Chapter 1: Prologue
The journey to Sairenaica starts with clasped hands and jokes and several long pauses while Venadan does his best familiarize himself with Arruén's subtly-shifting face and especially his mouth. But as the road goes on, Arruén gets quieter and his face grows sickly pale. Venadan glances at him, concerned, and can almost see right through Arruén to the sky and fields beyond.
"I don't think I can go on like this," says Arruén. Venadan blinks and there's a crow hopping along the road beside him. It caws and flaps its way up to Venadan's shoulder.
They continue like that, for a while. Arruén preens at Venadan's hair, and Venadan grows silent, just enjoying Arruén's company. The road winds on, undeviating, leading straight to Sairenaica.
When the sun sets on the second day of traveling, Venadan reaches up to let the crow down. It's not there. There's still the ghost of pinprick claws on Venadan's shoulder, and he can hear the rustling of wings. Something runs through his hair again, grazing at Venadan's scalp. But he waves his hand through the air over his shoulder and nothing meets it.
Venadan sets up camp and sits down to pray. He tries to pray to Arruén, but he doesn't really know how. So he prays to Adiena instead, asking only for understanding.
Adiena is amused, but not unsympathetic.
"Did you think it would be easy?" she asks. "You walk the straight path to Sairenaica, and you expect the god of the crossroads to follow you all that way? Arruén's not as powerful as he thinks he is, not quite. Not yet."
Venadan doesn't say anything. He's had experience in keeping his mouth shut now, in not giving answers that will only make him seem naive.
"Even I am not so strong as to walk in the mortal world for hours at a time. Not without a vessel to walk through." Adiena leans down, and the fall of her hair brushes Venadan's forehead. He flinches, and Adiena smiles with a slash of white light in her shadowed face. "Give him time," she says. "Let him make some deals and store his strength. Perhaps in a year he'll be able to wander through Allauca with you."
"And until then?" asks Venadan.
"There's always the crossroads," says Adiena. "If you really can't wait."
When Venadan wakes the next morning, even the wisp of Arruén's presence is gone. He walks the rest of the way to Sairenaica alone.
Chapter 2: Gashent
When Venadan sleeps at the crossroads, Arruén comes to him and whispers of what is and will be. Which is a little frustrating, actually, because that's not what the dreams are for.
Venadan is alone in a desert, shirtless and with tattered trousers. The sky is bathed in fire, and the sand is black. Arruén comes to him, and his hands drip blood and his eyes shine like stars.
"I'm trying," says Arruén. "At least you're intact, this time. Mostly."
Venadan shrugs. His mouth won't open, and when he runs his hand across the lower half of his face, he feels only the bristles of his beard and smooth flesh where his mouth should be. Venadan wonders if this is how Arruén remembers him best or how he likes him best—silent. Well, and half-naked.
"I'm not that shallow," says Arruén. "And I can hear what you're thinking, obviously. It's symbolic, you're not really silent."
Venadan doesn't think that bodes well either. Things are already getting much too metaphysical for a good wet-dream.
"My wet-dreams were often metaphysical." Arruén's eyes dim, and he smiles. "When I still dreamt."
This does not surprise Venadan at all.
"Anyway, this doesn't present any real difficulty. I mean," Arruén looks down at his bloody hands, "we could use it as lubricant?"
It's odd, stifling a laugh when you have no mouth to let it out. Arruén looks briefly annoyed, like he thinks Venadan's going to refuse him, but Venadan shakes his head. Everything here is odd, but at least they're together. It's been months since Arruén ascended to the pantheon and disappeared into the world of the gods, and this is the longest non-prophetic dream they've managed since. Some celebration is definitely in order.
As Venadan thinks that, the desert seems to shrink and Arruén is closer and closer without ever having moved. They are pressed together, belly to belly, and Venadan wonders if Arruén lost his clothing at some point or if he was always naked and Venadan simply hadn't noticed.
Arruén smiles, crooked and wry and as real as anything, and slips bloody fingers past Venadan's waistband. He leans in, his eyes too brilliant to look at directly, and whispers in Venadan's ear.
"They are coming from the north. A thousand men strong. They seek to ambush you, but you have my mark on you and shall be protected."
Arruén takes Venadan's left wrist in his other hand, squeezing tightly. His touch sears Venadan's skin, and he thinks he cries out, the sound echoing out from his thoughts and tearing at his blank face. Arruén's eyes are on him and something in Venadan is being consumed by the light.
"Look to the north," says Arruén, and lets Venadan go.
Venadan wakes with a cold sweat and rust-brown fingerprints on his stomach. His wrist aches, and the fresh tattoo there scabs and heals as Venadan looks at it. His other wrist itches where Adiena marked it long before.
His cock is aching too, and Venadan takes several moments to calm it down before finally he can get up and tell his captain that he knows where that Jalnese mercenary corps is lurking.
When Venadan's company camps, he sleeps apart by the crossroads. Venadan goes to the crossroads because he wants to see Arruén, even if the dreams are always too short and unsatisfying. The company doesn't go with him because his captain appreciates useful prophesies, yes, thank you, Venadan, but she doesn't really want anything to do with gods. Gods are unpredictable, and a soldier favored by two gods means twice as much unpredictability. Captain Heskri would prefer that everything stay in order, always.
Venadan understands. He's not especially comfortable with the situation either.
During the day Venadan marches, as his company bends unexpectedly to the east and then doubles back to ambush the ambush. He's in the second line when they meet the Jalnese, and cuts down a fighter who would have skewered his friend Barooq.
This is easy. Not easy in the sense that Venadan feels happy doing it, not that. Easy in the sense that his arms know how to do this work and his brain knows how to look away from the splash of blood, turn toward the next enemy and let a cry rip from his throat. Easy when compared to a god-lover who seems incapable of communicating without prophecies and bald symbolism.
They drive the mercenaries away, off the path that leads to the threatened city of Gashent. It takes a lot of sweat and bodies to do it, but General Devuera knows what she's doing and Venadan trusts her to plan this little skirmish out. He does what his Captain Heskri orders, listening for her shrill voice cutting through the groans and clang of metal. In the end Venadan stands there among the bodies, shaking a little but unhurt. Not even a graze or a bruise.
"You shall be protected," he mutters, looking at his wrist. The scars look months old.
"What's that?" Barooq slings an arm over Venadan's shoulder. "I don't think these ones can hear you, my friend. Come over to the fire and talk to the living."
Barooq's boots shove bodies out of their path, and Venadan lets himself be pushed along by the bigger man. He sits at the campfire, leaning on Barooq a little, and stares at the flames until he feels human again. Then he gets up and searches out his bedroll.
"The crossroads again?" Barooq frowns. "I don't like to think of you alone, with the Jalnese still out there."
"Don't worry," says Venadan. There's nothing to harm him out there. Barooq clasps hands with Venadan, still frowning, and his fingers linger on the raised lines of Venadan's new tattoo. Venadan doesn't explain or excuse it, just walks away, down the torn grassy battlefield to the nearest crossroads.
When Venadan sleeps he sees the sea. A black sea, filled with light. Arruén rises from the waves, the water clinging viscous to his face and hair. He has four arms, two emerging from his shoulders, fingers extended to the east and west. From his back and chest emerge two more arms, pointing north and south. Venadan wastes some time trying to figure out where Arruén's other set of shoulders should be, since clearly there's no shoulder emerging from his neck.
"I don't think this is working out," says Venadan, at last.
"I just need practice." Arruén's right foot drags, useless, as he pulls himself to the shore. "I'll get it right eventually."
"I'm not sure if I want to be practiced on." Venadan steps forward, catching Arruén's north hand to help steady him. "This is pretty disturbing."
Venadan is clothed this time, in his uniform. The sword at his hip is dripping blood, and he wonders what it is with Arruén and this particular fluid.
"That's what it all boils down to," says Arruén. "We come from blood when we're born and we pass away into it again when we die."
"Fascinating," says Venadan. The sword is rusted, as well, and when he looks at his hands they have claws. He's not surprised to find blood underneath them, ancient and brown. It gets everywhere.
Arruén sighs. "I can try something else. I can do whatever I want, if only I know how to do it."
Venadan thinks that's probably true of everyone. Except for when you realize that there's no way to do it.
Arruén cups the back of Venadan's head with his north hand and draws Venadan close. "There's a way," he says. They kiss, and Arruén tastes of dirt and sweat and exhaustion. But hope, too. You can only taste hope in dreams.
Venadan has to twist to the side to avoid Arruén's arm, but he likes the feeling of three hands wrapping around his head and shoulders and back. He reaches out and clasps Arruén's south hand, winding their fingers together behind Arruén's back as he chases that taste of hope.
"There's a way," repeats Arruén, without breaking the kiss—the words come in his voice, but spoken from a far distance. "I'll make a way."
When Venadan wakes up, he knows the company will be on this road for another seventeen days before they reach Gashent. He knows the time of their arrival to the hour, and he knows he won't be with them.
Venadan usually spends his days marching alongside Barooq. He's a good partner to have on a long march—quiet, generous with his extra rations, and easy-going enough. His light green eyes dance with amusement no matter what Venadan says, and Venadan's long ago given up on watching his words with him. It's nice to have such unthinking acceptance, even when Barooq is always laughing at him.
They split a piece of hardtack as they go, passing it back and forth as they break off chunks to gnaw on.
"What do you see when you sleep out there?" asks Barooq.
Venadan thinks about making something up, but there's little enough to hide. Rumors are already spreading. "I see the god of the crossroads."
"I thought the goddess of the crossroads was dead." Barooq has his eyes fixed on the backs of the soldiers in front of him, not looking at Venadan.
"Yes," says Venadan. "That's also true."
Barooq grins, suddenly, and glances at him. "I suppose the undead god of the crossroads does you a lot of favors."
Venadan smiles back. "He certainly tries."
Barooq pops the last piece of hardtack in his mouth, mercifully silent as he sucks on the stuff until it's soft enough to chew.
That night Venadan has trouble falling asleep. His body is beginning to expect Arruén on these nights, and arousal itches through him, from his fingers to his toes. Venadan puts an arm over his eyes and smiles to himself a little ruefully. It doesn't matter how many times Venadan's disappointed, the mere prospect of seeing Arruén still leaves him half-hard and unsettled.
Venadan's just starting to drop off when the crow starts pecking at his toes.
He opens his eyes, trying to figure out if he did fall asleep after all. But the sky still looks like sky, and the crossroads are the same as when he fell asleep, dirty and rutted with tracks. There's no shrine here, so Venadan stacked a few stones, three as a base and one on top—a shrine for Arruén, not for Adiena. Venadan prayed to her back at the big mobile shrine in the main camp with the other mercenaries, and he doesn't build gates at the crossroads anymore. Adiena doesn't need to watch what's happening here.
The crow follows his gaze to the makeshift shrine and clicks its beak, pleased.
Venadan sits up, and the crow hops into his lap. "Hello," murmurs Venadan. "Hello, Arruén."
The crow shakes itself, full-bodied, its wings buffeting out. Venadan's always fascinated by Arruén's familiars. He doesn't know if these are wild animals that Arruén takes into his fold or unreal animals that Arruén creates—they certainly seem real enough. Maybe Arruén's saved up enough power to come in feathered person. However Arruén managed it, Venadan takes a unique pleasure in running the backs of his fingers along the crow's beak and feathers, feeling it shudder against him and knowing that Arruén is shuddering too.
Venadan's body starts to relax at last, arousal drifting away, lulled by the glide of his hand over the crow's little body.
"What did you come here for?" asks Venadan. "Just to visit?"
He yelps when the crow responds by picking at the lacings of his trousers.
"I don't think so." Venadan fends it off, risking a pecked hand in defense of his modesty. The crow dances back, squawking reproachfully.
"No," says Venadan. "The clothing stays on."
The crow looks displeased, and its eyes shine red momentarily. Venadan thinks that he might be calling down the wrath of god, but he can't help his prejudices. Gods may have no problem with bestiality, especially if you can believe the stories. But Venadan has many problems, including how exactly Arruén thought this was going to work.
The crow hops over to a patch of dirt and draws him a diagram. It's not very complicated.
"No," says Venadan. "Definitely not." He secures his trousers a little better and lies down, covering himself with his bedroll to completely remove temptation.
Arruén's crow squawks at him, clacks its beak menacingly, and then finally huffs and gives up. After a few moments it tries to squirm into the bedroll with Venadan, pulling at his hair when it finds that Venadan's wrapped himself up too tightly.
Venadan cracks one eye open. "I'm exclusively attracted to humans," he says, and then clarifies when the crow looks taken aback, "or human-shaped things. You still count, just not when you're a crow."
The crow shifts from foot to foot, and tries to get into the bedroll again.
"Are you going to molest me in my sleep?" asks Venadan. "The bedroll's for sleeping tonight."
The crow looks offended. Which isn't an answer, but Venadan supposes that he can trust Arruén. To a point.
Venadan opens the bedroll enough for the crow the slip in alongside him. It turns so its body is pressed against his shoulder, its beak along his cheek. Venadan falls asleep quickly with its wing covering his eyes.
It's gone in the morning. Venadan shakes out his bedroll and a stray feather catches the wind.
"Fucking crows," Venadan mutters to himself, and then shakes his head. "Not literally, by the way."
He can almost hear Arruén's laughter as he walks back to the main camp.
"What's it like being favored by a god?" asks Barooq. Venadan is revising his estimation of how easy Barooq is to get along with—the long march is clearly taking its toll on Barooq's incuriosity.
He says as much, and Barooq just laughs. So Venadan thinks about the question. Thinks about Arruén's crows and Arruén's dreams and Arruén's bloody ascension.
Thinks further back to everything he's ever done for Adiena.
"It's not that great," says Venadan, at last. He's aware that this is a disappointing response, after all of that thought. He can't come up with a better answer.
"What do you do when the god asks you to do something?" presses Barooq. It sounds like it's important, but Venadan can't imagine why. Maybe some hedge-priest has been hassling Barooq about his devotion.
"You say yes or you say no," says Venadan, still stuck with the disappointing truth. "And then usually you do it anyway."
That night they don't stop anywhere near a crossroads, nor the next. Venadan sleeps restlessly among the other mercenaries, his bedroll lying next to Barooq's. Barooq snores, and Venadan wakes up both mornings with Barooq's heavy arm over his chest, Barooq's face pressed to his shoulder.
"Do you cuddle with all of your squad-mates?" asks Venadan, on the second morning. "Is that why there was so much empty space around you?"
Barooq laughs and doesn't point out that he'd made Leeshma get up to make room for Venadan in the first place. He laughs and Venadan doesn't question the tension in Barooq's eyes. Lots of men would have tension if they embraced their best friends in their sleep.
That night Venadan hikes twenty minutes back to reach the crossroads, and resigns himself to waking up an hour early to make sure his company doesn't leave without him. Arruén would probably like it if Venadan was abandoned at the crossroads, actually. It would be very symbolic.
It's a proper crossroads, with a proper shrine. An ancient statue of Evarda stands on a plinth, stained by rain and features washed away by wind. There's cash scattered around her feet, offerings from other travelers. Venadan searches through his pockets and produces a coin, laying it at her feet.
The statue bends down and picks it up.
"Nice trick," says Venadan, because it is.
He's definitely not dreaming—he didn't even lie down to sleep. Unless Arruén possesses new powers of narcolepsy, he's actually reaching into the world and molding a stone idol to his will. Venadan thinks he must qualify as a saint after seeing this many miracles. He's not sure if it would make the stories better or worse if the miracles of Saint Venadan were primarily sexual in nature. Or, at least, intended to be sexual. Hopefully actual sexuality will be achieved.
The statue steps off her plinth and walks toward him. She barely comes up to Venadan's waist, and her featureless face turns up to meet his eyes.
Venadan doesn't want this particular miracle to be sexual, just so that's clear. There's no dignified way for this to end.
The statue raises a beseeching hand and makes a very explicit gesture.
"No," says Venadan. "I'll admit that you're shaped like a human, but you're lacking in some important holes."
The statue makes another gesture.
"That just looks uncomfortable," says Venadan.
The statue manages to look annoyed, even without an expression or a word. A crow lands on Venadan's shoulder and glares at him, twisting its head back and forth so it can get him with both eyes.
"Sorry." Venadan takes a step back from the statue, and the crow flaps its wings to keep balance. "I'm going to get some sleep."
The statue looks reproachful, and Venadan rolls his eyes. "We can talk there if you want, but don't try to persuade me that all of this was a good idea."
When Arruén comes to Venadan that night, he tries to persuade Venadan that it was a good idea. It doesn't go very well. After ten minutes of useless argument, frustration is evident from every line of Arruén's being. It's especially evident because the blue-white frustration is literally, or probably figuratively, seeping from cracks that appear in his skin.
"Do you realize how difficult it is to possess a statue?" asks Arruén, for the third time.
"It's probably pretty difficult," admits Venadan, having run out of sarcastic responses. His shoulder burns, ragged with teeth-marks and the pinpricks of crow's claws.
"Crows are difficult too," says Arruén, picking up on Venadan's thought. "They're not native to this range, so I had to fly for three days before I reached you."
"That's impressive," says Venadan. And it answers his question of where the crows come from. "I'm not having sex with a bird either."
"Just masturbate in front of it," says Arruén. "It's not that complicated."
"I could do that here," says Venadan. "You gave up on the dreams too quickly."
Some of Arruén's frustration ebbs, the fires banking, and he just looks glum. "I don't think you should masturbate here, actually. I'm not sure what would come out."
The dream world is a ravine, this time, and Arruén and Venadan stand on opposite edges. At the bottom of the ravine lie massive, inhuman bones.
"Point taken," says Venadan.
"Dreams don't like literalism," says Arruén, thoughtfully, and then pulls himself back into the argument. "I'm trying to make this work in the real world, while you throw up unnecessary obstacles."
"I don't want to have sex with a statue," says Venadan. He's not really inclined to concede this point.
Arruén scowls. The flames of his frustration regain their brightness, one licking all the way out to singe Venadan's eyebrows. "Fine. Have it your own way. But do you know what I prophesy for you?"
"No," says Venadan. "Long life and prosperity?"
"Blue balls," says Arruén, and Venadan wakes up to Barooq nudging him gently with his boot.
"Has the company left?" asks Venadan, with a premonition that is more pessimistic than supernatural.
Barooq tosses Venadan his shirt. "I think we can catch up if we run."
The next four nights, everything is normal. It doesn't seem to matter if Venadan spreads his bedroll at the crossroads or at the main camp with Barooq—he sleeps restfully and his dreams mean nothing. The only animals who disturb him are grasshoppers and ants. No statues come to speak to him at night, and he doesn't see any birds at all.
Which actually is a little weird. Arruén ignores people very pointedly, when he's annoyed.
On the fifth night, Barooq asks if he can come with Venadan to the crossroads.
"It won't be very interesting," says Venadan. "I've lost the god's favor."
"What did you do?" asks Barooq. "Do you need to make a sacrifice? Cleanse yourself?"
"Apparently I need to be less of a prude," says Venadan.
Barooq laughs and, for once, doesn't ask any questions. "If it's going to be boring, let me come anyway. We'll make a fire and have something to drink, and you won't have to worry about your god at all."
"He's not my god," says Venadan, because it's true. Arruén's marked him, but Venadan's still dedicated to Adiena, still thinks of her when he prays. Arruén is a god, but not Venadan's god. He's something else.
Something lost, now. Venadan feels more distant with every wasted night at the crossroads.
"Hello?" Barooq waves a hand in front of Venadan's face. "Fire? Yes?"
"Sure," says Venadan. "It sounds nice."
It actually is very nice of Barooq to offer, and Venadan does his best to show willing and not sulk. He tries to smile at Barooq a little more as they march, and buys a few mysterious bottles off the quartermaster when they stop for the night. It's the kind of rotgut that always accumulates in an army, brewed or raided or simply willed into being by the desire of the infantry to get drunk and the inability of the officers to stop them. One bottle is cloudy and the other is clear, and Venadan isn't sure which one's worse. It's probably a tie.
These crossroads are small, just a country track crossing the main road. They build their fire on the side and Venadan cracks open the cloudy bottle.
Barooq takes a pull and wipes his mouth before passing the bottle back. "What do travelers do when they see you at the crossroads? It isn't a natural place to rest."
"I haven't seen any travelers." Venadan drinks and then coughs at the taste. "The army's probably scaring them away." Or Arruén is keeping the coast clear.
"Must be nice, either way," says Barooq. "Bit of privacy."
Venadan shrugs and passes the bottle. They talk of other things, trading gossip, telling stories. Venadan thinks the rotgut is pretty weak but it's affecting Barooq well enough—his words start to slur as he tells an appallingly long story about the giant fish his sister caught years ago. He spreads his arms wide to demonstrate the fish's size and loses balance, leaning on Venadan for balance.
"Enormous fish," says Barooq. "Huge. You're sideways."
Venadan just laughs and hauls Barooq upright, keeping his arm around Barooq's shoulders to steady him. Barooq blinks at him and for a moment there's potential humming in the air, like Barooq is making his mind up to do something.
The moment passes. Nothing happens, except that a stray wind blows leaves around the circle of the crossroads, and it makes Barooq jump.
As the evening wears on and they move on to the clear bottle, Barooq starts to sing. First the army standbys, the ones a soldier will hum in his sleep, and Venadan keeps the beat and sings along with the chorus. Then come even older songs, ones for the goddess of the crossroads. Venadan doesn't know the words to most of them, but he listens closely as Barooq's deep voice fills the night.
Barooq gets up to piss, and Venadan tends the fire and tries not to finish the bottle alone. Barooq's gone for a long time, long enough for the fire to eat most of the brush they gathered. Venadan starts to worry, but the Barooq's back with an armful of sticks and complaints about the birds that kept staring at him while he tried to relieve himself in peace. Vendan smiles, relieved himself, and sings his friend a new song.
It's a ballad Venadan's been working on for Arruén. It's a little dirty, like most soldier's songs. You have to have something to keep you amused during a long march.
Barooq's skin flushes darker and darker as the song goes on, and when Venadan reaches the verse about Arruén's mouth and the pleasures of shutting him up, Barooq puts a hand on Venadan's thigh. Venadan looks down at it, his voice faltering, and Barooq places a kiss on Venadan's own mouth.
Venadan doesn't do anything for a moment, and then the insistent press of Barooq's lips is so familiar that he can't help but return it. He has been lonely for the feeling of skin on his skin and this fills some aching part in his chest. But eventually he gathers his strength and pushes Barooq away.
"I can't," says Venadan.
"But you want to." Barooq doesn't lean forward again, but he doesn't lean back, either. He stays tantalizingly close, and the moonlight gleams off his dark eyes.
"I can't." Venadan isn't promised to Arruén. He doesn't think that Arruén expects him to be a faithful devotee when he's already dedicated to another god.
But Venadan can't do this to Barooq, can't take what Barooq's offering while only thinking of Arruén. And he knows that he can't stop thinking of Arruén, not when they're sitting at the crossroads.
"Aw," says Barooq. "Isn't that sweet?"
Venadan looks at Barooq, confused. He doesn't sound like himself. And then Barooq's eyes flicker green, losing their foreign brown color. They should have always been green.
"I thought I could make it on liquid courage," says Barooq with the green eyes. He smiles. "Turns out that much liquid just makes me drunk."
"So he called to the god of the crossroads," says Barooq with the brown eyes. His smile is different too. "And the god made him a deal. On very favorable terms, too."
"Arruén," says Venadan, feeling sick, "you need to get out of him."
"I'm not in him," says Arruén. "This isn't a possession."
"It seems like a possession," says Venadan, which just starts Arruén off on semantics. Venadan cuts him off. "You can't use my friends like puppets."
"Does it help that he already wanted to fuck you?" asks Arruén.
Venadan shivers, and the instinctive feeling of revulsion doesn't recede. "Not really."
"For at least a month." Arruén makes a very characteristic expression of impatience that sits oddly on Barooq's face. "He needed a push, he said so himself. This is just a little, hardly noticeable push."
"It's pretty noticeable," says Venadan. "We're not doing this."
"It's a harmless deal," says Arruén, as if he just repeats himself in enough ways that will win the argument. "It's not like I'm using him to stab people, except maybe in a very euphemistic way—"
"Just stop." Venadan's teeth grind as he cut off all the retorts that he doesn't want to say and Arruén can probably hear anyway. "He got a kiss. Let that end the deal."
Arruén groans. "You don't want to have sex with crows, you don't want to have sex with statues, I found you a human being and now it's not going to work because you're friends with it!"
"With him," says Venadan. "I'm friends with Barooq. He has a name."
"Right." Arruén takes a steadying breath. "Fine."
It's jarring to Venadan to realize that Arruén doesn't understand why this is a problem for him. Arruén's not being disingenuous or malicious. He just honestly doesn't realize why Venadan won't take advantage of such a good opportunity.
Venadan isn't sure if this is the influence of divinity or just Arruén's native arrogance. He can't pretend to be surprised—the arrogance was part of the attraction. It still is. Venadan likes a man who knows how to take what he wants, usually. Not when it's something like this.
"I want to be with you," says Venadan, because he thinks this is the explanation Arruén will understand. "Not with a vessel. That's not good for any of us, and I know Barooq wouldn't want it."
Arruén looks triumphant. "But he agreed, weren't you listening? He stood in the crossroads while you sat here by the fire and he made the deal. That the god of the crossroads could ride along if he would help Barooq fulfill his desires. Just one night, just one desire. Will you stand in the way?"
It doesn't even shake Venadan, not the fact of Barooq's agreement or the prospect of finally getting somewhere with Arruén. He still has very complicated feelings about making deals with gods. He still doesn't like the way Arruén's eyes sit in Barooq's face. He still doesn't want to have a pseudo-threesome with Barooq while thinking only of Arruén.
"I have to agree too," he says. "And I won't."
Arruén's face falls, but he looks resigned, not angry. "I didn't realize you were such a perfectionist. Sometimes you have to make compromises."
"Sometimes the compromise isn't worth it," says Venadan, and looks away.
Venadan's still gazing out at the night when Arruén leaves, but he feels the shift in the rhythm of Barooq's breath and looks back to meet Barooq's green eyes. Barooq flushes even darker than before and he snatches his hand back from Venadan's thigh. He sits upright on his own, looking as sober as he has all day.
"Sorry," says Barooq. "I—"
"It's all right," says Venadan. "I'm sorry I can't do this for you."
They're silent for a few minutes, and then Barooq starts up another song. They sing, and they drink, and the awkwardness eases as they fall asleep in their separate bedrolls. Venadan thinks that they're still friends.
For seven nights Venadan sleeps alone and undisturbed. At first he's fine with it, annoyed and needing the space. But he gets more anxious the closer they get to Gashent. Soon there will be no more crossroads, and Venadan's not sure if Arruén can reach him otherwise. He doesn't think sleeping on a street corner will achieve the same effect. Maybe Arruén could use the crows as messengers, if he hasn't given up on Venadan by then.
The last night on the road, Venadan takes his bedroll to the crossroads alone, turning down Barooq's offer to join him. It's not that he doesn't want Barooq's companionship or that he doesn't trust Arruén to stay out of Barooq's head. It's just that if this is the last night and Arruén doesn't reach out, Venadan would rather bear the disappointment alone.
"Saint Venadan in the wilderness," he mutters, and spreads out his bedroll. He lies down and closes his eyes.
When he opens them, seconds or minutes or hours later, he knows something's changed. The cobblestones of the crossroads are gleaming, starlight bouncing off of them and making them shine. The white stones set off the dark night, which is somehow deeper than before. Not the kind of dark that comes before dawn, but the kind of dark that you lose yourself in, solid and uncompromisingly black. The shrine to the god of the crossroads is larger, impeccably decorated where its paint was faded and chipping away. And lying next to Venadan, pinning down his arm, is familiar cold flesh.
"Trying the dreams again?" asks Venadan. He thinks his arm is falling asleep and he doesn't care. Arruén's naked.
"This isn't a dream." Arruén turns so that his mouth presses against Venadan's neck. "You're in the realm of the gods, body and soul. Most of your body, anyway."
Venadan instinctively looks for which body parts are missing, but either it's something internal or Arruén didn't mean it literally, because it all seems to be there. "I didn't know you could do that."
"Neither did I," says Arruén. "It's impressive what you can accomplish when you give up on half-measures. May I?"
"Whatever you like," says Venadan. His body is reacting in the usual way to Arruén's presence. His wrist is burning, his shoulder aches, and the rest of him is twitching as Venadan fights the urge to just tear off his own trousers.
"That makes a nice change." Arruén pushes a hand under the waistband of Venadan's trousers and palms at Venadan's cock. His hand is trapped tight against Venadan's skin by his belt, and the rough slide of skin against skin is unmistakable.
It's like becoming whole again. Venadan feels embarrassed just thinking that, but it's been a while. A little romanticism is excusable.
Arruén's kind enough not to mock Venadan's melodrama, for once. He just hums as Venadan grunts and arches into his touch, and says "I'm pretty sure I can put you back without any problems, by the way."
"Pretty sure?" Venadan asks, but Arruén ignores him in favor of unbuckling Venadan's belt and shoving his trousers down. Venadan's cock bobs free and Venadan abruptly becomes much less interested in questioning all of this.
Arruén swings himself up to straddle Venadan and then pushes himself back, holding Venadan's cock steady until Venadan penetrates Arruén in a smooth glide. It shouldn't be this easy and it wasn't, last time. Either the realm of the gods has some unexpected benefits, or Arruén's been preparing.
"It's amazing what I can do if I set my mind to it," says Arruén, sounding breathless.
Venadan, struggling to keep his own breathing under control, has to agree. He pulls Arruén down by his shoulders and fits their mouths together, clutching Arruén a little closer when he makes a pleased noise and parts his lips.
It's intoxicating, and Venadan can't get enough of it, of Arruén. His hands slip from Arruén's shoulders to his back, skim down his sides, spread Arruén's cheeks. His fingers brush past the open place where he enters Arruén, and Arruén's hips hitch in their rhythm. Venadan does it again and again, until Arruén breaks the kiss, panting above him.
"You're distracting me," says Arruén, sounding strained.
"Good," says Venadan, but withdraws his wandering hands to Arruén's hips. He gives Arruén a few seconds to find his rhythm again, lulling him into a false sense of security.
"Why's it false?" Arruén tries to squint at Venadan, but his eyes keep slipping closed as he pushes Venadan a little deeper into himself. "What are you planning?"
"Nothing," says Venadan, and then cups Arruén's ass with one hand and the back of his head with the other and with great effort manages to roll them over.
It probably would have been a mistake in the mortal world—someone would have banged their elbow or their head or their privates, necessitating a break to nurse wounds and complain. But the realm of the gods seems softer, just now, or Venadan is stronger, or Arruén is lighter. Whichever it is, there's only a moment of surprise and hesitation before Arruén is wrapping his legs around Venadan's waist and his fingers in Venadan's hair, urging him on.
"Nice trick," says Arruén, laughing in gasps and moans.
Venadan can't gather enough energy to respond. Every bit of him seems focused on getting closer and closer, the drive of his hips and the press of his forehead against Arruén's shoulder. He's just barely aware that he's murmuring Arruén's name, more aware that Arruén's eyes are squeezing tightly shut and his fingers are scrabbling at Venadan's scalp. Venadan takes hold of Arruén's cock to help him along, and Arruén squeaks, bucking into the touch. It only takes a few moments before he's gasping and coming in Venadan's hand. Venadan manages two or three more strokes before Arruén opens his dark eyes and that's it, Venadan's gone. His orgasm feels like it's being pulled out of him, unexpected and almost overwhelming. Arruén holds him tightly through it, and kisses him when he's done.
They lie together on the bedroll afterward, and Arruén sighs as Venadan slips out of him.
"Was that worth all the effort?" asks Venadan, when he's recovered enough to speak.
"Of course," says Arruén, as if there was never any question. "To be honest, it would have been much less satisfying if you had been happy with the crow."
Venadan chuckles. "I did think about it. But it wouldn't have been dignified."
"You care too much about dignity," says Arruén. "Although I admit that might be one of the reasons I like you."
After a few more minutes Arruén finally shoves Venadan off his chest. Venadan sprawls on the ground next to the bedroll, and Arruén props himself up on his elbow to lean over him. "You're right, however," says Arruén. "This was a lot of work."
"Mhm?" Venadan catches a strand of Arruén's hair and twists it around his finger, loving the way it feels against his skin.
"Yes," says Arruén. "I think you should make this worth my while."
Venadan's hand slips down Arruén's back again. "How much will that take?"
"I don't know," says Arruén. "Want to find out?"
Venadan wakes up at the crossroads, and the sun is high in the sky. He sits up and coins clink off of his body. He stares at them, uncomprehending, and realizes that he's starving.
"Suppose I needed the rest," he says to himself or anyone else who might be listening. No one comments.
Venadan strings up the cash and packs his belongings almost absently. The army has definitely left by now. With only a day's march to the city, he's not that worried about catching up, but it's not the only thing to worry about. He'll have to make his apologies to Captain Heskri, maybe even General Devuera. He hopes that they're willing to overlook his absence. They've become willing to overlook a lot of unusual things, lately.
He eats hardtack as he walks and thinks longingly of fresh-cooked meals in Gashent. He reaches the town at dusk, and the sentries are already up on the walls. Venadan hails them, unable to think far past his gurgling stomach. It's after the normal dinner ration, but maybe he can find something to eat before he reports to the captain.
"I'm with the mercenaries," he calls. "I got separated."
One of the sentries leans over the wall and pushes up his helmet. "Venadan?"
"Barooq!" Venadan waves. "I slept too long at the crossroads."
"I know," says Barooq. "You've been missing for three weeks."
Venadan winces. It wasn't that he'd really expected this to be without consequences, but he'd been hoping it wouldn't be something so obvious and inconvenient as lost time. "How mad is the captain?"
"More worried than mad," says Barooq. "I found your bedroll, when I went to look, but there was a statue sleeping in it. I thought you were gone for good."
"Not for good," says Venadan. "Just for a little while." It hadn't felt like three weeks. They could have done a lot more in three entire weeks. Venadan's starting to feel cheated.
Barooq waves one of the other sentries to unlock the gate, and then peers at Venadan again. "Was it worth it?"
"Of course," says Venadan, almost automatically. Then he thinks about it, and he feels the same. Even taking into account all the missteps along the way, this is easily the best and most straightforward interaction he's ever had with a god or with Arruén. No knives or crows or blood. Except—"Is there any dinner left for me?"
Barooq laughs as the city gate opens. "Come on in, my friend. I saved something for you."
Venadan walks into Gashent at last, a smile on his face and a lightness in his step. The sentry starts to close the gate after him, but Barooq holds up a hand.
"Hello, little one," he calls to the crow, the one that was following in Venadan's shadow. "Do you want to come in as well?"
The crow twitches his head left and right, uncertain.
"We can't leave it open forever," says Barooq. "Make up your mind."
The crow squawks and hops through the gate, wings spreading and flapping once it's inside. Barooq doesn't have to look to know that it lands on Venadan's shoulder shortly after. Venadan's yelp is enough to tell the story.
"All right," Barooq tells the sentry. "Close it up, we're all here."