The Fruit of Love
"Rum, are you still wasting time on that egg tree?"
Rum hopped back in surprise and then quickly petted the leaves he may have bruised. Heketoro laughed, showing off his mouth of pointed teeth. Rum turned away with a sigh. Heketoro could always ruin an otherwise beautiful day.
"You care for it so well," Heketoro frowned, but that sympathy had to be feined. Heketoro didn't have an empathetic bone in his body. "And yet in the thousand years you've given it such loving care, it hasn't bloomed for you once."
Rum's gut churned. All that was true, but Heketoro's seven hundred year old egg tree hadn't either. If it had he would have come to gloat before this.
"You will never have a child, Rum, my friend."
Heketoro was no friend of his.
"Your tree that you so belove has let you down."
Rum crossed his arms. "Why are you here?"
Heketoro opened his eyes wide and put his hand over his heart. "As if I need a reason to visit a friend."
As if he needed a reason to taunt Rum.
"But you have one." Of course he did.
"Oh," Heketoro sighed. "I was just passing near your house…"
Rum's little honey cottage was well out of Heketoro's way as he traveled between the royal palace and his mistress's manor, but he still managed to come by with deliberate regularity.
"… and I spotted your egg tree from the next valley over…"
Rum's egg tree was not nearly that big. The roots had spread out under much of his little valley, but the tree itself was hardly taller than he was.
"…and that reminded me that my mistress's tree…"
His mistress's tree that blossomed so often, according to Heketoro, that one of his daily tasks was to check for the colorful flowers and snip them off as they appeared.
"… has borne fruit."
Rum's jaw clinched. Why did the ones with plenty always get more while the ones without got nothing? "Why would she want another child?"
She had three, two more than most Faie twice her age. People were already comparing her to a rabbit behind her back.
"Why, don't you know?" Heketoro eyes widened and his voice rose in pitch. He's probably been practicing that line for weeks. "The newest fashion in gifts to the king is one's own child."
Rum's breath caught. He looked back at his egg tree.
Heketoro laughed. "You will never be able to give him such a gift."
He sang an annoying tune that called Rum's tree a useless bush as he danced around it. Then he stopped and laughed again. "You will not stay the king's favorite for long."
His laughter echoed through the valley long after he'd gone.
Rum leaned his head into the green leaves. "Don't listen to what he says. I love you."
He kissed a leaf and then lay on the grass beside his tree and sang a song about the earth and sky. He needed to visit the royal palace and see if Heketoro was right. But first he needed to make sure that annoying Goblin's presence hadn't upset Rum's sensitive egg tree. When it did blossom, he wanted the fruit to be strong and healthy.
Rum peeked into the royal nursery. The room held a dozen children, all dressed like princes and princesses, and half that many nurses. How long had this gift been in fashion? He hadn't noticed more than a handful of children about when he visited last spring. Some of the children were years old. How had he missed this?
Or maybe the children were why King Rithisak had whisked him into the royal bedroom as soon as he'd set foot in the gardens on his last visit. The king didn't want him to know about the children because the king knew Rum's tree was barren. Rum could never proclaim his undying affection and loyalty with a rare Faie baby in front of the court. He could never be worthy of being one of the king's lovers.
He snuck back out of the palace, his heart in his stomach.
He hoped the king caught his scent and knew he had been there, but also that Rithisak never found out, which was why Rum had washed in mossy spring water to mask his scent. The king was busy with visiting dignitaries and his own court. He had people willing to fill his bed every night. Rum wasn't needed. He should leave the king to tall, beautiful Faie like Heketoro's mistress.
Rum thought about King Rithisak as he watered his tree with his seed. He'd tried to imagine someone else to turn him on, but Rithisak was the only one who had done so in Rum's over nine hundred years. And Rum had to continue his regiment of seed because although singing to his tree and wrapping the truck on cold nights and planting any non-Fairie gold he could find by its roots had helped it grow to the handsomest and longest lived of its kind, only since he'd come into intimate contact with King Rithisak had the leaves grown thicker and more green and the tree finally looked ready to burst into bloom.
Although it hadn't. But he'd only been watering it thus for fifty years. He wouldn't give it up as a lost cause for at least a hundred more.
He pulled his trousers into place and knotted his belt. He was hungry. Maybe the bees had left him something for his lunch.
As he climbed the oak to reach the hive, Heketoro hailed him loudly, from much too close. Rum almost fell off the branch. He turned to Heketoro. "What brings you here today?"
"What always brings me here, my dear friend." Heketoro zipped up the tree and patted Rum's back.
As soon as Heketoro left, Rum would need to find out whether Heketoro had stuck a sign on him, put a handful of mud or ink on his shirt, or doused him with itching powder. Rum wouldn't give him the satisfaction of checking now. "And what is that?"
Heketoro laughed. "Concern, of course. I have heard rumors, about you, that I think you should know."
Rumors Heketoro or his mistress made up, most likely.
"I have heard that you visited the palace and the king did not invite you to his bed. How very unadventurous of him. With all the bright and beautiful Faie around him, he chose not to spend his night with a short, ugly gnome." Heketoro let all his teeth show in a sneer.
Rum shrugged. He should have known Heketoro would find out. And Rum couldn't be hurt by Rithisak not inviting him to bed. Rum hadn't made himself known. Although last spring he hadn't had to. Rithisak had been aware of him.
"But to cheer you up," Heketoro shoved his hand into the crack in the tree truck where the bees had made their hive. "Some miller somewhere has spread the rumor that his daughter can spin straw into gold."
Rum frowned. Spinning straw into gold coins was his party trick. He'd been doing it since the oldest Faie at court was still hanging on her parent's egg tree. No one else had dared take his trick before. He'd used it to entertain half a dozen kings and countless dignitaries over the centuries. Almost all Faie could conjure Fairie gold but only he could keep it gold after the next dawn.
And spinning straw into gold coins was what had brought him to King Rithisak's attention back when Rithisak was merely the nephew of the last king. After the old king died and the chaos settled, Rithisak stood wearing the crown. And that night he'd invited Rum to his bed.
"So," Heketoro stuck his hand in the hive and pulled out a dripping honey comb. "What are you going to do about it?"
He sucked honey from the wax and then tossed the rest to the ground. What a waste. He'd mangled the hive and hadn't even used up the part he took. Heketoro jumped from the tree and danced a crazy dance and sang about silly bees.
Rum climbed down. He couldn't ask the bees to share until they had recovered from their loss. He looked at the wasted honeycomb. Could the bees reuse it? Or should he just take it inside for the beeswax? He didn't want to eat anything Heketoro had touched.
Where were the bees anyway? At least a hundred had been buzzing around a moment ago. Heketoro pulled Rum's collar from the back of his neck and stuffed something down his shirt.
By the time Rum had convinced the bees not to sting him and freed all of them, Heketoro's laughter had long faded away. But was he right? Had some human stolen Rum's trick? Rum had to know.
Following directions he'd got from a Brownie, Rum snuck into the local duke's castle. This wasn't anything like a Fairie castle. It had no beauty, no grace. But then humans didn't either.
Rum followed a woman's sobs to the room he was looking for. The girl was as young as a mayfly. Tears fell in large drops down her cheeks. Her wet handkerchief could not keep up.
Rum allowed himself to be seen. "Why are you crying, young mistress miller?"
The girl looked up with a start. Seated she was the height Rum was standing, so she didn't have far to look. She wiped her eyes. "Forgive me."
"What, my girl, have you done that needs forgiving?"
"Nothing that I know of. But," she looked around the straw filled room, "surely I must have sinned greatly, for if I do not spin all this straw into gold I will not live out the morning."
That fit with the rumors Rum had heard. Instead of coaxing the girl to perform her trick, the stupid duke had threatened her with death. Rum would never perform for such a man, but none of this was the girl's fault.
"I know the trick."
The girl put her hands together in front of her chest and rose to her feet. "Will you? Please?"
But nothing in life was free. "What will you give me if I do?"
She took a deep breath and pulled a cloth from her apron pocket. Inside was a gold chain. She slipped something that sparkled off of it and hid that in a fold of the cloth. "This necklace."
Rum held the chain up to the light. This was genuine gold and not something made from gold that would revert to leaves or twigs if Rum exercised his will. How many rings and broaches, necklaces and pendants, worn even among the Faie, were of Rum's gold? He never paid attention to what happened to it after his trick was over. Heketoro's mistress wore a few, Rum was sure, but he was also sure she was unaware.
Rum slipped the necklace in his pocket and sat at the spinning wheel. He sang a song about the ocean while he made coins with the face of the last human duke he remembered. Once the girl was asleep, he ventured down the great hall of painting and even snuck into the duke's room. His next batch wore the duke's face. When he grew bored of that he supped with the kitchen Kobolds and exchanged news. As he got up to go back to work, the Kobolds said that the duke would be the most impressed with coins bearing his father's face, so Rum did the last batch that way.
He watched the sun rise from the castle ramparts and then ran home. He dug a small hole between the roots of his egg tree and set the necklace inside. "Gold for power and protection."
He covered the necklace and then sang his tree a song of his adventures as he lay in the dewy grass.
The next evening he went to check on the girl and sure enough the idiotic duke had locked her up again, this time in a larger room with even more straw. She was again weeping, which was to be expected. As soon as Rum appeared before her, she offered him a ruby pendant, which was probably the thing she'd hidden the night before, to spin twice as much straw.
Rum studied the ruby. Its heart burst deep pink in the lamplight. "How does one such as you come upon a gem such as this?"
The girl stared at her handkerchief. "My mother was very beautiful."
He would have to take her word on that. Human beauty did nothing for him. He nodded in hopes she would go on.
"And she had many suitors."
This was going to take all night. "And?"
"And one was a prince, but she was a simple tailor's daughter and he had to marry a princess. He gave her this to remember him."
"And does she?"
The girl cast her eyes down. "She died when I was very young."
Human died so quickly. He slipped the ruby pendant into his pocket. "Sit over there and I will get started."
The pile of straw was massive and he only took one short break around midnight to sup with the Kobolds. His back ached by the time he was finished and bits of straw had worked their way under his clothes and stuck to his sweaty skin. He'd had enough of this trick. After hanging the pendant from his tree and a quick wash, he hunted up a place where the girl could go to be safe from the greedy man.
On his way from there to the castle, he stopped for food and news. Human children were missing in several spots. The Diwata attributed that to the new fashion of giving children to the Fairie kings and queens. Faie had found a way around bloomless egg trees.
Just after dusk, Rum found the girl, yet again, locked in, yet another, straw filled room. Would the duke never stop? Only tonight she wasn't crying. "Mistress miller, have you discovered the trick of spinning straw into gold?"
"No." She wrung her handkerchief in her hands.
"Then you have found a way to escape from the villain?"
"What villain? You can't mean the duke. He promised to marry me if the straw is gold by morning."
Rum looked around the room. Even he wouldn't be able to spin this much straw by morning. "Are you sure you don't want a way out? A childless widower is willing to take you in and treat you like the daughter he never had."
That the man was a king and the prince who had been forced to marry a princess rather than the girl's mother wasn't important.
"No." The girl stood straight. "I just need you to spin the straw into gold so I can marry the duke."
Human were idiots. "And what will you give me for this task?"
The girl looked at her hands.
"You don't have any more gold or jewels hidden in you apron?"
She shook her head.
"Then what will you give me in exchange? What is worth all this?" Rum spread his arms wide to indication all the straw.
"Once the duke takes me for his wife, I will give you anything. Gold, jewels, anything."
Rum toss straw into the air and it rained down as coins. This took more energy that spinning it, but he hoped it made his point. "Do you think I need gold?"
"What will you have that I cannot get on my own?"
A child. Human were good a producing children, sometimes as many as one a year.
The girl hemmed and hawed as the night got shorter. Rum would have to make a rush job of it as it was. "I will spin all this straw, but I require your firstborn."
The girl's breath caught and she turned away. Then her shoulders relaxed and straightened. "Yes. My first born. But only if I because the duke's wife."
If she didn't become the duke's wife, she would end up dead. She could end up dead anyway.
Rum formulated a plan as he spun. Spinning wasn't hard, but a good, fun spinning job included many breaks for all kinds of food and spirits and songs and jokes and dances. Sitting in one place for hours on end was hard even on his healthy body.
He woke the girl before dawn and made sure she understood that he was not returning until he came for her child. She must tell the duke, after he had consummated the marriage but before he again locked her up with straw, that only virgins can spin straw to gold. She agreed. Rum hoped, for her sake, she remembered come morning.
The duke came before the sun was fully up. Rum slipped to the back of the room to spin the last of the straw as the duke lifted the sleeping girl and carried her away. By the time Rum was finally finished, the girl was already a bride.
He went home tired and achy and itchy. He never wanted to see gold again.
He spent the next several seasons lavishing his egg tree with attention. He did not need a bloom, but he still wanted one. He wanted Rithisak to have a child that was Rum's, even if Rithisak rarely visited the children in his nursery.
Rum had been to the castle several times, each to look upon the children. The group had more than doubled since his first visit and many were indeed human.
A queen from another court had come to visit, so Rum never let his presence be known. He did not want to embarrass the king. The queen and her people didn't need to know how ugly one of the king's lovers was.
But every time he was there, he hoped beyond hope that Rithisak would whisk him off to the royal bedchamber and keep him there until morning. But he never did. Rum continued to wash in mossy springs or salt marshes or really anywhere that would give him a different scent so that not being noticed by his lover wouldn't hurt. But it always did.
But his egg tree couldn't fail him because he expected nothing.
A year and a day after spinning straw for the last time, Rum returned to the duke's castle to receive his payment. The duke had covered the roofs in gold leaf as well as the front doors and ever wall sconce everywhere. The castle had gone from passively ugly to ugly with malice aforethought. He would not see the end of it soon enough.
The nursery was even more gilded than the other rooms. The babe was not too ugly as human went. But then he woke up and his face grew red as he squawked in hunger. The nurse bounced him while footmen were sent scurrying to find the duchess. She arrived several loud minutes later in a dress of gold, which had to be adjusted with the help of three other ladies so she could feed the hungry young thing. Humans really had it hard. First they had to carry their young inside them and then they needed to feed it from their body for long months. Egg trees were better.
But how were the royal nurses feeding all the little ones? Did someone gather the food from the egg trees the Faie were born from? What about the little humans? Could they drink the egg tree's juice? Or did the king have another way to feed them? He must have something because all the young, Faie and human, had looked well taken care of and in all Rum's peeks into the nursery he'd never seen a babe cry for so long. This babe would be better off in the king's nursery.
The ladies dithered around the duchess until the nurse sent everyone away. The babe couldn't eat with all their distractions. Once the room was quiet other than the suckling babe, the nurse asked the duchess to simply allow a wet nurse to feed the babe, but the duchess insisted that visits every few hours with the child were necessary.
Rum stepped in front of her and allowed himself to be seen. "I have come for my payment."
The girl's eyes filled with tears and she pulled her baby against her until the child protested. "I cannot give him up."
Rum crossed his arms. "I require payment for my services."
She could always have another baby. Humans were good at that.
"No. No," she sobbed. "Not my son. Gold. I will give you gold."
"Gold is worth nothing to me." All the gold in this room was made out of straw.
"Jewels. You may have all the jewels you can carry."
Rum could easily carry more than his own weight. But that didn't matter. "I do not require jewels."
"What do you require then?" asked the nurse.
"I require that child." Rum pointed at the babe. Another child might do, but this was the one he earned.
The duchess wept large tears and the nurse begged for more time. Rum wanted this over right now, but the women wanted another year. After much negotiation, they settled on three more nights. If the duchess could not convince him by then he could walk away with the child.
The rain came down so hard as he went home that he couldn't pass between the drops and was thoroughly wet by the time he said goodnight to his egg tree.
When he arrived the next night, the room was full and the duchess was not crying. "I have learned this day that to learn a Faie's true name is to make them obey one's will."
That was not strictly true. The Faie only had to obey the first request and they could obey it however they saw fit unless the human was very specific. But the humans hadn't yet figured out that last part. Rum nodded.
"So if I or any of my people," the duchess indicated the people around her, "guess your name, you will leave without the babe and never return."
Rum crossed his arms. "You can try."
And so they did. The duchess lost her voice around midnight, but she had more than enough helpers to fill that gap. Rum shook his head so many times that his neck ached.
As the sun rose, he got up and stretched. "None of those are my name."
He was tired and hungry. No one had offered him even a sip of water much less a meat pie. He ran all the way home where he grabbed his blanket and a cold pie from the pantry and ate, curled up, under his egg tree. He fell asleep before he finished his song of the night.
The next evening the duchess was waiting in an even bigger room with even more people. A score of people at a time called out names like drums and bells and harps all playing different songs at the same time. His ears hurt from the pounding and his neck from shaking it even though he stopped trying to respond to every name.
By dawn his eyes were crusty and he just wanted to melt into the floor and never wake up. He had one more night of torture before the babe would be his. "None of those names were mine."
But the people kept calling out names and guards stood at the doors and windows. He sat by the fire until the babe woke and then used that distraction to disappear from view.
He was so tired that he stopped at an abandoned cabin instead of going home and let himself inside. Things were not going the way he wanted them to. He should be in his cottage by now with the babe safe in the king's nursery. Dealing with humans was more work than it was worth.
He slept fitfully and rose hungry and still tired at dusk. He just wanted to go back to bed and forget this whole disastrous thing with the miller's daughter, but more than that, he wanted to gift his lover with a child that was his, however tenuously.
He dragged himself from the bed. He would have to find food if he was going to be up all night yet again.
A knock sounded at the door. He was sure the cabin hadn't been occupied in weeks, so who could that be and who were they looking for?
He opened the door to a grinning Heketoro. "Rum of Honey Cottage?"
Rum blinked. This was all he needed to make a bad day worse.
"Rum," Heketoro showed off his teeth, "or should I say Rumpelstiltzkin? That is your name, isn't it?"
Rum crossed his arms. "What do you want?"
"Rumpelstiltzkin? Right? That's your whole name. I have a note for Rumpelstiltzkin and I have to make sure it's you before I hand it over." Heketoro pulled a scroll from his pocket.
Rum sighed. "You know it is."
The note was probably fake. Rum wouldn't be able to trust a single word in it even if he recognized the handwriting. But what if Heketoro had gotten his hands on something important? Rum did favors for people, including the king that were more than crawling into his bed. Rum put out his hand.
Heketoro held the scroll above his head. "Rumpelstiltzkin, right?"
"Yes." Rum reached for the scroll.
Heketoro pulled it away. "Just say it. Say that you are Rumpelstiltzkin."
"I'm Rumpelstiltzkin. Now, give it here."
Heketoro laughed, dropped the scroll, and hopped away. Rum glared after him until he was out of sight. Then Rum picked up the parchment and unrolled it. It was blank. And now he was too late to get food. He hurried to the castle. The duchess was waiting with what might be every servant in the castle and they all read off names at the same time.
Rum sat by the hearth as the voices pounded in his ears, though his head, and congealed, like a giant blob, in his empty stomach. This was more work than a babe should be. The sky turned from black to purple to grey. He got up and stretched. He was not going to let these people keep him here past dawn again. "None of these names were mine."
He walked up to the duchess.
"One moment, my lady." A man dressed as a palace guard hurried into the room. He whispered quickly in the duchess's ear and hope lit her eyes. She turned to Rum. "Please give me one last try."
The sun peeked over the horizon. He could take the babe now and be in the right, but the feeling in his gut was heavier than ever.
"You are Rumpelstiltzkin of Honey Cottage." The duchess grinned. She had won. Heketoro had forced Rum to give himself away. He bowed his head, defeated.
"Arrest that imp!" shouted the duke. Rum rushed a guard and disappeared as he slid across the floor between the man's legs. Chaos rose behind Rum, but he was already out the door.
The duchess's one wish was for him to leave without the child and never return. But she hadn't said when he was to leave.
He climbed to the top of the ramparts and allowed himself to be seen. The rising sun cast his shadow huge across the castle. If the duchess wasn't going to pay Rum's price, she wasn't going to keep the gold.
He willed all the gold he'd ever made back into the straw or leaves or twigs or stones he'd made it from. The gold leaf all across the castle flutter away on the wind. Cries rose up, but none as loud or anguished as the duke's.
Rum was done with humans, done with gold, and he was done trying to earn a child. A child of a man so stupid that he couldn't tell the difference between an imp and a hob would surely not be a good gift to one he loved as much as Rithisak.
He would find a different way to show his love.
The knot in his belly disappeared and his strength returned. He raced away, over hills and though valleys, all the way home.
Rum sang to his tree and then opened all his windows and he cleaned his cottage. Once that was done he made pies from the vegetables in his garden and meat from his pantry. He preferred to be home to being anywhere else, other than Rithisak's bed. He missed his king, his lover.
When would the queen leave so he could visit again? He sighed. He was glad he hadn't ended up with that babe. The child would probably grow up to believe that a girl who could make money out of straw wouldn't already live like a princess or that marrying a greedy person was a good idea. Rum wanted a child who was clever and creative and beautiful and adventurous. He needed to find a parent who was that way as well. He knew such a man, a Faie, a king.
Rum lay back under his egg tree and threw his arm over his face. Rithisak was so very far out of reach.
Rum sat up and turned around. Rithisak stood on the path that led to Rum's front door. Rum hurried to him. Rithisak had never come to him before in all their years as lovers. "Rith."
Rithisak ran his fingers through Rum's forelock. "You have come within my reach many times these last months but have not visited me."
Rum looked away. He had worked so hard and he had nothing to show for it.
Rithisak stepped up the hill and sat on the grass. He held up his hand. Rum came to him. Rith ran his hand down to Rum's pointed chin. "What kept you away?"
"I…" Rum tried not to say the words, but they flowed from his mouth like a river. "You had visitors. I did not wish to disgrace the court with my vestige."
Rithisak ran his fingers across Rum's lips. "I find you beautiful to look upon."
Rum turned to look Rithisak in the eye. He couldn't really not see how small and ugly Rum was?
Rum opened his mouth. Rithisak touched the tip of Rum's tongue. "Beauty is where I see it."
Maybe Rum was beautiful in the way of a mountain or chasm or wild beast.
"I am not ashamed to have you in my bed."
Rum looked away. All Rithisak's other lovers were beautiful. And he danced with them at balls and other parties at the palace. He didn't dance with Rum. He'd flirted with Rum at parties when he was young, but since they became lovers they spent all their time together in the royal bed.
But that was enough for Rum. He had withstood his share of scorn for daring to romance Rithisak. He could have stayed after their trysts to watch Rith dance with other people, but he never did because he didn't want to watch Rith flirt with anyone else and he really didn't want to see Rith take anyone else to his bed. He was a Fairie king. Getting and giving favors was what kept kings in power.
"You have left me lonely." Rith ran his finger across Rum's cheek. "What have you been doing while we were apart?"
Rith knew. He knew everything.
"I…" Rum tried to hold back his shame with his hand.
Rith gently took Rum's hand from his mouth. "Tell me."
Rum closed his eyes. "I tried to get you a child."
Rith said nothing. What was he thinking? Rum didn't want to look, but he had to. He opened his eyes. Rith was looking at Rum's egg tree.
"Not that way," Rum took Rith's hand before he could touch the tree. No one touched his tree but him, not even his beloved king. "I tried to get one from a human, to trade for one."
He was glad he hadn't ended up with the child of a man who used threats against the weak and a woman who didn't pay her debts, but he wasn't going to forgive Heketoro or his mistress any time soon.
"Why would I want a child who wasn't yours?" Rith touched Rum's cheek. "Rum, my sweet."
His hands were warm against Rum's skin and so very determined to touch every inch of it.
Rum lay in Rith's arms as they regained their breaths. Rith's hand ran down his side. Rum closed his eyes in pleasure, but then opened them. Had he seen what he thought he saw? No. The dark pink was just the ruby pendant's shadow. Wasn't it? He scrambled to his knees. His plant had a small, bright flower. He rubbed his eyes and turned to Rith. "Do you see what I see?"
Rith sat up and kissed Rum's shoulder. "It flowered. At long last."
Rum daren't breath lest he harm the delicate petals. "I will give you my child."
Rith pulled Rum back against him. "I have been given many children."
"But not mine." He had waited so long. His hands shook. What if this one failed to fertilize and he had to wait another thousand years for his next chance?
"I do not want your child lost among the crowd."
"You don't…" Tears filled Rum's eyes and made the small flower a deep pink blur. "You don't want my child?"
"My beloved sprite, I will ask you for something greater than that."
Rum's chest burned. He wrenched his eyes away from the flower and looked at his lover, his king. "You have my heart."
Rith smiled like a king who knew he would be obeyed. "Give me your flower."
Rum looked from Rith to the flower and back to Rith. Did he want Rum to pick it, to give up his chance for a young one, maybe forever?
Rith pressed his fingers to Rum's lips. "Let this child be mine. Let me fertilize your flower and raise my child far from the bustle and intrigue of the castle."
Rum's heart broke. His chance, his one chance in a thousand years for a child of his own and he had to give it away as a favor to his king. He bowed his head. "What's mine is yours."
Rith pulled him close. "My beloved, my sweet, raise our child well."
Rum blinked rapidly. Rith wanted Rum to raise the babe? Rum pressed his hands against Rith's dark green chest and looked into his fathomless eyes. "Our child."
"Ours. I will visit as often as I can and spend the nights here that you are no longer willing to spend with at the palace."
"I…" Rum wanted to defend himself. He wanted to say he didn't mind the palace and all the people and Rith's other lovers as long as he was one of them, but Rith's lips took his breath away. When he was dizzy with need, Rith kissed down his neck and chest. "Help me."
Rith positioned Rum on his belly and together they milked Rith's seed, filling their hands. Rum had never heard of an egg flower being fertilized this way before, but Rith was the king and kings knew these things. Rum carefully anointed the petals and Rith poured his large handful into the much smaller flower without spilling a drop.
Rum leaned against Rith and watched as the flower slowly closed. Rith kissed his neck. "Our child will be better than all the others."
Our child. No one else had a child of Rith. Rum was honored above all his other lovers. He leaned back. "Our child is the best."
The petals withered and fell, revealing a small glow. The seed would grow over the next weeks and months and when it was ripe, the nut would burst, freeing the child inside. And this was happening on Rum's own tree.
Rith sucked on Rum's ear. "I will visit frequently to watch our babe grow. And to keep my eye on you."
Rum turned in his arms. "You better. I can get in all sorts of trouble without you."
Rith laughed. "You do. The entire court is in a tizzy because most of the gold they thought was genuine turned into straw at dawn. They have all fled to their homes to see how much has survived."
Rum bowed his head against Rith's chest. "I'm sorry. Did any of yours?"
"I can spot gold made by my lover. The coins I keep under my pillow to look at when I think of you are still safe. I had them protected."
Rum leaned against Rith. "You think of me when I'm gone."
"I think of you all the time, my sweet, but I will no longer wait for you to visit me."
Rum closed his eyes. He loved his home and his tree and his valley, but he loved them best with Rith beside him.