by Kuruki (来木)
Bao hid behind a pillar as soldiers, waving scimitars and shouting orders, ran past him. Somehow mercenaries had gotten through the gates. The soldiers of Sartaq Khan, Bao’s father, were the best horsemen in the seven kingdoms. They could shoot arrows while outriding deer. No one could beat them while they were mounted, even if the other force was twice as large and heavily armored. But Sartaq had led most of his men on a raid over the eastern mountains, so very few were left to defend the palace. It had never needed defending before.
Bao slipped to the next pillar. He had no weapon with which to defend himself, not even a knife. If Sartaq’s enemies caught him, a quick death was the best he could hope for. Some of Sartaq’s men would be no better. Many favored one or more of his brothers as heir. Would the most practical of the guards offer Bao to the newcomers, seeking favor? Or perhaps just his head. And if he were found by his own guards, they would gather around him, cutting him off from the one place he needed to be. Bao had to get to the harem before word got to Sartaq’s wives that the walls had been breached.
Bao had to reach his mother.
If only Déshèng, Bao’s bodyguard, were home. He would know where Bao needed to be and help him get there. He would defend Bao’s back as they hurried to the harem and to the people they loved. But before he left, Sartaq had sent Déshèng and Kăilì, the eunuch, on an errand to one of the other Khans, so there were no men in the entire palace that Bao could turn to for help.
The clang of metal against metal faded as Bao neared the second ring of the palace. He snuck up to the gilded doors and glanced through. The carpets were scarlet with the blood of the fallen. Delicate tables and ornate chairs were so much kindling. Bodies and pieces of bodies littered the floor. He brought his long sleeve up to his nose, but that didn’t diminish the scent. His mouth was coated with rusty iron and bile. Each breath was painful.
Hard boots against marble filled the corridor behind him. If he didn’t get through soon, he would be caught. He stepped into the room. The carpet squelched under his feet. He tried not to look at the bodies as he stepped around them. Sartaq’s guards were known to him. That headless man was the one who taught Bao to ride. That gnarled hand belonged to the old one who kept his pockets full of sweets and was always willing to share with his master’s most favored son. That arm, that boot, that sword, that bow…
When Bao finally made it to the other side, he rested his cheek against the cold stone of the wall. He closed his eyes then opened them. He had to get to his mother. He might already be too late.
The corridor had bodies in it, but they were easier to step around and therefore easier to ignore. A path of bloody footprints led west. Bao need to go east, but his giveh were bloody. He couldn’t leave a trail to the harem. He slipped them off his feet and hid them under the hem of the thawb of a headless man. The purple and white thawb looked to be that of the councilor who had hated Bao the most for his odd coloring and foreign eyes. For all the trouble he’d caused Bao while alive, Bao couldn’t be glad that the man was dead.
Bao walked down the side corridor and glanced around before pulling back a tapestry. This was the fast, secret way to the harem. The only other way in was through the royal suite. Bao didn’t have time for that. The pathway was a maze, but even without a lamp he traveled it as easily as any in the palace. He’d been visiting his mother every week since he’d become too old to live with her in the harem.
He opened the door to the receiving area and stood behind the tapestry for a moment before peeking out. The area was silent. No women talked, no girls giggled, no birds sang. No one was around, not even the eunuch guards. Bao tiptoed across the room and pushed past the bead curtain, which was loud in the oppressive silence. The wives had to know by now. Why else would they be in hiding? How long had they known? Was Bao too late?
Bao wove his way between the ornate rooms within rooms that made up the harem, breathing in the scent of a hundred perfumes. He had not been back here in ten years, but his mother would still be in the largest room. Chīng Lán was the most favored wife, both for her beauty and the fact that she had never broken. Sartaq once confided that he’d always meant to break her spirit, but that he hadn’t wanted to risk the babe within her. Then he’d clapped Bao on the back and said he’d made the right choice. Since Bao’s birth, Sartaq had tried to force another child upon Chīng Lán, but none had taken. If she had borne another son, one that Sartaq was certain was his, Bao would no longer be lavished with clothes and jewels and tutors and attention.
No one had ever said so, but Bao had always known.
Bao stopped short outside his mother’s room. The ornate doors were drawn shut. He could glimpse gold and jewels and silk through the carvings. Was his mother still alive, running perhaps from the mercenaries and Sartaq? Or had she escaped in a more permanent way?
He took a deep breath and swung the door open.
His mother must have been getting ready for the day when she heard the news. Silk clothing lay on her bed. Jars of kohl and paint were strewn across her dressing table. A jewel-incrusted mirror sat at her elbow beside her hairpins and combs.
She was dressed in her yuanlingshan, the clothes she was married in so long ago before she was kidnapped and her husband murdered by Sartaq and his men. The cranes embroidered onto the silk looked as if they might lift their heads at any moment. She wore her paint from home, white skin, small red lips, and black eyebrows. Lacquer covered each long fingernail with small scenes of animals and trees. Her hair, which she normally wore in elaborate knots held onto her head with jeweled sticks, lay like a river of white across her shoulders and chest.
Bao raised his hand to his own white knot, the color a relic of a long-ago blessing by a half-remembered god. His hair, when let free, reached the bottom of his shoulder blades, but his mother’s was so long that it puddled on the floor around her small, embroidered shoes. If the stories his mother told were true, his hair would quickly grow just as long now that she was gone.
He lifted his mother’s hand and pressed it to his lips. Her skin was cool, but not yet cold. Why couldn’t she have waited even just a few moments so Bao could say good bye? Why hadn’t she stayed to watch over him and let him watch over her? They could have fled east, back to the land that she loved, back to the place she was born.
Bao blinked rapidly to keep the tears at bay. He was a prince and princes didn’t cry. His mother would be ashamed.
Chīng Lán had been barely older than Bao was now when Sartaq had attacked her cavalcade as she journeyed with her husband to her new home. Sartaq’s men had slaughtered all but the people in her carriage and a boy sleeping among the baggage in one of the many carts. Her husband was one of the first to die. Sartaq wasted no time making her his newest wife.
She was subjected to a harsh journey over the mountains with only five servants and, because Sartaq’s people were segregated by gender, her two male servants were not allowed to come near her and her maids could not leave the carriage to get her extra food or blankets. She wished for death every day, but it eluded her. Then Kăilì, the boy, came to her, his face pale and his legs unsteady. He had become a eunuch so he might serve her.
After that her journey was easier. Déshèng, who had served her since childhood, cooked her food and Kăilì brought it to her, but she could not keep it down. When her months’ long journey was over and she still did not return to health, she realized she was with child. Now she had no hope of escaping.
Instead of crying over her situation, she grew stronger. But she had asked Kăilì for poison to wear in a vial of around her neck so that she would never again be kidnapped.
Bao touched the gold vial that had held the poison. Perhaps he should follow her as her maids had. Perhaps that was all there was left to do. But lifting the vial, he found it empty.
His mother’s voice echoed in his mind. “Live,” she told him. “Live that my life and death might mean something. Leave this place of our enemy. Leave this kidnapper behind. Live and I will live through you, my son.”
And with that a weight lifted from Bao’s shoulders. He would live. He would find a way back to his mother’s people. He would fall at his grandfather’s feet and say that Chīng Lán had never forgotten her home and those that she loved.
He turned at the sound of silk rustling. Arms wrapped around him. He pushed Shazia away with some effort. Although two years younger, she was several inches taller. She bobbed on the balls of her feet. The heavy silk of her farshi pajama was loud in the eerie quiet.
“We knew you would come for us.”
Her loud voice hurt Bao’s ears.
She cocked her head, setting her curls bouncing. “Sahar. She said that since you will be our husband, you would come for us, so we didn’t leave with the others.”
Bao took a deep breath, but didn’t waste time arguing. As his father’s favored son, his sisters would be among his wives. Sahar’s mother, Sartaq’s first wife, had taught her daughters the ways of men and wed them to the best of their half-brothers. Even if the heir was not among her own sons, she would still control the harem after Sartaq died. Or she would have if the mercenaries hadn’t attacked.
Sahar sat on her bed, a small sack in her lap and a burqa over one arm. “Dearest Brother, I knew you would come.”
She stood up like the queen she was raised to be and waited for him to lead her to safety. Only Bao had no idea where to go. When the mercenaries were through with the slaughter, they would come back for the loot, wouldn’t they? The harem was full of gold and jewels, more than twenty carts could carry long ago when Bao’s father had had this palace built. Now his riches must be far greater.
Bao had planned to hide until the mercenaries were far away, but where could he hide his sisters?
The pathway behind the tapestry.
He stepped out of Sahar’s room and the girls followed him. Sahar’s soft silk shalwar qameez made no noise and her bare feet were silent on the plush carpet. If only Shazia had dressed similarly. How long had they waited for him? What if the mercenaries had got to the harem first? He would have found them bleeding with men upon them and no weapon to save them.
He took a deep breath, but stopped with his lungs half filled and raised his hand. Had he heard something? If so, what should he do? He had to get his sisters through the reception area before they would be safe.
He waved them forward and sprinted through the harem, stopping at the bead curtain. The corridor was silent. He lifted the beads and pointed across the room towards the correct tapestry. Shazia shook her head and opened her mouth, but Sahar took her sleeve and pulled her across the open space. Bao eased the beads down, and then sprinted towards his sisters. He got them behind the tapestry and, just as he settled it into place, he heard the sound of many men. If only he could get the secret door open with both his sisters in the way and without hitting the tapestry with his back.
“I saw this move,” said a rough voice from the other side of the tapestry. Bao held his breath and pushed his sisters against the door. Shazia let out a small squeak that was loud in the confined space. Sahar’s breath came fast and quick as she held her hand over her mouth. Bao’s back brushed the tapestry. The alcove was never meant to hold three. Something banged into his back, pressing him into Sahar and Shazia. “There’s something back there.”
“Go ahead if you like,” said another man, “but over here is none other than the harem. Gold, jewels, and women. Take your pick.”
“I still say it moved.”
“I’ll check,” said a younger voice in a different accent. “I’m not interested in women anyway.”
Men laughed. “Your call.”
The tapestry moved aside and a young man with golden hair surveyed the three. His golden skin looked sun-browned rather than dusky from birth like Sahar’s and Shazia’s. His eyes were even gold, like fire in the distance. He wore a dull green tunic under a sleeveless, leather garment that laced up the sides and britches that were the faded brown of worn leather. The drab colors served to make him look more golden.
“What’d you find?” asked the rough voice.
“A boy,” said the golden young man, and he pulled Bao into the open.
Bao’s heart clinched and he couldn’t breathe. The air was thick with sour sweat and blood. He would die here, and worse, his sisters would die with him. Two men, on their way through the bead curtain, came back to inspect him. One pulled the knot from Bao’s head and his hair fell down his back.
“Are you sure,” the man asked, “this is a boy?”
The golden man took hold of one of Bao’s shoulders and reached forward. Bao tried to push the hand away, but the golden man was far too strong. Bao let out an unmanly squeak as the golden man gave his privates a gentle squeeze. The golden man grinned at his compatriots. “Male. You go have your fun. I’ll have mine.”
Bao had to get away. He couldn’t stay near a man who would touch him there. He needed to save not just himself, but his sisters as well. How could he do that now that he was caught? Even if he could get away, the mercenaries knew he existed. They would hunt him and his sisters down.
The men laughed again. Most walked away without a backwards glance, but two stood a few feet away, their eyes on Bao. Only at that moment did Bao realize that the tapestry was back in place. His sisters were safe. For now.
The golden man got to his knees and leaned close. “Follow my lead and don’t resist. Your life—and theirs—depend on it.”
His mouth came down over Bao’s. Bao had never been kissed on the lips before. And this kiss was wet and sloppy. The men watching laughed at the golden man’s technique. One said he could teach Elias, the golden man, a few tricks. A tongue dug between Bao’s lips. He opened his mouth to let it in, more scared of the men watching than of the man touching him. Hands unfastened the buttons down the front of his achkan. He closed his eyes. He wished he could close his ears.
The men made comments about Bao’s white hair and fair skin and how tiny he was. Elias eased Bao’s achkan down his arms and it dropped to the floor with the dull thud of heavy silk. A new voice asked if Bao was really male. Another confided that’s what they were waiting to find out. Bao’s qamis slid up his chest and was over his head in seconds.
The voices got closer. Bao froze. Please leave. Please just let everyone leave so Bao could finish rescuing his sisters. His only consolation was that neither girl spoke the language that the men were using. Bao was pushed to the floor, his clothes beneath him. He opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. Rough and dirty mercenaries stared down at him like he was a hunk of meat or a pile of gold. One stepped back with a sigh. “A boy.”
The remaining men made bets on whether Bao was a eunuch, if he would ever make a sound, or if Elias could get him to enjoy himself.
Hands were at his waist. Something brushed his cheek. He heard a smack of flesh against flesh. “Get your own!” Elias snapped. “This one’s mine.”
“But he’s just lying there,” said the rough voice. “He needs more attention.”
Bao shuddered. His shalwar were pulled down his legs. Several men sighed. The beads of the curtain clicked as they passed through it. But a pair of boots stayed close to Bao’s head. Elias spread Bao’s legs and sat between them. “Get out.”
“Can’t get it up when I’m watching?” the rough voice said with a laugh.
“You’re not after gold then?”
“What about you?”
“I’ve already got mine.”
“Well, I don’t,” said a voice before the beads clicked again. But it wasn’t the rough voice. Bao could still hear that man breathing. Warm leather covered him like a blanket. He could feel Elias’s muscles beneath his clothes. Elias’s quick breaths blocked out all other noise, his scent of leather and earth overrode the perfume and blood. Bao’s legs were spread further and his mouth was invaded again. Something rubbed against his back side. He flinched. Elias whispered something in a language Bao didn’t know, but the tone was reassuring and apologetic. As long as Elias was the one touching him, Bao would be all right.
Fingers, Elias’s slicked fingers worked their way into him. He tried to relax under the onslaught of Elias’s hands and tongue. Kăilì liked Déshèng touching him like this. Bao heard them often enough while he lived with Déshèng after he was too old to stay in the harem, but before he proved smart and strong enough to warrant his own room.
The fingers inside him brushed something. Bao gasped. Only Elias’s weight kept him on the floor. Elias pulled his fingers out. Bao moaned, but tried to strangle the sound. Elias shifted above him, leaving Bao’s lips free to take huge gasping breaths. Something warm and hard pressed against him and it kept pressing no matter how much Bao tried to get away. He writhed and screamed, but the mouth covered his and the tongue invaded. His body was full, too full. He screamed around the tongue and choked on spit.
“Calm down,” a voice said. Elias said. “Calm down. It only hurts if you’re scared.”
How could Bao help but be scared?
“Calm down,” Elias said again. “We are alone for now, but not for long. I haven’t heard any women screaming. Are they gone?”
Bao was too full to talk. He felt like the thing went all the way through him to his throat. Elias asked again. This time Bao managed a nod. Elias sighed. “Good for them, but bad for you. I can’t stop until the others are gone or someone else will want a turn. Trust me. Keep your eyes closed and just feel. Quiet moans are all right but don’t draw attention to yourself.”
The pressure inside Bao let up and then came back even more than before. But this time it felt good. Not pleasant or good in a happy way, but in the overwhelming way that Elias’s fingers had. Elias thrust into him again. Blood pumped through Bao’s privates as Elias’s tunic brushed them. Out, in, out, in, over and over. Bao’s whole body hummed. He couldn’t get enough air into his overheated lungs. He gasped through his nose and whimpered.
Elias moved his mouth down Bao’s neck, kissing and licking and sucking. Some of those would leave marks, but Bao didn’t care. He couldn’t hold still. He grabbed the back of Elias’s tunic and pulled him closer. He needed to move against Elias. His whole body was like one big itch that he couldn’t scratch. He needed Elias. He needed more of him.
Elias froze for a moment and started thrusting again. These new thrusts were slicker and smoother. Liquid slid down Bao’s backside and onto his qamis beneath him. The sound of their rhythm was wetter, but Elias didn’t let up. Bao wouldn’t have let him.
“More, more,” Bao begged, trying to cover the sound of the beads. Men were coming out of the harem. They carried so many jewels that when one fell and rolled against Bao, no one bother to fetch it. They hadn’t found the women though. They were still looking for the women.
Elias pulled out of Bao and before he had time to do more than gasp, Bao was on his belly, Elias in him again. The thick silk of his achkan covered his head and Elias spoke in his ear in that language that sounded as if it should be familiar, but wasn’t. Bao’s body heated again. The only people in this little world were Elias and him. Elias held Bao’s hands down against the thick pile of the carpet.
Bao’s gasps echoed oddly against the cloth, each breath hotter than the last. His privates ached. Pushing them against the cloth beneath him brought a little relief. Elias shifted his weight, lifting Bao’s hips off the floor. No. Bao had to push and rub and writhe. He needed to touch himself, but Elias wouldn’t allow that either. Bao growled in protest. Elias shifted and each of his thrusts went deeper, his sacs bouncing off Bao’s backside.
If Bao was a dragon, he would be breathing flame. His body was so hot that the carpet beneath his knees felt cold. He was a phoenix burning alive, a salamander burning forever.
Time ceased or maybe it had never been. Bao gasped and Elias grunted to their rhythm. The smell of sweat and seed overtook everything. Bao’s fingers convulsed into the carpet. With his eyes open, Bao could only see the blue cloth that covered him. With his eyes closed he could see paradise just out of reach.
Twice, or maybe more, Elias answered a muffled question. But neither questions nor answers mattered. Bao was somewhere far away. Somewhere in the clouds, hot because he was so close to the sun. Hot because he was the sun.
Elias’s hand moved under Bao’s body and caressed his privates. Bao fought both to writhe away from the callused hand on his sensitive skin and to grind against it, seeking release of the pressure within him. Elias allowed neither. His rhythm never wavered as he stroked Bao into flames. His body was beyond the red of hot iron and into the white and still Elias forced him higher. Only Elias’s body in his kept him from flying away.
“They’re gone,” Elias said, shifting again. “You can be as loud as you like.”
And the world exploded. Noise burst from Bao’s throat. It mixed with the pounding in his ears and Elias’s gasps and the sound of their bodies thumping together to become the most beautiful music Bao had ever heard. Sparks filled his eyes until all he could see was white. He gasped for breath, but none came. Elias tilted his head until their lips touched. Bao sucked in Elias’s tongue, claiming it as his own. He hated each breath which made him lose his hold.
His body was limp and unresponsive. Only his mouth seemed to work properly. Elias shifted and turned him until they were again chest to chest. Bao dug his weak hands into Elias’s golden hair and drank him in. Elias pulled away and nuzzled his neck while they both fought for breath. Bao grew aware of the warm wet of his backside and chest and Elias’s hardness on his thigh. The corridors were silent, without a footstep or a clink of bead to say that men had ever been there. Elias still smelled of earth and leather, but now he also smelled of Bao. The mixed scent was better than either alone. The sun had moved passed its zenith, filling the corridor with light the color of Elias’s eyes. The coolness of the air hit Bao and he shivered.
Elias sighed then sat up, pulling Bao after him. He passed Bao his shalwar then fastened his own. “You will be safe here for a while, I think, but don’t stay too long. These men have a thing about fire. Find some clothes not made of silk and head west to the Boar’s Tusk Inn in Gorzal. That’s in Varik if you didn’t know. They will take care of you. Here.”
Bao looked at the small leather pouch and then back up at Elias. Bao squeezed his qamis into his fist and held it against his chest. He thought… Why had he thought…? He rubbed the silk across his eyes until he was sure they were dry and turn away to put on his qamis.
“If I come with you, these men will chase me down. They think I belong to them.”
Bao wanted to go to him. He wanted to throw his arms around Elias’s neck and make him swear that this, this time together meant more that a rape at the hands of his enemy. But Bao was a prince. He would take nothing that wasn’t offered freely. His mother had not raised him to beg.
He got to his feet and put on the rest of his clothing, taking deep, calming breaths. He would survive. He had ached worse during sword training. The pain in his chest simply didn’t count.
“But I really belong to you. I always have.” Elias’s fingers brushed Bao’s cheek, coming away wet. He balled his hand into a fist. “I will take these tears with me. They will bring me back to you no matter how far away you are.”
Bao eyed Elias’s knife as it came close to his neck, but all Elias did was cut off a lock of Bao’s hair, which was now waist length. The stories Bao’s mother told must have been true. He didn’t look forward tripping over his hair, but never getting sunburned and being able to see in the dark could both prove useful.
“A few tears.” Elias rubbed the cut hair against Bao’s wet cheek then he tied it in an intricate knot and set it against Bao’s bottom lip. “Now breath your name over it.”
The name of his birth or the one his mother whispered into his ear as she put him to bed at night? The latter for it was engraved on his heart. “Bao of Three Rivers Mountain. Sān chuān shān Băo.”
Elias smiled. “Now a kiss to seal it.”
He pressed the knot against his lips then against Bao’s. He caught Bao’s gaze with his golden eyes. “I am Elias Shanterson of Tumney. I’m sorry it was your home and family they destroyed, but I’m not sorry that I found you at last. After these men I have been watching have paid for their crimes, we will meet again.”
With that he hooked the purse strings around Bao’s wrist and bent down. He pressed his lips again Bao’s not so much in a kiss, but in a promise. Then he turned and walked down the corridor. The sunlight bounced off his hair, blinding Bao. When Bao opened his eyes again, Elias was gone.
He stood for some time, listen for footsteps, but all he could hear was the beating of his heart. And some muffled voices from behind the tapestry. The tapestry moved slowly away from the wall and Shazia’s head peeked out. “Is it safe?”
Her whisper was loud in the silence. Bao brushed the tapestry aside and pulled the lever which opened the door. He tried not to look at Sahar as he ushered them in. She, being older and more knowledgeable in the ways of men, would know what he had done. She would feel he had given up something great to keep them safe. But Bao couldn’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, he’d been given something instead.