Tesjun sighed and rose from his desk. Sleep had been precious these last few days. Whenever he lay down to rest, his mind was filled with doubts and questions. The result was that he worked in a fog throughout the day. He was slower at his duties than was his wont; he also forgot to do things. If he were honest with himself, he was preoccupied during the day as well, not just at night. He often caught himself staring into mirrors, wondering what the King found so fascinating about him. He had never had sex with anyone, as he had told the Queen Mother. His life from a very early age had involved working for his family and learning to read and write and numbers. He had always been driven; his eye had ever been on raising his family above their station. And now his small family lived in Draemin Castle; at least, for the time being. He turned and walked to the window, where he pulled the curtains apart and gazed at the snowstorm beyond the glass panes.
He sighed. Would it be so terrible, he thought to himself, to become the King’s lover?
His Grace, after all, was beautiful to behold, wasn’t he? He was kind, as Tesjun had told the Queen Mother. And intelligent and fair minded. He sighed. Then what was so difficult about this decision?
But…what if he wasn’t atoliy? What if…what if he saw beauty in all people, but it was purely esthetics and not attraction?
He took in a deep breath and released it in an explosive huff. He rubbed his forehead with a shaking hand.
“I need guidance,” he murmured to himself. “I cannot make this decision blind. But…whom do I seek the guidance from?”
He was a commoner with a commoner’s faith, so the person who came to mind was the Prei-Serren himself. He squared his shoulders and strode into the hallway and then to the left, towards the unscathed northeastern tower. As he strode, he thought of how he would broach the subject with the holy man. The Prei-Serren had been the first atoliy in history to become the High Priest. Well, at least as far as anyone knew.
He took the tower steps two at a time to the fourth floor. The Prei-Serren was in residence because his Grace’s marriage and coronation were just a few days away and the weather had been unpredictable of late.
Walking up to the guards, he bowed. “I would like to see his Holiness. On behalf of his Grace, Belihn Stait-Ekesj.”
The guard on the left gave him a once over before turning to knock on the door.
A few seconds later, the door was opened by an acolyte. He gave Tesjun a curious glance.
“I am here to see his Holiness on the behest of his Grace,” Tesjun murmured, the lie coming more easily each time he told it.
“One moment please,” the acolyte said and closed the door.
Tesjun fidgeted under the guards’ cold perusal. His skin was damp with perspiration and his heart was clamoring in his chest. Releasing a breath, he squared his shoulders and straightened his back. He fisted his hands at his sides.
The door opened again and the acolyte bowed. “Please enter.”
His Holiness was standing at the balcony doors, peering at the thick snowflakes swirling in the strong winds.
“It will be a bitter winter, this one,” he said to the room before turning around to face Tesjun. “Have a seat, Mister Othar.”
Tesjun sat down in an armchair and clasped his hands on his lap.
The High Priest walked around the sofa and sat down facing his visitor. His gray eyes glittered in his handsome, unlined face. The Prei-Serren didn’t seem to age, except for the silver threading his black hair. His face looked as a young man’s.
“I’ve been expecting you, Tesjun Othar.”
Tesjun gaped. “W-what?”
Lahn smiled faintly and shook his head. “You have little faith, for a commoner.”
Tesjun frowned, his ire rising. “I’ve been busy surviving, your Eminence!”
Lahn Obeli gave a nod and smoothed his hands over his robes. “I know, child. But I’ve been dreaming of you, off and on, since your conception. The Goddess imbued you with an indomitable will and a keen intelligence. It was She who drove that man to rape your mother so that you could be conceived.”
Tesjun gasped. “What?”
“Your mother was a virgin, child. She intended to enter a nunnery, so strong was her faith, but the Goddess had another purpose for her. Your mother was born to conceive you. The Goddess sent her messages in the form of dreams, but all she wanted was to leave her house. Your grandfather beat her, you see. He was cruel and abusive.”
The Prei-Serren motioned to the acolyte.
Soon, a glass of liqueur was being forced into Tesjun’s hand. He swallowed the drink without tasting it.
He looked at the Holy Man. “Do you mean to tell me my father was not my father?”
“He was. He married her, you see,” Lahn Obeli replied. “From his loins came your siblings. But you…You, Tesjun, will begin to change the very laws of North Torahn, through your influence on the King. Your will become a barrister, the greatest in the history of our nation. Nothing else matters.”
Tesjun swallowed, his head swirling with emotions. He glanced at the older man. “But…”
Lahn Obeli raised an eyebrow. “But?”
“The Queen Mother approached me about his Grace. Am I to be his lover, your Holiness?”
“Are you?” the other asked with deceptive mildness. “That is up to you, boy.”
“I need guidance!”
“I see.” The older man sighed and sipped his liqueur. “Well, sex clouds everything and involves the heart at some point. Do you find his Grace attractive?”
“Then why the confusion?”
“I’ve never had a lover, your Holiness. I’m not even sure I am atoliy or atol-domeinsji!”
“Then might I make a suggestion?”
“Masturbate and think of his Grace as you are doing so,” the Prei-Serren stated bluntly. “If you achieve completion, then becoming his lover should pose no problem. What you must realize is that this is a little thing in the context of the greater picture, son. You will be of great importance to Belihn, but being his lover is of little importance. For the ages, you will be his primary advisor and you will guide him to change the laws that condemn so many to abject poverty and suffering. That is all She cares about. In the meantime, find your pleasure where you will.”
Tesjun swallowed and leaned forward. “Have you seen, in your visions, that I am his lover?”
Lahn Obeli chuckled. “That is of little concern to me or to Her, boy. I have seen you as both, Tesjun Othar. The choice is yours. Belihn will not turn from your guidance, no matter your choice. Your role in history is to prevail and change caste law; the rest is of little consequence.”
Tesjun rose and bowed. “Thank you, your Holiness.”
The Prei-Serren waived a lazy hand. “I’ve done nothing, child. Do not speak of your mother’s rape to her; this I will counsel you. She forgave your father and even came to love him, in her way. She sacrificed much, child, always remember that.”
Kurk Deshon set a glass of ekila in front of Tesjun and took a seat across from him.
“Now,” he said, lifting his glass. “To King Belihn!”
Tesjun raised his glass and clicked it to Kurk’s. “To his Grace.”
They drank the ekila and Tesjun closed his eyes as the heat of the liqueur burned down his throat, spreading across his chest, and filling his belly balefully.
Kurk leaned forward to place his forearms on the table. “You wanted to talk to me?”
“I need guidance, Kurk.”
Kurk raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Go on then.”
“The Queen Mother approached me a few days ago to tell me his Grace is attracted to me. I don’t think his Grace knows she approached me.”
Kurk sat back in his seat. “I see. And?”
Tesjun shrugged. “I don’t know how to make this decision!”
Kurk snorted. “Are you atoliy or not? That is the only consideration. Belihn is a handsome lad, so if you are confused then maybe you are not atoliy.”
Tesjun gnawed at his lower lip and sighed. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never lain with anyone.”
Kurk poured more liqueur from the carafe. “Then we must remedy that.”
Tesjun frowned. “How?”
Kurk snorted again and shook his head. “We find you a whore of either sex. I’ll pay for it.”
He rose and Tesjun gaped at him. “What? No!”
“Drink your drink and come with me,” the other demanded, picking up the carafe.
Tesjun swallowed his drink and rose on unsteady feet. “But, Kurk–“
“Shut up, son. Listen to me, we will find out the truth tonight or my name isn’t Kurk Deshon!”
The next few minutes were a blur to Tesjun.
Kurk negotiated with the tavern keeper, paying him extra coins for the use of two servers. Since the tavern was not busy, the tavern keeper agreed.
The man was tall and whip thin, with cold hazel eyes and a beaked nose.
He took Kurk’s coins and gave Tesjun the once over. “These coins pay for one hour. I want my servers down here again in one hour exactly.”
“Y-yes, sir,” Tesjun replied through numb lips.
The man’s icy glare flicked over Tesjun’s pale features and snorted. “I’ll pick young and gentle ones for you, my lord.” He handed Kurk a key. “Room four on the second floor.”
Kurk led the way up the narrow, creaking stairs to the second floor. Candles in sconces on the unpainted wooden walls threw a buttery light against the dusty floor and low ceiling. They found room four and Kurk applied the key, turning the lock and pushing the door open. The room was in absolute darkness, but Kurk took up one of the candles from its sconce on the wall and walked in, placing the candle in a holder on the bedside table.
Tesjun entered the room slowly, scrunching his nose at the smell of stale sweat, liquor, and sex. There was a modest bed with a dark blue cover. There was a table with a washbasin, and a bar of soap, washcloth and a towel hanging from a hook on the wall. A waist-high barrel with a dipper stood next to the table. The dusty wooden floor had no throw rugs. There were no tapestries on the wall. The single window was shuttered against the cold, the dark blue curtains opened to show the storm outside.
“I’ll be downstairs,” Kurk told him, pressing the key to the palm of Tesjun’s hand. “Come find me in an hour.”
Tesjun watched him leave then dropped onto the mattress with a drawn out groan. His heart was racing so hard, he felt dizzy and lightheaded. He took several deep breaths in an attempt to becalm his heart. There was a knock at the doorjamb and he started and looked up.
Two young people stood side by side just inside the door.
The young man strode in and motioned for the girl to shut the door. “You paid for our services, my lord?”
Tesjun opened numbed lips and licked them before nodding. “I’m…yes. I’ve never done this.”
He blushed when he realized what he had said.
The young man and the young woman exchanged a look before she came to kneel at Tesjun’s feet.
She placed a hand on his knee and he jumped as if she had stabbed him.
“Becalm yourself, my lord,” she said in a soothing, soft voice. “We will teach you.”
“I just want to know if I am atoliy or domeinsji or both!” Tesjun stated with marked impatience.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” the young man asked and removed his shirt.
Kurk yawned. Outside the wall of windows, the snow had ceased falling and now glittered like jewels under the cold moonlight. Few people were out and about, for the temperatures had dipped once the storm had passed. Taitah the moon shone full beyond the ragged clouds. He rubbed his face and pushed the last of the liqueur away. He needed to go home and to bed, but he promised Tesjun he would wait for him, so he waited. A brief commotion on the stairwell had him glancing that way. Both young people ran down the stairs and back into the kitchen. There was no sign of Tesjun.
With a sigh, Kurk rose and made his way to the second floor. He came to room number four and knocked.
After a couple of minutes, Tesjun threw the door open. “I’m just cleaning up.”
He turned and strode into the room, Kurk at his heels.
The room was redolent with the smells of sex and wax.
Tesjun pulled on his tunic then his thick cloak, fastening it at the collar bone. He turned to face Kurk, his dusky features suffused with blood.
“How was it?” Kurk demanded.
Tesjun blushed deeper. “It was…” He sighed and swallowed. “I’m…it was good, Kurk. Equally good. I couldn’t choose one over the other.”
“Then you are atol-domeinsji.”
Tesjun swallowed. “It appears so.”
“Then what confuses you still?”
“I would like to marry and have children.”
Kurk shrugged. “Then tell Belihn you want a wife and children. He won’t deny you.”
“What of my wife? What of her feelings?”
Kurk closed the door and took a seat at the edge of the mattress. “Sit, Tesjun.”
“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Kurk told him. “Do you wish to marry now?”
“Then don’t worry about it as yet! Have a love affair with Belihn. You may not even like one another; you don’t know and you are borrowing problems where there are none. You may fall in love with Belihn–“
“But that’s just it!” Tesjun spat and rose. “What if I fall in love with him?”
“So what?” Kurk asked. “You can choose a wife and have children when you are older. You can learn to love her in your own way.” He rose and placed a hand on Tesjun’s shoulder. “Don’t worry so much, Tesjun.”
“But I can’t!’
“You can’t? You can’t what?”
“I can’t fall in love with anyone! I’ve much to do!”
“Becalm yourself, son,” Kurk murmured. “Will you really go through life isolated because you are afraid of falling in love?”
Tesjun dropped his gaze and swallowed. “I just don’t want anything to take precedence over my duty.”
“And it won’t,” Kurk assured him. “You can and will fall in love and it will take you by surprise, but it won’t divert your from your purpose. Have faith, Tesjun.”
Tesjun sighed. “I should really give Belihn my answer.”
“He didn’t ask directly. It’s the Queen Mother you should be concerned about,” Kurk retorted mildly, his lips quirking. “Come. Let’s go home.”