By L.E. Bryce
When Aranion, prince of Yshan and officer in the Queen's Navy, is given a singer for the winter solstice, he neither needs nor wants the young man. But when circumstances throw them together, Aranion finds himself attracted to the shyly charming Melan. And when a disaster at sea threatens to drive them apart, Aranion may have to sacrifice all to get his nightingale back.
Aranion was not the first person to use the bath that day, he could tell. Unlike Elenin and Hyleas, both of whom owned residences with private facilities for themselves and their families, Aranion had to share his porcelain tub with the higher-ranking servants; the two scrub maids, porter, and assistant cook used the communal bath two floors down. Barracks life inured him to the situation, and he honestly did not mind letting Mahawn, the valet, and the cook enjoy a hot soak as long as they bathed while he was out and left him a clean tub.
Early in the day, the scrub maids carried steaming buckets of water from the kitchen hearth up to the bathroom and emptied them into the tub. Had Aranion insisted, he probably could have gotten apartments in the newer wing of the palace, where hot and cold water ran through clay pipes, an innovation brought from Thrindor fifty years ago. But moving would have been a chore, especially in winter, and the old wing was quieter with better neighbors. Too many court dandies and nosy, social-climbing bureaucrats occupied the new facilities, paying double the rent for only half the space.
Aranion sank into the hot water, hissing as it tingled and reddened his skin. Forgoing the comforts his brothers and their wives enjoyed in their palatial pools, he reached for the pumice and began scrubbing between his toes. A man did not need a dozen bath slaves hovering over him to wash his hair and scour his ass when he was perfectly capable of doing those things himself. And no matter what Elenin said, Aranion doubted very much that washing was the only activity going on in a rich man’s bath.
Movement from his periphery drew his attention to the doorway, where expressive gray eyes set in an oval face widened at being noticed. Aranion laughed, and as Melan started to flinch back he called the boy over. “Are you looking for me, young man?”
Blushing, his eyes averted from the tub and its nude occupant, Melan shook his head.
“Did you think Mahawn was in here? He never attends me during my bath unless he has something truly interesting to report.” Noting the youth’s damp ringlets and pink skin, Aranion could not resist a little teasing. “Have you just come from the communal bath? That’s no place for a pretty boy like you. Next time use my tub. Don’t worry—I won’t be in it! Mahawn will tell you how it works.”
Melan’s gaze darted toward the door, seeking escape from embarrassment, not terror. Had he been afraid, Aranion would have let him go at once. “Sit on the stool over there where you won’t have such a full view. Just shift my things over.” When Melan was seated, the robe and loose cotton trousers spread over his lap like a shield, Aranion nodded, laughing. “You’re safely out of arm’s reach now. Certainly not about to be molested by some dirty old man in his bath!”
When the youth blanched, Aranion silently chided himself for his tactless remark and changed the subject. “Have you learned anything new? I don’t believe I’ve heard you sing since you were given to me.”
An inquiring look yielded another nod. “Sing something for me,” said Aranion. “Whatever song you like.”
A subtle shift in posture, a studied deep breath, and a low tenor filled the steam-laden air. The song Melan sang was one Aranion had never heard before. From the lyrics, which filled the darkness behind his closed eyes, Aranion was transported to the Seaward Islands centuries before the Shivarians came in their ships to drive the natives south. Turquoise waters lapped limestone cliffs, and reflected the towering ninoni that had seen generations of Danasi come and go, that watched the invaders approach, and that fell crashing into the sea when Shivar toppled the ancient monuments.
Aranion imagined male lovers, servants of the sea goddess, driven apart as their world fell, then finding each other again in a rush of passion.
As the song ended, quivering on a final, soft note, Aranion opened his eyes. “That was lovely,” Aranion admitted grudgingly. Melan modestly averted his eyes at the compliment, as though unaccustomed to praise. “But now I have to get up.” Steam curled and wafted from his arms as he gripped the sides of the tub and stood. “Hand me the towel, would you?”
Gaze still fixed on the tiles, Melan passed the crisp linen across, and did not look up until Aranion stepped out and, dripping wet, wrapped the towel securely around his waist. “You needn’t be afraid. I won’t touch you, and Sheban isn’t to do anything with you except give you your lessons and leave. I’ve made that clear to him, and Mahawn will make certain he obeys.”
With a second towel, Aranion dried his torso. “Would you consider performing for one of my brothers?”
Melan’s reaction mingled apprehension with revulsion. Apparently a petah was expected to do more for his clients than simply give a public recital. For him, performing held multiple meanings. “It isn’t what you think. Hyleas enjoys music. He has no taste for boys. You would accompany me as my guest, sit at the high table beside me, and sing at the end of the evening, nothing more. Sheban certainly isn’t invited.”
Frowning, Melan tapped his chest with both hands and shook his head. Aranion could only guess at his meaning. “You can’t go? No, you mean you can’t go without Sheban? Then we’ll find you another voice trainer and agent. Or I can act as your agent, since I’m also your owner. You needn’t put up with anymore than what’s necessary.”
A broad smile curved Melan’s mouth, and sudden joy brightened his eyes. As Aranion reached for his trousers, the young man seized his hand and kissed it.
Now it was his turn to be stunned. Such spontaneity brought a burning flush to his cheeks; he was grateful for the steam and hot water that disguised his reddened skin. “Melan…,” he began, the name sticking in his throat. “You needn’t do that.”
And yet, those lips exerted a subtle pressure upon his knuckles that stirred impulses he had thought quiescent. No matter how innocent the gesture, his desire wanted more—he suddenly wanted to feel that mouth moving over his, and that youthful body pressed against his own. It would not have been the first time he took a lovely boy or girl to bed after the languor of a hot soak. As Melan’s owner, he had that right.
But he could not do it—could not crush the youth to his chest and ravage him with kisses, or bend him over the stool and take him. Melan’s trust was as fragile as an icicle, too easily shattered, and once broken, forever beyond repair.
No, he could not do it.
“You needn’t kiss my hand,” he repeated. “Here, hand me my robe and you can show me what new books you’ve discovered.”