Once Melnamourn had been summoned, Yang-Wo felt a little sad to be leaving Xeneth so soon, but overwhelmingly pleased at how good the wolf made him feel, against any expectation he had ever had. It came to a point that when Melnamourn knocked, Xeneth had to remind Yang-Wo that he was still a slave, so he must look down and stop smiling. However, he gave an adorable wink when he said this, which made it extremely difficult for Yang-Wo not to smile.
As the cougar made his way back to the harem, grinning behind Melnamourn's back, he realized that the relationship he was carrying on with Xeneth was becoming even more of a burden as a secret, for it was even more complicated since the last visit he'd made to the wolf. He had the feeling Melanie and Adam weren't going to be appeased by a simple "the usual" answer to their question of what happened, especially since Melanie herself had been dismissed in favor of having Yang-Wo alone.
The cougar was right, of course. The second the doors to the harem closed behind him, he walked over to his friends, who had anxious expressions, as though waiting for some story about the night's events. About half the harem had gone to bed by this time, so it was pretty quiet, and Yang-Wo felt even more that it'd be best if he kept his voice low and even and kept his lies simple and easy to remember. He was feeling a warmth and tenderness in his heart for Xeneth unlike anything he'd ever felt, and he knew now that he must never betray their secret.
"Hello Yang-Wo!" Melanie greeted as he sat between her and Adam on a plush cushion. "Adam and I were just wondering about you and the Prince!"
"Good evening Melanie, Adam," Yang-Wo said with a gentle smile, trying to hold back the cheek-pinching grin he really wanted to show.
"Evening," said Adam somewhat stiffly, rubbing Yang-Wo's back a little, his paw lingering a bit. "Yes, we were just saying how it seemed you'd been gone for a while. What was it the Prince needed you for this evening?"
"Oh, he just wanted me to sing to him again," Yang-Wo said casually. "He mentioned a headache, so I suppose the sound soothed him." The cougar was nervous, never having had much experience at lying, but he felt his story seemed plausible.
"Any idea why he dismissed Melanie?" Adam asked, a slightly accusatory tone to his voice.
"None at all," Yang-Wo replied evenly. "Maybe he realized he wanted to be around as few people as possible? I just sang to him and rubbed his shoulders until he nearly fell asleep, then he sent me back here."
"I suppose it makes sense that if the Prince's head was hurting him, he wouldn't care to be around many people," Melanie said agreeably, as if ready for a change of subject.
"Has the Prince approached you with any kind of sexual desire, Yang-Wo?" Adam asked bluntly. There was something in the way he was nearly accusing Yang-Wo that the cougar felt uneasy about. Is he jealous? he thought.
And, for the first time, Yang-Wo was able to tell the truth. "No, not once," he said, looking Adam straight in the eye. He lied for good measure, "He seems as cold and indifferent as the day I met him."
This seemed to satisfy Adam, who smiled for the first time since Yang-Wo had sat down and proceeded to talk about something entirely different.
Melanie excused herself to bed a short while later, yawning and dragging her feet as she made her way to the dormitories. Yang-Wo was so happy and energized by his meeting with Xeneth that he felt too excited to sleep, so he stayed up, and Adam stayed with him, talking and laughing.
One by one, the other slaves made their way to the dormitories, until it was very late, and only Adam and Yang-Wo were left in the front room. Yang-Wo had just been telling Adam about a silly time that he and Pola had gotten caught playing a prank on the Priests and Priestesses of the Temple in Beldai, and they were laughing and smiling.
The cougar turned to the horse, and realized that they were sitting much closer than they had been hours before, and from being with Xeneth earlier, Yang-Wo thought he recognized the expression on Adam's face.
It was longing.
"Yang-Wo, I... I have really come to enjoy your company over the last several weeks, and I am very happy that we are friends," Adam said warmly, placing his paw on Yang-Wo's thigh.
"I am glad we are friends as well," Yang-Wo replied, trying to emphasize the word 'friends.' He was getting uncomfortable with their proximity, but he couldn't think of a polite way to tell Adam to back off.
"In fact..." Adam mumbled, swallowing. He was working himself toward something, and Yang-Wo was fearful of what that might be. "I have really...really come to care for you...and I mean more deeply than as one friend to another..." He looked down in his own lap, and Yang-Wo sighed, preparing himself to reject Adam's feelings, and hating himself for doing it.
Yang-Wo found it difficult to tell Adam how he felt with the horse's mouth pressed against his own. Adam was kissing Yang-Wo gently, and the cougar simply sat motionless, shocked that he was feeling a second set of male lips on his in such a short time. Adam was skilled, parting the feline's muzzle easily and tasting him fully, and Yang-Wo had to admit that the sensation was hardly unpleasant; in fact, it felt wonderful. But, I don't get that feeling...that feeling that Xeneth gives me in my heart... he thought.
And with that thought, he pulled away from Adam, turning and putting a bit of distance between himself and the equine man.
Adam's expression fell, and he became a bit withdrawn, sulking from his obvious rejection.
"Adam, I am...I am very sorry, but you're just a good friend to me... I appreciate all you've done, but...I just don't feel that way for you," Yang-Wo said sadly.
Adam didn't respond. He merely stared at the floor, frowning, his body slumped in defeat. The horse was crushed; he hadn't said so, but he was in love with his fellow slave.
"I'm sorry..." Yang-Wo repeated feebly, unsure of what else he could do or say.
"No, I am sorry Yang-Wo," Adam replied quietly. He eased himself up slowly from where he sat and said, "I am going to go to bed, I think. Good night, Yang-Wo." And without looking at the cougar at all, he stalked off toward the dormitories, looking completely defeated.
All of the happiness and joy Yang-Wo had felt earlier that day was now tinged with shame, guilt, and sorrow. He'd had such a conservative, desexualized upbringing, and no one had ever expressed any romantic interest in him whatsoever, male or female. Now, he had two men vying for his affections at once, one of whom was getting them. All of this was overwhelming for Yang-Wo, as many things had become, and he simply felt confused and unsure about life in general, mixed with the joy Xeneth brought him and the pain Adam, Nihara, and Hensei caused. More than ever, he felt he needed guidance, support, and nurturing, and more than ever, he realized that he would never feel things like that again.
The very next day, Prince Xeneth's fears about Yang-Wo became realized.
In the late morning, after Yang-Wo had been groomed for the day and had done his share of the morning chores, the doors to the harem burst open. The slaves, expecting their next orders from Melnamourn, were surprised to see Sennaven, the Queen's personal attendant. They all bowed deeply, and Yang-Wo felt a surge of horror; his only memory of Sennaven had been watching him alert the guards that had brought the cougar to the West Tower.
Unlike Melnamourn, Sennaven was rather young, about Prince Xeneth's age, maybe 25 or so. His features were sleek and immaculate, as if every part of him were precisely and meticulously groomed. He spoke in a soft tone, and he gave a smile as he said, "Her Majesty requests Yang-Wo to serve her today."
Yang-Wo had the feeling he knew why Sennaven had come before the wolf had even spoken, but it still felt like a jab to the stomach hearing the words. He hastily walked forward with his head down, and Sennaven said pleasantly, "Good day to you all," turning and leading the way out the doors.
Rather than turning left down the corridor toward the stairs that led to the Prince's chambers, as the cougar was now so very accustomed to doing, they turned right, Sennaven keeping a light, even pace. Yang-Wo kept his eyes on the floor, staying absolutely silent, but his wondering of what the Queen wanted was put to rest as Sennaven explained.
"Her Majesty will be meeting with her esteemed generals and military council to discuss the war, further plans for expansion, and status reports and strategies on current occupations. You will be at her side doing absolutely anything she wishes, which should mostly be fanning her. You will remain silent and you will not use your powers." Sennaven's tone was light and pleasant and his manner was sweet, but Yang-Wo had a way of feeling people, and he could tell that Sennaven was infinitely more dangerous and cunning than Melnamourn. Melnamourn's haughtiness and self-importance were irritating, but they were his true personality; Sennaven's light, pleasant manner was only skin deep, where something darker and more sinister lurked below, waiting to pounce. Not unlike the Queen herself, Yang-Wo thought.
Sennaven led Yang-Wo through a labyrinth of passageways into the heart of the castle, each turn and stair refreshing the cougar's anxiety with a new wave of nerves and adrenaline. Finally, they appeared at a singular black door that stood very far from any other door. They entered silently, and Yang-Wo realized he was in a windowless chamber that could be nothing but what he would describe as the War Room. All around there were maps and figures, diagrams and charts, studies of nations and their inhabitants. One map of the Continent showed Zanat-Ven and its growing sphere of control, now including Beldai, its last really formidable rival. Zanat-Ven's influence domninated nearly the whole of the Continent, and Yang-Wo realized with a shock that if they weren't stopped, they might start attempting to conquer overseas as well. This is madness, he thought, completely horrified.
"Her Majesty shall require you here, at her left paw, where you shall stand behind her and await her command. I assure you that given your current standing with the Queen, one ounce of disrespect or disobedience will result in your demise," Sennaven explained, sounding nearly gleeful at the prospect. "I shall be standing at her right paw, serving as I must."
Yang-Wo thought a minute, and was going to respond, but thought better of it, and simply walked around the long table stretched through the center of the room, standing to the left of the throne at the head. He stood with his head down in silence, and heard Sennaven whisper, "Good boy."
A lump rose in Yang-Wo's throat as he felt the sting of shame at being addressed like a dog, and the anger and wrath that followed such embarrassment. If this were Beldai, he would certainly not like his punishment for that comment to the Crown Prince, he thought maliciously. But then, he realized with even more finality how utterly shattered his country was, and he felt heartbroken, on top of everything else. All of this was felt during a stunned and heavy silence as Sennaven took his place to the right side of the throne, and Yang-Wo seethed as they waited for the meeting to begin.
It was a full ten minutes of silence before the doors reopened, and the Queen led her party of royals and generals to discuss the war. She was immediately followed by her husband, who looked stoic and relatively silent as usual, then Glaysia, who actually was smiling, and Xeneth, who looked grimly morose. After Xeneth came the generals, of whom there were seven, all of them having a certain shrewdness and stiffness that Yang-Wo easily associated to the discipline of the military. Of course, as a slave, the cougar barely caught a wayward glance of the entire party before keeping his head firmly downcast.
It took both Yang-Wo and Sennaven to budge the heavily gilded throne in order for the Queen to take her seat, and she gracefully poised herself on the magnificent chair, not offering so much as a momentary look at the servant and slave, much less a word of thanks. The other royals had their own servants attending to them; one quick shift of his eyes told Yang-Wo that Velnuro was serving Prince Xeneth. In a moment, there was silence, as all the servants and slaves made it back to their posts, standing still as statues to await their next orders.
"Thank you all for convening here today to discuss our efforts in finishing this long and now meaningless war," the Queen began, smiling at them all. "First, I shall like reports from each of you. General Thal-Lee," she said, pointing to an older wolf man with a long, gray mustache and thick, silvery hair, "How goes the occupation of Beldai?"
Yang-Wo felt his heart ache, and he knew now the Queen's plan. She was trying to incense him into further action to punish him again, and likely desired to see what Xeneth would do if she did. He decided he would not give in, not so much as bat an eye unless she specifically asked him to do it.
"The Yunka-Shu of Beldai are a powerfully determined and highly magical people," began General Thal-Lee, speaking slowly and determinedly. "I am sure Your Majesty will agree on that count?"
"I do," she said with a nod, continuing to smile.
"Then Your Majesty should understand that convincing a tribe with such strong ties to the Spirits and each other that they are now under the control of a nation they consider the enemy to be difficult and tedious work, likely that will take generations to fully take effect." General Thal-Lee had a way of speaking to the Queen that toed the line of disrespect, but she didn't seem to mind at all.
"Indeed, I foresaw that being a problem. But, I trust that progress is being made, regardless?" she queried.
"Yes, Your Majesty," he said succinctly.
"Slave," she said offhandedly, making Yang-Wo jump. He had been trying to block out the conversation, so being addressed had surprised him. "You used to be the Prince of these people. What do you think would be a way to help convince them to accept this new order?" She smiled serenely at him, and just as he felt there was a shadow lurking in Sennaven, so he felt with the Queen; a dark creature behind a beautiful mask.
"Well...Your Majesty..." Yang-Wo mumbled, affronted. He didn't know what to say, and he found it appalling that she would even ask him to give his opinion on how to convince his people that she was fit to rule them. "Um..." He fumbled, looking for something to say. He knew if he didn't give some sort of sound advice, the Queen would punish him, worse so if he intentionally was sarcastic or false.
"Well?" she asked impatiently, yet not threateningly.
"I suppose they shall continue to resist...until they feel there is nothing to fight for," Yang-Wo said slowly.
"Yes, you're absolutely right!" she replied. "I think that they hope that their leaders are still fighting somewhere, even from our prisons, trying to find a way to restore their country to its former glory. We shall have to end this delusion for them." She gave Yang-Wo a wave, and with a horrified look on his face, he took a couple steps back. The Queen turned to her table and said, "All of you present should now inform your troops that the royal family of Beldai has been executed by beheading. I should like this information passed down the chain of command until it reaches the people of Beldai. The Elder and her family are no more. Now, Beldai serves the Queen."
It took every ounce of Yang-Wo's self-control to keep from speaking out against such an awful plan. He knew that this lie would travel quickly, and that soon his people would all mourn their fallen Elder and Royal Family, likely to accept that they had nowhere to turn but to their new rulers. The thought made the cougar sick with anger and hurt and frustration.
At that very moment, Yang-Wo chanced a quick glance at Xeneth, and saw him looking absolutely blank, a slight frown on his face. The wolf man was not looking at his slave, so their eyes never met, but Yang-Wo could almost sense Xeneth's unrest; the fact that Yang-Wo had such an ally warmed him a little, and he found he could keep his silence just a little bit easier.
Each of the generals-including Dahlia-relayed their reports in turn, most of which consisted of occupation information or details regarding further invasion plans. When the last general finished, the Queen said with a regal wave, "Sennaven, the map."
Sennaven rushed to the easel holding the map of the Continent, lifting it (with some effort) and placing it at the corner of the table, within the Queen's reach. She drew from her sleeve a long, thin rod that Yang-Wo thought of as a wand or pointer, and slapped it upon the heavy parchment, pointing just beside the place where Beldai was.
"Ladies and gentlemen, there are only a few kingdoms left on this Continent that are outside our control. As you know, Beldai was our greatest threat, and they have fallen just as surely as all of the others. Now, we focus our attentions on these three remaining nations: Lilanthia, Vered-Mulai, and Ignato. Once they are within our grasp, the entire Continent shall be one grand Zanat-Ven!" the Queen cheered, as if excited by the prospect of conquering more people.
Her excitement was reflected by the other wolves in the room, who clearly thought themselves superior and who were aching to dominate the other nations. Xeneth, however, did not cheer, nor did he even look up.
"Why, Prince Xeneth!" she chided, sounding almost amused. "Why so glum? Our great nation is about to dominate the entire Continent, and you are simply wallowing over there. Is there something wrong? Something you'd like to discuss?"
Yang-Wo could sense the dangerous tone, the acid dripping from the Queen's tongue. She was provoking him outright, giving him no place to turn. He either had to lie well, or tell the truth.
"I apologize, Mother, it seems my head and stomach have been paining me awfully today, and my mood may be reflected by my less than ideal health," Xeneth moaned rather convincingly. Yang-Wo knew Xeneth would be ashamed to have to lie in such a way, but he also knew that the Prince was no help to his slaves or the rest of the world if he was being punished by his mother.
"Well Xeneth, perhaps I shall send the Royal Physician to look after you." She gave her son a scrutinizing look, as if to say, Don't think I won't, then continued, "This meeting is adjourned. I expect full reports of new plans to invade these last three enemies in two weeks time. Destiny is upon us!" And with that last statement, the Queen rose off her throne quickly and exited the room, the rest of her family following her, the generals bringing up the rear.
Without preamble, Sennaven stalked out of the room also, Yang-Wo rushing to keep up, and led the cougar back to the harem, shutting him inside before he'd even had the time for the Queen's ghastly strategy to sink in.