The Lotus Palace was a place of subtle beauty and tranquil decadence; thus, when the walls trembled and the volcanic laughter of a man disturbed the doves, making them scatter in a flutter of insulted wings, Ryaar had to stop his bookkeeping and go in search of the disturbance’s origin.
Before Ryaar could reach the stairs, a thunderous voice asked, “Who’s in charge here?”
The owner of the powerful voice was no other than General Atrum Bern, one of the biggest heroes of the planet. Extremely tall and almost brutal-looking (not by his appearance but for his demeanor, because the barbarian was quite handsome), he wasn’t exactly the kind of customer the experts of the Lotus Palace usually entertained, neither the two officers accompanying him.
Ryaar pasted on a welcoming smile, conveying gratefulness for the brutes’ arrival. “I am in charge, General Bern.” He descended the ample marble stairs. “Welcome to my humble establishment. My name is Ryaar Mir.” Reaching the entrance hall, he bowed with a hand over his chest. “I’m at your service.”
The officers were in their uniforms, but General Bern was in civilian clothes, a green top that matched almost perfectly the color of Ryaar’s eyes and shamelessly advertised the massive expanse of the warrior’s chest. The general arched an eyebrow and gave Ryaar a once-over, certainly noticing the value of his clothes and his golden tattoos. Then, he looked around with a downright nasty smirk on his thin lips. “I cannot find anything humble about your establishment, esteemed merchant.”
True. Every ornament of precious metals was real; all gems were genuine; each drape outrageously expensive; and the marble and fragrant woods were not just exquisite but polished to blinding luster. Ryaar kept his smile on, not letting the fact that the general had just called him “merchant” (as if he were at the market selling two-for-one whores) to anger him. “You have keen eyes, General,” he said, a tad dryly.
The officers behind the general made hybrid noises between offended chuckles and growls; the general waved a hand to calm them down. “The skills of your experts are renown, but I have a very specific request.”
Men like the general usually went for rougher places, where the experts were used to darker needs. Ryaar would not let any of his virtuosi to be mistreated, just because the general and his acolytes felt like breaking expensive toys today.
“We’ll need to discuss the extent of that request before we can agree to anything,” Ryaar said, adding a pleasantly sharp edge to his words. “My experts may have a price, but that does not mean they are open to everything.”
“I understand.” General Bern nodded. “I had a vision. Elya told me I shall lie with a man with hair like flames to succeed in my next campaign.”
“Oh.” This information changed the situation in more than one way.
Elya, the goddess of war, gave visions to the greatest warriors and if they followed them their success was sure. Still, to Ryaar’s knowledge, these visions were always to accomplish brutal tasks, perhaps to emulate the real battles they would face.
But who was Ryaar to understand how visions worked?
Now, flaming hair was extremely uncommon, not just in Aphens but on Tellura 12. This was a planet of dark haired people. Of course, many changed their hair color with chemicals, but the few naturally light-haired people were mostly descendants of immigrants from other planets of the Telluran system.
Ryaar’s hair was red as the dying flames of a sunset, but he hadn’t been a virtuoso since the previous owner of the Lotus Palace died, and he inherited the place, many solar cycles ago.
“If you’re planning on sending me with a tinted whore, we’re going to have a problem.” General Bern eyed him suspiciously. He drew a reader out of his pocket. “I’ll know if he’s a fake.”
“We don’t trick those who come to the Lotus Palace,” Ryaar offered without heat. “But I’m afraid, we don’t have an expert to help you, if the man must be a natural red-head.”
“Don’t be difficult, merchant. I investigated before coming here.” The general neared Ryaar menacingly. “You were an expert before becoming owner. A whore is always a whore. Name your price and stop playing coy with me. This, to me, is more business than pleasure.”
Ryaar didn’t cower; he simply asked, “How old are you, general? Three hundred and thirty, three hundred and forty solar cycles?”
General Bern furrowed his brow and stepped back, more surprised than confused. “What?”
“Your age, general. I must confess, you don’t look a day older than two hundred and fifty solar cycles, but a man doesn’t reach your position at that tender age.”
“I am four hundred and one solar cycles, merchant.” The general’s irritation was clear in the way his blue eyes flashed. “What does that have to do with your price?”
“That you’re old enough to know that not everything can be won by force.” Ryaar grimaced. “And that I have the right to refuse service.” The grimace turned into a smirk. “I’m pretty sure you would be able to find a flaming-haired soldier in one of your barracks. Just look harder.”
“How dare you?” growled one of the officers moving forward, but General Bern stopped him with a monumental hand on the man’s chest. The man almost bounced.
Thunder and volcano exploded together as the general’s riotous laughter disturbed once again the blissful peace of the Lotus Palace. Ryaar was expecting customers to come out of the entertainment rooms running for their lives with their clothes half on.
“You’ve got spine, merchant. I can respect that.” The general put an arm around Ryaar’s shoulders. “I haven’t slept with a male since I was a green cadet, too many solar cycles ago to mention it.” He picked up one of Ryaar’s long curls with his free hand. “You’re pretty, and if you can stand to me like that, perhaps you’re exactly the man Elya had in mind for this to work.”
“Are you trying to persuade me using religious devotion, general?” Ryaar arched an eyebrow, but smiled genuinely for the first time since these men’s arrival. He almost added that he thought that maneuver to be a low one, but he refrained.
“All's fair in love and war.” The general chuckled. “Besides, you know what this campaign is for, right? He brought Ryaar’s curl to his nose and inhaled. “What is this fragrance?” His voice was deep, not in the previous booming way but intimate, as if they had just awoken from a night of passion.
“Checkerberry,” uttered Ryaar, feeling surprisingly inarticulate. Even if it was true that “a whore is always a whore,” Ryaar hadn’t been with a man in a long time. Focused in the success of the Lotus Palace, he’d paid little attention to his body needs, thinking that he had filled his sex quota while he was an expert. This sudden attention of the general made Ryaar feel out of sorts.
“I think that you and every other Telluran want us to regain the Sion territories. So why not do this for the cause?” General Bern squeezed Ryaar a little.
Ryaar reined his body in and said, “Of course.” He was pretty sure he’d sounded natural; the little squeak must have been all in his head.
“Excellent!” The general released Ryaar’s shoulders first, two or three heartbeats later, the lock of hair.
His bronze-colored tunic was askew, but Ryaar didn’t straighten it; he didn’t wish to appear rattled. He studied the general for a moment wordlessly. The man had accused him of playing coy, but his actions were pure stratagem to make Ryaar do his bidding. Two could play that game.
“Very good, General Bern. Why don’t we get the business part settled so we can get to the pleasure?” It was a fleeting thing, but Ryaar noticed a flash of discomfort on the general’s face. He turned to his assistant, who had been patiently waiting, perfectly blending with the lush décor of the entrance hall. “Vervio, please take care of the officers, while the general and I get better acquainted.”
“Atrum, I must insist...” The one that hadn’t spoken before said in a pleading tone. The fact that he had called the general by his given name hinted at their familiarity.
“You’re going to end up asking to be in the room while I have sex with him too, aren’t you, Soldar?” General Bern’s tone hadn’t been harsh, but it hadn’t been friendly either.
The officer turned a very unbecoming shade of red. In fact, both officers did. “That wasn’t my intention,” Soldar said.
“Don’t try to insist on anything then.” The general turned to Vervio. “Take care of my men, and if they want to sample some of the house’s entertainment that goes on my tab.”
Vervio sought Ryaar’s eyes for confirmation. Ryaar nodded minutely. Still, everything in the Lotus Palace was recorded, so in case of disputes or “accidents” there were always video and audio proofs. “Gentlemen.” Vervio gestured with his hand for them to walk before him. Both officers nodded at the general and moved forward with Vervio following them.
“Shall we?” Ryaar asked and walked toward the stairs, not waiting for General Bern to respond. He let the man follow him up the stairs and didn’t stop until he opened the door to his office and moved aside to let the general enter.
“Very nice,” said the general, browsing the space, absorbing the discreet efficiency of everything in sight.
“Thank you. Can I offer you something to drink?”
“I appreciated it, but I’m good, thanks.” The general leaned on Ryaar desk and crossed his thick arms over his insanely wide chest. “Let’s talk numbers. Business first, remember?”
Ryaar nodded, agreeing. “Since you investigated before coming and are aware that I don’t entertain anymore, my rate cannot be the same as my experts.”
“Sounds reasonable, but I want you to keep the reason for this deal in mind. The campaign to regain the Sion territories. It’s for the cause.”
“My cause, general, is profit. If I must submit to your handling, I think I have the right to not sell myself cheap.”
That discomfort bloomed again on the general’s hard but handsome features; he even ran a hand full of rings down his neck, making his long chestnut hair shimmer thanks to the light entering softly through the open, high windows. “That’s the thing.” He hesitated for a couple of heartbeats. “The one submitting is me.”
That was a twist Ryaar hadn’t seen coming.
*cover picture by Gabbo de la Parra.