by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
illustrated by quaedam
According to tradition, a bird offered to God in His shrine was to be killed by way of having its neck broken and its head twisted free of its body, but in modern times this had come to be seen as unnecessarily cruel. The current manner of sacrifice called for a hooked sakin to be pushed into the juncture between the bird’s throat and breast with a measure of precision that most laypeople were incapable of; Aryeh had been trained in it from a very young age. When he was a child, he’d felt intensely bad killing the perfect white doves the Temple bred for this purpose. The priests told him that it was good that he sympathized with the small and the helpless, because it meant he would be a good king. He could now issue the killing thrust without even having to look at the bird, and he was grateful for that.
Today, however, this was the thought that gave him pause. He checked the blade for flaws with his thumb mechanically and took up the dove that was handed to him, and even as he recited the words begging God to forgive them all for unknowing sins committed, he thought, it’s a blessing that I no longer have to look at its eyes. He stopped nearly in mid-word. He looked down at the dove in his hand. It looked back up at him, docile, knowing nothing else.
The priest at his shoulder cleared his throat. “Your Highness?” he whispered.
Aryeh opened his hand. The dove kicked its feet and twisted to right itself, and for a moment it just sat in his palm comfortably. He could hear muted confusion in the congregation now. “Your Highness,” the priest said, “what’s wrong?”
The dove launched itself away from him, gliding smoothly over the heads of the people gathered and out of the open Temple doors. There was some tense laughter at that — a bird had gotten away, it happened sometimes. There were countless more where it had come from. Aryeh dropped the knife and ran after it.
The priests called after him, but he flung himself into the outer garden and looked around in a growing panic. It was spring, and the trees were all full of new leaves and hiding whomever might be in them. “Your Majesty!” the head priest said, catching Aryeh’s sleeve. “It’s all right!”
“No,” Aryeh said.
“We have another.” The head priest — Sered — gestured back to the Temple, and Aryeh saw that the people had gathered at the door and were watching him in silence. “God has spared this one. We will choose another.”
Aryeh shook his head. “No.”
The first king of Giveah had been the prophet Tzvi. God came to him and told him that he would no longer be the hunted, but the one the hunters feared, and he would thereafter take the name Aryeh, as would his son, and his son after. God would always be the Lord of Giveah, and Giveah would be God’s beloved as long as there was a king to represent her. God promised Tzvi this: the sun would never set over the Temple of Omri without rising again.
But none of Tzvi’s descendants were prophets. The kings of Giveah were deaf to their Lord, and could only guess at what He desired. They employed prophets, but prophets did not always agree with one another.
The nineteenth anointed king of the Tzvic Dynasty was seven years old when he gave up his birth name and inherited the throne. Giveah was under occupation then by the Asturian Empire, a government that didn’t take much interest in Giveah aside from what it could pay in tribute, and finally it could not afford to keep hold of the country at all. His mother had acted as his regent until he came to legal age at fifteen, the same year that the Empire withdrew, and the combination of his mother’s influence and the uncertainty of the country’s new freedom led to his advisers and administration’s anticipation that he would be a mild and controllable power. They did not guess at the depth of his devotion to God at the beginning, and when it became apparent they were puzzled. It was true that he’d taken up his Temple responsibilities at a much younger age than he had his royal ones, owing to the restrictions placed on non-Tzvic regencies, but most kings went through their duties with a certain detachment so as not to presume upon the priesthood. God wanted to see the king tending to His Temple, and so he did. That was all. The previous king never taken it particularly to heart, and no one quite knew why this one did. There was some gathering fear that Aryeh was a fanatic.
He wasn’t, though. He was young and he was doubtful, both of the people who tended to him and of himself. He thought that the only one who knew the best course for Giveah was God, and God did not speak to Aryeh.
“Of course it flew away,” his mother said. “You let go of it. What did you think it would do?”
Aryeh sighed. “You’ve only been in power for five years,” she continued. “You can’t pull stunts like this. The people will lose faith in you.”
“It wasn’t a stunt,” he said.
“A tantrum, then, a fit. I don’t know.” She stopped pacing the room to pause next to where he was seated. She sighed and reached down to straighten his tie; it didn’t need it, but it was a nervous habit of hers. “I can’t even guess at what you’re thinking.”
He shook his head.
“I don’t know why you’re so worried all the time,” she said. “The country’s in the best shape it’s been in in thirty years. Your prophets do nothing but sing God’s praises of you. Don’t you believe them?”
“They sing their own praises,” he said.
She gave him a very stern look. “Which is it?” he asked. “Do you think I’m losing the faith of the people, or do you think God is pleased with me?”
“I think you’re paranoid,” she said. “In any case, Sered wants to speak with you.”
“I’m sure he does,” Aryeh said.
He arranged for a meeting with Sered in a conference room in the main government building, and the man did not look happy with him. He went through the usual motions of respect, taking his hand and kissing his ring, but his mouth was drawn tight. “Your Majesty,” he said, “we need to discuss this. I don’t think I understand.”
“What is there to not understand?” Aryeh asked. He seated himself, and Sered did likewise; his attendants remained standing, and Aryeh barely glanced at them before Sered launched into a speech.
“You cannot halt the shrine sacrifices,” he said. “You are the king — a popular king with considerable respect of the people — but you don’t have the authority to alter Temple law. There are no prophets on record advocating this. It will be seen as a power grab and you will suffer for it.” The words didn’t have the tone of a threat, but Aryeh’s eyebrow shot up regardless. Sered paused, and he said, “The king cannot be seen as dictating the laws to God. The palace and the Temple are separate houses for a reason. Your people will not stand for it.”
“How is it a power grab?’ Aryeh asked.
“Any proclamation you make that orders the priesthood against the Temple’s stance is a power grab, Your Majesty. Believe me when I say that my loyalty is yours, and I will carry out your wishes if you cannot be convinced, but please trust me. This is a very bad idea.”
“I haven’t made any proclamations yet.”
“I know. I only beg that you take my words into consideration before you do.”
Aryeh leaned back in his chair, thinking. “Are the sacrifices really that popular?” he asked.
Sered blinked at him. “It’s not a matter of popularity, Your Majesty.”
“No, but… you’re saying that the people would object if they were abolished. Do you think that’s true?”
“Sacrifice at the shrines is how people atone for their sins to God. If you take that away, then what are they supposed to do?”
Aryeh shook his head. “No, no, people are supposed to bring a gift to the temple to help support it. You bring a turkey to the shrine, the priests bless it and sacrifice it for you, and then the priests eat the turkey later. Right?”
Sered had that drawn look about him again. “That is how it was done a long time ago, yes.”
“A long time ago,” Aryeh said. “Only because people don’t raise their own turkeys anymore. Now you come to the shrine, you give one priest a coin and he gives you a dove, and then you carry it inside and give it to another priest who kills it. And then at the end of the day they burn all the dead doves.”
“Temple law… does adapt to changes in the country,” Sered said.
Aryeh chose his next words carefully. “If a man has a bird killed but that bird didn’t belong to him, then how is it a sacrifice? And if the priests don’t eat the sacrifices anymore, then how is that a gift to the Temple?”
Sered sighed. “These are not new arguments, Your Majesty.”
“They aren’t arguments that have been addressed to my satisfaction,” Aryeh said. “I don’t think. What I do think is that when you say the people will object, what you mean is that the priesthood will object.”
“You don’t think maintaining your favor with the priesthood is a worthy consideration?”
“No, I do.” Aryeh sighed. “But as it is… they’re just killing birds and charging admission for it.”
“It’s what God wants,” Sered said. “Sin offerings are called for. That’s the way it’s always been.”
That was and would forever be the final word, Aryeh knew. He considered Sered for a moment and asked, “Did you ever find that dove from this morning?”
Sered frowned. “The one that escaped? No, of course not.”
“I didn’t think so,” Aryeh said.
Though he knew it made Sered grind his teeth, Aryeh put the question to a public polling company. The results they returned were not exactly what Aryeh was anticipating, but they were close enough.
“People who don’t work in shrines like the idea of abolishing the sacrifices,” he told his wife Layla at lunch about a week later. “Across the board. But the priesthood is pretty evenly split.”
Layla raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure nobody likes sacrificing doves. But it’s a very… visceral way to connect to God. I’m sure you’d need something more sophisticated than a telephone poll to get to the heart of how people feel about it.”
“Yes,” Aryeh said, “but it’s a good start.” He reached around for his briefcase to produce his printouts; Layla made a face but didn’t object. “Essentially,” he said, “the closer a shrine is to the Temple, the more in favor of eliminating the sin offerings the priesthood is likely to be. Sered aside, of course. The larger a shrine is, the more in favor they are.”
“And… the wealthier they are,” Layla said.
“Because the outer shrines depend on the doves for income.”
“Exactly,” Aryeh said.
Layla sipped her tea and considered. “That isn’t an easy thing to get around,” she said. “The priesthood isn’t going to want to take money from the government for operating costs.”
He shook his head. “Well… we’ll see. The poll wasn’t done in the name of the throne. This can stay quiet for a little while longer while I figure that out.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, and after a moment of two she said, “Oh, my Lord, don’t be a fool.”
“The shrines will want to know why they’re being surveyed about the validity of Temple law — that’s usually their call. They’ll contact the Temple to find out what’s going on. And Sered will tell them, because he’s angry.” She took a bite of her salad and added, “If he hasn’t told them already that the king is refusing to perform Temple sacrifices.”
He stared at her; he dropped his chin with a groan. “God help me.”
She laughed. “Well, one in the eye for everyone who thought you’d be a quiet king. Locking horns with the priesthood,” she grinned, “that’s exciting stuff.”
“I’m not trying to be exciting,” Aryeh said. He stared down at his untouched food. “What do you think about it?”
“Me?” Layla shook her head. “I can’t help you. You should ask Hannah. She knows the law better than either of us.”
“I know. I will once she’s feeling up to it. But, I mean…” He cleared his throat. “What do you think about the sin offerings?”
She hesitated. She laid down her fork. “You know,” she said, “I’ve never really thought about it. But… there is something kind of… out of place about it, isn’t there?”
“Out of place?” Aryeh asked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean… God demands that we be without sin, or as close to being without sin that we can manage. He believes in us, that we can live up to those expectations…” She stared down at her plate. She laughed. “Ah, this is silly.”
“No,” Aryeh said, “tell me.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think it follows for Him to ask us to project our failings onto something innocent, and for us to kill it in our own stead. I don’t think that’s a law God would lay down. I think that is a law of man.” She looked up at him. “I think it could only be a law of man.”
Aryeh stared at her. She stared back for a moment, and then she cleared her throat and said, “You should really ask Hannah, though.”
“I…” He hesitated. “I will. Of course.”
“Even if I’m wrong, people have become so detached from the sacrifices that it’s gotten ridiculous,” Layla said. “Lord, do you remember those lions that family brought in last year?”
“Yes.” Aryeh sighed. “I remember the lions.” Doves were the easiest to produce in a pure form and to care for, but families that could afford a premium breeder could and did bring in more impressive animals. Swans and white peacocks were far from unheard of at the Central Temple, and God help the priests on duty the day someone wanted to make a political statement.
“Do you think God was impressed by that?” Layla asked.
Aryeh was silent for a long time before he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
As Layla predicted, the shrines started to send petitioners almost immediately, young men brimming with righteous indignity beneath the weight of their priest’s flags. Aryeh declined to meet with any of them. “I haven’t made any proclamations for them to petition yet,” he said. “If they want to air their grievances with the state, they can do that at home.”
“Your Majesty, you cannot just send these men away,” Sered said.
Aryeh sighed. “Put them up, then. Do whatever it is the Temple does with visiting priests. This isn’t my concern.”
It was his concern, though, and he worried as he felt Sered’s eyes bore into the back of his neck. He couldn’t afford to make a war of this. The Temple of Omri was one of twelve city-shrines that made up Giveah’s territory; he was, to put it mildly, vastly outnumbered. Even if his people’s mood corresponded with his today, his voice would soon be drowned out by those trusted to speak the word of God, those of men people were very close to in their communities. If the throne was going to draw a line in the sand, this seemed like a remarkably stupid place to do it unless he had some kind of support or precedent.
“Just drop it,” his mother begged him as he studied the bookshelves in his library. “There is no defeat in exploring an idea and deciding not to pursue it.”
“Defeat isn’t the issue,” he said. “I don’t aim to appease Sered; I aim to appease God!”
“Defeat is most certainly the issue!” she said. “If you attack Sered on his turf and he makes you submit to him, don’t think for a second that he’ll be satisfied. Not after he’s tasted blood!”
Aryeh made a face as he selected a codex and began to thumb through it. “And you call me paranoid.”
“Look, I don’t know what went on between you two, but Sered and I are on the same side. We share a common goal.” He forced himself to take a deep breath. “We’re just… disagreeing on how to attain it.”
She put her hands to either side of his face, forcing his attention away from the text in his hands. “Darling, you need to get your mind off this. Go, take an afternoon off. Relax with one of your lovely wives.”
“I fear my wives tire of my company,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Hannah just gave birth, Mother.”
“She didn’t just give birth; that was three weeks ago.” She laughed at his wide eyes and added, “I’m joking. Hannah isn’t your only wife.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I know.”
His mother paused and gave him a look sidelong that he didn’t like. But she shrugged and said, “A man shouldn’t think only of God. Especially a man your age.” She smiled. “It isn’t healthy.”
His only comfort was that news of this little struggle had yet to reach the newspapers. The front pages were preoccupied with the recovery of Giveah’s agricultural industries, and the editorials were full of the usual prophetic fluff about the king’s youth and God’s favor. It didn’t seem that God was terribly concerned either way, to go by them. Aryeh never had put much stock in columnists.
There was a photograph in The Herald’s lifestyle section from his wedding that past summer to his wife Saray. He stared at it for long, empty seconds, puzzled — he’d been skimming for mention of himself but not photographs — and then he folded the paper back into a neat square on his desk. He returned to his scriptures and his histories.
He found treatises on the humane slaughter of cattle and diagrams of birds’ bodies that traced the paths of major arteries and veins through the neck. He found prayers for the souls of the innocent sullied by the sins of the able. He found overwhelming sympathy for the sacrifices from throughout the country’s history, but he found no direct support for ending them. Man’s worry extended no further than his pity.
It was with a reluctant heart that King Aryeh went to Sered and admitted that he had no grounds on which to challenge Temple law. Sered did not gloat as per Aryeh’s mother’s warning, or at least he didn’t do so openly; he laid his hands on Aryeh’s shoulders, presuming but kind, and said, “I’m impressed by how much thought you put into it. You went about this the right way.”
“Thank you,” Aryeh said, his voice dulled by his own disappointment. “What do you recommend that I do now? The shrines are breathing down my neck.”
“Ah,” Sered said, “They shouldn’t be any trouble. Hear out one of the petitioners, tell him the throne isn’t planning to impose any restrictions on the shrines, and word will get around.”
Aryeh frowned. “That’s all?”
“Don’t give the matter any more of your time than that,” Sered said, “or the priesthood won’t trust your intentions to leave it be.”
Aryeh thought that Sered was being rather transparent himself, but he nodded. “Fine. We’ll do that.”
“Which shrine will you hear out?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Aryeh said. “Pick one. I need to speak with some people first, so have someone ready and in my conference room in an hour.”
Sered bowed deeply. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
Aryeh went to Layla and his mother and told them that he was giving the matter up. Layla smiled at him sadly, and his mother clapped her hands once and said, “Thank God for it.”
“You are the least supportive adviser in this administration,” he said, gently chiding.
“Darling, I am your most supportive ally. The others will tear you apart like wolves if you show them your throat.”
“I’m not showing anyone my throat.” He looked to Layla and said, “We’ll stay on the safe side of this for now. Maybe we can revisit it later.”
“That is the wise thing to do,” she said. “The quiet thing.”
Aryeh dropped his eyes to her chin. She pushed herself to her toes to kiss his cheek.
The man they picked out from the shrines’ petitioners was clearly selected for his youth and his poorly-concealed terror. He wore a close-trimmed beard and a dark red priest’s flag, both of which pointed east, far east, to the Shrine of Athaliah. To merely say Athaliah was rural would be generous; it was the sort of place ascetics went to be sure of their seclusion. Aryeh almost felt bad for the man, who scrambled to his feet when Aryeh and Sered entered. His flag — worn over the shoulders of his obviously borrowed suit in lieu of a tie — was probably the most expensive thing he owned. “Your Majesty,” he said.
Aryeh smiled and offered his hand. The man took it with what Aryeh had enough time to think of as remarkable confidence before he jerked him forward into the table and struck him hard across the face.
“How dare you?” the man said, nearly shouting. “How dare you capitulate to the very buzzards waiting for the calf’s first stumble?”
“No!” Aryeh cried, addressing not the man gripping his arm but the guards behind him who were now thumbing off their safeties. “Don’t, he’s not armed–”
The man put his mouth next to Aryeh’s ear. “Do not give in to the jackals and the serpents that surround you, Ze’ev. You are stronger than they are. You are stronger because you know the truth.”
“Truth?” Aryeh said. “What truth?”
“That God is angry.” The man’s voice dropped to a whisper that made the hairs on Aryeh’s neck stand. “The Lord says this: if Giveah hides her eyes from Me, then I will abandon you. You will have no recourse. A wife who does not know her husband is no wife at all.”
“It’s fine,” Aryeh said. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Layla leaned over him and squinted, her gaze falling just short of his. It made Aryeh feel odd and detached. “Well,” she said, “it left a bruise.”
Aryeh reached up to tap his cheekbone under his eye. It was tender, but he kept his expression serene. “Sometimes the bruises that look the worst are the ones that hurt the least.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Of course, my Lord.”
“You should have had him executed!” His mother announced her entrance thus, sweeping into the room in a barely contained rage with her fingers tensed into claws. “My darling,” she said, “what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Aryeh said. “Sered’s looking into it.” He forced himself to lie. “It was probably a seizure or something. They took him back to the Temple to rest.”
“A seizure,” she repeated. She sighed and seated herself beside him on his sofa. “A man doesn’t punch his king in the face when he’s having a seizure.”
“He didn’t punch me,” Aryeh said. “You’re blowing this out of proportion.”
His mother narrowed her eyes. “What did he say to you?”
“Nothing. He said nothing.”
“Nothing?” his mother asked.
He was silent, and then he gasped when something cold touched his cheek. Saray had seated herself at his other hand, slipping around behind the sofa unnoticed, and she held a piece of ice in a cloth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “There’s a mark.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Thank you. I’m fine.”
Saray smiled and bowed her head.
Aryeh didn’t want to head the court with a bruise on his cheek, but he wanted it covered with make-up even less. Most of his minsiters were good enough not to say anything about it. Sered, however, stopped short as he approached him that evening in his throne room. “He gave you a black eye!” he cried.
“It’s hardly that,” Aryeh said. A gaggle of pages looked over at him, trying to stare subtly and mostly being ridiculous. Aryeh sighed. “What happened? Is he all right?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” Sered said. He handed Aryeh a sheaf of faxed pages. “I contacted the Shrine of Athaliah. This is apparently not the first time something like this has happened. They beg your forgiveness.”
“Not the first time?” Aryeh glanced over the sheets in his hand. Copies of official employment and residency papers, scans of government identification cards. Proof that Athaliah hadn’t sent a particularly inept assassin, Aryeh supposed. That possibility hadn’t even occurred to him. “What does that mean? Is he–” He took another quick look at the fax. “Orev, is Orev ill?”
“Not ill, your Majesty. He’s…” Sered paused. “Well, it’s complicated.”
Aryeh frowned a little. Sered was some three times Aryeh’s age — he had been the Temple’s head priest under both of Aryeh’s parents — and his occasional lapses into condescension were becoming a concern. “Complicated,” Aryeh said. “How is it complicated?”
“This is really a matter for the priesthood, your Majesty–”
“Did Athaliah knowingly send someone who was prone to fits of violence to petition the throne? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“No! No, no,” Sered sighed, “he’s… well, he’s a prophet.”
Aryeh blinked. “A prophet?”
“But he isn’t a vetted prophet, so it’s nothing you have to worry about.”
Aryeh stared at him. “A vetted prophet?”
“I told you,” Sered said, “this is complicated.”
“Are you… are you telling me that God hit me?”
“No! Your Majesty, anyone can claim to be a prophet. There are procedures designed to weed out the charlatans, and he hasn’t been submitted to any of them. He’s just a priest.”
Aryeh shook his head. He had no idea how the prophesy schools policed themselves, and that made sense, but… “He knew my name.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He knew my name. He called me by my birth name.”
Sered said, “Your Majesty, your birth name is a matter of public record.”
“I know, but… a priest wouldn’t just call me that, would he?”
“I would not presume to guess,” Sered said. He sounded very tired.
“I want to speak with him,” Aryeh said. “Set up another meeting.”
“What?” Sered asked. “You want to put yourself through that again? Why?”
Aryeh drew himself up very straight. “I just told you. I want to speak with him.”
Sered looked very much like he wanted an argument. Aryeh projected as well as he could that he would not tolerate one, and Sered sighed and bowed his head. “Of course, your Majesty.”
“Eleven, tomorrow morning.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
Aryeh had dinner alone that night. He flipped through the pages of the fax idly as he ate. Orev was nearly half a year his junior; he’d only turned twenty last month. Strange, how that seemed so much younger in other people.
When Aryeh arrived for the meeting, he found Orev sitting at the table staring at his hands folded tightly in front of him and Sered seated across from him. They both stood when he entered, but Orev did not lift his eyes. Aryeh took stock, and he said, “Sered, if it’s no trouble, I’d like to conduct this meeting by myself.”
Sered raised an eyebrow. “By yourself?”
“Your Majesty,” Sered said, gesturing to the near-cowering priest, “this man attacked you before.”
Aryeh smiled and said, “The guards may stay.”
Sered wavered, but he sighed and bowed. “Of course, your Majesty.” He shot a glance at Orev and then excused himself, closing the door behind him. The two guards took their places behind Aryeh’s chair instead of by the door, but he supposed the circumstances allowed for that.
“Please,” Aryeh said, “Sit.”
Orev did so mechanically, and Aryeh followed suit. The man still would not look at him; it wasn’t unusual for people to not want to meet eyes with the king, but it was a noticeable change. “Are you well, Orev?” he asked.
Orev glanced up at him at and immediately looked down again. “Your Majesty, I– I sincerely apologize for what happened yesterday,” he said in a desperate rush. He spoke with an eastern accent that would have been charming if he weren’t so distressed. “That was not the message I was asked to bear to you. Please don’t let my behavior reflect poorly on the Shrine of Athaliah.”
Aryeh hadn’t yet decided what to make of Athaliah’s part in this situation, but that had little to do with Orev himself. Aryeh asked, “What was the message you were asked to bear?”
Orev swallowed. “The Shrine of Athaliah respectfully begs that the king reconsider his encroachment on Temple law. The king is a representative of the people of Giveah to God, not– not the other way around. If Temple law is to be changed, it should be done so within the priesthood of Giveah’s shrines.” He rattled it off like a child bloodlessly reciting his role in a play.
Aryeh asked, “Athaliah does not think I can act within my duties as the people’s representative in this case?”
“I…” Orev shook his head. “I-I don’t know.”
“I see,” said Aryeh. “Well, Orev, that’s more or less what I was expecting. But that is certainly not what you said to me yesterday.”
“I know,” Orev whispered. “I beg your forgiveness.”
Aryeh shook his head. “Don’t.”
Orev glanced up at him again. “…Your Majesty?”
“We contacted your shrine.” If it were possible for Orev to go any paler, he did at that. “Your head priest says that you’re, ah…” Aryeh gestured in a manner he hoped was neutral but encouraging. “…prone… to this sort of thing.”
Orev was silent. Aryeh leaned forward and softly asked, “God speaks to you?”
It took a long time for Orev to reply. He looked up nervously at the guards that flanked Aryeh, and this time Aryeh was attentive enough to be startled by the diamond blue of his eyes. “God speaks… with me,” he finally said.
“With you,” Aryeh said. That was an interesting semantic trick, and clever enough to make Aryeh momentarily suspicious. But Orev gave him very little time to consider it.
“I begged that the head priest not send me,” he said, leaning forward and whispering with broken intensity. “I pleaded that God not use me this way while I was with you. I am so sorry.”
“If God would strike at me,” Aryeh said, “then I will bear the mark.”
Orev looked like he wanted the blandly carpeted floor to swallow him. Aryeh asked, his tone gentle, “What does God say, then?”
“Ah.” Orev swallowed. “I think… I think you got the gist of it. Yesterday.”
“All right,” Aryeh said, “but what did that mean? Does God want the sacrifices to stop?”
“He…” Orev paused, frowning. “I think… what He wants is for the king of Giveah to not doubt himself when he knows the right path. If the king cannot follow his heart, then… how can he expect his people to follow him?” He took a deep breath and managed to meet Aryeh’s gaze. “Does that make sense, your Majesty?”
Aryeh held his eyes for long moments, considering. “All right,” he finally said. “Here’s what I’d like you to do.”
Orev sat up a little straighter in his chair. “I’d like you to stay in Giveah for a little while longer,” Aryeh said. “A month, let’s say. I’ll have the Temple send your shrine an official summons. Is that all right with you?”
“Of course, your Majesty,” Orev said.
“Good. Now, if God chooses to tell you anything else during your stay, please, do not hesitate to alert the Temple priests,” Aryeh said. “They’ll get in touch with me right away.”
Orev looked confused, but he nodded. “…Is there anything else Your Majesty requires of me?”
“No,” Aryeh said, “that is all.”
Orev nodded and made his shaky way to his feet. Aryeh stood as well, and Orev straightened as he did so; Aryeh realized to his mild surprise that Orev was actually an inch or two taller than he was. It was hard to tell while he was cowering, but he wasn’t cowering now. He looked down at him, and he said, “It is good, King of Giveah, that your court has become a place where the prophet’s true voice is allowed to be heard.”
Aryeh raised his eyebrows. Orev’s accent hadn’t vanished, but it had tamed itself between one breath and the next. “I always welcome the truth,” he said carefully.
“No. You will not always welcome it,” Orev said. “But you will hear it, and that is well enough.”
Aryeh swallowed. “So be it,” he said.
Orev nodded, and he walked past him and his guards and left the room unguided. Aryeh collapsed back into his chair and took several deep breaths before he could gather himself again.
“Your Majesty!” Sered called after him. “Your Majesty!”
Aryeh considered ignoring him, but Layla paused, making that difficult to get away with. So he stopped as well, and he waited with great affected patience as Sered ran — actually ran — down the palace hallway to catch up to them. “What,” he gasped, “what is the meaning of this?”
“Catch your breath,” Aryeh said. “What is the meaning of what?”
Sered scowled at him, and Layla glanced at him sidelong. “What do you think you’re doing issuing summons to Athaliah? That man has done what he was ordered to do — far more, if you ask me. For what reason are you asking the Temple to house him?”
“Oh, I think my reasons should already be very clear to you,” Aryeh said. “You told me that there were no prophets on record advocating my position. Now there is.”
Sered stared at him. “You can’t seriously think you can get away with making that hayseed a member of your administration for the sole purpose of dictating unwanted reform to the Temple?”
“No,” Aryeh said. “Do you want to know what I think? Let me tell you what I think.” He sidled up to Sered, who stepped back a little. “How does it sound to you,” he said, “a man — an unvetted prophet, if you will — known for blowing up and howling God’s dictation at his superiors? How do you think, nine times out of ten, that would play out in front of the king? Hm?” Aryeh smiled. “He’d be arrested. Possibly executed in haste. And where would it leave Athaliah — or the priesthood — if the king had taken the time to listen to only one of his petitioners, and he’d had him jailed or killed?”
Sered stared at him. “What are you accusing me of?” he asked.
Aryeh laughed. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Though it is interesting that given the choice, Orev was the one you picked out. Aren’t you supposed to run a background check before you send someone into a room with me?” Before Sered could get a word in, Aryeh shook his head and said, “No. I think, at best, Athaliah was trying to get rid of someone they don’t like very much, and at worst, they were trying to put me in a very difficult position. But happily,” he said, clapping his hands together and making Sered start, “that didn’t happen. Anyway, to address your question, I’m not making Orev a member of my administration; to do that, I’d have to issue a transfer request, not a summons.” He smiled. “I’m seeing how I like him first. It’s sort of a trial period.”
Sered exhaled through his teeth. “You can’t do this. I won’t have that man in my Temple barracks for one more hour.”
“You heard me. I refuse to house that man in the Temple.”
Aryeh sighed. “Fine. I’ll house him the palace. Lord, Sered, there’s no reason to be childish about this.” He walked away before Sered could get in the last word, and Layla followed him.
Once they’d reached the stairwell, he turned to her and asked, “How was that?”
Layla grinned. “That was good.”
“Yes, really.” She touched his arm, and she asked, “Are you sure you want that prophet in the palace, though?”
Aryeh shrugged. “Honestly, he seems pretty harmless to me.”
He should have anticipated that his mother would be opposed to his attempt at scheming against the priesthood, but all the same he was surprised by how strong her feelings on the subject were. “I thought you’d be glad I told Sered off,” he said to her.
“You’re just making him angry,” she said. “And over what? A bunch of mindless birds? Some priest you don’t even know?”
“I’ve met him twice,” he said.
“Well, good for you. You have a pet. I still think you should have had him executed.” And so on. Aryeh drank his tea and stopped provoking her.
Orev drew no pleasure from upsetting so many people; to the contrary, he was quite miserable about the whole thing. Aryeh was going to let his chamberlain handle moving him from the Temple to the palace’s guest suites, but the man came to his office and informed him, with clear embarrassment, that Orev didn’t want to come. “He says that if the Temple has refused him, then he will be best off sleeping on a bench.”
Aryeh stared at him. He rubbed his temple and asked, “Are you serious?”
“Your Majesty, I would not jest.”
Aryeh sighed. “God, what did Sered say to him?” The chamberlain shook his head, and Aryeh said, “Well, can you tell him that I can’t have my guests sleeping out in the park? It doesn’t reflect particularly well on me.”
“I told him almost exactly that, your Majesty.”
Layla’s nurse appeared in the doorway holding his daughter Talya; she started to retreat upon seeing Aryeh’s expression, but he waved her in. “Look, if it’s some kind of ritual purity thing, then humor him,” he said to the chamberlain. “I’d be very surprised if he wants you to sacrifice a bull, but dress the bed in cotton and don’t let anyone else handle his books.” He took Talya and kissed her hair absently.
“I don’t believe that’s the issue, your Majesty,” the chamberlain said. “He made no mention of the suite being unfit.”
“Well…” Aryeh sighed. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the south courtyard.”
“Papa,” Talya said, and Aryeh turned his face to her. She pressed her thumb against the crease between his eyebrows. The grey light from the window was threatening rain; she clung stubbornly to his jacket and her nurse trailed in his wake as he went out to find the poor fool himself.
The greater part of palace’s southern courtyard consisted of a reflecting pool surrounded with flagpoles. They normally flew Giveah’s twelve flags, but the palace’s staff was mindful to bring them down in inclement weather. It made them look like winter-bare trees. Orev was seated on the low stone bench that rimmed the pool, waving his fingers at a stray pair of pochards. He looked up as Aryeh came down the shallow stairs; his eyes widened, and he stood hastily. Aryeh set Talya on her feet when he reached the foot, and she made an immediate chaotic dash for the ducks. “Sweetheart, don’t,” Aryeh said.
Orev sat back down to gently dissuade her from clamboring over the bench. “Sorry,” Aryeh said. He shook his head at the nurse and picked her up again himself. “This is Talya, my daughter,” he said, seating himself with her in his lap.
Orev glanced up at him and then looked back down. He cleared his throat and asked, “Hello, Talya. How old are you?”
Talya held up a small fist and bristled all of its fingers at him. “Five?” he asked. “Really?”
She laughed. “Talya?” Aryeh put his mouth next to her ear and said, “Talya, are we allowed to lie?”
Talya pursed her lips thoughtfully and then amended herself, holding up her thumb and two fingers. “Three?” Orev asked.
“She just turned three,” Aryeh said. “And yet she’s not satisfied.”
“We seldom are,” Orev said. He tentatively brushed her dark curls from her eyes and laughed at little. “She looks just like you.”
“Mm.” Aryeh set his chin on the top of her head. “God forbid.”
“Oh, no, I…” Orev laughed. “Well, she’s lovely.”
Talya was already bored; she fussed and arched up against Aryeh’s restraining arm. He held her in place without much trouble. “The Temple priests have been threatening to teach her how to perform the sin offering.”
Orev’s eyes grew very large. “Because I won’t do it,” Aryeh said.
“That’s terrible,” Orev said. “She’s far too young.”
Aryeh shrugged. “I wasn’t much older when they taught me. They need someone from the royal line. It doesn’t have to be the king.” He sighed deeply and looked at Orev sidelong. “I prayed that God would show me what to do. A sign, a message… anything.”
Orev swallowed. “And He has done so,” Aryeh said. “Forcefully.”
“Your Majesty,” Orev said, “I have no voice in the priesthood. I’m only a dovekeep.”
“A dovekeep?” Aryeh asked. “Athaliah sent their dovekeep to tell me to keep killing doves?”
Orev laughed. “Yes. I know.” He watched Talya squirm and smiled. “The shrine calls me a prophet in my papers. But they don’t listen to what God says. They don’t like me, and neither does the Temple.”
“If God speaks to you, then you possess a very precious gift,” Aryeh said.
“You would not be so appreciative of it if it were yours.”
“Maybe not,” Aryeh said. “But the Temple doesn’t like me, either. They like kings that do the same things they did yesterday, and prophets who say the same things they said yesterday.” He laid his cheek against Talya’s hair. “But it can’t be yesterday forever.”
Orev was silent. The wind picked up; the ropes on the flagpoles rattled on their pulleys, echoing across the water eerily. “It’s going to rain soon,” Aryeh said. He stood up, gathering Talya more securely on his hip. “Come inside with me, Orev.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Orev said.
Classical prophesy in Giveah followed three schools of thought, two of which were essentially the same thing. Composed prophesy was written while the prophet was in some form of self-induced trance, and it was then edited and submitted for publication in a book, magazine, or newspaper. Prepared prophesy was produced in the same manner but was then read or recited before an audience, after which the prophet could assist in efforts to interpret God’s words. These were both respected and common forms of punditry in Omri. The trance state in modern times was often little more than a token bit of meditation or a glass of wine. Career prophets were not generally regarded as hearing the direct word of God so much as they were trusted simply to know what God wanted said.
The third — extemporaneous — was what most people really thought of when they pictured a prophet. Tzvi had made the form famous with his spontaneous sermons and declarations. But as much as prophesy that gripped its mouthpiece and drove it to immediate action was idealized, it was also mistrusted as a path to easy legitimacy for fakes and madmen; few were able to follow Tzvi’s exact footsteps. Many schizophrenics claimed with complete sincerity that they heard God, but that did not make them prophets.
Aryeh wasn’t interested in proving to his administration that Orev was a true prophet. His other prophets did not argue with him or raise their voices to him in frustration; they did not criticize him usefully in any sense. Orev, while ordinarily shy to a fault, wasted no one’s time with niceties in his proclamations.
“Your father was a weak king,” Orev said to him, “as was his father. Grey on the tongue like ashes. But the Lord says this: I have returned your kingdom to you so that you may be great.”
“My father,” Aryeh said, but then he stopped himself. He took a deep breath. “My father was never in a position to be a good king.”
“He was lukewarm. In his heart and when he turned to God, there was no heat in him. His faith was a pale thing.”
“Faith can be difficult when one lacks hope.”
Orev slammed his hand against the table. The guard at Aryeh’s shoulder started, but Aryeh had seen it coming in Orev’s posture and did not flinch. “Faith,” Orev said, “is the only thing God has ever asked of you. Is it such a terrible thing to muster in your meager hearts? Giveah was too proud to heed her master, but Asturia taught her humility by forcing her to her knees.”
Aryeh swallowed. Orev cocked his head. “Did Giveah like it there in the dust?”
“Is she proud now that her master has seen her freed?”
Aryeh shook his head. “No.”
Orev smiled. “The Lord cares not for your unloved dead. Sacrifice without obedience is meaningless. The Lord wants Giveah’s devotion and submission, a renewal of the contract that binds them. This, King of Giveah, is what you have been given freedom in order to give to Him.”
Aryeh wrote down every word — an extemporaneous prophet requires a scribe — and submitted it to the Temple without comment. Orev excused himself from the king’s company and did not show his face to him again for several days.
The household staff told him that Orev ate little and slept less. Aryeh didn’t know what patterns life took on within the Temple, but this cycle of misery and aggression and prayer immediately struck him as unhealthy. “Is there something I’ve forgotten to do for him?” he asked Layla at a breakfast meeting.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What does he do in Athaliah?”
“He tends the dovecotes.”
“Hm.” She stirred her tea. “Perhaps you should show him the Arboretum?”
He frowned. “That… seems a little intimate.”
Layla laughed. It wasn’t obligatory pleasantness; she laughed fully, loud and surprised. Aryeh blinked at her. “What?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s funny that you think that.”
“Yes.” She laughed again, softly this time. “Never mind. He likes birds. So show him the palace’s birds.”
He didn’t respond for what he supposed was a long time. He frowned at nothing and said, “Maybe.” Layla was older than he was and wise before her years besides; sometimes he didn’t understand what he knew was her good advice. People were permitted in the Arboretum at his discretion, and that didn’t include most palace guests.
Aryeh found him one evening soon after seated near the bottom of one of the palace stairwells, eyes closed and arms wrapped around his knees. Aryeh knew he should probably leave well enough alone — it wasn’t in his best political interest to be seen favoring the man he was pulling strings to get into his court — but Orev had no friends in Omri, political or otherwise. Aryeh sat beside him and waited to be noticed. Orev’s lips were moving soundlessly, so he resigned himself to patience.
This wing of the palace was reserved for Aryeh alone and anyone he extended his hospitality to; the halls were quiet aside from the sounds of guards and servants moving around. He didn’t say a word, but after a minute or two Orev’s eyes opened abruptly. He blinked, seemingly confused and unsurprised at once to see Aryeh sitting there. “Your Majesty?”
“Yes,” Aryeh said, and Orev smiled a little. For a moment they sat in uncomfortable silence on the marble stair. Aryeh asked him, “Has the Lord anything to say?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You were praying, weren’t you?”
“Oh. Yes.” Orev’s jaw was very sharp beneath his beard, and his collarbone stood out worryingly when he leaned forward like that. The brilliant eyes softened him, though. “But God doesn’t always answer.”
“Ah. He isn’t at your beck and call.”
Orev gave a small, awkward laugh. “No. Far from it.”
Aryeh nodded. He took a deep breath and asked, “Do you really think my father was a bad king?”
The question clearly took Orev by surprise. His mouth opened and closed, and then he said, “I know almost nothing of your father, your Majesty.”
That didn’t really surprise him. “I see.”
“But–” Orev cut himself off when Aryeh looked up sharply, and he cleared his throat. “Well… this will sound strange.”
Orev looked down the stairs. “I knew when he died. I mean, I knew when it happened.”
Aryeh raised an eyebrow. Orev said, “The Lord called to me in a loud voice, and He said that the king had fallen. He–” He hesitated and glanced at Aryeh sidelong. “…That was the first time.”
“The first time?” Aryeh asked.
“The priests didn’t believe me until we heard your mother’s speech on the radio that night.” Orev bit his lip; it looked accustomed to the abuse. “And then I was a prophet, for all the good it’s brought.” The bruise on Aryeh’s face had faded, but Orev’s gaze flicked up just short of eye contact before casting itself down the stairs again.
“You’ve been in the priesthood for that long?” Aryeh asked.
Orev nodded. “My entire life.”
Shrines had always been a sanctuary for the unwanted. Aryeh set his elbows on his knees and sighed. “That’s a heavy burden for a child.” Orev didn’t say anything. Aryeh thought, it’s not as though I remember much of him. Not most days. “You have my apologies if I’ve made it heavier.”
“God asks us all to carry our own weight,” Orev said. “No more and certainly no less.” He offered Aryeh a crooked little smile. “But some of us are heavier than others.”
“Is that what you tell the priests?”
Orev laughed. “No, your Majesty.”
Aryeh found himself smiling, too. “So, ah…” Orev sat up attentively, and Aryeh cleared his throat. “Would you like to see the Arboretum?”
The Arboretum was a feature of the central hall of the palace, a vast indoor garden with a windowed ceiling level with the sixth floor and a glass wall facing Jabin Square, the northern courtyard. Its trees and flowers had been imported from far northeast many years ago and it was now its own carefully maintained little ecosystem, with ceiling-mounted mist nozzles to simulate rain and regularly turned-over soil. Entire generations of the palace’s servants had been trained solely for its care. The story went that the eighth king of Giveah had received as a gift ten courtesans from the king of Ellada, and he’d had the garden built to make them feel more welcome. Aryeh had always found that version of events a little glib; the Arboretum was a major architectural undertaking that must have been planned along with the rest of the palace complex. Nevertheless, that tradition had taken hold early: beyond the view from the Square, the Arboretum was restricted to the king’s family and his harem.
“The Temple gives us its imperfect birds to release here,” Aryeh said. He nodded to a flowering pear tree that was heavier with placid doves than it was with flowers. “The women feed them by hand. They’re as tame as puppies.”
Orev’s entire countenance had changed the moment he walked over the threshold, like he’d dropped something terribly heavy he’d been carrying with both hands. He approached the tree cautiously, and he looked back at Aryeh and grinned when the birds only eyed him incuriously and made no move to flee. Aryeh smiled back. Orev gently bumped one bird’s breast with the back of his finger, and it obediently stepped up onto the blade of his hand. “That’s, ah, Milka, I believe,” Aryeh said.
Orev laughed. “They have names?”
“Some of them do. The friendlier ones.” Aryeh narrowed his eyes at the one perching on Orev’s fingers. “The fatter ones.”
Milka had an uneven collar that looked like the stroke of a paint brush over the back of her neck, marking her as imperfect on sight. Orev touched it with a fingertip. “This happens sometimes,” he said. “The Temple Dove is a color mutation on the Ring-Necked Dove, so…” He smiled as the bird chucked her call in her breast. “She’s so sweet.”
“She must like you,” Aryeh said. The birds here liked everyone, so far as he knew, but Orev looked pleased.
“I’m sure you know, your Majesty,” Orev said, “that imperfect animals are supposed to be released into the wild.”
Aryeh raised his eyebrows. “This isn’t wild enough for you?”
Orev kept his eyes low and smiled. “If it’s wild enough for the birds, then it’s not on me to complain. But such are the dictates of God.”
“Of course,” Aryeh said. It was growing dark outside, and thus within the garden; the birds gathered on the branches had done so to sleep. “You may stay as long as you like,” he said. “But once you leave you’ll need permission to return.”
Orev bowed his head deeply; Milka stretched her wings for balance but could not be stirred to further action. Aryeh left them beside the flowering pear and retreated to the dryer, cooler air outside. He could see light from the Temple down the street reflecting on the buildings that faced the courtyard in something like a second sunset. It had long been a joke in Omri: the Temple and palace would never quite see eye-to-eye.
Sered refused to be disregarded by a boy-king who fancied himself clever, and Aryeh was forced to weather a lot of political nonsense from the priesthood in the following days. He forced himself to maintain reasonably present-looking eye contact as Sered spoke angrily of the difference between taxing and tithing — a technicality if there ever was one — but his mind wandered back to Orev’s gentle rebuke. If they abolished the sacifices, they could hardly keep all of the Temple’s birds in the Arboretum. There were too many already.
“Your Majesty!” Sered said, and Aryeh sighed.
Orev waited a polite three days before approaching Aryeh for permission to enter the garden again. That had been the idea, of course, or what Aryeh told himself what the idea had been: that it would force Orev into seeing Aryeh as someone he could approach. If he was going to be honest with himself, he could see that he’d taken Layla’s well-meaning suggestion and made it into something passive-aggressive.
The sight of the man amongst his birds and his women made him frown to himself and wonder whose company Orev was enjoying more; he couldn’t have been married, or else he would have objected to being held in Omri. Priests tended to marry young. Aryeh hadn’t seen Orev actually speak to any women, and he made a mental note to address that when he had a moment.
He walked behind Orev’s eager step at a distance, watching him as he breathed in deeply the air beneath the foreign trees. It was much earlier in the day than their last visit, and the birds were more active. They fluttered nervously at Orev’s approach, rearranging themselves rather than fleeing. Orev reached into his faded jacket’s pocket — when he wasn’t wearing his suit and flag, he looked as though he dressed himself at a second-hand store — and pulled out some ragged pieces of bread that Aryeh recognized from that morning’s breakfast. He had the doves’ immediate attention.
Aryeh smiled. “One would expect you to be enjoying your vacation.”
Orev looked back at him, seemingly startled that Aryeh had followed him. “Vacation, your Majesty?” he asked.
“From your birds.”
Orev looked at the bread in his hand. “Oh. No.” He tore off a piece and tossed it to the leaf-strewn floor, and a half dozen doves dropped down to find it. “I miss them.”
He tossed a piece of crust and asked, “What other animals do you keep here?”
Aryeh shrugged. “There are a few swans. Some chickens and peacocks. Rabbits. Fish.” He paused, and he said, “The Emperor once sent my father a pair of white-breasts.” Orev looked alarmed. “As a gesture of good will.”
Orev laughed. “Forgive me for saying so, your Majesty, but that’s questionable good will.”
“Indeed. They ate the doves.” Aryeh smiled. “We sent them back to the Empire with our regrets. This isn’t a big enough enclosure for eagles, anyway.”
Orev was quiet for a few moments as he scattered his crumbs. He said, “It was good of you not to release them. They probably wouldn’t do well around Omri.”
“Well, it was before my time,” Aryeh said.
He looked back at him again, drawn behind his submissive calm, this other extreme, and said, “It was good of the king. To return them to their home.”
It was strange, Aryeh thought, to repeatedly find himself so captivated by another man’s eyes. He nodded, befuddled, and another bird flew past his ear in its haste to partake in Orev’s feast. He left them to it, mulling over his disquiet as he walked along the little brook that divided the Arboretum into thirds.
God wanted his attention, he decided, and so He had sent someone who could hold it easily. He looked up at the trees and the play of sunlight on the windows above him; he turned in place, his gaze following the ceiling, and he realized with a start that he was being watched. Layla and Saray were seated in one of the balconies and looking down on him. For a moment he felt a terrible flood of panic, but Layla smiled broadly and waved down at him, and Saray mimicked the gesture only a moment or two behind. He waved back; he swallowed hard and forced himself to smile, and they turned back to one another in what seemed to be pleasant conversation. After a few seconds, though, Saray looked down at him again, her expression shading into something unreadable.
He left the Arboretum. He paced the main hall for a while, back and forth, until the guards noticed him and asked if he was well. He told them that he was, and he retreated to his library to think. But no answers came.
Aryeh looked up from that day’s tortured revision of the treaty with Erianam; it was nearing ten o’clock, and he had rather hopefully dressed for bed. He tightened his robe around his shoulders and frowned at the guard standing awkwardly in the door of his sitting room. “Yes?”
“Ah…” Aryeh was far from indecent, but the guard looked past him anyway, clearing his throat. “Pardon the intrusion, your Majesty. There’s… there’s a situation.”
Aryeh sighed and set the papers down. “A situation?”
“Um… that prophet, he’s your friend?”
“I…” Aryeh frowned. “I suppose. Why?”
“Well, he’s downstairs, and he’s…” The guard coughed. “I think you should probably tend to it, your Majesty.”
He really wasn’t in the mood for this. The guard looked young, but that was no excuse for such floundering. “Is this an emergency, guardsman?”
“I don’t… I don’t know.”
Aryeh raised an eyebrow. “Is Orev all right?”
“No,” the guard said. “He’s not all right.”
When Aryeh reached the foot of the stairs of the wing’s ground floor, there was a tight huddle of frightened young men before him that broke up at the sight of him. He’d never seen the royal guard so relieved to see him, and he soon saw why.
The stairwell spilled down into a hall that faced the south courtyard with two stories’ worth of stained glass: green and violet and blue and storm grey panels for Nadav, Jesoash, Asa, and Shallum. It was dark now, rendering the first three black and last an opaque pearl. Orev stood beneath them, staring up at them, his back to Aryeh. He was naked — the low light from the chandelier above him threw a shadow from every knob of bone down his back — and, Aryeh realized with alarm, soaking wet. “Orev?” he said softly.
Orev did not answer, nor did he acknowledge Aryeh in any way. There was water on the floor around him, dripping from his hair and shoulders; Aryeh stepped closer and saw that he was shaking. It wasn’t warm in this hall even during the day. “Orev,” he said, and again he was ignored.
Aryeh glanced back at the guards who cowered behind him. They would slay armies and dragons for him, he knew, but they were seemingly defeated in courage by this. “If he attacks me, then grab him,” he told them, “but don’t hurt him. Otherwise, stay here.”
“Your Majesty,” one of them said, “what if God strikes at you for disturbing him?”
Aryeh raised an eyebrow. “Then we’ll know to leave him be.”
When Aryeh slowly came around Orev’s side, he found his eyes wide and blue and fixed on the windows above him. His pupils were contracted tightly despite the dim light, lending him an eerie fearfulness. Aryeh cautiously laid a hand on his shoulder, finding his skin clammy and wet. “Orev.”
His response wasn’t immediate. After a painfully long pause, Orev’s pale gaze dropped to settle vaguely on Aryeh’s face without quite making eye contact. His lips parted, and the lower one trembled with the cold even as he whispered, “Ze’ev.”
Aryeh swallowed. Orev finally blinked, and his eyes seem to find focus. “Your Majesty.”
“Orev,” Aryeh said, “You’re freezing.” He shrugged out of his robe and offered it, but Orev only continued to stare at him. “Please,” he said.
“The cost of this peace is too high,” Orev whispered. “Sacrifice nothing and no one that comes not from your own self.”
Aryeh felt himself blanch. He shook the robe out and wrapped it around Orev’s shoulders; he saw the guards tense as he obscured Orev’s arms from their line of sight. “Come on,” he said. “Cover yourself. You’ll catch cold.”
This seemed to break whatever spell had hold of him. Orev blinked again twice, and then he looked down at himself. “Ah!” he shouted, and he whipped the edges of the robe around his body; he struggled to get his arms into the sleeves while the silk caught on his wet skin. “Oh God, your Majesty, I’m so sorry–”
“It’s all right,” Aryeh said. He looked to the guards, who were now exchanging doubtful expressions amongst themselves. “It’s all right,” he said again.
He escorted Orev back to his suite himself with a steadying arm around him, though he was less unsteady than he was deeply mortified. They found the suite’s door wide open, and he left Orev to curl into a miserable ball on his sofa as he followed the sound of running water to the bathroom. The shower was on, and the door to the stall was also left cast open. Aryeh shut the tap off, frowning, and gathered a towel.
“I don’t remember leaving,” Orev said as Aryeh sat next to him and draped the towel over his head. Orev smiled unconvincingly and rubbed his hair with it. The water was beginning to stain the robe’s neck, but Aryeh had others.
“Does this happen often?” Aryeh asked.
“No,” Orev said. “Well, sometimes. But not often, no.” He swallowed. “I usually remember… something. Usually.”
Aryeh nodded. That was in line with what had been written of Tzvi, though if Tzvi had ever done anything like this then history had remained tactfully quiet. “Were you speaking to God?”
“I don’t know.”
“You said something to me,” Aryeh said. “You said, the cost of this peace is too high. Do you know what that means?”
Orev frowned, but after a moment he shook his head. “No. I’m sorry.”
Aryeh said, “Go to bed. Maybe your dreams will speak to you.”
“Maybe,” Orev said.
The king returned to his own rooms, but he couldn’t bring himself to review the treaty further. He dressed again, his own hands shaking now, and swept past his guard without speaking or even looking at them. It was too late to announce a visit to Layla, but he strode across Jabin Square to the women’s wing of the palace regardless.
He took the stairs up the third floor at a measured pace, and he stopped before the sixth door on the left. He knocked softly, and his concubine Bilhah let him in to her room.
“My Lord,” she said, smiling broadly. He kissed her hard, and she slipped her strong arms around his shoulders. He broke free of her lips and pressed his cheek against her neck, inhaling the scent of her perfume. She stroked his hair and asked, “What would your Majesty have of me?”
Aryeh sighed. “Fuck me,” he said. He swallowed. “Ride me. Sound angry about it.”
She whispered, “With pleasure, my Lord.”
When Aryeh held court the next day, he seated Layla at his right hand and Orev at his left; it didn’t occur to him what sort of picture this made until he saw Sered stop slightly short before him. The man bowed all the same. “Your Majesty,” he said. “My Lady.” He looked for a moment as though he would greet Orev as well, but he merely smiled blandly.
“Sered,” Aryeh said. Sered kissed Aryeh’s ring and knelt before the throne on a small rug provided for that purpose. The palace had been modernized in increments over the centuries — elevators had been installed, the water and heating systems redesigned, whole schools of thought in furniture replaced entirely — but more than any other area, the throne room had resisted change. Men did not kneel before Aryeh anywhere else; in truth, they knelt to the gilt-wood and ivory throne itself, whose back reached higher than the heads of the tallest men. It wasn’t cushioned, and Aryeh had always felt uncomfortable and cold there, but such were the things he could not allow to reach his face. His feelings towards his chair were not relevent.
There was a low bench on either side of it for a trusted advisor for either ear — which Aryeh had on no higher authority than his mother’s was no easier on the spine — and this was where he had welcomed his wife and his newest, youngest priest. It wasn’t exactly a snub, as the high priest had his own seat at the chamber’s table, but Sered’s brow was dark as he offered up a stack of papers in both hands before he stood again.
“The Temple of Omri’s priesthood respectfully submits its suggestions for compromise on the matter of sin offerings,” he said.
Aryeh raised an eyebrow. This hadn’t been announced for the day’s agenda. Layla and Orev both leaned in as he peeled the top page back wordlessly and started skimming it.
The proposal was simple: the shrines would still raise birds, and people would still buy them and present them to a priest. But instead of killing the bird, the priest would declare it “dead to God” and release it. There was a lot of fine print regarding the rituals of the idea, but Aryeh mulled it over and found it elegant. It was a variation on the tradition regarding imperfectly bred animals, an extension of sorts: gone from God’s eyes, death and release were the same thing. “I like this,” he said, and Sered smiled.
“No,” Orev said.
Aryeh glanced at him; Sered kept his expression pleasant, though interrupting a conference between the king and the Temple’s head priest was almost unspeakably inappropriate. Aryeh paused long enough to make this clear, and he asked, “What is your objection, Orev?”
Orev swallowed, but he spoke as though he were compelled. “Your Majesty, this treats a rotten wound by waving a censer over it to mask the smell. Altering the manner of sacrifice does not eliminate it; it does not close the distance that now exists between God’s heart and the people of Giveah. Killing a bird or sentencing it to exile does nothing to address a man’s wrong. It only permits him to forget it.”
Layla cleared her throat, and Aryeh turned to her, “Also,” she said, nodding to Orev, “in addition to that, my Lord, is such a plan ecologically sound? Think how many domesticated birds we’d be releasing into the wild every day. Would those sort of numbers necessarily be better off than they would be if they were killed outright?”
“Those are both excellent points,” Aryeh said. “Sered, the proposal will be considered. Please submit copies to my ministers and the heads of the other shrines.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Sered said. He was far too well-bred and experienced in his profession to do anything so obvious as glare at Orev, but Aryeh sensed a tension in him that was far greater towards the lesser priest than it was towards Aryeh’s wife, who’d had the more concrete objection — even if she had only pushed it forward then to lessen the impact of Orev’s interruption.
When Sered retreated to his entourage, Aryeh leaned towards Orev and said, “You’re not supposed to do that.”
“When someone petitions the throne, that is their time to speak to the king. It’s not appropriate to step in then with your opinions, as pressing as they may be. Make notes and share them with me later if you have to.”
Orev went white as Aryeh spoke. “I beg your forgiveness, your Majesty. I didn’t know–”
“He’s clearly very angry with you,” Layla said, and Aryeh grinned.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just, you know. Going forward.”
Orev nodded. He didn’t speak again for the rest of the working day, but the matter of the sacrifices was largely set aside until Sered’s proposal could be fully reviewed. When the court broke that evening he’d recovered his courage enough to tell Aryeh that he liked Layla. “She’s very wise,” he said. “Do your other wives sit with you at court?”
“Sometimes,” Aryeh said. “Are you wed, Orev?”
“No, your Majesty.”
Aryeh almost asked him why not, but there were several possibilities and none of them would be good fodder for pleasant conversation. There weren’t many women in the outer shrines. “You might consider seeking a wife in Omri,” he said.
“Oh,” Orev said. “I don’t… well, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” Aryeh said. He smiled. “You’d have to stay if you did.”
Orev laughed. “You must not think much of my ability to persuade.”
“To the contrary,” Aryeh said. He considered for a moment, and he said, “Join me for dinner tonight.”
Orev blinked. “I… gladly, your Majesty. Thank you.”
Aryeh studied the lay of Orev’s trim beard and how it was echoed in his eyelashes and his brows. Naomi, he thought. Then: no, Ketura. She was similarly pale and dark-haired, and Aryeh had found her uniquely approachable when he’d been less experienced. He tried to think of how to tell Orev how to dress, but Sered touched his arm then and said, “Your Majesty, a word.”
Aryeh hesitated. “Seven o’clock,” he told Orev, and Orev nodded and excused himself without prompting.
Sered led him to an empty conference room. Aryeh didn’t even have time to flick on the lights before Sered turned on him furiously, half lit from the hallway. He grasped Aryeh’s shoulder hard and said, “So, is this the direction you’re taking this administration? Seating children in the advisor’s chair?”
“Children?” Aryeh asked. “Orev is my age, and Layla is five years my elder. Am I a child, Sered?”
“No. You are the king.” Sered sighed through his teeth. “You have ever been the king. But that boy knows nothing about running a country!”
“He doesn’t need to. That’s my job.” Aryeh looked at Sered’s hand on his shoulder. “Let go of me.”
He didn’t; he squeezed the bones of the joint, making Aryeh stifle a gasp of pain. He hadn’t thought to bring a guard with him — it was just Sered. “Keep a tight leash on that one,” Sered said. “He doesn’t know how to conduct himself before the Temple, much less the court.”
“I corrected him for his outburst this afternoon. It will not happen again unless God demands it of him.” Aryeh narrowed his eyes. “Don’t do this, Sered. This isn’t how you want your career to end.”
The king did not appoint the Temple’s head priest any more than the head priest did the king, but it wasn’t an entirely empty threat. Sered’s reputation depended on his being seen as a peace-seeker. But Sered looked down at him, eyebrow raised, and said, “Funny. I thought you responded well to assault.”
Aryeh hissed as though burned and jerked away from Sered’s grasp bodily. They stared at each other; Aryeh straightened his suit jacket with as much dignity as he could muster and stalked from the room without another word, anger shearing like bile in his throat. He kept it swallowed back. His own reputation would be vulnerable in the coming days, and he didn’t need an open rivalry between the king and the Temple’s head priest to test his people’s patience. Sered could have this one.
The matter rasped on his nerves, though. He issued the summons to Ketura more tersely than he meant to; when she came to his rooms, she looked scared. “You sounded so angry,” she said to his raised eyebrows.
“Oh,” he said, “no, I’m… well, not like that. It’s nothing to do with you.”
She was wearing a sheer wrap over a low-cut dress, and she leaned forward at a very flattering angle to cup his jaw with both hands. “My Lord, you poor dear,” she said. “Let me comfort you.”
He was tempted, but he glanced at the clock and shook his head. “Not yet. I have a friend coming at seven.”
Ketura asked, “A friend?”
He nodded, distracted as he pulled a jar of wine down and went into his dining room with it. She followed him with a slow smile unfurling across her lovely face. “If I may ask, my Lord, what sort of friend?”
He uncorked the jug and poured her a measure and himself. Customarily he would let her serve him, but he felt like the dynamics were slightly off for that today. “He’s a priest. I don’t think he’s had a chance to breathe since he arrived in the city.” He tasted the wine. It was suitably strong. “So you’ll tend to him.”
She tilted her head. “And you’ll… what? Just watch?”
Aryeh finished the glass and set it down. “Yes.”
Ketura sipped her wine and smiled. “You’ve grown up very fast, my Lord.”
He frowned down at her. The sentiment wasn’t as upsetting from her as it was from Sered, but he didn’t like that it was becoming the day’s theme. “Why do you say that?”
She started to reply, but there was a knock at his door. “I think your friend is early,” she said instead.
“A little,” he said.
It was actually Orev plus a pair of his guards. They knew not to stop any of the harem, but Orev they’d apparently decided required an escort. That was unsurprising, considering the scare he’d given them. “Thank you,” Orev said to them when Aryeh waved him in. “Sorry.”
One them eyed him quizzically as they returned to their post, and Orev turned to Aryeh again. He stopped short when he saw Ketura. “Ah. Hello.”
She passed him a glass of wine Aryeh hadn’t seen her fill. Some habits were hard to fight back. “I’m Ketura,” she said, underlining her voice with a characteristic purr.
Orev swallowed audibly. “Orev. I’m, ah, pleased to meet you.” He looked down at his glass, at her again, and then at Aryeh. “You act quickly, your Majesty,” he said, laughing a little.
Aryeh relaxed greatly at Orev’s good humor. “I try.”
He led them both back into his sitting room, gesturing for them to take his sofa as he sat adjacent. Orev sat up very straight and proper, looking around the room and occasionally at Ketura nervously. He was still wearing his suit from that afternoon. She picked up the edge of his priest’s flag and ran her thumb along the silk. “You’re from Athaliah?” she asked.
Orev took a large swallow of his wine. “Yes.”
A priest’s flag was woven in the color that stood for its owner’s shrine, and either end had six small gems — one for each of the twelve city-shrines — pinned to it in a neat rectangular block that shimmered where the flag emerged from beneath a suit’s lapels. They’d always reminded Aryeh of women’s stud earrings. Ketura found Athaliah’s on the end she was holding and twisted it on its post. “I was reading verse by Hevel yesterday,” she said. “He described the woods of Athaliah as ‘the shadows of God’s fingers, touching the earth.'”
“Oh,” Orev said. “Really?”
She smiled. “Mm hm.”
“And what did he say of Omri?” Aryeh asked.
“I don’t believe he was moved to comment on Omri, actually,” she said. “I don’t think he would have thought much of it. His work was inspired by the natural world.”
Aryeh smiled and settled back in his chair, crossing his legs at the knees. “Do you think Athaliah is more natural than Omri?”
“Well, of course!” Ketura laughed. “Don’t you think so, Orev?”
“I… I suppose it would depend on what you mean by ‘natural.'” His accent was very pronounced in the last word, and Ketura smiled broadly at it.
“You have such a charming voice!” she said. “My Lord, doesn’t he have a pretty voice?”
Aryeh gave her a half-smile. “Indeed.”
“Weren’t we going to have dinner?” Orev asked.
“Later,” Aryeh said.
Orev looked to him with visible uncertainty. Ketura touched Orev’s knee and asked, “Would you like more wine?”
Orev glanced down at the glass he had nervously emptied with a note of surprise, and Ketura took it before he could say either way. She took Aryeh’s glass as well, smirking down at him a little as she did so, and then sauntered into the dining room. Orev immediately leaned in and whispered, “How old is she?”
Aryeh raised an eyebrow. “About… thirty-five, I think. …Is that a problem?”
“She’s educated,” Orev said. “Very sophisticated.”
“Well, of course.”
“Your Majesty, I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but I don’t think this is a good match.”
Aryeh studied him, his earnest blue eyes and the way he was hunching his shoulders. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “I’m not going to marry you to Ketura. She’s my courtesan.”
Orev blinked at him slowly. Ketura came back with the wine, giving Aryeh his glass and offering Orev his. He just looked up at her; Aryeh could see color rising in his face. “Wait,” he said. “Wait, what is this?”
“Orev,” Ketura said, “drink your wine. Relax. We’ll have a fun evening, and then you’ll both feel better.”
He seemed to process her words slightly out of time with the rest of the room; he shook his head and said, “No.” He stood up from the sofa, crowding in against Ketura in his attempt to get around her, but she smiled and didn’t move. “No, no, no–”
“It’s all right, Orev,” Aryeh said. “Just sit down.”
Orev looked down at him and raised a hand, rasied his index finger like he had something very important to say, but for a moment he just hovered dumbly. “All right?” he finally stammered out. “It’s all right? You expect her to– to have sex with me and you’re saying it’s all right?” He flushed further as he said it, but there was nothing charming about his fear now. Ketura eyed him nervously as his voice climbed. “What is wrong with you?”
Aryeh wavered; he’d put himself in the habit of submitting whenever Orev raised his voice, but this wasn’t God speaking to him. God never made Orev look so distressed. “You should… probably go,” he said to Ketura.
“Oh, should she?” Orev said. “You have people who tend to you; fine, you’re the king, but you can’t lend them out like library books! Would you do this to Layla? Would you do it to your other wives?”
“Of course not,” Aryeh said. “Orev, for God’s sake–”
“God’s sake?” Orev asked. “God’s sake?”
“Ketura, go,” Aryeh said, and this time she did, pausing to set Orev’s unclaimed wine on the coffee table.
“Of course you wouldn’t subject your wives to this,” Orev said. “Of course you wouldn’t. So why subject any women to it? Is this a kingdom or a brothel?” He bared his teeth, hands curled into fists. “You’d rewrite laws to spare a bird, but you treat your harem like the palace stable? What kind of monster are you?”
“I’m not,” Aryeh said. He didn’t even know what to say. No guest had ever shouted down his offer of a woman before, much less challenged his authority to offer a woman. They were his women! Orev reached for him, grappled with him and grasped his hair and pressed their foreheads together.
“Do you want God’s favor?” he whispered, his breath flicking against Aryeh’s cheek.
“Yes,” Aryeh said.
“This thing you’ve done,” Orev said, “this thing you’ve tried to do, it has displeased the Lord and He will punish you. He will punish us all through you.”
Aryeh blinked at him, baffled and hurt. “What should I do?”
“Pray with me.” Orev gripped Aryeh’s arms and pulled him down to kneel on the floor. “Pray. Beg God for forgiveness.”
“For… what? For having a harem?”
“For preying on people who depend on you! Who are helpless before you! Who don’t even have the option of refusing you!” He was still gripping Aryeh’s arms; I’ll be covered with bruises tomorrow, he thought. “Doesn’t it ever occur to you to wonder how people feel when they stand before the king?”
“I’m not a monster!” He was surprised by the weakness of his own voice. He sounded close to tears. “Orev, I’m sorry!”
“Don’t tell me,” Orev said. “Tell God!”
Aryeh stared at him; he swallowed hard and bowed his head. His eyes struggled to focus on the fibers of his carpet. “God, forgive me,” he whispered. Orev laid his hands on his back and pushed him down closer to the ground, and Aryeh gasped in startled pain as he jostled the shoulder Sered had so abused. “God, please forgive me.”
“As Giveah was weak before and now knows strength,” Orev said, “you must show your Lord that you will not exploit the helpless but be willing to take their burden on yourself.”
“Myself?” Aryeh asked.
Orev seemed to falter at that; they stared at each other in a sort of mutual horror, and Orev started badly when the door opened again. Ketura stumbled into the sitting room, her eyes wide and her shoes in her hand. She was out of breath, like she’d come running back, but for a moment she just look very surprised to see them both on the floor. “Your Majesty,” she said. “You need to come outside.”
“Why?” he said. “What’s wrong?”
She hesitated. “It’s your mother.”
If something had happened to his mother, she would simply say so; the harem lived in such terror of the previous king’s favored widow that not one of them could ever bring herself to say a word that could be construed as tattling to the queen mother’s son. Aryeh felt a sick lurch in his stomach as he gained his feet, and he didn’t look at Orev’s face as they followed Ketura.
She led them down the stairs, not stopping even to wait for the elevator, out of the building into Jabin Square. Much of the harem had turned out, surrounding some sort of commotion; he could hear shouting at the heart of it. His guards were turning tourists out of courtyard. Oh God, he thought. “Mother!” he said, and his women parted for him immediately, their faces terrified and aghast.
It had grown dark enough that the details were not all apparent right away. His mother stood bent over at the waist; Layla was behind her, gripping her arm, trying to pull her back. “My Lady, please!” she cried. “Stop this!”
“You maggot!” his mother spat. “You’ve been a parasite to this court since you stepped foot in this country, you worthless cow!” Saray — poor, beautiful Saray — sobbed at her feet, shouting when his mother yanked her hair for emphasis.
“Mother!” His voice and the instinctive aggression of his approach startled her into letting go, and Saray flung her arms around his waist and wept into his stomach. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked.
“You,” she hissed, and he froze. “Do you think this is some kind of game? Do you think we arrange these marriages for you so can give these girls pretty dresses and put them in your house like dolls?”
“I’m sorry,” Saray whispered. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Aryeh forced himself to move; he knelt down and lifted Saray into his arms, standing again to cradle her against his chest. She pressed her face against his shoulder and cried. “It’s all right,” he said to her. “Everything’s all right.”
“She’s going back to Erianam at first light tomorrow,” his mother said.
“She’s not going anywhere,” he said. “She’s my wife and she’s staying with me.”
“She isn’t your wife!” his mother shouted. “She can’t be your wife if you never consummated the marriage, you worthless eunuch!”
He stared at her coldly. Saray’s tears soaked through his shirt and sank down to his skin. “Our little princess had an appointment with the doctors today,” his mother continued. “I asked them to see if there was, perhaps, something wrong with her. Because the only other explanation is that there’s something wrong with you. You’ve been married eleven years to Layla, three years to Hannah, and nearly an entire year to Saray, and all the fruit we’ve seen from these unions is a pair of daughters. Even when you do see fit to do your job, you manage to get it wrong!”
“You had no right,” Aryeh said.
“No right?” she asked. “No right? Am I dreaming this? You have no right to shirk your duty to this country! Your only true duty!”
“She’s fourteen years old!” Aryeh cried.
His mother blinked at him, as though he’d said she has brown hair! or she’s barefoot! “So?”
“So?” he said. “So?”
“If she can’t shut her mouth and put up with her duties as woman like the rest of us, then she has no place in this court,” his mother said. “And if you’re going to be so squeamish, then neither do you! This was an important alliance, you little idiot! How in God’s name could you be reckless with it? It never even occurred to me that you could be so negligent!”
In truth, he had been asking himself the same questions for months. But his answer lay in his arms weeping like the child she was. “The alliance is not in danger,” he said. “We are married before God, and no one has the authority to send her away but me. And I will not.” He swallowed. “That is final. If you lay hand to any one of my wives again, you are the one I will see banished. Is that clear?”
She stared at him, dumbstruck. Before he could lose his momentum, he nodded to his guards and said, “Escort my mother back to her rooms.”
She jolted like he’d slapped her. “That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I can see myself in, you ungrateful wretch.” She swept past them, head held high, and entered the doors of the women’s wing of the palace alone.
Aryeh wavered, and then he slowly made his way to one of the square’s benches. The harem women were dispersing quickly; Ketura was already gone. Orev stood at a distance and watched Aryeh, but Aryeh couldn’t bring himself to seek eye contact with him. “I’m sorry,” Saray whispered.
“No,” he said.
“Tonight,” she said. “Tonight. I can do it.”
“No,” Aryeh said. “Nothing has changed. You’re the wife of the king, and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I’m a bad wife,” she wept. Layla sat beside them with a drawn face and stroked Saray’s hair, gently untangling it with her fingers. “She will send me home to my father.”
Erianam was a small country to the northeast that had fallen to the Empire long before Giveah. When the Asturians withdrew, it left Erianam in a very bad place politically, and the ruling family had married its daughters to their neighboring kings with keenly felt haste. To refuse Saray would have been to refuse to put ink to a collective peace treaty with much of the land east of them. It had been a hasty marriage, but as Aryeh was the youngest of the affected kings it had been romaticized a great deal in the press. Saray was a popular figure in Omri — exotic for Giveah, dark and lovely with long black hair — and Aryeh was personally very fond of her.
But the fact remained: his bride had been thirteen years old on the day of their wedding. He’d steeled himself — just don’t look at her eyes, he’d told himself — but she’d been shaking so badly that he couldn’t bring himself to even finish undressing her. This would be between them, he told her, as husband and wife; they would decide when they were ready.
“No one is sending you anywhere,” Aryeh whispered, and he kissed Saray’s forehead.
He’d angered God, and God had struck true: now everyone would know. When Aryeh looked up for Orev again, he was gone.
Aryeh took Saray back to her rooms himself. “She will take me from my bed in the night,” she said, but her heart was no longer in it. She’d exhausted herself weeping.
He hugged her. “I’ll post guards at your door.” He said it as though gently teasing, but as soon as he’d closed her door behind him he issued strict orders for the guard rotations for the rest of the week. “If anyone tries to override your authority, call me immediately,” he told them. He knew his mother’s games well enough.
He hesitated at the elevator. He turned around and quietly let himself in to another apartment on the same floor. He crossed a sitting room to a bedroom and knocked at it softly.
“Come in,” Hannah called.
It was less of a rule now and more of a loosely applied tradition that a woman go into seclusion for the first six weeks following a birth. Aryeh was proving himself as terrible at respecting it with his second child as he had with his first, but Hannah liked her privacy even under normal circumstances. She was a law scholar from Asa, a large city-shrine due north of Omri; she was only his age, but she was one of the smartest people he knew. She intimidated him sometimes, even when sitting in a pile of blankets and pillows with their month-old daughter attached to her breast with single-minded gluttonly.
“Hi,” he said from the door. He didn’t realize until then how close to tears he was. She smiled at him sadly and gestured for him to approach, and he sat gingerly on the edge of the bed.
“I hear that I missed some excitement tonight,” she said.
“How on earth could you have heard that already?” he asked.
She smiled. “I have my ways.”
Aryeh stroked the wisps of down that made up D’vora’s hair. Her dark blue eyes shifted up to look at him, but she didn’t see an audience with her father as important enough to disengage for. “I’m being punished by God,” he said.
Hannah looked skeptical. “One of my prophets said so,” he said.
“Don’t attribute to God’s wrath what is simply your mother’s cruelty,” she said.
“Do you think I’m a monster?”
“Of course not.” She tried to gently pull D’vora from her nipple. “If you were, I’m sure God would find a less ironic way to tell you.”
“I hope that it wouldn’t have to fall to God at all.” Aryeh touched one of his daughter’s tiny pink fists; it opened and gripped his finger hard. He smiled. “Does that mean she likes me?”
Hannah sighed. “Well, at least as much as she likes my hair.”
He wiggled his finger, and D’vora gripped it tighter. “Everyone’s been yelling at me today. I suppose it hasn’t been left to God at all.”
“I’ve heard about this prophet of yours. You like him because he criticizes you. Has the novelty worn off?”
“No,” Aryeh said. “But sometimes his criticism is confounding.”
Hannah smiled. “It must be, if it’s the word of God.” D’vora fussed as Hannah covered her breast, but she then laid her head on it sleepily.
“I’m not a bad husband, am I?” he asked.
Hannah looked up in surprise.
“If I were, would you tell me? Or would you stay silent out of respect for the throne?”
She appeared to turn that over in her head as she pet D’vora’s cheek with her fingertips. “That’s a difficult question,” she finally said. “But thankfully it’s not one I’ve ever had to ask myself.” She smiled; she looked exhausted, but she was always beautiful when she smiled. “It’s good that you worry. There’s no good king in this world who doesn’t worry. But never doubt that you’re an honorable husband. I’m sure Saray’s sisters haven’t been so lucky as to find such mercy.”
He sighed. He didn’t want to think about that. Saray wasn’t even the youngest of her family. “I would have to have no heart for that to be called mercy.”
“Exactly,” Hannah said.
“But what makes for an honorable husband can make for a weak king.”
“I respectfully disagree,” she said. “Ruling a kingdom isn’t so different from running a household. Sympathy is a strength.”
It didn’t ease him, but it was good to hear. He rested his head lightly on her shoulder. “May I stay with you two for a while?” he asked.
She kissed his hair. “Of course, my Lord.”
There were no headlines screaming scandal the next day, but a photographer with a good zoom attachment had managed to get a picture of him cradling Saray from a window across the street. It was a very romantic image, especially coupled with an article that only speculated as to what could have happened to provoke such a public display of protective fury. Aryeh sighed at it at breakfast and turned to the financial page.
It was an assembly day, which meant a continuation of his refusal to perform the sin offering and probably more abuse from Sered. He dressed the part regardless, carefully pinning the ephod to his lapels; he was supposed to wear them all the time, but they were heavy and tore holes in his jackets. The two engraved topaz ephod and his ring together made up the king’s allotment of the Habrit, a set of sacred regalia passed down since before the reign of Tzvi. The ephod bore the old names of the city-shrines and identified him as Giveah’s ruler, and the ring identified him as Giveah’s representative in her holy marriage with God. That, he never took off. He’d worn it on his thumb when he was first anointed king, something of a child bride himself.
His mother ignored his summons, and he was honestly a little relieved. He walked to the Temple with Layla and Saray instead. Saray looked underslept, but she smiled bravely at her husband and held Talya’s hand. Talya swung her arm with such hyperactivity that she couldn’t maintain her trembling grace for long; she laughed and swung the girl up into her arms. “You must behave yourself!” she said, and Talya giggled.
“She does it so you’ll pick her up,” Layla said.
Saray smiled. “I know.”
Aryeh watched her — so much more comfortable as a older sister than a younger wife. He saw a white bird fly over her, climbing the blue sky above them to clear the spires of the Temple effortlessly.
The Temple was laid out like a theatre with white walls and hundreds of bloodwood benches that faced north; the sanctuary was lit during the day by massive windows that echoed the twelve stained-glass panels across the face of the palace. A priest led Layla and Saray away, and Aryeh saw Talya to the small room that housed the children’s assembly. He stood in the door and watched her run in ecstatic circles around her contemporaries with her arms extended like an airplane until Sered touched his elbow and led him back to the main congregation.
“His Majesty would do well to keep his family’s problems within the palace’s walls,” Sered said to him under his breath, and Aryeh sighed.
“When I’m next scheduling my mother’s meltdowns, I’ll take your advice under consideration,” he said, and Sered chuckled and patted his still-bruised shoulder in a chummy way. Aryeh couldn’t entirely prevent his disgust from reaching his face, and Sered’s smile faded.
“I need to address the assembly,” Aryeh said.
Sered’s expression didn’t falter, but he hesitated before he said, “Of course, your Majesty.”
“The first address,” Aryeh added.
That made Sered’s brow constrict with irritation. “Whatever would you need the first address for?”
“It’s my right as king.”
“Do you have notes that I could look at?”
Aryeh was an enthusiast of index cards, but the need to speak had not struck him until a minute or two ago. He shook his head, and Sered’s eyes narrowed, but there was nothing to be done for it. He led him to where the benedictions were announced and the sacrifices were offered, and the people — the nobles and common men of Omri together under the roof of the Temple — fell into a respectful and curious silence at the sight of the king. The first address usually, naturally, fell to the head priest.
He took a deep breath. He projected his voice into the Temple’s vaulted ceiling. “‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows us His handiwork. Day after day speaks, and night after night reveals to us knowledge, but there is no speech, there are no words, and their voices are not heard. Their speech is seen in all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them He has set a tent for the sun, like a bridegroom emerging from his bed, and it rejoices like a sprinter set free to run. It goes forth from one horizon, and its circuit takes it to the other; there is nothing that can hide from its heat.'” He swallowed. “‘The law of the Lord is perfect: it restores the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure: it makes the foolish wise. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, and the ordinances of the Lord are true. These things are to be sought more than fine gold; they are sweeter than honey, and there is no greater reward in this world than there is in keeping them. What man can know his own errors? God, clear me of sins committed unknowingly that they may not have dominion over me. Let me be faultless. Let me be clear of transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my Foundation, my Love.'” The words were second nature to him, inscribed as tightly on his heart as his own name. The assembly saw that he had no bird and no sakin in his hands. Saray and Layla sat in the second row, behind a line of ministers, and they both smiled at him.
“My brothers and sisters of Giveah,” he said, “we will no longer offer the blood of pure animals in the place of our own.” He’d expected some kind of outburst at that, but everyone was silent. Even Sered only watched him, tense. “It was my intention to extend this proposal somewhat more… democratically,” he said. “But I believe that in cases where the strong exploit the weak, or the loud the soft-spoken, or the many the few… democracy is often doomed to fail us. Our God is a good God, though His love can be heavy and His requirements of us harsh. He would have us stand on our own feet, carry our own weight, and answer for our own sins.
“He has sent a series of messengers to me to be sure I know this. Had I the ears to hear and the eyes to see, I would have known it a long time ago. But His will shall be done late rather than not at all. The Empire has released us, and neighbors who were once enemies have rallied in support of us. Giveah, let us deserve this mercy the world has shown and show mercy ourselves.” He paused, and he said, “I will accept no petition to the contrary. Animal sacrifice in the name of the God of Tzvi and Giveah is hereby forbidden by royal decree in the Temple and in all of its shrines. So may it be.”
“So may it be,” the congregation echoed obediantly, and Aryeh closed his eyes briefly.
“Your Majesty,” Sered said, “don’t let pride mislead you into thinking that making a public spectacle of this matter will make it more acceptable before the eyes of God.”
“It is only the eyes of God that I am concerned with.” Aryeh looked to Sered and said, “We can discuss the enforcement of the decree after the service.”
“There will be no enforcement of this decree!” Sered said. “Does the priesthood enter your court and dictate the law to your ministers? This the method of a tyrant, your Majesty!”
Aryeh took a deep breath. “It is.” He looked up into the graceful curves of the Temple’s rafters, stone and wood and gold; his voice dropped, and he said, “It is the method of any man of power that knows that change must come, and it must come quickly. Would I be less of a tyrant to allow the unforgivable to continue? What makes a tyrant is not his methods; it’s his intentions for his country.”
“It is in how he hoards his power and how he chooses to wield it,” Sered said. “God will strike down the kings that displease Him.”
“I am chosen by God,” Aryeh said.
“Your fathers were chosen by God,” Sered said. “If God were so eager to have you, you would have been born to your father’s first wife, in the first decade of his reign. But you were born to his last, within the last.”
He could hear the worshippers in the pews growing uncomfortable, shifting their feet, whispering. He said nothing, and Sered pushed forward heedlessly. “If God is so eager to have you, where is your son? Surely all of your children would be sons.”
“My daughters are as pleasing to Him as my sons will be,” Aryeh said. “And my sisters, for that matter, are as pleasing to Him as I am.”
“No.” Sered walked to him calmly before the altar. “No. God will wait through countless sorry kings for one great man who can lead us. Do your think your worthless decrees and proclamataions will outlast your dying breath by a day?” He smiled. “Ban the sacrifices, your Majesty, and should God strike you down for it, there will be no son to speak for you. The sun will not rise again for the dynasty of Tzvi.”
Aryeh’s throat froze. When he spoke, his voice could muster volume only for Sered to hear him. “If God would strike me down, then don’t let my body be a curse to the earth of Giveah. Bear me to the east and cast me to their birds. But you cannot touch my family. God will not let you.”
Sered’s eyes widened. He stretched out his arms, and he said, “God–!”
A cry rang out from the pews, and Aryeh and Sered both jerked their gazes towards what was now fading into nervous laughter. Someone had been startled by a man standing up. Aryeh was not comforted; Orev’s pale eyes were set on him, both him and Sered, burning as he said, “The word of God came to me, saying: go, cry to the great men of Omri. Say to them, the Lord says this.” He’d been seated with the other young priests and minor keepers of the Temple, and they pulled their knees out of his way to let him pass.
Everyone stared at Orev as he made his way into the aisle; he took in their gazes, looking to his right and his left before fastening his eyes on Sered and Aryeh again. “The Lord says this: I have heard your prayers, Sered of the Temple of Omri. I heard you cry, harlot! and weep, whore! when Giveah left her Lord at swordpoint to serve another for so many years. Why has Giveah become the prey? you asked. Why do the lions roar at her? Why do her own claws and teeth break? I told you to let your heart lie fallow for that season, and in the next I would send to you a great king.” He came forward slowly as he spoke, and he stopped at the first line of benches before the altar.
Aryeh was struck by Orev’s ringing fearlessness. The man could hardly stand the weight of a single pair of eyes on him, but now he stood unflinching before the king and head priest both with all of Omri at his back. He stretched an arm to Aryeh and said to Sered, “I have sent him to you. I have fulfilled My promise to Giveah, My beloved.”
“Do not speak falsely for God, Orev,” Sered said. “It’s a blasphemy by itself, and you stand in the holiest of God’s houses.”
“It is a blasphemy to call false the word of your Lord!” Orev’s arm swung to now point at Sered. “In all the years of your reign over My Temple, have your loyalties changed? Have you chosen a new god, which is no god at all but love of the power you enjoyed in your country’s misery? I hear your prayers still, Sered of the Temple. You pray that your king will father a son. But in that prayer’s shade, you beg that your king’s last breath will sound before his son’s first.”
“How dare you!” Sered cried, but Orev turned away from him to face the people watching him, silent and moon-eyed.
“Be astonished, O Giveah, at this,” he said, “and be horribly afraid, be without consolation, says the Lord! Your king has a son, good and strong and true. But I will keep him from you so long as his life would be the end of his father’s, for his father has My blessing.”
“My Lord,” Aryeh whispered.
Orev paused. He looked over his shoulder at his king, and he smiled. “King of Giveah,” he said, “You cannot hear your Lord, but you can see Him.”
Aryeh nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“Your life is as Giveah’s. I questioned the devotion of your fathers, but I see no doubt in you. Tolerate the darkness at your shoulder no more.”
Sered cried, “This man is a heretic, your Majesty! He speaks lies to win royal favor! Do you think false prophets haven’t seduced kings before? He has not even been vetted!”
“My prophet does not require a smile and a nod to carry My words,” Orev said. “But you doubt. Very well: I reveal Myself to you thus. If this prophet bears false witness, may God strike him down before he takes step outside this Temple’s door. But the Lord says this: Sered of the Temple will never leave this holiest of God’s houses again.”
“God does not bend Himself to the will of madmen!” Sered said. “You reveal nothing but a wounded mind.” He grasped Aryeh’s shoulder, his bruised shoulder, and Aryeh cried out in startled pain at his grip. “He says what you want to hear, and he will not be the last so long as you oppose me. There will always be men who will rally to the side of a misguided king.” Sered shook him. “Your fear of God has made you blind.”
Aryeh shook his head. “I do not fear God.”
“Arrogant brat!” Sered hissed.
“If I am wrong,” Aryeh said, “God will silence me. I don’t fear it. I welcome it.” He swallowed. “And if you were true to the rank of even the lowest priest of this Temple, you too would welcome God’s judgement without complaint.”
Sered stared at him. The fury in him had grown so large that he could no longer hide it, or even contain it. Sered shouted wordlessly at his king, and his hand on Aryeh’s shoulder tightened crushingly as his other swept up the sakin from its place on the altar. The people in the pews screamed and charged forward from their seats; in that hollow tunnel of sound he could hear Layla cry his name as she almost never did, even when they were alone and bare to each other. He had a moment of clarity that was not time enough to pull himself away but was long enough to think: was I wrong? God, was I wrong after all?
Then he was deaf. His guard’s gun went off over his shoulder, nearly in his ear. Sered was struck twice in the chest and once in the throat; Aryeh stared at him in horror as he dropped the knife and staggered, and then he fell forward heavily into Aryeh’s arms. “No!” Aryeh cried. His own voice was tinny and distant. It sounded like someone else. Sered’s weight sent him to his knees. “A doctor! Bring a doctor!”
Even as he said it, he knew it was too late. Sered’s eyes rolled up to meet his, and then the light from them was gone.
Aryeh’s hearing didn’t recover very much over the course of the day. The people around him spoke, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying to him. He was led back to the palace by his guardsmen as paramedics and police went into the Temple. He didn’t know what was happening. Layla made him sit down in his office; she cupped his cheek and said something, but he didn’t hear it. She went away and was replaced by Saray, who spoke briefly and leaned down to kiss his forehead, and then she was gone, too. Someone brought him tea. He stared down at it and inhaled its steam, but he couldn’t move to pick it up.
Orev appeared over him, his face soaked with tears and a hand pressed over his mouth. He left without trying to speak.
His right ear ached. After a time it made his whole head hurt. “I think I’d like to lie down,” he said to no one specific, and Layla reappeared to grasp his arm and help him to his feet. She led him wordlessly — he hoped, anyway, for he heard nothing — from the main government building back to his wing of the palace, and he was shocked to find that it was growing dark. Wasn’t it still morning? The small jolt of adrenaline that start gave him made his headache worse.
Layla took him to his rooms and then to his bed. He sat on the edge of it. She disappeared briefly and came back with a glass of wine; he swallowed it without tasting it. She put the glass on his nightstand and turned back to him to press her face into his hair and wrap her arms around his shoulders, and for long minutes she stood over him and wept. If I were a great king, he thought, if I were a man and not a boy playing a role, I could comfort her. All he could muster was the strength to unlock the muscles of his arm to lay a hand on her hip. He said, “I love you.”
That made her cry harder. But after a while she cried herself out; she stood up straight again and wiped her nose, and she said something. “I can’t hear you,” he said.
She frowned. “My ears,” he said. “The gun–”
Layla laid her hand over his mouth. She nodded. She wiped at her cheeks and bent down to unpin the ephod from his lapels. She pointed at his shoes; he kicked them off, and then she pointed at the bed. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, and she leaned in to kiss him hard. She stayed long enough to make sure he laid down, and then she saw herself out.
Lying down did not make him feel better. He was still wearing his suit, and his jacket had blood all over it. If you can do anything, he told himself, you can sit up and take your jacket off. He rolled onto his side and watched his clock tick in muffled silence.
There was a bit of advice repeated many times in the scriptures: do not test God. How quickly he had grown spoiled by a prophet willing to voice God’s anger; he had been testing God all this time. If I am wrong, God will silence me. What sort of theological thinking was that? He had indeed come very close to being silenced. God had defended him, but He had not protected him. Do not test God. Sered had been the head priest of Omri’s Temple for the entirety of Aryeh’s life; he had been stubborn but always good. Aryeh tried numbly to pick his way through what had happened, but he kept coming to rest again, staring at that clock. Every time his eyes focused, it seemed an hour or two had passed.
I told you to let your heart lie fallow for that season, and in the next I would send to you a great king. That wasn’t a prophesy Aryeh had ever heard. Had his priests and his prophets been so sure that it wasn’t him? Did he seem that weak to them, that ineffectual? He’d been a child when he took the throne, still clinging to his mother’s skirt. Was that the impression they had of him still?
That was fair, he supposed. He wanted his mother now with sudden and overpowering longing, but he also didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing it. Petty, he thought. She was probably hysterical, held back only by an army of guards ordered by his wife to see that he was left alone. I could summon her, he thought. But he didn’t.
He wondered if he would sleep. He wondered if he’d already slept and hadn’t been aware of it. It must be a terrible thing to be a prophet, he thought. Never sure if you’re awake or dreaming, seized by the paralysis of someone else’s words.
Some soft sound in the room registered at the edge of his injured hearing, like a footfall or a sigh; for several minutes it wasn’t enough to arouse his curiosity, but then it began to bother him. Was he hearing things now? He turned his head a little to peer over his shoulder at the foot of the bed, and he was wholly unprepared to see Orev sitting there, his eyes hidden by the darkness but the shape of his face written unmistakably by a light from outside the room’s picture window.
Aryeh’s shock-stiffened body reacted immediately — over-reacted, even. He whipped himself upright and scrambled for the lamp, knocking his empty wineglass onto the carpet in the process, drawing himself up tightly against the headboard as his hand searched for the lamp’s chain. The light came on and instantly rendered the room sun-bright, and Aryeh hissed and squinted through it. Orev, for his part, did not vanish as though from a roused dream but neither did he wince at the lamp he was facing. He merely raised a hand and pressed a finger to his lips in a hushing gesture.
Aryeh was over-aware of his pulse and his breath, both too fast. He was sweating. He wanted to run. This was some kind of belated panic, he knew, but that knowledge didn’t calm him. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “How did you get in here?”
Orev tilted his head. “When Adlay was a child, he came upon a stray dog. He set fire to its tail, and he watched and laughed as the dog tried to outrun death. Last year, Ira’s sister came to him weeping because her husband had struck her, and he took her back to her husband and told her to hold her tongue. I told them what I had seen, and they turned their faces from Me, and no one blocked My way.” His voice was soft. He was, absurdly, dressed for bed, in loose drawstring pants and a grey OMRI U tee shirt. That was definitely from a second-hand store.
Aryeh could feel himself beginning to shake. He did not have the strength to face this now. “My Lord?”
“You are distraught.” Orev rose with an unlikley grace and came around to the side of the bed to seat himself again. He touched the side of Aryeh’s face, the same comforting gesture Layla had shown earlier. “Speak to Me, beloved.”
Aryeh swallowed. “Of course I’m distraught,” he said. “The Temple’s head priest is dead.”
“Sered of the Temple of Omri longed for a time that he thought he remembered from his youth. That time does not lie in Giveah’s future; indeed, neither is it in her past. He could not believe that I would ask him to follow a man who would seek Me on his own terms. He thought the king he waited for must be your son, and he hoped to live long enough to see his rule.” Orev brushed a stray curl of Aryeh’s hair, unruly at its best, from his brow. “Sered did not displease Me during your father’s reign. He carried the fire your father lacked. But for you he was wrong, and he stood in Giveah’s way. You must forget him.”
“It’s not that easy,” Aryeh whispered. “Your Temple must stand strong beside me. The loss of Sered weakens me.”
Orev smiled. “A voice of wailing is heard out of Omri: How we are ruined!” He shook his head. “It is not so, King of Giveah: you have pleased Me greatly today.”
“Pleased You?” Aryeh asked. “I’ve pleased You? How?”
“You have struck back the serpents and shaken fire at the jackels. Too long has Giveah courted cruelty in her path to strength.” Orev stroked the length of Aryeh’s jaw and let his fingertips stray down the side of his neck, and Aryeh shivered suddenly and violently. “You have found your voice, as Giveah finds her teeth. And yet you remain a gentle soul, a loyal wife.”
“Orev,” Aryeh said, trying to impart a warning with his tone, but he sounded small and afraid.
Orev shook his head, smiling. “You fear My prophet but you do not fear Me,” he said. “You stood unflinching before Me today and declared your submission to My will, whatever it may be. You would accept even death if I desired it.”
“Yes,” Aryeh said. Pride made him frown and add, “I’m not afraid of Orev.”
“You fear him as he fears you, and you are his king,” Orev said. “Don’t mind it; it’s as it should be, that you look on My prophet with awe.”
“Awe,” Aryeh echoed. His skin of his stomach prickled as Orev smiled at him. Orev was one of the least physically imposing men Aryeh could readily bring to mind, slender and hesitant as he was, but here he was transformed. He was something else, something striking. “I am in awe of my Lord,” he whispered.
“As you should be,” Orev said. “As you must be.”
Aryeh closed his eyes. Without the light, his head felt like it was wrapped in cotton. Orev brought his hands to the sides of Aryeh’s face, barely touching him, cupping his jaw with the warmth of his palms. Aryeh parted his lips to breathe, and his lower lip brushed Orev’s thumbs. “What must I do?” he asked.
“Obey My voice,” Orev said, “and submit to Me.” He leaned in so their foreheads touched. “I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought Giveah forth, saying: obey My voice, and you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I established the oath in which I swore to make Giveah a land flowing with wine and clear water. I warned Giveah on that day that I brought her forth, I warned your fathers again and again, saying, obey My voice.” He dropped his right hand to cover Aryeh’s left. “This is our covenant, Ze’ev: Submit to Me, O Giveah, as a wife submits to her lord.”
Aryeh held himself very still. He could feel Orev’s breath on his mouth. Can he see me? Aryeh thought. Or hear me? He supposed, finally, that it didn’t matter. He closed the small distance between them and kissed Orev’s lower lip. The press of Orev’s beard against Aryeh’s mouth was sharp and harrowingly unfamiliar — it had not been the fashion in Omri for decades for men their age to wear beards — but Orev allowed it. Aryeh could feel the damage Orev’s teeth had rendered in his anxious moments. He slipped his hands from Orev’s and stiffly shrugged his jacket from his shoulders.
He’d barely responded to the kiss, but Orev didn’t show disapproval as Aryeh awkwardly unknotted his tie. He smiled very slightly and maintained eye contact, and Aryeh thought, this is surely not what God wants of me? Not literally? But Aryeh didn’t know what was required to slake the Lord’s thirst, and he didn’t want to second-guess Him. He kept his chin low as he unbuttoned his shirt. He was thinking, but his thinking was hampered by the same jerkily shifting inertia that had cloaked his mind before. He pulled his arms from his sleeves. Orev moved back so Aryeh could put his feet on the floor.
For a woman, to be a wife was natural. For a man, Aryeh was realizing, thinking, thinking, it was not such an easy thing. All he could think to do to submit was something he would never — on his life! — ask of his wives. But that didn’t mean he had not asked it of others, and he wondered, unbuckling his belt with shaking fingers as Orev watched him, silent and still, if it was such a natural thing for anyone after all. There had been a period of his life when he was fifteen and sixteen, rebelling silently against the constant calls for an heir, when he’d wanted nothing but a woman’s mouth; he looked back on that immaturity with some good-natured embarrassment, but he’d never hesitated to ask it of his harem women, nor had it occurred to him that he should hesitate. He still wasn’t sure where Orev’s — God’s? — fury had come from the night before, but he knew he would answer for it, as Sered had answered for his blood-lust. He stepped out of his slacks, and then his briefs; he toed off his socks, and he knelt on the carpet before Orev. He leaned his forehead against Orev’s knee and sighed, cold and afraid.
Orev laid both his hands on the back of Aryeh’s head. “Not for fear,” he said. “Beloved, I would not know you as a punishment.”
Aryeh touched Orev’s foot and said, “Yes, my Lord.”
“So don’t show Me fear. Show Me your love, and show Me your affection for My prophet.” He stroked Aryeh’s hair. “Show Me your heart, King of Giveah.”
His heart. Aryeh shivered as Orev’s fingers brushed the back of his neck. In his heart he had desired to have Orev from afar, sitting calmly with his knees crossed as Ketura sucked Orev’s prick. He’d wanted to drink his wine and carry on light conversation as the almost certainly virginal priest struggled to maintain coherency. He’d wanted to see him fail. It wasn’t the sort of desire Aryeh had ever pursued before, and he’d understood Ketura’s surprise as much as he hadn’t wanted to discuss or examine it. That was his heart, and now he knew the injustice and the lust for dominance that surrounded it. His breath shook as he sighed again, and he whispered, “Forgive me.”
“You are forgiven,” his Lord said. “As I love you, and My prophet loves you, and you have paid for your misstep.” He touched Aryeh’s shoulder. “All will be well.”
That touch was warm and immensely comforting. Orev’s fingers were rough from handling birds and fingering books, and Aryeh wanted to fold up underneath them as they spread themselves against the plane of his back. Aryeh leaned forward, nudging Orev’s knees apart so that hand could whisper down his spine. Orev was visibly hard through his loose clothing, but whatever arousal his body felt didn’t reach his face. Aryeh pressed his hands to Orev’s thighs and his face against his stomach as he let the heat of his skin through the loose cotton warm him. His Lord closed Orev’s body over him and embraced him with infinite patience.
“I love You,” Aryeh said against Orev’s belly. “I love You with all the love there is in my life. And there is much.” He swallowed, and Orev’s hand cupped the back of his head. “There is so much. I have been blessed.”
“I know,” his Lord said. “That is why My hopes for you are so great.”
Aryeh’s hand slid up Orev’s inner thigh shyly to touch his clothed prick. His Lord said nothing, but Orev was terribly hard beneath the cautious brush of Aryeh’s fingers. Aryeh tugged on the waist of Orev’s pants, loosening them easily, and he revealed Orev carefully. He was long, bigger than Aryeh at his most excitable and eager to his eyes. Aryeh had seen Orev nude before, briefly, but he’d taken pains to let the man retain his dignity; now he looked upon him with honest curiosity and not a little envy. He glanced up at his face again, but his Lord regarded him clamly. His eyes seemed overly bright in this light.
Aryeh wrapped his fingers around Orev — his hands were shaking — and felt the warm weight of this, another man’s prick. It was familiar and deeply foreign at once. He swallowed, and he leaned in to kiss the tip of Orev’s erection. A drop of fluid seeped between his lips, spreading a shock of salt along the sides of his tongue. “It is good for any man to know humility,” his Lord said softly, “especially the king. But submission to a husband is useless unless it is done gladly.”
Aryeh closed his eyes and let Orev’s prick penetrate his mouth. It was strange, strange and animal-pleasant, to feel something so warm and thick and alive between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Orev’s hands smoothed Aryeh’s hair back, and finally he made a sound like a sigh of pleasure. “Giveah,” he whispered, “I remember how you pursued Me in your youth, with your beauty and your kindness. You were yourself what made Me holy, and our sacrament called forth the flowers and the fruits of the earth.” Orev’s taut skin carried that same salt taste, though it was the strongest where the head of his prick pressed against the back of Aryeh’s tongue. “If a wife leaves her lord and is pressed into tribute to another as a slave, as a concubine, must her lord take her back when she is freed?”
Aryeh pulled back and stroked Orev’s wet length with his hand. “No,” he whispered. “He owes her nothing.”
“He owes her nothing, but My love for you overwhelms Me. Giveah is nothing without her Lord, but oh, I am nothing without the wife that was sworn to Me.” Aryeh took this as his cue to continue, and he did: he took Orev into his mouth again, deeper, letting his length nudge the back of his throat. He’d had this act performed for him so many times that he knew well how it was done. When Orev’s prick was thoroughly wet from Aryeh’s mouth, he settled into a gentle rhythm of stroking him with his tongue and with the circle of his lips. “And she returns to Me with her heart full of love,” his Lord said.
Aryeh drew back and whispered, “Yes, my Lord.” He sucked on the tip’s corona and won a faint tremor from Orev’s legs. Aryeh was startled by how that shiver struck him as well, and he realized distantly that he was hard himself. He could not possibly tend to that while he was ministering to his Lord; he tried to put it from his mind.
“Such love that she would gladly trade ill-spent blood for this,” his Lord said, “a true affirmation of her loyalty and her affection.”
“Yes, my Lord, yes.” He fisted his hand around Orev’s slick cock and stroked him tightly from base to head, tipping his face back to look to his Lord. “Gladly.”
“And you would do so from this day forward? Fulfill Giveah’s duties as My wife and My rights as your husband?” Orev’s voice was even and his expression mild, even as his prick felt hard enough to burst.
“Yes,” Aryeh said. He leaned in to kiss Orev’s prick again, pressing his open mouth to it. “My Lord, I would take this on myself joyfully.”
His Lord smiled and cupped Aryeh’s face in His hands again, pulling his attention upward. “I am well pleased,” He said, and He kissed Aryeh’s wet mouth deeply. Aryeh shivered, desperately hard now — or perhaps he had been the entire time; who could say? — and returned the kiss as best as he was able from the floor and between Orev’s knees. “I cannot release this body from the sweetness you’ve bestowed on it,” his Lord said. “Show My prophet the same love that you’ve shown Me.”
A thread of anxiety pulled taut in his belly at that, but he said, “Yes, my Lord, if he wishes it.”
That earned him something akin to a smirk, but Orev’s mouth then grew slack, and his eyes closed. A great shudder took him and he fell forward like a dropped doll, resting his brow on the top of Aryeh’s head, panting like a winded runner. Aryeh sympathized: this had been twice in one day that the Lord had taken Orev. But his prick was still painfully stiff in Aryeh’s hands, and to leave this unfinished would be disobedient and cruel. He gently urged Orev off of him so he could lean forward and take him into his mouth.
Orev either spoke or moaned — Aryeh could not hear it, but he could feel the hum of some vocalization in Orev’s body. Orev’s hands scrambled at his back in confusion or objection, but they did not do so with any clear goal, so Aryeh kissed his prick, licked it, and Orev’s hands fell away. They came back to sink their fingers into Aryeh’s hair; this was no longer God, nor anyone like Him, so Aryeh finally gave in to his body’s pleading and grasped himself as well. He stroked his own prick tightly and quickly, but he was gentler for Orev: he tongued the pinch of flesh above the ring of skin that marked his circumcision, and Orev’s body jerked inward around Aryeh as he came forcefully into Aryeh’s mouth. It seemed like a long time before he was finished. The harem women tended to have Aryeh release elsewhere on their bodies, or else they just spat out the result of it; there was no fitting place to do so aside from the wineglass — that thought almost made him laugh — so he swallowed it. The fluid that ran down the backs of his fingers he just wiped off onto the bed skirt.
For a minute or two Orev remained as he was, his breath hot against Aryeh’s back. But soon he sat up straight again. His expression was complicated; he looked lost and sad, like he was anticipating being punished for a wrong he hadn’t realized he’d committed. He looked down at Aryeh and then immediately jerked his gaze from him, turning his head away to a ridiculous angle. He said something, but his voice had retreated back behind the silence that clotted in Aryeh’s ears. “I can’t hear you,” Aryeh said.
Orev glanced down at him, frowning, and looked away; he settled for a spot on the floor. “The gun went off next to my ear,” Aryeh said. Orev’s mouth tightened, and he nodded. His eyes flicked back to Aryeh’s, and he shakily pointed to himself and then to the door, the question writ in his brow.
Aryeh stood; his legs were unsteady and his joints complained, so he took a moment to stretch his arms. This Orev did not look away from, though he looked abashed for it. Aryeh returned to the bed naked, sighing with relief to lie down again, and caught the back of Orev’s tee shirt to make him lie down with him. After a moment of hesitant resistance, Orev did so. He laid his head on Aryeh’s shoulder and cleaved himself to his side, and Aryeh embraced him.
Orev was still speaking, compelled by his nerves or fear of the silence. Aryeh could feel his lips moving rapidly against his collarbone. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry.”
Orev raised his head. “Don’t worry,” Aryeh said. “This is how He wants it to be. This is how it should be.” It felt strange to do so but he kissed him, gently and lingeringly, and then let him lay his head down again.
For a few moments, Orev didn’t do or say anything. Then he picked up Aryeh’s left hand, and he kissed his ring.
Aryeh was very fond of his wives, but it was rare for him to actually spend a full night in any one of their beds, or they in his; only Layla occasionally insisted on it, and he was always happy to honor her desire for company. Generally, however, he was accustomed to sleeping alone. When he woke the next morning, he was first aware that his hearing had recovered some with sleep, because his alarm clock had succeeded in rousing him; after he blindly thumbed it off, he was next puzzled by the warm weight burrowed beneath his arm under his blankets, which had not stirred at the clock’s buzzer at all. He pulled the quilt back and looked down at Orev, who lay deeply asleep, in silence.
His tee shirt had ridden up, exposing his belly and lower ribs. Aryeh looked at Orev’s stomach for a long, sleepy moment, taking in the hollow that moved as he breathed and the hair that traced a slender line down from his navel. Aryeh couldn’t quite put a name to what he was feeling. Guilt, certainly; it was clear that this was not what Orev had wanted, and his Lord had stated that He expected this to continue. Aryeh would gladly do whatever God asked of him, but the involvement of a third party made him hesitate. How often would their Lord grip Orev and drive him to his king’s chamber, and what else would He ask of them? The answer to that was obvious, and Aryeh swallowed hard. Last night had surely only been a test of his willingness, a toe in waters that grew rapidly deep.
He was accustomed to looking upon women with desire; nearly any woman, really, but his own especially, and he had his dear favorites even amongst them. Bilhah’s long legs and defined arms could drive him to delicious distraction whenever she was present, and he had bashful memories of being terribly in love with Layla when he was twelve and thirteen, after they were married but before they had started making love. He’d discovered masturbation while pondering the soft mystery of his wife’s then still-unseen breasts. He could have demanded that she disrobe for him, even then, but he hadn’t. They’d been allowed to wait until they deemed him ready for sex, and he had been and still was grateful for that, but oh, how he’d looked forward to it. She was so beautiful.
Watching Orev sleep, unaware of the gaze on him, Aryeh had to be honest with himself: Orev was no woman and looked nothing like a woman, but he was beautiful, too. The unfashionable beard was well-suited to his face; he would have looked too young without it, too soft despite his face’s sharp angles, and his thick eyelashes and sweet mouth would make him more curious-looking than handsome without anything to balance them. Aryeh found himself torn between attraction and envy. He’d never tried to grow a beard, and he wouldn’t until he was forty or so if he intended to follow Omri’s trends, but he doubted he could produce a particularly even one at the moment. Orev was more of a man than Aryeh was in a number of respects, and Orev was not exactly a prime example of masculinity. Aryeh wanted to be annoyed. But he also wanted to peel Orev’s clothing back further and look at his chest, his pelvic bones and his thighs. He wanted to hold his prick in his hands again. It had been deeply satisfying to do so. That wasn’t something Aryeh had known about himself, and he didn’t know what to make of it.
Aryeh needed to bathe, but he knew it was likely that Orev would wake and flee before Aryeh returned. It would be tempting to let him do so, but it would resolve nothing. He yawned — his right ear popped painfully and left its hearing no better for it — and then gently nudged Orev’s shoulder. Orev’s brow wrinkled, but he didn’t otherwise move. “Orev,” Aryeh said.
Orev breathed in sharply and winced a little, and Aryeh found himself smiling with surprised fondness. “Wake up,” he said. Orev blinked a little and looked up at the ceiling the way Layla did sometimes when she seemed awake but wasn’t. His pale eyes settled on Aryeh, and they just looked at each other for nearly a minute.
He half-expected Orev to sit up with comical panic, but he didn’t. He just looked at him, and finally he swallowed and said, “Your Majesty.” His voice sounded scratchy with sleep. His gaze fell to Aryeh’s bare chest, and climbed back to his face. He sighed and said, “I had a very strange dream.”
Aryeh laughed. He couldn’t help it; it had an edge of hysteria to it. Orev didn’t, though, and Aryeh forced himself to stop. Orev rubbed his eyes harder than he would have if they just itched, and he said, “Your Majesty, I… I am so sorry.”
“No,” Aryeh said.
“Yes,” Orev said.
“You’re not at fault,” Aryeh said. “No one is at fault.” He took a deep breath. “We made love. It’s all right.”
“You were coerced.”
“Yes! I…” Orev swallowed. “There was coercion.”
Aryeh touched Orev’s shoulder. “God knows what is best for us.”
“God is a bully.” Aryeh was surprised by the force with which Orev said it, and he showed no intention of snatching the words back. Aryeh supposed if anyone had a right to think such a thing, though, it was Orev. “He coerced you, and then I…” Orev swallowed hard. “I made you finish it — I should have been struck dead in my sleep. This was a test of my will, and I failed you.”
“You didn’t…” Aryeh sighed. “No. It wasn’t a test. Orev, you… you deserve good things, too.”
“I do not deserve the mouth of the king,” Orev said, his voice newly harsh. “No one is entitled to debase the king.”
Aryeh was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “Did you like it?”
Orev blinked. “What?”
“Did you… you know, did you enjoy it?”
He was nearly glaring now. “That is not the issue!”
Aryeh laid down again on his side so their eyes were even with each other. “So you… didn’t?”
Orev looked at him helplessly and hesitated long enough to make the answer to that fairly clear. “What happened last night wasn’t fair,” he finally said. “For either of us.”
Aryeh bit his lip hard. Before he could lose his nerve, he asked, “Do you want to do it again?”
Orev’s eyes widened. “What?”
“So it’s… just us?”
Orev didn’t answer. He stared at Aryeh with something like horror. Aryeh cleared his throat. “Orev… I’ll understand if you don’t want me. But if you’re arguing that I don’t want you, then you’re wrong.”
“Don’t say that,” Orev said. “I am not God. You don’t have to appease me.”
“I brought you to my rooms the other night because I wanted to see you with a woman. I wanted to watch you with a woman.”
Orev’s eyes narrowed. “…Why?”
“Because…” Aryeh swallowed hard. “You are a voice for God, and that makes you very important. It makes you the most valuable man I have on hand, to be honest. And you’re a wonderful man when you don’t have God riding your shoulders; I’ve enjoyed your company greatly during your time here. But… I’m also very attracted to you.” He tried to say it as a matter of fact, something undeniable; Orev’s frown only deepened. “I’d want to look at you even if you were a beggar on the street. I wanted you but I went about it in entirely the wrong way; you were right about that. It’s as you said. I have to be willing to take the burden of the weak upon myself. To be a good king.”
Orev shook his head. “I don’t… I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You’re not. You’re not. Last night was… I enjoyed it, Orev. You have–” Aryeh laughed again. This felt unreal. “A magnificent prick. I enjoyed it.”
Aryeh ran a hand through his hair. “So… I’ll do it again, if you want it. For you, this time. Just you.”
Orev opened his mouth, but it was several seconds before he said anything. “I need to pray,” he said in a rushed whisper.
Aryeh blinked. “Oh. I… you haven’t washed yet.”
“I need to pray now,” Orev said. “Can I… can I borrow your leathers?”
That gave Aryeh startled pause; lending another man his prayer leathers seemed more intimate even than sharing his bed. But he swallowed back his hurt at the deflection and rose, pausing to pick up a robe from a nearby chair and wrap it around himself so Orev wouldn’t have to stare at the floor. He retreived the straps from his dresser and handed them to Orev, and Orev went into the sitting room with them.
Aryeh spent more time in the shower than he needed to. When his hair was wet the curls stretched out and covered his eyes, and he stood like that for a while with the hot water pouring down over him. It is a blessing to know humility, he thought, before God even as before another man. But it seemed increasingly likely that Orev didn’t appreciate the balance in this. Would God find someone else, then? Aryeh felt a selfish twinge in his groin. If he was to know humility, he didn’t want it delivered from anyone else. But did humility have any worth if he was enjoying it, or if he was allowed to choose the man that would stand in for his Lord? Perhaps that was the real lesson here. Aryeh had never been rejected before. Perhaps that was the test.
When he returned to the sitting room, Orev was sitting on the sofa with the leathers loose in his hands. His left arm was still striped red up to his bicep from the released pressure of the strap. They looked out the broad windows over the sourthern courtyard’s reflecting pool; the flags were at half-mast, fluttering handsomely in the morning breeze. “Does He answer?” Aryeh finally asked.
Orev nodded a little. He stood and laid the leathers in Aryeh’s hands. “I, um, I need to get dressed,” he said. He laughed a little. “It will only be a few minutes. Will you wait for me?”
“Of course,” Aryeh said. “We can have breakfast together, if you like.”
“I would,” Orev said. “I would like that. Thank you, your Majesty.” He hesitated before Aryeh for a moment, and then he reached up and carefully cupped the side of his face with his hand. Aryeh swallowed, and Orev dropped his hand and saw himself out.
Aryeh sat on the sofa. He wrapped one of the leathers around his temples, the side imprinted with prayers pressing inward against his forehead. He wound the other between the fingers of his left hand, around his wrist, and then up his arm to the elbow. He pressed his hands together and prayed.
His advisers set upon him as soon as he entered the main government building, bristling with questions of what to do in the wake of Sered’s death. Should an assassination attempt be publicized, or should the circumstances of his death be kept quiet so that a good and long-serving head priest could have an honorable burial? “It’s not my decision,” Aryeh said. “The Temple will take care of it.”
“Your Majesty, I think you do get a say in this–”
“I’ve handled the dead; I can’t enter the Temple for a week. Now if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” Aryeh said, “I have a breakfast meeting.” They fell behind and watched him go, Orev creeping along in his wake.
Aryeh had expected Orev not to return, whether it had been his initial intention or not, but he had. His hair was still a little rumpled, but his suit and flag managed to lend him an air of formality in spite of his bedheadedness. “We’ll have a suit tailored for you,” Aryeh said, breaking the silence between them as they entered the dining room.
Orev looked surprised. “Is this one so ill-fitting?”
“No,” Aryeh said. “Well… it’s a little big on you. But I assume it isn’t yours.”
“It’s the deputy chaplain’s,” Orev said. They were seated, and Orev eyed the servants arranged the table setting nervously. “I do need to give it back.”
The chef came out and asked, “Whitefish, your Majesty?”
“Please,” Aryeh said.
Orev cleared his throat. “Ah…” They both looked to him, and he swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. I don’t care for fish.”
“Lamb?” the chef asked.
Orev kept his eyes on his empty place setting and shook his head. There was color rising on his face.
The chef pitched his voice as gently as he did when he was addressing Talya. “What would you like?”
“Ah… fruit?” Orev swallowed. “I usually… just eat fruit and bread in the morning.”
The chef turned back to Aryeh and said, “A fruit platter, your Majesty?”
“That would be splendid, thank you.” The chef nodded and went back to the kitchen. Aryeh said to Orev, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“Oh, no, it’s… it’s silly.”
Aryeh smiled. “This isn’t something God has commanded of you, then?”
“No, no. I just…” He paused and smiled with frozen politeness as a servent came and poured them measures of tea and water. “I just… can’t.”
Aryeh sipped his water. “You must have hated your job.”
Orev shook his head. “I was never tasked with the sacrifices themselves. Only with caring for the birds.” He bit his lip. “I love the birds. I can’t imagine having to kill one.”
Aryeh kept his hand on his glass and watched the ice settle from the heat of his grip. “It’s…” This wasn’t exactly pleasant mealtime conversation, but he was suddenly desperate to say it to someone who would listen. “It’s not that I’ve ever had a great love of the birds,” he said. “They’re pretty, but… I don’t really find birds terribly interesting. The women like them. Saray likes them a lot.” He hesitated. “But killing one… it’s one of the most terrible feelings in the world. That I’ve experienced. At first it doesn’t struggle, and then it does. With all the strength it has. But then it’s too late. It slowly stops fighting you, and then it’s just… warm and still.” He took a deep breath. “And while all this is going on, while something is actually dying in your hands, you can’t even pay attention to it. You have to speak to the congregation, to God… this poor creature just dies, terrified and alone and ignored. I’ve asked God, what have I done that is so terrible that this bird has to die to make up for it? But God does not answer.”
Orev was watching him with a stricken expression. “God does not answer because there is no answer.”
Aryeh shook his head. “I’ve done it hundreds of times. And then… I couldn’t anymore. I don’t know what changed. I don’t think that’s what’s important.”
“It’s true, then,” Orev said. “God has sent to us a great king.”
Aryeh blinked hard, but then they were interrupted by the kitchen staff returning with plates heavy with sliced apples, peeled oranges, bowls full of pomegranate seeds and grapes and cut dates. It didn’t take long for a small army of cooks to prepare raw fruit, it seemed. “Oh my goodness!” Orev exclaimed, and Aryeh laughed. Small pitchers of honey and creamed cheese were set out as well, along with plates of toasted bread.
“Eat well,” the chef said.
“Thank you,” Orev said. “Thank you very much.”
Aryeh watched with pleasure as Orev happily helped himself to the apples and the honey. “We can’t possibly eat all this,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Aryeh said. “They’ll eat what we can’t.”
They were silent for a time, busying themselves with the food. After a few minutes, Orev asked, “Do you know what the Temple will do concerning Sered’s successor?”
Aryeh shrugged. “Sered has four sons and two grandsons in the priesthood. The Temple elders will choose a new head priest from them.” He chewed on a grape and swallowed it, and he added, “Probably Kehat.”
“Is Kehat a good priest?”
“They’re all good priests.”
“Yes, but…” Orev sipped his tea and frowned. “Will he give you trouble?”
Aryeh tried to think of how best to answer. “I don’t mind a head priest that gives me trouble,” he said. “I… I honestly do think that debate between the Temple and the palace is good for the country, if not for me personally. But Sered…” He hesitated. He was only realizing it as he said it out loud. “Sered did not respect me as king. He saw me more as my mother’s son than my father’s.”
“Well,” Orev said. He set down his tea. “I can’t say that your mother makes a very good impression.”
Aryeh’s fork struck his plate with more force than he meant it to. Orev eased back in his chair slightly. “Perhaps not,” Aryeh said evenly. “But she is one of my advisors. The impression she makes on you isn’t important.”
Orev took his time answering. “I know she acts out of love for you. For that, I can’t fault her. But… she obstructs you just as much as Sered did. She just does so in a softer way.”
Aryeh’s toast soaked up the honey on his plate like a sponge, saturating it. When he bit into it, it was almost too sweet to eat, but he swallowed it anyway. “Then I will need you to point out the obstructions to me when they arise. You have the ability to see them before I do.” He looked up, catching Orev’s eyes. “You will stay in Omri, won’t you?”
Orev gave him what looked like a very brave smile. “You can’t have a suit tailored for me otherwise, can you?”
“Well.” Aryeh shrugged. “I could.”
“But it would be in your best interest to send me away now, your Majesty.”
Orev nodded. He looked back down at his plate. “You have been unfailingly kind to me,” he said. “But the Lord… has plans for you.”
“Far be it from me to try to outrun the plans of the Lord,” Aryeh said.
Orev bit his lip. He said, “This isn’t something to make light of.” He glanced up and didn’t quite make eye contact. “For either of us.”
“Orev. Look at me.”
He did so, startled into it. He was especially striking in the young light from the windows: his eyes looked almost colorless. Aryeh held his gaze for a moment, and he said, “I’m offering you a position in my administration. Do you want to stay in Omri as a prophet to the throne?”
Orev didn’t hesitate. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“Even given what God requires of you?” He paused meaningfully. “Of us?”
“If you will not send me away,” Orev said, “then I will not go.” He smiled. He really was beautiful. “God knows what is best for us.”
The chamberlain’s team had come and gone, somewhat to Aryeh’s disappointment; if there was ever a mid-morning he wanted to spend wallowing in an unmade bed with sheets that smelled like someone else, this would be it. He’d have to start over, he supposed. He pushed Orev down into his pillows without a word and kissed him hard, the way he kissed his women; Orev’s mouth tasted like the honey he’d spread on his apples. He could tell from how Orev tensed underneath him that this was neither anticipated nor particularly welcome. Aryeh laughed into his mouth, letting Orev’s beard scrape his chin, and Orev pushed up on him a little to whisper, “Wait–”
“Wait?” Aryeh asked. He smiled. “You command the king to wait?”
Orev swallowed. Aryeh lowered his mouth to the man’s throat and was gratified to feel him shiver underneath him. “This isn’t what you did last night,” Orev said.
“This isn’t last night,” Aryeh said. “Shall I bow to you as I bow to my Lord?”
“No,” Orev said. “But–”
Aryeh pushed Orev to lie more solidly in the center of the bed so he could arrange his knees and elbows around his limbs. Orev didn’t resist. “Shall I let you have me?” Aryeh asked, grinning. Orev saw the jest in him now and visibly relaxed; his brow was beginning to betray a bit of amused irritation. “You’ll have to call on God if that’s what you want, prophet.”
“Well,” Orev said. “If God isn’t present, then what does that make me?”
Aryeh sat up to straddle Orev’s waist. He grasped either end of his flag and said, “It makes you a priest from Athaliah. An unmarried priest.” He pulled the flag off gently. “Trouble.”
“Oh.” Orev said. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be trouble.”
“We’re a bit past ‘trouble.'” He set the flag aside carefully and hooked his fingers into Orev’s collar. “You’ve accepted your position and now serve at the throne’s pleasure.” He smiled down at him. “You may rescind at any time.”
Orev shook his head in a slow, timid way, but he was smiling back now, just a little. He was flushed and still looked stunned into his submission, but he reached up to start unbuttoning his own shirt. Aryeh sat back on Orev’s thighs and watched him. Orev shouldered his way out of his shirt and jacket together awkwardly, revealing dark nipples, pale skin wrapped around stark ribs, and just a smattering of hair down the center of his chest. From the evenness of his beard, Aryeh would have expected him to be hairier, but he just looked thin and young. Untried. “The throne’s pleasures are strange these days,” Orev said.
“A little,” Aryeh said. “Only a little.” He ran his fingers along those exposed ribs, and Orev shuddered like he’d been touched with ice.
“Will you tell your wives?” Orev asked abruptly.
Aryeh paused. He raised an eyebrow. “Of course.”
Orev blinked hard. “You will?”
“If I’m to be a consort to God,” Aryeh said, “I think they have the right to know. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Orev said. “But I am not God.”
Orev cocked his head on the pillow and frowned. “They won’t mind?”
“It was always understood, before their marriages to me, that I have a harem and I’m expected to make use of it,” Aryeh said. “It’s part of what makes me king. I must be seen as a man of power.” He brushed his fingers over Over’s belly and smiled at the resulting shiver.
“I’m not one of your harem,” Orev said.
Aryeh leaned down over him, pressing their chests together. He whispered, “I could make you one.” He kissed the hollow below Orev’s ear, and Orev sighed. “Wrap you in gold and silk and set you free amongst my birds.”
“I’d be happy there,” Orev said, his voice faint.
“And I think,” Aryeh said, pushing his hand down between them to press it against Orev’s erection, so much less shy than he was, “that you’d be popular with the women.”
Orev turned his face to press his mouth into Aryeh’s hair. His breath was unsteady as Aryeh stroked him through his borrowed clothing. I should get these off of him before he wrecks someone else’s suit, he thought. He felt for the buttons blind as he kissed the edge of Orev’s ear, but Orev tensed and whispered, “Wait,” again.
This time Aryeh was attentive; he paused, and he lifted his head to look down at him. Orev swallowed. “I’ve never done this,” he said.
He’d done it the night before, but Aryeh didn’t correct him; he knew his meaning. “Well, strictly speaking, I’ve only done it once,” he said. “But I don’t think it can be so difficult. I’m not so different from you, not as a woman is.”
“No,” Orev said. “I haven’t done this.” He swallowed. “At… at all.”
Aryeh raised his eyebrows. “Ah.” He had suspected as much. It just seemed nonsensical — the man was so terribly attractive. But who knew how things were in Athaliah. “Well,” he said, “are you sure that you want to?”
Orev nodded. He smiled, though it was shaky, and said, “I just don’t… your Majesty is surely accustomed to a higher quality of lover.”
“Hmm.” Aryeh thought for a moment, and then he tugged on the waist of Orev’s slacks. “Take these off, and I’ll tell you a little about myself.”
Orev frowned a little, but he complied. He sat up and wrested out of the rest of his clothing, setting it all aside carefully on the bed. He laid down again on his back, pointedly looking up at the ceiling; his prick stood up proudly even as he shifted to try to make it do so less prominently. Aryeh halted him with a touch at his hip. “Don’t rebuke it,” he said softly. “Many men would do worse than kill for such handsome proof of their manhood.” Orev’s reply was a little mangled, but Aryeh kissed him, and he was surprised by the eagerness with which it was returned.
Orev parted from him, breathing heavily, and said, “You promised me a story, your Majesty.”
Aryeh laughed. “I don’t know if I’d call it a story.” He curled up alongside Orev’s body fully clothed and fingered the skin beyond Orev’s hip. “Layla and I were married when I was nine,” he said, “and when she was fourteen. She’s,” he took a deep breath, “my father’s second wife’s sister’s daughter. That wife had no sons, and so the family wanted to try again with us, so to speak. So we were wed.”
“So… you two are related?” Orev asked.
“No,” Aryeh said. “Well, I have two sisters who are her first cousins. But she and I aren’t related by blood. That isn’t the point of my story.”
“Sorry,” Orev said. “Go on.” He was watching Aryeh’s hand inching closer to his erection. Aryeh grinned. This was fun.
“So she and I married when I was nine. I was already king then, though I wasn’t in power yet. My mother was. But it was a very important wedding nonetheless. A lot of pomp, a lot of adherence to tradition. I had to bring her back to my bed. This bed.”
“What did you do?” Orev asked.
“Well,” Aryeh said. “We got into bed together. I was ready to faint with fear. And then she pulled out a playing deck.”
“A playing deck?” Orev asked. “Cards, you mean?”
“She asked me if I knew Two-Handed Clobyosh. I most certainly didn’t. So she taught me.” He stroked Orev’s thigh. “We played four games. She beat me each time. I fell asleep with my head in her lap, and she let me sleep that way until morning. And that was when I knew I was in love with her.”
Orev smiled. “I liked that story.”
“Hush. I’m not finished yet.” Aryeh touched Orev’s prick, stroking it with an open hand like it was an affectionate animal. Orev’s breath caught. “When I was fourteen,” he said, “I decided that I’d had enough longing, and that I wanted to lie with my wife. I was afraid I’d be bad at it, though, because I had no experience. I went to the harem… well, it was technically my harem, but I’d never made use of it, so it was really still my father’s harem. They all still saw me as the last king’s cute little son. I told them, I want to be a good husband to my wife. And they agreed to show me how.” He ran his fingers up to the tip of Orev’s prick and down again, teasing him, making him harder. Orev was nearly panting.
“Six of the women took me into a room filled with lounging pillows,” Aryeh continued. “They bade me to undress and lie down. I did. And then they undressed as well. I… had always known them, and known that they would be mine, but I had never really seen them as sexual beings before. On that day, they were naked and beautiful and standing over me like the mightiest of queens. I was so hard.” He nuzzled Orev’s ear and whispered, “I thought I would die.”
It was a few moments before Orev could speak. “You didn’t die.”
Aryeh chuckled. “No. Ketura — you’ve met her — came to me, and she said that to be a good king, all I had to do was to come inside my wife as often as I was able. But to be a good husband… that is trickier. I had to learn to stay calm and stay hard for as long as I could bear it, and that would be difficult for me, because I was so young. But I was lucky, because I had a harem that would help me gain my strength.” He made a ring of his thumb and forefinger and lightly, so lightly and slowly, stroked Orev with it. Orev squirmed but hardly objected. “She sat on my hips, with all the other women sitting around us and watching. She pushed herself down on my prick. And — I’ll never forget this — she arched her back so her breasts were pushed forward, and I reached up and put my hands on them, and she said, yes. She just said ‘yes’ like that was exactly what she had wanted me to do. And I came immediately.” He laughed. He squeezed the ring of his fingers a little at the base of Orev’s prick. “Not even forty-five seconds, and I wasn’t a virgin anymore.”
Orev breathed out heavily. “And the other women?”
Aryeh began to stroke Orev with more purpose — still light, but from base to tip. “The second woman to come to me, Shira, sucked me to get me hard again. And she sucked me until I came, and she let me spill on her breasts. After that I hardly got soft at all.” He smiled; Orev’s hips were pushing his prick up through Aryeh’s loose grip by themselves. “Shall I continue?”
“All six of them had you?” Orev asked.
“Yes. Well, I was with them for the better part of the day, but yes. A few of them more than once.” He smiled. “And then they put me in a bath, and I fell asleep in it.”
Orev laughed, but it sounded strained. “And then you went to Layla.”
“No,” Aryeh said. He marveled at the length and girth of Orev’s fully erect prick, begging silently to be treated more aggressively — perhaps it was just that Aryeh had only his own for comparison. He’d never thought himself small, and he didn’t now; it made sense, he supposed, that God would have chosen someone with such might to represent Him in His marriage. “I was too exhausted. I waited a few days, and then I went to Layla.”
“Was it good?”
“Well… it was better than it would have been.” Aryeh smiled. “It was a while before it was good, exactly. I was fourteen. But even having my pick of the most beautiful women in the world, I was happiest to lie with the one who was my wife. She said my name when I pushed into her… it was the first time she had ever called me anything other than ‘my Lord’ or ‘your Majesty.’ And I wanted to never pull back. I wanted to stay in her forever.” He watched Orev’s face as he stroked his prick. “Do you want me?”
“Yes,” Orev whispered.
Aryeh dropped his voice to a whisper. “Do you want to lie with the one who is your wife?”
Orev’s breath was nearly a sob. “You are my king.”
“And you are my prophet. And together…” He brushed his lips against Orev’s. “We, and the Lord and Giveah, are whole.”
Orev lunged for him, grasping his hair and pulling him down into a clumsy, bruising, biting kiss that sucked the air from Aryeh’s throat. Aryeh answered the challenge, tightening his grip on Orev’s prick, and Orev groaned into his mouth and rolled him over and got on top of him. Oh, yes, Aryeh thought; he sucked on Orev’s tongue as he stroked his prick, letting its tip dig into his belly as Orev thrust back against the motion of Aryeh’s hand. It felt good to feel another’s weight on him. It felt good, shockingly good, to be wanted.
Orev’s knees slid between Aryeh’s, parting them with the strength of his thighs, and Aryeh realized abruptly, as unthinking as Orev’s gesture surely was, what being wanted really entailed. Aryeh grunted with new enthusiasm, caught up in the strangeness of it. He brought both of his hands to Orev’s prick tightly, and, daring to give in to him in this small way, wrapped his clothed legs around Orev’s bare waist. Orev’s groan was closer to a growl as he pressed Aryeh down into the bed and nakedly fucked Aryeh’s hands. If Orev wants this, Aryeh thought, God would surely want more. He tried to imagine it: God pressing him down on the bed, urging the blessing of redemption from him while He drove Orev’s great prick deep inside him, pinning him with a body only slightly larger but secretly so much stronger than his own. God did not want the sacrifices.
Aryeh had worried during each of his weddings about how it must feel to be caught helpless in someone else’s hands, someone else’s future and schemes. What was it like to anticipate being a wife, even a wife loved and honored above all others? He asked Layla a week or two after he’d had her virginity if it hurt her when they were together; she seemed to be thinking very seriously before she answered, which made him blanch, but even when she was as young as nineteen she’d been careful with her words. “In the beginning, the fear is worse than the pain,” she’d said. “But the pain will not dwell where there is no fear. My Lord, I’m not afraid you.” It was only years later, thinking back on that conversation, that he felt pride that he hadn’t been offended, nervous boy-king that he was, that his wife didn’t fear him. He’d felt elated. He’d felt loved.
Was there pride to be had in this as well? He liked this, this starved male lust feasting on him. This felt right, the way having Layla always felt right. He was not afraid of Orev. Not anymore.
“Do you want me?” Aryeh whispered against Orev’s cheek, and Orev’s body jerked down into his violently. Aryeh closed his eyes and whispered, the corner of Orev’s jaw rasping on his lips, “Do you want to fuck your king?”
“I,” Orev said, and he shuddered from his spine. “God, God, God,” and then his prick was pulsing thick and wet onto the shirt Aryeh had picked carefully for a breakfast he’d anticipated being pleasant but awkward, given that he’d just been bedded by someone who hadn’t seemed to have wanted it. Orev thrust against Aryeh’s pelvis with bruising strength, slowing only gradually, but finally coming to rest across Aryeh’s body with an exhaustion that was more than familiar to him. Aryeh wanted to pet his hair or his back, but his hands were wet, and that seemed like it would be rude. He kissed his hair instead; Orev lifted his face a little, and Aryeh kissed his forehead and brow as well.
“Your Majesty,” Orev said.
“Yes,” Aryeh said, and they both smiled. Orev pushed himself up and somewhat off of Aryeh like a baffled foal, unsure of his knees and elbows. Aryeh was lost to his tangle of thoughts, holy and profane, but Orev made a face of terrible dismay at the sight of Aryeh’s dress shirt and jostled him free of them. “You’re not proud?” Aryeh asked. He looked down on himself; Orev had made quite a mess of him. “I think that’s rather impressive.”
“Your Majesty, please, I– just, just take it off.” Aryeh laughed but complied, unbuttoning the sticky thing, wiping his hands and wrists on it and tossing it to the floor. “I’m very sorry,” Orev said.
Aryeh smirked. “I won’t let the servants see it.”
“That’s not– well, thank you, but…” Orev gave up his pretense of getting off of Aryeh and settled down to his bared chest. The scrape of his beard against Aryeh’s skin was still a new and vaguely spine-tingling sensation. “This has all happened so fast.”
“I’ve disturbed the order of the palace and the Temple.”
“They needed it.” Aryeh cupped the back of Orev’s head. “My trust is in God. It is as it should be. You are as you should be.”
Orev smiled. He leaned up and delicately kissed him; this was a very different beast from the ravenous lion that had attacked him before. He parted from him and cleared his throat. “Ah… do I need to… do anything…?”
“Oh,” Aryeh said, “yes. You most certainly do.”
Orev laughed and propped himself up on an elbow. He wiped his hair back from his forehead and said, “The king gets what he wants, I guess.”
“The king does not always get what he wants.” Aryeh said. “He’d just… really like to, in this case.” He was pleasantly aware of the shift of the mood in the room, of Orev’s sheepish smile. Orev wasn’t cynical enough to fake this sort of shy pleasure. Aryeh supposed he could imagine remaining a virgin until twenty, but he didn’t think he could bear what was clearly a terrible loneliness.
Orev was still smiling as he fingered the buttons on Aryeh’s slacks, but he started when the heel of his palm brushed against Aryeh’s obvious erection. He laughed at himself and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t… I have no idea how to do this.”
“Of course you do,” Aryeh said, laughing as well. “You don’t have to do anything fancy. I’m easy to please.” Orev still looked uncertain, and Aryeh added, “Just… do it like you do with yourself.”
“I, um.” Orev fiddled with the top button. “I don’t do this with myself.”
Oh, for God’s sake. “Are you serious?” Aryeh asked. “Why not?”
Orev’s face was beginning to redden again. “Well, it’s not that… your Majesty, I’m never alone.”
“Oh.” Aryeh frowned, thinking that Athaliah’s shrine couldn’t possibly be so small, but then Orev’s meaning made itself clear to him. “Oh!”
Orev laughed a little. “I know it makes me sound mad to speak of it. God’s voice is with me often, and never announces itself first, and….” He shook his head. “I’ve only done it once and that was an accident.”
Aryeh stretched a little. “That sounds like a good story.”
“It isn’t,” Orev said emphatically.
“Well.” Aryeh smirked. “It’s no wonder you make such a mess, then. All backed up.”
Orev groaned and hid his face against Aryeh’s neck; Aryeh laughed and hugged him around the shoulders. “I’m teasing,” he said. “I’m only teasing. Please don’t stop.”
“I’m going to be so bad at this,” Orev said, his voice muffled.
“No, look, it’s… it’s really easy.” Aryeh took one of Orev’s hands and laid it on his belly: not demanding, but very strongly suggesting. “Just try. Please. Orev, I’m so hard.”
That won him a small startled puff of breath against his throat. Orev lifted his head and looked down the length of Aryeh’s body, and then delicately moved his hand down to cup Aryeh’s prick through his slacks. Aryeh sighed and let his head fall back against the pillows. Orev’s fingers traced the shape of him, just maddeningly light enough to seem deliberately so, and then he sat up and set about unfastening Aryeh’s clothing. They got him out of what was left of his suit together — Aryeh had to sit up as well to kick his underwear off his ankles — and then they both lay down, Aryeh on his back and Orev curled up next to him.
Orev reached down and hesitantly brushed the tips of his fingers up the length of Aryeh’s prick, and Aryeh barely voiced a moaned sigh. “Easy, hm,” Orev said.
“If I hadn’t used my hands before,” Aryeh said, “you probably would have made me come then.”
That inspired a loud swallow from Orev, and Aryeh smiled. He sank back into the bed and closed his eyes as Orev’s touch wandered; he’d always found a slow build-up relaxing. Orev kissed his shoulder, and Aryeh turned his head so they could kiss properly — it felt less strange each time. Orev grunted and repositioned himself again, rolling half on top of him to reach his mouth more easily, and in doing so wrapped his hand around Aryeh’s prick. Aryeh groaned into Orev’s mouth.
Orev parted from him, smiling, and said, “Yes, I suppose this is pretty easy.”
Aryeh didn’t answer; he closed his eyes and let his body answer for him, pushing his hips up to meet Orev’s hand. “Being king must be nice sometimes,” Orev said.
“Sometimes,” Aryeh said, his voice soft.
Orev kissed his mouth, and his chin, and the hollow of his throat. Aryeh reached up with vague aim and rubbed the back of Orev’s neck, and moved gradually to run the base of his thumb along the length of his jaw. “This is something I have to get used to,” he said.
Orev turned his head to lay it on Aryeh’s chest, looking up at him, stroking him without watching. “Shall I shave?” he asked.
Aryeh blinked. “No,” he said. “Why would you do that?”
“Well… I know it marks me as eastern.”
Aryeh laughed. “A lot of things mark you as eastern!” He stroked the hair on Orev’s cheek, finding it soft when treated with the grain. “No, it suits you.”
Orev closed his eyes, easing himself into being petted. “And it’s good to have someone from Athaliah openly serve at my court,” Aryeh added. “Better if he’s not forced to conform.”
“Mm.” Orev smiled. He looked almost sleepy.
“Such a lovely servant to have,” Aryeh said.
Orev’s touch slowed a little — for someone who professed no experience, he seemed to have gotten the basics of teasing down quickly. “I am a servant to the Lord first,” he said, “of course.”
Orev looked up at him. “But you’re a very close second.” He smiled. “Photo finish.”
Aryeh regarded him seriously, or as seriously as he could while his prick was being so gently attended to. “When I tell you to suck me,” he said, “you will suck me.”
Orev’s hand on him stilled. He said, “Yes, your Majesty.”
“And when God tells you to fuck me, you will fuck me.”
“And when I tell you to fuck me,” Aryeh whispered, “you will fuck me.”
It was a ridiculous thing to say — even the harem women had a basic right of refusal, as embarrassingly recent as that law was. But Orev’s pale eyes widened at him, and Aryeh felt a swell of victory. “Yes, your Majesty,” Orev said, and gripped him hard; he moved up to kiss him as he stroked him fast, too fast, and Aryeh let him. He came with Orev nearly on top of him, bearing down on him and half hard again; it was anticlimactic after all of Orev’s eager fury, but it was good. It was so good it left him panting for a full minute afterward, and Orev kept kissing him regardless.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was trying to make some plans for the day; habit was hard to resist for long, and he couldn’t spend the entire day like this, not after the head priest had just died. He would have to make a radio address. But it was likely that everyone would go a little easy on him today, as badly as he had been coping with his own brush with death the day before. He would host a private dinner tonight, he decided, for Orev, Layla, Saray, and even Hannah, the shut-in. They would sit down, and they would discuss how they felt about this and how they would deal with it, like the adults they were, or almost were.
Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, he would send Orev to Athaliah to bear a sealed envelope to their head priest: a message to answer the one they’d sent to him. The king’s seal would release all of their birds from their cages, and after disorientation gave way to purpose they would probably all fly more or less north for the summer months. All but one: one bird, dark and fleeting, but with a call like lightning from the sky, would fly west to Omri. To him.