By L.E. Bryce
In exotic Tajhaan, twenty-year old Aneshu is an actor renowned as much for his cynicism as for his roles as gods, women, and tricksters. But one night, when his performance strikes a chord with an idealistic young nobleman, he has no idea their brief meeting will change his life when civil war and unrest come to Tajhaan.
Judging from the people crowding the corridor near the makeshift dressing room, the performance had been a success.
"You have yet another visitor," said Elami, rolling his eyes. "Should I let your admirer in, or let him languish outside?"
Aneshu glanced over his shoulder at the mirror, catching the reflection of the god. Ezru's gilt-edged mask still obscured his face, leaving only his jaw and painted lips visible, and he had not changed out of his sky-blue robe. At his shoulder, holding the mask of the goddess Shalat, his companion fluttered with nervous energy. Aneshu shook his head. "He can wait along with the others."
"Are you sure? This one looks like a nobleman."
Elami sounded like a bakti boy in a brothel, and no doubt would have behaved like one had the man come for him. If he wants to solicit sex he can go right back to Tahrun's bed where he belongs. "He wouldn't be the first nobleman." Aneshu regarded the cluttered space below the mirror, then the door, with disinterest. "Where is Abi with my water and linens?"
"He's trying to wade through the throngs of your admirers."
"I'm an actor, not a courtesan."
"You wouldn't know it, judging from the lovelorn look on this man's face. You aren't going to keep him waiting, are you? He might be fabulously rich."
Aneshu did not fail to catch the jealous note in Elami's voice. Elami wanted his share of the attention, never mind that it was too much to expect for one's very first night onstage. "They aren't going to see anything until I've changed and washed off these cosmetics." Some actors might receive visitors in costume, but long habit taught Aneshu to leave his role onstage. Tahrun expected his performers, even top-earning ones, to behave with dignity. He paid them well, tolerated their love affairs, and granted them privileges other slaves lacked, expecting professional conduct and profit in return.
"If he wants an easy lay," snorted Aneshu, "the man's looking in the wrong place. Now be a dear and go find that wretched boy so we can get out of these costumes. I know you want to go to the party and I don't plan to spend tonight trapped in a dingy dressing room."
High Prince Muhal and the court elite had been in the audience, as was the custom on the opening night of a major religious festival. Outside the temple--a massive silk tent surrounded by myriad lanterns like fireflies covered the plaza--and within, a magnificent fete was already underway. Aneshu had seen the preparations earlier in the day when he and the other actors arrived for the final rehearsal. Despite his exhaustion, he did not intend to miss the fine wine or company.
"Oh, you're impossible!" Through the mirror Aneshu saw Elami stick out his tongue, his crude manners an odd juxtaposition with the elaborate mask and costume of the goddess. "I'm going, but I expect you to tell me everything later."
Ezru's mask, specially crafted for an actor with different proportions, sat uncomfortably over his face. With his fingernail, Aneshu picked at the adhesive under the edge. He hated the stuff, how it itched under the heat of multiple lamps and his own exertions, and how it smelled ruined the skin of any actor careless enough not to employ costly ointments. Half my earnings, he thought bitterly.
If not for the possibility of injuring himself or destroying the elaborate paper-maché, he would have torn the mask from his face the moment he entered the dressing room. That stupid boy is going to get an earful from me when he comes. If he ever does.
The door creaked open behind him. At last. Aneshu turned in his chair, the cutting remark he meant to make dying on his lips the moment he saw the rich jewels and brocade of the man standing in the doorway. Aneshu did not recognize him. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you'll have to--" he began.
A lifted hand stopped his words. "No, do not speak," said the man, softly closing the door behind him. Aneshu tensed at the gesture. Greeting unfamiliar visitors was not something he cared to do alone, no matter how handsome, well-spoken, or wealthy they were.
Frustrated, he gestured to his mask. "It would be rude of me to meet with you like this."
"Not at all." Jeweled fingers touched his lips, urging silence. "You are as lovely as your statue."
Good gods, he thinks I am Ezru. Aneshu started to protest, falling still at the dark eyes that searched his face--no, the elaborately painted mask--not knowing what to do, or if he should do anything at all. A renowned actor he might be, but Tahrun never failed to remind him and everyone else in the troupe that they were still slaves who could be sold if they gave too much trouble.
Hands clasped his, raising them to full lips. "I know there is an actor under that mask," said the man. "But I also know that during these holy days the spirit of the god inhabits the flesh. I think you are still there."
Aneshu froze at the touch of those lips, warm breath exhaled upon his skin. Either the man was insane or excessively devout. At the moment Aneshu could not decide which. "What is your name?" he croaked.
"Ihmar," came the reply. "I realize I have been rude, even presumptuous in coming here, but I could not wait. Your images in the temple do not speak to me, nor do the votives I have placed upon my altar. But tonight, from the stage, you spoke to me."
Such compliments Aneshu understood well, though not in this context. Praise for rendering a character or scene in exquisite detail, yes, that he knew. Being mistaken for the god whose mask he wore, never. It would be blasphemy merely to suggest it, worse still to play along.
Mere inches separated them now, enough that Aneshu became uncomfortably aware of the young man's body heat and odor, his natural musk mingled with tamarisk. Had the circumstances been different, Aneshu might have found it stimulating.
Ihmar released his hands, moving to his shoulder, sliding up the embroidered linen in a light, tentative touch. "I have been unfortunate in love, you see," he said.
And you think I have been more fortunate? Aneshu bit back his retort. The one love affair he indulged in had ended badly, with ill feelings on both sides. Now he kept his liaisons discreet and impersonal, little more than a bit of friendly sex between acquaintances. His admirers plied him with gifts and compliments, but he never allowed any of them to take him to bed. It would have been demeaning, both to his profession and as a reminder that he had originally been sold to Tahrun as an akesh, a sex slave.
Fingers moved from his shoulder, up the column of his throat, to his jaw. "We are not so different, you and I," continued Ihmar. "I do not mean to presume, of course, for I am not a god, but I remember that you were once mortal, scorned by mortal maidens until a goddess saw your worth and loved you."
He bent closer, turning his head, and in the next heartbeat Aneshu felt lips touch the curve of his jaw. Ihmar's moustache grazed his skin, his warm breath brought unexpected shivers of delight and fear. What does he want of me? If he wants playacting with his fucking he ought to get one of his akeshi to dress up for him. Cold refusal, however, would not serve with a wealthy, well-connected admirer. Aneshu's hands came up, instinctively ghosting over Ihmar's arms, uncertain whether to draw the man closer or shove him away.
Those lips quickly found his, drawing him into a kiss that progressively deepened from the merest whisper of contact to two wet mouths crushed together, hotly twining tongues.
Oh, shit. Aneshu felt his cock begin to stiffen. This was wrong, he knew it. Ihmar had not come for him, but a phantom. It was one thing to play a god onstage; in the bedchamber it was quite another. The gods saw all, heard all. An artist who wished to depict a god making love must receive a blessing from that deity's temple. Even the priestess who lay with the High Prince as the goddess during the Great Marriage must undergo ritual purification.
Finally Ihmar drew away, lips tinted with the carmine Aneshu had worn for the performance, eyes hazy with passion. "Forgive me for my impertinence, but I was overcome by the moment." Once again grasping Aneshu's hand, he kissed it. "I should have brought gifts. Tomorrow night you shall have them, and the night after."
Tomorrow, and the night after. Aneshu swallowed at what those words implied. Did this man truly intend to be in the audience throughout the entire four-day festival? Opening his mouth, he started to protest, the words dying in his throat as the door opened and Abi entered bearing a bowl of steaming water. A moment later, seeing Aneshu and Ihmar together, the boy paused and stood dumbly, not knowing whether to stay or go.
Ihmar bowed and took a step back, withdrawing into the noisy corridor. Aneshu stood frozen, staring at the doorway, then the boy's face, seeing his own amazement mirrored there. Rational thought returned, then annoyance. He gestured to the dressing table, letting the boy set the basin down before soundly boxing his ear. "Where have you been all this time?" he hissed.
Abi yelped, but gave no answer. Aneshu turned aside in disgust. "I'll wager you've been gawking at the royalty down in the pavilion, haven't you? Tomorrow night it'll be the usual crowd, so I expect you here on time."
There was no answer, just a sullen look. Aneshu dismissed the boy, who, clutching his ear, slunk out of the room. The moment he was gone, Aneshu shut and bolted the door. Removing the mask required patience he did not have. He forced his shaking hands to wet the cloths Abi had brought, wring them out, and dab at the adhesive, cautiously loosening the mask.
As he worked, he avoided meeting his eyes in the mirror. Doing so would mean looking at the mask, its lush gold and ivory, its blood-red poppies suddenly ominous. He could not fathom what had just happened, or why. Ihmar had not hurt or threatened him, remaining polite even when passionate. Stranger things occurred with admirers, so why should he feel so shaken?
I know there is an actor under that mask. "You could have fooled me," he said to the mirror. Wet fingers rubbed carmine traces from his lips as though trying to wipe away the memory of Ihmar's maddening kiss. "You might have at least asked my name."