Cresting the hill, under a dead sky, a profusion of ice exploded into view, the black iron city hidden safely within. The ocean surf crashed against the ice walls, only to drip down the unbeaten surface like widow’s tears.
I stopped, drinking in the sight like a starving man sighting snow tubers. My breath fogged and blew into my eyes, turning my woollen scarf into a sodden, heavy, and frosted mess. I tugged the scarf down, the frigid air caressing my cheeks, welcoming me back.
This would be the last time I would ever look upon my silent city like this.
But the game… Even so many miles back, the unfinished game of Go tugged at my mind. When we’d arrived at port, I’d been forced to abandon it. I’d had the next move planned, and the countermove, but now I would never finish it. I never should have started one.
The leash jerked in my hand. I tightened my grip, holding the impatient prince back. The prince stopped, hands bound behind his back by my leash and kept there by so much more. He pulled back his shoulders and lifted his head high even through the lingering sedative haze. Not even the weeks-long trek through the snow had bowed his back. He carried himself the same in the wilderness as he had striding into his harem my first day there.
As soon as he entered, the harem had thrown itself into a calamity of flashing silks and demands. Yet all I could do was kneel in the corner, my head bowed as I watched him beneath my white bangs and tried to remember how to breathe. My skin had blazed, and not entirely from Nuriya’s infernal heat.
He’d strode in with fire in his veins, a heart brimming with emotions, and his eyes drinking in his pleasures. He was nothing I’d ever encountered before. He was magnificent.
I had known then, as he reminded me there upon the snowy hill, that I’d made the right choice in the mythical Land of Fire’s Prince Heir Ilyas.
But underneath his proud defiance and woollen layers, he shivered. His fragile body was used to languid heat, not the wet cold. Only his violet eyes and a glimpse of brown skin peeked between the scarves and hood. In the Sentei port, Ilyas had sneered at the beige garments and slurred a demand for more colour. Drugged and stolen far away from his crown, he still acted like he was the prince heir and I was only his humble slave, rather than I’d only played the part of one.
What would such self-assurance have felt like? My mind came up blank, but it must have felt wonderful.
Ilyas’ silence made the trek easier. I didn’t need to lie to him about his fate. If he knew what was really in store for him, he would have strangled himself with the leash.
Ilyas would suffer to save my kingdom, Lumi.
Suffer, because I knew no word strong enough, in either the trading language or Lumian. No one deserved such a fate, but I had no choice.
Snow crunching beneath my feet, I passed him and descended the hill. Ilyas hurried behind me, making his strides longer and longer to hide his eagerness.
Ilyas slipped on the ice-slicked path leading through the gate. I turned my eyes away, giving him the privacy of his gangly legs, as I glided along. It took time and skill to adjust to the paths in Lumi, and a proud foreigner who’d failed to hide his horror upon first seeing snowflakes falling from the air couldn’t be expected to know.
Unlike Lumi, where the snow remained year long, it never snowed in Nuriya. It never even grew cold. It was absolutely disgusting.
We passed through the gates, two mountains of ice guarding the city. It was such a magnificent sight that even I gawked after so many years, but Ilyas refused, keeping his face straight, as if nothing Lumi could offer was enough to so much as turn his head. He flicked his violet eyes around, though, marking the path for his escape.
Ilyas stumbled. The white ice gave way to plain-faced iron buildings stacked upon each other, reaching for the sky but always stunted and hunched compared to the towering ice walls. Snow-covered bridges ran roughshod between the upper floors.
Gaunt-faced people wrapped in coats and scarves wandered through the streets like lost souls. As they spotted the two approaching strangers, they turned, whispering to each other. My fingers grasping my hood, I hesitated to lower it, but it didn’t matter. They’d know who I was soon enough, and I only delayed the inevitable. I lowered my hood, and the eyes turned away at once.
Ilyas seemed to take no notice, but paraded down the street. So proud, he never saw the truth around him, but stubbornly marched on. He never noticed the choked whispers of the villagers. They knew exactly why Ilyas was there.
The steep slope levelled off for the main square. A dozen cloaked villagers lined up for their daily rations at the storehouse, but all backed away as they caught sight of me.
In the centre towered the obsidian obelisk, the only object in Lumi more frightening than I. Even the snow stayed away, leaving the point bare and a rut around its base.
Ilyas stopped, scoffing and muttering in the trading language. Few of the villagers would understand, but I did. “Would it kill them to splash a little colour around?”
The tattoo on the back of my neck flared, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. I yanked on the leash, and Ilyas stumbled, dropping to his knees. Ilyas bit back his yelp, but it must have hurt. It might have even bruised him. I pressed my lips together. I shouldn’t have done that. “Don’t stare. It’s not meant for staring.”
Ilyas snorted. “You built a statue to not stare at it?”
I knew what he really meant: the stupid slave can’t even get art right. “It’s meant for you to avert your eyes. It’s a reminder of the Dark God.”
I used the words in the trading language for Dark God. Unlike the soft gods of Nuriya, the Dark God couldn’t be encapsulated in a single name. No one had that much power over him.
“Dark God?” Ilyas made a sound, like he couldn’t believe we were so stupid we couldn’t adorn our god with names and flowers and incense like the Nuriyites did theirs.
Ilyas would learn. The Dark God would educate him.
“Come along.” My voice sounded like a bark even to my own ears.
Ilyas raised his eyebrows, the only feature visible beneath his hood, as if he didn’t believe I dared to order him about. As if I hadn’t been doing so for weeks.
I tugged on the leash, gently enough not to pull him to the snow, but he refused to rise. The snow called to me, tugging at my boots, but I pushed them away. I glanced down at the shivering mass, my eyes softening. I was truly home.
But it wasn’t my home. I was just a visitor, like Ilyas. Necessary, but not welcomed.
The villagers watched without watching, voices silent, too frightened to castigate the foreigner for daring to disobey me. They all knew. Only Ilyas didn’t.
The tattoo throbbed as cold as ice. It liked Ilyas’ defiance. He liked it. I knew I’d chosen well. “Rise.”
Ilyas cocked his head, as if I were the one on the leash.
“Rise,” I said again, my voice cold. If he didn’t, I’d be forced to risk his perfect skin.
The snow called to me eagerly, but again I mentally pushed its call away.
Ilyas searched the crowd’s hidden faces. Did his eyes take in their rough-hewn clothing? Their gaunt cheeks? Their empty baskets? From the way he wrenched his violet eyes away, he didn’t. He only saw a pathetic people.
He took his time rising to his feet, tapping his heels on the ice to shake off the snow, and knitted his brow together as the snow didn’t bend to his will, but clung to his boots and coat.
I tugged on the leash and continued across the square. Unlike the villagers, I walked near the obelisk, but kept my eyes averted. I cringed as the tattoo throbbed, cold and wet.
From the square, it was only a short walk up the hill as I hauled Ilyas and his slipping feet. At the top was not only the tallest building in all of Lumi, but also the only one wrought of white stones, eerily like ice, hauled hundreds of miles from the other end of the peninsula. A luxury Lumi could no longer afford, but had once been a simple demand from the Dark God during His last stay. The Dark God had required a residence befitting Him.
Ilyas’ response was to sniff. Slipping and sliding on the ice, Ilyas barrelled toward the main door and the heat inside. I dragged him by the leash to a hidden side door. Ilyas was mistaken if he thought he were a guest.
No, I had a much different place for him. He tensed when we entered, the iron door slamming closed and leaving us in darkness. The unlit torches on the wall were ancient and probably rotten through. Once, we could afford such luxuries. But at least for Ilyas’ sake, it was warmer than outside.
I didn’t need the light to lead him down the stone stairs. I knew each dusty step down into the tomb, but I slowed for Ilya’s sake, giving him time to test where the next step lay, shift his weight onto the lower step, and feel with his booted toe for the next. When we reached the cellar corridor, he breathed a sigh of relief. The air might have been stale, the dust a living creature, but light spilled towards us. One of the servants had left a lantern by a heavy iron door, the upper half lightened by a square grill.
The cellar door creaked as I swung it open. The hinges had rusted brown, having been so long since we had anything worth keeping in a cellar. Flakes of rust showered on the stone like snowfall, and lent the cellar the scent of dried blood. The room beyond was dark and empty, even of mice. As if a single mouse still lived in Lumi.
A strong hand on Ilyas’ shoulder, I shoved him inside. He stumbled. I held my breath. The sedatives I’d given him still whirled in his blood. He righted himself and ripped down his scarves, revealing his lush sienna lips twisted in a smirk. “So when should I expect it?”
Filling the doorway in case he roused himself through the drug haze to do more than spit words at me, I blinked at him. “It?”
“You know what I mean.”
But Ilyas didn’t. I turned away. “You’re not to be castrated.”
“Oh? You’re not taking me as your pleasure slave?” The words dripped from his mouth like poison.
He didn’t really think that. Not him, the proud prince heir of Nuriya. If anyone tried to bend him so, he’d fight and scheme circles around them. With any normal human, he’d have succeeded.
“Your brother would enjoy that.” I moved behind him. “Pardon me. I meant the new prince heir.”
As tense as a snow demon about to attack, Ilyas whirled to me. “And when I return, I’ll sell him to the highest bidder!”
I sighed for him. He was never going to return home. He would never have a chance to wreak his revenge.
“I never expected he’d lower himself to plot with a slave, sure,” he said, mistaking my sigh. “But he won’t fool me again. He’ll wish he’d just suffered his defeat in misery.”
“He’d always meant to lose,” I said. “He’d always meant to slip me into your harem.”
“You give Mehdi too much credit.”
“The prince heir,” I reminded him. And I gave him enough credit. Mehdi had wanted his brother out of the way, no questions asked. And I’d needed Ilyas.
“A temporary situation.”
A permanent one.
“But in the meantime, if you think I’ll bend over for the likes of you, then you are truly exceptional. Exceptionally wrong.”
“I don’t think that at all.”
“Then?” He lifted his brow, daring me to tell him.
So I did. “Prince Regent Hemi has better uses for you.”
“Ha! A prince regent you say? Why would anyone bother to usurp this pile of shit?”
My stomach clenched, and I forced myself to take a deep breath. Ilyas assumed regent meant usurper. It was the way of his people. Without worries of food shortages and warring neighbours, the Nuriyites had turned on themselves. But that had been to my benefit.
Still, I found myself snapping, “Prince Hemi will sell you to your tawam rohi.”
Ilyas bristled, his brown skin whitening. “You can’t sell a tawam rohi, you ignorant little drudge.”
“Enough,” I snapped. “You’re nothing but a slave here.”
Lies, more lies, but Ilyas couldn’t know the truth.
“As if you could even comprehend a tawam rohi.” Ilyas moved as if to spit, before remembering the scarves and his bound hands, and instead made a disgusted sound. “You’re just a slave. Your little regent’s fuck toy. You would never know what it’s like to be tawam rohi, to be matched with the other half of your soul, bound by the goddess Kalarati and magic—”
“Nuriya has no magic,” I interrupted.
“You ignorant little fool!”
“Enough.” I gestured at his bound hands. “Continue your rebellion after I release your ties.”
That was enough to stop him.
He glared at me suspiciously, like he thought it must be a trick.
“You will want to defend yourself when they come for your testicles.”
He tensed, as if he would still disagree simply to be ornery, but then released the tension, turning his back to me. I unwound the ropes, and watched him warily, ready for an attack. But Ilyas simply held his wrists in front of him, rubbing the blood back into them.
I slipped out and barred the door behind me before he noticed a chance to attempt escape. Through the grill, I told him, “But please, continue your rebellion. The Sentei monarchy will pay far more for the privilege of breaking you.”
I couldn’t bear it if I broke him before I must.
His head jerked up, then reared back as he noticed I’d locked him in. “Barbarian!”
“A rich barbarian, thanks to you.”
He sputtered, his hands moving closer to his groin. I didn’t correct him again. The lie was his one mercy.