by Onaka May (億難神メイ)
illustrated by mhikaru
i. the fountain
The fountain that stood in the exact center of the walk between the gates of Bela Castle and the great doors of the fortress itself was deceptive in its simplicity, circular with several jets sending arcs of water from the center pedestal and lacking the gold and jewels that adorned the other fountains found among the castle’s renowned, extensive gardens.
This was the gravestone of King Ashmei, who founded his country from the ruins of the Illuvan Empire, many centuries ago. His bones lay deep beneath it, among the ancient pipes that had supplied it with water through the ages. Many legends surrounded it, not the least of which were those concerning the fact that it had remained unaffected by time and weather.
Another draw was the mystery surrounding the statue that stood at its center. Every fountain here had its own centerpiece: effigies of rulers who had taken their ancestor’s example and had been buried on the grounds beneath their own fountain-gravestones, works of art commissioned of history’s most talented artisans, or gifts from nobles and diplomats. However, where one expected this statue, being at this particular fountain, to be of King Ashmei, it was not. In fact, no one knew the identity of the young man whose resemblance the statue held. If not for the fact that both fountain and statue had been carved from the same marble block, one might even believe that the latter was merely a replacement for something that had come before it.
The man was of a brother of the first king, some speculated, or a son, or a lover, for whom else would have been given such an honor? Or a noble, or an ally in those long-ago wars, for where else would his aristocratic features and the pride projected in his marble stance come from? Or perhaps a soldier who had done some great service for king and country, like his armor and the sword at his side seem to imply, for what better personage to stand guard over King Ashmei’s resting place?
The king had only looked to women, though, and had been unwaveringly faithful to the one who became his wife and queen. There was no one unaccounted for in the history books and well-kept genealogies, and the young man held little resemblance to any of the great families of the first king’s time. There was no hero that had not been properly honored.
Perhaps, some said, the man did not exist at all, and the statue was modeled after some nonexistent figure. After all, even in the otherwise meticulously kept records of its artist, no reference had ever been found.
There were those inclined to leave the matter be; after all, the mystery was a charming addition to the lore surrounding castle and royal family. Still, most could not help but wonder.
ii. the prince
He was born in the still of midnight, the queen’s first and only son, sole heir to his father’s kingdom. His mother lived only long enough to kiss his brow and give him his name. Then she slipped into a deep sleep from which she would never wake.
He had a nurse, a troop of guards, and a contingent of servants dedicated to him. And at night, when the servants were at their rest and the guards were at his doors and the nurse was asleep in the bed beside his cradle, there would be one more added to his entourage.
He remembers nothing of those nights, of course, but in vague snatches, caught when he isn’t thinking about much at all, only to slither from his grasp when he tries to concentrate on them. A few bars of a lullaby so old and so forgotten that, when he got older, his music teacher would give his poor, old nurse a scare with excited demands of where she’d learned it. A cool hand, laid on him when he half-woke in whimpers, to soothe him back to sleep. A sense of security that nurse and guards and servants could not give him.
He was not frightened, at first. As with most boys his age, this was no predicament, but an adventure. So he set out, one hand trailing along a dusty wall, his eyes eventually adjusting to the near-darkness of the passageways. He found twists and turns, plowed through the occasional cobweb, ascended and descended inclines and rough stairways. Until he grew tired of exploring and found himself completely and utterly lost.
Then he was afraid.
He scared a few servants that day, with his sobs and calls for help, adding to ghost stories that had floated around the castle for generations.
But someone eventually found a way into the secret passages, and to him within them. A man, some lengths ahead, thrown into shadow by the torch he held, who beckoned for the prince to follow. And follow, he did, until the light he walked toward was not of a torch, but that of the sun, streaming through the door leading from his bedroom.
In the brightness and safety of daylight, he didn’t hear the whisper of that door closing behind him.
He was in a large part aided by castle’s secret passages. He was not one to be cowed for very long, and had soon braved the old, twisting corridors again (better prepared, of course). Within months, he’d learned his way around them and mapped everything out in his head.
He told no one, not even his friends among the nobles’ children, for this was a secret to be kept to himself— and one other, if he counted the man who had helped him the first time. Though the prince never encountered anyone there again, there were times when he felt like he was being watched or thought he glimpsed the faint glow of torchlight; but these instances passed quickly enough that he could convince himself it was only his imagination.
No one told on him, and that was what mattered.
It wasn’t, and he was faced with a regular one instead. In hindsight, he probably should not have left his horse to go into the brush after something he only half-believed in. Then again, maybe he didn’t want to face the white boar, for it was said to be twice as large as normal, and a normal-sized one was giving him enough trouble already.
The beast charged, and he threw himself out of its path. But he’d miscalculated, or the boar had been lucky, and a tusk caught him, tearing easily through a leather greave and scoring his leg.
He didn’t remember much between then and the time some of his fellow hunters found him. The boar turning and rushing at him once more. Getting entangled in the brush, his cloak caught on some branches, thorns and sharp sticks digging into his skin where it was unprotected. A sharp blur of movement, and the flash of a sword.
His sword, by the blood on it and the dead animal lying at his feet. But try as he might, he couldn’t recall drawing it, let alone actually hitting anything.
iii. the shadow
Lucifiel was sixteen, with an assassin coming through his balcony doors. He did nothing, however, but continued to feign sleep, watching the man through slitted eyes. The figure’s steps were silent and sure as he approached the bed, dagger already poised for a killing stroke.
A shadow flickered in the far corner of the room, and the prince had to remind himself to keep still.
The assassin drew aside some of the gauzy curtains hanging around the bed and—
The bedroom doors burst open and guards spilled into the room. Lucifiel rolled towards the other side of the bed, narrowly avoiding the stab of the dagger.
The guards soon subdued his would-be killer and dragged the man, who cursed and spit at them, out of the room. Lucifiel only half-listened to the reports of a suspicious figure prowling the halls, silently doing a bit of cursing of his own.
He didn’t mean to lean so far over the balcony’s balustrade, but he was distracted. So he almost fell to his death, but for the strong grip that pulled him back to safety.
It took a few moments for him to catch his breath, and one or two more for his idea to form.
“If you don’t show yourself this instant,” he said, “I’ll try that again.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected, but nothing happened. A beat, and he turned, laid his palms on the flat of the granite rail, eyes on the dark of the gardens below.
This time, there was something. He didn’t know how to describe it. A tingle in the back of his mind, an odd puff of wind, a whisper. Whatever it was, it made him whirl around.
There was a man in the doorway, where there had been no one a moment before. One of his guards, he thought at first, for the stranger was dressed in their uniform. But he’d chased every last one of them out, claiming he couldn’t go back to sleep with all their hovering, that they were doing well enough even when stationed outside.
“Who are you?”
Black eyes, framed by long, black locks, flickered to meet his gold ones, then slowly slid away.
Again: “Who are you?”
The man sank to one knee, right hand curled into a fist and placed over his heart, gaze lowered to the ground. It was an old salute, rarely used outside of ceremonies anymore.
A mute, then; nobody dared remain silent when the crown prince ordered them to speak. Which meant he was definitely no guard.
When the man obeyed, rising with a smooth, flowing motion, cloak barely swirling about him, the prince was unsure about what to do next.
“Are you the one who…” he began, but the man seemed to anticipate his question, giving him a nod. So he amended, “What are you?”
A shrug, this time.
“A ghost? A demon? Or have I gone mad?”
“Can I command you?”
The amusement slid away, replaced by a careful blankness.
“If… If I tell you to come back again tomorrow, say… after I’m done with everything for the day. Would you?”
A pause. Then a slow shake of the head.
“What if I try throwing myself off the balcony again?”
That dark gaze, when it met his eyes again, was sharp. And the silent reprimand there irritated him.
“Come tomorrow night,” he said, in a tone he’d been cultivating over the years — modeled after his father’s, though it had only some of the king’s force in it — and turned away.
When he looked back a moment later, he found that he was alone once more.
The stranger was waiting there, just as he’d commanded. Clothed in black again, he looked like an out-of-place shadow, standing at attention in the center of the room, in the light of all the candles and lamps. He looked several years older than Lucifiel, and was taller by a few scant inches, his pale, handsome features almost familiar. The prince approached him and reached out, tentatively at first, then more boldly when the man remained still, trailed a hand along one of the stranger’s arms to feel a warmth and solidity he hadn’t fully expected.
“Come,” Lucifiel said quietly, not forgetting about his guards outside, and drew his hand away, then went to the desk in one corner of the room.
He fished out a quill and a few sheets of paper from their respective drawers, and slid them in front of the man before pulling the stopper out of a bottle of ink.
“You can write, can’t you?”
The man held his gaze for a moment before turning to the desk, inking the quill, and writing Yes. in neat, precise lettering.
Lucifiel nodded to himself. “I thought this might work. Now… Do you have a name?”
“Who — or what — are you, exactly? I was right last night, wasn’t I? You’re not entirely human.”
Zia seemed to think for a bit, then shrugged.
“Then what? All those things you did, if you did do them… I don’t know anything of this world that can do the same. And… and why me?”
You are the heir.
“Does my father know of you, then? Why hasn’t he said anything?”
He does not know like you know.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
A pause, before the man wrote in quick strokes, He wasn’t foolish enough to call an assassin on his own head.
The prince jerked back, raising his eyes to meet Zia’s. The man was calm, betraying nothing, hand still poised with the quill, anticipating the next question.
“Get out,” Lucifiel hissed, suddenly angry, though he wasn’t sure if it was at the fact that he’d been found out or at Zia’s audacity.
Zia lowered his head in acquiescence, but did not obey right away, scribbling one last thing before putting down the quill. Then, with a bow, he turned away— and promptly disappeared. Lucifiel gaped for a few long moments at the space Zia had occupied, wondering if he’d imagined that brief, peculiar glitter in the man’s eyes, before remembering himself and looking at the paper.
‘Foolish’ was crossed out, the word ‘ingenious’ written above it.
He’d managed to wrangle a day free from his lessons— that is, he’d snuck off to the stables after the morning’s weapons practice and took his horse for a ride outside the walls of the capital. It was something that the king overlooked, he’d found out years ago, as long as he didn’t do it too often and he convinced some of his guard and his peers to accompany him.
It was when they got back, riding through the castle gates and past the fountain that celebrated his greatest ancestor, that everything fell into place. Mind drifting after the pleasant freedom of his outing, he found himself contemplating the fountain’s centerpiece for the first time in years. Like most of the castle’s denizens, he ignored it most of the time, sometimes to the point of forgetting it was there, the charm of it having worn off long ago.
He supposed it was the way the setting sun shone on it, the red-orange glow giving it the look of molten rock, a few last rainbows in the spray of water lending it an otherworldly quality. He was admiring the lines of it, wondering how its sculptor could imbue a sense of life into the stone, when the familiarity of the statue’s features struck him.
He made a mad dash for his rooms as soon as he could manage it.
“Zia,” he called, not knowing what other summons he should use.
He had no need to worry, for the man was there as soon as he spoke, seeming to rise out of a patch of shadows cast by a bookcase.
“You’re that statue,” he said, the words just streaming from him. “You’re from the statue. The— the statue’s of you.”
Looking unfazed, Zia nodded.
“Who are you? I mean, really?”
There was a long pause. Then Zia went to the desk, took out quill and inkpot and a fresh sheet of paper and came back after writing his answer.
Once upon a time, there was a man who would do anything for his king.
For a while, all Lucifiel could do was stare at the words.
“So… you’re a ghost, then,” he said, once he found his voice again.
“What would you call it?”
This time, he followed Zia to the desk, watched as the man wrote, A shadow.
“Well, that’s a strange way to put it.”
Ghosts are not much more than memories or remnants of souls. They cannot learn, or remember anything but what happened while they were alive. Zia held out his free hand, which the prince took after a moment of thought; the grip was warm through the leather of the man’s glove, and firm. They cannot do this, even if they wanted. If they could even want at all.
“I… I see.”
Zia gazed at him as if gauging his belief. Something he wasn’t sure of, himself, but whatever Zia saw, it seemed satisfactory enough for him.
“Are you… alive, then? Or would one still say dead?”
Zia thought for a moment, then shrugged.
“I see. So, a ‘shadow,’ then.” This had suddenly become stranger than he’d thought it would. “And you’d be here because…?”
You are his heir.
He looked up. The man was as expressionless as ever, but there was a teasing flicker in the depths of those black eyes.
“I, um… You— You may go.” He slipped his hand out of Zia’s, his mind spinning. “That’ll be all for today. I… need to think.”
Ever-obedient, Zia bowed and disappeared.
After a few moments, Lucifiel felt the bed dip under the weight of another. He lifted the arm he’d thrown over his eyes to look at the paper Zia held for him to read.
If you’d call it ‘knowing them.’
“Well. You protected them, too. Except for the first. —King, I mean. Did you know him when you were… er, alive? Or however you’d call it?”
Zia had set quill and inkpot on the nightstand, to keep them within easy reach. After a fashion.
“After a fashion?”
I was only a soldier. Like the rest, I worshipped him from afar.
“Oh? Then… out of so many thousands, why’re you this… ‘shadow?'”
I still wonder about that sometimes. Others were considered. In the end, I was chosen.
“And while we’re on that subject, how did you become…”
Zia was still for long enough that the prince wondered if he would answer. Or if he had an answer at all. But at last, there was a brief scratch of quill against paper.
Lucifiel took one look at the word, then burst out laughing. “I hope you don’t expect me to believe that!” He glanced at Zia, who did not move to give him another answer, expression serious. “You do, don’t you? Oh, come on. Magic doesn’t exist!”
Zia raised an eyebrow at him.
“No. It doesn’t.”
That gave him pause. Because he couldn’t explain an existence like Zia’s without an answer like ‘magic.’ And magic belonged only to legends and fairy tales.
“All right.” He turned over so he was lying on his stomach, resting his chin in his upturned hands. “Let’s say I believe you. Then why? Why was it even necessary?”
Things were still turbulent. His Majesty halted his own campaign, but the wars were not over. We needed to ensure the kingdom’s success for our descendants.
“That’s not how it goes in the books.”
Zia only gave him a look.
He opened his mouth to retort, then changed his mind, understanding. The old empire had been vast; after its fall, the wars over its lands had been especially fierce. Tales of glorious victories, whether true or false or somewhere in between, lent pride and patriotism in future generations, inspired them to protect their country, but that alone was no means to keep a fledgling kingdom alive. Even after the dust settled and the soldiers were sent home, it only meant that the wars had been taken to…
“The shadows,” he murmured. At Zia’s questioning frown, he asked, “Do you think there could be others like you?”
Zia’s expression cleared, and he shook his head. It was obviously a question he’d come up with and investigated before.
was is was forbidden, he wrote. Those who possessed even the slightest talent for it were hunted down. There were still a few, by His Majesty’s time, but, as he told me once, there is always a few. Some were even convinced to fight, and were found and put to death. The king and those loyal to him put their arts to a different use. And when that was done, whatever it was, he was the only one left.
It was a lot to take in. Lucifiel read Zia’s words several times, with a frown that deepened each time. Did he dare believe any of it? Zia had no reason to lie to him, to make up such a story, but it was all too fantastic. Even if a product of that magic was here with him, communicating with him.
“So, King Ashmei…?”
He didn’t know how to ask. He glanced up at Zia, who nodded once, almost reluctantly.
There were other questions, of course. But one look at Zia, who was adopting a grave, tight-lipped expression, told him he wasn’t likely to get answers to many of them.
Still, there was one more thing nagging at him. “You weren’t… forced into this, were you?”
Zia did not hesitate. No. I did it of my own free will.
“Even knowing it would be like… like this?”
I didn’t say I didn’t have my own reservations.
He didn’t know how writing could carry a tone of chastisement, but that was exactly what he felt. He frowned at Zia, who only met his gaze calmly. Faced with that stare, he pushed his irritation away.
“Don’t you ever regret it?”
Zia shook his head.
I tire of it, when there’s nothing to do. Then an heir with a penchant for trouble is born, and my life, such as it is, is filled again with purpose.
Lucifiel had to read it twice before it dawned on him. “An heir with… Like me, you mean.”
Zia gave no answer, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
He should be a little offended, he thought, but found himself laughing instead. “Wretch!” He grabbed a pillow and threw it at the man, who deflected it with a raised arm. “How’s this for trouble, then?”
He reached for another pillow. Zia turned, and the prince thought he would vanish, but it was only to set quill and paper down and to replace the stopper in the inkwell. Then he turned around again and took up a pillow of his own.
For a while, they just flung pillows at each other, ducking or blocking when the need arose. Then, suddenly inspired, as soon as Lucifiel evaded the next projectile hurled at him, he made a lunge for his opponent, intent on taking the man down into the mattress. Unfortunately for him, Zia’s reflexes were faster and it was he who ended up with his face in the sheets. Thus started something of a wrestling match, as much a fight as puppies at play. Including the pillows, of course, used now as weapons to beat each other with.
When their bout eventually died down, it was due more to the pillows losing their stuffing than to Lucifiel’s tiring. He lay sprawled on the bed, chest heaving, wondering idly if Zia’s similar state was real, if a ‘shadow’ could also lose his breath.
After a while, he held out a hand. “Truce?”
Zia took it, with another of his almost-smiles.
He couldn’t help another laugh. “Ahhh, I haven’t done that since I was seven.”
His companion held up eight fingers.
“Really? You really do watch me all the time, don’t you?”
Zia spread his hands in a gesture that said, ‘What else have I to do?’
“We-ell, I suppose you’re right.” He picked a feather out of his hair, twirled it around in his fingers. “Ye gods, what am I going to tell the maids when they see this mess?”
The bed shifted, Zia reaching for his writing instruments. Lucifiel rose, too, and watched him write.
The prince raised an eyebrow at him. “They wouldn’t believe me for a second.”
They believed Arza well enough.
The name sounded familiar, but it took a few moments for him to remember whose it was. “However-many-times-great grandmother Arza? But she had an excuse! She was insane!”
“That’s just a different way of putting it.”
She was an excellent storyteller. Her creativity sometimes required a little thinking aloud.
“Is that what they called it when she talked to herself?”
He couldn’t help a snort of laughter at Zia’s frown. “I believe you, I’m only teasing! Can I help it if I like it when you look less… well, less like your own statue?”
With a shake of his head, Zia stood, brushing feathers from his uniform and tugging it into place.
“Where are you going?”
Off to save the reputation of His Royal Highness. Help me with the feathers.
“And what in the nine hells do you propose to do with these?” But he began gathering feathers and helping stuff them into pillowcases.
Switch them for pillows in one of the guest chambers.
It’ll be blamed on ghosts.
If you find my plan unsatisfactory, I could leave them here. If you’re lucky, they won’t think you another Arza.
Several answers came to mind. He sighed and settled for, “All right, fine. Do whatever you want.”
Zia gave a mocking salute, then picked up a couple more pillows and promptly vanished with them. Shaking his head, Lucifiel went back to cleaning up his bed.
It took two more trips to replace everything. When Zia came back with the last batch of pillows, Lucifiel smirked.
“So, who’s the troublemaker now?”
Zia didn’t hesitate, indicating him with a nod of his head.
Lucifiel feigned affront. “What, all because I started it? Well— You… you didn’t have to hit me back!”
Several pillows flew at him. Sputtering, he raised his arms to defend himself. When he lowered them again, Zia handed him his answer.
I was a soldier, it said. When I find myself under attack, I am obligated to return the favor.
“Wretch!” But he was grinning. “Rascal!” He fluttered a hand in dismissal. “Get out of here before you tempt me into more trouble!”
But Zia did not immediately go, as usual. Instead, he approached, reached out a hand to ruffle the prince’s hair.
He recoiled away, closing his eyes against the dark locks that threatened to blind him. When he opened them again, Zia was gone.
And how Lucifiel delighted in those secrets, not to mention the wealth of knowledge Zia possessed on any subject he could imagine. Lucifiel exhausted first the subject of Zia’s life, then those long-ago wars. After that, he turned to asking about his own family, remembering their little discussion about Queen Arza. Zia had known them all, even if he’d never interacted with them as he did with Lucifiel, knew things about them that couldn’t be found in any book.
“Tell me something else about my ancestors that nobody knows,” he said one night, perched on his desk while Zia occupied the chair. It was a familiar request.
Zia frowned in thought. Then, Mishala really could tell the future.
Not as often as she liked, so she fabricated some of her prophecies. That’s why everyone cried coincidence when one came true. Her journal in the library wasn’t the only one. The one that held only her true prophecies was lost along with her in the fire of 763.
He remembered reading about that incident. The flames had gutted most of the castle’s west wing, where the royal quarters had been located at the time, and killed several people, including the queen. She’d been overcome by smoke, making sure as many people got to safety as she could manage.
“Wait.” He glanced up and found Zia looking like he was bracing for something. “She was the queen. Why didn’t you help her?”
For a long while, Zia made no move to answer. And when he did, he wrote slowly.
The fire had been deliberate, part of something larger. And she was not my priority.
There was an old pain behind his eyes. My duty by then had been to her son.
“But… I thought you were supposed to protect everyone in our family.”
After a fashion.
“What’s that supposed to mean this time?”
My duty, specifically, is to ensure that the line remains unbroken.
As long as this country stands.
“And a country cannot stand without a ruler. So: forever.”
“Then doesn’t that mean…?”
Zia waited for him to finish the thought, features unreadable.
“When I marry, and— have a child. Then, you’ll…”
If there comes a time when the both of you need my protection and I can only provide it for one, my first duty will be to your heir.
He’d come to the conclusion already, but the meaning of it hit him only when Zia answered. And it hurt. Even when he hadn’t known who or what Zia was, he’d felt at least that there was always someone watching over him. To have the full attention of that presence gone, even to a child of his…
“What if I have no children?”
You’re not foolish enough to consider that.
“Of course I’m not!”
Zia only looked expectant. The prince glared back.
After a few moments, Zia looked away and wrote, That was the only instance I’ve had to make that choice.
“That’s not the point.”
Then what is?
“It’s— it’s— I want to keep you!”
Zia raised an eyebrow at him and the vehemence of his declaration.
“I mean… Th— there’s things you haven’t told me yet.” He flushed under Zia’s scrutiny and continued lamely, “You’re a better history teacher than Nazir. The man doesn’t drowse off because he’s old, it’s because he bores himself with his own lectures. And… and I’ll bet there’s other things you could teach me, too.”
Zia sighed and, with a shake of his head, stood.
“Where are you going?”
I think we must leave it at this for the day.
He was given no room for argument, Zia disappearing before he even read the answer.
“H-hey! Come back here! We’re not finished!”
For the first time, his summons went unanswered. He made several more attempts, each to no avail.
“Damn you,” he snarled at last. “See if I ever call you again!”
He didn’t, not for a long while after that night. And Zia did not come on his own. There was no longer that underneath-sense that spoke of his presence, either. Sometimes, Lucifiel couldn’t help but wonder if the man could go against the commands given to him long ago. But, as the following months progressed uneventfully, he would never get his answer.
And then his seventeenth birthday, and his coming-of-age, came around, and for a while, he almost forgot about the man who called himself a shadow.
He declined their offer to accompany him into his rooms. Later, he would vaguely remember thanking them individually for their service to him and the crown and informing them that he would be having a long, long, hot, long bath before he took to his bed — but not to worry about him drowning, because Zia was sure to save him — before half-stumbling into the privacy of his quarters.
He didn’t even come close to drowning. In fact, the bath seemed to clear away some of the cottony feeling in his head, though the room still had a tendency to tilt at odd angles when it thought he wasn’t looking.
So he was able to comprehend the presence of the sword on his bed the moment he saw it.
Despite his state of inebriation, he could still tell the difference in the air when the man appeared. Which was only confirmed when he swayed, threatening to fall over where he stood, and hands caught and steadied him.
He pointed at his bed. “Did someone have that brought here? Did you let someone in here?”
No answer. And then he remembered: a shadow could not speak.
He let himself be led to the bed and made to lie down beneath the covers, staring all the while at the jewels in the sword’s scabbard, at the way the light glinted off them.
It was Amarel’s, given to him by Sachia, one of his lovers. It took Lucifiel several tries to make sense of the words.
“You’re joking.” He reached out and trailed a finger from gem to gem. “This’s old, then. Really, really, really, really, really old. Where’d ya get it?”
The castle has its secrets.
“Ohhhh. I guess you would know, huh? ‘S a bit gaudy, I think, but I suppose great-great-great… ummm, lots-of-greats… great-grandfather liked this sorta thing.”
He did like rainbows.
He didn’t know why he found that funny, but he did. “Ah, grandfather. You and your rainbows.”
He slid his attention from the sword to Zia. “I’m still mad at you, you know. Don’t think this’ll get you into my good graces again.”
Zia nodded, then briefly brushed the backs of two fingers against Lucifiel’s cheek. But before he could pull away, the prince grabbed his hand.
“Ahhh, you’re so warm.” He managed a smile. “Tell ya what. If ya stay with me tonight, like this, I might think about forgiving you.”
Zia shook his head, but made no move otherwise. Lucifiel’s smile grew, though it was interrupted by a yawn. Maybe he shouldn’t have had so much to drink.
“I’m engaged,” he murmured, drifting. “To pretty, little Lady Ellia. Father announced it during dinner. We’re to be wed next summer. But you know, don’t you? I bet you were there.” He gave a laugh that had little humor in it. “‘S what everyone was waiting for. Includin’ you, huh? Means more li’l princes and princesses for you to run after. Later. Way, way, way later, ‘f I have anything t’ say ’bout it.”
Zia carefully extracted his hand from Lucifiel’s grip and laid it on the prince’s brow.
“All right, I’ll sleep. But only if you promise to stay. ‘Til dawn.”
His eyes were already falling shut, so he didn’t get to see Zia’s answer. And though the man wasn’t there when he woke the next morning, he knew, somehow, that Zia had made the promise and kept it.
A moment later, it was Zia who emerged from the darkness within.
“What do you think you’re doing?” hissed the prince.
Zia only held out a hand in offering. Lucifiel stared at him.
“What’s this, all of a sudden?”
But Zia remained where he was, arm outstretched, waiting.
“Oh, all right.”
He strode over and took Zia’s hand, let himself be led into the passage behind his wall. Zia waited for the door to slide closed behind them — Lucifiel still hadn’t figured out how the mechanism for that worked — before leading him away. Briefly, he thought of asking if they should go back for a light, but realized that Zia didn’t need one. The castle had been Zia’s home for centuries; it was only natural he knew it inside out.
Their walk was long and twisting. After a while, Lucifiel’s sense of direction faded, knowing only that they were gradually ascending to the higher levels of the keep. He tightened his grip on Zia’s hand, wondering what was up there, in floors that had been left in disuse for generations, that could be of any interest.
Their destination, he found, was more or less in the center of the topmost floor of the castle. Another door camouflaged in the stone walls slid open to reveal a short staircase leading to a room twice as large as his bedroom, empty but for a rickety-looking bench that sat in a nearby corner. It didn’t smell musty, like most of the old rooms he’d found in his explorations when he was younger, but rather like old rain, probably a result of the lack of most of its ceiling. There was nothing to illuminate it but the faint light of the stars and the crescent moon.
“I don’t remember this place,” he said, looking around. “Why are we here?”
Giving him a mysterious look, Zia led him to the center of the room and pointed up.
“What? The sky? What about it?”
Zia put a finger to his lips for silence, his gaze focused on the heavens. There was nothing to do but obey, but Lucifiel groused under his breath anyway, for the principle of it.
It began with one tiny pinprick of light shooting across the sky. He almost missed it, about to demand again an explanation. Several more lights followed the first’s example. And, within the next few minutes, the night sky was practically filled with falling stars.
“Oh,” he said softly, inadequately.
He’d seen such sights before, but not like this. Usually, he viewed them elsewhere on the castle grounds. Once, he’d tried going up one of the towers, but though it was closer to the sky, he didn’t like the roof above his head. This room was just the spot he’d always looked for, with the openness he’d had on the ground and the height he’d had in the tower.
He finally had to tear his eyes away when he could no longer ignore his neck’s protests. Zia looked away from the skies, too, and met his gaze with a questioning tilt of his head.
“Um…” Not knowing what to say, Lucifiel offered him a smile which, surprisingly, he returned. “Thank you.”
Zia shook his head, still smiling, though more faintly now. He looked more the part of the shadow he claimed to be now, the reflection in his eyes of the shooting stars making him seem more unearthly in a way his inhuman abilities didn’t.
Lucifiel didn’t know what he was thinking when he kissed the man, only that right then, he wanted to do it. Not that it was much of a kiss, just a soft brush of his lips against the other’s, before he realized exactly what he was doing and jerked back.
“I— I, uh… s-sorry. I, um, must’ve been disoriented. Looking up for so long. Um, y’know…”
He tried to back away and free his hand from Zia’s — they’d been holding hands this whole time? — but Zia wouldn’t let him go, tightening his grip instead. And while Lucifiel could only stare wide-eyed at him, he was the one to initiate their next kiss, more substantial than the first, though still chaste.
“I think the stars have driven us mad,” Lucifiel murmured, noticing only hazily how Zia’s free hand stole around him, how his own found its way to back of Zia’s neck to pull the man down for another kiss. “Or maybe just me, and you’re indulging me.”
For the while, it was so easy to forget who and what Zia was, who and what he was supposed to be. So easy to pretend that Zia was one of his guard, whose unobtrusiveness exempted him of notice until recently. Or that maybe that he was one of the troop of kingdom spies, the existence of which everyone knew but denied anyway, sent, perhaps by the king himself, to guard the crown prince’s life. Pressed against the heat of that battle-trained body, Lucifiel thought he might probably forget even himself.
He’d only wanted to find out the identity of the mysterious stranger who had been keeping him out of trouble all of his life, to know the figure who watched over him from the shadows. And then for awhile, he’d decided to amuse himself by commanding this man who was not dead long after he was supposed to be, a product of legendary sorcery, a legend unto himself. But came the rapport between them, an ease more of friendship than of prince and subject or protector and protected. Even with the teasing he was occasionally subject to, he was pleased, after his initial offense had worn away, to find that other part of Zia that existed beneath the normal stoic silence (which he suspected would exist even if Zia had been able to talk).
He didn’t know when it had gone beyond that. Perhaps he’d been enamored from the start, at the secret and the wonder of it all, a little like when he’d first discovered the castle’s maze behind the walls. But he’d realized his regard for Zia had changed when he thought of the man’s attention transferring from him to someone else and was loath for that to happen. After all, whoever heard of being jealous of one’s children before they were born, before he was even married?
“Tell me this is a dream,” he said softly. “That way I won’t feel as bad tomorrow morning.”
Zia gave him a look, then mimed writing.
Lucifiel laughed softly. “Ah, well, I suppose that wouldn’t work, anyway.”
And then, after awhile, “You’re not just humoring a spoiled, troublemaking prince’s whims, are you, Zia?”
A beat. Zia touched a cheek to his and shook his head. Lucifiel smiled, even though Zia could not see him.
He said nothing more, content to stand in that warm embrace. After a while, Zia nudged him, then looked again to the sky, still lit up with shooting stars. So he turned his gaze upward, too, thinking, he should make the night last as long as he could.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing he knew, it was morning and he was in his bed.
Alone again— as usual.
Zia, who was examining the books on his shelves, or pretending to — he’d probably read them all at least once during his long life — turned to Lucifiel with a questioning look.
“I know you’re always lurking around nearby. I can feel you, sometimes. It’s just… I want to be able to see you.”
The look turned into a slight frown, and he slowly approached the bed, where Lucifiel was lounging against one of the bedposts. He cupped the prince’s cheeks in his hands, searching his face for… Well, Lucifiel didn’t exactly know. But Zia found what he was looking for, whatever it was, for he eventually nodded.
“Good.” Lucifiel grinned. “Now, my second demand for this evening: give me a kiss goodnight.”
Zia rolled his eyes at him, but complied anyway.
Toweling his hair dry from his bath — extra hot, since the night promised to be extra cold — Lucifiel entered his bedroom to find Zia standing at the hearth, stoking the fire there. The way the flames limned him in red-orange brought to mind the image of a sunset-struck statue. But that was banished when Zia looked up, putting the poker back in its place and meeting his gaze as he approached.
“Tell me,” he said, “do shadows get cold?”
Zia thought for a moment, then shrugged.
“Say ‘yes.'” He wrapped his arms around Zia’s neck and drew him in for a kiss. “So I can volunteer to keep you warm.”
A hint of a smile, and a gentle poke to his ribs.
“Oh, yes, I’m positively freezing. This robe does nothing for me, you see. And I’m afraid my sheets won’t be much help tonight, not with that storm blowing outside.” He lowered his eyelids halfway and looked at Zia through his lashes. “Would you keep me warm, kind sir? At this rate, I’ll be an icicle by morning.”
He drew his hands down across Zia’s shoulders, down his arms. And attempted a sultry look, like the kind he’d gotten from tavern girls when he’d gone with other noble sons down into the city; those had affected him more than the coquettish glances aristocrats’ daughters gave him, so maybe it would work with Zia.
He saw the man’s eyes darken in the firelight and allowed himself a bit of triumph. Taking Zia’s hands, the prince began slowly backwards, pulling him along. But when they got to the bed, it was Zia who made him sit before leaning down to capture his lips in another kiss, long and slow and sweet. Lucifiel felt a moan rise in his throat, and he parted his lips, welcoming Zia’s tongue with his own. When they finally separated minutes later, he wrapped his arms around the man, taking him along as he fell back against the mattress.
Expression unreadable, Zia touched their foreheads together, black eyes boring into Lucifiel’s golden ones, and waited for him to go on.
“The wedding is in a few months,” Lucifiel murmured, tracing a finger along Zia’s jawline.
A small nod.
“Lady Ellia is beautiful and kind and clever. And everything else I could ever want in a queen. I know I’ll grow fond of her.”
Zia brought a hand up to mimic his actions. He couldn’t help a small shiver at that touch that slid from ear to chin with tender slowness.
“But,” he continued, in a whisper now, “the one I want is you.” He took a deep breath. “And I know I don’t get to keep you forever, but… while I have you, I… I want…”
He trailed off, not really knowing how to finish the thought. But Zia only nodded again, then leaned down for a long, searching kiss.
“I’m sure,” he murmured against Zia’s mouth to the unspoken question. “Please.”
When Zia drew away from him, he blinked in surprise. “What are—”
But the man only gave him a gentle push before he could get up halfway, holding a finger to his lips. He sat up again, anyway, watched as Zia began to unlace his boots. Only when Zia had shucked them off, unclasped his cloak to let it pool on the floor, and began on the buttons of his jacket did the prince comprehend what he was doing.
“No,” Lucifiel said softly, and beckoned when dark eyes found his. “Come here. Let me do that.”
Zia obeyed, coming to the bed and into his outstretched arms, claiming a kiss as he did so. Lucifiel’s fingers immediately went for the jacket, carefully undoing the buttons that held it closed. But Zia was not idle, one hand going for the ties of the prince’s robe, the other pushing the cloth off one shoulder and exploring the skin that was revealed. Lucifiel gasped at the touch, wondered dimly when the man had taken off his gloves, then arched as Zia began a path of teasing, little nips and kisses at his neck, working down until he reached the dip between his collarbones.
“Not fair,” the prince managed. “You have a head start. And why are these buttons so damned small?”
Zia’s shoulders shook in silent laughter. He pulled away, brushing off Lucifiel’s hands, undoing the rest of the offending buttons, and shrugging off his jacket. Then pulled off the shirt he wore underneath it, before the prince could order that piece of clothing be taken off too.
Zia’s belt put up less of a fight than the jacket, but Lucifiel still fumbled with it, along with the buttons of the man’s pants. Though it might have had something to do with the fact that as he went back to the task of divesting Zia of his clothing, Zia also went back to distracting him with his kisses and his touch. When the last button refused to obey him, he gave up and slipped a hand past the dark cloth. He was rewarded by a hitch in Zia’s breath and a jerk of the man’s hips as his fingers found the growing hardness there.
“I’m only catching up with you,” he said innocently, in reply to Zia’s bemused, but flushed look.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have put it quite that way, for Zia seemed to take it as a challenge. A hand trailed down his side, fingertips memorizing the curves and dips of his body. Lucifiel’s body thrummed with anticipation as the caresses moved lower and lower, a protest rising within him when Zia’s wandering hand stopped at his hip, thumb tracing lazy circles around the jut of bone there. A protest that turned instead into a moan as Zia slipped a thigh between both of his, causing the material of his robe to shift and rub at his arousal.
“If you—” It was somewhat of a struggle to remember how to talk. “If you don’t— do something— you wretch… I shall be very— displeased with you.”
Zia feigned mild alarm, but despite his teasing, drew his hand to where Lucifiel wanted it.
“Yesss…” the prince hissed, pushing his hips up into the fingers that curled around him, returning the favor for his lover.
He moaned, the sound muffled by Zia’s mouth over his, as the man slowly began to stroke him. He’d touched himself in the past, and discussed with his peers the finer points of sex, as young men, even noble young men, were wont to do. But none of that prepared him for anything like this. Energy danced up his spine, exploding in his brain. The sliver of thought that remained in the face of that energy kept him just aware enough to copy Zia’s movements, though his own were restricted by the other’s clothing.
A moment, or a millennium, and Zia slowly drew away, drawing a low whine from the prince. But only for the few seconds it took to shed the rest of his clothes, and then he was back, and— Oh, that was much, much better, heat and muscle curled around him, pressed against him, feeding the flames spreading throughout his own body.
And for a long while, that was the only word he knew. It became a litany, ZiaZiaZiaZia, interrupted only by the occasional gods and yes, streaming out between kisses. Pleasure coiled low in his belly, intensifying with each pass of Zia’s hand along his erection, threatening to overwhelm him.
“Zia,” he gasped, “I’m going to—”
But Zia already knew. It was in his eyes, in the way he quickened his pace. Lucifiel cried out as the pleasure spiked, breaking whatever dam had been holding it in place, sending it along every single one of his nerves.
It took some time for the tremors in his body to die down, for his wits to gather themselves up again. Slowly, he became aware of the feathery kisses Zia was bestowing upon his face and neck, the warm stickiness on his stomach, the hardness wrapped in his hand.
“Idiot,” he whispered, though he was not entirely sure to whom he was referring to. But when he felt Zia’s lips curve into a smile against his skin, he decided and said again, “Idiot.”
He let Zia go, pushed him away just enough that he could look in the man’s eyes, which were more than black now, made depthless by desire and affection. He shifted, brushing a leg against Zia, smiling as Zia closed his eyes and responded with a shallow thrust of his hips.
“This should be remedied, don’t you think?”
Zia’s only response was to keep moving against him. Lucifiel pulled him down again so he could murmur in his ear.
“Zia. I want…” He took the man’s earlobe between his lips, worried at it gently before he continued. “I want you to take me.”
Zia froze for a moment, then slowly drew away.
“I know,” Lucifiel said, at the faint frown on the other’s features. “That is…” He pushed away all the things he could say, all he wanted to say, and replaced them with a simple, “Please.”
Zia brushed the backs of his fingers against Lucifiel’s cheek. The prince caught that hand between both of his, pressed imploring kisses against the fingertips until, finally, Zia nodded.
Then the man drew away and, with a look that told him to stay put, walked off. Lucifiel, after wiping his stomach with a part of his robe, lay back and closed his eyes, counting the seconds off in his head.
It wasn’t long until Zia returned, something gleaming cradled in one hand. Lucifiel recognized the small, crystal pot at once as one that was used to hold some of his bath oils, and felt his heart begin to race again and his groin tighten at the sight of it.
But Zia put it down on the nightstand before joining Lucifiel on the bed again. Before the prince could question him, however, Zia kissed him.
“Damn you, I’m sure!” He broke away, irritated at the way Zia still questioned him. And then, to temper that outburst, he added softly, “I’m not going to break. And in the case that I do, I trust that you’ll put me back together.”
There was still a hint of reservation in Zia’s eyes as he began placing kisses in the hollow of Lucifiel’s throat. But the prince ceased to think about that, as the man began to slowly move down, exploring his skin with lips and tongue, leaving wet trails from neck to collarbone to shoulder. The prince ceased to think about anything at all, groaning as his lover came upon one of his nipples and began gently sucking on it.
As if from far away, he heard the chime of crystal. The scent of sandalwood permeated the air. That was his favorite, he thought hazily. Zia knew, of course. It was probably why he chose it.
He had some idea what was going to happen, what they were going to do. When Zia nudged at his thighs, he spread them, willing himself to relax and be ready. Still, he couldn’t help a start as a slick finger pressed against his entrance.
“Please, Zia,” he murmured when he felt his lover hesitate, then bit back a whimper as Zia’s finger slowly slipped inside him.
It hurt, at first, and felt strange altogether. He took deep breaths, trying to concentrate on Zia’s mouth, attentive now to his other nipple, and Zia’s other hand, wrapped around his renewed arousal. But he couldn’t, not really, not when Zia began moving his finger within him, thrusting it gently in and out. And definitely not when a second finger joined the first, stretching him.
Then those fingers brushed against something, an area that sent lightning arcing through his body. And when Zia stilled at his cry, he instinctively shifted, moving against the man’s fingers, trying to get them to hit that spot again.
In time, Zia eventually withdrew them, but the disappointed mewl that rose in Lucifiel’s throat faded when something other than fingers nudged at his opening. Despite Zia’s careful preparation, despite the agonizing slowness with which Zia slid inside him, it burned. Seeming to know how he was feeling, Zia kissed him, long, but chaste like their first kisses had been, already so many months past, swallowing the noises he made.
“See?” he murmured, as his body slowly acclimated to the sensation of being filled, muscles relaxing around the length inside him. “‘M not broken. Move, Zia.” And, so quietly that his voice could barely even be called a whisper, “Love me.”
It still hurt a little when Zia obeyed, sliding almost all the way out before slowly thrusting back in again. Lucifiel buried his face in the crook of Zia’s neck, hands clutching at the man’s shoulders. They both shifted experimentally, seeking together that spot that had made stars dance behind his eyelids.
“Gods!” he cried out when they finally found it.
Zia began to move in earnest, then, slowly at first, then slightly faster when Lucifiel began moving in tandem. And when Zia began stroking his erection again, in counterpoint to his thrusts, Lucifiel was lost, the world narrowing down to just the two of them, Zia in him and against him and around him, the white-hot pleasure that frissoned along every inch of his body, climbing higher, higher than before. And, just as he felt like he would burst from the sheer, overwhelming sensation of it all, he came for the second time that night, Zia’s name on his lips.
Zia was not far behind him, thrusts growing more and more erratic, until at last, he emptied himself into Lucifiel.
Once the sated haze faded enough to recognize his surroundings again, the prince reached a hand towards Zia, who lay beside him now, and twined their fingers together. They lay like that for an eternity, listening to each other’s ragged breathing grow calm again, to the crackle and pop of the fire, the howl of the storm outside.
Lucifiel didn’t realize he’d drowsed off until Zia’s hand left his and the bed shifted. He opened his eyes halfway, watched as the man strode away in the direction of the bath, admiring the lines of his body in the firelight, before letting his eyelids fall back shut. He didn’t bother opening them again when Zia came back, nor when he felt the slide of a warm, damp cloth against his skin. He obeyed Zia’s light prods when they came, extracting his arms from the sleeves of his robe and making his way under the sheets, listening as Zia left again to put everything in order.
Stay with me tonight, he wanted to say once he heard Zia return again, but could not find his voice. But Zia knew anyway, because Zia always knew, and slipped under the covers beside him, bundling him up in a warm, tight embrace. When those arms settled around him, he sighed and gave himself up to sleep.
iv. the twins
The girls were as different as night and day. Miriya, who would end the recent string of kings when she took the throne, had their mother’s tawny coloring and pale green eyes, and was every bit as gregarious as their father. Lusine, younger by several minutes, took after their father in looks and had the old king’s grey eyes, but inherited their mother’s placid gentleness. They were adored by everyone around them, Lucifiel not least of all.
“Papa,” said Lusine, as Lucifiel was putting them to bed one night when they were five, “don’t put out all the lights when you go.”
“Whyever not?” he asked, though he’d already heard the reason from their nurse.
“She thinks there’s a nightghast in our room,” Miriya said, the way she cuddled close to her sister belying her skeptical tone.
“Don’t worry, my loves, that’s no nightghast. He’s the one that keeps them away.”
He kissed them both on the forehead and deflected their inquiries as he blew out all the lamps but two, one on each side of their bed. It was only in their outer chamber, which was still a playroom, that he quietly gave voice to his laughter.
He’d always known, without ever having to speak of it, that Zia’s existence had to remain a secret. Zia wanted it to be so. It was what King Ashmei had intended. And, after a fashion, it was a way Lucifiel didn’t have to share Zia.
Still, the twins were perceptive, and even Zia himself claimed he wouldn’t be very surprised if they ever found him out, too.
“Stop scaring my daughters,” was all Lucifiel said when the man in question appeared beside him.
They shared a smile, before Zia gave Lucifiel his own goodnight kiss then sent him on his way.