R.L. Mosswood © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Elin woke in his usual place on the silken pallet between Nikil and Rian. The haram was dark, and the night sky outside the elegant, grated windows was still inky. He wasn’t sure what had roused him. He couldn’t recall a dream, and the room was quiet but for the usual nighttime chorus of the men’s sighs and snores.
A moment later, he realized he could hear something else. Not in the room, but maybe down the hall or from the floor below, he could make out rough, raised voices. A fight? But who would it be at this hour, and in this part of the palace? He propped himself on his elbows a little and scanned the room—all the beds seemed to be filled. The men of the haram knew better than to fight anyway, at least not that kind of fighting, with yelling and tussling. The Dragon didn’t take damage to “her boys” lightly, and anyone caught inflicting that damage was likely to disappear without notice or explanation.
He listened a little longer, trying to make out words or recognize a voice, but whatever was happening was far enough off to make that impossible. Finally, he heard a door slam, and that seemed to be the end of it.
He rolled over and drifted off, still puzzling over what he had heard.
At breakfast the following morning, everything seemed normal. The hall was filled with the groggy murmur of men beginning their day, the rich aroma of coffee, and the tap of wooden cutlery on fine china.
Elin, as usual, sat on his own, thoughtfully chewing a honeyed pastry. Though it was hard to ever be truly alone in the haram, his tendency to quiet contemplation left him out of most of the livelier interactions the other men favored. He wasn’t much for sport, which was one of the main entertainments among his comrades, and his thoughts tended to follow slow and dreamy pathways that didn’t lend themselves to clever banter.
As he was pondering the particular play of light on the grain of the highly polished tabletop, a shadow moved into his peripheral vision. One of the guards, a man named Emun, was approaching. The guards of the haram were in a unique position: They were, in most ways, subordinate to the residents they guarded, so they spoke in polite tones, made requests rather than demands, and would usually do whatever was asked of them. At the same time, they were in charge of keeping the men in their place—generally not a hard job. Who would want to escape the lap of luxury, after all? But it was known that, if pushed, the guards would muster force to keep order, which lent an edge to all their interactions with their charges.
Elin finished his bite and looked up, inviting Emun to address him.
“I’ve got something for you to do after breakfast,” he said. “A new resident who needs some cleaning up.”
“A new resident? To our wing?”
Elin was used to being assigned chores considered beneath the more favored men of the haram, but this was unusual. His wing was inhabited by the twenty-one- to thirty-year-olds. They had all entered the haram as children, as soon as they’d been found by The Dragon’s collectors, or ceded by their parents. New arrivals had trickled in through their younger years, a few carefully hidden late arrivals into their early teens, but it had been nearly a decade since anyone had joined the group Elin had grown up with.
“Yep.” Emun cut his thoughts short. “City guard found him skulking around the palace walls and assumed he was an escapee, but we’ve never seen him before. He’s The Dragon’s now, of course. Pretty rough around the edges though. Weird accent, needs a scrub and a shave. See what you can do. Jurah will have him waiting for you outside the baths after you’re done here.”
“Sure. Okay.” Elin wasn’t sure what else to say. How did a fully grown dahabi end up wandering outside the palace? Did he mean to get caught? He supposed he’d have a chance to answer all his questions soon enough, and returned to his breakfast as Emun returned to his post near the door.
Outside the baths, Jurah was waiting as promised. With the guard was a man who could only be the new addition, looking much worse for wear than Elin had anticipated. His hair was so filthy and matted that Elin was surprised the city guard had known him as dahabi at all, and there was blood caked down his cheek and through his stubble from an angry split on his brow. He hadn’t come voluntarily, then. The sturdy rope binding the man’s wrists only reinforced that fact.
“Emun asked me to come down after breakfast,” he said, not quite ready to volunteer what he’d been asked to do. Maybe Jurah had a different understanding of the matter.
No such luck. “Yeah! I’ve got quite a job for you here,” the guard replied jovially, indicating the filthy man by tugging lightly on his bindings. The “job” in question scowled slightly, but said nothing.
“Does he, uh, need to stay bound like that?” Helping with a bath was one thing, but Elin didn’t think he had it in him to wrestle anyone into submission.
“Oh, no. Our friend here has settled down quite a bit since last night. He’s going to be on his best behavior for you. Right?” With that, Jurah elbowed the other man for a reply.
He looked up from under his brow, directly at Elin as if the guard wasn’t there, startling him with moonlit-silver eyes. “I’m no threat to you. There was just a…misunderstanding with these other gentlemen earlier, and they don’t quickly forget.”
Elin found, thankfully, that he believed the man. “Let him go then. I can’t get him cleaned up with his hands tied together.”
The guard did so and then hesitated a moment, as if unsure what do to next. “Would you like me to come in there…with you?” The guards usually gave the men of the haram their privacy in the baths—it was their job to protect, not to ogle—but Jurah clearly didn’t feel the same faith in the stranger’s intentions that Elin did.
Elin looked again into the strange, pale eyes. Seeing no malice there, he said, “We’ll be fine. You can watch the door to ensure a little privacy for our new guest, and I’ll call out if I have any need of you.”
Jurah looked uncertain, but released the man, clearly feeling himself on the subordinate end of the equation in this interaction.
Elin stepped forward and opened the door to the baths, gesturing for the man to follow. “It’s just a bath, really,” he said to the skeptical Jurah as he closed the door behind them.
The baths were unlike anything Hathar had ever seen. Granted, it was a palace, so he had expected luxury, but not on this scale. Large enough to easily accommodate twenty men, the room was completely clad in glowing white marble interrupted only by tasteful, intricate mosaics of fanciful sea creatures. It was filled with warm, diffuse light from windows slatted for privacy and vast domes on the ceiling that seemed to be made of a thick, translucent glass.
Past an assortment of platforms and benches for preening and lounging, a steaming pool set into the floor took up a large corner of the room. Constantly refreshed by water bubbling forth from the mouths of carved stone fish that appeared to be eternally leaping from the walls above, the pool overflowed into discreet drains set around its edges.
As Hathar gawked at the opulent room, the young man who had taken him from the guard was preparing himself for the baths, removing his shirt and hanging it on one of a series of hooks carved into the stone near the door. Hathar looked back now, just in time to see him shucking off his loosely fitted silken trousers. This was another kind of opulence. The boy’s beauty was at least the equal of the room. His form was slender, but not scrawny. His skin was smooth and full over the contours of his modest muscles, a testament to a life without lack and plenty of tender care. He was fair, but there was a golden undertone to his complexion that was echoed in the burnished gold of his curls and his uncanny amber eyes, which came into view as he straightened. Whoever ran this place had taste, Hathar had to give them that.
The now-naked man seemed to hesitate under Hathar’s gaze before he gathered himself and said softly, “So. Uh…you’ll need to take your clothes off before we get in. I’ll have someone bring you something clean to wear once we’re done.”
“Of course.” Hathar wasn’t used to having an audience for this sort of thing, but he tried to act casual as he stripped. He wasn’t smooth and sleek like the smaller man, but his sunbrowned skin and rugged muscles held their own appeal, and he hoped his companion might enjoy what he saw.
To his disappointment, the other man wasn’t looking at him at all. He was instead busying himself collecting towels and implements from nearby shelves and carrying them over to a bench near the tub. Hathar wandered over and stretched a toe experimentally into the pool. It was extremely warm, and he pulled back a moment before easing one foot fully onto the first shallow step. As he was working his way slowly into the water, taking time to adjust to the heat, he was passed by the other man plunging unceremoniously into the depth of the pool, clearly unfazed by the temperature. He ducked his gold curls under the surface, came up sleek and gleaming, and then moved over to recline on an underwater bench against one wall.
“You might as well just soak for a while before we try to polish you up. It’ll make it easier,” he said lazily, with half-closed eyes.
Hathar made his way to another of the benches built into the tub and did his best to recline as carelessly as his companion had done. But the act of stretching backward tweaked the ribs that had been bruised in last night’s tussle, and he grunted urgently and sat back up.
“Are you all right?” The other man looked over with sudden concern.
“Fine, fine. Just…a little sore from my meeting with the authorities last night.”
“They injured you?”
“Well, to be fair, I injured them first. I was just minding my own business, and next thing I know, some wretch in a uniform is grabbing me. I may have reacted on instinct. Seems to have worked out okay though; at least, this is the nicest jail I’ve ever been in.”
There was a soft snort from the other bench. “This isn’t a jail. Don’t you even know where you are?”
Hathar felt like he was being set up for some kind of punch line, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was going to be. “I mean, I know I’m in the palace of Minal’taneen…” he trailed off.
“You’ve got that much right, but more specifically, you’re in the northeast wing, in the quarters of the thirty-sixth cohort of the haram of Her Eminence, The Dragon Shavanh Laab. Do me a favor and duck your head under the water so that your hair can soak for a bit.”
“Wait.” Prisons Hathar was used to, but his brain was reeling as he tried to come to terms with this new development. “Haram like…for sex?”
The other man gave a small sigh, the meaning of which was unclear. “And other things. But yes, for The Dragon’s pleasure. She’s a faithful servant of the god Helcamet, who delights in the erotic, so her acts are an offering of sorts.
“But really, I thought you must know all this. Why else would you be wandering around openly near the palace if you didn’t mean to be spotted by a collector and brought here? Though you did try to fight them off, so I suppose I really don’t know what you’re about.”
“I’m…not from around here,” was Hathar’s weak reply. “But why me anyway? How does walking around near the palace get me conscripted into a haram?”
“Well, you’re dahabi, or at least the guards thought you were under all that muck. All dahabi men are property of The Dragon.”
“Dahabi?” Hathar weighed the unfamiliar word on his tongue. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.”
His companion was looking at him intently now, brow furrowed.
“It means…like me. Or, not like me, but close enough—with the yellow hair and the golden skin, and, well, I haven’t seen eyes like yours before, but they’re not brown like everyone else’s, so I guess they’re dahabi.
“Come on, let’s wash your hair and see what color it is when it’s not dulled with grime.”
Elin felt odd at first, grooming the other man. Surely he could do as much for himself. Then again, given the state of him, maybe he couldn’t. Elin had vague memories of his own early days in the haram, when his only previous experience of a bath had been a brisk scrubbing with a coarse cloth and water heated on the fire.
“Let me know if I’m being too rough,” he said, and set to working up a perfumed lather.
With a little soap, the man’s hair was revealed to be more platinum than gold, and it ran straight and smooth through Elin’s fingers. More than being new to the haram, he really was a foreign creature. He had said he wasn’t from around here. That was of interest in itself, for though Minal’taneen sat on a pleasant enough harbor, no one came or went from it but the local fishermen, and steep mountains hemmed in the city on the landward side. There was a minor trade route through the mountains to the plains beyond, but the occasional travelers who came that way were all even darker of skin and eye than the people of the city.
“Do they have names where you come from?” Elin asked with half a smile as he carefully combed back the man’s wet hair.
“Hathar,” was the reply. “And the guard called you…Elin, was it?”
Elin nodded and reached for a washcloth.
“Sorry about that.” Hathar chuckled. “I usually try to get introductions handled before the clothes come off, but nothing’s really been going quite like usual since yesterday.”
“Yes, well, I imagine you’ve got the right to be a little preoccupied under the circumstances. Really though, once you’ve settled in, you should find it quite pleasant here. The city guards were rough with you, but that doesn’t happen inside the haram. The only violence you’ll see is a little good-spirited wrestling between the men, if you’re into that kind of sport. Other than that, for the price of occasional service to The Dragon, you can spend your days in luxury.”
Elin dabbed gently around the wound on Hathar’s brow bone, trying to clean it up without setting it bleeding again. The split itself was really quite small, and as the gore was cleared away, his charge started to look more like a treasured dahabi of the haram, and less like a disreputable brute.
“That’s the hair and face done. You can probably handle everything else yourself. Take as long as you like, and then I’ll help you with a shave.”
“Oh?” There was a sly twinkle in Hathar’s eyes. “But maybe I’d prefer it if you handled me. You give an excellent scalp massage. I’m sure I could use the same treatment all over, after being roughed up last night.”
Elin knew what the other man was after. You didn’t spend your life in an isolated community of healthy, idle young men without a thorough education in the kinds of things some of them got up to with one another in pursuit of pleasure. He had never really seen the appeal, to put it mildly, but something made him want to give Hathar what he was asking for anyway. Without any acknowledgment of the teasing glances cast his way, he lathered up a cloth and began to wash the rest of Hathar’s body.
Much to his surprise, Elin found himself enjoying the act. He could feel Hathar’s tension unwinding under his touch. The rippling contours of muscle, presumably the product of a life of hard work, were a fascinating contrast to his own slender body—the only one he had any occasion to touch under normal circumstances. Hathar relaxed against the wall of the pool, his eyes closed over that playful gleam, giving Elin full access to rub him down with gentle circular motions—not quite a massage, but more contact than was strictly needed to get clean.
Having worked from the shoulders down and the feet up, there was just one area left. Rubbing muscles was one thing, but that…
He handed the towel to Hathar. “Okay, now I know you can manage the last bit on your own. You finish up, and I’ll get the shaving things ready.” With his final words, he was already halfway up the steps, not leaving time for any cajoling.
Hathar sighed to himself, but figured he couldn’t really be too disappointed, all considered. A full-body rubdown, almost anyway, from a beautiful boy in an opulent marble spa was a good sight better than at least fifty other realities he could imagine right now. Elin had had an effect, though, on that neglected part of Hathar’s anatomy, and it seemed inappropriate to bring that to the other man’s attention when he’d so clearly taken pains to avoid the matter. Hathar took a few minutes to meditate on concrete and completely un-alluring facts, willing his cock down to a more manageable state before stepping out of the pool to join Elin where he stood by a low stool near a mirror.
He had slung a towel around his waist for modesty, and Hathar did likewise, eyeing the collection of implements on the adjacent counter: a cup and brush; wooden tweezers; something like a straight razor, but rendered in a dark and glittering material; and a few bottles of what looked like oils and treatments for the skin.
“Help yourself,” Elin said, gesturing to the shaving kit.
The brush and cup were standard enough. Hathar whipped up a foam and dabbed it onto his chin, obscuring several days’ worth of coarse stubble. He then picked up the razor-like thing. On closer inspection, the blade seemed to be of dark glass, its edge shaped by careful chipping, leaving it murderously sharp but far less regular than any proper razor he’d ever attempted to shave with. Not to let something so simple get the better of him, he leaned close to the mirror and brought the blade to his face.
He puzzled over the proper angle for a minute before settling on an arrangement that would bring most of the blade flush against his skin, though the uneven edge meant that some of the high points dug in a little. As he was about to take his first stroke, he realized that Elin was watching him intently, with undisguised tension.
“It’ s just…you have shaved before, haven’t you? You look like you’re about to cut yourself to ribbons.”
“Yes, I’ve shaved before! But what is this thing? Don’t you have a real razor around? I don’t know where to start when the blade’s not even straight.”
“That is a real razor. You don’t use the whole blade at once like you’re trying to cut your face off. Just use it delicately.” Under Elin’s gaze, Hathar made an uncertain attempt to adjust his grip to something more “delicate,” but he must have failed since a moment later Elin said, “Maybe I should do that for now too, then. I can teach you later, but you’ve probably done enough bleeding for the time being. Have a seat.”
Hathar handed over the blade without protest and settled himself on the stool. Elin approached with a thoughtful, concentrated expression, gently tipped Hathar’s head to the side, and began carefully scraping away the stubble. Elin’s attention to detail was minute, and he ended up extremely close to Hathar’s face, carefully pulling his skin against the grain to bring the hairs to attention before scraping them off smooth.
This intimacy was reawakening the desire Hathar had tamped down not long before, and Elin’s breath against his cheek as he leaned in to look for missed hairs did nothing to ease matters. The fingers of Elin’s free hand were soft and sure, stroking along in the wake of the blade to check for smoothness and raising gooseflesh on Hathar’s arms.
As Elin moved in front of Hathar to make a few final strokes on his chin, the towel around his waist caught on Hathar’s knee and pulled free from where it had been tucked in. The towel fell to the floor, but Elin was too intent on his task to take much notice. He placed a thumb on Hathar’s sensitive lower lip and pulled it up to access the last bit of stubble. That touch, combined with the view of a perfect, supple backside now displayed in the mirror, cracked the last bit of Hathar’s resolve. Before he could think better of it, he reached out to run a hand up Elin’s thigh and cup his balls tenderly in a large palm.
Elin practically flew away from him at the contact—
“—Shit!” Hathar knew immediately that he’d made a major miscalculation as Elin fetched up against the far wall, the razor now shattered on the floor.
“Sorry. I’m sorry!” Hathar scrambled to make amends, kicking himself for alienating the first person who’d been decent to him since his arrival at the palace, and in such short order. He raised his hands in front of his chest in a gesture of surrender and kept his distance. “That was stupid. I just…it’s been a while, and my dick got the better of me there for a second. No harm done, right?”
Looking marginally calmer, Elin took a deep breath and, after a long blink said, “Right. No harm done. I’ll send someone along with some fresh clothes for you.”
And with that, he left the room, throwing a fresh towel around his waist as he went.