A/N: This is boys' love (/warning), but not overwhelmingly so. Overall, this is a story about love and happiness; it has been a feel-good piece for me to write, and I hope, at least to someone, it will be a feel-good piece to read. Comments are appreciated, as always.
He was going to die. The realization still hadn't really sunk in yet, although the cruelly biting ropes binding his wrists and ankles to their respective counterparts were awfully convincing. The rolling cart he had been unceremoniously thrown into upon his abduction had halted long ago, giving his upset stomach, induced by jerky movements, a chance to settle. He wasn't used to riding for so long; the farthest he had ever been from his village had been to the nearby river and back, and the bumpiest ride he had ever endured had been from the back of a worn work pony at the annual faire.
In these past few hours, Malin had seen more than he had seen in his entire lifetime.
Malin was, in truth, from a humble upbringing. His father was a cooper, a maker of barrels, and he was a fairly successful man in their village due to the nearby vineyards that stretched as far as the eye could see. Their family, living in a small but well-kept house with a large workshop attached in the midst of the artisan sector of the village, consisted of his mother and father, his two sisters, and his three brothers. Malin was the youngest of the male children, though older than his two sisters. His sisters, having inherited their mother's beauty and sweet nature, had easily been betrothed a few years prior; his two oldest brothers had been trained in the family craft and already aided their father in the main construction of the barrels while Malin and his one sister who still lived with them aided their mother with the daily tasks.
His third brother, Cedrick, had been taken away two years ago by priests from the Temple; he had been Chosen by the Goddess to become one of her hands, her priests. Mother and Father had been so proud of him, and his Choosing had been the pride of the village for quite some time. Though Cedrick had been his favorite brother and the one he had been closest to, Malin could not be wholly happy for his good fortune. Secretly, Malin had been jealous that it had been Cedrick chosen to break away from the bonds of mundanity instead of him.
Malin, in comparison to his siblings, had inherited his mother's looks and his father's stubborn temperament, and he was the scourge of the baker's wife for his adept pilfering of the occasional pastry. He was thinly built and medium in stature despite his belligerent nature, and he frequently found himself as the target of many of the older boys' harassments, not to mention the beatings he earned in his own household for being insolent and disrespectful. While he wasn't pretty as his sisters were, he was attractive enough in a boyish fashion with his copper hair and bright eyes that he learned that remaining constantly dirty and unkempt was a safeguard against increased persecution by village boys who were jealous of him. His mother would scold him for giving such a bad impression of their family, for she was very concerned with image and reputation, but she ultimately allowed him his eccentricities as long as he completed his daily chores.
It had been during one of these tasks that everything changed for Malin. It was early morning, and he was walking down the dirt path towards the river as he had a thousand times before with two buckets of his oldest brother's making attached to a pole slung over his shoulders. The water was for his mother to begin cooking, as she had already begun to light the kitchen fire when he had run out the door to fetch water to avoid getting stuck with the duty of buying foodstuffs in the marketplace. The merchants there didn't care for him much, and he disliked the petty squabbling over pricing; he would much rather be walking out under the false dawn sky, all alone and free to imagine he was someone and somewhere else. He would gaze out over the horizon at the endless stretches of green and imagine the towns and temples that lay beyond and the golden city that presided over it all.
It had always been a childish dream of Malin's that he would one day see for himself what lied beyond those vineyards. All children were, of course, told of their great capitol city where the Goddess-Touched, the Great Emperor himself, resided, but the tapestry of gilded words only served to increase Malin's curiosity instead of satisfy it. The city was carved out of a single white stone, and the Grand Temple, the focal point and the home of the Great Emperor, was topped with gold. If one were lucky enough to view the Grand Temple at the exact moment when night and morning met like passing lovers, it was said that one could speak directly to the Goddess. The tales said the people lived in spacious homes and bathed in golden tubs with jewel-encrusted feet; they never had to work, and, most appealingly to Malin, they never went hungry.
Malin hated being hungry. He hated it more than being beaten, which was one reason he was so often—a roll of bread was by far worth a few extra stripes. He was hungry now, though it was not the spine-bending, stomach-clawing hunger that soon surrendered to the numbness which had been so familiar to him during the drought several years ago. A thought made him brighten, though. He wouldn't be hungry for long today; he would be able to fill his stomach this evening at the gathering, for today was the day the Great Emperor, the man who legend said was as tall as two grown men together and twice as powerful, was to wed in the capitol. It was a special ceremony, as was required for someone so closely linked to the Goddess, but such things were beyond the knowledge of a commoner such as Malin. All that really mattered to him was that he had been promised sweet meats and good wine if he behaved.
It was a glorious event for the Empire, and rumor around the village was that such festivities as would be held today had not been seen since the old Great Emperor's passing on twelve years ago. Malin had been but a toddler then, but he still remembered when the village had gone into mourning. Everything and everyone had been draped in white in respect for the late sovereign, and Malin remembered thinking it looked like the entire village had been covered in pristine snow in the middle of the sweltering summer months. He had laughed to himself, delighted at the idea, but his mother had smacked him for such a show of disrespect during a time of solemnity.
He had gotten wine and sweets then, too, but the atmosphere had been subdued and altogether too serious for a boy of his age and attention span. Tonight, however, was to be a time of celebration and gaiety. He could eat and laugh as much as he liked without being scolded. Music would play and people would dance, and, maybe, if he closed his eyes it would almost seem as though he were in the capitol among the resplendence and luxury.
It was thoughts such as these that danced and fluttered through Malin's mind as he stepped carelessly along the path, the buckets swaying on their hooks with his movements. Dust kicked up underfoot, accustomed to being loosened by either feet or hooves, and he knew his leather sandals and skin would be powdered with its reddish hue before long. The riverbank wasn't far away, though, and he had almost reached it when the rolling of crooked wagon wheels and steady clopping finally muted the silence. He didn't pay it any mind, the sound being such a familiar occurrence in his life that it was perhaps more startling to not hear such sounds of productivity. Instead, he proceeded to the river bank and knelt in the dewy grass to fill his buckets. They sloshed when he took his first step away from the bank, heading back up the slight incline.
It was as he reached the dirt road again that the sound finally grew loud enough to draw his attention. Turning his head towards the noise, he found his curiosity, too, piqued when he spied three mounted horses, one drawing a covered cart, fast approaching. It occurred to him that maybe it would be good to be cautious, but his inquisitiveness had always been one of his weaknesses. The horses were so obviously foreign and well-bred and the men riding were so clearly dressed nothing like commoners that Malin couldn't help but want to know what they were doing heading towards his small village. The fleeting thought occurred to him that maybe they were priests accompanying his brother on a visit home—or maybe .. maybe they had finally decided to take Malin as well!
Excitement shot through him and anchored his feet to the ground, and he only watched with wide eyes as the procession grew closer and closer. A dust cloud rose up into the air behind it, and Malin was surprised at how close it had actually gotten when it began to slow and one of the men suddenly called out to him, "Boy! You, boy!"
Malin's eyes darted off to the side, as if now contemplating escape, and the buckets of water felt heavy and uncomfortable. He shifted them awkwardly and began to make a hasty retreat—but it was too late. One of the horses had ridden ahead, startling him by sweeping around him to block his escape. He jolted, spilling water onto the ground where the parched soil eagerly drank it up.
The man atop the horse looked down at him, inspecting him for a long moment before speaking, "Your name, boy."
The youth stared nervously up at the man's leather armor, his eyes falling upon the short sword at his side, and the horse snorted at him. He would have run, but the carriage and other horses had arrived behind him by now. His heart thumped in his chest, and he tried to work up the usual foolish courage he fell back upon when confronted by bullies in the village. The fact that those bullies didn't normally have swords was something he tried to ignore.
"Malin," he answered as harshly as he could, beginning to regain his nerve, "Malin, son of Kenelm the cooper."
"Cooper," the armored man repeated, his bushy brows furrowing. He glanced over Malin's head at his companions, then continued, "First son?"
"Will he do?" And now the man wasn't speaking to him but rather to one of the other men. The addressed man made a contemplative sound, slipping from his steed and approaching Malin in a series of quick, fluid movements. Malin turned, surprised, and watched the robed man approach and, curiously, set a large hand first upon Malin's forehead, then upon Malin's chest. A priest, the boy recognized vaguely, and his heartbeat quickened under the priest's hand.
At length, the priest spoke in a quiet, monotone voice, "He will do," and withdrew to remount his horse. Confused, Malin watched him go, but when the sound of something slicing through the air came from behind him, he started to turn out of reflex—only to be halted in mid-action by a jarring strike upon his head. He stumbled, his vision flickering, and his last thought was that the water he had fetched would go to waste, spilled across the ground when he collapsed.
It was not long, or so it seemed, before he awoke and realized the gravity of his situation. His limbs were tied securely by narrow ropes, and his head pounded to the beat of the horse clopping. When he first opened his eyes, the dull, worn fabric of the cart's interior greeted him, and he stared at in confusion. Then the cart gave a sudden great heave, its foremost left wheel encountering a stone embedded in the path, and Malin tumbled forward with a startled yelp. He tried to catch himself, but the way his wrists were tied together prevented any great versatility, and he ended up curling protectively into himself at the last instant instead.
The cart settled back into a regular, if bumpy, movement, and Malin rolled onto his side. The cart was not large, and it was mostly empty save for several bags, a small box, and himself. Upon inspection, he found that the rope around his ankles also looped through an iron ring secured to the floor, no doubt a precaution against him escaping. He spent several vain minutes tugging first at the knots and then at the ring before giving up and crawling on hands and knees to the opening of the cart. The cloth fabric hung down loosely there, and he tentatively pulled it aside only to blink owlishly at the bright sunlight.
Once his vision adjusted, his mind tried to process what he saw, and a mix of fear and adrenaline shot through him in response. The terrain was utterly foreign to him; there was no sign of his village, of the river, or even of the vineyards that had always been the western horizon to him. There were trees here, many trees, and they faded off into a forest in the distance and then into hills. The dirt of the path was not reddish but a dull brown, and it was wider and more well-kept and used than any he had ever treaded on. Even the air smelled differently here.
Wherever he was, he was far away from home.
It was late afternoon, nearing evening, and the sun hung high in the sky. Malin wondered if it was the same day or not. It was difficult to tell, as he couldn't remember waking at any point, but the memories of that morning were clear enough. The three men—one had been a priest, he thought?—had come, spoken strangely, and then one had knocked him unconscious. They must have tied him up then and put him in the cart.
He reached up to brush his disheveled hair out of his face and rub at his forehead, and his hands caught together, reminding him of their binding. Irritated, he ineffectively scrabbled at the knots again, and then cast a dark gaze at the iron ring. Realization hit him suddenly, and he caught his breath.
Were they slave traders? Were they going to sell him into slavery?
It made sense, suddenly, why they had asked him the questions they had. He was poor—poor, certainly, but free! his mind growled—and he wasn't the first son, so he wouldn't be missed terribly. And, even if he were, what could his parents do about it?
His blood ran cold and hot simultaneously from a peculiar mix of fear and anger, and he redoubled his efforts on the bindings. In the end, he only ended up wearing himself out rubbing his skin raw under the ropes. With a frustrated half-sob, he gave in and leaned heavily against the frame of the cart's back, staring out at the landscape as they passed it by.
The semi-forested terrain gave way to grassy plains, and the sun began its descent in the sky. It was getting colder, and Malin's stomach growled loudly, disallowing him to forget that he hadn't eaten that day—and allowing him to deduce that it was still the same day as he had been kidnapped. He was hungry but not starving. For all his hunger, he couldn't seem to entertain the thought of food. The way the cart jostled to and fro, pulled by those proud, foreign steeds in turns, made him feel nauseous, and he was sure he would throw up if one of his kidnappers so much as offered him bread.
He didn't want to be a slave.
The thought was persistent, but Malin only allowed it to hover at the edge of his consciousness and instead focused on watching their surroundings. It was dusk when the cart stopped, pulled to one side of the path, and he heard the men dismount and speak quietly among themselves. It still felt as though the cart were moving, though, and he tried to shake the dizziness as he crawled away from the opening and curled up innocently in a corner in case one of the kidnappers came to look in on him. Sure enough, before long, the fabric was swept aside and the cart shook as someone climbed into it. Malin tensed but feigned sleep, ignoring the gruff, "Hey, boy."
When a hand grabbed his shoulder and gave him a great shake, he could no longer keep up the pretenses and scrambled away from the man. Even in the dimness, he could identify the shape as the first man Malin had spoken to, the one clothed in leather armor. To his surprise, the man held something out to him, and Malin recognized it as bread and a hunk of traveling jerky.
The boy stared at the offering for a long moment, nausea and pride battling with hunger and fear, and at last he stubbornly turned his head away. He tried to ignore the fact that he was shaking and said in as cold a tone as he could manage, "I'd rather see you try to sell me starved."
The man was speechless at first, and then he gave a bark of a laugh and threw the food at the brunette. "Don't be stupid, boy. You're not to be sold! You're to be a sacrifice at the Great Emperor's ceremony. What greater honor is there?"
With that, he left, leaving Malin stunned and clutching at the stale roll hard enough to make it crumble. He was to be a … sacrifice? That meant he would … that meant they would kill him.
He was going to die. Some part of him couldn't seem to decide if this fate seemed better or worse than being sold into slavery.
Malin spent the next hour or more dully turning the thought around in his mind and the roll around in his palms. The wood was rough and cool beneath him, no doubt leaving splinters in his clothes and numbed skin, and the night air induced chills into him. His wrists, more so than his ankles, stung from his frantic efforts at escape earlier, and his stomach, though fairly settled, still refused to contemplate eating. He wasn't hungry any longer; the shock had driven that from him.
He didn't want to die. There was still so much more he had wanted to do and see. He didn't care if it was an "honor". The Great Emperor was his emperor, surely, and he owed allegiance to him, but it wasn't as if the Great Emperor, who was far removed from Malin's insignificant village, had ever personally done anything for him. Malin had been living peacefully in his little village with his unexciting but safe future of cooping ahead of him—but now that was gone.
Why had something like this happened? Why him? It was an honor, the man claimed, but why did Malin deserve it? He wasn't anything special. Was this a punishment? Had he done something to anger the Goddess? Perhaps he hadn't been devout enough.
The cart shook again some time later, heralding the entrance of one of the men. This time it was the one Malin had taken for a priest, and the man approached him with a coolness and briskness that matched the evening air. A knife glinted in his hand. Malin shrunk back instinctively, but the priest ignored him and went straight for the iron ring and, with a flick of one wrist, had cut the rope from the ring. He took the trailing end in one hand, beckoning the boy to crawl to the opening on the cart, where he proceeded to cut the rope from his ankles entirely.
Malin watched his long, solemn face as he did, not speaking until he could no longer take it and finally said, "Am I really to be a … a sacrifice?"
The priest nodded barely, slipping the cut bindings from Malin's feet and inspecting the rope burns on the boy's slender ankles.
"Why me?" Malin found himself voicing the question his mind kept repeating, and he flinched back slightly when the priest suddenly met his eyes. For some reason, the man scared him, even though he hadn't so much as spoken a handful of words to him.
"It is not your place to ask questions," the priest said softly and dropped the rope to the ground, "The Goddess requires your service, and you must accept the honor."
He turned then, stepping from the cart and gesturing for Malin to follow him. The brunette boy frowned at the retreating back, rubbing at his ankles before jumping to the ground. His legs were stiff, and his knees almost buckled, but he shook them and tried to clear his mind. His first instinct was to run, of course, but that plan was defunct before he could so much as take a step towards freedom—the armored man loomed before him, arms crossed and glowering with a lantern at his feet. Malin scowled at him, pulling a little at his still-bound wrists out of habit, and obediently turned to follow the priest instead.
His heart stopped.
Great buildings stood in the distance, white monoliths standing out against the evening sky, and stone walls wrapped around them in a possessive embrace. And, raised above all, was the greatest building of all. White like the others and ten fold as grand, it was topped with a dome Malin knew, though dim in the darkness, was golden.
It was the Grand Temple, and this was the capitol city which had featured so prominently in all his boyhood fantasies.
He was so absorbed that he didn't even hear the second armored man approach. One moment his feet were anchored to the ground as he gawked, and the next he had been seized around the waist and slung up into the saddle of one of the white horses (whose pristine coats were, indeed, stained with dust) in front of the robed man. The priest reached around him to the take the reins, and they set off towards the city, leaving the other two men behind for reasons unknown to Malin. The matter of being a sacrifice was far removed from his mind presently; he was still reeling from the thrill of realizing his dreams, albeit in a bittersweet manner.
The horse moved swiftly, and Malin soon found his stomach protesting again. He was glad he hadn't eaten the bread and jerky after all, for he surely wouldn't have been able to keep them down had he.
"You must do everything you are told," the priest was saying behind him. "Should you be chosen, you must listen carefully and complete your duties flawlessly."
Malin nodded, even though he had no intention of obeying someone who planned to kill him. The situation still didn't seem real to him, regardless. Surely it would turn out to be some mistake, that they hadn't meant to bring some nobody like him or that he had misinterpreted the term sacrifice somehow. Some part of him still clung to that childish notion of immortality and invincibility.
Steadily and inevitably, the city grew closer, and it towered over them. He had only been able to see the tallest buildings from a distance, but he was able to distinguish the many shorter buildings before long. The horse moved under him smoothly but with power and speed, and Malin clutched reflexively at its mane. Soon, the wall around the city blocked out all but the tallest buildings again, and Malin stopped tilting his head back because it made him lean against the priest, which made him nervous.
They came to a gate in the wall, and the priest and the guards in attendance, who were dressed very much like the two men who had accompanied the priest in abducting Malin, exchanged hushed words. Whatever the priest had to say was sufficient for admittance, apparently, because a guard opened the small gate while another motioned them inside.
It was very dark now, and the only light to see by was cast by the odd torch secured to the outside of a building. Malin, eager to drink up all the sights, turned his head from left to right in boyish delight, but his excitement faded as each street they clopped through seemed just like the last. The buildings were not built out of a single white stone, he saw, but instead out of many blocks of cracking and worn stones. The buildings, up close, didn't look so grand; in fact, many looked poor, what with their crooked shutters and holes in the thatched roofing. The roads were cobbled, but out of old stones, not out of gems, and, overall, nothing was the way the stories had said.
Strangely, though torches were lit in varying degrees of frequency, the city felt … well, abandoned. The houses obviously had occupants, but they didn't seem to be at home. It was just a feeling, though, and Malin had no way of really knowing. He had no way of doing anything, in fact, as the priest held him at the shoulder while he guided the horse through the narrow streets. They grew closer to the looming temple, but they bypassed the huge stone staircase that led up to the equally gigantic front doors and instead found a smaller, back door, where they dismounted and knocked.
A guard answered, a spear in one hand as he peeked out into the darkened street, and the priest gestured towards Malin and said, "A sacrifice for the ceremony."
"You're late," the guardsman said, and the priest frowned at him.
"We had difficulties finding anyone. Is there still time?"
The guard nodded, and Malin was pushed inside. He squinted his eyes at the sudden increase in light but was internally grateful at the increase in temperature. It wasn't a great deal warmer, but as least there was no breeze here.
"This way, boy." The guard was nudging him along, and Malin stumbled to obey without noticing that the priest wasn't following. He was guided through a hallway, up a staircase, and finally to a door. The guard knocked on it, and it cracked open. Malin could see a suspicious eye and a sharp nose peeking out from the space. "I've got another one, Sharil."
"Another one!" the figure looking out the door said in a shrewish voice that was identifiable as a woman's. "First this girl comes in late, and then you bring me one who's late and unexpected!"
"This isn't one of the Virgins. He's a sacrifice." The guard pushed him forward, and Malin stared rudely at the woman as she pushed the door open wider to look at him.
She didn't seem pleased with what she saw. "And what do you want me to do with him? He's a mess! The choosing will be in less than an hour, and I don't have time to—"
"Let him have a bath and give him robes, Sharil. Priest Byram brought him in, and, if you do this favor for him, I'll be sure to let him know," the guard said persuasively, and the woman's hardness wavered. Malin somehow doubted that the cold priest would deign to repay this woman in any way.
At last, the woman said reluctantly, "I have some water left, but the last girl is bathing there now."
"So let him bathe there, too."
"He's a boy!" the woman protested shrilly, and Malin winced and averted his gaze. She wasn't ugly, just a plain-faced middle-aged woman, but her eyes were like a hawk's, and he could tell she didn't like him.
"He's just a child, Sharil!" the guard retorted, suddenly grabbing Malin's chin and squeezing his cheeks together. Irritated, Malin jerked away. He was not a child. He was almost sixteen summers old, and, though he had a boyishly handsome face and a slender figure, he certainly didn't look like a child. Perhaps his dirty and disheveled appearance wasn't helping in making him look his age, though.
The woman looked torn, and the guard gave her a pleading look, causing her to cave in. "Oh, all right," she huffed, grabbing Malin's hand and jerking him past the door and practically into her worn aprons. "But you owe me, Herrick, and don't you forget it!"
She waggled a finger at the guard, who grinned widely and winked at her. "Of course, of course," he said, and then he closed the door and Malin was left with the shrieking woman.
Without a word, she started to shift her grip to his arm and then paused. She looked down, her sharp eyes alighting on the rope binding his wrists, and gave a horrendous sound. "Why that ratfink Byram!" Malin wished his hands were unbound just so he could plug his ears. She reminded him, suddenly and strangely, of the baker's wife, who often made his ears ring with her scolding.
"Stay here," Sharil said, and she disappeared from the room before returning with a small knife, which she used to saw off the ropes with some effort.
As the cords fell away, Malin found himself looking with surprise at the torn skin beneath them. The woman gave another sound of displeasure before grabbing his hand again and pushing him through another door. He stumbled into the new room, rubbing at his wrists and wondering exactly what was going on. The room was small but brightly lit, and there were several tubs with buckets beside them. The baths didn't have jewel-encrusted feet, he noticed with a distant pang of disappointment as he glanced around.
Malin startled as he found himself looking at a girl in one of the tubs, who blushed and ducked down low upon catching sight of him. Sharil was suddenly looming over his shoulder, "Now, boy, I know you're no child, whatever that fool Herrick claims, so I'll warn you now: do not touch this girl. She is one of the Virgins, the Great Emperor's brides." The woman shoved something into his arms and then turned towards the door. "Use the buckets over there to fill yourself a bath. Change into that afterwards. Finish quickly; I'll send someone for you afterwards."
She disappeared back through the door, and Malin looked down at the white cloth in his arms and back up at the girl hiding in the tub. There was the sound of a bolt being thrown to lock the door from the other side. Shrugging to himself, he approached one of the empty tubs some distance from her, set the cloth on a bench, and began to heave the full buckets of water over to the tub. It reminded him of taking the buckets to the river this morning, which strangely seemed like it had been a very long time ago.
He was in the middle of pouring the second bucket into the bath, which was all he needed to fill the tub, when a voice behind him said quietly, "Why are you here?"
Malin started, spilling some of the water outside the tub. He had forgotten about the girl in the room—well, not entirely forgotten, but he didn't think she would talk to him, and he was surprised when she did. Her voice was pleasant-sounding, if timid.
He finished dumping the water in the tub before turning around to face her, forgetting temporarily that she was bathing. She was blushing faintly, still naked and in the tub, but there were suds in the water that covered her. He smiled slightly at her. "I'm not sure. Why are you?" he asked, although he already knew, and she knew he knew.
The girl swirled a finger in the water and brushed self-consciously at her wet hair with the other hand. Malin truly looked at her for the first time. She was a few years older than himself, he thought, and she was very beautiful. She had the pale skin of one who did not work all day in the sun. Her blonde hair was darkened by wetness, and her brown eyes stared sadly into the water. "I'm here as a c-candidate to be the Great Emperor's first wife, his consort." She didn't sound happy about this.
"Oh," Malin said, and then he started to strip. It didn't bother him bathing with her there; he bathed with his sisters all the time, and it was surprisingly easy to think of her in such a platonic manner. She glanced up at him, then quickly looked back down again until he had slipped into his own tub and was washing briskly with the sliver of soap he had found. "I'm Malin. What's your name?"
"Laurel," the girl said, "Do you think he'll pick me?"
"Who?" The chamber was filled with the sound of water splashing and the quiet conversation between the two lost youths.
"The Great Emperor. Do you think he'll pick me?"
"I don't know. Do you want him to?"
Laurel didn't reply, so Malin didn't push her. He washed his hair as best he could, inwardly pleased at being able to wash off all the dirt the day's travels had gathered, and generally ignored why he was currently in the Grand Temple taking a bath.
"I don't want to marry him," the blonde girl said suddenly, and Malin looked up at her. He thought she had tears in her eyes, but she quickly turned her head. "I don't want him to pick me. Is that sinful of me?"
"Why don't you? Isn't it," and he paused, unsure of the word he wanted until one came unbidden to his mind and lips, "an honor?"
"Yes, but …" Laurel bit her lips and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "But I love someone else."
"Oh. Why didn't you marry him instead?"
"I can't!" she blurted, and the words echoed off the walls. Ashamed, she quieted her voice. "I can't. I'm a noble's daughter. He's just the falconer."
"Does he love you, too?"
"Yes," the girl said softly and sadly, though not without a faint smile, "He does. But it doesn't matter now. I've already been chosen as a candidate, and if he chooses me …."
Malin stood up, water falling around him, and Laurel looked away again, but this time less out of embarrassment and more out of politeness. He grabbed at a towel hanging from a hook and rubbed himself dry. In truth, it was a nicer bath than he'd had in years. His stomach growled at him insistently, reminding him that he still hadn't eaten today, and he rubbed at his wrists, which still stung.
"Don't give up, Laurel. Things might work out after all," he said, feeling compassion towards this girl whom he had only for a very short while. It was especially strange, since he should have felt more sorry for himself than for her, but such was his nature.
"Thank you, Malin," Laurel said shyly, and she faltered before adding hesitantly, "And … could you call me Lori?
"All right." Malin was struggling with the clothing Sharil had given him, which turned out to be a plain white robe. He finally got it over his head and slipped it all the way on, even though it stuck to his damp skin during the process. "I think I have to go soon, Lori. They'll come to take me away."
"Where are you going?" she asked, reaching for her own towel. Perhaps some of his unabashed attitude had spread to her, because she managed to get out of the tub and towel off with minimal blushing. Maybe she was able to think of him like a brother just as he had thought of her as a sister.
"I'm not sure. The priest and guards told me I'm to be a sacrifice."
"A sacrifice!" Lori repeated, startled, and nearly dropped the towel she had been wrapping around herself. She looked at him with fearful eyes just when there was a knock and the door opened.
A guard stood there, averting his eyes, and Malin noted that he wasn't the same one that had talked his way into getting Malin a bath. The guard gestured toward him, and Malin moved to follow him. He looked back over his shoulder at Lori, who looked like she was torn between crying and calling out to him. "Don't worry, Lori. I'll escape," he said, "It was nice meeting you. I hope you get to marry him."
She nodded at him, tight-lipped, knowing that he spoke of her falconer and not of the Great Emperor. The guard closed the door between them, and Malin immediately glanced around, intent on keeping his promise to the blonde girl. Sharil was nowhere in sight—or hearing, thank the Goddess. The guard, who had heard his words and seen his looks, though, quickly took hold of one wrist and looked at him apologetically.
"Sorry, kid. Gotta get you there quickly."
Malin frowned but sealed his lips and didn't struggle. There was no way he could overpower this man anyway. The guard led him from the room, down the hallway, and up several tight stairways. The man gripped his wrist tightly, which made the rope burns sting more, but he didn't mention it. Upon reaching the targeted door, the guard withdrew a key, which he used on the lock, and then propelled Malin inside before shutting and locking the door behind him.
Malin turned to find the room filled with a dozen or more others dressed in white robes like his. They stared at him with wide eyes, and he stared back. Most of them were his age or younger, but there were one or two who looked older. Most were male, too, but several of the younger ones were female. They were in varying position around the room—seated on the floor, leaning against walls, crouched in corners—and he chose an empty spot on the floor to plunk down onto. The person he had sat nearest to, an older boy with dark hair and dark eyes, turned towards him and looked like he was about to say something, but then the door opened, and all heads, including Malin's, turned toward it. Malin wasn't sure exactly what he expected—probably another youth dressed in white robes—but what stepped through the door was certainly not it.
Several men had entered, all dressed in priestly robes, headed by a man who wore more decorative robes and facial paintings. Guards lingered outside the door, and the priests gathered around the man who was apparently their leader. The head priest cast his judging, slitted eyes over them all, not unkindly.
"If you'll form rows," one of the priests said, and he had an air about him that demanded obedience. There was hesitation among the group, then grudging, if disorganized, attempts at following the order. With a bit of bumping and murmured words, they managed to form several short rows, and the head priest stepped forward and began inspecting each one.
One of the young girls, standing to Malin's left, began to cry. Without looking up, Malin reached out his hand and took hers, squeezing it lightly until she squeezed back and quieted down. He had been so preoccupied with this that he didn't notice the head priest had detected his actions and was now returning to the front of the room.
"You have each been selected for the chance to serve your emperor and Goddess in a most honorable way. In giving your life during this ceremony, you give your soul to the Goddess and insure yourself a high position in the afterlife," the head priest said, his mouth barely moving but his words coming out clearly and with strength behind them. He met each of their eyes in turn, drew his hands down the front of his dark robes embroidered with gold thread, and continued, "However, the Goddess only requires a single sacrifice during this ceremony, but he must be of the purist heart. Therefore, only one of you will be chosen."
Malin listened, perplexed, and wondered if anyone here had actually come voluntarily. He didn't notice rope burns on anyone else's wrists. Maybe he was wrong in not to want to die for this cause? But, surely, the Goddess wouldn't want him dead …. Well, regardless, he was not pure of heart—he stole and cursed and started fights and disobeyed his parents—so he had nothing to worry about after all.
The head priest gestured towards one of his followers, and the lesser priest shut the door with a quiet click. The priests fanned out around him, and the head priest stepped forward. His eyes slipped closed, and he extended a hand before him, pressing it to the chest of the first child, just above his heart. The child stood still, holding his breath, until the head priest moved on to the next boy.
Malin glanced nervously at the closed door, wondering when he'd next have his chance at escape. He wasn't stupid; just because they didn't want to sacrifice him didn't mean they would let him go. The little girl whose hand he still held clung tightly to him, and he hardly registered the feeling now. He waited, patiently, as the painted priest pressed a hand to Malin's heart and then passed on to the little girl and the older boy after her.
Having worked through each youth individually, the head priest returned to stand before them, and he offered them a faint smile. It was the kind of smile that made one feel proud of some accomplishment, whether or not one had actually accomplished anything, and several of the boys squirmed and looked down at their feet.
"You are all pure of heart and soul; I can see my fellows have judged you well. The Goddess calls to one of you especially." The man raised a hand and pointed at the dark-haired older boy standing in front of Malin. The boy started, but he did not move, and Malin let out a breath he hadn't known he had been holding. "What is your name, child?"
"Lindley, sir," the boy answered tautly, fairly shaking. Malin wasn't sure if it was from fear or excitement.
"Lindley. From this day onward, you are in the service of the Goddess. You will train to be one of her hands and devote your life to her. Congratulations." Surprised at recognizing these words from his own brother Cedrick's Choosing, Malin glanced up sharply. "Priest Falton, take Lindley from this chamber and induct him with the other neophytes."
"Yes, High Priest," the named priest nodded and beckoned the Chosen boy towards him before leading both of them from the room. The door closed again.
"Now," the High Priest said, and then he had locked gazes with Malin and was smiling in that same manner. "You, boy, what is your name?"
At first, Malin's voice wouldn't come to him. He could only stare back, shocked and frightened by the implications, and grip the little girl's hand too tightly. He was aware that the others in the room were looking at him, some expectantly, some curiously, and some jealously. Finally, he managed, "Malin. Sir."
"Malin. You have been selected for one of the greatest honor one of your position can be given. Tonight, at the Great Emperor's binding ceremony, you shall give your soul to the Goddess to bless the union of the Great Emperor and his chosen consort."
Honor. The word was beginning to annoy him.
"Sir, I do not want this honor," he said quietly but stubbornly.
Shocked silence met him, and then the High Priest smiled indulgently and said, "Nonsense. Malin, this way."
A priest stepped forward to gently take him by the arm and persuade him to obediently follow the head priest from the room. His heart sunk as his hand slipped from the little girl, who gave a small sob and tried to reach for him, but he hardened his resolve immediately. He would not be manipulated and forced into following what others deemed to be his destiny.
He would make his own destiny.
It felt as though his heart would explode if it beat any faster. Malin strained his hearing over the roar of the blood in his ears, trying to make use of what senses they had left him. He could see nothing, as they had securely tied a blindfold over his eyes. They were outside now and in a large area. There was a crowd nearby, Malin guessed from the sounds of breathing and murmuring and shuffling of feet. He couldn't believe this was happening.
After leading him from the chamber with the other potential sacrifices, the Head Priest had briskly explained to him his duties for the night. He would be led to a sacrificial pedestal, and, upon hearing the chimes that signaled the beginning of the ceremony, he would slit his own wrists. One of the guards displayed a small knife, which he gave to Malin shortly before they went outside, and drew the flat of it from his palm to his elbow of his inner arm to illustrate how he was to cut. He was to do it deeply and then hold his arms before him. Apparently, he was supposed to try not to die until the ceremony had finished. It was also made clear that, should he get intimidated by the "honor" and freeze up at the crucial moment, there would be guards standing by to "assist" him.
Once, just before they had blindfolded him, Malin had foolishly tried to escape. The several guards escorting him—for the High Priest had already left—caught him easily.
"I do not deserve this honor," he had said lamely when one of the guards mentioned trying to bind him in some manner.
The guard eyed him, then sighed and said, "The High Priest judged you worthy, boy, so don't worry." The topic of binding him didn't come up again, and they led Malin without further mishap to a large stone door. They put the blindfold on him then and handed him the knife
Now they were leading him outside, the guard behind him guiding him with an inconspicuous hand on his shoulder. The smooth stone beneath Malin's bare feet was cold, and Malin shivered in his thin robe. It was late night or maybe early morning, he guessed, and, while there was no breeze any longer, it was cool out. He had the distinct feeling that there was quite a bit going on around him, but he couldn't tell what.
The guard behind him tapped him on the back of his heel and said something quietly, and Malin bumped into the base of the pedestal before realizing that he had been signaled to step up onto it. Shakily, he raised his foot, found the first step, and slowly worked his way up the narrow stairs until he stood at the plateau of the pedestal. The guards turned him to face away from the stairs properly and shrunk back somewhere behind him.
Malin gripped the knife and stared blindly ahead. He couldn't tell how high up he was. Climbing up the steps, it hadn't felt like more than a few feet, but who knew what was ahead of him? It sounded like there were people in front of him, though, so he didn't think it was a sheer drop-off of a cliff or anything. He swallowed and shifted.
The knife felt heavy in his hand, reminding him of exactly why he was here. It didn't seem so impossible now; he didn't feel so immortal now, nor as invincible. In fact, he felt his mortality more strongly than he ever had, and it terrified him. He didn't want to die. He had only just been given a glimpse at the place of his childhood dreams, and there were so many adventures he still wanted to embark on. He might not be a good person, but he certainly wasn't a bad one, and he didn't deserve this. Some part of him knew with absolute certainty that they were all lying. The Goddess, as he knew and loved her, would never demand him to kill himself. She wouldn't ever require the sacrifice of one of her children. They had misunderstood her will.
He must escape, Malin decided firmly. If he killed himself, he would be following their misguided notions of her will. He would rather they kill him than he kill himself. And, even if the Goddess did want his blood, as the High Priest said … well, she was kind and loving; even if he didn't pray to her as often as he should, he knew she would forgive him for wanting to live still.
He would escape, even if it killed him.
No, the whole idea was not to get killed. So he would escape—even if it damned him.
When the chimes rang without warning, Malin hadn't even had the chance to form the bare bones of a plan. He had to act quickly, though, or he would lose all chance to act at all. It was instinct that drove him then, that propelled him forward. He didn't have time to tear off the blindfold yet or to accurately judge how far ahead of him the edge of the pedestal was. He just took several running steps and jumped, hoping the ground below was close enough that he wouldn't break his legs upon impact and could thus continue fleeing.
The world, in his sightlessness and panic, dissolved into chaos. When Malin hit a warm body instead of cold stone shortly after launching himself into the air, he could hardly process what had happened. He just tried to scramble away, the order to run run run! still dominating his mind, but arms came around him and held him. He forgot he was holding a knife and struggled instead, trying to pull out of the warm hold.
Suddenly, the blindfold was gone, torn off and tossed aside, and Malin found the abrupt recovery of sight disorienting. His movements slowed momentarily, and he stared up into the face of his captor, who stared back at him with just as much surprise and confusion. It was a young man who held him. He was handsome and with a youthful face of perfect, pale skin. There were tiny gems forming a curve under each eye, one secured to the middle of his forehead, and a last one in the middle of his bottom lip. His long black hair, parts of it done in ornamental twists, was disheveled now and tangled about them both, and he wore, from what Malin could see, very decorative robes and a ceremonial hat.
Malin wondered what the other boy saw in return.
Dimly, Malin became aware that people where yelling, but he couldn't look away from the young man holding him.
"Great Emperor!" someone yelled, cutting through the haze around Malin's mind, and the copper-haired boy stiffened, realization dawning. This … this wasn't …? It couldn't be! This was the emperor? But the young man was barely taller than Malin himself—and hardly a man at all! He looked as though he couldn't be older than eighteen summers or so. He was most certainly not the powerful giant rumor foretold. Malin had difficulty believing that this boy and his father had been the men he had heard about all his life.
But, glancing up, he found the idea less difficult to accept at the sight of dozens of guards standing just outside the circle of candles he and the Great Emperor were in. Among the guards, being pushed back, Malin spied several young women, one of which he recognized as Lori. Past the guards were more faces, priests and other less identifiable people. Malin looked back at the Goddess-Touched one he had inadvertently launched himself upon, as stunned as everyone else by this unexpected turn of events.
Slowly, the Great Emperor spared a restraining arm and set his hand upon Malin's cheek. His eyes narrowed contemplatively, and he drew his fingertips gently down the cheek and under his chin. Something about the touch shocked Malin back into movement, and he found himself abruptly brandishing his knife in a rather threatening manner. The yelling roared to a crescendo and then swiftly cut to hushed, panicked whispers, and Malin wondered what in the world he thought he was doing. This was the Great Emperor, his leader—one simply did not hold a knife to the Goddess-Touched's sacred neck! How many different levels of blasphemy had he just committed?
Nevertheless, that was exactly what Malin was doing. The black-haired boy watched him carefully, his eyes betraying no emotion but curiosity now, and he slowly loosened his grip on Malin's smaller body. Malin was aware that his hand was shaking, so he pulled it away slightly so as not to accidentally knick the other boy's fair skin.
"I'm sorry," Malin found the words falling from his mouth, and they trembled as much as his hand, "I'm so s-sorry, very sorry."
Babbling and obviously unwilling to carry out the threat he had made, Malin didn't notice when the guards started to draw in closer. They hesitated, seemingly unwilling to pass the barrier the candles, though snuffed out, created, and they stopped entirely when the Great Emperor unexpectedly held up a hand to them.
"It's all right," the young man said, and he smiled in such a way that Malin felt instantly forgiven.
Strangely, feeling forgiven made Malin feel twice as guilty, and he jerked away, dropping the knife to the stone ground with a dull clatter. No one moved to apprehend him, as the Great Emperor still held up his hand, and Malin seized the opportunity without consciously deciding to. His feet decided for him, and he found himself stumbling over the candles, pushing through the ring of guards, and at last breaking free to stone steps. He barreled down them, adrenaline pumping and blocking out all rational thought. When at last he hit the cobbled street, he ran and kept on running, regardless of not knowing where he was running to.
He rounded a corner, breathing hard and feeling hot and clammy despite the chill of the early morning air, and he collapsed against the side of the building even though his mind had ordered his feet to keep running. The adrenaline was fading, and his vision started to spot and darken. Malin shook his head and pushed himself to his feet, sure the feeling would pass and knowing that he was not yet far enough away that he could afford to relax. He managed the next few steps but then leaned against the building again, and this time his consciousness fled from him entirely as he collapsed to the cobblestone road.
When Malin first opened his eyes, he thought he had died. The night before was a blur, but he at least knew that where he was was not where he shouldbe. He was not curled up on his straw sleeping pallet in his family's home, nor was he still slumped in some alleyway or another or finding a bed on the stone floor of a prison cell. Therefore, he must be in the afterlife. Maybe the guards had caught him and summarily executed him after he passed out—or maybe everything past the bell ringing had been a dream, and he had really been sacrificed after all.
Staring up at the expansive, white ceiling and curled up in mounds of silk sheets, he wondered why exactly, if he were really in the afterlife, his head felt like he had been using a millstone as a pillow. With a groan, he reached beneath him and experimentally touched at the back of his head. He withdrew his questing fingers sharply, having found a sore lump that protested at even such gentle probing. Why could he still feel pain if he was dead?
"Does it hurt?"
Startled, he looked sharply towards the voice, which belonged to a handsome young man with black hair, who was seated in a chair near the bed and watching him intently. Malin recognized him instantly and sat up in surprise, wondering just why the Great Emperor had followed him into the afterlife—perhaps to scold him?—but the immediate wave of nausea he felt shut down all other mental processes besides the one that made him collapse back into the soft bed and clench his eyes shut. Perhaps this was divine punishment for threatening the Great Emperor.
The nausea passed, and Malin became aware of gentle touches on his forehead. He forced his eyes open, and the Great Emperor smiled faintly down at him, not pausing in brushing hair out of Malin's face as he asked, "Are you all right?"
Well, what else was one supposed to say when waking up in a comfortable bed with the Great Emperor petting him and asking after his health but, "Uh, yes." And then he added as an afterthought, "sir."
It only occurred to him much later that addressing the Great Emperor by "sir" was like addressing the Goddess as "ma'am." The insolence didn't seem to anger the Great Emperor, though; instead, his smile widened and he said, "Don't worry about such formalities in private. I am Vasilis. I'm told you called yourself Malin?"
Vasilis. Malin turned the name around in his mind and at last decided that it equated well with the dark-haired young man, although it didn't seem fitting for the Great Emperor. Then again, Malin couldn't seem to associate the young man with the Great Emperor in the first place, so it was probably fitting that his name seemed equally unsuited for such a great role.
"Or is that not your true name?" the Great Emperor said, startling Malin, who hadn't thought a reply was necessary.
"Oh, it is, sir, sorry, sir." He paused, unconsciously inspecting the young man and not noticing how conspicuously he was going about it. Vasilis—yes, the name did fit him—looked slightly different today, if only because the light around them was pure sunlight and not the dim torchlight of their first meeting. But he also was not quite as decorated, Malin noted. The jewels from his face were gone, save the one on his forehead, and he wore trousers and a long, ornate shirt instead of ornamental robes. His hair was worn down simply, not braided or beaded or anything anymore, but he still had the same handsome face and the same pale, smiling eyes.
"Not what you expected?" those eyes asked, and Malin looked away immediately. There was a quiet laugh, which was more akin to humored breathing than a real laugh, at least as Malin knew them, and Vasilis said, "No, I guess not. You did look a little surprised the night before last."
"Before last?" Malin asked, too taken aback to remember that he was supposed to be very, very polite.
"Oh, yes. You've been sleeping since the ceremony, almost two days ago. You were sleep deprived and half-starved, they tell me, and that bump on your head couldn't have helped matters any." Malin, meanwhile, was cautiously sitting up again, and he chose to ignore the words when Vasilis added quietly, "I was worried."
"What … what's going on?" Malin finally blurted out, unable to ignore the anxiety any longer. "You are the Great Emperor, aren't you? Why am I here? Why aren't I dead? Why … why am I naked?"
The latter part he had only noticed as he spoke, and his voice then took on a bit too panicked of a tone for his liking. The Great Emperor didn't answer him, though, but merely picked up a small bell and rang it as he said, "There will be time for that after. For now, you need more food in you."
No sooner had he finished speaking than the double doors on the far end of the room—which was quite far actually, considering how large the room was—opened, and a servant carried in a tray laden with dishes. Another servant followed, clothing spread over his arms, and the two deposited their burdens at the foot of the bed before bowing their way out.
Confused by the display, Malin stayed still and obedient as Vasilis opened the dishes—and, in fact, he stayed so until his mind returned to him after the first taste of soup, which had been spooned into his mouth by the Great Emperor's own hand. Malin drew back, feeling a rush of rash emotions, and then snapped, "I can do it myself!"
Vasilis frowned slightly, but he surrendered the spoon, and Malin downed the rest of the bowl in a flurry inspired by childish anger, which, in turn, was inspired by embarrassment. When he had finished the last spoonful and slammed the bowl back onto the tray, making it clear that he would eat no more, he turned to the dark-haired man and at once decided that, Great Emperor or not, he would have some answers. "What is going on," he said, trying to sound confident but only managing to sound stubborn.
The Great Emperor regarded him for a moment, as if seeking or judging something in Malin's face, and then gave a slight nod. "Yes, I am sure now that there was no mistake."
"You, Malin, have been chosen by the Goddess and myself as my consort."
Vasilis couldn't have shocked him more if he had just declared that Malin was, in fact, a six-legged flying horse with horns. As it was, Malin floundered for a moment before he blurted out the first logical contradiction to the Great Emperor's words, "But I'm a boy!"
"I know. Why does that matter?"
It wasn't as though same-gender couplings were forbidden, just that they usually fell under the categories of lovers, companions, or mistresses. But being the Great Emperor's consort, his first wife, certainly implied femininity if for no other reason than the necessity of heirs. "There must be … this must be some mistake. I'm the fourth son of a cooper, a commoner, and a boy. I was supposed to be the sacrifice; you must have mistaken me for someone else."
"No, it is you. I'm positive. Every condition was met for the selection—the candles went out and the sun broke the horizon as you entered the circle and, most importantly, I felt the Goddess in me when you first touched me."
Jumped on him was more like it, Malin thought.
"Regardless of what High Priest Seldon says," Vasilis continued, putting an image of the painted priest in Malin's mind, "I know. It's you."
That was it. He must have slipped on his way down to the river bank, and he was currently lying in a pile of mud with a mild concussion and dreaming about crazy things like becoming the Great Emperor's consort. Of course.
The Great Emperor seemed surprised when Malin, whom he was waiting for a reply from, suddenly fell back and pulled the covers over his head. The tray of food clattered to the mosaic tiled floor loudly when the sheets were displaced under it, but Malin didn't relinquish his hiding place. Still, some part of him felt guilty for wasting food, even if this were a dream.
Ignoring the spilled food, Vasilis stared worriedly at the lump on the bed. "What's wrong? Does your head hurt?"
"Shhh. I'm trying to wake up."
"But you're not sleeping."
There was a pause, and then Malin's head peeked out from beneath the blankets, his copper hair tousled and his expression stubborn, "I am not your consort. I'm a boy. Boys can't have babies."
"Yes, I know."
"Isn't the entire point of having a wife to make heirs?" Malin sighed, clutching the blankets around his shoulders.
The Great Emperor regarded him, and then smiled faintly and shook his head. "Where have you been living these past years? You're not one of my lesser wives, you're my consort. The first wife doesn't need to bear heirs—she is chosen to be my companion. My love and my stabilizing point. My life mate and my confidant."
"But I like girls." To some small degree, at least. He hadn't had a crush since he was nine, but he liked the way they looked, and he was positive he would grow into liking them more.
"You'll get over it, I'm sure," Vasilis said, not unkindly but as if the answer were logical.
"You," Malin said slowly, "cannot be the Great Emperor."
"Oh? But I've always been told I am. Since I was six, in fact."
"Six?" Malin repeated incredulously. Their Empire had been led by a six-year old? Malin had never heard anything about the new Great Emperor being a child when he took the throne—he had always been told about the greatness and power of the two emperors, never anything else.
"Yes. Anyway, the point being that you needn't worry about children. For me, it's better this way. I don't have to worry about you, my most important person, dying because of childbirth like my mother, my father's consort, did. Your role is to love me; it is the duty of my other future wives to bear me heirs. Now, does that settle your worries?"
"What other problems could there be? You've said yourself that you are not the first son, so your absence shouldn't be a problem for your family. Regardless, I will have notice of your position as well as a decent sum of compensation sent to your family. What else could there be?"
"I …" Malin started, then stopped, furrowed his brows, and at last said what he should have said in the first place, childish as it sounded, "But I don't want to be your consort!"
The young man—the Great Emperor, or so he claimed—tilted his head and looked genuinely perplexed, as if that idea were incomprehensible. "But it is a great honor."
Malin was really, really starting to hate that word. He sighed. "Listen, I don't care who you are or what you think happened, but I'm really not what you're looking for."
"I don't want anyone else," Vasilis said, and, for the first time, Malin saw some of his own childishness reflected back at him. The young man, who must be just under twenty, if he were six when Malin was a toddler, with his regal features and commanding air was just an arrogant and stubborn and childish as anyone else—perhaps even more so. "You could come to love me, couldn't you?"
Something about that realization and the way he asked the question made Malin feel guilty, and he found himself seriously considering the query. "I … I don't know. Maybe."
This seemed to be close enough to an acceptable answer, because Vasilis' smile returned. "I'm very glad. And if you can't, if I've made a mistake, though I know I haven't, I promise you will be compensated and allowed to go where you please. But, for now, could you just try?"
Splendid. Malin sat quietly, curled in the sheets, which were soft and sleek against his face, and wondered to himself why he didn't seem to have the heart to snap a denial at Vasilis and be done with it. Instead, his lips moved of their own accord, and he heard himself say, "All right."
"Good." The Great Emperor stood then, pushing back his chair, which made a quiet sound on the tiled floor. Malin watched him, the way his loose clothing swayed like his long hair and the way he was suddenly looming over him. He didn't have time to react; the Great Emperor had already touched their lips together and drew away by the time Malin flinched back in surprise. It wasn't much different from when his mother kissed him, the few times she ever had, and yet it couldn't have been more different. "I'll send someone up to help you bathe and dress, and then you should rest more. Is there anything or anyone you want? I can send for someone from your family, if you wish."
"I," he said, frowned, and then wiped a hand across his lips. A bath sounded wonderful, but the question gave him pause. "Actually, are the … the bride candidates still here?"
"The Virgins? Oh, yes. They will remain as ladies of the court, and several of them will probably become my secondary wives."
"Then could you send for the lady called Laurel?"
"Of course," the Great Emperor said easily, without even the slightest inflection in his tone that would betray suspicion or jealousy. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes. Could you … is it possible to see …"
"I will make anything you want possible."
"Um, all right. I want to see my brother, Cedrick, then. He's a priest."
"As you wish. I will send for the girl now, and I will send a request for your brother to the priests."
He left then, stepping over the spilled tray and slipping from the large, bright room. Malin stared after him until he abruptly realized that he was holding his breath, and he let out a whoosh of air and sat up simultaneously. "Arrgh," he groaned, grabbing his head both in pain and in frustration. What had just happened?
Disregarding his current state of undress, he slipped out of the bed and started to pace around the room, inspecting every nook and cranny. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with great dusty tomes, and Malin wondered what they said. The writing looked pretty, but he couldn't read it, so he passed them by after a lingering look. There was a wardrobe, opened and empty, standing tall and grand in one corner, and a desk sat next to it. All of the furniture was made of dark wood, while the walls and floor were cast in shades of white. The mosaic of the floor, which formed some pale, geometric pattern, was cool under his bare feet. He shivered, finally feeling cold, and it was then that someone knocked on and summarily opened the door. Like a cornered animal, he did no more than turn and stare at the offending barrier with wide eyes.
"Oh, stop looking so frightened, boy. You've got nothing I haven't seen before," Sharil snapped at him, and he blinked back. "Well?"
"Y-yes, ma'am," he stuttered.
She rolled her sharp eyes, setting her worn hands on her hips and clucking her tongue. "Don't be calling me that, now, boy. You're the Great Emperor's consort—talk about a shock!—so don't you act below anyone but your husband now."
As she spoke, she had approached him. Taking his hand, she led him across the room and to a small door, which opened up into a rather large bathing room. Hot water steamed in the tub, and she herded him toward it, picking up sponges and various bottles along the way.
"You're the talk of the Grand Temple, you know. Who would have thought—the sacrifice as the new Consort! And you, threatening the Great Emperor with a knife!" Sharil said shrilly as Malin stepped into the tub. With a small metal cup, she dripped water in his hair and then began to lather it with something sweet-smelling. "He watched over you, you know. He spent all day and night sitting by your bedside, and whatever time he wasn't here he was arguing with old Seldon, that old fool. The Great Emperor was adamant that you were the one, but Seldon denied it for a long while. He finally gave in, of course, and so you're now the Consort, approved by all parties. Who would have thought! Sit still, boy, I'm almost done."
"I … oh, Goddess, I give up," Malin sighed, making a face when some of the shampoo got in his mouth and proved not to taste so sweet as it smelled. He sat still obediently as she rinsed his hair and began to clean his body. Something told him that trying to tell the intimidating woman that he could very well clean himself would be useless, so he tried his best to just enjoy the hot water and ignore the babying.
After a thorough washing and drying, Malin stood still and Sharil helped him into his clothes. They were similar to the ones the Great Emperor wore, consisting of loose trousers with a tie around the waist and a decorative tunic with many layers to it. It felt strange to be dressed in such fine clothing, and he squirmed a little in them. Someone had cleaned up the spilled tray while they were in the bathroom, and he stood where the mess had been. He was just being put into his second shoe—or, at least, that was the way it felt—when a timid knock came at the door. Sharil called a succinct, "Come in!"
Lori stepped inside shyly, dressed in a modest white gown, and Malin instantly felt a swell of calm at the sight of her. He smiled widely and stepped forward, ignoring the way Sharil growled and grabbed his foot back to keep lacing up his shoe. "I told you I'd escape," he declared, and Lori's pretty face allowed a timid smile.
"I'm so happy. I saw you up on the pedestal with the knife, and I was really afraid for you. I'm so happy you're all right," she said, ducking her head a bit as if she weren't sure how she was supposed to act around him. "But I never imagined … isn't it wonderful? You're the Great Emperor's consort! What is it like? Do you love him?"
"Of course not," he said, his smile fading. "Who ever said I wanted to be his consort? I just want to go home and get out of this mess."
All sense of security that Lori had gained from his smiling face fled immediately. She looked ashamed, staring at her feet and retreating a little. Of course, how could he have been so thoughtless? This was a good turn for her, because it meant she could still have a chance with her true love, but he had just made her feel guilty for wanting to be happy for him. "I'm sorry—" she started.
"No, never mind," he interrupted, waving a hand, "I'm sorry. I didn't … I mean, I'm just a little scared and confused. I'm glad things worked out for you."
She made a small sound of assent, her shoulders relaxing slightly. Sharil smacked his foot suddenly, having finished lacing up his shoe, and stood. "Well, I'd hate to interrupt this farther. Is there anything else you need, boy?"
"Um, no. Thank you, ma'am." He gave a small half-bow, like he would have given his mother after she had done something for him.
"I already told you not to ma'am me. You could get both of us in trouble," she glowered. Lori shifted uncomfortably at the door, and she tensed when Sharil swept past her with a pointed look to them both.
Awkward silence filled the room in the absence of the hawk-eyed woman, until Malin sat on the bed's edge and the blonde girl ventured, "I was told you asked for me …."
"Yeah. I, um, do you mind?"
"Oh, no!" she said instantly, stepping closer, "Of course not."
"That's good. I just kind of wanted someone to talk to, and you're the only friend I have here, so …."
"Friend," Lori repeated slowly as his words trailed off. He nodded briefly, and she smiled. Tentatively, she moved closer still, not quite touching the bed, but hovering close to it and him. "So, what happened?"
"Since I woke up?"
"No, no, tell me everything. How did this all happen to you?"
He shifted, making a space for her next to him in case she decided to sit. "Well, my father is a cooper, and I'm the youngest son, so I mostly do chores for my mother. I was just getting water for her when everything started …."
"… W, X, Y, and Z."
"I've already done it fourteen times!" Malin protested, slumping down in his chair. "I know it, can't I take a break?"
"You most certainly can not," his aged tutor replied easily. "You have no discipline. To think the Great Emperor would choose an illiterate commoner as his consort."
Malin gritted his teeth, but wisely held his tongue. This was not the first time he had heard such words, and he had learned that it was best just to keep silent. He had run into with the High Priest, Seldon, several times more, and the man was not so benign to him these times; he wasn't outright rude, of course, but he certainly gave off the air that he believed Malin undeserving of his new place. He wasn't the only one that gave Malin that impression, and this tutor was just more vocal about his opinions than others.
Malin had been living in the Grand Temple for almost two weeks now—or, more precisely, he had been living in the large, bright suite for almost two weeks. Despite all his protests to the contrary, Vasilis seemed to believe that he was frail and ill and therefore disallowed him from leaving the room. Malin had long since gotten over the small bout of weakness he had fallen under, and, as a boy accustomed to working all day, whether in the cottage or outdoors, he was being driven mad by this idleness.
Lori visited him daily, of course, and he wasn't tired of her company. They had grown very close in such a short time, and he saw her increasingly like one of his sisters. Vasilis, in an effort to keep him amused, sent up many different entertainments, like musicians, instruments, dancers, and drawing implements. Malin usually turned them away, embarrassed and unwilling to be so greedy, but he quietly kept a small set of paints and a sheaf of papers. The idea of painting had never occurred to him, but he thought he might try it some time, and so he hid the materials away to be experimented with when he was alone.
Which, as it turned out, was not such an easy state to be in. If Lori or various servants or entertainers weren't with him, Vasilis was. They didn't talk about much, often just sitting together quietly, but Malin was noticing that the awkwardness he had initially felt around the Great Emperor was fading. Vasilis didn't kiss him again like he had the first time, but he did ask to hold Malin's hand on a regular basis, and the feeling wasn't bad. He heard the servants talking often, and apparently it was a strange thing that the Great Emperor was allowing his consort so much space and time—Malin shivered at what the alternative would be, so he didn't complain about his boredom too much. He wasn't altogether sure what was required of him as a consort, and he wasn't sure he really wanted to find out.
One day, Vasilis had walked in on Lori reading to him, as she often did at his request, and he had looked shocked and hurt. Malin had looked up guiltily, unsure exactly what he felt guilty about—he and Lori had just been sitting on the floor by the fireplace, nothing suspicious—and the Great Emperor had politely asked the blonde girl to leave. She did so, looking distraught, and Vasilis had approached him, helped him up, and sat them down together on the bed. Malin shifted uncomfortably, not liking the way the young emperor was watching him.
"It's true, then? You can't read?" Vasilis had said, as if it he had just unveiled some terrible secret.
Surprised that it was such a little thing, Malin had nodded, and he was totally unprepared for the forlorn look he received in response. Instantly, he felt ashamed; Vasilis was finally regretting choosing him after seeing how stupid and common he was firsthand.
"Why didn't you tell me?" the Great Emperor said quietly. "Why do you tell her everything but tell me nothing?"
"I'm sorry. I tried to tell you I wasn't what you wanted—"
"No," Vasilis interjected, and Malin cringed at the hand that was suddenly holding his chin. "I want you. I want to know you, too. Please don't hide from me. I want to know everything about you; I want you to know everything about me. I need you."
He wasn't so surprised when he found his arms full with Vasilis, who was hugging him tightly and pressing his face into Malin's shoulder. Something in the Great Emperor's eyes had told him he would. And he didn't mind it so much. After a slight hesitation, he returned the embrace, finding the feeling of soft hair under his hands not unpleasant. "Okay," he said, and so began their first true bond of trust.
The next day, of course, Malin had awoken to the disagreeable discovery that Vasilis had hired him a tutor to teach him how to read. It was only their second lesson, and yet the miserly old man had already earned himself a place on Malin's list of people whom he would thoroughly enjoy seeing shoved off a cliff. He might be a good teacher, but he had no compassion, and he treated Malin as if he were an idiot. Worst of all, time he spent in lessons was time he wasn't spending with either Vasilis or Lori. And so, thus annoyed, he recited the alphabet once more and then, just as the tutor was about to complement him stingily, proceeded to recite it backwards just as quickly.
"…C, B, A, I know it, all right?" he concluded petulantly and crossed his arms. The tutor stared at him with narrow eyes and was about to reply when another voice superseded him.
"That's enough for today, I think." Vasilis stood at the door, dressed in loose clothing and smiling.
The tutor nodded, collecting his things, and quit the room promptly. When he was gone, the Great Emperor took his seat, which was set across from the one his consort sat in. "I've just received word that your brother will be arriving in a few days."
Malin nodded. He had been told that Cedrick was serving in a temple on the outer reaches of the Empire. "Maybe I could go out to meet him partway there?"
Vasilis seemed surprised at this, and he returned automatically with a phrase Malin been told countless times before, "But you're still recovering."
With his nerves already raw from the lesson, this was the last thing Malin wanted to hear. "I am fine," he gritted out, narrowing his eyes. "I want to go out to meet him."
The suggestion had only been an idle one, but now that Vasilis had rejected it on the basis of believed weakness, Malin latched onto it stubbornly.
"I don't think that's a good idea. The heat has been increasing lately and the ride, even to a halfway point, would be long and dangerous. I don't want you getting hurt."
"No, Malin, I'm sorry."
Abruptly, it all seemed like too much. The situation, the boredom, the restriction, the whispering voices degrading him at every turn—not smart enough, not noble enough, not a woman, not anything right. He wanted out. He wanted, so much, just to go outside and run until his legs collapsed beneath him.
"I am not a girl!" he shouted, standing up so sharply that his chair fell over on its side with a dull clatter of wood against stone. "You keep me locked up here, pampered and protected and spoiled, like some stupid doll!"
Vasilis stared up at him with wide eyes, his handsome features reflecting confusion. "I'm just trying to—"
"I don't need your protection! What, do you think it'll make me love you?" As soon as the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Vasilis' expression shifted, first taking on a countenance of hurt and then one of anger. He, too, stood, and though he was only several inches taller than Malin, and not much larger otherwise, Malin felt as though the Great Emperor were towering over him like legend said he did. The brunette shrunk back, his instincts preparing him for a blow, but he was entirely unprepared when a hand seized his chin and a mouth pressed tightly to his own. He jerked back, surprised, but Vasilis curled an arm around his waist and pulled their bodies together. Their lips parted, then met again more deeply. There were hands on his hips, a tongue delving into his mouth, and Malin was torn between surrendering to the heat and screaming aloud in frustration over what was going on!
When Vasilis drew back, loosening his hold on Malin, the young emperor's face was flushed. Malin wondered if his own face was as red, but he didn't think so. Vasilis heaved a ragged breath, then closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Malin's, as if he couldn't bear to look into the younger boy's shocked eyes. "Yes," he said unexpectedly.
"What?" Malin whispered back, unconsciously speaking quietly because, as close as they were, loud tones didn't seem necessary.
"Yes, maybe I did think that. That you might love me if I sheltered you from the world. No one told me it would be this .. hard. I'm sorry."
Malin frowned, then awkwardly leaned forward and kissed the older boy's forehead. "It's okay. Can you let me go now?"
Vasilis' eyes shot open, and he jerked his head up, almost hitting their noses together. "I—no, I can't! Do you hate me now? I can't … please don't leave …."
The copper-haired youth blinked slowly. In the last few minutes, he had seen more sides of the Great Emperor than he knew existed, but this vulnerable side surprised him more than any of the others. "I, uh, I meant your hands. Could you let go of my, um, back."
Slowly at first, and then as if he couldn't do it quickly enough, Vasilis released his hold—which was, in fact, on an area slightly lower than his back—and stepped away. Vasilis coughed lightly, "Sorry."
At a loss for what else to do, Malin righted his chair and sat back down. He gestured towards the pile of papers on the floor, which were covered in scribbles and his childish, sloppy handwriting. "I can write all the letters now."
Vasilis followed his nod and carefully bent to retrieve the papers. He paged through them, and when he looked up he was smiling faintly. The atmosphere was still awkward, but both were ignoring it. "You're learning so quickly. I'm proud of you."
He handed the papers back, and Malin tried to suppress the strange feeling of warmth the words had generated in him. He cleared his throat and pretended to be putting the papers in some semblance of order, but he looked up when Vasilis said in an exaggeratedly offhanded manner, "Maybe you and I could go meet your brother at the capitol city's boundary. And, if you like," he held out his hand almost shyly, and Malin took it, "we could go for a walk in the garden now."
He tried to keep his composure when the younger boy gave a laugh and jerked him out of the chair. Malin looked genuinely happy, more so than he had seen him when they were alone together, and Vasilis found his mouth running dry.
"I won't leave you," Malin smiled at him, and then he dropped the Great Emperor's hand and darted to the door, "but I'll race you there!"
"Uncle Malin," the blonde child said plaintively, squirming in his seat. "Are we done yet? Can I go yet?"
"Just a little longer," Malin said indulgently, watching the child and sweeping short, quick strokes with a paintbrush on a piece of canvas set out before him. The young boy pouted, his pale grey eyes—the eyes of his father—darting about for some source of entertainment. It was a miracle that Malin had gotten the boy to sit still for so long already, but he needed the boy to be patient a little longer so he could finish the outline. Lori had wanted a painting of her eldest son so badly that Malin couldn't help but oblige her. Jarek was just old enough to be willing to put up with sitting to get his portrait painted (with sufficient bribery, that is), but Lori's younger son, Nissim, was still too young to sit still by himself and slightly too old to be held for his portrait. Lori would have to wait a year or two until Malin had enough patience to attempt to paint the younger heir.
But, in a few years, Goddess knew how much else could change. So much had changed already for Malin in the past six years that he was hard pressed to imagine how it could change more in the following ones. Lori, his heart's sister, became Vasilis' second wife because of a deal that was, mostly, Malin's own work. The idea that Vasilis had to marry anyone else hurt him, and he thought it might hurt less if it the marriage was between two people he cared for and trusted. At least the disapproval towards Malin had faded since the marriage and consequent birthings, and Lori did seem happy. For her, the marriage was ideal. They sent for her falconer, whom she was allowed to spend as much time with as she wanted, but whom she wasn't allowed to sleep with until she bore Vasilis two male children. She did, almost immediately, and now she had a series of suites for her, her falconer, and her children.
The children, who knew Malin as Uncle, looked just like their mother. Still with baby fat on them, they were adorable by anyone's standards. The elder, Jarek, had his mother's blonde hair, but the younger, Nissim, had his father's black hair instead. Vasilis adored them beyond words. He and Lori had a friendly and professional relationship, so it was a wonder that they could love their children as completely as they did without loving each other so wholly.
Vasilis' third wife, a young woman from a neighboring country, married him purely for political reasons. She had died in childbirth three months after the marriage, and the child, a premature daughter, had survived for another six months before succumbing to illness. Vasilis had been crushed, and he had yet to take another third wife since. The third wife hadn't liked Malin much; it had never bode well with her that Vasilis's most important person was his male consort, and that Vasilis would never spend the whole night with any of his wives. In fact, he never spent more time than he had to with them. What time wasn't spent on his duties was spent with Malin, who had taken up painting as a serious hobby. It was strange to find that such a simple thing, putting paint on a canvas, could make him so happy. He had begun by painting in secret, doing little things like books and flowers, and had eventually had enough gall to ask Sharil, the head house-woman, to pose for him. He had grown fond of her over the years, despite her shrill scolding and persistence in calling him a boy. After that, his painting began to improve, and his hobby was discovered by Vasilis. He learned quickly then, put under the guidance of the court painter, and soon was doing well enough that Vasilis often requested portraits from him.
Like this one, which he was actually painting as much for the child's mother as for his father. In a way, he was painting it for himself as well. Malin, too, loved Jarek very much, and the child represented many things to him. It had been this son's coming into the world which had caused Malin so much distress and which had made him realize exactly how blessed he was.
It was two years after his own accidental marriage to Vasilis that Lori and Vasilis wed, and it was hardly a month after that that Lori proclaimed herself with child. The announcement had shocked Malin far more than the marriage had, even though both events were of his own doing. He knew Vasilis and Lori would sleep together, and he knew the point of their marriage was to produce heirs, but somehow the actual evidence of this made him feel … crushed, squeezed, and, as he would recognize later, deeply jealous. It hurt more than he had ever expected. He felt betrayed, like Vasilis had not only slept with Lori, but had fallen in love with her in place of him. Vasilis always came back at night, though, after he went to see his wives. Malin wouldn't let him sleep in the bed those times, which had been the source of many fights, but things continued well enough. And Vasilis had always sworn to him that Malin was his one true companion and that he felt nothing for his secondary wives.
Something about the announcement of the coming baby made Malin doubt this promise. Perhaps he wasn't afraid of the wives but rather the baby stealing Vasilis' love Regardless, the night after Lori informed him of her pregnancy, Malin packed a small bag, threw in some coins, and quietly left the Grand Temple.
He had escaped many times before, and the way was well known to him by then. Despite Vasilis' tacit promise so long ago to not smother Malin so much, Vasilis still had a bad habit of being too protective towards his consort. In the earlier days, Malin was allowed limited and supervised access around the Grand Temple. When he escaped the first time, managing to hide on the streets for a day before a guard found and identified him, Vasilis went absolutely crazy. They had a huge argument, one that lasted almost a week and was never really resolved. On his second escape, Malin managed to sneak some of his painting supplies out with him, and he earned some coins (not much, since he wasn't very good then) painting small portraits on the street until he was caught. By the third time, Vasilis was tired and worried enough that he gave Malin permission to travel escorted into the city whenever he wished.
It wasn't as though Malin wanted to leave Vasilis. He didn't at all; he merely wished to see the outside world once in a while. But the night after Lori's announcement was different. Then, he did want to get away. He wasn't running to somewhere anymore, but rather away from someone. And he left, for the first time, without the intention to return.
It was easy to find a man with a cart and a horse who was willing to drive him out into the country for a handsome fee. Malin settled into the rickety cart, feeling unusually reminiscent, and drifted off to sleep. He had been sure to eat lightly that evening, because riding in such a manner still upset his stomach, although not at badly as it had in the past. They arrived in Malin's home village by the time the sun was high on the horizon, and Malin had thanked and paid the man. He hadn't been back to his village in the six years since he had been abducted from it.
Strangely, he couldn't bring himself to go see his family. He sent them letters on occasion and received news back just as irregularly, but he hadn't seen any of them in years—save Cedrick, whom Malin had a renewed close relationship with. His father had died from illness while he was gone, and his sisters were all married now. The elder one, in her husband's home, cared for their mother. His two eldest brothers had taken up their father's business, supplying the tiny town with barrels. Standing there, he briefly thought about going to see his youngest sister, the one who most often sent him letters,—she was happily married and expecting a child soon—but some part of him refused even that.
Instead, he spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about the village. It was hot out, and many of the people were out working. He stopped in the bakery, which was being managed by the baker's eldest son now, and bought himself a loaf of bread which he chewed on contemplatively as he walked around. Standing by the old well in the town square and looking all around, he watched the few people move about and wondered how many he didn't recognize that he had once known.
That night, he stayed at the small inn in the village, claiming to be a traveler passing through on the way to the city. No one recognized him, which wasn't terribly surprising—although, the old innkeeper, Master Relves, did stare at him a moment longer than necessary before telling him that there were indeed open rooms. Malin hadn't grown as much as he had hoped to, but he had still grown, if more in spirit than in body. Handsome, Vasilis called him. His handsome little dove. Malin thought he was more like a stray cat than a dove, but it still made him happy when the Vasilis called him that, even though he pretended to be displeased whenever he did.
Lying on the narrow, straw bed in the village inn and staring up at the ceiling, Malin reflected on the day. He had the bizarre notion that the village was completely different than and yet exactly the same as when he had left it. Everything was smaller, more crammed together, and more … homely. It seemed to have no place for him, and he wasn't quite sure what to do with it either. Just like how he hadn't noticed he had lost his country accent until he heard someone speaking with it again, he hadn't realized how much he had changed until he was reminded of what he used to be.
The next thought struck him abruptly and with the sharp sting of truth: this wasn't his life anymore. His life was back at the Grand Temple with Vasilis.
It was a revelation he should have had long ago, but somehow he had always let it slip by him. He needed Vasilis as much as he needed his own mind, and the feeling of disquietude he had had all day was no doubt due to this. There was still the problem of the coming baby, but … well, he would just have to be less selfish and more trusting. It was easier to think that now that he had had time to cool his head. Surely Vasilis wouldn't stop caring for him with the arrival of an heir, and, even if he did, Malin knew he could do no more than remain by his lover's side. If he couldn't be with Vasilis, then there was no longer anything for him. He had outgrown his village and his old life. He was no longer the foolhardy boy he had once been.
Malin awoke bright and early the next day—earlier than he had in years, even. Perhaps it was the surroundings, making him fall into his old schedule. The innkeeper's wife was downstairs slicing a loaf of bread when he came down, and she smiled at him and offered him a piece. When he bit into it, he was reminded of his days of stealing bread from the baker's wife, and he smiled back at the kindly old woman. He departed then, leaving behind more money than the inn fare could possibly be and deciding he would see one last thing before he left his old home forever.
The river seemed smaller and tamer and the road seemed narrower than he remembered. This was where it had all begun, he thought as he stood in the middle of the dirt road, looking down the grassy incline that led to the river. It felt like he was back in that time, and, just like back then, he hardly noticed the sound of clopping coming down the road. Still, the noise grew louder, and he at last spared his attention from the river and watched as a white horse approached slowly from off in the distance. The dust from the road would turn its pristine legs rusty red, Malin thought absently, and he watched it come steadily closer.
Then, all at once, the horse was next to him, and Malin looked up at its rider with lazy eyes. "Hello," Malin said simply.
Vasilis stared at him evenly, and then something seemed to break within him. His expression shifted, his worried eyebrows and mouth relaxing, and then he said quietly, "I thought you weren't coming back."
"I wasn't," Malin answered, and a flash of panic returned to Vasilis' face before the younger man continued calmly, "But now I am."
"I'm glad," Vasilis said after a moment, and the simple words seemed to convey a thousand things. I'm sorry; come back; I want you; I need you; I love you. He didn't say any of these things, but he didn't need to. Malin smiled faintly, and when Vasilis offered his hand, he hadn't hesitated to take it.
"How long are you going to torture him like this?" a voice breathed into his ear, and Malin started, almost swiping his paintbrush across the unfinished canvas by accident. Vasilis stood behind him and, with gentleness, removed the paintbrush from his consort's hand and then looked over at the young boy fidgeting on the stool. "You can go for now, Jarek. You're a good boy for sitting so still so long, but your mother wants to see you now."
"Yes, father," the child said, gratefully leaping from the stool. "Uncle Malin, you'll give me the sweets later? You promised."
"Ah, yes, of course."
The blonde boy gave a stern nod, a gesture reminiscent of his father, and trotted off to find his mother. Malin began to pack up his paints quietly, wondering how he had managed to finish the outline without even paying attention.
"Thinking?" Vasilis asked, slipping an arm around his waist and pulling their bodies close, Malin's back to his front.
"Yeah," Malin murmured, closing his eyes and letting the tube of paint fall from his fingers. There was warm breath on his neck, and he shivered lightly in response. "Just remembering."
"Life," he said, turning in his lover's hold and taking one of Vasilis' hands. He brought the hand to his cheek and pressed a kiss to the back of it. Vasilis started to pull away then, but Malin held his hand stubbornly and gave him a faintly beseeching look.
Vasilis smiled, badly feigning a put-upon expression, and leaned into him to extract the same treatment for his lips as for his hand. "Happy?" he whispered, watching Malin's eyes and the way he blinked so quickly.
"Very," Malin said seriously, returning the smile and squeezing their joined hands.
Yes. He was happy. It was a strange life he led, and it had its ups and downs, but in the end he had found happiness without ever realizing he had been looking for it.