NERIAH ran down the narrow passageway between the hedgerows, stumbling over roots and rocks. His bare feet were now bloody, but he knew that he could not stop. The guards who pursued him had but one goal in mind: his death. His eyes burned with unshed tears at the memory of what he had seen as he fled his room in the palace. He swore under his breath that he hadn’t had the presence of mind to grab his sword. He was unarmed. Vulnerable.
Why are they trying to kill me? What have I done to warrant this? Why would Father-?
“Over here!” shouted one of the men.
He could hear footsteps close behind—the guards would soon overtake him. He brushed his long dark hair from his eyes and threw off the silk jacket he wore, tossing it under one of the large bushes. He followed this by removing his shirt and the silk scarf around his head—the bright fabrics were too visible. He pulled the gold earring from his ear and struggled to remove the rings from his fingers, shoving them into his pockets as he continued to run, panting, toward the high wall that surrounded the palace.
I have to get over the wall, he thought as his lungs began to ache from the strain of running for so long. At least on the outside, I have a chance.
The wall loomed above him now with its smooth, white stone, and he looked around in desperation, trying to spot something upon which to gain a foothold. And then he saw it—a climbing rose, ancient and knotty, unyielding. It stretched up against the wall, attaching itself tenaciously to the grooves between the stones. Beneath it on the ground were yellowing rose petals, the remnants of early summer now left to decay. He ran toward the vine just as the palace guards had spotted him.
“There he is!” one called to the others, pointing toward the garden wall.
Neriah grabbed the gnarled stem of the ancient rose, ignoring the pain of its thorns as they dug into his soft hands. He clambered up, clutching one of the smaller branches that climbed high above the garden. The branch bent with his weight, and he began to fall backward, managing at the last moment to get hold of another branch and steady himself. He felt his knees burn against the smooth stone as he struggled upward, reaching the top of the wall. Winded, bloodied, his face covered in dirt, he stood at the top and looked back at the palace, its deep blue and gold turrets silhouetted against the sky.
Mother, he thought as he fought back tears, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I promise I’ll avenge your death.
One of the pursuing guards began to climb the rose after him, causing the old vine to shudder and shake beneath the man’s weight. Neriah looked down at the street below. Several vendors had set up their stalls beneath where he stood, their booths covered with bright fabrics attached to simple wooden poles. There were more shouts from behind him in the garden as he teetered on the edge, trying to find a spot to land.
They’ll kill you if you stay, he reminded himself as he looked at the tops of the stalls and wished that they weren’t so far down.
He saw his mother’s face in his mind’s eye, recalling her battered body on the marble floor and the lifeless glaze of her eyes. They had been looking for him—he was sure of it—and she had refused to tell them where he was. Her sacrifice had saved his life. She wanted you to live, he told himself. He frowned and, gathering his courage, jumped.
“IS HE dead?” came a voice at the periphery of his consciousness.
“No. I fixed his body. He’s just asleep, Kuri,” replied a second voice, deeper than the first. “Bring me the blanket.”
“You’ll be banished for saving him, you know,” said the first voice. “We can’t help humans. Not unless we’re commanded.”
“I won’t let him die here,” answered the second voice. “Just bring me the blanket. Now.”
He heard the sound of footsteps, then felt strong hands tucking something warm around his aching body. He struggled back to consciousness and looked up into a pair of amber eyes that sparkled like sunlight and reminded him of the finest jewels his mother wore. The thought of his mother made his heart ache, but something in the compassionate gaze of those almond-shaped eyes put him at ease, and he felt the pain begin to recede.
“Don’t try to speak,” said the young man who leaned over him. “You must rest for now. Don’t worry. You’ll be safe here.”
HE AWOKE again to absolute darkness. He struggled to sit up, panicked that the guards had found him. He imagined himself in the dungeons below the palace, his arms bound to his sides. But as the haze of sleep and exhaustion began to clear, he realized that his arms were held at his sides by the blanket that was wrapped around him.
“Please,” he whispered into the blackness. His voice was hoarse, his mouth parched. He felt himself pulled upward, and gentle fingers brushed his matted hair from his face.
“It’s all right,” came the reply. It was the same warm, high baritone he had heard before—the voice, Neriah guessed, of a young man. “Your body has been mended. But you haven’t had anything to eat or drink since I found you two days ago.” He felt the coldness of metal pressed to his mouth, the cool liquid soothing to his dry lips. “Don’t drink it too fast. Your body won’t tolerate it.” He slowed his gulps and relaxed, allowing his weak body to be supported.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice sounding less rough.
“Can you sit on your own?” the young man asked.
“I think so,” he answered as he found the wall behind him and rested his weight against it.
He heard footsteps, then the sound of a small oil lamp being lit. He blinked to focus on his companion, who looked to be about sixteen or seventeen—his own age. “I am Tamir,” replied the young man, whose hair was a deep red in the lamplight. He wore simple cotton clothing—the shalvar kameez of a peasant—and his long hair was tied in a high ponytail with a piece of green fabric. Neriah found himself captivated by the exotic beauty of the boy.
“Tamir,” Neriah repeated, “you’ve been very kind to me.”
The edges of Tamir’s mouth turned upward in a tender smile. “When I found you at the edge of the market, I feared you were dead,” he said.
“I am called…,” Neriah hesitated, afraid to reveal his true name, “Sheva.” He hated to lie to his savior, but his fear was great, both for his own safety as well as Tamir’s.
“I’m pleased to have met you, Sheva,” Tamir replied, sitting cross-legged in front of Neriah. “Do you think you can eat?”
Neriah nodded, feeling his belly complain. Tamir handed him a small flatbread. Neriah tore a piece of the bread and began to eat it with relish. “I’m sorry I cannot offer you more,” Tamir said, pleased to see his companion’s fine appetite. “Perhaps tomorrow—”
“You needn’t apologize,” Neriah interrupted, gazing at his rescuer. “I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done for me.”
“Were you being chased?” Tamir asked as Neriah continued to eat the bread. “I heard that you were atop the palace wall—that you fell.”
“I…,” Neriah began, unsure of what to say. He wanted to tell the other boy the truth—that he was a prince, that he had done nothing wrong, and that his mother had died to save his life—but he found himself oddly tongue-tied. Despite his unease, he felt a strange sense of peacefulness radiate from his companion.
“It’s all right,” Tamir said, “you needn’t tell me anything. I’ve been in a fair number of fights myself. Kuri said the Royal Guards were searching the marketplace.”
Neriah coughed on the bread, having inhaled a bit of it in his alarm at the news. Tamir put his hand on Neriah’s back and, with a deft flick of his wrist, hit Neriah between the shoulder blades. The piece of bread on which Neriah had choked flew out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Sheva,” said Tamir, looking wretched, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I’m fine, Tamir,” Neriah replied as he tried to calm his racing heart. “I guess I just ate a bit too fast for my own good.” Their eyes met, and Neriah took in the strong lines of Tamir’s jaw, noting the soft indentation of his cheek and the dimples at the edges of his mouth. He is beautiful, he thought, admiring the ethereal quality of Tamir’s eyes. His next thought was one of grief and self-reproach. How could you even think such a thing at a time like this? He felt tears threaten and clenched his jaw. He would not show weakness to anyone, let alone a stranger. He was, he reminded himself, still a prince.
“Something is wrong,” Tamir ventured, noticing Neriah’s hard expression. “Those men. Why were they after you, Sheva?”
Neriah wiped his eyes and frowned. “I… I stole something from them,” he lied as he forced the image of his dead mother from the forefront of his mind. “They chased after me. I thought they would kill me.” He looked at his hands and said nothing more. A lie and the truth. He hoped it would suffice as an explanation of how he had come to be injured.
Neriah needn’t have worried, for Tamir replied, “You don’t have to tell me more. You should rest. Tomorrow, when you are stronger, you can make your way out of the city, if you wish.”
Neriah studied the other boy’s face for a moment. If he’d wanted to turn me in, he would have done so by now, he thought. Still, he hesitated. Why would this boy—this commoner—wish to help him?
“I promise no harm will come to you while you sleep,” Tamir added, as if he had read Neriah’s mind. The effect of these words upon Neriah was almost magical. Neriah knew, in that instant, that Tamir spoke the truth. Too tired to argue with himself over the wisdom of this blind trust, Neriah just said, “Thank you,” and lay down upon the makeshift pillow once more.
NERIAH awoke sometime later, Tamir’s body pressed against his own, warm and comforting. Without thinking, he wrapped his hands around the young man’s chest, burying his head against Tamir’s back, desperate to think of something other than the dangerous future that awaited him outside these walls. He heard Tamir sigh, and he released Tamir from the embrace, afraid that he had overstepped the boundaries of their newfound friendship.
It was then that Tamir rolled over and reached for Neriah. Neriah could smell the other boy’s sweet fragrance, which called to mind jasmine and spices. They lay that way for the longest time, neither of them speaking. “I haven’t been truthful with you,” Neriah admitted, “I—”
“Shhh,” Tamir replied, pressing his fingertips to Neriah’s soft lips. “I do not need to know. I just wish I could ease your pain.”
The lamp, which had been burning since Tamir had lit it hours before, now guttered and died. Neriah reached for Tamir and ran lithe fingers through his crimson hair. It felt like silk in Neriah’s hands. “I am sorry to have put you through this,” he said. “I don’t deserve such—” But his words were cut short this time, not by Tamir’s fingers but by his lips, pressed against Neriah’s.
Neriah felt his pulse quicken. The kiss broke and Neriah began, “Tamir, I—”
“I’m sorry,” Tamir interrupted. “I should not have touched you. I beg your forgiveness.”
Neriah opened his mouth to speak, to tell Tamir that he had done nothing wrong, that he wanted this too. Instead, he kissed the redhead. He had never lain with another man before, but his need to possess those full lips was so great that he found he could not help himself.
Their kiss deepened, and Neriah’s desire for the young man beside him grew. His hands sought the smooth skin of Tamir’s chest of their own accord. He felt the hard muscle beneath the warm skin and, in the darkness, he kissed Tamir’s shoulder. He heard Tamir gasp in pleasure as Neriah’s hands probed beneath the boy’s cotton shalvar, and he felt Tamir’s hardness grow beneath his fingers.
“Sheva,” whispered Tamir, pulling Neriah’s hands away, “Please… let me pleasure you.”
Neriah tried to protest, but Tamir’s gentle lips met his own, and Neriah found that he had no will to resist him. Tamir pulled Neriah’s pantaloons away, tracing Neriah’s body with his fingers. Neriah felt dizzy, overwhelmed by the other boy’s touch. None of the women he had lain with had ever touched him in this way, nor had he responded to them so powerfully, despite their beauty. “Please,” he moaned, as Tamir began to cover his body with feathery kisses. He could not think—he didn’t want to think—he just wanted to forget the ache in his heart.
“Let me take away your pain, Sheva,” Tamir said, finding Neriah’s hard length and kissing it. Neriah inhaled sharply and closed his eyes. It was at once the sweetest and most stunning revelation of Neriah’s young life—not the fact that it was a man pleasuring him thus, but that he could feel anything so overwhelming, so wonderful, even as his heart grieved.
How does he know? Neriah wondered. And yet the truth was plain—Tamir understood the depth of his pain and his need.
When he thought he could stand it no longer, that his release would come at Tamir’s warm lips, Tamir freed him from his mouth and clasped his arms around him. Neriah, overcome, claimed Tamir’s lips once more and they held each other. And in that brief moment, Neriah knew he would never know anything as warm and reassuring as Tamir’s arms.
“Let me guide you,” Tamir whispered, licking his hand and taking Neriah’s erection in it. Neriah, understanding what was to come, did not protest, but moved to press against the tight place between Tamir’s buttocks. What followed was pure bliss, and Neriah’s sorrow evaporated as he lost himself in the warmth of his companion. Tamir’s soft skin was more beautiful than any woman’s, the way his body molded to Neriah’s like the most sensual of kisses. Neriah knew that Tamir, too, shared the same joy as he, for Tamir’s cries of pleasure mingled with Neriah’s own in the dark stillness of the night.
“Why would you do this for me?” Neriah heard himself say afterward, his breath ragged with release.
“Because I could,” came the answer, along with the arms that encircled him in blissful warmth.
“But you know nothing about me. You owe me nothing,” Neriah persisted, uncomprehending.
“But I do know you, beloved,” Tamir replied, his voice like the sigh of the wind through an orange grove in Neriah’s ear. “You are kind and brave and strong. It is the least I could do for you.”
Still entwined, the two boys fell asleep, Neriah’s head against Tamir’s chest.
Tamir awoke at daybreak and, for the longest time, just watched Neriah sleep. His eyes traveled along the prince’s well-defined jaw to his high cheekbones, following the hollow of his cheeks to the slender nose and dark eyebrows. Unable to contain himself, Tamir traced his fingers over Neriah’s graceful lips for a moment, then reached to pull a narrow gold chain from around his own neck. Dangling from the chain was a jade pendant, etched with a depiction of the moon and two stars. He fingered the pendant for a moment, and his eyes filled with tears.
“I cannot come with you, my Prince,” he said with great tenderness as he kneeled over the sleeping Neriah and placed the chain around his neck. “But perhaps, when you sleep, you will dream of me.”
He touched his hand to Neriah’s forehead and whispered, “Now, forget me.”