Lyle sometimes wondered what the galaxy would have done with him, if he hadn’t been born pretty – pretty, and more importantly, good at performing pretty. You could have the right bone structure and bodily proportions to please the standardized tastes of a planetside noble, but if you walked or spoke or acted wrong, the game was up.
When he was twelve, a recruiter from the Royal House of Eternal Summer on Zaaros had landed on Lyle’s home moon, wrinkling her nose at the manure fermenting his father’s dying patch of farmland. Apoline was one of Zaaros’ smallest moons, middling-to-poor in natural resources, and barely boasted any local militia to speak of. Still, even failing farmers could produce attractive children. So the recruiter had shoved aside the hastily-offered, lukewarm tea Lyle’s mother produced, and grabbed Lyle by the chin. Squinting steely-eyed at him, she’d turned his face this way and that, marking extra points for Lyle’s thick auburn hair, the promise of high cheekbones and full-lipped mouth. She discarded some points for his scowl. “Don’t pout, boy,” snapped the recruiter. “An Apoline farmer makes a third what a piss-poor soldier does. You’ll make twice a good soldier’s income, if you ascend on a standard track through the Royal – three times, if you perform above expectations. I’m offering you a life. That’s hard to come by for an Apoline child, these days.”
Put that way, Lyle didn’t have much choice. He liked living. Training at the Royal was grueling, but gave way to refinement, polish, and above all else, beauty. Beauty, at the Royal, was the end of all things. Music, dance, conversation, the artful dressing and painting of one’s body: all part and parcel in attracting viable patrons from the King’s court.
The recruiter spent Lyle’s teens worrying over his branding. Lyle had been marked male during intake, but as he grew, the boy’s fluidity between male and female marking blurred, and so too did his selling points. Would the lift of his lashes and shape of his mouth repel courtiers who preferred men? Would the pitch of his voice and gait of his walk repel those who preferred women? In the end, the recruiter needn’t have worried. Lyle, full-grown and full-trained, was blessed with an androgynous brand of allure, and delighted in performing both men’s and women’s roles with aplomb. It was a niche few at the Royal filled, and as a collective, the Zaarosi King’s courtiers sang Lyle’s praises.
All, it seemed, but one. Omi bore neither blue blood nor noble title. She wasn’t even planetside-born – was, in fact, one of the only other moon-born members of the King’s court besides Lyle himself. But she’d trained as an artist, once upon a time, and her paintbrush, resting like a lover in the cradle of her hand, spilled beauty on to canvases that earned her a permanent residence in the King’s palace.
“You don’t like me very much, do you,” Lyle observed once from her bed, eyes half-lidded as he watched her work.
Omi’s flat, dark gaze flicked toward him like ink over the top of her easel. “Liking people hasn’t been my natural inclination for a long while now.”
“And yet you continually have me sent up to your chamber.”
“Maybe I just enjoy basking in the presence of the Royal’s most venerable crown jewel. Aren’t you supposed to be the most beautiful male courtesan on Zaaros, or something ridiculous like that?”
“Ridiculous is right.” He winked. “I’m the most beautiful courtesan on Zaaros, male or female, full stop.”
Lyle’s arrangement with Omi was a curious one. She didn’t send for him as frequently as his regular patrons did, but she did call on him once a month, like clockwork, to prepare a tea service in her bedchamber while she painted. She never touched him – though the fees she paid would have covered the cost, and Lyle knew his trade well enough to tell she wasn’t entirely immune to the desire. He’d observed the million little giveaways over the course of their strange acquaintance: the lingering darkness of her pupils on a sliver of his bare skin, the hitch in her breath and heat of her touch when he pressed the cool porcelain teacup between her hands.
Still, she never took what she wanted. On a whim, more than once, he’d imagined kneeling between her toes and pledging fealty to the bend of her knee, or having her rough against the gilded chamber wall, her legs tucked round his waist. But what would be the point? He’d court nothing but nonchalance on her part, her pleasure clinically achieved and disdainfully paid for. She wouldn’t stand to be treated like his other patrons. So he didn’t try.
Omi’s patronage might have made more sense to him – eccentric, expensive sense, but sense all the same – if she’d merely wanted a muse. But she never painted him. She didn’t do portraits at all, in fact. Instead, she’d painted her way into the King’s court through a series of landscapes: rolling hills and rivers like blue glass. Cambulat, the courtiers sighed, with a grudging and nostalgic sort of reverence. Omi’s home moon, now a Zaarosi trading post, the first of the planetside conquests. Court rumors whispered that the venerated artist had been a soldier once – technically speaking, an enemy to the Zaarosi King. But in the end, even Omi the artist, former soldier of Cambulat, had pledged fealty to Zaaros, the only token of her one-time resistance a seemingly endless procession of paintings depicting her former home in all its old glory.
“Oh, let her paint what she wishes,” said the King. “When tale-telling and politics grow tiresome, at least we can all agree on the beauty of that one stars-damned moon. Take comfort in that much, if nothing else.”
Beauty, though, tells tales too.
Once upon a time, a hundred moons orbited the planet of Zaaros, the fairest of which was called Cambulat. Threaded through with fertile fields and freshwater lakes, Cambulat hung lowest over Zaaros, her face a silver-blue smile upon the planet’s people. The people of Zaaros smiled back, for a little while. Generations passed. Seasons turned. But little by little, resources on Zaaros grew scarce. Yet Cambulat remained as fair and fertile as ever, until one day, the King of Zaaros turned a desperate eye toward his nearest, dearest moon.
When Zaaros’ warships landed on Cambulat to claim her bounty for their King, the soldiers of Cambulat rose to defend her, silver-blue command medallions pinned proud on their uniform collars. The soldiers marched, confident in their task. The will of the galaxy bent toward their cause, they said. Ninety-nine more moons orbited Zaaros. Ninety-nine moons would defend the sovereignty of their commonwealth. Ninety-nine moons boasted many more than enough warships, they said, to send the forces of Zaaros back planetside. But at the Battle of Cambulat, not a single moon sent a ship to its neighbor’s aid.
Years later, one by one, those moons would fall too, to Zaaros. But no one knew this yet. Not in those days. Not yet. No one ever does.
At the Battle of Cambulat, soldiers fought, and soldiers died. One Cambulat soldier looked heavenward, just once, toward the cold, empty expanse of a ship-free sky. One Cambulat soldier looked toward those distant, neighboring moons, and saw the death of her home writ large across the stars. Her silver-blue command medallion fell to the dying dust of the moon that night, unpinned and lost to the battlefield, the symbol of courage now a reminder of shame.
This, though, is not a soldier’s tale.
But there once was a place called Cambulat. Take comfort in that much, if nothing else.
For a courtesan to be named in full to the Royal House of Eternal Summer was one of Zaaros’ highest honors. For a full courtesan of the Royal to be summoned to the bedchamber of the King himself was glory beyond measure. By Lyle’s twenty-fifth year, the King had become his most frequent patron, and the other courtesans of the Royal seemed uncertain whether to treat the moon-born farmer’s son with bitter jealousy or reverent awe.
“You remind me, you know,” the King said one night. He lay sprawled across Lyle’s lap, eyes shut, almost childlike save the lines of his face and sleepless circles beneath his eyes.
Lyle’s fingers walked gentle through the King’s coarse grey curls. Up and down, up and down, a pitter-patter scalp massage. “Remind you of what, Majesty?”
“Of why Zaaros needs its moons. We send our ships beyond the planet to collect resources, plant flags, amass military bases – all mundane, crucial necessities. But sometimes, we lose sight, I think, of what else the moons produce.” The King’s eyes opened, curved at the edges when he smiled. He brushed a callused thumb along the hollow of Lyle’s cheek. “Amidst our love of bounty, we forget that there’s beauty too.”
Lyle leaned into the touch, and smiled back. “Is that why you keep Omi as the court’s artist-in-residence? A one-time, moon-born soldier, who paints her moon as it was?”
The King’s chuckle rumbled through his bare chest. “What’s the matter, Lyle? Don’t you like our reclusive painter?”
“It’s she who doesn’t like me,” Lyle mused, still carding his fingers through the King’s hair. “Yet she still pays for the pleasure of my company, and hardly even makes me work for the hours I bill her. It’s oddly kind.”
The King’s smile grew. “Why do you find her so fascinating?”
“Because so few women are,” said Lyle, honestly.
The King’s eyebrows lifted at that. “And men?”
“Even fewer of those,” drawled Lyle, tugging on one of the King’s iron-grey curls.
“You appreciate my honesty, Your Majesty. You’ve said so before.”
“That much, I suppose I do, my love.” The King sighed. “It’s a difficult thing to rule a planet, much less its moons. To harvest resources from beyond the planet, to expand our governance – it all sounds so grand. But then there’s the matter of the purgings. A nasty business.”
Lyle’s fingers paused. “Purgings?”
“Oh, Lyle. My sweet one. I shouldn’t have said anything to spoil our mood. But it’s best you understand that some of these moons, they bleed out, eventually. Some run dry of water, others their crops. There’s nothing for their people then, but discontent, and discontent breeds danger. That’s where violence begins. The purgings are… a necessary unpleasantness, for the greater security of Zaaros and the other moons. A mercy killing of desperate, dying people who would do neighboring moons harm. A quarantine, of sorts.”
“Would you purge the homes of moon-born courtiers?”
The shift in the King’s tone was subtle when he answered, like steel made brittle. “My love. A courtier, by definition, claims Zaaros as his one true home. You understand that, don’t you?”
“But a purging –”
A crack in the steel. The King’s long, hard fingers tightened around the bones of his courtesan’s wrist. “Lyle.”
Lyle smiled, reflexive. Royal-trained. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
“There will be a great many purgings this year,” said the King, heavy-voiced and contemplative. “It wears on the soul, my sweet one. Mine, most of all. Your companionship is a balm. I’ll need you more than ever.”
Lyle kept smiling, unblinking. “Of course.”
The people of Apoline died on a midnight, at the end of the Zaaros’ third month of the year. Lyle wouldn’t remember much else about the day, but he’d remember how he woke: the ugly blare of the breaking-news alert startling him into consciousness. His sleepy, questing hand flinging his comm link off a patron’s bedside table. The holo-footage that flared to life when the comm link landed sideways: fire scorching farmland, razing life on the moon to its grave-grey roots.
Lyle came awake to the death of his home: cast into glowing, colorful high-definition.
Don’t pout, boy, the Royal recruiter’s voice whipped across his eardrums from the depths of memory. I’m offering you a life. Lyle breathed in once, twice, and schooled himself. Smooth indifference, like marble. He had the patron now to think of. Beauty, in the end of all things.
He hadn’t heard from his parents in years. That, at least, wasn’t a new loss.
And now, he never would.
“Don’t feel so bad, my love,” said the pretty, planetside noblewoman who’d paid for his evening. Yawning beside Lyle, she curled naked around him. “You’re very sweet to care, but that little moon was already bled dry, and on the verge of rebellion. No resources left. The people were dying, and bitter. We’ve lost nothing, and preserved the peace. We can convert that moon into a military base later, let the purging truly serve the needs of the Zaarosi people. Won’t that be nice?”
Lyle smiled meaninglessly, ever well-trained by the Royal, eyes still frozen in time on the holo-footage. One of his hands carded through the patron’s lovely hair. “Of course.”
The murder of a courtesan from the Royal House of Eternal Summer was, fascinatingly, one of the gravest crimes written into Zaarosi law – one of the few that forced even the ruling family of Zaaros to bend to the judiciary’s will. The precedent on that much was plain. Four generations before the fall of Cambulat, a Crown Prince of Zaaros had murdered his favorite courtesan, a doe-eyed girl with hair and skin the color of honey. The girl had accepted patronage from a political rival, which the Crown Prince might have forgiven, until he discovered that the courtesan had also spoken out against the Prince, praising the rival’s ideas for more even-handed governance. Enraged at his lover’s betrayal, the Prince slaughtered the courtesan where she lay in their bed, then strung her up from a tree in the palace gardens, where his staff found her swaying in the wind the next day: her hair a limp golden curtain over her unseeing eyes, honey-pale skin now dead white, dripping red blood on white silk ropes, amongst the falling Zaaros-blossom petals.
Within a week, the Royal House of Eternal Summer had mobilized its noble patrons in the judiciary chambers to strip the Crown Prince of his titles, his lands, and his inheritance. The morning after the sentence passed, the Crown Prince went the way of his murdered lover, his body swaying lifeless on the very Zaaros-blossom tree where he’d strung up his favorite courtesan. The darker-hearted romantics at court claimed he hanged himself for the love and loss of her, as much as the shame.
Of course, if he’d lived, the ruling family of Zaaros might have been too busy reining in their one-time heir’s scandals to bother with invading the moons. Still, Lyle wasn’t one for dwelling on alternate histories. Once upon a time, the doomed Crown Prince’s tale had planted something small and dangerous inside of Lyle. Now that small, dangerous thing unfurled in full bloom like flowers on the garden’s trees.
They taught you discipline, at the Royal House of Eternal Summer. Discipline guided Lyle from one patron’s bedchamber to the next, clothed him in their preferred costumes, and stretched painted, pretty smiles across his much-praised mouth. Discipline saw Lyle memorizing the nightly schedules of surveillance in the palace gardens, the shape of the King’s large, wire-muscled hands, and the careful, precise methods of printing someone else’s fingerprints across a bruised or broken body. Lyle had mastered five musical instruments, three languages, and seven styles of tea service before the age of sixteen. Lyle had bent body and mind toward the service of planetside patronage. What was plotting a murder, after all that? Child’s play, if children of the Royal were ever permitted something as banal and carefree as play.
The hundred moons hung distant, like a noblewoman’s pearls on a dance floor, the night that Lyle, a length of silk corded through his hands, walked out to the King’s favorite garden. Lyle, Lyle, my love, the King had crooned in his ear an hour before, his grip on Lyle bone-crushingly rough, how I need you, how I adore you, my sweet one. Don’t leave me, love. Don’t you ever leave me.
There was no surveillance in the gardens at this hour, a careless, easy mistake. Lyle ran his fingers over the careful bruises printed across the pale skin of his neck, the soft flesh of his inner wrists. The ugly red and purple paint of the King’s possessive, violent hands on his body. The damning prints, identical to the King’s, carefully collected and splattered across Lyle’s exposed and breakable throat. One last check. Lyle’s outer robe, space-black silk, fluttered to the ground beneath the Zaaros-blossom tree. Lyle’s murder weapon, snow-white silk, looped over the tree branches.
Beauty, in the end of all things.
“Let me guess,” called a voice in the dark. “The most beautiful courtesan of the Royal House of Eternal Summer is about to perform his final, greatest role. Elysia of the Royal, murdered in the garden once more.”
Lyle still had white silk laced over his hands, inches from his neck. His feet stood precarious on a tree branch, his eyes trained on the moons above. “Elysia. Was that her name?”
“As opposed to ‘poor girl with shit-rotten luck in patrons’?” Omi emerged from the dark, habitually paint-splattered hands thrust into her overcoat pockets. Another careless courtier out for a midnight stroll. “Yeah. Elysia. Unfortunate, favored courtesan to your King’s great-great-grand-uncle. Not so favored in the end, I suppose. We moon-born folk do our reading.”
“He’s your King too.”
Omi tipped her face up toward the moonlight. “A technicality keenly observed. And now here you are, about to get violently theatrical about possessive pronouns.”
“Theater is at the core of sex and politics both, isn’t it?” Lyle’s mouth twisted, as he glanced down at the artist. “Theater is a courtesan’s bitch.”
“Ironic thing for a courtesan to die by then, isn’t it?”
“Inevitable,” corrected Lyle. The silk wrinkled between his fists. “Do you know how many roles I’ve played since I left Apoline? I’ve been the young squire-boy at war, in love with his master and commander. I’ve been the enemy nobleman’s beautiful daughter, stolen away in the night by her father’s rivals. I’ve been the forgotten prince, discovered by the humble servant-girl. I’ve been the princess too, don’t forget, commanding the knight at her feet. I’ve played the part of every stars-damned man, woman, or child the courtiers of Zaaros have ever fantasized. Now, I’m playing the one role that can kill the King.” The branch beneath his feet trembled. “At least it’s my choice, this time. It’s more than Elysia had.”
“So you’ll frame the King, is that it?” Omi leaned against the tree trunk, her ink-dark gaze thrown into shadow beneath the branches. “A grand plan. One you’ll probably even pull off, being you – courtesans of the Royal are clever, meticulous folk, and the moon-born must be twice as clever and three times as meticulous to achieve half the usual gains. So let’s assume you pull it off. The court condemns the King for the murder of its most beautiful courtesan. Your patrons weep. The judiciary strips the King of the same privileges his great-great-grand-uncle lost. Perhaps he too dies. Or perhaps he faces political exile. Either way, he’s King no more. That’s your little rebellion? Your final fuck-you to Zaaros?”
The artist’s eyes were slits of black paint. “I’m disappointed. You dream too small.”
The branch above her head shook. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You dream too small.” She swept an elegant brown hand toward him, her fingers crooked like a question mark around a missing paintbrush. “So you die, and in an ideal world, the King dies too. Then what? Your life has been snuffed out, and after the ruling family and the court finish mourning all this chaos, a new King comes to power. What did you accomplish, in the end?”
Lyle’s voice hadn’t broken in ten years. It broke now. “He killed my parents.”
“And mine,” acknowledged Omi, soft-voiced for the first time. “And you’ll notice that the death of one power-mad Crown Prince four generations back prevented none of this. The ruling family will recover. Zaaros will recover. And you’ll still be dead.”
“Then what do you propose I do, o’ artist of Cambulat?” Jagged-edged syllables slipped from Lyle’s mouth, crueler and sharper than any the Royal had ever permitted. They tasted bitter and satisfying on his tongue. “You’re no better than I am. Another moon-born courtier, kept on display for the pretty things she produces. An exotic curiosity. A soldier who lost the only war that ever mattered. What wisdom can you offer?”
She smiled up at him. A true smile, razor-sharp and startling in its rarity to a man who smiled sweet and gentle falsehoods for a living. “Didn’t you come to Zaaros in the first place because you wanted so badly to live?”
“A recruiter from the Royal scouted me,” said Lyle. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“Bullshit,” said Omi. “You could have refused, and died on Apoline, impoverished. Don’t pretend that wasn’t an option.” It was the first time anyone had named Lyle’s moon since the purging. The silk grew slippery on his fingers. “But that farmer’s son on Apoline, in his heart of hearts, never wanted to choose death. And I don’t, for a second, believe you’ve changed your mind.”
Lyle’s answering laugh was brittle. “What’s it to you, if I live? Why do you care?”
“Because I’m the daughter of a dead moon too,” said Omi. “I fought, and it died, and I failed to die with it, no matter how I tried. I’ve spent the past seven years living on the planet that killed my home, and should have killed me too, yet here I am, alive. So, Lyle of Apoline, if you never believe another word I tell you, believe this much: living in a world that would rather see you dead is the greatest act of rebellion there is.”
Omi hoisted herself up the tree roots, her cheek practically flush against Lyle’s knees. “You really want to tell the King and his sycophants to go fuck themselves? Don’t run from this. Don’t die. Stay alive, and relish every stars-damned second of it.” Her hand, when she offered it, was a dark and human shadow against the pristine white silk of Lyle’s rope. “You were wrong, when you said I lost the only war that ever mattered. I lost a battle. But the war is far from over.”
You could have watercolored them like this, Lyle thought. The artist reaching toward the bow-backed courtesan, the brown of her skin and the red of his hair and the night painted black all around them, while pale, pink blossom petals fell.
A moment later, a length of snow-white silk joined the petals, floating silent to the earth.
Lyle took Omi’s hand, and climbed down the tree. “I need you to paint something,” he said.
Once upon a time, the planet of Zaaros set out to lay claim to its hundred moons. Along the way, its planetside King collected a moon-born artist to paint pretty entertainment, and a moon-born courtesan to smile pretty distractions. After all, even kings wish to forget the wars they wage, from time to time, and lose themselves instead to beauty.
The artist, at first, produced lush landscapes of her moon in the days before the war. While the courtesan poured tea and whispered flattery into the King’s ear, the artist painted blue-glass rivers curling through fields and fields of endless green, the rain-fed grass bright beneath the first rosy fingers of their shared sun. The mandate was to create beauty. The King had not specified what kind. And as Zaaros turned on its axis through days and nights, inch by inch, canvas by canvas, the paintings of life on a dead moon began to shift toward something new.
The first time she painted actual people, the artist’s brush produced a weather-beaten couple standing at the gates of an Apoline farm, the man sallow-faced but kind-eyed, his smile careful and self-conscious, arm wrapped around his wife, whose hair had been bound tight beneath her headscarf. An invisible breeze seized hold of a few of her rich, auburn-hued locks, though, catching the attention of the laughing, auburn-haired toddler in her arms. They looked worried. They looked hopeful. They looked human.
Other paintings followed. A pair of young lovers: two dark-skinned, bright-grinned noblemen caught mid-embrace in a garden beneath the glow of a hundred moons. A trainee courtesan at the Royal House of Eternal Summer, sunlight entangling the gold of her waist-length braids, as her great brown doe eyes spoke wonder and fear alike to the high marble steps and the recruiter guarding the gates. A man and his baby on the banks of a freshwater creek on some distant, forgotten moon, the child’s lips an open-mouthed crescent of delight at the free-flowing water. And once, just once, a gathering of young servant-soldiers at the center of the King’s palace. The painter dressed them in nondescript overcoats and belted robes common to Zaaros’ enlisted moon-born folk, all hard-worn plebeian types, yet a constant presence flanking their King. Dull subject matter, to be sure: plain, ugly, and hardly worthy of such a renowned artist.
The one beautiful thing to be said for that painting was the odd bit of jewelry the King’s enlisted wore at their collars, the shine just barely visible: tiny, silver-blue medallions, like lovely little moons. A curiosity, perhaps, something subtle to draw a more discerning art connoisseur’s eye. Some asked what the medallions meant: unity, or faith, or whimsy? But what did they matter, in the end – the King’s favorite courtesan pointed out – so long as they winked pretty from within the painting?
After all, the King wished to lose himself to beauty. And the artist, smiling, complied.
Take comfort in that much, if nothing else.
Andrea Tang is a speculative fiction writer currently earning her keep as an international affairs wonk in Washington, DC. Her other stories can be found at Apex Magazine, PodCastle, and more. Catch her on Twitter @atangwrites, or pop by for a virtual cup of tea at http://andreatangwrites.com.