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Shousetsu Bang*Bang

Issue 65: Long Live the King



Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Shousetsu Bang*Bang



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Shousetsu Bang*Bang issue 65 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com.

TABLE OF CONTENTS



The new kitchen boy, by Hyakunichisou 13

Error Borealis, written and illustrated by Iron Eater

Sicilian Winter, by lamtuna

Lay Down Your Arms, by Kimyō Tabibito

Unification, by Domashita Romero

illustrated by engine

Little Vipers Sing, by Yuriko Toru

Heir, by H.P. Lovecock

Possession, by Tamari Erin

illustrated by beili

The Legend of Arthur Smith, written and illustrated by Yin Twig

Jack of Spades, by beili

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, by shukyou

Lessons in Lunar Etiquette, by TK Hoshikuzu



Front cover by aspectabund

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Issue_66





The new kitchen boy

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)



Those close to the court get honour; those close to the kitchen get food.” –Chinese proverb



It wasn’t as though the new kitchen boy, or stablehand, or tailor’s apprentice ever actually fooled anyone.

“We are expected to treat him as we would each other,” the First Cook said, in a tone that threatened rigorous retribution on anyone gormless enough to take him at his word.

The Head Cook was even scarier, fixing them all with the gimlet eye of a woman who had risen to one of the most trusted positions in the land while raising seven children and outliving two husbands and a wife. “Every year, there is one person who takes Yule too far. This year, that person will not be from my kitchens. Do I make myself clear?”

The emphasis made Evan wonder what had happened last year; there was some shuffling and a muffled snicker, but he couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, and in any case the Head Cook’s gaze came down on the group like a killing frost.

“They don’t mean you can’t enjoy the festivities,” one of the Third Cooks said later, taking pity on Evan as she dropped an armload of dirty mixing bowls beside his sink of soapy water. “Just don’t throw up in the Great Hall.”

The new kitchen boy appeared the traditional seven days before Yule, wearing a work smock made from linen finer than the best shirt Evan had ever owned. Up close, he looked…ordinary, but a splendid version of ordinary, with eyes that were green instead of brown, almost-black hair that tried to curl where it had been combed back from his face, hands that were callused where one might hold a pen rather than a scrub-brush. He was introduced as Patrick, which technically was his name, or at least one of them, though it was pretty far along in the string, just before the hyphens started.

“I suppose I’ll be helping you with that,” he said cheerfully, gesturing to where Evan was elbow-deep in one of the stewpots, trying to scrape a crust off the bottom.

The Second Cook who was showing him through the kitchens nearly swallowed her tongue. “Oh, no, no, Your–you,” she said, catching herself in time. “Not at all. Never. May I suggest we go this way….” She glared at Evan behind Patrick’s back as they left the scullery, as if he’d done or said anything at all.

The morning stuttered along in surreptitious stares and sudden silences and a great deal of fierce whispering. At the dinner table, normally as raucous as it was allowed to get, the conversation sounded like everyone were in a play and had half-forgotten their lines. Patrick, seemingly at effortless ease, complimented the bread, the pease porridge, the small beer, and the apple pudding, and ate like a page who had gotten up too late to have had breakfast. By the end of the meal, half the table was in love with him.

Predictably, Laurel, one of the undercooks, took that sentiment rather too literally and unsubtly, and as a result was at the sinks with Evan the next morning, trying to scour half-dried porridge out of the servants’ wooden bowls and the court’s porcelain ones.

“They said to treat him like a real person,” she grumbled, clacking bowls hollowly together. “Isn’t that what the Yule drawing is all about?”

“Is it?” Evan said doubtfully. “Anyway, he has a fiancé.”

She snorted. “Do you think Henry of Tyra keeps it in his pants during Yule, any more than anybody else?”

There was a thump near the scullery door. Mason, another of the undercooks, leered in at her. “You’d know, wouldn’t you?”

The subsequent shouting brought everyone within a two-room radius, including, unfortunately, the First Cook himself. Mason was at the sinks with Laurel, shoulders around his ears and scrub-brush in hand, in the time it took the First Cook to cross the room.

“And you, Evan,” the First Cook said, flicking a hand at the large sack Mason had been carrying, “take that over to Second Cook Shoshanna and tell her you’ll be working for her for the rest of the day.”

“M-me, First Cook?” He hadn’t even graduated from scullery boy to kitchen boy yet. He had assumed it would be years before he was permitted to touch anything edible.

One of the First Cook’s eyebrows crawled towards his thinning hairline. “Are you expecting me to repeat myself?”

“N-no First Cook, sorry First Cook, thank you First Cook.” Evan scrambled out of the room, staggering under a hundred pounds of flour.

As he left, he saw the First Cook pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and thought he heard, “…week gets longer every year,” but he probably imagined that.

In the bakery, Shoshanna looked him over and put him to work beside Patrick, who was hairline to boot-heel with flour, flexing surprisingly muscled forearms as he pushed and pulled a heap of dough the size of a fattening pig back and forth in the kneading trough. Working at his shoulder, it was hard for Evan not to fall into a rhythm with him, hands and breathing a shared cadence, the sticky dough turning gradually smooth and silken under their touch.

“How long do we do this?” Patrick murmured after a while.

“Until I say you can stop,” Shoshanna said from the other table, without looking in their direction.

Patrick grinned as though he were enjoying a delightful holiday. He was only a few years older than Evan, who was a grown man of seventeen, despite his title of boy and the fact that he’d been in the kitchens for under a year, while Patrick had been–not a kitchen boy–for as long as Evan could remember. In the old days, Evan would have started in the kitchens at eight, as his great-aunt had done, but that was before the old king, the present king’s father, had established all the village schools. Nowadays only people like Patrick, it seemed, worked from the time they were children.

The next morning, Evan was back in his scullery, but in the afternoon he was drafted to help Patrick pit a barrelful of dried cherries, and the following day they spent the hour before dinner pounding the tall, sand-coloured cones of sugar into powder. It was a refreshing novelty to not be the newest arrival, the one who didn’t understand all the in-jokes and who had to be shown how to do the simple, tedious tasks that were beneath all the undercooks. Patrick seemed to be charmed by every task, deft with the knife and forceful with the mortar and pestle. Nonetheless, he wasn’t told to help Evan with the washing-up, though there were mountains of that, even more than usual, and Evan was expected to have it all clean and draining every night before he was allowed to stagger off to the attic dormitory he shared with all the other unranked kitchen servants.

Despite all the extra work and the dearth of sleep, there was an undertone of excitement to the week. Even in the workrooms, decorations appeared, the spare greenery and ragged ribbons and stubs of candles that were deemed unfit for the Court and the Great Hall. Treats appeared at meals, the inevitable fallen cakes and the over-browned biscuits from the corners of the trays. One afternoon Evan snuck up the stairs with some of the undercooks to the Great Hall–where they were not permitted to go, but the rules were different at this time of year–to get a glimpse of Nicholas, the kitchen boy who had drawn the red-dyed straw that had put him on the throne for the week before Yule. He looked chilly and a little bored. Though Evan had crossed his fingers when drawing his own, completely unexceptional straw, he found himself glad that he hadn’t had that honour, that he was spending the season where he belonged, in the low-ceilinged, spice-scented warmth of the kitchens.

The day of Yule Eve he barely had time to haul in fresh water and dry his pruney fingers between stacks of baking trays and roasting pans. But at dusk, the First Cook himself walked the warren of the kitchens, calling them all together in the servants’ hall.

“If it’s not done by now, it’ll never be,” he said, rolling his sleeves down over scar-speckled forearms. “Finish what you’re working on, and be gone with you. I’ll see you all bright and early” –there was groaning laughter at that– “in the morning.”

Tomorrow would be the feasting and the music and all the rest of it, and then at midnight the lawful king, crowned with holly, would appear to brandish his sword at the pretender and take back his throne. No one in the kitchens would see most of that, but Yule Eve was also called Servants’ Yule for a reason.

Evan heard oven doors slammed and pans clattered onto tables, heard the others call farewells to one another, heard the kitchens gradually quiet as he worked. Then there was no sound but the scour of his brush. He still had a tower of cutting boards and saucepans and tasting spoons to finish. None of it would be easier to clean for having sat dirty all night, and anyway he knew there’d be plenty of plates waiting for him in the morning from the cold supper that had just been set out in the Great Hall. He drained the sink, and filled it again with hot water he fetched in a bucket from the boiler.

“You’re not leaving?” asked Patrick, from the doorway.

“When I’m finished.” He poured in a dribble of mutton-coloured soft soap, and whirled his brush in the water until suds rose.

“I’ll keep you company, then.” Evan turned to stare at him. Patrick looked sideways, into the shadows. “Unless you’d rather I didn’t.”

“It’ll be dull.”

“You’ll be done quicker if I help you.” He watched as Evan washed a handful of spoons and slid them into the second sink to rinse. Patrick pulled them out of the water, shook them, and put them on the wooden draining rack. “I think you’ll need more room. These bowls at the end are dry. Where should I put them?”

The work did go faster with two, and although they didn’t talk much, they moved as though they’d been working together for years–or as though Patrick were watching more closely than he seemed to, recognizing what would make the work go more smoothly and doing it without comment. He restacked the dirty dishes so all the bowls or all the cutlery could be washed together, wrung out the sodden cloths under the drying racks, brought in another candle when the stub Evan had started with began to gutter. He would have made a very good scullery boy, Evan thought, and only barely stopped himself from saying it aloud.

At last Evan pulled the stopper from the sink for the last time, and wiped his hands on the least damp towel he could find. “Thank you.”

Patrick began to say something, but broke off at the sound of running footsteps in the corridor.

“Hey, Evan, here you still are,” said Julia, one of the undercooks, poking her head in the door. “Some of us are going up to the–” She broke off when she caught sight of Patrick. Evan could guess what she’d been about to say; the section of old attic where the junior kitchen staff gathered in defiance of all rules wasn’t something anyone wanted the new–temporary–kitchen boy to know about.

There was a moment of silence. Patrick’s smiled tilted. “You go with your friends,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll be up when I’m finished here,” Evan lied. Julia waved and ducked back out of the doorway, and they heard her pelting away down the corridor.

Patrick turned a quizzical gaze on Evan, who shrugged. “We are finished.” No one must have thought to invite Patrick to anything, or else why would he be here in a dark scullery, one night before the longest night of the year? “They’re having a bonfire in the stable yard, and all the inns are open. Unless you…”

“I don’t have anyone to spend the evening with,” Patrick said, and then, softly, “do you?”

Evan shook his head. Pairing off was as traditional on Yule Eve as setting fire to things and getting drunk, but there had been no one on the kitchen staff he’d felt that way about until very recently. “Don’t you have–I mean, do you have a fiancé?”

Patrick’s expression pinched a little. “We have…an arrangement,” he said.

“Oh,” Evan said, and was still trying to decide how to ask what that meant when Patrick leaned forward and kissed him.

Evan had done things, of course, with boys from the village, in fields or haylofts or the copse of trees behind the schoolhouse, but there had been no kissing, because nobody’d been anybody’s sweetheart, just friends who’d known one another all their lives. Kissing, he decided, was nice. So was putting your arms around someone as though you liked them, as though it was part of what you were doing together, not just to keep your balance or fit into the narrow shadows. Patrick’s arms were strong and firm; his hands made warm wings where they settled against Evan’s back. Evan slid one arm around his waist, laid his hand flat against the knobs of Patrick’s spine; the other arm he twined around Patrick’s neck. They were closer, now, as though there were a knot wrapped around them that tightened with their movement. Patrick’s mouth opened over Evan’s, and Evan made an embarrassing noise and sagged in Patrick’s hold as his knees turned to water.

Patrick backed him against the wall and let his hands roam down Evan’s sides. Evan pulled his hands back and put them on Patrick’s chest, sliding the cloth of his shirt over muscle. One of Patrick’s knees nudged between Evan’s thighs; Patrick’s mouth moved along his jaw, paused at the dip behind his earlobe, nuzzled down the side of his neck. Evan knotted his hands in Patrick’s shirt. Patrick’s tongue found the hollow at the base of Evan’s throat, and Evan gasped as a thrill raced straight down to his cock.

Patrick lifted his head. “Do you want–”

“Yes,” Evan interrupted him, because whatever Patrick was proposing, he wanted it so badly he could barely see.

Patrick made a little helpless sound in the back of his throat, and his hips rolled against Evan’s. “Yes,” he echoed, and then, “Here?”

“Where else?”

Patrick laughed low and breathily. “Well argued.” He dropped another kiss on Evan’s mouth, and his hands went to the buttons of Evan’s trousers. Evan could only stand there, trembling, and hope he didn’t shame himself by spending the moment Patrick’s hand was on him. The look on Patrick’s face, as he pushed down Evan’s trousers and wet his own lips with a flick of his tongue, was near enough to do it on its own.

Evan recollected himself and went for Patrick’s buttons in his turn–his trousers were a wool as fine as his shirt–and drew his cock out, hand shaking a little on that hot velvet length. Patrick tipped his head back and thrust into Evan’s hand. Then he groaned and went still.

“Like this,” he said, and pulled Evan’s hand out of the way. He put his forearms on the wall on either side of Evan’s head and rocked his hips into him.

This was more familiar territory, cock against cock, though this had a spark to it that he’d never experienced before, as though light were fizzing along his skin. Evan put his mouth on Patrick’s chest, then on his collarbone. All he could hear was his own heart booming, and Patrick’s breath in his ear. When Patrick finished, he bent and pressed his face against the side of Evan’s neck, muffling his cry. Then he pulled back and wrapped his hand around Evan’s cock and stroked him, watching, and Evan’s climax blazed through him like a lightning bolt.

After they’d tidied up, Patrick, to Evan’s surprise, gathered Evan into his arms again and let his head fall to Evan’s shoulder. Evan stroked his back, and after a while, Patrick stepped away.

“Would you like to go see the bonfire?” Evan asked. “The king always has cider and cakes sent down.”

“Yes, I know,” Patrick said, and they walked side by side down to the stable yard.

The next morning, almost everybody had a sore head, and not a few were looking bleary-eyed in yesterday’s clothes. The stacks of dirty dishes were as high as Evan had anticipated. He didn’t see Patrick anywhere. At midnight, they all trooped up to the highest gallery of the Great Hall to watch as Nicholas, with an expression of dazed relief, stepped down from the throne, and the king mounted the dais and sat in his rightful place with his naked sword across his knees.

In the new year, Prince Henry of Tyra came to visit to his fiancé.

There were hunting parties planned, and musicales, and more feasting. Mason, who snuck upstairs to see the welcome dinner, made a point of saying in Evan’s hearing what a beautiful picture they made sitting side by side, the king with his dark hair and Henry so golden. Evan applied himself to his pots. He’d always have a nice memory to revisit every Yule Eve, but a scullery boy knew as well as anyone else how this story ended.

On the third day of Henry’s visit, just as Evan was putting the last of the breakfast dishes away on their shelves, Nicholas skidded into the scullery.

“First Cook says come,” he said breathlessly.

Outside the First Cook’s little office stood a woman in page’s livery. Evan swallowed, and presented himself at the door.

“You’re wanted,” the First Cook said. “Take off your shoes.”

“…What?” Evan asked, certain he’d misheard.

The First Cook’s eyebrow had only begun to twitch when someone poked Evan in the back. He turned to see Julia. “Shoes,” she repeated.

Beginning to suspect that this was actually a dream, Evan bent to untie the side strings of his shoes. As soon as he got them off, Julia grabbed them and disappeared.

One of the undercooks popped in the door and dropped folded cloth onto the First Cook’s desk. “Good,” the First Cook said. “Shirt.” Evan blinked at him. “Shirt, boy, the Court is waiting.”

Evan pulled his damp smock, which smelled of dishwater, over his head. The First Cook shook out the new bundle. It was a fresh shirt, and, Evan discovered when he pulled it on, a nice one, with polished wooden buttons at the front placket and cuffs. The shoulders were a bit broad on him, the arms not quite long enough.

Julia dropped his shoes beside him. They had been gone over with a damp cloth and were no longer water-spotted and scuffed. Evan fastened them up, and when he straightened, Laurel was there to drag a wooden comb through his hair and tie it back with a green ribbon rather than the scrap of twine he’d been using.

“You’ll do,” the First Cook said, with a nod. “Don’t look so worried, boy. Just mind your manners and you’ll be fine.”

His mind roiling with a giddy mixture of confusion, apprehension and hope, Evan followed the page up the kitchen steps, around the courtyard, and into the Great Hall.

He’d never before realized how many people the Great Hall could hold. Hundreds, probably thousands; the hall itself was leagues long, and possibly as wide as the country itself. The page pointed to an indistinguishable spot on the threshold where Evan should stand, and said something in a low voice to the Hall Master. The master stamped his iron-bound staff on the stone at his feet, and ten thousand faces swivelled towards Evan.

“Evan, scullery boy,” the Hall Master pronounced.

There was an eternal moment of silence, and then murmurs rose like dry leaves skittering across stone.

“Approach, Evan,” said the man on the throne at the opposite end of the hall.

On legs that seemed both unnaturally stiff and ready to buckle, Evan walked past a million pairs of eyes towards the end of the room. The king’s dais was there, and, down the aisle in front of it like boulder in the middle of a stream, a table. Two rows of sturdy, cushioned chairs lined it, facing one another, so that no one would put his back to the king. In the seat nearest the dais was a handsome man with hair the colour of sunlight. Despite his grandly embroidered blue satin tunic, he didn’t look terribly comfortable. Standing beside him was an older, narrow-faced man with unfashionably short hair and an ostentatiously severe black coat.

Evan stopped several paces before the table and bowed, because he knew that much. The man on the throne nodded to him, and just for a moment, Evan caught a glimpse of Patrick looking out from the king’s eyes.

The golden-haired man lifted a hand as if in a schoolroom. “Why don’t we move this to a, a more private…”

“No, my prince,” said the older man, without looking at him. “Let this be said before the Court, in the cleansing air.”

He must be the Prince’s Hand, Evan supposed. His advisor, that was to say, though the closer one got to royalty, the fancier the titles got and the pricklier people got about having them used.

“Very well, let’s have this out,” the king said. His voice was mild, and he wore a polite, meaningless smile, which is how Evan knew that he was angry. He was surprised that Henry and his Hand couldn’t see it.

The Prince’s Hand scowled at Evan. “This past Yule Eve, boy, tell me–”

“That will be enough, Gracious Hand.” The king cut the Hand off without raising his voice. “Evan, a question has arisen. I regret that you are subjected to this, but the Prince’s Hand has invoked the Law of Mirrors, which means that you must speak the truth. Did we or did we not spend Yule Eve together in an intimate fashion, you and I?”

Evan felt his face go hot. He swallowed. “We did, Your Majesty.”

The Prince’s Hand made a noise like a spitting teakettle. “As I was told! The rumour is true! A commoner–betrayal–insult–” It was difficult for Evan to hear him through the roaring in his own ears, though he couldn’t help thinking that the Hand was putting on most of that bluster like a cloak.

“Henry,” the king said, leaning forward with his voice lower now, so that all of the Court went still and silent in an effort to hear it. The Hand sputtered to silence. “I thought we had an arrangement.

Prince Henry, whose face had gone as red as Evan’s felt, slid his gaze sideways to his Hand, then flickered it up to the king and away.

“It was your idea,” the king said.

“I, um.” Prince Henry made an inconclusive gesture.

The king leaned back against his carved throne. “Well argued.” His voice was as dry as a cake forgotten overnight in the ovens. “I would say our way seems clear.”

“Your Majesty, for the honour of my prince and our land I must insist–”

The king pitched his voice to carry the length of the hall. “Our engagement must be rescinded at once.”

“I–we–” The Prince’s Hand looked like a man who had just tripped over his own feet. Prince Henry bit his lip, though Evan thought it was pained relief that crossed his face.

“Of course, I am sure we agree that our personal regret and sorrow should not affect the peace and prosperity between our nations.”

“Of course,” Prince Henry said. He stood like a man who had had a weight lifted from him and couldn’t quite believe it. “Bowen, let us go.” He looked up at the throne, and hesitated. “I’m…sorry.”

“You could have just asked,” the king said softly.

Prince Henry ducked his head and nodded, and preceded his Hand down the long aisle and out of the Great Hall. Both of them passed within a hand’s-breadth of Evan as if he weren’t there.

Before the whispers of the Court could rise to the rafters, the king stood. “We will have a recess until after luncheon,” he said. “Evan, attend me.”

Behind the king’s dais was a door, almost concealed in the panelling of the walls. The king held the door open for Evan, and closed it behind him. The room was a comfortable one, with blankets thrown over chairs, and a desk awash with papers in front of the wide glass windows, and a fire burning in the hearth. The king probably thought it was a small, intimate place.

Patrick took off the crown that bound his brow, and hung it on a silver hook shaped like a dragon’s head beside the door, the way another man might hang up his rain-soaked hat. He ran his fingers through his hair.

“I must apologize for that,” he said. “I thought it best to address the rumours directly, and it seems to have gotten rather out of hand. I hope you don’t get teased too badly.”

“Are you…all right?” Evan asked.

Patrick grimaced. “If Henry’s the worst mistake I ever make, I’ll consider myself the wisest ruler in history. Bowen, now, he may become a problem.” He pursed his lips. “Though not as much as if I’d actually married Henry, I suspect.”

“I’m sorry.” Though Evan wasn’t, really, and if he’d known on Yule Eve what was going to happen today, it still would have been a struggle to turn Patrick down.

“Don’t be. That wasn’t really about you and me, no matter what it looked like.” Patrick sank down on the closest piece of furniture, which was a footstool embroidered in royal blue and purple. “I’ve always known that Henry had his eye on… someone else. He just didn’t have the gumption to tell me how serious it was. It’s just as well he’s only eighth in line for the throne.” He sighed. “Perhaps treaty marriages are another old tradition we should reconsider.”

“As long as we don’t reconsider Yule Eve,” Evan said, daring.

“The heavens forfend.” Patrick reached for his hand. “May I give you something to remember me by?” he asked, as if Evan would not remember that night all his life.

“I-if it pleases you.”

“It does.” Patrick released Evan’s hand. His smile had something resolutely cheerful in it. “I’ll have it sent to you. Now, I’m afraid I have work I must attend to. Will you give my regards to everyone in the kitchens?”

Evan spent a lot of time over the next few weeks wondering what the king might send him, worrying over whether it might be a fine horse or a purse heavy with gold or something else he would have trouble keeping, or even worse, an honour like a promotion to undercook, which he wouldn’t be able to refuse and would never hear the end of. But when it came, it came in the form of a small bag of royal purple silk, carried by a page in the king’s own livery. She drew most of the kitchen staff in her wake, so that by the time she arrived at the scullery, everyone was there to watch Evan work open the bag’s glossy cord and upend it into his palm.

It was something strung on a braided cord, the kind of ornament a scullery boy could wear and not be accused of thievery. A pendant, wooden, rectangular, about the length of Evan’s thumbnail: a sculpted scrub-brush, the head polished to a fine gloss, a suggestion of bristles cunningly carved below. Looking closer, Evan saw that engraved into the top of the brush was the outline of a crown.

“You’d think he could have at least given you a horse, or a purse full of gold,” Laurel said, disappointed.

“I guess he got his money’s worth,” sneered Mason.

“Everyone back to work,” the First Cook said, hauling Mason in the direction of the doorway by his ear. “It seems the king is pleased with you, lad. Work hard and there may be an opportunity for you as a kitchen boy in a year or two. Perhaps even undercook in time, though I make no promises.”

When he’d stopped laughing, Evan hung the pendant around his neck. The wooden charm nestled in the hollow of his throat, smooth and cool, and warmed as it sat against his skin. It would darken over time, the gloss deepening, the corners rubbed blunter by the absent-minded caress of his thumb. Future lovers would remark on it; he wore it to the end of his days.

Error Borealis

by Iron Eater





Married life had been kind to Sir Iame, but as he ascended the seventh side-tower staircase of the day he found himself grateful that he’d bothered to keep up his training routine. It wasn’t that he was worried about whether he could still use the sword on his belt—of course he still could, he was a hero for heaven’s sake, no matter how many princes he agreed to wed—but the thought of some miscreant catching him out of breath at the top of yet another climb filled him with what he felt was a reasonable amount of dread. The landing felt like a blessing once it finally arrived.

Upon scanning the area for lurking troublemakers Sir Iame permitted himself a better look at the top of the tower. It was decorated in a much more menacing style than the rest of the place, all heavy velvet curtains and paintings of in-laws he still didn’t know the names of, so the big metal-bound door carved with runes and set with a gargoyle-shaped silver knocker on its front was no great surprise when he spied it. The seeing crystal he’d brought with him didn’t identify any dangerous spells on the door, so Sir Iame shrugged to himself and rapped the knocker.

The door opened with an ominous creak, though to its credit it didn’t slam closed as soon as he stepped across the threshold. The tapestried chamber on the other side was lit moodily: the same heavy curtains as before fell across most of the room’s many windows, blocking out so much of the daytime sun that he wasn’t surprised to see that someone had already bothered to light the dozens of candles placed around the room. A bed sat underneath one of the windows, a chair next to it; seated in the chair and staring out over the afternoon landscape was a figure wearing a familiar crown and humming an even more familiar tune.

Prince Borealis, heir to the throne of all Fairyland, was the sort of man who looked like he was posing for a painting no matter what he did, and so even though he was clearly despondent Sir Iame couldn’t help but admire the graceful curve of his throat and the way the muted sunlight fell across Prince Borealis’s sand-colored skin. He couldn’t so much as step in a mud puddle without oozing aesthetics. That he’d bothered with a garden-variety human like Sir Iame was no less of a wonder now than it had been when they’d first announced their engagement.

“I’ve already had my meal for the day,” the prince sighed. His voice was pained, though not so much that it lost the lilting accent Sir Iame had grown to adore over the past year and change. “Please leave me.”

“So this is where you’ve been wandering off to,” said Sir Iame as he closed the door behind him.

The prince whirled about, both rising to his feet and knocking his chair over in a move that shouldn’t have looked as elegant as it did. “Iame! You can’t be here!”

Sir Iame pulled up a spare stepstool and gratefully took a seat. There had been a lot of stairs in his recent past. “It’s been over a year since this started and you still won’t tell me where you go once a month. I was getting worried.”

“It’s royal business—”

“I asked Da about it and he said there wasn’t any diplomatic stuff scheduled for any of the times you’ve up and vanished.”

“Maybe I didn’t tell him about it!” sputtered the prince.

“Rally, pet, none of the seneschals had any idea, either. Even the gossipy ones that know everything going on in court.” He leaned forward with his elbows against his knees. No matter how hard he tried ignoring the problem he knew he’d start to get an itch in the back of his brain that longed to stick its nose into other people’s business as only an adventuring man could. Why bother fighting it? It had worked for him so far. “Tell me the truth, now: it’s curse stuff, isn’t it?” he asked.

Prince Borealis twisted a lock of cobalt-blue hair around his fingers. “Promise you won’t get mad?”

“I won’t get mad at you. I promise.”

“It’s curse stuff.”

Sir Iame groaned. Curse stuff was why he’d come to Fairyland in the first place, and that had worked out surprisingly well for him, but his unexpected marriage to the Elf-Prince of Fairyland was one bright spot in a vast expanse of annoyance when this sort of thing was involved. He hadn’t expected a typical happily-ever-after situation after settling down, though, since when you got into the heroism profession you accepted that your life would be very interesting up to (and sometimes long after) whenever you actually died, so after he hissed out a long sigh he straightened up to look back into the prince’s face.

“Okay. I handled this the first time, I’ll keep handling it this time. You know I love you, Rally.” He did his best to smile encouragingly. “Can you talk about what all happens to you, or is that part of the curse as well?”

Prince Borealis sat himself down on the side of the bed across from Sir Iame before saying, “I can try.”

The situation went like this: Once a month, during the nights of the new moon, Crown Elf-Prince Borealis “Rally” Candleflower would become a monster whenever the sun went down and the light of the absent moon fell upon the land. This was not the first time he’d been transformed into something inconvenient, though on said first occasion he’d been split up into a bunch of sprites that had then been hidden across the land for… some reason (Sir Iame still wasn’t clear on what had gone on there, even though he’d ended up with a very useful marriage as a result of getting things sorted out), but last time he’d at least looked halfway cute in his ensorcelled state. Fairyland’s monarchy ruled partially by being some of the most adorable people in the kingdom, so having a previously fetching heir end up looking fiendish was a matter of political concern. Fey-folk had some unique priorities. Until a solution could be found, Rally would continue shutting himself up in part of the castle and brooding on the regular once every lunar cycle. In retrospect it felt like one out of ten rooms in the castle was set aside for things like this; curses and their ilk clung to the royal family like flies on meat.

“But why didn’t you tell me about it?” asked Sir Iame once they’d hashed out all the details.

Rally tugged at his hair again. At the rate he was going he risked starting to pull some out, but then again he had enough of it that he could afford to lose a few strands. “I thought it’d make you sad,” he said.

“Well, it does, a little,” said Sir Iame, “but that’s because I don’t like it when you’re upset. That the only reason?”

While the prince didn’t say anything, the answer was written all over his face. Sir Iame reached forward to put a hand on Rally’s knee. “Now, I’m just a simple man, so I can’t say how I’ll take it when I get a look at you once the sun sets, but I’ll tell you this much: no matter what happens, I’ll still love you, yeah?” He wiped away a tear that threatened to mar Rally’s immaculate cheek. “I’ll stay here with you all night, give you somebody to talk to about it all. Just promise you won’t try to eat me up.”

Rally leaned against Sir Iame’s hand. “I promise.”

Tromping all the way back down the tower was not very fun, but Sir Iame kept himself focused by reminding himself that Prince Borealis and a small, loyal contingent of servants had to do this sort of thing all the time. One extra trip for some spare clothes, an extra pillow, and some books was nothing compared to all the years he’d spent slogging through wizards’ swamps and sleeping on the ground; prince-consort he might be, but he hadn’t forgotten a lifetime of questing experience just because he’d started sleeping on clean sheets every night.

Almost every night, that was, as that afternoon saw him making up a little pallet of spare quilts next to Rally’s bed. Sleeping together the way he wanted to would have to wait until he learned whether or not his husband was going to start secreting acid from every pore come nightfall. Sir Iame would have been happy getting up to something during the remaining daylight, but the prince was clearly too upset to even consider so much as getting a hand down his embroidered hosen. Hopefully they could make up for lost personal time later.

What Rally wanted to do was talk, and so talk they did once they’d gotten the tower chamber set up for a second occupant.

“So how much did you know?” he asked Sir Iame. Both of them were seated in one of the tower’s bay windows, physically close but with the much-needed out of being able to look at the scenery instead of each other.

“Suppose that depends on what you’re asking,” said Sir Iame. “I figured it probably wasn’t anything that would threaten our marriage, too, but I also figured you’d weasel out of it if I tried asking you what was going on. Again. I didn’t know if you’d need some heroing done or not, though I figured it probably couldn’t hurt once you didn’t have to worry about asking me for help. But if you mean did I know you change into a nasty ghastly every so often, no, I didn’t.”

The prince laced their fingers together, though his eyes kept focused on the afternoon clouds. “I thought about asking, sometimes. I really did! But it felt…wrong, somehow.” He chewed his lip. “Like I’d be asking too much, maybe. Or that you’d be mad at me. Something like that.”

Sir Iame rubbed his thumb against Rally’s encouragingly. “Used to asking for people to do things for you but not to help you, huh?”

Prince Borealis didn’t respond, but the glum little pout he affected was an answer all its own.

“Last time I checked I’m your champion,” said Sir Iame with a smile, “and us folks in the hero business never back down from helping people in need. So don’t worry yourself about that.” He adjusted the way he’d tucked his legs up; a big, bulky man with knightly training had a bit more trouble fitting into some of the castle’s furnishings than its usual inhabitants, even the ones that were more human-sized. “How about we talk about what it’s like for you when you change? That way I’ll know what to expect.”

“Okay.”

You never got anywhere in the hero business without knowing how to grill people for information, be they a landed noble or a random ragamuffin off the street. Sir Iame organized some questions in his head as he slid comfortably back into his element. “So, it’s curse stuff again,” he said. “Is it the kind of curse stuff where you’re aware of what’s happening to you, or do you just black out and wake up a little while later with hazy memories?”

The prince shrugged, though he only used one shoulder to do it. “That first one, mostly. I can think and talk and such. It’s a little harder for me to concentrate on things and I have these awful needy aches I’m scared of thinking about too much, and when the sun comes up again my memories are a little swimmy.”

“Swimmy?”

“Like…hazy.” Prince Borealis twirled his free hand by the side of his head. “You know how you can have really clear dreams, but when you’re awake it’s tricky to remember some of the smaller details? It’s like that. Usually I try to sleep it off.”

The thought of the prince as some manner of abomination curled up in one of the bobbled sleeping caps he liked was alarmingly cute to Sir Iame. He tried not to linger on it; he didn’t know how things were going to play out, and setting up unreasonable expectations wasn’t going to end well. Instead he focused on another thread of information that had bubbled up during the conversation.

“So what do you mean by an ‘awful needy aches,’ Rally?” Sir Iame asked. He raised his hand defensively as Prince Borealis moved to complain. “I know you said you don’t want to think about it too closely, but this is important. It could be a clue about how to break the curse.”

The prince huffed, obviously flustered. “It’s dreadful. Or I think it’s dreadful. That’s part of what gets lost when I change back.”

“What’s so dreadful about it?”

“I don’t know! It’s just this feeling, like something is missing and if I don’t get it I’m going to do something terrible.” He slumped in his seat so that his hair fell across his face. “I’m so scared I’m going to hurt somebody, or worse than hurt them. That’s why I lock myself away up here.”

There hadn’t been a lock on the door and Sir Iame’s pocket seeing-crystal hadn’t detected any magic in that part of the castle, but he didn’t feel like pressing the issue. Maybe the prince was talking about more metaphorical locks? There was maybe an hour left until sundown so he’d see for himself soon enough. He calmly checked his sword and ran a whetstone along its edge before returning it to its scabbard; raising his blade against his husband was not on the list of things Sir Iame ever wanted to do, but he’d only ended up with a husband in the first place by being ready for anything. With luck he wouldn’t have to draw it at all.

With a little coaxing Prince Borealis found enough of an appetite to split a meal of bread and boiled eggs with Sir Iame. It was much plainer than their typical fare, as there wasn’t even any wine, much less fresh greens or any dessert whatsoever, but Sir Iame tried to frame it in terms of much worse meals he’d had while hunting monsters. Relativity was important: simple food did not make for bad food, just as a spouse that was going to look like something very peculiar in a few minutes did not make for a bad spouse. If he could forgive Rally’s love of that one brief song he insisted on singing, humming, or whistling all the time, he could forgive this, no question.

The sky started to turn orange and pink sooner than Sir Iame had expected, which was Prince Borealis’s cue to bar the door from the inside, pull curtains over all the windows, and strip down to nothing but his crown. Sir Iame sighed to himself. It was such a pity that instead of joining the prince he had to keep on his toes for…well, for whatever was about to happen.

What happened went like this: As the sun went down Prince Borealis knelt on the floor and panted like he’d been the one running up and down stairs all day, then he started to tremble. The color of his hair started to flow down across his skin like it was staining him, but the longer it happened the darker he turned until he was a deep midnight blue all over. His slight frame filled out and stretched until he was easily twice his previous height and breadth. There were claws involved. There was a tail. Once he stood again a pair of leathery wings stretched out from his back, the bony points at the tip of each wing-digit nudging at the tapestries. Everything small and dainty fizzed away from him like a chemist’s tablet dunked in water. When all was said and done the only parts of him that still looked the same were the long blue hair framing his glowing eyes and the now comically small crown balanced between his horns. It was easy to see why Prince Borealis had expected others to be fearful.

Sir Iame wasn’t afraid because had seen this before.

“Oh. Well, that explains some things,” he said. “Seems you’re looking like the Dark Lord at the moment, Rally.”

The prince collapsed onto his haunches and slunk backwards with his wings tucked around his body. “This is what I’ve been living with for over a year now,” he said, his deep and menacing voice still carrying traces of his usual accent. He was also trying not to cry. “I’m so awful. Nobody’s going to look at me the same way if they find out, not Da, not you, not anyone…!” The sound of his snuffling was as loud as it was woeful.

Sir Iame gently laid a hand on his husband’s toothy snout. “I’m definitely not going to stop loving you for something as petty as a little temporary transmogrification, pet,” he said. “We’ll figure this out.”

The last time he’d been around anything shaped like Rally’s current situation was back when he’d been trying to break the original curse. Back then the prince had merely been split up into three little sprites which had then been hidden across the land, and that had honestly been a little weird, but after Sir Iame’s original experience with going to sleep in what he thought was a nice old woman’s cottage and waking up in a land of horse-sized riding frogs and fiddle-playing cats in short pants it hadn’t been that much weirder than anything else in Fairyland. A good deal of derring-do later and he’d collected the proper number of sprites and legendary treasures to do a real number on the Dark Lord. In retrospect Sir Iame suspected he should have thought a little bit longer about why the Dark Lord disappeared in a flash of light once he landed the final blow. Then again, he’d still been new to the kingdom back then, so taking everything at face value had been the only way he’d been able to get anything done.

“So let’s see,” said Sir Iame. “It seems you can still think and feel more or less the same way as usual, you’re just…bigger.” He stood up and circled the prince a bit to get a better look at him. “So my guess is that the first time you were actually split up into four parts, not three: a trio of sprites and something that looks like what we’ve got here. Now you’re all in one piece again. That’s why you aren’t busy trying to summon monsters or set crops on fire.”

“I don’t remember doing any of that,” said the prince, quietly. “I feel really bad when you say it, though. Like I’m guilty over something I forgot about.”

Sir Iame made a noncommittal noise. “Traditionally people don’t have to suffer for things they did while cursed, so long as the curse gets broken and they work to fix whatever it was they got up to. We call those werewolf laws back where I come from.”

Huge crimson claws were harder to tap together shyly than fingertips were, but Prince Borealis tried anyway. “So the sprites were all the nice parts of me, but the Dark Lord was the wicked part?”

“No idea, Rally. Right now we just need to focus on what’s going on with you currently. How about we play some chess and see if that reveals anything?”

What it revealed was that Sir Iame was still pretty bad at chess.

“So, anything unusual going on between your ears yet?” he asked as he tallied up the woeful number of pawns he’d captured.

Prince Borealis shrugged, which made his wings brush dangerously close to some candles. They were going to have to do something about those if they didn’t want the whole place to catch fire. “Kind of fuzzy-headed, like I’ve got a cold. And that weird ache is coming back. It’s like I’m hungry, but I know it’s not for food, and I know I’m going to forget all the details again once sunrise comes around.” He lowered his voice to a booming whisper. “What if I really do want to eat people?”

“Well, do you want to eat me? Enough things have tried to in the past that I’m sure just about any monster would think I look delicious.”

“Um.” The prince lifted his hand to his mouth daintily and studied Sir Iame for just a bit longer than he was comfortable being studied. “No? I don’t think so? Like whatever it is it’s definitely focused on you, but I just can’t figure it out.”

“You aren’t horny, are you?”

Prince Borealis harrumphed, which impressively didn’t produce little plumes of fire or anything else. “I know what that feels like, thank you very much,” he said, sulkily. It was hard to argue with that. The prince had insisted on them waiting until they were formally wed before sleeping together, which Sir Iame had mildly dreaded at the time, but given how they had scarcely left their quarters for a week after the ceremony any inexperience on Rally’s part had been cheerfully papered over with unquenchable enthusiasm. Sir Iame had requested a cushion to sit on for days afterwards. Yes, the prince definitely knew what it felt like when he was in the mood to get into some friendly mischief.

There had to be something they weren’t considering. He didn’t seem violent, he wasn’t hungry for people meat, he sounded disgusted when Sir Iame brought up blood, he didn’t want sex…what else did cursed people need to take care of themselves? It definitely wasn’t true love’s kiss, since Sir Iame had risked life and lips to plant a few well-aimed smooches on the prince, and Rally didn’t seem any more interested in women than he had before, so that likely wasn’t it, either. Maybe in the morning they could head down to the Fairyland archives and go through one of the big gold-edged books that cataloged this sort of thing.

Or at least that was the plan. When Sir Iame awoke the next day he wasn’t thinking about books or curses at all, as upon feeling the first fingers of sunlight brush against his face he found himself he was both fiercely alert and also painfully aware of the morning wood tenting the fabric of his sleeping tunic. A pile of folded blankets on the floor was hardly the place to take care of that sort of thing. The question was, would he actually have a proper opportunity to do so?

He sat up to peer over the edge of the bed. The prince was curled up in the middle of the quilt, once more small and pale, and Sir Iame felt his mouth water a little bit. There was something about fey-folk that never failed to grab his attention, and Prince Borealis was easily the most fetching of their lot. Maybe it was the blue hair—proof that he came from the blood of heroes, some said—or the pointy ears—which were just sensitive enough to be fun diversions, Sir Iame had found—or something completely different, but it had been a pretty easy decision to accept the title of prince-consort if it meant he could bed down with someone so delectable. He knee-walked next to the side of the mattress closest to the prince’s serene face.

“Rally,” he whispered.

The prince, ever the epitome of graceful perfection, rolled over and scratched himself.

Rally,” Sir Iame whispered again.

“Whuh?”

“Good morning, Your Highness,” said Sir Iame, now grinning. “Can I join you up there? It sucks being on the floor.”

“Hokay,” said Prince Borealis, who promptly closed his eyes again and didn’t move.

Sir Iame put some of his weight on the edge of the mattress. He wasn’t about to hop up top just yet, as this version of the wake-up game was still new and interesting. A slight push was enough to push the bedding down and make the prince roll towards him a little.

“No,” whined Rally drowsily. He scooted back up onto the quilt and waved at Sir Iame like he was trying to shoo away a bug. “I’m sleeping.”

“You sure?”

The prince rolled over again and squinted at him. “Go away, I’m a Dark Lord,” he said.

“Not right now you aren’t.”

Prince Borealis sat up. He peered at his hands and wiggled his toes before looking back down at Sir Iame, who had yet to lose his cheery expression. “Huh. I guess you’re right,” said the prince. He stretched. The morning sun fell across him so prettily it was a shame he didn’t sparkle. Waking up was never the sort of thing he did quickly, but it still wasn’t long before he was awake enough to string words together in proper sentences. “I remember bits and pieces from last night. I didn’t do anything awful, did I?”

“You trounced me mercilessly at chess.”

“I do that all the time,” said Prince Borealis with a smile. “But nothing else?”

“Nope. You were pretty much the same as always, aside from being very big.”

The prince’s smile curled into a smirk. “It must have been strange for you,” he said as he rose to a sitting position with his legs tucked to the side. He was swan-slender even before comparing him to Sir Iame’s bulk, his frame as neat and compact as most inhabitants of Fairyland’s, and they often made jokes about how tall Sir Iame was compared to everyone else. It had been a bit of a feat getting used to how often important members of court only reached up to an average person’s knees.

“Yes and no,” Sir Iame said. “Remember, I quested for years before I came here. I’m used to things being bigger than me. You’re not a real hero until you’ve bested something the size of a house.” He pushed further on the mattress, causing the prince to scoot backwards again with a cry of mock dismay. “So are you awake yet?”

Prince Borealis stretched again, this time swinging his legs over the side of the bed so Sir Iame was centered between them. “What does it look like to you?”

“Like you want your cock sucked, Your Highness,” said Sir Iame. He wet his lips eagerly.

“And this is why you’re my champion.”

During the more normal parts of the lunar cycle Sir Iame was still usually the first of the pair to awaken; one of his responsibilities as prince-consort (not an official one, but important just the same) was cuddling Prince Borealis out of slumber’s grasp, then servicing him before they bothered preparing for the rest of the day. Sometimes this meant kneeling, sometimes lying on his stomach, sometimes using his hands, sometimes something else: The only constant was that he was at Prince Borealis’s disposal. A knight’s duty to his liege usually didn’t involve sexual favors, but it usually didn’t involve marriage, either. Sir Iame was more than happy with the extra elements of the arrangement.

He mouthed at the prince’s shaft between puffing gently against his skin, then dragged his tongue along the underside. In Sir Iame’s experience, fey-folk tasted different from humans, similar to how venison tasted different from beef, there being a sort of wilder, stranger flavor to a man of Fairyland that was really quite nice once you got used to it. Prince Borealis had provided a great deal of chances to get used to it. Sir Iame savored things a little while more before actually taking the prince properly into his mouth.

He kept his tongue moving quickly even as his head and neck kept to slower, more purposeful motions. Sometimes the prince wanted something soft and sometimes Sir Iame ended up with a hand fisted in his hair and another holding his jaw in place, and yet other sometimes things went from one to the other and maybe even back again; whatever the scenario, that wasn’t Sir Iame’s call to make, and he liked it that way. Making decisions was something he handled gladly when there were curses to break or foes to vanquish, but mornings were a special time when he could simply be mindlessly useful.


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