Author: Terry Jackman
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A desert world. A warrior nation that worships its emperor as a god. But for Ashamet, its prince, a future filled with danger…
Ashamet is confident his swordsmanship, and his arranged marriage, will be enough to maintain the empire’s peace. But when a divine symbol magically appears on his arm, closely followed by an attempt on his life, he no longer knows who to trust. Worse, the strange attraction he feels toward a foreign slave could be another trap. As events unravel, too fast,Ashamet must find out if this innocent young male is a tool for his enemies–or the magic key to his survival.
“Ashamet, Desert-Born” is a debut adventure fantasy with an exotic Arabian-style setting and elements of same-sex romance.
The king my father named me Ashamet. It means a copper-coloured whirlwind off the desert (colour of our own Kadduchi flesh). It’s meant to be poetic. Huh. Apart from that a princely life was pretty good – until my taster went into convulsions. Happily, they pinned it on some merchant’s less-than-healthy crawlfish. Panic over then; I didn’t bother witnessing the execution. But I was that rarity, a single offspring, and I’d been a single step from danger, and I didn’t have an heir yet.
Quite enough to make my father’s mind up; I was sentenced to be married…
Now, a thread of moisture trickled down my backbone as I took my seat again for yet another day upon the royal dais, formally escorted by my Uncle Raggesh. I had picked a sleeveless tunic in my lightest silks, a minimum of jewels, my thick, black hair lay braided at one shoulder, but it didn’t help. The Gate Hall, grandest audience chamber in our empire, had descended to a rowdy, yellow marble sweat-box.
Rag sat too, his longer robes spread out to swamp his sandalled, copper-coloured toes. Today he’d left his close-trimmed claws their natural white as mine were. Bet he wished he’d dressed like me as well. The tiny windows in the blue-enamelled arch above our heads were meant to keep this stage-like alcove cooler. Meant to, but the Gate – the famous golden screen of star-shaped so-lar lamps, at present dropped between us royals and the outer chamber – turned it back into an oven. Gods, I could have been up on a horse. In the fresh air. With a few companions I could actually trust.
I should have been receiving end-of-year assessments from my generals about our southern army’s readiness for action, given that my father had been taking more than normal interest in our southern borders lately. I suspected that our empire was again expanding.
But instead I blanked my face and scanned the throng beyond the ornate, semi-private metal filigree that dangled inbetween us.
Out there, thin coils of vapour from the ordinary iron lamps obscured the vaulted, gold and turquoise ceilings. Below, my father’s hairless, ochre-hided Kemik guard, exotic giants of our kingdoms, lined the path toward us, fangs retracted peaceably. The flame-reflections dancing off their breast-plates were the only movement there but outside them… Alpha Lords of every size and shade and all their twittering attendants skittered back and forth like termites, and the piled-up offerings destroyed the last pretence of taste the place had ever managed. I jerked my beard-point at the nearest jumble. ‘Look at it, we’ve swapped the Gate Hall for the Grand Bazaar.’
My uncle didn’t blink. ‘Show some grace. They’re your wedding gifts.’
I might have growled. It didn’t help that he was right. With five days still to go my marriage had progressed from bore, to stinking torment. Every perfume in the world was up my nose today, but none of them could mask the ripened bodies. Worse, my sword arm itched like seven hells, and with so many watchful eyes I had to curb an uncouth urge to scratch it.
Muffled creaks, from chains and pulleys underneath our feet. The Gate began to shiver upward, to disclose… ‘Gods, forget bazaar. It’s a cattle market!’
A pair of pure-bred white camels were being tugged forward, their plate-like pads scraping over the marble. Their willowy necks hung with ropes of pearls? Was the sheer volume of these eccentricities meant to make up for their inanity? As if it heard, one of the brutes chose to relieve itself, while the lordly fool in front attempted to pretend he neither heard, nor smelled, the ‘splop’ of brittle yellow crap behind him. Rag’s long nose pinched shut as brown-robed clerks made clucking noises. Slaves were chivvied forward. I think I sighed. ‘At least the colour complements the marble.’
Raggesh choked behind his drooping moustache. ‘Keep it down, Ash.’
I’d have given him a sharp retort except a guard distracted me with, ‘Highness? There’s a message from the outer gates.’
I tossed the message tube back at him and unrolled the paper. ‘Oh joy, the bride’s finally turned up… horsemen, eight baggage carts and three horse-drawn litters? My fingers tightened, crumpling the flimsy paper. I relaxed with conscious effort. ‘How many crones have they sent with her? No wonder they’re so late, they couldn’t use a desert route with those things.’
‘Uh.’ My uncle watched the frantic sweeping, quite ignoring my reaction. I obliged him with a beaming smile instead. At least my mouth did. She was here then, the daughter of our newest vassal-king, Farad of Sidass. The bigger picture: the last of our smaller, paler, snubber-nosed Chi cousins were finally merging into the empire; a fading dynasty was being swallowed by a newer, fiercer bloodline. From where I sat I was stuck with her, unless she proved infertile.
Small chance of that. Females were rare enough. There was nothing rarer than one barren. I resisted growling at the luckless messenger. ‘Have someone send a message to the Inner Palace, to the closter-eunuchs. Tell them to unbar their doors, their future mistress is arriving.’ Though they’d very likely known as soon as I had, maybe sooner. They’d been looking forward to it.
I read on, since cleaning up the hall had halted the proceedings. Heavens forfend a lord should step in something. ‘Looks like the rumours about King Farad’s health could be true; he’s not with them.’
‘Uh.’ Rag at his chatty best. ‘Prince Effad?’
‘Not him either. This says Prince Thersat leads her escort. That’s the lesser son, right? The one who wasn’t there for the surrender?’
‘Uh.’ Rag (another lesser son, and cut accordingly, to centre our succession) raised a lordly finger. The next noble was ushered in. The Gate lowered. More gems. They moved him on.
‘So what do we know about this Thersat?’
The Gate lifted again. One out, one in. Another gift, then Rag could answer. ‘At the time we assumed he’d been wounded, but now we’re told he’s “prone to illness”.’ Rag maintained his bland expression.
I drew breath. ‘Farad can’t travel, Effad’s tied to his side, so we’re lumbered with a permanent invalid?’
‘Uh,’ denoted end of topic as the Gate reopened.
‘Great.’ The cursed itching made a fresh assault. It had to be insect bites. I looked about for some distraction and spied a short, bald figure, absent from the court since summer; yes, the tubby Sheshman, copper-skinned but built more Chi than Kadd, and strident in his household’s blue and orange. Ah, and something loomed behind him.
My spirits rose. If anyone would bring me something more amusing, surely it was Sheshman, of the rolling gait and wicked chuckle. There was more trader there than noble, so my father said. More pirate too, he’d added, laughing.
I must have grinned. I felt my uncle’s disapproval so I faced toward the lord approaching, nodding gravely, like a bigger, younger copy of my stately father. But I glanced aside again to guess what Sheshman might have brought me. Four slaves were moving up a heavy-looking, box-like… something… swathed in dull grey fabric. Hmm. A cage? An animal? The male knew better than to insult his prince – and thus his king – with something paltry.
Meanwhile, the slightly slimmer northern Chi in front of us, distinguished by his nose, his browner hair and pale red skin, had bent a creaky knee before us. I shouldn’t have frowned, but it was difficult to see how the Chi, so often weaker than the other races, had been dominant so long, for all their boasts of direct bloodlines from the Ancestors. As for this one, kneeling made him look like a slave. Our own Kadduchi lords would never kneel, except to Father. Though of course these gifts were really for my father; vying for the notice of our gods-protected Voice of Heaven.
Possibly my frown grew darker; certainly my thoughts did. If I was ever crowned – I tried not to plan that far ahead – I figured their loyalty to me would be less certain. The lord before us, backing off again, looked troubled; probably convinced his present hadn’t thrilled me. ‘What was it?’ I muttered.
Rag almost shook his head. ‘Deeds to an orchard,’ he gritted. ‘Listen, will you!’
‘What-’ Now I was offended.
‘Wine, nephew, and Sultaki brandy.’
‘Ah.’ A gift worth having.
Despite his flash of temper Rag gazed calmly outward. To those who watched, he was my father’s only sibling, and his twin and his most loyal kinsman. Or to put it bluntly he was here to keep his royal nephew out of trouble. Headstrong was the least I knew they said about me; unpredictable, both in or out of battle. Rash, impetuous, a wicked sense of humour? Gods, I hoped so. Almost thirty now, and still no wiser? I ignored the carping. Sober was for years yet to come. And there was only one more presentation left before I got to see that odd-shaped box of Sheshman’s.
I turned back to my duty long enough to marvel at the antique bowls a Kemik lord brought forward. They were delightful; translucent porcelain, hand-painted by a master. Not a gift one would expect from any of the rough-skinned Kemik either, who were prone to value battle gear or horses. In fact the only gift of real taste I’d seen all morning. ‘A rare possession. I am honoured, sir.’ They moved him off. I signalled to the clerk that he record my personal approval. Now for Sheshman.
‘My prince, I bring you every prayer for your approaching marriage.’ Old Sheshman bounced up, bowed outrageously, then watched me. Ah, the sight of simple, honest motives. Bribery. Ambition. Life-blood of the palace. Earlier I’d read his beaming smile with interest, now I noticed it had faded. Second thoughts? What had the scoundrel brought me?
Despite my sudden doubts I felt my back and shoulders loosen. Moments in the old rogue’s company and I was feeling more myself, I almost burst out laughing. Well, Sheshman was both small and round, a difficult shape to look dignified. It was amusing to see him try though. He squared his shoulders, sucked in his paunch beneath one of those bright sashes he loved, and waved a lordly hand. The slaves, their cropped heads lowered, brought their burden up the outer steps and forward to my feet, then grounded it on recessed legs and cowered.
It seemed to float above the floor. Silently I awarded him marks for detail, and waited for more. He actually lowered his voice. ‘My prince, I bring you a rarity I never thought existed.’ The old fool waved again. Two slaves pulled free the heavy draperies. I started frowning; couldn’t help it. First a puzzle, now a riddle? It was a cage right enough; rounded; big enough for a large hound. But this thing was a fantasy, its bars were curled and gilded. And there was silk now, white, stretched taut inside it. A silk-lined cage? I found I’d leaned toward it. Sheshman’s eyes had sharpened, and his face gone solemn.
‘Well?’ I challenged, but I smiled. I couldn’t help that either.
‘Well enough, I hope, my prince.’ He drew a breath. ‘Perhaps.’ He glanced around. ‘Would the prince deign to open it himself?’ The fellow offered a key, from around his own neck.
Rag had straightened, in surprise or in alarm, but Sheshman wouldn’t leave alive if there was anything in there to hurt me. Besides, the key was silver. I rather thought I’d guessed the secret. Not so tempting as it had been but a well-presented trifle, and the cage, and lowered Gate, would block the view of those outside it more or less politely. So I stepped down and took the key (and the unspoken challenge) and turned it in the lock.
Sheshman was murmuring in my ear by then, his voice gone knowing. ‘Your wedding duties draw close, my prince, and your subjects know you will perform with taste and honour. But afterwards…?’
I caught the bars and pulled. Hot air rushed past me as the twin doors of this almost-cage unfurled like curving wings about me, neatly blocking the interior from anyone not right before them. The light rushed in.
There was indeed a figure; half knelt, half seated on the silken cushions. Loose white trousers were the only clothing, as I’d guessed. And silver shackles, delicate as bracelets, etched with three-point royal stars. The chain that linked them had been pegged into the cage’s flooring. And the head was ritually gift-wrapped, mummy-like, in white silk wrappings.
‘Such as this would stir the blood of any male, much less my prince, whose appetite is fabled.’ The murmur made me turn my head. The beady eyes looked up at me, expectant, earlier nerves forgotten.
I drew a breath. ‘I may be about to marry, my lord, but I haven’t yet gone blind.’ I let my voice turn cold. ‘Nor stupid. This is no youth.’
“This” was too tall, even crouched as he was. The chest, the hands and arms stretched down toward the cage’s flooring all had shape, and muscle. Maybe twenty summers? Bodyslaves were usually at least a few years younger: newly-adult: left untouched, kept very private like a female. Hells, a bodyslave was often more exclusive. After all a contract with a female – where the cursed female wasn’t royal – could be drawn up for as little as a single year. Then her family would repossess her and consider bids from other males fit to breed with.
But this one… kept apart this long, till only ten years less than I was? Virgin white and silver, on a full-grown male? What did Sheshman take me for?
Behind me Rag had risen. Sheshman’s face, which should have been as yellow-eyed and copper-hued as mine was, turned a nasty shade of umber, likely both embarrassment and fear, but he stood his ground. ‘My prince, I swear to you, I swear he’s still a virgin: more than that, a holy male, taken as an infant, grown behind high walls. I would not cheat you, highness.’ Sheshman weighed my mood and laid a final hand down. ‘My prince, I trust you to decide my honesty. I’ll wait upon your judgement. If you judge him less than I have said, I’ll… send my youngest son to grace your chambers, to expunge the insult.’
Had I blinked? I’d heard that Sheshman kept a real trader’s superfluity of children, but my eyes and ears said he favoured that one. Give him into bondage? He’d never offer – not unless… My eyes slid back toward the cage.
I’d thought him painted. Now I saw he wasn’t. Wherever Sheshman found him it wasn’t in any of our kingdoms, not with skin like creamy marble that looked unreal in the lamplight. I followed the line of his neck and shoulder, the swell of his chest. His skin looked… fragile, and there was no sweat, though when I’d opened it I’d felt the metal cage was hotter than this alcove; never good. Surely he barely breathed, there was so little movement. One leg was tucked beneath him, the other raised before. Unusual, but graceful. Then I saw the triple-knotted cord about his waist. My breathing deepened. Truth, or lies, a very fine body.
Trust my fond uncle to spoil the moment. ‘Keep your pants on, Ash. Believe this, you’ll fall for anything.’ Dry amusement on the surface. Mockery beneath?
I defended any outward sign of interest. ‘Might be fun finding out, though.’
‘Huh. You haven’t even seen the face yet.’ Ever the cynic.
My own thoughts shifted. ‘Curious, uncle? I’ll oblige you,’ I said outrageously. I stepped forward, right into the opening, and reached up to the wrapping. The knot, loose at the nape of the neck, slid free between my fingers. One gentle tug and the silk fell away in rippling folds.
The head revealed stayed lowered, the eyes hooded. The hair, far from cropped, was long enough it would have brushed his shoulders, lighter coloured even than the Chi; not braided of course but tied back loosely. I had disarranged it somewhat. Below that a high forehead and good cheekbones framed curious brows, more delicate arches than our upswept wings. No sign of any beard, nor hair upon the chest, the face as pale as the body.
Still no movement? Perhaps the slightest swaying. As if the chains helped keep him upright? I caught the jaw and jerked it upward, gasped to feel a child-like softness, but then the eyelids lifted too, a reflex surely for he didn’t seem to focus.
Wide grey eyes, like still winter pools. Rag stirred, but I’d forgotten he was there. The eyes blinked twice, all up and down – no inner storm-proof membrane? – then gazed back at me as if he was my equal. I should have felled him, or had him whipped. Instead I stared back. My mouth dried up. I felt light-headed. This creature was weak, and confused, and more? Yes, surely. How much more though?
Curse these bites, my grip had tightened in reaction so I let my fingers drop away. I didn’t want my tougher skin to mark that silk-thin whiteness.
The lips parted. A tiny frown formed between the arched brows. ‘Are you… a vision? Or a nightmare?’
Faint, and husky. I doubted anybody else had heard him. ‘Call me either one too loud, they’ll cut your tongue out,’ I said softly.
He just looked back at me with those eyes. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘Real..?’ His gaze lowered to the shackles at his wrists. ‘I saw this. I saw…’ Again his voice tailed off to silence. Then the white chest heaved, one huge, shuddering gulp of air. The tethered arms began to shake.
‘Call my slave master,’ I ordered. Someone scurried.
The world returned around me. Despite being shorter Rag was practically breathing down my neck. Indecent. I was stung to comment. ‘Put your tongue away, eh, uncle? If you’ve seen enough, I’ll shut this up again.’
Rag recovered with a warrior’s speed of reflex. His mouth did close, but only to reopen. ‘Aye, best keep it hid. There’ll be enough laughter as it is.’
He didn’t believe Sheshman, then. Not unreasonable, I conceded. To myself, not out loud. How in all the world could any male stay innocent this long past adult? But that face, those eyes. I’d never seen such innocence, even in youths whose balls weren’t dropped yet. And his words… My thoughts rebounded. If it was an act, it was a damn good one. And if that was so, I’d see both Sheshman and his slave regretted their performance. I shut the cage and turned. ‘I’ll weigh your claims,’ I said curtly.
Sheshman backed away as Medishel bustled forward, my half-Chi slave master, a swollen, amber echo of my own appearance in a red and yellow outer robe and broad yellow sash. When I jerked my head he pulled at one door of the cage, peered in cautiously, then backed his head out and latched the thing up again. His manners were as excellent as ever. Not a word, not a look, just a polite, ‘My prince?’
‘Take him away, Medi. See if he’s ill, or drugged. Best keep him separate, in case, until I give you other orders.’
Medishel bowed, caught the key and waved to Sheshman’s slaves. The cage was carted off, which caused a lot of heads to turn, and furtive whispers. I wondered sourly how long it would take for the rest of the tale to spread. Have you heard the latest? Sheshman actually claimed he’d found a twenty-year-old virgin. Gods, how many of these visiting lords would ask each other if they had a complete fool for a prince, if he was even tempted to believe such rubbish.
But in my heart I think I always believed, right from the start. Some things can’t be weighed, or measured, can they?