Chapter 4 - Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a Strange Land
Bright and early in the morning they were on their way to the harbor. Tommy was glad that they wouldn’t travel through the land because in that case it’d take at least a week to get to the other kingdom. Traveling on his beloved sea only took two days along the coastline and it was at least something familiar to him. He suspected that very few of familiar things would come his way once they arrived to Oudjat, the capital city of the Land of the Desert.
Tommy pressed his lips together and hugged his father and sister goodbye who came with her husband and kids to the wedding too. It felt unfair that they had to part so quickly and without really having some time for themselves. Lisa was probably thinking the same because she was reluctant to let her baby brother go. Her expression burned into his mind and now as he was standing on the deck leaning against the wooden railing out of everyone’s way, he recalled what she whispered to him before he got onto the Desert’s royal ship: “You’re gonna be okay, little brother.” He certainly hoped so.
In the evening he shared his dinner with the Lamberts in the back of the ship and answered Leila and Ebert’s questions, but otherwise remained silent. The brothers seemed to be engaged in a deep conversation about something Tommy wasn’t really interested in. Once dinner was over he said goodnight to the royal pair and walked back to his own people – his personal bodyguards – with Sutan on his side. He was glad that he could spend the night with them. It felt like a little piece of home which he could carry with him to that strange land. It grounded him and he felt less lost as he was listening to the stories of their travels and fights. Tommy wasn’t participating, he was sitting in the corner with his wine next to Sutan and his good friend and captain of the bodyguards, Isaac. He was a small man like himself but quick and lethal when it came to fighting. That man has saved Tommy’s life more than once and he knew that he’d be able to sleep a little better knowing that he was around. He didn’t sleep much though. Mostly he was staring at the low ceiling and thinking until the light rocking of the ship lulled him into sleep.
One and a half day later Tommy was standing on his usual spot on the deck and the moment the ship left the sea and turned to begin its journey up on the River Sesen that flows across the capital of the kingdom he felt Adam step next to him. Tommy tightened his grip on the railing but didn’t say anything. They haven’t talked since their wedding day and he knew they probably should have, but Adam gave him his space as if he felt it how badly Tommy needed it. The blond man knew that probably what was awaiting him that night would be easier if they got to know each other a bit better but he just couldn’t bring himself to seek out Adam’s company as his resolve seemed to waver every time he watched or was close to the dark-haired man.
“I love this river and not just because it makes our land prosperous. I used to swim in it a lot as a kid. Neil and I used to escape the palace and went down to the river to swim. Do you know what its name means?”
“No,” Tommy shook his head watching the millions of cane lazily bend to the will of the wind and a few merchant ships passing by on the other side of the river. He didn’t know why Adam felt the sudden urge to share his memory with him. Probably to ease Tommy up a bit.
“Sesen means Lotus. In our culture it is the symbol of the sun, creation, purity and rebirth. As seasons change and the river floods the fields near it, it leaves a fertile ground on which our people can grow our food for the summer when everything gets too hot and dry to grow,” he explained and Tommy could feel his eyes on him and this time he looked back at him nodding.
“Makes sense. What does the name of your capital, Oudjat means then?” he asked quietly and let his eyes linger on the honest smile on Adam’s lips. From this close Tommy could see all the freckles which were hidden by the makeup before.
“It means this,” he lifted his right arm and stroked his long fingers along a colorful tattoo of that certain all-seeing eye just under the skeleton key. “It symbolizes protection against evil and the bringing of wisdom too. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Our capital is a friendly city which offers protection for those in need and there are a lot of teachers there to keep people’s mind open and educated.”
Tommy only nodded and thought about those words for a moment. “What is the secret knowledge your family knows then? Will you share it with me some time?” he asked and looked Adam in the eye.
The freckled man’s small smile returned and he calmly put a hand on the railing not far from Tommy’s hand. “Thomas, you are my husband now. With that you became part of our culture and with time I’ll teach you everything I know, if you want it. Do you want that?”
Tommy licked his dry lips unwittingly and turned the words inside his head. Did he want that? He had to admit to himself that Adam’s culture – as much as he knew about it – piqued his interest as Tommy liked myths and legends. Those kinds of books were his favorite since his childhood and it seemed that marrying a foreign prince gave him the opportunity to learn a whole new set of legends and secret teachings that would make his time in Oudjat more interesting than he’d hoped.
“Yes,” he answered finally and turned back to the water “I’d love that.”
“I thought so,” Adam smiled wider and followed the shorter man’s example with watching the river and the surrounding prosperous lands as they continued sailing towards the capital city. The tall man experimentally slid his hand closer to Tommy’s as clearly he didn’t want to push himself on him, but he liked the lighter atmosphere between them.
Tommy realized his attempt to touch in a few moments as he looked down at Adam’s much bigger hand, fingertips lightly touching the back of the slim hand. The blond man swallowed hard from the tingling feeling the simple touch caused but didn’t pull his hand away as he watched a few fishermen stand in their slim boats and bow to the royal ship they were on. Before Tommy’s thoughts could’ve dragged him deeper into his mind he heard Adam’s soft whisper, which sounded more like a wish than a request.
“We are good people, my family and subjects, you’ll see. I just wish you could open up your mind and give a chance to them… and me. I want to be a good husband to you and a good king for our kingdoms. Please, think about that,” he finished with a light squeeze on Tommy’s hand before falling silent.
“I don’t promise anything, but I will think about it,” Tommy whispered and let Adam’s hand rest on top of his.
“Thank you,” he nodded and both of them watched in silence as their ship followed a curve of the river and suddenly the green fields were replaced by simple looking mud houses, which were getting bigger, more colorful and expensive looking as they followed the river upwards.
As Tommy let his eyes wander he saw some bigger buildings in the distance too. The most imposing was built on the side of a hill that was covered by palm trees and rocks and he instantly knew that he was looking at his new home. The building was painted white, had a big dome in the middle, which was painted with golden, blue and brown. The walls were decorated with the same colors and as they got closer Tommy could make out huge paintings of gods and goddesses, animals, plants and all that Tommy was sure held important significance in the Desert’s culture. One certain motif repeated also all over on the other richer houses of the city spreading on both sides of the river: that black eye.
“Oudjat,” he heard Adam’s voice next to him and Tommy could hear the happiness and pride as the new king of the land was returning to his throne. As he squinted to the side he saw that Adam’s clear blue eyes were sparkling and the blond man couldn’t suppress a small smile at that. Adam truly loved his land and people, he could already see that. And maybe he was right. Maybe he should lower his guard a tiny bit and take in all the presents and opportunities this marriage offered him.
Tommy was sitting next to Adam in a palanquin that was big enough so they could be comfortable without touching. The light but richly decorated curtains were pulled back now so he could look at the city and its people just as much as he was looked at by them. A small smile could be seen in the corner of his mouth as they were bowing, waving and cheering for them while moving along the gathered people on both side of the road. The royal guards kept everyone back and secured their travel to the palace. He waved back a few times after he saw that Adam was doing the same.
“Your formal introduction and our announcement as new kings will happen when night falls. The palace will host a feast for the people after that ceremony,” Adam said softly as he turned back to Tommy and took his hand in his. Tommy didn’t pull it back but didn’t squeeze either. He knew that it was partly for the eyes that were watching their every move.
Tommy nodded and left his eyes on Adam’s face that had a calm expression on it. He guessed it was the former prince’s mask that he put on when he had to be a prince and well, from now on a king. Adam returned his look and went on, talking on a softer and quieter voice. “After dinner we can retreat to our chambers with the witnesses.”
The last sentence made Tommy nervous and uncomfortable again as he knew Adam was talking about Sutan and his chosen person who’d be there in their royal bedroom to watch their marriage being consecrated. “I understand,” Tommy nodded and looked at the happy faces on the street again “but make sure we’ll have a few minutes for ourselves some time. I have to talk to clear a few things with you before anything happens between the sheets.”
“As you wish, King Thomas,” Adam replied after a few moments and turned back to his people too and they didn’t talk for the rest of their way to the palace.
Soon they got out of the palanquin by the painted stairs that led up to the first of several levels of the palace. From this close it looked huge as it towered over them and Tommy guessed it continued into the hill behind. In the circle of the royal guards Tommy followed the former king and queen, Adam on his side and Neil behind them. There were guards, people and servants standing along the way as they climbed the stairs, following a black carpet. Huge golden banners and flags with the black skeleton key and eye were moved in the light breeze over their heads. Countless white blossoms were lying by their feet and Tommy could smell their faint scent under the hot summer. He kept silent but let his eyes wander to take in his new surroundings, his new home.
It was nothing like the Land of the Sea, but he found it fascinating despite the sand that sometimes got into his eyes or made it a bit difficult to breathe when the hot breeze brought it in their way. He saw several statues of a winged female figure and the skeleton key and eye symbol popped up all over too. They climbed another set of stairs, tall palm trees lining on both sides of the stairs and now he could set his brown eyes on the opening huge black doors of the palace which were decorated with golden figures and symbols he wasn’t familiar with yet.
He’s got so lost in drinking in the sights of his surroundings that Adam had to take hold of his forearm to stop him from bumping into Eber as they stopped in a long room that stretched in front of them with painted columns on both side. As Tommy glimpsed up he could see paintings not just on the walls and the columns but even on the ceiling. There were unlit torches on each column, although the sunlight that came through hidden windows from above and balconies from both sides lit the hall now. He was sure that when night fell the torches’ flames would dance on the golden paints all around.
“Welcome to your new home, King Thomas,” Tommy heard Eber’s voice and he refocused on the former king. “This is the throne room,” he waved towards the far end of the hall where a few steps led up to two golden and black thrones. “Your introduction and the formal coronation will happen here in a few hours. I hope you’ll be pleased and happy here with us until you and Adam will return to the Land of the Sea.”
“Thank you for the warm welcome, King Eber…” Tommy hesitated for a second, not knowing how to address him then frowned “…but sorry, I’m confused. Why would we return to Thalassa?” he asked about his land’s capital from where they’ve just arrived and which’s name meant ‘sea’.
Eber frowned too and exchanged a knowing look with his queen, who answered Tommy’s question instead “What did you think, Tommy? That we’ll ‘lock you away’ here for the rest of your life?” she smiled kindly and took one of Tommy’s hands in her warm ones “We wanted to wait with this until the crowning ceremony, but I think we can share this with you. Before the wedding we agreed with your father that you and Adam will spend half or one year here and then back in your home land so you both will be clear with the happenings in both kingdoms. Of course you’ll have connections, trusted people who’ll report you at all times, but we thought it’d be just fair to make this agreement as our kingdoms are now joined.”
“My wife speaks the truth, Tommy. And please call me Eber from now on.”
“Thank you Eber, Leila,” he looked confused at them then at Adam “Did you know about this?”
“Not at all,” he shook his head and by the surprised expression and voice Tommy was pretty sure he was telling him the truth.
“And what do you think about this arrangement?” the blond king asked, trying to appear neutral. He had to admit to himself that it was a kind of a test.
“I’m happy with it as I know it’ll make you happy and less stressed out,” he flashed a white smile at him. “Besides, it wouldn’t be fair that only you had the opportunity to learn everything about a new culture. I want to do the same with yours!”
“Always eager to learn, my boy,” Eber chuckled and squeezed Adam’s shoulder and Tommy could feel himself relax some more. Adam was right, he was happy about this news. “Of course the extent of your stay at the kingdoms may vary according to the current situation of the kingdoms. We have to keep the threat in the south in mind and be able to mobilize our ships and troops to defend the Desert and the Sea at all times,” Eber continued letting Adam’s shoulder go as he looked more serious at the young kings, but before he could get deeper into the topic Leila stepped in front of him and took both Tommy’s and Adam’s hand in hers.
“But enough of that for now. This is your day, so enjoy it. Adam’ll show you your chambers. Go, get cleaned up, rest and eat something if you are hungry. The ceremony will start at sundown. Tommy, your servant is already in your chambers and as I see, your bodyguard takes his job seriously too,” she glanced at Isaac hovering nearby “although I don’t think he’ll have to worry much about your safety in the palace. But of course we have no objections against looking over you,” she smiled kindly and let their hands go.
“Thank you, Leila, Eber,” Tommy repeated and bowed to them before he turned to Adam expectantly.
“See you later, father, mother,” Adam bowed too with a huge grin on his face. He seemed more relaxed now that he was at home again, that was clear. “This way, husband,” he said on a slightly teasing tone and Tommy had to sigh and roll his eyes but he followed him nonetheless while trying to ignore the flip of his stomach knowing where they were headed.
Their chambers were actually a whole level of the palace high over the city. Only two other smaller levels were over them with the dome of the sacred temple as Tommy knew by now. The walls and floors were richly decorated with golds, blacks, blues, browns and whites just like the rest of the palace. Their “floor” was shaped in an L. The longer stem of that L was an open and wide corridor with columns to the right that led to the royal bedroom just over the corner. A nice warm breeze moved the soft gold and white curtains that swept the marble floor and kept the insects out. Tommy saw heavy black drapes tied to the columns probably functioning as shades against the sun when sleep was needed. There was a huge bed with white linen by the wall to the left, facing the rest of the room. The headboard was black but the carved figures on it were painted with the same colors he’d seen all over the palace.
Turning to the rest of the room he saw comfortable-looking lithe sofas and armchairs, colorful carpets, potted plants and candelabras all around. Some of the sofas and chairs were facing the huge windows between the painted pillars. Tommy was curious and waved to Sutan and nodded to a black servant girl, who bowed to them with a smile. Adam walked to her to exchange a few quiet words while Tommy stepped between two columns and put his hands on the stone balustrade between them. The light breeze made his fringe play around his face as he looked outside and saw the rest of their living quarters which consisted of a long pool filled with sparkling water that reflected the blue of the sky. It was surrounded by a line of palm trees on both sides and there were sunshades, sofas and deck chairs all around it.
“Wow,” Tommy whispered to himself and jumped a little as he heard the voice of Adam from behind.
“You like it, Thomas?” he smiled down at him.
“Tommy. And it’s beautiful. Especially the view,” he mumbled turning back to look down into the valley. He could see most of Oudjat from where he was standing. He saw all the levels of the palace too and he liked the small green gardens with fountains and sculptures that could be found on nearly every floor. As he looked further he saw the brownish blue stripe of River Sesen stretch across the city, lithe boats and ships carrying their loads on it. Behind the valley Tommy could see the endless dunes of sand. He brushed his fringe behind his ear although most of it fell right back into his face. He wiped some sweat off his forehead and turned back to Adam.
“I love it here as well. You’ll soon get used to the heat too. At nights it gets much cooler. If you want a bath, Sasha can prepare you one or you can just freshen yourself up. There’s a bowl of fresh water and towels next to the bed. I’ll be back later. I have some things to do before the ceremony. Once you are done we can go outside to the pool and talk,” he said softly and Tommy nodded as he turned back to the inside of the room.
“Thank you. I’ll take that bath,” he said more to the servant in a light white dress and golden bracelets which stood out nicely on her dark skin. She nodded with a smile and bowed before she went to prepare the bath in an adjacent atrium where a pool was sunk into the floor and getting filled with clear water. “I’ll see you later then, Adam,” he turned back to his husband then watched him walk away.
Sighing he turned to Sutan who was already standing by his side with a huge grin on his handsome face. “What?”
“This place is amazing, Tommy. And he’s a good catch,” he winked “You seem more at ease around him. Which is a good thing, if you ask me.”
“I’m not,” he sighed knowing that his friend would speak his mind anyway. “But I do find this place interesting. It’ll be exciting to discover it whenever we won’t be on kings’ duty,” he said quietly as he took his bracelets and rings off and put them into a golden tray nearby. He watched male servants enter with his luggage and place his trunks into the corner for now. Meanwhile Sasha, along with a few other female servants, was filling the bath for him. Sutan helped with his tunic and the rest of his jewels. “And we talked a little with Adam. Maybe he isn’t as bad as I’ve assumed.”
“Honey, I’m pretty good at reading people and you two are a good match. Believe me,” he winked again then they both turned to the approaching female.
“Your Majesty, your bath is ready. Do you need anything else?” she asked with a slight bow.
“No, thank you Sasha. You can go.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. If you need anything, I’ll be nearby and there’s a servant by the door at all times.”
“Thank you,” he repeated and let her go. Dropping the rest of his clothes he walked to the atrium, not minding Sutan at all, who was picking up his clothes and folding them then busied himself with unloading Tommy’s belongings.
The new king was still thinking about Sutan’s words as he sank into the nice jasmine-scented water, but he let the quiet noises of the city below relax him. He was tired and didn’t want to think about the ceremony and what was coming after that. He stopped those thoughts the moment he saw the enormous bed. Luckily Sutan knew him enough to know when to stay quiet and he did exactly that while packing. Tommy slid underwater to wet his hair and wash out the salty smell of the sea and the sand of the road. One step at a time, he told himself and he felt the starting panic ease up as his senses were lulled by the warmth and scent of the water.
Adam’d returned by the time Tommy was dressed in a short tunic that left his legs and tattooed arms free. He was eating some fruits by the pool.
“Mind if I join you?” he smiled down at Tommy who just shrugged so Adam sat down opposite him.
“You seem awfully cheerful,” Tommy stole a glimpse through his fringe.
“Why wouldn’t I? I’ve missed this place and the people. So…” he leaned forward to steal some date-plum from the bowl Tommy’s been eating from “what did you want to talk about, Tommy?” he asked curious.
The blond man felt the blood rush to his cheeks and he just hated his pale skin now as it showed beautifully. “About tonight. The bedding,” he cleared his throat and risked a look at Adam, whose grin just got wider. That pissed Tommy off a little and it was good. It was a feeling he knew how to use so he held on to it instead of playing the role of the blushing virgin. “Don’t look so smug.”
“Alright, sorry. You know that we can’t put it off any longer… So what about it?” Adam asked as he took a bite from the date.
“I know. I wanted to clear a few things with you,” Tommy sighed again as he collected his thoughts and himself too. “From that kiss on the beach I take you like to have control in bed, like to be the dominant party. Correct?”
“Correct,” Adam nodded looking more serious and Tommy felt a wave of relief wash over him seeing that he wasn’t grinning like an idiot anymore. “But I’ve bottomed before. I do that only when I’ve been with that partner for a while and I trust him completely.”
To that Tommy raised a brow, but he didn’t comment on that. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m no virgin when it comes to having a male lover, but I’ve never bottomed before… and I thought you should know. I like to be in control too. Especially when I don’t know or trust my partner well…”
“Interesting. I’d have never guessed,” he said genuinely surprised. “So this means you don’t trust me, Tommy?”
“Not yet. I barely know you.”
“That’s true. But what do your instincts say?”
“My instincts?” he raised a brow again.
“Yes. Your instincts. I thought you agreed on giving me a chance to prove that I’m worthy for your trust and as far as I know, I didn’t give you a reason yet not to… That kiss on the beach was testing the waters and for fun. I liked it a lot. I liked that you fought back.”
“Really. Look, if you are afraid that I’d do something that you wouldn’t like, I can assure you that I won’t. I have plenty of experience in bed and I can make it very good for you. The only question is if you’d let me. Or rather would you want to try handing the control over?”
“Blowing each other won’t consecrate our marriage, will it?” he asked hopeful, although he already knew the answer.
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t,” Adam chuckled softly as he shook his head and ate the rest of the date, watching him. “You really are nervous about this. Why?”
Tommy popped a grape in his mouth and chewed it slowly as he tried to decide whether he should answer the question or not. Seeing Adam’s open and curious expression he shrugged. “I never dared to fully hand control over. You were a crown prince too, so I’m guessing you were taught never to lower your guard. Or at least I was taught like that. And someone tried to top me before without my consent. He was stopped and dealt with on the spot.”
“I see…” he nodded understanding what Tommy was saying then reached out to fill a golden goblet with some sweet wine. He took a sip and put his forehand on the table. “Look, Tommy, I know I’ll have to earn your trust. I get it, you like to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself. I respect that and I prefer my partners in bed willing too. If it’d make you feel better, you can come up with a safe word or something that’d stop me completely. To hell with the expectations and laws. I don’t want to force you into anything that you don’t want to do, because…”
“… because?” Tommy licked his lips curious to know the reason and why Adam suddenly started blushing.
“…because my mother was right. You are exactly my type and without wanting to scare you off or something… I’m drawn to you. You intrigue me and I want you to be comfortable around me and yes… I’d really want to top you, if you let me. I give you my word that you won’t regret it, if you say yes.”
Tommy went silent for a long time, considering what Adam just said. He seemed to understand his situation and seeing that made the small blond relax some more. He knew that most of all he had to search himself and decide what he wanted and what he’d dare to try. Was he ready to give in like this? He surely should as it was clear Adam wanted their night to be enjoyable and successful. If that happened, everyone would be pleased, not just the two of them. He took a deep breath and laced his fingers together on his lap. “Vortex,” he said on a determined voice “that’s my safe word and my answer is yes. I want to try it with you. I’ve told you that I’m trying and I trust you enough by now to believe that you’ll stop. Besides, Sutan would help me too. He’s not as soft and kind as he might appear,” he smirked and Adam visibly relaxed too, returning the smirk.
“I thought so. Thank you for your trust,” he nodded towards Tommy. “Can I ask you why you’ve decided to say yes?”
“Let’s just say that you intrigue me too,” he shrugged again and sipped from his own wine.
“Fair enough,” Adam chuckled.
“But I don’t want to stretch it too long. I’m not a big fan of being watched by strangers in bed.”
“No problem, Tommy.”
He nodded and watched Adam for a long minute before returning to finish eating his light meal. His chest felt less heavy and he was very glad that they were finally over this conversation – and with less blushing than he thought he would do. But most of all, he felt relieved knowing that he could stop all of it if it got too uncomfortable.