The ordeal that led to his death—the beating that shattered his jaw and broke his body, the knives that cut his face and then his hands when he lifted them to defend himself, even the cold air scouring his tattered flesh moments before his tormentors flung him into the sea—those things he remembered. But the sting of the blade as it opened his throat, the shock of the water slamming into him, or his life bleeding out into the ocean—his imagination supplied what he could not recall, until those details became a kind of truth.
One day, his body rolled onto shore with the morning mist, and those who came to gape at his white hair and mortal wounds recoiled in horror when he suddenly drew breath. Color flooded into bloodless limbs as they began to twitch, the wounds closed, leaving no trace, and the people flung themselves down beside him, covering him in warm cloaks, touching his damp hair, his fingers, any part of him that could bestow the Lady’s blessing.
Shumadi, they whispered. Soon he learned what the word meant: twice-born, first among the talevé, the Lady’s mortal consorts.
Born, dead, and reborn. And still, he did not remember what it was to die.
In time, the other talevé in the Blue House of Sirilon realized he could not answer their questions about the hereafter. Even the curiosity in their eyes faded, as he was no different than they, and took no pains to remind them of things better left forgotten.
Ritual would not let him forget. A shumadi walked before the other talevé, crowned like a prince, bearing the Lady’s triple wave Water rune on his mantle, dispensing the blessings expected of Her most holy consort. Questions brimmed on a thousand lips, brightening a thousand eyes that believed he possessed the key to the great mysteries of life and death that held them in terrified awe.
My touch cannot cure anyone. I cannot restore your dead or dying, he wanted to tell them. Better you hire a physician than ask for my prayers.
Death should leave visible signs. But the face in the looking glass was flawless, not the tattered ruin it had been before he went into the sea, and was crowned by a talevé’s foam-white hair. Ordinary folk called him beautiful, a word he hardly would have used to describe himself. In his mind, he remained the thin, sandy-haired farmer’s son from Entippé whose parents despaired of ever finding him a proper bride.
His mind rejected certain memories. Apart from a few recollections of his family, whom he not seen or contacted in a decade, and brief, stolen moments of joy with his lover in the slave quarters of Tajhaan, his life had begun on the shores of Sirilon. The Lady of the Waters was his mother and his consort, though not his greatest love, and to reach for anything beyond the moment She entered his life was to invite pain, and rage he could not answer.
* * * *
Spring warmed the air, sunlight banishing the early morning fog and stirring life in the gardens of the Blue House, which had lain neglected over the long winter. Talevé tended flower beds and fruit trees, clearing debris from the lily pond and dead leaves from the paths. Maintaining these spaces gave them something to do after the long winter, and for those who had no formal duties in the House of the Water, the work provided necessary diversion and a sense of purpose.
Fresh strawberries, packed in ice for the trip downriver, arrived from the orchards of Emerrás. Like undiluted wine, the fruit was a rare treat, hoarded by the cooks for preserves and pastries. Even the priests thought twice before approaching the kitchen, and had to settle for the local strawberries, which were not as plump or juicy by comparison.
Strawberries became late spring’s currency in the Blue House, worth a favor or afternoon tryst, yet almost impossible to obtain.
“Like a distant lover,” said Adhial, fondly gazing at the healer Olveru, who pretended not to notice. “I think Emerrás sends us the gift to torment us.”
“If you don’t want your share,” commented Dyas, “one of us will gladly take it. But stop pining like a lovesick boy and thank the Lady you get any at all.”
Mindful of his audience, Adhial flushed bright red. For years, he had sighed over Olveru, who showed no interest in anyone; his persistence and constant disappointment had become the butt of jokes among the talevé. “You have no manners,” he muttered.
Dyas grinned at him. “That is why I became a lawyer.”
As shumadi, Tharril enjoyed no special privileges when it came to the strawberries or any other novelties sent to the Blue House. So he could not smother his surprise when his lover met him in his bedchamber and, closing the door behind them, uncovered a small porcelain dish of strawberries.
“Where did you get these?” Tharril stared at the succulent fruits. Just obtaining one would have been a challenge, and that one would have sufficed for whatever game Erred meant to play.
“The cooks cannot always watch their goods,” replied Erred.
Deep scarlet, the strawberries were at their ripest, perfect for gorging. “Olenwë and Elentur tried that. How did you manage?”
“That is my secret.” Erred’s mouth curved in a seductive smile. From the dish, he plucked a strawberry and teasingly rubbed the tip against Tharril’s lips. “Would you care for one, or do I have to eat them alone?”
Only then did Tharril notice that under his woolen outer robe, Erred wore a shift that left almost nothing to the imagination. “How long have you been planning this?” he asked, staring at the hazy nipples visible through the thin silk. His throat went dry.
“That, too, is my secret,” answered Erred.
Not that Tharril really cared at this point. When Erred, still holding the dish, took him by the hand and led him to the bed, he did not resist. Kicking off his shoes, he lay down on the mattress and let Erred feed him a strawberry. Nothing could compare with the taste of fruit from the orchards of Emerrás, blessed with abundance by Sirrë, the Earth Mother, the city’s patron goddess.
Tharril closed his eyes, savoring the morsel, even as he became increasingly aware of the warm body leaning against his. Erred’s breath feathered his cheek.
“Do you want one?” asked Tharril.
“What makes you think I have not already had one?” Erred laughed and plucked a second strawberry from the dish. “These are for your pleasure.”
With the third strawberry, Erred changed tactics, placing the bulbous end between his teeth and, leaning in across Tharril’s chest, teasingly inviting him to take it from his lips. As Tharril opened his mouth to claim his prize, their lips met, tongues darting out to taste each other even as Tharril bit the strawberry in half.
Fingers moved up his chest, lingering on the buttons, undoing them. Tharril swallowed the morsel he had been chewing and let his hands travel up Erred’s arms, pushing back the wide sleeves to caress bare skin, then down again to clasp his wrists. “Where did you learn to do that?” he asked.
Erred hesitated a moment before answering, “In the same place I learned all the other arts of love.”
Tharril tensed, wishing then that he had not asked. “In the house where you were first sold as a slave?”
“I know what you think, but the akeshi broker and his tutors did not teach me everything.” Erred dropped a light kiss on the tip of his nose. “There were two other akeshi in the royal palace. They taught me things a common bed slave would not have learned.”
“What things?” Tharril asked cautiously. In asking, he ventured into perilous territory; the akeshi in their master’s house had been spiteful, uncouth creatures, best left forgotten. . The only things they had taught Erred were jealousy and fear, and Tharril hated to think he might have endured the same in the palace of the High Prince of Tajhaan.
Erred gave him a knowing smile. “They taught me to perform traditional Tajhaani dances, arrange flowers, and paint henna tattoos on the hands and feet,” he replied. “Did you think I meant sex?”
“I remember the others demanding sex for simple favors.”
“That is because our master was a vulgar man who allowed such behavior,” said Erred. Our master. Both he and Tharril remembered the man’s name. Both refused to utter it aloud. A man’s name is his legacy, his immortality. When it is dust, he will utterly die. “You never saw what it was like in the palace. In the household of a true nobleman, the slaves are often well-born, and they are expected to be discreet and dignified. Hasir and Neshuru welcomed me as a brother and a friend. While I was with them I learned many useful things.”
Tharril watched as Erred took a particularly red, juicy strawberry from the dish and rubbed it slowly across his lips, flicking his tongue over the tips, before sliding it into his mouth. Suddenly Tharril wanted that mouth, those lips and tongue, on him, and the rising heat in his groin told him exactly where he wanted it. “How useful?” he croaked.
Still holding Tharril’s gaze, Erred uncovered a porcelain tureen next to the bed and daintily dipped his finger into the thick, clotted cream with which berries were usually served. “For one thing,” he purred, “they taught me how to properly play with one’s food.”
There were moments when Tharril sensed that his lover initiated sex solely to please him, and that, if offered a choice, would prefer celibacy. Erred seemed to have no innate hunger for lovemaking. The contraband strawberries were props in a planned seduction, as anyone could see. Even without such aids, Tharril felt a certain emptiness in their encounters. He wondered if Erred knew how to be spontaneous, how to let go.
Lips touched his. Which of the bed slave’s twenty-one different ways to kiss is this? he wondered. Is there anything we do together that you didn’t learn in Tajhaan? The only passion he felt was his own. While hard, he could bear it, but afterward he lay cold and disillusioned beside Erred, rehearsing a thousand speeches he would never make.
As Erred drew back from the kiss, Tharril’s gaze focused on the cream dripping from his finger, and the tongue that darted out to lap up the white droplets. His groin twitched at the sight of Erred sucking his own finger into his mouth, moving it in and out like a miniature cock. Still watching, Tharril’s hands sought the laces of his leggings.
Fingers closed around his wrist, stopping him. “Let me do that,” murmured Erred.
Tharril felt a light touch ghost over his groin, barely touching the fabric or the bulge straining against it. Erred unlaced him, yet ignored his erect cock to undo the buttons of his tunic and draw it back over his shoulders to expose his chest. Tharril squirmed at the wet finger that painted circles around his left nipple, and groaned at the warm tongue that followed.
In a moment of greater clarity, Tharril might have dwelt on who else Erred had done this with, yet in the closeness of the sunlit room, far from the barren vistas of Tajhaan, no other lovers existed.
Reaching down, he gathered up the hem of Erred’s shift, caressing the bare skin he uncovered; Erred pulled away long enough to pull the garment over his head and toss it aside.
Now that he knew the game, Tharril felt adventurous enough to improvise. Dipping his finger into the cream, he smeared it over Erred’s lips before kissing him. Sweet cream mingled with salt and the faint taste of strawberries.
Tharril clasped Erred to him and rolled them over so he lay on top, pinning his lover to the mattress. He found the porcelain dish, reached for the last strawberry, and began to toy with Erred as he had been teased, stroking the scarlet tip around and over a hard nipple before bending to taste the path he had made. Erred gasped, pulling his head close, but Tharril refused to be led, or do anything that was not spontaneous.
With his teeth, Tharril broke the skin of the strawberry and rubbed it over Erred’s lips, moistening it with juice, then withdrawing it when Erred tried to seize it with his teeth. Comprehension lit Erred’s eyes, and he smiled. They kissed again, their tongues lingering over the taste of summer.
Tharril sat up and drew the strawberry tip over his own skin, circling his nipples and the hollow of his navel, winking at Erred as he popped it into his mouth. Everything he knew about lovemaking he had learned from Erred in the slave quarters they shared in Tajhaan. As Erred had been taught to give pleasure to the men to whom he was given, so he had tried to teach Tharril to do the same with the guards who abused him and survive.
Now that they were both free men, Tharril had no reservations about taking what he had learned—those hateful lessons—improvising, and turning it back upon his teacher.
Sliding down Erred’s body, parting his legs with firm hands, Tharril made it clear who was now the seducer. He nibbled at Erred’s inner thighs, his lips and tongue seeking the places he knew would bring his lover to ecstasy, following with his fingers until in his excitement he forgot everything but the salty taste of Erred’s skin and the shuddering gasps and hands clutching at his head, his shoulders, blindly urging him to continue.
Some nights Tharril lay beside Erred and, as the sweat cooled on their bodies and their breathing returned to normal, asked yet again for his pledge. In his mind, there was no reason why they should not be joined in a Water-lover’s rite of marriage. Where he considered it a token of his commitment, he could not comprehend how Erred would regard it yet another form of bondage. I don’t want to own you, he thought. I want to give myself to you and have you do the same because I love you!
And he had said it aloud, raising his voice to make Erred understand the depth of his feeling, but though his eyes grew soft Erred had answered that he could not give what he did not fully possess himself. All Tharril heard was that Erred was torn between two lovers, would always be, and not even the most tender words or passionate lovemaking in the world could change that.
If he experienced a certain proprietary fulfillment in bringing his lover to orgasm, Tharril could not help it, for it was the one moment in which Erred was truly his. Erred’s bliss was as delicious to him as a few stolen strawberries, and just as rare.