver of a hopeful husband-to-be, perhaps. Certainly not one scared half out his wits. He turned his attention back to the grass, hoping it came across as demure, and from Ardashir’s soft chuckle Gabrys could only assume he took it as such.
All his fleeting hopes deserted him. He would marry Ardashir because he had no choice. All he could do was try to make things better for Demiah from his position as Ardashir’s husband. He just hoped that would be enough.
The final fitting came as frustratingly early in the morning as every previous one, but Ardashir had apparently taken the timid tailor’s words to heart: there was no sign of him. This time the atmosphere was almost cheerful, full of bustling life as the tailors worked in an organised swarm around him. It was only minor adjustments now, they assured him, and then he would be allowed to see the finished garment.
That was a surprise. He’d expected to end up walking blindfolded towards the altar, such was their secrecy.
It didn’t take long, and involved absolutely no stabbing at all. If anything, it was surprisingly pleasant. Then they wheeled over a huge, creaking wooden frame and adjusted its swing mirror, and Gabrys almost fell from the wooden stool they had him standing on.
Where he was thin, the outfit instead made him slender. The meagre muscles inflicted on him by various long-suffering sword masters became a quiet strength, and the shimmering gold waves over the creamy fabric made his loose blond hair brighter.
It looked beautiful. He looked beautiful.
He’d never seen himself like that before.
The tailors exchanged knowing looks and quiet smiles, then he was helped down from his perch and they deftly undressed him with expert speed while one tied his hair back up into its customary loose bun at the nape of his neck. They left him almost exactly as they’d found him, except without the underwear he wouldn’t be wearing with his wedding clothes anyway.
He was struggling into a pair of loose, silky blue trousers when a knock at the door almost immediately followed by the sound of it opening heralded Ardashir’s arrival. “My prince, are you dressed?”
Gabrys froze, clinging to the wardrobe door, as Ardashir padded lightly past the gossamer curtains into the bedroom. “My king, I’m not quite...”
Ardashir made an airy gesture with one hand that was at odds with the way his eyes fixed on Gabrys’s bare torso. “You have trousers on, that is more than enough propriety for most people.”
But not enough for him, he resisted the urge to point out. Although, after all—
“And it is our wedding tomorrow.” Ardashir voiced Gabrys’s thought. His gaze turned hungry; it seemed a struggle for him to raise it to Gabrys’s face. “Can you tell me anything about your outfit?”
Gabrys shook his head, forcing a smile to his lips. “I’m sorry, my king, but if I did I think your tailors would sneak into my room tonight and stab me repeatedly with their needles.” He hesitated, then tried another smile. “Although, my king, perhaps you could tell me about yours?”
At least this time Ardashir’s smile was very almost rueful. “Unfortunately, my prince, I fear the same fate would await me if I did.”
Gabrys laughed softly and returned his attention to the wardrobe to find a suitable shirt—and froze at the sensation of warm hands on his waist. Before he could move, could protest, Ardashir rained hot kisses over his shoulder, every contact with his lips sending shudders the length of Gabrys’s spine. Ardashir felt them, he had to: the hands slid around to his stomach, arms tightening around him, and the kisses moved to his neck.
He tensed, but Ardashir made no effort to release him. Even trying to move failed thanks to Ardashir’s vice-like grip. “My—My king. I can’t—this is not right—please, my king!”
“What’s not right?” Ardashir’s voice was husky, his accent thicker and less intelligible as he nuzzled against Gabrys’s skin. “Tomorrow you’ll be my husband and we’ll be doing this anyway.” Strong hands fell to Gabrys’s hips, to pull him around despite his struggles to face Ardashir. “There’s nothing wrong with a little experimentation, see how well we fit together.”
Gabrys opened his mouth to object. Before words could escape, Ardashir’s mouth was on his and his tongue pressed into Gabrys’s mouth.
He whimpered softly, something Ardashir took as an indication of pleasure if the tightening of his grip was anything to go by. One hand began to caress his back, then moved up to cup the back of his head.
How he managed to twist free he had no idea, but it involved stumbling backwards into the heavy wardrobe, panting. “My king, please...”
Ardashir’s cheeks were a little flushed, but his breathing was perfectly even. “My prince—Gabrys—you should understand we have no stigma attached to such closeness as this on the day before a wedding. You are my intended.” He reached up to brush an errant strand of Gabrys’s fringe from his face, and Gabrys barely resisted the urge to bolt. “It’s perfectly natural for us do to this. And do you not find my kisses sweet?”
That was a question liable to get him into a lot of trouble. At least Ardashir was making the effort to speak more clearly. “I do, my king, but...” He could remember Demiah and the force of Ardashir’s thrusts, and hoped his hands didn’t shake. “You’re very—but we don’t do this in Arvelle, not before—”
Ardashir raised one perfect eyebrow. “My prince, kissing is all I am suggesting. Nothing more.” His hand cupped Gabrys’s cheek to draw him forward and Gabrys found himself cursing his awkwardness when so much rode on his ability to string a sentence together and be a good husband. Hesitantly, shyly, he parted his lips and this time when Ardashir’s mouth pressed against his own he didn’t struggle.
It wouldn’t set the world alight. The only feeling in his chest was trepidation, but he tried to mirror the movements of Ardashir’s mouth, and Ardashir didn’t seem to be complaining.
He was breathless when they parted, his cheeks warm from the physical efforts rather than anything else, but Ardashir flashed one of his handsome smiles at him and Gabrys hoped his terror might now be forgotten. “Come, my prince. As tempting as it is to keep you all to myself or invite you to breakfast dressed so informally, I fear my council would think I was abandoning them earlier than they expected.”
“That wouldn’t do,” Gabrys murmured, returning his attention to his wardrobe without, he hoped, any unseemly haste. “I wouldn’t wish to start off on the wrong foot with them.”
“They are irascible old men,” Ardashir said, taking Gabrys’s hand, “and they find even the smallest things to be irritated by. Even if they did find something to complain about in you—though I can’t imagine they would—they would forget it just as soon as I did something else they found objectionable.” He pecked another kiss to Gabrys’s cheek and led him towards the usual drawing room they breakfasted in. “I have my last meeting with them today before our wedding. I do hope it will finally be a short one.”
“I do too, my king.” As usual, Gabrys seated himself in the indicated chair and put on his best public-function smile, the one that Ardashir never seemed to see the falseness in, much like the words Gabrys spoke. Ardashir smiled his beautiful smile back and they spoke no more of it as breakfast arrived.
Sure enough, an emissary from the council retrieved Ardashir soon after breakfast ended, leaving Gabrys alone and too worried to roam the palace.
It was tomorrow. Really tomorrow. Everything he and his brothers had fought against, struggled so futilely for, and now Arvelle would become Ardashir’s as surely as if he’d simply stolen it from under them. Gabrys lingered in the breakfast room longer than he ought, then made his slow way back through the corridors to his room to resume his slump in his usual chair. There were no books in his rooms and no sign of a library in the palace, unless it was in another of Ardashir’s hidden corridors or in his rooms, one of the few other places Gabrys hadn’t dared set foot in. Without human companionship there were books; without books there was nothing. He stared moodily through the windows at the little garden and tried not to think about big, painful words like betrayal and cowardice.
Over time the sun shifted and the shadows in his little garden grew longer, and still Ardashir didn’t return. Gabrys supposed he couldn’t be surprised. There would be a lot to discuss, between tomorrow’s wedding and the time Ardashir had said he wouldn’t be spending dealing with council matters, and the logistical issues that came with integrating another country into their lands would be no small feat either.
He hoped it gave Ardashir a headache. Ideally a really nasty, thumping one that plagued his sleep.
He sighed and wilted in the seat, allowing his arms to drape weakly over the chair’s. That was childish. Heartfelt, but childish. Not at all fitting for a king’s consort.
Or he could be done with the council meeting and be paying Demiah a visit instead.
Gabrys sank lower into his seat and glowered at the grass. He wouldn’t put it past him: he’d been in an amorous enough mood that morning and Demiah and the other sarayi were there for that exact reason. Gabrys couldn’t trust Ardashir to take real care of them any longer.
The hammering at the door dragged him upright in his seat, poised for it to open with or without his permission. When it didn’t he stumbled to his almost-entirely numb feet rather than invite the caller in.
They didn’t seem too inclined towards patience: another flurry rattled the door in its frame. Gods, couldn’t they wait one moment for him to get to the damned door—
Makary’s pale face stared at him, fist raised to bang again. “My prince!”
Coiling fear wormed its way into Gabrys’s stomach. “Makary. Is something wrong? Has something happened to Ardashir?”
A strained smile lightened his expression momentarily, then slipped away again. “Unfortunately no, my prince. But please, I need you to come with me. Now. Quickly. Before it’s too late.”
“I—what’s happened?” It was easier to slip into Arvellan. “Makary, tell me what’s wrong, please!”
“There’s no time, my prince.” Before he could ask again, Makary grabbed Gabrys’s wrist and pulled him into the hall. “Please, my prince, just trust me. There’s no time, I have to show you instead.”
He wanted to laugh, to ask why he should trust someone he’d barely met. But he was marrying someone he’d barely met, he was hardly in a position to argue now. All there was, was to follow him and, from the flash of gratitude before he turned away, it was all Makary hoped for.
The corridors were as quiet as ever and Makary took them on a route that had to be deliberately circuitous, because even Gabrys knew his way around better than that. It wasn’t long before he lost track of exactly where they were and he suspected Makary wanted it that way. Again the fear curled dark tendrils around his heart and quickened his breath. When they finally stopped in front of an unfamiliar door, Gabrys no longer knew what he expected. “It’s through here, my prince, but we’ve got to be quiet.”
He nodded. Now was as good a time to start as any.
Again there was that flash of relief, and the tendrils tightened a little more. The corridor beyond was gloomy; he stayed as close as possible to the guard ahead and could only hope that this wasn’t some awful trick of Ardashir’s.
When the gloom opened up again, it wasn’t much of an improvement. Lanterns hung from the windowless walls and their gentle swaying cast crazed shadows skittering around. From one side came a stuttering, sighing collection of breaths; from the rest of the room came silence.
Makary gestured for Gabrys to remain silent, then indicated towards the sound. Four soldiers, all in a more elaborate, polished version of Makary’s armour, slumbered over a wooden table. One was face down in a meal.
Without waiting for Gabrys’s inevitable questions, Makary took hold of his wrist and pulled him forward again. The further into the room they got the darker it became again, until they were in a space only slightly wider than the corridor behind them and lit by one lonely lantern at the end.
It took a while for Gabrys’s eyes to become accustomed to the near-darkness. When they did he could make out a pattern in the brickwork: a set of arches slithering they way down the wall and, beneath, bars as thick as his wrist. And beneath that—he thought his heart would cease its beat—
The thin figure beyond the bars stared at him, eyes wide. “It can’t be! It can’t—baby brother?”
Gabrys fell to his knees, reaching through the bars to clasp his brother’s hand. It was cold, the skin clammy, but sure enough it was also full of life. It wasn’t a dream. Rafay, his second-oldest brother, was alive. “I—I thought we’d lost you. On the battlefield. No one knew what happened, they couldn’t tell me. They just said—so we assumed... I thought them not returning your body was a slight...”
The kisses Rafay covered the back of Gabrys’s hand with were hot despite the chill of his skin. His brother had been fire and vigour before, powerfully muscled and full of easy grace. In here, he was a shadow of his former self. His hair, a slightly darker blond than Gabrys’s, was so filthy it could be mistaken for black; his skin was covered in grimy smudges and streaks of mud. But he was Rafay, still Rafay despite everything Gabrys had feared.
“Don’t cry, baby brother.” Rafay’s laugh was hoarse and ended in a cough, but his smile was the same as ever. “You’re only supposed to cry over the dead.”
Makary crouched beside him and rested gentle fingers on his arm. “My prince, we’ve got to go. We can’t be missing when Ardashir returns.”
“Screw Ardashir,” Gabrys spat.
Makary’s smile was pained. “If we don’t do something, you’ll have to. My prince...” He took a deep breath, looking from Gabrys to Rafay. “I’ve got to tell you, if we can’t get your brother out, then he’ll be executed tomorrow, after your wedding. Ardashir’s very keen on it. He wants to show how you’ll be Līzahran through and through by not objecting to it.”
“I...” The idea was huge, appalling, and impossible to deal with. “I can’t—why would he think I’d agree?!”
When he smiled again, its sadness stabbed shards of fear into Gabrys’s chest. “Because if you don’t, then you and all the sarayi will suffer for it. Your people will suffer for it. He’ll make sure of it.”
“I can’t marry him.” The words fell from his mouth in a jumble. “I can’t, he can’t make me. This is a nightmare. He can’t expect me to after this.”
Rafay squeezed his hand, sighing softly. “My baby brother, so talented at directing the battlefield and so hopeless when it comes to himself.”
“What do you expect?” More tears fell down his cheeks despite his best efforts to blink them back. “You’re not troops. Troops know what they’re getting into. Civilians don’t.”
“Most of our troops were civilians once, and you directed them beautifully.”
“I can’t, I don’t know the palace! I don’t have anyone I can trust!”
“And what am I?” Makary laughed quietly beside him. “There aren’t many of us, but you do have us. And at least one of us,” he jerked his thumb at his breastplate, “has enough of a sleeping draught left to do this to the prison guards again. But if we don’t go now, they’ll start waking and if they catch us in here then we’ve got no chance.”
Gabrys turned to his brother and didn’t bother trying to hide the accusation from his voice. “You knew about this, didn’t you? What they were planning?”
Rafay shrugged awkwardly in the low confines of his cell. “Bit hard not to, baby brother. They insisted on telling me every chance they got.”
Only a deep, shaking breath stopped another wave of tears from falling. Makary tapped on his arm again and he finally obeyed and rose, letting Rafay’s fingers slip from his own. “I won’t let this happen, brother. Somehow I’ll find a way to fix it.”
“Don’t make me promises you can’t keep, baby brother.” From his standing position he could barely see him, but the pain in Rafay’s words clutched at Gabrys’s heart. “Just keep yourself safe, that’s all I can ask.”
There was nothing he could say to that, nothing that wouldn’t hurt either one of them one way or another. He remained silent as Makary led him carefully past the slumbering guards and from the prison again. There was nothing he could say, even when it was safe.
No, he needed a solution that would save everyone. He’d failed once. He’d be damned if he would let it happen again.
They split up at the junction in the corridor just before Gabrys’s rooms. Makary tried to insist on taking Gabrys all the way up to the door; Gabrys insisted that Makary should check on the sarayi, and he suspected only by rank alone did he win the argument. He watched Makary head up the corridor until he turned a corner, just to make sure, then pushed open the door to his own room.
It didn’t take a genius to know something was wrong. The room had only just started darkening when he left and he didn’t think he had been away long, but lanterns were lit and their warm glow filled the room with a chest-crushing sense of foreboding. It didn’t make sense: the servants always lit the lanterns at night and Gabrys never saw them do it. It never unnerved him the way these did. But it wasn’t night, only early evening, and he hadn’t seen any servants whether he was heading to or from the prison. No, there was something in the air that grated on him.
“My prince, I had wondered where you’d gone.” Ardashir appeared from behind the door, a blackened taper in one hand. A faint smile played over his lips, but it wasn’t one that implied any sense of good humour.
Gooseflesh broke out over Gabrys’s arms. He knew, he had to, and now Gabrys was going to be joining his brother. “My king. I grew restless, so I took myself for a walk.”
Ardashir’s gaze flicked down towards Gabrys’s feet and his eyebrows rose.
Gabrys followed suit, and barely bit down his profanity. The prison has been as clean outside of Rafay’s cell as inside: filth caked his soles and smeared its way up the sides of his feet. Mud scuffed the knees of his trousers. It was just determined to get worse; if Ardashir left now he would see the trail Gabrys, and likely Makary, had left. A trail that led, albeit in a circuitous manner, to the prison—a trail that would be easy to follow. “After you showed me the garden yesterday, I couldn’t help but want to see it again.” He cast his gaze down, desperately hoping he looked contrite. “If I am only allowed to go with you, I am very sorry. I just wanted to be reminded a little of home before I am to leave it forever.”
The problem with contrition was it made it so hard to see what happened in front of him. The warm arm that snaked around his shoulders made him flinch even as it pulled him close to Ardashir’s chest. “Of course you don’t need me with you, my prince. After tomorrow it will be as much your garden as mine.” Gabrys looked cautiously up to see Ardashir smiling down at him. In one easy gesture he cast the taper to the floor and brushed the hair from Gabrys’s eyes. “Are you looking forward to it, my prince?”
“Yes,” he lied, forcing a smile that he hoped looked shy rather than sickly. “I am, my king, very much.” Ardashir’s fingers were hot against his skin. The longer Gabrys kept him in his room, the more time Makary would have to realise their mistake and do something about it.
Ardashir’s smile widened. His fingers slipped down his face to cup his jaw, thumb gently stroking his cheek. At least the excitement of the morning gave Gabrys an indication of what would happen next: he parted his lips as Ardashir leaned forward, and tried not to retch at the thought of kissing the man who knew his brother was in the cells under the same roof.
In a dim, distant world where Ardashir wasn’t a liar, Gabrys supposed this might be nice. Ardashir was not only strikingly handsome, but seemed quite good at the various and inordinately awkward aspects of kissing. But he still felt nothing while going through the motions, not the way he had with Demiah, and all the while the memory of his brother trapped in a tiny cell remained at the fringes of his mind.
This time, when they parted, Ardashir’s cheeks were flushed pink in the low light. “I’m glad you’re no longer so afraid, my prince.”
“Well, I am to be your husband, my king.” With a hand heavy as lead he gently stroked the backs of his fingers down Ardashir’s cheek, and tried desperately not to feel like a hypocrite. “Tomorrow, in fact.”
“That’s true.” Again Ardashir’s accent thickened, his words slurring together. Again he leaned forward to kiss Gabrys, and again Gabrys didn’t resist.
He was starting to hate himself.
“My prince,” Ardashir said breathlessly when they separated, “forgive me. You’ve only just got back to your room and here I am pouncing on you the minute you’re through the door.”
Gabrys tried his most shy smile, and was rewarded with the feeling of Ardashir brushing his hair from his eyes a second time. “I don’t mind, my king. I enjoyed it.”
Both of Ardashir’s warm hands caught one of Gabrys’s and led him towards the middle of the room. For one awful moment he thought Ardashir would sit him on the chaise, with all the horrible second-hand memories it entailed, but they stopped a short distance from the window as Ardashir caressed his face. “You’re so beautiful, my prince. You will be the jewel in my crown tomorrow, and the country will rejoice.”
“You do me too much credit,” Gabrys tried to said, but only got around half of the words out before Ardashir was kissing him again, more hungrily than before. His tongue pressed insistently into Gabrys’s mouth; his hand didn’t so much cradle his head as held him in place. This was a kiss from which there was no escape, and Gabrys could only give into it and hope Makary didn’t spend too long in the saray.
This was a waste of his time. He had too much to think about, too much to plan, to spend it with the man who had forced this all to happen. Instead he was stuck mouth-to-mouth with him while vital minutes slunk away like the sun below the horizon.
“My king,” he gasped when Ardashir finally broke away again. “I worry that tomorrow is important, I would not want you to be too tired for what I know will be a long day—”
“I am well used to late nights, my prince.” Without asking Gabrys’s permission, Ardashir’s hand slid behind his head to deftly release the bun of hair at the base of his neck. Blond hair spilled over his shoulders and around his face; Ardashir looked pleased. “The nights don’t seem so late when someone as lovely as you is there to keep me company.”
“I—” Again he got no further as Ardashir kissed him, this time with enough force to push him back several steps. Only the wall stopped him. With that against his back, and Ardashir in front of him, even the idea of escape became a distant dream.
This had to be long enough for Makary to realise their mistake. Was it long enough for him to fix it? He didn’t know how much longer he could keep up the pretence.
The space between parting and kissing grew shorter each time; Gabrys was light headed, on a knife-edge from shoving Ardashir away. It was supposed to feel nice, with anyone else it would be good; anyone else—
A hand slipped between them, to cup his groin.
Gabrys slammed his hands into Ardashir’s shoulders, shoving him backwards. “No.”
Ardashir, between panting breaths, had the nerve to look surprised. “But my prince,” he gestured down to himself, to the visible tent in his trousers, “don’t you feel the same?”
He’d been naïve. Ardashir had been aiming for this ever since the morning—Ardashir had planned it—and in his desperation he’d walked straight into it. “My king, I...”
“Tomorrow we’ll be married. You said it yourself.” Gabrys flinched away as Ardashir pushed his hair from his face. “You said you enjoyed this. Do you really think it’s so wrong for us to do this tonight instead of tomorrow? It’ll happen anyway. But this way, tomorrow you’ll know what will happen.”
“My people don’t do this, my king!” Fear injected a plaintive note into his voice.
Ardashir moved forward again, so close to Gabrys his erection nudged his thigh. “Mine do.”
Gabrys whimpered as Ardashir’s hands closed around his wrists, pinning him in place against the wall as he kissed him again. This one was harder than before, involving teeth and his lower lip, tongue forcing into his mouth as surely as he knew Ardashir wanted to do with his body. With every faint movement Ardashir’s hips shifted, rocking them against Gabrys’s crotch and his obvious lack of arousal. One hand released its hold, dropping to slide over his thigh and round, gripping his backside. Pulling him closer still.
This time, his one-handed shove send Ardashir stumbling. “No.”
Something told him the flush suffusing Ardashir’s face had absolutely nothing to do with arousal. “What do you mean, no?”
Gabrys took the opportunity to squirm free, backing away hastily from the angry man. “No. I mean no, my king. I said we don’t do this!”
“You. Don’t. Do. This.” Ardashir enunciated each word perfectly, far more clearly than anything else he’d said since Gabrys had returned and with enough force that each one sounded like a slap. “You kiss me like that, you cause this, but you don’t do that.”
“I—My king, I told you this morning—”
“And tomorrow—only a few hours from now, in fact—we will be married. What will change between now and then, my prince?” He spat out the final word; Gabrys kept backing up until he smacked into a tall cupboard next to the bedroom archway. The idea of hiding in it flitted through his mind, swiftly followed by images of being locked into it. Of suffocating, hunched and frightened in the darkness. “What is it about the passage of a few short hours that makes you suddenly willing to lay down and spread your legs for me?”
“We will be married, my king—”
“And I will be the same man then that I am now.”
It took all he had not to blurt out how desperately he wished that wasn’t the case. “It isn’t the time that matters, my king. It is the state.”
Ardashir took a step forward and Gabrys shrank back, somehow forcing himself not to tremble; how did Demiah manage to deal with him? “You really think that matters? That ‘being married’ or ‘not being married’ is important when it comes to sex?”
“No, my king, I think it matters to me.” Gabrys took a deep breath, gauging the distance to the door. Footprints be damned, if Ardashir tried it again he would be out. “I have no guarantee that you wouldn’t sleep with me now and then have me executed tomorrow, if it pleased you.” Ardashir’s expression darkened and Gabrys swallowed hard. “You have been nothing but kind to me all week,” which was true, in its own way, “but a less kind king might consider this the best of both worlds—to sleep with me, then to remove me and ensure I cause no trouble. I don’t believe you would do this, but I have to be safe. For my people. Please, my king, you have to understand...”
For one awful minute he thought Ardashir would press on, and wasn’t sure he had the physical strength to withstand him. When Ardashir stepped back, handsome features marred by a scowl, relief flooded through him. Momentary relief, but relief nonetheless despite the way Ardashir snapped at him. “Do you really think you’ll be able to disobey me when we’re married?”
“N—no, my king...”
“Good.” Without waiting for any kind of further response, Ardashir spun on his heel and stormed from the room. The door’s slam sounded deafening in the dead silence.
His wedding night would be hell. Ardashir would make sure of it. He would probably consider Demiah lucky, if the unspoken threat chilling his blood was any indication.
What better reason to be sure that whatever plan he came up with went without a hitch. Gabrys flung himself into the chair and stared blankly at the chaise. Ardashir wouldn’t trouble him again tonight, at least if he was lucky. If he was doubly lucky, Ardashir would ensure he kept his anger solely for Gabrys after their wedding; Demiah would go unmolested.
That was all he needed. One night where he could sneak about the palace. One single night, and he could try to save them all.
He stared at the chaise without seeing it until the sky was scattered with stars, then he washed, then left the room and ensured the door closed quietly behind him, and padded through the corridor to the saray.
Not a single filthy footstep marked his journey from the prison.
As expected, the tailors arrived early to dress him. He stood, mutely patient, as they fussed around him to preen and smooth. Their voices were too low and too fast for him to keep up with, but he suspected they were satisfied with their work and the work they were making of him. Before the mirror he turned from a tired young man to a slender, handsome prince whose outfit suited him beautifully and whose hair was a complicated arrangement of curls, golden chains and crystals that sparkled in the morning light.
If any of them noticed the tightness in his muscles and the way his hands occasionally shook they gave no indication of it. Perhaps they thought it was just wedding nerves.
The three sarayi had been huddled in the left-hand bedroom when he’d visited last night. Makary had returned to them once he’d cleaned the floor, and Gabrys didn’t begrudge them his protection. Much as he’d thought, Ardashir hadn’t paid them a visit, but they were all clearly anticipating one from the way they had twitched violently as he entered. They looked as convinced by his bare-bones plan as he was, but Makary had nodded thoughtfully and agreed, and Gabrys thought it was testament to the sarayi’s faith in the soldier and lack of it in Ardashir that despite their doubts they would go along with it.
The tailors lifted his hand and carefully secured the matching chains around his wrist to drape delicately along his hands and around his fingers. Beautiful as they were, in his country these were called slave bands; he suspected they served much the same purpose here.
Finally, when they were convinced they had done all they could, the tailors lined up in front of him and bowed formally. He returned the gesture and they left the room.
This was the moment he was waiting for. He had a single hour to prepare himself for the journey to his wedding-place. It was expected to be spent communing with the gods, praying for peace and harmony during his marriage. Prayers that would be wasted on Ardashir.
He waited a suitable time, until he was sure they were gone and not loitering in the corridor beyond, then pushed open the door. Makary stood outside, arms folded and wearing an expression that would terrify anyone who even considered disturbing a praying prince. “Makary?” Gabrys kept his voice low even though the corridor looked deserted. “Are you ready?”
Makary nodded once and vanished around the corner. When he returned, it was with three other guards.
Three other slender, nervy guards, one of whom possessed the most beautiful heterochromatic eyes Gabrys had ever seen; he let out a sigh of relief. It was his own plan, but it didn’t mean his heart hadn’t skipped more than a few beats when they had appeared. Not for the first time he was reminded of how precarious this whole thing was.
“Come in,” he said, voice barely shaking.
Without a word, the four followed him into his room, and only when he shut the door behind them could Gabrys allow himself the chance to breathe again. “You’re very convincing,” he admitted, smiling weakly.
The corners of Makary’s mouth turned down, concern plain over his face. “To you, yes. I’m sorry, my prince, but you’re not as familiar with the palace guard as we are. We still need a little more work.”
Yes, Gabrys supposed that was true: unlike Makary’s hair, with the top half bound into a small ponytail and the bottom half shaved entirely, two sarayi had hair settling on their shoulders and the third, the most quiet of the three, had black hair cropped neatly to his head. On top of that, Demiah’s black bruises had faded to a stomach-churning yellow-green and his eyes were too distinctive.
At least he could do something about some of those issues. They remained silent and he could feel their eyes follow him as he moved into the bedroom to rifle through the drawers. Ardashir had known nothing of the way Gabrys dressed, so the drawers contained all manner of things he’d disregarded. In this case two black ribbons and a thin black sash would serve a purpose Ardashir would loathe. The thought of that made him feel almost happy.
With their hair bound up it was surprisingly easy to overlook the fact they had more of it than the average palace guard, and Demiah remained patient while Gabrys carefully bound the soft sash over his bruised eye.
Makary remained doubtful. “It’s a little informal, my prince...”
Gabrys drew himself up to his full height and assumed a haughty expression he hoped would put Ardashir to shame. “And you would dare disagree with me, the prince, on my wedding day when I say I do not want to be escorted by a soldier who would display the hallmarks of his brawling so proudly?”
For one moment Makary looked so taken aback Gabrys wasn’t sure that even flashing his grin afterwards would help. When he laughed, Gabrys’s grin widened. “Yes, my prince. Obviously we must cover up his bruises lest he bring shame on us all.”
Demiah too laughed and tentatively draped one arm over Gabrys’s shoulder. “Does this mean, my prince, we can act as informally as any soldier now?”
“I would have none of you act any other way.” Unable to stop himself, he pecked a kiss to Demiah’s cheek.
For one moment the sarayi’s cheeks flushed and his visible eye widened, then he did the same back, almost quicker than Gabrys could feel.
He might be terrified, and the gods only knew that Demiah probably felt the same way, but he felt his chest heat all the same. “Come on,” he said, trying to disguise the warmth he could feel in his own cheeks with a businesslike manner, “we don’t have much time.”
Much as he wished they didn’t, his words sobered the atmosphere. All four nodded and arranged themselves as best they could around Gabrys, mimicking the formation he was led to Ardashir’s palace in, and they began the nerve-shredding journey through the corridors to the cells.
Makary had assured Gabrys that the servants would be too preoccupied with arranging the food and the distant dining hall to be scurrying around the corridor and, for the most part, he was right. It didn’t mean they didn’t see them now and again—although the servants never saw them. Every time one passed by they somehow managed to hide just long enough the servant passed by without being any the wiser, even if one or two stopped and looked around, clearly puzzled, before continuing their journeys. If it came to it they could simply carry on in their formation, but Gabrys was supposed to be praying; looking conspicuous would do them no favours.
They reached the cells unharassed, not that Gabrys’s heart believed it from the way it pounded. This had been the simple part...
Makary entered first, followed by Gabrys. The room was as dimly lit as before, but Gabrys barely noticed: his attention was fixed on the figure in the narrow section at the end. A yoke lay along their back, their hands affixed to either side: his brother, head down, filthy hair in his eyes.
“I knew something was up as soon as the other three fell asleep.”
Gabrys flinched at the words, spinning on his bare heel; from the corner of his eye he saw Makary slowly draw his sword. Three of the prison guards were slumped in their seats, almost like they hadn’t moved from the last time. The fourth stood in front of the table, swaying slightly. Behind him, Gabrys could make out three completely clear plates and half a meal on the fourth. The man had picked the wrong time to be a picky eater. “Sleeping at your posts?” Makary drawled. “I should have you all executed now.”
“Funny how we got so tired after you bought us our lunch.” The guard’s eyes focused on the sword briefly, then crossed and uncrossed before focusing on Makary’s face. He was making Gabrys dizzy just watching him. “And then bringing the trophy princeling here? You’re up to something, boy. Why’d you bring that brat?”
“He asked.” Makary advanced slowly, letting his sword fall back into its sheath. “You know we can’t disregard the orders of the king or his consort. Sit down, let me look at this meal. Maybe it was too rich for you.”
For one moment Gabrys thought the guard might go along with Makary’s words. He wanted to. Gabrys wanted him to. But the man’s senses were too finely honed to go along with the suggestion, even as it came from one of his own. “No such thing as a rich meal making us sleep. Liar, you done something, right? You poison us.” Even as he slurred his words he began fumbling for his sword.
In a flash Makary’s sword was in his hand and at the guard’s throat, fast enough Gabrys never saw it move. “Sit down,” Makary said calmly. “Eat. Then you can say you knew nothing.”
Makary’s smile had an edge sharper than his sword’s. “And you will, when Ardashir finds out you let this happen. You know him. He’ll take it slow. Let you really savour your failure. If you eat now and sleep with the others, you can say you knew nothing. You were overpowered, how could you know what would happen? It’s your choice.”
The guard’s face drained of blood. His sword fell back into its sheath. Without another word he plonked himself down at his seat and began to mechanically shovel his meal into his mouth.
It wasn’t long before he joined his companions in sleep, but it took far longer than Gabrys liked. He didn’t dare move until the man’s breathing was deep and even, and even when it was he advanced carefully towards his brother rather than run. “Brother? Rafay?”
“I’m here.” Beneath the curtain of hair he caught a small grin. “Didn’t think it was a good idea interrupting your friend there.”
Relief hit him so hard he thought his knees would give out. “I—I was so—Makary, does that guard have keys on him? And do you think he really needs his clothes?”
For a moment Makary looked nonplussed, then a wicked grin spread across his lips. “No, I suppose he doesn’t need them, does he? Let me get the key first.”
While Gabrys worked to free his brother from the yoke, Makary and the sarayi stripped the guard; it didn’t escape Gabrys’s notice that the sarayi undressed him more quickly and easily than Makary’s attempts. At least all their practice would come in useful. The armour didn’t fit Rafay perfectly but it was near enough that no one would notice until they were close, by which time Makary could deal with them, and Gabrys could only hope the dirt colouring Rafay’s hair would be an advantage. No one would associate the blond heir with a dark-haired guard, particularly not with the helmet Makary found in one corner jammed over his head. “Guard-Captains wear helmets,” he explained to Gabrys. “It marks them out as the one to turn to if there’s trouble.”
Rafay nodded, adjusting the chin strap. “The one who was still awake was the Guard-Captain of this group.”
Makary’s smile was grim, and his words were Arvellan. “Good. I hope Ardashir comes down on him like a ton of bricks.”
For a moment Rafay looked taken aback, then he laughed softly. “Didn’t have you down as one of us. Baby brother, you do manage to make the strangest, most brilliant friends.”
Gabrys’s smile was as tight as his nerves. “It won’t matter which friends I make, big brother, if we don’t get out of here now.” Without waiting for a response he moved for the door, wincing again at the dirt plastering his bare soles, but couldn’t resist touching Demiah’s hand as he passed—only for Demiah to catch it and squeeze it briefly before releasing it again.
This was why he was doing it. His brother and three sarayi who were little better than slaves. A guard who’d risked everything to help them. His country beyond who would suffer at Ardashir’s hands. They couldn’t be caught. Not now.
As they made their way through the corridors again, Rafay at their head, they resolved to no longer hide from servants. It was about time Gabrys made his way towards the room the ceremony would be held anyway.
It was just their luck they didn’t see a single one. They took an elaborate route through the labyrinth of corridors that managed to avoid Gabrys’s room and the four guards inevitably waiting for him to answer their knocking, then ducked around the lesser-used servant corridors.
There was no way they could just walk out the front door. The city would have turned out to see Ardashir married—people would have travelled from outlying areas just to glimpse a moment of the spectacle. After the ceremony he would have been paraded in front of them like a prize horse, then taken back inside to feast and suffer from Ardashir’s attentions. But it also worked in their favour: all the attention was directed at the front door. Covering themselves with hooded cloaks stolen from the servants’ cloakroom made them unrecognisable from a distance and, once Gabrys had lifted the complicated chain arrangement from his hair and released them from his wrists, he could have been simply any pretty young man leaving the building from the servants’ side entrance.
If only it was that easy.
“My prince,” a sickeningly familiar voice came from just ahead. “You’d leave me so soon before our wedding?”
“Ardashir,” Gabrys said with a calm he didn’t feel, all sensation draining from his body. “Why aren’t you waiting for me at the temple?”
“It seems it would be futile if I was.” The king’s handsome smile chilled his blood. “The guards asked me to check why you were not in your room. They thought perhaps you might have gone to the gardens to reflect on our wedding. I don’t believe it ever occurred to them you would be so ungrateful as to flee before we could wed.”
He barely swallowed a bitter laugh. “After last night, are you surprised?”
“That the prince of Arvelle can’t keep his word? Yes, I am.”
“After you pawed at me, tried to force yourself on me, do you really think I would wish to marry you? You have no respect for me.” Ardashir’s language was too inadequate to express his feelings in, stuck only with the words he’d learned from an ageing tutor; Arvellan was much easier. “You’re mad! You treat your saray with absolutely no respect whatsoever, you want to treat me exactly the same way! And when I can’t stand to be in the same room as a groping, panting idiot you think I’m the bad guy? And more to the point, you were going to execute my brother in front of me! Why would I want to marry anyone as filthy, lecherous and cruel as you?”
From Ardashir’s occasional glazed-over blankness Gabrys was sure he only understood one word in five. He didn’t care. Ardashir didn’t deserve his effort any longer, and from the way Makary drew his sword he quite agreed.
But as much as he wanted it, he couldn’t let it happen. “No, please, don’t kill him,” he murmured, resting his fingers lightly on Makary’s sword arm. “Don’t make me as bad as he is.”
“Yes, don’t kill me.” Ardashir picked up a sword from a table; Gabrys hadn’t realised it was even there. A sick, sinking sensation filled his stomach. “I want the pleasure of killing you, traitor soldier, and then the prince’s brother. And then I’ll take my property and you, my prince, will join them. We’ll see how rebellious you are when you’re nothing more than my whore.”
His fingers fell from Makary’s cool skin. “You know what? Maybe if he was dead, his country would be better off.”
Throwing back his hood, Makary was apparently of the same mind: his sword slid effortlessly from its sheath and batted away Ardashir’s first lunge like it was nothing. He made short work of the second and third too, but by then Ardashir seemed to have his measure. Each thrust was parried, and in return each retaliation was deflected like it was nothing. It was said that Līzahran was the tongue of the wind whispering sand over the dunes, but that truly was the whisper of blade drawn over blade before another clang resounded throughout the close confines of the corridor.
It was beautiful, almost balletic, and Ardashir was gradually winning. It would only be a matter of minutes before his superior training got the better of Makary, and Rafay was still in no state to fight—
A crash filled the hall. Ardashir staggered one step, two, then hit the ground face-first.
Just beyond, the quiet sarayi with the close-cropped black hair let the remains of a thick urn clatter from his fingers to the floor. When he spoke, it was softly-accented Līzahran. “I have no wish to go back to those small rooms and put up with him again.”
“It’s less problematic than killing him,” Demiah agreed, grabbing Gabrys’s hand and pulling him towards the door. “Come on, my prince, before we’re drowning in guards.”
It didn’t escape Gabrys’s notice, from the corner of his eye, that both Makary and Rafay gave Ardashir’s senseless body a surreptitious kick.
They burst from the relative gloom of the corridor into bright Līzahran daylight—and almost straight into the hindquarters of five horses. Gabrys could only stare as Makary grinned happily. “I knew he’d help!”
“He? Who? Why are there horses here?” Gabrys supposed he should be demanding the answers, but his questions just came out helplessly dazed instead.
“I have a small understanding with the stable boy,” Makary smirked, swinging himself into the saddle of a nearby grey. “He offered me five horses, no questions asked.”
“And you just... forgot to mention this?”
Makary shrugged, grin widening. “No point in mentioning it if I didn’t know it’d happen.”
Gabrys supposed he had a point. He remained on the ground, helping the sarayi and his brother mount their horses before climbing onto his own. It had been a long time and Arvelle was a fair distance from here. There were bound to be troops after them. Despite his hopes there were crowds beyond the gate, even if most seemed to have their attention fixed in the wrong direction. And, worst of all, he hadn’t ridden a horse in long enough he knew he’d be saddle-sore and exhausted by the time they got there.
The urge to laugh overwhelmed him. He didn’t bother trying to control it. He led the motley band to the narrow gate in the palace wall, leant down to open it, and burst through it without checking to see if there were guards beyond. From the shouts of anger, he guessed there were. The crowd scattered; hoofbeats thundered behind him as the others followed suit.
He’d planned it, but never expected it—yet finally he was free. They swept down streets that grew gradually less packed, until they reached the city gates: open, just as he’d expected, to show unity and openness with the rest of the country. Then they were on the road and riding hard for the Līzahran border with Arvelle.
Ardashir could send all his troops after them. He probably would. But there was no way Gabrys would let him catch them now.