Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 52

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 52

      “Three times?” I asked, trying to ignore her fingers on my face.
      “Once because you are such a gentleman,” she murmured. “Twice because you are so gaunt and thin and sad, and it would be a joy to give you some happiness. And thrice because I would have liked to bear your children.”
      That pierced the poppy fog better than anything yet. “Good God!”
      “You would not be expected to care for the baby, of course,” she said. “But to waste your power… ah. I know my lord would approve. He was due to choose a man for me soon as it was… surely you would have met his standard.”
      I reeled, and not just from the laughable thought that I was no human to be bedding her for procreative purposes. “Kemses… would choose your mate for you?”
      “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I have a mate already, closer to me than any husband. My lord will choose someone to get me with child, a child who to be of help to him when I am dead.” Dreamily but with regret, “For I will die one day, and my brother with me, and then it will be our children who serve him, and our children’s children. Such is the way of Aravalís. Such is the way of elves and men.”
      I shuddered. “Forgive me if I find it repugnant.”
      She lifted herself from my side, leaned forward to kiss my brow with her pendulous breasts grazing my chest. “You are not yet resigned to it, but you will be one day. The peace will come to you. We live swiftly… the genets swifter yet. And pacing us with the grace of ancient trees, the elves watch over us all.”
      She left me there in the poppy-shrouded dark. Almond crawled back into the hollow she’d left at my side, though the dimple was much deeper than when the genet had originally created it.
      “God,” I whispered.
      “Lovely world, isn’t it,” Kelu said. “Where I have to sit here and watch humans fornicate in bed with me as if I wasn’t even there.”
      “We didn’t fornicate,” I said.
      “You would have, if you hadn’t been such a prude,” Kelu replied.
      “You could have left,” I said.
      “And gone where?” Kelu asked. “My place is by your side, Master.”
      “It’s good to be near love,” Almond whispered, nuzzling me. “Don’t listen to her only, Master. To be allowed to remain during that is a great honor.”
      “A great honor,” Kelu said, ears flicking back. “While they sweat and pant and grapple for better positions and creak and make their ugly noises? Please.”
      I blushed. “I am not planning on fornicating in your presence any time soon, never fear.”
      “Don’t listen,” Almond whispered, hugging me. “The act is beautiful.”
      “The act is meaningless,” Kelu said. “It can be hideously ugly, believe me.”
      How did I enter into these discussions? I sighed and lifted my eyes to the smoke wafting through the air. “We have to go.”
      “Master?” Almond asked.
      I was sick of the elves, of humans, of the Archipelago, of the genets with their unsettling thoughts. Had I had any possibility at all of cultivating a normal life on my return to the mainland I would have asked Kemses for passage back to Far Horizon that very instant. But between me and that livable life was a sorcerer addled with caprice, a meaningless quest and a magical king. I did not want to waste time.
      “Tomorrow,” I said, closing my eyes. “Tomorrow we leave for Kesína.”
      “Good,” Kelu said. “I’ll tell e Sadar first thing.”

      The following morning the household’s human servants brought me a modest breakfast before showing me to a bathing chamber out of a fantasy, a pool sunk into the middle of clean ivory pavers in an open chamber surrounded in windowed doors, all slightly ajar to allow a breeze to disturb the steam that rose from the hot water. It was magical in more ways than one, for the water never grew cloudy or cool… and oh, what a wonder to soak. I almost thought twice about leaving, so great was the allure of that pool. But presently I allowed myself to be summoned from that chamber and there I balked.
      “Your old clothes are completely unsuitable for the weather,” Kelu said. “Besides, they mark you as a foreigner. You need to look like a native.”
      I stared at the generously cut pants and stole… or more accurately, at the flimsy material from which they’d been fashioned. “I refuse.”
      “Try it, Master?” Almond said softly.
      “You might as well,” Kelu said. “In case you failed to notice, your old clothes aren’t here.”
      With great reluctance I changed into the pants. They fell past my insteps, covering my feet, but hung low on my hips as if in compensation for that modesty. What kind of a society found feet objectionable but would leave a man bare almost to his unmentionables? I tried shaking my hair in front of my chest but even as long as it’d gotten it didn’t do more than cover my ribs. I wondered if Kemses had grown his mane just for such cause.
      “I absolutely can’t,” I said. “It’s obscene.”
      “It’s practical.”
      “It may be practical for elves and humans,” I said with asperity, “but you will recall that I have a habit of falling down and convulsing, and when I’m not engaged in that pleasant pastime my skin is so sensitive that the air across its bare surface would probably send me into a fugue. So how is this a good idea again?”
      “Be reasonable,” Kelu said.
      I started to explain exactly what I thought of her reasonable suggestion when Kemses said from the door, “Let him be. There are alternatives.” He shucked the coat from his shoulders and offered it. “This is acceptable. Considered by some to be an eccentricity, but not enough to be of note.”
      I took the coat, a sleeveless thing of lined silk and elegant frog closures. But the embroidery alone… “Surely this is too rich to pass for a servant’s garb.”
      “From a distance it may help you pass for an elf.”
      I stared at him, at his mandorla of light and life and magic. I could see him crimping the world around him… I couldn’t imagine missing it from any distance. “Forgive me, but surely you jest.”
      “An elf who hasn’t fed for a long time can become dull and colorless,” he said. “If you dress as one of us, ride a drake accompanied by genets and are armed, you may pass unmolested on your errand.”
      I drew the coat on and fastened the closures from collarbone to waist. From there it flared to the hem at my knee, leaving the voluminous pants exposed. Almond removed the stole and looped it several times around my waist, knotting it like a sash.
      “Your genet tells me you wanted to leave today,” Kemses said.
      I sat on the edge of the bed, conserving strength. “I am grateful for your hospitality, but the sooner I free the king the sooner I can go home.”
      “And home is the mainland,” Kemses said.
      I nodded.
      “Are elves welcome there, then?”
      I laughed. “God in the firmament. Almost no one knows elves exist there. And magic is certainly a myth.”
      “Then how will they accept you?” Kemses asked. “You will be one of us.”
      The absurdity of the situation struck me then. I prided myself on having something of an incisive mind and yet it had not yet occurred to me that being cured of my ailment would transform me into another race entirely, one with no place in the society I’d left behind.
      “Master Locke?” Kemses asked.
      “Ah,” I said, struggling for equilibrium and finding not even a scrap of earth to stand on. “Do I have an elven name, then?”
      “Not that I know of,” he said. “Are you well? You look… pale.”
      I waved a hand. “A passing spell. As to the rest… a conundrum I’ll concern myself with when it arrives.”
      Kemses nodded. “You can leave whenever you’re ready. The papers I’ve prepared will take you on any of my outgoing ships.”

***

Have I mentioned that I love writing the genets? :D

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