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by L. E. Bryce
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Alternate History
Description: When Aranion, prince of Yshan and officer in the Queen's Navy, is given a singer for the winter solstice, he neither needs nor wants the young man. But when circumstances throw them together, Aranion finds himself attracted to the shyly charming Melan. And when a disaster at sea threatens to drive them apart, Aranion may have to sacrifice all to get his nightingale back.
eBook Publisher: Phaze, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
29 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [185 KB]
Reading time: 103-145 min.
"Winter has its blessings," said the queen. "Our enemies might invoke the name of the water goddess, but they have not yet managed to cross the seas and attack us during this time of year. Let us drink to these precious months of peace."
Applause greeted Amunnikal's words, and cups were raised. Aranion sipped at his mulled wine; it would not do to get drunk before the first course was served. Around him, his brothers and sisters and their consorts mingled with members of the royal court, as the flutists and lute players spun their musical web from the shadows. As always, the gathering did not include the queen's many husbands. Ani never came to court, and played no part in the governing of the realm beyond sharing their seed.
"This must be a welcome respite for you, Aranion," said Elenin. Charming and brilliant, he had contacts in half a dozen ports throughout the Middle Sea, and counted more merchants than nobleman as his friends. Thanks to the stormy weather and dangerously erratic seas, winter did not agree with him at all.
Aranion watched the servers bring in trays of steaming butternut squash soup. Having fasted all day in preparation for this feast, his belly rumbled impatiently during the numerous religious invocations and the queen's speech. "The true respite will come when the Shivarians realize they need to stop trying to expand. They already have the Seaward Islands, and our ancestral lands in the north."
Elenin laughed sharply. "Spoken like a politician!"
"My service with the fleet leaves me no time for politics."
"Not even time to get married?" Elenin waited long enough for Aranion to roll his eyes before chuckling again. "When are you going to do your part to provide generations of future husbands for our future queens?"
Aranion bristled as his brother looked set to delve into one of his favorite sedentary pastimes: needling his sibling about his apparent disinterest in women. "You're doing more than your share already," he observed tartly, nodding toward Elenin's wife, who even late in her fifth pregnancy glowed with enough enthusiasm to show off a new silver headdress.
"Orinne tells me this is the last one. If I want more, she says, I'll have to divorce her."
Any discussion of marriage or religion was guaranteed to upset Aranion's digestion, and the meal would accomplish that by the third course. Somehow Elenin had obtained the menu and assured him that the royal cooks had prepared enough food to feed most of the city.
Aranion finished his soup, then picked at the stuffed hen garnished with ginger and stewed apples in cinnamon. As far as he was concerned, winter solstice would have been more profitably spent visiting the dry dock, where the city shipwrights labored to get the fleet into fighting condition by spring. Instead, custom obliged him to watch the priests sacrifice some poor temple slave to bring back the sun, and endure an endless round of banquets and meaningless small talk.
Elenin laughed at his brother's misanthropy. "Aranion, has it ever occurred to you that the shipwrights and your men might need a holiday? Just because you find all this tiresome doesn't mean others do. Ah, but never despair." He gave Aranion's arm a friendly pat. "The gifts are coming, and not a day too soon, I might add. The children have been pestering me all week wanting to know what their grandmother has chosen for them."
Dessert and gifts. Aranion could not decide which was worse: the nauseating array of sweets or his mother's inexplicable taste. No one dared point it out, of course, but Queen Amunnikal gave the most useless presents a man ever saw. She might know her twelve children about as well as the men who had fathered them, but surely her ministers could advise her better. Aranion wore last year's gift--an absurdly heavy pair of silver and turquoise earrings--only as a courtesy; he would have sooner pulled them off and given them to his sister-in-law.
Next, Mother will give me a monstrous nose ring, he thought ruefully, and then I'll have no choice but to get my nostrils pierced. My men will never stop laughing at me.
Yet more entertainment arrived with trays of apple and lemon tarts, pumpkin bread, almond and poppy cakes, and honey custard. Earlier, fire dancers from the Isheri Mountains spun through the hall with their twirling brands and trilling pipes, but the ministers in charge of the solstice banquet always reserved some special performance for after the meal. Last year, bull-leapers from Thrindor had amazed the court, while the year before, Aranion fought to stay awake for the insipid poetry recital praising the sun goddess.
A youth dressed in white took his place on the floor before the queen's dais. Aranion noted his fair hair and shy, sweet smile, but nothing else. Music did not appeal to him.
Elenin leaned in close. "I do believe that boy is a petah."
Just the thing to give a man an ulcer: a shrill castrato. Aranion grimaced into his napkin, while waving away the servant bearing a selection of tarts. The last petah who sang for the court made his stomach turn and his ears ring for three days afterward.
But when an expectant silence fell over the hall and the young man began to sing, the voice that carried to the barrel-vaulted ceiling was a soft, tremulous tenor. So the boy was not a castrato.
It must have been a love song, as they were all the rage this year. Aranion could only stand so much vapid nonsense, and ignored the words in order to watch the singer. Tears glistened in his eyes, as though each note cost him untold anguish; he seemed for all the world like a boy in love for the very first time.
A cunning trick, observed Aranion. Petaha were nightingales who never spoke except to sing. But for their music, they were mute. No wonder the young man poured such emotion into his performance: as a slave forbidden to speak, singing was the only freedom he knew.
"Ah, that's lovely," sighed Elenin.
Aranion rolled his eyes.
At the conclusion of the recital, the petah and his handler received their applause with polite bows, then withdrew so the gift giving could commence. "Here we go," muttered Aranion.
Amiri, the eldest child and royal heir, received a bow and arrows. Plump from eight pregnancies in ten years, it was a wonder the Crown Princess could even move--what in the world would she do with such a weapon? Amiri kept an impassive face, spoke the ritual formula of thanks, and waddled back to her chair. What a waste of a handsome bow, electroplated ash wood with matching arrows in a black leather quiver. Aranion would not have minded receiving it himself.
"Mother will probably give me some dull philosophy book," whispered Elenin. "She ought to know by now that I never read anything but my ledgers."
Elenin rose when his name was called, received the dreaded book, and returned. "You're next, little brother."
Gritting his teeth against certain disappointment, Aranion approached the royal dais. His mother, immense, remote, and regal, inspired no particular affection. Aranion spent his childhood with his siblings in the children's palace, where his only guardians had been servants and tutors. Like all the royal children, he never knew his father or even his father's name, and rarely saw his mother the queen. Even now at twenty-nine, even as Admiral of the Queen's Navy, he scarcely ever had an audience with her.
This war with Shivar might go differently if she ever bothered to listen to me, he thought bitterly.
Amunnikal, draped in silver and pearls and a great peacock headdress, reclined amid turquoise moiré and tapestry cushions like some exotic bird. Aranion dropped his gaze and, wishing himself elsewhere, bowed.
"To our beloved son, Prince Aranion," she said, "a gift of music."
Amunnikal waved a plump hand thick with silver and turquoise ornaments. From the corner of his eye, Aranion glimpsed wheaten hair and a flash of white.
Oh, gods, he thought.
It was the mute singer, the petah.