QSFer R.L. Mosswood has a new MM Fantasy book out:
Harem boy might not be the most appropriate role for someone who’s never really seen the appeal of sex, but Elin’s status as dahabi: golden in a land of tan and brown, has marked him for The Dragon’s service since birth. He’s content enough with his life of uncomplicated, if restrictive, luxury, until an unremarkable chore becomes a case of love at first sight.
Mysterious newcomer Hathar, a roguish “merchant adventurer” from far-off lands, ignites an exploration of Elin’s first taste of physical desire, as well as a desire to experience life beyond the palace. Now, they must find a way to escape before Hathar’s ship departs, stranding them forever in The Dragon’s harem.
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.”
RL Mosswood lurks in the depths of the Pacific Northwest rainforest, where they dabble in queer fiction in an attempt to add a little magic to their otherwise mundane existence.