~ It was the still time before dawn. Only a few lamps were lit, glinting from the armour of night-guards on the last weary leg of their watch. Sūla took little note of them. He crossed a court where a fountain murmured, and a fish leaped in a dark pool. The air was warm, windless, heavy with the scent of night-blooming flowers. Here, he might have lingered, listening to the resonant song of the nightingale, but his master would brook no delay.
A wide hall opened before him. Statues of warriors and kings long laid in the Valley of the Tombs gazed over his head and Sūla thought, fanciful, that they watched him. Night thoughts, nevertheless, he walked more quickly, and left them behind, passed through another hall to a shallow flight of white stairs.
It had been a strange day, he thought, as he negotiated the steps, a strange evening. He had not attended Annatar at feast, and that was rare. When he had asked what he must do instead, the Zigūr* replied: “Remain here, rest. I should think you would be grateful.”
Sūla knew better than to show displeasure at any command his master issued, and had bowed assent. At such times he wished for some-one to confide in, some-one he could trust not to go to the highest bidder with his words. There was no-one.
At the head of the stairs stretched a long passage. The late-riding moon plunged ghostly fingers through tall windows, and Sūla passed from light to shadow, sandalled feet whispering. Dead incense hung in the air like a faded ghost. Sūla did not like the palace at night, at least when he was alone. It was too easy to believe the tales told on winter nights, to imagine something followed him in the dark. A little shiver weltered through him, and he gripped the wine-jug more tightly, shunted his mind elsewhere, to his life.
In many ways, his condition had improved since the winter, but he had not known then how powerful his new master truly was. He had learned and seen things it were better, for his peace of mind, that he had not. The saying that ignorance was a state to be envied, had proven true.
Changes had come to Armenelos, though they were most visible in the hidden court, the dark side of the glittering palace. Within that court, Ar-Pharazōn drank from the cup of debauchery ever more greedily, as if the Zigūr's elixir could make him immune to excesses. But they were taking their toll. There were whispers among the servants that he looked puffy and sick in the mornings. Sūla did not know the truth of those rumours, only that the King demanded the potion as a cure for his more frequent hangovers. Watching Annatar's face with close attention, Sūla saw contempt in the curve of that lush mouth as his master explained that the elixir was not to be used for such trivialities; the ingredients were expensive, some more than rare.
“I have gold enough.” the King had slammed both fists down on the arms of his great chair. “I have ships enough. I can send men to the farthest reaches of the world to procure what you need.”
“Your will, O King.” Annatar had bowed like a father humouring a child's temper tantrum.
Sūla still danced for the King at times, and had been summoned to the royal bed once, after their triumphant return to Nśmenor. He was unable to repress another shiver at the memory of that procession through the streets of Rómenna and Armenelos. It had been a frightening experience. While not bound to a cross as he had been in Umbar, Annatar had been chained and guarded. Despite his relationship with the King, there must be no doubt in the eyes of the world that he was a prisoner. The crowds had pressed close, and there was a raw undertow of hunger in their cries. Sūla remembered his own arrest in Umbar, how curses and filth had been hurled at him, and was chilled to the bone, certain that only the mounted soldiers kept the mob away. Annatar's beautiful face betrayed nothing of his feelings, but his eyes were fire.
There had, of course, been a homecoming feast, a magnificent affair, with Ar-Pharazōn in an excellent mood. Power over the Zigūr was a strong aphrodisiac, as Sūla had reason to know. Annatar, in contrast, looked remote, otherworldly, as if the occasion were below his notice.
Sūla had not seen Tigōn at the feast and though his friend had warned him he would not be present, was conscious of disappointment. The lords Amandil and Elendil were in attendance, faces set in still, faintly smiling masks, that became more fixed as the night progressed. The Queen was absent, and Sūla could not but be glad of it. Tar-Miriel's faction detested the zirāmīkil,** but there was no love between the royal couple, and rarely did the two courts mingle. She had greeted her husband formally on his arrival, and so might well be excused an event she was known to dislike.
The dancers excelled themselves, proud to be chosen, and hoping for largesse. Sūla was only satisfied with his own performance. He had not danced since that night in Tigōn's small chamber. Best not to think on that. The court applauded, bestowed trinkets and coin on favoured performers, then settled down to the serious business of drinking. Sūla hurried to wait on his master, and was in a good position to watch, as he had been instructed, the courtiers faces, their interactions.
The King's drunken teasing of Annatar became more obvious as the night progressed, and was rebuffed by a lacquered shield. To Sūla's sober, admittedly biased eyes, Ar-Pharazōn's ill-concealed and clumsy attempts at flirtation were risible; not only to his eyes, if he read Amandil and Elendil aright. Sūla was embarrassed, as one is when some-one makes a fool of themselves in public. Did Ar-Pharazōn think every-one was deaf and blind to his affair with Annatar, that no-one talked? The King and his Zigūr were a rich a mine for gossip as could be found. Embarrassment curdled into distaste when the King's eyes turned to him, and Sūla had hoped that Annatar would refuse the King's command, but golden cat-eyes merely flicked a look under long lashes. Annatar was forced to bed with Ar-Pharazōn, after all, and liked it not at all. But there was a promise in that glance, or so Sūla wanted to believe: that it would not always be the King's pleasure that ruled.
At least it had been a brief service, if disagreeable. The elixir might give the King more stamina, but it did not affect his oafish performance, which was also more violent than when Sūla had been his bed slave. Ar-Pharazōn had always been a man who thought of his own pleasure first and last, and believed sexual skill was inborn. As Sūla well knew, it was an acquired skill, but one which slaves, not kings, must learn, it seemed. No longer Ar-Pharazōn's zirāmīki, he saw no reason to cozen the King's ego with cries of feigned pleasure, and took a brittle satisfaction in laying limp as he was hammered into the mattress.
When it was over, and the King slept, Sūla slipped from the bed to clean himself. He might not leave until he was dismissed, and must ensure there was wine at hand for when the King woke; he had a tendency to shake after such nights, and the only thing to cure them was more drink. Then, no doubt, he would take Sūla again.
The chamber was not dark. (The King liked to watch his bed-slaves in the act) He found the the wine in a bowl of melting ice, and set a jewelled goblet beside it. His movements were reflected from one of the long mirrors, and he stepped closer, stared at himself in the glass, at the face and body that had attracted a King, but could not keep him. His hair was a mass of sex-tousled black curls, and his eyes looked enormous, the kohl smudged like soot against his lashes. His lips were swollen from taking the King in his mouth, the lip-paint rubbed away. He allowed himself a sip of wine to take away the strong taste of the seed, and drew a comb through his curls, primping from long habit. Honey eyes and honey skin, Ar-Pharazōn had said of him once. So much for compliments. So much for beauty. The King would have sentenced him to an agonizing death for a crime he had not committed because he was a slave, and his words would not stand against a noble's.
But one day. One day...
Laying down as far as possible from the large body that breathed and sweated out soured wine, Sūla thought how different was Annatar. They did not share a bed unless engaged in sex, (and that was a wide world away from the King's rutting) but the Zigūr was fastidious as a cat. Sūla could not imagine him wallowing in drunken sleep. It was odd, he considered, that in so short a time, he had come to look on his former master with disgust. Or perhaps not. Slaves could not afford to dwell on their circumstances. They could look to past or future, but to confront the present was the road to sorrow and worse. Sūla had once, and not long ago, told himself that servicing the King was a small price to pay for his position, his jewels, warmth, food and fine clothes, but the truth was that he — all slaves — had to fool themselves. They had nothing but their dreams.
Dreams. His mind swung, despite itself, toward curling flax hair, a smile of unconscious charm, and flower-blue eyes that held the innocence Sūla had long lost. Annatar wanted him to remain friends with Tigōn, despite the King's prohibition, but Sūla knew his master was not prompted by kindness. Sūla was to act the spy. Tigōn served one of the Faithful, whom Annatar mistrusted, or so he said. Sūla thought 'mistrust' was the wrong word; it implied fear, and he did not think there was much in this world the Zigūr truly feared. No, there was another reason for his interest in the Elendili.*** They followed the ways of old Nśmenor, and their interests ran counter to Annatar's.
Sūla stiffened, then felt his lips part in astonishment as one of the inner doors opened, and Annatar entered as casually as if these were his own rooms. The twin lamps turned his hair to a river of flame. He tilted his head, and Sūla climbed from the bed, padded across to him.
“Go back to our chambers.” Annatar pitched his voice low, but did not deign to whisper. Sūla looked back at the bed. Ar-Pharazōn's snore ground on.
“He has not dismissed me, my Lord.”
“But I have.”
Sūla had been flaccid with the King, but now he began to swell as Annatar pulled the silk robe from his splendid body. To be close to him was like standing under a storm. Sūla swayed, and Annatar caught him, slid a palm about his rigid length and brought him, there in the King's chamber, to blinding release. Sūla laughed silently, shaken, swooped down and performed the office of easement on Annatar, felt him explode into his mouth with that odd, exciting taste. He smiled up at the Zigūr, who winked, drew him to his feet. Sūla cast another cautious look at the shadowy bulk of the King, and fine fingers drew his head back. The golden eyes glowed in the dimness, as if Annatar's face were a marble mask, and beneath it lay chasms of fire.
“He will remember nothing when he wakes.” Scorn in the words. “I will tell him he ordered you away, for me to replace you.”
There was a delightful, illicit feeling in this cuckolding of the mightiest king on Earth, or so Ar-Pharazōn believed himself, and in his own bedchamber. Sūla owed the King naught, and was not ashamed. It was Annatar whom had saved his life, then healed him after the flogging that would have marred his flesh forever, made him useless as a zirāmīki. But Sūla did not forget Tigōn, whom had risked and lost his position and reputation to help him. The two, Zigūr and page, stood as far apart in Sūla's mind as the east and west. There was nothing that connected them. Except himself.
“Why, my Lord?”
He thought Annatar would not answer, but then he bent his head to Sūla's ear. That glorious copper hair spilled over his shoulders, cool as silk against Sūla's hot flesh. He could barely stifle a moan of arousal.
“The King has an addiction. It is my duty as his loyal...ah, subject to feed it. Go.” He swatted playfully at Sūla's backside.
That had been the last time Sūla shared the King's bed, though he must needs still service him to procure fresh seed.
Spring came to Nśmenor, then its long, lovely summer, and it seemed to Sūla that Annatar's influence grew apace with the heat. He sat beside the King in council, and it was an ill-kept secret that he served Ar-Pharazōn more intimately. He was soon given new chambers, apartments that ran along one wing of the palace, and overlooked a garden. As the blossoms opened, delicious scents filled the wide rooms, and Annatar often walked there in the evenings. Sūla had never, even with the King, lived so graciously, and for once in his life did not have to endure sex. Annatar wholly undid him. He wondered if he were as addicted to the Zigūr as was the King. And yet his heart still hurt, beat fast and wayward at the thought of Tigōn. The last time they had met was at Rómenna, the inn of the Eagle Eye, as they had promised one another.
Their plan of escape seemed ridiculous now. Sūla had fed it aboard ship, when Annatar was with the King and there was nothing else for him to do. Boredom was dangerous. He allowed himself to imagined a life with Tigōn, a house in some quiet place where no-one knew them. They would be forgotten, could eat one another up at night, discover all the facets that made them what they were, and — love.
He had been a careless fool to let his mind drift with the roll of the waves. Annatar had read him as easily as a scroll.
There had been punishment, not the expected whipping, but worse than Sūla could have imagined. And the Zigūr did not lay a hand on him.
The ship's cramped cabin melted away. Sūla woke face-down on dusty wool. Screams skirled up in his throat as his stepfather raped him. He felt the tear of delicate skin, the burn as Khunig pounded, a raw horror that lasted a lifetime. Then he was drowning, head plunged and held under water. He knew, dreadfully, that his other life had never happened, that this was all there was. His memories shattered into nothingness as a hard hand dragged his head up. He choked, gagged as his stepfather dragged him from the yard, and flung him down, battered him with words, with slaps that made his head ring, then grabbed his hips.
Sūla screams filled his head, and out of the red torture stepped Annatar, trailing fire. He held Sūla's face in those elegant hands, and impaled him with a look more ancient than Time. For a whirling moment of disorientation, Sūla could not think at all, and then memory returned like tesserae fitting together.
“Body and soul, my dear Sūla.” Annatar's face was pitiless. “You are mine.”
Sūla's clothes clung to his body, drenched with icy sweat. He coughed as if he had in truth been drowned, and his body shrieked its violation. His breath shook as he heaved it into his lungs, hiccuping. The Zigūr had frightened him before, but never this much.
And then he changed, which was almost as unnerving. He gave Sūla wine, and stroked his cheek, caressing.
“Of course you may meet him,” he said, his smile a white blade. “And you will tell him the truth, that you cannot keep secrets from me, and that I will not let you go. You serve me.” He rose, poured himself wine, and lounged, feline-graceful, against the wall, one brow arched. “A child's dream,” he said with a moue. “Tigōn is a lordling, and if he believes his family will allow him to run off and live with a slave, he is a greater fool than I imagined. Noble sons have responsibilities. He should know that better than any. And did I not tell you to put aside matters of the heart? I am sure I remember some such advice.”
Sūla shuddered. It was not, he wanted to say, so easy, but no words came.
Annatar tilted his head and a wolf looked out of his eyes. Sūla's shivers intensified, weakness dragged through his body as if his blood were lead, cold and heavy.
“Yes, the effects of crossing me can be quite unpleasant.” All milky-calm. “But I think you understand me now, or must I reiterate?”
No. No, please. Sūla still could not speak, but Annatar nodded.
“One day,” he said. “If you serve me well, you will be powerful enough, have enough prestige to call any-one to your bed.” He put the wine down, prowled close and set a fingertip under Sūla's chin. “But that time is not yet, and it will be never if you seek to deceive me again, young one.” ~
Chapter end notes:
The terms below are from Elfscribe's own notes from Elegy for N
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