Excerpt of forthcoming Hellions book.

 

 

 

 

Working Title: Servants of the Unseen Shadow

Ginn Hale

 

 

Chapter One

 

Twenty days of road dust caked Narsi’s body, hair, and clothes. His dappled mare looked gray as clay. He wasn’t certain which of the two of them smelled worse or felt more relieved to reach the renowned city of Cieloalta with its great display of public fountains.

Local merchants in painted carriages rolled past him, while herdsmen with their droves of swine, cattle, and sheep bustled around the fountains on the way to the famous market grounds. Narsi rinsed his face and allowed his tired mare to drink.

Three stone stallions and a column of eagles rose from the center of the fountain. The horses Narsi recognized as symbols of Faith, Honor, and Strength but he couldn’t exactly recall which sermon the eagles represented. “Heights of Bravery” from the Book of Redemption? Or was it “The Rise of Courage” from the Epistles of the Holy Savior

It hardly mattered, for the sheer beauty of the carvings coupled with the relief of fresh water awed Narsi.

His sense of wonder only grew as he turned around, taking in the towering, angular Cadeleonian architecture that lined the wide, straight thoroughfare. Even in this modest quarter, building after building boasted blue-washed walls, bright yellow roof tiles and downspouts in the shapes of horses. In the distance, royal emblems and colors blazed still more brilliantly, where immense lapis lazuli inlayed walls supported gilded spires. Hundreds of indigo flags fluttered with the stark white form of the Sagrada stallion. Overhead, flocks of white messenger doves moved like clouds across the bright summer sky.

“It’s just as Lord Vediya describes it in his memoirs,” Narsi told his horse. “A royal city made so bright and proud that it would challenge the heavens if only they would listen.”

Narsi grinned and stroked his mare’s jaw. She ignored him and kept drinking.

He felt as if he’d stepped into one of the thrilling epics that he so loved to read. He wondered suddenly if he might be able to find the plaza where the notorious swordsman, Elezar Grunito had fought his bloody duels before going on to battle monsters in the savage northlands. Or better still, could he hunt through the narrow lanes surrounding the opera houses to find the green door of the kaweh tavern where Lord Vediya penned so many of his daring, brilliant memoirs?

Or should he head closer to the river where, veritable mansions full of exotic and medicinal herbs were maintained by royal decree. The doors opened to anyone bearing the silver signet of trained physician, or so they said. Narsi’s prospects felt infinite. For Cielalta was the city where the best and brightest people flocked to the patronage of princes, dukes, even the king, and where a young man like himself stood a chance of meeting them all.

“Make way, you brown bastard,” A sunburned pig herder shouted and Narsi reflexively stepped aside as the red-faced man and his squealing charges shoved their way past the fountain. Narsi’s mare snorted and stamped when a sow snuffled too near her legs. The herder paused to eye Narsi with the disgusted expression of a man confronted by a two-headed sheep.

His recent travels had familiarized Narsi with this reaction. Still, it was discomforting to be gawked at as if he were freakish beyond imagining. Even rural Cadeleonians living this far north had to have encountered Haldiim—or at least bands of nomadic Irabiim— and they saw one another day in day out. So Narsi didn’t understand why they so often appeared taken aback when laying eyes upon his mixed features. Did they really think it utterly impossible for Cadeleonians and Haldiim to interbreed? Or was such a union so blasphemous that they could not help but stare at the progeny?  

Narsi frowned at the dozens and dozens of Cadeleonians all around him on the street. Eight city guards, dressed in dun-colored uniforms and armed with pikes and swords stood behind him at the city gates. Farmers in their wagons, herders amid their animals, and several herb girls laden with straw baskets of fragrant dill and garlic scapes ambled past him. Narsi took in the uniformity of their stout bodies, pale faces and straight dark hair. It had been at least a week since he’d sighted anyone as dark-skinned or lanky as himself. He didn’t want to admit it, but that absence gnawed at his initial excitement and inspired a sudden feeling of uneasiness.

But he couldn’t let the sheer number of Cadeleonians surrounding him intimidate him. After all, the herb girls here traipsed by, ignoring him just as Haldiim herbsellers would have ignored him back home in Anacleto.

He wondered if three weeks of isolation had lead him to read too much into their dour gazes. There were reasons other than his race that the sight of him might strike someone as disconcerting.

Tall even for a Cadeleonian, his big hands and broad shoulders made the rest of his slim figure appear all the more gangly and adolescent. And he supposed the streaks of gray road dust and crusts of mud had lent a particularly ghastly pallor to his dark skin. Likely, neither the dirt nor sleeping in a bedroll on the roadside for weeks had imbued his normally wild, curling black hair with any sudden semblance of civility either. All and all, he probably looked like he’d stolen his horse, bags and gray coat from a real physician whom he’d throttled in the woods.

Narsi smiled to himself at the absurd thought and the swineherd shot him an even more suspicious glance before hurrying his pigs up the road to the butchers’ square.

“Better to be a traveler he disdains than the piglet he smiles upon and leads to slaughter,” Narsi murmured to himself.

He wondered if the thought was worth putting down in his shabby little diary.

Likely not.

Narsi rinsed his hands and face once more then straightened. What did he care if a pigherder and several of the goose girls now passing him gawked? He’d been summoned to serve Holy Father Timeteo in the Duke of Rauma’s household. Most of these nobodies could only dream of such an honor.

Still, he decided that he might want to settle into his rooms, wash, and change into clean clothes before he attempted to breeze into the haunts of famous authors and dangerous noblemen. He’d just mounted his mare and started down the crowded road when a man in the black and violet robes of a Cadeleonian priest waved to him from the mouth of a smaller lane.

“Berto?” For just a moment Narsi hadn’t recognize his childhood friend. He looked so much more adult and distinctly Cadeleonian now, with his formal robes, short-cropped hair and dapper cap. He’d filled out handsomely. By comparison, Narsi knew he looked like a scarecrow built from twine lashings and willow branches.

“Narsi, Lord bless me! You’ve grown even taller, haven’t you?” Berto’s broad grin briefly transformed his stern face back into the beaming countenance of the twelve-year-old classmate that Narsi remembered from when they’d both lived in the lively Grunito household. Berto lead his glossy, bay mare to Narsi’s side and then grasped Narsi’s shoulders in an embrace. Narsi hugged him back, taking comfort in the welcome after so many cold stares. But the thought of those glares reminded him that he was no longer among the Haldiim. Here in the royal city it would be unwise for a man to display too much happiness in the arms of another—particularly a man such as himself.

 He released Berto and stepped a little back from him.

“You haven’t been waiting here for me, have you?” Narsi asked. He’d had no way to send ahead and inform Father Timeteo of when exactly to expect him and yet it seemed an unlikely piece of luck that Berto should happen by just as he passed through the south gates of the city.

“I certainly haven’t been lingering around the public fountain for the sake of that swineherd,” Berto replied.

“But how did you guess that I’d arrive today?” Narsi asked.

“Father Timeteo asked the duke’s couriers to watch for you on the King’s Road. We’ve been kept abreast of your progress every other day or so.”

So he’d not entirely imagined the attention of other travelers along the road. But how like Father Timeteo to find a way to watch over him even across the miles of mountains and wilderness.

“And here I’d presumed myself traveling alone and unknown across a vast, strange land,” Narsi commented and Berto laughed.

“Has the Holy Father kept well?” Narsi asked.

Berto’s expression sobered.

“His spirit is stronger than ever but his body…” Sorrow showed so plainly upon Berto’s face that it alarmed Narsi. At once he remembered the terrible weeks when he’d nursed the Holy Father through a fever that had nearly wasted him away in Narsi’s arms.

“Has he kept anything down?” Narsi gripped his mare’s reins. There was no time to tarry if Father Timeteo had succumbed to grippe again. “I’ve brought powdered cloudroot but we may need to brew bluedust—”

“No, no. He’s not collapsed again. I wouldn’t be standing here chatting with you if he had, rest assured. No, he’s just been restless lately. Not eating or sleeping as he ought to. Nothing new. ” Berto’s long-suffering expression eased a little. “But he’ll be better once you’re with him. You always know how to convince him to show himself a little kindness.”

“That’s less my doing than my mother’s recipe for velvet soup. I can always tempt him to eat a little more than he thinks he needs.” Narsi tried not to let his pleasure in being capable of moving the Holy Father show. All too often people jumped to the wrong conclusions when they noticed Narsi’s resemblance to the priest. The last thing Narsi wanted was his affection to seem too familial and further burden Father Timeteo with another bout of cruel rumors of some illicit affair with Narsi’s mother.

“So how have you been?” Narsi asked Berto. He noted that his friend’s robe still bore the silver insignia of a scholar—not the violet of a priest—over the breast. He’d not yet taken the final holy vows of obedience and celibacy. “Is life as a scripture scholar and courtier in Cieloalta all you hoped?”

Berto laughed but his expression struck Narsi as bitter.

“I’ll tell you all while we ride.” Berto cast a wary glance back at one of the uniformed city guards, who slowly strolled from the shadow of the city gates towards the public fountain. The guard’s hand rested on his sword hilt and there was something about the man’s surly expression that reminded Narsi of a boy planning to kick a dog.

“Of late, the city guards have not been overly fond of men in priestly colors,” Berto murmured. “If relations between Prince Sevanyo and the Royal Bishop worsen we may well witness warfare in the streets. The bodies of two decapitated priests were found here at the south gate only a week past.”

Narsi glanced again to the city guard. He wore a captain’s epaulettes and glowered at the two of them as he stalked nearer. Narsi and Berto quickly mounted their horses.

Berto led the way down a narrow lane, refreshingly free of cattle, geese and swine. As they rode between carriages and oxcarts, Narsi asked about the degrading relations between Prince Sevanyo and his brother the Roayl Bishop but Berto just shook his head and refused to be drawn out on the subject. Instead, he entertained Narsi with descriptions of the exotic, odd and amusing occurrences in his life since he’d followed Father Timeteo to the Duke of Rauma’s palatial residence.

“I’ve actually met the duke several times now, though the first encounter embarrassed me to the core. I somehow mistook him for one of those good-looking grooms that are so fashionable just now,” Berto said, grimacing. “I handed him my horse’s reins. And then he humored me by actually accepted them! It wasn’t until I decided to tip him for seeming so attentive to my mare that he explained that he didn’t need my pennies as he owned all of Rauma.”

“I have heard that Lord Quemanor is quite strange in his own way,” Narsi commented.

“In many ways,” Berto responded. “But he and his wife have been very welcoming to Father Timeteo and myself.” Berto told him how he’d become acquainted with the duke’s ivory-skinned wife and her Yuanese parrot after driving off a mangy black cat.

“The bird’s wings are clipped so it doesn’t fly well. But just sitting on its perch the parrot makes a magnificent sight. Its plumes are gold and sapphire blue and it calls out a blessing for the king of Cadeleonian every time the noon bells ring. Such a strange creature though I daresay not the rarest to attend the court recently.” Berto smiled at some private joke. Then he went on to describe his single sighting of Count Radulf’s flame-haired sister, who had sailed from the wilds of northern Labara apparently just to horrify the Cadeleonian court with her casual references to her brother’s taste in men and her own prowess as a witch.

Even in the Haldiim district of Anacleto, people rarely spoke so blatantly of attractions or practices that transgressed Cadeleonian holy law—certainly never to Cadeleonians.

“Did the royal bishop have her arrested?” Having just read Lord Vediya’s scandalous memoir recounting his time in Count Radulf’s court, Narsi felt an odd attachment to the count’s young sister. Lord Vediya had brought her to life as proud, vulnerable, and so relentlessly loyal to her brother that Narsi couldn’t help but think protectively of her.

“He’s decried her as a heretic and has dispatched his varlets to throttle her,” Berto replied casually and Narsi supposed it showed how common noble machinations were here in the royal city that the plotted murder of a nineteen-year-old girl didn’t alarm his friend. “But Prince Sevanyo’s fourth son in rumored to have been enchanted—perhaps literally— by the girl and sheltered her from his uncle’s assassins.”

“The royal bishop can’t really be so rash as to order the murder of Count Radulf’s sister, can he?”  Only six years ago Count Radulf had singlehandedly defeated the Mirogoth Witch Queens who had previously fought the entire Cadeleonian army to a standstill. Murdering the man’s little sister seemed a quick route to plunging all Cadeleon into a war they might not win.

“Who truly knows?” Berto shrugged. “Courtiers’ gossip is half exaggeration and half lies. Most of mine is second hand on top of that so for all I really know the royal bishop is up in his chapel tower furiously penning love poems to Hylanya Radulf.”

 Narsi laughed and relaxed. Berto continued to regale him with gossip he’d gleaned from a variety of chatty ladies maids. Narsi enjoyed the stories but didn’t take any of them too seriously now. While Berto recounted the escapades of nobles, Narsi observed the city around him.

The blue facades of the houses and businesses lining the street cast long cool shadows and on the walkways, modestly dressed Cadeleonians greeted one another and conversed. Narsi hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the noise of a city until now. The clatter of carriages and wagons, someone practicing scales on a lute, and countless voices raised in conversation. It soothed Narsi with a feeling of surrounding safety and civilization. Even the sharp tang of urine, sweat, and smoke offered him a sense of familiarity. He was no longer alone in a wilderness.

But even as he took in the cacophony of busy life around him, he also noted how Cieloalta differed from his native Anacleto. Here he faced a uniformity of features, dress and language that would have been impossible to find in the port city. Here he didn’t catch a single word of Haldiim, Mirogoth, Yuaneses or even Labaran. He heard and saw only Cadeleonian. Even the scents drifting from taverns on the summer breeze struck him as odd—devoid of the pungent spices or choking pepper smoke that had so often assailed him in Anacleto. Where were the goat carts filled with vats of strange fermented pickles? Shouldn’t they have already passed several surly broadsheet sellers decrying each other’s publications?

By comparison the royal city struck Narsi as sedate and so perfectly composed that it might have been the world of a painting that he rode through.

But then he reminded himself that only a fool would expect every city he encountered to be the same as the one he’d just left. If that were the case what would be the point of traveling—aside from escaping ones creditors or relations? No, he chided himself, this wasn’t his home, but it was still a stunning, new destination. A city painted in all the blue shades of the sky and sea, and decorated everywhere with flourishes of gold. Even the cobblestones glinted with ochre and yellow flecks.

A woman with her hair tucked into a matronly snood dumped a pitcher of murky water from a second story window, while across the way a little girl gleefully tossed down marigold flowers. Narsi caught one and felt several others fall into the dark curls of his hair. The girl gave a startled squeal and then disappeared from the window.

“Already charming the ladies,” Berto commented dryly.

“It’s a wonder I’m still single,” Narsi replied as he shook several of the golden flowers out of his hair. Before Berto could comment on that, Narsi pressed on to another subject. “I had expected that you and Father Timeteo would have been received into the royal bishop’s retinue by now.”

“Oh, we were invited last fall. Bishop’s robes had already been cut, fitted and embroidered for Father Timeteo.” Berto glanced out to the shining gold spire of a distant towering steeple. He scowled. “But then at supper the royal bishop brought up the revival of Haldiim religious practices in Anacleto. I truly think he expected Father Timeteo to simply agree with his condemnations. Drag them all to the gallows, and such.”

“The royal bishop hadn’t encountered Father Timeteo before then had he?” Narsi met Berto’s gaze and they exchanged a smile of sad understanding.

Father Timeteo practiced brutal self-denial and was truly devout, but he also recognized miracles even when they occurred outside the consecrated halls of Cadeleonian chapels. He readily accepted Haldiim and Mirogoths into his household and collected holy texts regardless of their origins. He’d encouraged Narsi and all of the boys in his charge not to judge others too swiftly or harshly. And he’d even blessed Narsi’s decision to leave the chapel to study Haldiim medicine.

  In his own way Father Timeteo could be as much of a radical as his infamous younger brother, Elezar Grunito. Perhaps more so, since the Holy Father supported his assertions and arguments with scripture that not even the royal bishop could condemn.

“I suspect that the dinner was a test to see if the promise of a bishop’s title would bend Father Timeteo to the royal bishop’s will,” Berto replied. “Thankfully, the Duke of Rauma took us in the very next day.”

“And you immediately mistook him for a groom?” Narsi commented.

“Yes. You have no idea how mortified I felt.” Berto drew his mount to a halt at the top of a hill. He pointed beyond the surrounding squares of neat homes and boisterous businesses, past the two huge stone bridges to vast tracks of ornately planted grounds and what looked to Narsi like dozens of gilded palaces.

“There at the eastern point is the Sagrada Castle and north of it is the duke’s household where we’re bound.”

Narsi had memorized the map of the city that Father Timeteo had sent him two months previously without thinking too much about the difference between the neat little boxes that made up the properties south of the Peraloro River and those sprawling forms that filled the city’s northern grounds. Now looking out from these surroundings of modest houses and seeing acre after acre of rich grounds surrounding sprawling mansions he felt the rigid disparity between the common and noble of Cadeleonian society.

Then a flash from the wide green-gray river caught his attention and he was amazed all over again. There from the middle of the river rose the Shard of Heaven. Four furlongs wide and nearly as long, the bright blue stone rose high above the turbulent waters. Huge seams of shining gold flashed as the afternoon sun caught the angular facets of the stone. Truly it did look as though a piece of blue sky filled with rays of golden sun had fallen from the heavens and turned to stone.  

A bridge arched out from each riverbank as if to lash the Shard of Heaven down. The huge chapel squatting atop it would likely have looked resplendent anywhere else but compared to the effortless grandeur of the stone all those gilded buttresses, statues and spires struck Narsi as garish.

How rare and wise is that man who recognizes the divine without crushing it beneath pulpits and palisades.” Narsi felt that he understood what Lord Vediya had meant by those words now.

“Tell me, that you aren’t still quoting that poxed whoremonger, Atreau Vediya.” Berto cast him a disappointed glance.

“He’s Lord Vediya, to you,” Narsi corrected, though he felt absurdly pompous the moment the words were out of his mouth.

“Fourth son of a destitute baron and some Labaran trollop.” Berto rolled his eyes. “His nobility runs as deep as my foreskin. Even he doesn’t call himself anything but Atreau.”

Narsi resisted the urge to argue. All of his books were proudly attributed to Lord Atreau Inerio Vediya.

He and Berto agreed on most subjects but Lord Vediya was a glaring exception and had been since the night eleven years prior when they had met the man. Berto blamed Lord Vediya for the pregnancy and departure of a kitchen maid who had often secreted them sweets. Narsi wished that he could have assured Berto that Lord Vediya had not been with the maid that night, but to do so Narsi would have had to reveal how he knew.

That was too dangerous for both himself and Lord Vediya. So, Narsi kept the knowledge to himself along with his vivid memory of Lord Vediya’s warm lips brushing his own—the scent and taste of the other man melding into the swell of distant music and the deep shadows of the dark garden.

“You know that he was nearly exiled for publishing his latest obscene epic?” Berto asked but then he went on. “The bishop’s men-at-arms and the royal city guards joined forces for the first time in probably a generation just to scour the city for every copy of that filthy book and burn them all.”

Again Narsi decided to keep his mouth shut. It would only annoy Berto to know that an entire library of Lord Vediya’s works had been translated and published in the Haldiim district of Anacleto. A copy of the most recently banned tome lay snuggly packed in the top of one of Narsi’s saddlebags at this very moment. Five Hundred Nights in the Court of the Scarlet Wolf, like Lord Vediya’s previous book, In the Company of the Lord of the White Hell, recounted his part as well as the roles of his friends in historic plots and battles. The books were also famed for their detailed and rather extensive erotic passages.

Narsi adored them all the more for those, but wasn’t so foolish as to say so to Berto.

“Atreau keeps company with gamblers, degenerates and Salt Islanders,” Berto grumbled. “And he calls Father Timeteo ‘Tim’ and refuses to attend chapel regularly nor is he often sober when he does appear.”

“He’s still in attendance in the duke’s household then?” Narsi asked, as if he’d not known. As if that didn’t account for half of Narsi’s excitement at the prospect of living in Cieloalta.

“He’s laid claim to a suite of rooms if you can call that attendance.” Berto shook his head. “What good he does the duke I couldn’t say. He’s certainly perverted a number of the pages and servants. And on top of all that he actually gave one of his obscene books to Delfia—”

“Delfia?” Narsi broke in before Berto could work himself up into one of his all-day rants.

“Hadn’t I mentioned her?” Berto’s expression brightened all at once and his voice turned gentle. “She’s the sister of the dance and fencing instructor that the duchess brought to the household to tutor her young son. The instructor is plain as a clod of dirt but his sister …” Berto’s gaze drifted as he seemed to struggle to find a word that could sum up this Delfia. “Well, she’s not young but not too old. Not exactly a beauty. I mean not to just look at. But when she’s speaking and laughing and dancing she’s so alive and vibrant she just lights up a whole room… You’ll understand once you meet her.”

“I look forward to it,” Narsi said and not just to keep Berto from further detailing Lord Vediya’s vices and failings, but because he tended to enjoy the good-humored company of the sorts of women who attracted Berto.

They rode on, descending past the shops belonging to woodcarvers, carpenters and smiths of all kinds. Berto pointed out the craftsman who’d made his silver prayer beads and another who’d created Father Timeteo’s spectacles. Narsi noted the designs of holy gold stars painted over both doors. Other shops displayed the rampant royal stallion, but none bore both symbols together.

As they neared the river, a square opened before them where flower sellers displayed glass cases of exotic botanical specimens as well as pots of native herbs and flowers. A plump auctioneer stoked the crowd to bid wildly on potted saplings, bulbs and embroidered sachets of rare seeds. The perfume of dwarf roses mixed with the scent of the riverbank where fishmongers and barbers plied their trades along the Gado Bridge. Narsi scowled at the sight of a filthy, sweat-soaked man using a pair of ugly iron pliers to wrench a bad tooth from a whimpering young woman’s mouth. Narsi started to rein his mare to a halt to offer a few drops of duera to relieve the poor woman’s obvious agony, but Berto shook his head.

“Best not to come between a barber and his business with Haldiim ways on your very first day in the city,” Berto said. “Save your skill for people who will thank you for it.”

Narsi guessed that Berto knew best, still he couldn’t help but think that the physicians who’d mentored him would not have approved. He had to resist the urge to look back and see if the barber at least rinsed the woman’s mouth with distilled coinflower. Instead he focused on the ships passing below the bridge and the way the afternoon light seemed to gild every building and statue in the surrounding city.

  As they rode through the crowds Narsi stole a brief glance back at the south side of the city. Lord Vediya and his haunts lay somewhere to the east, past the maze of billowing laundry lines and behind boisterous opera houses. Streets there were not safe and by his lordships own account, pickpocketing and mugging was nearly as common as a friendly greeting in other quarters. And yet Narsi yearned to explore the narrow avenues, drink hot, acrid kaweh and once more find the languorous Lord Vediya awaiting him amidst indigo shadows.

“Hungry?” Berto asked. “You look glassy-eyed and half-absent.”

“Sorry,” Narsi replied quickly. “I’m distracted. Too many nights on the road. A meal does sound like a fine thing indeed.”

“Very soon,” Berto promised.

Narsi nodded and forced his attention back to the road ahead. He’d waited eleven years to find Lord Vediya again. Another day wouldn’t kill him. It just fleetingly felt as though it would.

Fine shops filled with rare goods populated the northern bank. Ladies in glossy open carriages passed them as did mounted men dressed in bright silks with liveried youths running along side their stately horses. Armed guards stood watch at gateways and glowered with what Narsi felt was a professional disdain as he and Berto passed.

Narsi’s stomach grumbled as the scent of roasting meat floated to him from behind a high, stone wall.

And still they rode on. Shadows lengthened and the pale crescent of the moon lit the darkening blue of the sky. A figure seemed to break from the cover of the imposing hedges of hawthorn, but when Narsi glanced after the motion he saw no one.

“Here at last,” Berto called his attention to a white pebble drive which lead to a massive black gate. Pots burgeoning with yellow roses lined the drive and perfumed the cool air. On their way up the drive, a courier wearing the royal colors raced passed them and out to the wide streets. Another rider trailed far behind them, looking dour in his orange velvet doublet. Perhaps he resented the heraldry of his ancestors burdening him with colors that lent him an unmistakable resemblance to a ripe pumpkin.

 The two men-at-arms standing guard before the broad archway leading into the courtyard wore gold and green liveries and held deadly looking pikes. But unlike so many others Narsi had seen they smiled as he and Berto drew near. One of the men looked a stout forty and wore a neatly cropped beard, the other seemed neared Narsi’s age of twenty-three and appeared nearly as broad as he was tall. Their high brows and long noses made Narsi think they were father and son.

“Returned home with your catch, have you?” the older of the two men addressed Berto. But he cast a curious glance to Narsi. “Looks a little scrawny.”

“All skin and bone,” Berto replied with a grin. “But when you need a physician you’ll be happy I didn’t throw him back, I promise.”

Oddly, both the guards appeared far more impressed at the mention of his profession than Narsi would have expected. The younger beamed at him as if Narsi had proffered him a chest of Kir-Zaki candies, while the elder of the two glanced at once to the silver signet on Narsi’s left hand.

Berto introduced the elder guard as Usto and the younger as Treses and then he made a sweeping gesture towards Narsi. “This is Narsi Lif-Tahm who studied alongside me under Father Timeteo until he was lured away to a hallowed school of medicine.”

Narsi appreciated how neatly Berto left all accusation out of the story.

“Have you brought many babes into the world, Master Lif-Tahm?” The older guard seemed at pains to pronounce Narsi’s Haldiim name correctly. Narsi decided not to jest and ask if the man was expecting.

“I’ve delivered ten children,” Narsi assured him and then added. “All of them and their mothers are well.”

At this the younger guard, Treses, grasped his hand and, to Narsi’s shock, kissed his physician’s ring. Berto and the older guard looked on with amused expressions.

“My wife, she’s nearing her time we think,” Treses said. “And the previous physician told us that he feared that she would not survive without treatments. But the duke dismissed him before he told us more. Since then we’ve not had another physician in the household for more than a day.”

Narsi had heard rumors of Fedeles Quemaonr’s immense distrust of physicians. People said that he often dismissed one from his service the moment he laid eyes upon him. Once he’d supposedly fired a man even sooner by sending a courier riding directly behind the courier that his wife had dispatched to offer the position. There were so many tales surrounding the duke that it was difficult to know which to believe but this one sounded as if it might be valid. He felt a little relieved that he would be in Father Timeteo’s service and not directly answerable to the duke. Other wise his stay at court might be quite short.

“Is your wife very ill?” Narsi asked. “Has she bled?”

“Not at all. She’s strong, my Lucia, and healthy as a summer rose,” Treses replied. “But the babe has grown and grown more. She fears that if it gets any larger she won’t be able to rise to pass water much less attend to her duties in the scullery.”

Narsi caught himself before he could show a troubled expression and cause the guards further anxiety. The description of relentless growth brought a tumor to mind more than a child but he certainly didn’t want to jump to a conclusion before even seeing the women. Perhaps she was simply much nearer to delivering that the family expected.

“How long has she been carrying the child,” Narsi asked. Hopefully he wouldn’t be assisting a delivery before supper.

“Six months, Lucia is certain.” Usto provided this. “She felt the babe quickening nearly two months ago.”

“It moves a great deal?” Narsi asked. That would certainly allow him to rule out a tumor.

“The babe kicks and rolls about so much that I’ve felt it,” Treses said proudly. “It’s lively as a puppy chasing its tail.”

Narsi nodded but still felt uneasy. Had the previous physician deemed Lucia’s prospective labor dangerous simply because of the size of the growing infant or was there something else? “Once I’ve unpacked and washed I could call on your wife, if you would like?”

“I work most of tonight and Lucia needs her sleep. Perhaps tomorrow morning?” Treses suggested.

“Certainly,” Narsi agreed. Clearly the young guard felt quite protective of his wife. Narsi didn’t hold it against him if he didn’t want her to be alone with a stranger, prodding and poking at her.

Beside him Berto grinned and Narsi realized that he’d been planning this encounter all the time that they’d been riding. It was so like Berto to become more attached to the maids, guardsmen and servants who made up a noble household than to the lords and ladies who sponsored him. Narsi adored that about him and felt hopeful that he too could befriend these people instead of feeling like a foreigner in their midst.

He and Berto both dismounted though Usto still had a few more words to share with Berto, mostly involving the royal courier who’d only just departed. Berto and the guards speculated that at last the royal bishop had decided to allow his father, the king, to pass into holy immortality and thus make way for Prince Sevanyo’s coronation. The importance of that just registered in Narsi’s mind when he glanced to the dark figure leading a grey horse out from the courtyard.

His heart instantly began to pound in his chest as he recognized Lord Vediya strolling towards them. He was not as Narsi remembered and yet Narsi knew him without a doubt even through the twilight gloaming and fluttering shadows of messenger doves winging back to their roosts.

He remained just as tall as Narsi remembered but over the years his slender body had filled into the solid bulk of a grown man. His pale skin had tanned and freckled, and his once soot-black long hair now appeared streaked as wood grain from sun and weather. His rumpled, loose clothes conveyed nonchalance bordering upon sloppiness, but his expression was bright and alert. He smiled as he drew near their party and Narsi couldn’t keep himself from smiling back, though no sign of recognition lit Lord Vediya’s countenance.  

Closer up, Narsi could see that a decade of travel, war, and debauchery had carved the lines of those experiences into the handsome planes of Lord Vediya’s face. He looked older than his thirty years. Wrinkles edged his eyes and mouth, but to Narsi they seemed to convey character. A deep crease clearly marked his habit of arching one brow, while another etched the curve of his crooked smile.

Berto glanced up just as Lord Vediya drew alongside them. His condemning glower provoked a lewd grin from Lord Vediya then he lazily traced the sign of the holy star over his silver belt buckle. Narsi didn’t laugh but Berto’s incensed expression didn’t make it easy. The two guards simply nodded to Lord Vediya, neither of them bothering to acknowledge his rank with even a half-bow. For his part Lord Vediya appeared utterly unconcerned with any of them.

He narrowed his eyes, focusing on something in the distance, or perhaps simply in contemplation of his evening’s journey. His hand gripped his mount’s rein. In a moment he’d ride away, just as he had eleven years earlier. And Narsi would be left behind because he lacked the courage to simply speak his mind.

Narsi’s pulse raced and his hands felt clammy. Berto was going to be so disappointed in him, but he had to act, had to say something.

“Lord Vediya,” Narsi called and to his relief the other man stopped.

Narsi quickly dug into his saddlebag and drew out the book he’d poured over throughout his travels. Flowing Haldiim script curled in an elegant arch over scarlet wolf’s head design stamped into the leather cover.

Narsi didn’t look to see Berto’s expression or those of the guards. He rushed five paces to Lord Vediya’s side and held out the book.

“I’ve been reading your memoir and very much enjoyed the writing—I felt almost as if I was there with you when the Demon Lord awoke. The way you captured the chill and darkness of the city as that gigantic, fiery serpent rose up over the rooftops—it was beautiful and terrible all at once…” Even as the breathless words rushed out of him, Narsi felt like an utter fool. He hadn’t sounded this flustered and ebullient as an awestruck twelve-year-old. “I was hoping that you would do me the honor of signing the book for me.”

He had no doubt that behind him Berto was rolling his eyes in embarrassment, but Lord Vediya took the book.

“I’d not seen the Haldiim translation yet. It looks beautifully made.” He studied the cover for a moment then glanced to Narsi. “Have you a graphite stylus?”

“Yes. Of course!” Narsi silently cursed himself for not thinking of that before requesting to have the book signed. He quickly rifled through his saddlebag for one of the soft silver-gray styluses. He felt incredibly aware of everyone—possibly even the horses—watching his search. The bags weren’t huge and yet if felt as if hours passed while he felt around medicinal jars and reams of notes and maps. He heard another rider approaching as he at last found the stubby little remnant of a stylus and returned with it to Lord Vediya’s side. Out of the corner of his eye Narsi recognized the orange velvet doublet of the man he’d dubbed the Dour Pumpkin. He appeared to be on his way towards them. Armor clattered as the guards behind them straightened, but Lord Vediya didn’t seem to notice the approaching rider or his roan stallion.

“You’re a physician I take it?” Lord Vediya asked Narsi.

“Yes. Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm,” Narsi supplied hoping that his name might rouse some memory for Lord Vediya. It did not seem to.

“Have you much experience treating men kicked by horses?” Lord Vediya asked.

“Some,” Narsi wondered if the lord had suffered such an injury. He appeared at ease in his motions. Before Narsi could inquire, the man in the orange doublet swung down from his stallion and drew his sword. Instinctively, Narsi stepped back. Lord Vediya remained where he stood, but let his horse’s reins fall from his hand. His gray stallion trotted ahead but only as far as display of yellow potted roses.

“Atreau, you filthy shit!” The man in orange strode past the potted flowers and gray stallion intent upon Lord Vediya. “You will return my fiancé at once or I will kill you right here!”

  Narsi glanced back at the guards as they started forward, but then Lord Vediya waved them back. He smiled crookedly at the furious man in orange. Narsi thought he heard Berto call him but he couldn’t just abandon Lord Vediya, not when he hadn’t even drawn his own sword. Instead he simply held Narsi’s book in one hand and shook his head at the man stalking up to him.

“Suelita is not yours, Ladislo,” Lord Vediya replied. “No more than she is mine to take or give.”

Ladislo responded with a sweep of his sword, which Lord Vediya eluded with a quick step. Narsi’s hand went instantly to his hunting knife. He would not simply stand by and see Lord Vediya murdered. To his shock he felt a hand grip his arm and jerk him back. He spun to see Berto holding him.

“This isn’t a matter you want to become entangled in, Narsi,” Berto whispered to him.

“He’s going to kill Lord Vediya!”

“Trust me that degenerate can look after himself—” The rest of Berto’s words broke off as Narsi elbowed him hard and jerked free of his hold.

As he did so, Lord Vediya let loose with a piercing whistle. Suddenly his stallion slammed one it its hind legs into Ladislo and sent him sprawling across the pebbled drive. Then Lord Vediya sprang forward and easily launched himself into his saddle. An instant later he and his stallion were gone from sight. For a moment Narsi simply stood feeling stunned and staring at the haze of dust that drifted over the drive in Lord Vediya’s absence. Then his attention snapped immediately to where Ladislo lay sprawled on the ground. Obviously Lord Vediya inquiring about his experience in tending horse kicks had not been mere chance.

Narsi stepped over Ladislo’s fallen sword and knelt down beside him. Ladislo swore and wept at the same time, his face flushed nearly as red as the bleeding scrapes along the side of his head. At least one of his ribs was likely broken, Narsi guessed.

“I’ll bring you duera for the pain and then we can get you inside and tend to your—”

“Burn in the Black Hell you Haldiim whore!” Ladislo lashed out to strike Narsi across the face. Narsi caught his hand and Ladislo screamed, “Don’t touch me, you heathen shit!”

Narsi released the man’s hand and stood. Cursing and spitting blood from his split lip, Ladislo staggered up to his feet and then stumbled to his horse. After two attempts he managed to climb into his saddle. Then he rode away, leaving his sword behind.

“I told you that Atreau could manage for himself,” Berto said.

“You knew he’d do that?” Narsi asked.

Berto looked annoyed but both the guardsmen laughed. Usto strode to them and took up the fallen sword.

“Young Lord Bayezar is far from the first man to assume Atreau Vediya can be so easily pinned down by waving a blade about,” Usto said. “But that was good of you coming to the aid of a fellow of our household, Master Lif-Tahm.”

Narsi nodded, still feeling a little stunned. He’d only been in Lord Vediya’s presence for minutes before the man had yet again ridden away. Belatedly Narsi realized that Lord Vediya had taken his book with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          

What's in the Bag for October?

I adore this month, not only are the leaves changing and the winter squash coloring up to ripeness but there's my favorite holiday--Halloween, when strangers open their doors to seeming monsters and share treats, sweetness and laughter with them.

This month I have extra reason to be excited. Not only am I going to be at Gaylaxicon but Swift and the Black Dog has come out as a stand alone publication and Maze-Born Trouble is now available for pre-order.

My cauldron runneth over!

Ride that dinosaur!

With Magic and Mayhem now released, the first of my weird west stories is out in the world and I hope it's finding readers to entertain and delight.

I really enjoyed making up an alternate old west full of magic, machinery and dinosaurs; the setting inspired three novellas:The Long Past, Get Lucky and The Hollow History of Professor Perfectus.

 And I'm happy to say that all three have now found publishers! (Contracts have been signed and edits are underway, so I'll have release dates very soon.) Secretly I'm just excited to see a cover illustration, depicting the world I've spent a year researching and writhing about.

Though maybe not the horror of a giant sauropod throwing up... at least not on the front cover.

Basawar Holiday

 

John bounded over a mossy boulder, sending florescent green dragonflies scattering into the reeds at the creek’s edge. The chorus of gold-speckled frogs mating among orchids and irises quieted for only a moment and then returned to the trills and croaks of their courting songs. Softer rumbles echoed through the low-hanging branches of yellow blossoms as a troop of blue tree kangaroos passed overhead.

John paused to watch a bright blue joey stuff its nose into a cluster of scarlet blossoms and then yelp as the flowers burst apart in a flurry of annoyed hummingbirds.

Very rarely did John remember, much less miss, his old digital camera, but just now he would have loved to take a picture to share with Kyle. The wide-eyed expression of amazement on that fuzzy blue face cracked him up. An instant later, the young kangaroo skittered back into its mother’s pouch. John resettled the weight of his pack and continued down toward the camp.

Minutes later, he reached the circle of tents that overlooked the beach where their ship lay anchored. Most of the crew had come ashore to restock their fresh water as well as take in the astounding bounty of these lush tropical islands. A few of the crew stood guard, with their rifles at the ready, though so far the largest predators discovered were sleek olive green weasels. None weighed more than twenty pounds, but they hunted in aggressive packs and were fearless about raiding food from unattended supply tents.

Today, however, the local weasel pack napped under a stand of tree ferns looking fat and sated from their previous night’s hunt. Two of the more boisterous juveniles wrestled in the dappled sunlight, tossing up tufts of curly moss, while the adults stretched and snored. Their ears pricked up as John passed, but they’d already grown comfortable enough to largely ignore his presence.

He left his pack and its treasure of soil samples and seeds in his tent. Then he picked up the cleanest of his shirts and made a quick run to a small waterfall that trickled down from a steep cliff into the clear blue waters of the bay. He stripped, rinsing the dirt and sweat from his body. The fresh water felt chilly after so many hours in the sun, but John took a delight in absurd shock.

Neither hungry bones nor prowling sharks had shaken him, and yet here he stood, shivering, in a stream of merely cool water. Ludicrous.

 Still, he made quick work of the wash and then clambered up onto the sun-baked surface of a limestone outcropping to dry and warm himself. He closed his eyes and stretched, feeling nearly as lazy and relaxed as the sated green weasels.

The cool whisper of the Gray Space opening didn’t alarm him. Though, he did casually pull his discarded trousers over his naked crotch—just on the off chance that it was Pesha and not Kyle stepping out onto the stone beside him.

“Such modesty on my account,” Kyle remarked with a laugh. “Or are you defending your virtue?”

John looked up at Kyle’s striking figure. The long, tightly tailored coats and trousers now fashionable in Nurjima displayed his lean body handsomely. The scarf wrapped around his neck looked nearly as white as the snow that sprinkled his dark hair and scarlet coat.

“It’s snowing in Nurjima already?” John asked.

Kyle nodded and knelt down beside him.

“It’s the twenty-fifth day of the Snow Month.” Kyle set down a heavy leather satchel and then tossed aside his scarf, coat, and brocade vest. “Not that anyone would believe it here in the tropics.”

They did tend to lose track of days while exploring the islands. There was just so much to see—not just wilderness but ruins as well—and the shift of equatorial seasons seemed so subtle compared to the hot summers and cold winters of the north.

“Did you even notice how long I was gone?” Kyle asked.

“Ten days. You know for a fact that I was counting every one of them.” John sat up and caught Kyle’s hands. 

He stripped Kyle’s leather gloves off—the sight of the bare bone of his ring finger still arrested John but no longer shocked him—and he laid Kyle’s chilled palms across his own hot chest. “Tell me you don’t have to go back.”

Kyle caressed John but then drew away to pull his padded glove back on over his left hand. There were too many people wandering the beach and cliffs for Kyle to feel comfortable being so exposed. John understood that and so let it go. It was enough that Kyle knew that he wasn’t repulsed.

 “Saimura’s decided to go ahead and share some of Ji’s spells with the Domu’lam, so I don’t think they’ll need me back for negotiations. Oh, and Hann’yu invited us both to attend the wedding of his youngest daughter this coming fall. Nothing more pressing than that, so it seems that I’ll get to sail back with you.” 

“You look tired.”

Kyle shrugged and then pushed his battered satchel up against John’s naked thigh. The chill of the Gray Space still clung to the leather and the silver clasps felt almost frozen as John worked them open.

John lifted out an ancient tome and recognized it as the book he’d asked Kyle to translate for him what seemed like ages ago. A red ribbon bound it up like a gift, and as John turned it over, he noticed a piece of thick paper folded like a card and slipped under the ribbon.

“I know it took me long enough, but it’s done at last,” Kyle said.

John took the card and opened it. He recognized Kyle’s handwriting at once, though he almost never saw Nayeshi script anymore.

John, Happy Christmas.

And suddenly he remembered that he’d seen these exact words, in this exact script, once before but long, long ago.

##

At sixteen John already stood four inches taller than his father and could look both his older brothers directly in the eyes—not that he often did. He tended to keep his head down and his awkwardly knobby body slouched beneath shapeless layers of sweatshirts and coats.

But tonight he scratched at the tight, starched collar of the white dress shirt and scowled down at his black tie. Frost covered the surface of his window, but he continued to lean out into the cold December air. Snow blanketed the surrounding houses and drifted down from the dark sky. After a moment, he worked the tie off and considered throwing it out the second story window into the wild wind. His mother would be disappointed, he knew. He tossed the tie back onto his desk, then continued to gaze out at flakes of snow whirling haplessly on the twisting wind.

He’d done his best to look grateful when he’d unwrapped the gift box and seen that his mother had purchased yet another cheap shirt and tie set for his Christmas present. Between the poor fit of the shirt, his ugly buzz cut, and hand-me-down slacks, John felt certain he exuded all the sex appeal of a missionary with head lice.

Not that he wanted to be sexy, exactly, but it would have been nice if just once David Lewis—who had kissed him in third grade—even noticed him as they passed in the hall. Though, it would have been even nicer if Andrew Salazar didn’t notice him. 

John had already been suspended for fighting with Andrew before the Christmas break. His black eye matched the tie his mother had given him, though, given time, the bruises would fade. 

And John supposed he could take consolation in the fact that Andrew was probably having a worse holiday than him. After all, Andrew wasn’t going to get his teeth back.

John sighed. He was just feeling lonely and sorry for himself when really he knew he was lucky to have a family who gave him gifts—even if they didn’t suit him.

They meant well. Even now he remembered his pale, willowy mother’s hopeful expression.

“You’ll look so nice at Midnight Mass,” she’d assured him, though she’d frowned when her gaze had settled on his left eye. His father, seated in his favorite chair like a crew-cut Conan on his throne while the rest of them gathered around the tree, gave a derisive snort.

“Dress him up all you like, Anna, he still looks like a hoodlum with that face. Mark my word, Father Castello will be watching him like a hawk when the collection plate passes his way.” 

“Thanks, Mom.” John ignored his father and then picked up his other present.

It bore a tag claiming that it came from his father, but John knew that their mother did most of the holiday shopping. He also knew that the box wasn’t going to contain either of the items on his wish list. He felt like a spoiled brat for the disappointment that filled him even before he tore into the candy cane wrapping paper. He opened the box and then just stared at the glossy black leather of the Mizuno Global Elite baseball glove inside.

“You didn’t actually buy him those stupid books, did you?” His sister Mary craned her head to peer at him from the other side of the flocked and blinking tree. She, like John and Luke, strongly resembled their father. Neither her pink lipstick, fuzzy sweater, nor her long blond curls quite softened the masculine quality of her big-boned frame and angular face.     

“Don’t be silly,” their mother replied with a smile. She winked at John as if the botanical books he’d requested had been some kind of practical joke. “Father got you all something fun.”

“So what’d you get?” This time the question had come from his eldest brother, Luke, who was in his second year of college and just daring to wear his hair a little long. Their father had teased him about turning into a ‘damn hippie’, but John thought the look suited him. Paul, the baby of the family, now gazed thoughtfully at Luke’s hair while mouthing the caboose of his new toy train.    

Mark, who was only two years older than John, simply grabbed the box from his hands.

“Holy—” Mark just caught himself before he’d uttered an obscenity in front of their parents. He pulled the baseball glove out and then craned his head back to their father. “What did John do to deserve something like this?”

“It’s just a baseball glove.” Mary and their mother had exchanged a dismayed glance.

“This is a Mizuno. It’s the glove Ichiro uses!” Mark announced. “They cost, like, three hundred bucks or more.”

The room went very quiet. From the radio in the kitchen, Bing Crosby assured them that they were walking in a winter wonderland.

“Three hundred dollars?” John’s mother stared at her husband as if he’d gone out of his mind and John shared her sentiment. 

He played baseball, but not with any great talent or real enthusiasm. Unlike both of his older brothers, he wasn’t going to win any sports scholarships. His real passion lay in the sciences, botany in particular. Though his father didn’t seem quite able to remember that, no matter how often John, or his science instructors, mentioned it. It was almost as if his father couldn’t accept John loving something he didn’t understand.

John frowned down at his empty hands. If choosing botany over baseball was too much for the old man, John felt certain that he’d go apeshit if he ever discovered how far John had strayed in his other preferences. 

“Keep your panties on, Anna. I didn’t pay three hundred bucks. I bought it off of Lester after he got back from duty in Japan.” John’s father turned his cold gaze onto Mark. “Give your brother his gift back.”

“Yes, sir,” Mark replied automatically and then he hurled the glove. John caught it hard against his chest.

Great, now he and Mark had something new to fight over.

Fortunately, their father had picked up two Mizunos, and upon discovering his own, Mark’s resentment dissipated. The rest of the Christmas Eve gift exchange passed without incident. Luke graciously accepted his shirt and tie set as well as a pair of high-end cleats. Mary smiled grimly at the relationship book that their mother had picked out for her but seemed genuinely delighted when she saw that John had bought her the Natalie Grant album she’d recently added to her extensive Christian music wish list. 

Though he wanted to kick himself when he realized that now they were all going to have to listen to it. Even their mother, who never missed a Sunday service, looked less than thrilled as yet another insipid song of faith filled the tidy living room. After the CD ended, their mother turned the radio back on, renewing the tinny soundtrack of Christmas classics.

Everyone but Paul and Father helped in the kitchen. It was Father’s prerogative to relax with a tumbler of scotch whiskey in the living room while Paul lay at his feet, shepherding his train between his father’s polished shoes.  In the kitchen, Luke served as their mother’s human mixer, whipping and stirring anything handed to him, while Mary took full charge of recreating their great-grandmother’s traditional whiskey cake from the recipe that their mother had entrusted to her just this year.

“When you boys get married,” their mother said, “I’ll teach your wives my granny’s secret.”

“Bad luck, John,” Mark commented.

Luke reached out and offhandedly smacked the back of Mark’s head.

“What’d I do?” Mark demanded.

“I don’t know,” Luke replied. “Failed to evolve, maybe?”

John snickered over his heap of potato peels and Mark rolled his eyes.

“Nobody evolved,” Mary announced as she very carefully measured out cups of flour and raisins. “Evolution is a lie that atheists have used to weaken the faith.”

“Whoa, who failed biology?” Mark responded.

“Evolution is not a lie,” John stated. 

At the same moment Luke asked, “Have you lost your mind, Mary?”

It was a rare occasion when Luke, Mark, and John all agreed, but their mother obviously didn’t appreciate that their consensus was against their sister.

“Don’t you boys bully Mary. She has every right to hold her own opinions.”

“But evolution isn’t a matter of mere opinion—” John began.

“John.” His mother eyed him sternly. “We’re not going to spend Christmas arguing.  Leave your sister alone.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mary stuck her tongue out at John over their mother’s shoulder, but John let it go. He bowed his head and kept his mouth shut. 

Once his uncles and aunts and cousins began pouring into the house, John went largely unnoticed. He became just one among the jumble of lanky blond boys and girls filling the seats at the dinner table and then later filling the church pew. After Midnight Mass, he slunk up to his attic bedroom and leaned out the small window to stare at the deadening uniformity of all the snow-cloaked houses surrounding theirs.

He wasn’t like the rest of them. And it wouldn’t have mattered so much, if he could have believed that his family could value his difference—or at least tolerate it. But where he’d gone ahead and bought his sister the album she’d wanted, despite the fact that he despised it, no one in his family seemed to even believe that John valued the books he’d requested. Instead, they’d chosen gifts that suited the boy they wanted him to be, not who he was.

John reached out and caught a drifting snowflake in his hand. It gleamed in glow of his bedroom light and then melted against his palm. 

He felt suddenly petty for sulking about a few presents. He didn’t get what he wanted. It wasn’t the end of the world.

An icy chill seemed to whisper across John. His father would hit the roof if he knew John had the window open in the middle of December. John drew back from the sill and pulled the window closed.

Unbuttoning his dress shirt, he turned, and for the first time, noticed a tattered brown paper package laying on his desk beside his discarded black tie. The paper felt surprisingly cold as John picked it up and opened the folded card. It took him a moment to read the oddly angular script.

John, Happy Christmas.

He tore open the brown paper and found a battered copy of Botanical Morphology inside. He lifted the heavy volume to his chest, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. He had no idea who’d left the gift up in his room, but he felt utterly indebted and thankful. Not just for the book, but because someone—maybe a cousin, uncle, or aunt—valued his oddness enough to track the old book down and give it to him.

It had been very little and yet that one gift had inspired John with a kind of hope. Someday, somewhere, he would find people who would know him and value him.

##

Now, basking in the tropical sun of another world, John caught Kyle in his arms and pulled him into a deep kiss. Kyle’s cool hands stroked John’s sun-baked bare skin. He returned John’s kiss with hunger and smiled when they briefly broke apart.

“Thank you,” John said.

“If I’d known it would make you this happy, I would have finished translating the dreary thing sooner.” Kyle’s playful smile broadened into a grin.

“Not just for the book,” John told him. “For everything.”

 

   

 

Jason's Sidecar

Jason’s Sidecar

by Ginn Hale

 

Jason frowned at himself in the mirror, yanking the uncomfortable noose of his tie in an attempt to get the thing straight. Somehow every adjustment he made only worsened the situation. Also it suddenly struck him that instead of recreating the stylishly ruffled look his hairdresser had managed with a single drop of gel, Jason had transformed the mop of his thick brown hair into something suggesting a bird’s nest in the aftermath of a hurricane.

And for that matter, did his black shoes really go with the russet suit he’d chosen?

His cat, Princess sauntered over, swiping her long red body across his pant legs and depositing a fine coat of shed hair before bounding up to her regular bird-watching perch on his widow sill. Jason wasn’t certain if she was having fun at his expense or was just trying to be encouraging in her own way. Meeting her approving gaze he decided to believe the latter.

“Thanks,” Jason told her. “It does add a dash of color and domesticity to the look.”

He heard Henry’s soft laughter from behind him.  

Then he caught sight of Henry’s reflection in the mirror and felt his hand clench harder on his already mangled tie. He’d always found Henry striking, but washed, shaved and dressed in a sharp suit he looked like another man altogether—like one of those polished, assured heroes from a spy film—tall, tan and rugged in a way that made Jason’s mouth go dry.

How could he go from a scruffy Philip Marlowe to a blond James Bond in twenty minutes?

“Are you trying to strangle yourself to get out of this?” Henry asked as he met his gaze in the mirror. “Because we could save your life and just cancel—”

“No. I want to go,” Jason assured him. And he did, but there was just so much uncertainty in meeting these people who he wanted so badly to like him. “I just can’t get this tie—”

“Well, the first step would be to stop choking yourself with it. Here, let me.” Henry pulled the length of gold silk from Jason’s hands.

“Windsor or Pratt?” Henry asked and for a moment Jason thought he was speaking in another language, but then he remembered all those diagrams he’d been studying online.

“I was trying for a full Windsor.”

“The knot of kings, huh?” With the nonchalance of decades of practice Henry effortlessly retied the Windsor knot and then straightened the collar of Jason’s shirt. There was something so comforting about meeting Henry’s eyes—seeing the affection in his gaze—and feeling his large, sure hands brushing so gently over the tender skin of his throat and then briefly caressing the short hair at the back of his neck.

“Nervous?” Henry asked.

“Yeah,” Jason admitted at last. “A little.”

“Look, you know that you don’t have to introduce me to them.” Henry said. “I’m not going to be offended if you go solo—”

“No, that’s exactly what I don’t want,” Jason said quickly. “The last thing I need is to be all alone with them. I barely know most of their names. The only one I’ve ever met in person is Bubbie Tillie, and that was one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had.”

Jason had been so excited, after months and months of searching to at last locate on of his father’s a living relatives. At the time he hadn’t thought that there might have been a reason his grandmother hadn’t been involved in his childhood. Nor had he considered how having him standing in front of her might remind her of how badly she and her son had parted ways and how brutally he’d been murdered ten years later.

Still she’d been kind enough to invite him to join the family’s Hanukah gathering. And when he’d risen from her kitchen table, and thanked her for the tea, she’d stood as well and then hesitantly reached out and hugged him to her frail body. Jason had returned her embrace gingerly as if she were a fragile piece of bone china, rather than a living person. 

Even now, he experienced a twinge of guilt, remembering his thoughts. Because he knew he was comparing her unfairly to an ideal grandmother—some woman who probably never existed outside of commercials for cookie dough and schmaltzy holiday films but who had come to represent his only knowledge of what extended family meant.

Or maybe he was thinking of Gunther’s mother, Mrs. Heartman, who, despite her terrifying appearance had clasped him to her bony breast like a beloved teddy bear and almost spun him off his feet when she’d welcomed him and Henry to their Summer Solstice celebration.

“Henry’s said so much about you,” Mrs. Heartman had told him and then laughed, the blood red slits of her eyes crinkling into crescents. “Your really gave those Sidhe royalists a well needed kick in the teeth, didn’t you?”

After that it had been easy to mingle and joke with the odd and alien beings who attended the gathering. Gunther and Keith had flown back from DC for the occasion and Jason spent some time chatting with Gunther’s tattooed, surly lover. Jason found him charming in the way he spoke so off handedly of Gunther, while watching his back like a love-struck teenager. Jason almost thought he could see little white hearts puffing off of the man and drifting after Gunther, but then he’d realized it was just steam rising from the vegetable grill that the Keith worked over.

  After the night of barbeque, fireworks and many cups of goblin cider had ended, Mr. and Mrs. Heartman had told Jason that he was welcome in their home. Bleary and tired as he’d been, he’d felt so thankful for their acceptance that it embarrassed him.

When he’d met his biological mother for the first time she’d looked at him with the perfect calm of beautifully carved marble and informed him that she would have devoured him at birth if she’d had her way. His biological father had murdered and tortured countless men and women in his quest to capture and gut Jason. He’d died trying. No love lost there. 

But Bubbie Tillie’s estranged son—Levi—had raised Jason and showered him with the wit and affection that he’d needed to survive later foster homes and psychiatric hospitals.

Jason didn’t know if he was just deluding himself, but it felt important to him to reach out to his father’s relations, to try to find what he could of a family. At least that had been his thought when he’d hired the detective who had eventually tracked the Shamir clan down in Los Angeles. But now the reality of this gathering began to terrify him. They didn’t know him—they probably didn’t want to know him. Fear of rejection welled up in Jason, feeling as inescapable as the sorcerous Stone of Fal, buried in his bones.

 They’re going to hate me.

Henry studied him, his blue eyes shining like gas flames.

“You’re gonna be fine,” Henry said. Jason couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “And I won’t be offended if you want this just to be you and your family—”

“No! I can’t—I really want you there with me.”    

“Sure but aren’t the new relations going to find it a little…queer?” Henry raised his blond brows.

“No... I mean, I don’t think so. Bubbie Tillie said that it would be fine if I brought along a friend.” Jason scowled at himself in the mirror. “Do you mind?”

“Always happy to oblige,” Henry replied and they both knew that he was humoring Jason.

“Thank you,” Jason told him. “I really wouldn’t have asked except that you always seem to know how to be yourself and still talk to normal people. And I… I really don’t.”

“Okay, okay I’ll be your conversational wingman. But honestly, Jason, you’ll do fine. You’re smart, good looking, and rich, who wouldn’t want you for a relation?”

“My birth parents come springing to mind, just off the bat—”

Henry grabbed him and shut him up with a hard, insistent kiss. The earthy taste and rough feel of him made Jason’s mouth almost water from wanting more of him. He invaded and invited Jason’s excited responses with confidence. Jason ran his hands over Henry’s solid body instinctively searching for the heat of his naked skin.  He found the buckle of Henry’s belt.

But then Henry pulled back, looking flushed and breathless.

 “You’re not going anywhere tonight, if we keep this up.” Henry’s right hand still rested on Jason’s hip.

“You started it.”

“Yeah well…” Henry ran his scarred hand through his blonde hair disheveling a few very gold strands and then gave Jason a crooked smile. “It was supposed to be reassuring. Calm you down a little.”

“Seriously?” Jason laughed at the idea of that hot, demanding kiss calming anyone down.

Henry shrugged and Jason understood. He’d been willing to distract Jason, even take the blame for keeping him in bed the entire evening if that was what Jason really needed. And he might just need it—but not until after he’d faced what faint hope he had with the remains of his father’s family.  

Jason drew in a deep breath building a calming blue melody in his mind—the chill of ice and mint filled his lungs while a lattice of cerulean blue dew formed a radiant halo over his head—then he released both spell and breath to wash the tension and arousal from his flesh.

“Wow, minty fresh.” Henry gave a short laugh. “I guess that means we’re off to eat latkes, then.”

Jason nodded, snatched up his coat, then at the last minute decided to wear his glasses as well. The evening was already going to be awkward, the last thing he needed was to get caught gawking at some gape-faced vampire or shimmering fairy that happened to be strolling past Bubbie Tillie’s wide windows.

##

 What Jason hadn’t counted on was that the unearthly creature he needed to stop staring at would be at the dinner party, crouching on the cream carpet wearing only a rhinestone-studded collar and leash. The scrawny brownie sported a little crest of curling pink hair on the top of his head as well as matching nail polish on his fingers and toes.  Though by studying the creature directly through the enchanted lenses of his glasses Jason was able to see what everyone else in the room saw—a snaggletoothed, knee-high mutt that looked like a cross between a Chinese-crested Chihuahua and a battered brown shoe. It had been recently taken to a groomer—thus the dyed pink hair and painted nails. Even from across the room, and disguised by some spell Jason could see that the thing looked miserable.

According to Bubbie Tillie, the creature had been abandoned to the care of Jason’s pretty thirty-something cousin, Sarah, after its previous owner had died Jason had heard the story earlier but hadn’t really registered it amid the flurry of introductions to his aunt, uncles, their wives, his five cousins, their spouses and dates as well as a herd of nieces and nephews— every one of whom looked more comfortable in their upwardly-mobile ensembles than Jason felt with this designer tie around his neck.

They gathered in the spacious, ivory, gold and beige living room, while a maid prepared the dining room for their meal. An elegantly dressed brunette in her fifties, poured drinks and from her amused expression and eclectic offerings Jason guessed that she was bartending for the challenge of it more than anything else.

The Shamir clan made for a large and intimidating crowd, counting no less than four doctors—two of them surgeons—three lawyers, two nurses, an architect, a professor of theology and a psychiatrist among them. The men, all of them shorter than Jason and most older, affected hard, white smiles as they circled Jason and shook his hand with mechanically firm grips. 

Stealing a glance over his shoulder, Jason noted the touch of amusement in Henry’s expression as he, too, received their polished, professional greetings. Though most of them faltered slightly when they noted his missing finger. Jason overheard one of the lawyers inquire about the injury. Henry informed him gravely that he’d lost the digit in an egg-rolling accident.

Most of the women air kissed Jason’s cheeks, enveloping him in the alien scents of cosmetics and floral perfumes, and then exclaimed at how delighted they were that he’d gotten in touch with Bubbie Tillie after all this time. But it wasn’t delight that Jason read in their beautifully made-up faces; it was suspicion. He could see them searching his angular Sihde features and bronze skin for any resemblance of their own pale, soft, human heritage and finding none.

And he supposed they had every right to distrust a young man who appeared seemingly from nowhere, claiming to be a long-lost relation. In the month since he’d contacted Bubbie Tillie he had no doubt that several of her children had hired detectives of their own to have him and his claims investigated.

He wondered if they’d flipped through pictures of him with his arms wrapped around Henry, attempting to steal sly kisses. Did they already know he studied music at Berkley or that he often strolled the park in the company of a vivid red cat? Undoubtedly they’d uncovered records of his years bouncing between foster homes and psychiatric hospitals. With that many medical specialists in one family they would have the resources and connections to obtain his files, he had no doubt. Half of them probably thought he was crazy.

Or maybe worse.

 Tillie Shamir was not a poor woman, and playing a long lost grandson wasn’t unheard of as a con game.

It was with those thoughts rolling through his mind, as well as a feeling of sudden nostalgia as he took in the large menorah waiting on a console table next to the window, that Jason caught his cousin Sarah’s explanation for the plastic dog kennel that she lugged into the house.

“I couldn’t leave him alone. Last night I came home and he’d nearly chewed through the back door.” Sarah slid the kennel between to beige armchairs. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with him.”

“Just take it to the pound.” That response came from the eldest uncle, Dr. David Shamir, just before he turned to ask Henry if he attended Berkley along with Jason.

“Doubt they’d admit me,” Henry had responded with a grin and then added. “I work for NATO—mostly in the field but I’m on holiday right now.”

It turned out to be the doctor’s wife, Ellen, who enjoyed concocting cocktails.  She handed Henry something called a vesper and bestowed a sidecar upon Jason. He cradled his glass in his palm, too nervous to trust himself to drink. All around him pieces of conversation rose and fell. Investments advice, entertainment commentary, gripes and punch lines, washed over Jason, disjointed from their meaning and filling the air like the bright colors of birdcalls.

Two of Jason’s young nieces careened past the long ivory couch, the skirts of their pastel dresses trailing them like tracers, while a slightly older nephew played at chasing them. Jason preformed a series of dance steps to avoid both the girls and their giggling pursuer. He made his way between clots of his unfamiliar relatives to reach Bubbie Tillie.

She smiled a little warily—and he realized that she’d grown more uncertain of him since they’d last spoken. He presented her with the box of chocolates he’d spent the last three weeks securing. She glanced down at the gold box, with its frill of thick ribbon and the flowery foil tag designating the dark chocolate selection as pareve. She looked back up at Jason questioningly.

“These are my favorite, but how did you know?”

“I remembered dad buying them for my mom once and saying that you loved them,” Jason told her though he regretted it almost immediately. Bubbie Tillie’s smile dimmed with sorrow the moment he mentioned his father. From across the room he noticed his youngest aunt, the psychiatrist, scowl at him.

“Well, thank you,” Bubbie Tillie told him but then she turned away and set the box of chocolates on an end table beside one of her many decorative vases. A gaggle of her granddaughters bounced to her side asking if they could light the menorah this year and if there would be latkes at dinner and if her cook had made a special dessert for them. Bubbie Tillie instantly brightened as she took in the circle of noisy little girls. She said something that inspired gleeful cries from them but Jason didn’t catch her words.

His cousin Sarah’s exasperated conversation with her sister and their uncle David swelled through the room.

“I was in shock,” Sarah pushed a lock of her curly brown hair back from her round face. “What was I going to do?  There she was standing on my doorstep telling me that her mother had just been shot by a burglar and asking me if I could watch the dog for the night. Of course I said I would.”

“But it’s been three weeks now, right?” her sister commented—Jason thought her name was Abby. “And nobody’s come for it.”

Sarah shook her head,

“I went over but the old woman’s house is completely empty. No sign of her daughter or anyone anywhere.”        

  “So take the mutt to the pound,” Uncle David repeated. He accepted another drink from his wife.

“But it bites,” Sarah objected. “And it’s ugly and really, really old. They’ll just put it down.”

“That might be for the best,” Uncle David replied.

“Not if the owners come back and ask for it. What would I tell them?”

Jason’s vague interest in the conversation fell away as he noticed Henry beckoning to him. He crossed through the amiable chaos of myriad adult conversations and rambunctious children.

“You look…” Henry trailed off with a frown. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. I was just thinking of the last time I celebrated.”

“With your dad?” Henry asked.

Jason gazed at the menorah waiting there on the table and nodded. It was so much more ornate and elegant than the funky clay one that his father and he had made together, when Jason had been six. Jason’s mother had laughed at it but then agreed with Jason that what it really needed was blue glitter and a few dinosaur stickers.

The people gathered here would probably have been offended at the sight of the thing, but it had given Jason such joy and he’d always felt incredibly proud when he’d seen it shining in the window of their rundown apartment.

Horrifyingly Jason felt his chest tighten at the memory. He closed his eyes against their sudden sting. It wasn’t like him to get so choked up.

“Damn it, Jason—” Henry muttered under his breath.

Jason glanced back to him to see Henry’s troubled expression.

“I’m okay, really. It’s just, you know…” He forced a smile but couldn’t maintain it.

“Sure you are,” Henry replied quietly. He took the untouched drink from Jason’s hand and set it aside on a decorative table. “Orphans and family holidays mix about as nicely as bleach and ammonia.”

“What?” Jason glanced up in time to catch the concern in Henry’s expression.

“Tear gas,” Henry replied. “ Seriously. Do you need me to get you out of here?”

“No. I really am alright.” Just having the offer, strangely made Jason feel a little better. “But maybe you could put your arm around me.”

“With pleasure.” Henry caught Jason’s shoulder and pulled him closer.

Jason had suspected that many members of the family had been watching him surreptitiously. The wide variety of startled expressions that appeared all across the room as he leaned into Henry only confirmed as much.

Somehow remembering that crooked, homemade menorah and the joy it had brought him, freed Jason from caring so very much about the opinions of these strangers. He didn’t hate them—in fact he felt a genuine warmth for Bubbie Tillie and he suspected that if he got to know Sarah he might like her as well—but they were strangers and he wasn’t about to give their values more importance than his own happiness.

“So are you two—” Abby began, but just at that moment the dog burst free of its kennel. It dashed frantically around the room barking, while Sarah and several other family members attempted to catch it. The youngest children squealed or laughed as the small creature shot past. At last Sarah grasped hold of the dog’s trailing leash and animal came to a lurching halt.

It had been at that moment then, as Jason looked over the rims of his glasses that he caught sight of the gasping creature’s true form and realized that a naked brownie, with long drooping ears and fingers like spider legs, crouched on the carpet before them all. The polish coloring his fingernails and toenails looked weird against the knotted tough mahogany of his hands and feet. His pink hair hung in strings over his snouty face and obscured one gleaming black eye.  

“He keeps getting out of his kennel somehow.” Sarah gripped the pink leash so tightly that Jason could see her knuckles turning white.

“Where did you say you got him again?” Jason asked, and Henry gave him a quizzical look. Jason knew better than to simply blurt out the truth, not only would the Shamirs think that he needed to be shipped back to St.Mary’s for another round of electroshock therapy, but the Secrecy Act strictly forbid such revelations to the common public. He could get them all in trouble.

So, meeting Henry’s gaze meaningfully he simply said, “He is not a dog… from a breed I’ve ever seen before.”

Casually, Henry glanced down at his watch and Jason noted a flickering green number lighting up the point of the minute hand. Henry’s attention shifted immediately to the brownie. Jason wondered if he was silently trying to crack through the spell disguising the creature.

“No one knows what breed it is but it belonged to Sarahs’s old witch of a neighbor,” Abby announced. “She died and her daughter just left the thing with Sarah. What was their name again? Puce or something like that?”

“She wasn’t a witch. She was just cranky,” Sarah replied. “And her name was duPuce.”

“DuPuce…” Henry repeated then he looked to Sarah. “Mara duPuce?”

“Yeah…” Sarah blinked at Henry like he’d preformed a magic trick. “You know her?”

Henry nodded, but he appeared none too happy. Jason knew better than to ask why. More than likely this related to NIAD, which meant the woman—if she was a woman—had likely broken some law.

 “Well, great,” Uncle David snapped. “Maybe you two can take the mutt off Sarah’s hands. In the mean time can we please get him back in that crate.”

Uncle David’s wife took the empty glass from his hand. 

“I’m allergic.” She sounded almost apologetic. 

The brownie sighed heavily and, with an expression of profound melancholy, let flow a stream of bright yellow urine against the leg of Bubbie Tillie’s filigreed end table. 

“Oh for god’s sake!” Uncle David shouted, suddenly red-faced.

One of the younger boys laughed only to be swatted by his sister. Two of the girls howled in excited revulsion.

“Oh no! I am so sorry!” Sarah turned to Bubbie Tillie, pale with mortification. Bubbie Tillie simply shrugged.

“After five children, I promise you I’ve seen worse,” Bubbie Tillie assured her. “The maid will get it anyway.”

 Sarah beamed at her grandmother. But then the leash slipped from Sarah’s hand as the brownie made a break for the dining room doorway. It dodged between the family members, tearing across the carpet on its elongated fingers as much as its spindly legs. A cacophony of shouts came from the children but none of them carried over the boom of Henry’s voice.

“Stanley Longfinger!” Henry roared.

The brownie stopped suddenly and spun around to look at Henry… As did everyone else in the room.

“Stanley,” Henry said more softly and he knelt down onto one knee. “It’s Henry, remember? Come here and let me get you back home.”

The brownie stood motionless for a moment then with a weirdly distorted yip he raced to Henry, pressing himself up against his leg.

“You really do know him?” Sarah said.

“Yeah, well it’s a long, weird story,” Henry replied. “But Stanley’s real family have been looking for him for a while now.”

A silence fell over the room. For the first time Jason thought he could clearly hear Bubbie Tillie’s maid setting the places at the table in the dining room. None of the other Shamirs seemed to know quite what to do.  Henry crouched down and removed the leash from the collar, hanging around the brownie’s neck.

“You mean he didn’t belong to Mrs. duPuce?” Sarah asked at last.

“No,” Henry replied. “He was abducted along with some twenty others.”

“Really?” Abby asked.

Henry nodded.

“Okay, so you have to tell us…” Sarah rolled her hand.

Henry sighed and seemed to take measure of the people gathered around him then he glanced to Jason and smiled just a little.

 “A couple weeks ago duPuce got wind that the law was onto her. She and her partners ditched everything they could and made tracks for the border.” Very gently Henry patted the brownie’s bony shoulder.

“How do you know all this?” Uncle David demanded.

“Work. Mrs. duPuce has links to an international crime organization.”

“Of dognappers ?” Sarah asked.

“ Human traffickers. The Cruella stuff was just duPuce’s hobby,” Henry replied. “Anyway I can’t go into it in detail; a lot’s still under investigation.”

Again that confused silence filled the room. Jason had to suppress a laugh. These were definitely not people who lived among the surreal and strange.

 He could see that Uncle David wanted to object to Henry’s story, while Sarah and Abby obviously preferred to believe it to be in some way true. Degrees of excitement and skepticism showed on the faces of the adults and children alike. Though Bubbie Tillie seemed to be looking at the dog itself and Jason could see the gentleness and compassion in her expression. Then she glanced to Jason and their eyes met. She smiled at him and for the first time he recognized his father’s tender expression in her face. 

“Well, if you’ll all excuse me a minute,” Henry said. “I really ought to call this in and see if I can’t get Stanley back where he belongs. His family’s been pretty torn up since he went missing.”

Henry fished a sleek black NIAD phone from his pocket but then paused to assess Jason.

“I’ll be quick,” Henry assured him and Jason knew that he could have made an excuse and it he wished slipped away with Henry. But he realized that he wanted to see that big menorah all lit up and to share a dinner with these strangers, whom he might one day call his family.

“ I know. I’m good here,” Jason assured him.

Then with Stanley the brownie following on his heels Henry slipped outside into the balmy L.A. afternoon.

The moment the door fell closed behind him, Abby spun on Jason.

“Is he for real—”

“Are you and he dating?” Sarah demanded over her sister’s question.

“Yes,” Jason replied to both of them.

“That is so cool!” Sarah exclaimed and Abby too looked thrilled, though Jason wasn’t entirely sure if it was because they now had a gay cousin or because their gay cousin was dating some kind of animal-rescuing, secret agent.

“It does have its moments,” Jason responded.

He picked up his glass and finally tried the sidecar. It tasted of brandy and oranges.  He’d expected something much more dry and bitter, but now found this surprisingly sweet and warming.

Ring In the Northern New Year

 

Ring in the Northern New Year

By Ginn Hale

 

Music filled the air of the ballroom with tones as bright and rich as the perfume of beeswax and spiced wine. Guests, dressed in costly silks and furs, chatted, laughed, played cards and sipped drinks. But mostly they danced to rolling, sweet melodies.

Skellan watched couples swirling in circles beneath the gleaming of light of the gold candelabras and sighed. The joy in their expressions and enthusiasm of their motions lent even the most elderly and plainest of them a kind of grace. The beautiful amidst the gathering appeared almost luminous. His lanky sister, Hylanya, grinned in the arms of her favorite swordsman. Atreau Vediya led a pretty, love-struck woman in a lively promenade, while Kiram beamed in Javier’s embrace.

Skellan had enjoyed a number of dances himself already. He’d accompanied his sister and Cire across the inlayed dance floor twice each. Two charming young courtiers had made for pleasant partners as well but he’d not felt the thrilled delight that he recognized on the faces of so many of the people he saw around him. Of course, plenty of flushed glows arose from the wine as much as romance.

But Skellan had only to glance to Kiram and Javier and take in the way they seemed so enraptured with just each other–smiling those knowing smiles and hardly taking their eyes off one another—to feel certain that neither of them wanted to greet the New Year with anyone else. For them, no one else in the entire grand ballroom—or even the palace itself—mattered. They didn’t even have to know about the Labaran tradition: that those who greeted the New Year together would remain together.

Though clearly Cire had it in mind, from the way she lingered near Sheriff Hirbe at the card table. The sheriff appeared to share the idea and even lured Cire’s rat, Queenie, to him with a trail of nuts and seeds.

“So there’s joy awaiting the sunrise,” Skellan murmured to himself.  He slugged down another gulp of wine. The spices danced across his tongue. A year ago he could only have dreamed of swilling such costly grog. In fact a year ago he’d been dressed in rags, hungry and alone. Now he wore scarlet silk, supped on the finest meats and stood in a chamber sweltering with the heat of all his cheerful company. He’d been toasted and paid tribute in several absurdly heroic verses earlier in the evening. He could hardly move without guards flanking him and folk all around smiling at him.

Still, somehow, he felt unknown and alone. He knew that he had no right to—had no reason to—but the previous decade of isolation seemed to rise up like ghost, enfolding him in a melancholy chill.

The musicians struck up a new melody and someone at one of the dozen card tables let out a cheer of delight. New couples took to the dance floor and a few retired to the tables to drink, gamble, gossip and flirt.

Across the room, towering up from amidst a group of high-ranking military men, Elezar stood. He’d donned Skellan’s colors—scarlet and gold—and Skellan couldn’t keep himself from watching him. Even among his own broad-shouldered, straight-backed countrymen, Elezar presented a powerful figure. To Skellan’s eyes he was the most handsome man in the entire ballroom, regardless of his scarred hand and stern features.

From time to time he returned one of Skellan’s glances with a brief smile, but then his attention turned back to a trim Cadeleonian named Captain Mequero. The sea captain would be sailing the Duke of Rauma’s ship back to his home country with the new day’s tide. Captain Mequero possessed the lean, strong features that Skellan knew Elezar favored—he and the one-armed cavalry captain, Tialdo, both did. They made good company for Elezar as well, all three of them speaking low and intently as if choosing between the white and red wines required the organization of a scouting party and deadly political maneuvering to accomplish.

Skellan smiled at the thought and, catching Elezar’s eye once more, raised his glass to him. For a moment he thought he noticed color rise across Elezar’s tanned cheeks. Then Elezar and all the Cadeleonians surrounding him toasted Skellan in return. How like Cadeleonians to leave the words unspoken and rely on gestures alone.

In that case Skellan wondered what he should make of the small, ivory box that Elezar passed, so very carefully, to Captain Mequero. If he hadn’t been watching closely Skellan might have missed the captain’s momentary pause in accepting the carved box, as if Elezar offered him too precious a treasure. Beside them, Captain Tialdo’s smile slipped and his brow creased.

Skellan strained at every magical ward wafting on the air to catch Elezar’s response to Tialdo’s unspoken question.

“I’m certain,” Elezar said. Then to Skellan’s annoyance, their conversation turned to horses. Cadeleonians as a race were apparently bred and born with strong opinions concerning horseflesh—even life-long sailors. While one dance ended and another began the group debated and as far as Skellan could tell, no one among them altered the others’ preferences a bit.

Skellan downed the last of his wine and turned to one of the many arched windows lining the wall. Patterns of frost traced the glass with frigid beauty. In the night sky, flurries of snowflakes whirled on the hot breath of fiery torches, shining in the light and then burning to vapor. Skellan laid his hand against an icy pane. Somewhere far to the north and high in the mountains the great troll Master Bone-crusher sang a low, rumbling lullaby.  Skellan closed his eyes, feeling the faintest echoes of that distant melody as it drifted through the wards he’d hung across the earth and sky. The troll’s voice rumbled, deep and low, promising sweet dreams, just as he had years before.

But Bone-crusher protected other children now—orphaned trolls. Their voices rose to accompany Bone-crusher’s before they drifted to sleep. This song wasn’t meant for Skellan and he drew his hand back.  Droplets of melted frost fell from his fingertips like tears.

Skellan grimaced at his own maudlin turn of thought and absently wiped the condensation across the thigh of his silken breaches. If he was turning snuffly and morose over a damp window and the groaning wind then he’d either drunk too much wine or not enough. He wasn’t certain which.

“Something troubling out there?” Elezar’s voice sounded from just behind Skellan.

He whipped around and found his man contemplating him thoughtfully before turning his solemn gaze to the blustering snowstorm outside the window.

“Only the wind making merry, tossing snow about,” Skellan replied. “The weather will hold for your Captain Mequero’s departure.”

“He’s hardly mine,” Elezar replied. The idea seemed to amuse him and that alone brightened Skellan’s mood greatly.

“Well, that’s his loss then,” Skellan replied.

Elezar laughed softly at the suggestion but then fell quiet. Skellan eyed him. Elezar commanded as varied a range of silences as did his horse. He held himself with the confidence of a swordsman and yet Skellan recognized something like nervousness in his lowered gaze. He’d clearly crossed between courtiers and dancing couples to reach Skellan but couldn’t bring himself to say why.

A foolish hope fluttered through Skellan’s chest. He ignored the longing, knowing how uneasy Elezar still felt in displaying his affection publicly. With Cadeleonian captains looking on he’d be all the more on his guard against giving away anything he deemed a weakness. They might dance, but well after the new year began. Perhaps when they were alone in their shared bedchamber.

And yet he’d come to Skellan. That meant much. Even if they weren’t in each other’s arms, they could be together when the city bells rang out the first hour of the New Year. Skellan wondered if it would be too much to take Elezar’s hand in his own. He glanced down at Elezar’s long callused fingers.

“You’re not wearing your signet ring.” Skellan knew that Elezar sometimes removed the emblem of his noble rank during sword practice but at formal gatherings the red bull always gleamed on his right hand.

“No, I’m not.” Elezar replied. Though as far as advancing the conversation went, Skellan felt it wasn’t much better than saying nothing. Elezar ran his hand through his dark beard. If Skellan hadn’t known better he would have said Elezar was embarrassed.

“Did you lose it up a horse’s ass?” Skellan asked as quietly as he could.

“What? No! Where do you get these ideas?” Elezar shook his head and gave another soft laugh. “I gave my ring to Captain Mequero.”

 “Did you?” Skellan raised his brows. “That’s uncommon generosity.”

“Not like that.” Elezar’s lips curled into a wry smile. “You know, in Cadeleon we mark the first day of each New Year by swearing a resolution?”

Skellan hadn’t known, but he did now, so he nodded.

“After thinking on this a good while I’ve decided on mine.” The smile fell from Elezar’s expression and Skellan read a faint pain in his gaze. “I’ve realized that I needed to commit myself to my home.”

All at once Skellan felt afraid to hear anything more. He didn’t want to know what Elezar might have resolved to do and how it involved the ship that would be setting sail for Elezar’s homeland tomorrow. Skellan’s breath caught in his throat like splintered glass.

“I’m sending my signet back to my family,” Elezar spoke the words with a quiet intensity. “I’m relinquishing my claim to the Grunito earldom in favor of my brother, Nestor.”

The confession fell so far from what Skellan had expected that for a moment he couldn’t seem to grasp what Elezar meant. Then he realized.

“But your family—”

“My family will always be my family—for my part at least.” Elezar said. “But I’m not returning to Cadeleon. My home is here. With you.”

A grin that doubtless looked half-crazed broke across Skellan’s face. His blood felt as if it had gone from ice-cold to molten as dread burned away to radiant joy.

Outside, the first of twelve bells rang out and in the ballroom the musicians struck up the traditional Labaran New Year’s tune. Couples all through the chamber rushed to take the floor.

 “Will you dance with me?” Skellan asked. A second wave of bells rolled from the city’s towers.

Elezar’s lips parted but he said nothing.

Instead he simply took Skellan’s hand in his own and led him onto the dance floor. Bells rang, music rose and doubtless numerous onlookers murmured. But for Skellan, he and Elezar may as well have been alone, holding one another as the past fell away and the beginning of a new life arose in the grace of their shared embrace.                                                       

A Very White Hell Solstice

A Very White Hell Solstice, by Ginn Hale

 

Until he’d traveled far north into the Mirogoth wilderness Kiram hadn’t truly understood how profound and abiding the darkness of winter could be. Here the faint disk of the sun hardly rose above the horizon for a few hours before the biting cold of night closed in once more. The deep drifts of snow gleaming beneath the full moon seemed to radiate more light than the sky.

Kiram drew his reindeer cloak in close to his body and buried his mouth and nose in the musky folds of the ox wool scarf he’d bought from a lanky Irabiim mother two months prior.  Both the scarf and the heavy cap he wore pulled down over his ears had only cost him a set of carved, ivory buttons that he’d won from the woman’s son earlier in a dice game. Kiram suspected that the weathered old mother had made the trade less out of desire for the handful of buttons than out of pity for Kiram’s southern-bred sensitivity. While Javier hardly noticed heat or cold, Kiram had started shuddering and shivering soon after the autumn frosts appeared and long before their caravan reached the northernmost point of their winter travels.

Despite the cold, the Irabiim campfires numbered few and often seemed little more than beds of smoldering embers. These Mirogoth lands were not an Irabiim domain but belonged to the Grimma--powerful witch-queens whose minions hunted the fir forests in the guise of huge wolves, giant white bears and leopards with teeth like hunting knives. Not even a caravan of some thirty adults, traveling under the protection of two Bahiim invited attention by stoking great fires in this forest of twilight and darkness. In fact very few caravans traveled as deep into the Grimmas’ territories as this one Javier and he had joined.

“Which just goes to show that flipping a coin isn’t the best way to make a decision,” Kiram muttered to himself. Absently, he toyed with a bit of metal he’d managed to cast and polish into a small gold circle. If only Javier were here now to argue with him…

For just a moment fear seized Kiram as he allowed himself to admit that Javier had been away on the Old Road for far too long now. He should have returned weeks before the winter solstice, but now the shortest day broke, faint and pale but there was still no sign of Javier.

Kiram tried not to think on it and kept busy most of the morning trimming star tern plumes into writing quills. Between the heat of his hands and the ash coated embers of the fire he managed to thaw his ink well enough to even pen a few very rough letters on pieces of white birch bark--one to his mother and another to Nestor. Who knew when he’d ever have a chance to mail them, but it made him feel better just to image that he was in communication with friends and family.

 After that he repaired several harnesses as well as a few buckles for other members of the caravan. With access to a workshop or forge the small repairs would have been easy, but out in the snow and wilds, even simple work challenged Kiram to find novel ways to use the few resources and tools he possessed. He didn’t know if he would ever have stretched his imagination to such extremes had it not been for the necessities of a life lived in deprivation.

It frustrated him at times, but when he at last succeeded he always felt a rush of pride in his own ingenuity.

In the faint light of what passed for noonday, a particularly handsome young man named Mauz brought him a silver chain necklace with a bent clasp.

“You look so sorrowful,” Mauz commented. “Certainly my necklace isn’t too difficult for your great skill?”

The heavy-handed flattery brought a smile to Kiram’s face. Mauz was certainly handsome, his gold hair like Kiram’s own, slipped in wisps from beneath his hat and a lustrous sheen of perfumed oil lent a glow to his dark skin.

“No, your necklace is not about to break my heart.”

 “You still pine for your Bahiim lover?” Mauz shook his head with the same expression he’d worn when he’d seen Kiram toss a scrap of meat from his plate to the camp dog. “How heartless your Javier is, leaving you all alone so long. If he cared he would be at your side now warming your body with his own, not riding the Old Road in search of trouble.”

How many nights had Kiram thought the same thing? And yet he couldn’t help but defend Javier.

“That’s his holy calling. He wouldn’t make much of a Bahiim if all he did was heat up my cold nights.”

 Mauz cocked his head slightly. “But he’s been gone too long. Nakiesh and Liahn returned from hunting the Hill Ghost fifteen days ago.”

Kiram had no answer to that. Javier should have returned with the two Bahiim women and their huge flock of crows. But according to Nakiesh, he’d turned away from them in the demon-haunted darkness of the Old Road. They hadn’t known where he’d ridden but he’d seemed intent and they hadn’t thought it was their business to deter him.

“Perhaps he’s returned to his pampered Cadeleoninan life,” Mauz suggested “Maybe he’s enjoying some fat Cadeleonian boy tonight. You’d be in your rights to take another lover, particularly on the solstice.”

Kiram shook his head. He’d been willing to die for Javier—to abandon the sweetness, warmth, and wealth of his home for Javier—he wasn’t about to debase all of that for the fleeting comfort of just any warm body. 

 Kiram turned Mauz’s silver necklace over in his hands, admiring the delicate metalwork.  The nomadic Iarbiim weren’t likely to have smelted such pure silver, much less forged the flawless links of the braided chain. Native Mirogoths religiously eschewed both the fires and the mechanisms required for any such fine metalwork. They crafted most of their weapons and jewelry from stones, antlers, and bones.

“Is this lovely workmanship. Is it Labaran or Cadeleoninan, do you know?” Kiram asked.

“Cadeleonian but from Labara. Two years ago in Milmuraille I met a merchant and taught him to play my flute. He paid me well for it.” Mauz winked and Kiram laughed at the crude innuendo.

Though he had no doubt that a Cadeleonian man who found himself attracted to other men would have paid handsomely for the pleasure of Mauz’s body. Kiram could help but wonder if he was supposed to take the silverwork as a testament to Mauz’s skill as a lover or his going rate. 

“Has your Javier given you as pretty a gift?” Mauz asked.

Again Kiram laughed. As tall, weathered and tanned as he was, Mauz gave himself away as his mother’s favorite indulged son with a question like that. Kiram worked the clasp back into shape and then cleaned it with a rag and a few drops of oil.

“Javier saved my life. But I can’t say how pretty a gift you would think that was,” Kiram spoke jokingly so he was a little surprised to see Mauz’s face flush.

“I think you are beautiful,” Mauz said. “Obviously, you are the most handsome man here. Why else would I want to fuck you so much?”

Kiram felt his cheeks warming. He’d forgotten how blunt the Irabiim could be.

“If he doesn’t return to you tonight what will you do?” Mauz asked.

“I’ll keep waiting for him,” Kiram replied. “I’ll wait here until he comes.”

“But the caravan will leave in the morning. You can’t mean to remain here! Alone?” Mauz scowled at Kiram with an expression that was as much disbelief as outrage. “You’ll die. If you aren’t devoured by a troll or killed by a shape-changer then the cold alone will take you… That’s madness. How can a pallid Cadeleonian matter so much to you? ”

Kiram didn’t expect Mauz to understand. Two years ago he wouldn’t have understood such a decision himself. But this was where Javier had promised to return to him and so this was where he would wait. As much as he feared lingering in a valley filled with trolls and prowling hunters, he hated the idea of simply abandoning Javier more.

“When I say he saved my life, what do you imagine I mean?” Kiram asked.

Mauz said nothing but kicked at the snow.

“Here.” Kiram handed Mauz his necklace. “The clasp should lock closed now.”

Mauz took the silver chain and sighed. “You aren’t going to let me win you over, are you?”

“It isn’t that you aren’t beautiful or tempting, Mauz, but I gave my heart and my word to Javier. And I wouldn’t be a man worthy of your attention or time if I was willing to break both those simply because I felt lonely and cold.” As he spoke Kiram felt older and perhaps wiser, but Mauz simply regarded him with the vexed expression of a camp dog denied a bone.

Kiram stood and stretched in the faint heat of a shaft of afternoon sunlight. A group of crows briefly called out in alarm as a huge eagle passed overhead, but then quieted as the eagle was lost in the distance.

Mauz remained where he was, standing too near Kiram and looking flushed and uncertain. Clearly, he wasn’t the type to take a refusal at it’s face value and who knew what strange idea he’d dreamed up about the two of them becoming lovers?

So Kiram dropped back down to his makeshift seat of bent fir and tried another tactic.

 “Alright Mauz I’ll be honest with you.  I come from a very honorable and wealthy Haldiim family and I find it beneath me to simply accept a lover who hasn’t really put out all that much effort.” Kiram wiped the oil from his smallest set of pliers before returning them to his leather tinker’s apron. “ It took Javier months to win even a single kiss from me. Do you really believe I’ll go with you after only two weeks?”

“Months?” Mauz repeated.

Kiram had to fight not to laugh at his horrified expression.

“He offered me jewels and horses and the finest silks,” Kiram went on, though he had to bow his head over his kit of tinkers’ tools not to crack a smile. “I only relented after he mastered a shajdi and was able to bathe me in its glorious light.  So really, what are you promising me here?”

“I… You can’t be serious.”

“I assure you that I am. Ask Nakiesh if you don’t believe me. I don’t give the pleasure of my body to just anyone. I would expect that you at least open a shajdi for me.”

Mauz gaped at him dumbfounded. Kiram managed to maintain a serious expression for several moments before he cracked a smile.

“You bastard! You’re toying with me!” Mauz snapped.

“Yes, yes. I’m a monster,” Kiram said, laughing. “But truthfully you’d be wiser to pay a little more attention to Aaqil.”

At this, Mauz scowled. “His mother hardly lets me near him. You’d think I was a wolf from the way she watches me.”

“Solstice is a long, dark night and mothers have to sleep sometime,” Kiram replied.

“And here I thought you were such an upstanding man.” Mauz offered him a rueful smile. “But you’re more than willing to throw sweet little Aaqil into my clutches to save yourself, aren’t you?”

“Indeed I am,” Kiram assured him.  “Though somehow I think sweet little Aaqil will fare just fine in your clutches.”

Mauz accepted the compliment with a smile then he gazed up at the pale sky overhead. “I don’t know how your Javier won you but if—when he returns, you should tell him that he has my admiration.”

With that Mauz strode off across the camp to the rope pen, where Aaqil tended his mother’s hairy, hulking oxen. A small triumph but Kiram felt glad for it. 

After that, two Irabiim mothers approached Kiram about the lodestone they’d heard him describe. He spent a little time demonstrating the powers of the primitive compass he’d constructed. But soon the sky dimmed and Kiram put his tools and compass away.

The longest night of the year rapidly crept over the leaden sky. Solstice was truly here. Weeks before Javier had joked about the pitiful gift Kiram could expect from him.

“For your pleasure I’m creating a collection of erotic drawings so poorly rendered that I feel certain they will completely shake your belief in my understanding of human anatomy.”

In return Kiram had promised to write Javier a love poem, which he, as a Bahiim could have the honor of burning for the sake of all living creatures.

“Well, that,” he’d said, “or I’ll fashion you the ugliest jewelry that has ever been cast using a cooking fire.”  

They’d laughed and made love and in the morning Javier had left.

Now the solstice arrived but Javier hadn’t returned. Kiram studied the rough ring he’d managed to fashion but the sight of it only made his heart sink. He pocketed it.

Steadily the sky darkened and the caravan mothers stoked the embers of their fire to an orange glow while their children and grand children dragged out jars of fermented mares’ milk, dry sausages and brightly-dyed hand drums. Soon the air filled with their quiet songs and laughter as they drank and danced in the soft golden glow. Kiram shared the clutch of star terns that he’d brought down from a migrating flock the week before and several Irabiim women teased him until he allowed them to kohl his eyes like a proper Irabiim. They taught him the Irabiim wolf dance and he spent several hours dancing for the amusement of the dozens of Irabiim men, women, and children who were gathered around the glowing embers wrapped in glossy animal skins. Finally, Kiram learned the words of the Whispered Song of the Long Night from Nakiesh.

Her crows clustered on the overhanging branches of a dark fir tree, watching them all with glittering dark eyes.

The Whispered Song sounded nothing like the merry solstice tunes of his home, though the lyrics shared the common sentiment of a people joined together against darkness and hardship. As Kiram sang the eerie melody, a wave of homesickness rolled over him.

He missed the balmy port city of Anacleto so much and his family even more. If he were at home right now he would have been helping to decorate their house for the bands of singers who would come calling. His lamp would stand among others filled with perfumed oil and lining the windows with the promise of illumination. The aromas of dozens of feast dishes would waft out over him from the kitchen chimney while he and his siblings strung garlands of paper flowers through the bare branches of the fruit trees in the courtyard.

After The Whispered Song ended, everyone in the Irabiim stilled and settled around the fire. A white-haired old man crouched on the fir branches beside Kiram and shared his simple clay cup of fermented mares’s milk.

“You aren’t packed up yet,” the man commented.

Kiram simply shook his head and the man must have read something in his expression because he didn’t press the point any further but instead gifted Kiram with a flask of milk to help keep him warm when he was alone.

“Thank you—” Kiram wasn’t certain if it was the man’s resemblance to his own father or the effects of too much milk but he felt quite moved by the generosity of the gift.

“It’s nothing,” the older fellow replied with a kind smile. “It would have weighted me down to lug it around anyway.”

Kiram nodded.

Already most of the Irabiim had packed their belongings on their covered sleds and gathered their horses and storm oxen in make shift pens. Tomorrow morning their caravan would turn south with their hard won bounty of mountain goat and mink hides as well as nuggets of raw gold.

This sheltered valley had afforded an opportunity for young men and women to flirt and band together to hunt the huge wooly goats that descended from the jagged mountains only at the height of winter to graze on the mossy lichen. But now it was simply too dangerous to stay here any longer.  The Irabiim weren’t the only ones lured to these glades by the prospect of winter hunting.

The previous day Kiram had sighted two trolls—great snow-topped walking hillocks—moving with the speed of avalanches down from the mountain cliffs. Where trolls wandered, the wild creatures serving Grimma followed, intent upon hunting the trolls down and enslaving them in their queens’ stony sanctums.

Crouching in the dark, feeling hungry, tired and above all terribly lonely, Kiram realized that he wasn’t able to offer anyone decent company. So he straightened and bid a good night to the eldest mother in the caravan and to well as to Nakiesh and Liahn—the Bahiim who’s wards and incantations kept them hidden from the eyes of witches and wolves alike.

As he withdrew Mauz reached out and touched his shoulder.

“Won’t you be sad all alone?” he asked but none of his earlier flirtation sounded in his voice. He seemed simply concerned.

 “I’m not going to be alone,” Kiram pulled a smile. “I’m off to pay some attention to the other fellow in my life.”

Mauz’s pale brows rose in question.

“My horse,” Kiram explained and they both laughed. 

Then Kiram made his way to the horse pen where he found Verano and took a little time to make much of the gelding, brushing his bushy winter coat, and bundling him with a relatively clean ox hide blanket.

Overhead the moon rose, and from far away Kiram just caught the cries of wolves.

“That’s just Mauz crying out his desire to Aaqil,” Kiram murmured to Verano. The horse flicked his ears but didn’t seem particularly disturbed. Kiram gazed up at the moon and it struck him that it must feel abandoned. There it hung, alone in the dark, night after night with the sun always so far from it. Just looking up at into its radiance he felt desolate, and not because he was the abandoned one. He was surrounded by people who accepted and sheltered him. It was Javier who he thought of—pale and radiant but utterly alone in the hopeless desolation of the Old Road.  It was Javier who was lost in the night, and there was nothing Kiram could do to bring him back.

He remembered the demons that preyed upon loss and guilt in that realm of endless black. It tore at him to think of Javier trapped and dying there. He pressed his face against Verano’s warm neck, and clenched his eyes shut. Kiram wasn’t one to pray but tonight he did.

“Please let him find his way back to me,” Kiram whispered. “Please let him be alright.”

Kiram hung against the big horse and Verano, in his calm manner bowed his head and breathed gently against Kiram. Then the big gelding gave a soft greeting nicker and from a distance another horse answered. Kiram glanced up to see Javier leading Lunaluz slowly across the snow towards their crudely-assembled pen. Even in the dim light Kiram could see that Javier looked exhausted and tattered. He and his horse were spattered with mud and they doubtless reeked. Still, the moment Kiram laid eyes on Javier his heart pounded wildly and he raced out to meet him.

Javier’s dark gaze lifted as Kiram sprinted through the snow towards him and joy shot through Kiram as he saw Javier’s desolate expression suddenly lift into a brilliant smile. They embraced each other with hungry, almost bruising grips and clung together for several moments—simply feeling their reunion, breathing each other in and allowing their bodies to remember the relieving pleasure of their familiarity.

“I missed you,” Javier whispered and his hands dug into Kiram as if he were clinging to him for his life.

Kiram kissed him then, once gently—remembering the feel and taste of him after weeks apart—and then with a driving passion that left them both swaying and breathless.

“I take it you missed me as well?” A slow, smug smile curved Javier’s lips.

“Like a drunk misses his ruin,” Kiram replied.

Javier gave a soft laugh at that but something strangely sorrowful seemed to linger in his expression. Kiram almost asked what was wrong, but Javier stepped back from him.

“Help me with Lunaluz, will you?”

“Of course.” Kiram took Lunaluz’s reins from Javier and after greeting the stallion led him to where Verano awaited him. Javier pulled the saddle, blanket and bags from Lunaluz and Kiram noted that the stallion, like Javier had lost weight. Kiram fetched oatseed and thick fistfuls of lichen for Lunaluz and when he returned he found that Javier had brushed the stallion down and had dug wide scrape through the snow with his gaunt bare hands to expose the lichen and winterweed growing beneath. Lunaluz grazed hungrily.  Verano nibbled a few strands of the winterweed and then simply stood near Lunaluz, blocking the worst the wind, though whether that was by design or accident Kiram didn’t know.

“There’s goat stew, sausages and fermented milk by the fire,” Kiram offered Javier.

Javier studied the rest of the gathered caravan with a slight frown. A melodic howl went up from the gathered singers only to be broken by giddy laughter.

“Did someone get married?”

“No,” Kiram said, annoyed. Then he recalled the timeless quality of traveling the Old Road. “It’s solstice. You’ve been gone more than a fortnight.” He did his best to keep the anger from sounding in his voice, but the words still came out too crisply.

How strange that only after he knew Javier was alive and safe could he now acknowledge the frustration and anger that powerless anxiety had wrought in him.

“I didn’t think it had been so long,” Javier said.

“Nakiesh and Liahn returned weeks ago,” Kiram told him. “Since then I haven’t known if you were alive or…” Kiram didn’t want to go on. He didn’t want to think about how scared he’d been for Javier beneath the bravado he’d maintained in the face of Mauz’s flirtations and old women’s pitying glances.

Javier wrapped his arms around Kiram and Kiram allowed himself to be pulled close once again.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“But why did you go?” Kiram asked. “Where did you go?’

“Is that bower of fir branches we built still standing?”

Kiram realized at once that Javier needed to rest and wanted to be alone with him. “It’s still there. Come on.”

Javier swung his saddlebags over his shoulder and then followed Kiram to the snow-packed, pine-scented bower. They both fit so long as they hunched close, or slept curled together with their belongings packed up against the fragrant evergreen walls. Kiram had even managed to angle two polished metal plates so that they caught the faint moonlight and threw a pale beam into the dark confines.

“Here.” Javier pushed the saddlebags to Kiram and then stretched out on the bedding of reindeer and ox hides.

Kiram opened the bags and to his shock discovered a scroll of fine writing paper, two tins containing screws, bolts, pins and spooled wire, a sachet of his mother’s taffy and an assortment of bright, fragrant citrus fruit. But most startling of all were the letters. There wasn’t light enough to read them but Kiram recognized not only his mother’s and brother’s handwriting but Nestor’s square script as well.

“You went to Anacleto?” Kiram asked in wonder.

“The Sagrada Academy and then Anacleto.” Javier dug into the pocket of his long dark coat and held something small and golden out to Kiram. He took it and realized at once that it was a gold figurine of a horse.

“Fedeles wanted you to have it and he wanted me to assure you that Firaj is well… Actually, he might be a little bit fat but he’s certainly happy.”

Kiram felt almost too stunned to register Javier’s comment. He held the figurine and the metal grew warm in his hand. He’d missed his home so badly, why hadn’t Javier thought to take him with him when he’d decided to go?

“Is he… How is he?” Kiram managed to get out at last.

“Shockingly erudite when he wants to be.” Javier smiled. “I’d almost forgotten how clever he was.”

“And Nestor?”

“Third year, taking his responsibilities as an upperclassman very seriously.” Again Javier flashed a smile but it slipped away an instant later. “Elezar didn’t return to the academy. But according to Nestor he’s won two duels in the capitol and apprehended a highwayman as well.”

Somehow Kiram wasn’t surprised.

“My family?”

“All’s well,” Javier assured him. “The letters are full of details… though it might amuse you to know that your brother Majdi not only popped me in the face the minute he recognized me but demanded to know what I’d done to you and then after all that informed me that he’d put Atreau ashore in the Salt Islands but decided to keep Morisio.”

“Wait. Why did Majdi punch you?”

Javier shot him a glance as if he couldn’t imagine how Kiram could not know the answer to that.

“Because I stole you away from your friends and family not to live as a nobleman but like the lowest peasant?” Javier offered. “Because there’s a price on my head and so you’ve been pursued by bounty hunters, mercenaries and the royal bishop’s men-at-arms—”

“Yes, but I’m a fugitive in my own right as well, thank you very much,” Kiram replied.

Oddly, Javier met his gaze with a look that seemed almost physically pained.

“But you aren’t,” Javier said very softly. “I’d been pondering the Common Laws and Lords Laws for a while and I realized that you might not be wanted. Unlike me, you aren’t a heretic because you were born into the Bahiim religion and you hail from Anacleto—”

“I killed several of the royal bishop’s men,” Kiram pointed out. In fact he’d struck down more with his bow and arrows than either Javier or Elezar.

“But that was in my service,” Javier replied. “You, Elezar, Nestor, Atreau and Morisio were all acting in my service.  If you cast your mind back, you’ll recall that I was a duke and your upperclassmen. Legally, I was responsible.”

“So…” Kiram didn’t go on.

Javier looked grim despite his attempt to smile.

“So, I can take you home. That’s what I went back to Cadeleon to find out. I’m still a wanted man but you aren’t. You don’t have to live like this.” Javier gestured out at the field of snow and dark trees.

For just and instant, joy ignited within Kiram.

Home. He could just go home…

And then he realized the cause of Javier’s misery. Javier could take him back but he couldn’t stay there with him. Cadeleon would simply be too dangerous for Javier.

“No,” Kiram said. “I already made this choice.”

“But that was before you knew—before either of us really knew what it would be like to live as hunted men in the wilds of the north.  If you’d known then how cold and hard it would be…” Javier’s voice failed and he hid his eyes beneath his hand. “There’s nothing I can offer you in this life, Kiram. Not comfort, not wealth, not even a decent bed to lay down in.”

That was all true and yet, like the threat of trolls or the promise of Mauz’s company, it didn’t matter.

Kiram reached out and took Javier’s hand. Javier’s dark eyes gleamed like polished jet. Kiram pushed the saddlebags aside and stretched out beside Javier.

“It’s been harder than I could have imagined and I do miss my home and family,” Kiram admitted. “But I wouldn’t trade my life with you for all the candy and comfortable beds in the world. I love being with you. And as hard as this existence is, it’s shown me that I’m stronger and tougher and more resilient than I thought. And I’ve discovered that you are even more upstanding, brave, and honorable than I thought you were when I first fell in love with you.”

Javier gazed at him, studying him for a long while. “I’m not brave. I could hardly bring myself to tell you the truth.”

“But you did,” Kiram replied. “And I’m staying with you.”

The radiance in Javier’s smile made Kiram think for an instant that he’d opened the shajdi, but then he realized that the light in Javier’s face was pure joy.

“Thank you,” Javier said. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better solstice gift.”

Considering how far Javier had traveled and at what cost to his own strength just for Kiram’s sake, it seemed a very small gift. And yet as Javier pulled him into his arms Kiram felt that it was one he couldn’t have been gladder to give.

Mr. Sykes and the Noble Muse

Mr. Sykes and the Noble Muse

By Ginn Hale

 

Raindrops twisted and swung like glass baubles flung from a jewelry box as the wind tossed them through the darkening sky. The air tasted wet and smelled of apples turning slowly to cider amid decaying golden leaves. There were worse evenings to be out on a roof and considering the condition of the tiles there wasn’t really all that much of a difference between inside and out in a number of places. 

“How bad is it?” Harper called up to me. He peered through the rain and twilight gloaming. He balanced on the every top rung of a ladder, gripping the snout of the gargoyle downspout.  

I considered my response for a moment, because instinctively I wanted to lie and assure him that all was well. After three months of sweating and laboring to repair the west wing before winter the last thing Harper–or I—needed was a gaping hole in the roof of the east wing. But here it was and I already knew Harper would be too bloody-minded to just raise the money for the repair by increasing his tenants’ rents. He’d bankrupt himself first.

And then what would become of this towering fortress, which Harper so quaintly called our house? (That in itself bordering on absurdity. A little like referring to the vast, seething Tehom Ocean as the puddle between us and the colonies.) Still, the old castle was Harper’s home and had been my sanctuary for nearly five years now. I’d grown accustomed to the ramparts, secret corridors, stained-glass windows and whispering drafts. I’d even developed a rather perverse fondness for the glowering portraits of Harper’s austere, disapproving ancestors. Here I’d shed my sordid past and despite being a Prodigal I’d earned the bored tolerance of most the country folk. My insistence upon failing to seduce any maidens, burn down the local church or steal even a single baby had soon proven such a disappointment that many of the local tenant-farmers had come to regard me as nearly harmless.  

I’d even made a friend in the person of Harper’s groundskeeper, Hugh Browning, who on the whole was much less harmless than myself. He possessed the sort of dark, good looks that seemed to render many a local maiden prone to seduction, and he produced a scrumpy well-worth the next day’s hangover. (On a recent scrumpy bender, he and I had conceived the mad idea of concocting an illicit flying potion from a few drops of my blood and a bruise tonic. It hadn’t proved too long-acting or pleasant tasting.) 

But more than anything else this place had allowed me to see so much more of Harper’s character and to grow infuriatingly, deeply attached to him. I could no longer imagine falling asleep or waking without the sensation of his warm body pressed close to mine. His company and conversation lent amusement, joy, annoyance, and ecstasy to the slow days of countryside life.  

All of it, thanks to the shelter offered by this crumbling, majestic relic of a fortress with its weathered granite walls, worn oak interiors, ironwork bars and crumbling slate roofs. What would we do without this place, I wondered? And at the same time considered just how much Harper had already sacrificed for the sake of our moldering haven. How much more could he possible labor before he simply collapsed himself?

Lightning flickered in the distance, throwing long shadows across the pastures, fields, orchards and cottages that Harper had updated and restored over the last few years. I glanced back to him and saw lines of concern etching his brow. He’d eked out a living from the income of this old ruin while paying off the mortgages his father had taken out. All the while he’d improved the leases and the livelihoods of a small army of servants and cottagers. And when he’d run short of personal funds he’d done whatever needed doing himself. He’d laid stones and plastered walls, planted seedlings and driven wandering flocks of sheep back from his wheat fields to their pastures.

I’d done my share of lifting, carrying and generally toiling, but only because even as lazy a creature as myself couldn’t help but be shamed into effort while keeping Harper’s industrious company.

 The merciless manner in which Harper worked himself showed in the fine lines beneath his eyes as well as his tanned, weathered skin and grayed temples. Always lean, he’d grown recently spare and ropey as an underfed boxer. Still the sight of him warmed me. Even with rain dripping off the end of his nose, I found him strikingly handsome.

I extended one finger and scraped a slate shingle. It cracked and clattered down into the shadows of the exposed roof timbers.

“Belimai?” Harper’s voice rose up from the gloom. The wind tossed his light hair and light rain pelted his tanned face. He couldn’t possibly see me through the darkness and yet, as always his dark eyes rested upon me.

“I’m fine. But one of your ancient shingles has shuffled off the mortal coil. ”

“Just the one?” Harper sounded skeptical.

“No, that was simply the latest of many.”  No point in dragging it out. I was just getting soaked floating up over the roof and Harper wasn’t doing much better from his spot beside the gurgling downspout.

“How bad is it?” Harper muscled himself up a hand higher and my heart jerked at the sight. He was 200 feet off the ground and balancing on the tips of one boot between a frail rung ladder and a crumbling gargoyle. And unlike my devilish self, he couldn’t fly if anything gave way.

“Damn it, Will! Both feet on the bloody ladder. You swore!”

He offered me an amused look but lowered himself back down a foot or so to the stability of the ladder.

“I stand, literally, corrected,” He called to me. “So, how bad is the roof?”

 “Well, the hole is not so large that the carriage could fall clean through but I might just about block it if I jammed in my entire body.”

“Oh well, that solves that, then,” Harper replied drily.

“It would offer me a lovely vantage point for my latest landscape, however.”

“Nothing captures the charm of country life like rotting roofing overlooking the pastures,” Harper returned without enthusiasm.

“I did actually sell one very like that,” I replied though I wasn’t thinking too much about the sad little commissions I’d made from the sales of my paintings back in the capital of Crowncross.  Landscapes and architectural studies of the Foster estate garnered me a small income. The few nudes, displayed to only certain customers sold for far more but too sporadically to be relied upon. It would require much more coin than I had stashed away to replace the massive oak supports and slate tiles of this roof.

I turned in the wind, drifting around the perimeter of the newly opened up hole. A nightjar swooped past me, circled once curiously, and then winged back to the comfort of its nest. It wasn’t a fit night to be in the air. I too wheeled back and lit off to the edge of the drains where Harper waited.

“The actual cavity is about five feet square, but I think the underlying decay might be much more extensive.”

Harper sighed heavily but nodded. I wished, not for the first time that this could have happened after Harper departed to attend Squire Marcy’s Harvest Ball. At least then he might have enjoyed a few carefree hours of capering and kicking at the dance. Maybe Hugh Browning and I could have covered the whole thing over and let it be until after Harper collected the autumn rents.  

“We’ll have to hire men in the morning. Only thing we can do tonight is to keep any more rain from getting down into the walls and plaster below,” Harper said.

The steak and ale pie already laid out on our super table was going to go cold, but it would keep.

 I didn’t mention the Harvest Ball. If Harper decided not to attend I would go and make an excuse for him. Just the sight of my glossy black nails and bright yellow eyes tended to put snotty Squire Marcy in a panic. He’d likely feel so desperate to remove me from his garish, sprawling country house that he’d pay no mind at all to what I said.  The fact that Squire Marcy craved Harper’s approval—Harper possessing the title of Lord Foster and being the last descendant of an ancient and holy lineage—precluded Marcy from simply having his footmen beat me out the door with fire irons.

No doubt, Squire Marcy viewed me in much the same way as he viewed the menagerie of crested vultures and condors that the Duke of Gwenhill maintained. Only the duke’s reeking raptors rarely attended social occasions and never escorted ladies—not even country ladies—to the table or dance floor.  Still, it wouldn’t do to abuse the Prodigal artist that Lord Foster kept like a strange kind of pet.

Knowing as much, I often took a certain pleasure in observing the squire’s face turn greenish and sickly with horror when I complimented his dim, young sister or called his fiancé a beauty. Imagining the squire’s alarm at my company buoyed my spirit through the drizzle and difficulty of the next hour.

     Between us, Harper and I hauled a good twenty yards of oiled canvas up to the roof. The broad expanses of stiff, yellowed cloth whipped and filled with wind, billowing like sails. At one point, a gust lifted me up toward the icy heights of growing storm clouds. Harper barely managed to catch my boot in time.

“Let go of the damn canvas, Belimai!” he shouted.

I refused. I’d been there when Harper had bought the stuff and seen what it cost.

Swearing, Harper hauled me and my sail back down.  He continued swearing for a good while, holding me tightly in his arms and informing me that I could have been killed if I’d been slammed into one of the parapets or had been impaled on any of the spiked lightning rods. His body felt warm and he smelled pleasantly of sweat and rain.

“You put me through hell, you know that?” he muttered against the side of my head. The oiled canvas slithered and slapped at the roof tiles behind us. More rain pattered down. I felt Harper’s heart beating as if it were in my own chest. We clung together, braced between gaping gargoyles and the cold churning wind.

“Didn’t I save you fifty silver, though?”  I whispered to Harper.

He simply shook his head. Then he released me and I scampered across the slick wet tiles, dragging two ends of the oiled canvass behind me while he secured the other two corners to downspouts.

Once we had plugged up the roof and gotten ourselves thoroughly drenched, we retired with our cold meal to the library hearth and ate. The firelight turned the gray in Harper’s hair gold and cast a feeling a warm comfort over me.  Having dispatched our suppers, we played cards. Harper indulged me in allowing me to wager and promptly lose such treasures as my virtue and innocence to him. The longcase clock rang out seven lethargic notes that made me suspect it needed winding. That or Mrs. Kately had stuffed a rag in the thing again to dampen it’s often pounding chimes.  Harper’s head footman, Giles, sidled in and inquired if the master still planned to attend Squire Marcy’s Dance.

To my surprise Harper said he would and added that I would be going as well.

Giles withdrew to lay out Harper’s formal clothes and I frowned at Harper.

“I thought you’d had your fill of Squire Marcy attempting to foist his hollow-headed sister off on you already,” I commented. The previous autumn, a scarcity of titled bachelors had found Harper the target of several matchmaking endeavors. Only his insistence that though he no longer wore the collar, he still remained a priest at heart had kept the hounds of matrimony at bay.

Harper looked a little harrowed at the reminder but then shrugged.

“I promised Miss Venet that I’d attend,” Harper said and he had the grace to at least look apologetic. We did not exactly see eye-to eye on the subject of Miss Venet—she of the silky, black locks, skin like cream and the bountiful dowry.

Miss Sophia Venet, Squire Marcy’s fiancé and the only child of the indulgent old Baronet of Lindmead, possessed the dark-haired and doe-eyed beauty that made her strongly resembled Harper’s sister Joan –at least in body, though certainly not in fiery temperament. I found Miss Venet pretty enough and quick witted, if in the naïve manner of a girl who’d never known any form of hardship or hunger. But after making conversation with her on the subject of the city fashion of lace conversation fans and then listening to her ponder deeply upon the plight of the poor Prodigals of Hells Below–who hadn’t the means to purchase such crucial fans—I felt that I’d rather spend a few hours batting myself about the head and face with a wine bottle than have to endure anymore of her deeply sincere and utterly ignorant opinions of how “my people” might be improved.

To her credit she had not been afraid to dance with me and she played a mean hand of loo. And Harper liked Miss Venet; he enjoyed the company of women in general and obviously missed light-hearted female conversation since he’d lost his sister. If he’d been another man I had no doubt that he might have married a woman much like Miss Venet.

The idea did nothing to endear her to me, of course.

“That doesn’t explain why I’m attending,” I pointed out.

Harper offered me one of his charming smiles.

“Because you are a delight even in the company of dullards,” Harper said. “And I will most certainly be in your debt afterward.”

   “You will be.” I grinned thinking of our hours together after the ball up in Harper’s bed. “I’d best get changed into my best for the ball, then.”

#

Squire Marcy’s huge white country house sprawled across the rain-dark hills like a treasury of imported marble palaces dropped in a heap from the heavens. 

Perhaps living so long in an austere fortress had skewed my senses but everything about the place struck me as so ostentatious as to border upon parody.  From the rows upon rows of decorative columns nearly filling up the entry, to the imposing line of marble busts in the ballroom and the tangles of crystal chandeliers jostling for every inch of space on the ceiling, the grand displays of wealth left scant room for the crowds of guests meant to admire them all.

And the number of servants hired on for the evening seemed to nearly outnumber the guests. Half a dozen footmen jostled to take Harper’s greatcoat. I handed mine over to a fellow who looked miserable in his fancy dress of yellow stockings and satin breeches and yellow livery adorned with white embroidered M’s—for lack of any heraldry.  The sight of my glossy black fingernails seemed to startle him out of his funk.

I hoped he wouldn’t burn my coat before I could retrieve it.

Harper and I were announced by another footman, Harper as William Harper, Lord Foster and me as Mr. Belimai Sykes. Harper marched like a proper soldier to greet our hostess and I followed him like a sullen youth, shoving my hands into my pockets to belatedly fish out my gloves.  Even I knew better than to offer a lady my bare hand.

It was then that I noticed the small glass vial in the pocket of my waistcoat. I nearly drew it out, but then I took in the sidelong glances and stares of the formally dressed guests already gathered under the wax-dripping chandeliers. They were all much too interested in me, in a manner that seemed to harken back to the very first days that Harper had presented me—a Prodigal descended from devils—as his guest, favored artist, and friend.

But now these people had known me nearly five years. Generally my presence among them passed without response beyond a few sour looks. If anything, the gentry of the county tried their best to largely ignore my existence all together.

So, having several plump well dressed gentlemen and their silk gowned wives watch me pass them as if I were an exotic fruit did not put me at ease. Certainly I wasn’t about to draw out the vial—as I had just recollected what it was and why it was in my pocket.

Hugh Browning had given me a dram of our floating potion in case the occasion should arise for me to spike the squire’s punch. Hugh had felt that having the big blond squire float up into the fiery mass of his chandeliers would be a great laugh. And I agreed but once I’d sobered up I’d quickly realized that the potion would obviously be traced back to me.

So I’d pocketed it and forgotten about it.

Now all at once a dread gripped me that somehow word had gotten out about Hugh Browning’s and my drunken and highly illegal little dabble at brewing up devil potions. A conviction could get Hugh deported and me hanged. I wanted to hurl the vial from me but wasn’t such a fool as to think that would go unnoticed. Nothing for it but to put on a bored expression and trail Harper’s straight, broad back deeper into this den of blazing candlelight and judgmental gawkers.

The crowd parted before Harper, revealing Squire Marcy, encircled by his relations and most prestigious guests. I recognized Marcy’s mother, Eugenie, as the sallow face engulfed in a hurricane of black lace, ebony silk, polished jet, and black pearls. Her water-pale eyes wandered the room searching for a dose of poppy-tonic or patent medicine. What sympathy I had initially felt for her intense mourning had dissipated when Hugh Browning informed me that her husband hadn’t died in a tragic dairy accident twelve years ago but had simply run off to the colonies with happy, fat milk-maid.

While Harper accepted the would-be widow’s extended hand and thanked her for the courtesy of her lovely home, I took in the rest of Squire Marcy’s party. There was Charles Marcy himself—young, blond, soft around the middle and corseted so tightly into his brocade casings that he looked like a costly sausage on the verge of bursting. On his left, his wan, willowy sister Camilla chatted with the blithe abandon of a child, unused to being heard or understood. Though she so often struck a subject of subtle cruelty in her seemingly guileless babble that I had grown to suspect her of making a determined study of her stupidity. Even honing it to a weapon.

At the moment, the victim of her chirpy observations was none other than the lovely Miss Sophia Venet. She managed a pained smile as Camilla recounted her embarrassing childhood pre-occupation with Hugh Browning to the amusement of several very well dressed city gentlemen. Miss Venet colored to nearly the shade of her pink satin gown as Camilla described how she’d ruined her best Sunday dress and accidently bared her naked bottom while attempting to aid young Hugh in driving a flock of sheep out of a wheat field.

“She was ever so darling, really.” Miss Marcy giggled. “Dashing through the mud with no idea that she’d torn open the entire back of her dress! Oh the way she trailed the Foster groundskeeper was just like one of his puppies! I daresay, Sophia. You didn’t think you were a puppy did you?”

    “Yes indeed, Miss Marcy.” Miss Venet smiled but I thought that if she could have gotten away with it she might have stuck a hatpin through Camilla Marcy’s throat. “If fate had been so capricious as to grant my childish aspirations I assure you, I would now be far away baying after game.”

Two of the gentlemen standing beside the women made noises assuring Miss Venet that she was far better suited to the life of a lady than a bitch—thought not in those words—while Miss Venet herself maintained her smile and stared hard at Harper’s handsome, tan profile. Camilla Marcy too seemed to notice the direction of Miss Venet’s attention. Being more practiced in deception, I maintained my studied expression of tedium while observing how both the young women’s feelings illuminated their faces.

Miss Venet gazed at Harper with a joy that I understood all too well and had grown used to seeing Harper inspire in others—both men and women. Miss Marcy regarded Miss Venet like a rat she wished to crush beneath her heel.

Then suddenly my observations were interrupted as a tall man darted forward and caught my gloved hand in his own.

“You must be Mr. Belimai Sykes!” He shook my hand and held it between his own for several moments too long while beaming down at me with all the delight of a fox taking possession of a chicken coop.

In the glow of so many candles, his red hair shone like polished copper and his green eyes seemed almost to sparkle in his angular face. He could have passed for a youth of twenty if it hadn’t been for the faint smile lines etched into the corners of his full mouth.  The garnet shade of his clothes and their perfect fit flattered both his coloring and his graceful, slim form.  A distinctly pleasant scent of calendula and leather drifted from him.

Even so, I didn’t like the strength of his warm grip on my hand at all.

“I am Belimai Sykes,” I admitted and I stuffed my hands back in my pockets. “But I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, Mr…?”

As I spoke a strange quiet seemed to come over the people surrounding us. I felt suddenly very aware of how many of them were again watching me, from behind fans and from the corners of their eyes. Camilla Marcy stared like a gleeful child waiting to witness her hounds dispatch some vermin.  Only Miss Venet appeared utterly indifferent, as she edged her way nearer to Harper. For his part Harper shot me an alarmed glance from Eugenie Marcy’s side.

Camilla Marcy flicked her gardenia scented fan open and then whispered jut a little too loudly. “The gentleman certainly isn’t any mere mister. He’s none other than His Grace, Julian Grenfell, the Duke of Gwenhill, Mr Sykes, you silly devil.”

The Duke of Gwenhill—our young Queen’s famous bachelor uncle.

I could have fallen all over myself, making excuses for my gaffe and generally playing the beaten dog pissing himself, but it wasn’t much in my nature, not even knowing that a man as powerful the duke could have me fed to his pet vultures if the fancy struck him.

“I knew I shouldn’t have skipped school the day they taught us how to address a duke.”  I smiled gamely though the way the duke’s gaze roved over me made it a little difficult. Last time I’d been eyed like that the other fellow had wanted to turn me inside out and make magic pudding from my organs.

“One addresses a duke as ‘your grace’,” the duke informed me. “But you, Mr. Sykes, must call me Grenfell. All my friends do. And I feel certain that we will be fast friends.”

Fast indeed, I thought.

“That’s quite kind of you… Grenfell.”

The duke favored me with another dashing and far too familiar smile. He stepped a little nearer to me and I uneasily noted that his height lent an illusion of slender delicacy to a body that in truth was quite broad. The crowd of guests, servants and musicians hampered any quick retreat—should matters come to that—and the maze of blazing chandeliers overhead blocked my other route of escape. My pulse began to kick with anxiety.

“Your paintings, my dear Mr. Sykes, they have captured me utterly.” The duke spoke softly but I felt certain that his voice carried to Camilla Marcy. “The moment I laid eyes upon them I was seized by a frisson and so rapt that I stood in place staring for nearly a quarter of an hour.”

You’ve seen my paintings?” I knew the moment I spoke that I sounded like a dullard. Hadn’t he just said he’d seen them? But I’d been so occupied by wondering what crimes in my ugly past had set a duke against me that I wasn’t thinking at all of art. And it seemed inconceivable that a duke should have encountered any of my works, much less been so moved by them as this. I felt stunned and then suspicious of his flattery. Both Harper and Mr. Weller, who acquired art for the Sommer Gallery, were complimentary of my artistic endeavors but certainly not this enthusiastic.  

“I’ve not merely seen them,” the duke replied—something about the way he stared so intently into my face made me think he was about to pounce and I edged back from him just a little. “I’ve been completely ravished by them.”

Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Camilla Marcy’s pale brows rise. The two country gentlemen beside her gawked at the duke and me.  I thought I even glimpsed Eugenie Marcy’s black shadow edging towards us. But the person whose help I could have used was Harper—he knew all about titles and who in which noble families might be rotters. But where had he gone?

The strains of music filling the huge room assured me that he’d escorted Miss Venet onto the dance floor. Which left me on my own in less than easy company.

“I had no idea that Mr. Sykes possessed so much talent. I declare, Mr. Sykes, you have been keeping your light hidden under a bushel!” Miss Marcy slapped my shoulder with her fan as if we were on such good terms that I wouldn’t object to being struck. I considered gouging her with one of my hard black nails to see how committed she was to the charade. But she sashayed just out of easy reach to the duke’s left.

“I do so love art,” she proclaimed.

“How charming,” the duke responded off handedly, but then his attention snapped back to me and his expression turned somehow softer, almost gentle. “You are not an easy man to locate Mr. Sykes.  I’ve spent the last three weeks riding across the countryside following those small clues included in your paintings only to be frustrated when I discovered that Lord Foster had hidden you away on his dour estate. I had no choice but to foist my company upon the squire and his simple family purely in hopes of at last making your acquaintance.”

“We’ve been honored by your company, your Grace,” Camilla said. “In fact, brother was just commenting on how much he hoped you would stay for the hunt.”

“You and your family have been entirely too kind in enduring the burden of my company, Miss Marcy.” The duke’s gaze flickered over the squire and his mother without a hint of warmth. Then he turned to Camilla Marcy. “Miss Marcy, you must be a splendid dancer. As I recall your dance card is nearly full already?”

“Yes, but not entirely. If your grace wishes—”

“Indeed, my dear Miss Marcy,” the duke cut her off. “You mustn’t tarry a moment longer on my account. I’ve already kept you from your partners too long. Please don’t feel that you must linger here when you’ve already been far, far too generous in sharing your company with me.”

Miss Marcy’s face tightened but she didn’t let her awareness of the slight show for more than that instant. She bared the line of her pretty white teeth to the duke in a hard smile.

“Thank you, your grace! You are so kind, considering the feelings of the gentlemen on my dance card.” With that she turned and strode away with her head held painfully high.

“Come, before another swoops down upon us,” the duke whispered to me and then caught my arm in his very strong grip and began to draw me back towards the closed doors of the veranda.

I almost resisted out of reflex but then thought better of it. Here, half-blinded by the glare of so many candles and trapped beneath a blazing ceiling I was at every disadvantage. But out in the dark with access to the stormy sky, I would be in my element. If I wanted free of the duke I would need only throw myself into the wind and soar up where he could not hope to follow.

“Lead on, Grenfell.”

We slipped out into the blustery night air, though only a light spray of rain reached us. The duke pulled the doors closed behind us and sighed as if relieved of some immense weight.

“Hard night?” I asked.

“It is already much improved, I assure you.” The duke shook his head. “Please don’t think me cruel in dismissing Miss Marcy so abruptly but the girl and her mother have been absolute harpies to that Miss Venet this entire week.”

So, another handsome admirer of Miss Venet.  I leaned against the ornate railing of the veranda, overlooking the Marcy’s garden grounds. A cherub fountain pissed into the rain and sprays of night blooming jasmine clung to white trellises as the storm pelted them.

“They taunt her abominably over some childhood affection for Lord Foster’s groundskeeper and never seem to tire of pointing out how very poor the fellow’s entire family must be.”

I’d witnessed Hugh Browning endure the same needling and worse, likely because he was so much more charming than the squire that the Marcy women secretly feared he’d manage to outshine Charles, despite his poverty.

“So you’ve dragged me out here to discuss Miss Venet? Are you hoping I can provide you with a portrait of the lovely girl posed as some flower-clad nymph, perhaps?” I asked.

The duke laughed a little self-consciously, then moved to my side at the railing. His cologne curled over me as he placed his gloved hand next to mine.

“No, Mr. Sykes. Pretty as she is, young Miss Venet has nothing at all to do with my actions of late. Certainly not any bearing upon my desire to speak in person and privately with you.”

     “Oh?” I asked. “Then why have you secured my complete attention out in the rain—Grenfell?”

He bowed his head so close to mine that I thought he might actually bite my ear, but instead he whispered.

“I want you Mr. Sykes. I am half out of my mind from wanting you.”

I stepped back quickly. “You don’t even know me.”

“I’ve seen your paintings.” The duke’s voice remained soft and friendly. “I know that you and I share a passion that others do not understand and cannot appreciate.”

“Perhaps we do, but that doesn’t mean—”

“I know that as a Prodigal and an artist you are largely without resources.” The duke cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Whereas I possess wealth and influence in obscene abundance. And while I am sadly devoid of any artistic merit myself, I have made it my mission in life to shelter those creative souls whom I know to share my… tastes, if you will. It is my dream to create a place where our kind can share art, music, and literature that speaks of the glory and beauty of our desire.”

I felt certain that when the duke spoke of our kind, he didn’t mean Prodigals.  But the rest of it confused me some. Certainly, I wasn’t understanding him correctly. He couldn’t be offering me a place in some kind of sodomite refuge that he’d established, could he? He was famously eccentric. I guessed there was really only one way of knowing.

“Are you proposing to whisk me away and be my artistic patron or are you just chatting me up for a bit of ass?”

 Again the duke laughed.

“My intention is to offer you the former but I certainly wouldn’t say no to the latter. Just so long as it wouldn’t hamper your… relationship with your muse.”

My muse?

“Your sketches of him appeared so intimate,” the duke spoke into my silence. “I admit I assumed that you and he were…”

All at once I knew who the duke was talking about and also exactly what art of mine had so fired his blood. Not my landscape paintings, but the nude studies that Mr. Weller offered to only a very select clientele. Most were rough, intimate drawings that I’d made of Harper in private moments. The studies weren’t so detailed as to render Harper perfectly recognizable but they captured a sensual essence of him in rare, languid repose.

“My… muse wouldn’t likely take too kindly to a one-off,” I admitted. Harper did have a bit of a jealous streak in him though there’d hardly been an occasion for him to feel it. Certainly, not while he paraded Miss Venet around the ballroom.

“The two of you are quite committed?” The duke’s expression turned almost wistful.

I didn’t intend to share any confidence that might endanger Harper, but I nodded.

“Then he must come with you.  I’ll find work for him on my estate.” The duke patted my hand in an almost paternal manner though he couldn’t have been even a decade my senior. “It can’t have been easy for the two of you here.”

“It’s not easy most places,” I admitted. How strange it felt to come this close to discussing Harper and myself. And at the same time, oddly relieving to feel that in all the world there might be one other soul who could listen with sympathy. “But I’ve been happy.”

“Yes, love can make a paradise of a wasteland, so they say,” the duke whispered. “Still, I understand from the local gossip that Lord Foster is possessed of a religious zeal for work. And from your depictions, I can only assume that your muse must be under Lord Foster’s thumb.”

I didn’t laugh at that. In truth, Harper was often worked to exhaustion by himself in the role of Lord Foster.

“His home is here. I don’t know that he could be happy elsewhere.” I shrugged and beside me the duke nodded somberly.

  “He wouldn’t be the much-discussed Hugh Browning, I don’t suppose?” the duke asked.

“I couldn’t possibly give up his name,” I responded.

“Yes, quite right.” The duke leaned on the railing and gazed out at the dark maze of the grounds below us. “It’s only that you looked very slightly pained during the discussion of Miss Venet’s flirtations with Mr. Browning.”

He had me there, but over the wrong man. And it wasn’t even jealousy that pained me. Not really. But something more akin to a dreadful sensibility that seemed to lurk in my dark little heart. Harper needed money while Miss Venet possessed an immense dowry and she was obviously taken with Harper. Who wouldn’t be? Marriage could also offer him an heir to his beloved estate and banish the sort of suspicions that arose when a man remained too long a bachelor. It was all so pragmatically perfect that it felt horribly inevitable.

“You must not let fear of the future spoil your present happiness,” the duke told me.

I wondered just what he must have read in my expression.

“You aren’t half observant, are you, Grenfell?”

“Hardly,” he gave a short laugh. “I was simply watching you very intently. And I know how easy it is to feel uncertain when all the world seems set against you. But you are not alone.”

“No, I’m not.” That was part of the problem. I hadn’t been alone for nearly five years. In that time I’d grown so attached to Harper and to even the countryside that now it troubled me that I might not be able to bear losing him or leaving here. But would I stay—could I endure it if he took Miss Venet as his wife and brought her into our home? Into our bed?

I stared at the rain-battered jasmine. How tenaciously it held to its trellis. No doubt stronger storms than tonight’s had come and gone before without displacing it. I tried to let that idea soothe my anxiety.

If Harper asked me to, I decided, I would try as best as I could to accept Miss Venet as a necessity of our life together. If Harper wanted her…

Then it occurred to me, how truly unlike Harper such a proposal would be. He’d abandoned Crowncross to escape deceit, to live just as he pleased—with me alone. He was stubborn and upstanding and perversely unmoved by the lure of convenience.

If I hadn’t let the sting of jealously distract me so badly, likely I would have realized all this much sooner. I knew William Harper both at his best and worst. Five years by his side, in bed, out in fields and up on roofs had taught me that I could trust him.

All at once I found myself grinning like an idiot at the Marcys’ garden.

“We will have been together five years come midnight,” I said.

The duke looked a little startled and then offered me a genuinely delighted smile.

“My congratulations to you both,” he said and I felt embarrassed. Had I become such a country bumpkin that I now went around announcing things to strangers as if I were a four-year-old who believed that all the world needed to know when my birthday came?

“Thank you,” I said.

“No. It is I who should thank you. You and your muse give my heart hope, you know,” the duke told me, though he too gazed out into the rain. “Joy is all around us if we just have the courage to embrace it, and each other.”

“I suppose you’re right. Such trust does require courage.”    

For a few moments we were both quiet. Music and light filtered from the ballroom but didn’t intrude upon on our calm. I hardly knew the duke—and given time I might come to loathe him—but just now he made the best company I could have hoped for at Squire Marcy’s ball. There was something about speaking to him that reminded me of the relief that I felt during my childhood when it had still been possible to unburden myself in confession.

I realized that as odd as he was, I didn’t want to lose track of the duke. I rather liked him.

“Are you serious about buying my art?” I asked.

“Absolutely. I’ve already snatched up everything I could lay my hands on. You are a very talented man.”

“Even if I don’t leave with you?”

“Even so,” the duke assured me.

I considered that. There was an undeniable danger in providing art to the duke. After all, I knew nothing of the other men to whom he would show my paintings or mention my name. Then I thought of the gaping hole in Harper’s roof.

“I think we can work out an understanding,” I decided.

“Wonderful!” the duke threw his arm over my shoulder and offered me a hug. I drew in a breath of him and tasted his honesty and happiness like the sweetness of honey. We discussed my pay and how often he could expect a painting. He made reasonable requests and spoke quite knowledgeably about pigment composition and the long drying times of oil paints.

Behind us the door to the veranda squealed as it was shoved open. The duke drew back with a relaxed expression as Harper glowered at him. Despite the gloom I easily discerned Harper’s clenched jaw and the butt of the pistol, hidden beneath his dark evening jacket. Candlelight from the ballroom played over the angular lines of his face and cast the corded muscle of his extended forearm into sharp relief.

“Belimai, I very much need a private word with you,” Harper ground out. Next to me, the duke bristled at Harper’s terse tone. He even stepped forward as if to shield me. Then he stilled, taking in Harper’s lean figure in the sharp light, and his face lit with recognition.

“Lord Foster…oh, I see,” the duke said as if Harper were the solution to a tricky puzzle. He glanced back at me and smiled wryly. “I leave you to your muse.”

Harper scowled all the harder and I resisted the urge to laugh as the duke departed the veranda, looking profoundly smug. After a moment Harper drew to my side.

“What was that all about?” Harper asked.

“Oh, I was just passing time alone with a handsome nobleman.” I couldn’t help but tease Harper a little. “You seemed so busy dancing with Miss Venet that I thought you wouldn’t even notice.”

“Of course I noticed,” Harper snapped then his expression changed a little. “Belimai, You know there’s nothing romantic between Miss Venet and me, don’t you?”

“Well not on your part at least,” I responded. “She was all but knocking me and Miss Marcy aside to claim you earlier this evening.”

“She wasn’t—”

“I don’t blame her.” I assured Harper. “Obviously the girl has good taste but it’s a little unkind of you to lead her along.”

“Me? Lead her along?” Harper laughed but I had no idea why. “Miss Venet is nearly as wily as you. Though not half as handsome.”

“Wily? How so?” I demanded.

“Her or you?” Harper asked. He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and managed to light it despite the spatter of rain bouncing off the overhanging roof.

“Much as I love to hear you expound upon my qualities, why don’t you tell me what mischief Miss Venet has managed to involve you in.”

“I didn’t say she involved me.” Harper exhaled a thin plume of smoke with a sigh.

“Of course she did.” I considered Harper. “She told you a sad story didn’t she?”

Harper laughed then nodded.

“You know me too well,” he said.

“I ought to after so long.”

“Five years, come the stroke of midnight,” Harper said.

I don’t know why I hadn’t expected him to have kept track, but somehow I hadn’t.

Harper continued, “I’d hoped to just get all this mess with Miss Venet over with and be back home early tonight.  But it doesn’t seem likely.”

“You still haven’t said what she’s gotten you involved in,” I reminded him. The fact that he’d brought his pistol made me worry that Miss Venet had, indeed, managed to concoct some terrible trouble. Gambling debts? Ophorium addiction?

“She wants to elope,” Harper said grimly.

“With you?” I asked and Harper rolled his eyes at me as if I were an idiot.

“With Hugh Browning.” Harper drew in another long drag of his cigarette then exhaled with an annoyed expression. “It all would have gone off without a hitch tonight except this duke turned up and the Marcys’ moved Miss Venet, her chaperone, and her father to different rooms on the third floor of the east wing, where there’s no bloody trellis to climb down and too much staff to easily slip out through the doors.”

I considered the situation for a moment while Harper smoked.

“She can’t be all that heavy. I could probably lift her—”

“No,” Harper said flatly. “I already told her and Hugh that you are not to be involved in this. If I’m discovered aiding Miss Venet to elope, there’s little the Marcys can do to me aside from snub me, which has some appeal. But as a Prodigal you could catch real trouble. I like Miss Venet, but she’s not worth risking your freedom for.”

Harper contemplated the red glow of his cigarette, then said, “A fire would clear the house but it’s too risky with so many people inside.”

I thought of Hugh Browning’s sudden interest in flying potions and guessed that he’d ignored Harper’s ultimatum.  I couldn’t hold it against Hugh for trying.  I understood the frustration of being forbidden from the one I wanted far too well. And Hugh had been truly drunk when he’d brought it up. Likely the next morning he hadn’t even remember testing the potion we’d brewed.

I smiled thinking that must’ve made certain bruises quite the mystery for poor hung-over Hugh.

“Why are you smiling like that?” Harper asked.

“Because I have a gift for Miss Venet.” I drew the vial from my pocket. “It tastes wretched and will only last her fifteen minutes, but if she downs it she ought to be able to float from the third story to the stables with a bag or two.”

Harper scowled at the brown apothecary vial in my hand.

“Should I ask where you got it?”

“Made it myself when I was a little tipsy,” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie though I felt certain that Harper recognized the vial.

“Hugh’s lucky he’s leaving on his honeymoon or I’d be having some words with him.” Harper ground out his cigarette on the underside of the marble railing and then took the vial from me. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let some duke carry you away while I’m gone, will you?”

“I’ll resist as best I can but he has made me quite the compelling offer,” I replied lightly.

Harper stilled and stared at me as if I’d struck him.

“Belimai,” he said quietly. “I know it’s been hard here with me but—”

“But you needn’t fear,” I cut him off, unable to stand him looking so raw with worry. “Go rescue the young lovers. I’ll be here when you come back, I swear.”

Harper nodded and went quickly.

I waited, feeling the wind play through my fingers, and strolling the length of the veranda. Voices and laughter drifted to me on swells of dance music. Perhaps I should have felt alone or abandoned, but I didn’t.  Instead a sense of contentedness filled me. I took a few playful steps and danced a few feet into the air.

I didn’t hear Harper return, but I knew his touch the moment his hand closed around mine and he drew me down to his side. 

“I’m so damn lucky to have you…” Harper whispered.

“So you’ve saved the day after all?” I asked.

“No, you did.” He didn’t release my hand, but slid his fingers up to caress my wrist. He gazed at me in that way that seemed so open and made even his silence feel eloquent. I leaned into him for just a moment.  Then I drew a step back to the veranda railing and Harper joined me leaning half into the rain and gazing at the jolly stone cherub as it blithely pissed up at the brooding black sky above.

“It won’t be long before midnight,” Harper commented.

“An hour or so, I’d guess,” I agreed.

“I had really hoped that we could have been away from here and home by now,” Harper said.

“There’s always next year,” I said and again Harper gave me that flatteringly affectionate glance. An instant later some uncertainty creased his brow and he scowled down at his arms.

“What I was saying earlier,” Harper began. “I meant it about knowing that it’s not been easy living with me out here. If I didn’t have you, Belimai, I don’t know that I could stand it myself. You deserve so much more than I have to offer but I hope you’ll accept this—”  Harper straightened and jammed his hand into the pocket of his evening coat. He drew out a small band of gold and held it out to me. “I only wish I could give you more.”

I silenced him with a kiss and then I snatched the ring up.

It was heavy and simple but it fit me perfectly.

Harper’s countenance lit up as I held up my hand to show him his ring on my finger.

“I won’t give you up to a duke without a fight, you know.” Harper’s tone sounded light and confident now.

“In truth I’m not exactly the one he was after,” I replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Grenfell is an admirer of my artwork, but he’s been particularly taken with your figure.”

“My figure?  When would he ever have…” Harper trailed off with a look of mortified realization. “Tell me that you didn’t put those drawings on sale.”

 “I refuse to incriminate myself,” I replied.  “But I will tell you that I will be able to buy you a new roof, Lord Foster. And I hope to keep you comfortably unclothed beneath it.”

I squeezed Harper’s hand in mine.

“You should make your excuses and take me home to your bed, Lord Foster,” I whispered.

Even through the dark I could see the blush coloring Harper’s tanned cheeks. I expected that the duke would be delighted with the painting I was already envisioning.    

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Harper and the Christmas Stocking

Mr. Harper and the Christmas Stocking

 

By Ginn Hale

 

A volley of frigid wind shook the roof and hurled sleet against the walls of the shack as if laying siege to the meager shelter. The planks of the boarded window shuddered and the low rafters groaned under the weight of snow. Harper eyed the drift blowing in from beneath the crack in the rickety door.

At this rate they’d all freeze to death long before anyone starved. So there at least was something to celebrate this Christmas morning.

Had Belimai been at his side he might have whispered as much to him and like as not drawn a smile out of him. But, thankfully, Belimai had remained at the Foster Estate, where Harper imagined he was safe, warm and most likely still sleeping. Or likelier still just dragging himself off to bed having rattled around the grounds all night amusing and scandalizing Mrs. Kately, Giles, and the rest of the staff with his gleefully devilish impersonations of Father Christmas.

He did look strikingly handsome against red velvet. Though Harper preferred to see him stretched out naked atop the cloth, than stitched up in it.

Harper frowned as his own drifting thoughts and wondered if the blow to his head hadn’t been worse than he’d first imagined. He touched the side of his skull and felt the hard mass of dried blood beneath his hair. The wound felt tender but not terribly swollen or inflamed.

Certainly, he stood in far better condition than the horses he’d been forced to put down with his pistol or the driver whose broken corpse he’d left on the riverbank along with their wrecked carriage.

Somehow, the blond widow, Mrs. Posey, and her exuberantly plump five-year-old son, Michael, had survived the wreck with little more than a few bruises and a pair of sodden breeches to show for their tumble from the icy road into a riverbank. Sergeant Beech, who ‘d climbed aboard the late carriage with his left arm in a sling and his leg swathed in plaster from the knee down, now lay in miserable condition on and floor. What good his city physician’s treatments might have done him, the tumble in a locked carriage had more than reversed. Splotches of blood seeped up through his plaster cast like scarlet poppies blooming across a field of snow. His arm hung, gray and twisted at his side.

“Don’t cut it off,” the sergeant had moaned against Harper’s back as he’d carried him through the storm blasted expanses of empty fields. 

The sergeant drifted in and out of awareness, though Harper noted that he said less and less each time.  Mrs. Posey and Harper had done what they could to keep him comfortable. Harper’s greatcoat served as the man’s blanket and the battered rag rug they’d found in the shack was his mattress, but without fuel to build a fire they were none of them warm.     

“Is it past noon, do you think?” Mrs. Posey asked from where she knelt beside the unconscious, dark-haired sergeant. Only a foot away, her little son entertained himself peering into the barren hearth with Harper’s scarf bundled around him. The bruise below his right eye looked like it belonged on a bare-knuckle boxer, as did his gap-toothed grin. Despite the violent tumble of their carriage and the ensuing hard slog through the storm, the lad seemed largely unperturbed.

“Ten or so I’d guess from the light.” Harper replied. He would have liked it if a little less light, and thus less snow, leaked in through the aged planks that made up the bowed walls. Still it was better shelter than nothing and they’d been quite lucky that Harper happened to remember the shack from his fall hunt.

“They will have noticed that the carriage didn’t arrive by now,” Mrs. Posey said though she no longer looked to Harper. She pressed her bloodied kerchief to Sergeant Beech’s gashed cheek very lightly. “A doctor will be here very soon I’m sure.”

The sergeant gave a dull groan.

“Yes,” Mrs. Posey said brightly. “Any time now. Mr. Harper is a local gentleman of very good standing and his people are probably already searching for him.”

Harper gave the widow a tight smile when she glanced to him. In all truth, he descended from a lineage of noblemen, and held the title of Lord Foster. But that wasn’t information that he made widely known, particularly not when traveling by public carriage. 

His people, with the exception of Belimai perhaps, hadn’t the faintest notion of when to expect him back from the capitol. He’d told no one his reason for leaving nor his plans for returning. To Belimai he’d only promised that he would bring him a gift to celebrate the season. He hadn’t wanted to raise Belimai’s hopes before he had the documents in hand.

Absently, he slid his hand into the pocket of his dress coat and felt the stiff resistance of carefully folded pages. Just a few stamped and sealed papers, but they’d cost him nearly a fifth of the Foster estate’s income and had required weeks of dogged effort, no end of flattery, and one brief but extremely violent encounter to secure.

He’d known the weather was turning but he’d been too delighted at the thought of delivering the writs to Belimai to heed his own instincts. He’d caught the first carriage he could…

Like a fool.

“Mother,” Michael called though he gaped up the chimney of the fireplace. ”Will he fit?”

“Come away from the hearth, my dear. It’s quite dirty. You’re getting soot all over Mr. Harper’s handsome scarf.” Mrs. Posey cast Harper an apologetic glance.

“It’s quite alright,” Harper assured her.

Michael seemed to take this as permission to remain where he was.

“Will he know that we’re here?” Michael squatted down and crawled a little farther into the cold fireplace to peer up the chimney.

“Father Christmas, you mean?” Harper guessed.

“Yes,” Michael spared Harper only a moment’s glance. “We were to be at Ross… Rossington Hall with Grandpapa. But we aren’t. Father Christmas might give my gift to Cousin George—who’s a turd--”

“Michael!” Mrs. Posey snapped at her son, her pale cheeks flushing.

“Turd-el,” Michael said gleefully. “I was just going to call him a turtle.”

Harper had to suppress a laugh.

 “As I understand it, Father Christmas keeps very well informed,” Harper told the boy. “He’s probably just been delayed by the storm.”

Mrs. Posey shot Harper a rather reproachful glance but Harper ignored her.  If thoughts of Father Christmas buoyed the child’s spirit then let him keep believing. What good would it do him to know that they were stranded here with Sergeant Beech dying slowly before their eyes?

  “If only we had something for a fire,” Mrs. Posey whispered. Very gently she brushed a string of hair back from Sergeant Beech’s pallid face. “He feels so cold.”

Short of tearing the planks from the walls and setting them alight, Harper didn’t see what could be done but to wait.  He hated waiting, but burning down their shelter certainly wasn’t an option. And while the idea of abandoning the shack to plunge blindly through the snowstorm to seek out help appealed, Harper knew it would be utter folly to go while the weather remained so bad. Harper could be foolish—particularly for Belimai’s sake, he wasn’t going to go out of his way to act like an idiot.  He had to wait, at least another hour.

“There’s something up there,” Michael suddenly called out. Then he scrambled back from below the flue as a scattering of creosote and soot tumbled down. “Father Christmas has found us!”

“Come here at once, Michael.” Alarm showed starkly on Mrs. Posey’s face and her son tottered over to her. Harper quickly stepped forward to stand between the boy and the fireplace.

More soot flooded down onto the cold hearth. Something was certainly in the chimney. In all likelihood the wind had loosened the remains of a squirrel that had made the poor choice of nesting up the chimney before the previous occupants had stoked a roaring fire.

And here’s the Christmas roast, Harper thought to himself.

Then the angular, filthy figure, dressed all in red with white trim dropped down before them. His yellow eyes seemed to gleam against the coal marking his face. Mrs. Posey gripped her son to her and the boy gave a yelp.

At the same moment Harper’s heart seemed to leap in his chest, flooding him with heat and joy.

“Belimai.” Harper stepped forward and just kept himself from embracing the other man as he realized the danger of the situation. Not just that Belimai had ventured out into the storm, but that he’d left the security of the Foster estate.  A Prodigal alone in the countryside without papers was as fair game for any natural born man to shoot as a fox.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Harper demanded.

“Looking for a fellow I seem to have mislaid. He goes by the name of William Harper. ” Belimai made an attempt at brushing some of the soot from his costume, but after scowling at his own filth hands he simply shrugged. “I would have knocked and announced myself like proper fellow but there’s about five feet of snow blocking the door, so it was down the chimney.”

 “He… he’s a devil!” Mrs. Posey whispered.

Belimai cast the pretty woman a hard glance and then smiled, displaying his sharp white teeth.

“Belimai is a Prodigal,” Harper informed her quickly. “And a friend of mine.”

Mrs. Posey continued to watch Belimai with suspicion. Her young son, however studied Belimai with a kind of hopeful fascination as if still half convinced that a sack of toys might be forthcoming despite the sinister appearance of Belimai’s wild dark hair, long black fingernails and stringy build.

“Have you brought me a spyglass?” Michael asked.

Oddly, Belimai went very still and stared at the boy as if he’d said something extraordinary. Then after a moment he reached into the voluminous pocket of his filthy red coat and withdrew the brass toy spyglass that he’d won off Giles in a game of cards last summer. He’d bettered Harper as well, but that payment had been made in the privacy of his bedroom.

“I was pretending to look for you from the turret last night.  When you hadn’t arrived this morning I started searching in earnest,” Belimai told Harper. Then he extended his hand and offered the glass to the boy. “Don’t say a devil never did anything for you.”

Michael accepted the gift with a dumbfounded expression, while Mrs. Posey seemed utterly at a loss. Harper imagined she wanted to knock the spyglass from her son’s hands but the modesty and meek manners ingrained by her proper upbringing left her looking to Harper for direction. He simply smiled at Belimai feeling relieved and amazed that he could have found them in this weather.

“You didn’t happen to bring a cord of firewood for my gift, did you?” Harper teased him.

“No, but I did leave a few lovely lumps of coal in one of your socks,” Belimai replied.

Harper laughed but then asked, “Did you really?”

“You shouldn’t have left your household for so long without sending word. We’d begun to fear the worst,” Belimai said.

Harper felt the slightest flush warm his face. Somehow he hadn’t thought that Belimai would fear for him in his absence. The knowledge, even expressed so coolly, touched him. Belimai held his gaze for just a moment then looked away.

“Is that fellow in the army uniform dead, or just very close to it?” Belimai asked with a nod to Sergeant Beech.

“He’s not dead,” Mrs. Posey stated firmly.

“But he is very badly injured.” Harper added. “We need to get him help as soon as we can.”

Harper scowled as another howl rose on the battering wind. Belimai cocked his head, studying the sergeant briefly.

“He might be the reason the sheriff and half a dozen armed men are out on the road…”

“They’re looking for us?” Mrs. Posey asked and for the first time she seemed able to look Belimai in the face, if only briefly.

“I believe so. I overheard them shouting to each other from my roost up in a tree. It sounded as though the soldiers summoned the sheriff and started searching after their comrade and his carriage failed to turn up. They can’t be far from here.” Belimai started towards the chimney then he glanced back to Harper. “I’ll bring them and a few shovels, as quickly as I can.”

“Wait,” Harper couldn’t keep himself from reaching out and catching Belimai’s arm. “You won’t be safe approaching them alone—“

“I can’t very well haul you or the lovely lady here up the chimney with me and even if I did the cold—“

“I’ll go!” Michael shouted suddenly. “You can take me on your sleigh!”

“Michael! You will do no such thing,” Mrs. Posey objected.

Belimai simply gave a laugh and shook his head at the flushed, fat child.

“I don’t think that toting a little boy around under my arm would impress the sheriff as to my good character.”

“At least take these.” Harper thrust the writs of free travel to him and Belimai accepted and read them with a growing expression of wonder.

“How…” He glanced briefly to Harper’s face, his eyes shining like gold. “This is why you were away so long.”

“Yes. I’m afraid my success made me rather cocksure about racing home when I knew the roads would be in ruins.”

“Will—” Belimai spoke his name softly but then cut himself off short. They weren’t alone and couldn’t afford to betray any but the most genial of intimacies. “Thank you. I’ll put them to good use.”

With that Belimai ducked back into the shadows of the hearth and bounded up out of sight.

 

##

 

Six hours later the great halls of the Foster estate echoed with the inebriated carols of half a dozen soldiers and accompanying piano provided by a bashful country doctor whom Harper suspected had become as besotted with Mrs. Posey as with his hard cider. His cheeks glowed nearly as red as the holly berries dotting the evergreen bowers, which decked the doorways and mantle of the hearth.

Harper added another log to fire, basking in the heat and admiring how the warm light seemed to cast Belimai’s skin in tones of burnished gold. A lieutenant kindly refilled Harper’s cup and he thanked the man, though the cider came from his own stores. A few feet from them, several of the soldiers did their best to lure the few women present to dance. The young housemaids remained coy but Harper’s white-haired cook leapt up at the opportunity. She soon revealed herself as a surprisingly spry woman. Harper never would have guessed.

Under most circumstances it would have been inappropriate for any of them to socialize in this manner.   

But with all of them being snowed in together on the holiday, Harper felt they might as well make the best of the day that they could. Mrs. Kately deemed to relax her strict control of the housemaids and the kitchen women as well as the lanky footman Giles. Drinks, song and laughter flowed easily.

Eventually, Mrs. Posey retired to bed, taking her giddy son—Michael had nearly nodded off into his serving of pudding only to rally when Belimai agreed to fly to the top of the ballroom candelabra. The sight had inspired a rousing cheer from the soldiers.  

Harper joined the men in their carols, danced with his cook and indulged in several rounds of toasts. But as the winter sun sank low he felt the long day wearing down on him. At last, he bid his guests, rescuers, and staff a very good evening.

He resisted the urge to peer into any of the ornately framed mirrors to see if Belimai had looked up from his hand at the card table. Belimai would join him when he could best slip away unnoticed. A number of the soldiers still edged around him, basking in the novelty of meeting a Prodigal, particularly one who commanded the winds to carry him in flight just like a character from their bible school days.

To the country-bred men a unicorn couldn’t have been more exotic. They stared at his glossy black nails and met his gaze with the excited fascination of children watching a lion at the zoo. The two men who hailed from the capitol seemed far more surprised by Belimai’s character. It was the rarest of Prodigals who hailed a party of armed kingsmen, looked them in the eyes as he offered them his aid, and then asked nothing in return.

It would do Belimai some good to be toasted and teased as their Christmas miracle. In truth his arrival most likely saved Sergeant Beech’s life and though neither Mrs. Posey, her son, nor any of these soldiers knew it, Belimai was hardly more immune to the cruelty of the storm than any natural man. Riding those frigid winds he ‘d risked freezing to death while on the ground, striding across the countryside without papers, he very well could have been shot. 

Offering the occasional sharp observation and wicked smile from his nonchalant posture at the card table, Belimai betrayed nothing of the danger he’d endured. Knowing him, he likely thought nothing of it, though Harper suspected that before Belimai retired from the table he would have won himself a tidy compensation.

For his part Harper felt glad enough just to be home. He took the marble stairs with ease despite the growing gloom. From the far windows, stained glass angels watched over his progress to the quiet private chambers of the old fortress. He could have lit his way with just a touch to the gas lamps that now lined the stone walls but he knew the way to Belimai’s bed even in the dark.

 He let himself into the comfortable room. The glow of white snow shone through the small round window and a fire burned low in the hearth. Harper quickly stripped. Out of long habit he folded his jacket and trousers over the chair where he’d already leaned his boots. Last he pulled the black kidskin glove from his scarred right hand and stretched his fingers.

 Many of Belimai’s clothes lay scattered about the room along with his stacks of sketchbooks and collections of still life studies. Harper moved aside a bottle of sepia ink and rinsed himself with the orange scented water on the nightstand. His nightshirt, neatly pressed and folded, waited for him in the drawer of the dresser. Belimai took such absurd care of it in comparison to any of his own possessions.

  As Harper fell back into the cool comfort of the bed he noted one of Belimai’s filthy socks hanging from the light fixture over head. He had no idea how he could find such a sight so charming and delightful but it brought a wide smile to his face. He drew the blankets around him and took in the sharp scent of Belimai’s body. Then he closed his eyes and dozed.

A little later, the sound of a door opening woke him. Belimai stepped in through the door that adjoined their two rooms—not from the hallway as Harper had expected. He looked amused as he caught sight of Harper already laying in his bed.

“See how we are.” Belimai shook his head and dropped down on the edge of the bed. “You come to my room and I go to yours.  We have the makings of a theatric farce.”

Harper smiled and sat up to help Belimai out of his clothes. He had to admit that simply tossing the garments aside allowed him to have Belimai naked in remarkable time. He drew back the blankets and Belimai dived under to press his chilled body against Harper’s warm flesh. A rush of desire flooded Harper as he ran his hands over Belimai. He kissed him once but drew back.

“What is it?” Harper asked.

Belimai caught Harper’s hand before he withdrew it from his chest and simply held it. “Will, how much did those papers cost you?”

“Nothing more than I’d gladly have paid,” Harper replied and he meant it with all his heart. Belimai looked troubled and Harper knew why.

“How am I going to repay you?” Belimai asked.

“Repay me for a gift?” Harper demanded with quiet indignation. “What kind of man expects to be repaid for a Christmas present?”

“It’s more than a gift,” Belimai replied and Harper found the softness of his tone almost disturbing.  He couldn’t know if it was tenderness or deep regret that he saw in Belimai’s expression.

 “It’s my freedom. With those papers I could go anywhere. I could travel to the continent or even sail for the colonies,” Belimai said.

“You could,” Harper agreed. He reminded himself that he’d known from the very start that the writs for which he fought and paid dearly would allow Belimai to leave him. He’d hoped that Belimai would not do so. A sharp ache speared through his chest at the thought now.

“Will you?” Harper asked after a few moments of quiet.

“Not alone,” Belimai replied and a sudden look of knowing came over him. “Did you really think that I would?”

Harper met his bright eyes and shook his head. Belimai sighed and then flopped his head down on Harper’s shoulder. The two of them lay quietly together. Almost shyly Belimai kissed the line of Harper’s throat.

“You know I wouldn’t leave you,” Belimai told him. “And you know very well why.”

“Do I?” Harper feigned surprised but then Belimai kissed him deeply and he felt both his own yearning and Belimai’s in their embrace. What a hot mouth Belimai possessed, and so inviting, despite all those teeth.

As Belimai drew back just a little, to catch his breath Harper couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Are you gloating now?”

“Perhaps,” Harper admitted. This whole evening struck him as almost magical—Belimai most of all.  He asked, “How did you know to come looking for me anyway?”

“That? It was because you’re so damned conscientious and you had promised to bring me back a gift for the holiday.” Belimai leaned up on an elbow and reached out to push a lock of Harper’s hair back from his face. “I knew you’d come regardless of the weather.”

“I’m so unsurprising, am I?”

“More predictable than a pocket watch.” Belimai nodded. To prove him a little wrong Harper knocked his elbow out from under him and rolled atop Belimai. Belimai grinned up at him with a pleased expression that told Harper that Belimai had expected just as much from him and wanted it as well. They kissed again and then Harper dropped back to lay his head next to Belimai’s on the pillow.

“Alright, but why dress as Father Christmas? You were hardly subtle.”

“Ah well...”

Harper wasn’t certain but he thought a slight flush colored Beliamai’s angular face.

“I had been planning to swoop down from the turret, take you by surprise, and--you know--offer to show you my naughty list, or some such thing. But then the carriage never came. And I started to fear it never would…”

Harper glimpsed the stark pain in Belimai’s expression.

Then Belimai wiped at his eyes in annoyance and pulled a weak smile. “To tell the truth I got so worried about the carriage that I forgot I was dressed like a right prat and just lit out to find you.”

“I’m happy as hell that you did,” Harper said. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure… and speaking of which,” Belimai cocked his head slightly. “Aren’t you ever going to ask what gift I have for you?”

“I hadn’t thought… “ Harper didn’t go on to point out Belimai’s poverty. “What is it?”

Belimai grinned. “Let’s just get it unwrapped and see, shall we?”

Belimai caught the hem of Harper’s nightshirt and began pulling it off him. In less then a breath Harper went from confusion to delighted comprehension. He all but tore his nightshirt off and hurled it aside. Where it fell he didn’t care in the slightest.

“Merry Christmas, Will,” Belimai whispered into Harper’s ear. Then he kissed, caressed and nipped his way down Harper’s flushed chest to his groin. He bowed his head and took Harper in a long and deep kiss.

Harper caressed Belimai’s wild hair, gazed up at the ceiling in ecstasy, and caught a glimpse of the overhanging sock. No wonder he liked the sight of the thing so much, he thought wryly. And then he thought of nothing at all, giving himself up to joy of the warmest welcome he could ever have wanted.