Shouting shattered the stillness of an early summer evening, accompanied by the sound of feet tearing through the brush. The crickets and night birds dropped their dual chorus, and silence flooded in, thick as moonlight among the trees, awakening the spirit from its stupor and inviting it to peek from the place it had coiled itself, between the stones of the cenotaph.
The kindling moon was directly overhead, its blood-tinged light coating the downward slope of the evergreens in gore and limning the slender arms of madronas in seething flame. Their shadows stretched thick over the ground, crawling up along the stones, smooth and polished once, that formed the low, wide base of a grave for unknown, absent dead. But as the spirit watched, the shadows broke around a single figure lurching into sight, a young man, face alien and stripped of features by the gathered gloom.
Once, the grove had called many visitors, but uncounted years had taken their toll and each waking found the place more desolate than before. Each time the spirit woke from its dreamless sleep, there were changes: the people, their clothing, even the grove, which had gone dark and wild uncounted years ago. Now it seemed the sweetest birds had fled and threatening vines tangled strangling fingers ‘round the throats of all but the heartiest of the ancient trees. This had become the domain of ravens.
The youth was dressed too ostentatiously. His robes were leached of color by darkness, but there were many of them, all carefully layered and held together with an elaborate sash that recalled an eye. His hair hung in a shadow from a great knot upon his head, the faint sound of chiming filling the air with its every sway. But the spirit reared back at the sight of the diadem arching over the young man’s coiled braids, a single thought hissing through its awareness: Prince.
The spirit wanted to contemplate this. It wanted to feel. Most of all, it wanted to remember how it knew what the headpiece meant and why that meaning filled it with such loathing. But before the spirit could try to wrestle the detached currents of memory from the maelstrom of its mind, a second figure, a nobleman, struggled into view. He, too, was dressed ostentatiously, and the spirit decided this was the result of fashion rather than arrogance. An image of a different world full of different people flashed across its mind. But the image was gone before the spirit could capture it, leaving only the knowledge that the memory had ever been there.
The prince was already halfway to the cenotaph by the time the nobleman made it out of the trees, but he stopped and turned at the sound, arms thrown out to his sides. The nobleman stopped where he stood, then lunged forward and the prince fell back a step.
“There’s no use, Supaya. I’m tired of your games.” He stood like a nail, that man, like a spike that had been driven into the ground. The spirit could make out his face no more than it had been able to make out the prince’s, but the posture was as good as an expression. It was something the spirit understood, even if it could not remember why.
From the prince, a snort. “What else did you expect?” His arms heaved. Dropped to his sides. “It’s not as though I ever made pretensions, Keda. Even the greatest fuckwit at court could have told you what was going to happen. Stars dancing, they probably did, and you just didn’t listen. So what does that make you?” The prince pivoted in a flurry of silk and hair, and the spirit strained to see. But when it at last glimpsed the face emerging from the darkness, it all but unraveled into nothingness.
The boy had straight, serious brows that accentuated eyes large and tilted as a cat’s, now narrowed with anger. Wide cheekbones might have lent his face a childish quality, but his jaw was squared and masculine enough that he would never be mistaken for a child, no matter how petulant his expression. But it was his wide, full lips that arrested the spirit’s attention and held it fast. There was something about them that called to mind lithe, blue bodies dancing in the moonlight. Memory stirred again, a breeze ruffling the periphery of the spirit’s awareness, and for a moment it recalled a remnant of its past: a face of angles and luminous curves, the scent of crushed lemon balm and rain. When the sensation evaporated, the spirit found itself weak and wanting, hungry for unnameable things, longing for a past it could no longer recall.
The prince grew suddenly straighter, catching the spirit’s lagging attention. The nobleman was storming across the clearing, his shadow a black cloud under his feet. The red light was a bloody cowl on his face, but as his features grew clearer his rage grew more defined. He was not a young man, lord Keda, and clearly not used to being denied. His mouth was a tight gash under his hooked nose, and his eyes hooded with concentration.
“Is this what you did to Suteyu, then?” There was so much poison in the nobleman’s voice that the spirit flinched back, but the prince merely smiled and leaned back against the cenotaph. “Made him promises and drove him mad? I have done everything you requested of me. Even if my wife survives, her family is ruined. My father-in-law has fled and daren’t return again. And for what? Give me what you promised, you little slut!”
The downward slope carried him the last few steps at an increased speed, beaded braids clacking. As he approached, he raised a hand, perhaps thinking to strike the object of his rage, but the younger man raised his chin. For a moment, Keda kept his hand poised to strike, then slowly ran it back over his plaits.
“Or what? Will you betray me too, Keda?” The smile the prince had been cultivating grew sharper at the corners. He tilted his head to the side, and the bells in his hair filled the air with the sound of chiming. “Maybe you only turn traitor when there’s an ass to stuff.”
Keda’s fist took the prince in his beautiful mouth, knocking his head back into the stone with an audible crack. His trembling fingers tangled in the younger man’s sable hair, stretching his neck back at an awkward angle and shoving him back against the crumbling stone blocks. There was blood oozing from the Prince’s mouth, staining his lips and darkening his teeth. With a growl, the nobleman caught him in a violent kiss.
For a moment, the prince resisted, body twisting as his hands pummeled his assailants body. But so fast it defied reason, Keda grunted, shifted, tried to pull away. The Prince’s hands tangled in his hair, locking him in place. With a cry of victory, the prince threw the nobleman to the ground.
“So that’s how it’s to be,” he said, wiping blood from his lips with the back of his hand. “Did you really think there was anybody left in this world who could make me do anything I don’t want to do?”
“I didn’t…” The nobleman tried to rise, but the prince kicked him in the ribs. He collapsed back to the ground with a grunt.
“Suck me then, if you want me so badly.”
The nobleman stared up, marble-eyed and smeared with blood.
Overhead, the sky was a roiling cauldron of star-flecked pitch. The spirit would have liked to fly right up into it. Nearby, the prince was loosening his sash, and inside the spirit was awakening an unfamiliar hunger as bright as the red moon burning in the sky. Long, slender finger parted robes of softest silk and:
“Lick it, Keda. You wanted my body, didn’t you?”
The spirit had seen fucking through the years. It had seen every kind of act imaginable. One young man’s cock was nothing particularly special. But this young man was something altogether different. The spirit wanted this child. It hungered for warmth and color and vibrancy, taste and scent. As the nobleman grabbed the prince’s hips, the spirit flowed down upon the boy, weaving itself around the prince’s body like a fog.
“Ah, yes,” the prince said, “like that. Lick it like the worthless mutt you are.”
His head lolled to the side, features softening with pleasure. He was young under all that depravity, and the beauty in his face yet called to mind garden idols with their red bowls for offerings. The spirit wanted to lay itself down as an offering at his feet, as it had used to do in different days, before the Anuphym had withdrawn from the land and taken all the good and beautiful things with them. Before the Hell Gate had spread itself, dark and palatial, across the sacred hills. Churning with the memory, the spirit twined itself about the prince’s body, the essence of who it had been mingling with the spicy scent of perfume and sex and the heat rising from the boy’s flushed skin. As if in response, the boy threw his head back as the him deeper. The softest sigh escaped from his lips and the spirit captured it, grew drunk upon it. For an infinite moment, they merged as one, and the spirit felt a singular possessiveness. It felt a warring of emotions it could not pin: ecstasy, sickness, derision, loathing, love; but it could not tell if what it felt were real, or if it were merely reflecting emotions originating in that child’s sullied heart. Hurriedly, the spirit untangled itself and drifted back.
The prince shoved the nobleman to the ground and the man toppled backward, eyes bulging. He spit an arc of blood-flecked semen to the old tiles. It shone dully in the reddish light. Chest heaving, the prince stood over him, feral-eyed. The spirit waited for the feelings to erode.
“Didn’t care for the taste after all, Keda?”
“I…” The nobleman scrubbed his lips with the back of his hand as though trying to absolve them of a foul taste. The man had gone from lust to loathing so quickly. Did the prince not see the danger in this?
“Have had enough, I’m sure,” the prince finished. “Of course you have. Shit-eaters like you never do want what they think they want. Go on then, Keda. And do not speak of this to me again or I swear I’ll gut you and serve your innards to your poor poisoned wife.”
Wan faced, the nobleman scurried to his feet and all but ran from the monument, his disgrace trailing behind him like a cloak. The prince watched him go, a small, sharp smile twisting the corners of his mouth as he put his robes back in order. Then he turned his attention to the milky puddle.
He stared at it like it was a bad word someone had written on a fine monument, like he could make it disappear if he just stared hard enough. And it glared back at him, a baleful eye, milky pale and pink with moonlight. The spirit swirled around it, trying to cling to the remnant warmth, but the cold stone sucked the heat away faster than the summer air could replenish it.
“I should have slit his throat,” the boy murmured at last, wiping the blood from his mouth with slick fingers. “Better than my own. Bloody fuckwit.” But it wasn’t clear whom he was insulting.
With a grimace, he spit into the puddle and strode into the deeper shadows of the trees, all dignity and cutting beauty. The spirit strained after him with unfathomable hunger, yearning after him until he disappeared. The bonds that tethered the spirit to the mortal realm kept it from following its boy, however much that child’s scent called to it. In all the years it had been bound to this cycle of waking and dreamless, hell-laced sleep, it had never felt such burning desire to be known. To be felt. And hadn’t the prince felt it?
A coincidence, surely. But what if it was not?
The spirit shrunk itself and moved to the puddle, hovering over it. It could smell the essence of the prince—blood, semen, saliva, all that capacity for life, gleaming in one small puddle not even half the width of a man’s palm. It was the spirit’s own blood, its own capacity, wasn’t it? The prince, its beautiful cousin removed in time and relationship through countless generations… The memory sparked, flared, faded, leaving loose strands of history wafting like smoke in the air. The spirit dipped down into the mess, relishing the feel of its own bloodline, the mortality fate and its father had denied it.
But cold granite was hard on his knees, the stone unforgiving. He rocked back, unbalanced, and fell to his side. The puddle was near his nose; his breath ruffled the surface.
Shocked to utter stillness, a man caught breath that had not been caught in more than a thousand years.
Supaya flopped down on his couch, becoming a monument at the head of a trail of discarded silks and wigs. Relieved of his heavy court clothing, he felt almost light enough to float. Would it be so terrible if he did? If he floated up and just disappeared into the sky? He was the Lord of Stars, after all. Disconsolate, he rolled onto his back. Above him, his window showed the moons still working their lazy way through the star-crusted sky. The ghosting moon was up, her small creamy face trailing the crescent of the much larger Soughing moon. Somewhere in that vast, limitless sky, the Kindling moon was lost in their luminous wake, like a youngest son gotten on a disfavored wife.
The single lamp Nerue had left burning did little to obstruct the view. Paya pulled the sheet up around his shoulders and stared up into the blackness. He wanted a bath almost more than anything, but he didn’t dare try the baths late at night and alone, not with his reputation and his enemies. But he could smell Keda on him, the smell of the man’s hair oil and the scent of his desire, and it made him sick, made him furious. It made him want to fucking kill something. If Nerue were there, he might have ordered a bowl of water at least, even if it meant braving the boy’s questioning eyes. But Nerue was not where he was supposed to be. Paya threw an arm over his eyes.
“Are you unwell?” Teyu’s voice. Paya scowled and regarded the man from under the cover of his arm. Teyu stood in the doorway, hip braced against the frame, pelvis tilted out. He wore robes of midnight blue and cream, like moonlight filtered against the sky.
“Drop the act, Teyu. There’s no one here to fool but me, and I’m past it.”
Teyu snorted and padded across the room. “A drink then,” he said. “Something hard. Bitter tea and pepper?”
“I hate pepper,” Paya said, but he said it into his arm, and Teyu wouldn’t have listened anyways.
Teyu returned a moment later, a blue bowl in his hand. Supaya pushed himself up until he was sitting, drawing his knees up and resting his chin on them. Sipping the drink, Teyu sat beside him.
“You met with Lord pu Keda today, didn’t you? I take it things went badly.”
Paya rolled his eyes. “The bastard poisoned his wife, you know. Framed his father-in-law. All I told him to do was lower the Tanathereregai in father’s eyes and that’s where he went with it. And people call me twisted.” He stared into the darkness, trying to hide the frustration that fumed just beneath the surface. Sulei Tanatherega had been just seventeen during the succession; she’d done no wrong. Now she would be just one more innocent death he could engrave into his consciousness.
Teyu pushed the bowl on him. “You knew he’d do something wretched. You goaded him.”
“I might have,” Supaya admitted with half a shrug. “Stupid fuck had it coming—those wandering hands of his. And the Tanatherergai needed dealing with after that rubbish with the succession.” Just not Sulei.
“Supaya.” Teyu leaned close enough that Paya could feel the absence of breath where breath should have been, hot breath splaying across his lips. Hands rose up, the shape familiar and like his own, to stretch themselves to the curves of Supaya’s face. “We’ve spoken of this.”
Paya lifted his chin, letting the fingers drop lower. They slid around his neck, where they fit like a well-worn garment. Paya felt the fight drain out of him, felt his will slip away. Sometimes, it was easiest to have no self at all.
But Teyu leaned closer, eyes serious. When his expression was like this, it was impossible to argue with him. He said, “They were my allies, Paya. Leave them alone.”
“They took you away from me. How can I?”
Teyu’s fingers tightened. His lips fell to Paya’s, cold as the draft through a palace at night. Paya struggled to breathe through the wedge of his fingers. The cool slip of a tongue caressed the edge of his lip drawing a cry surprise from his strangled throat. The moons stared down mockingly from above, forcing sickly shadows up the wall.
“You took me away,” Suteyu murmured against Paya’s lips. Then, as they always did, his fingers dropped away, faded. Teyu faded too, unraveling into shadow and moonlight. Streamers of darkness wove across the room, seeking out deeper shadows. Paya crumpled back from the dissolution, sickened and near vomiting.
Where the ever-living fuck was Nerue? Where was his stupid fucking slave? He buried his face in his hands, biting down on his palms to keep from crying. He refused to cry for his brother, even if that man was a murderer.
A single figure moved through the dark, his mustard colored robes standing out against the gloom. There hung about him the scent of incense smoke and charred meat, and the faint chiming of bells filled the air with his every step, for hundreds of the things had been woven into the thick, matted locks of his colorless hair and beard. When he stopped moving, the chiming continued for a single breath more, and then faded, leaving the silence sharper for its absence.
The spirit—now a man—looked up from where he was sitting, knees drawn up beneath his chin and met the ancient gaze leveled knowingly upon him. Though it was summer, there was chill to the air, and the gooseflesh pimpling his skin painfully grew even tighter as the old man stared.
“Clothing, spirit.” The old man said when he was near. He dropping a packet and it bounced off the granite, tumbled, and came to rest by the man’s knee. “You’ll need them while you walk in the mortal world, or you won’t be mortal for long.”
“You know me?” The man barely knew himself, for all of that. Even his name seemed nothing but meaningless syllables bound together with bonds of vague familiarity.
The priest ducked his head, setting his long beard waving. The trees behind him ducked and swayed, as if chorusing their agreement. Perhaps they were. “I know your kind, more-or-less. But whatever you might be, you’re mortal enough for the time being, and the Guardian Gods look after all mortal things.”
He stared at the priest, trying to discern if the man was posing a riddle. He thought he remembered something to that effect. But the man stared back at him with a clear, sharp gaze that spoke of intelligence and very little patience. Swallowing back his uncertainty, the man said, “None of this makes any sense.”
The moons were working their way sluggishly across the sky, but the man felt pressed for time. He didn’t know how long he’d been dead, or how long he would yet be alive. He fisted his hands in his hair and shut his eyes against the progression of time written across the stars.
“Do you have a name?”
With a jolt, he realized it was not the first time the old man had asked. Raising his head, he forced his hands to release their grip on his hair. His fingers ached. He licked his lips. How long had it been since he’d said his own name? “Aryas,” he said softly. Would they know what that meant anymore?
The priest snorted and pointed at the packet. “Clothe yourself, Aryas. Your answers will come, I’m sure. But they always come in their own time, don’t they?”
But he already had his answer; it was written on the granite in the remnants of the prince’s fluids: blood, semen, and saliva. Obediently, Aryas unwound the packet and began to dress. The priest watched on, silent and unmoved.
“I won’t go back, old man. Just so you know, I have no intention of going back to that.” he gestured towards the cenotaph. There was nothing particularly ominous about it anymore, though it had held him captive for countless years. Now it was just two tiers of crumbling stone with steeply sloping finials. It must have been beautiful, once.
The old man turned on his heel with an animal snort and began walking away. “Nothing happens the Gods don’t intend. Find your answers; make your life; do whatever you must. If you don’t want to go back, prove it to the Gods. I brought you clothes. That was all they bade me do.”
Heart pounding, Aryas rushed after him.
“You’re leaving me? You can’t mean to leave me alone!”
“Can’t I?” The old man tossed a glance over his shoulder. “I’ve done what I must, creature. The rest is up to you. Fate, eh? She’s a cruel, cruel bitch.” With a toss of his hand he forestalled any further attempts by Aryas to follow. Then the priest was swallowed up by the hungry trees, his mustard robe fading gently back into the gray. The sound of his chiming was the last lingering sign of his presence.
Head back to contemplate the sky, Aryas met gazes with the moons. Like the priest, they cared nothing for his plight and offered no advice worth noting. But how could that be so? Turning, he examined the trail that led through the grove into the garden, and beyond to the palace. To the Hell Gate sprawling like dark wound across the sacred hills of his youth. Was that his only option then? As though in confirmation, the light brightened as the Kindling Moon moved from behind a cloud and lit the trees, silhouetting the palace against the horizon. The red light shimmered like flames on the periphery, twisting everything out of true. His answer, then.
Back straight, he put one foot in front of the other and made his way towards the world that had eclipsed his own.
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