The Uncanny Aviator

The Uncanny Aviator

Author: Jenya Keefe

The only way out is up.

Lord Cay is desperate. Adrio, his husband, has grown cold and distant, and Cay can’t fathom why. Unless Adrio somehow found out about Cays appalling past, but Cay has taken care to hide it from him. Lying to the man he loves is painful, but it’s better than the alternative: losing Adrio forever.

Meanwhile, rumors swirl of a mysterious hero who rescues captives from the labor camps of Muntegri and magically flies them over the mountains to safety. When a cruel enemy agent blackmails Cay for information about this aviator, Cay makes a rash decision. He knows nothing and can’t turn to his husband for help without revealing the truth about his past. The only thing he can do is lie even more.

Each new falsehood succeeds in misleading the enemy, but it also drives another wedge between Cay and Adrio. Forced to choose between love and honor, Cay must decide where his loyalties truly lie. And the Uncanny Aviator may be the key to everything, including saving their marriage.

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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Emotional Abuse


Cay knew it was a dream but could not escape from it. Lehoia Pass: It was thirst and heat and fear. The sound of tattered flags clapping in the constant wind; the black shadows and burning sun; the orange rocks streaked with red; the smell of blood. He felt again the terror and grief and rage, sickening in their intensity. Worst of all, the awful sense of responsibility, and the loneliness of knowing no one would help him with what he had to do.

The dream—the memory—progressed as it always did until a soft, deep voice murmured his name, and he woke in darkness, with Adrio stroking his hair from his sweating face. He turned his head and tucked his cheek against Adrio’s neck, breathing deep with relief.

It’s over. That’s all over now.

In his dreams, Muntegri was always winter-gray, snow-heavy clouds rolling across the sky. And Lehoia Pass was a brilliant, pitiless summer. And now, awake, he remembered that Lucenequa was his home. Lucenequa, where the air was soft and sweet against the skin. A land of frequent warm rains, good soil for gardens, and gentle misty skies, pale blue like cloth faded into softness from washing.

He had endured—survived—many sudden changes in his life. His home city of Turla in Muntegri had erupted in violent revolution. He’d fled the city, hidden in a southbound wagon. His parents died in blood; his sister, skinny as a weed and so sick with fear and grief she could or would not speak, had been his responsibility. He had endured sorrow and fear and a scathing rage, and survived. And then he found a home in Lucenequa, in the golden city of Valette, in the arms of a husband who loved him.

“What do you dream about?” whispered Adrio.

“Hm?” Denial came automatically to his lips. “I don’t think I was.”

“You were making noises.”

“Really? I don’t remember.”

A kiss on his shoulder. “Was it the riots in Turla?”

“Perhaps.” Cay snuggled deeper into the bed. “I really don’t remember. Let’s go back to sleep.”

“Cay.” Adrio’s voice was grave. “Please. You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to ease you, if only you would tell me.”

“Don’t be so anxious, love.” Cay found Adrio’s hands and squeezed them in the darkness. “I think it is you who are distressed tonight. Perhaps you’re having nightmares, not me.” He brought one of Adrio’s hands to his lips and brushed kisses onto his fingertips. “Why don’t you tell me what I can do to ease you?”

Chapter One

Six months later

Adrio looked splendid.

He appeared in Cay’s vanity mirror, where Cay sat fussing with his curly black hair. “Are you ready?” he demanded. Though Adrio was beautiful in a midnight blue suit, his eyes were cold and his face bore the signs of impatience.


“Well, don’t delay.”

“No, my lord.” Cay rose, checked the mirror to make sure he had not creased his trousers. His outfit matched Adrio’s in color, but his was embellished with embroidered peonies and silver laces. Adrio’s was tailored in the style of riding clothes, its simplicity emphasizing his height and rangy frame. He held out his arms. “Am I suitable for the Harvest Ball?” he asked with a nervous twirl. “I’d like to be a credit to you.”

“Of course, you always will be,” replied Adrio. His words were reassuring, but his expression was bored. “But we must not be late.”

“No, I’m ready. Oh, except earrings.” Cay hurried to his jewelry box and searched for his sapphire drops. He found one and heard Adrio sigh as he poked around for the other. “Sorry! One quick moment, I know it’s just here—”

“Wear these,” said Adrio.

He was holding out a small velvet jewelry box.

A gift?

Adrio had not given Cay a gift in a while. Indeed, this was the longest conversation they’d had in a week.

Hesitantly, Cay reached for the box and opened it. A pair of new earrings lay on a bed of silk: five-petaled blossoms carved from the lustrous pink nacre of a Lucenequan clam. They would not match his suit the way the sapphires would have; instead, they would stand out, bright against his hair. Cay’s tradesman’s mind instantly assessed their value: not cheap.

“They’re lovely. Thank you.” He took an earring from the box and then paused, wondering if a cutting remark would accompany the gift.

But Adrio only said, “You may wear the sapphires if you prefer them.”

Cay’s face warmed. “I love the sapphires, as you know.” They had been Adrio’s betrothal-gift to him, and they still held echoes of his former joy. “But these are too beautiful not to wear.” He slipped the wires through his lobes and combed his hair back from his face with his fingers. Meeting Adrio’s eyes, he smiled. “How do they look?”

Adrio sighed with impatience. But he said, “Handsome.”

Delight bloomed in Cay’s heart.

Adrio turned away. “And now we must go. The prince will notice if we are late.”

Though they did not speak as they walked down the stairs, donned their cloaks and gloves, and got into the carriage, Cay was probably beaming like a lovestruck idiot. Their marriage was not happy. Cay gave Adrio all his sweetness, his best manners, and his gentlest voice, but he could not pretend it was happy. But now his husband had given him a lovely gift and a compliment. They were on their way to the most glittering ball of the year in this most glittering city of Valette. As a child he dreamed of such events, and now he was here, on the arm of a husband who had given him a gift.

“They are roseapple blossoms,” Adrio said, gazing out the window as the carriage approached the Sunlit Palace. “In case anyone asks.”

“And what do roseapple blossoms represent?”

“Marriage,” said Adrio. Perhaps he saw something out on the street he disliked, for his eyebrows drew together in a frown. “You’re as beautiful as a roseapple tree on a hill.”

“Thank you,” breathed Cay.


Cay was still smiling when the prince’s majordomo announced their arrival in the ballroom of the Sunlit Palace: “Adrio, Heir of the Bai of Lodola, and Lord Cay of Lodola!”

They entered the ballroom arm-in-arm, and the wealthiest, most powerful people in Lucenequa bowed and clapped. Cay, a foreign-born commoner who had come to Lucenequa as a penniless refugee from war-torn Muntegri, stood tall and smiled, knowing no one but Adrio could perceive how tightly he clung to his husband’s arm. Soft music played, and hanging gold-glass lamps cast warm and shifting shadows, making everyone look beautiful and joyous. Adrio seemed joyous too; his eyes crinkled with pleasure, and his dimples showed as he led Cay toward the dais where the prince was greeting his guests. He slanted a glance toward Cay. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

He had entirely transformed from the cool and silent Adrio Cay lived with into a cheerful and friendly one. But they were in public now, and Adrio, Cay had discovered, was an exceptional actor. An audience always improved their relationship immensely.

As they made their bows to the prince, Cay allowed himself to believe, just a little, that Adrio was not acting tonight. Perhaps tonight he really was as happy and as proud to be seen with Cay as he seemed.

“What next?” Adrio asked after they completed their courtesy to their host. “A drink or a dance? Or shall we go find something to eat?”

Breathlessly, Cay said, “A drink and then a dance?”

“Excellent choice, Husband.” Adrio caught the eye of a passing servant and signaled for two glasses.

Cay was a little surprised to see the servant’s purple-plum hair. She was Chende; she had the characteristic dark eyes and small frame too. He might have asked Adrio about it—Was the palace hiring Chende staff now?—but then Adrio tossed back his drink and invited him onto the dance floor with a smile, and he forgot.

They danced several dances together: the dignified, old-fashioned Lucenequan dances Adrio had had to teach Cay before their wedding. Then, by mutual agreement, they bowed to one another and turned to seek other entertainments. In fine spirits, Cay set about making himself charming, giving his deepest and most respectful bows to the most conservative and crustiest old nobles.

Cay did not belong here. Lucenequan society, these very people, had been scandalized when he’d snagged the Heir of Lodola, one of the oldest, richest, and most respectable holdings in the kingdom. Though most of them were at least polite, and some were genuinely warm, Cay could not forget that these people had once gossiped cruelly about him. Perhaps they were willing to forget that they had once believed he had tricked, seduced, or somehow trapped Adrio into marriage. Cay was not likely to forget it anytime soon.

But tonight, still intoxicated by Adrio’s warmth and gift, it didn’t bother Cay. He chatted with those with open minds and tried not to dimple mischievously at those who would never open theirs. He was here now, whether they liked it or not. And his happiness must have shown on his face as he moved from group to group, for several members of the cream of Valette society smiled with him.

“Lady Faldi,” he said to a middle-aged bai. “How exquisite your necklace is. Those are garnets among the diamonds, are they not?”

She nodded, not encouragingly, but he continued to admire. “Lovely. And as I am from Muntegri, I assure you, I know good garnets. But—” He ventured to tease: “I hope you are not engaged in smuggling, my lady.”

Her nose went up. “These have been in my family since long before the embargo, Lord Cay.”

“That necklace? But that necklace is at the very forefront of fashion.”

Lady Faldi thawed a bit. Cay was stylish, and his approval of a necklace or a gown was coin worth having. “Do really you think so?” she said, touching the necklace. “I did have the stones reset.”

“It is gorgeous. I think everyone who sees you will plan to reset their own old rocks to match it.” They were joined by another noblewoman, and Cay turned to her. “And how does your daughter, Lady Russi? I haven’t seen her tonight.”

“She is home, awaiting harvest,” replied Lady Russi.

“A winter crop?” asked Lady Faldi.

“With the gods’ blessing, yes.”

They continued to speak of Lady Russi’s daughter’s harvest while Cay stood by with an expression of alert interest.

If these women were Muntegrise, Cay would ask after Lady Russi’s daughter’s health and comfort and wish her an easy pregnancy. But they were Lucenequan, and interrupting Starlight Conversation with plain speech was seen as a bit crude—the kind of thing a proper Lucenequan did not do. If he’d had a Lucenequan education, he would know how to invoke some poem or play to wittily hope Lady Russi’s daughter’s fields weren’t full of weeds or vermin, or some other such image. But he was not fluent in Starlight Conversation, and the possibility of accidentally using a vulgar or insulting metaphor kept his mouth shut until he escaped.

Cay flitted from group to group, smiling, dancing, watching, and listening to the chatter. A few Chende were among the servants who circulated unobtrusively through the crowd, bearing trays of food and drink. Adrio had once mentioned something about the new queen wanting to change Lucenequan policy toward the Chende, but he’d steered the conversation away from the topic. Cay reminded himself again to ask his husband about it when they got home and devoted himself to the party.

“Did you see Lord Ultato’s lace collar?” one young lady whispered to another.

“He is quite a peacock in winter. Taste this dessert, my love, it is like cottonwood fluff.”

“Oh, it is! How delightful.”

The music changed to something light and tripping, and a young man interrupted Cay’s eavesdropping. “Dance with me, Lord Cay?”

“I do not think I know this one.”

“Ah, this is the cottonwood song! Come, I’ll show you!”

The cottonwood song involved a good deal of jumping and whirling. Cottonwood did seem to be all the rage: he heard someone’s hairstyle described as “in cottonwood mode,” and a man wondered audibly whether the cottonwood fluff dessert was specially ordered by the prince.

Several dignified older men had their heads together, complaining about jackals. “They’ve always been in the city, but this season the jackals are overrunning the countryside too.”

“Are they breeding? Or are they coming down from the mountains?”

“Oh, these are new ones, I think. Escaped from Muntegri somehow, poor devils.”

The first gentleman snorted with contempt. “‘Poor devils,’ you say? Careful those purple-headed jackals don’t rob you blind while you’re feeling sorry for them.”

“Ah, they do no harm, so long as they keep away from polite folk.”

Along with all the cottonwood and jackal chatter, he heard plenty of references to weeds in a well-tended garden and mushrooms clinging to the side of a mighty oak. He smiled and pretended not to understand who those comments were aimed at.

It was a useful reminder: these people were not his friends. Despite his beautiful suit and the jewels from his beloved husband in his ears, he did not belong. If they were nice to him, it was because they wanted access to Adrio—his money, his taste, his influence. They were getting used to him, but they did not know him. And wouldn’t have let him in the front door if they did.

It was getting late when he was approached by one person here whom he did consider a true friend. Lord Ondrei Rege, Bai of Noresposto, came sailing through the crowd, dispersing his hangers-on with a cheerful “Later! Now I must speak to Lord Cay!” Ondrei was resplendent in butter-colored satin and a collar of yellow diamonds around his throat, and he reached for Cay’s hands and clasped them. “Having a good time, darling?”

“I am.”

“You are a cypress among willows.”

“Thank you. You look very handsome as well.”

Ondrei laughed. “Still no patience with our Starlight Conversation, I see! It would be proper for you to say, ‘And you are a lark among blackbirds.’”

“I fear to give offense, my lord. For all I know, a lark is a symbol of lies and deceit.”

“No, the lark is an excellent bird. You might avoid calling people whip-poor-wills.”

“I will remember.”

“Now let me see your doublet.”

Cay spun.

“Ah, the laces up the back. Did you design it?”

“I did. Do you like it?”

“Very fine. The cinched waist wouldn’t do for me, though!” Ondrei laughed, patting his belly fondly.

Adrio had two inseparable friends: Fonsca Calareto and Bai Ondrei of Noresposto. Ondrei, who might be the richest person in Lucenequa besides his cousin, the queen herself, was a large, good-natured young man with silky fair hair and a silly, ingratiating personality. He loved food and fashion, horses and clothes. He had a thousand friends and no interest in lovers, and seemed to possess a deep aversion to any serious topic of conversation. He might not be the most brilliant of men, but he was unfailingly kind, and he had warmly accepted Cay. It was Ondrei who had stood beside them at their wedding, and for their honeymoon he had loaned them one of his many country homes, Wind House, in the Elurez foothills.

“Will you dance, Lord Cay?”

“I think I would prefer to sit and talk for a little while, if it suits you?”

“It suits me to the ground.” Ondrei led them to a little private grouping of chairs, well away from the orchestra, where they might chat. “Let me guess: you want me to translate some Starlight Conversation for you.”

“If you please, my lord. People have been talking about cottonwood fluff all night, and I haven’t the least notion of what that is or what it means.”

“Big trees. They grow in the river bottoms and make this cottony puffy stuff. Every spring it fills the air and blows on the wind.”

“Oh. A symbol of lightness?”

“Something very pretty flying on the breeze.”

“But why should the prince have ordered a cottonwood-themed dessert?”

Ondrei snorted. “The prince leaves such details to the kitchen staff, I assure you. Drink a glass with me?”

“With pleasure.”

Ondrei signaled a waiter, and when they each had wine in hand, Cay asked, “And have the Chende done something particularly upsetting? Everyone is talking about jackals.”

“Ah, the Chende! You know the queen has reversed her father’s policy on the Chende; she says all are welcome in an enlightened society. But conservatives don’t like any change, you know.”

No one knew much about the Chende: wild and lawless clans who made the passes through the Elurez Mountains impassible, as much a barrier to travel between Lucenequa and Muntegri as the mountains themselves. There were a few Chende in both kingdoms, as well—peddlers, tinkers, itinerant laborers, identifiable by the purple streaks in their hair. They were tolerated with contempt in Lucenequa; loathed and persecuted in Muntegri.

“Is that all? People seemed to be complaining that there are more of them.”

Ondrei tipped his head thoughtfully. “I’ve heard some say Chende newcomers have been appearing in the countryside, gaunt and full of lice, trying to find work. They say they’ve escaped the Muntegrise prison camps and come here as refugees.”

“Surely not. Even if they could escape the prisons, how would they have gotten here? The Grup roadblock certainly lets no Chende through.”

“No, of course not. Some think their brother Chende in the mountains must have let them through.”

“I don’t think so,” said Cay, seriously. “I’ve heard the mountain clans hate the city Chende and kill them on sight. Like wolves killing dogs.”

“Yes, you are not fond of the Chende, are you?” Ondrei smiled at him. “Well, don’t let it trouble you. However it is they come here, they do no harm.”

Cay bit his cheek, hoping to change the tone of the conversation. He teased, “The only way they could get over the mountains would be to fly. I know! That must be why cottonwood is such a rage right now. The Chende float over the mountains, light as cottonwood fluff on the breeze.”

“Cottonwood fluff!” Ondrei laughed heartily. “Chende flapping their arms and flying right over the heads of the poor Muntegrise manning the roadblock! What a joke!”

They laughed together.

“One more thing,” asked Cay. “If you have time.”

“All the time in the world for you.”

“Thank you. Can you tell me why roseapples mean marriage?”

“Oh, roseapple trees. That’s an old one. Where to begin?” He scratched his head, where his fair hair was just beginning to thin at the temples. “It was the great Cinna in The Romance of the Leaves. He compared a spouse to a roseapple tree in a garden, where, sheltered from the winds by the garden walls, it will continue to grow and bear fruit for decades. And then Trantor—or was it Telleri? No, Trantor, I’m sure of it—also wrote about a roseapple tree growing old against a garden wall, which was of course, a reference to Cinna, and by which he meant a good marriage, growing more beautiful over time.”

“How lovely,” said Cay, flushing a little.

“Yes, rather,” agreed Ondrei. “And then Trantor—or was it Telleri? No, Trantor—went on to scold those who would plant a roseapple tree on a hill, where its beauty would be seen by everyone. ‘Keep it close in the garden, where few will see it, and the scent of its flowers will grow sweeter with the years. But do not plant it on a hill, for the winds will twist and blight it, and its limbs become those of a hangman’s tree.’ Good, eh?”

“You’re as beautiful as a roseapple tree on a hill.”

“Very nice,” Cay agreed, through lips gone stiff. He looked out over the crowd of Lucenequans, dancing and laughing. He did not see his husband.

“Those old poets knew their stuff. I say, are you well?”


“Did someone say it to you, about the tree on the hill?” demanded Ondrei, with unexpected quickness. “Only tell me who, Lord Cay, and I’ll see to it they keep their tongue in their mouth from now on.”

“No, no, it was nothing like that,” protested Cay, feebly.

But from one moment to the next, the fun had drained out of the party. Now it seemed too loud, too crowded and hot, too false and dishonest and secretly cruel.

“Lord Ondrei, you know, it’s gotten quite late. I might head home.”

Ondrei nodded. “I’ll fetch Adrio for you, shall I?”

“No, don’t bother him. It’s only two miles home, I can—”

“Absolutely not,” said Ondrei firmly. “He’ll want to take you home. And it would reflect on his honor if you left without him, wouldn’t it? No, no. You sit and finish your wine, and I’ll go get your husband to escort you. Won’t be a tick.”

Damn Adrio, and damn his honor with him, thought Cay, watching Ondrei walk away through the glittering crowd. But he bit his lip and sat, seething, staring unseeingly at the dancing couples, waiting for his husband.

Its limbs those of a hangman’s tree.


“Cay Olau? May I join you?”

A man slipped into the seat just vacated by Ondrei. He appeared to be fifteen years or so older than Cay and burly, with the short-cropped hair of a soldier and the fair skin of a Muntegrise. His accent revealed that he was from Turla, the capital city of Muntegri; it sounded exactly like Cay’s own. On his lapel he wore a red and yellow hexagonal badge.

Inwardly, Cay recoiled. He hadn’t encountered a Grup member in years, and the sight was unexpected and bitterly unwelcome. It was a matter of reflex, almost, to not let his loathing show but instead to curve his lips at the man, to tilt his chin and blink up at him from beneath his lashes. “Oh, but you are mistaken, sir. Since my marriage, I am Lord Cay Santauro or Lord Cay of Lodola. It’s no longer appropriate to call me Olau.”

“Ah,” said the Grup man. “Forgive me, my lord. I meant no offense. But I wanted you to know that I recognize your family name.” He met Cay’s eyes with the straightforward frankness prized by the Muntegrise. “There was once an Olau Pottery on the Fifth Circle, I believe?”

If he intended to shame Cay with his tradesman’s birth, it would not work; Cay was adept at parrying such thrusts. He smiled. “That’s right! And you are from the Fourth Circle, unless I am much mistaken.”

Turla was a city with its back to a looming cliff and its face to a deep river chasm, encircled by centuries-old walls to repel invaders from the north. The need for those defenses was gone, and the city’s population grew, but the walls, the cliff, and the crevasse remained. Unable to spread outward, Turla burrowed down into stone and rose toward the sky. Over the centuries, it came to have distinct levels, each guarded by its own walls and gates: the palaces of the uppermost First Circle for royalty and the highest nobility, down to the desperate slums of the Sixth.

The man bowed. “You are correct, my lord. I am Hob Fierar, Lord Envoy to Lucenequa.”

Cay raised his eyebrows at him. “I didn’t know the Lord Chancellor of Muntegri had sent an envoy.” I didn’t know we were letting Grup snakes cross the border.

“I am but newly arrived,” agreed Hob Fierar pleasantly. “Lucenequa’s new queen wishes to reverse some of the previous monarch’s harsh policies and perhaps repair the relationship between Muntegri and Lucenequa.”

Six and a half years ago, the Grup, a loose coalition drawn from the ranks of the army, the palace guards, and those who supported them, had slaughtered Muntegri’s ancient royal family, from the oldest dowager to a six-year-old prince. The King of Lucenequa had declared Muntegri to be a pariah and severed all diplomatic ties, but he had died last year.

“It certainly will be a mountainous task,” agreed Cay.

The envoy chuckled. “You have adopted the indirect speech of your adopted home,” he observed. “Say rather the plain truth: it will be nigh-impossible due to the hasty actions of Muntegrise and the obstinate resentment of Lucenequans. But one must make a start somewhere.”

Cay nodded, maintaining his friendly expression. The Grup warlord who now called himself the Lord Chancellor of Muntegri had cemented his authority by killing most members of the ancient nobility, anyone else who seemed to oppose him, and not a few hapless bystanders. People had been cut down in the streets and in their homes; others brought ceremoniously to the gallows erected on Level One, designed to hang five people at a time, all day, every day. Cay had escaped the atrocities; his parents had not.

“But that is why I have sought you out, my lord,” Fierar went on.


“You are still a child of Muntegri, I believe,” said Fierar.

“In spite of my accent, I am now a citizen of Lucenequa. My marriage made it so.”

“You have risen to admirable heights here. But I’m certain these people—” the envoy waved a vague hand in the direction of the ballroom “—do not accept you as one of their own.”

Cay did not acknowledge this. “Oh no, they are very kind.”

“They are deceitful, full of pretty words and sideways looks.” Fierar nodded with an air of regret. “And the Muntegrise are too blunt, too quick to action. The fault lies with both sides. Certainly, some of the aftermath of the Revolution was unfortunate. But I am sure you still love your homeland and want to help her prosper.”

Cay had no interest in assisting the Grup. “I’m not sure how I could help.”

“Neither am I. Not at this moment. I still have the dust of the Muntegri Road on my feet! But I hope to find friends here who can bring me news and insight into the doings of Lucenequan society.”

At last, he gets to the point. “Thank you,” he said as though he missed it. “I am happy to make new friends as well, no matter where I am.” Smiling, he stood. “But I am tired and must find my husband now. I wish you the best of luck, my Lord Envoy.”

“I thank you for your good wishes, Lord Cay,” said Hob Fierar, who remained seated. “Perhaps we’ll meet again soon.”

Not if I can help it, thought Cay, bowing.

He made his way along the periphery of the ballroom, entirely fed up with this ball and intending to leave whether he found Adrio or not.

But he did encounter Adrio, who said, “Ready to go so soon?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind. I’ve already made my excuses to the prince and called the carriage around.”

The thought of sitting with Adrio in the close carriage made Cay’s skin itch. “Might we walk? It’s not far, and the night was fine when we arrived.”

“Of course.”

Adrio dispatched the carriage, and they walked out of the arched portico into the streets of Valette. The autumn night was indeed fine, starlit, and cool, and they walked shoulder to shoulder, not touching, in silence.

How Cay had once loved walking with Adrio. In the springtime, they had walked all over this ancient city together, showing each other their favorite places—the sunny plazas at the summit of the hill, the wide thoroughfares, the busy market squares. Beyond the broad avenues near the palace, the medieval character of the city revealed itself: a cobweb tangle of steep, narrow alleys spread out toward the old walls and docks. It was a city of fountains and canals, sunlit courtyards and walled gardens, fragrant with lemon and rose. There were shrines at the street corners, trees and birds and stars carved into the golden limestone walls. The oldest streets were still paved with the rounded stones that had long ago sloshed and rolled in the ballast holds of Lucenequan ships. Once Cay had twisted his ankle on a cobblestone and Adrio had carried him home on his back.

They didn’t speak now as they walked in the cool autumn darkness toward their home. His mind whirled with anger and hurt, and he could not think of a thing to say.

“You seemed to be having a good time,” Adrio commented after a while. “Flying from flower to flower.”

“Shouldn’t I?” snapped Cay.

For the last several months, Cay had gotten into the habit of responding to Adrio’s veiled insults with sweetness. He smiled and flattered him, much as he had just done to the Muntegrise envoy. He’d hoped if he were kind enough, gracious enough, Adrio would rediscover whatever had attracted him to Cay in the first place. Tonight his patience for that pretense had thinned to nothing.

Ahead shone the lights in the windows of Adrio’s townhouse, called Rossoulia for its cinnabar-painted door. Rossoulia was Cay’s home, now: six narrow stories of blond limestone, studded with high windows to let in the light, linked by a spiral stair of white marble. A small walled yard in back let onto stables for Adrio’s beloved horses. Rossoulia was his home for the rest of his life.

At the little shrine on the corner of their street, Cay paused and pulled the roseapple-blossom earrings out of his lobes and dropped them with a clink into the alms box. Walking past Adrio toward the red door, he said, “I find I prefer the sapphires.”

Adrio silently fell into step beside him. Cay sensed his surprise.

“I met the envoy from Muntegri tonight,” Cay said. His voice was unsteady. “A Grup man. He asked me if I truly was a Lucenequan now. I said yes. But I must admit I cannot imagine any Muntegrise spending all that money just to tell someone they are no longer loved. Really! Only a Lucenequan would make such an extravagant gesture.”

After a moment, Adrio said, “Did I make the gesture because I’m Lucenequan?”

“Excellent point, my lord. I so rarely have the slightest idea why you do anything.”

A servant opened the door for them, and without a word, they made their way up toward their rooms, their shoes tapping on the marble stairs.

Cay’s suite was on the third story, Adrio’s on the fourth, up a flight of stairs Cay no longer ever climbed.

He opened the door to his suite and then paused, looking at his husband. “Who wrote about the poor roseapple tree on the hill: Was it Trantor? Or Telluri? Or the great Cinna? Everyone condemns it for its twisted limbs, but what of the careless man who planted it there, doomed to wither with no protection?” Drunk with anger, he threw his habitual caution to the winds. “Do you know what I think is funny, Husband? All the people who think I seduced or tricked you into marriage, all the people who call me a vine, or a weed, or a mushroom—they all pity you. They don’t know the real fool in this marriage is me.”

He slammed the door behind him.


Cay dismissed his servant. His heart was pounding; he was furious and shocked at himself for speaking so savagely to Adrio. He paced, cracking his knuckles, and then, too agitated to remain in this room, threw his window open and climbed up the wall, past Adrio’s ajar window, to the roof.

The night was clear and the stars dim through the hazy Lucenequan night. The roof was home to a large half-tailed stray cat, who perched on a cornice and warily glared at him. Cay stood on the roof and looked out across the spires and monuments and glowing lights of his adopted city. There, with no one to see him but the cat, he remembered.


“We should get married.”

It was their first time alone together in Cay’s little flat. He shared this single room above a restaurant with his sister, Kell, who had gone to spend the night with their cousins. The room was loud with the sounds of the customers below until well into the night, and no amount of cleaning could remove the smell of fried fish and beer. But Adrio had brought a bundle of firewood as a courting gift, and so the room was warm despite the cold rain rattling on the window. They were pressed together in Cay’s narrow bed, naked in the fire’s golden light. Both of them eager for love. But Adrio, the tease, was in no hurry.

“You’re a maniac,” said Cay. “Kiss me.”

Laughing, Adrio pinned him, wrists and legs, and pressed a noisy smooch on his nose. “I want you to be my husband.”

“That is a ridiculous idea.”

“It’s the best idea I’ve ever had.”

“Adrio.” Cay frowned up at him. “I am Muntegrise. My father was a potter.”

“I don’t care. And don’t tell me you do, either, because I won’t believe you.”

“Well, the rest of the world would care,” said Cay.

“It would be my honor to protect you from the world.”

“And who would protect you? Can you imagine the gossip of all those fancy folk? Adrio, someday to be twelfth Bai of Lodola, married to a tailor’s boy? They would flay you alive.”

“I’ve known those fancy folk my entire life. They are not so fearsome.”

Cay snorted. “Only so long as you don’t upset the way things are done. Stop.” Cay tested Adrio’s grip on his wrists. He could not break free, so instead, he pressed upward and parted his lips and smiled when Adrio’s gaze dropped to his mouth.

“Stop talking and kiss me.”

Adrio obeyed, and his mouth was warm and sweet and possessive. Cay’s toes curled, and when Adrio released his wrists in favor of stroking his body, palming his ass, Cay wound his arms around Adrio’s neck and kissed him deeper.

It wasn’t their first assignation—they’d enjoyed some hurried encounters in carriages—but this was different. Now they had privacy and comfort and time. Adrio kissed him like he was praying, and explored him with reverent questionsdo you like this? Have you ever tried this? He was slow, patient, and devastatingly thorough, and it felt like worship. Adrio cradled Cay’s head and stared into his eyes like he was the only other man in the world. He whispered Cay’s name over and over like a prayer.

Cay didn’t want to think about love, or marriage, or any of the things he couldn’t have. He would have this, now, and return it; this sweetness, so good it almost brought tears to his eyes. It was no less sweet because someday it would end; he would have it, all of it, while it lasted.

Later, when the fire was reduced to embers and the restaurant below was quiet at last, Adrio bathed the evidence of pleasure off their bodies and cuddled with Cay beneath his coarse blanket.

“I want you to marry me,” he whispered.

“Adrio . . .” groaned Cay with exasperation.

“No, but . . . I’ve done nothing to deserve the noble status that seems such a barrier to you. My mother, and her uncle, and his father, and all the bais of Lodola before her, all they do is maintain the estate and collect the revenues. I was chosen to be the next bai, and I shall do the same. I hope I shall treat my tenants fairly. And that’s all. For that, something I haven’t even done yet, I’ve wealth beyond what any man could spend in a lifetime, a high place in society, and the respect of people who have never met me and never will. What is it for? Surely the only possible point is this: so long as I behave with honor and do my duty, I have the wealth and power to do as I wish. And I wish to marry Cay Olau.”

“You’re arrogant,” said Cay shakily. “Heir of Lodola, you can’t bend the world to your liking.”

Adrio stroked his cheek with the backs of his fingers, gazing at Cay’s face. “I can walk upon a fresh snow and make the first tracks. What could be easier?”

“You are lying to yourself.”

“Am I?” Adrio kissed him and said, “If you tell me you don’t love me, I’ll be silent. But if you do, you will be lying.”

“Sometimes love isn’t enough.”

“Is it just?” Adrio’s voice went low and throaty with passion. “You believe you cannot marry the man you love because of society’s rules—is that just? What is the honorable response to injustice—conceding to it or challenging it?

“So arrogant,” whispered Cay.

“Yes. But you love me, Cay Olau. When you look at me, your eyes are stars. When you look at me, you tremble with love.” Adrio’s face was so close Cay could feel the brush of lips against his skin. “Marry me. Marry me tomorrow, Cay. I don’t care what the world thinks. You love me, and I shall be the twelfth Bai of Lodola, and I. Love. You.”


They’d married in the early spring, when the fields of Lucenequa were soaked with snowmelt and the mountains were still white. They’d honeymooned at Wind House, the beautiful ancient tower house in the foothills, loaned to them by Ondrei. There he’d picked purple flowers as they pushed their star-shaped heads up from the softening snow, and been scolded:

“What, were you outside in your shirt in this cold night air?”

“It’s not so cold. It’s beautiful.”

“You’re beautiful. Your cheeks are like cherries. Ah, but your feet are frozen! Were you not wearing shoes?”

“I stayed on the cleared path.”

“Foolishness. Were you so confident that I’d warm your toes for you?”

“A week ago I would not have been. But now you’ve married me, and my cold toes are your responsibility.”

Then they’d come to their red-doored house in Valette, to Rossoulia, where they had ignored scandal and made a home, and Cay had never been happier.

And then, in late spring, Adrio had gone on a trip to attend to his properties and returned a week later: sun-browned, tired, and ominously silent.

He’d stopped talking to Cay. He’d stopped touching him, spending time with him, or sleeping with him. With no explanation, Adrio had ordered the servants to move all Cay’s things out of Adrio’s bedroom. He’d always had a suite on the third floor but slept in his husband’s bed. Until this.

“But why?”

“It’s fitting that you should enjoy the privacy of your own suite. Indeed, it has been shabby of me not to see to your comfort sooner. Are you not glad?”

“Adrio. You see that I am not glad.”

“I have seen ugly birds that sing sweetly, and pretty birds that impale grasshoppers on thorns.”

“I— Adrio, I don’t understand you. I just want to be close to you.”

“And you are. You honor me by sharing my home, my title, and my fortune. And I honor you by granting you sole dominion over your own bed.”

Cay had pleaded for an explanation to no avail. He’d tried seduction, tears, begging. When nothing seemed to break through, he’d lapsed into sweetness, giving Adrio his most pleasing side, his warmest words, and his most hopeful glances.

Now, on the roof of his lonely, beautiful home, staring at the stars, Cay paged through his memories of Adrio’s love and wondered.

Had Adrio somehow learned Cay’s secrets?

A hangman’s tree?

No. Impossible. Only Cay’s sister knew, and she would tell no one.

But then, why had Adrio stopped loving him? What had shattered Adrio’s faith? How could he win Adrio’s love back if he didn’t know why it had gone away?

He was just a tree on a hill, vulnerable to the harsh winds, unprotected, still showing his prettiest flowers but rotting inside from grief and longing.

Tears spilled down his face, and his breath shuddered in his chest. Cay buried his face in his arms and cried.

Chapter Two

The morning after the Harvest Ball, Cay carefully applied cosmetics to conceal the signs of weeping and exhaustion under his eyes.

As he came down the stairs, he heard his husband’s voice in the dining room. His heartbeat accelerated as though in the presence of an enemy. He paused on the landing, clenched his fists, and breathed deeply, waiting for calm.

Adrio was saying, “Of course I’ve read about physical natural philosophy. I’ve seen demonstrations of experiments—the magnifying lenses and so forth. But do you really think you can study it for a lifetime?”

“For a hundred lifetimes.”

The second voice belonged to Cay’s sister, Kell. Adrio paid her tuition to the University of Valette—something they would never have been able to afford without him. Cay stood on the stairs and listened to the sounds of the two people he loved most in the world eating breakfast. The clink of a cup in a saucer, the rustle of cloth. And then Kell went on, “The study of the natural forces, things like friction, inertia, and magnetism—it’s how the world works. Professor Curio says the study of natural forces will someday explain everything in the world.”

“Everything?” repeated Adrio, a smile in his voice.

“Don’t laugh,” said Kell. “You see it as a game, something your fine friends do for entertainment at parties. ‘Let us gather round and look through lenses at the wriggly things in the cheese!’ But between the studies of mathematics and natural forces, someday we will know enough to explain the stars, the oceans, and everything. How the world began, and how it will end.”

“How terrifying,” Cay said, coming into the dining room.

He avoided looking at Adrio and came around the table to where Kell, her brown hair messily braided, was plowing her way through a full breakfast of eggs, ham, and praji. He kissed the top of her head. “Good morning, you little rodent-faced brat. What are you doing here?”

“I had a fluxions exam this morning, and then I was hungry.”

“Fluxions at the crack of dawn?” gasped Cay. “Have you been to a physician?”

“It’s almost eleven o’clock, and you know perfectly well what fluxions are.”

As a child, Kell had been sunny-natured, curious, and brilliant. After their exile from Muntegri, she’d retreated into numb silence. That had been the worst time: they’d stayed with cousins who didn’t particularly want them, and she’d felt unwelcome as well as grieving and haunted by memories. She’d crept around silent and hollow-eyed, barely able to groom herself or speak. He remembered cutting mats out of her hair. He was heartened now to see her eating and smiling, with light in her eyes as she spoke of her studies at the university.

Cay was glad she and Adrio loved each other. Adrio was not university-educated, but he, too, had a curious mind, and he read books on all sorts of topics. They often talked about intellectual pursuits. And Kell, habitually wary and quiet with people she didn’t know, was lively and chatty with Adrio. It was one reason Cay hadn’t told her his marriage was so strained. Adrio was her brother too. He never wanted her to feel she had to choose between them.

He sat beside Kell and poured a cup of tea, and she handed him a praji.

“Remind me about fluxions?”



She smiled at him. “Imagine if Mother could have gone to university! She’d have been so happy.”

Cay returned the smile, his lips pressed together against a wince. Kell wasn’t to know he usually avoided this topic with Adrio. “She would certainly have done all the maths,” he agreed.

“Your mother enjoyed studying mathematics?” said Adrio.

Cay turned to Adrio for the first time since he’d shouted last night. He seemed untroubled as he lounged in his chair, graceful and lazy as a big cat. His hair was loosely tied back at his nape, his long-fingered hands wrapped around a teacup. He glanced slyly at Cay out of the corner of his eye and then turned his attention fully on Kell.

He was too smart to be so handsome, too beloved to be so unkind.

Kell said, “Oh, she was brilliant. She could add up father’s accounts just by running her finger down the columns.”

“So could you,” said Cay. “You were doing mathematical puzzles when you were ten.”

“Mother made those puzzles for me. She figured them out first.” Kell smiled at Adrio. “I especially miss her in my mathematics classes. She would have loved them.”

Cay surreptitiously began to crack his knuckles under the table.

“Did your father like maths too?”

“No, he and Cay didn’t really join in the maths.”

“So Cay takes after his father?”

Kell fell silent and cast Cay an apologetic glance.

Cay shrugged one shoulder at her. “Adrio and I once went to one of those parties with the philosophical experiments,” he said. “It was awful, actually. They cut a dog so we could see its blood through the magnifying lenses.”

“What did you see in the blood?” asked Kell, picking up the changed subject.

“I couldn’t bear to look,” Cay confessed.

“Why don’t you ever talk about your parents, Cay?” Adrio asked, pleasantly.

“Adrio did, though,” returned Cay, in the same bright tone. “What did you see in the blood, Adrio?”

Adrio gazed at him from beneath drooping lids. Cay glared back. Kell’s eyes flickered between them.

After a moment, Kell said, “He was a good father, but he was busy. He had a shop to run, and orders to fill. He didn’t spend as much time with us as our mother did. I got to see water from a rain cistern once through lenses and saw lots of little animalcules moving around in there. Did the dog’s blood have moving things in it?”

Adrio relented and smiled at her. “I don’t know if they were animalcules, but you could see little spots. Our hearts were hyacinth petals for the dog, though. We bought her and gave her to a friend down in Lodola.”

“Oh, good. It sounds like she deserved a better home.”

Cay had fallen in love with the dog and asked Adrio to rescue her. It had been their first public outing after Adrio had moved Cay to his own suite, and Cay had been so furious and miserable he’d barely been able to speak to his husband, except for begging for mercy for the dog. He’d also wanted to keep her but had been afraid to ask for so much. The memory was humiliating.

He said, “Can you stay this afternoon, Kell? I’ve hardly seen you since the term started.”

“I really can’t.” She mopped her plate with a praji and finished her tea. “I have to go study my Principles.”

“Whatever Principles are, I’m certain you already know them backward and forward.”

“I do, but there’s a debate this afternoon on the Principle of Levity, and I can’t miss it.”

“What is the Principle of Levity?” asked Adrio.

“The opposite of the Principle of Gravity,” said Kell, grinning at him. “Professor Curio says the nature of some objects pulls them toward the center of the earth, which is gravity, and the nature of other objects pulls them toward the heavens, which is levity. Things like smoke and steam.”

“And cottonwood seeds,” said Cay.

“I guess so. Do they fly?”

“Apparently. Everyone at the ball last night was wearing fluffy white cottonwood motifs.” He returned her smile. “A fashionable illustration of the Principle of Levity.”

Adrio said, “Cay, we are talking about the laws that make the world, not fashion.”

His tone was mild. Kell must have thought Adrio’s teasing was kind, for she laughed.

“Are they real?” asked Adrio. “These Principles?”

Kell shrugged. “It’s a theory. Have you seen smoke-balloons demonstrated? They fill a cloth bag with smoke from a fire, and it goes up. Why does smoke go up, but the unburned wood goes down?”

“I’ve never thought to wonder,” admitted Adrio.

“The Principles are an explanation for observed phenomena. But Professor Redond from Harodj says that’s all nonsense. She says both heat and cold are invisible liquids which go up or down as they are governed by the Principle of Pressure. And others believe the world is made of particles, and energy is created by collisions of the particles, which explains both falling and floating.”

“Which do you believe?”

“I’m not sure. That’s why I have to go to the debate.” She picked up her bag and headed for the door. “Thank you for breakfast.”

“Wait. Kell, take the rest of the praji to snack on.” Cay glanced at Adrio for permission, and he nodded.

“I’ll have Lirano bag them up.”

“Oh, wonderful. I’ll be the envy of my dormitory,” said Kell.

“Sister Kell, next time you come, bring me a book on the Principle of Levity,” Adrio suggested.

“I will bring you ten. Thank you, Adrio.”

When she was gone, Cay and Adrio were alone in the breakfast room. Cay sat in silence, unable to think of a single thing to say.

“I learned so much about your parents today,” said Adrio.

“Why do you care?” demanded Cay.

“Naturally, I am interested in my husband’s family.”

“Oh, naturally,” snapped Cay.

“I’ve asked you about them before. You never wanted to say.”

“They’re dead.” Cay’s voice was still harsh from last night’s tears. “What else?”

Adrio hesitated for a moment and then, in the same reasonable tone, went on, “You told me Kell didn’t like to talk about them because of her grief. But today, she brought them up, unprompted. Could it be you didn’t tell the truth?”

“You don’t give a damn about me, so why are you pumping my sister for information about our parents?”

Adrio snorted softly. “You’ve stopped being a daisy in a field,” he said.

“Aren’t you relieved?”


Adrio stood. Cay did not rise respectfully, as he would have just yesterday. Instead, he remained insolently in his chair, sipping tea.

“I’m going to the palace today,” Adrio said.

“Of course.”

“I’ll be in meetings with my solicitor all day.”


“Don’t expect me back for supper.”

“I rarely do,” said Cay.

Adrio nodded, lips tight. “Until later, then,” he said before striding out of the room.

It would be a long marriage if neither of them was going to pretend to care.

General Details

Word Count: 71,600

Page Count: 242

Cover By: L.C. Chase

Ebook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-997-3

Release Date: 06/03/2024

Price: $4.99

Physical Editions

ISBN: 978-1-62649-998-0

Price: $17.99


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