From This Night
By L.E. Bryce
Two young men are forced to wed as the result of a drunken oath foolishly made by their fathers. What effect will their union have on the rest of their lives?
It was a delicate subject, one they had carefully avoided for the past eighteen years. “Agamo, this meeting was the last thing I wanted for today,” Khanis slowly began. “Gods, you know I’ve tried to avoid this unpleasantness, but the priests of the Silver Hand have been here. They know about the agreement.”
Agamo stared straight ahead as his host’s servants set out wine and a tray of delicacies. His former rival always set an excellent table. It was a shame he had no appetite. “Of course they know about it.”
“They insist the deed must be carried out.”
“Surely some other arrangement can be made? You simply did not negotiate hard enough with them.”
“Would you prefer to try?” Khanis asked irritably. “And yes, I did ask what other arrangements could be made under the present circumstances—and, failing that, I did throw money at them. It’s just our misfortune that the only honest priests in Bhellin happen to be knocking on our door. The gods stand on any oath taken in their name, they say, and the words were very specific.” He spread his hands on the table. “There is simply no way around it.”
“How could such an oath be binding?” Agamo sipped his wine. Getting drunk was a tempting alternative to this meeting, but he knew better, and drink was what had gotten him into this predicament in the first place. “Look at the result. Surely the gods sent us a sign through the outcome?”
“Do you think I did not try that argument with the priests? All I got were sharp words warning me to keep to my vintages and not presume to speak for the gods.” Khanis sharply gestured for the servants to leave, waiting until the door closed before adding, “You should have been more cautious with your words, Agamo. The next-born child, indeed! Píru of the Silver Hands hears all.”
Agamo wagged a finger at him. “Don’t you start that business with me. You saw nothing wrong with the agreement at the time. After all the girls my wife birthed and not a single boy, how was I to know Suryo wouldn’t be another daughter?”
“You were drunk, that’s what.”
“And you weren’t? You agreed to it.” Agamo rubbed his eyes with one hand. The wine appeared more tempting by the moment.
“I agreed to join my house to yours,” grumbled Khanis. “I never agreed to let my son bed another boy and call it marriage. Glower and fume at me all you like for the insult, Agamo, but you know it’s true. You never entered into this knowing you’d have a son, and you know that no heirs can possibly come of this. Word will get out. We’ll be humiliated. It’ll be utter ruin for us both.”
Agamo already knew that, had sensed it years ago. Grooming Suryo to play this role had proven difficult, as the boy’s recalcitrance only added to his heartache. Somehow it hurt more than all the daughters dead in infancy, because he knew he was losing his only son, his heir, through his own foolishness. “I still have a daughter. Once this business is finished Alasson can have Savira. Tonight I will tell Suryo to prepare.” Agamo spread his hands in an indication of helplessness. “He may sulk, but he will obey.”
Reaching for the decanter, Khanis refilled his cup and drank again. “Alasson has no idea. I’ve never mentioned the oath to him,” he said. “Still, it isn’t as if he hasn’t had his share of pretty boys. He knows what to do, and I guarantee he’ll do as he’s told if he wants his bride.”
“I want a contract drawn up before I leave.”
Khanis started. “What’s this?
“I want it made perfectly clear that Suryo isn’t some painted boy Alasson can use for one night and discard,” said Agamo. “I expect him to be treated well. Roll your eyes at me if you like, Khanis. I know Alasson has a quick temper, very much like you at that age. He’s liable to complain about this whole mess we’ve forced upon him, and insult Suryo while he’s at it. You know I speak the truth. So I want a contract, something you can wave in your son’s face. When the terms are met Suryo goes into the priesthood and Alasson marries Savira and becomes my heir—or he remains your youngest son and inherits only the scraps his brothers leave him.”
Only twenty years ago the idea would have been absurd. Agamo pictured his ancestors groaning in their tombs at the thought of Alasson ké Khanis inheriting the family’s wine business. Then again, twenty years ago he could never have sat across from Khanis and shared a civilized conversation with him, much less demanded a contract. Had the circumstances not been so grave, he might even have smiled.
Khanis huffed, but in the next breath got up to fetch parchment and pen from a cabinet. “Suryo will be an honored guest in my home. You have my word, and I will make certain my son knows it as well.” With a twist he uncorked the ink bottle. “Alasson might be temperamental, but he isn’t a fool.”
* * * *
“I want absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Alasson.
Khanis brought his fist down on the heavy mahogany desk, nearly upsetting his writing materials and the wine cup the servant had just filled. “You’ll do as you’re told and obey your father and the gods, or by the gods I’ll take you over my knee and tan the skin off your ass.”
Youthful bravado gave Alasson a fool’s courage, for he knew his father was perfectly capable of carrying out his threat. Where another son would have meekly bowed his head, he fired back, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How do the gods expect me to father sons with this boy?”
“Stop your pacing, and read the damned contract,” snapped Khanis. The servant quietly moved around him, clearing away linens and platters of food. Alasson did not bother to ask who the guest had been; his father entertained business partners in his study at least four times a week. “You stand much to gain from this.”
Alasson gave the contract a cursory glance. Phrases, freshly scrawled against the creamy parchment in his father’s hand, jumped out at him: for the term of one year...the designated bride treated with honor...ill treatment renders the agreement null and void.... He had no need to reread the document to know what was at stake: his future. And yes, he did want his own business, and knew that marrying Agamo’s sixteen-year-old daughter was the surest way to attain it.
Marrying Agamo’s son in the bargain did not fit in with those plans. In fact, explanation or no, it was the most absurd thing he had ever heard.
On a few occasions Alasson had seen the young man in question, though they had never exchanged words once formal introductions were made. Suryo was comely enough, with dark curls and even darker eyes that observed his father’s business negotiations with apparent disinterest. Alasson was not averse to bedding a pretty boy, but not a peer, and certainly not his future brother-in-law. “There must be some law against this,” he said.
“In this case, no,” replied Khanis. “I argued much the same, and so did Agamo, but in this matter religion apparently supersedes the law, and neither of us wants to involve the civil authorities. The situation is unfortunate enough as it is. Can you imagine the humiliation if it became public record? We might as well sell our assets and leave Khalgar altogether.”
Alasson sat down. “Why in the world would you and Agamo make such a ridiculous bargain?”
Khanis raised an eyebrow. “You think it foolish, do you?”
“Look where it leaves us.”
“At the time it seemed like a good idea. Agamo’s wife had borne only daughters—six of them—and no one really believed the snake oracle’s assurances that this time she’d have a boy. Pay enough money to those charlatans and they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. I had sons, he had daughters. In hindsight it was foolish, but back then what could have been more sensible than to want to seal our new friendship with the promise of marriage?”
“Waiting until the baby was born,” finished Alasson.
For a moment Khanis did not answer. “There’s nothing to be done about it now except follow through with this arrangement. We can’t afford to alienate the priests of the Silver Hand, or the god will withhold his blessing, and I won’t insult Agamo because you’ve a few qualms about where you put your cock. It would mean going back to the way things were before you were born, and that would ruin us all.”
Alasson made a dismissive gesture. “The old feud—”
“Don’t be so smug, boy. This peace between our families is still a very fragile thing. The only reason we’re not still killing each other in the streets is because Agamo and I have worked very hard to put the old grudges behind us,” Khanis said sharply.
“You don’t know what it was like before. Every week there was cause for some new quarrel. Even our servants brawled in the streets. It was strangling us, destroying our business. I’ve said it before: Agamo and I have both worked too hard to build what we have, so don’t sit there and think for one minute that I’m going to allow some twenty-year-old stripling to defy me.”
Alasson had heard from the cradle the stories of interfamilial violence that had claimed uncles, cousins, and even his own grandfather. He knew how the present king’s father had finally forced peace upon the two families by drafting its last surviving scions, Khanis and Agamo, into military service, where three years of hard campaigning against the Turyar taught them to be brothers-in-arms.
“King Eramen suggested we seal the peace by pledging our children in marriage,” continued Khanis. “We’d just come back from our last campaign and were flush with victory. By silver-handed Píru Agamo swore he’d give his next-born child in marriage to my newborn son. He was in his cups at the time—and so was I.”
“I know the story,” Alasson said irritably. “Agamo was a drunken fool, and so now his son and I have to pay for his colossal stupidity. Tell me, Father, which one of us is supposed to fuck the other?”
Khanis glared at him over his cup before drinking. “I can do without your crude language.”
Now was not the time to point out that whatever expletives Alasson knew, he had learned through his father’s mercurial temper. “I am utterly serious. Have the priests told you, or are Suryo and I supposed to flip a coin on the wedding night?”
“Since Agamo pledged Suryo as a bride, naturally you will play the groom. You needn’t fear for your manhood on that account. Here, drink something. I don’t like to let expensive wine go to waste.” Khanis indicated the untouched cup the servant had set before Alasson before withdrawing. “Suryo has been groomed for this, and by all accounts he will obey his father.
“Now I would like nothing more than to tell you that it isn’t necessary to go into him, but the priests of the Silver Hand have told me that the god won’t be satisfied unless you consummate this union. My advice to you is drink a bit on your wedding night, get yourself hard, and think of your inheritance while you’re fucking him.”
Alasson took the wine and tasted it. A deep red from the orchards of Akkil far to the south, heady enough to make a man drunk if he downed too much too fast, it was just what he needed. Not every merchant could afford foreign wine, and Khanis kept only a small quantity in his cellar. “It’ll have to be strong wine to get me hard enough.”
“Trust me to find the right vintage.” Khanis sipped his wine, then made a face. “It could be worse, son. Suryo could be a pockmarked halfwit. I understand Agamo has had him pluck his hair. He’s now as comely as a maiden, and skilled as a whore with all the courtesan’s tricks he’s learned. You should have no trouble.”
Alasson found this information repulsive. “What happens after the wedding night?” he asked. “Does he go back to his father’s house, or do I have to put up with him afterward?”
“I’ve told Agamo that Suryo will be an honored guest in our home,” answered Khanis. “So, yes, you will have to put up with him. Not bed him again, of course. You need only do that once. After that Suryo will have his own room and his father and I will find some quiet pastime for him.”
Alasson gazed into his cup, started to drink, then thought better of it. Akkian wine was too potent. “This will be awkward,” he confessed.