Friday, February 9, 2018

Shining Rock Caverns


This is a new story with new characters.  I can't promise that I'll write more with these guys, but I was inspired for this short story.  Enjoy!

*****
Shining Rock Caverns


Keith did a quick head count of his tour group.  The limit for any tour of the Shining Rock Caverns was fifteen, and he was told his 2pm slot was full. 
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen….” He said under his breath.  His eyes darted around the room, looking for two more people who might be part of his group.  Off to the left, two young men started speed-walking his way from the direction of the bathrooms.  Somewhat roguish smiles were on both their faces, and Keith allowed a split second to admire the handsome looks of the men.  He assumed they were brothers, considering their similar coloring and apparent camaraderie as they stayed close to one another. That split second was all he allowed though, before completely focusing on his job.
“Hello, everyone!” he greeted with a smile and easy enthusiasm.  “If you’re here for the 2 o’clock tour, could you please raise your hand?” 
Everyone he’d counted lifted their hands, and he nodded approvingly. 
“Excellent.  My name is Keith, and I’ll be your guide today.  Before we begin the tour, I do need to go over some rules and safety regulations.”  He saw more than one person roll their eyes and willingly chuckled.  “Yes, I know.  It would be much more fun to ignore those, but ‘adulting’ is required during the tour.” 
That got a few laughs, and he waited for it to quiet before explaining tour guidelines.  “First, when we enter these doors behind me, there will be a rack of hard hats hanging on the wall.  Everyone,” he emphasized, “is required to wear one since we will be moving through a few low-hanging areas, and there is always the risk—though slight—of falling rocks.  Now, I know some of you are concerned about the sanitation of the hats.  Let me assure you that after every tour, each hard hat is washed and then sprayed with a sanitizing solution.  Any questions on that?”
No one commented other than a few murmurs to their companions, so Keith continued.  “Secondly, once we’re inside the caverns, do not separate from our group.  There will be places that you will have time to spread out a little bit and look around, but there will be ropes and wooden barriers to mark your boundaries.  Please do not ever cross those lines.  It’s not safe to do so and we take our guests’ safety very seriously.  There is lighting to mark our route during the tour, but it’s not bright, so pay attention and watch your steps.
“Lastly, I will be giving direction at times on places that you can touch or things you cannot; please don’t ignore that, as we don’t want to do damage to the amazing sights you’re about to see.  Also, if you have any questions during the tour, feel free to call out to me, but please don’t shout, as sound waves in a cavern environment can create instability.  Don’t fear that though.  A normal tone of voice won’t cause any problems.”
Keith was pleased to see that everyone appeared to have listened to this initial speech, so he hoped they would be a group that could be trusted. 
“Alright everyone, if there are no questions, then follow me!”
In the room the Shining Rock employees had termed the “foyer”, Keith pointed out the hanging hard hats to his group.  As was typical, a few people needed help adjusting and fastening the chin straps, including one of the brothers who had been the last to join the tour.  Mischievous eyes seemed to dominate the young man’s face as Keith tightened the strap and fit the hard hat to the closely cropped blonde hair. 
“Does that feel alright?” he asked out of habit.
“Perfect,” the guy assured. 
When Keith turned away, his peripheral vision caught the brother he hadn’t helped elbowing the other one.  He wondered what that was about, but didn’t spend any time pondering it.  He returned to his place at the front of the group, quickly confirmed that everyone had a hat one, and then motioned them to follow him into the first cavern.
The tour itself was an hour and a half long, and when done three times a day, had Keith’s feet hurting by the end of it, but he loved his job.  The Shining Rock caverns were an amazing natural wonder.  They held dozens of different rock types and minerals; one mineral of which contained a luminescent property that caused a surreal glow to the rocks.  Even more interesting was that different kinds of rocks glowed different colors.  Blue was the predominant one, but green and red were also natural sights in the caverns. 
Keith had a masters in geology and was working toward a doctorate, and a perk of his job was that he had access to a lab and the non-tour spots of the caverns to continue his studies.  Three days a week, he hosted the tours, and the other two days he was part of the science team that studied and recorded data of the caverns’ holdings. 
While he knew that few people held the same interest in rocks and ground layers that he did, Keith was still enthusiastic in the information he shared with his tour groups.  His clear passion came through, even in the memorized and over-rehearsed speeches given on every tour, which his managers claimed made him one of the best guides they had.
Keith’s current tour group seemed to have been pulled into his zeal, and as they passed through each room and he explained the sights they were seeing, as well as that luminescent rocks and unique formations the caverns had to offer, many guests offered up questions and observations.  He loved that, when people involved themselves in that way.
As he led the group to each designated spot on the tour, habit had Keith constantly counting heads.  He’d learned never to move forward unless every person was accounted for, and he took the safety of his groups seriously.  There were five caverns open to the public on the tours, each named almost regally for its individual splendor.  There was Crystal Hall, the Moon Room, King’s Den, the Empress, and the Grand Ballroom. 
The Grand Ballroom was the largest cavern on the tour and the one they were about to enter. Keith did his head count, happy to get to fifteen, and led the way into the splendor of the large cavern.  Just a few steps in, and he heard gasps of awe and respectful murmurs of admiration.  He turned to face the group in his designated spot and his smile was sincere with his own appreciation. 
“Welcome to the Grand Ballroom.  This is the largest natural cavern in Shining Rock.  All three classifications of rocks are found in this room: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.  Thus far, the caverns as a whole also are host to over four hundred types of minerals.  This room alone contains two-hundred-and-three different minerals that we’ve found so far.  As you can see, it also shines with all three luminescent colors.  If you’ll notice, there is no artificial lighting in this cavern.  What you’re seeing is its natural glow, and right now we’re almost a half mile underground.  Isn’t that amazing?”  He got a lot of agreement with that statement, and when it quieted again, he continued.  “If you’ll look around, there are several natural arches throughout the room, as well as amazing displays of both stalactites and stalagmites.  Kids?” he addressed the three members of the tour who were clearly under ten.  “Remember how to tell which is which?”
One little boy enthusiastically raised his hand.  “The stalactites hand from the ceiling, and they’re called that because they have to hang on tight to keep from falling!”
“Excellent!” Keith praised.  He reached into a pouch he always had attached to his belt and took out three specialized coins.  “Since you and your brother and sister are paying such good attention, you each get one of these.  You can keep them as a souvenir or turn them in at the gift shop for some special rock candy.”
The three kids accepted the coins with enthusiasm.  Keith secretly hoped that even one of them might garner an excitement for geology after their experience at the caverns.
“Another unique facet of this room,” he continued to everyone, “is that it is the only one on the tour that has luminescent minerals that shine up through the floor.  Every other room has shining rocks only on the walls and ceiling.”
One of the brothers, the one he’d help fasten the hard hat for, raised his hand.
“Yes, sir?” Keith acknowledged.
“Why is that?” the young man asked.  “How come the light is in the floor here but not the other rooms?”
“Good question.  The Grand Ballroom is the only cavern on the tour that holds Celestine in its floor.  Celestine itself has a faint blue glow all on its own, but when in contact with the luminescent mineral we’ve found in these caves, that glow is brighter and does not require any additional light from the sun or artificial resources to maintain that glow.  You might also find it interesting to know that Celestine is also a principal source of the element strontium, which is commonly used in fireworks.”
That information clearly impressed several people, including the two brothers.  Keith had to admit that it was information he’d always found interesting too, especially as a teen when he’d created some of his own fireworks.  They’d gotten him into plenty of trouble at the time, but even to this day he couldn’t say he wouldn’t have done it all over again.
The smile on his face now had more to do with rueful memories of that time than his current job, but his tour group wouldn’t know that.  Quickly focusing on his people, he explained a few more unique aspects of the room before bringing up a special opportunity the caverns offered.
“If anyone here is in the planning stages of a wedding or know someone who is, we’d like to let you know that the Grand Ballroom here at Shining Rock Caverns is a venue that can be rented for that special occasion.  The ceremony itself would be held right here, with all the natural glory you see surrounding you.  Our cavern family also have two spaces in our upper grounds—one outside and one inside—that can be used for a fabulous reception.  If anyone is interested in more information, please come and speak to me at the end of the tour. 
“Now, you have the opportunity to explore this space without me speeching you all over the place.”  The group chuckled and Keith continued.  “Please remember not to cross the barriers as you explore.”  Unclasping a special light from his belt, Keith held it up for everyone to see, flashing it several times to reveal a red beacon-like beam.  “You have fifteen minutes to sightsee, and then I’ll flash this light to ask you to please reconvene right here.  Have fun, everyone!”
The group began to disperse and Keith watched the different directions and sights that people headed toward.  The arches in this room always drew a lot of attention.  Personally, he loved a particular section of stalagmites in one of the few darker corners of the space.  The formations were so tall that weaving among them was like moving through stone trees, and he loved the sense of adventure he felt just looking at them.  He always gravitated toward them when he gave the group time to explore. 
When the fifteen minutes were up, he reluctantly moved back to the meeting place and flashed his light.  It usually took several times before everyone noticed the beam, but that was okay.  However, after several minutes of waiting and repeatedly flashing the light, he was still only counting thirteen people in his group.  For a split second he feared two of the children were missing, but he thankfully spotted them with their parents.  It was then he realized it was the two brothers who hadn’t returned.  Keeping his voice calm, he addressed those who had gathered. 
“It seems the glories of the Ballroom have permanently distracted two of our members.  I’m going to take a quick walk around to hurry them back to us.  If everyone would please stay here, I’ll rejoin you shortly.”
He hated to do it, but he couldn’t leave two guests behind because they weren’t paying attention.  With a steady but careful stride, Keith walked the perimeter of the cavern, taking care to check the places he knew could easily hide people, or that could pose a slight danger.  He was two-thirds of the way around when a muffled moan caught his attention.  Pausing, he heard it again and feared it meant someone was hurt.  However, it didn’t sound like a moan of pain; more like one of…sex?
Frowning, he moved closer to one of the roped off boundaries.  On the other side of the rope was a tunnel that was about ten feet in depth, and then turned and had a very dangerous drop-off about three steps after the turn.  Heart pounding, he crossed the rope and entered the tunnel, another moan reaching his ears just before his eyes spotted his two missing members.  They were locked in an embrace which told Keith that his assumptions they were brothers was clearly untrue.
“Excuse me,” he said sternly, the adrenalin rush of fear he’d initially felt now transferring to anger.  The two young men jumped and gasped.  “If you’ll kindly return to the tour group with me, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll also be reporting your disregard for the boundaries to management.  They’ll decide if you’ll be allowed to return to cavern property ever again.”
It wasn’t much of a threat.  Most guests only visited the caverns once, usually as a day trip or a family outing, but the two young men looked both devastated and a bit frightened by that statement.  The taller of them looked almost teary at that announcement, while the other grabbed his arm in pleading.
“Please, Keith…sir.  We’re sorry!  We just got caught up. Don’t tell anyone!  We won’t do it again.”
“Those boundaries are there for your safety, and you risk yourselves and my job and reputation by going beyond them,” Keith said without compassion, despite feeling some sympathy for the apparent sincerity of the pleas.
“We’re so sorry,” the young man still holding his arm repeated.  “Please, we won’t leave your side the rest of the tour!”
Keith stared down both young men, some of his sternness cracking.  “We’ll see,” he finally offered, “but I want to talk to you both, privately, when the tour ends.”
“Yes, sir!” the two agreed in unison.
“Get back to the group now.  Everyone is waiting for you.”
The two hurried back ahead of him, while Keith rehearsed exactly what he wanted to say to the two when the tour ended.
The last leg of the outing was usually a favorite of Keith’s.  A small waterway, with luminescent pebbles throughout it, flowed through certain sections of the caverns.  A special battery-operated boat had been positioned for the tour groups at the far end of the Grand Ballroom where part of the waterway flowed.  Keith directed his guests into the boat, specifying where people should sit to keep things balanced, and then moved to the bow and started the boat on a slow speed through the water.  The water portion of the tour was only fifteen minutes long, but it took the group through two lighted tunnels, including a spot near where they would exit that held ancient markings on the walls, proof that at some point man had dwelt within these walls.
Exiting the boat marked the end of the tour, and Keith thanked his group for their interest and time.  He gave some final directions on where to hang their hard-hats, and then showed them the exit that would lead to the caverns’ gift shop, small cafĂ©, and parking lot.
A separate door in the space led to an employee-only area.  Before the two young men could leave, Keith corralled them and led them to the door.  Thankfully, no one else was around as they entered, and Keith immediately frowned at his troublemakers.
“Going beyond barriers like you two did was beyond irresponsible and dangerous,” he said severely, his tone in lecture-mode.  “That tunnel is off-limits because it contains a sinkhole that you could fall into and we’d never get you out.  Your disregard of the rules could have gotten you hurt or killed, not to mention shows a great disrespect for me as your guide, the safety engineers who work to keep the caverns safe, and the caves themselves.  Nature is a beautiful thing, but also very dangerous when it isn’t shown the respect it deserves.  Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t report you to management and get you banned from the property.”
The young men looked to each other, and then to Keith.  The shorter one, who seemed to be the spokesman of them, answered with clear nervousness.  “Because the Archers are my family, and I’d get in so much trouble if they knew, especially since Terry was with me.”
Keith felt the moment of shock run through him.  The Archers weren’t management.  They were the owners of the land on which the caverns were held.  George and Rhoda Archer were well into their eighties and had inherited the land and caves from George’s parents.  Their oldest son, Milo, and his wife had mostly taken over charge and care of the Shining Rock Caverns and business it brought in. They were big into conservation, which Keith respected. 
“How are you related to the Archers?” he asked seriously.
The younger man worried his lowered lip a moment before answering.  “George and Rhoda are my grandparents, and Milo and Sydney are my uncle and aunt.  I’m Cara’s son, Sean.”
Cara was the youngest of George and Rhoda’s six children, if Keith remembered correctly, and the only girl.  He’d never met her, and didn’t think she had any involvement in the caverns.  Sean continued in his pleading as Keith recounted this information.
“I’m studying environmental engineering with an emphasis in green technology at college, and Terry is studying geochemistry.  We’re both doing an internship at the caverns for the summer, so we can’t be banned!”  His look turned even more pleading.  “Plus, Gramps and Nana don’t know that Terry and I are…together.  They don’t approve,” he admitted, “and it could ruin everything if they find out!”
Keith sighed.  Being gay himself, he knew the struggles and fears that went along with it.  “Does your aunt and uncle know about the two of you?”
Sean nodded.  “Yeah.  They don’t have a problem with it, but they know how my grandparents feel, and they won’t say anything, but I can’t let them down when we’ve just arrived.  Please don’t tell them!  I promise Terry and I will be on our best behavior all summer!”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Keith couldn’t help being sympathetic.  Grudgingly, he gave in to Sean’s pleading and Terry’s wide-eyed look of anxiety.  “Alright.  I won’t report this incident, but you two better exercise extreme good behavior and common sense this summer.  I suspect I’ll see you here and there.”
“Yes!  Thank you!  Thank you so much!  We will!”
Both Keith’s hand were grabbed in enthusiastic and grateful handshakes.  He returned the grasps and with one more word of warning sent the two men on their way.  As he watched them leave he couldn’t help thinking it might be an eventful summer.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Starlight Day - Part 3



In the early morning quiet, Cailan pondered what that meant, and eventually the answer he came up with didn’t make him any happier than the dream.  When he rolled to get out of bed, Jarek moaned and turned toward him, his eyes opening groggily.
“Where’re ya’going?” he mumbled.
Cailan couldn’t help an upturn of his lips at the sleepy question.  “Just starting the day.”
He didn’t get any further though, because Jarek slid a hand across the mattress and grasped his wrist.  “Whas’a matta?”
“Nothing,” Cailan said, trying to subtly pull free.
“Stop,” Jarek ordered more quickly, his voice losing its sleepy murmur.  His eyes were blinking open and looking less blurry.  “Something’s not right.  We share, remember?”
It was the “we” that made Cailan cave.  He slid back until he was tucked into Jarek’s side.  “I had a dream,” he admitted, and then added quietly.  “And I think you need to discipline me.”
“For having a dream?” Jarek asked in confusion.
“No, for what the dream means.”
“Cailan.”  Jarek sounded mildly perturbed.  “You’re not making any sense.  Tell me about this dream.”
Cailan shared what he could remember, but even to his own ears knew it wasn’t making a lot of sense, so he tried to explain what he thought it meant. 
“I was angry at you for dismissing me and not sharing what was bothering you, but then later, when we talked about my disobedience and I couldn’t give you a definite answer about discipline, I essentially made you dismiss me again.  I backed away from an aspect of our relationship that we rely on, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
“And now you think I should punish you for that?”
“Yes.”
Jarek shifted so the two of them were sitting up more and put an arm around Cailan’s waist.  “Petling, are you saying you feel guilty about the original infraction, or about feeling you disrupted the symbiotic nature of our bond?”
“I don’t know.  Both?”
Frowning, Jarek considered him, and then looked across the room in contemplation.  “Cailan,” he finally spoke, “before this dream, were you bothered by any of this?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, were you feeling guilty about maybe thinking you got away with something you shouldn’t have, and that resulted in the dream?  Or, maybe you were upset that it still felt like I was dismissing you?”
Cailan had to put some consideration to that.  Finally, he shook his head.  “No, I don’t think any of that was weighing on me.  But,” he continued, “now it is.  I don’t like knowing I disrespected you with my disobedience, and it’s…unsettling…to feel I’ve changed the way things normally work between us.”
“Hm,” Jarek murmured thoughtfully.  His hand had risen to tug absently at the silver strands that had fallen over Cailan’s shoulder.  “Do you remember the promise I made to you when you first came here?”
Cailan felt a flush start in his chest and rise to his face.  “Um…yes.  You promised not to force yourself on me; that you would wait until the day I permitted you to know me intimately.”
Jarek nodded.  “Your permission and acceptance of what happens between us is very important to me, petling, and I don’t just mean in sexual ways.  I won’t force you in our bed, but neither will I force your submission to me in other ways.”
That seemed confusing to Cailan.  “But, you discipline me when I fall short in your standards and requirements.”
“No,” Jarek disagreed, his tone completely serious.  “I discipline you when you fall short of the standards and requirements we’ve agreed to have you uphold.  I will not punish you for something we are not in agreement over.  That is why I did not enforce a punishment for your disobedience the other day.  We both fell short, and I could not discipline you in clear conscience if you could not accept that discipline with a clear conscience.  You did not cause a break in how we are together.  We talked it over and in order to prevent a break, chose to not pursue any discipline at that time.  That was a mutual decision, petling.”
Some of the weight lifted off Cailan’s conscience.  He hadn’t considered things as Jarek explained them.  A bit of guilt still remained though, but Cailan now knew what to do about it.
“Thank you for explaining that,” he said sincerely. “I’m in a better understanding now of my own culpability in what we argued about the other day.  But, I think I still need to answer for my disobedience,” he admitted, and was proud that he managed to say that without hesitating, since his heart knew he needed it, but his bottom was clenching at the admission.
“Are you sure, Cailan,” Jarek questioned.  “I’m no longer upset about that, and as I said before, I do not want you to resent a punishment.”
Cailan nodded.  “I won’t resent it.  It’s a clean slate between us, right?”
Jarek’s eyes softened and he leaned close to press a kiss to Cailan’s lips.  “Right.”
The arm around Cailan then began applying pressure, and a sudden burst of nerves flooded his body.  “Wait!  Now?!”
The arm never stopped as Jarek answered.  “Yes, now.  There would be no purpose in delaying things.”
A traitorous whimper slipped passed Cailan’s lips as he ended up over Jarek’s lap.  Neither of them had bothered with nightwear, so there was no clothing for his disciplinarian to remove.  While the position was not a new one to Cailan anymore, he’d never before been spanked while they were both completely nude.  It left a confusing sense of equality between them, while feeling like it also emphasized the differences in their bodies.
Jarek’s big hand patted twice, and then came down a third time in a hard, stinging swat.  Cailan yelped, not able to prevent it, and then buried his face in the covers as Jarek continued in a steady rhythm.  Pride made him keep as still as possible, and do his best to keep the tears at bay as well.  He hated it when Jarek’s discipline brought him to tears.  It made him feel ridiculously young, even when Jarek assured him that tears were normal and expected.  Sometimes Cailan wondered if Jarek intended to spank until he cried, but he’d never made the step to actually ask that question. 
He was managing to keep the tears from spilling this time, although he felt the dampness in his eyes simply from the awful sting that grew with each impact of Jarek’s hand.  He gasped when a particularly tender spot was struck, and swore in his head that not only would he never disobey Jarek again, he’d never ask for a spanking again either!
The big hand dropped lower, and yelps Cailan couldn’t control squeaked out when the tops of his thighs were soundly peppered in quick, biting swats.  One tear mutinied and slipped down his cheek before the spanks finally stopped and he was left gasping and whimpering.
“Come here, petling.  Come here,” Jarek comforted as he helped Cailan right-side-up. 
Cailan hid his face in Jarek’s shoulder as the man hugged him.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“I know.  I knew you were before we started.  Clean slate now, petling.”
The arms around him tightened and Cailan took a deep breath that felt cleansing and let it out slowly, his whole body relaxing as they embraced skin-to-skin and Jarek soothed him.
“Good thing the parade wasn’t today,” Cailan quietly mentioned when his breathing had evened out and he felt he could speak without a wobbly voice.
“Why is that, petling?”
“Because I don’t think I could manage two hours in that carriage on bumpy cobblestones right now.”
Jarek barked out a laugh and kissed Cailan’s brow.  “Yes, I’d say that it’s a good thing the parade is behind us as well.”

*****
The week of the festival was different from all the other weeks Cailan had thus far experienced in Cylandrea.  Military training was completely cancelled for the celebrations, although Jarek let it be known that all soldiers were expected to abide by the principles of behavior they pledged to uphold when they signed on for with their military service; as well as not let a week’s worth of missed training make them incapable of meeting their physical requirements when drill time was reinstated.
The royal family, occasionally as a whole, but mostly in groups of two or three, traveled around Palace City and further off municipalities to celebrate the holiday festivities with their people.  Because Queen Kesla’s health still needed to be considered, she and King Alaric spent most of their visiting hours in Palace City, while the rest of the family went further abroad.  Cailan visited parts of Cylandrea he’d seen on maps during his geography lessons, but hadn’t realized were so eye-catching. 
The town of Winsome was known for three gorgeous waterfalls that flowed side-by-side to each other.  In these winter months, each waterfall had become a glorious frozen vista, and the waterway they typically flowed into had a layer of ice at least two feet thick covering it.  The people skated and somehow danced on the smooth surface, and the day he and Jarek spent there was a unique and fun experience.
Then they visited the small municipality of Tigre, Cailan saw it wasn’t the wealthiest of Cylandrea’s towns, but the people seemed uniquely content in their simple cottages and work that involved a lot of hard labor.  They were also a very talented community.  Every home and business boasted beautiful ice sculptures, hand-made by the people. 
“They’re gorgeous,” Cailan said.  He was in awe of each one.
“They are,” Jarek agreed, and Sana nodded as well since she was accompanying them on this trip.  “Tigre holds their own competition this week, and the three top winners will travel to the palace on Starlight Day and recreate their sculptures in person, where everyone can watch them.”
“Really?” Cailan asked, already determining that was something he wanted to see.
Sana smiled at his excitement.  “It’s one of my favorite parts of the day,” she admitted.  “I wish the sculptures could last forever. They’re so beautiful.”
The royal family was in the habit of coming together after their days spent visiting during this week.  They would gather in a sitting room each evening, usually around a lit fireplace, and share snacks and stories about what they’d seen and who they had spoken with that day. 
Cailan loved that.  It made him feel like he belonged.

*****
Each day sped by, and soon the eve of Starlight Day was upon them.  Cailan was excited.  He felt like everything had been building up to this peak of the festival.  The Palace City lodgings were all filled.  Most families had relations and friends staying with them in their homes.  The royal family had even opened the castle to approved family of servants and guards who had no more room to host them, although Cailan hadn’t seen any of the visitors.
“Where are the guests staying?” he’d asked that morning as they prepared to leave for the day.
“The western wing,” Jarek told him.
“Where the harem is?” Cailan asked.  He still hadn’t seen that particular part of the palace.  The royal living quarters were spread out amongst the eastern wing of the castle.  It was where the majority of Cailan’s time was spent, although he’d seen parts of the northern and southern wings.  The western section he hadn’t seen at all yet.
“Yes, where the harem is,” Jarek confirmed.  “That’s not the only thing there though.  The western wing is where the live-in servants reside, and where the majority of additional guest quarters are.  It has classrooms for the children of the servants, and there are also three large rooms where some of the palace furnishings from the past are stored, and a large work area in the basement level for those with abilities in carpentry, metal-working, and leather goods.”
“I didn’t know that.” Cailan’s head tipped curiously at his husband.  “Why have I never been to that part of the palace?”
Jarek held a Cailan’s traveling cloak out to him.  “I felt that might be a section you’d prefer some distance from for a while.”
“Because of the harem being there?”
“Yes,” Jarek acknowledged.  He came closer and draped his arms loosely around the smaller man.  “I don’t want you to ever think that is where you should have been, or should ever be, so I thought it prudent to not tour that part of the palace until you were ready.”
“How would you know when I was ready?”
“When you asked to go there,” Jarek said with certainty.  His arms around Cailan tightened, pressing their bodies together gently.  “Are you asking now?”
Thoughtful, Cailan considered it.  “I’m…curious,” he admitted.  “But no, I don’t think I’m asking.  Not yet.”
Jarek kissed his brow.  “When you’re ready,” he merely reasserted, and then took a grasp on Cailan’s hand and moved toward the door.  “The carriage will leave without us if we don’t hurry.”
They were traveling with Sem that day.  It was always a good time with the youngest of the Lysander siblings.  Sem was joyful and liked to play at being immature compared to his brothers and sister, but he was highly intelligent and always someone Cailan knew could be trusted and counted on.  He amused Jarek and Cailan with stories about his childhood memories of Starlight Day.
“One year,” he said in a faux whisper to Cailan while his eyes danced with mischief at his older brother, “Jarek really wanted our parents to gift him with a racing coach and a pair of trained steeds to pull it.”
“Sem,” Jarek said in his best warning tone, but the little brother wasn’t put off from his story.
“Mother was not agreeable to his wish at all.  She felt the races that had become common at that time were unsafe to both the people and the horses.”
Jarek sighed.  “I was fourteen years old and I liked speed.”
“Did he get his wish?” Cailan asked, enjoying the way the story teased Jarek as much as Sem did.
Sem shook his head.  “Nope.  Father and mother did gift him with two fine young steeds for him to train.  He was learning more and more about the horses and royal stables at that time, and Father felt it would be a good compromise on Jarek’s actual wish.”
Cailan looked to his husband.  “Was it?”
Sem laughed out loud and answered for his brother.  “Not to Jarek’s mind.  He asked what good were untrained horses and why couldn’t he have the coach he asked for.  Then, according to Alaric, he stormed out of the room in a huff.”
Cailan, wide-eyed, looked to Jarek.  “You actually did that?”
Jarek groaned.  “I was young and, admittedly, a bit spoiled and full of myself at that age.  I grew out of it.”
“Father helped with that,” Sem continued to tease.  “He’s still holds the ‘honor’ of being the only one of us to be disciplined on Starlight Day.”
Jarek groaned again, louder this time, but he didn’t seem truly upset over Sem’s story.
“You’re father…disciplined…you?” Cailan had to ask.
“I’ve told you that we’ve all felt the pain of our misbehavior at some point in time,” Jarek reminded.  “Even Sem.”  His gaze fell to his younger brother.  “Maybe Cailan would be interested in hearing about the time you were found repelling out your bedroom window.”
“I’m sure he would,” Sem said without worry, “but we’re at our destination, so there’s no time for more stories.”
Sem’s words were true.  They were kept on the move with the visits they had scheduled all day.  In the busyness of their visits, Cailan realized that with everything that had gone on during that week, there were parts of actual Starlight Day that he didn’t know about.  He didn’t have a chance to ask anything until they finally arrived back at the palace and the sun was starting to set.
“I’ll ring to have a meal sent up,” Jarek said.  “Change into something more comfortable.  I’ll join you shortly.”
In fact, he followed less than two minutes later.  “That was fast,” Cailan commented.  He’d undressed down to his undergarments, but hadn’t had a chance to put on fresh attire.
“Apparently Sem had the same idea.  He ordered a meal for himself and said one should be sent to us as well.  It should be here in a few minutes.”
With a nod, Cailan reached into the ornate wardrobe that held his clothing, but the feel of a warm body pressed into him from behind. He shivered as Jarek’s big hands started gentle caresses on his skin. 
“Cold, petling?” the now-husky voice said.
“Well, I am mostly unclothed,” he replied, his voice low to match Jarek’s.
“Mm, let’s get rid of the ‘mostly’ part,” the bigger man suggested.  They moved to the bed and Jarek made sure they stayed very warm.

*****
The sun had fully set by the time the men’s grumbling stomachs forced them out from under the warm covers and comfortable embrace they’d been relaxing in.  Jarek appeared to be feeling the nurturing dominant tonight, because he wrapped Cailan in a warm dressing gown instead of allowing the younger man to clothe himself.  Then, donning his own robe, went to the sitting room where their meal had been left and pulled Cailan to sit on his lap at the table.  Breaking a bread roll in half, he smoothed a generous portion of nut butter over one of the pieces and held it to Cailan’s lips.  Willingly, Cailan bit into the offered food, enjoying the smooth flavor.  Jarek popped the rest of it in his mouth, and then began slathering the second half.  Cailan took the opportunity to ask a question that had been on his mind.
“The gates open for the people to enter the courtyard at the strike of the eighth hour, right?”
His mouth full, Jarek simply nodded.
“There will be events all day then—music and performances.  With so much going on, when does the family get to celebrate and give their gifts, alone I mean?”
Jarek offered him another bite of the roll as he answered.  “Cylandrean families typically do a gift exchange in the morning, since most children would find it utterly cruel to have to wait to see their gifts.”  He chuckled.  “My siblings and I were known to wake our parents before sun-up.  However, we have more patience as adults, so our family takes a few hours in the evening for ourselves now.”
“How?  There’s always something going on,” Cailan reminded, and to his understanding the royal family was involved throughout all of Starlight Day.
“The performances take place while there is daylight, but remember that tomorrow night will be the longest night of the year for darkness.  Once the sun sets in the late afternoon, the performances will be done.  The vendors and palace cooks will then make sure everyone still celebrating in the courtyard stays warm and fed.  Most people gather around the fires or inside the artisan booths, and spend the time just eating and enjoying being together.
“Our family will return to the palace for a few hours to rest and eat together, as well as do our own time of gift exchange.  Then, before Starlight Day ends, we’ll rejoin the people in the courtyard, and watch the sky-fire show.”
Cailan had read about that show, but he didn’t really understand what it was.  However, when he asked Jarek for more information about it, the man shook his head. 
“No, I don’t think I’ll explain how that works.  It’s much more magical just to watch and be a part of it.”
Cailan opened his mouth to argue that a little, but a light swat warned him to leave it go.  They finished their meal, and returned to their bed, with Cailan more than a little excited about the next day.

*****
The morning of Starlight Day started off quite happily in Cailan’s opinion.  He woke with the comforting weight of Jarek pressed into him while the bigger man planted kisses on his throat and chest, and erotically rubbed their groins together.
Tingles of pleasure ran down Cailan’s spine and everywhere else that the two of them touched.  He groaned and lifted his hips to do his part in the rutting. 
“You’ve been very,” he panted, “stimulated the last few hours.”
“Mm,” Jarek moaned, his lips finding Cailan’s for several minutes.  Eventually he pulled away enough to respond to the statement.  “It’s my favorite holiday, and I’m finding it very stimulating to share it with you.”  He pulled back just a little farther so their eyes could meet.  “I’ve loved experiencing the Ice Festival with you this week, and seeing everything through your eyes.  The people have loved you, and so do I.”
He captured Cailan’s lips again and they both began moaning constantly as they moved and rubbed against each other.
“Close!” Cailan gasped out, and then gasped louder when Jarek reached between them and squeezed, holding Cailan’s orgasm at bay.
“Not yet, petling.  Let me inside,” he begged.
A desperate nod was his answer.  He moved carefully but quickly, and Cailan was thankful for their intimacies the evening before because it left him looser and not needing as much preparation.
When they came together, both men were vocal in their appreciation of the feeling.  Jarek’s fingers threaded through Cailan’s hair.  “So beautiful,” he murmured.
The sincerity of it always awed Cailan.  No one else had ever thought his silver tresses were beautiful; no one before Jarek.  He was also awed by his own intense feelings and extreme attraction he felt for his husband.  The man was muscular and powerful, a true warrior, but capable of such gentleness and understanding.  His black hair with the amazing shimmer fell like a curtain around his face.  Cailan cupped is neck and pulled him down until their mouths connected.  He felt the bigger man start to rock, and then little thrusts, just subtle in and out motions made Cailan’s arousal grow. 
“Harder,” he begged in a whisper, and his request was immediately fulfilled.  Jarek thrust with more force, and it was perfect.  Cailan couldn’t stop his hands from clinging, petting, and eventually scratching, as the rhythm between them built and built.  He hit the peak first.  His entire body tightened and he yelled in pure pleasure, pleasure which became almost too intense as Jarek continued to thrust through that tightness, until he too gasped.  He dropped his head to Cailan’s shoulder and bit down, just enough to give a welcome pain without breaking the skin.
Jarek’s full weight slumped onto Cailan, making the deep breaths the younger man was taking in harder to get, but he didn’t care.  Everything about that moment was perfect.  When Jarek tried to roll off him, Cailan held on, not letting the bigger man move.
“I’ll smother you, petling,” Jarek gasped out.
Cailan shook his head, his face pressed into Jarek’s neck as he answered.  “Then I’d die happy.”
Jarek chuckled and capitulated for another minute, but then insisted on moving off the smaller man.  Cailan took several deep breaths as he snuggled into Jarek’s side.  “Can I stay here forever?” he asked, only half joking.
“At my side?  Absolutely,” Jarek told him.  “In bed?  I’m afraid not.  We’re expected for breakfast with the rest of the family in less than an hour.  And after that the gates will open for the courtyard.  Are you ready, my petling?”
Thinking about the day ahead and how content he was right then, Cailan nodded.  “Absolutely.”

*****
Breakfast was hot and filling…and fast.  There was so much going on that no one lingered over the meal.  The royal family bundled up, and then moved as a unit to exit the palace. 
As they walked outside, the courtyard was set up for the day, but empty of people.  It was clear, however, that the emptiness would be very short-lived.  Outside the gates, a cheer erupted as soon as the family appeared outside the palace walls.  Guards stood at the high, steel gateway, ready and waiting for the influx of people.  To Cailan’s eyes, hundreds were already waiting to be let in.
As they approached, two guards carried a portable step and platform, which they set securely on the walkway about twenty feet from the gates.  They draped the platform in a rich red cloth, and then Alaric motioned for the family to stop and the guards to stand at attention. 
Cailan couldn’t help thinking how regal he looked.  He and Queen Kesla were the only ones in the family wearing a crown that morning.  Jarek said it was to show the family’s honor to him as their current king.  A lush, purple cloak, trimmed in white and gold, draped from his shoulders to his feet, and as he climbed the steps to the platform he lifted a hand with a bejeweled scepter in greeting to the people.
It surprised Cailan that the people’s cheers didn’t grow at that signal.  Instead, a respectful hush fell over the crowd.  When all was silent, King Alaric addressed those waiting.
“Welcome, my friends.  As your king and representative of the ongoing line of the Lysander family, I’m honored by your attendance and support.  This day will always be uniquely special to my family, and a time of celebration for all of us.  As my ancestor, King Trace, swore on his life, I too swear on mine that I will do everything in my strength, power, and wisdom, to keep every subject of Cylandrea safe, cared for, educated, and given opportunities for growth.  My family holds me accountable to that promise, and so do you. 
“I welcome all of you to spend the day with us today, and encourage you to talk with myself and my family as you do your own friends and loved ones.  We will always desire to get to know as many of you as we can.  However, I’d like to remind everyone of the manners and rules you are asked to abide by while within the palace gates.”
Cailan watched as Alaric paused and seemed to personally meet the eyes of everyone watching him.
“For everyone’s safety,” he said seriously, “weapons of any kind will not be allowed inside the gates.  The palace guards are the only ones with permission to be armed.  I will not abide violence of any kind.  Please hold yourselves and each other accountable to that, or you will be escorted out of the gates for everyone’s safety.
“There is no tolerance for theft,” he continued.  “All food, crafts, and other goods must be honestly purchased.  However,” he added in a much gentler and compassionate tone. “Absolutely no one will be allowed to go hungry today.  Anyone who cannot afford the purchase of food for themselves or a loved one, please just tell the vendor.  The palace will cover the remaining tab at the end of the festival.  I will trust in the honesty of my people to not take advantage of that.
“I also expect no one to suffer from the cold.  Blankets and cloaks are available to anyone who needs them.  Please alert a guard or a member of my family if the cold is too much for someone.  We will make sure they are taken care of.”
Alaric then gave a wide and genuine smile to the crowd.  “I hope for a wonderful day for all of us.  Guards, open the gates!”
The people flooded in as soon as the heavy gates were unlocked.  Vendors and performers immediately moved to their booths and leaders.  Others began setting up blankets and chairs in the courtyard.  But quite a few began approaching the royal family.  Cailan hadn’t expected to be surrounded so quickly, and when Jarek entwined their fingers possessively, he found he was grateful for the grounding touch.
“I should have warned you about the initial onslaught,” he apologized into Cailan’s ear.  “This happens every year.  It’s the only opportunity for some of the people to actually interact with our family.”  He tugged lightly on Cailan’s hand and began walking, subtly moving them away from the other members of the family while greeting and acknowledging the people approaching them. 
Cailan looked around and noticed the rest of the family were making some distance too.  It was discreetly done, but clear to him that they were spreading the people out and keeping things from shifting into a chaotic situation. 
Guards were also moving with the family and keeping the members close enough to guarantee their safety.  Cailan noticed Jothan had followed him and Jarek as they moved, and two other palace guards were also close by.  He smiled at his friend, and Jothan acknowledged the silent greeting with a nod, even as his attention never wavered from his duty.
The better part of an hour was spent conversing with Cylandreans who approached them, and Cailan felt a little embarrassed that he appeared to be getting more attention than Jarek.  Everyone wanted to thank him for his work in saving the queen and being the one to fulfill the silver prophecies.  Many wanted to hear the actual story of how those events played out, although Cailan was reluctant retell it.  It felt boastful to share such things.  However, Jarek didn’t seem to mind being the story-teller.  He explained in tactful detail the events of those days at least three times.
Children were also amongst those approaching the royals.  Their mothers and fathers would bring them close and, following Jarek’s example, Cailan willingly extended hugs and kisses to the young ones. 
That was a very new experience for him.  In Arten, he was often stared at on public outings, but he wasn’t approached for a blessing or embrace.  Adults looked down at him and children either laughed behind his back or looked at him nervously. 
Here in Cylandrea, the looks were awe and happiness that he was receiving.  Children might have been shy in their approach, but they weren’t nervous, and he found he didn’t mind when they curiously touched his hair.  Some young ones even ended up on his lap.  A pair of three-year-old twins hogged him for a good fifteen minutes as one toddler chattered to him about the presents she got for Starlight Day that morning, while the other kept trying to braid his hair.  He never thought he’d enjoy the sweet attention so much.  He was almost disappointed when the crowds gradually lessened and eventually gave them a few minutes respite. 
Jarek let out a laugh when the last few people moved on to the vendor stalls and he looked to Cailan.
“What?” Cailan asked, not sure of the cause of his husband’s mirth.
“Your hair has received quite the style, petling.  It may become a new trend in the kingdom.”
Grumbling, Cailan’s hands moved to his head.  He flinched at the knots, half-done braids, and flyaways.  “I need to fix this, Jarek.  Will it be a problem if I return to our rooms for a short while?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Jarek debated.  He motioned to someone, and a minute later Princess Sana joined them.  Her hand rose to hide the smile that came to her lips, but it didn’t hide the laughter in her eyes.
Cailan sighed.  “Does it look as bad as it feels?”
“Probably,” she gently teased.  “But I’ve experienced this problem before.  Why don’t the three of us move over here where we’re less visible.”
The two men followed her, and they relocated to a semi-isolated corner of the courtyard behind one of the artisan stalls.  Sana opened her heavy over-cloak and reached for an elegant bag strapped to the belt of her dress.  Rummaging in it briefly, she pulled out a tiny hairbrush, no longer than the length of her hand.
“I’ve learned that unless I want little hands in my hair, to put it up and out of the way when I meet with our people,” she said with a smile.  “And even then, some children can’t seem to resist, so I find it helpful to carry this with me.”
She moved behind Cailan and began brushing out the tangles and knots.  He blushed a little, not used to such treatment, and thankful when neither Jarek nor Sana commented.  The gentle strokes down his hair also felt surprisingly good.  He’d taken care of his own tresses for years, and it never felt so good when he combed it himself.  But having someone else do it, he was finding very relaxing. 
A little embarrassed about that, he worked to keep his enjoyment schooled.  Sana finished getting the tangles out, and then pulled a black string from her bag.  “Would you like me to braid the length back, Cailan?  It will be less likely to attract as much attention then, and you won’t have to worry about needing it brushed.”
He nodded and offered his thanks after she quickly completed the braid and tied the end.
“I’m glad I could help.  Enjoy the day, boys.” 
She moved off into the crowd then, and Cailan watched her graceful stroll bring her to Prince Sem’s side.  The younger Lysander twins often spent any required public time together.  Cailan knew it was because Sana was painfully shy, something she hid well when necessary.  But she had to deal with her hearing struggles as well, which were more difficult when in a large crowd.  Sem tended to be her constant guardian when she was part of the instability of gatherings or unfamiliar faces.
He pulled his attention away from the siblings when Jarek reached for his arm and hooked them together at their elbows.  “Would you like to explore the vendors?”
“Do we have time before the performances start?  I don’t want to miss those.”
“We have time,” Jarek assured. 
They walked, arm in arm, from stall to stall.  Seeing the talent of the crafters amazed Cailan.  He rarely had the opportunity in his previous life to meet the individuals who could carve statues, sew beautiful clothing, or paint pictures capable of adorning royal walls. 
He also hadn’t considered that he could purchase the wares being displayed in the booths, but was reminded of the opportunity when Jarek exchange several coins for a small glass bottle of scented cream. 
“Mother loves this,” he explained to Cailan.  “I always get her a bottle for Starlight Day, something small enough to travel easily.”
Two booths later, Cailan made his first purchase.  His youngest brother, Prince Doron of Arten, wasn’t quite two years old yet.  He was walking, but still wobbly on his feet, and at this booth Cailan saw a carved wooden duck on wheels, with floppy leather cut out for its feet. A handled stick was attached to the toy, and when it was pushed, the duck’s feet made a delightful slapping sound.  Cailan knew his baby brother would love it.  He handed over the coins willingly, and was promised that the item would be delivered to his quarters, so he wouldn’t have to carry it around.
At another booth, a young leather worker was selling books.  Cailan thought that an odd business choice for the man’s trained skill, until the artisan explained the connection.
“I collect books with damaged or timeworn bindings,” he told the two men.  “Then I cut and sew new covers for them, and carve the title, author, and a decorative picture or border onto the new leather bindings.  I never repeat a design except by request.”
Both Cailan and Jarek were sufficiently impressed.  The carvings done on the leather were beautiful, and both men examined and skimmed the stories in the books.  Jarek ended up purchasing three books, and Cailan picked five more.  Truthfully, if he’d had the time, he’d likely have gone through and purchased the vendor’s entire supply.
“The first show will be starting soon,” Jarek then told him.  “We need to get to our seats.”
“Do we have assigned seats?” Cailan asked.
Jarek shook his head.  “Not exactly, but the people are purposeful in making sure the royal family can clearly see the entertainment.  We’ve tried in the past to allow others to have those spots, but it’s been expressed that the entertainers themselves want to perform for the family, so we don’t argue against the people’s desire.”
Truly, Jarek spoke with experience.  As the two of them approached the crowd gathered around the staging area that had been set up, the people parted as if a wind blew threw and separated them.  With several words of thanks as they passed, they moved to the front of the assembly and joined the rest of the royal family, who had already taken their seats.  Sem handed a paper to him that was embossed with the royal seal.
“It’s the performance program,” the young royal whispered.  “It lists the schedule of entertainment, as well as what each group is doing.”
“Thank you,” Cailan whispered back, and then looked to the first listing.  He was pleased to see the day’s entertainment was starting with the children’s orchestra he and Jarek had gone to visit a couple weeks earlier.  Cailan had hung the picture the little girl, Glory, had given him on the inside door of his wardrobe.  He saw it every morning when he got dressed, and it made him smile.
According to the program, the group would perform three songs, one of them being the Cylandrean anthem.  Cailan showed that detail to Jarek, who nodded knowingly.
“It’s one of the first songs all school-age children learn, both to sing and play,” he told him.  “Considering that, and the fact that today honors the beginning of Cylandrean’s government, I’m not surprised they chose to include it.”  He smiled brightly when the sound of little feet preceded the appearance of the children being led onstage and sitting nervously in their assigned chairs.  “We also give any performances with children the first few spots,” he said lowly.  “That way they don’t spend the day with anxiety over their show, and can enjoy the celebration freely when their part is over.”
Cailan thought that was an excellent decision, and he turned his attention fully to the children now filling the area in front of them.  He spotted little Glory, and she saw him at the same time.  She looked scared to be in front of so many people, but he grinned at her and gave a little wave.  It looked like it helped, because her smile grew, and she waved back before turning her gaze onto their director, Darin Sorenson.  Seconds later, Darin gave a flick of his baton and the hum of instruments filled the courtyard. 
Just as he’d been before, Cailan was beyond impressed with these young ones’ abilities.  They were as good as any experienced adult orchestra he’d ever heard, but there was an extra energy to them that showed their age and innocence, and that added to the show.  By the time the strains of their final song were fading away, the entire crowd had drawn close to the stage, and they had been hushed in amazement of the music.  When it ended, cheers and praises broke out loudly, as did enthusiastic applause.  Jarek and Cailan were the first of the crowd to stand to their feet in approval, and everyone followed their example.
When the children were being ushered off the stage and guided to their waiting families, Cailan looked to Jarek, and was startled to notice the man’s eyes appeared wet.  When he asked about it, Jarek pressed a warm kiss to his temple.
“Just emotion, petling.  That was truly beautiful to hear, and seeing such talent come from such young hearts touched me.”
Cailan couldn’t argue that statement.  The music and children touched his heart too, and it made him hope that the gift he had prepared for Jarek would touch him just as deeply.
“We have some time before the next performance,” Jarek told him.  “Is there something you’d like to do?”
“Could we see the rest of the artisans?  I don’t want to miss anything, and they’re all so talented.”
“Of course,” Jarek agreed readily.
By the time they returned to the stage area for the next performance, Cailan had bought several gifts to present to his own family when they came for his and Jarek’s wedding in a week’s time, and was excited for when he could offer them.
“Our rooms will be overflowing if you keep this up,” Jarek teased.
Cailan shrugged.  “It’s nice to be able to pick things for them, and it means a lot to me that they’re coming.  Even Abed is going to be there for the ceremony!”
That fact was significant to him.  Besides Doron, Abed was the brother he was closest to.  Having him there meant that the entire Artenian royal family would be present for this ceremony.  However, it also meant that for at least a couple hours’ time, Arten would not have a member of the royal family in the country.  It was something that was being kept very, very quiet.  In fact, from what Cailan understood, the only person outside the family who knew this was going to happen was the royal sorcerer, Ristoph. 
Ristoph was thoroughly trusted by the entire Artenian royal family, especially Cailan.  He knew how to open a communication portal between the countries if it became necessary while the family was gone, but it was hopeful that wouldn’t be necessary.  The plan was that Cailan’s parents and all six of his brothers would arrive together just before the start of the ceremony.  When the official ceremony ended, Abed would return as “King in standing” while the rest of Cailan’s family stayed for the celebration. 
Ideally, Cailan would have loved to have Abed be able to stay for the entire day, but he understood why that wasn’t wise.  As a prince, he would never expect his father or brothers to put their country in danger, and they were already allowing a tiny bit of vulnerability in by their attendance at his nuptials.  He would be content with the compromise, and he hoped Abed liked the gift Cailan had picked out to present to him on that day.
He put those thoughts aside for now.  Right now was a time to enjoy Starlight Day, and there were still booths he and Jarek hadn’t gotten to, but the next act was getting set up, so they returned to their seats.
This performance was a family of dancers.  The parents had trained their six children and choreographed the entire routine.  The children were all sets of twins ranging from ten to sixteen years old, and each set was completely identical.  According to Jarek, that detail was unusual.  While all Cylandreans were born in multiples, mostly as twins or triplets, only about ten percent of them were born with identical looks. 
Their presentation received a standing ovation as well, which Cailan thought they thoroughly deserved.  Afterwards, Jarek explained there would be a longer gap before the next entertainment, so attendees could enjoy a leisurely mid-day meal.
Unanimously, the royal family chose to indulge in the traditional fire pies for their lunch, and they walked together to where Nikolai’s stand was set up.  Cailan could smell the enticing scents as they approached, and his stomach growled in hunger.  The people lined up to purchase a pie as well automatically started to step aside for the royals, but the entire Lysander family shook their heads, although Alaric spoke for the group. 
“We can have patience and wait our turn, just as you are doing.  Don’t step aside for us this time.  There is no need.”
It was such a humble thing to do, and Cailan knew he wasn’t imagining the honest respect and love for the royal family that shown in the people’s eyes.
When they did arrive at the front of the line, Jarek encouraged him to order two or three pies.
“One won’t be filling enough,” he warned.  “Two or three will satisfy your hunger for now, and later we can purchase some treats at other vendors.”
Cailan couldn’t help looking behind him at the line of people still waiting for their chance to order.  “Will there be enough for everyone else though, Jarek?  I don’t want Nikolai to run out of ingredients, or make the subjects have to wait longer for their food.”
Jarek’s gaze was warm, and he leaned in to brush a sweet kiss to Cailan’s mouth.  “That’s very considerate of you, petling.  It’s make me proud to have you at my side.  But, you don’t need to worry about supplies.  I promise Nikolai has enough, and he’s got all his children and grandchildren helping him today.  They can make the pies quickly.”
Cailan took note then to the number of people moving around Nikolai, all of which were taking orders, assembling pies, cooking them, and then doing it all over again.
“Okay,” he capitulated, and then focused on the handwritten sign hanging above the booth, listing the options available.
In the end, he was glad Jarek said to order several pies, because trying to pick just one out of the options would have been impossible.  His final choices ended up being a steak and tomato combination, an apple pie that was made from three different types of apples, and the chocolate and raspberry one that he’d eaten on the first visit to Nikolai’s.  The flavor of that one had haunted him, and he was anxious to taste it again.
Jarek chose three pies different from Cailan’s picks, and suggested they share their meal so they both could experience each kind.  Apparently, the whole royal family thought very similarly.  Between the eight if them, only two flavors of pies were repeated, and they spent their meal time sharing and raving over the flavors they were experiencing. 
By the time the meal ended, Cailan felt a little sleepy between the good food, early morning, and buzzing energy of the day.  They were all gathered on thick blankets in the courtyard and close by to several heating units.  Cailan felt Jarek move to sit behind him and urged the younger man to lean back into his chest. 
“Rest if you want, petling,” he said softly into Cailan’s ear.  “There’s about forty minutes until the next performance.  You have time.”
Cailan’s initial reaction was to say he didn’t need the rest, but a glance around the courtyard showed he wouldn’t be the only one taking a brief break.  Queen Kesla was almost asleep, leaning against Alaric’s side.  Prince Sem had stretched out on the blanket and his breaths were very close to snores.  And scattered about the area, Cailan saw adults and children laying down or leaning against one another with eyes closed.  Apparently, this was another common part of Starlight Day.  Feeling better about a brief rest, he let himself relax into Jarek’s chest and closed his eyes.
He didn’t mean to fall asleep, but a short while later the sensation of gentle rubs on his arms and a kiss to his cheek woke him from a peaceful slumber.
“Wake up, petling.  We’re a few minutes away from the next performance, and you won’t want to miss it.”
All around them, people were moving about, some getting seats for the show, others getting more to eat or wandering amongst the craft vendors.  Cailan took the hand Jarek offered him and they moved to the stage area.
His husband had been right.  Cailan was very glad he didn’t miss this show.  It was a dramatic comedy, with all the men playing female parts, and all the women playing the men’s.  Cailan laughed so hard his sides hurt and he had to wipe tears from his eyes.  He laughed even harder when King Alaric’s guffaws over the show caused him such a bad case of the hiccups that a guard had to run to get him a glass of water.
After the show, a series of games were set up for the children in attendance, and the entire royal family watched and joined in the cheers as the kids ran three-legged races, had jumping rope battles, and enjoyed push-sled relays on a patch of smooth snow. 
However, Cailan’s favorite part of the kids’ games was one the people called “King’s Mirror”.  All the children who wanted to play gathered in a group, lined up with some space between them, and then Alaric stood in front of them and began calling out and demonstrating silly positions for the kids to mimic.  After a while, he turned the leadership of the game over to his father, and King Jonerick had them doing even sillier moves. 
Jarek leaned close and whispered that all the men in the family would take a turn as a leader, so he had better watch closely for his time at the front.  Cailan had to admit to some shock and nerves over that, but in the end, he had so much fun when it was his turn that he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
When the games ended, everyone moved as a whole toward the center of the courtyard, and Cailan saw that while the games had been going on, three large blocks of ice had been arranged in the quad. 
“Oh!  Are they going to do the ice sculptures now?”
“They are,” Sem said from where he walked with his parents in front of them.  He looked behind him as he answered Cailan’s question.  “It’s Sana’s favorite part of the day, and they really are amazing to watch if you don’t mind the time it takes for them to carve the ice.”
“How long does it take?”
“About an hour, give or take,” Jarek answered.  “They’ll get done a little before the sun sets.”
Cailan frowned as he considered that information.  “That doesn’t seem fair.  We’ll hardly be able to enjoy them before it will be too dark to see.”
Queen Dyanna glanced over her shoulder at him to address that concern.  “Actually, doing the sculpting now gives us a bit more time to enjoy them.  When the temperature drops with the sun, the sculptures will harden further in their shapes.  Then, as long as the daytime temperature doesn’t rise too much, they’ll manage to keep their form for at least three or four days.  If it gets very cold, I’ve seen the sculptures last for two weeks.”
That pleased Cailan quite a bit, and he rather hoped that the sculptures would still be around on the day of his and Jarek’s Cylandrean nuptials.
There was quite a crowd who surrounded the area where the sculpting would take place, and six people, two at each ice block, were preparing their implements.  Jarek pointed to the different tools and explained what some of them were used for, as well as expounded on the roles of the creators. 
“Because sculpting ice is time sensitive, large pieces are rarely done by just one person.  That’s why each block has two artists present.  They’ll alternate jobs as they carve.  While one is sculpting, the other will keep the necessary knives and tools heated over that fire there.”  He pointed to a small bonfire, far enough away to not affect the ice, and large enough that several people could stand around it as needed.  “The artists will swap back and forth in their roles until the sculpture is complete.”
In short matter, Cailan got to observe what Jarek described.  It was fascinating to watch the artisans work.  They all began with large, fire-hot knives, and cut away hunks of ice, some pieces so large that Cailan felt that had to be a mistake, but both Jarek and Sana assured him it wasn’t.  When a general shape began to emerge, they switched to smaller knives and picks, working on details for their ice statues.
A lot of people wandered back and forth during the hour it took to create the sculptures, but Cailan couldn’t take his eyes away from this form of artwork he’d never before witnessed.  Then, just as the sky was starting to pinken with the setting sun, the artists made the last few cuts and details to their work.  
The final products were phenomenal.  One sculpture was a large crown, almost identical to the one currently being worn by King Alaric.  Even the jewels shaped by the ice somehow seemed to reflect the color of the jewels in his crown.
The second sculpture was a majestic eagle appearing to be in flight, his wings fully extended and carved with such expertise that Cailan could have sworn the statue was about to take flight and disappear into the sky.
The final sculpture was absolutely endearing.  It clearly showed a young family.  Mother and father were kneeling together, each with an infant child cradled in their arms.  The faces on both the adults and babies were so detailed that Cailan felt certain the artist had carved people near and dear to him. 
He truly could have studied the sculptures for hours, and he rather hoped to do that very thing the following day.  But, as he was warned, the sky was quickly growing darker and making it harder to see.
“There’s one more performance before we break for the evening meal,” King Jonerick informed their newest family member. 
Cailan tried to remember what the program had listed, but he drew a blank.  “What is it?”
“It’s an ancient poem set to music,” the elderly king told him.  “Our ancestor, King Trace, had one daughter, and she wrote a sonnet in tribute to country, king, and family.  It was set to music by her daughter years later, and it has become tradition for it to be sung every Starlight Day.  Because of how it originated, every year a mother and daughter from our empire is chosen to sing it for us.”
They had walked to the stage area as King Jonerick made his explanation, and Cailan saw that four tall torches were set in a square on the stage, and as the elder man had said, two clearly related women stood in the middle of them.
It took several minutes for the crowd to find their seats and settle quietly, and the two women waited patiently.  Then, without any accompaniment, they lifted their voices together in a sound so pure it was heavenly. 
Cailan found his eyes tearing as the women sang to the crowd in growing dusk.  The sonnet brought forth the emotions of love, commitment, and loyalty, and the tune that flowed effortlessly from the mother and daughter duo gave Cailan the sensations of peace, joy, and gratefulness all in one.  He could have listened all night, and almost felt like mourning when the song faded into the air.
There was no applause this time.  It was too pure an experience for it.  The hush of the people was truer praise.  Alaric stood when the performance ended and joined the two women on stage, kissing both their cheeks in thanksgiving before standing to address his people.
“It has truly been a memorable holiday,” he said in a voice that wasn’t loud, but still carried across the courtyard.  “I think it has been the best one in all I’ve experienced, and it’s not yet over.  Please, enjoy the next few hours with each other.  Take comfort in your friends and family, enjoy the food from those so generous and hard-working to provide it, and stay warm.  The sky-fire show will commence when the lights in the palace’s highest tower are lit, and then we ask that you safely return to your homes and continue your celebration with family and friends.”
Alaric rejoined his family, and then led the way into the palace for the private celebration Jarek had told Cailan about. 
At least, that’s what Cailan thought they were doing.  He was surprised when everyone started heading in different directions when they got inside.  “Where’s everyone going?”
“Just to change clothes and do some last-minute preparation,” Jarek assured.  “We’ve been outside in the cold all day, so we usually take some time to soak in some hot water and dress in more comfortable clothing for the evening.”
“Oh.”  Cailan had actually hoped they would gather to eat right away.  He was feeling hungry and the food he’d consumed during the day had been burned off with the activities.
“We’ll be together again within the hour,” Jarek told him.  “Did you do what I said with your gifts?”
That morning Jarek had told him to leave all the gifts he’d purchased for others in their personal library, although he hadn’t explained why; just as he hadn’t explained why each gift was to be wrapped and tied in the fancy paper and ribbon he’d brought to their suite a few days ago.  The most he’d said was, “It’s tradition.”
“I put them where you told me, but I still don’t know why.”
Jarek just grinned.  “You’ll see.  Don’t worry about it for now.  Let’s go soak in the bath for a little while.”
Cailan moved to head that direction, but was stopped abruptly by Jarek’s hand on his wrist.
“Wait just a minute,” Jarek told him, and then gathered a silk scarf from his wardrobe.  He moved behind Cailan, pulled the braid Sana had put in his hair up, and tied it off his shoulders with the scarf.  He then did the same thing to his own long hair, which Cailan found very odd.
“What are you doing?”
“We’ll be going back outside in a few hours, and if our hair is wet when we do, it will freeze, so I’m making sure we don’t get it wet.”
With that clarified, they moved to the hot bathing pool and soaked for a while.  Cailan had to admit, the heat felt wonderful after the cold of the day, and it was very soothing.  If his hunger hadn’t continued to grow, he would have been ready to go to bed at that point.
“Dress comfortably for now,” Jarek told him when they got out of the bath.  “We’ll add layers before we return to the courtyard later.
With that in mind, Cailan pulled on thick leggings that he could put woolen pants over, and a long-sleeve tunic made from bamboo thread and dyed a rich red.  Jarek clearly appreciated the outfit as he came and pressed close to Cailan’s front.  His hands cupped the younger man’s bottom and lifted until Cailan was forced onto his toes.  Grinning, the smaller prince wrapped his arms around Jarek’s broad chest, willingly tilting his head for a kiss.
“Feeling amorous again?” he teased when they pulled apart.
Jarek gave a growl in his chest that brought Cailan’s body to full attention.  “You look good enough to eat, petling.”
The sound of a gong made Jarek give another, less welcome, growl. 
“Dinner announcement?” Cailan asked.
“They couldn’t have waited five minutes,” Jarek grumped, and Cailan couldn’t help laughing.
“It would have taken more than five minutes, and I think the food we’re going to will taste better than me.”
That broke out a smile on the older man’s face, and a wink at Cailan as well.  “I highly doubt that, petling, but you’re right that we don’t have time. The rest of the family is probably waiting for us.”
They were, and Sem winked at Cailan in a way that made the younger prince blush.  He carefully avoided his brother-in-law’s eyes and sat next to Jarek while he looked around at the ornately decorated table. 
Unlike other dining pieces, this table was round with no one claiming a head seat.  It showed equality, something the Lysander family seemed to give to each other, even while recognizing lawful authority within the group.  The table was draped in a red cloth, with gold napkins, stately dinner services, and a silver chalice at each setting.
As soon as they were settled, food began to arrive, but Cailan was surprised that other than the rich, brothy soup that was placed in front of him, the rest of the meal was placed at a long table against the wall.
Queen Kesla was the first to notice his confusion.  “Are you okay, Prince Cailan?”
“Yes, just….” He motioned to the food.
“Oh,” she smiled, her look understanding.  “We want the servants to have the opportunity to enjoy the holiday as much as they can too.  They won’t serve us the meal.  They’ll just bring everything that’s been prepared to us and we’ll serve ourselves.  It lets them have a few hours uninterrupted as well.”
That was thoughtful, and Cailan didn’t mind serving himself.  It appeared none of the royal family did.  Although Alaric insisted that Kesla remain in her seat and he’d fill a plate for her.  Cailan didn’t blame him.  The queen was smiling, but her expression was tired.  It had clearly been a draining day for her.
They feasted on a perfectly done roast, sweetened potatoes with garlic and onions, baked vegetables, and hot bread.  Desserts of sugared fruit tarts, a spice cake, and Jarek’s favorite pumpkin fruit pudding were a delicious end to the meal.  Although, Jarek and Cailan were the only ones who indulged in the pudding.  No one else in the family cared for it, but the two of them enjoyed it immensely.
After dinner, they moved to the largest common room in the east wing, and Cailan was flummoxed at the sight before him.  A large pine tree, rooted in a deep planter stood almost to the ceiling in front of the room’s picture window.  The scent of pine and spices filled the space, and he drew closer to the tree in rapture to study the way it had been decorated.
Ribbons of red and silver were tied to the branches and completely surrounded the greenery.  Glass baubles, some clear, others of red, gold, and royal purple, hung amongst the needles.  Added to them were small bundles of cinnamon sticks, tied with ribbon, and dried oranges.  Cailan breathed the scent in deeply, closing his eyes to relish it.
The warmth of Jarek’s strong arm circled his waist, and Cailan leaned into the embrace.  “It’s beautiful,” he whispered reverently, his eyes still closed. 
“I love the decorated tree as well.  It adds to the uniqueness of the day, to have a regal king of the forest in our home,” Jarek told him.  “In a few days, the tree will be moved to a growing facility, and in the spring we’ll replant it in King’s Forest.”
That made Cailan smile.  An expression which grew when he opened his eyes and noticed that his wrapped gifts, and many others had been placed attractively at the tree’s base.  His surprise and joy were a delight for the rest of the family to see.
“Who brought the gifts here?”
“One of the servants,” Sem told him as he plopped on the floor with the packages.  “This is where we do our own gift exchange.  Sit, brother, and we’ll get started.”
Cailan was as happy about being called ‘brother’ as he was to see the packages and be experiencing this entire holiday.  Then family took a seat on the floor instead of the available chairs, although each of the women draped a shawl or blanket over their shoulders. 
“Traditionally,” Sem said, puffing out his chest as if he were giving an important speech, “the youngest in the family has the honor of handing out the gifts.  Thus, it has been my job for years.  It looks like I must hang up my hat though, and pass the mantle on to my little brother.”  He waved a hand from Cailan to the pile of gifts.
“Me?”  Cailan looked to the family gathered, and for a moment felt out of place and unworthy of what seemed to be so special.
He also looked shockingly young and vulnerable to the rest of the room’s occupants.  King Jonerick shifted over to him, putting Cailan between himself and Jarek.  “Of course you,” he said, his voice deep with age.  “You’re the youngest son and brother to us now, Cailan Nyle-Lysander, and until someone gifts Dyanna and I with a grandchild, this honor is rightfully yours.”
Cailan’s cheeks pinked a little, but he nodded slowly.  “What do I do?”
Sem reached out and grabbed his hand, pulling Cailan closer to the presents.  “I’ll show you.  It’s easy and fun.  Every gift is labeled.  Just pick one, read who it’s for and who it’s from, and then hand it out.  The receiver gets to open it right away so we can all see what they got, and then you’ll hand out the next one.  Got it?”
Cailan nodded, but asked, “Is there an order to who gets the gifts?”
“Nope,” Sem assured.  “Just pick any you like and start there.”
That was easy enough, and Cailan was tempted to hand one of his out first, just because he wanted to make sure people liked what he bought, but he thought that it might not be appropriate to start with his own purchases.  So, he reached for an unfamiliar package and looked at the paper tag.  “To Father, from Sana.”
Everyone had big smiles on their faces as Cailan handed the gift to King Jonerick.  Cailan chuckled with them when the elder man lifted the box to his ear and gently shook it.
“Oh, father,” Sana giggled.  “You always try to guess what it is, and you never do.  Just open it.”
Grinning, the man untied the ribbon and wrapping and uncovered a set of fine-tipped tools that were unfamiliar to Cailan.  However, Jonerick looked very pleased with what he saw.  “These are perfect, Sana, and look to be among the best made that I’ve seen.  Thank you so much!”
Sem was closest to Cailan, so the younger man leaned over and whispered, “What are they?”
“Wood-carving tools,” Sem answered.  “Father has developed a hobby of carving this past year.  Mother says he’s not a professional yet, but he enjoys it and each piece gets better and better.”
That made Cailan smile, and he kind of wished he could see some of the things the king had made.  Instead, he handed out the next gift, and fell into the routine of picking a package for someone and watching them open it.  He loved seeing the excitement on each person’s face, and was very pleased with the reactions people gave over the gifts he picked for them.  Kesla had immediately wrapped the blanket he purchased around her, exclaiming over its softness and pattern.  And Sana had exclaimed over the memory box, saying over and over how beautiful it was. 
The gift he most wanted to be liked was the one he picked for Jarek though, and he couldn’t prevent his nerves from showing a little when he handed the present to his husband.  Jarek unwrapped it carefully, and it took just a moment for him to realize what it was, but then he smiled broadly. 
“A melody box, petling?  How wonderful!  How did you arrange this?”
“I had some help,” Cailan admitted, “from the royal sorcerer and a few others.”
“Is there already music inside?” Sem and Sana asked at the same time.
At Cailan’s nod, Jarek lifted the box’s lid and the sound of instruments floated from its contents.  Jarek’s face lit up even more.  “It’s the children’s orchestra!”
“The ones who performed today?” Alaric asked.  “They were wonderful!”
“They were.  What a wonderful gift, petling!” Jarek exclaimed, and pulled Cailan into a hug. 
“Let it play while we finish opening the gifts,” Queen Dyanna requested.  “It’s lovely music.”
Cailan felt awkward with that request, but he didn’t say anything as he handed the next gift over. 
Several minutes later, a man’s tenor voice joined with the instruments being played.  The unexpectedness of it made everyone pause and listen.  Cailan felt his cheeks start to heat and dearly hoped no one noticed.
“How beautiful,” Kesla whispered.  “That can’t be one of the children, can it?”
Everyone looked to Cailan for the answer, which brought his blush to everyone’s eyes.  He shook his head in answer to Kesla’s question, and Jarek’s eyes widened at him.  “It’s you, petling.  My goodness, that’s you.” He made a motion for everyone to keep quiet, and they listened until the end of the song.  When the music returned to the children’s instrumental talent, the entire family was looking at their youngest member.
“That was, kind of, just meant for you,” he whispered embarrassingly to Jarek.  “My mother thought it would be a good idea.”
“Oh, petling,” Jarek whispered, and pulled Cailan against his side before tipping his chin up and devouring the younger man’s mouth.
They were stopped by Sem and Alaric’s cheers and applause that their mother couldn’t get them to cease.  Cailan blushed even darker and it took a lot of effort not to hide his face against Jarek’s shoulder. 
“I think I’d like you to open my gift to you now, although I’m not sure it can compare to the one I received,” Jarek told him.  He pointed to a gift that Sem handed over and placed in Cailan’s lap. 
Cailan, not able to look at anyone else, met Jarek’s eyes.  “I thought you said it wouldn’t be ready in time?”
“We managed to get it done,” Jarek answered.  “Open it, petling.”
The package had some weight to it, and Cailan carefully undid the wrapping, and then lifted the lid on the velvet covered box that was revealed.  He gasped when he saw the contents, his eyes wide in shock. 
Jarek reached in carefully to take out the priceless item.  “Your Artenian crowns will be placed in the treasure room with the rest of the family’s,” Jarek said seriously, “and you may wear them anytime you choose, but I thought it was important that you had a crown made from Cylandrean materials and crafted by our best artisans.  Our first king was crowned on this day, and I felt it only right that Cylandrea’s newest royal should have a crown this day as well.”  He placed the golden coronet, embellished with the glisten of diamonds around it, and the crafted points bright with rubies, onto Cailan’s head.  “It’s my hope that you’ll wear this at our wedding next week, if you so desire.”
Cailan didn’t realize his eyes had filled until a warm drop slid down his cheek.  He wiped it quickly away as he nodded, careful not to dislodge the crown.  “I’d be honored.”
Jarek kissed him again, and Alaric spoke up.  “Prince Cailan, I know you’re aware that Jarek and I had an argument surrounding your gift, but I don’t want you to believe it was because I, or anyone else, did not wish for you to have it.  We just miscommunicated on when it was to be finished.  I also know my brother isn’t likely to tell you this himself, but I think you’d like to be aware that he worked personally with the metal workers and jewelers for your gift.  The design of your crown, and every gemstone in it, was personally chosen by Jarek.”
Cailan blinked quickly to keep any more tears from falling.  “Thank you,” he told his husband, his heart too full for any other words.
At that point, Sem silently took over passing out the few remaining gifts, because neither Cailan nor Jarek wanted out of each other’s arms.
Later that evening, the crown had been replaced with a warm head covering, but Cailan was still curled into Jarek’s side.  This time they, and the rest of the royal family, were back in the courtyard with the people, sitting on thick blankets and looking to the stars.  Jarek had still refused to explain what the sky-fire show was, and simply told Cailan to watch.
So he did, and unexpectedly a flash of light shone in the distance.  It started on the ground and climbed high into the dark sky like a shooting star, and then it exploded with a boom that made Cailan gasp, first in fright and then in awe.  Sparks of fire in all colors had appeared with the explosion, and now drifted to earth, slowly burning out before they’d ever touch the ground.
“That,” Jarek whispered into his ear, “is sky-fire.”
Never had Cailan seen anything like that, and although he was better prepared, he still startled when the next explosion happened and the sky lit up with the show.  Around him, the people oohed and aahed.  Cailan just pressed into Jarek and watched the show in wonder, deciding not to ask how it was done because he didn’t want to take away from the magic of the show, or the magic of the day.
It had been one of the best of his life, but he wasn’t sad it would end soon.  He was happy because the future held years of Starlight Days, and all the days in-between, in front of him with Jarek.


                                THE END AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!