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Excerpt for Rainbow Briefs Volume 2 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Rainbow Briefs

Volume 2


Kira Harp

Copyright ©Kira Harp 2018

Smashwords Edition

Edited by Sara Winters


Cover art by Karrie Jax – karriejax.com © 2018



License Notes


All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the original purchaser of this e-book ONLY. No part of this e-book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without prior written permission of the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Content warning: some stories may contain references to abduction, substance abuse, self-harm, or suicidal ideation.

Introduction


These stories were first posted in draft form on the Goodreads Young Adult LGBT Books Group. Every month for years now, the group has voted on a picture prompt as an inspiration for members to create short fiction or poetry.

We have wonderfully creative folk on the group and have accumulated a wide range of pieces, from haiku to 12,000-word stories and all lengths and formats in between. Each story features YA characters with some element of LGBTQ. Many of the best stories aren't mine, but since I write for every prompt and had dozens of stories on the site, Sara Winters convinced me to do a collection of mine, to make them more generally available. With her editing help, the first collection— Rainbow Briefs— was released in 2013, and readers seemed to enjoy it.

Since then, I've written many more stories. Sara suggested that a second collection could be fun. This volume consists of additional stories from new prompt pictures, with characters across the LGBTQ rainbow. If you like these, do come check out the work of all our members. We also have Book of the Month readings, and keep lists and suggestions for YA LGBTQ fiction. There's a link at the back of this book to make it easy to find us on Goodreads, or you can search with the group name. I've also included at the end of this volume some of the helplines and resources we have posted on the group. If you're looking for a place to chat, or to get information, or a sympathetic ear, check those lists. Life has its ups and downs, but they're easier to get through when you can find people who'll be on your side


- Kira Harp

Aug 2018

Acknowledgments


Without Sara Winters, these stories would never have left the draft stage on the Goodreads YA LGBT Books group. Thank you, Sara, for your encouragement and editing (and pushing, and nudging, and occasionally much-needed nagging), and your unfailing enthusiasm for my writing that got me eager to polish and refine these and made this book possible. Many thanks to Eric, Kate, and K-lee for beta reading and the suggestions about which stories to include and where to make changes. Love and gratitude to Jonathan Penn, who not only did an amazing beta read, but created a spreadsheet with suggestions about order and length. And my gratitude to Aidan Zingler for zir invaluable help and advice on the stories with a gender identity focus. It takes a community to raise a book, and I’m lucky to share an amazing community.

Dedication


For all the young people who are hoping, dreaming, and working to create a world that’s more inclusive, more fair, more compassionate, and more full of rainbows than the one they were born into.

Table of Contents


Rainbow Briefs 2

Copyright

Introduction

Acknowledgements

Dedication


All of Me, With Dragon

ILYA

In the Words of the Bard

Not the Cat’s Meow

My Girl

The Strongest Shape

With Teeth and Blade

Lifeline

Ephemeral

Little Brothers Can Make a Person Crazy…

Dangerous Wishes

Letters from Abroad

Beginnings

The Trap of Songs

Second Chances

Flash of Red

Free Choice

Through a Door, Darkly

Expectations

Recollections

Well-Met by Moonlight


LGBTQ Helplines and Resources

About the Author

Also by Kira Harp

All of Me, With Dragon


photo description: A slender figure stands inside a stone hall, submerged to the waist of her elegant dress in a pool of water. Her long, dark hair is held back from her pointed ears with an elaborate diadem. A gold armband worked in similar curves wraps around her upper arm. All of her attention is focused on the face looking into hers – the narrow muzzle and intent eyes of a scaled, spiny, sinuous, cat-sized dragon, wet and dripping in her hands, its long tail draped across her wrist.



I knew before I opened my eyes that this was a girl day. I felt softer, and my body rested on my down mattress lightly, almost weightlessly. The sheets glided over my skin when I moved my legs. I smiled, opened my eyes, and looked up. Through the skylight above me, the clouds scudded thick and dark across the sky. It was odd, how often a dark and stormy day woke the girl in me. Somehow, I felt stronger to stand against the wind and rain as a girl.

Like being a princess makes me a weather goddess? Hah.

The self-mockery didn’t keep me from leaping dramatically out of bed and laughing up at the brewing storm, from the safe haven of my stone bedroom. I pulled off my sleep-shirt and cleaned up, using a razor to shave myself silky smooth all over. I’m not hairy anyway, but on girl days I want my skin to shine. I combed out my hair and clipped it back loose with a feminine diadem around it, instead of doing the tight braid with the tuck under. My silk dress went on like flowing water over my sensitized skin. I love, love, love the sensual quality of girl days.

My father called to me from the front room, “Kana? Are you coming to breakfast?”

“Just a minute!” I did a quick whirl and strike, making sure this new dress didn’t cling too tightly for me to kick and run, because girl does not mean fainting flower. Then I headed down the hallway.

When I entered the eating room, he looked up. As usual, I saw the moment of calculation, when he looked at my dress, my hair, and shifted his expectations for me. I’d been his prince solidly for the last week, so he’d probably seen this coming. “Hey, honey,” he said. “Your mother left early, so we’re fending for ourselves. I made oatcakes.”

I glided over and kissed his hair, wound an arm around his neck. “Thanks, Father.”

He smiled. “Sit and eat. You’re too skinny.”

“Hah,” I said under my breath. Every inch of me was honed muscle and he knew it well. But Mother was plump and round, and Father claimed to like that in a girl. I bit into an oatcake with darinberry jam and licked my lips. He slid the pitcher to me. “Have some milk.”

“So,” I said, remembering to take smaller bites, “What’s the plan for today?”

“Well, the ambassador from Croyden is presenting Princess Anali to court. I’d thought…” He looked me up and down. “Well, I guess it’s up to you. You can come and sit through the ceremony, or not, as you please. You’ll have to be there for Betrothal tomorrow, of course.”

“I’ll come today.” I bit the next cake harder. He tries, my father the King. He truly does. Here inside our apartments, with all duties and servants left at the door, he tries to be the perfect father. He works so hard to accept me on all my days, even the ones where I’m remote and not girl or boy, but my cool and unknowable self. But he can’t help wishing, I think. Wishing that I’d make his life just a bit easier as his heir. He’d probably meant to present his son, Prince Kana, to the princess today. Instead he got his daughter.

I almost offered to go and change. I could do it, become the other, even if my heart wasn’t in it. But I hated to wear my selves like a disguise, when they didn’t fit. And if the princess was truly meant to be my consort, she’d have to deal with girl-me soon enough. Better now, before the betrothal, when she could still back out gracefully. I licked the jam off my fingers. “You’re a better cook than Mother is.”

“I should be.” He snorted. “Your grandfather made his sons care for ourselves on hunting trips, to toughen us up. Your Uncle Ton is a terrible cook, so I learned in self-defense. While your mother’s parents never let her white hands so much as touch a pan.”

“So she says.” I had to smile. My mother had never been the society type. My father likes to tell of their betrothal day, when they wrote their one true concern in the Question Books. His question was, “Do you truly want children, or just feel obliged to have them?” Hers was, “If I marry you, can I study medicine?” It turned out to be a match made by the gods, although the only child they got from it was me.

Father stood. “I have to go get started. There’s a lot of business on my plate this morning. Princess Anali is due to be presented an hour before the noon bell. I think there’s nothing to catch your interest before then, so there’s no need to arrive earlier.” His forehead furrowed, and he seemed to look inward. I wondered what the trouble was.

“I’ll be there at late-morn bell then,” I said. “Good luck with the morning court.”

He made a sour face. “I’ll need it. If Noble Duran complains once more about Xeres moving boundary markers, I’ll probably…”

“Patiently send out a squire to measure it off again.” I went and kissed him. “You’re the best peacemaker ever. That’s why the malcontents like Duran are so unhappy.”

“Well, I try.” He managed a smile. “I’ll see you later, daughter.”

As he opened the door of our suite, I saw his bodyguard go from parade rest to alert. Father waved, and then closed the door behind him. So. A morning to myself…

I had tasks I could do, including an archive of old books I was happily cataloging. But I had no patience for that today. I decided to go check on the hatchlings and say a word to the Dragonmaster. He was the wisest man I knew, and for some reason my father’s ordinarily calm demeanor had shown a few cracks this morning. I wanted to know why.

I put on sturdy boar-hide boots. Briefly, I considered changing my dress to more practical trews as well, but I liked the feel of the silk, and the contrast with the high black boots. Anyhow, I wasn’t going to be working with the dragons today, just talking to the Master. I buckled on a girdle around my waist, the one with a secret blade concealed on the side. I even reached for my dagger, but in the end I left it. I wasn’t sure why I felt the urge to armor up, but the dagger was overkill within our own castle walls.

When I stepped out of our rooms, Jo was waiting as my guard of the day. She gave me a nod, then fell in at my right, where I wouldn’t block her sword arm. “Where to, Your Highness?”

“The mews,” I said.

“Very well, Your Highness.”

I made a face. “Seriously, Jo. Can’t you call me Kana, the way the others do?”

She shook her head, shaking the tiny braids of her hair. “It’s not fitting.”

“Not even if I ask it?” I gave her my slow smile.

She averted her eyes. “No, Your Highness.” Her next step opened up a little more space between us.

All right, I wouldn’t push. I’d noticed that Jo was more formal on the days when I was a girl. Whether it was from distaste or attraction, I still hadn’t quite figured out. She was an intense woman, solitary and focused, an amazing fighter. I’d never heard her name paired with anyone, male or female. I trusted Jo with my life, because my father did, but I didn’t really know her.

The mews were reached by way of two long hallways and three flights of stairs. The dragons preferred the deeper reaches of the castle. They needed dark, cool nooks, cut into solid rock, for sleeping, and they loved the bathing pool. They’d pop in and out of sight over the surface, shutting their wings to drop down like living stones into the water. As a child, I’d spent hours watching them at play down there.

I knocked on the outer door. As a Royal, I could, of course, have just walked in. But I’d no more barge into the Master’s domain without permission than walk unannounced into my parents’ bedchamber. There was a pause, then the door opened. A boy’s face appeared, at my shoulder level. “Oh, it’s you!” The pale face reddened immediately. “I mean, Prince Kana, oops, Princess Kana, come in.” The boy tugged the door wide.

I smiled at the young page as I entered. He’d only been on mews duty a week. As far as I knew, he’d never seen me in a dress. “Is the Master around?”

The boy ducked his head. “Oh, yes, Your Highness. He’s with the hatchlings.” He pointed across the cavern.

When he turned to lead the way, I said, “I can find him. You go back to your work.” I wanted to talk to the Master alone.

The boy looked unhappy, but ducked his head again and picked up a scraper and bucket, heading across the cavern. Clearly the master had set him to cleaning out the sand pit. No wonder he was looking for a reason to take a break, but for all my sympathy— I’d done that job for one long week, as part of my education— I wasn’t going to let him tag along. In fact, I also told Jo, “You wait here, by the door.”

She said, “His Majesty asked us to be more vigilant this week.”

“He did?” I took a short breath. “Why?”

“It’s not my place to speculate.”

“It is if it makes me safer, to have some idea where the threat lies.”

She hesitated. “Perhaps because the delegation from Croyden is staying within the walls? He just told us he had a bad feeling about this week. Even before they arrived, though.”

“Hm.” My father’s hunches were notorious. In fact, some of the staff thought he was god-touched and could see the future. My mother said he was just an excellent observer of people and could see when something was a bit off. Either way, it wasn’t a good sign. “Nonetheless, you will wait here. Nothing’s going to harm me around the Master. Not even a dragon.”

“True.” She took a few calculated steps, pausing with her back to the wall, where she was in a position to watch me and the door. “I’ll be over here.” She eased into parade rest, looking like she could stand there stoically all day.

One of the guardsmen, Ry, had told me being a bodyguard was a very boring job, other than the rare moments when you wished it was more boring instead of terrifying. “Thank you,” I told her.

I walked toward the hatchling room, circling around the pool. The smooth stone floor of the chamber echoed to the sound of my boot heels. I didn’t bother trying to walk quietly. No one successfully sneaked up on the Master, no matter how silent they were. In the arched doorway I stopped, peering in.

I’d thought this season’s hatch was done, but to my surprise, the Master was bent over one of the nests, the mother dragon perched on the curved edge behind him. A female dragon is the size of a furious cat, but with far more mobility, and better weapons. One scant stone’s weight of scaled full-out predator, if she was angered, against fourteen-stone of man? An ordinary man would be in deep trouble.

I froze, watching, hoping nothing would set off her protective reflexes. The Master would be devastated if he had to hurt her. She chirred anxiously, her head bobbing on her small, slender neck. The Master held still as a lean, dark statue. With eggs hatching, I thought I should go, but he breathed, “Kana. Come help. Softly.”

Now I did toe off my boots, trying to be silent. I padded across the stone in bare feet and stopped at his side. No wonder he’d called to me. There were three small eggs in this nest rather than one or two. All three showed a fine network of cracks in their translucent shells. The center one rocked slowly. The Master said quietly, “The big one on the left is yours. I’ll deal with the other two.” He didn’t need to say more. I bent at the knees, slow and whisper-smooth, picked a round joyfruit out of the bowl at his feet, and held it in my fingers. Just as slowly I straightened.

The mother dragon looked at me, her multicolored eyes flashing. She was about the length of one of my arms, whip lean and spiked, thinner than normal now after her vigil at her nest. She raised her crest at me, then lowered it. She was lovely the way a sword is, the way a fighting woman is, all sinew and muscle. For a moment, I almost thought I heard her mindspeech, but of course that was impossible. Only their bond-linked and the Master could hear the dragons.

The Master relaxed slightly beside me, without looking away from the eggs. “Focus, Kana.” He had one joyfruit in each hand, held steady, waiting.

The eggs cracked, wobbled, split apart. Mine was first, by a fraction of a second, but the other two broke as one. Sharp dragon-beaks emerged, gaping wide. Quick as we could, the Master and I tucked a fruit into each of the gaping, razor edged maws. My dragon snapped for hers, and I dodged quickly. It wasn’t the little cut I was worried about, but the blood. Lose so much as a drop of blood into that hatchling meal, and the dragon would become predator indeed, hunting human flesh ever after. I smooshed the soft fruit into the hatchling’s mouth and she bit down on it.

Following her instincts, the mother dragon arched her long neck over the nest, retching, bringing up her babies’ intended first meal. From the look of the mess, she’d found a rodent of some kind for them. As one, the Master and I deflected the flow, shielding the fruit-gorging babies and catching the meat meal in our hands. I’d vomited myself, the first time I’d done this. The Master, damn him, had laughed. But now I just dunked my hands in the bucket of water he had set ready. He let me go first in the clean water. I was the Princess, after all.

Her duty done, the mother dragon curled back into her pose on the nest edge. If the babies had cried or choked or called out in hunger, she’d have gone for us in a fury of teeth and claws. But they chewed down their fruits, not even snapping toward each other’s tidbits. It looked as though they hadn’t tasted a single trace of the meat. It was good. They’d be mellowed now, far more likely to stay close to the castle and eventually bond, something that rarely happened with a meat-imprinted hatchling.

The Master gave me a nod as he washed his hands. “You were very timely. I was afraid I’d lose one to meat eating.”

“What about that new page-boy of yours?”

The Master snorted. “The mother would’ve had him for lunch. He’s too jumpy yet.” He shook the water off his hands and ran a finger over the crest of the mother dragon, crooning to her. “Ah, little one, if you’d told me you were sitting on three eggs, we’d have been better prepared.”

She managed somehow to look smug, as she accepted the caress.

I said, “I’ve never seen three.”

“They’re very rare.” The Master gave the dragon one more rub and stepped back. “Sometimes I have a hint, but she kept her eggs hidden the whole time and didn’t give me so much as a glimpse.”

I reached for the towel he’d brought to dry my hands, and noticed a bit more of… something I didn’t want to recognize under one nail. I rubbed my skin vigorously. “I still don’t see how the mothers always manage to get some kind of meat meal into their holding-pouch before gestating. She’s fruit raised, isn’t she?”

“Oh yes, like the rest.” He shrugged. “A thousand years of evolution. We haven’t gotten around that one yet. Parental instincts are strong.”

He gave me an oddly intent look as he said it. I was emboldened to say, “Speaking of parents…” I let it trail off and saw enough encouragement in his expression to continue. “My father’s worried, and the guards are jumpy.”

“Yes.” He gestured with his head. “Come away.” We walked over to the side of the hatchling room. From there we could see the new mother, still keeping her vigil on the side of the nest. There were a dozen other nests around the room, several of them still holding singletons or pairs of babies. All the other mothers had moved on, though, as soon as the babies had matured enough to stand up. The little ones snored or rustled around in their nests, sleeping the day away.

It would be weeks yet before any were ready to try to bond. I wondered how many would find a human to link. The Master had raised his success rate with each generation. His skill with the little drakes was legendary, and there were dozens of people now around the castle who had a dragon familiar acting as guard, message bearer and companion. But still most of the little dragonets would scorn us and fly off to the wild. It was foolish, but I hoped the triplet baby I’d fed would be one to stay.

The Master said, “All I know is that your father also sent me word to be alert for trouble.”

“Just that? Nothing specific?”

“No.”

“Could it just be a general precaution, with strangers in the castle?”

“It could. But His Majesty is a very astute man. Watch your back, my princess.”

“I have Jo for that,” I quipped.

Foolish of me, because a second later I felt a small blade prick the back of my neck under my hair. “Watch your own back, my princess.” I stood still as stone, and a moment later the sharp tip vanished.

I had to wait for my heart rate to return to normal, even though I knew I had nothing to fear from the Master. “Yes, sir,” I muttered.

“I think that His Majesty’s feeling of danger has been around longer than the new delegation,” he said, as calmly as if he hadn’t just held a deadly weapon on a member of his royal family. “He asked me two weeks ago to present you to the next batch of bond-ready hatchlings, as soon as possible.”

“Maybe just so I’d have something to impress the coming princess,” I suggested. I’d been presented twice now. The first batch had all refused to bond, one by one popping out of the room and away. The more recent hatch had chosen not one but two women from the assembled candidates, but passed me by. “Maybe he thinks I’ll look more desirable with a dragon on my shoulder.”

“Foolishness. You don’t need a dragon for that.”

I flushed, but said, “I don’t know. I’m strange. Who would want to partner with someone like me? Unless they’re in it for my link to the throne, in which case I don’t want them.” My father wouldn’t force me to a horrid match, but while he and Mother had the good fortune to marry in love, I’d probably have to settle for tolerance. A wedding wasn’t optional, and allegiances mattered.

“Many would want you,” The Master murmured. “If you don’t know that, you’re not watching the people around you closely enough.”

“If you mean Troy…” The Master’s last assistant had been reassigned, after some rather obvious drooling over me in my boy form.

The Master snorted. “Troy didn’t take any watching at all. No, Your Highness. I’ve seen half a dozen other men, and two women, who are more than interested.”

I blinked, trying to think who they might be. Jo? Maybe, but six men…

“Unfortunately, none suitable for Consort,” he said. “But whether as girl or boy, you attract notice. And desire.”

“Oh.”

My warm cheer was cooled when he said, reflectively, “Although not always in both guises to the same person.”

And there it was. Even the Master knew I was strange. As I stood there, wondering who among the men I knew wanted me, and how, there was a loud croon from the mother dragon. She shook herself and stretched.

“There. The babies are settled now.” The Master locked gaze with the mother for a long minute. I knew they were speaking mind to mind. It was his gift. He turned to me eventually. “She says she would like to bathe, but she is feeling weak. Would you carry her to the pool?”

“I…” Dragons usually only wanted to be handled by their bond-link if they had one. “Yes.”

“Slowly.”

I went back to the nest and reached my hands toward the edge. The mother dragon got up and shifted over into my arms. She was compact and solid, feeling heavier than I knew her to be. She wrapped her long, sleek tail around my wrist. The barbed tip tapped my forearm gently.

“Take her to the pool.” The Master’s tones were gentle, and calm, whether for me or the dragon I wasn’t sure.

I glanced down in the nest where the hatchlings slept, curled together, the birth fluid dried, a fleck or two of joyfruit around their tiny beaks. The mother turned to look with me, and then she flicked her gaze up to meet mine. Something warm buzzed in the back of my mind. Warm. Cool water would be good.

I carried her through the archway into the main room. When Jo saw what I held she straightened, but didn’t move a step. I’d meant to set the mother, Malena, into the water at the edge of the pool, but she preferred the cooler depths. And when I hesitated, looking at my dress, I saw there was a fleck or two of, oh, yuck, something, on the skirt. Since I was barefoot, I just waded into the pool, still carrying her.

The water was silk-smooth on my bare legs. The fabric of the skirt clung, like gentle hands on my thighs. The stone floor gave way to sand, firm and stable, resilient beneath my feet. I waded in until the water reached my hips, soaking the stained parts of my dress.

Malena wanted to be lowered there, so I let my hands drift slowly down under the surface a few inches. She wriggled in my grasp, enjoying the feel of moisture on her parched skin. She lowered her beak to drink, and the wash of cold liquid down her throat was a taste of pleasure after two weeks of gestating without eating or drinking. Every pore in my little dragon’s body seemed to open up to take in water.

She looked up at me. Good, good, good.

Yes. I thought.

Eat next? She was hungry enough to snatch a joyfruit from her own hatchling’s jaws now.

Greedy, I chastised her. Those are your growing babies.

I’ll get my own. She suddenly disappeared from my hands, the water frothing and air popping and crackling between my fingers. I was left standing in the deep pool, my empty hands out in front of me. I turned to stare at the Master. “By all that’s holy, what…?”

He grinned. I don’t think I’d ever seen the Master grin. It lit his face like a young boy’s joy. “It would appear, Your Highness, that you have a dragon.”

“I… Just like that?” I’d seen bonding ceremonies, attended them. There was food to tempt the dragonets with, candlelight and soothing music, hatchlings flying around, popping in and out, most of them drifting off to the wilds but a few returning, returning, drawn to one man or woman, until they came to rest on the chosen one’s shoulder. Then the sharing of fruit and wine from the bond-link’s mouth to the dragon’s. Slow words spoken by the human, while the dragonets hummed and chirrred. It was like a dance, and Malena and I had skipped all the steps.

The Master shrugged. “You don’t think the first bond-links in times past all happened to have joyfruit and sloe wine handy, and all that lovely poetry to recite? I imagine what you just did is the classic version.”

“Well.” I managed to get out of the water before sitting down hard. “Oh.”

The Master said, “I’ll send word to your father. He’ll be delighted.”

“Should I wait here? Till she…till Malena comes back?”

He smiled gently. “She’s your dragon now. She can find you wherever you are. You should probably go change out of your wet things.”

“Oh, yes.” I stood, as gracefully as I could manage in the clinging wet skirt. “Jo?”

She came toward me, a slight flush on her high, dark cheekbones, not quite meeting my eyes. “Yes, Your Highness?”

“Home, I guess. And, don’t tell anyone, right?”

That took care of the blush. She raised her chin. “I never gossip about you, Your Highness.”

“Of course not.” I tugged the skirt flatter. “My boots…”

“I’ll get them.” Jo hurried toward the hatchling archway, an odd stiffness to her gait.

I glanced at the Master and raised one eyebrow, in a gesture laboriously copied from Mother.

He cleared his throat. “That dress becomes quite, er, transparent when wet.”

“Oh.” I looked down. Sure enough, if you cared to, you could make out enough to know I shaved, everywhere. And which equipment I had. “Damn.”

He went to the shelves on the wall and passed me a towel. “That might help.”

Wrapped around my hips, it was just long enough to be decent. If I didn’t move too fast. “Thank you.”

He nodded. “You don’t need the whole bond-link lecture, do you? You apprenticed here long enough, I imagine you could recite it yourself.”

“Yes.” Feed your dragon when she comes to you. Speak with her often, so it becomes easier. Don’t worry if she spends time away from you, but summon her now and then with treats, so she learns to know your call. Make a place for her in your rooms… It had sounded easier when I hadn’t had Malena’s wild, dry voice in my head. She didn’t seem like someone you could summon.

With a pop, Malena appeared in the air above my head, as if she’d heard me think of her. She hovered, wingless, buoyed by her own thoughts, then dropped enough to slip a claw into my hair, tug a strand free, and pop away again. I pressed a hand to my head where my scalp smarted, and stared at the empty space above me. “What was that?”

The Master laughed. “Oh, she’s bonded all right. Taking something with your scent back to her old nest already. You may have your hands full with that one.”

“Wonderful.”

He touched my arm. “Yes. It is. You’ll see. And here’s your guard with your boots.”

Jo set the boots on the floor beside me. The Master offered an arm for me to cling to as I forced my wet feet into them. He said, “Go get cleaned up. Be well. Watch out for your dragon.” I got that amazing grin again. “Call me if you need anything. You’ll do fine. Congratulations.”

I let Jo guide me back through the familiar route to my room. My head was full of strangeness and my feet… arrgh, sand in boots. “Wait.” I stopped in the first hallway. “This is driving me crazy.” I took off my boots, shook them out, and then hesitated. “Don’t look.” I unwrapped the towel from around my waist and rubbed at my sandy soles.

There was the sudden tread of several pairs of feet on the stairs ahead of us. The boot heels struck with an oddly loud ring, foreign to my ears. I stood quickly, dropping the towel to let my hand drift near my hide-out knife in my girdle. Jo stepped ahead and to one side, her hand on her sword hilt.

A brace of unfamiliar men came into view, striding in lock step, with another pair behind. Between them walked a woman. She was small and plump, perhaps a decade older than me, with long red curls and milk-pale skin. Her mouth was generous, wide for beauty but perfect in shape. The points of her ears were elegant, her fingers dimpled and delicate. She glanced at me, and her green eyes widened. Her gaze tracked down me, and back up. Then she flushed and her lips parted. Even that was fetching on her. I couldn’t help a smile.

Her men would have walked on past, but she put out a hand to stop them. “Hello.” Her voice was warm, like new-collected honey.

“Hello.” I met her gaze, watching her pupils dilate and the flush fade from her skin.

She smiled back at me. “We seem to be lost. I’m supposed to be headed to the main presentation hall, but this doesn’t seem to be it.”

“Gods, no,” I laughed. “You’re way off course. Don’t you have a minder?”

One of her guards muttered, “Courtesy to the princess, please.”

She gave him a little headshake. I blinked. Princess? “You wouldn’t happen to be Anali?”

“Princess Anali of Croyden,” the oldest guard growled.

I looked down at myself, wet, sandy, barefoot, and nearly indecent. I couldn’t help a laugh. “I’m Kana.”

Prince Kana?” The guard looked like he was going to swallow his tongue.

I watched Anali, though. “Sometimes.”

I waited, for the little moue of distaste, or the careful blank eyes. But instead she smiled, a tiny dimple appearing in one plump cheek. “Not today, apparently.”

I gestured at the dress. “Not at this moment.” Although I suddenly felt bigger and stronger, next to her sweet, compact form.

“Wow, interesting.” Her smile didn’t dim. “Still, we’re supposed to find that hall?”

“I could show you…” It occurred to me that if she was due in court, probably so was I. “Ack. What’s the time?”

Jo said coldly, “Mid-morn bell went while you were, um, bathing.”

I hadn’t even noticed. “Crak-it. Damn.” I tugged a boot back on. I tried to ignore the show I was giving Anali in wet clothes; part of me was delightedly noticing that she wasn’t ignoring it. “Must change. I can’t show you there myself. Jo, would you guide them?” I stomped the other boot on.

“I’m not leaving you unguarded,” she hissed at me.

“I can look after myself.”

“Not a chance.”

I smiled though my teeth at Anali. “Will you excuse us a moment?”

Before I could pull Jo aside, Anali said, “I wouldn’t dream of taking your guard from you, Your Highness. Perhaps she could guide us to your room, and then find someone to take us the rest of the way?”

“Great idea,” I said immediately. “Come on.” I set a fast pace off down the corridor, before Jo could come up with reasons not to show strangers where the Royal rooms were. The others trailed along behind me perforce, up the stairs and down the hall. When we reached the Royal suite, one of my father’s guards stood at the door. I stopped, far enough down the hall to have one less pair of ears on us. Ignoring the rest, I gave Anali my best smile. “I’ll leave you here. Jo will steer you right. See you in court.”

Anali’s look was warm with humor. “I’ll be the one with the overdone crown.” She pointed at a basket her fourth guard was carrying. “Too heavy to walk in.” Her guards frowned at her as one, but she tossed her head, setting her curls bouncing.

I said, “I’ll be the one in drier clothes.”

“Oh, not on my account,” she breathed with a saucy smile.

It was my turn to blush. “Jo, show them the way?”

“As soon as you’re inside the suite, Your Highness.”

I turned away and hurried inside, brushing past my father’s man at the door. To my surprise, my father stood in the main room, tapping his foot. He looked up as I came in.

“Kana. Thank goodness. And congratulations.” He grabbed me in a short hug, cut off by the dampness of my clothes.

“Thanks.” I stepped back. “I need to change.”

“Definitely. And there’s no time to talk. Damn.” He touched my hair. “Kana. I need a favor. Could you go with boy-clothes for this? I hate to ask, but…”

“No. That’s all right.” I looked at him. “What’s up?”

“That fool Duran may have more up his sleeve than I’d planned for. No time to explain. I’m sorry to ask it of you.”

“It’s all right.” I had an urge anyway to shift lanes, to see what sweet Anali said when she met Prince Kana. “Ten minutes? Maybe a bit more?”

“I can’t wait for you. Have Jo bring you down when you’re ready.”

“All right.” I didn’t mention I’d sent Jo on an errand. Knowing her, she’d be back in double time as soon as she’d delivered Anali and her guards.

Father kissed my forehead. “You’re the best.”

I suddenly clutched at his sleeve. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather have had a real prince? Or a real princess, perhaps. Instead of in-between me?”

“Not a chance.” He smiled. “You keep everyone on their toes. It’s a good thing.” Then he was gone out the door, leaving an empty space with the hint of his favorite vanilla scent.

I hurried to my room to change. For a while I stood in front of my mirror. Changing from girl to boy wasn’t as simple as putting on the right clothes. Kana the boy was different, inside, not just out. I stood looking at the mirror as I stripped off my wet clothes, piece by piece, revealing my body, with the sleek, hairless limbs. When I was naked, I turned away. I let the calm of my room wash over me, and thought about Anali. And about Malena, my dragon. Too much in one day, perhaps. Excitement and nausea warred together, making me sick and dizzy, and I rubbed my flat stomach.

There was a pop of air, and Malena appeared overhead. I jumped, flailed, and almost put a hand through the mirror. “Knock first,” I snapped at her.

She chirred at me, head tilted. You’re sick?

No one was sure how much dragons understood. More than dogs, less than men. It was a wide range. I didn’t try to explain. Just worried. Nervous. I’ll be fine.

She opened a claw, and a golden soli-fruit dropped free onto my bed. You should eat. Air stirred again, as she popped out of the room.

Huh. I picked up the fruit. It smelled good. By long habit, I went to set it aside. Who knew where she got it, or from whom. But then I remembered the Master telling someone, Trust in the bond. Trust is the bond. Dragons know, somehow, what their people need. It’s a lucky, lucky man who has one. I bit into the fruit. It was still warm from the sun, sweet and good, and as I ate it, my stomach and heart did settle. I straightened, licked my fingers, and dropped the pit into the trash. Father needed the Prince today. I could give him that.

Court dress meant stockings and breeks, tunic and blouse, and tail-cut jacket over it. I chose my favorite blues, the same shades as the dress. I could call for help at the pull of a bell-rope, but by now I was adept at all the fastenings and little buttons, and much preferred to dress myself. I combed my hair and braided it flat to my head, horse-tail tight, with the end threaded under and one clasp in to hold it. Prince Kana wore the more masculine coronet, without the curves and drop-jewel of the diadem I’d chosen this morning. I set the coronet straight on my hair. A quick look in the glass said I was ready.

I tugged my jacket smoother and went to the door. Sure enough, when I looked out Jo was standing there, and not even out of breath— that woman was in excellent shape. Or perhaps I’d been longer changing than I thought.

She looked at me and nodded. “Ready?” I noticed that her eyes didn’t wander over me in this guise, and I held back a sigh. That was the problem. Who would lust for both of me? No one I’d met yet. I straightened my shoulders and stood taller, dropping my voice low.

“Yes. Let’s go.”

We walked down the hall, my boot heels striking the stone firmly.

When we approached the main hall, past the head-bowing courtiers and servants, I heard raised voices. Jo would have opened the family door for me to enter, but I put a hand on her arm to stop her. I eased it a crack to look in.

Past my father’s rigid back, and my mother seated in her chair, I could see the main floor of the hall. Noble Duran stood there, facing my father, looking flushed, both angry and oddly eager. He raised his voice. “I say enough is enough. Today we have, as a guest in this hall, the daughter of the strongest king in half the known world.” He gestured toward the dignitaries’ seats. Sure enough, there sat Anali in her heavy crown, with courtiers around her and the four guards I recognized ranged behind her. Damn, I’d meant to get here before her presentation, but clearly I’d missed it. She looked very small, but composed.

Duran said, “It’s an insult to her noble father…” I waited for him to say something nasty about me. But perhaps my father’s expression quelled him, or even more likely Mother’s, because after a brief hesitation he said, “Not to give her a choice. There are several noble sons here, besides the Princess Kana.” He emphasized the female title. “Princess Anali should be given a choice of a real, virile man to wed.”

My stomach lurched queasily. I always knew I could be used against my father. Duran had a following among the older nobles.

Father’s voice was so cool and steady you’d not know I’d been insulted. Or that Duran’s own son was aged two and twenty, and third in line for the throne, after my cousin Lady Mai and me. “If the betrothal question fails the match, I will of course ask Princess Anali if she wishes another chance to meet the best of our young men. And women.”

Duran said, “In hope of the future, at her status, a fruitful match must surely be preferred.”

“At her status, she must surely be allowed to choose.”

Duran inclined his head and turned to Anali. “Your Highness, I meant no discourtesy.” He bowed, perfectly correctly. “I think only of your interests.”

“Over your own king’s?” Her tone held a beautifully-judged note of disbelief.

Duran didn’t even have the grace to blush. “You’re a young noblewoman, far from home. I feel it incumbent on me to offer you our best. I know your father very well, you see.”

“Oh?” She stood and looked him up and down. “He’s never spoken of you.”

I wanted to applaud, but instead I pulled open the door and strode in. “Your Majesties, Your Highness. I apologize for my delay.” I stopped, facing the court, and called silently to Malena.

Duran said, “It’s most discourteous to the Princess…” He was cut off by the gasp from the bystanders as my dragon popped into place above my head.

You need me?

Would you sit on my shoulder for just a minute? I felt in my pocket for the candy I’d tucked there. I have something for you.

Good to eat? Malena hovered in front of my face for a moment, then settled onto my shoulder, her tail wrapped around my neck for balance. I handed up the treat and she lipped it out of my fingers.

“I was a bit busy,” I said to my father.

Mother looked at me with a wide smile. “So I see. Has she a name?”

“Malena, make your bows to the King and Queen,” I said.

What?

What would a dragon bow look like? Bob your head a bit.

More food?

Not now.

Bob and go. She lifted off my shoulder, tucked her head up and down, looking more like an angry goose than a respectful courtier. Then she bounced in the air once and was gone. The little pop and rush of air was audible in the startled silence.

I walked over to stand in my place beside my mother’s chair. Looking out at Duran, I raised a single eyebrow.

Noble Duran cleared his throat, but said nothing.

My mother stood up, between Father and me. “Betrothal has its rituals,” she said. “Tomorrow, we’d planned to go through the dance of question and answer for Prince Kana, and Princess Anali. But sometimes tradition must bow to necessity. Our Noble Duran has concerns that I’d just as soon not let fester. Princess Anali, Ambassador Petroi, is it acceptable to move forward today?”

The man in ambassador’s robes stood. “Your Majesty, all of our delegation is here in court already. It matters not to us, so I will leave the Princess to answer you.”

Mother looked at Anali, who smiled, not the sweet warm one but something sharper. “I would be pleased to move this forward today.”

Duran shifted from foot to foot, glancing from her to me. After a moment he burst out, “Your Highness, you do know that Prince Kana isn’t always the man you see before you?”

I made a note never to give her cause to look at me with such scorn as she turned on him. “You mean when she wears her hair down and her dress is silk?” She shrugged. “She’ll still have a dragon that comes to her shoulder, though. And the same eyes, the same mind.”

I could almost hear Duran swallow. “You know…?”

Now she looked at me, and that smile was the warm one. “We’ve met.” Deliberately she let her gaze drop to my breeches and move back up.

Over the rustling of the gathered crowd, my mother said, “Scribe Riki, please run and fetch the betrothal books. Step forward then, Prince Kana, Princess Anali.”

I walked down the two steps from the dais to the floor and met Anali there. We stood facing, not touching, eyes on each other. Riki’s feet echoed in the silenced room as he hurried out, returning a moment later with the two volumes.

Mother said, “As is tradition, even a royal betrothal can be broken, for one wrong word. Think now, Anali, Kana, and write in these books the one thing that can break this union apart.”

The Ambassador of Croyden took one book and pen from Riki, and held the volume flat in front of Anali, passing her the pen. Riki handed me a pen of my own, and smoothed the fresh creamy page with my name already inscribed at the top.

A dozen things passed through my mind. Will you mind if my dragon drops a fruit on your head? Can I borrow your jewelry if it looks better on me? Will you hate me for not staying the same day to day? Will you bear us a child? But in the end, I wrote what I had planned. Can you vow yourself for life to someone who is both man and woman, and be content?

When I was done, Anali was still looking at me, her face unreadable, pen poised. It was moments more before she bent her head and looked down to write. When she was done, she handed her pen to the Ambassador. I gave mine to Riki and met her gaze. Eyes on each other, we stepped through the dance of books and hands, and stepped back. Her volume was held open before me in Riki’s grasp. I couldn’t look down. I watched, as the ambassador held the book for her to read mine.

The room was silent. After a moment she raised her head. Her smile was like sun shining through the dark of storm clouds. She said neither yes nor no, but “Read.”

I looked down, blinking hard. In her neat, tiny script the words read, Can you come to love and trust a woman who has already enjoyed both women and men? I looked back up and felt the smile tug at my own lips. “Oh, yes,” I said. “I might manage that.”

She replied, “Yes. I also have no problem with your question. Let the betrothal stand, and we shall see what we can become.”

The applause was loud and long, and covered the disgusted snort Duran gave, as he bowed low to my parents, to Anali, and to me. I caught sight of his eyes, and thought we might yet see trouble from him. But not now. Not today. He stepped back into the crowd.

My mother said, “Traditionally, the dance comes next. But this is not a ballroom, so perhaps just a few steps, for tradition’s sake?” She waved to the door, where four no-doubt hastily assembled musicians stood. They struck up a slow massellae.

I held out a hand to Anali. “May I have this dance?”

“You may.” She stepped into my arms. As I eased her around in the first measures of the massellae, she whispered for only me to hear, “When you wear skirts, I will lead, though.”

“It will be my pleasure, my lady,” I agreed.


####

ILYA


photo description: A teenager in a black shirt and gray sweater stands with their face hidden out of the frame. In front of their chest, they hold a simple, hand-written card in both hands, facing the camera. The text on the card reads simply, “MUM, IM GAY.”



You’d think they could tell, right? I mean, it’s been years since I tried to fit in. Much.

The kids at school all know I’m gay. Some of the girls ask me for clothing tips, some of the guys laugh, but mostly it’s a non-event. Same old, same old. It’s been a long time since I heard "Danny’s a dumb fag" or any other kind of juvenile teasing. At my high school, who’s gay isn’t half as interesting as who puked in the science room yesterday, or whether Mr. Taylor has a vodka bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk.

So it shouldn’t be hard to come out at home. It’s not like my folks will throw me out, or even start yelling or crying or anything. Mum might not like that I won’t be a breeder. Dad might worry what his fishing buddies will say. At worst, it’ll be one more way I disappoint them.

It’ll fit right in with my B-minus grade average, my lack of baseball skills, and the time I almost drowned in two feet of water. Or the panic attack I had when I thought I might become an actor, and then tried to actually speak onstage in front of a crowd. Apparently I can play my flute no problem, but not utter real words out loud.

So not being what they’d hoped for is nothing new, no big change. Why can’t I tell them?

In a year, I’ll go off to college. I could wait. But it means another year of hiding. A year of laughing when Dad jokes about me marrying the girl next door. A year of nodding when Mum tells me what a great husband and father I’ll be, since I’m so good with my niece. A year of pushing my voice down a little deeper, standing a little stiffer, wondering which of my shirts is too gay to wear on the weekend. Stupid stuff because I don’t know what might mark me out. A year of losing myself a little more.

My phone chirps. ~have you done it yet?

I type, ~not yet

~Is she home?

~watching TV. Dr. Who

~maybe you can segue it in. “Hey mom, I’m a lot like John Barrowman” Only you’d say, “Mum”

I have to smile. Only Ben would write, “segue.” ~I’m nothing like John Barrowman

~well, other than being gay. And black vests. That’s why it’s perfect, right? She’ll say WTF?? You answer

~um. no

~come on, Danny. I want to put us on Facebook

~Facebook is dead

~You know what I mean

I do. It’s the other reason I want to do this now. The best reason. Ben, with his SAT vocabulary, and that grin that shows one crooked tooth. Ben, whose Dad marched out and joined PFLAG the day he came out, who can charm birds out of trees and me out of my pants, and who is a sure thing for Cal Tech if he wanted to go. But who wants to go to University of Chicago with me. …my Ben.

Who wants to be official and gave me a basic, simple, beautiful ring. That I’ve been too chickenshit to even wear.

After a while, he types, ~Hey, I know it’s hard. You don’t have to. ILYA

ILYA. I Love You Anyway. It’s our catch phrase. When one of us does something really boneheaded and we’re feeling like shit, we can tell each other what happened. And then we say, ILYA, and it becomes okay.

~I feel like I let them down

~Internalized homophobia

~Screw you

~Seriously. You’re gorgeous and funny and you play the flute like a god. What more could anyone want?

~For me to be straight and breed?

~Tough. I want you to be gay, and I’m the one who counts, right?

I laugh, and it almost sounds real. ~Yeah. You count the most

~Even when you’re being a dork ILYA. Don’t forget it

I type back, ~I’m going to do it

~Good Luck !!!! Call me after

~I will

Before I can chicken out, I grab my backpack and go into the downstairs john. I put on the ring, for courage. On my right hand, because I’m still a little bit chickenshit. I have my cellphone camera, and a pen and paper. I write it three times.

The first time, the word “Gay” looks like a drunken scrawl. The second time it’s too small to read. Finally I print it. All caps. Big and bold. “MUM, I’M GAY”

My fingers keep shaking, no matter how ridiculous I know that is. It takes six tries to get a picture without blur, or me being deer in the headlights, or the overhead lights washed-out look. I’m not a wishy-washy, pallid and fuzzy kind of gay. Not anymore.

Eventually I have one. It doesn’t show the expression on my face. It’ll work.

I could maybe send it to Ben first, to see what he thinks.

I could file it, and use it later.

Anytime later. All it would take would be two taps on the screen.

Tomorrow.

Maybe Saturday when she’s off work, and I’m off school, and we can be well rested, and not home after a long day and wanting to just veg out and not deal with a family crisis, which isn’t really a crisis, but maybe not a thing you tell your mum at ten at night on a weekday…

Almost of its own accord, my finger taps Mum’s contact, and SEND. The phone chirps once, obediently.

I know she has her phone with her, waiting for Dad to call when he’s done with his meeting. I know she’ll answer it. I stare at myself in the mirror.

Tonight is the first night of the rest of your life.

I type to Ben, ~I sent her this. And show him the picture.

He sends back, ~ILY with no “A”

My hands only shake a little as I pocket my phone, step out of the bathroom, and turn toward the den and the sound of the TV.


####

In the Words of the Bard


photo description: A young man stands in a grove of small trees leafed out in early-spring green and gold. A wiry coronet of vines is set on his long, wavy brown hair. His leather jacket hangs open to show his pale, hairless chest, and his hands are shoved deep into its pockets. He has sharp cheekbones, a strong chin, and pale, slightly-amused eyes.



I found Matthew on the other side of a clump of trees, away from the rest of the party. No surprise. All of us drama nerds were wild and flying, mostly just high on the incredible post-performance rush. Well, a couple of the boys had brought bottles, so folks were high that way too, but we’d been loud and crazy even before they showed up. And that’s not Matthew’s style.


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