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Twelve Days

Chapter Text

It is said that the storyteller shapes the story, but I have found it equally true that the story is shaped by its intended audience. That was my experience through all the years that I served as chief slave and, more importantly, secretary to Nahuseresh, and that truth, at least, remains the same even now, when the world we knew has changed almost beyond recognition, and my own life with it.

I learned early on how to write according to my master's wishes, and in my master's voice. In a sense, he was both author and audience, shaping my story from both directions at once. I became proficient at writing in his name, and not just when transcribing his letters. Oh, never anything that I should not have written, never anything that was outside my authority to write, but in time I learned to tailor words and phrases, and especially details, to the expectations of any and every recipient.

And then my master was gone, or so I thought, and I had no choice but to go myself, and leave words and phrases and expectations behind with my pens and paper.

I have lost everything that once I had: power and position and security—or at least the power and relative security that flowed from my master's position—and, of course, my master's voice. Even my name is gone, and in the place of Kamet the ambassador's secretary is Kay, the humble scribe. And as for what I have found, and hold jealously, in place of all that I have lost? Well…

It starts with the account of my flight from the empire, which I wrote for Relius, the former secretary of Attolia's archives. He was its intended audience, but I had an eye to history as well as I wrote—and wrote truly in my own voice for the very first time.

A writer always chooses what to include and what to leave out of any narrative, and this one was no different. If I did not deem Relius entitled to the knowledge of every single second of my every day from the moment Laela brought me word that my master had been poisoned to the moment that I arrived, still somewhat unwilling, at Attolia's royal palace, even less could I see that history had a claim on those aspects of my story that did not impinge on the great events taking place in the wider world at that time.

Which, yes, is a lot of words in which to say more simply, as others might: some things are private.

In the narrative I started in the palace, and completed later in our lodgings in Roa, it was enough to say that eleven days passed as my Attolian companion and I made our way through the Taymets. Relius—and history—needed only to know that we travelled from one side of those mountains to the other, meeting no one, during that time.

But you need to know the rest, how it was for me.

And so I will write the story of those eleven days for you.

Chapter Text

I could only guess how lost I would already be if I were on my own.

That was where I left things, in the official account, at the start of those eleven days. It is no less true for that. I would have been lost or, more likely, long dead already without the Attolian's surprising skill at following a trail—and leaving a false one. Not to mention his strong sword arm and foolhardy fearlessness. And his company.

The Attolian and I took our noonday meal in the shade beneath one of the evergreens in the foothills of the Taymets. I do not know what sort of tree it was—they do not grow on the plain outside Ianna-Ir, or by the coast or anywhere else I have ever been—but it was tall and reached up straight as an arrow towards the sky. We sat on a bed of fallen fronds. Their sharp, dried out edges dug into my skin through the thin fabric of my tunic as we shared a little of the food that Vedra had provided us with when we left the farmhouse that morning. The tough, dried meat was all too familiar from our earlier travels, but there was also soft, white cheese made from goat's milk, which we wrapped in pieces of still-fresh unleavened bread. If it was to be my last meal, it was not a bad one, particularly compared to the roasted caggi that had kept us alive earlier in our travels. I still shuddered to remember the times we had been reduced to eating the caggi raw.

I glanced at the Attolian as I bent to cut a little more cheese, and tear off a corner of bread. His broad, sun-bronzed face, now so familiar to me, for once betrayed nothing of his thoughts, if thoughts there were. His warm hazel eyes looked as guileless as ever.

"We should get moving again," he said after a while, throwing his head back as he took a swallow from the waterskin before handing it to me.

I took a mouthful, and then another, careful, like the Attolian, not to drink too much. There would be streams flowing in the mountains, but who knew when our path would cross one? Until such time as that happened, the water in the skins we carried was more precious than gold, or jewels.

The only things more valuable were our lives, and I knew we would be lucky to still be in possession of those when we made it to the other side of the mountains. If we made it to the other side of the mountains, which we probably wouldn't. Or, at least, I probably wouldn't. I'd been dreading the journey across the Taymets through the days and weeks of our journey, visions of the mountains looming in my thoughts long before they loomed before us in reality.

And now we were here.

"Yes, we should climb as far as we can before the sun sets," I agreed. And keep as far ahead as possible of the Namreen who may yet be pursuing us was also agreed, though this remained unsaid.

We packed up quickly, and the Attolian led the way up the slope beyond the stand of trees. I kept my eyes on his back, watching the muscles bunch and stretch beneath his slightly too small tunic as I followed in his footsteps. Almost before I knew it, we were ascending the Taymets in earnest.

The climb on that first day was not as bad as I had anticipated. Certainly, the terrain was not as steep or suddenly treacherous as it had been around the mines. The afternoon passed without incident, and at perhaps quarter of an hour before sundown we reached a cave under a broad overhang. There was a circle of stones just outside the cave entrance, their blackened state clearly showing that they had been used as a fireplace many times before. The Attolian found dry firewood stacked neatly at the back of the cave. There were no other signs of recent human habitation.

"Why don't we stop for the night?" he asked.

I was not about to disagree. My endurance was far better than it had been back at the beginning of our journey, but after hours of walking uphill along a rocky trail I was more than ready to sit and not move for a while. I dropped my bundle inside the cave, vastly relieved to find that the place did not smell of cat. Our encounter with the lioness in the hills above the road to Perf still haunted my dreams. I noticed a few rodent droppings here and there in the cave, but rodents I could live with—especially since we did not have to live on them.

The Attolian laid the fire while I set some of the dried goat's meat and a handful of barley to soaking in water, in the small, dented cookpot that Vedra had handed over along with the food supplies. A well-trodden path off to one side of the cave had led us to a freezing cold but swiftly flowing mountain stream, and it was with no little relief that I had replenished our waterskins. My fears of running out of water had proved groundless, at least for now. Once the meat had softened a bit, I added a pinch of salt and transferred the pot to the fireplace. As twilight turned to dusk, we ate a meal of goat stew, and if it was conspicuously missing the subtle and intricate seasonings of the dishes that routinely issued from the palace kitchens, I was so hungry after a day of doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other that I did not care.

After we'd finished our meal, we sat across from each other by the fire as it slowly died down. Both of us were quiet, though whether lost in thought or simply too worn out for conversation, I could not say. The reflection of the flames flickered and danced across the Atollian's features, making him look mysterious and other, in a way that I found vaguely unsettling.

He glanced up and found me watching him, and smiled briefly. In that moment, he looked like himself again, but somehow that felt even more unsettling.

"You did well today, Kamet," he said.

"So did you," I said, because I could think of nothing else to say in reply.

He smiled briefly again. "I'm a soldier," he said, as if I needed reminding, and then: "We should get some sleep."

I had no quarrel with that as a course of action. We rolled out our blankets, stowing their contents beside the stack of firewood, and settled down for the night. The cave was large enough for the two of us to lie full length, side by side, but no more spacious than that, and I found myself staring at the Attolian's broad back again, just as I had done for most of the afternoon.

Before long, I heard the soft snuffles that told me that my companion was asleep. There was just enough light from the fire for me to make out the way his back and shoulders shifted and moved with each slow, deep breath.

The fire outside was only glowing coals when at last I drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

The second day of our journey across the mountains was as uneventful as the first. Our path grew narrower and steeper as we climbed, until it was little more than a goat track in places, but the Attolian still seemed confident that he was going in the right direction. I could only follow him as before, and hope that he was right. I watched the play of the muscles beneath his broad shoulders, outlined clearly beneath the tight fabric of his tunic, moving with every swing of his arms and each step he took—until I stumbled, and hastily looked down to check where I placed my feet. But soon my eyes lifted to his back again, and there was nothing I could do but watch.

We talked less than we had. I, because most of my breath was being used up in just keeping myself going. And the Attolian? He was never a man of a great many words, hoarding them frugally much of the time, but when we stopped at the top of a ridge and I opened my mouth to speak, he responded with a finger to his lips.

"Shh."

"What is it?" I hissed.

"The wind," he replied in a low voice. "It's blowing down the hill, and will carry our voices with it."

I tensed. "You think there's someone following us who might hear?" I asked a little too loudly.

"Shh," he said again, and then: "No. But it doesn't hurt to be careful."

I could only agree, and nodded, looking back down the hill. Down the mountain. It was a long way down.

The Attolian followed my gaze. "Best to look forward, not back," he said, jerking his head in the other direction, towards the mountain peaks.

They were a long way up, and there was still no sign of the plain on the other side of them. All I could see were more mountains, their tops shining in the sun like white jewels. They did not have the warm glow of pearls, though. The mountaintops glittered with the cold, hard brilliance of diamonds, and nothing would break them. We still had far to go—far farther than I could imagine right then—and a long way to travel.

Maybe they would break us.

I swallowed. "Let's follow this ridge until we find shelter from the wind, perhaps even another cave, and then stop for some food," I said.

He nodded, and led the way once again along the track that meandered along the top of the ridge.

We found no convenient cave, but a stand of straggly, gnarled trees just below the ridgeline kept the worst of the wind away as we stopped for the midday meal. We ate quickly, and I consumed the last of the cheese regretfully. I saw an almost endless succession of meals consisting of little but goat's meat and increasingly stale bread stretching out before me.

"At least it's not caggi," I reminded myself under my breath, but not quite softly enough.

The Attolian grinned at me, as economical with his words as ever. He lifted one of the waterskins and drank from it. When he lowered it again, his lips were wet, shining from the water left behind.

I looked away, and he had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.

I glanced up, startled—though I don't know why I should have been—and he handed me the waterskin. I drank in turn, and tried to think of anything but that my mouth was exactly where his had lately been.

Just as the first day, we packed up and continued on our way. The afternoon that followed was not like the first day, however.

It is one thing to choose not to talk, as I had for much of the time since we started our climb over the mountains, and quite another to be required not to. That was the moment, I think, when I first truly, if not quite consciously, began thinking of myself as a free man. A slave does not choose, even if his high position within the household sometimes allows him—dangerously—to believe that the choices are his when he arranges things on his master's behalf. A slave does what is required of him, always.

This time it was necessity and no other master that required my silence, but I chafed at the restriction all the same. I am not suited to be a soldier, like the Attolian, or a leatherworker or a cook or anything else, and would not be even if my eyesight were less poor than it is. I am a scribe, a man of words. I use my hands to write, and my voice to communicate and persuade, and sometimes even to manipulate. None of those skills were needed as we journeyed close under the sky through the Taymets.

An afternoon spent scrambling to keep up with the Attolian in silence made me feel worse than useless, so it is perhaps no surprise that I was in a somewhat sullen mood when at last my companion called a halt for the day. I say 'at last', but it was still some time before sunset.

"No cave tonight," the Attolian said, keeping his voice low. "Hemke warned that there would be little shelter to be had on this part of the route." He set down his blanket roll. When I did not follow suit, he turned to look at me properly, his unspoken question written plainly on his face.

I sighed, and let my own strapped up blanket fall to the ground at my feet.

"We'll eat sooner if we both gather the firewood," he pointed out, eyeing me warily.

I stumped off into the brush without another word. Perversely, now that I had the opportunity to speak, I chose not to.

I found a little firewood, twigs and a few fallen branches here and there, but of course when I returned to what for the sake of convenience I will call our campsite, it was to find that the Attolian had returned with more. Of course he had, and cleared a circle of bare earth free of grass and leaf litter ready for the fire to be built there as well—so I let him build it while I soaked goat's meat and barley in a pot of water, in readiness to be cooked.

Maybe I had what it took to seek employment as a cook after all, I thought humourlessly. I would be in need of work wherever I went, once the Attolian and I parted ways on the other side of the mountains.

We ate in silence as the sun set, and afterwards agreed just as silently to waste no time in turning in for the night. The wind had mostly died down by this time, so at least it was safe—or fairly safe—to leave the fire to dwindle to ashes as we slept. I rolled out my blanket and lay down as close to the heat as I could bear, but of course the fire could only warm one side of me at a time. My front roasted while my back froze.

The Attolian must have been enduring a similar state of affairs on the other side of the fire, or perhaps it was simply that my restlessness kept him awake. However it was, after I had rolled over for the third or fourth time, he got suddenly to his feet, picked up his blanket and his sword, and came to join me.

"What…?" I asked, uncertain, but he was already sitting and wrapping himself in his blanket, his sword flat on the ground within easy reach, and then he was lying down behind me.

"Sleep, Kamet," he said, as one strong arm came around me.

There were many responses I could have made to such a statement, but I could not tell whether it was meant to be a command or simply a request. Instead of saying anything, I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that he was still on the other side of the fire, where he belonged.

"Sleep now," he said again, shifting close enough that I could feel the warmth of his long body pressed up against me even through the rough fabric of our blankets. Much as I wanted to protest, I could not deny that I was finally comfortable, or as comfortable as I was going to get this night. I also found it oddly comforting to have him there, keeping the cold and everything else at bay.

I fell asleep between that thought and whatever might have come next.

Chapter Text

I awoke the next morning, if not exactly comfortable thanks to the hard, rocky ground on which I lay, then at least properly rested. Still fuzzy with sleep, it took me a moment to realise that it was the Attolian's body heat keeping the early morning chill from my back—and that the hard shape pushing into my hip was not a rock.

It should not have come as a surprise. I was—am—a man myself. I have woken in a similar state on days beyond count. Most men have.

And yet it was a surprise. Not that the Attolian was a man. Of course not that. But until this moment he had existed as a man at a distance from me. And now here was the very firm evidence that there was no distance between us at all. So…

I put distance between us. I shot to my feet like a scalded cat, pulling away so suddenly that the Attolian rolled onto his back with a surprised grunt and lay there, blinking muzzily up at the sky. I did not look to see what other parts of him must have been left pointing skyward. Instead, I muttered something that might have been a promise to return in a moment, and hurried down the track a little way until I found a handy clump of bushes.

I loosened the front of my trousers and took my own hard phallus in hand. Passing water would take care of the problem, I knew, but I had to close my eyes and force myself to relax at least a little before I was able to relieve myself. Convincing my body took longer than it should have, and afterwards...

Let us say simply that afterwards the problem was not fixed. I was obliged to wait several more long minutes before I was in any condition to rejoin the Attolian without embarrassing myself.

He'd rekindled the fire and was warming some of the broth left over from last night's meal when I got back to our campsite. I sat down on a flat rock just far enough away that even he, long-limbed as he was, had to stretch to hand me a piece of flatbread.

We shared a hasty breakfast of stale bread dipped in broth.

As I wiped my last morsel of bread along the bottom of the pot to catch any remaining drop of broth, the Attolian got to his feet and looked up the track ahead of us.

"It might rain," he said.

I glanced up the track, over the slopes and mountaintops to the almost cloudless sky. "It doesn't look like it."

He shook his head. "I don't mean that it will rain, or even that it might rain soon. I mean that it might rain before we get to the other side of the mountains."

I nodded slowly. A change in the weather had always been a possibility. "So, you're saying…?" I asked.

"We should cover as much distance as we possibly can, while we can. Today."

I nodded again, and got up to join him. "I'll get packed up."

Before many more minutes had passed, we were on our way again.

At first, the conditions on the trail were much like they had been the previous day: hard going, but manageable. I followed in the Attolian's wake, and tried not to focus too much on the broad expanse of his shoulders—so much broader than my own—or his muscular soldier's arms. I tried not to remember lying beside him as I had on so many nights for weeks now, with his back close enough that I could so easily have reached out and touched it. I tried not to remember the previous night, when one of those strong arms had snaked around me from behind and pulled me close against its owner. I tried not to remember waking that morning…

I failed.

The going became more difficult as the track climbed the slope, and soon, to my consternation, the track was not the only thing climbing: we were, too. Hand over hand, and foot followed by foot, until we were all but on all fours. Eventually, the track disappeared completely and the only clue we had of which direction we should take next was a crude arrow, carved into the rock; it pointed straight up an almost vertical rock face.

The Attolian retrieved a length of rope from his bundle; when and where and how he'd obtained it were all excellent questions, but right then I could only be grateful that he had it. He tied the rope firmly around his waist, looping the end around his belt, and then did the same with the other end around my own waist. He stood very close as he did so, close enough that I caught a sudden whiff of damp skin and sweat. A trickle of moisture glistened against the side of his neck before disappearing down under his collar.

Fortunately, or perhaps not fortunately, given what we were about to attempt, I was too panicked to be distracted for more than a fleeting second.

"Are you crazy?" I demanded.

"I won't let you fall," he assured me, with a confidence that I did not share.

I followed him up that frankly terrifying rockface. What choice did I have, after all? It was either chance falling quickly to my death while climbing ever higher or simply stay where I was, and die slowly of starvation and thirst. I could not go back. At least I no longer had to try to stop myself from constantly staring at the Attolian's back; now all I could see of him were his long legs. In between silent prayers imploring Shesmegah to take pity on me and keep me safe, I also thanked any god who might be listening that my companion wore the loose trousers of a free citizen of the empire, and not the leather kilt usual for an Attolian soldier.

At least, I believe I thanked the gods for that. It's just possible that I cursed them instead.

We survived that climb, as is of course obvious, since I am here to write this account and you are here to read it. I will say no more of it here.

We slept that night in another cave, this one barely large enough for the two of us to fit. When the Attolian settled in behind me, I didn't protest. I didn't even question it.

I was too tired, from both physical exertion and remembered terror, to lie awake for long that night. I fell asleep quickly, and dreamed I was following a squadron of soldiers dressed in kilts, climbing up an endless stair.

Well, maybe just one soldier, and a single kilt.

Chapter Text

I woke the next day in much the same state and in much the same position as I had the day before—with a long, firm something poking into the small of my back this time. I didn't want to continue lying there like that, for more than one reason, but I hesitated to move. I was comfortable, except in every way that I wasn't, and the only source of warmth was the Attolian's body close against my back.

He chose that moment to shift in his sleep, muttering something unintelligible under his breath, and that something at my back pushed harder against me. I drew in a sharp breath. A flush of heat suffused me, from the crown of my head right down to the tips of my toes, and pooled at last deep in my belly.

There was nothing for it. I was going to have to get up.

I opened my eyes, only to discover that it was not the next day at all, but still the middle of the night. It was next to pitch black all around me. What moonlight there might have been was obscured by cloud cover and I could see nothing outside but the faint glow of coals, the last remnants of the fire we'd lit earlier. And yes, as I have said before, my eyesight is unreliable at best—but I would have needed the eyes of a cat to make out anything in that all-pervading, midnight gloom.

I was going to have to stay where I was.

I wriggled away from the Attolian, as much as I could—which wasn't much. It was all I could do to ensure that we were no longer touching. I could still feel the warmth of his body not much more than a finger's length behind me, radiating heat like my own personal hearthstone. I was grateful that at least he had not slung one arm carelessly across me, as he had done the night before. His arm had been heavy, and, seemingly, even warmer than the rest of him.

Then I made a fatal mistake. Perhaps it was because it was the middle of the night, and the world of our cave and beyond was cloaked in almost total darkness. Perhaps it was simply that my body wanted what it wanted, and refused to be denied any longer.

Perhaps…

The reason matters little. It matters not at all. All that matters is the action. My hand brushed the front of my trousers, perhaps by accident.

But no, I am done with 'perhaps'.

I pulled at the waistband of my trousers, until it was down around my hips, and took myself in hand. There, in the dark, it could have been anyone's hand on me. Someone's hand.

My stomach clenched, and I bit back a whimper, taking care not to wake my companion. That, at least, I was practised at. Sleeping cheek by jowl with other slaves as a boy, and then, later, living in such close quarters with my master, I had turned nighttime furtiveness into something of an artform.

I lifted my hand stealthily back to my mouth and spat into my palm. Then I slipped my hand back down to where it was most needed, and I began in earnest.

It didn't take long. I had never had the luxury of taking my time, and in that respect this night was no different from any other. I thrust up into my hand with the tiniest jerks of my hips, again and again, as my hand flew faster and faster along my shaft. I was almost there, so very close, focusing on sensation and carefully thinking of nothing at all—when the Attolian murmured something in his sleep, and my resolve shattered.

He was right there beside me, and I could think of nothing else. Even though we were hidden from each other in the darkness and even though he was oblivious of everything around him as he slept… He was there, right there, beside me, so close that I could-

I bit down into my lip as I climaxed, my manhood jerking as I spent my seed against the floor of the cave and the world turned from black to blinding white before my closed eyes.

I lay there, afterwards, shuddering slightly as I tried with all my might to slow my breathing. I tried to empty my mind, to think of nothing at all, but… I did not. Eventually, I pulled my trousers back up.

It was a long time until I slept.

 

~*~

 

I woke to daylight. And solitude. I felt the strangeness of it—I had rarely been alone for long, even before I started this journey—and also the relief. I did not wish to look the Attolian in the face. I did not wish for him to look me in the face. What truths might he see there, written in my eyes in language more profound than words?

I took a moment to compose myself, summoning the bland expression of the perfect secretary, who saw and heard and felt nothing that he should not. I was quite proud of how well I'd mastered that expression, so it was with some disappointment that I emerged from the cave to find that the Attolian was nowhere in sight.

On the heels of disappointment came panic. Where was the Attolian if not out here, tending the fire and preparing for the day ahead?

Common sense re-asserted itself after another moment, and I poked my head back into the cave. Most of the Attolian's things were still in there, including his blanket and one of the waterskins. However, his bow and arrows were missing, and their absence provided me with my answer.

He'd gone hunting.

By the time he returned several hours later, a goat carcass slung over one shoulder, I didn't care what expression was on my face. I was simply relieved to see him.

"At least we can eat more of this one than raw liver," he observed, grunting with the effort as he dumped the goat's body onto the ground.

"Yes," I said, and bit my tongue to stop myself from saying anything about the last goat the Attolian had brought down, or the reason why we'd had to leave all but its liver behind.

It took time to dress the goat's carcass, and longer to butcher it and soak the meat in salt water. The Attolian did most of this. As I have said before, I am not a cook, or a hunter, and my assistance was mainly limited to fetching and carrying.

"If we leave the meat to soak overnight, we can smoke it in the morning before we leave," he said after a while.

I glanced up at him, frowning. This was the first suggestion that we would not be travelling that day. Yes, I know I should have considered the implications of the goat before that, but somehow I'd just assumed that that day's journey was merely delayed and not that it had been cancelled altogether.

"We need to keep going," I said.

"We need to eat," the Attolian countered. "And if we don't eat, we won't be able to keep going."

I could not argue with such simple but irrefutable reasoning, so I did not.

The rest of the day passed in companionable silence, interspersed with companionable conversation. We had not had much opportunity to talk for several days, even once we no longer had to worry that the wind would carry the sound of our voices in directions we did not want it to go. The trails through the mountains were not like the roads and paths in the lowlands, where we could walk two-abreast without even stopping to consider the question. Up here, we travelled in single file all day, and then spent the evenings too tired to exchange many words.

So that day we talked: of my life in the palace, of his back in his old village, of his father and sister, of his king, of his fighting skills and the life of a soldier...

Yes, I admit I encouraged him to talk. He was more than willing to share details of his life; I had reason to be more reticent. Besides, he'd already badgered the story of my life out of me—the broad strokes of it, anyway.

That night we feasted on fresh goat, which even I was willing to admit was far tastier than the tough strips of cured meat we'd mostly been subsisting on. Towards the end of the meal I said something, I don't remember exactly what, but the Attolian responded with a laugh, and afterwards his features creased in a smile.

Happiness, or at least relaxation, was a good look on him. He caught up the waterskin lying beside him and took a deep swallow, the long, strong muscles of his neck glistening in the firelight.

I scrambled to my feet, muttering something about needing sleep.

He accepted this excuse without a blink, and I left him to bank the fire.

I was still awake when he crawled in behind me a while later.

"Kamet?" he ventured.

I said nothing, and gave no sign that I had heard him. I kept my breathing slow and regular. After a few minutes, I heard a soft snore from behind me, and then another.

I loosened my trousers between one breath and the next, and dealt with my problem—or at least the physical manifestation of it—as quickly and efficiently as I could.

As with the previous night, it was a long time before I slept.

Chapter Text

I woke alone again the next morning, but this time when I went outside it was to find the Attolian already tending the fire. I watched as he laid out strips of briny goat's meat on sticks above the fireplace and then added fuel to the fire. He didn't use the dry firewood that had been left in the cave for passing travellers, but damp, young branches that he must have gathered that morning. Smoke puffed up out of the fire, shrouding the hanging goat's meat in a dirty white haze. Clearly, the Attolian knew what he was doing. He stood there, tall and strong, once again revealing a competence that I would not have expected. He was not aware of my gaze, I think, which was just as well. It was unpardonably rude to stare, even if our current circumstances made the observing of the rules of polite society somewhat laughable.

The wind changed then and the smoke hit me in the face, stinging my eyes and throat. Coughing, I beat a hasty retreat back into the cave, and if it took me quite some time to pack up my things, that was really not to be wondered at.

We wrapped the smoked goat's meat in the cloth bundle that Vedra had given us less than a week before, though it felt like some distant dream. We might have seen evidence of other travellers everywhere—the dry firewood stacked ready in the caves we slept in, the well-used fireplaces outside them, and of course the trails we followed themselves—but we had met no one since we'd left the farm at the foot of the mountains. Up there in the high passes, it was almost as if we lived in a world with only two inhabitants.

That was a dangerous thought, of course. Perhaps we were still being pursued. I didn't say so, though, just as I hadn't voiced the possibility all through the previous afternoon after the Attolian had returned from hunting. Best not to tempt fate.

We set off along the trail before the sun was very high in the sky. I was relieved to be on the move again. I was less relieved to be constantly watching the Attolian's broad back again, with the only variety provided when we scrambled up the occasional rock face—though thankfully none so steep as the one we had ascended a day or two before. Now, as then, I was presented with the view of his long legs encased in not so very loose trousers, and the fabric pulled taut across his rounded backside as he climbed.

I tried very hard to think of something else.

We were higher now than we'd ever been. I caught sight of a patch of snow by the side of the path a little way ahead, and then another and another. Soon, the sight was no longer remarkable. Though the track itself remained mostly clear of snow, it became increasingly slippery as the dirt beneath our feet turned into mud. Apart from the mud, the terrain here reminded me of the hills near the tin mines: steep slopes covered in loose rocks and stones, interspersed with a few scraggly bushes and wind-blown trees.

It was late afternoon and we were travelling along the top of a ridge when the inevitable occurred. The Attolian's foot slipped on the path and when he tried to right himself he stepped on a loose stone. He skidded, arms flailing, and then he was tumbling, falling—off the track and down the slope. The rush of loose rocks turning into a slide, one that took the Attolian with it, was loud in the broken silence. My heart was in my mouth as I looked down over the side of the ridge, afraid of the sight that would meet my eyes.

Fortunately, he had not fallen very far. Not so far that I could not see him. Not so far that he was beyond my aid. I dropped my bundle and started down the slope after him, taking as much care as I could to place my feet on the larger rocks, hoping they would stay firm. If I set off another rockslide, we would probably both be done for. Several times, my feet sent stones skittering off down the slope, and I froze in place. I had to force myself to take the next step, and then the next.

The Attolian was lying supine and still on a rocky ledge, and I feared the worst, but he sat up as I neared him, groaning.

"Are you all right?" I demanded, just as he said, "You should have stayed up there and waited for me."

"Well forgive me for thinking that you might be in need of some assistance," I snapped, though of course I had no idea what I could have done if he truly had been in need of assistance. I could hardly have carried him back up the slope.

"Just a few scrapes and bruises." He winced, and made to stand up.

I offered him my hand, and it was a measure of how shaken he must have been by the fall that he took it. His grip was strong, his palm warm and dry and alive against my own, as he hauled himself to his feet with minimal assistance from me. Abruptly, he towered over me as usual.

I swallowed. "Let's get back on the trail. We don't want to be caught down here when the sun sets."

He nodded. "Agreed."

This time I led the way, he following in my footsteps and trusting in me to find the safe path for both of us. I let out a long sigh of relief when we gained the top of the ridge, and made no protest when he resumed the lead. The sight of his broad back in front of me was the most beautiful thing in the world right then. I did not even try to look away.

The cave we sheltered in that night was roomier than the one we'd slept in the night before, if still not exactly spacious. The heat from the fire just outside the cave entrance slowly warmed the rock walls, enough to keep us snug overnight. We did not need to huddle together for warmth, but when the Attolian lay down close behind me I did not point this out.

I did not say a word.

I simply lay there and waited for the snores to begin.

The snores did not begin, but after several minutes of listening to his deep, even breathing, I decided that he must be asleep and let my hand slip down. I pushed my trousers to my thighs, the fabric catching on the way. I was already hard, ready for the thoughts that were crowding in to take me where they wanted to go.

I was not ready to feel a hand close over my bare hip, a large, strong hand that definitely did not belong to me. My breath stuttered to a halt and time hung suspended between what was and what would be.

I should have stopped him there. I should have stopped myself there. That would have been the prudent thing to do.

But I had left prudence behind when I boarded the Anet's Dream with the Attolian back in Ianna-Ir. I do not know that I have ever completely regained it.

"Kamet," he said, in a whisper as loud as thunder against my ear, "do you want…?"

Oh yes, I wanted.

I exhaled long and slow, and then I closed my hand over his and drew it down to my phallus. His hand was large, so much larger than mine. It felt strange to be held in someone else's grip, there, where no hand but my own had ever touched me.

Are you surprised about that? Think.

His hand moved in a long, slow stroke, and I let out a strangled sound. I hadn't known, hadn't suspected, how different it would be, the reality of someone else's touch. Just the idea of it had been enough to bring me to a climax the last two nights as the owner of that hand lay sleeping beside me. But I still hadn't known what it would truly be like.

In a word, it was… exhilarating. Intense. Revelatory.

It was also frustrating.

His hand moved again, a little clumsily, just as I arched my hips. The result was… less than successful.

"Sorry," he whispered, though there was really no need to whisper. It wasn't as if there was anyone else there to hear us. And no need to apologise, either. But that was the sort of man the Attolian was: willing to admit fault, even when the fault was not necessarily his.

I didn't answer in words, but simply lifted his hand to my mouth. He did not resist or protest, not even when I licked from the base of his palm to the tips of his fingers once, and then again and again until his hand was wet with saliva.

He didn't need me to guide his hand back down. I sighed as his fingers curled around my manhood, and we began again. His hand slipped more easily along my shaft this time, and I waited for him to establish the rhythm before I let my hips join in. He pressed in closer and I could feel his manhood there, hard against my back, could feel the long, firm strokes of his hand, could feel his arm, warm and strong and safe around me.

With a ragged cry, I spent myself all over his hand.

Then his hand and arm and everything else were gone from me as I lay there, heart thundering in my ears while I gasped for breath and flushed with shame. I was entirely wrapped up in my own experience, and it really was not to be wondered at. That is my explanation, or at least my excuse, for why it took me a moment or two to realise that he hadn't simply rolled away from me in disgust. He'd rolled away, yes, but…

I rolled over onto my back. It was not quite so dark that night. The moon was out, and there was just enough of its light streaming in through the cave entrance for me to see that he was not just lying there with his back to me. His arm was moving back and forth at speed, and as I lay there and listened he let out a great whoosh of breath. After that, his breaths were as frantic as the movements of his hand. I had no idea what to do. Should I just pretend that this wasn't happening? Should I perhaps offer…?

And then the decision was taken out of my hands, as all went still and quiet.

It took me a second to realise that he must have been biting down on his other hand, though why he felt the need to hide anything—well, anything like that—from me after what had just passed between us, I could not say.

I continued to lie there in silence, feeling relieved and strangely disappointed, until he rolled over onto his back. His fingers brushed my cheek and I almost jumped out of my skin.

"What?" I asked in a loud whisper.

"Just… if you want to clean up a bit." I could hear the blush in his voice as he handed me one of the waterskins.

I flushed in shame, again, though for slightly different reasons than before. I took the waterskin, pouring the smallest quantity possible into my hand and then using the corner of my blanket to wipe the vestiges of bodily fluids from my skin.

I handed the waterskin back to him. He took it without comment.

"You can use the end of my blanket. To clean up with. If you want," I said. The words were stilted, the sentences simple. I sounded like a child learning a new language; I sounded like the Attolian attempting to make himself understood in Mede.

I flushed yet again. It was an ungracious thought, even if it was true.

"Thanks," he said gruffly, "but I can use my own blanket."

I nodded, though of course he likely couldn't see the slight movement in the near darkness. I heard the rustle of fabric, and knew he was matching action to his words. I could imagine that action, so very, very clearly...

"We should get some sleep," I said.

He was silent for so long that I was startled when he finally replied, "Good night, then."

"Good night," I said.

I lay there for a long time afterwards, staring up into the darkness. It was only as I was finally dropping off to sleep that it occurred to me that I still hadn't heard him snore.

Chapter Text

Again, I awoke alone. I was becoming used to that. I sat up and looked around the cave. I suppose I expected something to look different, somehow, but nothing did. When I got up and went outside, I found the Attolian tending the fire, just as he had the morning before. He glanced up quickly at my approach and the look on his face…

Yes, that was different. He watched me warily, but a thousand questions were written on his expressive features, clear enough even for my eyes to see.

I answered none of them, but instead squinted up at the sky, where a few wispy clouds were gathering. "Do you think it will rain today?" I asked.

He stared at me, perplexed. That expression, at least, was familiar. "I, uh, I, yes, it could rain," he said.

"We should get moving as soon as we can, then," I said. Once we were walking again, there would be little opportunity for much in the way of conversation.

He looked down at his feet. "Yes," he muttered, and poked savagely at the fire with a long stick.

The fire crackled and hissed, and a flame shot high over the others. Then it settled down again, as if the disturbance had never been.

Nothing of great note occurred that morning: just more mountain trails to follow, more rockfaces to climb and, of course, more goat's meat to eat.

I know we walked for several hours, and that the morning passed much like every other had done since we started our journey through the Taymets. I know that we stopped for a rest and a meal as the sun reached its zenith above us, and that we must have eaten a little stale bread with the smoked goat's meat. But all I remember of that meal is the very end of it, when my eyes were rivetted on the sight of Attlolian's throat working hard as he swigged water from the waterskin.

All I remember is a little of the water escaping in a tiny rivulet from the corner of his mouth and flowing down over the strong line of his chin.

All I remember is the brush of his fingers against mine as he handed the waterskin to me. Did I imagine that his hand lingered there, just a second or two longer than it needed to? I am not the one who can answer that question with certainty.

Afterwards, when we started walking again, I followed the Attolian along yet another ridgeline. I watched the muscles of his back bunching and flexing beneath the tightly fitting cloth of his tunic, watched the beads of sweat gather on the sun-browned skin at the back of his neck, watched his fingers lightly clench and unclench, unconsciously, as his arms swung with each step he made.

I watched, just as I had on every other day as we'd journeyed through those mountains, but this day was different. This day, for the very first time, I didn't have to wonder, or, at least, I didn't have to wonder about all of it. I knew what the touch of those hands felt like, what those fingers were capable of eliciting from me when they clenched and gently squeezed in just the way they were doing now. I was giddy with the knowledge of it—and when I looked at his neck, and shoulders, and even let my gaze stray further down, I was consumed with the need to know more.

You must understand that I had never been with a man—or a woman—before. Well, I say that you must, but really I am asking that you understand. Understand why it was that the night before I had agreed to that first touch, and then invited more, when I knew very well that we could never be friends. Not once the truth came out that my master was dead—and I still planned to be far away by the time the Attolian realized that I had been lying to him from the first.

It is not very admirable, perhaps, but I seized the opportunity not just to choose but to take: to take something that I wanted, for myself and not on my master’s behalf or with his permission, for the very first time since the slavers took me as a child. Maybe, truly, it was for the very first time in my life, for of course a child is required to bow to the wishes of the masters of his fate—his parents and his teachers—just as much as a slave must.

I took what I wanted. Or, to be more truthful now than I was willing to be then, I took who I wanted. Did you think it was simply physical gratification? It was not. Not even then, when it was truly as if we were the only two people left in the world, and so no other considerations mattered.

And so we continued on, and might have kept walking without much pause for hours yet, had not the Attolian come to so sudden a halt that I very nearly walked right into the back of him.

"What do you-" I began, and I might have followed up with some intemperate language, but the Attolian interrupted me:

"Look." He pointed along the trail ahead of us.

I had to peer around him in order to peer up the slope, wondering what his keen eyesight had noticed that mine never would have. But it turned out that even my vision was up to the task of making out what lay ahead: the trail and everything around it was blanketed in white.

There could be no question that we had passed beyond the permanent snow line. I shivered, though the air was no colder than it had been a moment ago.

"We should press on," he said, and I could only agree.

And on we pressed, walking through the snow since there was now no other option. I quickly came to detest it, the hard crunch of it beneath my feet that could nevertheless turn to treacherous slipperiness in an instant, all while it slowly sent my toes numb. As we walked, I entertained myself with visions of skidding down the side of the mountain into a gorge, or, when I allowed myself to feel more hopeful of our survival, of taking off my shoes to discover that my toes had turned into small blocks of ice.

The Attolian, as was usual for him, appeared not to notice the adverse conditions. Perhaps he lacked the degree of imagination required for such concerns. Or perhaps he was simply stoic to a fault.

That night, we settled under a rocky overhang. It was not quite a cave, but it provided the rudiments of shelter as the wind picked up. The Attolian eyed it critically.

"See if you can find some fallen branches further along the ridge," he told me.

I wanted to mutter something about not being a field hand. I wanted to mutter something about being a highly educated scribe and valuable slave. But of course my skills mattered for nothing up here, out in the open as night was about to fall. So I did as I was told, trudging through yet more snow as I fetched and carried like the lowliest household slave.

I returned as twilight was setting in, dragging several long, scraggly branches behind me, to find that the Attolian had gathered some branches of his own. He had arranged them in a neat row on one side of the overhang, and was now in the process of covering them in snow and packing it in firmly, like a builder applying stucco to a wall.

"Thank you, Kamet," he said as I dropped my branches at his feet, and he smiled at me.

It was the first smile I had seen on his face all day. The unexpectedness of it left me flushing, so much so that I fancied I could feel my toes beginning to thaw.

"I'll build the fire," I said, and quickly turned away.

When someone walks for hours on end, his body keeps him warm. Down on the plains, this usually means that he quickly overheats and becomes too warm for comfort, but up there, high in the mountains, it means that he eventually warms up enough to disregard the worst of the cold. That is, until he stops walking, when camp has been made, and he allows himself to rest.

It was freezing up there in the Taymets that night, surrounded by snow, even with the Attolian's makeshift shelter keeping the wind at bay. I sat in the entranceway and stretched my legs out towards the fire, welcoming the ache as feeling began to return to my feet, and tried to ignore the creeping chill at my back. Beside me, the Attolian held his hands palm-out to the flames. They were red with cold after handling the snow.

Not for the first time, I wished for gloves, and a thick cloak, and, of course, sturdy boots.

It was dark by the time we'd cooked some of the smoked goat in water over the fire, transforming it into something midway between a soup and a stew. It warmed my insides, and probably would have left me sleepy and replete if not for the fact of the cold sinking like talons of ice into every part of me that was not facing the fire.

I didn't offer to tell a story as a way of passing time as we continued to sit there together. I hadn't offered at any time ever since we'd entered the mountains. It was as if the higher we climbed, the few words I had left to share. It seemed that the Attolian had gleaned something of my feelings on the matter, for he never asked for a story at any time during those eleven days over the mountains, either.

I know that I keep mentioning that my talents were as nothing up there, but it was a truth I felt keenly. There was no reason for me to read or write even if I had the materials with which to do it. There was no one from whom to elicit useful details during seemingly idle conversation, or to whom I might feed misleading information in order to lay a false trail for anyone who might come in pursuit of us. There was no one to converse with save the Attolian himself, and that night there was so very much I did not wish to converse about.

Once the pot was empty, I filled it with a few handfuls of snow and placed it back on the fire until the snow was mostly melted. Then I rinsed the pot, emptied out the water, and got to my feet.

"I'm going to bed," I told the Attolian.

Instead of bidding me good night, as I more than half-expected of him, the Attolian also rose to his feet. He yawned hugely, and stretched his arms out above his head as if reaching for the sky, until I heard the joints crack.

"I'm for bed too," he said, "as soon as I see to the fire."

There was nothing for it but for me to scramble inside and roll out my blanket. I was lying on my side facing one of the newly constructed walls, close but not so close that any part of me touched the snow, when the Atollian stooped to enter the shelter. I tensed a little as I listened to him roll his blanket out and sit, and waited for him to lie down beside me.

His hand clasped my shoulder, and I nearly let out an undignified scream. I jerked my shoulder, in any event, and his hand slipped away. I could still feel it, though, the place where he'd touched me, could still feel the firm grip of his fingers through the thin layers of tunic and blanket.

I tried, without success, not to think of how that same hand had gripped me without a single barrier between his flesh and mine the night before.

"Sorry," the Attolian muttered.

Sorry. A word that meant something when it came out of the Attolian's mouth.

I should have turned to face him. I should have rolled over. But I did not. I could not. "Don't worry about it. I was just surprised," I said to the icy wall in front of me.

He was silent. Maybe he nodded. I was not looking so I could not say.

"It's going to be a cold night," he said at last, as if that was not true of every night in the mountains. "We'd be warmer if we shared our blankets."

I waited for him to continue, but he did not. It was, seemingly, my turn to speak. I shut my eyes. Perhaps I thought it would be easier to force the words past my lips that way. "We could share our blankets. And… and the warmth of our bodies."

And the words were said. There was no going back from them.

The Attolian exhaled, deep and slow. I had heard him breathing beside me every night for many weeks now, and the last few nights I had been actively listening as well. This breath did not sound like any of the others I had heard him make.

"Give me your blanket," he said.

I took a deep breath of my own, and rolled over at last. His form was dark against the rock wall behind him. I could not tell what expression was on his face. But of course that also meant that he could not make out the expression on mine.

I unwrapped myself and offered up my blanket, scooting out of the way while he arranged the blankets just so.

So, so, so.

I slipped off my trousers in the darkness before I lay back down on my side. Of course, the Attolian had been right when he'd pointed out that it would be warmer with two blankets rather than one. It was warmer still when he snuggled in behind me.

My breath caught as I felt his unclad legs rub against my calves, felt more bare skin further up, a patch of surprisingly soft, springy hair against my buttocks, and… His manhood twitched against me, warmer than all the rest and not soft at all.

I was not warm but hot, and hard for him in not much more than an instant.

"Lift your head, Kamet," he said, his breath a soft gust against my ear.

I lifted my head, and, before I could ask why, I had the answer as one strong arm came up to rest beneath my head like a very muscular pillow. Then his other arm slid over my bare hip beneath our blankets, and my breath caught again.

He did not take my phallus in his hand as he had the night before. I bit back a whimper of disappointment.

"Now lift your leg," he said, voice even closer against my ear than before. "No, the other one. Crook your knee."

I did as he instructed, flushing even hotter, and then…

Then.

Then there was the firm thrust of his manhood, so long and thick, so much, pushing hard and high between my legs from behind. In the next second I was lost to sensation, the feeling almost—almost—pushing me beyond endurance, my every muscle clenching and simultaneously crying out too much and more! as he drove himself slowly—clearly exercising restraint with some effort as he groaned in my ear—along that small, shy stretch of skin behind my scrotum.

He pulled back, and then repeated the action—and I let out a groan of my own as his strong thighs pushed up hard against me, and his phallus slid between my thighs in a long, hard thrust all the way from back to front.

The fire was already building inside me, stoking itself higher and higher, and I wanted so very badly to take my own manhood in hand, but when I reached down, curiosity won out. Instead of touching myself, I let my fingers brush across the head of his phallus, and the Attolian gave a strangled moan, his fingers digging hard into my hip. I stroked him again and he whimpered, a sound I had never thought to hear from him. The skin was velvety soft and smooth to my touch, stretched tight over the rigid core. It was like touching myself, almost familiar, and yet completely unlike, too. The experience was entirely new to me, even though it was also as old as time, and I let myself relish it, there in the dark where no one would ever see. Not even—especially not—the Attolian.

I caressed the head of his manhood again, and again I was rewarded with a desperate, wordless sound in my ear. He was already leaking sticky fluid. I drew my fingers up to my mouth, and tasted him for the very first time. His seed tasted of nothing so much as salt, and the thought of cured goat's meat crossed my mind before I could stop it.

A tiny laugh bubbled up inside and escaped my lips.

"What's so funny?" he asked, voice low and harsh.

"Nothing," I protested.

"Really."

The dryness of his tone made me want to laugh again, with a strange sort of delight this time. But before I could do so, his hand was there where I wanted it, fingers curling around my manhood where I had ached to feel them, all through my dreams last night, and at every moment through this interminable day. Before I could do anything at all he was thrusting forward between my thighs again, his hand matching the movement as he stroked it along my phallus, and I was helpless to stop myself from crying out, from imploring great Shesmegah goddess of mercy to please take pity on me. At least, that was what I tried to do. What emerged from my lips instead was a mindless, wordless babble of want.

The goddess showed me no mercy, and neither did the Attolian. He surged forward again and again, as my hips arched back, meeting him thrust for thrust, and all the time his hand worked me ever harder, ever closer, to the end point that I both craved and did not want to reach. Not yet.

And then he went still, pausing the movement of hand and hips both as his arm tightened around me, pulling me hard up against him. My skin buzzed and tingled with the awareness of just how close he was, how every inch of him pressed up close against every inch of me, as his manhood throbbed between my thighs. He would have made an excellent wind break if we were ever caught out in the weather without shelter again, I thought, perhaps just a trifle hysterically.

"Kamet," he said, and then his manhood was jerking between my legs, his arm a tight, hard band around me, a splash of warm wetness against my thigh and, "Kamet!" he gasped, my name a drawn out, shaky broken thing on his lips this time.

A great shudder went through him, and then his hand was gripping my manhood again, wetter and slicker now, his palm slipping easily with each long stroke as my hips joined with his rhythm, helpless to resist. I felt his breath hot against my neck a moment before the sharp, bright scrape of his teeth against my skin, and then his lips, kissing away the small hurt, kissing-

It took me over like a wave, sending me tumbling and falling as it broke, I broke, and I spent myself over and over, shuddering and shuddering as someone cried out in the distance.

I lay there afterwards, gasping out little, shocked breaths, as the world slowly returned around me. It had never been- I had never known- Was this-

The Attolian's arm lifted off me, even as he pulled the other out from beneath my head, and then his phallus slipped from between my legs and was gone. I no longer felt the warmth of him anywhere against me. Abruptly, I noticed again the chill of our icy little shelter and breathed in the frigid air only found high in the mountains at night.

The blankets moved, and he sat up. The blankets moved again, and I realised that he must be wiping himself off.

"Sorry," he whispered, though I had no idea what he thought he had to be sorry about.

I sat up, and cleaned myself up as best I could, trying only to sully the very end of the blanket. I felt around in the dark and found my trousers. I pulled them on, and tried not to notice how the fabric stuck to my skin here and there. I was already glad of their warmth. The Attolian had not been lying when he'd said it was going to be a cold night, even if perhaps he had had an ulterior motive in making the observation.

I lay back down, on my side yet again, and the Attolian quickly settled in behind me, yet again. I pulled the blankets up to my chin, and curled in on myself, hoping to trap some warmth.

The Attolian let out a long sigh as his arms came around me. Again. That simple action felt different than it ever had before, though I did not have the words to explain why. It was not just that we were both fully clothed again. It was not just that…

Well.

It was not just anything. I was not the same man I had been before. I have always been greedy for knowledge, my greatest strength and defensive weapon in an uncertain world, but I did not know what to do with this knowledge, except to hold it tight and wonder at it. Besides, it wasn't complete. There were still gaps in it.

He had touched me, but I had not touched him anywhere but that most private and intimate part of him. I had the knowledge of that, but nothing more. I had stared at his broad back all day, every day for almost a week now, but I still did not know the taste of the sun-browned skin at the base of his neck against my lips, or the feel of his shoulder muscles rippling against my palm, and I ached with the lack of it.

I do not know when I slept, save that when I did it was with his arms around me.

Chapter Text

In the epic sagas, weather is often employed as a metaphor for emotion. For instance, the Queen of Winter with her ice-cold heart—not entirely unlike some mortal queens with whom I have crossed paths—and of course, her opposites, Immakuk and Ennikar, braving the brilliant and burning sun of the desert, together, as always…

Real life is not like that, of course, or, at least, it is rarely like that.

I awoke the next morning to the gloom of mist and damp chill. I also awoke to the Attolian's arms around me, and his manhood hard at the small of my back. Memory of the previous night's activities came flooding back, and almost I felt again the long, hard thrust of his manhood between my thighs. It would be so easy, here and now, to crook my leg, to angle my body just right, to push back and let him push forward.

The thought had me aching with want. Now my body knew what it had been missing out on until last night, and it craved more. It is much harder—more difficult—for a man to wait, hungry, at the garden gates when he has tasted the fruits that grow within. But wait he must, when it is not safe to enter.

I could not do this. Not in daylight. Not where I would have to turn and face the Attolian afterwards. What look might he see in my eyes then? And what expression might I find in his, and on the face that could and did hide nothing?

It was h- difficult to make myself lift one arm off my side, and to raise my head from where it was pillowed upon the other, but I did it. I sat up to the sound of confused, vaguely protesting murmurs from my companion.

I told myself it was a relief that he clearly hadn't been awake until I'd moved his arm—and since he was barely awake even now, I seized the opportunity that the moment offered, and got quickly to my feet.

I ducked out of the entrance to our shelter without a word, or a backward glance.

Have you ever looked at mountains from afar, and seen their tops disappear from view, shrouded by clouds? I had done so, on numerous occasions, but it had never occurred to me to wonder what it would be like to be on those peaks when the clouds descended. That morning, I discovered the answer to the question I had not thought to ask.

The scene outside our shelter was not the one I had retired from the previous night. The light was a soft, eerie grey, and the mist was so thick that I could not see farther than a few lengths in any direction. If the Attolian and I were the only people left in the world, then the world itself had shrunk to accommodate us.

I set off back down the trail a little way, careful to watch where I placed my feet. I stopped when I reached a convenient clump of bushes, though I did not really need their shelter. If the mist could hide everything else from view, it could easily hide me as well.

I was intending to relieve myself, but when I shucked down my trousers and took myself in hand… It was hard, and no, this time I do not mean difficult.

It didn't take long; no more than a half dozen firm strokes had me on the brink, the sense memories of the night before still vivid. If the mist hid me completely from sight, any sound I made could still give me away. I bit down hard as my climax took me, and bit down as well on all of the words that I could not allow to escape my lips. Especially one word.

Afterwards, I pulled up my trousers and started back to the campsite. Before I had gone far, the trail changed direction, turning off to the left, and I glanced back, but the bushes were already invisible. After that, I kept my eyes straight ahead of me. Let the mist keep its secrets.

The smell of the smoke from the fire told me he was awake and up before I saw campsite or fire or Attolian through the mist. I squared my shoulders and kept walking.

He was tending the fire, and glanced up as I approached. He smiled at me, hesitant and even shy. Maybe my own lips curved into an answering smile for a moment, but I was already looking away as he said:

"I'm glad you're back. It's dangerous enough with the snow on the path, but now with the mist as well… We both need to be extra careful as we walk today."

What he said was obvious, of course. I tried to muster some indignation about his last sentence, so that I could ignore the first, but all I said was, "Yes, we should."

Breakfast was a hasty affair. We both knew it would be slow going that day, and the sooner we got moving, the more distance we would cover.

The Attolian left the shelter standing, and gathered a small quantity of firewood, which he stacked well back from the entrance.

"For the next traveller who comes this way," he said, as if he felt the need to justify his actions.

"Naturally," I murmured, and for some reason that had him staring at me suspiciously.

I looked back and… Well, we both looked away, quickly.

The walk that day was not pleasant. We trudged through what could have been an endless expanse of snow, for all we knew, given that we could still see only a little way ahead. Our progress was slow thanks to the mist, which seemed only to get thicker as we went. The world around us was mysterious and strange. Trees loomed up suddenly in the near distance, the surrounding mist making them appear like ghosts or memories of the true landscape.

The only real thing anywhere in sight was the Attolian's back before me, broad and solid and reassuring.

Around mid-morning, the mist started to clear, and the clouds lifted. I was relieved to be able to see right down the slope and know just how far I would have fallen had I lost my footing while deep in the mist.

We stopped for a brief meal somewhere around the middle of the day. I could not see the sun, so it was hard to be sure of the time. I sat on a rock that poked up out of the snow and applied myself to my food. Did my attention, eyes and thoughts both, stray to my companion from time to time? I suspect you already know the answer to that question.

We set off again, our pace quicker and our movements more sure-footed now. I allowed myself to hope that we would make up some of the progress we had lost during the morning.

And then it started to rain. I soon discovered that if there is one thing worse than walking through snow, it's walking through freezing, half-melted sludge while the rain drizzles down unceasingly. The water dripped down from the ends of my hair and beneath my collar. Soon, my tunic was sticking uncomfortably to my back, the wet fabric heavy as it rubbed against my skin with each swing of my arms.

We soldiered on through it. Or, at least, the Attolian soldiered on. I did… whatever it is a scribe does when he is no longer a scribe in anything but name. And, as usual, I watched his back in front of me. I watched, and I wondered, all through that long, otherwise miserable day.

Fortunately, Hemke had mentioned the location of a large cave in this part of the mountains, and the Attolian led the way to it unerringly. The grey clouds above us were growing greyer, but that was the only indication that it was late afternoon when at last we stopped in front of the gaping mouth of the cave.

Something lived there. Or, rather, something had lived there. There were animal droppings inside, and they did not belong to rodents, but the droppings were old and dry. The back of the cave had a musty smell, like a room that has been disused and shut up for too long. It seemed unlikely that any animal was about to turn up and attempt to reclaim it, and besides, it was the only dry space for who knew how many miles in any direction? After the day I had endured, I was more than willing to risk it.

The Attolian had been poking about on the far side of the cave, and now he gave a satisfied grunt. "There's a fireplace over here," he said.

I came over to join him, and saw that he was indeed right. There was a small alcove in the cave wall, the floor of it covered in ashes, and above it a narrow aperture in the rock, which turned out to be the opening to a tunnel that disappeared up into the high reaches of the roof of the cave. Alcove and tunnel had probably both been hollowed out by the same long gone waterway that had created the cave in the first place.

The Attolian held out one hand below the hole. "Fresh air," he said, sounding pleased with himself.

I knew at once what he was getting at. "It's a natural chimney," I said. We could have a fire in the cave tonight without choking on the smoke. We could get warm, and be safe and dry, and stay in that condition until morning. Just the idea of it made me feel less weary.

Maybe tonight we won't need to share body heat, or blankets. The small, unhelpful voice intruded into my thoughts before I could banish it. What it said was true, though. Maybe we wouldn't need to.

Soon, the Attolian had built a fire in the fireplace—I sent up a small prayer of gratitude for the stack of dry firewood that had been left in the cave for just that purpose—and I had spread out the blankets in front of it to dry as much as they could before we were ready to sleep.

Or, at least, before we were ready to retire for the night.

I pulled off my shoes and let my toes dry and thaw. I was tempted to take off my sodden clothes as well, but the cave was still not so warm that I wished to sit there entirely naked.

That was what I told myself, in any case.

The Attolian unlaced his tunic and pulled it off over his head. I watched, eyes wide, as he bent and laid it flat on the stone floor of the cave beside his drying blanket. His shoulders looked so very broad, revealed at last, the skin gold as the light from the fire played upon it.

I realised my mouth was hanging open and hastily shut it.

He left his trousers on.

It seemed ridiculous to sit there in my own damp tunic after that, so I removed it and left it to dry beside his.

We cooked. We ate. And all the time the Attolian sat beside me without his shirt. I stole little glances at him from time to time. Once, he caught me, and I hastily looked away again.

We dozed a little by the fire, and then I woke again and stared into the dancing flames, wondering… about many things. About one thing in particular. The day had been a tiring one, more so than any we had endured since we commenced our journey through the mountains. Perhaps we would each curl up in a blanket by the fire, alone, and sleep, alone, until morning.

"Kamet." The Attolian spoke quietly, breaking into my thoughts. I glanced up from my contemplation of the fire, and found him looking at me very directly. "Will you share your blanket with me tonight?" he asked.

"Of course," I said, but my voice cracked on the final syllable, like that of a boy who has not yet fully reached manhood. I tried again: "Of course, if you wish it." That was better, or it should have been better, and would have been, if I had not added that qualifier. It was not a question of what the Attolian wished for, or what I might wish for myself, if things were different, if the world was not as it was. It was simply a question of what necessity demanded—and if some side benefits came hand in hand with necessity, well who was I to deny them?

We arranged the blankets much as we had the night before. The only differences this time were that we were in a proper and more spacious cave, and the fire was closeby, providing extra warmth.

And light.

I lay on my back beneath the blankets and watched him as he banked the fire, watched the muscles of his back bunch and flex as he worked. He got up, came over to our blankets, turned his back, dropped his trousers...

And then he was there, beside me, face so close that I could see it clearly. So close that I could-

"Roll over, onto your side," I said. "Please."

"All right." He did as I asked, but:

"No, the other way," I said.

He rolled again, so that he was facing away from me this time. He could not see me, but I could see him. I could see his unclothed back. It was close enough for me to reach out and touch, as it had been for most of every day since we began this journey, albeit always hidden beneath his tunic until tonight. I had never allowed myself to do so, but I had thought about it, dreamed about it, obsessed about it until I thought I would go mad with it.

I reached out, and I touched.

He flinched a tiny bit, in surprise, I suppose, though he must have known what would come next after he turned his back to me. I felt the muscles move beneath smooth, warm skin. I lifted my other hand and then ran them both along the length of his back, discovering and mapping and committing to memory.

He wriggled, leaning in to my touch, and I shivered, shifted closer, set my mouth to the crease at the base of his neck, and flicked my tongue across the sun-browned skin.

He made a noise. I would not call it any sort of word. But he made a noise, and he reached back to clutch at my hip, pulling me up against his so very bare back.

We were both quite naked.

I… I lost whatever hesitation was left to me, lost my carefully held control. My hands were everywhere, and my mouth too, my hips moving as my manhood—hard, so very hard, and we had barely begun—thrust again and again against his long, muscular back.

He rolled away and I was left bereft. There was nothing I could do to stop him. My strength was and is as nothing to his. But then he was there again, before me. I would say that we were face to face now, but that is not entirely true. Our faces were not the part of us that was aligned.

His hand grasped his manhood, and drew it up against my own. His skin was hot there, so hot, and smooth and hard. He wrapped his hands around both of us and… thrust.

I pressed my face into the sparse, wiry hair of his chest, and breathed in the scent of him, all dirty, sweaty lovely soldier, dragged my teeth against his skin, leaving a mark, evidence that I had been there and… thrust, thrust, thrust.

All thought was lost in a welter of heat and give and take that ended only when our seed mingled together between us.

We lay there in silence, afterwards. I think I slept a little. I do not know how much time had passed when I felt his hand, warm and firm against my hip. I closed my own hand over his larger one. There was no need for words, a thought I had never entertained in my life until that moment.

We began again, in the near darkness of some nameless, midnight hour, and it was good.

Chapter Text

It was a week since we had first reached the lower slopes of the Taymets.

I could tell you that I awoke that day. I could tell you that I rose to find the Attolian tending the fire, and that we breakfasted before breaking camp. I could tell you how we walked along mountain trails through yet more snow.

I could tell you how I stared at the Attolian's broad back, watching it with the knowledge of it now, mouth suddenly dry every time I remembered how it had felt to press my lips to smooth, bare skin and suck.

I could tell you all of that, but you know it.

So, since we have at last reached this point in the narrative, I will tell you what you don't know. I will tell you not about this day, but about the night that followed it.

We walked through snow again that day, but at least this time it did not rain. The clouds had dispersed during the night, and the day was mostly sunny, even if the breeze was stiff and the air chilly. Still, it was with no little relief that I deposited my bundle by the entrance of yet another cave at the end of that day's walk.

I built a fire in the ring of blackened stones outside the cave—there was no convenient fireplace inside this one, even if there had been room for it—as the Attolian took the makings of dinner from our supplies and prepared our familiar meal of goat stew.

"Kamet," he said, once I was seated beside him, legs stretched out towards the fire where the goat's meat slowly simmered in the dented pot.

It was not the first time that day that he had tried to initiate a conversation. It had been easy to fob him off at breakfast, and during our midday meal, and all the time spent walking, walking, walking, in between. But now there was no getting away from him, no pretending not to hear.

Why did I not wish to talk? Words were the weapons that I used to defend myself, yes, but more importantly, they were my tools. I was—and am—a craftsman skilled in the use of them. And yet I did not wish to use them now.

"Do you think," the Attolian began.

I scrambled to my feet, and cast my eyes heavenwards. "It might rain tonight, do you think?" I asked, echoing him and changing the subject at the same time. Once, I would have been quietly pleased at that, at my own facility with words, at my own cleverness in even so small a thing—and pleased also at the contrast with the lack of that same skill in the Attolian.

Now all I wanted was for him to stop talking. Or, at least, to stop talking about something that existed in the realm of touch alone. It did not belong in the neat, orderly world of words.

Once we were out of the mountains and I had gone my own way, it would not exist in any world at all.

The Attolian sighed heavily. I might have felt bad about that, but slaves do not have the luxury of indulging the finer feelings. Perhaps I was by then no longer a slave, but I was also not yet a free man.

"Perhaps it will rain," he said, and managed to invest that simple statement with such moroseness that I did feel bad despite my best efforts.

"I'll gather some foliage to sweep out the gravel from the cave, so that we can retire there as soon as we wish after we've eaten," I said, and then added hastily, "If it should rain."

"If it should rain," the Attolian said. Now he was the one echoing me.

I turned my back on him. It was cowardly. I knew that even then, and yet I did it.

Clumps of small, low-growing bushes were everywhere up there in the mountains, but I chose to walk some little distance down the track until I was out of the Attolian's sight. I bent to dust off the covering of snow from the leaves before twisting a woody stem in an attempt to remove it. It was surprisingly tough, splintering but not breaking off, and in the end I took out my knife—not the one that I would use to shape my pens, if I had any, but the larger, longer one which I had never yet drawn from its sheath—and sliced through the stem with ease. Several more long stems joined the first in quick succession, and I wiped off the knife and returned it to its sheath with no little relief. It was the wrong sort of weapon for me, the wrong sort of tool.

I sat down on a rock and pulled my knees up to my chest, pensive. I stayed there some time, staring out across the snowy hillside as the sun sank below a nearby peak. At last, as dusk was setting in, I got to my feet again and returned to the campsite with an armful of foliage.

The Attolian watched me as I approached and walked past him. Almost, he opened his mouth. Almost, he said something. I could see him struggling with the decision, but I pretended that I did not. I crouched down to sweep out the cave. It was small and the roof was so low that not even I could stand up in it without stooping.

By the time I had completed the task, the stew was ready. We sat and ate and exchanged conversational commonplaces. Once the pot was empty, the Attolian leaned back against one of the large boulders near the cave mouth, and attempted a smile.

"The cave floor looks very clean," he observed, without looking at it.

"I don't think anything can make a cave actually clean," I said, thinking of the spotless, shining marble floors of the Emperor's palace for the first time in what seemed like a long while. "But at least the ground in there will be smooth to lie upon tonight."

"I wouldn't appreciate anything hard digging into my back and keeping me from my sleep," he said. He flushed bright red then, as he realised exactly what he had just said. "No rocks," he clarified.

I smiled. I couldn't help it. And he smiled back, a little sheepishly.

"Perhaps we should test it, just to be sure. I would hate for my hard work to have been in vain," I said.

His smile broadened, and I had to look away. I bit my lip, trying not to smile down at my toes.

He got to his feet. "I'll see to the fire."

It did not take long to bank the fire, or to rinse out the pot and pack it away. We lay down together, and, unlike every other night, this time there was no pretence that we were intending only to sleep.

We reached for each other.

We were becoming more accomplished at this, more aware of what our bodies wanted of one another, and better at fitting them together in ways that pleased.

Perhaps "pleased" is an understatement. And perhaps there is no "perhaps" about it.

We did not take our time. Our memories of the previous night were still fresh, and I believe he was as eager as I to reach again that pinnacle of physical joy that we had climbed together then. We were lying on our sides, facing each other, his hand wrapped around my phallus and my hands all over him, touching, stroking, delighting in the shape of him.

Then he bent his head, leaning down to capture my lips with his own, and kissed me. And, great Shesmegah help me, I kissed him back. My tongue thrust into his mouth even as my manhood thrust up into his tight fist, and for an instant it was wonderful, wonderful.

Too wonderful. Too… everything.

I wrenched my lips from his, feeling the loss as sharply as if I was giving up part of myself, even through my growing horror.

It is very important that you understand exactly what happened next. I know what you thought, but it was not so. When I pulled back and yelled, "NO!" I was shouting as much at myself as at you. More. Much more.

I turned from him. I rolled over and turned my back to him. I could not face him, quite literally.

Neither of us said a word, but the small space was filled with the sound of our heavy breathing. We had both been close to the brink, and still were, but now that was a promise that could never be realised.

The Attolian was the one to break the silence. "Is it Marin?" he asked humbly, as if of course that was the obvious answer.

I stared into the gloom, wondering who Marin was. It took me a moment before I remembered her existence: the slave girl I'd fallen in love with, or thought that I had. The innocent kisses I had exchanged with her were as nothing compared to how I had felt when the Attolian's mouth had found mine.

I had longed for this kiss, for the meeting of our mouths, but not as a conscious thought, not in words. It was at once both the fulfilment of a bone deep wish and an utter surprise. A kiss is such a simple thing, so seemingly innocuous, and yet this one was vastly more intimate than the meeting of our bodies had been these last nights.

This kiss felt like the name of something. But it could not be named. It could never be named.

One of the few clear memories I retain of my mother is her frequent admonition not to go near the half-starved stray dogs which hung about near the village temple. Feeding them would only encourage them, but if you were so foolish as to name one, that would make it yours.

I had fed the hungry dog inside me; to name it would be to invite disaster.

"I- Yes," I lied, glad that I was still turned away from him. There was not much light in the cave, but his eyesight was far keener than mine, and I am sure that right then every single word that I could not say was written plainly enough on my face for even the Attolian to read.

"I need some air," he said. He got to his knees swiftly and crawled out into the night.

I wanted to tell him not to be stupid and to stay in the cave where it was warm, or at least warmer than outside, and dry. But he wasn't stupid. He wasn't stupid at all. And anyway, I could say nothing. All of my words had dried up.

I lay there, curling in on myself with my arms wrapped tightly over my head, as if to ward off a blow. But I knew the blow had already been struck, and I was the one who had delivered it.

He returned, eventually, a long time later. I didn't move. I didn't say anything or acknowledge him in any way. He did not say a word to me.

We lay there, side by side, and did not touch all through what turned out to be the longest night of my life.

Chapter Text

I am sorry. I know that at the beginning of this account I promised that I would tell you how it was for me, but even now all that remains of this day is silence.

Chapter Text

I woke on the morning of the tenth day of our journey to the familiar feel of the Attolian's arms encircling me from behind. For a hazy, sleep-filled moment it was comforting. And then it was not. I felt his slow breath hot against my neck, and his manhood hard against my buttocks. The satisfying, firm thrust of his phallus between my thighs, the thrill of it, was a memory that would not be denied. My breath caught in my throat.

Perhaps I shifted in his arms and woke him. I don't remember. In any case, the next I knew he was rolling away from me. He got to his feet, standing with his back to me.

"I'll gather some wood to leave for the next travellers who pass this way," he muttered, still not facing me.

And then he disappeared out of the cave entrance, and I was alone. I lay there, frozen, even though the snow was all outside the cave.

When at last I followed him outside, the Attolian was nowhere to be seen. Last night's fire was only ashes in the fireplace now, so I set about building it anew and rekindling it. By the time he returned, arms piled high with firewood, our morning meat and broth was ready to eat.

We exchanged a few strained observations about the weather in the course of the meal, though neither of us went so far as to wonder if there was a chance of rain. It was an improvement on the day before, at least.

Once we had finished eating, the Attolian stood up, and stared along the trail. "We've made good progress. Another day or two should do it, and we'll leave the Taymets behind us," he said.

It was the most he'd spoken to me at any one time since… since.

"That is promising," I said cautiously, and tried not to sound too relieved about it. We could not get to the other side of those mountains quick enough for me, for more reasons than one. "Let's pack up and we can be on our way."

So we did, and soon we were.

We walked. I do not know what else there is to say. We walked, and I did not look at the Attolian's back. We walked and walked and walked, and still I did not look at it. I kept my eyes mostly on my feet, and on the ground they stepped on, casting an occasional nervous glance down the mountainside where it fell away just to the side of the narrow path we took.

We could, and probably would, have continued in this manner indefinitely had we not reached an exceptionally steep section of the trail. The way ahead was not quite vertical, but certainly more than diagonal. I had little choice but to lift my eyes, and once my gaze had gone that far, it travelled, inexorably, the rest of the way to my companion's back.

I had spent days watching and wondering, longing to know the feel of his strong, muscular back and shoulders beneath my hands. Now, bewilderingly, the possession of that same knowledge hurt me. Watching his muscles bunch and flex beneath the fabric on his tunic, still just that little bit too—eye-catchingly—tight, I remembered everything. I felt sick, as if I had swallowed a stone, and now it lay heavy and impossible to ignore in the pit of my stomach.

For years I had collected knowledge much as a bird feathers its nest. It was comfort and security both. However, if at that moment a magical imp had appeared before me and offered me the power to unknow all that I had learned since we entered the Taymets, I would have accepted it gladly, whatever the cost.

I had taken my fill of touch, for a little while, but I could never touch the Attolian again.

I stopped at the bottom of that steep slope, quite unable to go on. It was as if a fist had closed around my heart. It felt a hundred times worse than the stone in my belly. A thousand times worse.

It did not take the Attolian long to realise that I was not following him. He turned, half climbing and half skidding as he retraced his steps back down the trail towards me.

"Are you all right, Kamet?" he asked as he reached my side. His obvious concern only made me feel worse. I had liked it better—well, found it easier—when he was not willing to talk to me.

"I'm fine," I said. "A stone in my shoe. That's all."

Since I had made no attempt to take off my shoe, it was clear even to the Attolian that I was lying.

He sighed, and then said in a low voice, "I am sorry."

I blinked in amazement. He had apologised to me many times by now, and I had learned, slowly and hesitantly, to accept that he meant what he said. This apology was just as sincere as always, but… why? Why was he apologising?

"You told me of Marin, and I did not heed you," he continued. "I should not have… I should not have done what I did, those nights along the way."

He thought he was the one to blame for the mess we had found ourselves in?

"There were two of us there, unless my memory is faulty," I said, more sharply than I intended. Or perhaps I did intend it. In truth, at that moment I did not know what I intended. All was a confusion of feeling.

"But I was the one to start it," he said.

That was not the way I remembered the sequence of events. I had already set the wheels in motion when he had responded to me, set his hand on my hip, and asked.

"I could have said 'no'," I said, staring very hard at the ground. "Am I not a free man, and therefore free to choose for myself?"

Naturally, for the Attolian, there was only one answer to this question. "Of course," he said. "You must do as you wish."

Still not meeting his eyes, I said, "My wish is that we put this behind us, and go back to the way we were before we entered the mountains."

I wanted to believe that it was possible. My most fervent wish was to return the imp of knowledge to its bottle, and undo all the mischief that it had wrought.

I looked up at last, only to find that he was staring at his own feet. I expected him to speak of wishes, but he surprised me by asking, "Are we still friends, Kamet?"

"We are as much friends now as we ever were, at least for my part," I said. It was the truth, and yet that fist in my chest clenched a little tighter.

"Good," he said, glancing up, and at last our eyes met. "You are my friend," he said simply, as if it was the easiest and most obvious thing in the world to say.

I had to look away from his gaze, just as I had done countless times over the past week, but this time for very different reasons. He was simple and straightforward and true, while I… I was none of those things.

"We should continue on," I said when I could speak again. "We still have some distance to cover today if we are to get out of these mountains soon."

He nodded. "At least we're not walking through snow any more."

I realised with a start that what he said was true. There were still a few patches of snow by the trail, here and there, but we had left the worst of it behind us. I had been looking at the ground all day, and yet I had not seen it.

We started walking again, the atmosphere between us lighter, or at least less laden now. But I still could not bring myself to watch the Attolian's back as we walked, and when we stopped for the night I curled up in my blanket as far away from him as possible.

I told myself that now we were out of the snow, I had no more need of his body heat, or of him.

Even then, I knew it for the lie it was.

Chapter Text

We were late starting off the next day.

I awoke to the sound of a great crash outside our rude shelter. I sat up, instantly awake. The Attolian was already on his feet and moving as I reached for my knife. I wished desperately for the protection of a cave, but there were none to be had along this particular part of the trail we followed. We were out in the open, so naturally fate had decreed that this would be the day that we were discovered.

I crouched by the entrance, waiting, for there was no way of escape, but it was already quiet again outside. Surely the Attolian could not have dispatched whoever it was so swiftly. Unless, of course, they had overpowered him.

"It's all right!" the Attolian shouted, and a second later poked his head in through the entrance. "Kamet, it's all right. It's just a goat," he said, voice fortunately lower now.

He was right there, in front of me, alive and safe and it was just a goat. Relief washed over me. Relief, and memory of the last time we had been so close together and face to face. I scrambled to my feet and moved far enough away from him that I could speak without betraying myself.

"Good," I said. "That's… good."

The Attolian came properly into the shelter, and reached for his bow. "I'm going hunting."

"Don't be too long at it, if you can help it," I said. I did not want to lose another day's travel in the cause of food. Not when the other side of the mountains was almost in sight.

"If I don't bag it quickly, I'll come back without it," he assured me.

And then he was gone.

I made the fire and sat on a flat rock beside it. I let my mind wander as I stared into the flames. I wondered what was going on in the world outside the mountains. Soon, all too soon, I would find out—assuming that the Attolian did not spend hours in pursuit of the interloping goat.

But he was as good as his word. Before much more than an hour had passed, he returned with the goat slung over his broad shoulder.

I kept my eyes firmly on the goat.

We had a good breakfast that day, the best that we had had since we had commenced our journey through the mountains. We cooked and ate what we could of the goat's meat, leaving the remainder of the cooked meat to rest and the juices to drain from it before we wrapped it.

We left the rest of the carcass some little distance from the campsite, and covered it in rocks, trying to make the pile look haphazard rather than a carefully constructed cairn. This time, the Attolian tore down our shelter before we departed. He had seemed unconcerned once he had discovered that our intruder was only a goat, but perhaps he too was thinking of how easily our campsite could have been discovered by anyone purposely searching for us.

It was still well before noon when we set off. From that point on, the day unfolded much as the day before, minus the painful conversation. In truth, very few words passed between us at all, until the track curved down and around the mountainside, and we both stopped in our tracks.

Spread out below us were the green slopes and plains of Zaboar, and beyond them the blue of the Shallow Sea. The end of our journey was in sight, quite literally.

We stopped a little further down the slope for our noonday meal. As on that very first day, in the lower slopes on the other side of the Taymets, we sat in the shade beneath a tree as we ate. This time, the tree was leafier and more verdant, and its great boughs spread out in a canopy above us, though I still did not know what sort of tree it was.

I would really need to see to filling the gap where my knowledge of botany should be, when I got to… wherever it was that I was going. We would part soon, the Attolian and I. It was not just the end of our journey through the mountains that was in sight.

That fist in my chest closed again around my heart. I had hoped that I had banished it after our exchange of words the previous day, but it seemed that I must carry it with me yet.

The Attolian touched my arm, and I jumped. I turned to find that he had drunk his fill and was now offering me the waterskin. I took it, for it was now too late to retrieve the other waterskin for myself, as I had intended. I placed my lips where the leather was still damp, no doubt in the place where the Attolian's own lips had been just a moment ago, and I threw back my head and drank as the fist clenched tighter around my heart.

It was all downhill from there, in every sense. We worked our way carefully down steep inclines, and picked up speed as we reached the lower slopes and at last the track widened out enough that we could walk side by side. I no longer had the opportunity even to avoid looking at the Attolian's back.

I told myself it was what I wanted.

~*~

When we climbed over a low stone wall and into a grove of olives the next morning, it was as if our journey through the Taymets, and everything that had occurred during that time, had never been.

Chapter Text

You know what happened next, once we were no longer the only two people in the world. What I wrote of those events in the account I sent to Relius was the truth, at least for a certain value of truth. I recorded how I felt and what I thought at the time—up to a certain point.

Now I will tell you of the feelings and thoughts that lay beyond that point.

There is no need to revisit the tavern we stopped at, or to dwell on the sight of the Attolian, shirtless and wet as he soaped and rinsed himself off by the fountain.

There is no need to revisit our time travelling and chatting with the potter, either, except to say that at last I felt properly useful again. The Attolian may have done most of the heavy lifting and loading that the potter asked of us, but I was the one who directed the conversation and so discovered various small nuggets of information about the city we were heading towards.

Our time in the mountains together receded further and further into memory, and it was easier not to think of it at all.

Then came the mill, and the miller. And the dog. I can still hear the yelp as dog and Attolian both descended into the well. I can still hear the terrible silence that followed.

The Attolian was dead.

It pains me yet to write those words, even though now I know they hold as little truth as Laela's had when she told me that my master was dead.

After I turned and ran—more words that pain me still—all I could think of was that single yelp and the silence that followed, the miller's smug malevolence, the stinking flour and my footsteps pounding, pounding, pounding like my heart. Over and over, I lived it all again, until one single, simpler thought was left behind all the rest: Why?

Why was he gone, and why did the world feel so wrong now that he was gone from it?

Why hadn't I let our kiss continue, that night in the mountains? The considerations that had seemed paramount then mattered for nothing now.

The Attolian was dead.

He was dead, and I was left with the knowledge of everything that I had not allowed myself to take when it was freely offered. We could have kissed and kissed and… done other things, all through the rest of that night, and he would still be just as dead now.

The Attolian was dead, and I wanted to feel dead inside, but I did not. I felt sick, and all too alive.

Why? Why was I alive when he was not?

I told myself he had simply been a convenience, and that I was well rid of him before his presence became inconvenient to my plans. And then I thought again of the yelp and the silence and the feel of the Attolian's lips against mine.

I was his friend. He had told me so. But he had not been mine.

I wonder still about the stranger who found me lying against that city wall as all of these thoughts passed through my mind. I have my suspicions, and yet… it could not be, could it? Not really.

And yet.

Whatever the truth of who he was, our conversation had… I want to say 'the desired effect' but I think I was still too shocked by the events of the day to realise that I did desire it. The result was that he left me retracing my steps to the mill, in any case. Did he set me on that path, or did he simply provide me with the excuse to do what I might have done anyway? Certainly, he helped me get past the stark statement of what I thought was the truth, and replaced it with a question. The same four words still dominated my thoughts, but now in a different order.

Was the Attolian dead?

I had to find out.

I will remember all my life the sight of the well, bathed in moonlight. I will remember the sudden pain of that monstrous splinter that impaled me as I lay down on my stomach and peered down into the well. And I will remember the startling shock, much as I imagine it might feel to be struck by a bolt of lightning, when the Attolian's voice quietly spoke my name.

"Kamet?"

I froze, wondering if it was the Attolian himself, or his ghost.

You know what happened next. There is little to add beyond what I wrote in the official account. But perhaps you noticed what I told the miller, when he came upon the scene, there in the dead of night?

"I've only come back for my friend," I said.

"He's dead. You can't have him," the miller snarled.

But he wasn't dead and I would have him. And I did. I made it happen.

The sight of the Attolian, covered in flour and ascending from the well in the moonlight like some avenging spirit—or a mechanical god in a play—is also something that I will remember all my life. And, like any other deus ex machina, it resolved the situation—fortunately, in our favour.

I could have kissed him. He was alive, and so was I, and we were together again.

I did not kiss him. I reached out and touched him, took his hand and felt it, warm and alive and real. I did not know whether to laugh or cry. I almost did both.

I ran away from the mill for the second time in less than a day, but this time the Attolian was with me. We stopped when we were out of sight of the mill. It did not take much to set us both off laughing, happy and relieved and, in my case at least, slightly hysterical.

And then, as we continued down the road towards the city and he slowly fell behind, I realised that all was not right with him, that he was ill. I quashed the feelings of concern that rose up in me, or tried to. Here was my opening. I would get him to the Attolian trade house in the city, and then I could be gone before he realised that I had slipped away. It was an unworthy thought, perhaps, but still a pragmatic one.

He was alive and the world was right again, but I would still have to leave him. I had no choice, and it made no difference that now I wished that I did. I had been a slave for most of my life. I should have been used to having no choice.

I have written elsewhere of what happened after we reached the city, of how the Attolian's condition grew steadily worse, and then we found the Attolian trade house closed. I have written of how we fell in with the escaped slave, Godekker. I will not go over any part of those events again, save one.

It was just after Godekker had discovered that we were not two runaway slaves, that I was a slave but the Attolian most definitely was not.

"Does he only have eyes for you?" Godekker mocked. "Does he tell you how much he loves you? Does he tell you how pretty you are?"

The Attolian had never said any such thing to me, of course. We had spoken of those heated nights in the mountains only once, and then only after we had left them behind us. During our journey through the mountains, long stretches of time had passed in which we had said nothing at all to each other.

But now, standing there before Godekker, my treacherous thoughts wandered onto dangerous ground. I wondered what it would be like, to hear the Attolian's deep voice uttering words that… Well, they were words that had no place on his lips. Not if those words were directed to me.

And then my lip trembled very slightly, as my mind helpfully took the thought the rest of the way, and I imagined him saying those words to someone else.

"He is stealing me, but not because he loves me." The admission was like a knife to my heart, but I did not have the leisure to indulge myself in the pain of it.

I dealt with Godekker and, later, when the Attolian woke from his fever, I tended to him. It would have been one thing to leave him in the care of his countrymen at the trade house; it was quite another to abandon him to Godekker's tender mercies. I could not do it, and would not have done so even if I- even if things-

I would never have done so.

Godekker betrayed us, perhaps inevitably. The Attolian's strong arm had gotten us out of tight spots before, but this time it was my quick thinking that saved us. Yes, I will allow myself to preen just a little at that, though at the time there was room for nothing but relief.

You know what happened next. We found an unprepossessing vessel at dock in the inner harbour, but one with an Attolian captain, and took ship from Zaboar.

We shared a cabin, the Attolian—my Attolian—and I. That experience was every bit as excruciating as you might suppose. Or maybe you do not suppose it. Just know that it was so. We were together at close quarters but not together, and I was painfully conscious of it even though we had just spent days holed up in Godekker's filthy shed. Perhaps the difference was that this time my Attolian companion did not spend all the time unconscious.

Yes, all right, there is no 'perhaps' about it.

And then we docked in the city of Sukir, and, once the Attolian and the captain had gone off to the Attolian trade house, I took my chance to escape.

I did not succeed. I quickly got lost in the maze of streets leading from the docks into the city proper, and continued to become more lost until I ran quite literally into the Attolian.

I do not know which god's hand was directing my fate that day. At the time, I cursed them. Now… Well, now curses are not the words that come most easily to my lips.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The trip to the Attolian trade house had been a success. We left port, on our way to Attolia in truth at last. I was given the second mate's cabin, and was no longer required to share with the Attolian. It was a relief to be away from him, to not have to meet his gaze, as I prayed to any and every god that would listen, and beseeched them to prevent me from reaching Attolia.

None did, though now I wonder if they heard me. Heard me, and laughed.

I missed the Attolian's presence at night. I will not deny that. I even missed his gentle snores, and tried not to think of other nights, when he had made quite different sounds.

I did not succeed in banishing him from my thoughts, any more than I had succeeded in evading him in the streets of Sukir. My own hand was my sole companion at night again, as it had been in all the years since I was old enough to know desire—in all the years until those nights in the Taymets. I brought myself off quickly, with not just idle wondering but clear memory to fuel the fire building inside me.

It was a pale shadow of what I wanted, and could never again have.

I lay awake, thinking of the Attolian, no doubt sleeping the sleep of the sublimely ignorant in the cabin next to mine, and thinking also of what sort of reception awaited us in Attolia.

I could not eat as the ship brought us inexorably closer to the Little Peninsula. I could scarcely breathe for thinking of the Attolian king and what he might do to us when he discovered my monstrous lie.

Please, please, do not hurt him, or let him suffer. Please, let the punishment be mine alone, I prayed to Prokip, god of justice.

Did he hear me?

Perhaps, as subsequent events would show, he did.

The war galleys were what pushed me past breaking point. At the sight of them speeding towards us as we neared the Attolian capital, I knew for certain that there could be, and would be, no escape.

"My master is dead—there is no need for secrecy now," I blurted out, aware that everything—my deceit, our journey together, the Attolian's regard for me, all of it—had come to an end.

There is nothing I can add to what I related in the official account of these events. My emotions were raw, and so were the Attolian's. There was nothing left to hide. Nothing but what I still hid from myself, in any event.

I had expected his anger, and the sense of betrayal underlying it, but not the reason for it. If you had told me, he said, more than once. He would have let me go, committed treason.

All the more reason not to have told him.

We ended up in a pair of cells across from each other in the dungeons, exactly the sort of accommodations I had expected for us. For once, I felt no satisfaction in being proved right.

When I addressed him by name for the very first time, it was to apologise to him. That seemed fitting, after all the times that he had apologised to me. I suppose I felt that it went some little way towards redressing the balance between us.

But he did not accept my apology. Still furious, it took only a moment for our conversation to devolve into a quarrel.

Of course, anger never exists in isolation. Anger comes from caring. No man becomes angry over something—or someone—about which he does not care.

I think—I know—that both of us were too incensed right then to be truly aware of how much we gave away in our ability to rile each other, even if, ostensibly, our argument was over the decisions we had made and the faith—or lack of it—that we invested in the Attolian king.

Then we were taken away from the cells and brought into the king's presence, and the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place as I realised exactly what sort of a man—what sort of a ruler—the King of the Attolians was. Costis had deceived me, all unknowing, in his descriptions of his king. I had not expected this supremely magnet personality, the cynosure of every eye, this supremely dangerous man.

Oh, my Costis. Oh, my friend. I thought of him so, and it was indeed no lie, but it is true that there was another word that I could just as easily have used in its place. Regardless of that, regardless of any and every other consideration, I watched Costis prepare to lie to his king and I knew there was only one thing that I could do, one thing that I must do. I had to save Costis from himself.

And so I did. I confessed the truth as I knew it—and heard from the King's own lips in return that my truth was a lie. When I came closer, close enough for even my eyes to see him properly, and my ears to hear that in his voice that had been there all along, I discovered more lies lurking beneath what I had thought of as solid truths.

Travelling with Costis for so many weeks, it had been easy to think of myself as the clever one, but the light of my intelligence was as a candle compared to the brilliant sun of Eugenides.

I was not returned to my cell, nor yet to a street corner to earn my bread as a common scribe. I wanted to tell Costis that he was right. I wanted to tell him so many things.

But the King's attendants led me away to rooms that had been prepared for me, and I did not see Costis again that day, or for many days to come.

Chapter Text

I was surrounded by Attolians—all but the one Attolian I most wished to see. I did not think this circumstance was an accident, but I also did not know who had arranged it to be so. I was almost certain that I saw the Attolian king’s hand at work—yes, I know, I know—but that ‘almost’ was what kept me from asking about Costis’ whereabouts.

What if Costis had asked to be sent away? Perhaps he had had enough of the sight of me, and I could hardly blame him.

Of course he had asked to be sent away. Of course he did not wish to see me ever again.

I missed him. I encountered Melheret, the Mede ambassador, I told the King of my suspicions about the location of the emperor's fleet, I spent time deliberating on the choice of a new name for myself, I ate and drank and slept and bathed—and I missed him.

I spoke with Relius, extensively, and started writing the account of our journ- our adventures for him, and I missed him. (No, it was not Relius whom I missed. Do not be stupid.)

I kept my mind focused on everything going on around me, and still I missed him. Of course, there was not so very much going on around me. When my time was not taken up with meetings, or with writing, I found myself substantially alone and without purpose. My life up until that point had been one of duties and responsibilities. Even after I had fled with the Attol- with Costis, just getting to the end of each day alive and still more or less in one piece had been a task in itself. Now, suddenly, I had the leisure to simply be—and too much time to think.

I missed him. I thought I would never stop missing him.

Almost a month passed. I came upon the Queen, wholly unexpectedly, in the palace gardens, and after we spoke I did as she bade me and visited the kitchens. After that, I heeded the 'advice' of another queen—Brinna, head of all the palace kitchens—and ceased taking my meals by myself.

I was no longer so alone as I had been, but I remained without real occupation; in all ways that mattered, I continued quite alone.

I missed him. He had not come back. I would not see him again. Better, then, that I leave the city and head north than stay here, where Costis should be but was not.

The King had other plans for me. I should have expected it. He told me of the temple in Roa that contained a collection of rare scrolls in need of recopying. He told me also that Costis had gone home to visit his family, and that was where he had been these past weeks. It was clear that the King had sent him home for his own reasons, for the reason of leaving me to my own devices, but I still did not know if he had also done so at Costis' request. I did not enquire. I did not wish to know the answer.

I simply missed him.

I missed him still when I boarded a ship in the harbour a week later. I had spent so long thinking of him and missing him and trying to make myself believe that I would never see him again, that when I noticed the tall figure on the dock who carried himself very much as Costis did, I could not credit the evidence of my own eyes.

To be fair, my own eyes have let me down on numerous occasions. That is my excuse, in any event, for why I did not truly believe that it was Costis until he boarded the ship and stood before me at last.

I will not write out again the words we exchanged then. You remember them quite as well as I, I am sure.

I remember it vividly, how I felt as I looked at him, and he smiled at me, there in the bright sun with the clear blue sky reaching overhead as the small waves lapped against the sides of the ship. There was no trace of mist, or fog as sailors call it. I could see clearly at last. I can still feel the sensation that rose inside me until I thought I would burst with it. It took me some little while to realise that what I was feeling was happiness. And relief. But mostly happiness.

We stayed there by the railing as the ship left port and put out to sea, watching Attolia and the gleaming walls of its royal palace recede into the distance.

When we went below, we discovered that we were to share a cabin. It had been so arranged with the captain. Of course it had. I will not say that I failed to see the King's hand at work here, for that is a joke which has already grown old with overuse, but it is true that I did not. Rather, I saw that of my nosy friend, the sandal polisher. However, I could not be angry at his interference. Anger was the last emotion I was feeling.

The cabin door closed behind us, and I pushed Costis back up against it. Of course, I had his full cooperation in this or I would not have been able to budge him so much as an inch. I had his full cooperation a moment later, too, when I kissed him.

Ah, that kiss, that first kiss sealing our reunion. I am glad that I do not have to attempt to explain it to you. Even now, I do not have the words to do justice to it. I am sure that you do not have them, either. But we do not need the words, neither of us. It is all there in our eyes, for the other to read.

We kissed for ages, aeons, or perhaps merely minutes. Time had ceased to have its usual meaning. When at last I broke the kiss and paused for breath, my lips tingled and ached with the memory of his upon them, but it was a pleasant ache. I leaned up again, and he met me halfway, and in this fashion we moved, kissing and half-stumbling, across the cabin to the bed, shedding various items of clothing as we went.

Those nights in the Taymets we had huddled together for warmth as much as anything else. We had been constrained by narrow-walled shelters with low ceilings, so always before what passed between us had taken place when we were lying side by side. Now, in the narrow wooden bunk affixed firmly below the porthole, Costis lay stretched out on his back, and I lay stretched out on Costis. And still we kissed.

It had not occurred to me until then that kissing could be, and often was, a part of something more, that every part of me could be involved as my lips talked silently to my lover's. I think the memory of that first, abortive kiss between us that night in the mountains had stalled any thought I might have had on how a kiss might work if it were allowed to proceed in such circumstances.

Now I discovered what I had not known, and not just about kissing. I discovered how much easier it was to move together when we had the freedom to do so. Or, at least, when I had the freedom to do so. Costis was trapped beneath me as I sat up and straddled him, but he appeared, as far as I could tell as I gazed down into his always so revealing eyes, to be my willing prisoner.

He smiled, more mischievously than I would have expected of him, as his strong arms came around me and pulled me down to him. I did not mind. We kissed, again and again, as my hand slipped between us. We were both hard, both ready. My hand would never be as large and capable as his, but it was more than sufficient to the task. We moved together, thrusting and groaning and kissing, still. Maybe we would never stop kissing. I could not bring myself to care, if that should be how I spent the remainder of my days. Not if Costis was there with me, always.

We did not last long, either of us, but it did not matter. There would be plenty of opportunities to try again and take our time if we so chose—for that was how it was going to be from now on, I realised. It was not just my choice, but our choice, for we were both free men. And above all else, we had chosen each other.

I did not intend that either of us should have cause to regret it.

My lips left his at last to whisper some words in his ear, and he smiled again, and whispered back to me. I settled down with my head on his broad, so familiar shoulder, and his arms came around me again. Before long, the motion of the ship cutting through the water had rocked us both to sleep.

And that is how we reached the end of that journey that we had begun together in the Taymets all those weeks before.

Chapter Text

And so my tale is done. Or nearly so. The only thing left is to explain my purpose in writing this account for you.

It is an apology. I am sorry. I meant no harm, truly. But a lie begets other lies, if it is allowed to continue unchallenged, and I let this one draw out far longer than I should have. And no, I am not talking about my deceit in keeping from you what I believed to be the truth about my mast- about Nahuseresh's death.

For so long you were 'the Attolian' to me. I would not, could not, let you be more than that. It was a lie I told, made in the service of protecting myself, from many things, but most of all from knowledge. The possession of that is something which I usually hold most dear, as you are aware, but self-knowledge is perhaps the most difficult and challenging of all to acquire. To look in the glass and see oneself takes courage; you were always far braver than I.

In the process of protecting myself I hurt you: my Attolian, my Costis, my friend. My love. I would undo that hurt, if it were possible, but it is not. And so this true account stands as an offering to make amends.

I hope you will forgive me, when at last you read it.

Chapter Text

Costis saw the flame of the midnight oil burning by the window of Kamet's work room when he returned to their lodgings that night. It was not truly midnight, but still later than Kamet usually worked. He had been writing furiously lately, though, applying himself to some scholarly work, Costis guessed. He had not enquired too closely. Kamet had laid his hand over the page whenever Costis had come near, and Costis had eventually taken the hint.

But this time when Costis entered the room, Kamet did not try to hide whatever it was he'd been writing, for the simple reason that he was asleep. He was still seated, but his head was pillowed on his arm, which was lying crooked at the edge of his desk.

Costis had been about to suggest that Kamet finish up for the night and rest his eyes, but now he saw there was no longer any need. He stopped where he was in the doorway and allowed himself the simple pleasure of drinking in the sight of Kamet, for once relaxed. A smile touched his lips—he smiled more frequently these days—and after a moment he crossed the room.

As he bent to brush a kiss on Kamet's cheek, he glanced down at the page that Kamet had been working on, and to his surprise saw his own name. Nearby was another word he recognised: Attolia. No, Attolian; the last letter was underscored. He remembered that much from the lessons that Kamet had been giving him. He didn't know any of the other words, though. He wondered what else was there, and hoped that Kamet was saying only good things to whoever was his intended recipient.

Immediately, he chided himself for the foolish thought. Kamet would never say anything bad about him to anyone, no more than Costis would about Kamet. He leaned down the rest of the way, and instead of the soft buss he had intended for Kamet's cheek, left a rather more serious kiss on his lips.

Kamet stirred, and then sat up, so suddenly that Costis only just pulled back out of the way in time before they came to grief.

"Costis!" Kamet said, still blinking awake. "You're back early."

"No, I'm not," Costis said, because he wasn't. "It's late. You've been asleep." And then, because he couldn't help himself, even though he should have known better, he asked: "What's that you've been working on?"

The blush did not show on Kamet's darker skin, as it would have on Costis, but from the way Kamet's eyes skittered away from meeting his gaze, Costis was sure that if he were to lay a hand against Kamet's cheek right then he would feel the telltale heat.

"I- It's noth-" Kamet said, and paused. He looked up at Costis, looked him squarely in the eyes, and then looked away again as he sighed. "It's for you."

Costis blinked, more than a little surprised. "What do you need to write to me for?" he asked. "I'm right here. Can't you just tell me?"

"It was easier for me to write it."

Costis did not doubt him. For Costis himself, and almost anyone else he could think of—except, perhaps, Relius, and of course Pheris Erondites, and maybe Sounis' Magus… Well, for Costis himself, it was never easier to write than simply to say what he meant, but Kamet was a master of the written word even more so than he was of the spoken one. The only problem was…

"I can't read Setran," he reminded Kamet.

"Not yet," Kamet said. He glanced up at Costis from beneath lowered lashes. It was a look that Costis was familiar with. "Perhaps this will be an incentive to apply yourself more assiduously to your lessons."

"Can't you just tell me?" Costis asked again, even though he already knew what the answer would be.

"It will be here for you to read when you're ready," Kamet said, and added a mischievous little smile to the flirtatious glance.

"Has anyone ever told you that you can be very irritating?" Costis asked, but he was smiling back.

"No. I was an obedient slave. How do you think I rose so high?"

"But you're not a slave now," Costis pointed out.

"No," Kamet agreed. He didn't say anything more, but he also didn't stop looking at Costis in just that way. In the end, Costis had no choice but to pull Kamet up into his arms. Kamet came willingly, pressing a kiss to the side of Costis' neck and making him tremble just the tiniest bit. "I'm yours," he said, voice quiet against Costis' skin, "because I choose to be."

"And I'm yours," Costis said in reply, just before Kamet's arms came up and closed around his neck, "because I choose to be. Nothing you could do or say or write will ever change that."

Kamet went still against him. "Nothing?"

"Nothing," Costis affirmed.

"Not even the truth?"

"Only if by that you mean that you don't love me." He said the words lightly enough, but then silently cursed himself for a fool. What if…

Kamet's hands slipped down and around, and cupped Costis' face. "Oh, my Costis. It is because I love you that I want you to know the whole truth."

Costis was so consumed with relief that he almost sagged against the wall. But then Kamet pressed even closer, looked up and tilted his face just so and...

All was quiet in the room for a while.

Kamet was the one to break the kiss. He drew back, and let out a small sigh.

"What?" Costis asked, concerned all over again, if only just a little this time.

"You should work on your written Setran," Kamet said. "There are things I… You should work on it."

"Tomorrow," Costis promised.

"Tomorrow," Kamet agreed. "But tonight?" And that familiar look was back in his eyes.

Costis let himself relax again. He knew the answer to that particular question without having to wonder about it. "Come to bed," he said, enfolding Kamet's hand in his own.

Tonight, like every night, was for the two of them.