My final present to my darling readers, I hope 2017 is a lovely year for you all. Happy New Year!
Special thanks and all my love to Raelynn for providing the beautiful artwork for this story.
(TW for attempted rape)
Nima took a deep breath. He could do this. He was supposed to be here. He'd been invited here. He wasn't an imposter, he wasn't an imposter, he wasn't an imposter.
Clutching the strap of his satchel with one hand, papers clenched in the other, he finally crossed the courtyard with its lush, colorful plants and imperious statues, and came to a halt in front of the four guards, intimidating in their black uniforms, two with swords at their waists, two holding glaives, the sharp blades reflecting sunlight.
Admittance to the palace was restricted to those who lived and worked there, and approved guests. If you were not one of those three, you had to have papers. When one of the guards held his hand out, face stony, Nima gave him the papers with a hand that trembled slightly. Not an imposter, not an imposter. He'd worked hard to be here, he deserved to be here.
The guard flipped through the papers. "Your name?"
"Who are you here to see?"
"Assistant Librarian Afzal."
"Why are you here to see him?"
"I've been invited to interview as a junior librarian, specifically for the poetry and music collections."
"How did you come to the attention of Master Afzal?"
"I was a junior librarian in the south district library, my superior there recommended me and Master Afzal bid me come this week to interview me. He sent the papers yesterday, along with the time and place to meet him."
The guard pulled something from a pouch at his waist, marked the last page of the packet, and handed them back, a smile cracking his marble façade. "Welcome to the royal palace, Master Nima. At the first intersection you'll come to, turn left. From there, take the third left, then the second right. Go straight until you come to the library."
"Oh—thank you very much. Um. Good day to you." Nima bowed slightly and hesitantly returned the guard's smile before hurrying on into the palace.
Inside the palace, he was met by the scent of fresh water and green things, a faint hint of sweet incense. The palace was even more beautiful than every rumor and tale he'd heard. There were colored tiles everywhere, forming stunning geometric mosaics, statues and decorative tapestries on the walls.
And guards. So many guards everywhere, nearly statues themselves. Nima clutched his papers close and followed the directions he'd been given—and barely avoided careening into a group of lords and ladies, only to knock into one of the guards. "I'm so sorry!" The guard didn't react, save to right him, though Nima thought he caught the barest hint of smile. "Sorry," he muttered again.
"You're not the one who should be sorry," said a bright, cheerful voice.
Nima turned, and mercy of the heavens, please let his face not be as flushed as it felt.
A concubine. He was staring at one of the royal concubines. Ever since the change in harem laws several months ago, the royal harems had been the source of endless talk, coming close only to the gossip surrounding the execution of the steward.
This was the foreign one, and like everything else about the palace he was even more stunning than rumor said—although Nima hadn't expected him to be short. He might actually be the barest bit shorter than Nima, which never happened. He wore black pants and a black skirt, and a rainbow of jewels at his waist, throat, and wrists. His build was familiar, much like what Nima saw in the mirror: that of a dancer, strong but lean, toned and flexible.
Nima realized he was gawking. "Um. My apologies."
The man's friendly smile widened. "Not at all. And it was those nobles who should have apologized, not you. Too many of them see everyone not them as furniture and decoration. You look new to the palace. I remember feeling exactly that look on your face." He winked. "Where are you going?"
"Um—the, uh, library."
"I'll take you there." The man bowed his head to the guards. "Please report this conversation to my king." Then he turned neatly on his heel and gestured for Nima to follow.
Taking a deep breath and holding his papers tightly, Nima hurried after him.
They reached the library just a couple of minutes later. "Here you are."
"Thank you, my lord," Nima said. "I am honored you would help me."
The man only winked again and departed.
"Can I help you?"
Nima turned, took another deep breath and tried to will away the flush still burning his face. He gave the woman looking at him a slight bow. "Pardon, my name is Nima Karim, I am here to see Assistant Librarian Afzal."
"Ah, yes, you're expected. Do you have your papers?"
Handing them over, Nima followed when she motioned for him to do so, and was led through the most magnificent library he'd ever seen. Was he ever going to stop gawking?
The woman caught his expression and smiled. "The palace is stunning, isn't it? I walked around in awe the first few weeks I was here—and that was before His Majesty's father died and everything surrounding that." She circled a hand in the air. "It's been wild around here, like a ballad. But here is Master Afzal's office. I hope you're able to join us for dinner." She bowed slightly, Nima did the same, and left him there.
Nima took a deep breath, then another. He deserved to be here. He'd worked hard for this. Five years of misery, another seven of schooling and training, three years in the city library, and here he was—not his first dream, perhaps, but certainly his second. He deserved to be here. He'd worked hard. His old life was gone.
Clutching his papers and satchel, he knocked on the door and entered when bid.
Nima looked up, blinking at the blurry figure before he snatched his spectacles off and hastily dropped them on the table. His mortification grew tenfold as he stared at the man before him—another concubine. Since his six weeks working in the royal palace, he'd gotten to know his fellow librarians, been told every scrap of rumor and bit of gossip that was to be had—especially about the royal couple and their harems—and drunk more wine than he'd had in his entire life.
A good measure of his paycheck went to room and board in the palace, but he wasn't remotely sorry about that. He would happily pay for all the comforts and luxuries he enjoyed: his own room, his own bed, a bath he shared with only nine other people, and food and drink whenever he wanted them.
But he couldn't deny he'd been disappointed he had not seen the friendly concubine again, or any of the others, save a glimpse of the queen and her harem at a distance.
Right before now, however, was the concubine, the one everyone whispered gleefully King Ihsan had stolen, or seduced, or bribed into joining his harem: former Harem Master Demir. He stood in front of Nima's little work table like a dream—like a breathtaking, painfully beautiful reminder of a lost dream. And oh, gods, he'd thought they'd all been lying to him about the chain that vanished into Demir's pants. "C-can I help you, my lord?"
Demir smiled, and Nima had the sense he was seeing more than Nima really wanted him seeing. "I was told you are the one to see about music. I am seeking a rather old piece, a fan dance composed by Jumana Saab. I'm afraid I don't remember the name of the piece, but it was an amalgamation of—"
"Of a Southern Rittuen fan dance and a Valta country dance," Nima said eagerly, pushing back his chair and standing. "Of course, I know it well. That one is called Dance of Sand and Roses, it's part of her second collection. We have a compiled volume, and of course the individual sheet music. Which did you prefer, my lord?"
"The individual, it's to be used for a performance." He winked. "A surprise for Their Majesties, so I would appreciate your discretion."
"Of course, my lord. One moment and I'll have it for you." Nima hurried off through the stacks, pulling out his keys to unlock the door to the special room where the sheet music and special volumes of poetry and music were kept. Finding the music sought, he returned to where Demir stood waiting with the guard who'd escorted him. "Here you are." He bowed as he handed them over.
"My thanks." Demir gave him a slight bow. "You are Master Nima, correct? By your courtesy, what is your family name?"
Nima flushed, this time with shame and humiliation. Of course the former Harem Master recognized him. Unless there was some other reason he was asking, but Nima couldn't fathom it. "Karim, my lord."
"Ah, that's why you look familiar. Your mother was a remarkable person. I'm happy to see her son is doing so well. Thank you again for the music, Master Nima. Good day to you."
"G-good day, my lord," Nima said, and bowed again as Demir and the guard departed.
Demir had known his mother. He'd called her remarkable. Nima blinked rapidly to abate the sting in his eyes. Smiling faintly, he returned to his desk and the transcriptions he was making for a lady who wanted to read poems from a book not permitted to leave the library.
He was just contemplating stopping for lunch when a shadow fell across his desk. Nima removed his glasses and looked up with a smile—and forgot everything he'd been about to say as he stared at a face he'd hoped never to see again. A face he'd fervently hoped would not recognize him. "Can I help you, my lord?"
"I thought it was you I spied the other day, though I could scarcely believe the robes. I thought perhaps someone had smuggled you in, but here you are, a good little librarian. Do your superiors know where you come from?"
Nima didn't bother to reply; they both knew the answer. Of all the clients he'd had over five years working in one of the most notorious brothels in the city, only two stood out: Ziad, the old man who'd enjoyed watching Nima pleasure himself, but most often wanted to be read to and fussed over. When he'd died, he'd left a generous portion of his fortune to Nima, which had allowed him to work a smaller, if no less disreputable, brothel while he went to school. Near the end of his schooling, he'd quit and gotten work at a small branch library that mostly catered to old people and students. That had been the training he'd needed to move to the bigger library that had led to the position in the royal palace.
The second client was Yunis, who wasn't happy unless he was hurting someone—and he'd paid very, very well to hurt Nima. Some of the marks would never go away, and even the ones that faded wouldn't be forgotten easily or soon. Four of the five years he'd worked at that place had been spent enduring Yunis or recovering from him. Such behavior as Yunis exhibited would not be tolerated in other establishments, minus the one even worse than where Nima had worked, but Yunis had loved to tell him that Nima was the prettiest boy he'd ever seen.
"It's been some years—ten, in fact. But you're still the boy I remember. I think we should meet later, catch up on old times, don't you?"
Fighting tears, Nima said, "Yes, my lord."
"Splendid." Yunis smiled in a way that reminded Nima of a scorpion, one of the big, aggressive ones that would attack with no more provocation than the wind changing direction. He took a slip of paper and Nima's pen and wrote down a time, location, and directions. "I look forward to seeing you."
He left, and Nima went back to work, all thoughts of lunch thoroughly ruined.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of misery, and by the time of the dreaded appointment he was exhausted from worry and on the verge of screaming. He crept through the halls of the palace, eyes on the ground, grateful he only passed a couple of servants and fervently hoping they did not remember him later—and weren't around when he had to walk back to his room when Yunis was finally finished with him.
Damn it, he'd worked so hard, had come so far, this wasn't fair. He wasn't a prostitute at a disreputable house anymore. He was a librarian, a good respectable career. And maybe it wasn't the career he'd first dreamed of, but it was still a dream achieved and a good life. Hadn't he worked hard enough to leave his past behind him?
He shouldn't have aimed for the royal palace, that was his mistake. But after nearly ten years he hadn't thought any of his former clients would recognize him, not even Councilor Yunis.
Reaching the room, which proved to be a parlor of sorts, with a long, wide settee that made Nima shudder, he took a seat on one of the large cushions by a low table and folded his hands in his lap.
The door opened a few minutes later, and Yunis stepped in, wearing a robe so much like those he'd always worn to the brothel—enough for propriety in casual spaces, but easy to remove and put on. "It's so good to see you again, my sweet boy. How old are you now?"
Nima fought not to recoil as those spidery fingers he remembered stroked his hair and face, tugged for him to get to his feet. "Twenty-six." Nearly twenty-seven, but the younger he was the more pleased Yunis would be.
"Yet you look nearly as sweet as you did at seventeen. Good blood and bones, you have." Yunis licked his cheek. "I hope you remember what I like."
He liked Nima to suffer, and he liked Nima to scream. Unfortunately, there was no way he could make the kind of noise in a palace parlor that he could make in a sound-proofed brothel room. Which meant a gag, and Nima hated those the most because his lack of screams frustrated Yunis, which just made him more vicious.
It also meant he couldn't call for help—not that he thought anyone would ever rescue him. They never had before. Not when his father abandoned them to be with the lover he'd had before marriage. Not when his mother's family had refused to take them in because they'd never be able to marry off a woman who already had a child. Not when his mother had died. Not when he'd needed work and been forced under age into a brothel that shamed the illustrious history of concubines and pleasure houses.
Yunis clucked. "Pity we'll have to gag you. Well, get on with it, boy, I don't have all night. Don't worry, though, I'm working on arrangements that will allow us to do this whenever—and as often—as we like."
Barely avoiding throwing up the cup of calming tea he'd forced down earlier, Nima pulled his clothes off with trembling hands and left them in a neat pile on the table. Then he spread out the blanket Yunis handed him on the settee and laid out on it, his feet and ankles dangling off the end, head on his folded arms. Tears escaped despite his efforts to hold them back as Yunis yanked his head up enough to get the gag in place.
He'd endured this a thousand times, he could endure again—but as the first hit came, something in Nima snapped. Rearing up, he shoved Yunis away and climbed off the settee.
"How dare you!" Yunis snarled, and grabbed him.
Nima kicked him in the groin, and when Yunis dropped with a scream, he picked up a vase and dropped it on his head. Yunis slumped to the ground with a garbled groan. Nima hastily pulled on his clothes, then yanked the gag free and threw it on top of Yunis. Wiping away tears, ignoring the blood he could feel sticking to his clothes from the single blow Yunis had landed, he opened the door with trembling hands and hurried off.
What was he going to do? He'd just assaulted a noble—a councilor, at that. He was dead. Whatever he said in his own defense, nobody would take the word of a library clerk over that of a councilor. Especially when they learned the library clerk had once been a disreputable prostitute.
Another dream dashed. Maybe the city library would take him back. Or at least one of the small ones. Maybe he could get work in a bookshop?
But he'd been so happy putting all the knowledge from his mother, his family legacy, to use. He would never sing and dance and serve in one of the esteemed pleasure houses, would never be welcome in a theatre or dancing troupe, but he still knew song and dance and poetry. Tending the finest collection of music and poetry in the kingdom was a dream come true—a realistic dream, an achievable one, and six weeks after having reached it, he was going to be right back at the bottom, starting over again.
Nima slammed into something and went crashing to the ground, saving his head only by taking all his weight on one arm and twisting it. He looked up—and couldn't help the fresh tears as he stared in horror at the man he'd just crashed into. Another one of the king's concubines, this one tall and broad, muscled like one of the city guards, handsome like a wild cat.
Scrambling to his feet, Nima bowed low. "A thousand apologies for my clumsiness, my lord. I was not paying attention and I humbly beg forgiveness for troubling—"
"Are you all right?"
Nima didn't look up. "I'm quite well, my lord. Please, I really am very sorry—"
"It's fine, please rise."
Reluctantly Nima did so, and stared helplessly at the man watching him far too intently. Behind him, two guards eyed Nima with suspicion and wariness.
"You look to be in serious distress," the concubine said. "Where is your room located?"
"Um. The water lily hall."
"Ah." The concubine smiled. "Come, we'll escort you there." He gestured to the guards, and one of them fell into step alongside Nima, and without another word they were on their way.
Nima tried to think of something intelligent to say the whole way, but could not do more than struggle not to cry and steal glances at the man in front of him and the intimidating guards. When they finally reached his room, he was so exhausted he feared he wouldn't wake up in time for work.
"Thank you, my lord. You did not need to waste your time walking me to my room."
"Nonsense," the concubine said with a smile that set Nima at ease in a way nothing else ever had. How could something as simple as a smile make him feel safe? But it did. "Everyone in the palace should feel comfortable and safe. If there is a problem troubling you, know there are many who will listen. Should you need a friendly ear, I strongly suggest Captain Fatih or Lord Cenk. Please, sleep well and I hope tomorrow is a better day."
"Thank you, my lord," Nima said. "For your kindness and assistance. I hope tomorrow shines. Sleep well." He escaped into his room, locked the door, and collapsed into his bed clothes and all, where he cried himself to sleep.
Tomorrow, as he'd feared, was nothing close to better.
Instead, he was greeted by the severe-looking Head Librarian and a towering man with the marks of Captain on his uniform. "Master Nima, I'm afraid you'll have to come with us."
Nima's shoulders sank as he followed them out of the library and through unfamiliar palace halls, to what looked like the palace's jails.
In a small room that contained nothing but a chair and table, they bid him sit.
"Master Nima, do you know why you've been brought here?" the Captain asked. Was this the Captain Fatih the concubine from last night had mentioned? Dare he tell the truth? But the Head Librarian had obviously already decided he was guilty, to so quickly contact the guards and both men looked stone-faced and grimly set upon their unhappy task.
Nima's shoulder slumped. "No."
"Where were you last night, Master Nima?" Captain Fatih asked.
"In my room."
Nima shook his head. "I couldn't sleep, I went walking around the palace for a bit. Though I've been here awhile, I'm still not used to the quiet." That much was true, though normally he walked in the public gardens, not around the palace.
"I see," Captain Fatih replied. "You did not go to the library, or meet someone?"
"No, Captain," Nima said, for all the good it would do him.
Fatih said, "We are going to be searching your room. If there is something we might find that should not be there, you would do better to be honest now."
So that's what Yunis was doing in revenge. He couldn't very well admit he'd intended to rape Nima last night—he wouldn't be charged with such a crime, but the rumors would not do him any favors—so he was framing Nima for theft. "There is nothing remarkable in my room, Captain, only my clothes, an old dancing fan, and some old books—one of poetry that my mother received as a courting present from my father, with an inscription from him inside. The other is a history book, a gift to me from my mother and also inscribed. Oh, and my bathing supplies, of course, little things like that."
"I see," Fatih repeated. "We will know soon if you are telling the truth."
Nima bowed his head, hands clasped tightly in his lap. Six weeks. That was how long his dream had lasted.
Thieves were generally sentenced to a year in prison, though they could be sentenced to as many as three depending on what was stolen, and far more if other crimes—assault, murder, arson, and so forth—were involved. So three years in prison. His already ruined reputation would be so blackened he'd never find respectable work again. He'd thought Yunis would simply demand his employment be terminated. That would be a blow to his reputation, but many in the city would understand if he said he'd lost his job because he'd angered a noble.
But to be accused of stealing—and stealing from the library—was a death sentence for his fragile new career. His years in the brothel had already ruined his chances in the entertainment district, especially after all the harm his father had caused by running away with a famous actor.
So no library would take him. No shop would hire a thief. No dance troupe or theatre would have him. No reputable pleasure house would have him. His hands shook badly, and nothing Nima did could still them. He didn't want to go back to that life. He'd escaped. He'd rather kill himself than return to a house that was so used to their whores being hurt they retained in-house healers—and considered it a bad night if no one needed tending by morning.
A knock on the door made him jump so hard he slammed his knee into the table and pinched his fingers at the same time. Bowing his head and cradling his injured fingers, Nima waited to hear the inevitable conviction.
"This was found under his mattress, Captain."
Nima started crying, shoulders sagging.
"Master Nima, do you know this book?" Fatih asked.
Slowly looked up, Nima stared at the book. It was an elegant volume, bound in purple leather, the lettering in gold, the covers edged in silver flowers. "A book of erotic poems by Lord Usama, second century, one of only three copies remaining. The original is with the monastery in the Fenn-Bar province."
"What was it doing in your room?" the Head Librarian asked, but fell silent at a sharp gesture from Fatih, who then repeated the question.
Nima shook his head. "I don't know. I did not steal it, I swear. I like this job, I was proud to be offered it. All I want is to work in the royal library in peace."
"Please," the Head Librarian said. "You don't know how—"
"If you cannot be silent during the interview, you will leave," Fatih said sharply. More gently, he said, "Master Nima, I promise whatever you tell me, I will take it seriously. You have not yet been accused of any crime. We seek only to determine what happened. This book was stolen late last night or early this morning, from a locked room to which only limited persons have access."
"The archives," Nima said. "I don't have permission to go to the archives; the only keys I have are to the special room for poetry and music."
Fatih nodded. "But you would know where the keys are kept and how to get to them."
"They're in a locked room, and I have no idea how to get through a door without a key."
The Head Librarian made scoffing noises.
"Get out," Fatih said, and when the man tried to protest, grabbed his arm and slung him toward the door. When it was closed again, he turned back to Nima. "Master Nima, please. I would like to help you, but I must know what happened last night if I am to do that."
Nima pinched his eyes shut. Guards didn't help. Guards never helped. They'd ignored his mother, they'd ignored him, they'd often dropped by the brothel to avail themselves of free pleasures and additional bribes. It didn't matter how nice they seemed on the surface, they always listened to those with the money. Councilors were wealthy, respected, and powerful. Library clerks cost less than a fried sweetbun at the market. "I went for a walk. I returned to my room. That's all. I'm not a thief."
Fatih sighed. "All right. Come with me."
Standing on shaky legs, Nima followed him out of the room and further into that section of the palace—and wasn't remotely surprised when he was escorted right into a cell. "Let me stress again that you are not yet in trouble or under arrest. To be perfectly honest, Master Nima, I am putting you here for safekeeping. Something is afoot that I do not like, and you, I fear, are caught right in the middle of it. I will return in a few hours. Food will be sent, and if there's anything else you need, you've only to ask a guard. If anyone but a guard comes to your cell, immediately scream for the guards. Understand?"
No, Nima really didn't understand a single bit of what was going on, but he nodded dutifully and slumped on the cot in his cell. To keep him safe. Did they think he was stupid? Since when was somebody locked in a jail cell for their own safety? No, Fatih was up to something, and he thought playing nice while still keeping him locked up was the way to go about it.
A few minutes after Fatih departed, a guard came with a tray of food and wine. He smiled as he opened the cell and set the tray on the cot. "Are you well, Master Nima? I can bring additional blankets if you like, books to read. The Captain said you were to be made comfortable."
"I—really? Um. I would not mind a book. Am I really allowed to have one?"
"If the Captain says so, then yes. I'll bring it along shortly. Anything in particular?"
"No. I enjoy reading, it doesn't matter what."
Smiling again, the man locked the cell back and slipped away. A few minutes later he returned with three small volumes and passed them through the bars, along with an additional blanket. "If you need anything, simply call out and someone will come at once."
"Thank you," Nima said.
When he was alone again, he looked at the books. There were two volumes of poetry, relatively new releases by the look of them, and a slightly older book that related the history of the palace. Setting the poetry aside, he dove into the history. It was highly abbreviated, clearly intended to be an overview before delving into denser books, but that made it no less fascinating.
The book was engrossing enough he nearly forgot to be upset about where he was—at least until he heard footsteps, and Fatih's voice. Closing his book and removing the blanket he'd spread over his lap, Nima tied his hair and smoothed his clothes just as the footsteps reached his cell.
Fatih smiled at him, as did the man beside him—the concubine who'd escorted Nima to his room last night. "Is this the man, Lord Haluk?"
Haluk nodded. "Yes, Captain. Hello again, Master Nima."
"Um. Hello." Nima looked down, fingers curling into the cuffs of his shirt.
"You should have mentioned running into Lord Haluk," Fatih said gruffly. "We would have been spared hours of work. Come along, Master Nima, you have an audience with His Majesty."
"What!" Nima slapped a hand over his mouth, face burning as he looked down again, cringing at their laughter, though it was gentle and kind. "Um. Begging your pardon, Captain, but I don't understand why I would have an audience with His Majesty. Surely the troubles of a thief are of no interest to him."
Fatih chuckled. "Usually such matters are left wholly to me, it's true, but when a councilor, an extremely valuable book, and the pleas of his harem are involved, our good king takes personal notice. Come along, we should not keep him waiting." He unlocked the cell and Nima slowly stepped out.
"I am sorry to see you are being even more poorly treated in the royal palace than I feared," Haluk said. "I promise all will be set to rights."
"Let's go," Fatih said.
Nima walked between them, painfully aware of the looks they received, the whispers that sprang up behind them. How ridiculous must he look, in his unremarkable clerk's clothes, between the fierce Captain of the Royal Guard and the stunningly handsome, decadently dressed Lord Haluk?
He was good looking, Nima had no illusions or false modesty there. His livelihood had once very heavily relied on his looks and he still went to great pains to remain attractive because it was too ingrained for him to ever relax. Given it still seemed likely he would end up right back where he'd started, the fear seemed a valid one.
Eventually they came to a halt in front of a set of double doors, the wood engraved with geometric patterns and covered in gold foil. The smell of incense and flowers was stronger than ever, reminding him strongly of both the temple he occasionally visited and the pleasure houses he'd once dreamed of working in.
The doors opened and Haluk and Fatih swept inside. Fatih stopped several paces from the small group of men sitting on a slightly raised dais, sank to his knees and bowed his head to the floor. Haluk continued up onto the dais and sat on the empty cushion right next to the man who was the focus of the cluster. Nima sank down next to Fatih.
Nima had heard over and over about how scarred the king was, how horrible and difficult he was to look at. But he wasn't horrible at all. Badly scarred, yes, but he had the most beautiful eyes, and a kind mouth despite the fact he was currently frowning.
Hastily Nima lowered his head to the floor, swallowing against the panic that wanted out. He was a clerk, a former prostitute with a blackened reputation. People like him did not get audiences with the king!
"So you are the man who has been causing such a stir in my court today," the king said, voice stern but threaded with amusement. "Please, sit up."
Nima slowly did so, and was unable to resist looking at the other men gathered on the king's left—and realized he knew them both. Well, had seen them both. One was Lord Demir, the second was the man who'd helped him his first day in the palace.
"Master Nima, correct?" the king said.
"Y-y-yes, M-Majesty. I am sorry you are being troubled with me."
"You are no trouble at all, I promise." The king smiled. "What troubles me is that you have been mistreated in my palace, and if what I have been told is correct, you have been mistreated in particularly terrible ways."
Nima flushed and bowed his head, shame and humiliation sweeping through him. "I am still sorry Your Majesty is being concerned with my trivial matters."
"There is nothing trivial about this matter. Captain Fatih, relate to me again what you believe transpired last night and this morning. Let us see what Master Nima thinks of your suppositions."
"Majesty," Fatih replied. "Lord Yunis visited the library yesterday afternoon and spoke briefly with Master Nima, after which several librarians noticed Master Nima appeared distressed. Late in the evening, he was seen by four servants walking through the resident-only portions of the palace. They report he looked upset, frightened. A short time later, perhaps a half hour or so, Master Nima ran into Lord Haluk, who reports he was in tears, terrified, and showed signs of having fled an attacker or an otherwise violent situation. He escorted Master Nima to his room and set a guard to keep watch for a time. That guard reported Master Nima did not leave his room the rest of the night; he left with the changing of the guard at dawn."
Nima's head jerked up in surprise and he hastily lowered it again, but not before noting that Haluk was watching him. He'd set a guard to keep an eye on Nima? Why?
Fatih continued, "Early this morning, the Head Librarian noticed something was amiss. He quickly found the missing book and remembered the librarians discussing Master Nima acting strange. I was summoned from the chambers of Lord Yunis, whose wife had contacted me about her husband being assaulted. Lord Yunis was uncharacteristically vague and gracious about the matter, insisting it was some drunk he did not get a good look at and the whole thing was a misunderstanding and he did want the unfortunate youth to come to harm for something he probably didn't even remember."
Nima started to laugh but choked it off, instead coughing briefly then lowering his head even further in mortification.
"The Head Librarian relayed his suspicions when I arrived, and we waited for Master Nima. What troubled me was that Master Nima did not appear surprised by my presence, but neither did he appear alarmed—only resigned and greatly distressed. Further questioning confirmed for me that he had no part in the theft, but that he did likely have something to do with Lord Yunis. My supposition is that Lord Yunis tried to force Master Nima into doing things he did not want to do, Master Nima protested, and Lord Yunis is behaving as he so typically does."
"But for once we have enough to catch the bastard at it and kick him off the council and out of the palace once and for all," the king said. "Master Nima, I am afraid the matter relies on you. We will need you to testify regarding his behavior, if you are willing."
Nima slowly looked up, heart breaking all over again, because for a moment there he had dared to hope he would be all right after all. "I'll do whatever you wish, Your Majesty, but you may not want me testifying. I am afraid they would only bring my past to light, and it would not do credit to your case."
The king frowned. "What do you mean? Are you a criminal? That would have been in your papers."
"Master Nima Karim," Demir said softly, drawing everyone's attention. "Only son of Mistress Wahida, great grandson of Mistress Thana, and your father was Master Essa Karim."
"Oh," Haluk said softly. "I did not realize."
"What does everyone know that I do not?" the king asked, and the foreign concubine looked equally confused.
Demir looked at Nima and smiled softly, reassuringly, and Haluk offered him that smile of warm safety again—but this time, Nima felt only misery. Turning to the king, Demir said, "His grandmother once owned a famous pleasure house, The House of the Crescent Moon. But there were… many problems, and the house closed in disgrace, and no other pleasure houses would hire her or her immediate family. His mother was a renowned dancer, famous especially for the ribbon dances of Kenira province. His father was a famous actor, but he's not been seen in some years, after he abandoned his family to run off with his former lover."
The king looked at Nima. "How does the son of a dancer and an actor become a librarian?"
Nima's mouth tightened. "My mother offended many when she turned down a better marriage to marry my father. When he ran away, she was left disgraced and humiliated—and of course unmarriable because of me. I was seven at the time. Her family would not take us back in, and her former dancing troupe would not help us. Neither would anyone else, for in the aftermath of her marriage, the rejected suitor had much to say on the matter and people believed him over my mother. We were left destitute. My mother got work where she could, but it was not good work. She died when I was sixteen, and I struggled along a few more months before I finally found work in the House of Frost."
Demir's face turned into a thundercloud. "That is no place for someone like you, especially at seventeen."
Hunching his shoulders and bowing his head, Nima said, "I worked there until a kindly patron died and left me a respectable portion, which I used for housing and schooling, and that is what eventually led me here."
"I am going to hazard," the king said in a soft, but sharp voice, "that this House of Frost is where you met Lord Yunis, and he recognized you in the library, and forced you to resume old practices—and you ultimately refused. Do I have the general shape of the matter?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Nima said, wishing the floor would swallow him.
The king's voice cracked out, "Captain Fatih, have Lord Cenk apprised of the situation and brought here, along with the necessary number of councilors to bear witness, whoever is immediately available. Lord Cenk can select them. After everyone is here, I want Yunis dragged in, and I want a production made of it. I would also appreciate if someone would let my wife know what is happening."
Fatih bowed low, rose to his feet and bowed again, and said, "Yes, Your Majesty."
When he'd gone, the king said in a calmer tone, "Kitt, have wine brought."
Nima dared a glance up, and saw the beautiful foreigner rise and descend the dais, walking as gracefully as a dancer to the door to speak with one of the guards outside. Dropping his gaze again before someone took note of his rude behavior, he tried to focus on… anything, but his mind would not settle. His heart wouldn't stop beating too fast. He didn't what to think, or even feel, other than mortification his pathetic past had been laid bare before the most powerful person in the kingdom and his beautiful harem, and try not to panic over what would happen next.
He tensed as Kitt walked past him again, fighting curiosity, instead counting to ten over and over in a futile effort to calm himself.
A knock came at the door a few minutes later, making him jump, then hunch all over again, face flushing anew.
Kitt once more rose, but on his return he stopped and knelt, setting a small tray of wine and sweets in front of Nima. "Drink. You look like you could use it, librarian."
"Kitt," the king admonished lightly.
Winking at Nima, Kitt rose and returned to the dais, grinning as he arranged the wine and sweets he still had. Pouring, he offered the cup to the king, then drank the remaining sip and leaned in to kiss the king softly.
Dropping his gaze was easier that time. Continuing to watch just hurt. He'd never dared to dream as big as royal concubine—and frankly, until several months ago wouldn't have wanted to be. But he had wanted to be one of the elite concubines of a private, luxury pleasure house, the kind where he'd get to pick his own clients—clients who would retain him for years, even decades, usually widowers or men who had no reason to marry and so could retain a concubine in ways married men could not. Eventually he would have retired from that, perhaps settled with a lover, and shifted to helping with the management of the house.
It was fine, though. He was happy as a librarian, especially as he slowly built a reputation for his knowledge of music and poetry. Hopefully the fragile foundation of that reputation had not been shattered by this scandal. At the very least, he hoped somebody would give him a recommendation.
"You look distressed, and for good reason, Master Nima," the king said, "but I promise you will not come to further harm. This matter will be properly addressed and Lord Yunis punished. I am sorry you were treated so in my palace."
"I appreciate your graciousness, Your Majesty," Nima replied. Keeping his eyes on the floor, he hesitantly asked, "Begging Your Majesty's indulgence, but does this mean I'll be permitted to keep my job in the royal library?"
There was silence, and he looked up ready to apologize for his impertinence—and forgot it as he saw the king looked dismayed.
"Of course you'll keep your job," the king said, looking fierce. "That should never have been in question, once it was determined you were not a thief. I am sorry you have been worrying about that this whole time." He smiled faintly. "You are owed a great many apologies. I hope from here on your time in my palace is more pleasant. My concubines have spoken well of you, especially Lord Demir. It's not often anyone knows the pieces he is talking about, or so is my impression."
"I enjoy music, Your Majesty. It was an honor to be of assistance."
The king started to say more, but a sharp knock came at the door. At the king's bidding it opened to admit a tall, handsome man with gray-threaded dark hair, dressed in lavish robes and carrying an air of quiet authority.
"Lord Cenk, thank you for coming so quickly."
"Majesty, I am sorry I was summoned for so unhappy a purpose." Cenk climbed the dais and took his place far to the king's right. "Master Nima, I spoke briefly with the Head Librarian to let him know that you are in fact the one wronged in this situation." He turned to the king. "I'm not pleased that there were so many authority figures who should have been turned to for help, yet Master Nima did not feel comfortable going to any of them. I will see that is rectified. I know it's not always so easy, but leaders should be approachable regarding matters such as these."
Nima wished this whole miserable day would come to an end.
Thankfully, the doors opened again and admitted five imperious looking men, all with angry or sour looks on their faces. "Your Majesty," one of them said stiffly. He cast Nima a scathing look. "Are you certain the word of this… librarian… can be trusted?"
"More trusted than the word of my council, apparently, between all that you stood by and allowed to happen right beneath your noses while my father abused power, and now this attempted rape by one of your own. If you cannot say something worth my time, councilor, then keep your tongue still."
"Majesty," the man said stiffly, bowing low before joining the others on the left side of the room, sitting down heavily on a large purple cushion that clashed with his orange robes.
Servants entered to take away the trays of food and wine, and Nima was eternally grateful he hadn't dared more than a couple of bites and sips because his stomach was threatening to send it right back up.
Almost immediately after they vanished, the doors were thrown open and two guards came in dragging Yunis—actually dragging him, and from the torn and ragged state of his clothes it was because he had not been cooperative about the summons. Behind them came Fatih and four more guards, all of them of enormous size.
The doors closed, and the two guards holding Yunis forced him to his knees, and when he didn't bow quickly enough shoved his head to the floor.
"Your Majesty," Fatih said. "Lord Yunis, as ordered."
"Thank you, Captain," the king replied. "Lord Yunis, do you know why you've been brought before me and official witnesses?"
Yunis glared murderously at Nima before turning to the king. "Because some cheap whore librarian is spreading lies—"
"Watch your tongue," the king said, voice lashing out like a whip. "The fact he comes in here terrified for his life and apologizing for being a problem while you must be dragged here by force and start off by speaking crudely only reaffirms what I already know: you are guilty of coercion, blackmail, and attempted rape." The guards jostled Yunis when he tried to speak. "Normally this matter would be for the courts, but the council falls to me where I deem it necessary and I do not tolerate rape, Lord Yunis. I do not tolerate abuses of power. I most especially do not tolerate those things from the people I am trusting to help me look after my people. You are hereby stripped of your position on the council, stripped of your title—though I will permit it to go to your heir—and banned from the royal palace for life. Witnesses, have you comments or objections?"
"No, Your Majesty," they chorused, all of them looking like they'd rather be anywhere else in the world right then.
"Lock him up, and after his family is packed and in the city to wait for him, I want him escorted to the border of the province."
Fatih bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty." He signaled the guards, who hauled Yunis to his feet.
"You can't do this!" Yunis snarled, twisting free of the guards, knocking them over in their surprise, and surging forward—
And what happened next, Nima completely missed, but when everyone went still, Kitt had Yunis pinned in such a way that one wrong move would snap Yunis's neck. "Are you all right, Ihsan?" Kitt asked.
"Yes," the king said. "Are you?"
Kitt said something Nima didn't understand, though he recognized the words as Rittuen.
Smiling faintly, Ihsan replied, "No, Kitt. Captain, take him, and this time put him chains."
"Yes, Your Majesty. My profuse apologies." Fatih sheathed his sword, clapped both his guards lightly on the head and muttered some words that made them cringe, and signaled for the guard who had shackles secured to his built.
A few minutes later, Yunis was gone, still swearing and shouting.
Kitt returned to the dais, where he kissed Ihsan hard before resuming his place.
"You're dismissed," Ihsan told the councilors. "Thank you for supporting me. I trust there will be no further incidents of this nature from the council?"
"No, Your Majesty," said the man who'd complained upon his arrival, eyes skittering briefly to Nima. "We do apologize, Master Nima. What he did is inexcusable."
Nima nodded, then kept his head bowed, eyes stinging anew, head spinning with how this entire day had gone.
The councilors filed out, and Nima was once more alone with Ihsan and his concubines. "Thank you, Your Majesty. No one has ever done anything like that."
"That's a disappointing thing to hear, I am sorry for that," Ihsan said. "You have the rest of the day to yourself, Master Nima. You are not expected back at the library until tomorrow, and you'll be given a full day's pay."
Nima looked up. "T-thank you, Your Majesty."
Ihsan smiled, and Nima hated the lurch in his chest. But he could admire his king without turning into a fool about it. He knew better than to become besotted, no matter how beautiful and compelling Ihsan—and his harem—might be. Nima was a librarian with a blackened reputation. He was lucky to be where he was, and not foolish enough to wish for more. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your day, Master Nima."
"Your Majesty." Nima touched his forehead to the floor, rose and bowed again, then finally turned and departed, heart pounding in his chest the whole way back to his room—and for several minutes after.
Hopefully after this, his life would go back to quiet and peaceful, and he could put all thoughts of Ihsan and his harem out of his mind.
A week passed before he was proven wrong, by way of the only member of the king's harem he'd not yet met, but had heard plenty about: Sabah, the only concubine who had been a lord's son—and not just any lord, but the Steward's son. He was beautiful in a quiet, elegant way, with none of the flash or overwhelming presence of the others. Not that he wasn't overwhelming, but it wasn't because of his size, or impropriety or decadence. No, Sabah was overwhelming because mere moments after asking for a particular volume of poetry, they wound up talking about that poet, then another, then many more.
Sabah was overwhelming because if life had gone differently, they could have been friends. Or so it felt, but maybe Nima was getting carried away. But every time Sabah laughed or smiled, Nima ached to move a bit closer, wished they could sit somewhere, drinking wine as they talked and read poetry to each other.
They were interrupted by a polite cough, and a shiver ran down Nima's spine as a familiar voice said, "Sabah, our king is wondering where you have gotten to." Demir smiled.
"My apologies," Sabah said, laughing briefly. "Master Nima is an engaging conversationalist. Thank you for your help, and for talking with me. It's not often I can get anyone to listen to me prattle about poetry, let alone keep up with me."
"The honor was mine, my lord." Nima bowed as they departed, and watched them until they were out of sight.
Nima returned to his transcription work, but hadn't managed more than another page when footsteps approached his desk again. He looked up, eyes widening briefly to see yet another concubine in front of him—this one a woman, covered heavily in an intricate snake scale tattoo, jeweled gold hoops in her nipples and stomach. "Can I help you?"
"I was told you were the one to speak to about poetry."
"That is me." Nima rose. "What are you looking for? Something, um, from the Great Desert?"
Her mouth ticked up and she tossed her hair. "What gave it away? My hair?"
"Your eyes," Nima said, with a faint grin of his own.
She batted her eyes with terrible exaggeration and Nima laughed. Looking pleased, the woman said, "My queen actually seeks a book of poetry called The Flowers of the Sky Queen. But I would like desert poems if you have them; it never occurred to me the libraries here would have such a thing."
"Nothing new, I'm afraid; the most recent book is thirty years old, and was transcribed from scrolls. I'll pull a few for you, and Sky Queen as well." He slipped away and quickly pulled the books, recorded them in his logbook, and returned to the waiting woman. "Here you are."
She took the books, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thank you, Master Nima. I can see why Demir and the others speak so highly of you."
"It's my honor to serve," Nima replied, chest giving a funny flip to hear that the king's harem spoke of him. But they probably spoke of all good servants and staff—briefly, casually, passing on who was useful to speak to and who was best avoided.
Her smile widened and she bowed her head slightly. "A good day to you, Master Nima."
When she'd gone, Nima sank back into his chair, feeling frazzled and restless though gods knew he couldn't say precisely why. Every time his life started to calm down, it seemed something else came along to upend it—though a simple encounter with one of the queen's concubines shouldn't have that effect.
Still, he felt like the whole exchange had been more than a simple request for some books. What else could it be, though?
Shaking off the strange thought, he focused on the transcription, meticulously copying intricate, badly faded script onto pages that would later be bound. It was one of twelve books commissioned by a palace resident, though Nima hadn't bothered to learn who, as that never made a difference to his part of the work.
He looked up, and smiled politely at the man standing practically on his desk. "How can I help you?"
"There was a book I was hoping to look at—not check out, I plan to read it here."
Nima set aside his pen and rose. "Of course. What's the title?"
Licking his lips, the man rattled it off. "Hanu's Treatise on Remira Ballads in the Third Monarchy."
"One moment." Nima walked off, brow furrowing once he was well out of the man's sight. That was the second time this week that someone had requested the most boring book in the world—worse, it was also a bad treatise. The only time most people read it was when the wine came out and they wanted something to make fun of. He pulled the book and brought it back to the desk, handing it off the man with a smile.
The man took it and vanished with a half-hearted thanks.
Nima shrugged, made a note the book was being borrowed but not supposed to leave the library, and went back to work.
Less than an hour later, the man returned it and strode out of the library like he had somewhere to be. Nima returned the book and then finished another page of transcribing before the library closed. He tidied his desk, turned in his keys, and slowly headed through the palace intending to leave and head into the city for dinner simply for a change—but familiar music drew his attention, and before he thought about it Nima was following the sounds to the source.
Which proved to be Lord Kitt practicing a complicated fan dance, while Demir and a stern-looking man looked on. A dance instructor, Master Qusay. He'd never trained Nima, but they had crossed paths before Nima's respectable life had collapsed and been lost.
He hovered a few paces from the doorway, unable to tear his eyes away as Kitt practiced and the instructor called out criticism after criticism. If it bothered Kitt, he made no show, only obeyed and corrected and tried over and over. He moved even more beautifully than Nima remembered noting the day they'd met.
Someone jostled him from behind, and Kitt stumbled forward a few steps before catching himself on the wall—and drawing the attention of everyone in the practice room. Nima flushed. "My apologies, I did not mean to intrude."
"Master Nima," they all three said together. The instructor moved forward. "I have not seen you for some years. What are you doing here in the palace?"
Flushing again, staring hard at a worn spot on the floor, Nima replied, "I work in the royal library."
"I see," Qusay replied. "It's good to know you have taken up respectable work."
Anger flickered low in Nima's gut, but he ignored it. Anger and bitterness had never gotten him anywhere, no matter how good it would momentarily feel to lash out at Qusay and all the other people who had turned him away when he'd asked for help.
"You should come in," Qusay said. "Despite your past, and current occupation, I bet you're as good a dancer now as you were back before your mother died." Of Nima's father, he made no mention, but that was hardly surprising.
Kitt broke into a beautiful smile, and behind him, Demir seemed oddly pleased—even satisfied—though Nima could not begin to guess why. "You can dance?"
"I had lessons," Nima said quietly, dropping his eyes to the floor. "My mother was a ribbon dancer, but my specialty was bells."
Qusay snorted. "He had a talent for the bells, a true instinct, and training made him all the better. The library is a waste for someone with your training."
Frowning, brow drawing down, Kitt asked, "If he's so skilled, why did you not hire him? Demir told me you have one of the finest dance troupes in the city; if you are acquainted with Master Nima's family, and he's such an excellent dancer, wouldn't it make sense to hire him? Am I the foreigner missing something again?"
Nima dropped his gaze again, face burning hotter than ever.
Qusay shifted uncomfortably. "I was not able to take him on at the time, and then lost track of him."
Brows lifting, Kitt turned to Demir. "What's really going on?"
"Nothing," Nima said desperately.
Demir's voice was polite but cool when he replied, "If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Master Qusay did not want the scandal surrounding Nima and his family to risk dirtying his dancing troupe, though a troupe nearly seventy years old could have weathered such a thing and made it trivial. Instead he left a boy who likely trusted him to have no choice but to take up ruinous work and further damage his reputation and future."
"I see," Kitt said, turning back to Qusay. "Is that true, Master Qusay?"
"I had to think of my people and family," Qusay muttered. "It was nothing personal."
"I think we've had enough practice for one day," Demir said. "Master Qusay, thank you for your time, as always." He motioned to the guards, and one of them stepped forward to escort Qusay from the palace.
Nima bowed his head low. "My apologies, I did not mean to interrupt your lessons or cause trouble." He seemed to be doing that a lot around the palace. Perhaps this was only the second time, but it felt like a lot.
"Not at all," Demir said, voice warm and gentle, drawing Nima's eyes up, where he was unable to tear away from Demir's smile. "Are you familiar with fan dancing?"
"Y-yes…" Nima curled his fingers into his palms so he wouldn't fidget. "My specialty is the bell dance, but I can do ribbon, fan, and many traditional dances as well."
Demir cocked his head. "What else were you trained in before you switched to librarian studies?"
"The usual assortment: singing and recitation, serving, tea and wine. My mother wanted me to learn instruments as well, but there was no time, and then it was too late."
Kitt started to speak, but at a nudge from Demir fell silent. He cast Demir a look, and smirked over whatever silent exchange they shared.
Moving a few steps closer to Nima, but maintaining a respectful, proper distance, Demir said, "Would you be willing to take over Kitt's instruction? He doesn't honestly need much in the way of new instruction, mostly refinement of what he already knows. If Master Qusay remembered your skills, I think it safe to assume they are still commendable."
"I… I do not think I would be of sufficient skill to instruct a royal concubine."
Kitt scoffed. "Not so long ago I was a foreigner with no money, no particular skills, and honestly not much of a future. I have only been dancing for a few months now. My first performance was only several weeks ago. I promise, you could be years out of practice and still would surpass me." He winked.
Nima didn't believe a word he said, but it was hard to resist that smile and charm. Whatever Kitt had done before he became a royal concubine, it had required grace, dexterity, and an ability to make people do what he wanted—likely without drawing too much attention. He had that way about him, even now. Demir dressed to captivate the eye. Kitt dressed beautifully, but more quietly, as though he wanted to be appealing but was not used to being captivating.
Or maybe Nima was reading too much into what was merely personal style. Still, observation was a necessary skill for a concubine—and a cheap prostitute. All too often, avoiding pain and worse relied entirely on reading a person's mood in every little touch and shift.
"You would be paid," Demir said. "If you prove to be as excellent a teacher as I suspect then we will also offer you a royal contract—the very one I'm about to cancel with Master Qusay in fact."
Nima flinched. "I didn't mean to deprive him of work."
Demir shrugged one shoulder. "He has work aplenty, but I will not give work to a coward such as that." He smiled. "We must be somewhere else soon, but if you come here tomorrow at this time we will work out all the details and sign the necessary papers. Is that amenable?"
"Yes." Nima bowed low and made his farewells, then departed as quickly as decorum allowed.
His heart was still racing long after he reached his room. He was going to instruct a royal concubine in how to dance. He could get a royal contract out of it—a royal contract! People would happily murder to get one of those.
Smiling, mind spinning with thoughts and hopes he should probably quash before they got out of control, Nima went to get a bath before dressing for dinner.
"Hello, I need to see the treatise again."
Nima smiled blandly and rose. "Of course. One moment." He fetched the world's worse book about poetry and dutifully brought to the man, who wandered off and, as usual, returned a couple of hours later.
Unsurprisingly, later that afternoon, the other man came and requested the book again.
They did it every two to three days, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, sometimes chatting with him, sometimes in a hurry or simply a bad mood.
Normally Nima was content to mind his own business. They weren't even close to the first pair who'd used dull, unwanted library books to pass notes. Lovers, students cheating on tests, people passing information… there were probably at least a hundred other people doing the exact same thing that very moment, for more reasons than even Nima would ever know. He'd learned quickly to leave it alone.
But something about these two bothered him. One of them always wore unremarkable clothes, but another had once hastily removed the trappings of a clerk who worked for a councilor before approaching Nima's desk. Given his last run-in with a councilor, Nima preferred to stay out of it—but that seemed cowardly, and irresponsible now that he had connections to the crown, however tenuous, to whom he could pass potentially important or dangerous information.
He waited until the library was minutes from closing and only librarian remained, then tidied his desk and went over to the treatise. Paging through it quickly, he found the slip of paper within moments and memorized the contents. Returning to his desk, he recopied them and tucked the paper into his sash.
Hopefully he wasn't about to make a complete fool of himself—but whatever the note was, it wasn't from one lover to another. No, it had been all numbers next to letters that looked like initials or some other abbreviation. If he had to guess, he'd hazard the numbers had to do with money, but thankfully guessing would be someone else's problem.
Leaving the library, he made his way to the practice room. He stared, lust and loneliness curling through him, as Demir and Kitt exchanged a heat kiss. Oh, what Nima would gladly give or do to see them do so much more than kiss. Between practicing with Kitt three times a week, always with Demir and guards supervising, frequently crossing paths with Haluk in the halls, and conversing often with Sabah in the library when he came to return and check out more books, Nima was caught in a sticky web of longing for something he would never have. Not if he prayed for a hundred years to have it for a single day.
When they drew apart, he stepped into the room and bowed in greeting.
"Good day, Master Nima," Demir greeted.
Kitt smiled his usual bright, indecorous smile that Nima adored. "What are you going to do to me today?" he asked, green eyes gleaming with mischief that got him a warning nudge from Demir.
"Actually, I was wondering if I could trouble you to set my mind at east on a matter," Nima said. "It's probably stupid, and I am being foolish and paranoid…"
"I doubt that," Demir said. "What troubles you?"
Explaining the strange men and their ongoing exchange of the past couple of weeks, Nima pulled out the slip of paper and offered it.
Kitt took it first, but shook his head after a moment. "I definitely agree it has to do with money, but the letters don't mean anything to me."
"I thought perhaps they'd be councilors, but I only see one set of initials here that might possible be one," Demir said. "I think something is definitely afoot, but we will need Ihsan and Sabah to make sense of this." He motioned to the guards, then to Nima. "Come. His Majesty will want to speak with you himself."
Nima bowed and followed behind them through the halls to the restricted portions of the palace." A guard slipped into a room and several long minutes later the doors opened and several people filed out, casting Demir, Kitt, and especially Nima curious glances. At the guard's nod, they filed into the room.
Ihsan sat with his other two concubines on a dais at the far end of the room, servants briskly clearing away the remains of whatever meeting had been taking place and deftly setting out a table and cushions. More servants came in as they reached the dais to lay out food and wine, a full, if light, dinner laid out in mere minutes.
"Sit, please," Ihsan said, smiling warmly. "I am told you have uncovered further mischief in my court, Master Nima. Join us for dinner and relate to me what you told Demir and Kitt."
Dinner? With the king and his concubines? Him? Nima was going to pass out.
For a single moment he thought he was going to be dining alone with them—but right as reality reminded him that would be improper, the doors were opened to admit Lord Cenk and Captain Fatih. Both of them looked at Nima with surprise. Cenk slid a glance toward Ihsan. "You have a knack for the trouble-attracting."
Ihsan smiled, the brightness of it softening the hardness of his ruined face. "Like to like?"
Fatih shook his head, chuckling faintly as he and Cenk took their places around the table. Nima took the place indicated by Demir, hoping he didn't look as flustered as he felt when Sabah settled next to him and poured them both wine, as Demir poured for Fatih and Kitt poured for Cenk.
"Now then," Ihsan said. "Tell me what you told Demir and Kitt."
Haltingly at first, Nima did so, handing the paper to Ihsan as he finished.
Unfolding it, Ihsan frowned and tapped his chin with the finger of his left hand, which was as badly scarred as his face. "SCH is definitely a councilor, but none of these others are." He tilted it slightly so Haluk, sitting on his right, could better see it.
"Bid numbers," Haluk said. "SCH also refers to the masons guild that same councilor owns. It's one of the guilds bidding to convert the jeweled garden back into a library. There are several other projects being bid on as well, for work here in the palace—including the pipe rooms—and more in the city. He's not allowed to sit on those matters because of a conflict of interest. I would have thought SCH would have the lowest bids, but they have one of the highest."
"Councilor Selaar is a good man," Cenk said as he took the paper passed around the table. "One of the few who is truly ethical without having to be threatened or punished into it. He removed himself from the matter. So if his office is involved, I do not think he is party to it."
Haluk shook his head. "The easiest way to acquire those numbers would be to get them from the office collecting the bids; otherwise someone would have to go to each and every mason, and I believe the total in the province who are fit to the do the work required totals fifty. Some of the projects will require at least two, if not three, masons since they all have different specialties. If I had to guess, this particular list is for those who will be working in the pipe rooms. The engineers have been working on the new pipes for months. The masons they hire will be building temporary bypasses, then knocking down a whole lot of the old pipes and maintenance rooms and rebuilding from the bottom up. Then they have to knock down the bypasses and get the new permanent system running. It will take five to ten years."
Sabah and the other concubines snickered and cast Haluk fond looks. "Leave it to you to know all about the pipes," Sabah said. "So whatever is being exchanged, I'm guessing it gives one mason or another an advantage in the bidding? But what good does it do if the bids have already been submitted? Where does a councilor's clerk come into any of this?"
"Maybe we're looking at the wrong thing," Fatih said. "That he works for a councilor may have nothing to do with it. We need to know more about this man, and whoever he is trading notes with. Would you recognize the men if you saw them again?"
Nima nodded. "Yes, Captain."
Ihsan tapped his lips with one finger. "The first man is a lost cause, so how do we contrive to get countless clerks before Master Nima in order to find the one we seek?"
"I think it would be easier to put me nearby," Sabah said. "I'm always stopping into the library to speak with Master Nima since he's the only one who can keep up with me regarding fourth monarch sonnets. If I'm already there when the clerk comes, I'll likely recognize him."
Fatih said, "Unless your presence there scares him off."
"He won't have much choice," Haluk said. "This process moves quickly to mitigate certain types of bid riggings. Whatever they're doing, I doubt they have the luxury of time."
Ihsan nodded. "Very well. Sabah, I hope you enjoy your trips to the library as much as you claim, because you'll be spending a great deal of time there the next few days."
Taking a sip of wine, Sabah replied, "I am more than happy to spend hours discussing poetry and music rather than sitting through another council meeting, love you though I do, my king."
"I'll remember that," Ihsan said with a grin.
Nima looked away and poured himself more wine as a distraction, chasing away the ache of longing in his gut with the bitterest wine he could easily reach. He'd been doing fine since the debacle with Yunis; fine since somehow becoming a dance instructor to Kitt. Yes, that teased him with the idea of being part of them, but largely he was content with everything the way it was.
But this, sitting around a table while they drank and laughed and plotted, watching them serve Ihsan's guests and fed him wine and food…
Why hadn't he been smart enough to stay in the city? Why had he decided to be ambitious instead of playing it safe?
He poured more wine, and sipped it between bites of food as conversation turned to other matters. It was easier than he liked to ignore his own problems and sink into conversing with the others, fall under the spell of acting like it was typical for a lowly librarian to have a private dinner with the king and his closest associates.
When the meal finally came to an end, and plans were firmed for Sabah coming to visit him in the library, Nima departed feeling more wretched than ever. Hopefully after this matter was resolved, he would be left in peace once and for all, and could focus on work.
Instead of on how much he wished he wasn't walking away from all of them and toward his lonely room for one.
It took two long, wonderful, terrible days of spending hours with Sabah either nearby or speaking with him for the men to show again. When the first one did, shortly after Sabah arrived, Sabah did nothing but bow his head over his book. Later in the afternoon, the second man came.
He'd barely left when Sabah came to Nim'as desk. "Get the paper he put in the book and come with me." He signaled to the guards who had been discreetly watching them the whole time.
Nima did as bid, not even bothering to notify the Head Librarian he was leaving. Minutes later, they stopped in front of a door that made his heart stop. Given the door, the guards, and the location, this could only be King Ihsan's private chambers. Please, no. Why would the gods be this cruel to him?
Tamping down on his nerves, he followed Sabah and the guards into the room. Sabah continued on to sit with Ihsan at the table, where Demir and Haluk also sat. Kitt was nearby, sharpening… oh, my gods those were daggers. Why was a concubine sharpening daggers? On second thought, he didn't want to know.
Instead, Nima stopped the appropriate distance from Ihsan and sank to the floor, then bowed so his forehead just touched the floor.
"Rise, please," Ihsan said. "What have you and Sabah to tell me?"
Sabah said, "The clerk is Abbas, who works for Councilor Taj."
"How does this relate to the matter of the bids?" Ihsan asked. "Though it pains me, I am still learning the nuances of all of this. I wish I'd paid half the attention you did before we ran away." He kissed Sabah softly, smiling as they drew apart. "Of course, I wasn't even smart enough to ask you to come with me."
Returning the smile full measure, Sabah replied, "Lucky for you I'm smart enough for both of us. And Haluk smarter still. As to the clerk, he is the cousin of one of the masons interested in work—but not one of the bidders. He's a sub-mason, who is hoping to appeal to those who win the bids. So I'm hazarding he's finding out ahead of time who is likeliest to wind the bids and doing what he can to make his business appealing to them. Relatively innocuous, all things considered."
Nima flinched. He'd wasted Ihsan's time, of course he had, and now he looked like a drama-mongering fool distracting the king with trivial matters. He should have gone to Captain Fatih, rather than running to Demir and Kitt.
"Innocuous but still illegal, and certainly it marks cracks in the system," Ihsan replied. "Haluk, have the guards summon Captain Fatih."
Haluk did so, and several minutes later Fatih arrived. Sabah related what he knew, and after a long discussion with Ihsan, Fatih departed. A moment later, Ihsan's harem departed as well.
Leaving Nima alone with Ihsan. His heart pounded so hard he feared it would burst. Why hadn't Ihsan dismissed him yet? It was highly improper for him to be alone with the king, unless…
"Master Nima," Ihsan said, rising slowly to his feet and crossing the room to stand only a few paces from him. "I've heard much about you from my concubines, beginning with the day of your arrival and every moment since. I was mostly amused, at first, but the trouble with Yunis brought you directly into my path. And I confess I admired watching you instruct Kitt."
"Majesty?" Nima's face burned. When had Ihsan watched them? How had he never noticed? "I am sorry I appear to have wasted your time with this matter. And that I keep troubling you."
"You've never wasted my time or been any trouble." Ihsan gently tilted his face up. Nima could feel the irregularities of his fingers where the wounds had not healed smoothly. He wanted to take Ihsan's hand, explore every scar, chase his touch with kisses and then do the same with the scars of Ihsan's face and neck. Ihsan's smile was as gentle as his touch. "Well, that is not entirely true. You are quite distracting, my beautiful librarian. Sweet and earnest despite a life that could have left you hard and bitter."
Nima swallowed. "It did, sometimes. I have my days. I try not to let them outstrip the good days."
"I know something about that, if for different reasons," Ihsan said softly. "Tell me, my sweet librarian, are you happy with your life as it is? Would you hate to cast aside the stable life you've worked so hard to build for yourself?"
He couldn't mean… all the signs were there but it still seemed too good to be true. "It's not a bad life, but it was also one of the few options still left to me with a blackened reputation."
"If you'd had your choice, what would you have been?"
Flushing, looking down again, Nima said, "My dream was to work in one of the esteemed pleasure houses, to be exclusive enough I could pick my one or two patrons."
"I see. If that's still what you want, I will see it arranged. There are times I do not mind that it's difficult to tell a king no. That being said, I was hoping you would settle for being my fifth and final concubine."
Nima's eyes stung as he looked up. "I would be honored to join your harem, my king."
Ihsan's smile become a full-fledged grin, and then he dragged Nima close to kiss him—deep, hungry, nothing held back, like Nima was a feast he'd been salivating over for hours and was finally permitted to devour. Shuddering, Nima threw his arms around Ihsan's neck and kissed him back with equal fervor.
He shuddered anew when Ihsan fell back, dragging Nima on top of him, and going sweetly pliant beneath him. That was a heady revelation. Nima shifted to straddle one of his thighs, rubbing the hard cock pressed against his leg, swallowing the noises that got him as a firm hand curled into his hair to hold him in place.
Nima had been trained to last for hours, since more than a few of his clients had liked to see him suffering so—though really the most difficult part some nights was not fighting a desperation to come, but struggling to stay hard. Thankfully, his clients were not the sort to pay attention to such details. All they wanted was to have their cocks and egos strokes.
Right then, twined with Ihsan and rubbing against him, drunk on the knowledge the most powerful man in the kingdom was coming apart in his arms, Nima had no capacity for restraint. When Ihsan bit down on his lower lip and thrust against him one last time, Nima groaned and came.
Untangling them, looking thoroughly mussed and pleased with himself, Ihsan said, "Thank you for joining my harem, Nima."
"The honor is mine," Nima murmured.
Ihsan rolled to his feet and carelessly stripped off his clothes, then pulled Nima up and did the same. "Shall we get a bath?" He kissed Nima briefly. "I'll join you once I go fetch the miscreants who think they're hiding oh so carefully in the storeroom."
But before either of them could move, a door on the far side of the room slid open and the rest of Ihsan's harem came tumbling out.
Nima's face burned, but he didn't even think of resisting when Kitt practically crashed into him and swept him into a wet, filthy kiss. When he eventually drew back, sucking on Kitt's bottom lip before licking his own, Kitt said, "I knew there was something about you."
"You do have a knack for trouble and sex," Sabah replied. "Especially when the two are combined."
Snickering, Kitt gave Nima a surprisingly chaste kiss then pushed him into Sabah's arms.
"Here I worried all my efforts at the flirting were for naught," Sabah said. "You're frustratingly contained when you want to be, pretty librarian."
"You were flirting?" Nima asked.
They all laughed, and Sabah kissed Nima exactly as he'd dreamed a thousand times—cupping his face, holding him like something precious, lips warm and soft, taking Nima's with all the care he'd show a fine, rare wine.
Then he was suddenly enfolded in Haluk's large, steadying arms. "I am glad you are safe amongst us now," Haluk murmured between kisses, calloused hands skimming down Nima's body to cup his ass and pull him even tighter against all those lovely muscles. "Though I hope you are aware we intend to do every last thing to you that many others about the palace will only get to dream of, pretty librarian."
Nima shivered, as enamored of the way they said those two words as he was enthralled by wicked promises. "I would be disappointed if you didn't."
That got him a much filthier kiss, the kind that left his whole body aching for satisfaction.
Instead, he received further torment—devastating torment, by way of the sensuous Demir. This was the man every prostitute and concubine whispered about, longed to meet, longed to bed, and those few who'd had the privilege never admitted to it. But even his most brazen dreams had only involved being taught and tutored by Demir, being a prized student so accomplished he was invited into the most esteemed houses in the kingdom.
Reality was for once proving to be so much better than dreams.
One kiss become several, and Nima swiftly lost track of who was touching who, lost to the sensations of eager bodies and hungry mouths.
He was definitely aware, however, that it was Kitt's mouth around his cock, taking him deep and making him spill in mere minutes. That it was Ihsan's cock he sucked as Sabah stretched him open and fucked him. He vaguely remembered Ihsan mentioning a bath, but that thought and every other were banished completely as Ihsan and Sabah finished with him and then it was Demir's pierced and tattooed cock filling his mouth and Haluk taking him hard and deep.
By the time they were finished and sprawled across the lounging area they'd moved to at some point, Nima was too exhausted to do more than curl into Ihsan's side before sleep overtook him.
When he woke later, he had been moved to the enormous bed he'd only glimpsed before. Through the diaphanous curtains he could see the others moving about, though their voices were pitched too low for him to hear what they were discussing. Tamping down on his ridiculous shyness, Nima rolled out of bed and pushed through the curtains.
The conversation paused as they all saw him, and Nima noticed they were in the middle of dressing for dinner. If he'd thought them distracting before, seeing them in banquet finery only taught him he hadn't known what distracting really was.
And he was one of them now. That thought was terrifying and delighting—and still felt fragile and likely to be taken away. "I hope I'm not delaying anything. Someone should have woken me."
Sabah smiled. "We were just discussing who would have that honor." He crossed the room and kissed Nima softly. "We were also pondering what you might like to wear. Get a quick bath while we finish laying out what we decided on." He winked and withdrew.
Obeying, Nima bathed as quickly as he could, grateful when Demir appeared to help with his heavy hair. Once that was braided and bound with jeweled combs, and he was wearing the black pants and skirt that would be all he wore for the rest of his life, he looked at the jewelry they'd laid out.
"Bells," he said with a laugh—and laughed harder at how pleased they looked. Glancing at Kitt, he asked, "Am I to assume we'll be dancing together at some point?"
"I certainly hope so," Ihsan said from behind him, wrapping arms around Nima's waist and kissed the side of his throat. "Are the bells suitable? Should we have something else brought from storage?"
"I'm happy to wear whatever you desire," Nima replied, and turned his head to take a kiss before letting the others pull him away. In short order he had jeweled hoops in his ears, a choker of bells and more jewels, that were matched to bracelets at his wrists and ankles. The final touch was a delicate chain of bells and jewels that wrapped around his hips.
Turning to Ihsan, smiling shyly, he asked, "Do I look suitably worthy of my king?"
"It's not for a concubine to be worthy of his king," Ihsan replied, taking his hand and kissing the back of it before gently tugging him in close. "It is for a king to be worthy of his concubines. I am honored you've agreed to be mine." He kissed Nima, then drew back to kiss each of the others, holding fast to Nima's hand all the while. "Shall we to dinner?" When they nodded, he squeezed Nima's hand and let go, and Nima fell into step with the others as they surrounded Ihsan and headed off.