by Phun Saa (พรรษา)
illustrated by SemeSadique
In an ancient time it would not have happened this way.
But people die and peoples change, and quiescent lie the old ways.
Nights were hard for Fadeh. His ears rang in the stillness, thoughts chasing each other until he could swear they were breaking free of his head altogether, out the window and gone forever. The darkness behind and before his eyes was seamless; in the longest stretches, when he could not swear if his eyes were open or shut, he dwindled down, diluted out. Nights unmade him.
During the day, if he could find something to occupy his hands, or some sweet-scented morsel to eat, or someone dear to speak with, that was enough to anchor him to the time and the place and his body. But even at his most solid and most certain, even when wholly focused on the mundanities of his life, some part of him held back, stayed separate.
Long ago, there would have been no question of who he was. Clever and capable, straight-backed and clear-eyed, his people would have watched him grow ever more merry and beautiful. As he passed from boy to youth, he would have wandered freely wherever he pleased, long fair hair shining in the sun, fond murmurs following him: king, my king, our king.
Fadeh was often slow to answer to his name, blinking to with a start as if he had just been rudely woken. He paused before speaking, weighing every word and testing its meaning to be sure. His thoughtful pace endeared him to some, exasperated him to others. From time to time, someone would catch his eye, or more likely he theirs, and the companionship would be pleasant for a time. Pleasant but never consuming, never capable of holding his full attention. He could never meet a lover’s gaze without a jolt of chagrin, without the disorienting expectation of some other face, some other eye. He could never picture or explain what he was looking for instead. And sooner or later, amiably or acrimoniously, his lovers would tire of his confusion.
“Sometimes you look like you don’t recognize me,” a friend teased him once. He summoned a smile and bit down on his reply: sometimes, I don’t recognize any of this.
In another age, magic would always have been within his reach. He would have known every word of the cloudbreath chants at midwinter, every step of the bright dances in high summer, every note played to unfurl the spring or give thanks at the harvest. Some of the king’s fondest memories would have been of echoing revered melodies in a wavering, childish treble, of tripping haltingly through sacred motions in a gangly, half-grown body. Fonder still would have been the man leading him, explaining to him, instructing him in everything he needed to know. Sometimes older and learned, beard shot through with grey; sometimes a young man with power in every word and gesture; sometimes, even, a child and peer, otherworldly eyes lit with knowledge far beyond his years. No matter when, no matter what, his companion would have been the one person forever at his side, in his ear, and of his heart. Anywhere he went, he would still have been able to feel the intangible connection to his mage even more surely than to his people, to his land.
Fadeh didn’t believe he’d felt quite this adrift as a child– had he? He must have felt like he belonged at some point, if now he felt more and more like the world was an ill-fitting coat he had to wear. Everything a bit too bright and too saturated, the colors smearing with movement. Sounds uncomfortably loud, communication constantly tripping him up. Every time someone spoke to him, he struggled more and more simply to understand, his mind constantly stumbling on the missing step of some other anticipated word, some completely different tongue. And when he pushed himself to focus, the disconnect only increased. Forms would dart in and out of the corner of his eye, never slow enough to identify, never small enough to ignore. He began to wonder how much longer he could hold out; he didn’t know against what. He didn’t know what could be coming.
The king’s destiny would never have been a secret; he would have grown up with his role and his mentor both constant, familiar friends. Together, he and his mage would have directed the sacraments that kept the land flourishing and the seasons turning, the rites that pulled his people through deep winters and hazy summers, the magic that set the day and night circling round each other. The mage, as conduit between the land and the people, would have devoted himself as lifelong companion of the king. After all, there could be no enduring magic in merely an appointed time, or word, or gesture. But the power of the king’s entire life would have been immense. He would have been touched by all of his people, every one of them a friend. As they would have formed the warp of his life, so his mage would have served as the weft, sharing a thousand moments and thoughts, small jokes and affections, fears and reassurances. As his people kept him in their hearts and at the center of their lives, so the mage kept the best of the king in reserve for them.
Things were getting worse. Even as distracted as he was, Fadeh couldn’t miss the long pauses in conversation, the disquieted looks as he dropped unspoken cues and expected actions. He had stopped using people’s names as much as possible, after calling a sibling by a completely different name, of no one he’d ever known. He made excuses and broke appointments, withdrew inside more and more, and tried to ignore how neatly this dovetailed with how little he felt like he belonged in the world.
On the eve of his twenty-seventh summer solstice, the feasting and celebration would have carried on all night. The dancers would have leapt higher than ever, the singers would have flung their voices to the stars, and the tables would have been filled to overflowing with every delicacy imaginable. For once, the king would have set aside his usual duties to sit, and feast, and laugh with all of his loved ones. His people would have surrounded him, all eager to speak with him, bolder ones helping themselves freely to morsels off his plate, and the boldest of all offering him a token: a flower, a ribbon, a woven bracelet. Every gift would have been accepted, each time the king’s hand lingering on the hand of the man or woman in front of him. Every time, the king would have been pulled to his feet, amid the joyous shouts and calls of all witnesses. And for a time, the king would have followed just that one person, out into the darkness beyond the festivities.
But something was coming; Fadeh could feel it, a tug on his mind that came and went, but stronger and more insistent every time it returned. Now he could no longer ignore it, no longer distract himself with anything else.
He rose, and looked out his window. The sun already set, the sky was dark and the woods filled with rustling shadows. Someone was calling him, clearer than ever before.
He was leaning against a tree, bark rough against his back, dappled in shade and caressed by a cool breeze that cut through the last of the day’s humidity. Something slipped through his mind (how had he come to be outside?) and receded without ever touching his attention.
All through the night, the people would have shown their love for their king. He would have pulled each man to him, hand on cock and hip to hip, stroking until his partner spilled his seed on the earth. The king would have laid himself over each woman, nestling her close with thighs spread, circling and caressing until she spasmed and filled the air with her cries.
And in the last of the small hours before dawn, the king would finally have risen, splendid and brimful with the lifeforce of his people. He would have followed the call in his heart until he stood once more in front of his mage, brilliant, and opened his body and spirit to the land at last.
Fadeh stepped noiselessly through the forest, moving more surely than he could have been capable of. The thought came to him: no axe has ever seen these woods. He was threading his way around immense trunks wider than he could wrap his arms around, under a canopy so thick it seemed like one great tree.
He emerged into a clearing; a bower, really. A small grassy field, dipping slightly and dotted with starry flowers, all encircled in wicker woven around and about the surrounding trees. The field was empty, and then, unfolding from the grass and branches and the night, Fadeh saw his mage stand.
A long fall of dark curls, down a pale and muscular back. A body dotted with gold, adorned with thick bands on the throat and arms. He turned, and Fadeh saw that his eyelids were brushed with gold, that the markings continued across his chest and over his heart. His cock already erect and flushed, stirring Fadeh’s own in response. He stood for a moment, looking Fadeh over expressionlessly, then raised an arm and beckoned. “At last, summer king. We should never have been parted, you and I. Come right this with me.”
The next step the king took was the most solid, most real thing he had ever experienced. He could feel every blade of grass under his feet, every hair on his body stirring in the night air. (How had he come to be naked?) All around was the scent of loam and moss, the decay of last year’s leaves. “I’m” –he reached out and took the mage’s offered hand, eyes going wide as power burned through him in an electric rush, stiffening his cock and sending him stuttering– “here. I’m here. What– would you have of me?”
The mage’s smile seemed like a wholly contained thing, nowhere near his eyes, not even reaching his cheeks. “Everything you are, summer king. Lie with me now.” He set his other hand in the center of the king’s chest, and gave a light push. It was more than enough to send the king back, stumbling on suddenly nerveless legs and falling to his knees.
The mage settled himself down deliberately, sitting in the grass at the center of the bower. He beckoned again, and the king crawled forward clumsily, gasped as his wrists were seized and he was pulled in to straddle the mage’s lap. And then gasped again, as gilded fingertips just barely brushed against his erection. “Please–”
“Shh, summer king.” The other man’s voice stayed even, his breathing regular, his eyes dark and unmoved as he stared up.
And there wasn’t a thing to be said, the king thought, as he shivered under the mage’s light caress. His cock was dripping and he was desperate for more contact, more force, more anything than this calculated touch. Which the mage knew, of course; just as the king was on the verge of opening his mouth again and begging for more, the mage lifted one hand, licked deliberately across his palm, and then wrapped it around the king’s cock, fingertips trailing intentionally along the underside of his shaft, pumping in earnest.
The king let out a loud groan, head lolling back and eyes fluttering shut. This– was what he had wanted– and yet– now he needed more–
He almost shouted at the sudden lack of sensation on his cock, except that now one of the mage’s hands was clapped over his mouth, and the other was on his hip, guiding him closer, guiding him down… the king moaned again, and ran his tongue along one muffling finger. He ground slowly on the cock pressed against his ass, working it in little by little. With every shifting movement, little shocks of pleasure spread through his body, and if he opened his eyes, he wondered, would it be to sparks jumping from his fingertips?
Instead, his eyes were drawn immediately to the mage’s, dark and fixed on him intently. Another thrill raced up the king’s spine, to be watched so intensely while being fucked so slowly. They both paused for a moment as the king could feel his ass press against the mage’s hips — and more urgently, feel the cock now tucked completely inside him, lighting up every nerve along the way. He still needed more.
The king tensed his thighs and began to rock in earnest, finally earning a soft grunt of surprise from the mage as he set a faster pace. He threw his head back, shuddered in delight at the rhythm coursing through him, and thought dimly, this won’t take long.
“That’s it,” murmured the mage, just the slightest strain finally creeping into his voice. “That’s it, let me see you, oh, let me see–”
The king locked eyes with him, desperate gaze meeting an endlessly deep one, and came like his whole world was turning inside-out.
The king felt completely boneless and almost insensate as the mage gently eased out of him and re-settled him so that they were sitting across from each other. There was a long moment of shared, slowing breaths.
“Do you have to kill me?” the king asked.
The mage’s face shifted just a little, too small of a movement to break his impassivity. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” Fadeh snapped. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been… irritated. Well, possibly that was fair in the face of death. “I don’t understand what we’ve done, or what will happen next. I’ve gone this far on the strength of — of feeling, but I don’t know anything. And I think it was your job to teach me.”
The other man actually cringed at that, and finally averted his eyes. “It was.”
“So… what happened?” Fadeh asked, before a thought struck him. “How long have you searched for me?”
“No one is immortal,” the mage murmured, answering his true question. “You and I both are born, and die, and are reborn. You forget, and I remember. I teach you, I give you back to the land, I find you again. That’s how it’s always been.”
“So, then,” Fadeh said, “how long have you searched for me?”
“I don’t know,” the mage whispered miserably. “…That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to you.”
Fadeh thought about that for a long moment. Something inside him yearned to fit back into that cycle, it felt right, and yet… “please don’t,” he said at last, “please don’t kill me.” A short, incredulous laugh burst out of him. “I don’t actually want to die. And I don’t even think you want to do it.”
“I don’t,” the other man admitted, looking wretched, but then he gave a long sigh, and his face cleared. “I really don’t.” He reached out to caress Fadeh’s cheek, and as he did his fingers, then his hand, then his whole arm vanished to the shoulder. Still, Fadeh could feel and lean in to his touch. “I’m more magic than man, and magic is intention. I think if I raise a hand to you in earnest, I might cease altogether.” He let his hand drop, Fadeh guessed, missing the contact already, but the arm was gone. “That might be the best thing I can do.”
“It’s not,” Fadeh said, talking over him in a rush, “try it my way, for once.”
The mage arched an eyebrow. “And what way would that be?”
Fadeh hesitated, lips parted, with no words and no answer. Then he simply leaned in and kissed his mage deeply, the kiss their only point of contact and in it, rushing memories of years and years, different faces and names, constants of magic and ritual and love, everything too fast and nothing–
Fadeh reeled back, alone; he shattered, and crashed into the darkness and stillness.
Mehur, was the first thought that came back to him as he lay there. Your name is Mehur. I remember now.
And yours is Fadeh, he heard in his head. That’s never been your name before.
Flat on his back, Fadeh opened his eyes. The sky above was still dark, but slowly lightening in the east, a hint of purple-pink on the horizon. He felt Mehur ruefully suppress disquiet over– oh, yes. The summer king had never seen the dawn of this summer solstice before. But this time will be different. Will continue to be different.
Fadeh rose and turned towards home. The world had stopped its blurring and buzzing, finally felt as if it might have a place for him in it. I haven’t been whole without you, Mehur.
Hesitantly, Mehur admitted, I haven’t really been all the while I’ve been without you, Fadeh.
Fadeh couldn’t stop the grin that broke across his face. Once I’ve remembered everything, perhaps you can properly kill me then. He skipped over a tiny stream, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d done such a thing just for the glee of it. But I suspect there’s a lot you have to learn first.