Excerpt: The King’s Harem

The only sound in the grand hall was the music of strings, plucked with confidence by strong, knowing hands. Here gentle, there hard, played by memory, the hands moving as if of their own will, the musician’s eyes closed.

His hair was midnight dark, bound intermittently with gold bands. When he stood, it would stop just short of the floor. Matching gold wound in a thick band around his neck, and though he had matching clasps for his wrists, they had been discarded to avoid interfering with the strings.

When they opened, his eyes would be the color of wet sand, strikingly pale against the cinnamon tone of his skin. Dressed in black pants and an overlaid floor-length skirt, chest bare, he was one of the most beautiful persons in the room. More than a few said that beauty was what had spared the musician the fate that had befallen his traitorous family. When the music stopped, the old stories would reemerge to be whispered about yet again.

He had always ignored the whispers and he would continue to do so; only the words of four men mattered and it was for them he played. If they whispered anything at all, it was to discuss how they would show their appreciation later.

The thought almost made him smile, but the expression was unfit for the bittersweet song he currently played. As the piece came to an end, he wove it into another, the bitter falling away and leaving only the sweet. As he played, the corners of his mouth tilted ever so faintly, and only the four who knew him well saw that he smiled. He knew they smiled back.

As the music faded away, there was a breath of absolute silence, and he opened his eyes just enough to see those four. The hall filled with applause—some of it genuine, some of it begrudgingly given. No one there dared not clap for the finest musician in the palace.

Especially when he belonged to the king.

He carefully set his instrument down and then bowed to his king, then rose gracefully as the applause reached a crescendo before finally fading away.

“Thank you, Nandakumar.” The king was still applauding, stopping only as he descended his dais to take Nandakumar’s hands in his own. “Your playing is as magnificent as always.”

Nandakumar bowed his head. “It is always a pleasure to play for my king.” The corners of his mouth tilted up again, the formality amusing them both.

“And a pleasure it is to hear you play.” The king motioned for him to return to his spot on the dais, and after seeing his instrument into trusted hands, Nandakumar did so.

On the raised dais that was reserved for royalty and rare guests was a long, low table. All around the floor were soft, deep cushions for sitting or lounging. At the center was the king’s seat, and beside him sat his queen. Around the table sat three men and two women.

Nandakumar took his seat between a man with dark skin and short hair, and a man with pale skin and white blond hair. Though his expression never changed, he enjoyed and returned their touches of thanks and appreciation, unseen by others in the gently muted light of the dining hall.

Music far less skilled than his filled the hall. Nandakumar almost felt sorry for the poor young girl who had to follow after him. He sipped wine from a shallow dish, humming in pleasure. Fingers trailed up the length of his thigh; Beynum expressing his amusement. They never agreed on wine, a long joke between them that a musician should prefer bitter wines and a former pirate the sweet ones.

Nandakumar listened to the entertainment distantly, instinctively noting what was worthwhile and dismissing what was not. Throughout it all he exchanged looks and touches with his companions and king, speaking in soft tones with the queen and her concubines.

Gradually the evening passed, and Nandakumar returned to their chambers with Beynum, leaving Aikhadour and Witcher to escort their king and the queen.

Reaching the private chambers of the king and his harem, the silence at last broke.

“That last girl, eh?” Beynum said, his restrained smile breaking into a shameless grin. “Enough to make me wish I were deaf.”

Nandakumar lifted a brow. “Then however would you hear my music?”

“If anyone could work the miracle of curing deafness, Nanda, it would be you.” Beynum laughed. “If only because the idea of someone not hearing your music is wholly intolerable.”

“It is intolerable,” Nanda replied, sniffing in contempt. “Certainly I don’t play so people can look at me.”

Beynum laughed again and embraced him loosely from behind, bare chest pressed to Nanda’s back, voice in his ear. “You don’t like to be looked at, Nanda?”

“Not by that lot,” Nanda said in disgust. “It makes me feel dirty, to have their eyes upon me.”

A hand brushed the heavy tail of his hair aside, and warm lips explored the back of his neck beneath the gold band, trailing along one shoulder. “Then come and I’ll clean you. Hmm, Nanda?”

“If you insist, pirate.”

Beynum laughed and turned him around, leaning down to steal a slow, deep kiss.

They broke apart as laughter and chatter spilled into the main chamber, the source of it three men: King Shahjahan and the remaining members of his harem, Witcher and Aikhadour.

Nanda slid from Beynum’s arms as the king approached, twining his arms around Shahjahan’s neck to accept his expected kiss. “You play as perfectly as always, Nanda. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

Shahjahan laughed as his arms slid along Nanda’s body before dropping away. “What mischief were you and Bey about to get yourselves into?”

“A bath is mischief now?” Beynum asked.

Shah laughed and beckoned Beynum forward, leaning up to kiss him in greeting. “Where you go, Bey, mischief is never far behind. My well-behaved Nanda has not been so since you joined us.”

Beynum only grinned and stole another kiss from his king. Then he took Nanda’s hand, and together they led the way to the baths where they could all relax.

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