Precipice

by Erin Woods

 

It was dark in the dressing room and Kale was hot despite the cool air circulating from nearby windows. Again his deft fingers caressed the heavy silk robe he carried while sounds of ecstasy drifted from the empress’ chamber. Kale was the only servant with the privilege of being so near on such an occasion. His fellow valets would want to hear details, but he was too deep in his own covetous thoughts to remember the information for which they so hungered.

Most men lusted after the empress for she was the embodiment of beauty, but the emperor… Kale’s twin had already expressed his jealousy in the letters they exchanged. He took a deep breath and tried to think of something else, tried to ignore the tightness of his breeches. Kale was almost startled when his lord came through the doorway for the robe. The emperor was silent, but Kale knew nothing escaped notice; nothing ever did with immortals, especially not this one. His fellow servants said they could often feel their lord’s magic permeate any room. Kale had yet to have that experience in the year he’d been there.

The emperor looked in his thirties, but was one of the oldest and most powerful mages in the world. He was the empress’ match; he was refined, beautifully masculine, strong, with an arrogance about him that Kale found alluring. He was wakeful, volatile, fastidious, but Kale was willing to play the thinking game. He had a knack for predicting what was desired before it was commanded. For the emperor, like the lords before, he was prepared to serve as desired.

The smell of exotic soaps in the marble bathing room filled Kale’s senses as he followed his lord. As the emperor stepped down into the hot water, Kale poured wine from a waiting decanter. He then admired the manicured hand that took the goblet from the tray.

Kale allowed himself a brief distraction while his peers refreshed the bathwater. What it would be like to run his hands through the emperor’s extensive black hair… But so far his lord seemed uninterested in such diversions. It was only fitting that his attention was on the most beautiful, most powerful woman in the world.

“Kale,” his lord rumbled.

Goosebumps spread across Kale’s skin. He hadn’t realized the emperor knew his name. It must have been magic. He went to his lord’s side and bowed. It was rare the emperor spoke to a servant directly. His voice was calm and tantalizing.

“You were formerly employed by Lord Tiernan.”

“Yes, sire.” Kale’s twin, Kalil, still served Tiernan.

The emperor’s smirk lingered on his face. “I can see why he liked you. You are a pretty man, and attentive.”

Kale bowed again. “Thank you, sire.” The compliment made his blood surge.

“Why did you leave him?”

“Sire, I saw a better opportunity.”

The emperor placed the goblet down on the edge of the marble bathing pool. “Perhaps not the opportunity you were hoping for.”

“Sire.” He had to proceed with caution, not let his lust run away with him. Such a relationship would ensure his place; bring him wealth and a life of leisure.

His lord turned his head, just a little, so he could look up at Kale from under a wave of damp black hair. His eyes were cool and deep, his kohl was still pristine. “My regular attendant has disappeared, so it is up to you.” He ran his hand under his mane and fanned it over the stone floor.

Kale tried to remember to breathe as he picked up the comb and returned to his majesty. He hesitated for a moment before beginning the delicate grooming ritual. He was careful not to break a hair or snag any fashionable bejeweled braids. His lord’s bare shoulder was so close; beads of moisture speckled the surface and the heat rising from his newly bathed skin sank into Kale’s core. Kale wanted to touch that shoulder, feel the heat on his fingertips, trace the nape of his neck, smell his hair. He envisioned the emperor turning and embracing him. Touching another’s hair under most circumstances was a signal for imminent lust. Only trained courtesans were bold enough to try such a gesture towards royalty.

“Perhaps you’re better than the regular man,” the emperor said, breaking Kale from his thoughts. “Perhaps it should be your permanent position.”

“I do as you please, sire,” Kale said.

“I hope it would also please you, Kale.” The emperor’s voice was a purr, thick with temptation.

Kale tried to calm down. “I wish to do whatever is your majesty’s pleasure.”

“I don’t know if you know anything about that.”

“I will do my best to learn, sire.”

“I have no doubt, for you are rumored to be most clever. I’m sure you’ve heard word of the benefits of being efficient in my service.”

“Yes, sire.” He looked around to see they were alone. The emperor must have sent the others away with a thought. Kale watched his hands work through the emperor’s pristine hair. He had to prevent himself from fondling the strands. He had to wait…

“But I am nefarious. There will be no such rewards.” His eyes were closed.

It wasn’t true. Kale had seen the proof of the legend, perhaps the emperor was ruthless and malevolent when dealing with treacherous nobles, but had always treated his servants well. He supposed servants were not known to fan the fires of the eternal civil war. “Sire, if I may be so bold.”

“You may. We are alone.” His voice was soft; Kale had to strain to hear him.

“We have known only contentedness in this service, sire.”

“You do not seem content, Kale,” he said. “You will regret your arrival. You should leave as soon as you’re able.”

“Never, sire. My only desire is to be of use to your majesty in any way I’m able.”

The emperor rose and Kale scrambled for a fresh robe. In his state of nerves he touched the emperor’s arm through the rich fabric. He could feel the warmth that radiated from the body he so wished to caress. Kale immediately fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the ornate stone floor. The cold felt good against his hot skin. He hoped his infraction would not seal his fate; hoped it would give him a sign for his next course of action. “I beg forgiveness for my mistake, sire.” He could feel the robe brush him as the emperor passed.

“Mistakes are entirely subjective,” the emperor said and entered his bed chamber.

The emperor’s words echoed in Kale’s mind as he went into the dressing room to collect clothing he knew the emperor would want. He stole a look at his lord before reentering the lavish chamber. The emperor had lit the room with small spheres of light. Kale was still the only servant.

Kale dressed his lord, and as he stood from adjusting the royal boots found he was being watched. For a moment their eyes held before Kale looked away and could breathe again. Nobles didn’t look at their servants in such a way, or at all, unless… He bowed and retreated to put away the discarded robe.

In the dark once more he paused to try to forget his fantasies, but the fabric in his hands still carried the emperor’s scent. The emperor desired something different than what the empress could give. Kale needed another sign to be sure.

When he returned the emperor was gone, his fellows were tidying the chamber. They begged for torrid images of the empress. “It was dark,” Kale said. “I saw nothing.”

They didn’t hide their disappointment.

The next night the emperor was especially restless. He stared at the night sky through the clearstory windows of his chamber. The war was never far from anyone’s mind and couldn’t be from the emperor’s. It was late into the night when Kale was brought news that needed to be relayed, but it wasn’t about battle. He hoped his fear was well hidden; the servants drew straws to see who would bring the bad news. Kale approached the stargazing emperor, sure that he knew Kale was there. Mages such as he knew where everyone was, certainly the servant right behind him. Kale couldn’t help but feel he was nearing a brooding dragon. “Sire, the masseur is missing.”

The emperor looked over his shoulder at Kale. His response was without hesitation. “You’ll have to do then, won’t you?”

It was barely believable that Kale would find himself in such a position under normal conditions. He was still wary of pursuing his ideas, but for what other reason would he be chosen? Any other servant would do an equally mediocre massage. Again he tried to rein in his imagination, tried to turn his thoughts to something chaste, but it was to no avail. A knot started in his stomach. He kept his hands moving over the emperor’s muscular shoulders.

“You have the hands of a swordsman,” the emperor said.

“I’ve never even held a sword, sire.” He hoped his playing the fool would convince the emperor to give him a solid answer.

The emperor chuckled. “How amusing you are, Kale.” A messenger appeared before them with folded note. Kale dropped his hands to his sides as the emperor read it and rose, started to dress. He gazed at Kale, who held his breath, then left the servant with his thoughts.

* * * * *

Kale walked a circle only a few paces wide in the stuffy, tiny room he shared. Even writing a long letter his brother, Kalil, didn’t help when it usually did. By the time his roommates returned from their nightly festivities he had tried to unsuccessfully end his tension.

“You need attention, man,” his friend and roommate, Itzal said. Each of them shucked off their clothes and climbed into their narrow bunks. They were inebriated and smelled of recent passion. “There were plenty of choices, we must have seen, what? Five young men waiting for work.”

“At least five,” another roommate said. “If not more. And of course there were as many ladies if you wanted something different from your usual.”

Kale shook his head. He didn’t want to risk jealousy. Servants for the emperor were hand picked for very specific reasons. There were no women serving the emperor, nor did he show interest in any other woman than the empress.

For three days their lord only returned to his chambers during the day, when Kale was asleep or elsewhere. Every time the door opened, any time he heard the others talking he held his breath to hear if his lord was returning. His fellows offered to pay for the companion of his choice, but no one else interested him. The emperor had more concerns than the other lords, other factors demanding his time. Kale started to work for longer hours, sleeping as little as possible to catch a glimpse of their elusive emperor.

Kale was elated when the man of his desire appeared once more. Kale could only watch from behind the velvet drapes of the adjoining room while the emperor tried on a new doublet. Several men with mirrors nearly danced around their emperor. “What do you think, Kale?” the emperor asked.

Kale’s breath caught in his throat. The other servants stared at him. “It’s a beautiful piece, sire,” he said as he bowed. Pride grew in his breast as the others were made aware of the emperor’s favor, but only Itzal seemed pleased.

The emperor motioned for everyone to leave, but he held out his hand for Kale to stay. “I would imagine you have a great knowledge of the finer things, considering the fine nobles you’ve served,” the emperor said. He turned to Kale and gave him that impish smile Kale so enjoyed. He had never seen the emperor smile at any other servant before.

“Thank you, sire.” Kale hoped the proof of his arousal was not evident through his clothes. The night was cool and quiet. He was frozen where he stood. It was the first time he was unable to decide what he should do next so he waited. If he was desired, there would be indication.

“For once I have a moment to relax,” the emperor said. He looked into a wall mirror and examined one of his bejeweled braids in the candlelight. After a moment he started to remove the green doublet.

Kale came to his senses and rushed to help. The garment was still warm. The emperor smelled of cloves and forest as he always did. When Kale stepped back his lord gave his hair a toss and stared into Kale’s eyes, he was once more riveted. Looking at a royal so directly could carry a terrible price; others had been tortured for less. The emperor’s eyes were luminous as if he would laugh, yet scornful. Nobles went about things differently than normal folk. There were always these games. Still he held the emperor’s gaze and his blood thundered through his veins. The emperor took a few steps until he was standing directly before Kale, looking down at him almost playfully.

“I am here to serve you, sire,” Kale said almost breathlessly. As the room grew increasingly dimmer the smell of snuffed candles wafted throughout the velvet clad furnishings.

“I have yet to see your best talents,” the emperor said. “It is one of those days where one desires an ease in tension, don’t you think, Kale?”

Kale swallowed and could only watch his mouth as he spoke. “U-use me as you wish. I only wish to please, sire.”

The emperor picked up a lock of Kale’s longish dark hair and drew it to himself, looking at it as if it were a thing of interest. Kale nearly came unhinged. “I suppose a visit with the empress is in order… She is often difficult as I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“I know nothing of such things, sire.” Of course Kale knew how the two of them fought. All the servants knew it.

The emperor chuckled. “You’re so tactful, Kale. She is first to call me malevolent. It could be said she knows me best. The problem with women, Kale, is that one never knows where one stands. But you and I understand each other, don’t we?”

“I wish for nothing else, sire.”

“So perhaps you have something different to suggest. If you’re clever perhaps I could show you the true meaning of sublime torment.”

Kale’s breath was shallow, his heart raced and he felt himself in a cold sweat. He felt his hair fall gently onto his shoulder as the emperor released it. Kale merely waited for the final signal that the time was immediate. He held his breath. The emperor spoke again. “No, I promise I will.”

The door opened. “Sire, a messenger,” a servant said.

The emperor took a step back and sighed. Kale tried to ignore the horrible tension and tried to clear his thoughts. He watched as his lord exited before he hurried to his room and punched the wooden bed frame. He sat on his bunk for a long time with his head in his hands before Itzal entered. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Were you trying to diddle the emperor? Are you mad?”

“I’m not a novice. You weren’t there,” Kale insisted. “He touched my hair, dammit.”

Itzal shook his head, “Propositioning you or not, you’re in over your head.” Itzal had been a friend since childhood, was the one who found the position for Kale. “There will be no turning back from this…”

When Kale ignored Itzal’s advice, Itzal left and Kale sat there until the frenzy became manageable. He couldn’t shirk his duties. Numbly he went about his chores thinking only of his next encounter with the emperor, even thought of how he would perform and impress.

Time was slow to pass and he paused for dinner even though he had no appetite. The feeling in his stomach still hadn’t subsided completely. Other servants gossiped nearby. He managed to turn his thoughts, but it was difficult pulling his mind away from the vision and the words of his lord.

“…well it’s the nobles. What’s-his-name in the east. Turned traitor he has, now it needs to be tidied up. We won’t be on a regular schedule ’til things are sorted out…”

“Who?” Kale asked.

“What? You mean the noble who’s causing the ruckus? Begins with a T. Lives in that garish castle near Lake Luthaine. Can’t remember what his name is…”

Tiernan, Kale thought. Kale’s mind started to work with new clarity. He hurried to his room and fumbled in his drawer for parchment, ink and quill. The letter to Kalil was short and as jovial as he could muster. Once it was sealed he scrambled through the narrow maze of servants’ corridors to find a messenger willing to take the letter to his brother. Next he found the emperor—who was speaking with several courtiers on the other side of the castle. It took him a long time to find a fellow servant who knew where to locate their sovereign.

A day when someone ventured out into a foreign part of the castle was a rare day indeed. It was too easy to become lost in the different ages of construction in the gloriousness that was the royal home. His fellows would complain of his lengthy absence. But when they cooled he would have to tell them about the other opulent locations he’d traveled through.

Kale hid behind a massive pillar, listened to the conversation but only really heard the emperor’s voice echo through the corridor. He wished the emperor would sense him so he could remain unseen. He also hoped he wouldn’t be reprimanded for leaving his post. In time his wish was granted. The emperor waved for Kale to approach as the courtiers left him. They were alone in the corridor for as much as Kale could see anyone else. The emperor looked magnificent, larger than life. He leaned closer, spoke softly, “Yes, Kale?”

“Sire,” Kale said and swallowed. “I have a solution to a problem.” He tried to only look at the tiny jewels embroidered into the emperor’s doublet, not those intense eyes.

The emperor cocked his head. “Which would that be?”

He could barely breathe when the emperor’s eyes were upon him. “Two, if I’m clever, sire.”

The emperor raised an eyebrow.

“Sire, I’ve sent word to my brother and suggested he come here for work. He is privy to all that Tiernan knows—they’re consorts. I can convince him to tell your majesty all he knows. He is a loyal brother. He’ll do as I ask.”

He granted Kale a beaming smile. “Sweet Kale, it would be most helpful. I’m sure we could find useful employment for him.”

Kale bowed and smiled up at the emperor who gave him a small gesture to leave as if telling a child to skedaddle.

* * * * *

Kale watched the rain as he stood just inside one of the many servants’ entrances to the castle. It was the agreed spot to meet Kalil, one of the less-used entrances so they could talk before rushing off to work. He was staring at a puddle when he felt someone near. It was the emperor. His majesty was leaning against a nearby doorway and watching Kale. “Your brother approaches,” he said. “He arrives in haste.”

Never in a hundred years did Kale think their liege would appear in such a corridor. “Sire. Your magic tells your majesty so?”

“Questions are bold,” he said with a languid smile. “I sense many things with magic. Pity you have none. But it’s inevitable I’ll share mine with you.” He tilted his head. “And you barely know what that means for you.”

Kale and the emperor’s eyes locked. Kale felt his body respond. There was no controlling it.

“Here’s your brother. I’ll leave you to your reunion,” the emperor said. He came near, close to Kale, very close. “But don’t avoid your duties,” he said and glanced downward. “I shall see you at your post…” He turned and sauntered away.

Kale greeted Kalil with an embrace. As Kale led him to their quarters they discussed the future. “I could live a comfortable life,” Kale said. “A man of leisure. Wait until you see him…”

“Your vivid letters have told me much,” Kalil said.

“How goes it with Tiernan?”

His brother shook his head. “As always. But I don’t think Tiernan will miss me as much as he misses you.”

Kale smiled and said, “It’s hard work but very rewarding, even without the perk of a tryst.”

“You seem tense, brother.”

“It’s nothing. I’ll be better soon.”

Kale left him to settle in and returned to his work. There would be enough time tomorrow to discuss further. The information Kalil had would make Kale’s days bearable and might grant him a loftier position and security. Kale was starting to feel like quite the conspirator. Tiernan would be undone, and Kale would gain.

When he finally entered the emperor’s chambers he found the attendants had already left. The emperor was reading a book by the fire, wearing only a shirt and breeches; his hair was loose and shimmered in the firelight. Kale approached he could barely breathe. The emperor smiled but didn’t look up. “You’ve returned,” he purred.

“Yes, yes sire.”

“…For something you’ve so yearned for.” He turned a page then closed the book.

Kale nodded and swallowed. The emperor rose and strolled towards Kale, who once more could only stand there in a cold sweat. The emperor was so close to him now, inches away. He resisted the urge to pull off the emperor’s clothes.

“Now for your reward,” he said and leaned in close.

Kale closed his eyes. He felt the emperor’s warm breath on his neck and he arched himself, reached with his arms to touch… “Get out,” the emperor whispered. He withdrew.

Kale choked and watched in horror as the emperor became increasingly distant. “You-you promised…”

“I give you what I promised.”

Kale shook his head.

“The most sublime and personalized torment. The work I had to do for you to arrive at this climatic moment. You should be honored.” He pointed at the door. “Enjoy.”

“No.”

“No? Do you dare defy me? You think I would have any interest in a magicless commoner like yourself? The arrogance.” Another servant, Itzal, appeared with a robe and helped the emperor into it. Their sovereign waved his brocade-draped arm. “How have I been surrounded by servants who think they’re my equal?”

Kale’s breath quickened. “I gave you everything you wanted.” He looked at Itzal for support, but his friend was smirking like a fiend.

The emperor laughed. “I’ve never asked you for anything but to be a good servant.” He smirked at Kale, his eyes narrow. “And that you’ve done.”

“You…” He clenched his fists.

“What do you think you’re going to do, Kale?”

Kale lunged. “You bastard!” He only made it a few steps closer. The emperor’s magic pushed him to the stone floor with a thud, knocked the breath from him.

The guards burst through the doors and seized Kale, pulled him to his feet and waited for a command from their lord. Kale hurt all over from the force of the fall and the grips of the men holding him. Itzal stood behind the emperor, saying nothing but still pleased, vindictive. Kale’s mind raced.

“I was going to let you go, but an assault on my person…” the emperor smiled a little. “Don’t be sad, Kale. You’ll be better off than your brother, for you have been amusing if nothing else.” He cocked his head. “Itzal was right about you. Not a whit smarter, but apparently holds quite the grudge against you. He is blinded by vengeance as you were blinded by lust. Perhaps he’ll see again, as you see now.”

Kale looked again at Itzal, his betrayer. What wrong did Kale do to doom himself and his brother? Then it came to him, a wrong against Itzal’s family when they were young…

The emperor nodded to the guards who then dragged Kale away.

The last thing Kale heard was the voice he used to so enjoy. “Perhaps when you stand on a precipice admiring the view, Kale, take a step backwards instead of forward.”

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