Storms and Stars
Villam spent every night in stuttering moments of sleep, waking every time Luke so much as breathed too deeply. To his bemusement, the would-be kidnapper didn’t seem to have any difficulty falling asleep.
But not deeply. Whenever Villam gave up on sleep in the creeping grey light of morning, Luke would immediately open his eyes and sit up. His unreadable eyes followed Villam’s every move.
“I’m an officer of the Imperial Fleet,” Villam said one morning, irritated. “I keep my word.” One of Luke’s well-shaped eyebrows trekked upward. It was soon pulled back down again, but Villam grimaced at what it had communicated. “Did you have something to say?” When he got no reply, Villam glared right into the other man’s eyes. “Do you speak Empirish, or are you just particularly bloody-minded?”
After a pause longer than Villam thought himself currently capable of tolerating, Luke spoke.
“Both,” he said. Laughing out loud, Villam startled a tiny songbird into flight. “South,” Luke went on.
“I think we should go south.” His fingers, an odd mix of deft grace and sturdy joints, pointed to the hill. “There are too many dangerous holes up there. Following the ridge,” his ring and pinky fingers traced the rocky part of the hill that jutted out near the top, “we can see the layout of the land. That green stuff past the lake looks wet. Following the ridge is better.”
Villam examined the ridge, then turned to gaze down at the lake. He nodded.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s do it your way. Well thought.”
What would have gotten him a salute or a straightened spine from a soldier got him nothing from Luke. Villam sighed to himself, prodding at his bristly chin. He despised the feeling of whiskers, and this was turning into a beard; he hadn’t yet succumbed to the mad urge to try shaving with his sword. He glanced at the knife Luke was using to trim fern heads.
“Lend me your knife, would you?” he asked. Luke didn’t look up from his task.
“I’m hardly going to attack you with it,” Villam snapped. “I just want to shave.”
“Fine.” Villam sat down, his back to a tree, and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ll just have to shave me, then.” He’d meant to irritate Luke into giving up the knife, but all he got in reaction was a shrug. For a moment he hesitated; then, not willing to back down, Villam lifted his chin. “Well?”
Without a change of expression, Luke set aside the ferns. He rinsed his hands and the blade from a canteen. Then he walked over to Villam and looked down at him, holding the knife in one hand, the canteen in the other. Villam’s heart skipped a beat; he didn’t allow himself to look away. Something in his stomach sank with Luke as he went to his knees.
Luke poured a small amount of water into his palm, then patted it onto Villam’s face. He looked Villam in the eye as he raised the knife; Villam swallowed reflexively, his body tensing. As always, he felt as though Luke was taking his measure, but he didn’t know against what standard. When that attention moved to Villam’s cheek, it was only bringing his willpower to bear that stopped him from jumping at the first touch of the blade against his alert skin.
It was a sharp knife, gliding against his jaw; Luke’s calloused fingers were gentle as they pulled his skin tight. Villam gazed at the tendons in Luke’s throat, the subtle swell of his jaw, and the potent shape of his Adam’s apple. He licked his lips.
“Stay still,” Luke murmured. He was intent on his work now, making his way to Villam’s chin. A lock of his hair brushed the bridge of Villam’s nose. It was so quiet now, the birds on the water settled down to rest; he could hear his own breathing, louder than Luke’s, quicker than it should be. Luke’s lips were resting thoughtfully closed; their shape was gentle, just slightly lush, and shaded a paler relative of burgundy.
The only hint that Luke thought anything of what he was doing was a single sharp look as he put the edge of the knife to Villam’s throat. Feeling his face harden, Villam met that challenging gaze; his fingers curled into the dirt. In that moment, he remembered in a visceral way that they were enemies, and that he was foolish to trust. Luke’s palm slid down his neck, a warm contrast to the goosebump-raising chill of adrenaline. Then Luke bent his head to focus on his delicate work.
Villam’s confused senses found the ticklish sensation almost unbearable; he closed his eyes and realized that he was holding his breath. He could feel Luke’s body close to his own, but only making contact through that one steadying hand, and his jaw clenched. As strange sparks bolted down his spine and his skin tightened, Villam had an urge to take hold of him with both hands and grip hard. His fingertips wanted to know what Luke’s chin might feel like; his legs wanted to press into Luke’s, to feel and to trap.
This is ridiculous. He’s just —
Then Luke’s touch was gone, taking the precisely uncomfortable knife with it; Villam opened his eyes, then gasped as chill water splashed against his bared face. Luke picked up his small canteen and stood up while Villam ran an exploratory hand over his face. His skin felt rubbed raw, but free of whiskers.
“Thank you,” he said as steadily as he could. His heart hadn’t quite understood that the process was complete.
“My knife is only for my use,” Luke said. “I’ll use it for you, but don’t touch it.”
“Fair enough,” Villam replied faintly. Then he gave himself a mental shake. “Enough lounging about. Let’s put your plan into action.” He smiled at Luke’s puzzled look. “Let’s pack up and head south.”
Skin and Hide
“You know my patron goddess is the goddess of passion.” Villam tried for an inviting smile as he touched Luke’s lower lip with his thumb. “With your help, I think I can make her a splendid offering this year.”
Luke’s face darkened. His voice came out low, strained.
“I take no part in imperial rites.”
“Don’t be like that.” Villam leaned closer, attempting to nuzzle his temple; Luke shoved him away.
“I live in the empire for you. Only for you. Don’t involve me in imperial celebrations.”
“Luke.” Villam kept a firm hold on his temper. Luke could rarely manage to say the word “imperial” without overloading it with contempt, and that stung. “Why is this such a problem?”
“How many times have I had to tell you? I worship Akuna, and only Akuna.”
“When have I ever asked you to do any differently?”
“Letting you touch me in the name of another goddess is offensive to Akuna.”
Villam’s control over his rising anger slipped. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away.
“Stop being so childish. You’re disrespectful, Luke. You always have been. You want respect for yourself, your culture, your faith, but you won’t grant it to anyone else. Why do you think you’re the only one entitled to it?”
“What are you–”
“Letting anyone touch you at all is offensive to Akuna, isn’t it? Don’t pick and choose–”
“Don’t tell me about my own goddess!” Luke’s voice shot up, startling Villam. Luke had apparently startled himself as well, as he fell silent again. For a moment neither spoke nor moved, giving Luke time to find a cooler tone, though not to unclench his jaw. “How long does the festival go on?”
“Five days, starting tomorrow.”
“Fine. Don’t touch me for five days.” With that, Luke slammed his way into the bedroom.
Max slowly released Theo’s wrist, letting his fingers trail over the back of his hand. He saw Theo’s gaze flicker his way and suppressed a grin.
Do I still make him nervous? Am I a jerk because I’m starting to like that I do?He raised his shoulders almost to his ears, then dropped them, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets. Letting out a breath, he saw it in the air.
“It’s getting late in the year,” he said, turning his head to look at Theo.
Theo was scanning the tree line. Max resisted the urge to look himself, because he’d rather look at Theo. There was an amazing stillness about him, his body held at the ready without tension. The shadows cast by his brow turned his eyes slate-colored.
The house lights created a yellow pool that separated the yard and the field into different spaces. Here the night surrounded them. There wasn’t another person in sight; it was just the two of them. Mist rose in little clouds across the raggedly tufted field, a miniature sky they stood above. Max’s next thought came without embarrassment.
This is seriously romantic.
He stepped in close, making those black-fringed eyes widen, and reached out with both hands to cup Theo’s jaw. Everything was as natural as breathing, and it was breath he felt on his mouth as he came in for the first touch.
Delighting in the softness of Theo’s mouth, Max closed his eyes. Theo was a pillar of heat that drew him near, away from the chill, but he didn’t quite let their bodies touch. That would take away from the kiss, which was paramount. Theo’s inhalation was suction, and then those silken lips parted and he leaned into Max. Max put his fingers around the back of Theo’s skull, pressing his palm into thick curls.
It was enough to put him on the precipice. If he went over the edge, this would turn to shoving and nipping and sweating and tugging and all kinds of other things that made him breathe harder just thinking about them. This was starting to look like an exciting place to tumble to the ground together. For a moment he teetered.
Hell with it. Let’s do this. Weird or not, I want him.Max dropped his hands to Theo’s hips and jerked him close. At the same time he shoved his tongue into Theo’s mouth.
Making a noise in his throat, Theo groped at Max’s jacket, then grabbed it in both hands. Then he held Max in place as he took a big step back. They looked at each other in silence. Max waited for an explanation, but didn’t get one.
“Sorry,” Max said, trying not to sound disappointed. But that was as far as he got before intense tingling spread across his back. He turned sharply to look towards the back of the property. At exactly the same moment, Theo also turned to look, but Max was too distracted to process that oddity.
If it weren’t for his sensitivity to the spirit world, Max doubted he would be able to see the dark figure standing between two trees. He felt its presence as a pressure on the base of his skull. It made him sweat with the strength of its presence. Even though he felt its malevolence, this was an unfamiliar dread. He knew that this wasn’t Deep Murky because it had none of the aura of decay and swampy water.
He glanced at Theo, then looked longer, startled by the intent look on his face. Theo seemed to turn into someone else, his expression coolly focused, his posture straight and strong. Then, his eyes never leaving the shadow, Theo began to run.
“Theo?” Max blurted, startled. Wait, can he see that?“I don’t think you should –” Theo was already halfway to the trees; his speed took Max’s breath away. Belatedly he took off after, shocked by how little progress he made in comparison. “Theo! Don’t go in there! Wait!” Max could no longer see the peculiar shadow in the trees, which was no comfort. That didn’t mean it was gone. He didn’t know what the thing intended.
Theo stopped at the edge of the trees. By the time Max caught up, the shadow was gone, its unearthly presence no longer making his skin tingle. Breathless, he looked into Theo’s face. Quickly, alertly, Theo probed the trees with his eyes. His breathing, to Max’s great annoyance, was nearly normal.
“What’s going on?” Max asked. Theo gave him a sharp look.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Theo,” Max laughed in exasperation, “this is my property. What are you looking for?”
Abruptly Theo sagged, turning his attention to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I — I can’t.”
“Seriously, you can tell me.” Max reached out to put his hand on Theo’s upper arm. He didn’t miss how Theo’s gaze landed on his hand. “Did you see something in here?”
“You’d better go inside.” Theo abruptly began walking quickly back across the field.
“Theo –” Max found himself, yet again, hurrying after Theo. For some time they walked in silence, Max annoyed to find Theo’s stride too brisk. “Was that inappropriate?”
“No,” Theo said, his tone miserable. “That’s — that’s not –”
“You can talk to me. What did you see back there?”
“Nothing,” Theo said quickly.
“Nothing? Theo, you took off like a bat out of hell. You were chasing something.” And if you know what it was, I’d really like to know.
“Hey,” Theo snapped. “I’m weird. You know that.” He shook his curls back angrily. “You don’t know — anything about me. Let’s just l-leave it at that.” With that he took off at a run, heading for the road.
Digging Without a Shovel
Taking a deep breath, Max pushed the car door open wide. The vinyl trenchcoat squeaked as he got out.
Am I seriously doing this?
He heard music playing inside as he clomped past a trio of costumed children. A boy in a superhero costume stared intently at him as he went. Max gave him an awkward smile, then hurried past the jack o’lantern and up the stairs as fast as his tall boots would let him.
Inside, there was a lively conversation going on in the living room and a big plastic bowl of chocolate bars on the floor next to the door. Max paused to gather his courage, but also to listen to Theo laughing freely and loudly. The past couple of days he’d hardly seen Theo, much less heard his voice. It hit him harder than he expected.
The man standing in the doorway to the living room leaned back to look at him. It turned out to be Frankie, Theo’s oldest — and arguably geekiest — friend. Frankie was dressed as a wizard.
“Awesome. Good one, dude.”
Max nodded uncertainly and creaked his way over. In the living room he spotted Marnie’s boyfriend Whitney sitting on the floor in a confused-looking western outfit. Three people he didn’t know were sprawled before the TV, dressed as pirates with wild-colored hair. On the couch, Lisa sat holding hands with a mousy-haired man; they had on military uniforms. Wedged between Lisa and the end of the couch, Marnie on the arm next to him, was Theo. Marnie wore a schoolgirl uniform and a light brown wig. She grinned up at Max.
Theo looked up and froze. Most of his costume was obscured by his friends, beyond a wildly spiked wig. All at once people were laughing and talking, Whitney applauding Max. Theo, on the other hand, just stared.
The Calm Before
The Greenleaf Gentlemen’s Club was nestled in amongst grander, newer clubs at the foot of Acorn Hills. It was grown from native oak, squat and unassuming, its windows irregular and its interior dark. To Riagan, as he strode through cluttered tables and comfortable chairs emerging knobby and knotted from the floor, the smell of such ancient wood was exactly the fragrance of old money. Even the servants came from good families, as working at such a club was one of the few jobs an aristocratic young elf could respectably take.
Riagan had one of those young elves direct him to a reading room. It gave him particular pleasure to have the well-bred fellow speak so deferentially to him. Riagan tucked the obligatory tip into the lad’s shirt pocket and made his way up the narrow, winding stairs. All along them were portraits of deceased members, adding to the club’s sense of age and stagnation.
He had to duck to get through the doorway into the reading room. Inside it was so dim it played with his night vision, making the outlines of objects flicker indigo until his eyes adjusted. Although the small room was lined with bookshelves, no one came into such places to read. The skylight, tinted to create a colourful leafy pattern on the worn floor, let in little light.
Lord Beathan Talisman sat in one of the recliners, puffing on a pipe that had filled the room with sage smoke. He looked over at Riagan, not speaking. Riagan paused a respectful distance away and bowed. “Greetings of the New Year to you, m’lord.”
“And to you, Mr. Antarrea,” Beathan said civilly. He was a brittle, old, argent elf, his hair gone from silver to white in places, his eyes gleaming pale and hard.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me so quickly.”
“Yes, well, sit down.”
Riagan sat on the edge of a wooden chair opposite the recliner. The usual courtesies were second nature to him. They also made his pulse quicken, because they were the prelude to the real game. The moments leading up to the game were almost as good as the game itself. At that moment, he still couldn’t be sure his plan would work. “How is your lady wife?”
“The same, the same.”
“Is she finding the main house a little emptier these days?”
“I doubt it. Brennus didn’t exactly marry quickly.” Beathan’s mouth pulled down around the stem of the pipe.
And when he did, it was someone completely below him. Riagan gestured with his fingertips in rehearsed exasperation. “Your son has always moved to his own rhythms.”
“Yes.” Beathan turned away to tap out the pipe in a metal bowl. “Get to the point, lad.”
Riagan tugged his vest straight and smiled. Apparently the elder Lord Talisman didn’t share his appreciation for foreplay. “As you have probably guessed, m’lord, I am here to discuss a business proposition.” At Beathan’s distant nod, Riagan continued. “It concerns an acquisition I would like to make.”
“Acquisition?” Beathan grunted. “From what I’ve heard, your little company doesn’t have stable roots yet. Hardly seems responsible to be buying, lad.”
Riagan leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He gazed directly into Beathan’s face. “Fortunately, this isn’t going to cost me anything.” He let himself show a few teeth as he spoke. Beathan paused, then turned his head slightly to make eye contact, his faint brows knitting. His pipe hovered mid-tap. Riagan’s grin spread. “You’re going to give me the Breickwalle Mine, m’lord.”
“Breickwalle?” Beathan’s tone sharpened. “What the rot do you want with that?”
“Minisman Corp is a resource exploration company, m’lord.”
“But you’ve got to know that blasted mine’s useless.” Beathan’s lean face, chin pointed enough to stab, contorted in impatient incomprehension.
“I’m ever an optimist, m’lord.”
Beathan pondered this, setting down his pipe and folding his hands in his lap. Eventually he shook his head. “No. You’re a bright lad and my son thinks the moon of you, but I can’t just give you something like that.”
Riagan’s grin spread even more. It amused him to be misunderstood in a positive way for once. “M’lord, I’m not asking for a gift. You will give me that mine in a trade.”
“Trade?” Beathan snorted.
“The mine for certain video footage, m’lord.”
That took the ice out of Beathan’s eyes. He straightened up and glared, but in silence.
“You know exactly what I mean, m’lord.”
“After all my family has done for you, you ungrateful little gutter sprog!”
“Done for me and to me, m’lord.”
“And if I were to introduce to society just how religiously you frequent certain establishments in the entertainment district?”
Riagan chuckled and stood up. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the fragile old elf who stared up at him impotently. “M’lord, everyone knows my appetites are as barbaric as this ill-bred face of mine suggests. What I’m offering to reveal to the inner circles, is something that no one knows about you.” He went to the sideboard and poured himself a drink, leaning against the wall as he sipped high-quality nut liqueur and listened to Beathan’s ragged breathing. He took his time, savouring that stiff silence as much as the drink itself. The room darkened with the afternoon’s shifting light and the leaves on the floor lost some of their hue.
There was a figurine of a swan on the shelf next to him. He picked it up, running his fingertips over its delicate folded wings. For just a moment, his mother’s voice rang in his ears.
You mustn’t touch the young mistress’s things! They don’t belong to you. Nothing belongs to you, m’lad, and don’t you forget that! Riagan shook his head to clear away her voice and the phantom burning of a firmly pinched ear. He deliberately tucked the figurine into his pocket. Beathan was still frozen and staring at him. Finally Riagan set the empty glass down and licked his lips.
“My assistant is at your convenience for a reply, m’lord.” With that, he strode from the room.
He’d show them all just how much he could own.