Consider What Becomes of the Ashes
The dream comes quickly.
A torrent released from a dam, a massive crashing wave that drags Noah to the depths, where tresses of dark and devious intent wrap him, like soft bandages. Noah weaves black fabric but cannot order the stars within the chaos, trying to find beneath these bandages of hair, somewhere, a face. Penleigh Kerse who walks with Princes and Emperors is flat in Noah's dream, a portrait on a page, until he opens his eyes and smiles crookedly, without laughing at Noah.
Noah, who is four walls built of blood and mud and scorched wood and cobweb, four crude walls weeping such greasy grey smoke. Penleigh is falling for him, through smoke and a rotten roof, and a rotten floor, and his arms are not rotten, but held wide. No matter how fast Noah runs, he cannot catch Penleigh, but when Noah trips on the stair a hand keeps him from hitting the ground. Hand on arm they walk together, to where violent men lurk around city corners in ambush, and Noah smells the stink of cigarettes. Penleigh turns the corner, and Noah must follow where he leads, into the waiting horror, and he cries as he goes, 'No, please, there is no hope.'
'You're killing them,' Penleigh says. Noah looks at his feet, the flowers crushed and broken. The stink of sap is heavy in the air. The whole field of flowers has been destroyed, the sole remaining bloom before him, still standing tall, the most beautiful corpse in the world.
'Why do you want to kill something so beautiful and alive, that could grow and give you such pleasure, why?'
'It's worthless,' Noah answers. 'It can't be sold. It lives shortly and dies having changed nothing. It is ineffectual. There's no logic behind its survival.' The last is the most painful: 'It cannot defend itself against my hand.'
'That's not a good enough reason,' Penleigh cries, but he is far away. Noah snaps the head off the blossom, ash in his hand. Before Penleigh fades, the disgust on his face becomes sadness.
The ash is sap, itchy and sticky. He is fouled, palm, hand, skin. Noah takes off all his clothes, but cannot strip the foulness from his flesh, so he rips the flesh from his bones. His thighs are white and brittle, and Penleigh kneels between them, his head bowed. Noah trembles with a fear so beautiful he wonders why he has ever been afraid of being afraid.
He hears his old tutor's voice.
'The grain of a wood must be known before the work begins or the effect will fail. The soul of the wood must be felt with both fingers and your own soul. A piece is cut to reveal in its death, its life, and in the cutting and shaping comes pride and honour. All properly worked wood is four-dimensional. There is the design, the shape, the use: these three dimensions are touchable. The fourth dimension is time. Time can be known, observed, but only a master craftsman reveals the best and hides the worst.
'What time has passed can never be touched or changed, only shown or concealed. Every piece of wood contains years. In the working of wood are hundreds of years of history and tradition. In the wood itself you'll find centuries of the tree's life and growth. So what will you choose to show, young Noah, young Dar, and how?'
Penleigh looks up and opens his eyes. The color within is darkness layered with depth, striations of black and blue and gold, the colors of sun-kissed earth by a river, of fire-blackened wood cut to preserve the mark of the flame. Noah weeps for the beauty. Penleigh has been crafted so perfectly Noah knows all his life from his eyes, what passed before and what greatness will unfurl.
Noah does not want this dream to end, but Penleigh is alive. Penleigh is not a dead piece of wood, his years and life static and shaped from a moment of severance onwards. Penleigh must blink. When he closes his eyes, Noah's world is gone.
Noah knows most of the people at Penleigh's homecoming, courtesy of Reiche's Highest circles. Of the richest family in LaGatta, Rais Aracelis, striking in unusual beauty as her brother Paul, she in silk and he dark and deadly in the Imperial Military Association's uniform. With them the Emperor's representative, the youngest Imperial child Esther Rel, poise granting what nature gave to the Aracelis siblings. The Ministry for War's highest generals, grey-haired and staid, an enclave resistant to inquiry as to the forthcoming invasion. The wealthy and their wedded halves; the entertainers whose status bought their way to Highest.
Of the elite, Noah does not talk to them as he did not talk to them prior. His place is by Reiche's side.
Noah hunts through the crowd with his eyes. He cannot find Penleigh among so many people, and all those in black. This is the first time Noah has attended something this grand. Reiche took a long time to confirm his dress as satisfactory, and distressed herself to tears in argument with the tailor.
The only stone in this great ballroom is inlaid in the floor. The marble is swirled and of three colors, a mirror finish in the candlelight. From candelabras to cornices, great armchairs and the endless dining table, the furniture is polished wood perfect in craftsmanship and care. Noah ignores his surrounds. He tends Reiche, collects drinks though he does not drink, and takes her where she would go. His silence and downcast eyes do not provoke comment.
Reiche keeps away from the Aracelis siblings, and from Her Highness Esther Rel, a dangerous circle even among the Highest crowd. Elsewhere, she flirts with the shameless charm only old women and actresses possess.
Noah is there when she speaks to Penleigh's father. He cannot believe the man once had enough youthful passion to propose to a famous actress and a famous singer on the same summer night. The singer, Reiche tells Noah, said yes first; in thirty five years Reiche still carries her regret, obvious in the wistful fondness with which she pronounces Penleigh's name, a ghost standing between them. They do not converse for long. Penleigh's father is a large man, occupying space beyond the breadth of his shoulders, with an air about him reminding Noah of Reiche's husband, wandering through time as well as place.
The dancing and discussion pause for Penleigh to give a speech in thanks for everyone's attendance. This is the first time all night Noah has seen the young man, on a stage with the musicians. Penleigh wears grey silk, tight and tailored. Despite the fabric, a distinctly military cut. Black boots reach to his knee, a mirrored shine to match the marble. Penleigh's feet are still restless; he bounces from heel to toe as he speaks. His hands move through the air with edgy grace.
Penleigh's lips smile. His eyes find Noah's. Noah feels dizzy. No one has ever looked at him like that before.
The gathered crowd laughs.
Noah has not heard a word. Reiche tells him of a formal supper shortly; perhaps he needs to eat?
He is hungry. Penleigh leaves the stage to take a beaming young woman's arm, one of Esther Rel's. The music starts again, dancing structured and slow. Penleigh is a head taller than most. Despite the girl on his arm, he does not dance. Noah watches Penleigh move through the crowd instead, smiling and gracious until he wins his aim and then Penleigh darts, swift and sly, the girl in a flurry of lace in his wake. He leaves by the eastward balcony where wood-framed glazing folds open to the night.
Noah does not realise he follows until he is at the door, the air cool on flushed cheeks. He turns to face the ballroom.
Reiche's eyes are on him. The crowd between them does not allow more than a glance. She turns her chair with care, until her back is to him. Noah cannot hesitate now.
Against the weight of the night, Penleigh stands with one arm behind his back. His shoulders are straight and eyes distant as though he addresses a superior officer. Despite her broad smiles not a few minutes prior, the girl is silent now, her tears shining as much as the silver buttons on Penleigh's high-collared shirt. Noah cannot return to the ballroom. He does not want to step backwards. He hides instead behind an elaborate potted tree and breathes the smell of the forest.
Penleigh is breaking off his engagement with the best friend of the Emperor's daughter. The Ministry, he tells the girl, has little room for wives or children. All his promises to her were made as a child, hopeful and dreaming; as a man he cannot be held to the word of a child's whim. She weeps, still silent. Penleigh does not able to bear silence, struggling for words to fill the void. He discovered the depth of dedication his vocation demands. He does not want to disappoint her. He chose to give her a small disappointment now, instead of a large one later. This ending now is, Penleigh says, inherently logical. He unbends enough to offer a handkerchief.
The girl wants comfort, not more lace. She is beautiful, well-fleshed and well-mannered to match. She swallows her pain behind that handkerchief and flees back into the crowd.
Penleigh's shoulders slouch with relief. He speaks to the night, 'I'm glad you came tonight, but so sorry you had to watch that. Last ghosts of childhood are proving the hardest to exorcise.' He laughs, sudden and startled and glorious. 'Terribly pompous, aren't I? I didn't mean a single word. The Association's all right, and that's all.'
Noah steps forward. Penleigh turns his back and walks away. His pace is brisk and military. He glances once over his shoulder, laughter still on his lips. Noah follows.
The grass is lightly dewed, the colour of forest mist. Penleigh's boots leave clear dark prints. This is a dance as planned as those occuring inside. Noah can still hear the music, and Penleigh is humming along. They do not go far, past sculptured topiary and around hedges of rosemary. Penleigh steps through a pair of well-spaced fruit trees and pauses as though he is counting, then is gone. A heartbeat later, Noah follows; the sky opens to a starry ocean endless and dark. They are on a boulevard of grass lined with apple trees, grass and trees both in shades of shadow and silver.
Penleigh nods suddenly, assured, and breaks into an unexpected run. His legs are so long his pace seems effortless. Between one stride and the next he compresses. Penleigh leaps, lithe and long, and claims a tiny apple from an arching branch. He grins over his shoulder, throws the apple high, and sprints to catch when the sky rejects his offering. His grin flickers and dances as he continues to run, throwing smiles over his shoulder. Noah sees seriousness, soberness, intensity, mirth. Penleigh moves as though motion gives him joy. He is so young, to find pleasure still in the ability to command his own body, as though such performance surprises. Noah realises he runs to match Penleigh's pace, slipping on damp shining grass, with more desperation than good humor. The apple sounds with a clap against Penleigh's palm. They are close.
Penleigh stops abruptly and turns. Noah halts, skidding. Now they are too close. Penleigh is taller. The young man takes a bite from his prize, crisp against the night. The scent of broached skin has Noah's mouth water; he never did eat. Noah hears his own breath as too loud. He grabs Penleigh's wrist when he would take another bite and discards the apple. Empty-handed, Noah presses both palms to silk and feels the heave of life beneath, the intense heat.
'We are going to do this.' Penleigh's breath is sweet, and untouched by wine or smoke. 'Oh, we are. Since I first saw one of your sketches, I dreamed. Reiche sent those to me, when she wrote of you. The calm in winter's storm, she called you. The colour of your eyes is surreal, like a storm on the ocean. When I saw you in the flesh, I knew. How I wanted you! We will do it here and return to the party in time for supper. After we shall pretend it never happened, shan't we? This is how LaGattans dance their deceptions. Do you - do your kind kiss?'
They kiss. This will be the highest point of Noah's life, and he is afraid. After this nothing will stir him again. Penleigh's tongue is tentative, his lips hard. His cheek is rough. Noah has never kissed a man but for his brother; he will never kiss another. Noah's palms move. Penleigh's body feels both familiar and strange, for the feel of masculinity Noah is accustomed to on himself, his brother, but has never touched on another. He finds Penleigh's erect nipple through the silk shirt.
Then the difference is so very sharp. This is no woman's body, no woman's soft breast with corsetry to conceal arousal. There is no comparison for this kiss. Penleigh does not want to stop kissing him. Noah does not want to stop touching him. Penleigh breaks away for the breath to live when Noah was willing to die.
'Where've you come from?' Penleigh's lips are against Noah's ear. 'My whole life's been ordered and orchestrated with great style and finesse; I am an instrument for my father's will to play. I am a dutiful son. I've not expected anything but for that, and never wanted anything but his acknowledgement. Seven years I was away from my home at his order, learning to do his will. I did not weep when I left; I did not want for anything but his success. Until I saw you. I have never wanted like this before. Who are you, to make me feel this?'
'You already know my name.' Noah speaks hesitantly. 'Penleigh? Please.'
Penleigh leads Noah to a tree along that wooded boulevard, with a blanket on a low branch, the outer fold touched by night's kiss. Noah spreads the damp side to wet grass. He removes his coat and shirt and rolls them to form a pillow. Penleigh's fingers toy with the buttons of his own high collar. His eyes are shadowed, and his breath is fast. Penleigh does not hesitate to lie down. Noah pushes his leg between Penleigh's and feels tense thigh muscle close around him, pulling him close as Penleigh thrusts against him. He almost does not want to kiss again, for that first one seems an unrepeatable glory, but their second kiss is the same.
Noah loses himself in that apple-sweet mouth. He wants Penleigh's erection, felt stark against his thigh as Penleigh moves under him, against him. Only need for breath breaks them apart again. Noah rubs the back of his fingers between Penleigh's legs to feel the firmness of his balls, the high muscles of his buttocks. Penleigh is so hard, everywhere; rigidity extends around the root of his cock, his abdomen, his thighs, his arse. Removing Penleigh's boots reveals muscular calves, a high instep, and a long scar by his knee shining silver in the moonlight. Removing Penleigh's trousers bares flimsy undergarments marked dark and wet at the head of his erection, hot silk contoured to the shape of his arousal.
Noah looks at Penleigh. Penleigh's long fingers creep to his shirt's hem, and he inches that fabric upwards. The muscles of Penleigh's stomach are long and lean. Noah feels no horror. He rubs his face against Penleigh's silk underwear and feels the pulse throbbing against his cheek. He puts his hand on his own cock.
Noah does not remember getting naked.
He removes Penleigh's underwear. He wants to be tender, but his fingers were never suited for tenderness. The ripped fabric pools with the rest. The skin of Penleigh's arousal is near as soft as the silk. Noah cannot stop rubbing his face along the hardness. Clear come clings to his cheek, his lips, and he does not wipe. Noah buries his nose in black curls and inhales. Against the richness of the night, Penleigh's scent is slight, significant and dizzying.
Noah opens his mouth. Penleigh tastes so good. Noah drinks that sharpness until all of Penleigh's curving length shines silver and saliva spirals into the hair of him. Penleigh moans. Noah cannot hear over the roar of his own blood. Some mechanism releases sensations impossible before, as though Penleigh had always been the missing part enabling his completion. Penleigh's knees are spread wide; he is panting through open lips. His neck arches that he can meet Noah's gaze, and Noah wants all of him. He drinks the cool wet salt slicking Penleigh's balls. His tongue dissolves Penleigh's resistance, working him.
Penleigh shudders as he speaks to the sky, his stomach heaving. 'Don't you dare stop. This feels so good. I want this. I want you. I cannot be apart from you any longer, fill me. Fill me! Noah—'
Noah wants to prolong this. After this, he knows, he fears, the nothingness. His saliva and Penleigh's want open the way. He thinks he will hurt Penleigh, but without hesitation Penleigh curls on his side and draws one knee to his chest. With his elbow he pushes away the pillow of shirt and coat, finding comfort on Noah's bicep instead. Noah penetrates him just with the head, and Penleigh's cry echoes. The path is incremental. Penleigh tenses with every creeping inch. Noah's hard-learned wariness is lost in the pleasure of his resistance. He wants this to last forever, tells Penleigh to tense, relax, tense, until Noah can slide deeper. He will not withdraw, Penleigh curses him not to withdraw. He moves past what he usually offers, past what another can usually take, further.
Then they are there.
'Oh,' Penleigh shudders, uncontrollably, 'oh Noah, oh, you are so much thicker at the root. Mind, hurt when you first pushed - but then it was so good, the length. The width now makes me ache so much I nearly want to howl. You're all the way inside me, you are, aren't you? I didn't think I could. When I saw your size, I thought, couldn't help myself, of all those little rumors and little jokes about not-so-little Badensons - but help me, oh help me, I'm holding you. All of you. I am, aren't I?' Penleigh laughs a little, still shivering. The sound grips Noah's length and tugs him. He touches his tongue to the surreal sweetness of Penleigh's nape. Penleigh turns enough they can meet each other's eyes, and he is dazed and sharp and liquid all at once. 'I can feel the pulse in your balls.'
As though Penleigh were crafted for this moment, for him, Noah matches the length of his thigh to Penleigh's thigh, his knee behind Penleigh's. The interlock of their hips is a cradle neither too soft, over-fleshed, muscled, nor too bony. Shoulder to shoulder, their breadths match. Noah places his fingers in the curve beneath Penleigh's ribs and feels the rapid beating heart. He withdraws slowly, afraid this moment will shatter into a dream's broken awakening, then returns his whole length in a single swift thrust and feels Penleigh's shout, does not hear over his own pleasure. Designed to fit together, most cruelly parted some time in the past, Noah does not move for a long time. Penleigh inhales deeply. Noah feels that breath tighten around his own erection. They still look into each other's eyes.
They were never strangers, Noah realises, but they must be, even after this. How much can he stand? How long before he breaks again?
There is violence, both remembered and present.
But here, now, unison comes with the violence instead of fear: they make a single creature clawing towards the goal. In their violence such tenderness comes, tears shed for the moon to turn to silver. Noah is terrified anew, still wrapped in pleasure, and lost when he tries to map his way to a response. He cannot tolerate violence. Noah knows his memory and childhood were snapped into pieces like a fragile twig by a callous hand.
Penleigh calls Noah's name. Penleigh cries Noah's name.
They clutch at each other like drowning men at a last hope. Noah wipes his cheek dry on Penleigh's shoulder. Noah cannot go too far, for nothing seems far enough for Penleigh. There is no darkness, only their bodies and their sounds. They are moving so hard against each other, with a slow growing sweetness. Penleigh tosses his head from side to side, a denial of his moans. He cries out. His spine arches, but does not break. Noah falls into a void. He sees only the agony on Penleigh's features. His thoughts are dimmed and lost, and he tears a scream from Penleigh. After comes the surges, paired, as though they were one flesh.
Noah lies in Penleigh and cannot move. Penleigh's features are utterly blank and still, as though dead. Noah wonders, of all everything he survived, this terrified him so. It is over. It has happened. It is over.
Penleigh smiles without opening his eyes. 'Noah!'
Penleigh does not exclaim over the mess. The night-damp side of the blanket serves a purpose. Penleigh laments his limited forethought for not providing a change of clothes, his discarded silks rumpled. He will run to change in time; such is just acceptable for a formal dinner, Penleigh supposes. He hopes his father will not notice. It has been such a long time since Penleigh has spent any time in his father's company, even since returning. With some wistfulness, Penleigh says he has now spent longer with Noah.
Noah does not know how long he and Penleigh made love. He dresses slowly, like an old man who has forgotten not how, but why.
'You've ruined me.' Penleigh yawns. He does not cover the gape of his jaw until too late, the most beautiful thing Noah has ever seen. And he is real, not a portrait or a photograph, no dream or old nightmare; real and untouchable. 'This will forever affect me, yet I can't regret you. So much order in my life, to then do this, such a whim— Ah, well. I'm allowed my indiscretions. Still, this is supposed to be my party. I must go now. I cannot keep away forever.'
This had been so good it cannot be repeated. Noah knows. So Noah says, 'I know.'
Penleigh pivots, testing himself. He winces.
'How shall I pay you?'
Those words tear apart something vital, and as fragile as a newborn.
Noah leaves everything behind when he runs.
Continue to Chapter 6 →
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