The drip of the water from the spout was indistinguishable from the drip of his sweat and perhaps even that of his blood. His nose had long ceased to perceive the metallic scent, even though logically, Thara Celehar knew that the barren room must have been rank with the smell.
"Ulis deliver me," he whispered once again, pressing his head to the floor. The motion only served to refresh the dark stain on the stones, one that was rapidly becoming an permanent feature.
Despite the pain, despite the gnawing hunger, despite the hours of prayer and meditation, his thoughts once again alighted on that of Maia Drazhar, Edrehasivar the Seventh.
His Serenity had been so kind as to allow Thara to remain in the Untheileneise'mere, and even took Thara into his confidence.
And yet how did Thara repay him? Sullying the Emperor with marnei thoughts!
Thara never claimed to be a strong elf. He was weak! A stronger person would not have seen his Serenity kneeling at the altar and think of guiding those lips to -
Thara whimpered, pressing his head to the stone again.
"Grant me clarity!" he prayed "Deliver me from these thoughts!"
The grey of the stone mocked him, a shade darker than the slate gray of the Emperor's skin. Thara tried to focus on the cold hard stone, but it only served to juxtapose Serenity's soft skin.
Earlier in the day, Maia had come, flanked by his nohecharei, to visit Thara and inquire about his health - not that Thara deserved such concern - and when Thara had stoked the fire to blazing heat, Maia had discarded his coat onto the table and sat in one of the stiff wooden chairs.
As the Emperor recounted some court chatter, Thara had noticed that Maia was rubbing at his forearm absent-mindedly. The Emperor had mentioned it once to Thara, just after his rule hadstabilized and Thara had been allowed to return to prelacy. Maia had said it was an old wound that hurt in the coldest nights.
"Allow us, Serenity." Thara had said without thinking, reaching for the balm he kept for old bones. Maia had smiled, wide-eyed, trusting, and allowed Thara to undo the cuffs of his tunic, roll down the sleeve to the elbow, then gently massage the balm into his arm.
"It's warm," Maia had said, his voice barely heard over the crackle and roar of the fire. Thara had nearly missed it, too absorbed in how Serenity's skin was soft. Bathed in oils, rubbed with lotion, the edocharei had made every effort to keep Serenity's skin protected from the biting winter cold. Under the soft skin was lightly corded muscle, cultivated via a lot of walking, light training with Beshelar, and a careful diet. Thara, overcome with shame at his own bony appearance and calloused hands, nearly dropped Maia's hand in a hurry. He was unfit to hold the Emperor like so, unfit for such familiarity!
"Hast skilled hands, Thara." Maia leaned forward, allowing Thara more of his soft skin and supple muscle. He sighed in relief of the ache.
Thara's thoughts raced. Would his Serenity sigh like that if Thara kissed him? Would his Serenity allow a kiss in the first place? Was the Emperor so lightly muscled all over? Would the skin across his chest, his shoulders, his thighs, be the same? Would his cock be the same shade of slate gray? An Thara were to take it into his mouth would Maia sigh or would he cry ou-
Thara managed to compose himself enough that he did not fling Maia's arm away from him, instead setting it down carefully and rolling the sleeve back down.
It was fortunate that Maia was no mind-reader, else Thara lose his head there and then! How dare he think such thoughts about the Emperor? The Emperor was not marnis! The fact that the empress was 6 months gravid was proof of that!
No, Maia had no inkling of Thara's depraved thoughts. The Emperor, sweet and trusting and kind, had merely looked worried and leaned forward, pressing a hand against Thara's forehead.
"Art ill, Thara? Thy brow runs hot."
Indeed it did. Not with illness, as his Serenity had thought, but rather with the hot shame of arousal and degenerate desires. Thara, loathe to admit his own perversions, could not say no, for Maia would surely pursue that line of thinking and find out about his sick imaginings.
"We beg your pardon, Serenity, we fear we might not be good company in our state," Thara said, not an outright lie, but enough of one that Maia would make the right assumptions and leave.
The Emperor looked upon Thara with utmost concern.
"Thou must rest," Maia rebuked him gently, patting Thara's hands. He smiled yet again - oh how Thara hoarded each instance and hated himself each time - and motioned for Beshelar.
"Do see to it that Mer Celehar receives a tonic and hot soup."
And he wouldn't hear any of Thara's protests.
Truly, the Emperor was kind.
Yet Thara only repaid him with filthy desires.
Thara lifted the flogger and swung it over his back. The bone pieces caught on his flesh, one against the protruding bone of his hip. The sharp sting and tear of his skin brought him back into the moment. He was nothing, a disgraced prelate on his knees in a prayer room, praying to a God who would not grant him relief. This was his rightful place, not with the Emperor, not in the palace, only ever on his knees begging for forgiveness.
"He- awa- hurt .... again? ....."
The voice faded in and out of Thara's consciousness. It was interspersed with water sloshing in a bowl, soft coughing, and a cool hand upon his forehead.
"...?" he tried to say something, but despite the movement of his throat, it felt as if he had said nothing.
"Shhh, shhh, it's okay," someone murmured, pressing something blessedly cold upon his brow again.
"Where?" Thara asked, trying to focus on the blurry image in front of him. The dim light did nothing to illuminate those features, dark as they were.
"The healing wing," the person said, voice sounding very familiar. Thara could not think, it felt as if there were a thousand hammers pounding away on the inside of his brain.
"Hush now, sleep."
Thara closed his eyes and let the darkness take him once again
There was light playing across his eyelids, a gentle warmth that drew him back to the land of the waking.
The pain that lanced across his back was no more, but his mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton. Thara lifted a hand to his face to block out the light as he struggled into a sitting position.
He was in a soft bed with grey linens, torso wrapped with many bandages.
What had happened?
"Ah, you're awake," a soft voice said.
A glass of water entered his field of vision. Thara grasped it, took a sip that soothed his poor throat, and turned to thank the person.
Csethiro lowered herself into the chair beside the bed with a small smile.
"Our husband has been quite distraught to learn of your illness and injuries, Mer Celehar. Could you please explain to us why you were found unconscious with a multitude of self-inflicted wounds?"
Thara gulped down a mouthful of water and then gripped the bedsheets, too terrified to reply. Csethiro merely waited, letting the silence grow into a heavy presence.
"We were weak. We had to be punished," Thara said at long last.
Thara could not lie to her.
"Disgraceful intentions, zhasan. We would rather not sully your ears." He averted his eyes.
"Oh?" Csethiro didn't seem bothered, or surprised in the least "Disgraceful intentions? Such as the ones where you ravish our husband and drive him mad with pleasure?"
Thara's head flew up and the room spun around him. How had she found out? How did she know? Thara had been careful, he hadn't breathed a word to anyone. He had locked himself away!
"The way your hands linger, the way you watch him, we may not be there in person but we are always present," Csethiro plowed on ahead. Her fingers danced over her abdomen as she spoke.
"Zhasan we would never please, we would not, we could never we're not worthy-" the words came spilling out in an uncontrollable deluge.
Csethiro raised her hand and Thara fell silent, pale-faced in terror.
"We wouldn't," he said weakly, a last ditch attempt to convince her that he wasn't a threat.
"We hoped that you would."
"Our husband, frankly, is an idiot," Csethiro said, a wry quirk to her dainty lips.
A bark of near hysterical laughter escaped from Thara to hear the Emperor called such. He clapped his hands over his mouth in horror and shock.
"He desires you in his bed, but has fooled himself into thinking you do not want him."
"What?" Thara sputtered "But the Emperor is not *marnis*!" He gesticulated wildly at Csethiro's abdomen.
Csethiro gave him a look that could only be described as pitying.
"One can love both," she said gently, leaning forward to place her hands on his, stilling them.
Both? Thara gaped at her. Both? The Emperor loved women and men? He tore his eyes away from her steady gaze. Was this true? Was this just a test? Maybe if he said yes, she would have him hauled to the guillotine. But truly, if he was honest to himself, he deserved any punishment she deigned to give him.
"He will not make the first move," Csethiro said, not waiting for Thara's reply "If you desire him. You must let him know."
The Empress' parting words played in Thara's mind over and over again, interrupting the quiet while he recovered in the healing wing.
Luthio, the half-elf who came in twice a day to change Thara's bandages, could not offer Thara any insight. Thara didn't know if the Emperor's preferences were known to others or not, and could not ask for advice on the matter. Instead, he had to content himself with examining his past interactions with the Emperor, wondering if every brush of their hands, every press of the Emperor's body against his, was intentional.
Surely not? What did the Emperor see in Thara? Thara was unworthy. Prayer had not alleviated his shameful desires, but now the Zhasan had offered him leeway, granted him permission, was it Ulis' way of telling Thara that his fantasies could be realized? Thara fretted. How would he even approach the Emperor? Zhasan had told him to act, but when? How?
Oh Ulis, give us your guidance! Thara prayed.
He didn't have to wait long.
"His Serenity, Edrehasivar the Seventh!" the young voice of Beshelar announced.
Thara blinked as Maia entered the room at a sedate pace, encumbered with many furs. He smiled when he saw Thara, but it did not reach his eyes.
"Truly we are pleased to see you well," Maia said, taking a seat beside Thara's bed. He shrugged off one of the fur coats, laying it across the foot of Thara's bed.
"We... are well, Serenity." Thara dared to raise his eyes and meet Maia's gaze head on.
Maia lowered his gaze, hands folded in his lap, the picture of formality.
"If being within the palace suits you ill, Mer Celehar, you need only say," Maia said. There was no tremor in his voice, even though Thara could see it pained him to make the offer. "We could find you another -"
Thara made a split second decision - one he later blamed on the tonic Luthio had been feeding him - reaching out to grasp Maia's hands clumsily.
"Nay Serenity, we ... we want to stay."
"You injured yourself to escape us," Maia pointed out.
"Nay!" Thara blurted out "Our dark desires of carnal pleasure with one above our station drove us to self-flagellation. We intended to purify ourself because we did not want to sully their good name."
There was a beat of silence where Maia absorbed this information. Slowly, he raised his gaze to look at Thara.
Thara swallowed hard. If Zhasan had steered him wrong, this would either spell his death, or his release. Either way, it would put an end to his problems.
"You, Serenity. Forgive us, please."
Maia's jaw fell open, his dark eyes going wide with surprise. Without needing a prompt, Beshelar and Cala slunk out of the room and shut the door quietly.
"Us... me?" Maia asked.
Thara could only nod.
"I love thee, Serenity, thy great heart and sincerity."
"How long hast thou desired me," Maia's grip on Thara's hands tightened.
"Long enough, Serenity."
"Why doth thou confess now?"
Thara hesitated. Maia took a deep breath and then sighed.
"Twas mine wife, was it not? The Zhasan asked you to entertain me-"
"No!" Thara interjected "The Zhasan did not ask, only gave me permission, an I want it."
"Doth thee desire it?"
"I do," Thara confessed, feeling the blood rush to his face.
Maia sat back in his chair, licked his lips.
The silence between them grew heavy with a charged tension.
"I would like to kiss thee now," Maia said. Thara swallowed hard, leaning forward to allow his Emperor to do exactly that.