The King's Right Hand

Reads: 50  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: Finished  |  Genre: Gay and Lesbian  |  House: Booksie Classic

King Patrick loves his wife. He's also falling in love with his hot new male Companion. But a murder plot threatens their happiness and the security of their entire kingdom.

If any on King Patrick's council were offended, none dared say so. None except for war minister Thomas, who dared say whatever he damn well pleased. He knew the king was prohibited from executing his chief advisors without cause, but he might have spoken up even with the threat of thirty arrows to the face, as was the customary punishment for treason. Patrick adjusted his feet, which were comfortably rested across the bare back of Caleb, who was on his hands and knees before him.

"This is highly inappropriate," said Thomas.

"What is?" asked Patrick.

"Do not insult the intelligence of this council. Your manservant has no business here."

"I never took you for a prude, Thomas."

"You may rest your feet upon him whenever and wherever you like as is blessed by the Nine Divines, truss him up in the village square, or merrily penetrate him in front of visiting heads of state. But not where he will overhear sensitive matters of the kingdom. And you well know this, so I assume the pleasure he brings you here is in boiling my blood."

"Yes, I thought I knew that, but then I looked it up. It is irregular for council meetings to be attended by non-council members, but no law prohibits it. As is usually the case, discretion lies with the king."

"I have no doubt, Your Majesty, that discretion lies with the king, but let him do it somewhere else!"

"Thomas is only angry because Your Majesty's footstool criticized his battle plan," said another council member.

nother. "We have him to thank for not losing more soldiers."

approvingly patted Caleb on the back with his foot.

uch things."

"I do trust him," said Patrick. "So the question is not whether he stays, but whether you do. That I leave entirely to you."

It wasn't true that Thomas knew when he was beaten, but he did know when to tactically retreat – in matters of politics, at least. So he relented. For now.

* * * * *

Caleb wasn't merely a footstool, of course, though he performed that task honorably. He was once a man of rank and title in the kingdom of Middenora. Of noble birth. Educated. He came to Patrick's attention as a promisingmilitary strategist with a keen mind and amazing shoulders, but mostly the keen mind. He designed a training program for front-line soldiers in defensive tactics for reducing casualties. He was young, but Patrick had seen young soldiers before – seen a few of them naked as well – and Caleb already had the look of a general.

That was when scandal struck him down. Actually, it struck his father, but that made no difference in a kingdom where everything is passed from parent to child, whether it's crown, fortune, land, or shame. His father was an earl who in desperation to pay his debts attempted to defraud a duchess with counterfeit jewels. The cruel irony was that he would have lost his manor to his creditors in either event, but the pitiable scheme cost him his title, his position, and his esteem as well. And his blameless son was equally stripped of his nobility and became all but a ghost at court, all to further punish and humiliate his father.

All that talent gone to waste. Caleb was no less a gentleman for his lack of title, but restoring a family to power -- or even just one member -- after such a transgression was not easily done, even by a king. There was only one option, the very suggestion of which might have filled the young man with contempt as it was far beneath his dignity: to appoint him as a Companion to the King, an honorary title which would afford him the protection of the crown but social status little above that of a concubine. Caleb would be seen as the king's glorified whore, though that was a status greater than poor Caleb would otherwise have had.

When Patrick made the offer he did so in person out of respect. He and Caleb had become acquainted but were not lovers yet, so Patrick did not know how his proposition would be received. The king was nervous, bashful even when he called Caleb to his chamber.

"I do not imagine I have much choice in the matter," Caleb had said. "It is this or jail, perhaps, if I'm lucky. The executioner more likely."

"No, my dear boy, the choice is entirely yours. I make you a meager offer, and I ask as your equal man, not as your king. If you accept, the terms will be yours to decide. I simply wish access to your intellect so that it is not wasted by the desperate choices of your father that had nothing to do with you. I will make no other request of you and expect nothing beyond what I have made plain. But should you someday wish to offer more, know that it will be accepted."

Caleb accepted Patrick's offer. He was ordained as a Companion at the Cathedral of the Nine Divines that very day and was dressed in his anointed garments: just a sash, a loincloth, an anklet, and a garland of wildflowers upon his head.

* * * * *

Indeed, they did not become lovers in their first two months together, as if Caleb were testing that the king would be true to his word. When they were seen in public together they were chaste, apart from Caleb's revealing anointed garments, and their meetings alone were equally so: they mostly discussed literature, weaponry training, and troop positions on the southern shore, where there was word of possible enemy scouts.

Nine weeks and four days after Caleb's ordination was when he made his move, and this too seemed like a test.

"If I wish to offer myself to you," he had said, "will you accept the terms I set?"

"Of course I will. You are my right hand."

"Then please, Your Majesty, give me your right hand."

Patrick paused for a moment, unsure of the request and searching Caleb's face for his intention. But he did as his Companion asked and gasped as Caleb wrenched his arm around his back in a single swift motion.

"May I continue?" asked Caleb.

"Do I have a choice?" asked Patrick, not remembering in the moment how Caleb had once asked him that very same thing.

"Of course, Your Majesty. You are the king."

Patrick didn't answer right away, but in his hesitation he realized that while he could not escape Caleb's grasp if he tried, his Companion was not applying undue force either. There was no pain in his limbs or joints. After his initial surprise subsided, he no longer felt threatened, so he told Caleb, "You may continue." And Caleb pulled Patrick's left hand behind his back as well, this time more gently, and bound his wrists together with a soft cloth he seemed to have brought for this very purpose. Still, Patrick did not feel unsafe, though perhaps a more prudent king would have thought better of putting himself in such a vulnerable position without the protection of his guards.

"May I continue?" Caleb asked again.

"Yes, you may."

As so it went as Caleb undressed the king, placed and positioned the king, and then, it must be said, most thoroughly fucked the king over his bed. Caleb would periodically pause to ask for His Majesty's permission, and His Majesty eagerly gave it. Eventually Patrick understood the pauses themselves to be requests for consent without Caleb having to say the words. Patrick replied, "Please continue," "Please, more," and finally "Don't stop" until Caleb finished inside of him and then reached around to finish the king by hand.

Then Caleb undid the restraints and kissed both wrists where they had been tied, brushing his fingers over them and making the king quiver. "Do you agree to these terms, Your Majesty?"

"I do," said Patrick in-between heavy breaths. "Next time, it could be tighter. If you desire."

"As you wish, Your Majesty," said Caleb with a grin.

* * * * *

So that was their contract. Caleb was the king's minion in public, his master in private, and his advisor in all matters of state as tensions with their southern neighbors in Surno intensified. A boring trade dispute involving wheat tariffs and a petty travel ban against Middenora wizards, it should merely have been a diplomatic matter, but Surno had a large army and was given to provocative displays of force, perhaps fearing their swords and shields might rust from lack of use. An open war would serve no one's interests, though – except, perhaps, for Patrick's war minister.

It was no secret that Caleb's advice had overridden Thomas's proposal of an assault on Surno, which Patrick was already inclined to reject since the queen was in Surno trying to negotiate peace. Thomas's recklessness worried him, which was why Patrick finally brought his footstool to the king's council. Patrick was rigid the entire time waiting for Caleb to tread on his back in return. His trousers were already half off by the time they entered his bedchamber, only to be surprised by his wife, Queen Frances, herself.

But Patrick did not miss a beat, rushing to his beloved, taking her in his arms, and spinning her in an ecstatic circle, his pants about his knees. None of this seemed to perturb Her Majesty.

"I've missed you so much I could devour you whole and lick the plate clean," said Patrick.

"Truly you are the poet of Middenora, but I don't believe that is meant for me," she said, gesturing to his erection.

"It belongs to you now and always, though honor bids me to confess that, no, you were not the inspiration for its current elevation. Caleb!" he cried excitedly, turning to his footstool and then back to the queen. "I've been dying to introduce you. I have chosen a Companion."

Caleb knelt before the queen and bowed his head, taking her hand in his and kissing it. "It is my honor, Your Majesty," he said. He was shier than Patrick had ever seen him. The king could see on the skin of the young man's back that he was blushing, and in a moment he understood why. Caleb turned to him and asked, carefully searching for each word as he went, "Do you mean to … share me?"

"Oh heavens no," said Frances, who beckoned him to stand back up. "I have my own."

"Two in fact," Patrick added. "Matthew and Amelia, historians at the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences – husband and wife, in fact. Both lovely. Now that my dear Frances has returned we'll throw a banquet for all three of you."

"Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I don't know if I'm suited to such formal affairs."

"My bashful boy!" said Patrick, who took Caleb's face in his hands, his trousers having by now slipped to his ankles. "You may wish to practice in formality as I see greatness in your future, but I see your audience with the queen was surprise enough for one day, so whatever suits you suits me just fine. However, you will not stop me from celebrating you."

"A picnic in the private garden, I think, just the five of us," said Frances. "I'll make the arrangements."

"Do you agree to those terms, Caleb?" Patrick asked with an arched eyebrow.

"Yes, that would be … I would be honored, Your Majesty – Majesties, Your Majesties. I will take my leave of you now as you have not seen each other in many months." Caleb bowed awkwardly and left abruptly.

"What a lovely man," said Frances, "and quite reserved for your usual taste."

"Reserved is not a word I would have used to describe him before today. Indeed, I've never seen that man before in my life."

"I suppose I have that effect on people."

"Not on me."

Frances laughed. "No one has ever had that effect on you, my love."

"You're wrong," said Patrick. "Someone has."

"Your pants are still down, Your Majesty. Pull them back up once you have attended to yourself. We have much to discuss."

* * * * *

Frances's diplomatic mission in Surno was long and not especially successful. Surno's king was a man-child, elderly in age but a toddler in spirit. He threw tantrums at court, humiliated his ministers and servants for sport, and even approved a small raid on a Middenora trading outpost while she was there. It was unsuccessful, though even if it had been successful she wasn't sure what benefit it would have brought them since most of the goods that passed through there were bound for Surno.

"I did find that provocative indeed, especially with you there," said Patrick. "Did he threaten you?"

"He barely knew I was there at all, except for three occasions when he exposed himself to me, which he thought was incredibly clever, so much so that he whipped any ministers who failed to laugh. I'm not sure he knew I represented Middenora at all, let alone as its queen. In all that time the only member of his council I met with privately was his minister of irrigation." But her visit to Surno wasn't a complete loss. Its beaches were lovely.

"Should we be alarmed?"

"Never turn your back on an idiot with an army," Frances told him. "But his attention span may be too short for war."

The same, alas, could not be said of Thomas. He cornered Frances outside the king and queen's chambers as soon as Patrick was called to the Royal Academy for ceremonial duties: he was required to hold a scepter and look kingly for the orientation of new students.

"I don't trust him," Thomas snarled from close enough to Frances that she could identify his last meal: cod, faintly evident under pounds of garlic.

"Whom don't you trust?" Frances asked with a sigh. It was a long list.

"Surely by now you've met His Majesty's Companion, for they have seldom been apart since he was anointed."

"That you do not trust the young man is no surprise to me, Thomas. You don't trust anyone. So you'll have to be more specific about the cause of your current mistrust."

"His Majesty's plaything was invited into a council meeting, which as you know is highly dangerous, especially when he is from a disgraced family."

"Who, my husband or his Companion? For I dare say either answer may apply."

"This is no time to jest, Your Majesty. It's bad enough that the king is whispering secret matters of state in his lover's ear whenever his mouth isn't full of something else, but to publicly elevate him in such a way disrespects not only the council, but you. Perhaps he intends to install the boy as his new queen."

"Do you expect me to discuss my husband's intimate relations with you, Thomas? Do you also discuss my private affairs with the king behind my back?"

"You are far more discerning than the king has ever been."

"So you're switching now to flattery, oh what an adventure we're on together in this conversation! It's a shame that in doing so you're still insulting my husband and his Companion who has been blessed by the Nine Divines, which means you're also insulting the Nine Divines. Shall I have you arrested for heresy or let this one slide?"

"You're mocking me, Your Majesty."

"So you've figured that out – I can see why you're in charge of war." Thomas opened his mouth to speak again but Frances held up her hand to stop him. "I tolerate you only to the extent that I am entertained by your vulgarity. The bit about my husband's mouth was especially charming, I'll have to remember to use that one myself."

"You'll eventually see that I'm right about the boy," said Thomas finally. "I only hope we all survive long enough to see it."

* * * * *

Patrick brought Caleb to the private garden to discuss Frances's report from Surno, but what Patrick really wanted to know was how Caleb was feeling since the queen's return. And what happened instead of either of those things was that Patrick's face was pressed into the bark of a cherry tree as Caleb fucked him senseless. Patrick's cheek scraped against the wood, and his shoulder burned as Caleb twisted one arm behind his back – it hurt, but just enough hurt.

They had learned each other's limits; only twice thus far had Patrick wished to stop in the throes of passion, once because his foot grew numb where it was tied to the trough, and once because the blood rushed too quickly to his head when he was hanging off the garden wall. Caleb knew to desist when Patrick called out the word they had both agreed upon: "Thomas," which both men understood to mean the end of pleasure.

Patrick spilled his seed first, so eager he was after missing their last opportunity when the queen returned. He tightened from the release, and Caleb followed immediately after with a grunt and one last insistent thrust. Sweating and panting, he collapsed onto Patrick's back.

Caleb turned the king around to kiss him against that tree, but when he saw the scrape on his cheek he became alarmed. "You're injured!"

"Hardly."

"You should have told me to stop."

"I didn't want you to."

"Don't be stubborn, Your Majesty. Even so much as a scratch on your person and I could be tried for attempted regicide."

"I would testify on your behalf. I have some influence, you know."

"Don't mistake your crown for a shield. You cannot protect me from everything – or yourself for that matter."

"I trust you with my life," Patrick said. "Can you at least trust me with my own cheek? I'll say it was a hunting accident – I was chased by a boar."

"In your private garden?"

"It's a very big garden."

Caleb wanted to laugh, but then almost cried and bowed his head into Patrick's shoulder.

"You were shaken by the queen's arrival," Patrick said.

"I was … surprised."

"I feared that it was the end of us, that it had broken the spell, that you would wish to resume our prior arrangement. And if that were the case I would accept it. With a broken heart, gnashing teeth, and unquenchable grief, but I would accept it, Caleb, and continue to hold you in the highest regard as my friend, my ally, and my advisor. I love you, with all my heart."

"What does that leave for Her Majesty, the Queen?"

"All my heart as well. A heart isn't cut into pieces and meted out until it's spent. It's vast and borderless, a most perfect engine that fuels itself by loving. In fact, that is the very work of a king; few last without love for their people or theirs in return. But it's also the work of a man. I don't love you any less for loving Frances, or her any less for loving you. But I'm sure it must be strange for you. Could you have ever imagined yourself in such a position?"

"In love with a king? No, my imagination failed me there. A king married to a queen who must now share him with the son of a disgraced con man. Is she offended that you've elevated me to such a station?"

"Not the slightest bit."

"Is she jealous?"

"Ha!" Patrick laughed bigger and harder than he meant to.

"Is it alright that I'm a little jealous of her?"

"I'm honored that you are." Patrick touched Caleb's cheek. "Did you mean it when you said you loved me just then?"

"I did, and hoped maybe you hadn't noticed."

They kissed, bruised cheek be damned. Their senses were so full of each other that they didn't notice the first arrow go whizzing by them.

Or the second.

But they finally jolted when they heard the third strike the tree, and Caleb fell when the fourth struck him.

* * * * *

Caleb was conscious, but bleeding where the arrow had lodged in his right shin. Patrick tried to support his weight as they struggled to escape the open garden. From the trajectory of the arrows they knew their assailant was to the west, though neither one of them could see their attacker. But they could see and hear the fifth, sixth, and seventh arrows that tore through the air on either side of them. Luckily they were back inside the palace before the assassin could fire their eighth.

"Bring the healers now!" Patrick barked at the guards just inside; he had bid them to remain in the palace so he and Caleb could be alone together. Now he wondered if doing so had sealed Caleb's fate.

"I'm going to be fine," said Caleb through a wince, as he laid on his side on the stone floor.

"You don't look fine."

"It's only a flesh wound."

"You are composed entirely of flesh. None of it should be wounded."

That made Caleb laugh for a moment before he winced again, and then slipped out of consciousness.

* * * * *

The healers kept Caleb sedated while they removed the arrow from his leg, but they were concerned by a darkening of the blood like a black spider's web spreading out from the wound. It might have been an infection of some kind, but so quickly after the injury? Under the circumstances they couldn't rule out poison.

As they worked, Patrick stomped back and forth and tortured them with questions and demands until they finally had no choice but to ask him to leave. There was nothing he could do there but delay their efforts.

Frances was waiting for him outside of the healing chamber, holding an arrow in her hand, retrieved from the garden as the guards secured the area and searched for the assassin. Her hands shook, which he might not have noticed were it not for the quivering of the weapon she held. He immediately slapped it out of her hand – "Poison!" – and pulled her into a tight embrace.

"I just heard what happened," she said. "Who could have done this? Was it Surno? I knew they were stupid, but I never imagined they would make an attempt on your life. How is Caleb?"

Patrick couldn't speak, simply shook his head to say he didn't know.

"When we find whoever did this, my love, I'll gut them myself."

"I'll dull the blade for you."

* * * * *

There would be no business before the king with a would-be killer at large. And after a week passed with no arrest, it became clear that whoever tried to kill the king could not have acted alone. To come and go unseen, and to come close enough to have fired those arrows in the first place, would have required treachery from within as well as without. This realization filled Patrick with rage and anxious dread, a dangerous combination that kept him relegated to his chambers except when he would visit Caleb in the healing chamber. This was for Patrick's safety but also for the safety of those around him; in such a state, he might turn a corner and murder an innocent page who moved too suddenly.

Caleb was alive, but paid dearly for his survival. The arrow that struck him had indeed been poisoned with a paralytic substance that would surely have stopped his heart if it had been allowed to spread through him. To stop the spread, there was no choice but to remove the leg below the knee. He had not yet allowed the healers to fit him for a prosthetic. "I am not whole," he had told Patrick, "and I never will be."

"You are as whole as any man living," said Patrick. "I can see this as clear as day. Soon you will see it too." But Caleb needed time to mourn what had been stolen from him.

* * * * *

There weren't many who the king could trust, but the queen had a network of seven spies, acquired over time, whom even the king did not know. Patrick sometimes asked Frances why she had a network of spies as it was not part of a queen's official or unofficial duties, nor was it typical for a queen's hobby. All she ever told him in response was, "One day you'll be glad that I do."

One of the seven had traveled with her to Surno in secret and remained there to gather intelligence. Two others were placed within the Royal Academy. And three were in the employ of wealthy landowners because the queen didn't trust anyone with too much money.

That left one named Sarah, whom Frances called to the palace the day after the attack. She conducted her investigation with such guile that the king himself, at the peak of his alertness, passed her without giving her a second thought, or even a first thought. So too did her search go unnoticed by those she surveilled, including the one person in the palace who could be considered more paranoid than His Majesty.

"The king's counselor on matters of war, Thomas, do you believe he is capable of treachery?" Sarah asked Frances, which drew a hearty laugh from the queen. Of course he was capable of treachery. He'd flay his own mother if he saw some minor advantage in it, but Frances had thought him too wily and self-interested to have orchestrated something as reckless as an assassination attempt against the king, which was why Frances had not suspected him before now. But it made sense to her when she thought of it differently.

* * * * *

"What if you were not the target of the attempt?" Frances later asked Patrick, asking this question before levying her allegation against his war minister. It might set Patrick on a rampage against his least most trusted advisor, so she walked him carefully towards that dangerous line.

Patrick was taken aback and laughed. "If not me, then who? Did they mistake me for a different king of Middenora?"

"Only one man was wounded in that garden, my love. Might Caleb have been the intended victim all along?"

Then it dawned on him as it had on Frances. Thomas hated the king's Companion, was ruthless enough to kill, clever enough to secrete an assassin, and cunning enough to conceal his true intention by striking down the young man in the presence of the king – the likelier target. But upon this realization, a smile crept up against the corners of Patrick's mouth, because Caleb had survived and now Patrick would have the satisfaction of scattering Thomas's vivisected bowels through the fields where rats and crows could feed at them.

But he knew Frances could read this expression on his face most clearly, and that her unspoken rebuke was annoyingly correct. For such a grave crime there must be due process before the happy hollowing out of treasonous guts.

"What is the evidence against him?" Patrick asked, tucking away his grin in favor of a more stately countenance.

"The poison that tipped the arrows may be in Thomas's possession. A bottle found in his office contained a, shall we say, malodorous substance. The healers will soon confirm if it is what we suspect."

"That is not enough yet for an execution," Patrick admitted. "He mustn't know that we're suspicious of him yet. Because if this is true, then before he dies, I want to know what he looks like when he lies."

* * * * *

Patrick visited Thomas's office instead of having him summoned; the guards posted outside Thomas's door during their meeting would hardly have seemed suspicious given the recent attempt on the king's life. Nevertheless, this was an unusual meeting simply by virtue of the fact that it was happening at all. Thomas knew Patrick liked to keep their encounters at an absolute minimum, what with not liking him in the slightest, and Patrick recognized that wariness on Thomas's face as he entered.

But Patrick had nearly been killed, after all, so any deviation from the norm could be easily explained away until there was hard enough evidence to fill his traitorous eye sockets with arrows.

"We are blessed by the divines that the attempt on your life was a failure," said Thomas.

"That it was," said Patrick.

"I'm confident that the perpetrator or perpetrators will be found, tried and have their skulls perforated for all of Middenora to see. Though it is not my place to carry out such an investigation myself, I have devised some theories as to the culprit -- seventeen to be exact if I may go over each of them with you in detail while you're here."

"Seventeen! My you've been busy."

"I'm afraid fourteen of my scenarios involve aggression from Surno, and if that is the case decisions will have to be made, decisions that we should start preparing for imme--"

"Why so many pointing to a single culprit?"

"It would be consistent with their reckless aggression thus far. If I had access to the evidence I could narrow it down further."

"But it's not your place, you've said so yourself. You only know about war."

"There is a strong possibility that this was an act of war, Your Majesty."

"There has never been a war you wouldn't wage."

"And never a conflict you wouldn't avoid, even when your life may depend on it." Thomas put his hands on his hips and sighed, frustrated as though he were speaking to a child. "I know you don't like me, Your Majesty. So be it. My job is not for you to like me, it is to protect this kingdom from threat, and there is more to this kingdom than just you."

"I don't need to be reminded of that, least of all by you who thinks a kingdom is measured on the fine end of a sword."

"You'll be glad of our swords the next time arrows graze your head."

Patrick studied Thomas's smug indignation. Most didn't dare to speak to the king that way, but Patrick wasn't sure if that was a sign of arrogance, malice, or simply poor impulse control. Alas, Patrick could gather nothing about his war minister beyond his own usual desire to throttle him to death.

"You haven't asked about the health of my Companion," said Patrick. "He saved my life."

"Yes, how is your Companion?" Thomas made no effort to hide the sneer in his voice.

"You've heard that he lost his leg."

All Thomas said in reply was, "Better him than you."

That was the king's cue to leave. Another word from Thomas and he really might have executed him with his bare hands. "I do enjoy these visits," said Patrick. "Let's do it again soon." But before he walked back out through the door he thought of one more thing: "What were the other three?"

"Excuse me?" said Thomas.

"You said you had seventeen theories and fourteen involved Surno. What about the other three?"

Thomas paused a moment, calculating perhaps? "You were right, Your Majesty. It's not my place."

* * * * *

It might have been believed that Caleb adjusted to his condition. He was stoic as he was released from the healing chamber to continue his rehabilitation from his own bed. It looked like dignified acceptance: chin high, shoulders back. He'd even allowed them to fit him for a prosthetic after having steadfastly refused it at first, though he would need his crutches while it was prepared – carved from the finest wood from the tallest, strongest, oldest oak cut from Elder's Forest, as the king demanded.

It was anything but acceptance. Caleb hardly left his bed, and he seemed a million miles away whenever Patrick visited him, staring vacantly ahead into empty space.

"I apologize for the state I'm in," Caleb said after a long silence.

"What in heaven could you possibly have to apologize for?" Patrick reassured him.

"When you first came to me I was a soldier." He looked down at himself, covered to the waist in rumpled sheets. "At least here I can pretend that I still am, until I inevitably have to get up and remember."

"All in due time," said Patrick. "You'll find your way with me to help you."

"DON'T PATRONIZE ME!" Caleb shouted. He reached for one of his crutches by the side of his bed and hurled it across the room where it shattered a clay pot. "Nothing is worse than the pity. When you lower yourself to me, it only reminds me how low I am."

"Oh but I am low!" Patrick dropped to his knees beside the bed. "Where you stand, I kneel. Where you sit, I am prone. And it's because of who you are, not the number of your appendages."

"Except for one, I'm sure."

"If you had lost that I would genuflect at the nub."

That image was startling enough to momentarily shake Caleb from his stupor. He looked at Patrick with a frown.

"I swear it." Patrick stripped down, leaving his kingly attire haphazardly pooled at his feet. He insistently nudged Caleb over to join him in the bed, settling his head onto the injured man's chest as easily as a key fits a lock. He ran his hand across Caleb's torso, fingers strolling across the plain of his abdomen before venturing southward. But Caleb swiftly grabbed Patrick's wrist and shook his head.

"Not now." But he did pull Patrick's body closer to his.

"Very well," said Patrick, who returned his wandering hand to less forbidden grounds. "I hope to have a gift for you soon. I can't wait to watch you cut it open."

* * * * *

Patrick stayed with Caleb all day and night and returned to Frances in their bedchamber the following morning. He hadn't planned to stay the night with his Companion and had not informed her that he would be away from their marital bed. There had never been jealousy between them, but such discourtesy to his queen was unacceptable, so he greeted her on bended knee, bowed his head, and kissed her feet.

"What are you doing, my love?" she asked.

"I have treated you most shabbily since you returned. I have let my new love distract me from my first love, the center of my universe, to whom I am foremost devoted. Will you forgive me for my negligence?"

"Will you please stand?"

Patrick resisted this at first, pelting her toes and ankles with more kisses, interspersed with more breathless apologies. She had to yank him by the collar of his tunic before he relented.

"How long have we been married, my love?" she asked after dragging him to his feet.

"Eleven years, eleven magnificent years."

"And how well do you think I know you?"

"Better sometimes than I know myself."

She held a finger to his lips before he could go on. "Then listen. You love like a forge, a white heat like the center of the Earth, so unrelenting that it must be handled with the greatest care. You are consumed by it."

"Far too consumed, I agree –"

"But that is not forever. It eventually cools and settles."

"I promise my love for you has not cooled in the slightest. It rages like the birth of a sun. It is as hard and fast –"

Frances grabbed his face to cover his mouth. "Do shut up, so I can explain to you that what comes from the forge is a steel blade stronger than any known to man. That is your love, and it would not be so were it not for the fire. You burn for Caleb as you have done for me. Now your love for me is that sword, as I hope it soon will be for him. You almost lost him, so it burns you even more wildly. And I understand that because I know you better sometimes than you know yourself, so I give you the room you need while I partake of amusements of my own."

"How amused are you exactly?"

"Wouldn't you like to know."

Patrick finally relaxed and placed a hand on her cheek. "I hope I'm more than cold steel to you. There's fire in me yet."

"Oh I know," said Frances, who reached a hand down and squeezed his hilt. "I still know how to stoke it." She let go and walked towards her study. "And if you're quite finished with your embarrassing but … admittedly gratifying display, I can show you what I've intended to show you since you arrived."

At this, Patrick started to unfasten his buckles.

"No, not that. Not yet," she teased. "This is even better. Truly neither Caleb nor I could stiffen you as this." She returned with a letter. It was a testimony in writing from six healers, who all swore with the utmost certitude that it was as they suspected: the poison in Thomas's possession was the same as nearly killed Caleb. Patrick read it, then read it a second and third time. He looked up at Frances and dropped the letter to the floor.

"There will be a most glorious bloodletting," he said with stars in his eyes. "But first, my darling, will you consent to be fucked?"

"Yes, my love. Remind me how it burns."

* * * * *

The screams could be heard throughout the palace as Thomas was dragged by royal guards out of his bed in the dead of night. The king waited to have him roused from his sleep late that evening; after the shock of being roughly woken for arrest, perhaps his cunning tongue would wag less cleverly to deny his crime.

But there was no anguish in his screams. No, even in his nightshirt, fearful blubbering was beneath him. Instead he bellowed sounds of indignation and audacity, as if he could shrink the guards down with the sheer force of his disapproval. "What is the meaning of this?" and "Who do you think you're dealing with?" and "I'll make you regret this mistake!" But Patrick's favorite protestation had to be, "By the time I'm through with you, you'll be scraping the shit of incontinent, half-dead horses out of the stables with your fingernails!"

He quieted down when they finally reached their destination: the Pinnacle Tower, an isolated cell at the highest point in the palace, seldom used as it primarily housed traitors awaiting execution. There were no windows, only a single dim candle for light, and no bed or chair or furnishing of any kind save a rough-hewn straw mat on the craggy stone floor. And it didn't matter that it was spring outside the castle walls, in the cell it was dreadfully cold; Thomas's breath clouded before his eyes. The sound of the heavy, creaking iron door echoed off the walls as it shut him inside, and for once he was out of words. It must have been then that he understood how desperate his situation really was.

Patrick left him there alone for hours, and in that time Thomas didn't utter a single word.

* * * * *

The next time the Pinnacle door opened it was the king arriving to visit his prisoner. But while Thomas's chest wasn't puffed with superiority as it usually was, the king wouldn't have called it penitent either. The doomed man still believed himself to be a man of station, and his wheels never stopped turning, even in a traitor's cell. He had been sitting on the far end of the room and stood when the king entered and was as still and alert as a snake ready to strike.

"There has been some grave error," said Thomas.

Patrick raised his eyebrows, but said nothing in response.

"Whatever you think of me, it cannot possibly justify my being here. This is …" He looked around him and showed his first hint of fear. "This is not a place for those you simply disagree with, or even those you loathe. Believe me, if I could store my grievances here I could stack them like cordwood until they reached the ceiling. But it's clear that you wish to send me a message, though I can't possibly imagine what –"

Patrick, still silent, placed a vial on the floor containing a fluid of such a dark green hue that it was nearly black. He watched Thomas's reaction. He didn't move or make a sound. His face betrayed no emotion. His eyes studied, wheels turned.

"I assume this is supposed to mean something."

"Would you drink it?"

"Would I drink a strange liquid from a vial off the floor? Of course not. Judging from my present accommodations, I can't imagine anything good would come of it. Is this how you intend to kill me? Is that it?"

"Why should I want to kill you?"

At this, Thomas laughed despite himself. "Forgive me, I must have misunderstood our entire relationship, up to an including my abduction from my bed some hours ago and your self-satisfied, shit-eating face as you taunt me with strange liquids. I'd drink it just to be rid of you, I swear I would. Or would it work faster if you inject it – whatever cuts to the heart fastest."

"Don't tempt me."

"Be tempted for all I care. Kill me. Be the beneficent king who slaughtered a member of his council in cold blood on a whim. I'll look down on you from the After as your kingdom dissolves from your rank stupidity."

Patrick smiled. He'd made Thomas angry. He might even be able provoke him to strike his sovereign with his fist, which itself would be treason enough. But instead Thomas took the vial from the floor and smashed it against the wall.

"So you're not thirsty?" said Patrick.

Thomas raised his fist and lunged at the king, but held himself back from committing an irrevocable crime against the crown. He turned around and drove his fist into the wall so hard that Patrick could immediately see four points of blood on the stone from each knuckle where they made contact. Thomas crumpled to the floor and cried out in pain. Patrick casually strode to his humbled prisoner's side and knelt beside him, thinking now his defenses might be broken enough to confess. He placed a hand on Thomas's back and said in the guise of mercy, "I know it was you. I know you tried to kill Caleb and disguised it as an attack from Surno. I could almost admire the ruthless efficiency of it: rid yourself of a grievance rather than stack it like timber in these walls, and in doing so get the war you've always craved."

Thomas turned to face the king in shock, feigned no doubt. "Is that what this is?"

"What else would it be? There's no further need for denials. They only make it worse for you. The poison that nearly killed him was yours. You've smashed it against the wall surely enough."

Thomas shoved Patrick away and crawled backwards from him to the farthest corner he could reach. "No! It's a lie! Whose evidence is this? Where was it found? And when? Clearly they've conspired to kill me as well as you. Probably knew how few questions you'd ask if it meant my head on a pike -- designed with your prejudices in mind, which is all the more dangerous because it means a spy. Or someone ... And you absolute imbecile! You brought the sole evidence with you and now it's gone. No matter to you, I suppose, as you've all but executed me already, haven't you? I bet you have the archers at the ready as we speak, unless you wished to do it yourself, get your own hands dirty for a change, but such is your blinding spite."

"Do you really think I'd bring the real thing here? Give me a little credit. The actual evidence will speak against you at your trial -- your fair trial. I'd hoped you might spare us all, not least of all yourself, and finally speak the truth. But there will be no doubt when it's over who you really are. Then and only then will you die. But you're right, it will give me satisfaction like nothing I've ever felt before."

"My heavens," said Thomas, who almost laughed. "She's really done it, hasn't she?"

"I have no further use of you," said the king as he turned to leave. "The sight of you makes me --"

"The other three theories, Your Majesty. You asked me what they were. If not Surno, you wanted to know who I thought might have cause to wish you dead -- a long list of suspects indeed, which conservatively might include anyone who's met you. One in particular, though ... Tell me, did the evidence against me come from the queen?"

* * * * *

The same evening that Thomas was taken into custody, Frances met secretly again with Sarah. The garden was quiet, and the moonlight cast shadows so heavy and deep that the two women stayed near the castle wall for the light from an overhead window.

"I fear this will be your last assignment in my employ," said Frances. "You'll need to testify to the evidence, and there will be no hiding you away as my spy after that. But I'll make sure there will be a palace position for you. Perhaps you can improve our security. If our neighbors to the south learn that an assassin had such a clear shot at the king, we may face a sudden abundance of assassins. It's our good fortune that the king to the south is quite stupid, but any idiot can be lucky once."

"There's no need to explain," said Sarah. "I knew you'd be rid of me eventually." She flashed a devilish grin and placed a hand on the queen's cheek. "Perhaps you have want of another Companion. Or perhaps the king … Or perhaps both?"

"I appreciate the offer." Frances smiled with a glint in her eye, but gently took the spy's hand from her cheek. "Perhaps under different circumstances, but I must think of my other operatives. They might misunderstand my intentions, or suspect me of favoritism. The relationship between a woman and her spies is delicate, and I do so love to have spies. So this must be one area where I am resolute."

"Who will replace me once I'm no longer a secret you get to keep?"

"I couldn't begin to think of your replacement so soon. There's Thomas's trial to consider first, and for your own safety you should leave here before sunrise – as soon as possible, in fact. He managed to hide an assassin within these walls once. I wouldn't put it past him to do it again in order to silence a witness."

"Perhaps I should spend the night improving security then, as you suggested."

"Another matter for another day. For now, you should follow the path I laid out for you to escape undetected. It won't be clear for very much longer."

"Worry not," said Sarah. "I know my way around."

The spy slipped back inside the palace, but Frances remained and looked back across the black surface of the night. She thought again of how close Patrick and Caleb came to death that day in this very garden. And a thought came to her all of a sudden – an unwelcome thought, an untrusting thought, the kind of thought that occurs to a woman who regularly employs spies. She knew it would not leave her until she disproved the notion.

* * * * *

There was no light in Caleb's room save the faint moonglow through his window, but he was wide awake, staring up at a ceiling he could barely even see. He had made some progress since Patrick left him that morning. He felt a minor flush of pride just by pacing the circumference of his bedchamber on his crutches. That emboldened him to walk up and down the corridor immediately outside his room, where others could even see him; only a couple of their looks bore pity or discomfort, most seemed not to notice him much at all. Perhaps it was arrogant to imagine that the entire royal palace would be preoccupied with his misfortune; their thoughts were probably with the king, or any number of other tasks, triumphs, or tragedies happening in Middenora at any given time.

However, sleep still did not come easily to him. When he tried to close his eyes his head spun and his stomach churned. A restless dread floated across his mind that he couldn't quite name, place, or understand, so he couldn't dispel it. Instead he stared up, focusing on minute details in the hopes that the tedium of counting stones might eventually bore his body into submission.

So he was fully, maddeningly alert when he heard a faint creak. It was hardly any sound at all, really. Any other man might have dismissed it, but Caleb had spent enough sleepless nights getting acquainted with the sounds of the dormant palace in the wee small hours. This was unusual.

This was his door.

It was not the door to his bedchamber, which remained shut, but the antechamber just outside it, so he had at least a few moments to prepare himself. He wasn't sure who he could hope to fight off in his present state, but he reached for the crutches off the side of his bed and as silently as he could stood up and swung himself to the corner of the room he knew was the least touched by moonlight.

Now he could see the band of light from the antechamber on the floor as his bedroom door opened, and for a moment he comforted himself with the hope that it was Patrick being very foolish indeed, trying to surprise his Companion in the worst way imaginable with an assassin still at large.

But that hope was quickly dashed. He couldn't identify his shadowed intruder, but they were smaller than Patrick. And their intent was made clear when they raised what looked like a dagger and with blazing speed thrust it towards where Caleb slept, stabbing the empty bed over and over again.

He had no choice. They would certainly find him in his hiding place. The only advantage he had was the element of surprise. So he thrust himself forward on one crutch and lunged across the bed to strike them with the other. But he was a moment too late to catch them off-guard. They twisted away from his strike, grabbed the crutch and threw it across the room.

Now Caleb was sprawled across the bed with no leverage and wide open to a counterattack as his assailant brought the dagger down again with both hands. He caught their wrists when the point was just a hair's breadth from piercing his chest. Though he was larger than the assassin and perhaps even stronger, he was badly positioned to try to fight them off. He could feel the scratch of the blade against his skin. It wouldn't be long now. He would soon be dead.

But then came a flash of light – of fire – and the assassin fell to the floor. A lantern blinded Caleb momentarily before he recognized that it was the queen now standing before him, lighting her way with one hand while the other pointed a crossbow at a woman he did not recognize.

"I see you got lost on your way out," Frances said to the woman. "As it turns out, you can stay. I'll have a room made special for you in the tower before we give you a more fitting exit."

"What's happening? Who is this?" Caleb asked, looking back and forth between the two women.

"I owe you an apology, my dear," said Frances, eyes still trained on the assassin. "The woman who tried to kill you was in my employ."

"It was … it was you, Your Majesty?"

"No. It seems I am not her only employer, am I?"

Sarah said nothing. She expressed little emotion, except perhaps disappointment or resignation. A hint of annoyance, perhaps?

Then the king came crashing in behind his wife, with shock across his face at what he saw – the aftermath of a fight, his wife with weapon in hand, his Companion in a state of shock. And … he didn't recognize Sarah either, but he knew who she must have been and drew a sword that he held under her chin.

"Is this …?" he asked Frances.

"She tried to finish the job tonight." At those words she placed a hand on Patrick's wrist lest his anger overwhelm him. "I bear some responsibility for this. She was my spy."

"We'll deal with your hobbies later. Will she testify against Thomas for their conspiracy?"

Frances was surprised. In the commotion she had nearly forgotten about Thomas's arrest. "My love, Thomas was not the architect of this plot, he was another victim of it, all because I was too trusting. I regret what we've put him through, what we almost did to him."

"Do you, though?"

"Patrick!"

"You're right, you're right. I'll release him at once."

"And we'll apologize to him together. We owe him that much."

"I wouldn't go that far. He tried to convince me it was you."

Frances raised her eyebrows. She looked at Patrick curiously, crossbow still pointed at Sarah's face, which now appeared more impatient than anything. "Did you believe him?"

"Not for a moment."

"Because you know I'm not capable of it?"

"Because if you intended to kill me or Caleb, you'd do it to our faces, without all this subterfuge. You'd want the satisfaction of watching us die."

The queen smiled, a tear in the corner of her eye. "It's one thing to be loved. It's quite another to be understood."

"If I may interrupt," said Caleb, still struggling to catch his breath from the adrenaline that was coursing through him, "if it wasn't the war minister who tried to have me killed twice now, then who was it?"

* * * * *

It was the duchess, of course. Her name was Isobel Renault, and she was the woman Caleb's father was ruined for trying to cheat. The queen realized after speaking with Sarah in the garden that night that her spy really did know her way around quite well, which was invaluable in conducting a criminal investigation without interference but would also have been quite useful in committing the crime itself. She should have connected the dots much sooner than she did, that the Renaults were one of the families she had sent a spy to – this spy. They must have found her out and offered her a better deal. It undoubtedly enraged them that the son of a thief would find any favor with the king, so they took his further punishment in their own hands the way the wealthy often do, by paying someone else to do the dirty work for them.

But the king, the queen, and the king's Companion – walking awkwardly as he was breaking in his wooden leg – were there in person with their royal guards at the Renault estate to arrest the lot of them: Isobel, her father, and her two younger brothers. The continuing investigation – conducted not by Sarah – would determine how much blame there was to go around, and should any of them miraculously prove innocent, they would not be stripped of all dignity as Caleb had been.

It was Caleb who insisted on that, after Patrick had ranted and raged with the intent of razing their entire estate with them inside. Patrick reluctantly agreed that two wrongs did not make a right – or however many wrongs they were up to at that point.

* * * * *

They returned triumphantly to the palace with their prisoners in tow, and if there was any unease still in the air, it came mostly from having falsely accused the war minister of treason and attempted murder. And having that war minister in turn accuse the queen. Patrick had no just cause to remove the blameless, infuriatingly competent man from his position, but this whole affair poisoned more than poor Caleb's leg.

"There is no doubt that I have wronged you," Patrick told Thomas on another rare visit to his office – itself an act of contrition. "It is equally true that you and I have never been suited to one another. I do not see how you can continue in your present role under such circumstances."

Thomas seethed. "It's not enough that you defame and threaten me, I am also to be banished from the council for your mistake?"

"Need I remind you that you also defamed my wife – Her Majesty, Your Queen?"

"In defense of my own life!"

"Enough!" Patrick held up his hand. "It has taken us mere minutes to prove my point. But you're right – and you know how much it pains me to say so. To dismiss you would only worsen the injustice that has been done. So I've come to make you a proposal: that you select any three positions, titles, stations, or ranks – whatever you wish. I will choose one to grant you, and whichever it is, it will be accompanied by a 20-percent increase in your salary as well as the entire Renault estate, pending conviction of course."

Thomas frowned. He was suspicious, though when was he ever not suspicious? "I can't be expected to decide right now in front of you. I need time to deliberate it fully."

"But of course – you have a week. I know your clever mind will devise any number of scenarios in that time. I invite you to be spiteful even: force me to decide between options you know I'd detest. Really make me suffer if that pleases you, if that's what it takes for you to believe that I'm sincere. One of the three will be yours, no matter what. Naturally the only positions unavailable to you are king and king's Companion."

Thomas shuddered. "As if I would choose to be your Companion!"

me suffer in that most perverse way, so I've taken it off the table, just in case."

"With what little due respect there is, I would not doom us both to that any more than I would cut off my own cock to spite you … Your Majesty." There was an awkward silence between them for a moment then, as one might expect. Finally Thomas spoke again to tell Patrick, "When you choose my replacement, make sure they're willing to tell you things you don't want to hear, even if it means a night in the Pinnacle Tower. One day your life may depend on it."

Patrick nodded, and was suddenly overcome with a feeling of loss and regret he had not expected. But this was the way it had to be.

* * * * *

The king wasn't sure where his queen and Companion had gone off to while he was making amends with Thomas – if you could call it that. But he soon came upon a guard who told him they were awaiting him in the garden. That's odd, he thought, and though the sun was shining when he found them there, they looked furtive, almost conspiratorial under the shadow of a small grove of trees. Frances faintly grinned the way she did when she had a secret. Caleb was beside her, leaning against the trunk of a tree, relaxed yet intent when he set his eyes on Patrick. For a moment Patrick wondered if perhaps he had interrupted them plotting his demise.

Gratefully, that wasn't so.

"I couldn't resist," said Frances. "I asked Caleb to tell me about the time you spend together. He was loath to reveal your private thoughts and desires to me, but as you know, Patrick, I have ways of making people talk."

Patrick raised his eyebrows.

"She means her charisma and persuasive intelligence, and nothing more," Caleb explained.

"I told him how much I love to be married to a man still capable of surprising me, and that knowing how he loves and is loved by another shows me multitudes within him that make me love him all the more."

"And what, might I ask, did you tell her about our love?" Patrick asked with a smirk. Caleb didn't respond, just looked back at Patrick dispassionately, but expectantly. Normally, Patrick would have known that look instantly, but it took an extra moment for it to register with the queen so near. "What did you tell her … master?"

"I told her I'd show her, but only if you are amenable."

Oh Patrick was amenable. His stomach fluttered with his amenability, and he itched to touch himself, but Caleb didn't like it when he did so without permission. "Yes, master."

"Then please, Your Majesty, give me your right hand."

Patrick took a deep breath and did as he was told. To his surprise, Caleb took it gently at first, massaged the back of it with his thumbs, deep but caressing, then brought it up to his mouth and kissed it. The Companion glanced over at the queen with mischief in his eyes.

Then he twisted the king's arm roughly behind his back in a motion so swift Patrick hardly knew how he came to be facing in the opposite direction. But oh he knew this feeling well. Caleb pulled his left arm around too and tied them together at the wrists. Patrick couldn't see what material bound him, but it was soft like silk – something of the queen's perhaps?

Caleb left him that way for a moment, and the anticipation alone stiffened him. He fidgeted as he tumesced against his trousers.

"Kneel," Caleb ordered, his voice firm and calm.

Patrick did so immediately, eager as a puppy.

"Face on the ground."

Patrick bent forward and pressed his cheek against the grass and soil.

Caleb walked around to stand over the king's head. From his position, Patrick could see only his Companion's feet, the one he was born with and the one that had been made. "My range of motion is still limited as I get used to this. I have asked the queen to assist me, if you are amenable."

"Oh for fuck's sake, man, yes!" Patrick demanded.

Caleb's response was swift, pressing his prosthetic foot against Patrick's neck. "You forget yourself. Am I not still your master?"

"Yes, master."

"Your Majesty," Caleb said to the queen, "please remove his trousers."

The king couldn't see his wife's face, but he could gather her enthusiasm from how quickly and vigorously she did so. Now he was exposed to the air and could feel the gentle spring breeze across his lowland hills and valleys.

Then came a sharp sting across his rear, and he let out a small cry. He had been struck many times before, but the force of this impact was different. It was not the discipline of his Companion … The queen really was enjoying herself. After a few whacks he wished he could press his hips against the ground as well as his face, but dammit he had not been instructed to do so, so he continued fidgeting excitedly, his neck still under Caleb's wooden foot.

Caleb ordered him back to a kneeling position. The king had been so preoccupied by the queen's punishment that he hadn't even noticed Caleb undressing. The magnificent young man was now naked before him, and clearly as excited as the king was. Without needing to be told, he took Caleb into his mouth until tears ran down his cheeks. Caleb gasped in a way that made Patrick proud before Caleb pulled him by his hair back up to his feet.

"Are you ready for more?" Caleb asked.

"Only if you don't mind scraping my cheek against the bark again."

"Do you?"

"No doubt the queen will defend you if I am grievously wounded."

The queen nodded.

"So do your worst, master."

"Brave words," said Caleb. "But talk is cheap."

"Then by all means, master, shut me up."

Caleb twisted Patrick around again, bent him over, and pressed his face into the bark of the tree so hard that for a moment the king saw stars. Caleb entered him, and oh how Patrick had missed this fullness, the urgency of his grunts, the sweat on his rolling hips as he lunged into him as deeply as he could go. Patrick had never imagined the queen would be there while he was in such a state, reveling in it even, but he was starting to realize that he liked to be watched by her. His wildness had been tamed and harnessed by both his wife and his Companion, each in their own way; Caleb's merciless dominance and Frances's devilish grin were even more of a comfort together than they were on their own.

"May I please touch myself, master?" Patrick begged as he watched Frances slide a hand into her own trousers.

"Yes, you may," said Caleb, undoing the restraints on his wrists.

Patrick hadn't actually expected him to say yes so soon. He usually took pleasure in denying the king for much longer, but soon Patrick understood why. After a few more animalistic thrusts, Caleb's grip on Patrick's shoulder tightened, he shoved the sovereign's head even harder into the tree, and the young man erupted with such force that he stumbled and fell, rolling onto his back and panting in a gratified daze. At just the sight of his Companion, Patrick followed immediately thereafter and collapsed onto him.

In the afterglow, the king could feel the ache in his cheek and shoulders and knees that his adrenaline had spared him from. This one would definitely leave a mark.

With the rush of excitement, Patrick did not see whether the queen had reached orgasm herself, but he had always known her to long outlast him. In all likelihood she would have fuel to burn well into the night. But for now she said, "That was lovely. I'll send for lunch." She momentarily left them lying in the grass in each other's arms, but she would return soon with their meal. A picnic for the three of them was long overdue.


Submitted: April 30, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Daniel Montgomery. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments

More Gay and Lesbian Short Stories

Other Content by Daniel Montgomery

Short Story / Gay and Lesbian

Short Story / Gay and Lesbian