The Gift

by Hui Ying Lei

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/13928.html)

Summer had a monopoly on Brinnerstone and its outlying country; February was not halfway done before the snow melted away and even the nights were warm and pleasant. It was early in that month that the birthday of the royal heir came around. Perhaps wartime made an opportunity for jovial celebration that much more appealing. Either way, his family was not a humble tribe and on that day the wine ran freely, the roasted pigs came one after another into the halls, and the Chinese rockets shot up pink and yellow into the sky long into the night. Belvius Bosch took the hullabaloo of his twentieth year ceremony in stride, sitting through the noise and formalities and insufferable relations until the early morning hours, when he was distracted and, much to his relief, given an excuse to slip away. Hurrying out of the ceremonies and into the upper levels of the castle, he became simply Billy.

“Ugh, I thought they would force another peach pastry down my throat. I’ve had enough food for a week!”

His cohort elbowed him in the ribs. “Hey, I didn’t get a pretty pony for my birthday, and no imported wines, and no Duchess of Crimsy fawning all over me.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Oh Daniel, keep the horse, and the wench. I really don’t care for either of them. The wine, I could do with a little more, really…”

They turned a corner and reached the door to Billy’s room. Daniel jumped in front of the door and made a motion to stop him. “All right, so here’s my present to you. You remember that… stuff we were talking about two days ago, when we went out hare coursing?”

Billy eyed him suspiciously. “Yeeaaahh…”

Daniel just smiled. He always looked like he had something up his sleeve, and Billy really wanted to remind him that the conversation they had had was supposed to be entirely confidential and not really to be spoken of again, something that had been spur of the moment, and maybe they shouldn’t have talked about-

“Come on.” Daniel pulled the door handle and led them in.

They went through the entry way to the back, where Billy’s bed was pushed up against the wall, draped in dozens of sheets and brocades. There was a bundle of ruffles in pink glaring out against them.

Billy stood agape for a moment. There was a girl tied up on his bed. She had a gag in her mouth and her arms were bound to her sides. The rope disappeared into the folds and ruffles of her pink and black dress, a pairing of a corset top and a skirt which burst out in large waves to her mid-thighs over a fishnet pattern of tights. The puffed sleeves were mangled with the binds. She was dressed like one of the exotic courtesans he had seen imported from the South. Daniel sat down on the bed with a bounce of the mattress and pulled her partially onto his lap. She looked rather frightened.

“Here-” he started before Billy exploded.

“Are you nuts? What the hell are you doing?”

“Whoa whoa, she’s doing it consensually. Aren’t you sweetie?” He smiled down at the girl. She relaxed a little and nodded her head in quick, jerky motions. “It’s like we talked about, right? You know… she’s tied up and there’s two of us…”

Billy sat down on the end of the bed away from them. “That was just talk. Okay? It’s a little creepy and… is that a gypsy?” It had not struck him immediately, how dark the girl’s hair and skin was. She was obviously freshly bathed and primped, and the clothes must have come from a pricey shop; obviously Daniel’s doing.

“Well…” Daniel pulled a bit at the pink skirt. “She agreed to do it, she’s pretty, and it was hard to find anything else that was… clean.” He broke into another mischievous grin, feeling up the girl’s plate-flat chest. “Come on. Nobody’s paying attention and it’s your birthday. Are you up for it or what?”

Billy looked at her again. She was calm but not very stirred by Daniel’s pawing. There was a golden light to her brown eyes but she looked away when he looked into them. Daniel was right; she was a pretty one.

Billy put a hand on her knee, tested the fishnet texture, and slid his hand upward. Daniel pulled at the tie on the front of the corset. Billy’s fingers hit the soft fabric between her legs and he stopped.

“Dan…” he choked. “D…” His face broke up and he began to laugh.

“What? What are you laughing about?”

Daniel yanked back the dress to see Billy’s hand still cupped around a set of male genitals visible through a sheer set of panties. The blood in his face cycled out and then back in a rush. He threw down the boy and ripped the gag out of his mouth.

“You’re not a girl you bastard!”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “I though… I-”

Daniel roared and slapped him, getting in a backhand before Billy pulled him off.

“You fucking Gyp scammer!” He stopped struggling but kept up his glare. “He never told me! All this time, the little wretch!”

The boy tried to crawl up into a sitting position. “I thought you wanted me to pretend…”

Daniel seemed ready to punch him again so Billy grabbed his arm and dragged him away. “It’s okay, Dan.”

“It was supposed to be your present!”

“It’s all right, go back downstairs.” He pushed Daniel out the door. “I’ll send him away. Go take it out on someone else, okay? I’m tired anyway, and they expect me back down there in the morning for another day of eating ’till I pop. I’ll see you then, all right?”

Daniel sneered, shuffled his feet, and finally nodded and told him good night. Before Billy could close the door, however, he managed to throw in another, “Bitch!” to the poor boy on the bed.

Billy sighed. He found a penknife in his writing desk and sawed at the ropes on the boy.

“I’m really very sorry,” the boy said quietly. He seemed frightened again, his little figure drawn into itself.

“No, I’m sorry,” Billy said, taking the rope off. “You’ll have a nasty bruise there.” He pointed to the boy’s cheek, looking his face over. “He’s got a bad temper, but he shouldn’t have hit you.”

The boy looked around, seeming unsure of what to do now. Billy felt sorry for him, both for what happened, and that he would have to make it home at this hour.

“Do you want to stay here for the night?”

“If you still want me to,” the boy said. His voice was naturally low and breathy; his face was too open and honest to be coy. He shifted closer to Billy.

Billy in turn scooted back. “Er, no, that’s not how I meant it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot you wanted a girl.”

“No, I like boys. No! I mean, that’s not what I wanted to say. I meant, would you like to wait in the castle somewhere until a better time to leave?”

The boy shook his head. “No one would like me staying here.”

“Huh… I guess you’re right.” Billy bit his lip. “I don’t think I meant to say that either.”

The barest, tiniest hint of a smile came to the boy but was gone just as fast. Billy started to feel a bit of affection for him. “What’s your name?”

“Cenza”, he said.

“‘Cinder’, huh? Unusual. You can just call me Billy; that’s the unofficial name.” He flopped back on the bed. It was no lie when he said he was tired. Maybe they could sleep here together and he could send the boy off in the morning. Cenza was just sitting there, curled up but tense. “You don’t usually do this, do you?” Billy asked him.

Cenza picked at the fancy clothes he wore. “That man said he would pay me a lot of money for it. And he let me take a bath and gave me these clothes. I though… I thought he knew I was a boy, but was just giving me girl’s clothes, or he wanted me to pretend… I’m really sorry!”

Billy sighed. When Daniel made a decision, tunnel vision set in. “Don’t apologize so much.”

“He said if I did something dumb, he would beat me to a bloody mess,” Cenza said quietly.

Billy sat up and crawled to be face to face with him, catching his eyes. “No, I promise you you’re not going to get beaten at all, not by him or me. You don’t have to be scared, okay?”

Cenza nodded, but his posture betrayed him.

“You were scared of us sleeping with you, weren’t you?”

Cenza let him look into his eyes this time. Billy could see the boy’s guards were still up. He couldn’t help feeling bad for it.

His father had called it a weakness. For a monarch, current or future, leaking sympathy was a weakness. He had lectured ten-year-old Billy, who loved throwing fistfuls of his allowance out the carriage window, watching the beggars swarm on the coins as he rode away. In childish simplicity he had thought it made their lives better. He had thought there was always room inside for homeless dogs digging for scraps in the yard compost pile. Even when he understood that a king or a prince were not born to fix everything that was broken in their dominion. That great burden was just not possible to shoulder. But still, here was this subject of his, someone whose life he had in his hand, and perhaps tonight, while no one was looking, he could make an exception.

“Stay here,” Billy said. He reached up to the braided rope hanging down to his nightstand and gave it a few yanks. In less than one minute there was a knock on the door. He instructed the servant and in a few minutes more a cart was wheeled in, stacked with plates. Billy dismissed the attendant and waved at Cenza.

“Hungry?” He raised an eyebrow as the smells mixed together and spread throughout the room. Cenza’s eyes were big and round like the plates he was staring at. “Come on, there’s way too much of this stuff for me.”

Cenza unfolded his legs. When he got to his feet the skirt filled out around him. It was like bright pink butterfly wings, freshly unfolding. He circled the cart, then tentatively reached for a strip of eggplant dripping in a sauce. Billy stopped his hand with a fork.

“Here, use this instead.”

Cenza took it self-consciously. He held it in a fist and ground the points into the eggplant, impaling it with a small struggle, like the utensil was foreign to him. When he tasted it his eyes seemed to glow from behind.

“This is… This is amazing.”

“Eat all you want!” Billy winked and popped open the wine, taking a swig straight from the bottle.

Cenza stabbed a morsel from every plate. As he went from dish to dish, a little smile came out, and slowly it grew.

“What’s this?” he asked, scooping up an orange mess.

“Greek fish, with tomato sauce and onions and carrots.”

“And this?”

“Grilled chicken with pesto and pine nuts.”

“I don’t know what pista is! But it’s terribly good!”

He had Billy name everything he ate, and took on Billy’s dare to eat herring and jam at once, and Billy poured the wine into his mouth, and even laughed a little. Cenza’s laugh was high and soft, and Billy enjoyed it immensely. He though the Duchess of Crimsy could have done with some of Cenza’s charm, they way he became giddy from sensory pleasures of good food, the way he laughed openly without covering his mouth, and the flattering way he fit completely into the dress. What an enjoyable boy this gift had turned out to be.

“Have a sweet,” he said, holding out a chocolate. Cenza stared ahead, his mind floating off into space somewhere while the sweet melted in his mouth.

“I’ve never had anything like this,” he said. “It’s like I died and went to a good place.”

Billy tickled the underside of his chin, but Cenza seemed to get sadder.

“I’m really thankful. I won’t forget this.”

It was a sudden reminder that they would have to part soon. Billy felt a slight disappointment that he couldn’t spend more time with him, to coax out more laughter and find out who this boy was. No one of royalty took such a pleasure in little things like a bit of chocolate or a taste of wine.

“If you want, I can show my star gift”, he said. He held out his hand and Cenza tentatively put his on Billy’s palm. The pinkie finger was missing from it; only a stub was left. It was the punishment suffered for first theft. After that, it was the thumb, and a third offense cost a whole hand. Billy closed his fingers and pulled Cenza up, and led him out.

Billy made a game of dodging visitors and servants in the halls. Anything and everything in here could be a game; being royalty was so frequently boring. They made it down the stairs and emerged at the side of the castle. Billy looked to the sky.

“It will be light in a few hours. You’ll… be able to go home then.”

Cenza looked away somewhere and nodded. His smile shrank.

Billy squeezed his hand and decided not to talk about it anymore. They walked out from the side yard onto a thick carpet of grass, cutting past squares of earth where the tail ends of vegetables stuck out of the ground, half of them gone for the feast. The stars were out, and the moon almost fully turned to face them. They reached a long building with an open hallway running from one end to the other, stables of horses rustling and grumbling on either side. Billy looked in and around the corners.

“Hello? Hey, any hands on duty?” There was no answer, just stamping of hooves. “That’s strange. Usually there’s someone here to do all the dirty work for me. All the easier for us to sneak around, right?” He gave Cenza a mischievous look and took him inside. He stopped at one of the stalls and took down the lamp hanging next to it, lighting the wick. Warm light spread out around them, little specks of it reflecting off the horse’s coat and eyes. It was entirely black save for one white star between its eyes. Its mane stretched past its neck, and the tail all the way to the ground. Cenza put his hands on the top of the door and leaned in, his mouth slightly open. He could see thick feathering at the horse’s feet. The animal ambled toward him and reached out its nose, flaring its nostrils. Cenza lifted a hand to reach for him, hesitated, but with a nod from Billy petted the horse down its silky nose. It nudged him and nibbled on his arm with its lips.

“He was a birthday present, from my uncle, my father’s brother. He’s a Friesian, a champion of the Allied Territories.”

“He’s beautiful! I’ve hardly ever gotten to pet a horse.”

Billy opened the door and let him in. “His name is Aria de Nuit.” As Cenza repeated the name to himself and scratched the horse’s neck, Billy retrieved a bridle and slipped it on the horse’s head. He leaned down and wrapped his arms around Cenza’s thighs and hoisted him up. Cenza grabbed his arms.

“What are you doing?

“Grab his mane and sit on his back!”

Cenza wiggled on and grabbed a tuft of hair, hanging on desperately.

Billy grinned. “Put your leg over, it’ll be more comfortable.”

“No! It’s really high up!”

Billy led the horse out laughing and used a block of wood to get a jump up on Aria. He hugged Cenza around the waist and pulled him upright with one arm, the reins in the other.

“Don’t worry. I got you, okay?”

“It feels like I’m going to slip off… oh!”

He started as Aria began to walk out of the stable.

“Draw up your legs a bit,” Billy said. “Try to hold onto the horse by squeezing your knees together, like your thighs are holding onto it.”

They exited on the other side of the stable, onto a trail flanked by oaks and fenced paddocks. Billy put the reins into Cenza’s hands. Cenza gripped them tightly.

“Just keep them slack as long as he’s going straight. Pull lightly on the side where you want to go.” Billy now had both arms free to put around Cenza, and he held him close. Aria followed the trail without instruction in a slow, smooth walk, as if he sensed the anxiety of one of his riders and the assertive control of the other.

They reached the inside wall of the castle grounds. The bridge was lowered over the moat. Billy stopped the horse for a moment to look around.

“That’s strange too. I didn’t know everyone was back there partying. Usually this is closed at night and there are guards here.”

They went over the bridge, hooves thumping in a steady pattern.

“Where are we going?”

“A trail goes through the gardens and the trees all the way to the outside wall. We have servants and merchants and important people living down here, and the rest of the capital is outside.”

“It must be nice being royal and living in here.”

Billy shrugged. “You get troubles no matter what you get handed in life. Right now it’s the war. My brother and cousins came back to celebrate because of the lull, but they’ll be heading out soon. My father might, too, and I think this time he’ll take me with him.”

“I don’t think I’d mind,” Cenza said. “Living nice and getting killed in the end. It sounds better than living long just because you worked hard the whole time not to die.”

Billy squeezed him lightly. Cenza had even been bathed and perfumed up for him, he noticed on their trip. He wanted to keep Cenza radiant and happy.

“Don’t think about that, okay? I’ll let you stay longer with me.” He didn’t know why he said it; it was really improbable that etiquette and social norm would let him keep a gypsy like a housepet, much less as a companion. But in some way, he felt he had to provide for him until they parted… and to be honest, he did not want them to part anymore.

He took the reins and steered the house into the grass and brush. Tree branches slapped their arms. Billy put a hand on Cenza’s cheek and pressed him into his shoulder to keep the branches from getting to his face. They emerged in a spot in which a pond was centered, fed by a tiny murmuring waterfall. Large stones surrounded it. The burp of frogs echoed back and forth from every side. Until the horse approached and they all dove into the water, the surface perfectly reflected the sky.

Billy dismounted and Cenza clumsily slid off into his arms. When Billy let him go, his skirt was pushed up to his waist, and he quickly adjusted it. Billy wondered what the modesty was about when Cenza had agreed to give his body up for money. He found himself disappointed; getting a glimpse of the straps holding up the stockings disappear under the fabric gave him a little thrill. The moon painted blue light on Cenza’s skin and jet hair. Billy reached out and touched his cheek with a single finger, mindful of the bruise Daniel had given him, going down its edge to the chin, and up to his lower lip.

“You’re very pretty.”

Cenza ducked his head. Billy let him go, not meaning to embarrass him, but he was glad to see the tiniest of smiles show on Cenza’s face again as they sat down in the grass. Cenza plucked a flower snaking out from between the rocks at the water’s edge.

“They come out only at night,” he said.

He plucked another one and wove them together. Billy found a flower and joined it to the bundle.

“My cousin taught me how to make a chain, too, when we were kids.” He touched Cenza’s fingers with his and traced the back of his hand as Cenza joined a dozen flowers in a ring, then took them from him and interwove them with Cenza’s hair, tying them in place. His fingers ran down to Cenza’s temples, down to his cheekbones, cupping his face. They were close, their breath mixing together.

“It’s a… beautiful flower,” Billy whispered.

Cenza finally found his courage and met Billy’s eyes.

“We called it ‘harslag’.”

“What does it mean?”

“Heartbeat.”

It was enough words for Billy. He kissed the corner of Cenza’s mouth, like a little warning, before going full to his mouth. He had meant it to be soft, but a frantic energy came into him and he pushed into the boy, licking between his lips. When he pulled away Cenza sucked in his breath with an open mouth. His eyes had widened and come alive with some light Billy had only glimpsed before. They kissed again, noses flattening against cheeks, Billy’s hands grabbing the folds of the skirt, Cenza’s hands in his hair. Billy pulled him on his lap and kissed his face, going down his neck. He felt under the dress as Cenza’s thighs squeezed his waist. It was fumbling and hurried, as if they might be torn away from each other when the sun came up.

“I’ll give you money, if you want,” he said. “I’ll give you anything you want.”

“For this?” Cenza’s hair was in his face, his lips swollen and parted like the splitting of a ripe fruit.

“No. This I want to be free.”

Billy felt the soft fabric of Cenza’s undergarments, a scandalous, tiny bit of fabric straining in front. He sneaked his hand in and Cenza sighed into his ear, licking the shell, lightly biting on the lobe and nuzzling him for more.

He found himself tossed back on the grass. Billy yanked the skirt up and sank his warm tongue into Cenza’s navel. He left a wet trail circling up and down to Cenza’s hip, down to his inner thigh. Cenza lifted his hips when Billy tugged at the panties, down just far enough to free his cock, which disappeared into Billy’s mouth. Billy watched him blink slowly and exhale, taking in that warm, wet feeling. He played with his tongue, watching Cenza’s stomach pull in and tremble now and again, trying to record what made him lick his lips and throw back his chin, what made his fingers curl and rake the ground. He rubbed his knuckles on the mound between Cenza’s legs and took him deep in the throat.

Cenza’s legs jerked when he came. It overflowed down Billy’s chin when he lifted his head, warm drops falling on Cenza’s heaving stomach.

Billy wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He ran his hands up the sides of Cenza’s body, pulling strands of hair away from his eyes. Their kisses were now slower, but Billy was still burning, pulling Cenza up to him, rubbing his face into Cenza’s neck and hair.

“I’m sorry,” Cenza said. “I should have done that first… I really wanted to.”

Billy just smiled. “You can still do a lot for me.”

“No, I really want to please you, I want you to be happy with me. I want to do everything for you.”

Billy was ready to tell him it wasn’t necessary, and again how beautiful he was and how wonderful the night had been when Aria gave a loud snort and perked up his head. Billy hesitated.

Cenza looked worried. “What is it? Did I say something wrong?”

“No…” He couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly. He didn’t have to wonder for long; a whistling sound came from the surrounding trees and ended with an arrow embedding itself in the ground next to his foot. A word stuck in Cenza’s mouth, making a high choking sound. Billy jumped up and yanked Cenza to his feet as another arrow whizzed by and was swallowed by the pond.

“Come on, run!”

He sprinted in the direction away from the arrow’s source, his mind racing to think of what to do. It couldn’t have been his guard; even drunk, there was no way to mistake them for intruders. It must be the opposing forces sneaking in.

They ran into the trees. Rustling followed them on both sides. He was pulling Cenza along, trying to see without moonlight to help him. The stables and the outer gate had been unguarded because someone had gotten there before they did. Those faint booms he had not noticed during his tryst which should have been fireworks were now more like cannon fire. He dodged to the right, toward the castle.

Cenza’s hand pulled out of his. He heard the boy fall behind him with a yelp and stopped. An arrow stuck out from the back of his leg. Cenza seemed not to see it and tried to get up and follow, his leg giving in under his weight.

“Stay here!” Billy hissed. He took off again, yelling to them that they did not know what they were doing trying to kill the son of a king. He could only hope his bloodline would be enough for them to leave Cenza alone and go after him. He bolted through the thicket while the rustling followed him, more arrows missing him and embedding themselves in the trees. They gave him cover to twist and duck away from the intruders, staying just ahead of them. He made it to the bridge, expecting to be cut down by an ambush, but they must have come up on him unexpectedly in a small group because he had a clear path all the way to the castle side yard. There, a yellow explosion lit up the receding night and nearly stopped him.

“Fire…”

Downhill in the distance, the castle guard was grappling with the enemy. Billy shot into the side entrance and up the stairs. His pursuers were a distance behind him and he took a winding path through the halls, throwing himself into a side closet and pressing up against the door. He could see them trot past through cracks between the door’s planks, unsure of where to go to find him. Half of them returned the other way a few seconds later, apparently convinced they lost him and needed somewhere else.

They wore the emblems of mercenaries hired by the conquering lord his father had been fighting for nearly a year. Everyone had thought the battles had stayed behind them in the south, however. It had been naive. They should have seen a sneak attack coming; the lord was rotten enough for it.

Billy knew he could not wait out the fight here. They would ransack the place if they got an upper hand, and for all he had seen, that was the case. He opened the door slowly, scanning the hall, his ears on highest alert. He could hear yells of the fighting men, vague feminine screams from some hall downstairs. If they had abandoned this wing already, perhaps he could find a weapon and help defend his home.

He made it to the room of the captain of arms; the guy had to have something useful under his bed, if nowhere in plain sight. He rummaged the closets and chests. Looking under the bed, he was disappointed again. Cursing, he tried to get up and in his hurry banged his head on the nightstand. It just so happened the two things on its surface were a teapot and finely crafted china teacup, both of which hopped to the floor with a startling clatter. He froze, waiting for something to cue him. By the time he heard the footsteps, his exit had been cut off. They stepped in the doorway and yelled something in their language, rushing at him. Billy whirled and took the only way out: the window.

He slipped and tumbled on the sloping rooftop and was over the edge before they could come out after him. He saw the moat a second before he plunged into it, and all the noise around him disappeared.

The sun was halfway past the horizon.

Back in the trees, Cenza crawled on his hands and one knee, dragging his wounded leg behind him. He tried not to look at it; seeing the arrow shaft sticking out so casually made him dizzy and faint. At least they had left him alone. It had been awfully awkward to run with his panties pulled down off his butt. Billy had no choice but to leave him, but it still hurt. He chided himself for being so optimistic about something so impossible. He would have to go back to the city and hope there was enough left after the invasion that he could scrape by.

He was lost in thought until the boots cracked dry branches behind him. One of those boots kicked him from behind and laid him out on his stomach. There was laughter. He turned his head to see a man in a long coat and a sword put his boot down on Cenza’s ankle. He had blond hair and dark eyes, and a strange coldness to him. The men around him were mercenaries, but he wore the outfit and insignia of an enemy of a southern enemy of high rank. He smirked and reached down for the arrow, ripping it out. Cenza screamed and gripped his leg; it felt like something had bitten off half of it. Indeed, there was more on the arrow tip than blood.

“Barbed arrows,” the man said. “These are very cruel people, aren’t they?” He yanked Cenza up although the boy could barely stand. “You’re the royal snot’s little concubine?” His face was up close for inspection. Cenza felt scorched by the way he was being looked at. His life would surely be over soon, in the same pathetic way it started.

“What are you?” the man sneered, “something shipped up from Banali?” He grabbed the bottom of Cenza’s dress and pulled it up. He laughed at the traces of semen on his stomach and panties while Cenza’s face turned red hot. “He spoils you, does he?” He poked the bruise on Cenza’s cheek, making him flinch. “Or is there a price?” He motioned to an underling and handed Cenza off. “Hn. Never had a darkie before. Take him along for now.”

Cenza closed his fist tightly, hiding his missing finger. If they thought he was exotic chattel, they might not off him so quickly, repulsive as the alternatives were.

They went to the castle. Just inside the inner wall, they were met by the lord and commander. He looked confident, and by the weak sounds of fighting, Cenza could tell the invasion was over. The two men exchanged information, his captor addressed as Koll and the lord as Viotto.

“They’re all dead,” Viotto said. “I offed the old king myself. The younger son drowned in the moat. I suppose the old man has me to thank; he can rest in peace believing his progeny died in sword battle.”

Cenza swallowed hard. Billy had not deserved that.

Koll thrust him forward. “I found the kid’s toy. We can at least make use of him today while we celebrate.” He leaned over Cenza’s shoulder. “Do your best, because after that, it’s probably the chopping block.”

Cenza began to tremble as they dragged him into the castle.

The day settled in. The sun made it halfway through the sky after the noon hour.

It was a hot day, but Billy shivered. He crouched in a drainage opening in the castle wall, hidden under the drawbridge. His skin was so wrinkled by now that he couldn’t feel the texture of the stone wall as well as he usually could.

The mercenaries had become scarce, but some of them still patrolled the bridge now and again. He needed to get away from it but swimming out into the uncovered moat was risky. He saw no one he knew as one of his own. The hours passing made him more desperate, and he was contemplating just making another run for it when he spied a black shape at the edge of the trees leading into the garden: Aria had come back.

That was it. Billy waited until no mercenaries were in sight and crawled out of the moat. He scrambled up the bank, the clay pushing under his fingernails. His whole body ached this time as he ran to Aria, coughing out a prayer that the horse didn’t startle and run off. He heart a shout behind him as he jumped up on the horse, barely making it on. He kicked Aria’s sides and pulled the reins in the direction of the outer wall exit, and the city. Aria snorted and sprang out in a gallop, leaving the castle and its invaders in the dust.

He was well into the city before they could mount a pursuit. The army had been here, too, but it had not kept their attention long. The grander houses had been overrun and torched; the poor sections stayed untouched for having nothing to offer. He steered Aria to one of the still-smoldering ruins. When the horse stopped and he slid off, it finally hit him just how overwhelmingly exhausted he was. His feet were twice as heavy as they should have been. He wandered into the blackened door of the house, kicking aside the mess of furniture and broken china and trash. No one was in sight.

“Hello? Is anyone left?” The chairs were overturned in the dining room. Pastries from the table were scattered over the floor. “It’s me, Billy. Is anyone here.”

There was a noise from the next room. Billy ran into the kitchen. There was a clicking in the furnace; the door of it opened and a figure blackened with soot crawled out. It was a young boy. He had squeezed himself into an impossibly cramped space.

“Billy,” he said. “Billy, they took them! They killed Daniel and they took my mom and…” His eyes squinted up and he began to cry. Billy knelt down and hugged him. The soot rubbed off all over him as he began to rock Daniel’s brother.

“Mine too, Teddy.” He petted Teddy’s hair and helped him up. “We need to leave. You can cry all you want once you’re safe, all right?”

“Where are we going?”

“To Arbienge. They may not have been hit yet. If I can get a force together… it’s a long shot, but that’s all I can do. I’ll leave you there; you’ll be safe. It’s less than a day’s ride. But I have to sleep first. We’ll hide in your basement and we’ll go after dark.”

It was a long day.

It was one of the longest in Cenza’s life, he realized. The pain in his leg had a soft pulse to it. His stockings were ripped apart. The dress was filthy and torn in places, the skirt drooping. The ties up the front of the corset top had loosened and frayed. They had left him in a castle room. He was huddled in a corner while a group of resting mercenaries drank and talked and laughed raucously, every so often switching shifts with others. He could not tell them apart. They did not speak to him except to occasionally babble something in their language and laugh, and once they pitched at him the chicken bones they picked clean for dinner. Eventually these were replaced by the enemy soldiers. Cenza suffered more with them, being able to understand what they said, which was all about the killing and destruction they had just aided in. It made them feel proud, made them feel like men. They, too, laughed at him and teased him, although a few seemed to send him bitter, wistful looks, as if they envied the General for his spoils. Cenza feared them, but eventually grew so tired in mind and body that he drifted off to sleep.

When he woke up, it was dark again. Disoriented, he did not know where he was until that boot nudged him in the ribs.

“Get up.”

His clumsy attempt was not fast enough; Koll took his arm and yanked him up. Cenza’s weight fell on his injured leg and he hissed in pain. Koll seemed to not notice and pulled him roughly along, out of the room and up the stairs, into another room, this much more opulent and decorated, albeit a mess. A pair of legs stretched on the floor, the rest of the body obscured by the bed. Cenza balked.

“He’s dead,” Koll spat. “He won’t bite you.” He pushed Cenza onto the bed and bared his teeth in a grin. “It’s the king’s elder son. I’m the one who had the honor of finishing him.” He took off his coat and discarded his weapons, and leaned over Cenza.

“Remember what I told you? You better give as good as you did to those pigs.”

He climbed up to put his knees on either side of Cenza’s hips and loosened his shirt and belt. Cenza’s mouth dried up and he tried to pull himself backwards, shaking his head. Just last night he had thought of Billy like this; that’s what was supposed to have happened. Billy would have been slow and sweet, and would have cradled him and told him sweet things and-

Koll grabbed the front of his dress and kept him still.

“No, you stay right here.”

He curled a fist in Cenza’s hair and kissed him, his mouth overtaking Cenza’s, his teeth burrowing into Cenza’s lips and letting his tongue snake in. Cenza squirmed under him. Koll’s spit sneaked out of the corner of his mouth as they separated. Cenza began to cough and Koll slapped him, hitting the bruise on his cheek and making him whimper.

“Shut up!”

Koll felt under the dress, hooking his fingers into the panties and yanking them down, scratching Cenza’s hips. Cenza knew he should stay still, that it would not last forever, but he couldn’t help but see flashes of Billy’s face, Billy kissing him next to the pond and Billy feeding him chocolates. He beat on Koll’s arms and tried to twist away from him, and Koll swore and slapped him again. His fist went up and ready to strike when he froze, staring at Cenza’s hand on his wrist. He grabbed it and held it between their faces.

“How did you lose your finger?” Veins rose up on the sides of his forehead, his whole face red with anger.

“They chopped it off,” Cenza gasped out, “because I stole some rich bastard’s money. I’m a Gypsy, General. You nearly fucked a Gypsy.”

Koll let his hand go. His upper lip jumped up and down.

“You… You think I would fuck some dirty… some diseased…”

He grabbed the end of his belt and pulled it from the loops of his pants. It made a loud, thick slap when it hit Cenza’s skin. Every stroke made the boy scream.

He was half unconscious when Koll again dragged him, this time bodily, down the stairs and to a dining hall full of armed forces. He was thrown down at their feet.

“The king’s son kept a shit-covered rat for a pet,” Koll snarled. “He’s no good to me.”

Cenza struggled feebly to get up. He made it to all fours, too dazed to hear the laughter over his lack of underwear. A few strange hands pinched and slapped under his dress and he crawled away from them.

Koll lost interest. “Do what you want with him after we eat. If nobody kills him by tomorrow, I will.”

The soldiers quickly turned away as well. There was plenty of good food and wine, and women they had rounded up to serve them. Cenza was dirtied and broken, and only a few eyed him as he left the room, biding their time for later.

The exit he took led to the kitchen. The servers ignored him and stepped around him. Getting to a counter, he managed to pull himself up on two legs, limping slowly toward the stove and the fire. A huge pot sat there, the thick soup inside almost at a boil. It was opaque and red, and full of meat. He stared into it for a moment and then reached to his hair, feeling around for the soft, wilted flowers entangled in his hair. He pulled the harslag ring out in pieces. The once bright violet had turned gray, all of the flower soft and fragile. He looked around and gently lowered the flowers into the pot, watching them submerge and disappear, a little funeral for himself and for Billy. He limped away from the pot and squeezed himself into a corner, out of the way of everyone but close enough to the fire to keep warm. It felt very good to close his eyes.

He woke up now and again for a hazy moment to turn over and burrow deeper into a soft surface. It was so warm here, so safe. When he finally did wake and open his eyes, he stared at his own fingers on the pillow, trying to remember everything. Nothing came, so he gave up. He sat up in the bed, taking in slowly the softness of the sheets, the fresh nightgown he had on, the daylight pouring in through an open window. It all felt freshly scrubbed and dried. His body ached horribly when he moved, but he slowly extracted his legs from the duvet and stood up. He lifted the gown to check the arrow wound. It was clean and bandaged.

Taking a step made him immediately dizzy and he sat back down on the bed. Looking up, he saw a rope hanging over the nightstand. Somehow he knew to pull it.

When the door opened, it was Billy’s face that appeared. He was smiling wide, his breath a little hurried as if he had run. He went to Cenza and wrapped him in an embrace. Cenze Billy gave him a soft kiss and knelt down at the edge of the bed, looking into his face.

“I came back to fight, but more than half of them were dead. Just slumped over on the table in their soup. I couldn’t believe it, I never thought we’d win…”

“But you came back anyway?”

Billy squeezed his hand in response.

“I have something for you.” He pointed to a box on the nightstand. Cenza opened it and his face lit up. Inside, shaped into little hearts, were two rows of chocolates.

No one questioned Cenza staying in the bed. Every day a cart wheeled in with his meals and he had fresh clothes to wear, finer than he had ever touched. Once he felt better, he wandered outside of the cozy little bedroom and found a sitting room. It had been cleaned up from the attack, but the wallpaper was yet to be replaced. One set of doors led out to the hall; another, when Billy invited him in, took him to Billy’s bedroom.

“It was my father’s. You can guess what role I have now.”

Cenza took his hand and squeezed it. Billy shook his head, not inclined to dwell on it. He took Cenza to the seat at the biggest window in the room, a half-circle protruding out from the wall to give a wide view of the city. They sat close together, hands entwined, both turning warm from being so close at last.

“You’ll be a great king,” Cenza said.

Billy pulled a finger down his neck, tickling the subcutaneous vertebrae at the base. “No. I’m ceding to my first eldest cousin. I’m not cut out for this. It wasn’t meant to be me. And besides,” he grinned sheepishly, “I’d be expected to marry and squeeze out a few heirs, all that formal stuff. Anyway, forget it. How’s your leg?”

“It’s healing okay.”

Billy reached under the hem of Cenza’s shirt and untied the strings lacing up the sides of his pants. Cenza flushed as Billy pulled them off and traced a ring around the wound. It was receding to just a red spot.

“I want to make it better for you,” Billy said.

“I-It’s nothing, really…”

Billy leaned down and kissed it. His hair tickled the inside of Cenza’s thighs and they twitched, shyly parting a little wider. Billy kissed up his leg, touching his naked hips, going up his stomach. He pulled Cenza’s shirt over his head and kissed the underside of his chin, pulling close the slim naked body. He kissed the fading red marks the belt had left and kissed Cenza’s lips, and Cenza’s cock pushed into his belly, leaving darkened spots of fluid on his shirt.

“Does it still hurt?” Billy whispered into his hair.

“Yes… but I want you to keep touching me.” Cenza wrapped his legs around Billy’s waist and squeezed, just the way Billy had told him to hang on. Billy grabbed his ass and ground him into the hard curve pushing through his pants. Cenza followed the rhythm, kissing Billy’s neck, fumbling to open the buttons down the front of his shirt.

“I never want you to stop touching me,” Cenza breathed. Billy lay back under him and they both fumbled to pull the rest of his clothing off, hurrying despite having all the time they could want. Their bodies rocked together as they kissed, hands gripping and stroking and finally finding their way down between them. They stroked each other with a tender franticness, the fluid beading and dripping out on their fingers, on the cushioned seat.

Cenza nuzzled under Billy’s ear. “I meant it, I want to please you, I want to be yours.” His breath was quick between the words. Billy pulled up his hand and put the fingertips to Cenza’s lips, watching the boy eagerly take them in and suck them clean.

Billy had thought about it enough, alone falling asleep the past few nights, and the oil was close and at the ready in his drawers. He pulled Cenza to him, back to chest, and put his slick fingers between his legs. The kisses on Cenza’s neck turned to nips in the anticipation, Cenza’s back arching and stretching to the feeling of the intrusion slipping in and out. He gasped as Billy took him. His palms slapped down on the glass as he steadied himself, his faced pushing up against the cold surface. He knew someone might see them up here and it gave him an excited little shudder. The sunrise created a faint reflection; through half-closed eyes he could see Billy nuzzling into his shoulder. The thrusts were long and slow. Finally, Billy held him close, and whispered sweet things into his ear. He had no dark thoughts about the General to plague him, only this.

A rougher thrust made his hands slide down the glass. Billy pulled out and rolled him on his back, pulling up his legs. He curled over Cenza as he pushed in again, gripping his thighs hard to get a swifter pace. Cenza felt around and managed to get a hold of the cushion while Billy’s body banged into his. Between them his cock began to throb in earnest. He bit his lip and hissed.

“Yes…”

Billy’s hand slipped down and thumped on the seat as he came. He jerked slightly with each pulse of it, his head coming down to rest on Cenza’s chest while he caught his breath.

Cenza pulled him up, beckoning for a kiss. They separated and lay down next to each other. Billy’s hand reached between Cenza’s legs. He kissed the boy until his body squirmed, kissed him hard and would not let him go as he twisted and moaned into Billy’s mouth during release. They rubbed their faces together while wrapped in a tight embrace. The desire had faded out and there was only joy in skin touching beloved skin, kisses on the face and hair, sweet little whispered words. “I”, and “love”, and “you”, and many others, none of which could be any sweeter.

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