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Three Worn Words

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It is Hakim who narrows his dark eyes and hauls Yusuf away from his frescoes.

 

The colourful tiles scatter across the stone floor and Yusuf yelps, indignant, to see his design ruined. “Hey! It took me all day to compose that!”

 

His older brother just scoffs, tugging meanly at one of his flight feathers. “You spend way too much time with your head to the walls and not in the clouds!”

 

Yusuf’s feathers, long and golden, ruffle at the implication. “I do not! Besides, those clouds are a regular source of inspiration! And these walls? Put food on Mama and Baba’s table!” He tries to scurry away, talons clacking and sliding, but his brother is much stronger than him. Hakim knows it. He growls, shoving and tugging them along the long corridor, past several other Rocs moseying about their days. They all stare with wide, confused eyes. No one dares stop Hakim al-Kaysani though. Not their tribe’s best hunter.

 

“You know what puts food on tables? Actually putting food on tables!”

 

Yusuf rolls his eyes and squirms. “That makes no sense--”

 

Hakim resolutely ignores him. “When I was your age, I’d already run down a centaur and nabbed two Gorgons!”

 

“Congratulations,” Yusuf says sardonically. It’s the same story over and over again: one centaur, two Gorgons, a siren, and a whole herd of satyrs. Hakim even boasts wrestling a giant and stealing its eye.

 

“It’s a rite of passage, Yusuf--one which you let slip away while you dithered about like a lame hen!”

 

“What, killing?” No thanks, Yusuf thinks. Hakim has plenty of that skill to go around. No use butting his proverbial beak into other people’s game. Leave Yusuf to his art; the little rickety stool and his buckets of tile chips. Side-by-side with sketches of potential scenes he’ll recreate with all the colours of the rainbow. The western tower is nearly complete, a detailed panorama sweeping down the mountains to the coast. Another month and the Chieftain might clap Yusuf on the back and name him a Maester.

 

“No, dummy,” Hakim says. “Gorgon hunting!”

 

Yusuf shivers. “I have zero interest in turning to stone, dear brother.”

 

They reach the arches where the mountain’s interior opens into a courtyard. Several other Roc have taken to the skies this pleasantly sunny afternoon. Squinting, Yusuf adjusts to the sudden light. His wings haven’t felt the sun’s warm rays nor the cool mountainous wind all day. Perhaps Hakim has a point and Yusuf has been inside for too long. Despite the manhandling, it feels wonderful getting out into the fresh air.

 

“It’s simple if you do it right,” with that, Hakim tosses Yusuf straight off the edge and into the air. He spirals for a second before righting himself, wings shimmering and molten against the sun. His older brother stands there with his arms crossed and talon tapping impatiently.

 

“Pray tell, how do you expect me to kill a Gorgon?”

 

“Grab ‘em by the neck, keep their eyes away, then drop them in a dead fall against the rocks.”

 

Yusuf pales. Hakim makes it sound so clinical, taking another life. Sure, Gorgons are their enemies, but this isn’t battle or survival. This is sport. But Hakim has a dangerous look in his dark eyes, one Yusuf doesn’t dare challenge. Mind whirling, Yusuf flaps his wings away from the mountains he calls home.

 

“And don’t come back without a damn snake head!”

 

***

 

Yusuf spends a good while sulking in the clouds. By the Horizon, Yusuf isn’t a hunter! One glance at his long, slender fingers and anyone would correctly guess Yusuf’s passions lie elsewhere. His tunic is dirty with plaster, not blood or guts.

 

Eventually the mist becomes too cold to withstand and so he descends over the Great Plains. Here, centaurs rule the grassy knolls, migrating with the shifting seasons and wandering prey. Decent enough folk, with a penchant for bows and arrows. Though, Hakim insists their brains are smaller than the Nagas of the Mires (“They stink of bog and sewage,” Hakim would say. But what does he know? Rocs can’t smell a flower, much less river crust).

 

Yusuf shakes his head, black curls flowing in the wind. He should have braided them back. Untangling and oiling them all will take hours tonight. If he isn’t exhausted from this insane endeavor…

 

A Gorgon? They’re coastal peoples, living beneath white domes and casting woven nets into the sea all day. A twist of his expansive wings and Yusuf faces south, towards the Green Sea. For centuries, their kind were embroiled into a daring feud. Between the Gorgons slithering up the mountains to steal Roc eggs, and the Roc hunting them for bloody fun, relations are, to put it mildly, strained.

 

The Great Plains plateau out, dipping lower to meet the sea. Beautiful green-blue waves, clear as crystal and glittering, lap against pale sands. Honestly, Yusuf would prefer to perch and bask in all it’s infinite splendor. There was no time to grab his sketchpad, however. All he has on him is his utility knife belted at his waist. Which he’s apparently supposed to use to behead someone. Yusuf shudders and glances behind him, just in case Hakim decided to follow and spy on him.

 

All clear.

 

Maybe he can simply pretend to hunt? Yusuf knows from all the maps in the library back home that the Gorgon towns are to the right along the cliffs. He can make out the white caps of their tallest buildings intermixed with all the dark green cypresses. They have sturdy docks built over the water. A decently sized port they use to trade and fish from. It must be bustling on such a fine day.

 

The coastline stretching beyond the outskirts grows steadily more wild and rugged. In a split decision, Yusuf veers left and follows the path less taken. With any luck, he’ll find it abandoned and returning home empty handed will feel less like a lie. He spends a while cruising the warm drafts, brushing his palms against the tops of verdant trees. The salty air burns his lungs, but in a pleasant way that brings a youthful grin to Yusuf’s face.

 

It’s during his third arching loop when Yusuf swirls…and spots him.

 

A Gorgon.

 

All by his lonesome, it would appear. Heart freezing, Yusuf swoops and hides away in some branches overlooking the secluded lagoon.

 

It’s peaceful and picturesque here, what with a natural cliff arch blocking them from the path into town. The semi-circle of sandy dunes has slowed the ocean’s current into a gentle loll. This close to shore and the water is cast in a gorgeous turquoise hue. Yusuf is struck by the sheer beauty before him. No wonder the Gorgon has chosen this place to fish!

 

Speaking of his “prey” (Yusuf grimaces at the thought)…

 

He rests on a weathered boulder with his back to Yusuf. All sun-kissed and dotted with moles, his broad shoulders bob and sway as he weaves his net. The shallows sparkle all around his coiled tail, lighting his scales up like dazzling emeralds. Yusuf knows he owns a few fresco tiles in that exact same shade of green back home. They’re some of his favourites he has yet to use, mostly because he lacks the confidence to rightly place them. Perhaps he’s finally found his inspiration?

 

The Gorgon’s head is dark and flowing. It’s not hair in a breeze, but a wave of living snakes. They curl and uncurl over his shoulders, against each other and the Gorgon’s face. Sometimes the Gorgon reaches a hand up to stroke them until they settle once more. Strange, Yusuf thinks, intrigued, how they act with unusual independence.

 

This is it. This is the target. Hakim wants a trophy or he’ll wallop his younger brother. Yusuf watches the Gorgon while he works, trying his best to summon up the courage to go through with it. To hunt someone down.

 

At least his back is turned. No chance of petrification. How lucky are the chances, Yusuf thinks miserably.

 

Praying under his breath, Yusuf halfheartedly stretches his wings and flexes his talons loose. Ascending is easy, but the sinking, foreboding pit in his stomach yawns larger with every flap.

 

Now or never!

 

High enough into the air, Yusuf flips in an arch then free-falls into a dangerous nosedive. Wings nestled close to his body, Yusuf aims himself down. The target grows from a speck on the sandy beach, to a person whose day is about to get exponentially worse.

 

As Yusuf’s shadow descends, the Gorgon’s head of snakes rear up and hiss hysterically. The Gorgon immediately startles, tossing his net onto the rocks and leaping for the waves. If he escapes into deeper water, Yusuf will be forced to pull up and save his wings from getting drenched.

 

Someone is too slow.

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t Yusuf.

 

With a great whoosh, Yusuf’s bronze talons latch onto the Gorgon’s middle. They immediately grapple in a thrashing flail of tail and talons, one working to ensnare the other.

 

"Help!!" The Gorgon shouts above the water, though Yusuf knows they’re too far from anyone else. There is only one other defense, and the Gorgon twists to blink at him. With a sickening feeling, Yusuf clutches the back of his warm neck, just like Hakim said, and keeps the Gorgon’s head locked forward. The little snakes bite at Yusuf’s wrist, their unblinking yellow eyes wide with terror. It makes Yusuf’s stomach churn.

 

Now, he must get them properly airborne. Easier said than done without the added weight.

 

"I-I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Yusuf cries, worriedly. A thick tail wraps around Yusuf’s hips and one of his talons. It throws his flight off kilter, making them skim the ocean’s surface. Yusuf whisks the two of them away from the Gorgon’s fishing spot, wings exerting themselves to catch a draft to lift them higher. Spirits, this is laborious! A litany of apologies fall past his lips.

 

“For a bird-man you're awfully terrible at hunting me!!"

 

Yusuf chokes, one arm squeezing around the other’s soft, vulnerable tummy. "I know!!” He can do this! He can do this!

 

He can’t do this.

 

They plummet to a small islet not too far away, crumpling in a heap of limbs, wings, and tails. They both groan. Yusuf spits out a mouthful of sand, squirming beneath a heavy body. He sits up only to get a harsh walloping.

 

"Unhand me, you oaf!"

 

"S-sorry!!" Yusuf flinches, just barely remembering to keep his eyes shut. Hands shove him and he quickly releases his talons. "Listen, this was a mistake--"

 

"A mistake?! You were going to take me to your nest and devour me!!" The Gorgon’s voice is accented and…quite melodic. A stray thought flies through Yusuf’s head--does the Gorgon sing as well as he lambasts?

 

Yusuf flinches and stammers. "Not my idea, honestly! And we don't have nests, we're not animals."

 

"Could have fooled me!"

 

Yusuf sighs, folding his wings around himself like a shield. The body on top of him shoves him one last time then slithers off. "You're right, that was rude of me. It's just...kind of a rite of passage for us Rocs.” Yusuf quickly adds, “A barbaric one!"

 

He hears a scoff. At least he's no longer smacking Yusuf. "’Rite of Passage’? My people just fornicate, not kidnap and eat people! You'd have had better luck trying that first!"

 

Yusuf sputters, talons scuttling in the sand. Fornicate?? Did this snake honestly just suggest having sex?? Not only are they strangers… they’re strange species! Is that even possible? Suddenly Yusuf’s mind is awash in unsavoury images; of the Gorgon’s emerald tail intertwined with his talons, so heavy and tight. He squeaks, feathers shaking with embarrassment.

 

There is a giggle-snort, this time awfully close to his right elbow. The Gorgon is laughing at him.

 

Yusuf stiffens. Suppose he deserves it, though. He listens closely for the sound again. Just scales against sand. Quiet hissing. The soft rush of waves and the call of the gulls. It all sounds so nice, despite how they ended up here. Now that they’re not struggling against the other, both men fall into an easy silence.

 

"I guess I should, er, take you back to the coast.”

 

“You mean, you’re not going to eat me?”

 

Yusuf runs a hand through his messy curls. “For the last time, we don’t eat Gorgons!”

 

“If not eat, then what exactly--”

 

“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Yusuf replies miserably.

 

Silence, followed by, “…Oh.”

 

“Can I please make amends?” For a moment Yusuf worries about retaliation. He feels awfully guilty for this whole kerfuffle, but he’d rather not turn to stone any time soon. Luckily, the Gorgon believes his intentions are honest this time.

 

"That seems fair,” he replies. “I'd rather not swim in the open ocean."

 

There’s a voice in the back of his head, one that sounds a lot like his mother, chastising him for his subpar manners. "My name is Yusuf," he blurts. “By the way. Er, if you want to know. Well, not like I can take it back anyways--”

 

Breath blows suddenly and softly against his cheek. "I'm Nicolò," the Gorgon answers kindly. Something tickles Yusuf's brow. He shivers and ducks his head.

 

Yusuf gulps, palms sweaty. "Nicolò? That's a pretty name," he says for lack of better words. The consonants and vowels roll off Yusuf's tongue like poetry.

 

"You know, Yusuf, you're quite handsome when you blush. It makes these little freckles on your face stand out."

 

"I-I, thank you?" Wow, smooth. "You, er, don't sound half bad yourself!"

 

What is he thinking?! If Hakim knew his brother was currently fraternizing with the enemy of the people, he’d squawk up a righteous storm. Probably throw all of Yusuf’s art supplies off the mountain. The thought strikes a chord of melancholy deep within.

 

Nicolò slithers closer and, without warning, plops himself into Yusuf's lap. Hands clasp bare flesh. A waist, to be precise. Soft and supple, but with a hint of muscle beneath the skin. The Gorgon is warm from hours spent fishing in the sun. Yusuf’s heart begins hammering wildly. Both of Nicolò’s arms slip around Yusuf's shoulders while he drags his thick tail over Yusuf’s lap. Several somethings, cool to the touch, whisper across his face.

 

“Off we go, then?” He waits expectantly. Oh. To carry him in his arms, not talons!

 

“That is, if you promise not to turn me to stone on the way back."

 

Nicolò does that adorable giggle-snort again. "I will keep my eyes closed, promise." This could be a trap. Not that Yusuf has a lot of options at the moment. Nicolò's arms tighten around Yusuf's neck, his thumb casually rubbing against his pulse point. Inhaling, Yusuf decides to open his eyes.

 

Exhale.

 

He blinks. Wow. That's a whole lot of little eyes staring right back at him. Snakes, not hair. Snair? So that's what was tickling him. Framing Nicolò’s face, they flick their tiny tongues at Yusuf and stare at him suspiciously. As if they remember the bungled attack and suspect more of the same duplicity.

 

The rest of Nicolò. Well, he's as pretty as his name, Yusuf thinks while blushing.

 

He's kept his word--Nicolò’s eyes are closed. They are deeply set, with long lashes fanning over the lightly purpled skin. The next features to stand out are his delightful mole and exceptionally large nose. Other Rocs would die for a proud beak such as Nicolò’s. Beyond that, his cheekbones are sharp and his jaw chiseled. Yusuf is delighted to discover how much he yearns to sketch such a handsome face.

 

This close, and he can see Nicolò's tail is dappled in subtle yellows, like sunlight through tree leaves. His torso is toned and dotted with more moles, but that’s not as eyebrow-raising as the pair of silver studs piercing his nipples. Or the teardrop-shaped bar through his belly button.

 

Yusuf grows hot and tries his best not to stare. Instantly, the myriad of snakes titter and shoot out. Before he can even flinch, Yusuf’s face is surrounded by inquisitive pokes and prods. They all swarm him, brushing against his eyebrows and flicking tongues against his curls. They find particular interest in his beard, burrowing quickly into the dark thicket.

 

"H-hey! Tell them to stop!"

 

"Are they bothering you?" Nicolò has such lovely curved lips. Are they soft or firm?

 

Yusuf clears his throat. "No, er, they’re tickling me."

 

"Is that all they're doing?"

 

"Excuse me?"

 

Nicolò slowly smirks. "You smell flustered."

 

Yusuf jolts to his feet, heaving Nicolò with him. “Right! Back to the mainland!” If Nicolò notices how frazzled he is, the Gorgon kindly keeps it to himself. Instead, that muscled tail of his wraps securely around Yusuf’s waist. Shaking grit out of his feathers, Yusuf bends his knees and leaps. Sand swirls around them. His mighty gold wings lift them both into the skies. A gasp escapes Nicolò as land gives way to rushing winds. He clings to Yusuf’s tunic, sheltering his face and his little snakes into Yusuf’s neck.

 

This flight is easier, now that Nicolò keeps steady. No more frantic bleating and slapping. They soar high in the clear blue heavens--Yusuf's true home. He turns into the breeze, reveling in it all. Unbidden, Yusuf wishes Nicolò could enjoy it too, this wondrous flight far above the breathtaking waves.

 

A curious hand skims over Yusuf's rolling shoulders. The Gorgon gently touches his muscles, palming the way they bunch with every beat of his giant wings.

 

"Beautiful," Nicolò whispers, his words nearly lost in the wind. Yusuf squeeze him tighter. Just checking if he’s secure or not!

 

All too soon, they land. Close enough to Nicolò's fishing spot where Yusuf spies the net still cast over the rocks. The waves lap at a woven basket holding a fish or two. Next to that is a linen haversack.

 

“There,” Yusuf murmurs, setting Nicolò down. “I’ve returned you safe and sound.”

 

“And uneaten,” Nicolò says cheekily. This time, Yusuf actually laughs. They stand there, holding onto each other’s arms, listening to the sea and the gulls.

 

I ought to get going, Yusuf thinks. Apologize again and dust his talons clean of this encounter. Spread his wings and fly away, back to the mountains once more.

 

He doesn't move.

 

"Earlier,” Yusuf begins curiously. “When you said you could smell my feelings. How could you tell?"

 

A long, forked tongue escapes Nicolò’s lips, flickering out and barely caressing Yusuf's cheek. It should disgust him. Yet…Yusuf really wants to know what it'll feel like against his own tongue. Scandalous!

 

"There’s that scent again," Nicolò whispers.

 

When did their faces get so close? Yusuf gulps, his throat clicking. Another inch and they could--Nicolò's the one blushing now, a handsome shade of coral that softens his features. He makes no move to slither away. Almost bashful, his snakes duck behind his own neck. Some peek around to flick their tongues, only to shy away again when Yusuf smiles at them.

 

A particularly vocal gull sounds above their heads. Nicolò freezes. "Oh!" The moment shatters and they spring apart. As two different people like them must do.

 

“Well,” Nicolò stammers, rubbing his neck. "I suppose as far as being hunted goes, that was alright.”

 

Yusuf grins. "I'll remember that next time." He does a double-take. Next time? Already, his mouth runs a mile a minute, trying to excuse his presumptions.

 

“What I mean to say--that is--I could just sketch or paint or--but of course, I’d understand if you didn’t want--”

 

“It’s a nice lagoon, Yusuf,” Nicolò quips. “It’d be a shame to never share it with anyone else.”

 

He purposefully turns away, protecting Yusuf from his face once more, and slithers over to his belongings. His net is shaken out and inspected. Like ink, his tail glides through the water until Nicolò is perched on his rock. His little snakes watch Yusuf all the while, oddly inquisitive and fond. Nodding, Yusuf licks his lips. “I guess I’ll…have to scout these coasts more often then.”

 

Humming, Nicolò agrees. “Still have to experience that Rite of Passage, yes?” The way he purrs such a simple statement makes Yusuf’s talons curl.

 

“U-until next time,” Yusuf bows. Then feels ridiculous for bowing. So he nods, but Nicolò can’t even see it. His snakes can. Yusuf swears they’re giggling at him too. Scrubbing his face, Yusuf kicks himself up into the air. Gone before he can embarrass himself further.

 

The lagoon shrinks; a bright jewel dwindling on the horizon. When he glances back at shore, Nicolò is just a green pinprick on the rocky shore. The treeline and craggy rocks are fast approaching, yet Yusuf lingers despite himself.

 

Is Nicolò staring hopefully up at him, perhaps? Yusuf swirls and rolls in glee, warmth tingling throughout his body.

 

Only to plummet as he remembers--He smacks his forehead.

 

Shit! Hakim!