by Delyth Penrose
On the night they’d met, a decade ago, when Rhys had still been a child shaky with a summer fever and all his meager strength was focused on not passing out in his layers of velvets and silks, he had somehow misunderstood the ceremony of fealty to the heir. He’d fully expected the tall, intimidating young knight had come to fight him — to guard the kingdom from his weakness and insufficiency as the nearest in line to a throne that needed an older, stronger heir than a six-year-old boy.
His uncle had certainly made no secret of his inadequacy; in Rhys’s fevered, exhausted mind, the knight who had sworn to defend the kingdom and its blood was surely going to defend it from the risk of having to be ruled by him.
But the blade through the back had never come. It had taken him years to understand that it never would, not while Beren lived to defend him.
Later, when he’d explained what he’d thought his uncle had wanted from the ceremony, Beren looked as though Rhys had thrust the sword-blade through him himself.
He’d never intended to hurt his knight, not once he knew that his knight was his. But he’d always been clumsy, and his tears had always hurt Beren more cruelly than a sword. Beren’s shield arm guarded him from steel, but he had no defense at all against his prince’s grief — even when his prince was no longer a prince, no longer a warrior, no longer even a man…
“Stop,” Beren said softly. He touched Rhys’ shoulder with the same heartbreaking gentleness as ever, too aware of his great strength and too respectful of Rhys’ rank and birth — even after Rhys had been stripped of his title; even after he had fled to the temple for sanctuary, rather than drink the toxin the king had handed him.
The king had given him the bloodied vial with every expectation of the same dutiful obedience that had seen every other lord of the old blood drink down the potion with a salute. Rhys, alone among the king’s blood-kin, had refused the command and fled. And his too-loyal knight had followed him even then, regardless of the cost to his family’s fortune and status — but still Beren would not presume the right to touch, even with all he had thrown aside to follow Rhys into exile.
Beren still hesitated, every time, as though he were somehow uncertain of his welcome despite it all. Beren always touched him with the same anxious, careful tenderness, as though Rhys were still the child who’d stood a handspan smaller than his greatsword and stared up at the shining blade with wide, terrified eyes.
As always, Rhys turned into Beren’s arms and stepped close enough to hold him. He wondered if they would live long enough for his knight ever to draw him close of his own accord.
Beren’s heart beat deep and steady and strong beneath his cheek — one of the few comforts left to a barefoot, ragged youth who dressed in the tattered, coarse homespun of an impoverished nun by his king’s mocking order.
“No,” Rhys said, stung. “Not anymore.” Not after he’d lost his name, his freedom, his–
“My prince,” Beren repeated, soft but unshakeable. “You are more than what you were. Not less. Never less.”
Rhys couldn’t help it; he laughed, wild and sharp, hands splayed over the white gown of a woman sworn to her temple and her vows. Over his belly, growing round with the seed that the king had expected them to destroy once they had quickened, so that his knights and warmages could return to the batttlefield with a mother-priestess’s blood-binding to the land, but no awkward child-burden to slow their strides or weaken their wills–
Beren took him by the shoulders. “I swore myself to you,” he insisted. “Not to the king, and not to his realm. I swore myself to you, and I am yours. Wherever you go, whatever you choose, I will follow you.”
“Then you follow a fool and a coward,” Rhys said bitterly, “and I have cost you your family’s honor in the court for nothing.”
“You are the source and the foundation of my honor,” Beren replied, a too-kind reproof. “I merely follow the example you have led. It takes a knight’s courage to defend the defenseless.”
“But I have no honor now, and I have never had courage.”
“Then what was it that stayed your hand, my prince?”
Rhys turned his face away, still unable to answer that question even to himself.
It had not been honor; honor would have had him take the vial, in loyal obedience to king and kingdom. But if it had truly been cowardice, he would have buckled from the sheer pressure of their expectations. And stubbornness alone would not have seen him so far, because he had never had pride enough for stubbornness.
Perhaps it had been a touch of the king’s madness; perhaps that ran in the old blood along with the earth-song.
To the king, it was not only justified to waste every last man’s life in the fight they could never win against the Imperium — it was essential. The Imperium’s assassin had brought the queen to her childbed too soon, and she had been mortally wounded defending the love of her life and their unborn son. Odein had lost his wife, his heir, his eye, and his mind all in the same night, and after that he had nothing left in his soul but vengeance. He valued nothing in the life that remained to him — not his grieving kinsmen; not his terrified foot-soldiers; not his devastated peasantry; not his dying land.
Perhaps the peasants had the right of it after all, Rhys thought in quiet despair. They had never expected anything other than madness, capricious cruelty, and sudden vicious slaughter from the war — it hardly mattered whether it came at the hands of the Imperium or at the hands of their own lords. Death was death regardless of whose hand dealt the blow.
At the king’s command, every lord of the old blood with a strong-enough earth-song for the bond had undergone the rites of Teiresias, and bound themselves to the land with the oldest blood-rite of all, the one made beneath the moon by every woman in the world. And then they had been given to the priests of the Horned One to quicken, and anchor the blood-binding with the life-binding of children of the eldest blood conceived upon the kingdom’s bare earth.
And then, by the king’s next command, every one of them drank the vial, and emptied himself, and returned to the warfront unencumbered by child, wielding a far stronger earth-bonding to the land itself than any mage of the Imperium could ever dream to match.
Every other lord, that was. Every lord but the king’s unsatisfactory heir.
Rhys had never wanted the thing he carried. He knew that it served no purpose but to bind him to the land. It had never been meant to live; no one had ever wanted it to live. He himself had dreaded it from the moment the decree was made; he had blocked the horror of the Teiresian rites from his mind, had lost the ceremonies of the Horned God in a drug-fogged blur of torches and smoke and terror. He was still appalled by the thought of the thing; the horror and revulsion had only gotten worse once the evidence began to make itself manifest in a body that was no longer even his own to control.
But, when he had stood dressed in grim black velvet and phantom laceshadows, in the great hall before the eyes of all his kinsmen, facing the vial — he couldn’t make himself drink.
The others had drunk with no hesitation — some with sorrowful acknowledgement, some with carefully guarded reserve, some with blindingly obvious relief.
Rhys alone couldn’t drink.
Beren, he was certain, would not have surrendered a child’s life to the king’s madness. Beren had sworn his life to the protection of those who could not protect themselves. Beren had taken fierce wounds in the defense of a boy who was nothing to him but the king’s order. Beren would be disappointed in him, if his heart was less than what a knight’s ought to have been.
Beren loved children. Rhys couldn’t cause harm to anything that Beren loved.
And, underneath all that, Rhys knew a little too much of what it was to be helpless and unwanted.
And so, in the end, faced with the vial and the terribly public test of his loyalty to the king’s war, Rhys had claimed sanctuary from the Temple priestesses instead. In mocking disgust, the king had commanded the Temple to treat his womanly coward of an heir as a proper priestess, in service to the Goddess during his sanctuary.
Rhys supposed that Odein had thought his pride would revolt, and that he would take the vial as an alternative to the priestesses’ duties to the men who came to claim their embrace. But Odein had never understood that Rhys had never felt any pride in himself; he truly had had nothing to lose. He had submitted himself to the priestesses’ white gowns and veils, and to the vows of poverty and service, and to the offerings both of ritual and of his own body.
In the end, he had been nothing but a failure to his kingdom — unforeseen, but not unexpected. Failure had always been Odein’s only expectation of him.
“You call it neither honor nor courage, my prince,” Beren said, and Rhys startled at the voice that echoed so deeply through his most hidden thoughts. “What name, then, would you give in their place?”
“I don’t know!” Rhys cried, hands knotted in the fabric of the priestess-gown. “I’m sorry. I’m just… I’m a failure at this as well. I’m sorry I keep disappointing you–”
Beren shook him by the shoulders, enough to rock him on his feet; it startled his gaze up, and once he’d met those deep eyes, he couldn’t look away.
“You have never, ever disappointed me, my prince.”
“How can I not?” Rhys demanded, incredulous. “You’re a father — how can you forgive me for not wanting this thing, after all I’ve thrown aside to keep it? I should want it! I’ve given all this to keep it alive, but I can’t — I can’t make myself — but I still let myself hide behind it, I hide myself in the temple while every other lord marches to war, and now Odein has no blood-heir left; I’ve cast off the kingdom’s needs for nothing! I don’t even know why–”
“My prince,” Beren murmured, and the heat of his breath against Rhys’s cheek sent a warm shiver to seize deep inside. “I swore myself to your protection when you were nothing but a bright-eyed child. And then you grew into a fair young man, and gave your body itself for your land, your kindness greater than your fear. And you still give of yourself with every breath, every heartbeat, every day you live here to save another’s life.”
“It costs me nothing to breathe,” Rhys murmured, eyes downcast. “You are the one who has paid in blood for my whims, you and my kinsmen.”
“And the service I have offered to you is but a pale mockery of what you have given for the child you protect,” Beren replied. “I am humbled by your courage, and your mercy, and your selflessness.”
“Selflessness? Courage? I’ve never in my life–”
“Let me finish,” Beren said, softly. “I will have no more of your self-loathing. You think me the ideal of knighthood — but I am less pure a knight, less pure a man, than you. I treasure the reward I receive for my service. I am rewarded every day by your words, your presence, your smile. The child you guard has never rewarded you, not with power or with joy or even with peace — but you would never think to ask any reward at all. And yet you shield him with your very life, simply because no one else would.”
“That’s not it,” Rhys protested, miserable. “Beren, I’m… I’m just a coward, just–”
“I said, hush.”
Beren sank to his knees before him, before the growing evidence of his lord’s unnatural distortion. He stilled Rhys’s half-formed attempt at flight with strong, careful hands, curved against Rhys’ hips. His hold was warm and strong and utterly immovable, solid as the earth itself beneath Rhys’s bare, dirty feet, and he looked up into Rhys’s eyes with the luminous faith of a priest in worship.
“Here, now, just as you are,” his knight said, “barefoot, in a poor woman’s simple gown, having cast aside all your birthright not for riches or reward, but for the sake of mercy alone, for the sake of one who has no other defender — you are a finer knight and a finer man than any who stand proud in their velvet and steel amid the king’s court.”
He took Rhys’s shaking hand between both of his own, and kissed the pale shadow where the heir’s signet had once encircled his finger. “It is my life’s greatest honor to serve you, my prince.”
Then, kneeling at his side, still holding his hand, Beren looked up at him with an oddly shy attempt at mischief: “Yes, I’ve done with my lecturing. I expect you ought chastise my impertinence now.”
No matter how fiercely he fought, Rhys couldn’t fight back the tears that welled up in his eyes, or choke down the sobs catching in his throat. He knew Beren would take it badly, knew it would distress the kindest soul in all the kingdom — he heard Beren take an anxious breath, and then the pallet sagged under his weight.
Beren sat as close as he dared, shoulder to shoulder, offering himself as the unshakable rock for the storm of Rhys’s emotions to wear itself against. Offering, but never, ever taking.
Rhys twisted around and buried his face in Beren’s surcoat, burrowed into the strength of his arms, trying to hide the shame of himself in the only shelter he’d ever trusted.
Beren’s hands cupped Rhys’ shoulders as gently as though he were a trembling little bird. “You should rest before the evening’s calling,” he said softly. “I’ll fetch something from the kitchens.”
“I’ll go down,” Rhys mumbled into his chest. “There are prayers at the fourth bell, and then I’m to prepare the hall for the gathering meal.”
“I’ll prepare the hall. You need rest, and nourishment,” Beren insisted. “You never eat properly at the meals. You pick at your bread and stare at the table.”
“You’d be ashamed of yourself too, if you sat amid a room full of strangers with a bellyful of–” Rhys stopped himself short, dug both hands through his hair, and said, “You wouldn’t, would you. You would be able to love it for its own sake. You have that kind of heart.”
“I cannot imagine what I would do,” Beren said, “but I am not so noble as you like to think me.” He laid his hand gently upon the curve of Rhys’s belly. “I do love this child, and not for his own sake. I love him simply because he is yours.”
The tears welled up again, burning in his throat; Beren made a sound that might almost have been a curse, and he rubbed the tears from Rhys’s cheeks with sword-calloused fingertips.
“I meant only comfort,” Beren said, his voice husky with emotion. “I cannot apologize for what my heart bids me, but — oh, my prince, I cannot bear it when you weep.”
“I know,” Rhys choked. “I’m sorry, I — I’m weak and stupid and I’m sorry–”
“You are not.” Beren brushed his hair back from his eyes, cupped a hand to his cheek, to hold his gaze in earnest. “Your heart is overfull, and it spills over at any ungentle touch. My lady was just the same while she awaited our children. If anything, I am grieved that my clumsy words–”
“No,” Rhys said, and snuffled back snot and tears and gulped hard, scrubbing his nose on the sleeve of his gown with complete disregard for royal protocol. “Don’t you dare apologize for my own faults! If I weren’t — if I weren’t so damned weak–”
Beren cupped his face in both hands, brushing at the tear-streaks with his thumbs, and bent to kiss his brow — the same lovingly paternal gesture he had given a sobbing six-year-old boy a decade earlier.
Rhys thought bitterly that if he could never be man enough to control his tears in front of a war-blooded knight, then he had no right to wish to be seen as anything more than a squalling child.
“Enough, I think, from both of us,” Beren said, smoothing his hair as though Rhys were no older than his own firstborn. “You are worn and distraught, and I am no better. But, my prince, I will not have you apologize for that which is beyond you. The child saps your strength, even as he overfills your heart — and your body with it. You must not blame yourself for your weariness, any more than you do for your increase.” Then he fixed him with a stern look: “I expect that you are sensible enough not to blame yourself for your increase?”
Rhys splayed both hands over his rounded belly, in an utterly futile urge to hide himself. “I… no, I know it’s… it’s necessary, but–”
“Good, then,” Beren said crisply, and dusted his knees when he stood. “Wait here and rest. If I find you sleeping upon my return, I’ll bring you a sweet from the hearth — after all, we must encourage you both to rest and to grow round.”
“I have grown round without any encouragement at all,” Rhys muttered.
Beren laughed aloud. “My prince, my little lord — you have barely begun to ripen. Have you ever seen a woman being led to her childbed?”
“Of course not!” Rhys said, appalled. “I would never–”
“I think that you should,” Beren said, and ignored his shocked, sputtering protests. “You stand here in the Goddess’ own temple, among the priestesses who carry their sons and daughters to their callings. You stand among them — and you face what they face. You should be prepared for your coming trial, just as any young priestess would be.”
“But I’m not…” Rhys hesitated, swallowed hard, and then said, “I’m not. I’m …neither.”
“I know,” Beren said, and smoothed his hair again, as though it were for his own comfort as much as Rhys’s own. “I know. But I cannot think the high priestess so cruel that she would ask you to walk alone and unprepared into the travail that every mother here has faced with the support of her sisterhood. At the very least, I shall ask.”
He bowed his head, fist clasped to his heart, and left with a calm, unhurried stride.
It was both cruel and unfair of Beren to ask him to sleep after filling his head with that tangle of dread and shame and terror and embarrassment, Rhys thought, vexed and frightened at the same time.
He curled onto his side and tucked his knees up as much as he could. Rhys had seen the hunting-dogs whelp, and he knew that there was blood and filth and snappish pain, and he knew that dogs whelped more easily than women. He didn’t want to think about anyone’s childbed, let alone his own — his scrawny bird-boned frame, his boy’s hips, and a child’s skull, and…
He wondered what the sweet might have been, if he’d had any chance to earn it.
Rhys’s mind was still whirling in a snarl of dread and disgust and utterly futile efforts to push the horrible thoughts away when he heard Beren ease the door open again. He lay as still as he could — Beren chuckled, and said, “At least you are resting. I grant you the benefit of your intentions.”
“How do you always know?” Rhys sighed, pushing himself up and swinging his bare feet to the floor.
“I’ve known you since you stood no taller than my shield, my prince.”
“That’s hardly an answer.”
“Perhaps not yet,” Beren said, smiling as he set the tray on the desk. “It will be, in a few years, when you watch your own child pretending to take his naps.”
For a horrible moment, Rhys thought he might throw up.
Goddess. He looks at me and still he sees the child I was. Old enough to fight, old enough to conceive, and yet he looks at me as though I were no older than his own son. And I can’t — I can’t even look at myself, I can’t look at it, I can’t stand this — I can’t bear even the thought of this thing growing in me–
“Slowly,” Beren said, and there was an arm steadying him, and a crust of bread pressed into his shaking hands. “Gently. My prince, you must be more mindful with yourself. My lady would rise too swiftly from her bed at the sound of our eldest’s cries — and her face would turn precisely that shade of curdled-milk, the moment before she swooned. Rise slowly, that your heart and breath can keep apace…”
Rhys had intended to protest that it wasn’t his heart weakening him — except that after an instant’s thought, he couldn’t give voice to such a falsehood.
Rhys’s preparations for the callings had become nearly a ritual in themselves. He cleansed himself with water and soft cloths, then prepared himself with oil — dutifully, and liberally.
His first calling had been an unpleasant shock, without anything to ease him in that way. The elderly priestess who was Wisdom’s Hand had tended to his bleeding, while giving him a terribly embarrassing lecture. She had been quite explicit in how he was to prepare himself. Long past answering the calling herself, she had less than charitable opinions of the sort of men who came. As she’d tartly remarked, a visit to the temple offered both gambling and the chance at a healthy, relatively cheap bedpartner to men who were tempted to seek a pair of vices for the price of one.
The principles, as the Mother’s Hand had explained to him, were well meant. Those who wished to partake of the Goddess’ nature as celebrant of love would make offerings at the temple. The would-be celebrants brought their offerings to the desired altar or alcove — the Goddess as Maiden, as Mother, as Wisdom, as Caprice, as Power. The would-be celebrants who preferred a catamite to a sylph took their offerings to the altar of the Goddess’ Consort, or directly to the Horned One’s grove.
Each night, the Aspects’ Hands would blindfold themselves and choose from among the offerings, and each priestess would be given to a celebrant for the night. No celebrant could demand a certain partner; no priestess could favor a certain celebrant; it was safely left to the Goddess’ Hands.
But Rhys was the only servant of his Aspect in the temple. To fulfill the king’s order that he be treated as any other priestess and given in service to any who sought solace, the Goddess’ Hands had had to cleanse an ancient alcove and dedicate it to the Aspect of Teiresias, the Bridge — the child who had cast aside all division before birth, who had been made in the living image of the Consort’s perfect union with the Goddess.
The other Aspects had enough priestesses to answer the calling to preserve the chance and the mystery. But every celebrant who made offering to Teiresias’ alcove knew precisely whom the Goddess’ favor would grant them for a night. It had been a great sport among the newly rich for the first month or so — particularly among the drunken sons of merchant-lords too young in their blood to have the land-bond.
Perhaps some of the merchants’ sons were kind enough not to seize the chance to make a mockery of the old blood’s disgraced heir. Rhys had never met the ones who were that kind, because the ones who came to the temple were the ones who thought it a great evening’s sport to wager for the chance to bed the pussy-prince.
When he had still been slender, it had been harder to endure. At a certain level of intoxication, most of the celebrants had found him to be acceptable, equipped with the correct number of openings — if one simply ignored the additional appendage, which was easy enough to do amid the spill and swirl of the priestess’s white gown.
Often they had come in packs, two or three at once, because they needed their fellows’ drunken dares to screw up their courage to bed the king’s heir as though he were a dockside harlot rather than a priestess. And it was a dare to them — to prove themselves bold and virile enough to perform acts that made a wanton woman of their disgraced prince, in front of their equally drunken peers.
Once his condition had begun to manifest itself more clearly, though — once it became evident that Teiresias’ priestess was not given to them in an aspect of the Maiden, or even Caprice, but fully and inexorably becoming the Mother, a man’s belly rounding with the child he carried in a woman’s womb — then the young bloods faced a greater risk when they sought him out for drunken mockery.
Obviously they scorned the weakling woman-prince wearing dresses that proclaimed his availability to be bedded by any real man. That was all they claimed to expect of the old blood: so lily-frail and effeminate that even their men were only suited to be women, to be given the burden of squalling brats at the teat.
But to be a virile son of fresh young blood who couldn’t be aroused by the night’s Goddess-given priestess… that was a failure of your young blood’s strength. Your peers mocked you for that, used it against your family and your reputation. That made people whisper that the king might look for half-impotent, half-grown boys like you, the next time he wanted to make mother-warriors to send into battle. Whispering such things about you and your kin meant the king might spare their own kin.
Any man among them could be gelded, or worse, at the king’s command — and the king was mad. The king had already done this to his only living heir.
Rhys could watch the realizations shake them, as they used him and whispered their appalled scorn to each other. He merely envied their chance to remain ignorant and proud for as long as they had.
After he’d grown noticeably distended, one of the boys had struck him, in fury at his own uneasy revulsion and his inability to become erect in front of his fellows’ jeering mockery. Rhys had counted himself fortunate that he hadn’t loosened any teeth, and that the arrogant fool saw fit merely to batter his face and bloody his nose and lip, rather than to strike at any more vulnerable places.
The Goddess forbade abuse of Her priestesses, and the one who had struck him was barred from the temple. So were the two who had watched and allowed it. Rhys considered a lifetime’s banishment from the Goddess’ embrace more than ample compensation for his injuries. He was satisfied that recompense had been paid, and gladdened that he would never face those particular fools again.
But then, the next morning, Beren had seen his bruises.
Rhys still cursed himself for not thinking to seek out Wisdom’s Hand when it had happened; all he’d wanted was his bed. But the bruises had purpled spectacularly overnight. Rhys had never before seen his gentle knight in the grip of blind rage.
It was the first time Beren had refused a direct order. Despite Rhys’s increasingly frantic demands that he stay, Beren had left the temple with his blade unsheathed, and the priestesses took turns preventing Rhys from following him — because if he set foot outside the temple grounds, his sanctuary would have been forfeit.
Beren had returned unharmed in the evening, his blade clean — but Rhys dared not wonder how scrupulously it had been tended. And his eyes were clear of any guilt — but Rhys thought that Beren would never find guilt in that which he perceived to be the delivery of justice. And Rhys couldn’t even ask after their safety; no one would ever speak of them within the temple walls again. Their existence was no longer recognized by the temple, after they had been cast out of the Goddess’ favor.
After that day, Beren had stood vigil through each of Rhys’ callings. When Rhys served his celebrant in a chamber that permitted discretion, Beren stood outside the door. When the chamber did not permit such separation, Beren stood within the chamber itself, with his back turned to offer some faint gesture towards privacy — and with his blade bare in his hands.
Rhys had begged him to leave, ordered him, raged, wept, pled, even asked the Goddess’ Hands to intercede on his behalf. But when he chose, Beren was as obstinate as the stone he had been named for. In his stubborn head, he had decided that he had failed in his duty to the prince’s safety. And he would never permit himself a second failure, no matter how personally humiliating the arrangement might be for them both.
Rhys found one lonely spark of mercy in Beren’s vigilance: since then, only a single group of drunken merchants’ sons’ mutual goading had brazened their way past the glaring presence of such a stern overseer. And they had been so very drunk that they had collapsed into a sodden heap before they had even managed to extract themselves from their clothing. Once the third passed out still fumbling at his own breeches, Rhys had pushed the tangle of them off the pallet and claimed a night’s rest as his service– or rather, as much rest as a person could manage over the din of their snores.
What surprised him most was that even after word had spread of the pussy-prince’s scowling bed-guardian, offerings were still made to Teiresias’ alcove. But they were no longer rich young fops who banded together to buy enough offering-tokens to tip the Goddess’ hand in their favor.
The men who continued to seek his bed were not wealthy, as a rule. Some of them were devout, and saw in him the perfect union of the Goddess and her Consort.
There had also been artists — fresco-painters, a sculptor. Rhys welcomed them with ill-concealed relief when Teirisias’ Choice bade him serve them for the night. All they asked was that he disrobe for them, pose as they wished, and be still while they worked.
There had been a physician, once. His examining touch had been deft and gentle and quite professional, but Rhys had been unable to shake the uneasy feeling that the man truly yearned to open his belly like a gutted fish and scrutinize his inner secrets.
Then there were the …others. The strange ones. Those who were neither devout nor professionally intrigued were often humiliated, furtive, guilt-sick — they hooded themselves and held their silence as they waited for the Goddess’ choice, mortified by their desires. But they came to him regardless. Whatever desire drove them was stronger than their shame.
They frightened Rhys, but not for his own sake, not much. He had already learned what a shamed man might do to the cause of his shame, and the wild, guilt-flayed edge in them made them unpredictable. He had never paid much heed to his looks; all he feared for himself was that he might be struck in the stomach. But if some violent fool were to raise a hand to him and Beren shed the fool’s blood within the Temple’s own walls, the Goddess’s Hands could not overlook it.
Tradition held that the Goddess’ Hands chose celebrants unencumbered by mortal prejudice. But Caprice’s Hand often took advantage of her Aspect. Sometimes she ahem-adjusted the tokens gathered in Teirisias’ alcove. On occasion, Rhys found himself given to one of Caprice’s celebrants — or more than one of them at once, or even to men from among the Mother’s celebrants. Somehow, Caprice’s Hand always chose those who reacted with amusement to the calling’s surprise, rather than with disgust or with horror.
Rhys wished he understood how she did it, so that he could have borrowed some of that skill when he made Teiresias’ choice. His stomach rolled with dread and nausea whenever he bound the scarf over his eyes and reached into the bowl an acolyte held for him.
The acolyte took the chosen token from him, and Rhys unbound his eyes sooner than he ought, just to know. Several of the other Aspects’ acolytes were already milling among the men waiting in the sanctuary hall, seeking out the matches to the tokens the Hands had chosen for their own priestesses. Rhys watched his young acolyte’s bright mop of curls as he darted among the taller figures who lounged around maintaining pretenses of disinterest in the outcome.
His acolyte paused by a figure huddled against the wall, in a nondescript brown cloak. His heart sank even before the boy took the cloaked figure’s token and led him through the crowd toward Wisdom’s altar, to be examined for signs of illness or disease.
This celebrant was accepted; the acolyte returned and took his hand, rather than prompting him for a second choice. Rhys followed the child, with his heart pounding ridiculously hard in his throat. He told himself that he ought to have gotten accustomed to it already, but every single time, his heart tried to beat its way free of his chest in panic.
Beren stood guard outside a chamber with a proper door. That was one comfort; the night wasn’t so busy that they were resorting to the alcoves between the arches, with nothing but hastily-hung sheets for privacy. Still, Rhys bent his head; he could never meet Beren’s eyes while he walked to his night’s calling, to serve a stranger’s desire.
How can he not be disgusted by me? Rhys wondered, for the hundredth time. How can he look at me — how can he still smile at me? I’m not truly given to the Goddess through faith or love — I’m just whoring myself, because I’m too disobedient to my king’s will to simply kill the thing and fight…
The cloaked man inside the chamber was easily two hands taller than Rhys, and he startled at the sound of the door opening. A jumpy celebrant was rarely a good sign. That spoke of nerves, and shame, and oversensitized reflexes — the one who’d beaten him had barely stopped pacing, before it began.
Rhys placed his hands together to give the Goddess’ blessing, though he had to swallow three times before he could force a sound through his dry throat. “P-peace to you in the Goddess’ dwelling-place. I offer to you Her l-loving embrace, in the Aspect of Teiresias.”
The man drew a ragged breath, and said, “It’s true, then, what they say of you.”
“I’m–” No. Don’t say ‘I’m afraid,’ it’s too true and it’s too dangerous to let him know– “I’m not told of what is spoken in the outer world, my chosen.”
“You’re…” The words failed him; he gestured toward Rhys’s chest, toward his belly. “You are. Both. You really are.”
“Both, and neither,” Rhys said, and fisted his hands in the skirts of the gown, to try to still their trembling. “I am whatever you desire me to be, my chosen.”
“Let me see you,” the man said, husky-voiced. Rhys could smell his arousal, and the tang of nervous sweat.
He fumbled loose the simple ties at collar, waist, and hip, then let the fabric slide down his arms so that he could obey his celebrant’s command and yet cling to something for the illusion of security.
The man made a hoarse sound, and reached for him. His hands ran hungrily over the ridge of his collarbone, the knot of his throat, the small, soft swell of barely-budded breasts, beginning to fill with milk. A warrior’s weapons-training had marked the man’s hands; the sword-calluses were rough against his nipples, against the frightened huddle of his man-sex, and the finger that pushed up into his woman-sex was hard and dry and eager.
The smell of his arousal was thicker now. The man still hadn’t put back his hood; his face was lost in the shadow.
Rhys closed his eyes, and stepped forward, and reached up to twine his arms around the man’s shoulders, pressing himself against the heat of arousal beneath the thick cloak. The man groaned deep in his throat and pushed him up against the wall; his hips rocked spasmodically, with no aim or rhythm yet, just blind animal rutting.
Rhys lifted his face to kiss the hollow of the stranger’s throat, and thought fiercely of Beren.
Beren’s height and strength, his sword-roughened hands. Beren’s unhesitating protection. Beren’s abundant, overwhelming adoration. Beren’s tenderness. Beren’s voice, incoherent with need, his breath panting against Rhys’s bare skin as he pulled his fingers free and thrust his engorged cock in.
It hurt a bit, the suddenness of it, but he could forgive Beren’s impatience because they had waited so long. He could forgive Beren anything — the fierce grip on his hips (love, not lust), the ragged stuttering rhythm (impatient for the years they’d wasted).
He couldn’t expect Beren to know how to please a body as changed as his, not their first time, so Rhys slipped a hand down to tend to the place underneath that ached for touch, for firm rocking pressure.
Beren came first, and loudly.
It took a bit of work for Rhys to follow him over the edge, pretending that it was Beren’s hand between his legs rather than his own, Beren touching him, Beren anxiously concerned for his pleasure, rather than some heedless stranger who saw his partner only as a warm vessel for seed.
“My chosen,” Rhys gasped, head bowed against the man’s shuddering chest. “My chosen one.” And in his heart, those words only, ever meant Beren.
The man spent himself in Rhys’s body twice more during the night; he slipped away even before dawn completed the allotted time. That left Rhys free to seek the baths while they would be little-used by the other priestesses; he wrapped the gown about himself and crept to the door, where Beren waited in his perfect, merciless watch.
Beren was not allowed into the priestesses’ bathing-chamber. Rhys silently thanked the Goddess for that mercy, because it was hardest to face him with the marks of another man so vividly fresh on his skin.
Exhaustedly rubbing the cloth over his skin, trying to keep awake just long enough, Rhys counted back and realized that it was his fifteenth ‘first time’ with Beren. The fifteenth time a man had not even given him a face to anchor himself with, and Rhys had fled into his own unlikeliest fantasies to choke back the fear.
The eleventh had been better; the eleventh time, his Beren had thought to ask what pleased him, and had listened.
The eighth had been his favorite of all. That time, his chosen had thought to seek out Rhys’s pleasure of his own will, and had persisted in his seeking until Rhys found release.
He was sure that the real Beren would be even more kind to his lover than the eighth illusion.
But at least when he gave himself to the eighth illusion, the eighth illusion had looked upon him and truly desired him. The eighth had desired him.
Rhys would never know how the real Beren touched a lover — how Beren touched a woman.
How he touched his lady wife, who had borne him three children he adored.
When the king had first given his command, a secret, furtive voice in the depths of Rhys’s mind had leapt with joy. Something deep inside had whispered, Maybe if I’m almost a woman, maybe he might finally love me the way I want him to.
But even with his change — even with his body misshapen with a child he couldn’t kill through his dread of facing Beren’s contempt towards cowards who injured the defenseless — even then, Beren had never once looked at him. Not the way he wanted.
The washing-cloth fell into the bath unnoticed; Rhys bent almost double, both hands shoved over his mouth to stifle the sobs.
At least he could wash his face when he was done crying, here.
When he left the bathing-chamber with the worst of the evidence cleaned away and his face hidden by the towel he deliberately left over his wet hair, Rhys had only taken three steps before Beren’s hands were on his shoulders.
“No,” Rhys said, miserable. “Please. Don’t call me that right now.”
Beren hesitated, then said, “My liege. If I may be so bold — let me take care of the rest.”
He nodded, half blind with exhaustion, and Beren lifted him as though his increasing girth and weight were nothing at all.
Beren carried him up the flights of stairs to the corner of the acolytes’ dormitory, brushed aside the sheets the sisters had hung to give the pair of them a semblance of privacy amid the priestesses’ flock of boy-children, and sat him in the windowsill. His hands were warm and kind as he loosened the stained gown and put it aside, then coaxed Rhys’s arms into his nightshirt and eased the fabric over his distorted body. He laid the towel aside, and combed Rhys’s bath-tangled hair until it lay smooth and soft. The anxious care he took to pause at any hint of a tangle, to coax the comb through without a moment’s pain, made Rhys’s breath catch short and knot around the fist-tight ache of his heart.
Drowsing against the strength of his knight’s broad chest, Rhys turned his head and pressed his lips to the palm of Beren’s hand.
“I love you,” he murmured.
Beren laid the comb aside, and pressed his closed fist to his breast in salute, head bent. “I am honored, my liege.”
He carried him to bed, laid him softly onto the pallet, tucked the blanket over him, and Rhys caught at his sleeve before he could turn away.
“Beren?” he whispered. “Do you think… you could ever…?”
Beren stopped, his eyes full of something caught between confusion and pain. He knelt beside the pallet, and brushed Rhys’s hair back from his face.
“My liege, I have loved you from the moment I swore my life into your service. I am yours. I have ever been. How have I failed you, that you feel the need to ask?”
“You haven’t,” Rhys choked, around the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry–”
“You did,” Beren said, holding his hand carefully. “You did mean that. And the fault is mine, that I have not proven my oath was given with more than words.”
“You have,” Rhys protested, heart-sick. “You gave up everything for me. I’m just an ungrateful, spoiled wretch who always wants more.”
“Anything I have is yours,” Beren replied, without a single moment’s hesitation. “Only ask it of me, and I will give you anything in my power to give.”
“If I could ask,” Rhys said, and then laughed, short and sharp and unhappy. “If I could ask, Teiresias’ Hand would have chosen you, every night I answer the calling — but instead the Goddess mocks me, and–”
The absolute, devastated horror on Beren’s face tore through Rhys’s heart like a knife.
Oh, Goddess. Now I’ve disgusted him.
“My liege–” His voice broke, and Rhys saw to his shock that his stern knight could weep, for the tears spilled onto Beren’s face.
“My prince, I would have died to have spared you this! To be commanded to lie down with strangers night after night — to come to think of your sworn guardian in that way, simply because mine is the only familiar touch left to comfort you here? I swear, in the Goddess’ name–”
“Beren!” Beren, you stubborn, loyal, chivalry-sick fool, mind your oaths — here of all places!
“I would tear my beating heart from my chest to free you from this sanctified whorehouse!” he cried, his voice thick and ragged with grief tangled into rage. ” If I could make of my lifeblood a river that would carry you safe to another land, I would do it and I would die content!”
“You shall not!” Rhys snapped, both hands fisted in Beren’s tunic. “I command you by your own oath: you shall not die for me; you shall not leave me!”
Beren gasped for breath, and made a terrible choking sound that might have been meant for laughter. And then, for the first time in his life, he caught Rhys close of his own will, and held him so tightly that Rhys bit his lip in order not to cry out.
“Then… then my heart shall continue to beat at your command, so long as you will it.”
“Good,” Rhys said fiercely. “I hold you to your word.”
Beren scrubbed a hand across his face, and drew another shuddering breath. “But I fail you every day you suffer in this incense-reeking prison — my liege, what can I do? I would give anything to spare your pain!”
“I know you would,” Rhys murmured. “I know. It’s not your fault.”
“It is my fault! I am your guardian, your protector; there must be something — somewhere — Goddess, if I thought it would help, I would take you to the heart of the Imperium itself! But they would use you as a political pawn in their byzantine schemes; it would merely trade one prison for another.” Beren passed a hand across his brow, eyes shut tight against the visions.
Privately, Rhys thought that Beren’s chivalry blinded him to some of the court’s harsher truths. He knew the Imperium would see him dead within a week of his capture, as the mad king’s last heir.
He was fairly certain that was the only reason Odein hadn’t had him killed when he claimed the Goddess’ sanctuary. Odein was mad, but with a trapped, wounded fox’s cunning still. Without the king’s obscene gamble with his kinsmen’s lives and flesh, his kingdom would have already fallen.
Beren ground the heels of both hands into his eyes, and whispered, “I should have given that benighted madman the mercy-stroke on the night the Imperium’s assassin destroyed his soul.”
“Don’t say that!” Looking around desperately, as though the stones themselves might bear witness, Rhys said, “Never say that aloud — he would break even the Temple’s sanctuary if he heard–”
“I know,” Beren said, and rested his cheek softly against the crown of Rhys’s head. “I should not speak such deadly things. But if I had had the courage, when I first looked at him and saw nothing but madness staring back — if I had simply finished what the Imperium began, then you would never have had to suffer any of this! Not the sacrifice, not the child, not the misery forced upon you in a place that was meant as shelter… and now it is too late; and now I fail to protect you every damned day I draw breath–!”
“Beren,” Rhys whispered, and brushed the tears from his cheeks, as his knight had done for him so many times over the years. “It’s not your fault. You’ve done all that anyone could ask.”
“But — I can’t mend this.” Beren choked, and swallowed hard. “I — I’d hoped… you might find solace here. I’d prayed that the ones the Goddess sent to you would be kind. That you might learn joy in yourself from them… that even changed as you are, you are still to be wanted, treasured. But instead a fool strikes you for his own inadequacy, and your ‘celebrants’ are so boorish and self-absorbed that you come to look upon your servant as the only comfort in your life — I could curse Her Name to all the hells for this!”
“No! Beren, for the love of all that’s holy — no. Not here, not now–”
He gave a shuddering sigh. “I am not so great a fool as my rash words would signify. But… I am so very sorry, my liege. You deserve better than my poor service.”
“I could never ask for more loyal, more courageous service than yours,” Rhys told him, and hoped that he could still sound fierce and princely and to be heeded. The bitterly self-mocking twist of Beren’s lips suggested otherwise. “…I mean it!”
“I am grateful for your indulgence, my liege.” He lifted Rhys’s hand to his lips, head bent in what looked less like fealty and more like shame.
Rhys sighed a little. “I mean it,” he insisted, feeling tears of exhaustion prickling behind his eyes. “You have given me everything I have ever asked, save your embrace. And that you will not give.”
“I could not!” Beren said, startled. “You hide your tears from me after your couplings. When you are frightened and shamed, when the Goddess’ own embrace is merely a suffering to be endured — you could not find comfort in the same act that you yearn to escape. You have been used too cruelly already.”
“But… I want you to use me.” Despite the scorching shame of his own brazenness, Rhys lifted his chin. “They will use me whether I will it or no; if you were to lie down with me, at least the choice would be mine as well.”
“My prince– listen to yourself! When you think that desire means nothing more than forcing yourself to submit, and it is merely a question of who might cause the least pain…” Beren cupped a shaking hand to Rhys’s cheek. “I could never use you as they have done. Especially not when you have been so cruelly taught to mistake abuse and shame for desire. The Goddess’ embrace was never, never meant for this.”
And he knows Her embrace. He is wed, Rhys reminded himself sharply. He is wed, he loves his wife well enough to have gotten three children upon her — you knew, you KNEW he could not give you this, and you asked him regardless, and you are breaking his great heart. Stop. Just stop now.
“I should not have asked,” Rhys said dully. “I knew in my heart that you could not. I should not have asked. Think of it as an absurd craving brought by my condition; I will not trouble you again.”
“…You do not trouble me, my prince.”
“Oh, but I do.” Touching the tear-tracks still streaking Beren’s kind face, Rhys said, “You have fought warriors and bled for your valor without so much as an outcry, and here I have wrung tears from you with nothing but my impossible demands.” Rhys pulled away, and shifted his ungainly body so that he could lie on his side; the thing inside kicked less that way.
Beren tucked the blankets over him again, almost painfully gentle, and rested a hand against his side.
“I will not harm you,” he murmured. “But there is so much more to love than what you have been given. If you would not take it amiss — may I lie with you?”
Rhys laughed, because otherwise he knew he would weep. “Had I not begged you clearly enough?”
Beren sighed, and laid himself against Rhys’s back, and stilled him when Rhys tried to roll over to face him.
“I meant precisely what I said,” Beren told him, curving his arm about his waist, stroking Rhys’s distended belly with a gentle hand, tracing a small sweet curve against his gown. “If it brings you any comfort to be held, to be touched, without any demands made — if I can comfort you like this, then it would be my honor to lie with you. As her time drew near, my lady often told me that warmth and support eased her weary burden.”
…And isn’t that just the image I wanted him to bring into our first night in bed together.
It wasn’t what he wanted; it wasn’t what he ached for. But Beren’s body was just as warm and solid and reassuring as it had ever been, and he rubbed drowsy little patterns over the snug-stretched curve of Rhys’s roundness, and it had been a long, frustrating, exhausting night.
Rhys fell asleep within minutes, and he didn’t even wake to the chatter of the boys returning from their morning chores.
As Midsummer drew near, the young novices who would be given to the Aspect of the Maiden were even less practical than usual. Rather than pay attention to the cooking-fires and the mending, they were caught up in their dreams and their fantasies of their first celebrants, and the kitchen echoed with their giggles.
The Mother’s Hand had been given to her Aspect for long enough to have seen it all before; Rhys thought that when Wisdom’s Hand passed to the Goddess, the Mother’s Hand would likely take her place. Knuckles were rapped with wooden spoons, ears were bent despite yelps and protests, and somehow the meals were served anyway, and cleared, and the stocks were simmered, and the storerooms refilled, and the shells of the fancy sweets for the festival were blind-baked in advance. The children (and the childing women with cravings) were kept away from the storeroom of sweets and fancies by three locks and a cranky pair of geese.
Somehow, amid all the everyday chaos redoubled by the festival’s lunacy, the Mother’s Hand found time to seek Rhys out on the night before Midsummer’s Eve, and she sat beside him at dinner. She poked and prodded and cajoled until he found himself making a solemn vow that he truly would attend the next priestess’s childbed, and would not keep finding the excuses he’d managed thus far. Three of them were due within days, their children gotten at the harvest festival, and the Mother’s Hand was as determined as Beren that he would not be permitted to come to his time unaware, for all that he desperately wished that he could.
Cutting off his last hope of escape, the Mother’s Hand had already asked all three of her child-heavy priestesses whether they would mind a not-quite-but-almost-sister’s presence. All three had given their consent to the prince’s attendance at their childbed — whether through pity or through mischief Rhys was yet uncertain.
The first of the three to feel her pains heaved herself from her bed in the mothers’ dormitory, waddled into the the Midsummer fete, and caught him by the ear. She hadn’t let go of him until she could hand his collar to the Sister of Wisdom who had been tending to her during her ripening. Between the pair of them, they gathered linens and towels and handcrafts, sent novices and acolytes scampering for a birthing-stool, pillows, firewood and water, and settled them all into one of the night-chambers with a proper door — without providing him a single moment’s freedom in which to slink away.
When he heard the familiar hoarse ring of Beren’s blade singing its way from its scabbard as he took up his customary vigil outside any door his prince closed, Rhys wasn’t certain whether he was going to laugh like a mad thing or burst into tears.
The first few hours were embarrassing, but not unbearable. The childing priestess, Talar, took a wry delight in making him squirm. It was her fourth child, and Wisdom’s Sister Nimai’s several-dozenth delivery. Both of them were frank, blunt, and far too amused by how vividly Rhys’s pale skin showed his blushes.
Every so often, Talar would pause in her sewing, set it aside, take hold of the frame of her pallet, and swear like a fishwife for a minute or two. Then it would pass, and she would gather up her needle and fabric and continue whatever details of her past birthings she had been filling Rhys’s appalled ears with.
Rhys had never seen a woman as big with child as Talar. But Nimai seemed utterly confident that the child in her would find its way safely forth — and that Rhys would follow in every one of her footsteps.
As the hours passed, Talar’s cursing became a comfort, because it meant that she was vexed, not frightened. Rhys was terrified. The blood and pain looked awful.
So did the horrid bloody red-and-purple thing that came out of her, connected by a grotesque pulsing cord. Nimai exclaimed her delight, set the thing in the towels, patted Talar’s bloody thigh with cheerful pride, and Rhys staggered over to the hearthside to vomit.
Whatever the Mother’s Hand had hoped the sight of a birth might do to ease his fears of the process, they had only confirmed Rhys’s revolted conviction that he never wished to lay eyes on the thing he produced.
He didn’t know how Beren could embrace the little horrors. But then, Beren had long since proven himself capable of bewildering things.
The Mother’s Hand caught Rhys by the ear again, a few nights after Midsummer. He wondered what it was with the Mother’s priestesses and their juniors’ ears, and hoped that no more priestesses had come to their childbed.
Instead, she’d drawn him aside, and looked his body over with a critical eye.
“If you were one of my priestesses, I’d say you had a few weeks left until your crescence, but you’re not really one of us. You’re different enough that… well. How long ago were you first bedded?”
“It’s a simple enough question, child. How long?”
“L-l-last Yule, the longest night– the priests said it was s-symbolic–”
“And did you bleed, or did it take straight away?”
Rhys buried his face in both hands. “I… it… uh… I needed… another, um. …a couple of times.” Because I couldn’t even succeed in something as simple as that, could I.
“When did you last bleed, then?”
Wishing the ground would just swallow him whole, Rhys mumbled, “It stopped in the middle of February.”
Pursing her lips together, the Mother’s Hand loosened his gown and pressed her fingers into his belly despite his startled yelp. “Close enough,” she decided, and refastened his gown for him briskly.
“Close enough to what, Mother?”
“Close enough to half your term for Power’s Hand and I to get away with what we’re planning for you,” the Mother’s Hand said, with a placid smile that was somehow not reassuring in the slightest.
She patted his cheek, and left chuckling. That was even less reassuring. Rhys fretted over it so fiercely that he barely slept that night.
At his next calling, he served the sculptor again. The sculptor was, as ever, cheerful and considerate… and a bit too free with his thoughts: “I should bring the cornucopia with me whenever I offer for your hand. Just look how splendidly you’ve filled out already! You’ll be as big and ripe as a melon by harvest.”
Rhys was sure the man’s assessment was accurate — his professional eye was certainly keen enough. But he would have been happier without the reminder of how grotesquely misshapen his body would become, as the thing inside him grew inexorably larger.
After his night’s rest, he next received a celebrant who had sought the Mother. They had both been startled; Rhys had never stopped being startled when Caprice’s Hand intervened, but his celebrant hadn’t even known that such a thing was possible.
Despite his initial shock, his celebrant handled Rhys gently, taking care to find comfortable positions for them to share, offering his devotion to the Mother through a vessel that was unexpected… but not scorned. And he knelt and kissed the back of Rhys’s hand when he left — the back of the hand that had once borne his signet. It was the first time one of his celebrants had made a gesture of homage rather than mockery to his former title.
For his third calling since the Mother’s Hand had casually shaken his mind about like a gourd, he was given to a devotee of Caprice — one who wanted nothing more than to sing badly improvised love poetry in praise to the Goddess’ beauty in the form of Her priestess. …Well. That, and he wanted to be praised for his verses.
Rhys thought in some bemusement that his would-be bard might not even have noticed Rhys’s …difference. He’d had his hair compared to cotton tufts; his eyes to the green-and-brown of an algae-filled lake; his belly to a brimming bowl full of clear water teeming with life, that could somehow be carried around and warmly embraced without spilling itself all over the singer. It mostly reminded Rhys of his increasingly pressing need to find a chamberpot.
He suspected the boy would have sung himself hoarse in praise of a pox-ridden toad, if the toad saw fit to flatter his verses.
He’d meant to catch either the Mother’s Hand or Caprice’s directly after that, in order to demand to know what was behind the frequency of the ahem-adjustments to his schedule. But the next day was the week’s holy day, and everyone was expected at the morning service even if they had been in other service until dawn.
At the morning service itself, the Mother’s Hand called him to the front of the temple, sang some clearly hastily-written verses celebrating the crescence of Teiresias’ Hand, tied a soft green sash above his roundness, and welcomed him to the sisterhood of the Mother’s Aspect.
It wasn’t the day’s only impending shock, or even the morning’s. Somehow, during the morning service that everyone was expected to attend, Beren’s and his belongings had been taken from the acolytes’ dormitory in the south tower — Rhys’s first thought was to blame Caprice’s sisterhood. Shaken and frustrated and on the verge of tears, heedless of the boys’ giggling whispers, he sank to the floor and tried not to let himself cry because there was nowhere for him to rest.
Beren spoke softly to a pair of the boys, then knelt at Rhys’s side and offered his hands. “My prince…”
“I know,” Rhys snapped, struggling at the edge of his endurance. “I know. All right. Help me up and I’ll play Caprice’s bloody game.”
Beren helped him to the mothers’ dormitory, on the first floor in the east tower; but Caprice’s grinning Sisters wouldn’t let them in without the proper token.
Beren stroked the white gown smooth over the curve of Rhys’s belly, displaying the green sash. “This token bespeaks the right to seek rest among those who anticipate the same blessing of the Goddess. It was given by the Mother’s Hand before the assembled sisterhood; there can be no more visible welcome than this.”
Caprice’s Sisters looked at each other. “I’ll grant that as his token,” the younger one said. “But you don’t have one, sir knight.”
“Let me see him to his rest, and I will play out whatever little game you wish of me.”
“No one passes these doors without the sign of welcome!” the younger sang.
Beren’s hands tightened uncomfortably around him. “You have already granted my prince’s right to shelter; what right have you to deny and mock him now?”
“It wasn’t me that granted it,” the elder of the two muttered, and the younger elbowed her.
“He can pass, but you can’t — not without your token.”
“Then neither of us will pass,” Rhys sighed. “Put me down, Beren; they want to make a mockery of us both.”
“Is this your vaunted sanctuary to women who suffer?” Beren growled. “Is this your welcome, your sisterhood of peace?”
“To women who suffer, yes,” the elder sister shot back. “You’re just a man, and that thing is nothing but a freak.”
Rhys flinched; he couldn’t help it. Beren snarled, “You self-righteous, filthy-hearted–”
“Beren.” Rhys scrubbed both hands across his face, and said, “Let’s just go. I don’t care. I just want to find somewhere to rest.”
“Your place should be prepared! Your place should be welcoming–”
“If I’ve learned anything from all this,” Rhys told him wearily, “it’s that what should be has no connection with what is. Please. Let’s just find a corner.”
“You aren’t even trying to follow the rules!” the younger one protested, pouting. “You’re supposed to run all over the building and–”
Beren turned his back on her sharply, and carried Rhys to Teiresias’ alcove. He drew his sword from its sheath and sat with his back against the statue’s base and legs, then gathered Rhys into his arms again.
He’d hoped for more than an hour or two of respite, but after the noon meal had been served, several of Caprice’s Sisters found their hiding place. They were only thinly disguising the malice-edged glee they took in sudden loud bursts of laughter, dropping metal pans on the stone, and the like. Beren actually growled; Rhys tried to struggle to his feet.
“No,” Beren told him. “Anywhere else, they could claim the right to make sport of you. But not even the greatest fool in the world could dispute your right to rest here. I’ll deal with them.”
That was precisely what Rhys wanted to avoid. “Don’t. I’m the cause of their contempt; if I don’t face them myself, they’ll never let it go.”
“They have no right–“
“They’re Caprice’s Sisters, Beren. They can do anything, and call it the will of their Aspect.”
He recognized the white-hot blaze in Beren’s eyes, and clamped both hands over his mouth before anything could spill out.
“No oaths!” Rhys reminded him, appalled and yet half laughing despite himself. “By the Goddess’ mercy, Beren, no oaths. Not here.”
“What mercy?” Beren snarled. “Where is Mercy’s Hand while priestesses torment one who never caused them harm? And what of the Mother’s Hand’s welcome? What of Caprice’s own Hand, who has been kinder to you than Mercy’s oblivious servants?”
“You cannot demand acceptance and expect it to be freely given.”
“I most certainly can! If they were my soldiers–”
“Beren, they’re Caprice’s Sisters. Not even their Hand can command their obedience.”
“Isn’t that just wonderfully convenient for them, that no one will put a stop to their spoiled, childish…”
“This is no different than the court,” Rhys said, with a rueful smile. “No different than the lords and ladies who take no rebuke. At least here, the symbols of their Aspect give you fair warning of what to expect! The courtiers were never thoughtful enough to mark themselves for me. I’ll be fine, Beren. Sooner or later, they’ll grow bored with me and find another sport.”
“I hate this place,” Beren said, shaking. “At the court, I could at least challenge those who slighted you.”
Another volley of pots and pans crashed from the balcony onto the floor, followed by giggles.
“Let’s find somewhere else to hide,” Rhys suggested.
“This was meant to be your refuge,” Beren said, miserable.
No, it wasn’t, Rhys thought. It was never going to be a refuge, not once the king ordered me to be humbled. It was simply the only choice I could live with.
Sharp, crisp footsteps rang throughout the hall; Rhys peered around the statue, and barely managed to stifle a yelp when he realized that Power’s Hand was striding through.
“Hernos’ blue balls, what are you idiots doing?” she snapped, peering up into the balcony after the startled flock of sisters who were scattering for the back stairs. “Darfi! Heledd! Nyste! Bring the rest of your conspirators to my chamber at compline, or you’ll suffer the group’s punishment by yourselves!”
She seemed to have an unnatural sixth sense for what was hidden; she turned and looked straight at Teiresias’ alcove next. “And you two. Decided the boys’ dormitory wasn’t public enough for your trysts, eh?”
“Do not slander my prince’s virtue–”
“Beren!” Rhys protested, clamping both hands over his mouth fast. Goddess, it’s not like I have any virtue left to defend! He scrambled to his feet, clutching at the statue’s sculpted arm, and bobbled a bow. “I’m sorry, Mistress.”
“Caprice’s Sisters, a newly-crescent Mother of sorts, and his growling mastiff. I can guess what was going on.”
“They stole and hid away his belongings, and barred entrance to the mothers’ rooms where he had every right to seek rest,” Beren said. “If this is your notion of shelter and protection, priestess, I think it very poor comfort indeed.”
“Poor comfort that has seen a blood-traitor sheltered and fed and guarded from the king’s wrath for months now,” Power’s Hand replied, not giving an inch. “You’re welcome to do better on your own, without our ‘inferior’ shelter.”
“Beren, stop.” Rhys bowed again, briefly surprised by how awkward his increased girth made the gesture. “I’m sorry. We’d thought that it might be possible to rest in Teiresias’ alcove, but this was only a more public place for them to disturb me. I didn’t realize they would disrupt the whole temple for their game.”
Power’s Hand pursed her lips together for a moment. “Caprice’s fools barred you from the Mother’s dormitory, and no one intervened? No one offered you a token?”
“We came straight here,” Rhys said, head bent. “I’m sorry. I was just so tired.”
Power’s Hand dug her fingers through her hair in exasperation. “I will punish them for the pans, because it was their own stupidity to be so public about their harassment. But you’ll have to win your way past them to reclaim your belongings, or they’ll never leave you in peace. They’ll never respect you as it is, for showing them your throat like this.”
“Have I your permission to win my way past them as I see fit, priestess?” Beren growled.
She rolled her eyes, and said to Rhys, “If you can’t muzzle your dog, at least leash him better. Once you’ve gathered your things, bring them to the Hands’ chambers. If the mothers haven’t intervened in their mischief yet, then the Mother’s Hand hoped for more generosity than her women have shown. I told her we should have done it my way from the beginning.” She turned on her heel and strode off, snapping her fingers at a couple of novices who were watching from behind a column: “Get those back to the kitchen already!”
Rhys traded a long look with Beren, then turned toward the east tower again.
This time, there was more of an audience. Caprice’s Hand was there, just watching. The priestesses barring the door were a different pair this time, and one of them was sworn to the Mother. Rhys’s heart sank a little at the realization that it wasn’t Caprice’s Sisters alone that sought to make him unwelcome.
“What sort of token would you accept for Beren?” he asked, trying for calm.
“If you were a priestess, you would know what we want.”
“I’m not a priestess,” Rhys murmured. “But I am becoming a mother, and the Goddess’ Hands welcomed me here regardless. Please. Just tell me.”
“You keep missing the point,” Caprice’s Sister said, hands on her hips. “You’re the one who has to do the work, little princeling. No hiding behind your great cranky bear, no whining that you’re too tired, no pushing it off on someone else. Not this time.”
“But I don’t even know what to look for…”
“That’s not my problem.”
Rhys ran a hand down his face, and looked around at the audience — curious, mocking, amused, aloof, but none of them held any sign of wavering, or of offering him mercy. He sighed.
“Stay here, so that no one can accuse me of leaning on your strength,” he said to Beren.
His knight made an unhappy sound, but clasped his fist to his heart and stood his ground. Rhys was grateful that Beren’s obedience had only ever failed the one trial.
It took him far longer than his pride would bear, to climb to the top of a tower in search of a compassionate sister. He had to stop and catch his breath several times on the way up; the thing inside was displeased with his exertion, and was kicking painfully hard. Rhys pressed the heel of his hand into his belly, struggling to breathe, and the thing aimed several sharp kicks at the pressure. I’m no more pleased with you than you with me, he thought irritably.
The western tower held Wisdom’s Sisters and the infirmary; the sisters’ dormitory was on the highest floor. The sister who answered his knock at the dormitory door took one look at his flushed face and breathless wheezing, dragged him in — by the ear — and wouldn’t even listen to his request until she’d lectured him about his foolishness long enough that he’d caught his breath on his own. Only then would she let him explain his task.
Apparently, Beren was not the only chivalry-mad soul in the temple. Rhys wondered why this Sister Mared hadn’t sworn herself to Power rather than Wisdom, with the way she raved about pummeling sense into spiteful wretches. He had to block the doorway with his own body to keep her from stalking down the stairs to do just that.
Before he could even think of letting her go, he needed a token of proof. To have climbed the tower for nothing at all was even worse than to have climbed it because of catty harassment.
Sister Mared took the gold-glass bevel off of the lever that opened the casement window, handed it to him, and glared at him. “You have a token; let’s go.”
“I should gather more, if I can. They couldn’t deny me if I returned with three…”
“One will be enough if I knock their witless heads together and tell them it is!” She cracked her knuckles. “Come on, prince-ess. There’s teasing and then there’s bloody fuckwit bullying, and I’ve got a perfectly good pair of fists to negotiate with.”
In the end, it had nearly come to Mared’s fists. The sisters at the door made a show of refusing to accept the token Rhys had brought for Beren, because Beren hadn’t brought it himself.
“This is beyond absurd,” Rhys said. “I cannot carry his armor unaided, and I will not stay where my servant and I are so clearly unwelcome. In your own Goddess’ mercy, just let us reclaim what was taken from us.”
“What has mercy to do with me?” Caprice’s Sister demanded. “I have no brave, strong lover to fetch and carry for me. None of the rest of us do. If you claim to be one of us, then be one of us. Or else go back to your pampered palace full of silks and jewels.”
Beren shifted at his side, and Rhys grabbed at his arm again, thinking he might need to stop a sudden lunge toward the exasperating woman. But instead, Beren drew his dagger and tore a length from the end of Rhys’s green mother-sash, then bound it about his throat like a collar.
“May your Goddess strike me dead here and now if I speak false to you,” he said, and Rhys clamped a hand over his face, trying not to laugh aloud with the incredulous hilarity of utter despair.
Idiot, idiot, IDIOT — how many times have I told him not to swear oaths in the temple…?
“I swear before all the gods that for a decade gone I have been my prince’s loyal servant; I have never been his lover,” he said. “I have sworn him my protection, to the day I die. I am his knight, his vassal. To envy him me would be to envy him his dog.”
Every word of it was true enough, as much as Rhys might have wished a certain detail otherwise. The Goddess found nothing to object to, because Beren continued to breathe.
“Let his dog pass,” Caprice’s Hand called from the crowd, her voice bright with laughter. “What man would humble himself to walk on a leash and beg on command?”
“Fetch him his leash, then,” Caprice’s Sister shot back, bitterly stubborn to the end.
Rhys fumbled with the knot of the green sash; the fabric slipped free, and he bent to knot the end through the collar Beren had made for himself. Beren moved to stand, and the priestess’ voice caught him short.
“No dog walks on two legs.”
The shame rushed over him so hot and sharp that Rhys felt as though his face had been burned. But without a single sound of protest, Beren dropped to his hands and knees. He crawled at Rhys’s side toward the waiting door, perfect in his humble obedience.
The Sister spat at Rhys’s feet, and then stepped aside.
“Hernos’ pox-ridden nuts. Finally,” Mared said, and strode ahead of them into the mothers’ dormitory. “Come on, Fido, let’s get your doggy toys moved to a nicer home.”
And so the night the Mother’s Hand had expected to see Rhys happily welcomed into her sisterhood, Rhys actually found all his belongings heaped in a corner of Mercy’s Hand’s private study until her own belongings could be moved elsewhere to make room. He felt like a refugee twice over.
His back and his legs were still seizing up with cramps from the tower-climb and the stress and humiliation that followed. Sister Mared helped massage the cramps away with brisk, efficient hands. Then she declared herself his to be personal healer for the duration of his term — not asking him, telling him.
“But… I’m… um.” Clutching the bedsheets in his hands, Rhys mumbled, “I’m not really a sister.”
“Listen, prince-ess. If you’re one of those prudes who thinks your crotch arrangement has to match up with your physician’s, you’d better have brought a damn good book stash with you, because you’re going to have a hell of a long stay in the waiting room.”
“Um.” Feeling as though his ears might well combust from how hotly they were burning, Rhys said, “I know. I just… I’m… abnormal. I wouldn’t blame you for being… disgusted.”
“You haven’t got some kind of oozing crotch rot, have you?”
“No pus, no infestations, no nasty discharge? No maggots?”
Mared shrugged. “That alone puts you above half my patients on the glurge factor. And you’re hunching again, kid. Roll over and let me get at your back.”
“‘Kid?’ You can’t be any older than I am,” Rhys said, nettled, even as he rolled himself onto his side.
“Can’t call you Sister, can’t call you Brother, Prince-ess is fine in private but it gives the bitches too much ammunition in public. Kid’s as good as it gets. Unless you’d prefer ‘Your Royal Brattiness’? Yeah, didn’t think so.”
“I have a name,” Rhys murmured, chin propped on his crossed arms moodily.
“And it’s too short to nickname. Face it, you’re stuck with ‘kid.'”
Rhys looked over at Beren, who was quietly polishing his helm, and smiling a bit too much for Rhys’s pride to enjoy. Clearly there was no help coming from that direction, not this time.
“She’s likely to keep calling you Fido, you realize,” Rhys muttered.
Beren only shrugged, still smiling.
The Mother’s Hand apologized to them, several times, for the way her priestesses had freely allowed Caprice’s Sisters their mockery. Caprice’s Hand never acknowledged it; Caprice’s Hand never acknowledged anything, but Rhys’s celebrants for the next fortnight were kind and thoughtful and gentle to a man.
One evening, after dinner, he finally gathered up the nerve to ask the Hands how she did it. Every woman in the room stopped and stared at him.
“Surely someone taught you the codes,” Mercy’s Hand said, startled. “I know Wisdom’s Hand is so long past the choice she’d have wanted nothing to do with it, but the Maiden’s Hand…”
“I’ve barely learned them myself,” the Maiden’s Hand said. “I thought, since he — she — since, um, Teiresias’ Hand was with child, that the Mother’s Hand…”
“Caprice’s Hand has the most detailed codes,” the Mother’s Hand said. “I’ve never needed a code for someone who sought… well, someone like you, child.”
“Caprice’s Hand never tells anyone anything,” Power’s Hand said, rolling her eyes.
“What codes?” Rhys asked.
“Goddess Bright,” Mercy’s Hand whispered. “You’ve been here half a year and you never knew?”
“I thought the Goddess’ Choice was blind…?”
The looks they turned on him were commingled of shock, pity, and disbelief.
He’d known that the tokens were numbers carved into disks, four or five digits. He’d never even guessed that there was a pattern in which man was given which number.
The last digit was almost always ignored, unless there was a one in the third column of a five-digit number; the other three digits — or four — were used to code the man’s usual preferences and desires. Or, if it was a first-time participant, there would be a zero in the second or third position. A one was a placeholder or — in the five-digit tokens — a divider between two codes.
There were codes, Rhys learned, for sexual interests that he hadn’t known were physically possible. There were codes for things that made his face burn. Although the Hands were the ones who drew blindfolded from the lots — and thus learned the feel of the numbers very quickly, as well as how to orient themselves by the loop of the token’s hanging-tab — every sister had to know the basic codes, both to give out the proper tokens and to choose a compatible room for the night.
“You’ll want sevens, when you can find them,” Mercy’s Hand said, earnest. “Or else threes and fours or eights. You won’t want nines, or sixes, or threes with a five anywhere…”
“We have to give him a better way to learn this than just a string of numbers,” the Maiden’s Hand said. “I mean her. I mean… um…”
So Rhys spent the evening learning the most sexually suggestive card game he’d ever experienced, drawing cards and trading them and trying to assemble a good, kind ‘celebrant,’ then playing his hand and explaining what he thought he’d ‘designed’ in a man with those numbers.
Some of his errors made Sister Mared howl with laughter. Also, he thought he might never again be able to play a game of ombre or bryncir without blushing.
Still, Mercy’s Hand was right about the sevens. And the three-eights and three-fours. It was so much easier to face when he had at least an approximate idea what he was in for, and could make even a moderately educated choice of his own will.
One thing that his life in the acolytes’ dormitory had shielded him from, Rhys realized in hindsight, was the knowledge of the outer world. He’d known, intellectually, that it was a matter of time before the Imperium crushed their kingdom; but he couldn’t truly grasp what it would mean when Odein’s will no longer commanded him… and no longer protected him.
He’d also had a vague sense of how badly the war was going, because the groups of young, boisterous men no longer came. Over the past months, the celebrants had changed — lately, those who came were wounded soldiers, or old men, or crippled from birth. His sculptor had originally taken up his art to earn his living, because his twisted leg would not support him through more physical labor.
He’d never seen the inquisitive physician again, not after that first time. At first, in his naivete, he’d thought it was simply because the physician had learned what he’d wanted. Now, listening to how the Goddess’ Hands gathered in the evening hours to plan how they might be able to hide some of the priestesses from the invading armies, and to discuss who would be best suited to remain behind as distractions or sacrifices — now he thought that the best that he could hope was that the physician was still alive, and healing the war-wounded somewhere behind the front lines.
Sevens like the physician and the artisans, as Mercy’s Hand had told him, were not all that common. Among themselves, the priestesses had originally used it to code for either closeted-homosexual or professional-interest-only; once Rhys had arrived, they’d coupled it with a three for pregnancy to indicate the ones who sought the childing androgyne, and the spare code set indicated what they wanted to do about it.
The groups of drunken merchants’ sons had all been clearly labeled three-seven, five-nine — if he’d had any idea what that meant at the time. The other Hands had thought he’d simply sought out punishment and abuse because of his shame, and had let him be.
When Caprice’s Hand intervened, she passed him two-fours or three-fours with sub-two, the ones who would take her ‘surprises’ with laughter rather than revulsion. Once in a while she sent him three-eights, with the occasional independent seven.
He’d never found a three-seven, six-eight before, and he might well have passed it over if any of the rest of the night’s candidates had had a seven anywhere among them. A six-code for submission was better than a nine-code for dominance, but Rhys was nearly as uncomfortable with the thought of abusing someone else as he was with being abused. Sixes didn’t always want abuse, though; sometimes they just wanted… to give up control to…
With a sick lurch, Rhys realized that someone with Caprice’s Hand’s twisted sense of humor might well have tagged Beren as a three-seven, six-eight, if she meant to pass his token to Rhys.
He clung so tightly to the token that the edges dug into his skin and left the print of the number pressed into his palm for hours afterward.
The wild-eyed, heart-pounding hope lasted until he followed his acolyte around the corner, and found Beren waiting outside the door. He caught his breath, startled by how sharply he felt the hurt of disappointment at what he should have known better than to ever hope for. Rhys ducked back behind the corner long enough to compose himself, to blink back the beginnings of tears he should never have allowed, struggling to find his balance again. Still he kept his head bent as he walked past Beren into the chamber where his celebrant waited.
“Peace to you in the Goddess’ dwelling-place.” Rhys said, and his voice almost didn’t shake. “I offer to you Her loving embrace, in the Aspect of the Mother.”
The celebrant had already put back his hood, and he turned and smiled. And then he took a hesitant step forward, holding out a small cloth-wrapped bundle in one hand, oddly shy despite all his height and strength.
“Thank you,” Rhys said, and unfolded it carefully.
It was a bundle of delicate silken azaleas, brittle with the sizing-paste the silk-artist had used to shape and hold the petals, beautifully tinted all the reds and roses of sunrise. Fragile passion, Rhys thought, remembering his mother’s ladies’ gossip over the flowers in the garden. Frailty, and gentle hope… ‘take care of yourself.’
“I’m sorry they aren’t real,” his celebrant said. He had a soft, clear tenor voice, and Rhys guessed he might have been a bard before he was a warrior, to know the flowers’ language. “But there are few flowers left now, and none fair enough to touch your hand.”
“They’re exquisite,” Rhys said, and brought them closer — the artisan must have brushed some essential oil into the silks, because when his hands warmed the blossoms, they gave off the rich, heady scent of the living flowers. “I — thank you. I don’t know what to say.”
“Your smile is gift enough,” his celebrant said, and lifted Rhys’s hand to kiss the back of it — as a suitor might, not kneeling in homage. But he’d used the wrong hand to reach with, and a man who spoke the language of flowers would have known…
Oh, Rhys thought, in startled pity. He must be… his sword hand is gone. That’s why he’s free to come here. “One could not but smile,” he told him, thinking back to the cadences of the courtly word-games, “to find so fair and courageous a warrior seeking one’s hand.”
“Not your hand alone,” the celebrant said, with an insinuatingly appreciative grin. “Your body blossoms with a glory that outshines the sweetest summer peach, and I yearn to taste.”
Oh, Goddess… “My chosen,” Rhys murmured. “I… I am not… not only given to the Mother. Have you heard of the rites of Teiresias?”
He’d needed to ask that before, but never before had one of his celebrants thrown back his head and laughed.
“Look at me again, Rhys,” his celebrant said. “I came to you because, just for a night, I sought the peace of my own kind.”
Rhys hadn’t heard his own name spoken aloud since before he came to the temple, and it shook him. The man’s face wasn’t familiar, for all that he racked his memories of the courtiers at the palace, but his hair was pale enough to mark a throwback to the old blood, and his eyes a startling ice-washed blue-gray.
“I… I’m sorry, I can’t recall…?”
“You were quite young,” his celebrant granted, laughter dancing barely-hidden in his eyes. “They called me Eos, the Nightingale, and you were too small to pronounce it properly, so you would toddle around the halls calling “Off! Off!” And I, being a very touchy twelve at the time, would have none of it. I do apologize, by the way.”
He kissed the back of Rhys’s hand again, a charmer’s flirtatious apology. “My proper name is Alein ap Emrys Cadarn. I’ve forgotten how many times removed our kinship is. Just kin enough for my mother’s old blood to rise to the king’s need; I make a terrible half-woman, don’t I.”
Rhys chewed on a tough mouthful of air, trying to come up with something intelligible to say; he didn’t know whether it was better manners to agree or to disagree. Alein laughed again.
“You ever were a polite little thing, even when you chased me through the halls.”
“You were a harper,” Rhys said suddenly, “weren’t you? I remember how I loved your harp. And now…” He gulped hard, and said, “I’m so sorry. I hid here, sheltered and growing fat, while you — you’ve lost your hand, your music— oh, Goddess…”
With his single hand already needed, Alein bent his head and captured Rhys’s lips with his own, quieting his protests with a merrily sensual version of practicality.
“I never blamed you,” Alein murmured, and kissed him again. “I never resented you. If anything, you are what I gave my flesh and my blood to protect. You carry our land’s future within you, the promise of life beyond this madness; Odein has nothing left in him but a bitter stone of hate. Once this is done, once the battles have been lost and there is nothing left of Odein’s kingdom but the land itself, you will still shelter our people’s living heart.”
Rhys’ lips parted in a silent oh of astonishment, but he couldn’t even breathe the sound.
“If you would grant your unworthy servant a gift,” Alein said, slipping back into courtly diction with the ease of long practice, “I would be honored to taste the sweetness of the life you carry — to taste of such exquisitely ripening fruit. You take my breath away with your resplendence, growing heavy on the vine… so heavy, and so very, very sweet…”
Alein let the barest touch coax and guide; when he stepped back, Rhys followed instinctively, so as not to lose the gentle caress of his fingertips. Alein smiled at that, deep and rich and warm, and bent to taste his lips once more.
Much to Rhys’s astonishment, Alein stretched out on the pallet and reached up, making his invitation quite clear.
“I… I don’t know if I can,” Rhys said, feeling his face burn. “I’ve grown so big and clumsy…”
“Perhaps another time, then.” Alein trailed his fingers down Rhys’s arm, and said, “I would still prefer this way, so that I can touch you.”
Alein was the most generous, most compassionate lover Rhys had ever had. Perhaps it was because they were alike; Alein understood what it meant, had been asked for the same sacrifice, had given it for the same cause. And with Rhys, he was neither ashamed nor repelled by what they were; he touched and tasted, kissed and caressed. He didn’t draw back from either evidence of desire, though Rhys had had to scrounge up the coherence to scold him when he started giving nicknames to various parts.
With a lecher’s grin, Alein set out to learn exactly how many times the male and female parts could come to climax in unison, and for how long. Rhys thought it might well be an odd touch of the Goddess’ mercy that had sent Alein to him one-handed, because he wasn’t sure if he could survive Alein with two hands and both of the other options.
When even Alein’s gleefully insatiable desires had been banked to a few drowsy embers, his hand came to rest on Rhys’s bare belly, caressing the full, firm curve. His fingers paused for a moment, shifted, patted an intricate little rill, as though his body were a new kind of instrument.
The thing inside lurched. Alein chuckled, sliding his fingers over the snug-stretched skin and patting again, and Rhys realized that he was playing with the thing.
When it kicked hard enough to make his belly heave, Alein was caught between laughter and gentle chastisement, cupping his palm against it and pressing firmly enough to urge stillness. “That’s enough, little one,” he said to it. “Have a thought for your poor uncomfortable mother.”
Instead, it used the pressure for a target, aiming several hard kicks and pushes against the heel of Alein’s hand; Alein rubbed his belly in rueful apology, then kissed his fingertips and traced a rune of peace over the smooth full curve of Rhys’s skin.
To Rhys’s utter astonishment, it worked. Then, a moment later, he realized why.
He’s already made the blood-sacrifice I haven’t completed yet. And he was a bard before it all; they know about crafting power from breath and touch alone…
“Would you like to learn that?” Alein asked, wry. “I should imagine you would find it valuable, as the little one grows stronger within you.”
Rhys nodded a little; Alein smiled, and kissed first his cheek and then his belly, then strode across the room naked and utterly shameless to look for paper and a scrap of chalk.
For the first time since he’d arrived at the temple, Rhys didn’t want the dawn to come.
Power’s Hand rebuked him for a fool thrice over, and took away his beautiful flowers.
“How did he ever survive the court so long if he’s always been such an idiot?” she demanded of Beren, and flung the flowers into the hearth-fire. Rhys cried out in shock and lunged after them, and Beren caught him short, holding fast despite his frantic thrashing.
“No! No! Beren, please–”
They caught fire, and the reek of burning silk cut through the sweetness of the azaleas; Rhys shut his eyes tight, but he couldn’t hold back the tears that burned their way down his cheeks.
“You had no right!” he cried. “Alein gave them to me, you heartless, jealous–”
“Imbecile,” Power’s Hand snapped, and shifted her glare to Beren. “You explain it to him. If he can’t even see the problem, he’ll never survive this winter.”
“If we’re lucky,” Mercy’s Hand said, “the kingdom will fall sooner than that.”
“If we’re lucky?” Rhys demanded, his voice breaking.
“We won’t be lucky enough, because the heir is an absolute idiot,” Power declared to the room at large, and stalked off into her private chamber.
Another of the smoldering flowers burst into a sudden, sharp puff of flame; Rhys dissolved into tears, and Beren guided him into a chair, smoothing his hair softly.
Mercy’s Hand drew her chair closer, and took Rhys’s hand between hers.
“She didn’t need to be so cruel,” she told him, stroking his hand as though he were a much younger child. “But she was right. When the kingdom falls… sweet child, every soul in the kingdom knows that the king’s last living heir was given in service to the Goddess’ Temple. And by now, the Imperium will have captured or killed enough of your kinsmen to know how you were changed. They’ll know what signs to search a body for. Mother’s Hand and I had hoped to hide you among her priestesses, because it would at least buy you a delay while they searched us. But Power’s Hand was right; there are not enough of us here whom we could truly trust to keep your secret.”
“But…” His voice broke again; Rhys coughed, and swallowed hard, and whispered, “But why Alein’s flowers…?”
“They were beautiful, weren’t they?” Mercy’s Hand said, her eyes full of aching sympathy. “They were beautifully made, and expensive, and unwithering. They would not fade like an ordinary bouquet. You were given a priceless gift from a nobleman who had shared but one night with you. Even those who did not envy you your gift would be hard pressed to keep from telling an Imperial inquisitioner that the king’s heir kept and treasured his most distinctive offering: an unmatched bouquet of bright, vivid, undying flowers. You couldn’t keep them here, and you couldn’t take them when you go. They would mark you too clearly.”
“Do you think the Imperium sent him?” Beren asked, low-pitched.
“Power’s Hand does,” she murmured. “I think he was merely a wounded young romantic in need of kindred’s comfort. I think if the Imperium had sent him, he would have marked you more indelibly than that. That’s why I hope the kingdom falls soon.”
“We can’t yet claim that you are too close to your childbed to answer the calling; the king has enough fingers to count,” she said. “So we can’t yet find a way for you to disappear; your absence would be marked and reported. When the king himself falls, we can send you away, because no one will bear tales to a dead man. But the longer the king holds…”
She sighed a little, and patted his distended belly with a gentle hand. “The longer the king holds, the closer you will come to your time. It will be more and more difficult for you to ride hard and fast, to reach a safe haven before the Imperium’s armies seize full control of the roads. And… none of us think the king will live long enough for you to be safely delivered first.”
Mercy’s Hand studied him for a moment, then took a kerchief and dabbed at his tear-stained face. “I am sorry for the loss of your gift, little one,” she said. “They were very beautiful, and given by an extravagantly generous heart.”
By September, they’d stopped holding the market days. The harvest couldn’t be taken in fully, with all the able-bodied men conscripted to the south and the women busy tending the injured and the children. The Hands sent all the priestesses who could travel to help harvest as much as they could from the surrounding countryside, and what they gathered was distributed among the hungry and the poor — of whom there were more than ever.
Beren refused to let Rhys go with the harvest-wagons, and none of the Hands would help Rhys argue with him. And Beren stayed with him; when the wagons returned, he was the first to help with the unloading and the hauling and the distribution, but he would not leave the Temple grounds while Rhys waited within.
The novices and priestesses who distributed the tokens had never again allowed Alein to come as far as the sanctuary hall, if he’d even tried to make the offering. Rhys had asked, repeatedly. No one would answer.
Lying beside him on one of his rest-nights, listening to the chatter of rain pounding against the windows, Beren curved his hand against Rhys’s full round belly and said, “I grieve for you that you knew him but the once. I am angry with him, that his loss has hurt you so. But I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life, that he gave you a taste of the joy you were always meant to feel in the Goddess’ embrace.”
Rhys put his hand over Beren’s, twining their fingers together. The thing kicked protest of the pressure; Beren moved their joined hands lower, his fingers gently seeking out a hint of the shape within, cradling it with breathtaking, precious care.
“Thank you,” Rhys whispered. “I’m so selfish. I throw a child’s tantrums over a man I only barely knew — and for all this time, you’ve stayed by my side. I hadn’t even thought that you have missed your lady wife far more than I’ve missed Alein.”
Beren sighed, warm and solid against Rhys’s back. “I will always miss her. But I have never regretted the choice I made, not once.”
“Always…?” Rhys looked up over his shoulder, studying Beren’s face. “Surely once I’ve been delivered of this burden, we could find her, find your children–”
“My prince,” Beren murmured, and his touch was as careful and delicate as though he held a priceless treasure of glass. “Seven days after I chose you, she had my name denounced across the land for the breaking of my wedding-oath and the abandonment of my daughter and sons.”
“Goddess’ Mercy,” Rhys breathed. “Beren–”
“The fault is mine, not hers,” Beren said, and his eyes were clear and calm and untroubled as a summer lake. “There was no other choice she could make. She had to provide for our children, when I could not. She had to sever her name from mine, that the breath of treason tainting my name would not continue on to stain our children, or her family. She is blameless in this. We both understood before I chose what the consequenses would be.”
“But I didn’t!” Shaking, Rhys struggled to pull away; he couldn’t let Beren comfort him like this, not when he’d — he’d– “Why? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well,” Beren said, and the first flicker of embarrassment crossed his face. “You see, I expected you would react rather like this.”
“React like–” Rhys cut himself short, and pressed both shaking hands to his chest; something had knotted in his throat like a fist, and he couldn’t breathe. “No. No! Beren, you — you’re not like this, you– how could you? How could you choose me? You shouldn’t have — your family, your children–”
“Breathe,” Beren said, brows quirked together in exasperation. “Stop. Breathe. …My prince, this is precisely why I hesitated to tell you.”
“I should have stopped you!” His voice broke high, like a child’s. “I should have known — you should have told me — someone should have stopped you before–”
With a vast sigh, and no consideration for insulted majesty whatsoever, Beren clamped his hand over Rhys’s mouth and pulled him back against his chest. His heartbeat was slow and steady, and for a wild minute Rhys hated him for how calmly he could speak of throwing aside his entire life.
“The choice,” Beren said softly, “was mine alone. The vows were mine alone. I knew when I took my wedding vows that I was already life-bound to your service. I truly had not anticipated that my vows would come into conflict with each other. But the choice between them came, and that choice was mine to make. No one else could be asked to decide which of my vows I would break — not you, not she, not the king himself.”
He pressed a soft kiss into the crown of Rhys’s hair, and said, “I love my wife, and I love my children, and that has not changed. But, my prince, I have been yours from the day you first took my hand in trust and smiled up at me. I cannot be other than yours, in the same way that I cannot be other than myself. You are my heart. My purpose in living.”
Rhys twisted around in his arms, buried his face in Beren’s chest, and clung until his knuckles were white. He hated crying in front of Beren; he knew Beren hated to see it. But he couldn’t seem to stop.
Beren simply held him close, the warmth of his breath stirring his hair, the solid rhythm of his heartbeat soothing him into sleep.
On the first of October, Sister Mared burst into their room without so much as knocking; she’d brought bags with her, and she began stuffing them with whatever she could reach.
Rhys scrubbed the sleep from his eyes, blinking at her blearily. “Mared…?”
“Time to run,” she said tersely. “Now. The Maiden’s Hand has dreamed of the king’s fall — Power’s Hand says that means the Imperium’s scouts will be here within a day. Two at utmost. I’m coming with you; Mercy’s Hand gave me the unbinding of her shelters, and there’s nowhere else we can go fast enough, not without–”
She cast a bleak gaze at Rhys’s distended belly, then shook her head fiercely and returned to trying to force Beren’s helm into a bag clearly not meant to hold it. Beren took it out of her hands and set it on the desk; he was already half done fastening the straps of his breastplate.
Rhys had been a good rider, once. He’d never guessed that the day would come when he truly couldn’t take to the saddle without aid, when he would be so heavy and awkward that Beren would have to lift him astride. The saddlehorn dug into the mound of his swollen abdomen, and if he could have died of shame, he might have done so on the spot.
Mared pulled his stirrups up two notches too short, pulled his cloak’s hood forward to hide his face, and then swung into her own saddle with a grace he fiercely envied. “Use your legs,” she told him. “Don’t let your hips hit the saddle too hard. And don’t slow down.”
She kicked her mare into a gallop; Beren’s gelding danced in a circle under his rein, impatient to follow.
Alein, Rhys thought in quiet despair. Alein, if the Goddess has any mercy left to spare…
He whispered a prayer that Alein might hear the land-cry when the king died, might be warned in time to seek refuge. Then he braced a hand against the saddlehorn, to try to spare the thing inside what he could, and urged his mount after Mared’s.
He’d ridden all day dozens of times before, without any difficulty — but he’d been stronger then, and much lighter. And hunts were usually punctuated by at least a few periods of leisurely milling around waiting for the hounds to catch the scent. Mared ran their horses as long as she could, then kept them walking to prevent a founder, following the old goat-tracks around the curves of the hills and through the brush, rather than the kingdom’s roads. They ate in the saddle, and if Mared could have managed it they might well have relieved themselves in the saddle. She kept the horses walking themselves cool long past dark, and she only walked because it was too dangerous to gallop blind.
By the time Mared dismounted in front of a stone arch laid into the side of a hill, Rhys couldn’t tell where his legs were, because everything from his ribcage down had blurred into an indistinguishable haze of pain. He waited for Beren to dismount, and then debated whether his pride could survive begging for help.
Beren took one look at him, and even in the moonlight Rhys could see the blood blanch from his face.
Beren lifted him down from the horse’s back as though Rhys still weighed no more than a child, even burdened by armor that already weighed more than Rhys himself.
Rhys couldn’t help catching his breath through his teeth when movement sent sharply renewed stabs of pain through his legs and hips. Beren didn’t let his feet so much as brush the ground, but the steel of his vambraces was even less forgiving than the leather saddle. He screwed his jaw shut tight, trying not to whimper as Beren carried him through the door in the hill that …hadn’t been there five minutes earlier, before Mared had spoken to it.
She blindfolded the horses and led them under the hill as well, then closed and warded the door behind them all. The moss on the cave walls shone dimly luminescent; the light caught wetly on Beren’s armor, poured over him like quiet starshine.
Beren looked around helplessly. “Where can I lay him?” he asked Mared, hushed. “There’s nothing here but earth and stone.”
“Better than the Imperium’s prison-beds,” she replied, but not without sympathy. “Get rid of your armor, then rub his legs and his back. I have to tend the horses as well, if we’re to have any chance to keep ahead of them.”
Rhys bit his lip until it bled, in the effort to keep from crying out when Beren’s strong hands kneaded at his pain-knotted body. In the twilight-dark, he knew neither of them could tell so long as he kept quiet.
Mared finished grooming the horses, saw them settled in with water and feed, then flung a bedroll across the earth and flopped onto it with a groan.
“Sorry, prince-ess,” she said gruffly. “I’m hurting enough myself to know you’re probably in Karathis’ third hell by now. But Power’s Hand said we had to get you safely under the earth before… before. Otherwise, every mage in the Imperium would be able to track the earth-bond’s flight across the face of the land when it passes to you. With you down here, it’ll sink into the earth first, and they can’t follow it through the ley-lines.”
“The old blood can.” Rhys drew an unsteady breath. “Alein… he can’t be the only one they’ve hurt. If they’ve caught enough of us…”
“That’s why we get up and run like hell again tomorrow,” Mared said. “But before that, we dye your hair.”
“How do you tell the old blood from the younger blood?”
Rhys blinked. “I just… know them.”
“….Right. Fido, how do you tell the old blood apart? Without the crotch check,” she added, with an utterly crass grin.
Beren looked down at Rhys, and cupped a hand to his cheek. “Fairer than the sun itself,” he said softly. “Fair as the moonlight, fair as the seafoam, and the sun scalds them in envy of their grace.”
“I was only looking for ‘white blond,'” Mared said dryly. “The point being that if we dye your hair too dark, it’ll scream ‘disguise’ to anyone with eyes left in their head. But darker blonde — that you can get away with. And I stole a couple good fistfuls of turmeric and senna from the kitchens before we left.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to dye my hair right here, in the middle of the night, underneath a hill. Unless you’d like to be absolutely certain there’s no way to know what you’ve done to my head until the morning, of course.”
“Do you think I’m that mean?”
Rhys opened his mouth; Mared cleared her throat loudly before he could answer. “No, I’m not going to dye your hair down here. We’ll need more water from the stream.”
Rhys sighed, and tried to roll onto his side to crawl to his feet; Mared caught him by the ankle.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked, suspicious.
“If I don’t keep moving, I’m not going to be able to,” he admitted, hoping his blushes didn’t show as clearly by mosslight. “So if we get this over with now, before I hurt so much I can’t bend…”
“No. Not yet. M-my prince… first we have to wait for the king to… pass.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, a little desperately.
“It’s not your fault,” Rhys said, with as good a smile as he could manage. Beren touched his shoulder. He turned into the embrace of that familiar warmth, and closed his eyes, and waited, wondering what it would be like to feel his uncle die.
Mared leaned over and traced the rune of sleep across his brow, and he let himself fall into the rhythm of Beren’s heart.
Rhys woke to the earth screaming, anguish locked frozen in stone, the blind throb of pain echoing through the earth in mourning for its lost lord. He was blind as the earth itself, black and thick and helpless, the living quick of green torn out by the roots and screaming for its mother-home.
Something else was screaming, shrill and hoarse, over the voice of the earth, some small pale insignificant scrap of nothing. The earth convulsed in on itself, twisted, howled–
–blood-pain, sharp and swift, cutting through his palm, pressing his blood into the stone. …he had a palm. He had a body, convulsing in blind torment, and Beren clung to him like an oak tree’s roots. Someone shoved something into his mouth before he could bite through his tongue any further. He arched and heaved and screamed, and fell gasping onto the earth. Onto it, not in it, not through it — he’d become something else, something not solely the earth’s own, and it wanted him back, wanted him to howl its grief.
“This,” a woman snarled, shoving his bloodied palm into the earth, “was the fucking stupidest idea in the history of dumbass and I’m going to rip Power’s Hand’s baggy tits straight off the next time she thinks–”
The world seized again, everything clenching down into a fist of sheer agony.
“It’s too soon,” Beren whispered; Rhys would have heard his voice anywhere, through anything.
“Talk to him,” the woman said. “Talk him through this. I don’t want to have to cut him open, down here in the Goddess’ own cunt–”
“My liege,” Beren murmured, his voice thick with tears — but Beren never cried, did he? “Slowly. You’ll tear yourself apart. Don’t bear down. Not yet. Wait for me, my king. Wait until it’s time.”
Beren was holding his hand. He had a hand to be held; he had a voice to cry out. Everything else was lost to hurting.
“Hold on,” Beren said. “Hold on to me and wait. Sister Mared has to help the child turn, before you can push again.”
“Keep him still,” Mared said, and then the pain spiked hard.
When the blind white lightning-shock of agony faded away this time, something had changed. He could feel the pain ebbing like the tide, enough to feel Beren’s arms around him, Beren’s hand on his tight, hard belly.
Time meant nothing amid the grip of the earth’s own tides, only the same unchanging rhythm — in, and out, and in again. But Beren still fell through time; when he spoke words of comfort, his voice shook with weariness, or maybe with grief.
“Now?” Rhys asked, when he found his voice in the trough of a wave.
“Not yet,” Beren assured him. “Soon. I promise.”
“Not your promise to keep,” the woman muttered, from down where the pain was. The tide began to rise.
In, and out. In, and out. The earth’s tide never changed, but something was building, pressing down, pushing, hard and knotted like a fist. Still, he waited for Beren’s word, because Beren had promised him.
The earth heaved beneath him, within him. He felt the earth-song groan, and lent it his voice to cry out with.
“Rhys,” Beren whispered, holding him solid as the stone.
Beren had never spoken his name before, raw and unvarnished. Rhys might have worried, except that the tide was rising again.
“Now, Rhys,” Beren told him. “Now.”
Rhys screamed to the earth’s own power, and the earth rose up and answered him. Something shifted inside, stretched, straining — then the immovable stone fist inside him burst free, and the pain-searing-tearing-pressure eased in a sudden lurch.
“Good!” the woman gasped. “I’ve got the head. One more push. Just once more–”
The earth’s tide poured through his body, emptied him out, left him hollow and shaking like a withered leaf.
The next thing he knew, Beren was kissing him.
Oh, Goddess, Rhys thought, don’t tell me I’ve died and found Your Haven. Beren would shake me until my teeth rattle loose if I died on him.
He was fairly sure that no one cursed like a fishwife in the Goddess’ Haven, though. Someone was cursing, quite fluidly, and something else was howling. And meanwhile something horribly unpleasant was happening between his legs, something that gushed and slipped and slid.
Then someone shoved a fist into his aching belly, and he tore himself away from Beren’s kisses to scream — and kick.
“The afterbirth!” the cursing woman protested, fending him off. “Got to get that out of you too, you crazy bastard– Hernos’ nuts, I am never spending a night in the Goddess’ cunt with the sprog-spawning heir of the whole damn kingdom ever again…”
…Mared. That was her name. No one else had a mouth like that. And what exactly was a sprog?
Rhys struggled a little, trying to sit up, and failing. Beren wasn’t about to let him move.
“What do you need?” he asked. “Water? A blanket? …another blanket?”
“Sprog,” Rhys wheezed, discovering just how much it hurt to breathe when you’d just given birth to a monster. “She said… ‘spawn.’ What’s a sprog?”
Beren’s grip tightened so fiercely Rhys thought he could feel his bones creak. “She’s a rude, foulmouthed–” He stopped, and shook his head. “Your son is beautiful, and whole, and perfect. Ignore her.”
Rhys might have had a few more questions, if Beren hadn’t kissed him again.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Mared said, “but I’m giving you four hours to sleep before we go back out there and ride like Hel’s hounds are snorting brimstone up our asses. There’s no way even the Imperium’s mages could have missed the epicenter of that power surge.”
Even in the half-light, Rhys could see the flare of absolute rage in Beren’s eyes.
“Are you trying to kill him?” he snarled. “Riding a force-march and bringing him to some kind of power-locus, in his condition, where the king’s death-cry hit him hard enough to bring the child a month early — and now you want to drag him bleeding from his childbed onto another force-march? No!”
“I don’t know what else to do!” Mared said, and she sounded on the verge of tears herself. “We’re still too close to the Temple, and you know their scouts will head straight here!”
The earth murmured in the back of Rhys’s mind.
“The unbinding,” he said. “Mared — there’s only one unbinding, isn’t there?”
“Mercy’s Hand only taught me one,” Mared said, hesitant. “There could be more of them.”
“Not to this place,” Rhys said, digging his fingers into the earth as though it were a warm animal’s pelt. “There’s only one unbinding, because there’s only one door.”
“Of course there’s only one door,” Mared said. “Twice the doors in every hill would make them twice as hard to bind.”
“I mean there’s only one door,” Rhys said, and now they were both staring at him. “One unbinding. One door. All the hills and valleys of the land — they open onto this place. This is the kingdom’s heart.”
“I heard it as the Goddess’ cunt,” Mared mumbled.
“Of course you did,” Rhys said, with a tired grin. “And even if you hadn’t, you’d have called it that yourself. But your key is through the Goddess. Mine is through the land. And we both bespeak the same heart, through the same door. It’s just a question of whether I can reopen the door where we want it to be.”
“Not right now,” Beren told him, half an order and half a plea.
Rhys sighed, and touched Beren’s cheek. “There is no better time to try,” he said. “I still feel the earth’s voice, right now. The song is fading, now that… now that it’s been born…”
“Your son,” Beren said, not far from a growl.
“…Yes. But the song was loudest when my uncle… when the power came to me. And through my… childing. I’d rather try now, while I can still feel what I suspect a proper mage would need years of study to master.” He glanced over at Mared. “Where did you want to take us?”
“Penrhuthin. It’s the ass-end of nowhere — if we’re lucky the Imperium will ignore it entirely and take the Great Road straight through to Pont y Ffrestyn. And if we’re not lucky, it’s close enough to the border to run if the army comes through. Or far enough to hide and let them pass.” She tilted her head sideways. “Ever been there?”
“We took the Great Road past it,” Rhys said, reaching into the earth for the feel of the cities’ restless itch, the tickle of the rivers, the hair-fine scratches of the roads.
He remembered Pont y Ffrestyn, the great bridge over the river’s mouth as it poured into the bay; he brushed his fingertips over the land and felt for the road, and then for the Rhyddin Valley, the sweet chatter of the stream, the forests’ rustling not-quite-silence. There was a contented little huddle of gathered lives tickling along the side of the hill, where the rich lowlands rose into scraggly gorse and heather and white sheep-tufts grazing.
He felt for the shadow of the forest, the privacy and the shelter, and held on.
“Now,” he breathed, not daring even to blink, but Mared had felt the door-shadow’s frame come into being in the same moment he anchored it. She’d already nicked her fingertip; she traced the runes onto the curved wall of the cave. She bound the door into existence, then unbound the lock and flung it open.
The night was pitch-black, coal-black, moon-blue. Nothing warmed the curve of the hills with mankind’s fire-bright reds and golds. If they’d still been a day’s ride from the Temple, they would still have seen the city’s lights smoldering against the night.
“I love you, you crazy bastard,” Mared said, and took his face between her hands, and kissed him noisily. “Even if it’s not Penrhuthin, it’s good enough. Sleep. Sleep all day, if the sprog’ll let you. I’ll go catch us something to eat.” She laid a small white-wrapped bundle into his arms, scooped up her bag, and dashed through the door.
The bundle Mared had handed to Rhys made an unhappy noise, and then started to howl. After a moment’s bemused blinking, Rhys realized that she’d handed him the thing he’d birthed.
He simply stopped, wood-stiff, horrified — Mared had never said whether or not it was even human, Beren was too blinded by his loyalty, and the thing itself… he couldn’t look. He couldn’t make himself look. He couldn’t face it.
Beren put his hands over Rhys’s, steadying both him and the thing howling in his stunned grasp. “Breathe,” he reminded him, his voice full of loving amusement. “Breathe. In. Out. Rhys, we must rectify this unhealthy habit of yours.”
Rhys shut his eyes tight, and pushed the thing into Beren’s hands. “Take it,” he said. “Take it somewhere else. I don’t — I can’t–”
“He’s just startled, and hungry,” Beren said, holding both of them, pressing the thing against Rhys’s chest. “Suddenly, your heartbeat isn’t where it had always been, and the world is big and dry and cold. Poor little lad…”
“I’m sorry,” Rhys said, desperately. “I can’t. I can’t care for it, I don’t know how, I don’t want it– Beren, please, don’t make me do this!”
For a long moment, the only sound was the thing’s anguished howls, echoing off the soft hollows of the hill’s heart.
“I understand,” Beren said, softly, and it sounded as though he was just as unhappy as the screaming infant. “I can teach you what I know of children, if you ever wish to learn. But even if not — you are both blameless. It is not his fault he came to be. And neither is it your fault that his existence has caused you so much fear and pain over the months. You have already given him his life; that is more than his poor cousins were ever given. You owe him nothing, my liege.”
Rhys flinched from his title, when Beren had called him so fondly by his own name a few breaths earlier. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. Please — just take it somewhere, make it stop screaming…”
“In this, I fear that I must beg your forgiveness,” Beren murmured. “I will tend him as kindly as any father could, but there is just one thing I cannot do for him. You are the only one of us who can.” He touched the collar of Rhys’s gown, loosened the ties, and Rhys realized what Beren meant. Sickened, he shut his eyes tight and buried his face in the crook of Beren’s shoulder.
Rhys thought his heart might burst when he felt Beren’s hand fold back the lap of the gown, felt the rasp of his sword-calloused fingers against his too-sensitive, milk-swollen breasts. Something hot and very soft nudged against him, pushed a little, and then there was wet heat and hollow-needing-sucking. The spike of pain-pleasure-shame-need shuddered through him hard. It was a torture and a relief all at once; the other breast was beginning to throb, remindng him of his fullness there, wanting the same release.
“Oh, Goddess,” Rhys whispered.
Beren touched his cheek gently. “I know the intimacy of this,” he said, husky-voiced, “If I could spare you, I would. I pray that it is not …unbearable.”
He couldn’t find the words to reply. In the dark, all the world was made of sensation: the ache in his belly, the unnerving trickle of blood, the soft wet pressure of suckling at his breast, Beren’s warm strength behind him, around him…. and beneath it all, the earth’s deep trembling croon of contentment.
The little thing’s suckling faltered, and it made a fussy sound; Beren slipped the gown off Rhys’s other shoulder, shifted it to his other breast, stroked its cheek softly, and it latched on again.
“Have you thought of names?” Beren murmured.
“No,” Rhys said, surprised. “I didn’t think it would even be human, not after what they did to its father and me. And then Mared said…”
“Oh, my liege.” Beren kissed the crown of his head, and sighed softly. “I will not curse her aloud for her stupid insensitivity, not in this place. But I am thinking some very uncharitable thoughts.”
He reached over to the camp-lantern Mared had lit during the birth, and brought it closer. Rhys shut his eyes tight; Beren touched his cheek with a light fingertip, much the same way he’d coaxed the little thing to nurse.
“Forgive me, my king,” Beren said softly. “I am about to presume upon the strength of your heart, and the kindness you have granted to me over the years of my service. I will ask you this one thing, and then I will never presume to ask again. If you wish, I will make it a vow…”
“No,” Rhys said. “No more vows. Not here.” His voice shook. “I know what you’re going to ask, Beren. You’re more cruel than I thought.”
“I always said you thought too highly of me,” Beren agreed, gentle but unrelenting. “Just once. I ask you to look at him just once. I will never ask again.”
Rhys shuddered despite himself. He forced the words from a dry throat: “Only once?”
“On my oath to you.”
I can do anything once, Rhys told himself, and made himself look down.
It wasn’t …disgusting. It was still very red, but it wasn’t covered in blood and slime and filth the way Talar’s just-born thing had been. One of them must have cleaned it. Its head was misshapen, pointed at the top; but with all the horrors that he’d imagined over the long months of dread, he could forgive the thing something as simple as ugliness.
It was very soft. Almost as soft as a kitten, and it hadn’t even any fur. Rhys cringed a little, shaken by how utterly helpless the thing was, how easily he could hurt or break it by accident.
It had the tiniest hands he’d ever seen. Tiny, but startlingly detailed, even the minuscule fingernails. One of its little hands flailed about as it suckled; Rhys didn’t move his hand away fast enough, and it found his thumb.
Its whole hand curled around one of his fingers.
“Oh, Goddess,” Rhys whispered, on the trembling edge of panic.
“Don’t fret,” Beren said, the mirth in his voice only barely restrained from spilling over. “He won’t hurt you.”
“I’m afraid of hurting him!”
“I know,” Beren said, and kissed his temple softly. “It’s all right. You’ve never hurt any of the hunting hounds’ puppies, not even when you were much smaller and clumsier yourself.”
“This is different!” Rhys protested, his voice rising.
“The puppies weren’t…”
“Fragile,” Rhys said, starting to shake with panic. “Unique. –Irreplaceable.”
“Human,” Beren supplied, and Rhys nodded in a short sharp jerk.
Then, very gently, Beren added, “Yours.”
Rhys stopped breathing again.
Beren heaved an enormous sigh, and shifted his hold on them just enough to be able to swat Rhys between the shoulderblades. He gasped for breath, and then couldn’t stop gasping, faster and faster, like a fish out of water.
“My liege,” Beren groaned, and set his hand very gently atop the deflated bulge of Rhys’s aching belly. “Slowly. With my hand. …Out. …In. …Out.”
“I don’t know how to do this!” Rhys cried. “It deserves someone better than me, someone stronger, better experienced — I know I’m all it has, but it needs shelter and love and I don’t know how to take care of it, how to protect it, it’s too much–”
“We can,” Beren said. “We can. Together. You and I and Sister Mared — though I shall have words with her about her language, when he’s old enough to begin to mimic us.”
“I can’t keep it safe — I can’t even keep myself safe –”
“…No one can, not truly.”
“You did,” Rhys said, stubborn. “You’ve always protected me.”
“Good gods!” Beren burst out, staring at him. “How can you even say that? After this year, after this night– when I think of all you’ve suffered… No, my king, I have not protected you even half as well as I wish I could have. And I regret every failure. And so will you, with your son. You’ll feel his pain every time he’s hurt. But you’ll also feel his joy every time he smiles. In all, the joys do often outweigh the sorrows.”
“Swear you’ll help me,” Rhys said, still trembling. “I can’t do this alone.”
“Always,” Beren told him. “I’ve seen it all before: middle of the night feedings, fevers, spots, the lot. And Sister Mared knows far more than I. We’ll help you. Don’t be afraid. You won’t ever be alone.”
“Swear it to me,” Rhys ordered.
“On my life. On my soul itself.” Then Beren ruffled his hair and added, “But I’m afraid I must make one more demand.”
Rhys tried to brace himself. “What now?”
“Before the week is out, I do expect you to provide him with a name. A better name than ‘Fido’ or ‘Kid.’ Because if you leave it long enough that Sister Mared takes it into her head to name him…”
“…He’d never be rid of it, would he,” Rhys groaned, running a hand down his face. “I’ve only ever named dogs and horses, Beren. How do you give something this tiny and unformed a name he can bear his whole life?”
“Begin with love,” Beren said, and cupped his hand over Rhys’s, cradling them both at once. “Name him for love. You could name him for Alein, who brought you your first true taste of it.”
It wasn’t Alein I first loved, Rhys thought, but didn’t say aloud; he didn’t want to begin that argument again, not at a time like this. Instead, he tried to wobble along the edge of what he wanted; he offered clumsily, “I could name him for you.”
Beren was caught speechless for a long moment; then, husky-voiced, he said, “I would not deserve such honor.”
“Not to mention how confusing that’d get really damn fast,” Mared said from the doorway; she strode over and set a pair of plates down beside them. “Eat, you moron. You’ve been run through the Goddess’ own clothes-mangle. Eat.”
Rhys looked down at the plate, and down at the soft dusting of downy white hair atop his nursing son’s head.
“We could name him ‘Shrimp,'” Mared said, grinning. “It fits.”
“You will NOT call my son ‘Shrimp!'” Rhys spluttered. “You’re speaking of a prince of the realm–”
“–if there’s a realm left to rule by next week–”
“–and the royal archivist would die of apoplexy!” With an exasperated sigh, Rhys looked up at Beren again. “I can’t do worse than ‘shrimp,’ can I. Would Morgan do? Morgan Alein, maybe?'”
“It’s a beautiful name, my liege,” Beren said, smiling down at them both with perfectly untroubled affection.
Rhys wished, in a small selfish corner of his heart, that Beren could have been the least bit jealous of the baby’s second name. But he’d been through enough for one day.
And maybe, once Beren trusted that he’d healed and could choose freely of his own will — maybe someday, there might be another name to give. Rhys knew full well that it was a queen’s duty to provide both the heir and the spare. He wasn’t precisely the queen, but he wasn’t precisely the king either, in this land that was no longer precisely his kingdom.
“Still say ‘shrimp’ fits him better.”
…And as soon as Rhys finished eating his royal dinner, he planned to beat his self-proclaimed court physician-turned-jester over the head with his plate.