Ryou waited until the sound of his lover's footsteps faded, then he hoisted himself out of the bath. He didn’t feel like wallowing in luxury just now. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he didn't want to stay alone in this ringing open space with the occasionally echoing drip of condensation as only punctuation to his thoughts. He walked over to the alcove where the bath attendants had placed towels and Ryou's dirty, travel-worn clothes. It was a shame to slip into that after finally getting thoroughly clean, but it wasn't as if he had much choice in the matter. Ryou currently had two pieces of clothing to his name, that and the tunic Darius had given him, which was in a small pack last seen tied to his horse, location currently unknown.

The bath was rich with the scent of oil, water, wet stone and soap, but a new smell made Ryou wrinkle his nose in surprise; a heady fragrance like incense.

"I can see what he sees in you."

Ryou spun around, shock a heavy weight in his chest.

Leyam Sirrian, King of Assyria, was standing two meters away, leaning against the pillar of the alcove and looking Ryou up and down with the disinterested appreciation one would give a marble statue. He was wearing an embroidered wrap of yellow silk, loose sleeves high up the arm, carelessly belted in front so that Ryou could see that the only thing beneath it was the same short skirt as before. A woman's style but quite casual, especially when contrasted with what the Bitch King would consider formal. He'd come to have that further word with his brother, Ryou immediately guessed. That meant he might have overheard part of their conversation about him. The thought compounded Ryou's vulnerability at finding himself alone in the presence of the king of this land without Darius acting as a buffer, and Ryou naked and dripping wet to boot. The only way he could feel more exposed and defenseless was if his glasses had gone missing.

And what was worse, Ryou was intimately convinced that Leyam knew it.

Leyam moved towards Ryou, bringing one hand out from behind his back, and Ryou got another nasty surprise when he saw the king was holding the bracer Darius had given him.

"These were costly," said Leyam, looking down at the piece. "Not just in money; I had to personally pray at the altar of Hygeia for three days and make many a sacrifice for these to be done for my brother. Such objects cannot be bought with mere coin alone, and they are worn by heroes and legends. As for this," Leyam added, tilting the bracer to glance down at the circle symbol of the moon, "only members of the immediate family can wear this crest etched in bronze, gold or silver."

Ryou wet his lips with his tongue. His mouth was dry despite the humidity of the baths. "I didn't know-"

Leyam interrupted him by holding out the bracer in a careless manner as if nothing had been said. But he was watching Ryou's face out of the corner of his eye. Ryou did not look away and kept his expression set on neutral as he slowly reached out and took the piece of armor from Leyam's hand.

The king didn't say anything. Ryou knew this was some kind of statement or test, but he could not tell if he'd passed or failed. Leyam's smile was as breezy as before, maybe a tad more artificial as if he did not care as much to make it convincing. What was beneath it, though, Ryou could not begin to tell. This mask, mobile and pleasant as it was, was more adept than Ryou's. Both he and Leyam had hid their feelings since roughly the same age, but while Ryou had lived with nothing but constrictions to reinforce it, Leyam had survived several years of death threats with the fate of his country hanging in the balance.

"This is my first time meeting an Inlander," said Leyam conversationally. "And a powerful magian to boot."

Here we go, thought Ryou. "Whatever your brother may have implied, I'm not really a magian. I have some abilities, but I have no idea of how to use them and my control is very sketchy. I was extremely lucky to make it so far."

"Hmm, I doubt that," said Leyam, taking a lazy step forward as if he wanted to look at the baths through the arch of the alcove and hadn't noticed Ryou was partially blocking his way. Ryou, once more acutely aware that he was naked, shuffled back half a step. He discreetly reached down for one of the towels on a nearby bench- but Leyam turned towards him so suddenly it made Ryou instinctively straighten and turn to face him once more.

"Soldiers are great believers in lucks, gods and such not," said Leyam, stopping right in Ryou's personal space to look at a detail of the mosaic over Ryou's shoulder, a fish with the face of a dog. "But you and I are not soldiers. We are clever men who live by our wits and not our muscles. The results of our actions may sometimes look like luck, but it's always calculated risk and we have a way of getting the odds on our side."

"I suppose," said Ryou, taking a half step to the left this time.

The fragrance of incense doubled in strength as the king was suddenly at his side, leaning terribly close.

"Let me tell you a little secret," Leyam whispered conspiratorially. "I distrust clever men. The cleverer they are, the more I distrust them; a Greek mathematician could probably make one of their theorems out of it."

Ryou found himself backed against the tiles of the wall.

Leyam took a step away and held up one finger as if bringing it to Ryou's attention. "Let me show you why I distrust intelligent people. I only arrived for the last three stanzas of the tale - and what a tale, yes?"

The silence stretched until Ryou opened his mouth to say something, and then Leyam rolled right over the first syllable. "Darius told you that I'd asked him to never dissemble, did he not? That's the part he always brings up. My brother thinks it's because I respect his nature and wanted him to stay true to himself and be my guide. But what do you think my reasons were?"

"What? I don't know, how could I-"

"Oh of course you do," said Leyam laughingly as if Ryou was being purposely coy to tease him. "Come on. Tell me." The grin widened, just as Darius's had before he cut off Prince Yrmah's fingers. "Now."

Ryou could have repeated that he didn't know. And he didn't. Though it was true that an uneasy supposition had crossed his mind while listening to Darius earlier...But it wasn't the kind of thing he'd want to discuss, even if it wasn't complete guesswork. No, reiterating his complete ignorance would be the wise and rational thing to do.

'I distrust clever men,' was what Leyam had just said...This was Darius's brother, Darius loved him and trusted him. Maybe this was an occasion where being honest and straightforward would be more valuable than being clever.

"I imagine it was a gamble," Ryou said, voice a little tight. He cleared his throat. "It was a gamble for you, to play a, er, a-"

"Decadent Roman girly-boy," Leyam provided helpfully.

"Right," Ryou croaked. "It got your uncle to drop his guard and take you into his inner circle where you could core it from the inside, and bring about the downfall of the men who'd sold out your country. But it was a gamble whether you would still be able to convince your own countrymen you weren't totally, uh-"

"Degenerate," suggested Leyam, still being helpful. Ryou wished he wouldn't.

"So it occurred to me..." Ryou gripped his bracer in his hands. He couldn't believe he was about to say this to his lover's brother, right to the man's face; Ryou had no proof of what he was about to advance, this wasn't a fact in any way, shape or form. But it was a reasoning, it made sense, especially with what he now knew of Leyam. He'd learned a lot from Darius's tale, and he'd learned even more in the past two minutes. What he did not know was how Leyam was going to react to his words. Ryou was just going to have to trust that behind that flashy mask was a man he could reach out to and convince and who still knew how to trust in turn...

"It occurred to me that if the loyal Assyrians could not accept you as their King, you had another man of your father's bloodline who could step in and replace you. A man you'd shaped into a warrior-prince, who would always have been seen as defiant despite all the humiliations and punishment inflicted upon him. A contrast to what you'd, that is, what you had appeared to have become. A last resort if you were losing control of the situation, since for Darius to take your place, you'd have to be-...Of course this is just a theory, I apologize, I know absolutely nothing about this country or the situation or-"

"Yes, but you are quite right, which just goes to illustrate my point about clever men," said Leyam with a toothy smile. "There are very few people in the known world and beyond who have guessed what you've just told me. My brother is not one of them, and I wish to keep it that way. Yet you, who have only just arrived, heard this secret through his unknowing words. I don't like men who can think at my level. You can see that, right? If Cassius Leius had thought at my level, I'd be dead by now or worse. Do you think it was a good plan?"

"What?" Ryou asked weakly.

Leyam took a final step forward. Ryou backed away- and had to catch himself against the tiles as his knees pressed back into the stone bench and nearly tripped him. "Would Darius have made a good king? Better than I?" The smile had grown ever wider, cheerful and mocking and right in Ryou's face without any pretence of civility. "Wouldn't it be better all around if I suddenly dropped dead and my brother took the throne? What do you think? Come on, your response, Inlander."

"I can't answer a question like that! How can you possibly say such a thing?" Ryou said, reining in a reflex flicker of anger at the preposterous demand, the insistence and the fact that he was not being allowed to even pick up a towel. "You're his brother, he loves you- we should not even be talking about this. He'd not be a good king anyway, he can't sit down three days to besiege a city, he's not got the patience to- not that he's- I meant-" Ryou's brain finally caught up with his mouth and put a stopper on it. The full import of Leyam's question had just struck Ryou and he was suddenly aware he'd snapped at a man who could have him killed in any number of barbaric ways without a trial, and who apparently found him suspicious enough to indirectly accuse him of plotting against him.

But instead of calling for the guards, Leyam had leaned back with an odd quirk to his mouth as if Ryou had poked him. The threatening veneer was gone as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving Ryou's head spinning.

"So that's what you think?"

Ryou just stood there, naked and dripping, and looked at Leyam helplessly.

"You people don't have kings, do you."

"...What? Well, as a matter of fact, we do. Have an Emperor. He''s different."

"It must be, if you do not realize that being a good monarch or a bad monarch is pretty much irrelevant. Oh, the country might suffer some, but in the end the important thing is to have a King, a continuity, and Darius would fill the role adequately enough." Ryou was favored with a long, hard scrutiny. "Rand was right about one thing."


"Yes. He put together a detailed account of your interaction with my brother and what he himself thought of you. He did find the balance of his trust weighing in your favor, you know, which is pretty good since you have to admit that the train of events that led you to associate with Darius is weighed down by at least one massive coincidence, while the rest of it sounds well-nigh insane. But he concluded by saying he wasn't sure of anything because he found you extremely hard to read. You are. Fortunately your words are not as guarded as your face."

"I am sorry if I offended you," said Ryou, hoping a blanket apology would suffice because right now he wasn't sure anymore which part of the conversation he was apologizing for.

"It takes considerably more than that to offend me, Ujiie Ryou," said Leyam, pronouncing the name perfectly. "And what your words told me was that you really are clever, dangerously clever, but that you don't seem to have much of an agenda here and that you're so enamored with my brother it's embarrassing to watch."

Ryou's eyebrows twitched upwards at the tone, and Leyam grinned as if Ryou had formulated his objection to that out loud. "No, no, you have to concede my words. Here I am, proposing my sudden demise to let the man you're bedding become King of Assyria and head of the Alliance against Rome. There were so many pitfalls waiting for your answer, so many assurances of loyalty you should have made, so many blessings to ward me from harm you should have called down upon my head...and all you could think to say is that Darius would hate it because he'd be bored?"

Show them nothing, thought Ryou grimly, calling up his full control to hide the wash of feelings - some of them quite irritated - as well as to keep a flush from invading his face. "That is not what I said."

Leyam burst out laughing, a snorting bray that didn't suit his appearance or character at all, yet sounded more real than anything Ryou had heard so far from the Bitch King of Assyria. "But that's exactly right and you know it! Well, well, of all the people I was afraid the mutt would one day drag home, he chooses an intelligent man of distinction, sensibility and restraint. What is the world coming to? The Veil and the Grand Design must be unraveling."

"I know the account of my arrival here must seem truly amazing," said Ryou, discreetly grabbing a towel and some control over his part of this conversation along with it. "But it's the simple truth. And really, if I'd had any bad intentions, I would have found a better story to allay suspicions."

"Oh? I find that the more stupendously crazy the story, the easier it is to fool everyone," said Leyam brightly.

He'd be the one to know, Ryou conceded dourly. He shoved up his glasses and forged on ahead. "Look, I don't think there is a way for me to prove myself at this point, not if Darius's account couldn't convince you, but given time-"

He was interrupted by an effeminate flap of Leyam's wrist. "Oh, don't be so tense. I've decided to trust you."

"...Really? You'd trust an intelligent and powerful magian who's become entangled with your brother under such strange circumstances?" Ryou challenged bluntly.

Leyam's eyes gleamed. "Hell no, I wouldn't trust you worth a damn on the strength of that alone. But Darius trusts you. It's not the kind of reliance he has in that motley pack who follow him like faithful dogs; he trusts you," said the king, raised fist pressed into his chest to underline what he meant. "I haven't seen him do that in a long, long time. Damn, he trusts you even more than that dead Greek of his, or at least he treats you considerably better. You and I are clever men, and clever men trust nobody. Darius is not clever. Oh, he's not dumb; you can put away that frown. Though I'm glad to see you make an expression, I was beginning to feel like I was talking to the bath's statuary. Darius has had no formal education since the age of eight, but one does not need to be able to recite the Codex and the Gathas to be able to think, plan and destroy an enemy army. Darius does not rely on his reason to trust someone, though; the mutt goes entirely by instinct. My sense of reason would not give you the benefit of whatever slim doubt there is, it would have no cause to do so, but if Darius trusts you that much, I'll rely on his judgment. I've done so before on a few occasions and it's never led me wrong. And you'll trust me for the same reason, right?" Leyam added, speaking loudly and fast as he grabbed a startled Ryou by the arm and pulled him energetically towards the exit to the baths. "My little brother is terribly blind to all my faults, but he does love me, may Ashur give him some guidance, and so you must love me too eventually."

"Wait- where are we-"

"To get you something to wear." They were already out of the marble and tile refuge and walking along the covered portico outside. The warm evening breeze blow-dried the last drops on Ryou's back in passing while the towel, not big to start with, was slipping from its position around his hips. "Those rags back there are not fit for one who has become close to my family. Isn't this wonderful? I feel like I've gained a second brother!"

"But I'm not dressed!"

"Yes, that's the point."

"I'm naked."

"In this heat, so should we all be," said Leyam without any hint of the answer being meant as flip, reminding Ryou that nudity was not a taboo here. "Come on, we'll roust the clothmakers and see you fitted out. They won't have time to make much tonight, but I'm sure we can get you decently clothed before the sun god once more rides out into the skies. Nope, this way. Come!"


Chamrosh and Zuru, who’d been curled up on a blanket near the entrance, suddenly perked up and leapt to their feet. Seated in a window alcove on the other side of the room, Ryou turned from his study of Sura's night to also watch the door. He could hear footsteps and the mutter of instructions from the hallway outside, punctuated by the occasional, "Yes sir." Then Darius opened the two-paneled fretwork door and pushed aside the tapestry with one last nod at the departing underling.

The dogs were up and panting happily, waiting for attention. Darius glanced around as he rubbed their ears. "Ryou? Ah, there-...what the..."

Ryou followed the direction of Darius's stare and glanced down at himself. The last hour had been very instructional. For instance, Ryou now understood how very modern the idea of clothes retail was. Everything in Assyria was made to measure or modified to suit, even the linen skirts of the slaves or the rough tunics of the laborers. On the other hand, Ryou had learned how amazingly fast a unique creation of couture could be made when it was the King of Assyria who commanded it. Back in Leyam's chambers, the King had clapped his hands, given an order and ten minutes later a naked Ryou was getting measured with knotted ropes. Then he'd been practically sewn into a set of trousers and short linen tunic of a green so dark it was almost black, all taking shape around him and for him. Silk ribbons of golden material embroidered with green and brown thread were stitched right into the hem while Ryou stood there. The ribbons also crossed around the knees and thighs of the trousers to fit them to his legs and cinch in the waist.

The tailor had apologized, bent deeply at the waist, for the simplicity of the garments due to the lateness of the time and one of his workers being dead drunk; tomorrow morning first thing he would beat the man and then get Ryou a few more additional essentials. The only thing that did not get made from bolts of linen on the spot was the knee-length sleeveless surcoat, because nothing the tailor had on hand would be fine enough for the King's guest. Cloth would have to be made to order. In the meantime, Leyam had one of his servants fish a couple of decorated tunics out from wherever the royal clothes were kept. The tailor left his two sober assistants to finish Ryou's tunic while he took the hand-me-downs apart and redesigned them from the ground up. Ryou was looking down at the result now. When Leyam had said Ryou was to be clothed in purple, he'd not messed about; it was a rich, deep color, linen woven so fine it almost felt like silk, sturdy yet light. Dark brown brocaded panels inset with onyx and gold squares were sown onto the chest where the garment tied loosely shut with two brown and golden ropes. The king had been there the whole time, needless to say, giving additional instructions to the tailor with the glee of the truly fashionable Assyrian, and then grilling Ryou about the latter's home country whenever the servants, slaves and hired hands wandered out of earshot.

Ryou had been dropped off at Darius's quarters by two of Leyam's personal guard, after having been given the royal order to have a good night with no bad dreams. That was ten minutes ago. His head was still spinning a little.

"Darius, your brother-..." Is phenomenally smart, machiavellian and weird to the point of being manic. That gaudy, giddy mask of his is so thick that I'm not sure even he knows where it begins and ends any more, but he uses it with undefeatable assurance. Beneath all the panache he's bloody scary, and his enemies are right: the dresses and the makeup and not knowing how loony he really is only makes him scarier, not less. "Ah, your brother is an interesting man."

"Leyam, huh? I should have known." Darius joined him at the window, looking him up and down slowly. "Well, whatever he chooses to wear, you have to concede he's got good taste. You look...different. Assyrian. Why are you still up? The moon has been out for nearly a qa, I thought that lucky bastard Morpheus would be whispering in your ear by the time I turned in."

"I wasn't sleepy just yet," Ryou lied. In truth he was exhausted, but the uncertainties of the day and Leyam on top of all that had wound him up and he did not think he could sleep if he tried. Fortunately none of this made it through his restored composure, so Darius took it at face value and nodded.

They both turned as one to watch the night outside. The Noble Quarters were in a wing off of the main royal building. They were at the top of the hill that was the royal enclave, so though Darius's chambers were only a story up, they could see the wall surrounding the palace and the steep fall of the city below. Lights glimmered here and there, a warmer reflection of the stars above. The Taibor was a faintly luminescent shimmer at the near horizon. Ryou wondered if boats poled up and down it even now, heading towards the Paths of Zaratusra and other alien lands.

"So what do you think of my home?" Darius asked, staring out into the night.

"It's beautiful." And dangerous, but at this point it was what Ryou had come to expect of the Outlands. He did have a considerable ally, though, standing at his side and watching the stars above the city. And though Ryou expected Leyam to scrutinize him very carefully over the next few weeks, it seemed the king was at least halfway ready to give Ryou the benefit of the doubt. Since there was very little Ryou could do here that was suspicious, innocent and lost as he was, Leyam would eventually see that he was harmless and would hopefully accept him as well.

Maybe then Ryou might feel a little less...foreign. He hadn't traveled all that much outside of Japan; three times to the US, once to Norway. He'd been struck at how alien those places were, the little details as well as the large ones. He really hadn't had a clue...Assyria and the Outlands weren't just some foreign tourist location, either. Ryou watched the night outside and finally confronted the thought that, if he stayed here for any length of time, he was going to have to think differently and become a different person. He already had, of course, and some of the changes had been for the best and long overdue, but it wasn't going to stop there. He was going to have to get tougher, more decisive, and his moral compass was going to get quite a change in direction too. This world was brutal and didn't have any of the safety nets a modern man took for granted. A lot of it also made his civilized instincts recoil. And the sheer otherness of this society was like a constant pressure; he just could not imagine himself ever getting used to it, of walking through these palace halls or dusty streets a year from now as if he belonged...

A breeze shook the palm trees, a dry rattle like bones. Ryou had to grimly admit that he was scared. He just wasn't sure what scared him the most; of changing too much, turning into some amoral mercenary who did not care about anything beyond the safety of his own little coterie of lover, friends and family...or of not being able to change at all, of always being a stranger in a strange land until he couldn't stand it anymore and had to leave.

Ryou snuck a peek at Darius's profile on the heels of that thought. His lover was scowling faintly, leaning far out of the window and looking to the right. Ryou turned that way, twisting in the window seat and leaning out to see what had caught Darius's attention. That's when he noticed someone was singing; he'd been ignoring it so far with the ease of a long-time apartment dweller used to tuning out televisions and radios. But it wasn't some impersonal machine out there. Ryou searched for the singer, but caught sight of something else before he could pinpoint the location. Thirty meters away, in the garden with the peacocks near Ashur's hall, three girls were bathing in the waters of the burbling fountain. Ryou looked away immediately, but he'd still caught sight of them; teenagers, bodies young and lithe but womanly already.

It was while he was trying to find something else to fix his eyes upon that Ryou found the source of the singing. The palace had series of flat roofs, some pillared and covered to make patios, others open. On the highest of the latter, two soldiers were standing near the balustrade. One was leaning over it, the other had just one arm planted there. Ryou could see the pair quite well at this angle thanks to the moonlight. Not well enough to make out their faces, but from their posture and the voices, he could guess they were both pretty young. Boys were taken into the army as young as fourteen, Ryou knew from his time with the Hounds. If he had to make a guess, he'd put those two between sixteen and eighteen; only a little older than the girls bathing right below the spot the guards had just happened to pick to stake out their watch and insure the security of the royal palace. The girls washed as if they were completely deaf to the singing, but Ryou doubted people really washed off that gracefully if they were just intent on getting the day's dirt off quickly before going to bed.

The garden was quiet bar the splashing and the chirp of insects. In that hush, the two young voices, simple and untrained, sounded strikingly beautiful. But warbling away was almost certainly not what these two were supposed to be doing...Ryou felt his lips twitch as he glanced from the unfortunate guards to the commander of the Hounds at his side. Oh dear, he thought, catching sight of the expression he rather expected on Darius's face.

"Tomorrow morning before the sun even rises, I'm rousting every single officer in this garrison and giving them a talking to. Then I'm conducting wholesale training in full armor and battle conditions throughout the whole goddamned afternoon. Racing, wrestling, target throws, the works. Nineel the Tezalian is in charge of the city defenses," he added, misinterpreting Ryou's glance as a question. "But it's well understood that, illegitimate get that I am, I still have precedence by right of blood, and fuck if I'm letting that kind of laxity spawn worse ones. They’d let the goddamn Roman army march right through here if they got dancing girls to precede them." He grumbled something else under his breath and looked ready to shove away from the balustrade to go have a word right now...but instead he stayed leaning against the windowsill next to Ryou, who was listening to the notes in the darkness.

Ryou settled back, obscurely reassured. He was still tense and worried deep down, more than he'd ever been since the age of thirteen. He was also more alive than he'd ever been since the age of thirteen. He had to trust himself in the face of these dangers and unknowns. If the past few weeks had shown him anything, it was that he was more resourceful than he'd previously thought. Besides, not everything here was strange and unquantifiable. He knew Darius, to start with. The Hounds he'd met were not like anyone he'd known back home, but they were straightforward men and he'd gotten along well with them. He even had a bit of a grasp on Leyam, which was undoubtedly more than most people could say. Ryou found himself smiling as he listened to the young men singing under the moonlight. At the end of the day, these Outlanders had strange and obscure customs, but people were people...

The girls soon finished their bath, dried off, wrapped themselves in long robes and departed with a swing of the hips that might have been meant as tempting and mature, but merely came off as young. The soldiers stopped singing and started circling their station once more, and Ryou and Darius looked out into the warm night side by side for a little longer.

A note from Mal Chants

This is the end of the first arc, but there are a few bonus chapters on the first few days/weeks of Ryou's life in Sura to close off the book properly. There is a second arc in the making, which I will post as a new book I believe.

About the author

Mal Chants


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