by Morokoshi Katsura (唐 桂)
Makoyo balances on the edge of the stone wall and lets himself drop, landing noiselessly in the flagstone-paved courtyard below. After a moment he stands up on his two feet and draws his feasting robe over his shoulders. He has carried his sabre with him, and fastens it to his sash.
A fountain bubbles in the moonlight. He is in a garden, one of many such walled spaces of greenery connecting the villas adjoining the palace. The air is heady with the odour of clambering jasmine. Beneath it Makoyo smells topsoil, incense, cooked meats, and – faintly – a salt tang he has learnt to associate with the sea.
The gate of the garden is an iron grille, left slightly ajar. Makoyo slips through the bars and into the street, a shadow gliding among shadows.
The Nona is old, and overbuilt. The streets that run concentrically or like jagged spokes between the crush of villas spilling down the hill are tortuous, often broken by steep flights of steps. Many are wide enough only for a single cart or balanquin. The walls rise high and blind on either side; all of them are white. Sometimes the maze opens in such a way as to give a glimpse of the streets below – a balcony, a barred window – the tops of orange trees – sunlight glittering on faraway water – before straightaway closing in again.
It is a warren, a mousetrap. Behzadi (who was once a sailor, a man who makes his living from the sea) tells an apocryphal tale of Genufa’s founding: at first each man who built here had dreamt a dream, in which he chased an unknown woman through a city, at night. The streets were narrow and winding; the moonlight made the woman’s flesh glow white. She was as fleet as a bird. Upon turning a corner he discovered she was gone, and awoke. The men who dreamt this dream came to Genufa, by land and by water, following certain portents. With stones from the Is-drowned city of giants each rebuilt the streets he had dreamt; and in the place where the woman disappeared placed walls, so that she would have nowhere to turn.
At the banquet Makoyo overheard him telling the same tale to a giggling lysatyon he’d pulled down on the couch beside him. He was claiming it to be a parable of Amriti.
When the matter was put to her, Zohar said that all of the old city should be burnt down and built anew. That if Genufa were hers to do with as she liked, she would set fire to the foot of the Nona, and stand guard until the flames consumed the palace at the top. There was scorn in her eyes. Blue eyes, Zohar of the nine blades, whose madness is less tamed than that of Lucan himself.
There were fire and blades enough at the Empire’s founding. Some of the villas Makoyo passes are as brightly lit as day, their entranceways festooned with silk and ivy; some are dark and still. Some, he knows, have been empty for years. Their windows smell of cobwebs and old blood turned to rust. He wanders through the maze, always picking paths that descend. The paving stone turns from marble to brick, to slate. The odours here are richer, more acrid. Other notes overlay the ones from the villa district: burning pitch, ripe mangos, horses, sackcloth, cardamom, rotting garbage, spilt wine. There are more and mixed flower-scents, some green, some dying. The streets are wider, but not much so.
The night is advanced. In the Nona Makoyo encountered only the odd hurrying servant or balanquin, but in the lower city the populace turns out into the streets for its revelry. He begins to pass soldiers – his brothers in arms – in clumps of three and five, sometimes accompanied by women, sometimes not. They march down the street, waving their winebags and laughing. Once a man turns, seeing Makoyo in the shadows, and says to his companions, “Is that not Makoyo?”
“So it is,” says another. “It is Makoyo!” Soon the cry is taken up: “Makoyo! Makoyo the Sorceror! Black Makoyo of the Velds!”
“The moon is full tonight,” says another, hooting.
The first man tosses his winebag at Makoyo, who catches it and inclines his head gravely before taking a swig. The wine is sweet and blood-warm. The soldier sketches a salute and strides on.
Soon afterward a procession snakes past, wound in its own music. Makoyo is on a side street and stops to listen. He cannot see the musicians or dancers, or what idols rest on the platforms they bear, but the torches they carry illuminate the gaps between buildings and cast looming, confused shadows, like a travelling bonfire. It is many minutes before the ululations and clashing of cymbals diminish into the distance.
In the ensuing silence he hears a woman shriek several times, before the sound dies away in a bubble of laughter. Is it laughter?
Another hundred paces further down the street opens out into a small square, with a fountain in its centre. A cluster of lucioles hover in the air above it, swaying gently and shedding pale rose light on the water. They interest Makoyo: he cannot decide if they are alive. They smell like nothing at all, except warm water and – very faintly and from up close – a tinge of acid like vinegar on metal.
A white form flits rapidly through the patch of light. It seems to trail an aureole of gold.
Makoyo’s eyes narrow.
The shape passes before the light again, and approaches. It seems to be a human – a young girl, improbably dressed in the gossamer gold costume worn by lysatyons at the palace banquet. The draped cape and skirt flutter around her legs and in her wake, slowing her movement.
Several men are chasing her. They appear to be soldiers.
Makoyo steps out of the shadows, into the centre of the street. The girl skids to a halt a few paces away, her eyes wide.
Her hair is red, a shade darker than Zohar’s. She wears a wreath of yellow roses, tangled and askew from her flight.
“There you are, now,” says the first of the soldiers with a leer. The girl turns, fixing him with a proud stare.
“Leave me be,” she says. Her voice is low and musical. “I have chosen this man.”
“Don’t give me that,” says the soldier. He advances, arms outstretched. The girl draws closer to Mokoyo’s side.
“I would not persist, good sir,” says Makoyo. “Not against the lady’s will.”
“Lady?” says the soldier with a bark of laughter, and spits on the ground. Makoyo twitches his robe aside, laying a casual hand on the pommel of his sabre. The man’s face darkens. He’s about to step forward when one of his companions pales and leans in, whispering hurriedly in his ear. Makoyo hears his own name, spoken low, and knows he has been recognized.
The soldier’s eyes dart back and forth rapidly. Then he curses and spits again, but halfheartedly. The other men tug at his arm, forcing him to retreat. Makoyo waits until they have disappeared around the corner, then turns, amused, to his prize.
“You know who I am,” he says. He can tell now that it is a youth, more from scent than appearance – an extraordinarily pretty youth – and older than he seems at first glance. Sixteen, perhaps. “What are you doing this far from the palace?”
The youth has pulled the roses from his hair. He drops them on the ground, watches Makoyo with careful eyes. “The same as you are, my lord.”
Makoyo laughs. “Should I take you at your word, then? Do you know what I am?”
The youth does not answer. Makoyo holds his gaze and moves closer, until they are nearly touching and the other has to look up to meet his eyes. The scent of his skin is pleasant, like warm honey. He finds, too, that he likes the youth’s colouring. It reminds him of his general, if not of his emperor. There are many men of Lucan and Zohar’s tribe in the rank and file of the army, who have followed them from the first; perhaps it is not surprising that there are such women and boys in the palace as well.
“I must return before daybreak,” says the youth. Makoyo nods.
“As must I,” he says. “Come.”
They retrace their steps through the city. Sohl follows the other man, rather, as he pursues an invisible trail through side streets and alleys, seemingly of his own devising. His gait is unerring, his bearing as confident as if he has lived in the Nona his entire life. Sohl is quickly divested of his bearings. It is not unlike a recurring dream he had as a child, of wandering in an endless labyrinth of stairs and archways and towering facades. He wonders if he is still drunk; if there is a way to tell whether he is dreaming.
From the centre of the labyrinth the palace rises, a geometric white mass like an outcropping of mineral crystal from layers of sedimentary rock. Above its tallest arcade the moon hangs low and golden.
The way is mostly uphill. Soon Sohl’s legs begin to ache, and he regrets sneaking into the baldaquin that took him out of the Nona. Makoyo slows his pace, seeing him fall behind. A wide flight of marble steps ends the street, spiraling around the outer wall like the whorl of a conch. The balustrade side is a steep fall of several stories. At the landing Makoyo lifts Sohl, as easily as if he weighs nothing at all, and carries him the rest of the way.
Sohl remembers the stories returning soldiers tell of the Velds, the dark jungles at the boundaries of empire, where even Lucan’s army mired and could not venture further; from whose witch-kings not even the great pashas of Samarch are able to exact tribute. There the trees wander in groves like herds of oxen, and if one meets a man in a clearing one cannot be sure if he is indeed a man, or a beast that stands and speaks garbed in human skin. But Makoyo seems human enough, his garment mere linen and cloth-of-gold, and the arms encircling Sohl are warm.
At the top of the steps Makoyo presses Sohl back against the balustrade, and they kiss. It grows quickly heated. When their lips part Sohl fists his hands in the front of Makoyo’s robe and whispers, “How long now?”
“Soon,” says Makoyo. He takes Sohl’s hand and leads him. They follow the wall, turn a corner, then another, and are standing in front of an iron gate. Makoyo touches the bars, gazing into Sohl’s eyes. The gate swings ajar.
The villa is empty, or appears so, but not uninhabited. In the room where they come to rest incense must have been lit, earlier in the evening: the odour of neroli hangs sweet and heady in the air. Gracile bronze trees hold candles burnt nearly down to pools of wax. Club-legged tables stand beneath them, covered with dishes of sweetmeats and bottles of coloured blown glass. The bed is low and wide and draped with silk. The curtains are translucent, gauze banners that fall between the slender pillars dividing the chamber from the balcony that runs along two of its walls. The faintest of night breezes sets them to fluttering.
It is akin to a dream. Makoyo does not manhandle him; he undresses Sohl carefully, turning him to unwind the gossamer from his limbs, as if he were spinning silk thread from a cocoon. He lays Sohl back onto the bed, supine, and draws a hand over his body. Down from his throat, curving around his shoulder and arm to the inner elbow, up over his collarbone and down again, passing over his heart, his belly, his groin. It is not precisely a caress. His fingers remain a hair’s breadth from Sohl’s skin, close enough that Sohl can feel the warmth he radiates and the displacement of air, never coming into contact. The fine hair rises over Sohl’s body, prickling, and he gasps softly.
Makoyo’s eyes are golden and impenetrable. He repeats the not-touch, down Sohl’s side and over the jut of his hipbone, lingering along his inner thigh. Then traveling over the length of his leg, bent at the knee; down to encircle his ankle, sweeping along the arch of his foot. Then again, over the other side of his body. Again. It is like the weave of some spell to bring dry fever in its wake. Sohl tosses his head as Makoyo’s large hand cups his throat, trembling. Something compels him to remain silent, as if words from his lips would destroy the significance of the act. He’s hard without even being touched.
Makoyo watches him a moment, then slides off the bed and pads to the nearest table. Sohl watches him lift each container in turn to his face, as if he is able to identify the contents even through the opaque glass. Eventually he selects a slim violet bottle and returns with it to the bed. He kneels at Sohl’s side, takes his hand and up-ends the bottle over it. A clear, thick oil drizzles onto Sohl’s palm, coating his fingers and dripping onto his stomach. The scent of neroli is suddenly very strong.
“Touch yourself,” Makoyo says. He guides Sohl’s hand down to wrap around his own ready member. Sohl bites his lip at the sensation, but does not protest. He caresses himself tentatively, then with greater abandon as pleasure stirs in him, taking hold of his flesh. He parts his legs for purchase, lets his head fall back against the pillows. His red hair unfurls over the silk of the bed. With half-shuttered gaze he watches Makoyo undress; he lets his robes fall as they may, but props his sword meticulously against the foot of the bed, whispering a foreign invocation. This done he sets his knee on the bed and crawls over it to cover Sohl with his body. The muscles along his flank ripple as he moves, like those of a great cat.
Sohl opens his thighs willingly, letting the weight of Makoyo’s body settle between them. The friction of skin against skin is exquisite, with only the slickness of oil between them. He grinds his hips against Makoyo, arching up lasciviously. They move together; Makoyo slides his hands under Sohl, lifting him.
Sohl’s breath comes in pants. His fingers knead at Makoyo’s shoulders, hard enough to bruise. When Makoyo pulls away he makes an inchoate, needy sound. Makoyo chuckles, a deep rumble in his throat, and turns him over, positioning him on elbows and knees.
The splatter of warm oil at the base of his spine makes him start. Makoyo murmurs something, the syllables a soft and indistinguishable sursurration. He smoothes the oil over Sohl’s skin with his hand, then slides a finger into him. Sohl moans, clenching his hands in the sheets and arching his back. The warm liquid trickles between his buttocks and runs down his thighs.
Makoyo prepares Sohl carefully, using as much of the oil as he can. He finds and toys with a place inside Sohl that makes the boy twist and cry out, and sweat spring slick over his limbs. His head is bowed, red hair spilling onto the sheets; the curve of his spine makes Makoyo think of a young deer.
When he penetrates the boy he feels him tense and struggle for self-control, gasping for breath in half-sobs. He bends over him and kisses his shoulders, the nape of his neck, whispering in his own language the words he does not know in Sohl’s; caressing Sohl’s body the way he would calm a restive steed. Eventually the boy relaxes enough to follow his movement. He pulls out a little, presses in deep until he’s fully sheathed in the tight heat, then pulls out again. On the next stroke Sohl pushes back against him, gasping his name.
They move with each other, the rhythm quickening with the pounding of their hearts until it is ragged and fierce. Sohl is first to climax, impaling himself on the thickness of Makoyo’s member and crying out. Makoyo follows him a heartbeat later, lips curling back over his teeth as he spills deep inside Sohl’s body. He presses Sohl into the sheets and bites down on his nape, marking him.
He wakes at first light. Sohl is dressing, not in the costume of last night but an ivory-coloured robe and vest it seems he found in some cabinet. Makoyo props himself up on his elbows and watches. After a moment Sohl takes notice of him; his smile is warm but wan.
“I must go,” he says. “It is some distance to the palace gates.”
“There is a passage into the grounds from the garden,” says Makoyo. “I will show it to you.”
Sohl is silent for a minute or so, doing up the silk loops of his vest. “To whom does this house belong?” he asks finally.
“To me,” says Makoyo. “As of last night. I was told that its former owner would no longer have need of it.” He grins sharply. “I did not think to put it to such good use so soon.”
Lucan does not hold court on the morning after a declared feast, but this does not mean he is idle. Lucan is never idle; all the hours of the day barely suffice to encompass his ambition. In two score years it has molded a tribe to his will, then a nation, finally a continent.
“Are these Samarchans to be employed in Genufa’s waterworks?” he is demanding of his councillors as bowing servants open the door to the library chamber. “Is this sound? What of the canals in the Southern provinces?”
“We cannot trust them,” says Behzadi. Lucan paces around the central table, head bowed in thought. His black hair is unbound, outer robes left carelessly gaping. Several of the men are less familiar, army faces who returned with Zohar; they sit more casually in Lucan’s presence than the courtiers, one or two sprawling as if in a field encampment.
A great black panther lies beneath the table, following Lucan’s movements with lazy, golden eyes. It is not restrained, or not visibly so, but none of the councillors pay it any note.
“Where is my lord of Qiuz to give us an accounting of the situation? Lis Guaragna’s corruption costs us already. Where is Prince Sohlendra?”
“There is much to do for the Is Delta,” says Sohl aloud, drawing Lucan’s gaze and that of the other denizens of the room. “We have good men, and they will learn what they can before turning their efforts to the South. The Samarchans need not approach the heart of the matter. I beg forbearance for my tardiness, Your Grace.”
Lucan nods curtly. “You have it,” he says. “Now speak.”