The Gift of the Stag King
A Sea of Stars Holiday Coda
By Nicole Kimberling
Ever since Lord Adam Wexley had become a married man, figuring out how to spend Solstice Night proved had to be a problem.
During the seven-year interval that he’d been single, before reuniting with his former lover, Grand Magician Zachary Drake, Adam had devoted himself to work at the Integrity Foundation during the lonely holiday season. The Foundation specialized in working for the rights of inhabited animals and the protection of the soulless. He and his counterparts worked to end the separation of bodies from souls for commercial gain and to outlaw appropriating animal bodies to house human souls.
As one of two litigators, Adam always had his schedule full at this time of year. Apart from his usual court appearances, Adam made the rounds of noble parties, lobbying relentlessly for charitable donations.
And of course, the Foundation hosted its own fundraising gala. But the biggest event for Adam was organizing a completely unique Solstice Night gathering called the Procession of the Stag King.
Originally a minor Solstice story, the Gift of the Stag King held special importance for the inhabited animal community. The story went like this: One cruel winter long ago snow fell for one hundred days. Stores of grain ran out and no game could be found in the terrible snow. The king looked out over the land and saw that his people were starving. So he wished upon the Sea of Stars that he could feed them. Unfortunately, a tricky spirit heard his wish first and changed him into a stag.
Unable to speak or explain who he was the hungry people set upon him immediately. At first the king ran into the woods and hid but as the days went by he realized that he could feed at least some people after all. So he walked bravely from the forest and lay down his life.
When the Spirits of Guardian Star saw this act of bravery they were so moved that they used their magic to make the king’s body last long enough to feed all of the people until the winter finally turned to spring.
While he’d been a troubadour-courtier, Adam had sung the mournful Ballad of the Stag King more times than he could count. He’d thought the song’s minor key made him seen deep. But until he’d come to work for Integrity, he’d never thought about how the lyrics might resonate with the inhabited animal community.
To them the Stag King represented the sacrifice that they’d all made—to sublet their human bodies and live as animals in the Courts of the Four Directions.
Integrity Foundation’s Procession of the Stag King Feast took place in the community center gymnasium where Adam had been since before dawn—the only free public space with doors big enough to accommodate the variety of animals who would be in attendance. Lions, tigers, bears—even one small elephant would be walking through the big entrance when they were released from their duties at sundown.
Already, family members gathered. One set of parents, whose daughter lived inside of a chair-friendly chimpanzee set up a small folding table. Another woman, whose husband inhabited a snow-leopard, laid a blanket out on the floor. She carried a picnic basket that contained alphabet blocks that her husband would paw at to spell out words. This would be their last year here, if Adam’s efforts to void the fellow’s exploitative contract proved victorious.
Across the room he caught sight of his friend, and former chauffeur, Karl. Karl was busy helping an elderly woman lay out dishes and cushions for her sons—three wolves—who would be joining her. The wolves would use a special matt printed with the alphabet to communicate with their mother, whereas the many simians would all be signing. Some inhabited birds, such as cockatoos would be squawking actual words.
Karl had, himself, spent seven years inside an orangutan so was especially sensitive to the needs of families trying to include differently-shaped relatives in their holiday meal.
For years, Adam had donned the Stag King costume and led the procession of waiters bearing foods of all description, including venison, both raw and cooked, to the buffet, where it would be ferried to the menagerie of assembled animals. But lately he’d been yearning to spend at least one Solstice Night alone with his husband, Grand Magician Zachary Drake.
The first year they’d been married, Adam had assumed that being a magician, Drake would have some sort of important star-gazing to do on Solstice Night so he’d kept to his usual plan of leading the procession, followed by a private party for major charitable donors at his own house. After the party, he’d noticed Drake looking down and had been shocked to discover that all his new husband had wanted was to sip champagne, eat star-shaped cookies and make fun of courtly fashion on the King’s Annual Solstice Night Pageant.
“I hear the new trend is transparent. It should be a fantastic disaster,” Drake had said. He’d smiled and run his fingers through his immaculately-tousled black hair. Drake had always been a keen observer of high fashion, preferring to wear only black, mostly custom-made garments. And as a former courtier, Adam maintained the frivolous delight of seeing his noble peers wearing ridiculous traditional garb.
Drake continued, “Last year the Under-Minister of the East Court stepped on the minister’s six foot train and ripped it right off. They cut to commercial, but not before we all got a glimpse of what shame lay beneath. I cannot wait to see who’s clumsy this year.”
So plans were made for Adam’s co-worker, Lord Hamilton, to assume the role of the Stag King so that Adam could leave early.
And Adam had promised to be home in time. All day he had dreaded the idea that something would happen to prevent him from keeping his word. Not that he feared Drake’s wrath—Drake had never responded to Adam’s frequent work-related delays with anything other than a calm, “Thank you for letting me know,” or “I’ll see you when you get here.”
And that was the problem. Drake so rarely asked for anything from him that this simple request to watch television together had become magnified in importance so that Adam broke out into a sweat each time an obstacle to punctuality occurred.
Up to this point the day tried hard to stop him from keeping this promise. The doors jammed, the heat wouldn’t come on, the purveyor providing the big cat meals got lost. Twice. But finally all the catering was in order, the guests were arriving and Adam prepared to make his exit.
He had just put on his camel-colored great coat when Karl jogged up to him. Karl stood about his same height but where Adam got his muscles toned by a systematic, symmetry-obsessed trainer at a gym, Karl worked as a professional sea serpent wrangler and thus possessed the body of a natural athlete.
Karl’s disposition was that of an athlete as well. He’d once seen Karl drink an entire quart of milk without seeming to need to breathe. Karl also saw nothing wrong with walking around with his hand in his boyfriend’s back pocket, which Adam found refreshing after having spent so much time minding the antiquated protocols of court life.
Drake, on the other hand, found Karl’s lack of decorum sleazy and had once threatened to put a curse on him if he couldn’t keep his hands in his own pockets. (Though Adam suspected that Karl’s boyfriend being Drake’s ward contributed to his annoyance in no small part.)
The expression on Karl’s face did not fill Adam with hope for a bright future. In fact he felt his brow prickle with sweat immediately.
“You’re not gonna like this, boss.” Karl still called him boss, even though he hadn’t worked for him for two years.
“Hamilton’s been delayed. He won’t be here for the procession. He says you’ll have to wear the costume.”
“There’s no way I can get in that thing now. We had it altered to fit him,” Adam said, exasperated. “He’s six inches shorter than me.”
Karl shrugged. “You can call him back if you want, but I don’t think he’s going to be able to come. Actually he said he might need you to go to him.”
“He’s been detained by the Royal Guard. He thinks it’s just his aunt’s way of harassing him into participating in the East Court Solstice Night Pageant. But it’s hard to be sure,” Karl said.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut to avoid giving Karl, and everyone in the surrounding vicinity a glare of scorching malevolence. It wasn’t their fault.
“All right, I can go to the palace and see if I can spring Hamilton. Do you think you can find someone to fit underneath the antlers?”
“Sure, boss. I’m on it.”
“And,” Adam hated to ask this, but he felt he must, “could you call Drake for me and tell him I’ll be late?”
Karl balked. “It’s like you want me to be cursed with limp dick or something.”
“Please? I just need to focus on getting Hamilton here.” Adam looked at his watch. “We still have an hour. It’s possible this thing can be solved.”
“Okay fine, but if he curses me you’ve got to talk him into reversing it.”
Exactly one hour and one minute later, Adam returned to the community center, an annoyed Hamilton in tow.
Adam felt low.
He should have just kicked Hamilton out at the curb and driven immediately to his home to catch the second half of the pageant with Drake, but his own conscientiousness forced him to walk inside to see if Karl had managed to find a replacement.
And he’d already wrecked Drake’s Solstice Night plans. He might as well take the extra five minutes to make sure he hadn’t ruined Stag King dinner as well.
As Hamilton edged the door to the gymnasium open, Adam saw the room had been plunged into hushed darkness. Guests waited in anticipation for the procession to begin. At the far side of the room, he could see a set of pure white antlers approaching through the gloom.
All faces were turned toward the approaching figure. Little children squirmed and craned their necks to see better while an elderly lion sitting a few feet from Adam pricked up its ears.
So Karl had found someone to wear the Stag King costume after all.
“That’s a relief,” Hamilton whispered, also watching the approaching figure—a graceful outline moving slowly through the still-dark room. A group of singers took up the Ballad of the Stag King. Some of the guests joined them. Others waited quietly watching.
Adam nodded. The replacement stag wore the costume well. The sparkling white robes of the king fell at just the right height and trailed majestically behind him. He had jet-black hair that was longish and tousled around the base of the crown-like antlers.
Hamilton nudged him and leaned closer, “Adam, isn’t that Drake?”
“It can’t be,” Adam whispered. “He’s wearing white.”
The Stag King lifted his arms and Adam saw a glint of red on one finger—blood red… much like the color of Drake’s blood diamond.
“I really think that’s Drake,” came Hamilton’s insistent whisper.
Then the one flash of red became a flash of white, then another and another. Each pinprick of light rose from the Stag King’s upturned palms toward the ceiling. Soon the entire darkened ceiling glittered as the sparks became the constellations of the Sea of Stars. Hundreds of them twinkled and shimmered then, at the song’s last verse, began to fall like snowflakes.
As they did, Adam saw that while everyone had been looking up the servers had come forward to fill the table with food.
The song ended in raucous applause with the room in total darkness again. Then as the sound of clapping died down, the lights came back on with a loud, industrial clunk.
The Stag King could be none other than Drake. He stood at the head of the table. He took a plate, plunked a canapé on it and started to make his way down the line. Others followed. Eventually he glanced up saw Adam and made his way over.
“I’m glad to see you made it out of the palace lock-up Hamilton,” he said, by way of greeting. “Would you like your costume back or can I just carry on being an entirely superior Stag King?”
“I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your glory,” Hamilton said with a tight smile. He then excused himself and left without a backward glance.
Being completely immune to Drake’s caustic sense of humor—and profound rudeness—Adam leaned forward and landed a kiss on his cheek.
“That was brilliant,” he said. “I had no idea you could do illusions like that.”
Drake finished chewing his canapé and said, “That? It’s just stage-magician stuff. I learned it in my first week of academy.”
“It looked amazing anyway.”
“I know, it did, didn’t it?” Drake pulled a smug smile, then, glancing down at Adam’s empty hands said, “Aren’t you going to get anything to eat?”
“I thought we could go. If we leave now we can watch the second half of the pageant.”
“There’s no need to rush,” Drake said. “I have used my other powers to record the pageant for later tonight.”
“How is that?”
“By pushing the television’s record button, of course,” Drake said, smiling. “I can’t believe you walked into that. You must be exhausted.”
Adam considered attempting a comeback, then decided it would be best to kiss the smile off Drake’s face.
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