by Dr. Noh
Lysith woke to a hissed command and a rough shove that knocked him half off the bed. It was Reddis, his trainer, with an unaccustomed lack of calm.
“Up, Lysith, hurry. The lord wants you now. Bathe and dress. You have less than an hour before the seals must be in place.”
“It’s the middle of the night.” Lysith rolled to his feet and stumbled on the edge of his new Dearthian carpet. He could hear the bath running already, and the waft of warm, wet air smelled of the ceremonial herbs that should only be added at the last possible moment, lest they spend themselves on the bath and not on the bather.
“How would I? How could I? Protocol woke me a quarter of an hour ago, and he looked like he hadn’t been out of bed more than that himself. The lord’s having a midnight snack, and he wants company, he wants the best, that’s you. That’s all I know.”
Lysith frowned, dunked his head underwater, and looked up at Reddis through the warm, clear water. He waited out the submersion for sixty seconds, which was the shortest time permissible, before he popped to the surface.
“He will have guests, I assume? It’s not really just going to be him and me and a smoked fish sandwich?”
Reddis shrugged. “I don’t think he’d bother you for that. Won’t say he’s never done it, but he usually picks on the new ascendants.”
Lysith agreed, though silently. He set to washing his hair. It was long, and the Lady of Hours was not on his side tonight.
Reddis held the bottom of Lysith’s robes bundled in her arms, and they tore down stone passageways, many entirely unlit. The lord claimed the commoner oils gave him a headache and would use none but that of the scylla nut–now rather harder to get since Dearth had a new ruler. Up until this mad dash, Lysith had supported his idealism. No one wanted halls that stunk of fish oil, but he was forced to admit that no one wanted a broken ankle, either.
They stood outside the main dining hall and breathed until they could enter with a semblance of dignity. Twenty or more of Protocol’s people sagged visibly with relief, and the Master of Protocol himself shut his eyes briefly, apparently in prayer, an event without precedent.
They laid Lysith out and spread his robes to either side, baring him and clothing the long, wooden table. By the time they finished binding Lysith’s wrists and ankles with the silk cord, the place settings were already arranged. Protocol twisted the cords together with Lysith’s still-damp braid, and sealed all with red wax and his stamp of office.
Reddis pursed her lips. “Did you have to tie the braid in? I’ll never get all that wax out. That’s five years of hair I’ll be cutting off in a few hours.”
“We are being traditional tonight,” Protocol said. “Some argued that his feet be sealed as well.”
Protocol flicked a hand in dismissal. “Barbarians.”
He might mean anyone from the lord on down. Most people were barbarians in Protocol’s eyes. Lysith was still grateful for his intervention. He had seen it done when he was a child, and he had seen the blistered skin the hot wax left behind.
Reddis rubbed ointment into his wrists and hands, still grumbling. “There ought to be a law against that sort of thing. Oh, wait! There is! Some people.”
“It must be important,” Lysith sad. “Only six place settings. So small a gathering and so much preparation for it. You’ve heard nothing?”
Reddis shifted and sidled down to his feet to rub in more ointment.
“Rumors,” she said. “Only rumors, you can’t trust rumors.”
“What kind of rumors?”
She wiped her hands on her skirt. It was not like her, and the oil stains would be hard to get out. Finally, she met his eyes. “About the new Lord of Dearth. About a treaty between Dearth and the five lands. How much credit can you give a rumor like that?” She kissed his forehead. “Now you know all I know, and it’s on you as always. Be good.”
She strode off, and, quite abruptly, Lysith found himself alone. All the tableware was in place. The lamps, all burning their dwindling supply of scylla nut oil, washed the room in soft light. Lysith let out a long breath. This moment of peace before the meal was his favorite.
The lord flung the double doors open so hard they crashed against the walls. The reverberation of bronze on stone was almost enough to drown out even his voice. “Did you take inhibitants?” he demanded.
“No, my lord. I seldom do unless it is requested.”
“Well, thank Scylla for that.” The lord rested his palms on the table and hung his head down. “He’s a tricky bastard.”
Lysith kept quiet and occupied himself with a study of the tremendous amount of black, wiry hair growing from the back of the lord’s hands. It was long enough to curl over his knuckles and touch his ring.
When the silence threatened to stretch to awkwardness, Lysith said: “Thank the Lady of Hours, rather, my lord. There was no time to think of such things. Do you believe I will have need of them?”
“Need? Certainly. But the bastard has requested helianthus petals in the cucumber salad, and you can bet he’ll feed you plenty of it.”
Helianthus, harmless on its own, had a peculiar reaction when added to the herbs in inhibitants. Anyone suffering under the combination would be hard pressed not to come at the first touch, and that would never do. To spend before the meal was over was terribly bad luck. Lysith wondered who had told the lord; experience suggested this sort of knowledge was well outside his normal sphere of hunting, fine clothes, and the bell lyre. He wondered also who the bastard was, who had such knowledge on hand.
“May I then expect a challenge tonight?” Lysith ventured.
The lord laughed without mirth. “Yes, a challenge. You say tonight to be polite, I suppose, as you ought. You must know it’s nearly dawn. Of the people soon to fill this room, you will be the only one who’s slept tonight. The bastard kept us waiting, rode up not an hour ago.” He shook his head. “Lysith, I tell you so you may be prepared, but by Scylla’s teeth, you’ll hold your tongue about this unless you want to lose it and serve as dinner companion for the guard hall. Understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” Lysith said, as smoothly as he could.
“This bastard means to queer the deal tonight. He doesn’t want this treaty. Fates know why. It’s as good for him as us. He won’t refuse it outright. That’d leave him in the middle, and the five lands circling Dearth like crows on Carrion Day. But he’s tried every trick to get out of signing, and this would be a damn good one. No one wants to put blood to paper with ill luck in the air. And don’t think he won’t have full access. We can’t seat him at the head or feet. He is our honored guest.”
The lord spat on the floor. “Protocol says you’re the best. Don’t fuck this up.”
He stomped out, presumably to change, since he’d still been wearing his nightshirt.
Lysith closed his eyes and tried to regain his sense of peace. He was still trying when Protocol came in with a cloth for his eyes.
“You’re not to see them,” Protocol said. “I imagine it will be clear enough who’s who, but such details as voices are easily forgotten.”
When Lysith was thoroughly blinded, Protocol laid a hand on his chest.
“Be calm. It is not more than two hours until dawn. They will not want to linger.”
Silence returned. Lysith struggled to calm his breathing and mouthed a prayer to the Lady of Hours. He didn’t have long to wait.
Protocol announced them at the door, first the lord, and then the lords of the other four great lands. Last, he said: “The Lord of Dearth, Alen, whose name means stone, keeper of the stars above and below, thrice honored by the Fates.”
Lysith winced inwardly at that last. It was true the old lord’s three heirs had died before they came of age, allowing Alen to ascend, but it hardly seemed politic to point it out.
The diners seated themselves. Lysith heard the bronze doors close with a muted clang. They were left open on most formal occasions. It had bothered Lysith when he left the academy to come here and serve the lord: anyone could look in on him and judge his performance. He would’ve welcomed the distraction of spectators tonight.
He almost jumped when they laid hands on him. A thumb brushed his nipple; rude at this stage of the meal, before they’d even been served wine. Six voices spoke the traditional words in the unbroken tongue.
The lord asked the Fates and his guests to accept this hostage and token of trust (Lysith) as tradition dictated, and that they enjoy their meal and speak any smallest whim so that he might serve it. He said it as if any smallest whim that stuck its head out would be cut down and served to its owner in a salt pastry, but the words still had to be said.
Another voice spoke then, from around Lysith’s midsection: the place of honor. A smooth, deep voice said a few words more in the unbroken tongue. Lysith knew only the formal opening and closing speeches for the meal, so he caught none of the meaning, but it made most of the others laugh. Not his lord, Lysith noted. It promised to be a most awkward meal.
The first course was served: blue turtle eggs, prepared in softened shells with lavender butter.
“Blindfolded, Jace? Is there any point?”
“It seemed advisable,” the lord said.
“I’ve seen this one before, have I not?” A woman’s voice. Kent, then, the Lord of Storms.
“He is our best.”
“A challenge,” drawled the man who had spoken earlier in the unbroken tongue. Certainly Alen, the Lord of Dearth.
There was silence as Alen stroked his palm along the underside of Lysith’s cock. Lysith began to harden immediately.
He had been trained to respond to touch at the academy, alongside his training in control. It was a fine balance that few guests tried to upset. He had been tested a few times since his ascendency trials, but only by drunkards. No one would deliberately invite bad luck to their host’s table.
Someone fed him a bite of blue turtle egg, and he welcomed the distraction. The gel-like shell dissolved against his tongue, and the taste of the lavender butter under it filled his mouth. Technically, he was food taster as well as hostage and entertainment, but the last time a dinner companion had died of poison was in the pre-academy days, when it was not so much a profession as a life sentence.
This dinner, so far, had a decidedly pre-academy feel about it. Lysith swallowed the egg anyway and tried not to think about the symptoms of the various poisons with which he was familiar.
A callused hand wrapped around his cock. A thumb rubbed slowly over the head. “We are off to a good start, aren’t we?” said the Lord of Dearth.
Laughter again, more nervous this time. No one could say he was going against tradition to be so free with Lysith’s body so early in the meal, but it was not generally done. Someone else, encouraged by Alen’s boldness perhaps, touched Lysith’s nipple, pinched it, and then laid a slice of something cool over it.
“Ah, the cucumber salad.” Alen said, one hand still playing with Lysith’s cock. He fed Lysith more than a few bites.
Lysith loved the bitter spice of the helianthus, but it was hard to concentrate on the taste while he was trying not to squirm. The silk cords would prevent him getting off the table were he so gauche as to try, but they were loose, and there was delicate dishware all around him. He was expected to control himself. He would control himself.
The meal and the conversation progressed. Someone licked the slice of cucumber off his nipple, and someone else rubbed in a chile and cinnamon spiced oil that made his skin tingle. A hand rested on his stomach and trailed soft fingers in little patterns up to his chest and down again. It was nothing unusual–apart from the Lord of Dearth’s monopoly on Lysith’s cock.
Lysith struggled to keep one ear on the flow of conversation, but it ranged too widely; from the unseasonable weather, the scylla nut trade, and gossip about the minor nobility, to the finer points of the treaty, all couched in careful political language that only grew more obscure with each additional vintage of wine.
Finally, it was so far beyond him that he had nothing to concentrate on but the slow tease inflicted on his body. He hadn’t been pushed so hard in years, and despite the seriousness of the situation and his lord’s threats, he found he was enjoying it.
Heat spread over his skin, down his face and neck in a slow flush. His cock was hard to the point of aching and wet at the tip. He lifted his hips up into Alen’s touch and heard low laughter.
“Your boy likes his work,” Alen said.
The lord nearly growled.
Lysith received sips of wine from the guests, small ones, but they added up. His body felt heavy and boneless, and by the time someone spilled wine into the curve of his belly, he was far gone enough to laugh as they lapped it up.
“Lovely,” Kent said against his skin. He could feel the smear of her lip rouge. “Lovely.”
“Indeed,” another voice said. The Lord of Waves, Lysith thought, but his mind was too cloudy to be sure. The speaker leaned over him, breathed over his cock, and then licked at the head.
Lysith gasped and arched off the table, taut.
“Dessert,” the lord announced, loudly.
“Honey dust,” the Lord of Dearth murmured. “My favorite.”
Lysith wondered if he’d paid off someone in the kitchens. Honey dust was served with long, thin, orange-flavored cookies and a sweet oil infused with pink peppercorns. One dipped the cookies in the oil and then in the honey dust, but the alternate uses for both oil and honey dust were obvious. It was a dessert for lovers, not for a state dinner.
Lysith heard the crunch of cookies. No one fed him so much as a bite; they must have been good. Alen kept his hand on Lysith’s cock, but he still did no more than he had. His thumb rubbed slow circles over the head. Now and then he licked a line of honey dust off Lysith’s side. That was all. Lysith began to relax.
As he sank gratefully into the cushioning of his robes, muscles unwinding, he felt Alen’s touch leave him. He felt a drizzle of oil spilled over his cock and balls. A shiver of honey dust followed, barely palpable. Close on its heels came Alen’s mouth, swallowing Lysith’s cock whole.
Lysith cried out, the first time he’d lost himself so much since training. Alen’s mouth was hot and perfect, tongue pressed up to trap his cock, throat working around him. His hands spanned Lysith’s hips and held him down. Lysith might not have managed to stay still on his own.
“This meal is at its close,” the lord boomed, but it was hopeless. They’d have to get through all the closing ceremony, and Lysith had been on edge for hours now.
The lord began speaking the necessary words, but the unbroken tongue did not lend itself to speed. Lysith bit the inside of his cheek and then turned his head to bite the soft flesh of his inner arm. He tasted blood, but he barely felt the pain. Alen’s mouth dominated his world.
He heard himself make noises, whimpers and whines that he might later find embarrassing. He could not keep still, and he heard the crash as something breakable met its end. Kent was laughing softly.
Lysith squeezed his eyes shut behind the blindfold and remembered his ascendancy trials. They had been worse than this, and he had withstood. His trainer at the academy had conditioned him to respond physically to certain words, and he thought those words desperately now.
It wasn’t going to be enough.
Lysith recognized the last paragraph of the closing speech. There were seconds left now, but he could feel his body tightening, balls tingling. Alen’s finger pushed against his hole.
He said one of the trainer’s words out loud. Shouted it, perhaps, judging by the silence that fell afterwards. It was an obscenity, and thus unlikely ever to be spoken by accident at a formal dinner. Kent snickered. Lysith felt his body come back, at least partly, under his control. The lord finished the closing speech.
The Lord of Dearth licked the head of Lysith’s cock and took his mouth away.
“Rude,” said the Lord of Waves. Whether he meant Alen’s actions or Lysith’s language was left for the Fates to decide.
Lysith tried hard not to listen to anything after that, sunk in a cocoon of embarrassment. He had obeyed. There was no ill luck brought on the gathering. But what a way to obey. He couldn’t help but count it a failure, and he wished he might slink away now to Reddis’s care. He kept his face turned to his arm to hide his blush. He was still hard, but he hoped none of the guests would have time to make use of him now.
They were rising, chairs scraping across the wood floor. The doors opened, and Protocol broke the seals. Lysith sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. Footsteps headed toward the door. Someone paused.
“I want him in my room later,” said the Lord of Dearth.
Reddis helped him to Alen’s suite of rooms, helped him out of the robes, and wiped his skin with a cool cloth until he shivered. She cut the wax from his hair, which left him feeling still more chilled. It now fell barely to the middle of his back.
“Are you well?” she said. “What happened?”
Lysith shook his head. She asked a few more questions, but he turned his face to the wall. Soon enough, she left. He fell asleep on top of the coverlet on Alen’s bed.
He woke half-hard, warmed by the sun coming through a high window. The Lord of Dearth lay near him on the bed, still clothed. Lysith reached for him automatically.
“Stop,” Alen said.
“I wish to apologize. That’s why I had you brought here.”
Lysith snatched his hand back. “Do it then,” he snapped.
Alen blinked. “I’m sorry. You acted with great honor last night, and I did not. I had my reasons, but perhaps they were not good enough.”
“You didn’t want to sign the damned treaty,” Lysith said. Anger and embarrassment bubbled inside him, and he’d had too little sleep. It was hard to be properly cautious.
“You speak boldly for a servant.”
“You’re not my master.”
“No, I’m not. Your master is unworthy of you.”
“Did you sign it?”
“I did. It’s not the way I wanted it to go, but at least it will keep them from tearing apart my land and pissing in the Lake of Mirrors. For now.” Alen paused. “Fuck me,” he said. “I won’t make it an order, only a request, but I think it would relieve the tension between us, and I would enjoy it.”
Lysith’s jaw sagged. “That’s–not done. For someone of my station to– Are things so different in Dearth?”
“No. But it’s the way I like it.”
“I haven’t done it that way since school.”
Alen rolled onto his stomach and shoved his pants down. “Then you won’t want to go slow. Don’t worry. I prepared myself.”
Lysith could see the slickness between Alen’s cheeks, and his cock remembered it had had no satisfaction last night. He was erect in seconds, crawling over to straddle Alen’s body. He palmed both cheeks and parted them, and heard Alen moan into the covers.
He thrust in with remembered frustration, maybe with vengeance, and rode the Lord of Dearth hard, palms braced in the middle of his back, shoving him down, keeping him still when he would’ve got his knees under him. One hand slid up to Alen’s dark hair and twisted in it. He thrust with all his strength and with little care. Their bodies slapped together, and he heard Alen moan again and his breath hitch.
It seemed a long time before he came, grinding into tight heat, bent over and panting into the damp skin of Alen’s neck. It was longer before he moved again.
When he woke for the third time in less than twelve hours, he was tangled with Alen, arms and legs and hair. Alen’s pants were still down around his knees. His cock was soft, and there were white streaks drying on his stomach.
“You weren’t lying,” Lysith said. “You do like it.”
“Come with me when I leave.”
Lysith raised his eyebrows. “If you like it that much, I’m sure you can find someone to–”
“Not for that. Well. For that also, if you like.”
“What for then?”
“You know how to speak your mind and hold your tongue. You displayed more control last night than ought to be asked of anyone. You impressed me. You deserve better than this life.”
“It’s my life. I chose it.”
“And are you free to choose another?”
“Why should I?”
“There must be something you want, something you feel is lacking here.”
Lysith was silent. Alen rose and stripped down to wash. He splashed his face and bent low over the basin, water dripping from his nose.
“I want to learn to read,” Lysith said.
Alen straightened up and blinked at him. “Is that all?”
“My mother used to read to me. But it’s not allowed here, for someone of my station.”
“Well, it’s damn well allowed in Dearth.”
“And I want to learn the unbroken tongue.”
“I’ll teach you myself.”
“And–I might not feel like having sex with you!”
Alen laughed softly. “Entirely your choice, I assure you.”
Lysith thought hard. “I’d want to take Reddis with me.”
“My trainer. My…friend.”
Alen shrugged. “Take who you like, provided they want to go.”
“I might even want to serve at table again. It’s what I was trained for.”
“My table is rather more modest that your lord’s, but I doubt any of my guests would object.”
Lysith frowned and studied his face. He seemed perfectly sincere. “What in the five lands do you want me for? I’m no one.”
“I want to give you the chance to be someone.” Alen shrugged. “And I like your cock. A lot. How much of the conversation did you catch?”
“Most of it.”
Lysith told him all he could remember, and watched a smile grow on Alen’s face.
“As I thought. Excellent recall. Good under pressure. Next time we visit your lord here, will you eat with us?”
Lysith was unused to being asked rather than ordered. He thought about the lord’s face, the way it tended to go purple with anger when things didn’t go the way he liked, and the shade it might turn when Lysith sat down to eat with the lords of the five lands. He allowed himself a small smile.
“Yes,” he said. “I will.”