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Brittle Limit

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

Riaag had been in a palace before, and it had struck him as rather nice at the time, but in terms of scale that one may as well have been an outhouse compared to the sprawling estate he now found himself in. Unlike the one he’d stayed in previously, this one probably wasn’t cursed. It also had a lot more hallways. Being a creature who’d always done most of his living either in a tent or under the open sky, Riaag was still figuring out how he felt about being around so much indoors; there were windows everywhere, sure, and plenty of balconies to walk out on if you needed to feel the sun on your shoulders or the wind in your hair, but that didn’t change how the ground was out there while he was stuck in here, mixed up into an uncountable throng of people he didn’t know who came from places he’d never heard of. It was hard not to feel a little homesick every time he found out one more thing that was plentiful back home but completely alien here. There wasn’t a scrap of horsemeat in the entire palace, at least not if you didn’t count the living ones people rode on, which he didn’t, because that would be rude.

What the palace did have, however, was entire rooms dedicated solely to looking very nice, and one of these was where he found himself during a hot summer day. It was high-ceilinged, which already helped with the heat, and it somehow caught a breeze from outside to freshen the air and cool the skin, which was even better. Its outer wall faced south over the grounds below, the port and the shimmering waters of the bay visible beyond them, but the view alone wasn’t why he’d settled down on a cushion in the middle of the tiles: that honor belonged to the strings of colored glass pieces that hung in front of the windows, catching the light to scatter prismatic flecks across his skin. Riaag could unfocus his eyes and pretend he was swimming through a field of rainbow stars. His body might be stuck in a diplomatic summit in the middle of nowhere, but he’d long since perfected going elsewhere in his mind.

Mid-dive through a school of creatures that were part fish, part bird, and part batiked fabric, Riaag heard soft footsteps approaching from the corridor. Riaag reminded himself that it was probably just servants doing their usual servanty things, with which he had explicitly been asked not to help—and that was a bit of an insult, did they think he didn’t know how to clean floors or do the laundry? but he let it slide—and this worked up until he realized the footsteps had stopped at one of the curtained archways that led into the chamber. That wouldn’t do. Riaag was happy to share the room of rainbows with anyone else who wanted to be in there, as that was all part of being a guest, but someone standing behind him in a place he couldn’t see without him having seen them earlier made his flesh want to crawl off of his body. At least the sleeves of his caftan hid the goosebumps that bloomed on his arms at the thought.

He shuffled around on his knees until he was facing the nearest arch, and sure enough, there were a pair of silk-clad servants looking at him worriedly from around the curtain. They glanced at each other nervously but didn’t bolt when he turned to face them, so that was something. Most of the servants in the palace acted like they’d never seen an orc before. He supposed that they may very well have not, given where they were.

Riaag needed a moment to figure out the most likely language to use to address them. “What can I do for you?”

The taller of the two stepped forward into the room. They smelled feminine, but Riaag wasn’t about to make assumptions in mixed company. “Are you Riaag Bough-Breaker, herald of Sarouth White-Hair?” they asked. Their accent was different from the way Riaag had learned to pronounce things.

“That is me,” he said with a nod.

The servants exchanged glances again. “One of the dukes who has come to the Palace of Concordance has asked for him. An envoy was sent to fetch him, but when he was found, things were, ah, not as expected. Very out of the ordinary, in fact. We were told to find you.”

Riaag was on his feet so quickly and with such force that the servants jumped back, startled. “Where is he? Did he fall?” he said. The words were still foreign enough that he couldn’t be more specific than that, but maybe it was for the best; “fell” made sense where “succumbed to a divine swoon and became lost in visions” risked raising questions they didn’t have time for at the moment.

“Maybe it would be easiest if you came with us,” the taller servant said. Riaag needed no further prompting.

He kept hot on their heels, close enough to count the pearl beads strung in their hair even as they briskly weaved their way through the maze passing itself off as the guts of the palace. Where they were small and fine-boned, Riaag was a very big man who took very big strides, and where they were dressed so ornately they might have passed as decorative fixtures, Riaag was dressed the way he always was, which was to say ready to go dig a ditch or wrestle a goat or spend all day walking across the steppes; he was vastly more mobile than either of them. Keeping up with the servants was not a problem. It was much harder not outpacing them, actually.

About twelve thousand different worst-case scenarios flickered through his mind as he strode fiercely through hallway after hallway. Had Sarouth actually fallen again? Had he ended up picking a fight, because of course Sarouth would pick a fight at a peaceful meeting of the minds, and gotten into a situation too dire to pull himself out of alone? Had he dreamed so intensely that something followed him back when he came to? Had he been turned into a giant eel? That last one was more unlikely than Riaag’s usual cavalcade of catastrophes, but the palace was just too big and too indoors for his comfort, and it made his stomach nervous. If there was any place a god-speaker risked being turned into a giant eel it was probably Concordance.

Their trip finally led them out into one of the palace’s many courtyards, this one circular with an expanse of cream-colored sand sunk into the middle. Rocks of varying sizes rose from the sand, and atop the centermost spire sat Sarouth, cross-legged, stripped to the waist, and lost in meditation. Sarouth’s dark green skin stood out in stark contrast to the paler tones around him; he was one of the darker people Riaag knew, colored more like evergreen needles than grass or leaves or even fresh olives, but the tattoos that crawled across his arms and back were the same rich, too-intense crimson as fresh blood. The sand had contorted itself into lines and curves that matched the ones Sarouth wore. A tapestry of patterns reached from the central stone out to the edge of the sand garden, tracing the strange path Sarouth’s meditations took as he traveled through the Labyrinth that encased Agritakh, their ever-sleeping god, and Riaag had enough of a background in mystic affairs to know the maps would never look the same way twice. Sometimes they shifted into new patterns with a soft hiss like distant rain; Riaag chose not to check whether Sarouth’s inks had done the same.

“You see?” whispered the taller servant.

“Oh,” said Riaag. He studied the scene thoughtfully and flared his nostrils. “I thought something weird had happened.”

He checked his belt to make sure the trophy skulls strung on it were fastened securely before nimbly hopping from rock to rock, ultimately coming to rest atop a rounded boulder near the center of the sand; he hadn’t disturbed so much as a single grain as he moved. Riaag was now close enough to see Sarouth’s breath ruffle the forelock that fell over the left side of his face, obscuring his eye the way all god-speakers of Agritakh were compelled to, and based on the quiet drone Sarouth was making it wasn’t the kind of meditative state that would be hazardous to disturb. That was a relief.

“Holy One?” Riaag murmured, this time in his native Rhoanish.

Sarouth’s drone died away and he opened his visible eye a crack. “Mmm?”

“You done fergot ter tell folks you was gonna be doin’ spooky shit, didn’t you?”

“Oh,” said Sarouth. He looked around dreamily. “I suppose I did, didn’t I?” He cracked his knuckles and stretched, still seated. The sand patterns smoothed out instantly with a sound like a switch of wicker hitting a carpet. Riaag heard the servants gasp, startled. “It’s a good thing you stopped by. That might’ve been awkward.”

Riaag cocked his thumb over his shoulder at the pair of servants, who had glued themselves to the outer wall of the courtyard after the thing with the sand. “They’s the ones what came and got me after you weirded out some chieftain’s herald or summat. You cain’t just commune with Him where the fuck ever during Concordance, Holy One, at least not without saying somethin’ about it first. They ain’t used ter it here.” Not that people were that used to it back home, either, but at least in Naar Rhoan the locals were accustomed to half of the stronghold’s founders wandering around and acting really damned weird in some way or another.

Sarouth had the grace to look embarrassed. “Oh. Whoops.” He craned his neck to better see the servants and wiggled his fingers at them cheerfully. “Hello there!” he called out in the palace language. “I am so very sorry about that! It is very normal, do not worry about it much! I will try to spread the word if I need to do it again!”

“I think that chieftain fella still wants ter talk ter you,” said Riaag, keeping his words quiet and in Rhoanish. “You better go see what he wants so’s we don’t end up with our asses in the fire ’causea some protocol fuckery we don’t know ’bout.”

“Yeah, suppose I should,” said Sarouth. He uncrossed his legs beneath his voluminous layered skirts. “Could you, er, help me stand? I think I folded myself wrong when I first went under. My leg’s asleep.”

“And you don’t wanna eat shit right in fronta our hosts,” agreed Riaag. “Hold on, I’ll getcha down.”

He braced one foot against the rock Sarouth still sat upon, passed one arm beneath Sarouth’s arms and the other up under his knees, and effortlessly lifted him up; Sarouth put his arms around Riaag’s neck as he was hoisted, though Riaag suspected that was more for fun than for stability. Sarouth was not a small man by any means, especially not compared to the dainty thimble-sized people that made up most of the summit’s attendees, but he may as well have been a cat given how little trouble Riaag had bounding back over the rocks to deposit him safely on the paving stones. Once again the sand had gone undisturbed. Riaag let Sarouth wobble against him a bit until both legs were up for supporting a grown orc’s weight again; he got a kiss on the cheek for his trouble, which he hadn’t realized until then was something he’d really needed after the day’s sudden spike of worry.

After a quick finger-combing of his hair Sarouth turned to the servants with one of his usual radiant smiles. “Right!” he said as he clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Who was it who wished to see me?”

“Are you sure you wish to go as you are, High Priest White-Hair of Naar Rhoan?” asked the shorter of the pair. It was a strange form of address and Riaag suspected it didn’t quite hold the nuance of god-speaker—much less Agritakh-ruhd, the formal term for it, or Faaroug, the title of Agritakh’s greatest prophet—but he wasn’t the one who had to wear diaphanous pants while running errands for foreign dignitaries all day, so he wasn’t about to press the issue.

Sarouth glanced down at his shirtless torso and back up again. “Oh, do I need more jewelry?”

The shorter servant smiled with gritted teeth. It was a look Riaag knew well since he frequently made that same face himself when in the presence of politics. “The duke is from a people who are usually more…covered…?” they offered.

The taller servant gestured at the space between Sarouth’s collarbones and his waist. “It is traditional among the duke’s people to not display thi-i-is part of the body when discussing matters of state in a public gathering.” That made enough sense, Riaag supposed; Sarouth’s tattoos were far more elaborate than any other god-speakers’, and combined with how his midsection was perfectly defined from long hours of swimming and field work it could be distracting, which would be an unfair advantage in Sarouth’s favor.

“Ah. I see. I fear I did not bring anything like that with me when I came to pray here, but—” Sarouth began, but he stopped halfway through when Riaag tapped him on the shoulder.

“Do not worry, White-Hair. You may borrow my coat.” It required briefly undoing his belt and the decorative sash he wore beneath it, and his caftan was so huge on Sarouth it risked swallowing him like a hungry carp, but some clever tying-up of fabric had Sarouth in what amounted to a robe with a plunging neckline that showed off his necklaces. Riaag quietly approved. It felt weird going around without an outer layer, but his paired tunics of two different lengths were still completely modest and kept the amulets he wore out of sight, so it wasn’t like he would be disrespecting anyone provided they didn’t take issue with how he wore his beard so full or something. He cinched his belt back around his waist with his trophy skulls seated against his right hip.

“Yes. Fine. Good. Please, follow us, and we will take you to the duke,” said the taller servant.

“Your herald should also come,” added the shorter one.

“Of course. Please lead the way,” said Sarouth. He offered his elbow to Riaag, who accepted it gladly, and the two of them headed back into the nest of hallways after their quickly-vanishing guides.

When they had first planned to attend Concordance it had seemed like this unreal, far-off event that would never actually arrive, but if there was one way to come to terms with an event it was loading up a boat with weeks’ worth of supplies and traveling downriver in the close vicinity of several other people, only some of which were other Rhoanish. Riaag had yet to decide whether or not he actually liked boats: part of him wanted to hate everything about them, but the sickness from the sloshing water had faded pretty quickly once his legs learned to move on a surface that was, itself, moving, and while getting his horrible horse into its pen had been nothing short of a nightmare the thing had thus far behaved itself since they pushed free from the shore. He chose to pass judgement once the fate of the stronghold didn’t hang heavy on his shoulders.

At least Naar Rhoan would be in good hands while they were out. Ruzhu Kind-Knife, one of Sarouth’s closer god-speaker friends, had sworn to take care of the stronghold’s spiritual needs while Kala Cold-Iron, the master-at-arms, would handle more everyday affairs. Technically there would be people from Usoa watching the place, too, but Riaag wasn’t sure if roving scouts counted. The workers they’d traded with their sister settlement at least had the decency to not hide in the trees after finishing laying a foundation.

That was another thing: looking at how well Usoa and Naar Rhoan got along you’d never suspect that their alliance had been a messy thing first negotiated at knifepoint. It was woven right into the terms, one year of guaranteed peaceful cooperation for each Rhoanish life they’d wrongfully taken, with the contract up for renegotiation once those years ran their course. Sarouth had somehow rammed his hands into what had promised to be a bloodbath and pulled out prosperity for both their peoples. It had been a dangerous gambit and of course things had gotten very complicated in the middle but hadn’t it been worth it in the end to make such steadfast new friends?

They’d stopped seeing fishing boats two days ago. Riaag had enjoyed waving to the fishermen as they worked, and some had even waved back at him, but now there was little to see save for endless trees on either bank. There wasn’t much reason to scan the trees for approaching shapes, given how there were Usoan snipers and a smattering of Rhoanish slingers doing that already, and since he had yet to see any really interesting birds it didn’t feel worth it to watch the skies, so instead he made his way below deck.

Being in a boat so big that it had more than just a place to stand and a place to put whatever you’d caught was a new experience for Riaag—he had originally taken the newly-built vessel for one of the floating houses the Usoans kept tethered on the riverside—and while it was a bit of a shame he didn’t fit in either of the swaying sling-beds that were in his and Sarouth’s quarters, just being able to lie on his back on a cot helped whenever his stomach remembered that he was technically moving up and down all the time. Their actual quarters weren’t very large out of sheer necessity. Riaag had insisted on having as many of their things stacked up around them as possible, both to keep his personal effects close at hand and to save space elsewhere, so he had enough room to lie down without having to scrunch himself up and not much else. He’d been spending the current leg of their journey alternating between being cramped belowdecks or bored up top.

Sarouth didn’t seem troubled by boredom, though, and this time Riaag found him perched atop one of the chests of robes he’d insisted on packing himself, his harp in his lap. He was busy tuning it. Riaag shrugged out of his outer layer and wadded it up under his head as an extra pillow once he laid down, and it would have been casual if he hadn’t pointedly kept the door in his peripheral vision. Old habits died hard.

“Still fucken around with that thing?” he asked Sarouth. He waved a gloved hand at the harp just in case “that thing” wasn’t clear enough.

Sarouth struck a chord, which came out weird and flat. “I think it’s all the water in the air from the river,” he said as he fussed with a peg. “It’s so much dryer back home so the wood and strings don’t know what to do with all this humidity. Gives me something to do, though.” He tried the chord again, which sounded a bit better. “How’re you holding up?”

“I’m holdin’, that’s about all I can say. Kinda nervous about this whole thing. What if they turn us away soon as we get there, say we ain’t welcome?”

“We have sponsors, Riaag, we’ll be fine,” said Sarouth, patiently. They’d had this conversation at least once a day but no matter how much Sarouth soothed him Riaag’s unquiet mind refused to give him any peace.

“You sure?”

“Yes, my love, I’m very sure our merchant friends will be expecting us. They’ve agreed to promote the stronghold for all Concordance so long as we keep our end of the bargain.”

“What if they go and change they minds?”

Strum, strum, tune. “Then they’ll be up shit creek if we mysteriously forget to send out the next shipment of textiles they rely on us for. They’re not going to do that, though, because they’re honest merchants who understand the value of their word. And since we are serving as a sponsor for an entirely different bunch who have, shall we say, a certain reputation, it’d be foolhardy even if they were as honest as a hungry jackal.”

It was certainly one way to describe Usoa. You could look at one of the River People and think they were easy to break with their long ears and thin wrists and sharp, foxy faces, but while you were looking at that one there were probably two sneaking up behind you ready to slit your throat and feed you to their wolves, and that didn’t even go into the whole unpleasant business with their berserkers. Their entire dealings with Naar Rhoan had started because an everyday territory patrol had gone sour, and had nearly self-destructed a few times thanks to their cultural tendency to assume the worst of outsiders. Dealing with Usoans was like negotiating with a nest full of bitter, angry hornets, and Sarouth had managed it anyway, somehow rendering said hornets into bosom companions. Riaag took it as proof of Sarouth’s semi-divinity and left it at that.

“I guess. But it’s, you know, it’s complicated. Lot happenin’ at once.” It wasn’t an understatement; he could think of quite a few things that insisted on pulling his thoughts in too many directions. Like how with Concordance coming at that time of the summer it was going to overlap with their day, though it felt selfish when he thought about it like that. Anniversaries came around once every year, it was the entire point of them. Gatherings of dozens of leaders from dozens of far-off lands happened much less often, and showing up for it was for the good of the stronghold, wasn’t it? They’d built the place at the behest of the Hill God Himself, they’d poured so much love and so many sacrifices into the land, they’d studded the walls with the remains of the inglorious fallen as a defiantly-extended middle finger to a valley full of people who didn’t understand them at best and wanted them dead with distressing frequency. Of course you’d go to the ends of the earth and back to keep a dream like that alive.

It still didn’t help the knot of displeasure in his stomach when he thought about the year passing without any fanfare.

Sarouth must have noticed Riaag’s expression darkening again because he tilted his head and took a breath, maybe to share some comforting words or tell a bad joke, but whatever he’d planned was interrupted by a knock at the threshold. Riaag’s hand went reflexively to his little eating knife at his side even though the sort of person who knocked was not generally the sort of person he had any business pulling a blade on.

“Excuse me? Riaag Bough-Breaker, are you there?” said a voice in Usoan from the other side of the door. It sounded like one of the attendants he’d been getting to know better during the trip.

Riaag sat up. “Yes?” he called back. His own Usoan was a bit rough from disuse but still rang clear above the creaking of the boat.

“We’re having trouble moving some water barrels for dinner prep. Agurtzane said you’re very strong, and if you aren’t sleeping or busy that I should ask you for help.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. Part of him just wanted to rest and talk to Sarouth a bit, but another part of him had been feeling less than useful ever since they’d started their trip, and he was objectively the best passenger—whether orc, River Person, or horse—for the job. Maybe something to do with his hands would do something about all the nervous energy he’d been storing with every passing hour. He sat up and started to unfold his caftan again.

“Tell them I will be there soon. I will help with cooking, too, but then I will want to rest,” he said.

“Going to learn some tasty new uses for fish sauce?” Sarouth, who hadn’t bothered switching languages, sounded hopeful. The Usoan alliance had been worth it just for the foods it had introduced to the Rhoanish palate.

Riaag let himself smile. “I might. Only way ter know is ter come have some supper when it’s done.”

They shared a brief kiss before he shuffled out of the room, checked his hair, and followed the sound of swearing towards where he was needed most.

Performing as a herald for meetings was boring, but not the same way that sitting on a boat for days on end was boring: while the latter was mostly an exercise in finding enough fertile places for his thoughts to take root, the former required Riaag to pay close attention to every detail and commit them all to memory, which meant he had to remain alert and accurate at all times during what may well have been the least interesting conversation he’d ever experienced in his life. Hours of debate over trade rights made his brain feel like it was going to leak out his ears; mushy-skulled or not, though, he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he could recall every stupid, pointless, mind-numbing detail that came up. It was the same kind of satisfaction he got from doing any other shitty job, since not only did he know the right way to change a diaper or clean a rug or burn a hunk of garbage, he’d do it well, and that meant someone else got to rest a little bit easier. Him knowing the minutes of a debate by heart meant Sarouth didn’t have to.

The list of people Riaag felt like talking to at the moment was very short, consisting of a worldly manifestation of Agritakh Himself (an unlikely situation, granted, but the sort of edge case Riaag tried to be prepared for) and Sarouth (much more likely, though you never knew), and depending on how you sliced it that might have technically been listing the same person twice, so it was just as well that he didn’t run into anyone important on the way back to the room he shared with Sarouth. The room itself was part of a larger suite split up among the attending Rhoanish and adjacent to the rooms the Usoan contingent had been assigned; it was, if nothing else, much roomier than the boat, and as he collapsed onto a pile of cushions Riaag was grateful for the luxury of sprawling.

He hovered on the edge of dozing off and listened to the wind as it filtered through the palace’s cunningly-made ventilation works. You had to think about fresh air when building, he had learned early into the visit, and a structure as big as the palace was would have been stale as an abandoned mine without someone clever walking around to plot out where the windows should go and how high they should build the ceilings. They’d done more than just build smartly, Riaag suspected, but then again the wind off the bay always came in at the same time each afternoon, and it did people a disservice to assume they’d called upon gods or spellcraft whenever they did something particularly well. Whatever the method, it meant that there was a soothing whooshing noise at the edge of his hearing that made it easier to get to sleep at night.

It also meant that whenever anyone opened the door there was a subtle change in the air, so when he felt his hair tickle at his forehead he knew someone had come in before he even noticed anything else. Riaag rolled onto his side, still propped up on his nest of cushions, and tried to blink himself alert.

It wasn’t that he was worried, not really, but he still felt himself relax once he heard the rustle of robes against curtains and caught a familiar scent. “Hi, Sarouth.”

“Hope I didn’t wake you,” said Sarouth from somewhere in the vicinity of their luggage.

“Nah, I weren’t asleep. Just…tired. Keepin’ all them different names straight wears me right the fuck out.”

Sandaled footsteps padded back his way. “You did real good, though, tired or not,” said Sarouth. “Here, I brought you a little something as a way to say thank you.” Riaag hadn’t been expecting a present, so that was enough to get him to sit up all the way to see what all Sarouth wanted him to see.

The mystery gift was a round orange fruit with a brown stem mark at the top and a leathery rind covered in pits. It smelled a bit sour, like a lemon or a lime or something, but still sweet; tt reminded Riaag of how sometimes back home they’d mix citrus juice with watered-down honey. He rolled it from hand to hand thoughtfully. When he tapped it with a claw it gave a little, so it presumably wouldn’t be mealy-firm the way apples or plums were. He had a few ideas on how he might cook with it based purely on that lovely scent, but until he knew how it tasted it was all guesswork. That was assuming Sarouth expected either of them to eat it; it might well have been some kind of rare, valuable pomander from Parts Wherever, and Riaag was not about to take any chances.

“This fer me?” he asked.

“Oh yes, it’s all yours. They’re a local specialty!” Sarouth produced a matching fruit and cut a slit in its skin with one of his claws. “You peel this outer part off and save it for tea or something,” he continued, “but on the inside you can pull the lobes apart and eat them just like that. Go on, give it a try.”

Secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t about to bolt down a key part of a trade agreement, Riaag did as advised. If the rind worked like a lemon’s he could dry them out to help freshen the boat on the return trip, so he set the scraps aside in a bowl instead of putting them in the litter pail, but just as Sarouth had said the fruit’s inner flesh came apart with the barest amount of pressure. It tasted much the way it smelled, all sour and sweet and very juicy, and the fruit was so tender he could crush it up with only his tongue if he wanted to. The seeds were nice and big and easy to spit out. You could probably feed one to a child without much trouble, you could probably feed one to just about anybody, really. What if they rendered down to a glaze to put on top of rice or meat? Would they survive the heat of a barbecue pit? Oh yes, he was going to figure out as many ways to cook with these things as possible.

“So what’re these called?”

“Hrm?” asked Sarouth, who was eating his a bit more slowly but with no less gusto.

“The fruits. I like ’em! They got a name?”

Sarouth gulped down the last of his current wedge and licked his fingers. “Well, that’s the damndest thing. Here they call them….” It was definitely a word, and definitely in the local language, and it sounded familiar but not in a way Riaag could place. “It means ‘orange,'” Sarouth added, grinning.

“…you’re shittin’ me.”

“I swear to you I’m telling the truth. They saw an orange thing and called it an orange. Maybe they named the color for the fruit and not vice versa?”

Riaag still felt slightly insulted for this perceived act of linguistic laziness. “Just seems like they ain’t even tryin’, is all.”

The remains of Sarouth’s orange joined Riaag’s in the bowl before Sarouth settled down next to him properly, hands propped up against the pillows behind them. “So how would you describe it, if they gave you the job, and you can’t just say the orange is orange?” he asked, his grin softer now but no less fond.

That was too difficult a question to ask after a day of memorizing who wanted to acquire more turmeric from whom, but Riaag tried anyway. “I’d say…like the sky at sunset, afore it’s all turned ter reds and purples, when the clouds catch the sun and the whole horizon glows like harvest time. Or like fire, when you got it fed real good and shored up real nice, so you got a friend to keep the chill away and not a monster ter burn up all what you made. Like fish scales, sometimes, dependin’ on the fish and how good said fish is doin’. Maybe some other ways. I dunno. I’m tired.”

He felt Sarouth pet his hair, and when he tilted his chin upwards he was rewarded with pleasant scratches along his jaw, the kind that soothed an itch and not the kind that drew blood. Sarouth never drew blood. Riaag sighed, weary but content.

“That’s more than enough, brave warrior,” said Sarouth as his hand returned to stroking the top of Riaag’s head. Riaag didn’t know how much he deserved Sarouth’s little nickname, but it felt nice to hear it, so he wasn’t inclined to complain. “You need to sleep a little bit? Or just some time to yourself? I’m not needed to meet with anyone until much later today, and that I can handle on my own. It’s just a party. I’ll be fine.”

Strictly speaking Riaag could have powered through the rest of the day on his own, since between a little downtime and a snack he was feeling much more like a person, but he stopped himself before saying as much. There were no prizes for pushing himself to the breaking point, and if he didn’t take care of himself when he had the chance he risked burning out before Concordance ended, and then where would they be? An inaccurate herald might well be worse than no herald at all. He nodded and let Sarouth lower him back down onto his side. A kiss alighted on his forehead and made Riaag smile. Maybe he wouldn’t wake up until nightfall, or even the next morning, but it was going to be okay. So long as he just kept taking care of himself it would be fine.

The door closed, the air shifted, and Riaag was asleep almost immediately.

Speaking in favor of Usoa at Concordance was a natural way to show support for the stronghold’s new allies, but this meant having to work around the fact that Usoa was full of Usoans, and Usoans had their quirks. Trying to break an alliance and start a feud because the labor exchange had gotten a little friendlier than expected was one such quirk. Sarouth had been visiting the village at least once a month just to speak with the leadership and figure out what grievances they held and which ones they might be convinced to let lie; this was productive enough, but Riaag still made sure to meet with the village spymaster—now a much better friend than when they’d first met, though still mysterious and prone to appearing out of nowhere with that wolf of his—to double-check details. It was crucial to keep track of even the pettiest grievances of the most basic of boatmen they’d be taking. No amount of jewelry or rice wine would smooth things over if some hot-headed kid came in with a grudge nobody knew about and an intent to take it out on the wrong people.

Aside from the awkward business before Year’s End back when they’d first started talking about the summit in the first place, Usoa had behaved itself, and as they had even managed to go six entire months without threatening to ritually sacrifice any outsiders to their River God, which Riaag suspected was some sort of record. Usoa keeping out of mischief meant he could focus on different things, like making sure there were enough rations set aside for the journey and whether or not he’d have enough clean socks. He’d been carefully organizing his travel chest for weeks. He would have done the same for Sarouth’s, as well, if Sarouth hadn’t insisted on doing that part for himself. Riaag wasn’t entirely clear on why and up until the night before their departure kept trying to argue his case.

“C’mon, you’s so busy. I just wanna make sure you got enough undies and shit ter last the trip.”

Sarouth remained seated atop his own travel chest—you could tell it was his because of all the holy symbols adorning it—and kept his legs crossed at the ankle. “Afraid I can’t let you do that,” he said. He patted the top of the chest next to a carved vulture pattern. “I took care of it already, don’t worry.”

“Not even fer just a look-through?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

Sarouth tossed his hair, briefly revealing the paint daubed all around his left eye before his forelock settled back into place to cover it. “I have my reasons. Maybe I’ve got a surprise for you in here and I don’t want you to see it until it’s ready, hm?”

“You know I could just pick you up offa there,” said Riaag, a little more poutily than he’d intended.

“Oh yes, I don’t doubt that. I’m still trusting that you won’t.”

Riaag grumbled. Sarouth was right on both counts: the first, and more obvious, being that of course Riaag wouldn’t pick him up bodily unless they were sparring or swimming or otherwise being playful, with the second being that Sarouth was so damned stubborn that he’d argue for hours with the Hill God Himself if he thought He was being unreasonable. It was a wonder he hadn’t been smote into ashes for his sassy mouth. Just because he was less explosive when dealing with mortal peers didn’t make him any less hard-headed, either, as getting the man to change his mind was like trying to change the horns on a goat: it might happen gradually over time, but no amount of yelling would get you there any faster.

The other thing that had been weighing on Riaag’s mind was the upcoming anniversary of their oath. Even if the boat they took down the river was as fast as the wind and everyone agreed on their trade deals the first day there, the anniversary still landed smack in the middle of too many days spent away from home. Before he’d run the numbers through his head he’d planned to cook a special meal just for the two of them and maybe perform a revised version of the song he’d sang that fateful day, and of course he’d suggest some good, slow sex if they were both feeling up for it. Now, though? Now he was going to be miles away from the felted tent he’d come to think of as their own private space, surrounded by strange food, and there might not even be so much as a corner to themselves depending on how many people actually attended these things. It didn’t sound romantic at all.

If it had simply been an oath of duty or valor or something then Riaag might not have worried about it that much, since anyone with eyes in their head knew he’d been Sarouth’s loyal disciple through times both lean and cold, and even if they didn’t know about the fortitude it took just to function with all the sickness in his head, well, he didn’t wear three ghost-cleansed bandit skulls on his belt for nothing. No, the problem was that Riaag had entered into an oath of devotion, and nobody did that unless they really meant it. He’d also sworn said oath with the Sarouth White-Hair, said to be the walking echo of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth Himself, and you didn’t just ignore that sort of thing when you had been born not just unclean but untouchable, the woeful get of oathbreakers, and you’d grown up assuming Agritakh would never truly know your face. Going from a pariah to the bedmate of the Faaroug was a bit of a jump.

The typical oath was more formal than what they’d done, though, since Sarouth had turned him down the first time—not out of malice, or even disinterest, but the rejection had cut Riaag all the same—and the way things ended up getting said was all jumbled up. It counted, though: Sarouth started to tell people that they were oathbound, which a surprising number of Rhoanish thought had been the case already, and even if said oath had been all jumbled up he’d invoked blood and steel and fire, and nobody ever swore by all three aspects of the Scavenger Kings unless they really meant it. Beetle, Jackal, and Vulture had thus far failed to show up to take Riaag away during the night so they presumably approved, or at least didn’t disapprove. Who really knew when it came to the greatest of beasts?

What bothered Riaag was the exact terms they’d sworn by: “as long as you want” was what he’d said, but that could mean a lot of things. It was enough uncertainty to give him a little twist of fear in the gut every time Sarouth seemed less than happy, and while he knew that it wasn’t fair, or even realistic, to expect someone to be happy all the time, his damn fool heart had a mind of its own. Sarouth hadn’t really been talking about anything other than stronghold stuff or Concordance for days. Was he planning on letting Riaag down easy when the time came? No, that was silly. Sarouth was always going on about how much he loved him, and the way Sarouth snuggled up against his back even when the weather was hot and gross didn’t seem like the actions of a man planning on drifting away. Had he forgotten, instead? No, also unlikely. Sarouth never had any problems remembering his birthday (and Riaag’s most recent birthday had been a very good one thanks to that), nor would he be the kind to forget the duel in Riaag’s honor that nearly resulted in getting cut in half, demigod or not. The wound had healed up seamlessly but the memory remained. But if he wasn’t planning to go and he hadn’t forgotten to stay, what was going on?

It was so hard to tell what Sarouth was thinking sometimes. Riaag had no trouble with the simple ones: Sarouth liked listening to Riaag’s singing, eating anything with eggs in it, and getting his dick touched, quite often in that order. What was difficult was why he did half of the weird things he did. You could write off wandering out in the middle of the night to count the stars as a god-speaker thing, the sort of low-grade spooky that was just part of life when living with someone with a scrap of the divine hitching a ride in their head, but how was he supposed to interpret the fact that Sarouth never wore any of the fancy presents Riaag made or traded for him? He’d spent months of his life embroidering the prettiest little scenes onto some wondrously soft gray robes, but even though that had been a Year’s End present he’d never seen Sarouth try it on. The Usoan-made armlet that supposedly kept ghosts and misfortune away from the wearer? Still somewhere in the depths of Sarouth’s jewelry box. And then there was the mantle he’d made from the fur of a sabertooth he’d killed with his bare hands, its fur as dazzling white as Sarouth’s own hair; even when they’d ridden out to stare down an entire invading warband Sarouth had left it behind. “Too nice to wear,” he would say any time Riaag asked. If the meals Riaag cooked were good enough to eat, what was wrong with the more enduring presents he made? It was starting to get on his nerves.

Riaag was wrenched out of the really good sulk he’d built up by the touch of Sarouth’s fingertips against his cheek. It was difficult to stay mad for long when Sarouth insisted on quirking up the corner of his mouth the way he did, like he was about to share a secret he’d just remembered. It didn’t help either that the way his tusks were set in his mouth gave him a sweet little smile even when his face was resting. “You back with me?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Thinking in circles again, huh?”

Riaag placed his hand over Sarouth’s and sighed. At least they’d known each other long enough to recognize when it was happening. “Yeah, reckon I was.”

“That’s okay,” said Sarouth, and just like always the honey-smooth kindness in his voice was enough to make Riaag melt. “We’ve been very busy. Lots to do, lots to think about. We’re almost there! Just have to push on through this last part and the stronghold will be set for years, and I’m sure it’ll be worth the non-stop headaches in the end.” He bounced up on tiptoe to bump his nose against Riaag’s. While this meant that he was standing, and therefore no longer bodily keeping his chest off-limits for whatever ineffable reason, he was also being very distracting. Riaag was fine with being distracted for a while.

“We so busy I cain’t getcha ter myself fer a little bit?” He grinned.

Sarouth raised his eyebrows but didn’t stop smiling. “Bit of a fast turnabout, isn’t that? It’s not even dinnertime.”

“Maybe.” Riaag wrapped his arms around the unprotesting Sarouth and pulled him closer. “Maybe I just remembered we’s gonna be stuck in the middle ‘a who knows how many fucken people fer who knows how long, and as we’s leavin’ fer Usoa bright and early it’d be a shame ter keep puttin’ things off until it’s too late.” He nuzzled at Sarouth’s neck. “Ain’t you always talkin’ ’bout proper time management?”

He hadn’t really worried about his offer being accepted, as the only times Sarouth wasn’t desperately horny was when something horrible was happening and that itself wasn’t a given, but Riaag was delighted all the same when Sarouth pressed that perfect body of his against Riaag’s and hummed with interest. “Would you look at that,” said Sarouth, “I just remembered I have some free time scheduled right about now.” He took Riaag’s caftan by the lapels and gently pulled. “How about you and me talk about it in the back, hm?”

“Yeah, let’s.”

Dinner did still need cooking and Riaag was determined to have one final talk with both Kala Cold-Iron and the guards they were taking with them, but that didn’t mean they were left without options. Sarouth pulled him back behind the privacy curtain in their tent, walking backwards until they reached the bed, where Sarouth sat on the mattress and Riaag knelt on the carpeted floor. It felt good kneeling that way where he could look up at Sarouth: he didn’t have to worry about being too tall, or too big, or too anything, really, and just because he wasn’t comfortable with doing what people usually did when they knelt to waist height didn’t mean he couldn’t make use of said position. He pulled off his gloves, tucked them in his belt, and placed a questioning hand against Sarouth’s stomach.

“We don’t got time fer nothin’ fancy,” he said, his voice already softening the way it did whenever he let Sarouth’s presence overwhelm him, “but I could touch you some. If you wanted.”

“That’d be nice,” said Sarouth.

Some days Sarouth wore robes that opened in the front, which made getting at his dick amazingly convenient, but today was not one of those days, as instead he was wearing summer-weight versions of the layered woolen robes he pulled on over his head. They didn’t really have the time to strip, not if they planned on getting everything done that afternoon; Riaag opted to just uncinch Sarouth’s sash to push his robes up around his midsection. It looked ridiculous, but that was all part of the package when you were having mostly-clothed sex with someone who went everywhere in ritual garb. What mattered was getting Sarouth’s breechcloth out of the way without destroying it—Riaag had made that mistake before and felt tremendously guilty about it even after mending things himself—and that was doable by undoing the ties at one side and just scooting them down the opposite leg. In no time at all Riaag had Sarouth’s swift-stiffening cock out in the open and ready for attention.

It was, in Riaag’s opinion, an excellent piece of genitalia. Sarouth was big enough at rest to have something nice to look at, though not so much that he didn’t have room to fill out a bit when he got hard, and both his length and girth fit Riaag’s hand nicely. The shorter, curlier hair that framed it was the same brilliant white as the stuff on his head and the contrast was rather dramatic when he was fully erect. He also had freckles dusting his shaft and inner thighs, which Riaag thought were very cute, and between those and the little patch of white it helped Riaag focus himself on the here and now if he ever feared he was drifting in the middle of something. He would have loved Sarouth even if there had been a snail shell or a briar between his legs, but the current arrangement certainly made sex easier.

The actual sex was fairly straightforward: Riaag jerked Sarouth off into a spare rag, Sarouth petted his hair and told him what to do as Riaag attended to himself, Sarouth provided the last few crucial strokes along with a lot of praise, and once everything was over they kissed a bit before washing up. It was good and simple despite taking ten minutes at the absolute most. In a perfect world they would’ve had time to cuddle and wind down afterwards, and maybe Riaag could’ve cleaned up using his mouth and not a piece of scrap fabric, and maybe they would’ve been properly nude instead of just naked enough to get things done, but in a perfect world they would’ve had the entire evening to themselves and could maybe even go for a repeat or two. One made do with the options at hand. And, now that they were done, the soap and water in hand.

After drying his hands on the edge of his coat, Riaag found a bit of mint to chew to keep from smelling quite so much like he’d been fooling around; it was nice having that on him in private, but it felt rude to be more or less yelling what he’d been up to at people he needed to organize. He’d already packed plenty of edible aromatics for the trip, though to his understanding most people at Concordance had far less sensitive noses than orcs did and very likely wouldn’t notice. He sometimes wondered what life was like for them. It’d be like spending every waking day with a head cold.

Sarouth had yet to get into any chew leaves himself, but since he was no doubt planning to make for the cave beneath the sacred hill for some last-minute divinations the oracular smoke was sure to cover up any lingering aroma. Instead he chose to drape himself against Riaag’s shoulder and nibble on his ear. “That was lovely. Thank you.”

“Figured it’d hafta last us a while, so I wanted ter make it count.”

“It should certainly do that.” Sarouth kissed his cheek and pinched his bottom. “I’m going to go see if I can scry for any unexpected trouble in the future. See you at dinner?”

“Yeah, see you at dinner.”

As later on it proved to be the last sex they’d have for a while, making it count ended up being a very good idea, indeed.

Riaag had learned to deal with a lot over his many years as the last line of defense between Sarouth and literally everything else. He’d started off his service as cook, drudge, and barber, in no particular order, though a joking suggestion from Sarouth had accidentally catapulted him into the role of bodyguard, which meant learning how to fight using tactics other than trying to concede to his opponent as quickly as possible to minimize how much he’d be hurt. He’d had to learn what being a god-speaker actually meant, not what he thought it did, and how to deal with things like someone passing out at bad times or running out into the lowlands because a voice Riaag couldn’t hear had beckoned. He’d learned to tell friend from foe from a distance. Most importantly he’d learned how to live with his nightmares, how he would cry at the slightest provocation, how he couldn’t stand for most people to touch him, and how sometimes he’d get so lost in himself that all he could feel was fear so intense he couldn’t breathe; now he could talk to Sarouth when he needed to, and he had amulets to handle the worst of it. It had taken a long time—eight years and counting—and he still had plenty of work to do, but every day was a new chance to take in a new lesson from the ever-tutoring world.

What he had only begun to learn at Concordance was the importance of checking the clearance on doorways.

Ow! Fuck!”

He felt his cheeks flush when what felt like the entire room of mingling heralds he’d been trying to slip into turned to stare at him at once. The embarrassment was far more painful than the bruise on his head where the inlaid arch had struck him, but while it was tempting to slink away and never leave his room again it was important that he get to know other attendants. Two chieftains in one conversation had to act very particularly, swathed in layers of courtesy and protocol; a less decorated person, such as himself, had more freedom, and the chief usage of that freedom was keeping things running in the background while learning tidbits of information that might never come to light in formal talks. Naar Rhoan was an exotic newcomer to the scene, and that meant it needed friends. Riaag just had to make himself some.

He smiled as blithely as he could manage, sidled into the room, and bowed. “Greetings, speakers and wise ones,” he said in the common language. “I am Riaag Bough-Breaker, herald of Sarouth White-Hair, and I am sorry for my shout.” When he failed to produce any more entertaining outbursts most eyes slid back off of him again. Riaag wiped his bruised brow with a handkerchief and scanned the room for people he might want to get to know.

Most people he introduced himself to were polite enough, and some he remembered from earlier meetings remembered him, too—not a great feat when he was one of the only orcs there and definitely the only man of any blood-kind even nearing his size, but they got his name right, which was nice—but it kept feeling like every conversation that could be had was already going on with no room for latecomers. Unlike the parties he’d attended which catered to leaders there weren’t any dancers he could watch to keep from staring awkwardly at nothing. This left him drifting aimlessly through the crowd until he caught the strains of what could only be foreign poetry.

Diplomacy was something Riaag could muddle around in without making too much of a mess, but poetry was something cut into his heart to make an echo that thrummed bone-deep and intimate, and twinned with song it had been his only friend as a child; though grown, he still ached for it, and the unfamiliar verse pulled at him like the moon called the tide. The person reciting looked like one of the River People, though darker, and their robes tumbled down their frame like water. They moved their hands as they spoke. Riaag didn’t understand the tongue the poet used; if he had to guess he’d say it shared roots with some of the ones he did know, at least based on the way words were shaped and fitted together, but whether it was ancient or simply from a part of the world he didn’t know about he couldn’t say. He could still feel hints of the original emotion the way that ripples hinted at the shape of a rock. Riaag sat enraptured until the poet stopped and the small audience applauded.

“That was so lovely,” he said to the poet once they took a seat on an unoccupied divan. “I am grateful you shared it. How should I remember your name?”

The poet looked amused. “Call me Manouchihr of the Blue Cliffs, a man of my people.” He accepted a goblet of wine and drank deeply before continuing. “I am flattered that you thought so highly of me, but it wasn’t much. Adruv’s odes get far longer, and far more obscure.”

“Adruv is a great poet of yours, then?” A common language meant to cross gaps was going to lose something in translation, but Riaag still felt the loss of a proper word for “skald.” The intent came through, though, and soon he and Manouchihr (and a few others, though the two of them were the most talkative) were lost in lively, if limited, conversation. Aside from the cultural significance of Adruv, Riaag honed in on the way the others spoke: there were certain patterns to it that a novice speaker such as himself couldn’t pick up on. It wasn’t quite the difference between praise and an insult, as he suspected whoever had picked the common tongue for Concordance knew better than to risk something so subtle, but there were ways you could tuck a little extra context in the corners of things. It wasn’t quite doublespeak, either, more like somehow being able to convey added layers of meaning in a pun. He wasn’t able to do it himself, but the longer he spoke with the poet and his associates about verse the more his ear honed in on those little curlicues of nuance. It felt like an important thing to know how to spot.

Talk of poetry soon became sharing poetry, and Riaag was thoroughly delighted by this turn of events. He offered to sing Rhoanish poems whenever he had the chance. Usually they were traditional fare—what better way to talk about a people than through its art?—but every so often he slid in some of his own pieces when the crowd seemed receptive. In exchange he was exposed to styles and meters he never would have dreamed up on his own. He may have looked ridiculous, as he’d found that many foreigners didn’t expect someone with a frame like that and tusks like those to squeeze their way into a sitting room to talk about flowers, but he didn’t care, too drunk with the idea of the new to worry about whether anyone thought he was going to eat them.

The way the trip to the palace worked was that their boat out of Usoa handled all of the river travel portion of the journey, but they had to dock in the port built at the river’s mouth to proceed. The palace itself overlooked the settlement built up around the port—something about defenses, Riaag guessed, or maybe keeping it from getting swamped if the river ever rose—which meant taking the road up to the main gates, and that meant riding. It could have meant walking, because they absolutely didn’t have enough trained mounts or riders to keep everyone from going on foot, but Sarouth insisted it would make them look more dignified to show up on horseback, and so Riaag glumly clung onto his saddle for dear life while his hateful riding animal refused to stop being a shithead. Riaag’s relationship with Stupid Horse was strained even on the best of days. “Horse” might not even have been the right word for it, since it had a different number of toes on each foot and was much, much bigger than anything Riaag had prepared for the soup pot before, but Sarouth said the animals they’d traded for were horses and the damn things certainly smelled like horses, so that was close enough for Riaag.

Another problem with having to ride from port one to palace two was that they had to go at the pace of the slowest member of their group, which in this case was the wagons full of supplies, and said pace was not exactly brisk. Riaag had begun debating asking one of the River People riding next to him if they were up for a game of I Spy when Sarouth spoke up again.

“It’s interesting just how different the air smells here, compared to home.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Back home it’s…hrm. Dustier? Rockier? Oh, I’m no good with words, but you know what I mean.”

Riaag thought back to the way the air had settled in his nostrils as they rode away from the southern stronghold gates into the forest. He didn’t switch into his poet’s voice but he felt similar patterns rise to meet his tongue as he said, “It’s dry there, but crisp and open. It ain’t a dead dry, not by no means, just the kinda arid you get when the rains come few and far between, and still we got fields fulla food growin’ up bright and strong, and they got this good smell to ’em. When the dust comes down from the highlands you can tell ’cause it ain’t so lovely green. In the summertime, like this? You get a little bit of flowers on the breeze, and even when the sun’s its hottest and it hurts just ter be out under it without a coat on you feel the pulse of the land all fierce and glorious. It’s how home oughtta be.”

Sarouth closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose, the fabric he wore across his face pulling inwards as he did so. “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” he said. Logically he would’ve gotten a snoot full of local smells, not what Riaag had been describing, but Riaag wasn’t about to pick nits. “How would you describe the scents of this place, then?”

Riaag furrowed his brow. “Plant farts.”

The short burst of laughter from Sarouth was enough to draw some looks from others in their group. The Usoans’ leader, a fierce-eyed man in a very fancy hat, regarded them coolly. “You’re very joyous for such an important occasion, White-Hair,” he said, and Riaag suspected he’d kept those words in Usoan to maximize how many of their number understood his displeasure. What was it about that village’s leadership that made them such tremendous assholes? At least this one, unlike the last one, hadn’t tried to kill him in his sleep.

Insults slid off of Sarouth like water on a goose, though, provided he was in a good mood. “Oh, do not worry, I am well prepared to speak well for us both. We should both leave this place with so many more people wanting to get to know us better.” His own Usoan carried a Rhoanish accent that made its clipped syllables and vowel tones that much more musical.

“I am not here to make friends, White-Hair.”

Sarouth raspberried, puffing out his face-wrap. “See, that is your problem. It is a diplomatic assembly, you should be trying to.” He gestured at the other Rhoanish, all of which were covered from head to toe in loose fabric; some of them looked to be handling the heat better than others. “Our blood? We risk being killed on sight if they see us here. Why else would we layer this way in this weather? So we come to show kindness, and maybe they will learn there are other ways to greet orcs, at least from Naar Rhoan. This way we help many people at once. Good for us, good for others, good for everyone.” His exposed eye crinkled the way it did when he smiled. “Good for Usoa, too, I would think.”

The leader harrumphed and guided his sickle-horned riding deer away from Sarouth’s horse. Some of the other soldiers had the decency to look annoyed or embarrassed at their liege’s behavior; it was a good reminder to Riaag that he was going to be rubbing elbows with a great deal of people in the very near future, and that even if the leadership was odious he had a duty to deal with them for the sake of the smaller people they spoke for. Or rather, he’d deal with cooler, less-influential heads while Sarouth handled the hard part, given how Riaag had no head for politics beyond making sure any children he was babysitting didn’t kill each other. It was not the duty of a bodyguard to handle the snarl of bad blood that was trying to make nice with lands that had been plagued by foreign (but no less orcish) warbands for generations.

At least they had allies at Concordance. Usoa, while still on probation and represented by a flaming twerp, would be a source of comfort in the days ahead, and the merchants who had secured sponsorship for Naar Rhoan in the first place would certainly want to watch out for their Rhoanish friends, if for no reason than to not be shamed by association. If there were other orcs in attendance they would need to start trading ideas immediately; anyone who waded into an orc-loathing leopards’ den like this and came out ready for next time surely had things worth learning. Not that there had to be others of their blood-kind there for Naar Rhoan to flourish; if anyone could win hearts and minds in the face of adversity, it was Sarouth.

Whether or not Sarouth would be able to live up to those expectations was a bit less of a sure thing, though Riaag didn’t like dwelling on that much; being a god-speaker meant sometimes being whisked away for a conversation with the divine while your material body flopped over like a sack of turnips, and Sarouth had done a lot of flopping during the boat ride out. At one point he’d been out for two and a half days straight, which had left Riaag a nervous wreck when not standing watch or keeping him clean, and while he’d been in good spirits when he came to it didn’t change the fact that he’d lost over two full days of time. What if that happened in the middle of negotiations? Just because Riaag would be keeping at Sarouth’s side like a trained falcon didn’t mean he’d be able to prevent a fall from happening in the first place.

Riaag shook his head a bit to clear it. Things would be fine. If Sarouth fell, well, Riaag would be there to take care of things, and if Sarouth didn’t go under then he’d have all the more time to help make things right, wouldn’t he? He’d been good for the last few days, and he’d been pretty good before the boat as well, so maybe the worst was behind them.

They straightened in their saddles as they drew near. The Palace of Concordance seemed impossibly big—as big as the stronghold, easily, if not bigger—and equally massive were the gates leading into the grounds proper, their faces inlaid with gold and tiles that depicted fanciful creatures on a larger-than-life scale, and for once Riaag didn’t feel like he was too huge for his surroundings. A balcony set over the gates looked down over the road leading up to them; a tan-skinned person who looked like one of the merchants stood there, flanked by guards. They leaned forward and called down to the nearing visitors in the same tongue spoken by the people who lived in the nearby port.

“Ahoy down there! Who approaches?”

Sarouth trotted forward on his horse and waved. “Greetings! I am Sarouth White-Hair, priest of the Hill God, and a founder of Naar Rhoan stronghold in the far steppes! I come to Concordance in peace and goodwill!” He raised his mace overhead, showing where it had been tied into its baldric with a thick red cord. “I put away my weapons and arrive with open hands! Do we, the Rhoanish, and our guests, the people of Usoa, have the protection of the palace?”

The gatemaster squinted down at them and studied a piece of parchment with what looked like a lot of little lines drawn on it. They spoke to a smaller person in a robe who consulted a hinged piece of leather with more parchment tucked inside, and the one with the leather thing dipped a feather in a pot of ink and drew something on one of the sheets. Satisfied, the gatemaster returned their attention to Sarouth and company.

“We have been expecting you, guests from afar. Do you swear to abide by the rules of the palace so long as you stand upon its grounds?”

“The Rhoanish do!” called back Sarouth.

“The Usoans do, also,” said the Usoan leader after a slightly awkward pause.

“Do you understand that the palace law is its own, and recognizes no sovereign but its own, no matter the rank and majesty of those who visit here?”

Again they shouted their acceptance.

“And do you swear to do no harm to those who have assembled here, no matter what hardships are brewed, nor which wars are declared, in exchange for that protection yourselves?”

“The Rhoanish do!”

“The Usoans do.”

“Open up!” barked the gatemaster. Something inside the walls began to rumble and clank, and as if by magic the grand gates swung open on tracks set into the ground, the gate halves powered by burly guards and two mules for each side. The palace grounds waited on the other side; Riaag could see trees and statues there, and places where the water splashed up from carved settings, and he would have probably been content just peering at the scenery if they hadn’t had more important business to attend to.

“Welcome, people of Naar Rhoan. Welcome, people of Usoa. Concordance awaits.”

“I am happy to meet you all!” Sarouth pulled aside his scarves with a flourish and tossed his hair, his skin and tusks now exposed to the gate guards, and while some reached reflexively for their weapons they all stood aside to let the procession through. Sarouth’s huge, shit-eating grin gleamed bright as the full moon as he passed, and when the last attendant passed the threshold the gates closed behind them with a boom.

They had arrived.

There were several ornamental ponds, and even a few lakes, on the palace grounds, but blessed few of them seemed intended for people to actually do any swimming in, which was troubling; a bit of legwork and some only slightly awkward questions revealed that the pools that were intended for bathing were all indoors instead of out for some reason. One such pool now hosted Riaag as he soaked away the day’s troubles. The water was cool where the air was hot and it was kept from going stagnant by a sort of artificial spring system—a fountain, they called it—so it made for a nice change from scrubbing himself in the too-small washtub back in his quarters. Some days you just needed to spread out for a little while.

He tipped a little bit of floral-scented powder into his hand from the animal-shaped silver teakettle they’d given him when he’d asked about soap. It was a bit like the stuff he’d first encountered during his night in the Usoan island palace, though this made a sort of gelatinous goop when it got wet instead of dissolving into the water. Once he got over the feeling that he’d gone and poured powdered jizz into his hand the jelly stuff was actually rather nice. He worked up a lather (it lathered quite well, which was more than he could say for the anise-scented cake of wax that claimed to be soap he’d left back with the washtub) and scrubbed furiously, determined to make himself the squeaky-cleanest disciple in the entire complex.

In theory it was a public bath, but Riaag couldn’t help but be grateful that nobody else had bothered visiting that time of day save for the somewhat bored-looking attendants in the antechamber. Bathing at home was one thing, since everyone was going to be naked, most of them were green, and taking a swim with your dick out was just a thing you did when you wanted a bath. If you had scars, well, so did other people. Here, though? With few exceptions most people he’d met had looked smooth and perfect where their clothing didn’t cover up. Riaag, however, was covered with the things, and that might not have been so bad if a lot of them were from before he started protecting Sarouth from an unkind wilderness. When the hair on his arms got wet it really made all the defensive scars on them stand out. The thought of somebody asking about them made his stomach drop.

Then again, some of his were from adulthood, and why would someone ask about his fucked-up forearms when they could mention the huge bite mark that covered his shoulder? It was bigger than any normal animal’s mouth had any business being, since it wasn’t like a normal animal had left it. There was a whole story chewed into his flesh. Bite marks were exciting to talk about. They were pretty exciting to get, too, at least when the teeth on the person giving them left bruises instead of blood, and he made himself stop himself there despite wanting very much to think on it further; that was the sort of thought he needed not to dwell on when in a place someone else might see. Riaag took a few deep breaths, did some sums in his head, and returned to scrubbing his beard.

“Oh good, they said I might find you here,” said Sarouth’s voice from somewhere behind him just as Riaag was rinsing suds out of his eyebrows. It made not thinking about getting affectionately mauled that much harder.

One twelve was a dozen. Two twelves were twenty-four. Three twelves were thirty-six. He was taking a very normal bath in a very public place. “You need me fer somethin’, Holy One?”

“Oh, no, I just wanted to say hello, see how you were doing.” Sarouth doffed the towel he’d been wearing as a sarong and slid into the water halfway down the pool from Riaag. They’d seen each other naked plenty of times, even before they’d ever been mutually up to something, but that air of familiarity didn’t help when Sarouth insisted on swimming in anklets and armbands that only served to somehow make him look more naked, especially not when Sarouth approached him underwater only to pop up right next to Riaag like an otter. Four twelves were forty-eight. Five twelves were sixty. Sarouth was close enough to nip his ear if he wanted. Six twelves were seventy-two. “You want some help washing your hair?”

Seven twelves were eighty-four and that sounded like a great idea. “That’d be mighty kind. Thank you.”

Sarouth cupped some water in his hands and gently poured it on top of Riaag’s head. He repeated this several times; Riaag wore his hair so long it could fall past his mid-back if it was straightened out, and paired with how thick it was it took a lot of water to fully wet it. He didn’t mind; if they’d been pressed for time he could have simply ducked his head underwater and taken care of everything all in one go, but for the time being he had Sarouth’s attention and unbounded patience all to himself. The ritual slowness felt right.

The little silver kettle hissed as Sarouth poured some of its contents into his hand, though Riaag felt, more than saw, the hydrated soap-slime as it was massaged into his hair. Sarouth’s fingers were gentle and he kept his claws trimmed close and filed dull solely for intimate contact like this. Granted, the lion’s share of said intimate contact was intended for places more private than a bath frequented by probably a lot of people any moment now (eight twelves were ninety-six), but that didn’t make the way he scrubbed all the way down to the scalp any less pleasant. Riaag hoped some of the soap’s scent would cling to his hair long enough to change a few people’s minds. Let them try and say the Rhoanish were a dirty people with that evidence in their faces! Not that they had been, at least where he could hear it, but he’d felt eyes on him the moment Stupid Horse had trotted through the gates, heard whispered rumors of how others said they were no more than a warband that had learned a new way to talk. Well, fuck all of those people, he was here and he was going to be gloriously orcish in front of everyone, and he was going to smell amazing doing it.

Friendly hands kneaded the soap in where it needed to be and in what felt like no time at all Sarouth was rinsing it away with the same methodical touch. This part Riaag was more willing to cut corners on: he took a breath, plunged his head underwater, scrubbed his hair briskly, and surfaced. Sarouth laughed and splashed at him a little. Riaag resisted the urge to get into a proper splash fight—there might be rules about that sort of thing, and the fewer misunderstandings the better—but he did snap his teeth playfully before wringing some of the water out of his mane.

“Did I get all of it?” asked Sarouth.

That was a good question. Riaag ran his claws through his hair in search of any leftover pockets of suds and took the time to wash away any stragglers. “Think so,” he said. “Gonna need ter be by a fire fer a little bit once I finish washin’ up. Don’t wanna have wet hair at that schmoozy thing we got later.” Said schmoozy thing wouldn’t be until sundown or so, but that still meant he only had an hour or two to get his locks dry and combed out into something worth walking around wearing. What if he wanted to style it? Making a good impression on behalf of his entire culture was a lot of work.

“I could help you with that part, too,” said Sarouth.

Riaag couldn’t help one of his brows from raising. “Oh yeah?”

“Mmm-hmm. I’ll be able to get a better angle on it, get it all combed and braided up so it has an extra bit of shape to it once it dries.” He scooted closer, now facing Riaag. Someone looking in on them would just see Sarouth toying with the shock of Riaag’s hair that stuck up in the front, at least when not wet, but Riaag was close enough to receive the full force of Sarouth being suggestive. “I figure we can keep each other company until it’s ready to be brushed out again.” Sarouth shifted his weight and brushed Riaag’s cock with the side of his thigh, and no amount of sets of twelve in the world could help things now. “Would you sing for me, maybe?”

While Riaag often sang for Sarouth, the context made it pretty clear they weren’t talking about normal music this time. That was just fine. “I, I could probably think of a thing or two you’d like, sure.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

He barely remembered getting out of the pool, though he must have at some point since he went from wrapping his hair in a towel poolside to finding himself pushed up against the wall of their shared room, Sarouth’s mouth hot against his own and Sarouth’s leg parting his to rub against his cock, itself now thoroughly done with sums. Sarouth was half a head shorter than Riaag was and had to stand on tiptoe to kiss him, but the way he threw his entire body into whatever he did made it feel like he towered over Riaag even when he couldn’t always reach. The need for heat and combing suddenly seemed a lot less important in the face of a hungry god-speaker.

Riaag hadn’t bothered fully dressing for the walk back to their quarters, just tossing on his coat, boots, and trousers so he’d have a chance at looking modest while scuttling through the halls, and Sarouth had already taken advantage of this. Future Riaag would worry about whether or not anything was getting wrinkles by being left in a pile once Present Riaag was finished. He let Sarouth guide him away from the wall and push him down into the cushion-piled pallet they slept on; his hair wrap came loose as he sprawled, but he couldn’t find it in him to care at the moment. Riaag found he didn’t care about a lot of things just then. Being flat on his back with a clear view of Sarouth, who in turn was looking back at him, was a very good place to be.

A question growled in his ear and he replied breathlessly. Sarouth straddled him, jewelry gleaming in the dim light, and they both gasped in unison as their cocks rocked against each other. It was quick and fierce. Riaag cried out softly—privacy or no there were other people around—and made desperate musical sounds each time Sarouth ground down against him. He also came first, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but that meant Sarouth had to ease off while Riaag was still tender, and that simply wouldn’t do when they had to make the best use of their time. He reached for Sarouth’s shaft to stroke him; once Sarouth had angled himself to allow this better Riaag tilted his head up and to the side. They had somewhere to be that evening, yes, but he had plenty of high-collared clothing, and his neck had been feeling bare since the last love bite Sarouth had left him faded a few days ago. Sarouth’s teeth stung Riaag’s exposed throat as his hands pressed hard against Riaag’s shoulders. Something that wasn’t quite a word but might have been shaped like his name snarled, muffled, into Riaag’s skin, and then Sarouth twisted his head (which hurt exquisitely), tensed up, and came profusely before he flopped like a newborn goat onto Riaag’s now rather sticky stomach.

“Sorry I didn’t get your hair braided,” he said once he caught his breath. “I got a little distracted.”

Riaag basked in the afterglow. He couldn’t sleep with Sarouth on top of him, but having his weight there was a comfort he hadn’t enjoyed for what felt like forever by now. “Yeah, well, I might’ve gotten distracted, too.”

Sarouth dragged his thumb through the thick, cooling smear that was still mostly stuck to Riaag. He licked it clean and made a face. “Whoof. One of us needs to drink more water.”

“Why Sarouth White-Hair, is you sayin’ that jizz tastes an awful lot like jizz?”

That got a laugh out of him. “That’s exactly what I’m saying! Also make sure I have something other than wine at the thing tonight, which we really ought to start prepping for….”

Riaag wrapped his arms around Sarouth and pressed him to his chest. “Aw, no, cain’t we just lie like this a little bit more? Feels like we’s always so busy,” he said. He nuzzled at the lock of hair that was still somehow covering up Sarouth’s god-borrowed eye. The late afternoon sun that filtered in through their curtained windows was dim but they had yet to light any lamps, so there was probably still time. “Just until the first sundown bell rings, at least?”

He sighed happily when Sarouth lay his head back down again. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.”

The bell rang far too soon, its brief flurry of peals signaling half an hour remaining between day and dusk. Sarouth peeled away from Riaag and fussed over cleaning themselves up before he began furiously rummaging through his luggage for what he planned to wear to the evening’s gala. There was so much to do in the ensuing hustle and bustle that it felt like they hadn’t spent any time together at all. Still, any time Riaag worried if he’d just wanted things to happen instead of actually taking part in them all he had to do was touch the bruise that purpled his throat, and the soft ache would keep him company for a little while more.

Winter had been a real bastard that year, but no amount of bad weather or marauding raiders could keep the stronghold from feeling lively during the months leading up to spring. All of the most recent converts had found places to stay, people to live with, and ways to contribute; some, Riaag noted with no small satisfaction, were even cautiously speaking with the farmers as they prepared for the thaw. It was one of the oldest stories in the stronghold, the jackal who put down her sword and took up a sickle, and did his heart glad to see it every time. The Rhoanish heart was a fierce one because it knew just how bad things could be outside the walls.

There were technically two sets of walls, if you thought about it: one was obvious, that being the wooden palisade that ran all around the stronghold and bristled with overt threats to any who would dare challenge it, but the other was more symbolic, as it was the mountains that went all around the valley, far out enough that you couldn’t even see them from the north gate. You had to breach both to get to the far places where they held Concordance, and what had started out as simply strange and new became more dreadful the more Riaag learned about it. It had seemed like a lot when they’d hosted both the merchants and the Usoans at once back before Year’s End, but those were only two groups. He’d heard tell of scores of people all in one place. It was going to be like wading through a sea of people.

“They kill orcs in those parts, you know,” said Sarouth one evening in the middle of talking about the weather the palace supposedly got. “We’re going to have to be careful.”

“The fuck? Why?”

Sarouth sighed. “Our hearts are wild here in the lowlands, but we temper them with the covenant of Agritakh and the joy of a life well-lived. We live richer lives than we would if we were merely Old People who could speak. Outside the valley they aren’t so lucky.”

“No kindness?”

“No Hill God.”

“Wha-aaa?” He furrowed his brow. “Does they just follow the Scavenger Kings alone, then?”

“If you found an outlander and spoke to them of the Kings, they’d think you were mad-sick. And then probably try to cut you down.”

Riaag gasped in horror. How did people live like that? He knew full well it was possible to wake up in the morning and not say your prayers (not that he ever skipped his), and for certain reasons some people either had never heard the Chant or had rejected its wonderful words (since he’d done his share of heretic hunting), but the idea of just not having He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth there at all was anathema to him. It would be like trying to breathe without lungs, or to sing without a mouth. Didn’t they know how much He loved them? Didn’t they care about how much He had sacrificed for the good of the world, giving up the stars themselves so that there would be a place for life to grow? Didn’t they know all good things came from the promise of the soil? And what kind of person lived without the lessons of the Kings? If you didn’t understand the very essences of blood, steel, or fire, could you swear by them?

Did they even swear oaths at all?

“Riaag?”

How could they do that? How could they be given that sort of bounty, that freedom to live without fear of being unclean, and just use it to fuck people over? Didn’t they know how good they had it?

“Riaag, you’re shaking. Can you come back to me?”

He blinked and realized he’d been gritting his teeth so hard his mouth hurt. It was strange not having his face slick with tears when he got upset. Sarouth was touching his arm and giving him the sort of look he used to wear whenever he’d wake Riaag up out of a nightmare, back when the amulets weren’t so good at keeping them away. Riaag took several deep breaths. He’d find some words in a minute and he could talk about it, and things would be fine. Until he found some words he’d just let Sarouth speak instead.

Speak Sarouth did. “I haven’t seen you like this before. What’s wrong? You didn’t used to get upset when we’d walk the rounds in the highlands and bring the Chant to shepherds who’d never heard it before, and you don’t seem to have any problem with the River People and their River God whenever we visit Usoa. What’s different this time?”

“It’s…it’s fucked up, you know?”

“Okay. Can you tell me how?”

Riaag rubbed at the little collection of beads and carved bone held snugly against the skin of his left bicep. It took him a while to collect his thoughts in an order that made any sense when he ran it through his mind again. “It’s like…why’s alla them like that? Why don’t they wander peacefully? Way you say it it’s like there’s a hole in they hearts, but they don’t ever try ter fill it up, not by singin’ ter they ancestors or bein’ good ter each other or nothin’. So they just fight and fight, ’cause it don’t matter. They’s so hurt and sick inside and they like it. It’s fucked up!”

“We don’t know that for certain, Riaag. We just know that over the mountains is a dangerous place to be, and Agritakh’s Chant isn’t said there. Maybe there’s other things, good things, that we just don’t understand yet.” He stroked Riaag’s hair. “It’s part of why I want to go there. If there are people we can help by being more visible, by showing them that our ways aren’t their ways but still good things? Well, of course I’m going to chance a visit. Maybe they just have never had someone sit down and talk to them face to face. Remember Torrek Lamb-Slaughter and Voos One-Ear?” Riaag did; they’d been a notorious pair of cutthroats who terrorized the northeastern hills for years. Now both of them made quilts, Torrek weaving and Voos sewing. “Do you think they would ever have changed their ways without us giving them that chance?”

“Yeah, well, Voos went by Amber-Eye back then,” said Riaag.

“I did bandage him up after I sliced it off during that initial skirmish,” replied Sarouth with a dismissive wave of his hand. “But we still told them there was a better way, and they were willing to listen. And now winters aren’t nearly so cold.” He thumped the quilt that was thrown over the bed. It had been the first those two had made that hadn’t fallen apart, and it definitely showed, but awkward as some of the stitching was it contributed to keeping the night chill away. “Besides, I’ve heard that there are other places where orcs and others get along. We might want to contact them, see if they’re worth supporting.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. There’s a place to the south, far across the river, where this eccentric who lives in a big tower takes care of what sounds like several bands’ worth, maybe even an entire clan. Imagine if we had new friends living so close!”

While Riaag’s anxious heart tried its damnedest to stay upset, it was hard not to feel Sarouth’s enthusiasm rub off a little. Even if Concordance was a wash there were still options. What would be the easiest form of cultural exchange when dealing with a fleet of unfamiliar families? Ah, yes. “You think they gonna like Rhoanish cooking?”

Sarouth leaned in to press his forehead against Riaag’s, his gaze close and intimate. “With you overseeing the food, brave warrior, how could they not?” His arms went around Riaag’s neck. “If they love it even an ounce as much as I love you, we’ll have allies for life.”

Riaag hummed in approval and let Sarouth stay that way for a while. The winter wind shook the walls of their tent and set the firepots to flickering, but he didn’t care. It was nice just being able to sit quietly and be loved.

Not every face at Concordance was a stranger’s, and not all of those recognizable smiles belonged to people from Usoa. Riaag had lost count of how many events he’d attended by then—easily half a dozen, and there was sometimes more than just one a day so they’d started blending together—so he was halfway surprised just how long it’d been before a familiar man with beads in his beard caught up with him and Sarouth at one of the many evening galas.

“Sarouth White-Hair, Riaag Bough-Breaker!” the man said, his smile warm and his eyes bright. Riaag waved back; Sarouth, who was already talking the ear off of someone wearing what appeared to be a crown of woven antlers, didn’t seem to hear at first, but he nodded when Riaag caught his eye and disengaged from his current conversation.

“It’s been, what, five months since we saw you last? Six?” continued the man once he had Sarouth’s attention.

“Before the turning of the year, at least by our reckoning,” said Sarouth with a nod. Neither of them made mention of the business with the marauders that went on when ibn al-Qazi’s crew had visited that winter, so Riaag opted not to bring it up and instead let Sarouth continue talking. “It is good to see you well, Farouq ibn al-Qazi. This place is so big I half thought we would somehow lose you in the crowd between meetings. I have not seen so much as a footprint from your fellows and I was beginning to worry we would not cross paths at all! It would be a shame if we could not speak freely.”

It was probably meant as pleasant small talk, but Riaag resonated with that comment heavily; it felt like as soon as he met anyone in the teeming morass of people they were swallowed up by a wall of yet more talking heads whose histories he felt stupid for not knowing already. He’d spotted Manouchihr all of twice since they’d traded poetry and neither time had been good for talking. Trying to keep track of everyone was like trying to drink an entire waterfall by standing at the bottom, and Riaag suspected it’d make him feel just as helpless and sick if he didn’t find ways to cut corners.

Sarouth and Farouq had continued going during Riaag’s reverie, so he tried not to make it obvious he’d stopped paying attention. It sounded like they were exchanging political niceties now. “Naar Rhoan is forever in your debt for helping us to attend!”

Farouq waved his hand dismissively. “We are happy to do it. Stronghold porcelain has made our caravans countless riches in so little time we would be fools not to invite our new friends. Perhaps the Five-Spired City will gain influence of its own just by being known allies of yours.”

“If not influence, then infamy.”

“While I cannot speak for my fellows, I know I would personally be glad for either, White-Hair,” said Farouq. “Word spread about the show you gave them at the gates.”

Sarouth smirked and rested his hand on one hip. He gestured with the cup of savory lassi in his hand as he continued: “I scarcely had a choice! You and I both know that my kind is not welcomed here. I will play by their rules but I will also make sure they cannot ignore me in the process.”

“Concordance would be much more dull without the Rhoanish here, I can tell you that much.”

“Here is hoping that excitement doesn’t catch up with us in the dark of night,” said Sarouth, and though his tone was light Riaag could see a predatory sparkle in his eye, a slight tenseness to his neck. That was how things had been the entire trip, on and off: all smiles, all laughter, all keen wit and easy jokes, but under everything they both knew that these were lands where orcs were hunted in droves. Riaag had personally had to soothe too many of the guards and assistants they’d brought when the stress had threatened to break them. Everyone was bound by the rules of the palace and sworn to protection within its walls, but how many parts of that “everyone” were looking for any excuse they could find to revoke it?

Once again the conversation had continued on without Riaag. “Don’t tell Ayisha of this or she will have my head for it, but you could probably charge us more for what you trade us and we’d still be making an excellent profit when we sell it abroad,” said Farouq, conspiratorially.

“You know our trading ways are different from yours. What would we do with things we can’t easily stockpile? You can’t eat trading tokens. They tend to make pretty bad jewelry, too.”

“Tch, your valley can refuse to deal in coin as long as it likes, and we will still send our wagons to your stronghold, but if you change your mind, we will be waiting.”

Sarouth had once tried explaining the concept of profits to Riaag, but he still wasn’t entirely sure how it differed from simply having a surplus of things you weren’t using and being willing to trade more for rarer things you did need. Coinage was confusing, too; everyone understood the value of having metal you could carry around with you, and just having a way to transport iron was the reason people still bothered with the chunky, awful nonsense of cleaver-swords, but near as Riaag could tell people didn’t melt coins down for the metal when they needed it. Merchants were weird.

“So the last set we sent through the mountains said you are building in Naar Rhoan now! Is it storehouses for the next harvest, or something different?”

“Bits of this and bits of that. Our Usoan friends have been very helpful. I think most Rhoanish will insist on their tents for a while yet, but we will build better places for our healers to tend the sick and pavilions for people to gather under in poor weather, and it will ease them into it.”

What Sarouth didn’t mention was how he had also started to tentatively plan a permanent structure to replace their tent, maybe not as grand as Usoa’s homes for its leaders but similarly symbolic, a place that could be handed down through the generations to whomever was keeping the place from falling apart at the time. They’d already started talking to local carvers about making decorations for it. Riaag had been helping with floorplan suggestions despite not really understanding how all the bits were meant to fit together, or whether they even could; however the place ended up, though, he knew it was guaranteed to have a magnificent kitchen.

“Isn’t that right, Riaag?” Shit. He’d drifted away again.

“Ah, sorry. I was thinking about the work we have waiting for us back home. What had you asked me, again?”

“I was saying that the rice trade has been treating us well this year,” said Sarouth.

No wonder he’d started thinking about what quilts he wanted to make for the new house. Riaag could plow a field with the best of them, and he knew how to build and maintain tools both iron (for home) and copper or ceramics (for Usoa), and he could even help with harvesting if some extra hands were needed, but when it came to doing anything with crops other than getting them into people’s bellies he couldn’t help but find it desperately boring.

“Oh, yes,” he said, scrabbling mentally for something worthwhile to add. “And no sign of the blight that struck our neighbors, though we make sure to grow things in different fields when we can so the soil can rest.”

Had he not been trying to make a good impression he would have sighed with relief that he remembered that much of Sarouth’s talks about what made for healthy cropland. He hadn’t mentioned all the sacrifices they made to keep things bountiful, of course, but Riaag had enough presence of mind to know that most foreigners didn’t like hearing about bloodletting or scattering bandit ashes when they were going to be eating soon. When people were put off by something as everyday as carrion for dinner you learned to assume any little thing might prove upsetting.

“Have they ever found the cause of the Usoan famine?” asked Farouq. “Was it just bad luck, or something more?”

Sarouth took another swig from his lassi. “Well, while I have not asked so bluntly, we believe part of it stems from their old god-speaker losing his ability to tell which desires were his own and which belonged to their River God….”

Riaag set his jaw and hunkered down mentally. It was going to be a long evening.

It had been an entire week since first swearing their oath and Riaag still felt drunk from the sheer unreality of things. He’d been in Sarouth’s tent before, including the private part in the back, plenty of times since they’d pitched it in the shadow of the sacred hill, but he’d never spent the night in it prior, not even to stand guard; now he retired there each evening and only left to greet the dawn. It was too hot and Sarouth’s bed was too small for them both to share it the whole night, so Riaag did his actual sleeping in a spare cot he’d set up at the foot of the bed. It felt a little like the old days. Better, even, since now he could reach out and touch Sarouth and be absolutely sure everything was fine instead of straining his ears to see if the familiar cacophonous snoring was coming at a healthy-sounding pitch and frequency. Sarouth kept talking about getting something big enough for the two of them, too, but that really wasn’t necessary; all Riaag needed was the luxury of closeness.

That wasn’t to say that he spent his days kept chastely at arm’s length. Sarouth, as Riaag had suspected but had not personally confirmed until recently, was absolutely ravenous when it came to sex, although he kept his attentions firmly within the narrow band of activities he and Riaag had negotiated their first evening together. It was kind of nice being able to say no and have Sarouth back off immediately—Riaag had done this a time or two for the sake of sheer novelty—but it was a lot more fun agreeing to retire to the back for a bit. One such incident had been that afternoon after they’d finished fixing up some garden fencing that had broken in the previous night’s storm; no sooner had they set the gate back on his hinges than Sarouth had practically dragged Riaag back with him. A flurry of exchanged hands later and Riaag was flat on his back and slightly hanging off the mattress in places while Sarouth curled up against his side. Much longer and they’d be unpleasantly sticky from the hot, wet summer air, but for now it was good enough to just lie together and let himself be touched.

It felt like a thousand new songs were all jostling for space in his head. Some, Riaag felt, would be fine for sharing with everyone, since they had the kind of jolly exuberance that was nice to have around when the weather was foul and cold and people needed some extra fire in their guts. If he could get any good enough he’d consider teaching them to some of the stronghold’s children. Then there were the more intimate works, the ones he would croon in private where no one else would be privy to the raw and ugly, but no less pure, side of his love. There was something weirdly right in how what he felt were his finest songs would only ever be heard by a single person, despite Riaag having the ears of the entire stronghold if he wanted them. Maybe Sarouth would notice and maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was letting his heart overflow dramatically in the way only a poet’s could.

Songs made it easier to say things in a way that felt real. “I’ve loved you for years,” he’d said a week ago, and while it was true it felt hollow in the face of just showing that love in everything he did. Mere speech felt insufficient for couching the ache he’d nursed for the better part of a decade and the relief for said he’d since found in Sarouth’s arms. How could words compare to standing watch for hours in the bitter cold, or catching a foe’s weapon with his shield in the nick of time, or simply knowing the way Sarouth liked his cabbages roasted and making sure to use just the right amount of garlic? He could sing about any of those, wrapping the meaning up with music so it sounded right, but if he had to say any of the same ideas without a protective layer of symbols and verse he’d be helpless. Wouldn’t it fall flat?

He ran his fingers through Sarouth’s messy tail of hair. Maybe he was thinking too literally, or not literally enough. After all, Sarouth was a god-speaker, and while he could give sermons and speeches with all the awe-inspiring majesty of Agritakh Himself he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so any songs of his own were out. How would Riaag know if Sarouth ever felt the same way? Apparently Riaag’s way with words—a thing he considered as natural as breathing, even if he couldn’t always think of the perfect phrase the first time through—was a gift, the sort of thing that evaded Sarouth as surely as a greased frog. Maybe he’d choose to express himself through actions of his own, instead. Would it be a kiss on the cheek, maybe? A fond look half-hidden but no less sincere? Maybe it was different with god-speakers: since they saw things no one else could, would they share secrets the same way? Hopefully it wouldn’t require learning to read the future in tossed yarrow stalks.

It was starting to get too hot to cuddle again, so Riaag wasn’t surprised when Sarouth propped himself up on his elbows to let a little fresh air between them. Oh, but he was handsome in the dim light, his narrow-jawed face and long, lean body everything that Riaag’s were not. Sarouth popped his lips as he stared at an empty space on the divider curtain. He looked pensive. It seemed proper to let him think in silence.

“Riaag?” he asked after a little while.

“Yeah?”

Sarouth sighed a bit, like he’d resigned himself to something difficult, but before Riaag could ask him what was wrong he said, “I love you.”

Oh. So that was how it was going to be. Riaag had expected an intense yet calm exchange of emotions between two grown men at some unspecified time in the future; what he got was feeling giddy and awkward and like he was going to blush himself to death. It was hard to think of anything to say other than, “Really?”

“Yeah. Really and truly. I’d been trying to think of a good time to say it, but after a while I realized I’d just keep making excuses for why the time wasn’t right yet. So I just, you know. Decided now would do. Because I do love you.”

Riaag was still stunned. “Wow.”

Sarouth put his hand over his eyes and laughed quietly. “You know, I built it up so much for myself I thought it’d be harder? Like I’d have to come up with a big dramatic speech like that one you gave me. You’re my dearest friend and I didn’t want to screw up something like this. But once I got over that hump of doubt it was just…easy.” He sank back down and looked up at the ceiling. “Maybe it’s because I’ve known it for a long time.”

“I dunno what ter say, ‘cept that’s, um. Wow. That means a lot.” Riaag rolled to the side and swept Sarouth up in a tight hug that was very much not suitable for the weather. “Is it okay if I don’t really got a song ter go with that right now?”

“It’s very okay,” said Sarouth with a smile. He then thumped Riaag on the side. “You’re going to have to let go, though, I think I’m melting.”

They rolled apart, and laughed together, and once they’d rinsed away the worst of the sweat they dressed again to play a few rounds of fox-and-geese, and for the rest of the day Riaag felt lost in how nice it was to be this close with someone he’d adored for so long.

The morning of their anniversary, Sarouth kissed Riaag’s ear before spiriting away to some sort of breakfast thing he’d been invited to but Riaag hadn’t.

The day itself went normally. There was a meeting about the state of roads in lands Riaag had never heard of, but he and Sarouth were there since supposedly there would be talk of how new roads should be built and maintained. There was a modest lunch. At one point Riaag managed to talk about language with Manouchihr again. There wasn’t much else to do.

The evening of their anniversary came and still Riaag held out hope that something, anything, was waiting for him, but save for trying a new type of stuffed fig at the meal they attended there was very little that stood out. Sarouth, saying his voice was tired from a day of talking up the stronghold’s wines, went to bed shortly after dinner, and save for rolling over to snuggle against Riaag’s back he didn’t do much of anything when Riaag came to bed a little while later. Riaag debated waking him up, but what was the point? Maybe it was a test. Maybe he’d wake up at midnight and it would be wonderful, and Sarouth would be proud of him for not doubting. Except he had been doubting, a lot, but maybe it didn’t count if he didn’t say anything?

When he woke up next it was the following morning, the same as any other day, and no mention was made of the day, or their oath, or anything.

The same thing happened the morning after that.

Riaag went through the motions expected of him, being courteous to strangers and alert during meetings, but on the inside it felt like his guts were made of lead. He wasn’t sure whether it was worse to be put aside with no fanfare or simply forgotten; Sarouth kept acting like there was nothing wrong, so Riaag tried to do the same in the event it was part of some greater plan, but it still felt awful. Sarouth falling and being out for several hours between the day’s meetings didn’t make Riaag’s situation any easier to bear, either. Had he been meant to say something about it all earlier? Was it not actually a test, just bad timing? Now he was doubting his original doubt.

Two nights of not saying anything was about as much as he could bear, so Riaag excused himself from a rather nice dancers’ performance (which was hard to enjoy while in such a low mood) and slunk back to their quarters to sulk. Sulking, in this case, meant crying snotty, soundless tears while punching a sturdy-looking part of the wall, and by the time his knuckles were too sore to continue he still had enough residual wrath that he accidentally ripped his shirt when disrobing for a quick washtub scrub. He couldn’t find it in himself to care that he was so upset, even as he kept feeling his amulet burn cold against his arm as it tried to soothe his wounded heart. At least behind closed doors he could act as shitty as he felt without disgracing the stronghold.

After a bath and a bit of roaring into a pillow to let off what steam he could, Riaag settled down with his ripped shirt and his sewing kit. He tried to focus on just the shirt: it was damaged, but he could fix it, and he could take as long as he needed, and when he was done it would be good as new again because he’d done things like this countless times before. You didn’t follow someone as bramble-prone as Sarouth for years without learning a lot about repairs. Thinking about Sarouth was not helping right now, but reminding himself of how familiar he was with the task at hand did a little bit. Soon his hands were moving and his mind was wandering, and while he still felt (and probably looked) like a mess it was better than things had been before. The night wind came in through the palace’s wind-channels, ruffling the ends of his hair as it brought in cool, pleasant scents from outside. Being alone was starting to work out okay.

Naturally, as soon as he’d gotten into a good groove of working mindlessly in private, someone knocked at the door. Riaag hunkered down and didn’t answer; he hoped whoever was there would think he was asleep, or out elsewhere, or something, and that they’d look elsewhere for someone to talk to. Instead it turned out to be Sarouth, a tray of food in one hand and a bright smile on his face.

“You seemed a little down when we were watching the dancers, so I brought you something from dinner,” he said. Riaag looked away and redoubled his efforts with his sewing. Sarouth set the tray down on a low table and touched Riaag’s arm; it took a great deal of self-control not to shy away. “What’s bothering you, brave warrior? You’ve seemed some level of glum all day, and it’d be terrible if you can’t enjoy tomorrow because of it.”

“The fuck’s happening termorrow?” snapped Riaag. He’d been tracking the entirety of Concordance since they arrived, and while the next day would be important in terms of diplomacy he couldn’t think of much on the schedule that he, personally, would risk enjoying or not.

Sarouth tilted his head. “Why, it’ll be the day marking the first full year since we swore our oath, of course. I thought you’d be a little more excited about it.”

“I were excited when it first came around. That were two fucken days ago. Almost three, now.”

“…what?”

Riaag finished the final stitch and put things to the side with exaggerated care. “I said we missed it,” he said, his words half-mumbled since he didn’t trust himself not to raise his voice if he wasn’t quiet. “We been right on time fer e-e-ev’ry fucken thing here, we been ter all the little parties and every little meal some shitbird we ain’t never met prior has sponsored and we sure as fuck ain’t never missed a single chance ter talk up how good we Rhoanish is gonna be ter know, but we just fucken…skipped it. Like it don’t even fucken matter.”

“Of course it matters!” said Sarouth. “It’s a very big thing! ” It was hard to read his expression save as a sort of general admixture of horror and sorrow. Riaag had seen him make that face before and it brought up bad memories, which didn’t help anything.

“If it’s so big then why weren’t you askin’ how I were doin’ three days ago?”

“Because it wasn’t the day then, was it? It’s, it’s…what day is it?” Sarouth held his face in his hands. He sounded pained, though his words started coming out so fast they blended together in places. “They don’t use the same time-keeping we do here, I only know the date the way the locals do it. Nobody knows how we track the year but us, and nobody else said anything to me. Isn’t tomorrow the day?”

This was fast shaping up to be one of the worst conversations Riaag had ever had, and he’d lived several lifetimes’ worth of nasty exchanges before he’d fallen in with Sarouth all those years ago. He was mostly sure Sarouth wasn’t trying to fuck with his head, but the only reason he was able to cling to that truth was because even when they’d been nowhere near as close Sarouth had always been honest and true with him, even when said honesty and truth had painful results. So how on earth could a man who kept an entire stronghold going get such an important date wrong? It was as if entire chunks of time were missing from his memory.

Suddenly things made more sense. “It’s ’cause you been goin’ out so much lately, ain’t it. You’s missin’ time ’cause you keep gotta givin’ it ter He Who Sleeps.”

“I…I don’t know. Maybe. That would explain it, I guess.” Sarouth chuckle-sobbed. “I’m so used to being able to check with other people when it happens.”

“So why didn’t you ask me?”

“Because I thought I had things under control! Or I used to think that! How long have I been out? How many times?”

It wasn’t a perfect number since he didn’t know how many times Agritakh had briefly surfaced without taking Sarouth all the way back with Him, but Riaag counted off every instance he knew of since they’d first boarded the boat. The longer he went the more Sarouth looked like he wanted to die. Added all together it was probably more than three days, but that didn’t undo the fact that Sarouth had still ended up chronologically adrift simply by existing as a god-speaker abroad.

“So I guess this really is my fault,” he said once Riaag had finished his tally. “I probably should’ve expected it.”

Riaag snorted. “You coulda said somethin’ if’n you suspected things was wrong.”

“I didn’t, though! It all seemed fine! I’d wake up and you’d tell me I was out for a bit but you acted like everything was okay, so I thought it was okay! What was I supposed to do, Riaag, not listen to what you were telling me?”

“How was I ter know you didn’t know?” said Riaag, and it was so hard keeping from bellowing with frustration the way new problems kept raining down on him. “Way you kept talkin’ up ever’thing about the stronghold and little bitty-bits of what all you was doin’ fer the Hill God I thought you was keepin’ it all tergether! What am I supposed ter do, assume Naar Rhoan means more ter you than I does? It sure do look that way this last week!”

He kept his hands at his sides—Riaag had promised to himself long ago that he’d never be the kind of man to raise his fist in a peaceful argument, and he had never made ill on that promise—but Sarouth still flinched as though he’d been struck. “That’s not a fair question to ask, Riaag,” he said, looking away.

“I don’t fucken care if it’s fair or not! I don’t care if it’s selfish, neither, ’cause ain’t you the one what’s always sayin’ you cain’t do shit without my help?”

“And I mean it every time! There’s no way I’d be sitting here in this palace miles away from home if I didn’t have you with me! I don’t know how to make it any clearer how much I mean it. I try to be open about how much I love you, I push hard to act on as much of your advice as I can, I love your cooking and strive to tell you how important every single meal you make for me is—”

“You eat what I feed you but you don’t never wear the things I fucken labor over fer months!” said Riaag, so quickly and forcefully that it drowned out whatever else Sarouth was trying to say. “What am I supposed ter take from that? That I’m allowed ter keep you from starvin’ down ter bones but if’n I say you might look nice in a gift I done made you I might as well be givin’ you a bag fulla dogshit?”

Sarouth cringed. “It’s not like that at all. You know I treasure every single thing you bring me, and I wish I could wear them every day, but—”

“So why don’t you? Is you fucken ashamed of me, then?”

“That’s not what I said and we both know it,” said Sarouth. He traced a blunt-clawed fingertip along the edge of his forelock, parting it just enough to reveal the painted symbol of Agritakh there. “I wear your work every day, you’ll remember. Every time I step outside with my hair uncovered people see me showing off some of the great things you do.”

“Of course they sees it! You’s fucken named fer it! That ain’t me, that’s just me makin’ you look like yourself! It don’t count!”

The low growl from Sarouth’s throat was not what Riaag had expected to hear. “I don’t think we’re really arguing about what we think we are,” said Sarouth, “at least not anymore. What are we even doing here?”

Riaag took this as an insult even as the more rational part of his brain insisted it wasn’t. “You think I’s too stupid ter know what’s goin’ on, don’t you?”

“I didn’t say that, either!”

“Well maybe you meant it!” he said, though the instant he said so he regretted it. Hadn’t Sarouth always listened to what he had to say? Hadn’t Sarouth never teased him about his dialect? Riaag hadn’t lashed out physically, but the thought of being the kind of man who wounded people in other ways was disgusting. This wasn’t like him at all. He had a sudden pressing need to be away from Sarouth and Sarouth’s cavalcade of unbearable expressions.

“I gotta, I gotta go out,” said Riaag.

“Okay,” said Sarouth.

“Dunno when I’ll be back.”

“Okay.” Sarouth picked up one of the little snacky things he’d brought in on the tray, turned it over in his hand, and put it back without taking a bite. “Do you want me to find you later?”

“Dunno. Don’t care. I gotta be alone fer a bit.”

“I’ll give you your space, then,” said Sarouth, and Riaag was grateful for him turning away.

The last thing Riaag heard out of him before leaving was a heavy sigh. He didn’t stay long enough to see if that sigh would become anything else; the closing of the door between them was final enough that he didn’t want to prolong things any more than they already had. Riaag stepped through the rest of the suite and out into the hall, picked a direction, and started walking.

Piking someone up on the wall was not something that could be done all higglety-pigglety, at least not if you didn’t want to be up to your nips in ghosts by the end of the day. There were standards for this sort of thing. If you wanted to split hairs the only standard you really needed was a god-speaker willing to tend to each corpse to quiet the restless spirit denied contact with the nourishing earth, but Naar Rhoan kept managing to accumulate more enemies despite doing its best to make more friends, and so extra precautions needed to be taken to make sure there wouldn’t be any ghosts leaking out if for some reason one of Sarouth’s rituals didn’t take.

The most important part of a good corpse-pike was the shaft. They had to be long, to ensure the dead asshole impaled on the thing didn’t touch the ground too soon, but they also had to be sturdy, since dead assholes weighed a lot more than you’d think. If it snapped from the strain things were embarrassing for everyone, especially if the aforementioned dead asshole fell on somebody out for a stroll. You had to be sure the pike would fit snugly and securely in whatever housing you made for it, and that it was at a good angle to both not get taken away by the wind but also to be easy to see from a good ways away. Sometimes you needed someone down on the ground with some flags to help guide things to the exact right placement. Sure, you could skimp on any of that part, but Riaag had seen some careless cadaver-piles in his time, and every time it felt like whoever had put them out just didn’t care. If you were going to be displaying the remains of those who stood against you and lost, laziness or lack thereof was what separated any old bandit keep from a proper stronghold.

Also key in constructing a good pike was the head. You could just sharpen the tip of the shaft if you wanted, no fancy parts required, and that had been their preferred method during the first few months of life within the walls, but if Naar Rhoan was going to be a major contender in the trade scene it had to step up its game accordingly. These days they went straight for the clearest, most aggressive message in the bag: sharpened sabertooth fangs.

Sabertooth was something of an odd one out as far as animals (and Animals) went: while there was a place in Agritakh’s heart for bears, wolves, leopards, jackals, and countless other hunting beasts, the sabertooth was far more aggressive than any of them, and if too many of them settled in an area they could wreak such havoc (and cause so many deaths) that the usually tolerant Rhoanish mindset turned to thoughts of either driving them out or hunting them down. The rage they carried bled through into things taken from their remains, to the extent that wearing something made from a sabertooth was an act of aggression all on its own; making pike heads from their distinctive teeth was like a rude gesture that could be seen half a mile away. The tell-tale curve was only slightly straightened during the sharpening process. It made actually impaling someone with them take a bit of extra doing, but in Riaag’s opinion it was the little details that mattered when it came to showing trophies.

Aside from making sure corpses were properly dressed when they went up on the wall—Naar Rhoan was fierce to those who stood against it, yes, but they weren’t monsters—you also had to be prepared to take them down when Agritakh finally saw fit to call them to His side after a suitable amount of penitence. Sometimes this meant when they rotted enough to slide down the pike, sometimes it was when the vultures had picked the last of their bones, sometimes it was revealed in dreams, and sometimes a family petitioned the case of the displayed well enough that they’d be removed from the prison of the air. You never threw things at the piked bodies, nor did you disfigure them; their state was insult enough that anything more would have been rude. Whatever the reason, when it was time for the dead to come down, they always received proper funeral rites. Compassion towards one’s enemies was another of those weird ideas Sarouth kept having.

Not that there was ever a shortage of bodies to go up. Riaag helped hold a corpse’s torso steady as Sarouth speared it with a newly-assembled pike; it was the seventh one of the day, thanks to a recent bandit attack on some children gathering mushrooms, which ultimately resulted in safety and hugs for the children (all of whom came home safely) and a lot of fresh meat for the wall (none of which would make it home again). Riaag had been assigned cadaver-holding duty after Sarouth declared his impalings to be a bit too enthusiastic. It wasn’t his fault that heads came off so easily.

“So what’s with them colors you picked?” he asked, trying to keep calm now that the threat to the stronghold’s children was very much taken care of. Sometimes people joked that he’d been visited by Bear, not Wolf, given how viciously protective he was of the little ones. “These ain’t no clan marks I know, and if I don’t know it, it probably ain’t from these parts.”

Sarouth grunted as he helped lift up the pike and set it in the iron-shod socket made for it. “Try reading it more like bead code, my love. The ciphers that everyone uses and not just us, I mean.”

Riaag frowned in thought. That color was here and that other color was over there, and when put together those two would be next to that other one…aha. “Be welcome or be destroyed?”

“You’ve got it,” said Sarouth as he lightly kicked at the base of the pike with his sandal.

“Helluva fucken message ter send, Faaroug.”

“Mmm-hmmm. That’s the idea.” Satisfied with the pike’s seating, he picked up an empty one and started aligning it with a new corpse. “We send a message just by existing. We send a message by thriving while living the way we do. We send a message with every jackal we give a new life, with every family who finds new members, with every grain of rice and loaf of bread. But as it is apparently not blatant enough, so I’m upping the ante. Let none say they didn’t know what they were in for when traveling in Rhoanish lands. Would you get the legs for me, please?”

Everything Sarouth did was made up of messages, it felt like. The man himself was woven from them, from the way he wore his hair to the tattoos on his skin to the slice of smooth agate set in the circlet he wore. Messages came to him in his sleep and bled from his veins if he was cut. Just existing as a god-speaker was a message from the Hill God: I am here, and I am among you, and I grant My servant a piece of Myself because you are all precious to Me. Sarouth couldn’t even have a cup of tea with breakfast without getting a little bit of prophecy in the leaves; Riaag had started straining them out years ago to make meals easier.

Sarouth would break bread with thieves and murderers to show them they could change. Sarouth would throw aside his weapons and let his hands be bound to show that he would sacrifice his own safety in exchange for that of other Rhoanish. Sarouth would speak openly to those who wanted him dead, Sarouth would scream at the eye of a storm, Sarouth would smash taboos in the name of feeding people, Sarouth would challenge tradition at every step of the way.

Sarouth would let himself be oathbound to a son of oathbreakers.

“So this thing we got, is that a message, too?”

The next pike slid home with a moist, meaty sound before Sarouth rubbed the back of his neck with a grimace. “I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t. You were outed as having once lived as untouchable, and I was angry, and I knew the best way to keep anyone from giving you shit about it was to bind you to me. Nobody fucks with an Agritakh-ruhd. Not if they know what’s good for them. I wanted there to be no doubt at all that you belong here. I’d rather be cast out of my own home than risk that.”

“So if it’s just a way ter shake things up—”

“I’m not finished,” said Sarouth with a shake of his head. “It’s one big ‘fuck you’ to a broken tradition, yes, I’m not going to say it isn’t. But if that was the only reason I wanted to swear an oath with you I would have done that years ago, okay?” He sighed. “You’re so important to me, Riaag. I love you so much. I refused to permit anything between us for so long because I didn’t want to hurt you if you got too close, but when it got to the point that I knew I’d do more harm by denying us both what we’d been longing for? I didn’t have much of a choice. I wanted this, and I wanted you, and I don’t regret it for a second.”

Riaag stayed quiet as they prepared the last corpses. He turned Sarouth’s words over in his head; they made him want to reach through time, grab his past self by the shoulders, and yell a great deal about how things would turn out just so he could save both of them some time and heartache, but that sort of thing was a miracle not even Agritakh could grant. Instead it would be better for both of them if he looked to the future.

He didn’t speak again until they had seated the final pike. “So I been thinkin’,” he said.

There was a tenseness in Sarouth’s neck as he asked, “Yes?”

“I don’t mind bein’ part ovva message so long as you ain’t gonna tie me to a bird’s leg.” Riaag grinned.

The tenseness smoothed away into nothing, replaced by a look of mischief in his eye. “How about if we just tie the bird to you, instead?”

“I’ll get back ter you on that’n.”

Sarouth laughed and ruffled Riaag’s hair. He leaned on the open wall between the nearest pair of pikes. The steppe seemed to go on forever out there; without the wall, and without Sarouth, there would be nothing there for anyone. Riaag kept that particular message to himself. It was a little too on the nose for his taste.

There was enough room next to Sarouth to join him, so Riaag did. He placed his hand next to Sarouth’s, who reflexively moved to cover it with his own, and their fingers laced together as casually as if they’d been taking a midday stroll and not ritually disgracing the dishonorable dead. That might’ve been a message, too, but after a while you had to stop looking for meaning in everything or you’d just give yourself a headache. There would be time for more heartfelt portents later. Instead they shared the view from the wall and let the wind catch their hair, fluttering like the simple pennants hung by the gates.

“I couldn’t do this without you,” said Sarouth, and he gestured to the stronghold as a whole. They’d built the whole thing together; well, maybe not the whole thing, but large swathes of it, and they’d planted the seeds that had blossomed into what Naar Rhoan had become. It had sounded like an idea too big to even dream of when Sarouth had first shared it. Now it was hard imagining living any other way.

Riaag squeezed his hand. “Yeah. I know.”

They shared the moment for a few heartbeats more before parting, and the implied trust that they’d be able to share such a moment again was a message in and of itself.

It took until long into the night for Riaag to feel like he could actually have a reasonable talk with someone again, and longer still for him to retrace his steps through the warren of corridors that branched through the palace like an ants’ nest. Save for a few late-running parties it was a quiet walk. He poked his head into the Rhoanish suite long enough to verify with the others that Sarouth wasn’t in nor did anyone know where he’d gone; while expected, it still felt like a cruel joke, like the world was planning on setting up obstacle after obstacle in his way when all he wanted to do was see if they could reconcile. At least now he knew the layout of the place a little better.

He also had the benefit of knowing somewhere to start looking. The sand garden was in a slightly awkward location compared to their quarters, but it wasn’t like Riaag had anywhere else he needed to be; he spooked a few servants running nighttime errands but was otherwise unchallenged.

The moon cast a bright and moody light over the courtyard, and even in the dark it was easy to make out Sarouth there. He wasn’t meditating this time, instead simply sitting by the edge of the sand and doodling in it with his finger. There were no grand patterns nor miraculous shapes surrounding him like last time; he was just a man in a robe like any other, drawing pictures and looking away from the sky. That last detail was worrying. Had their argument really bothered him so much that he couldn’t even enjoy the stars on a clear night like this?

“Oh, hello,” said Sarouth as Riaag stepped into the courtyard proper. He didn’t look up from the sand.

“Hi.”

Sarouth drew what might have been an ibex. “I figured I’d spend some time out here in case you wanted to come back to the room. I know you need your privacy.”

“A’ight.” In all the time they’d known each other Sarouth had never once stepped into Riaag’s personal space without permission; back home that meant the little side tent he maintained, and before that it had been whatever lean-to or clearing or part of the cave Riaag had claimed as his own, but they’d never really established what that sort of thing would be here at Concordance. It made enough sense. Riaag hoped he could remember the gesture later on so he could feel properly touched about it.

One of the rocks near Sarouth was broader and squatter than the others, so Riaag closed the distance between them and took a seat atop the rock. They sat in silence that way for a long minute that stretched like half-dried tree sap. Sarouth smoothed over his sandy canvas halfway through and started drawing again, this time symbols of Agritakh interspersed with glyphs representing the Scavenger Kings. Riaag missed the prancing animals from before.

When he couldn’t stand it any longer, Riaag said, “Reckon we got some shit ter talk about.”

Sarouth sighed. He did it with his whole body, like everything between his toes and the crown of his skull was weary. “Reckon we do,” he said, briefly mimicking Riaag’s dialect.

“So where does we start?

“I don’t know. It feels like everything’s tangled up in everything else.” He drew a little sun, then a little plant under the sun. “I guess we could start at the beginning. I’m sorry I got the days mixed up. I could have asked someone, or asked you, or something. I shouldn’t have assumed you’d take care of everything without me asking you to simply because you’ve always been reliable.” Sarouth sighed again. “I should have talked with you about it more. I should have done something. But if it’s so important to you, and it clearly is, why didn’t you tell me as much on the day of the anniversary?”

Answering that question was going to prove tricky. “Promise you won’t get mad?”

Sarouth added a little fruit tree to his scene. “I can’t say I won’t get upset, but I promise I won’t turn that upset on you. I hope that’s good enough.”

“Yeah. S’good,” said Riaag. He centered himself with a deep breath. “You’s been distant lately. Not like you been ignorin’ me in entirety, fuck no, you been takin’ the time ter be good ter me and I does notice such. But it’s, like, there’s a part o’ you I’s used ter bein’ with even when we’s busy and playin’ host ter dozens of foreign guests, or preppin’ fer a festival, or whatever, but that part ain’t here right now. Even when you make love ter me it feels like you ain’t all there.” He wrung his hands. “I thought if I went and asked about that, I’d fail a test.”

“A test? What do you mean?”

Riaag swallowed hard and forced himself to concentrate on his breathing. He wanted honesty so he had to give honesty in return, that was just the way things went. “Like I’s supposed ter trust in you always, and if I said you wasn’t doin’ something right it’d just prove I ain’t good enough. Ter carry an oath. Or anything else.”

The words sounded so foolish when he actually said them, and it just made Riaag feel foolish for believing them still despite how wrong they sounded. He wasn’t sure if he was crying again—had he used up all his tears earlier or had they replenished during his walk?—but he wouldn’t have been surprised if he was. It was freeing to admit that fear of being worthless, at least in a way where they both had to stare at it and couldn’t just hug things out and leave the problem bandaged over until next time, but admitting it meant he couldn’t pretend he didn’t feel that way, either.

Sarouth’s voice was soft as lamb’s wool when he replied. “I don’t think that about you at all.”

“Yeah? Well I fucken do.

“Oh, Riaag,” said Sarouth, and if Riaag wasn’t crying before he damn well was crying know. He felt, more than saw, Sarouth rise to stand next to him, and even here, even now, Sarouth waited for permission to embrace him when he was upset. Riaag hugged Sarouth around the waist and pressed his forehead against Sarouth’s front. Sarouth petted his hair but was otherwise quiet; not once during their years of friendship had he ever interrupted Riaag’s weeping, and there had been plenty of time to put that to the test even if Riaag was less prone to sorrowful outbursts these days. It was a small and welcome constant in a world of endless change and for that Riaag was infinitely grateful.

Eventually he exhausted his tears again, and after sitting for awhile with Sarouth touching him gently he felt like he could string words together again. He released Sarouth and rummaged for his handkerchief. “Guess it ain’t just about gettin’ the day wrong after all,” he said between snorts.

“No, I suppose not,” said Sarouth. The front of his robes were dark with absorbed tears. If it bothered him, he showed no sign of it.

“I can sit down and say, Riaag Bough-Breaker, you is good at this, that, and the other, and look at all these folk what agree. I can walk outside the stronghold and look at that big, magnificent bastard of a place and know that yeah, I done this, I’s a man of skills and gumption. But it don’t erase how some of me got worn down until the only thing that fits in there anymore is fear.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Fucken ever’thing!” said Riaag. “Not, like, spooky shadow puppets, that I ain’t scared of. I mean I cain’t never not be terrified that somebody’s gonna look at me one day and say ter me there’s been some kinda mistake, I weren’t supposed ter be here, that I’s just some no-good shameful fucker what’s too stupid ter know where he belongs.” He blew his nose thunderously into his hanky. “Usually I can get my claws inter the thought that you’s been there for me half of forever, but it’s…it’s harder here. I got ter thinkin’ you was finally tired of my ugly ass.”

Sarouth tucked a strand of Riaag’s hair back behind his ear. “I could never get tired of you,” he said. “You’re too interesting.” He laughed ruefully. “It’d be a huge waste even if I somehow did, you know?”

“No. I don’t know.” Riaag scooted over a bit to make room for Sarouth on the rock. It wasn’t a very good fit for both of them at once, but it felt important to be this close, at least for now. “You can tell me what you meant by it, if’n you’s inclined.”

“It’s selfish,” said Sarouth.

“I still wanna know. I told you my thing, didn’t I?”

“That you did….” For the first time that night, Sarouth looked up at the stars. “Pure and simple, I don’t deserve you, Riaag. Let me finish,” he added, holding up a finger before Riaag could interject. “You look at me and you see an Agritakh-ruhd. You see the Faaroug himself. You see this despite having had to slap berries out of my hand on numerous occasions because I keep trying to eat ones that’ll turn my stomach inside out and give me runs for a week. You bend over backwards to make it clear to anyone who’ll hear you that I’m Sarouth White-Hair, that Sarouth White-Hair, and even if I’ve gone and made a huge mess of things you step in to set things right without any hesitation. No matter how flawed I am you insist I’m this perfect being, and I don’t know how often I sit back and really appreciate what all that means.”

Riaag frowned. “Means I’s your disciple, easy as that.”

“It’s more than that,” said Sarouth. “You know what I am and you still stay. I don’t mean an accident-prone twit who can’t sing, I mean you know me, you know that my flesh is swirled with earth and my heart beats with echoes of the void between the stars. You let me tell you I love you and you don’t run. I should be so thankful for that! It’s not fair of me to expect you to do everything that you do for me and still love me back.”

He could have said he was going to give birth to a litter of kittens and it wouldn’t have been as surprising. Riaag bunched up his coat in his hands. “I don’t get what you’s sayin’ ter me, here.”

“Come on, Riaag, it’s been an entire year. You clearly enjoy the sex we have, and that’s great! It really is! But you’d think I’d have figured it out by now that I can’t force anyone to love me, at least not in the way I want. You don’t. And I guess I’m having trouble accepting it.”

It was an important distinction to make, Riaag supposed, since the sheer force of Sarouth’s personality combined with his natural semi-divine nature could pound down the dissenting heart into submission, and in the face of someone who was willing to work with him he could easily sway them into being much more agreeable, not that Sarouth ever did this except when he was trying to win new converts. The reasoning behind it bothered Riaag, though. “Whaddaya think that fer?”

“Well, the easiest way would be how you never say it. That seems like the big one.”

Riaag was stunned. Where had Sarouth gotten that idea? Riaag cooked his food and cleaned his clothes and did his hair and sang his praises and oh. Other people did that sort of thing all the time, didn’t they? Except they were called drudges, not oathbound.

He wracked his brains for the last time he’d said something like that to Sarouth. Surely it hadn’t been that long ago, surely there was something he could dredge up, and at last there was…in the form of a desperate plea, made and never repeated, when he first made his case for Sarouth to take him on as more than just a friend and bodyguard. He couldn’t remember a single other instance where he’d plainly told Sarouth he loved him, and even that admission was a bit too past tense for the hurting heart to take comfort from, wasn’t it? Sarouth said it to him so often that Riaag realized he’d assumed the unspoken reply had been assumed. This was turning out to not be the case.

“Is that what you think? That I’s servin’ your authority insteada’ you yerself?”

Sarouth pulled his legs up and tucked his knees up under his chin. “I haven’t really seen much evidence to the contrary.”

“But everything the stronghold does fer you—”

“Would be done for any god-speaker. It’s what they’re doing for Ruzhu right now. It’s in our nature to attend to that which we find holy. You haven’t really disputed my claim, either.” He turned the covered side of his face to Riaag as he looked away. “I didn’t want to be right this time.”

Riaag growled in frustration. “No, it ain’t like that, it’s just…rrgh!” He shook his head. “No matter what I say here and now, it’s gonna sound flat in your ears. You’s just built up such a callus from bein’ a god-speaker this long you cain’t imagine people actin’ any other way, and if I say anything ter disprove that you ain’t in a good place ter hear it. It’d get all tarnished. You’d think I was tryin’ ter make you feel better or tryin’ ter grabble on ter what safety I found or, I dunno, that you’d think I was tryin’ ter keep from losin’ out on that good sex thing we got.” He found himself panting, which was unusual; Riaag was in excellent physical condition, and it usually took either serious exertion or a fog of passion to get him out of breath. Arguments were tiring work.

“So if we can’t say much of anything to each other right now, what do we do?” asked Sarouth.

Riaag gave it some thought. “Well, firstly, I wanna still be oathbound. So unless you think otherwise, I don’t think that part’s much ovva problem.”

“That sounds fine. I treasure our oath dearly.”

“Next up, reckon we ought ter talk on this more later, when we ain’t so worked up from things. Seems we both got ter work on things in bits and pieces.”

Sarouth nodded. “That’s probably a good idea, too.”

“Lastly? Hrm.” What was something neutral yet productive they could do? It was too late for games, but…ah, yes. “We still got that tray of snackers you brung back?”

“We do,” said Sarouth, and a sliver of his usual cheer had crept back into his voice.

“Reckon we ought ter go have some of them, then. No sense in letting ’em go bad.”

“I think that sounds fantastic.”

Sarouth helped Riaag to his feet—a gesture more symbolic than practical, though still appreciated—and offered his elbow to Riaag, mirroring their last visit to the garden. Riaag took it daintily. Everything was too raw to think about long and he knew he was going to have a headache if he didn’t have water soon, but at least there were plans now, and that could last him a very long time.

Spring came in two different flavors: there was the good part, which was when the weather was getting warmer and the snow was melting and green things started to bloom in the highlands again, and then there was the shitty part, which was currently responsible for dumping barrels full of freezing rain on anyone unlucky enough to be stuck in it, the roles of which were being played that evening by Sarouth and Riaag. Riaag had done his best to weave a shelter for them out of pine branches, but the forest floor was too bare and the rain had come too soon for him to have more than the meanest attempt. He’d stretched his good wool blanket over the top, which had helped keep them from getting wetter than they already were, but without his blanket he was still cold and miserable. His stomach gurgled. There just hadn’t been time to prepare supplies before they’d left, and now they were both paying the price.

A wolf howled in the distance and they both sat bolt upright, but its cries went unanswered, and when the howls started getting further out they relaxed again. Riaag kept both hands on his axe just in case. It didn’t matter how wretched he felt, he simply couldn’t allow anything to hurt Sarouth. Drudges were expendable, and so were wolves, but god-speakers were as precious as rare spice.

Whether or not god-speakers felt that way about each other he was less sure on. Only a day ago they’d been sharing camp with another Agritakh-ruhd, one Darsis Cat-Skinner, and Riaag had assumed things had been fine until Sarouth approached him during the night and said it would be best for everyone if they left Cat-Skinner’s company. Riaag hadn’t really understood why, but he was Sarouth’s attendant, not Cat-Skinner’s, and so he’d packed up his things, struck his tent, and headed out before first light. If Cat-Skinner cared, Riaag had yet to see evidence of it.

“Sorry ’bout all this, Holy One,” he said to Sarouth.

“Why? There’s nothing to be sorry about. You weren’t the one to send the rain, after all.”

Riaag shook his head. His hair had grown out enough that the wet tendrils could whip him in the face when he did so; it was still taking some getting used to. “I don’t mean that. I mean sorry you had ter leave. We was doin’ okay fer a bit there.”

“You could say that,” said Sarouth. “It’s not any of your doing that we needed to go, though.”

“Why not? You was always havin’ ter explain things ter Cat-Skinner’s entourage, telling ’em ter be nice ter me and shit. I tried not ter get upset, really I did, but they kept laughin’ at my words or, or tryinna fucken touch me.” He shivered. He was halfway used to being sneered at for his dialect, as that was the whole point when they taught you to speak the way he did, but he still couldn’t handle the other thing. It was like every single one of the people in the other god-speaker’s retinue couldn’t stop trying to lay a finger on his shoulder or move to take his hand, and the thought of someone else’s skin brushing against his own was right up there with flensing himself with a dull knife in terms of things he wanted to happen. Some days it was so bad he’d stay curled up in his tent to keep from dealing with people. He wasn’t surprised the others had gotten tired of dealing with him.

“Riaag, my friend, if someone has a problem with you then they have a problem with me. But that’s not why I thought we should leave.”

A bird whirred by, daring the weather, and Riaag was disappointed to see that it hadn’t bothered to spring any of the snares he’d set in hopes of catching a meal. It wasn’t going to be dark for several hours but he longed for a fire, or at least the room to build a fire. If he tried doing it in their current shelter he’d risk burning up his only blanket. “So why ain’t we with them others no more, Holy One? I thought we was gonna have an okay time with Cat-Skinner’s group. I mean, you liked him.”

Sarouth ran his hand down his face and made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. “We’re not sharing a fire with Darsis Cat-Skinner for one reason, and that reason is fucking Darsis Cat-Skinner,” he said.

“Huh? But you two was gettin’ on so nice!”

“We were, for a while,” said Sarouth. “He was cute and the sex was pretty decent. He also didn’t have a problem with me making sure the others were aware of your needs. That’s why we were able to spend these last few weeks of winter with him and his without any trouble.”

Riaag’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “So what went wrong if shit were doin’ so good?”

Sarouth didn’t say anything for a moment, instead staring out at the rain and sometimes wringing water out of his hair. “I’m not very good with people, Riaag,” he said after a while.

“Aw, bullshit, Holy One, you’s great.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say, but no. I’ve been told I’m either too intense, too much, and people can’t handle being around that for very long, or that I’m too distant, too lost inside my own thoughts, and they just can’t get through that enough to make things worth it. Other god-speakers tell me I’m too weird for them. Think about that for a minute.” Sarouth crossed his arms over his propped-up knees and rested his chin on them. “It was probably a long time coming. I don’t know how long Darsis was holding out, hoping I’d be less…me, but we exchanged some words neither of us could take back and decided that maybe it’d be better off if we went our separate ways.” Riaag had been around Sarouth long enough to recognize when he was trying to downplay a bad situation. Those exchanged words must have been nasty ones if even the always-laughing Sarouth couldn’t blithely shrug them off.

The rain started letting up a bit. It was still coming down too hard for Riaag to want to risk foraging for something out there, but at least he could start making plans: over there were some juniper berries he could harvest, and that hole by that rock might have something tasty like a snake in it. “I’s real sorry ter hear that,” he said to Sarouth for lack of anything more comforting.

“Don’t worry yourself, Riaag, I’m used to it.” Sarouth rummaged in his pack and produced a hunk of jerky, which he took a bite from before offering the rest to Riaag. “Here, you should have this. You won’t be able to concentrate on those chores I bet you’re already planning if you’re all lightheaded from hunger, right?”

While Riaag accepted the jerky shyly, he was anything but when it came to eating it. His empty belly had been wailing at him since that morning when he’d eaten the last leftover pinbones from the fish he’d helped cook the night before. Sarouth was right: he did feel a little better.

“I’ve been thinking about walking out on Darsis all day,” said Sarouth after Riaag had finished eating. “I know I did the right thing by leaving, though. It’d be cruel to demand someone stay with me if they weren’t happy, right? I can’t change who or what I am.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So I want to let you know that that goes for anybody I’m traveling with. It’s not an easy life to follow a god-speaker. If you’re tired of, you know, this….” He waved his hands at the rain, their shelter, their wet clothes. “Well, if you ever need to go, I understand.”

Riaag didn’t really understand what Sarouth was saying, himself. Wasn’t it much better traveling in a pair than all alone? It was a little weird being in a band of two, granted, but compared to Riaag’s old life he was living like a king. Besides, if nobody was there to look after Sarouth, he’d find at least six ways to kill himself before the week was up, and Riaag was not about to deny the world the chance to meet Agritakh’s chosen savior. “Okay, I guess,” he said. “But you oughtta know I ain’t goin’ nowhere. You deserve good food and clean clothes and how the fuck you gonna get either of them things if’n you’s always so busy doin’ sacred stuff? I still gotta watch your back, Holy One.”

He wasn’t expecting Sarouth’s laugh to have a twinge of bitterness to it. “I really don’t deserve you, Riaag.”

“A’ight. Still ain’t goin’ nowhere, though.”

Sarouth laughed again, though this time it sounded warmer and more genuine. “Well, if you say you’re going nowhere then you’re going nowhere, aren’t you?” He peered out of their shelter at the rain, which had continued to thin out, then started sketching a map in the mud with a stick. “If we’re going to be on our own for a bit, we’ll probably want to cut through the forest here until we end up on the nomad routes along the foothills….”

Riaag studied the muddy map. Sarouth’s plan looked good, though it did take them close to territory they’d only just left, and he was suddenly unsure of how welcome they’d be there. There were a lot of people back at the old camp and only one of him. “But what about Cat-Skinner?”

“He can go fuck himself, because I know I’m not doing it for him anymore,” muttered Sarouth.

It was Riaag’s turn to laugh, then, and even though the weather chose that point to split open again, the warmth stayed with him for the rest of the day.

Just because their relationship was closer than ever didn’t mean Riaag had stopped with any of his previously-assigned duties in service to Sarouth, although sometimes he wondered if Sarouth himself had forgotten this at some point. Riaag had already taken care of Sarouth’s shaving—while most of his skin was smooth as a baby’s cheek, Sarouth could and would grow an unfortunate-looking beard if he didn’t keep up with things—and now found himself twiddling his thumbs on the other side of a folding screen, behind which Sarouth was taking his own sweet time to dress himself for the grand assembly that morning. Usually his face and hair would be handled at the same time for the sake of convenience; today, however, Sarouth had made a fuss about how he didn’t want his usual grooming to get mussed while he was preparing, and Riaag had opted to simply go along with it.

At first Riaag had assumed that he could kill time just by slipping into his own outfit, and after that he’d busied himself with cleaning the teeth and tusks of his trophy skulls so they’d be their most dazzling, and after that he’d taken great pains to make sure his own mane was presentable, and even after trimming and oiling his beard Sarouth still hadn’t come out. What was he doing in there? It wasn’t like it took that long to put on a set of layered robes and maybe pick out some nice rings to accent it. He could hear Sarouth rustling around back there so it wasn’t as though he’d swooned when no one was looking.

“Ain’t you done yet?” Riaag called.

“Almost.”

Riaag contained a harrumph and instead busied himself with laying out the parts of his barber’s kit he’d need next. The shears he’d whetted already, the brush was clean and free of stray bristles, and the combs’ teeth were all straight. He hadn’t bothered bringing any fancy scent or fixatives with them since Sarouth had brought along his potion collection; while Riaag had no doubt that it contained many strange and useful concoctions, his past encounters with said collection had cemented in his mind that it was full of weird shit that was sometimes extremely mundane in nature, so the chance of there being some nice cologne in there somewhere was nonzero.

It wasn’t until he’d dusted the chair for stray whiskers a second time that he finally heard an answer from the other side of the screen. “Thank you for waiting. I’m ready now.”

“What took you so long?”

Sarouth chuckled, not the way he did when he was amused but the kind of low, velvet sound that Riaag found very distracting when they were alone. “Today is important. I needed to dress for war,” he said, and then stepped out into the room.

Every single thing he was wearing was precious, rich in both materials and meaning. His outer robes were gray, their borders gleaming with golden threads that picked out natural scenes among a backdrop of embroidered silken flowers, and the scenes themselves were flanked by strips of repeating shapes that depicted Sarouth’s clan pattern; the more form-fitting underrobe was black save for the dark red thread chasing the arms and lower hem. His sash was the color of wine, a rare dye where they came from and still uncommon in the lands where the fabric had first been made, while intertwined ropes of beads and soothsaying runes hung from it like an Usoan fishing net. He positively dripped with jewelry, some of Rhoanish make and some from more distant places. Riaag suspected there was more finery concealed beneath Sarouth’s layers, as Sarouth had always talked at length about the importance of symbols left unseen.

None of this could compare to the mantle he wore, however: it was a heavy fur, itself a statement in summer weather, and its color was the same pure white as his hair, but it was the arrangement of claws and the long, curving fangs crossed at its throat that revealed it to be made from a sabertooth pelt. Maybe those who hadn’t lived their lives in the valley wouldn’t know what it meant, but Riaag did. It was a mantle to be worn when there was no way out but a bloody battle, one you were prepared to win by any means necessary. It had been sewn for that reason, yet Sarouth had never worn it before.

Riaag knew this because he had made it himself.

“Oh. I. I didn’t know you was bringin’ any of that.” It was difficult to find his words with Sarouth looking so resplendently vicious. Riaag had mostly gotten over his background awe when in Sarouth’s presence, at least the sort that Sarouth passively radiated like a fire did heat, but it took every ounce of his strength not to collapse on his knees immediately. That might be useful for later, because much soul-searching had revealed that he was just fine with that sort of thing; here, though, he had a job to do.

Sarouth looked up into his eyes. How was it that someone shorter than him (by a notable degree, no less, as Riaag could see over the top of Sarouth’s head without going up on tiptoe) could still come off as so all-encompassingly majestic, and so effortlessly, at that? Sarouth stroked Riaag’s cheek, his voice gentle as he spoke. “We are here to make a first impression on the rest of the world, on behalf of our entire people, and we only get one chance to do it right. Did you think I’d still say these were too nice to wear, my love?”

Riaag fidgeted and coughed before he was able to manage saying, “…yeah.”

That earned him a sigh. “I suppose I didn’t give you reason to think otherwise, didn’t I? I’m sorry, Riaag.”

“S’alright. I just weren’t expectin’ ter see you in, uh. Alla this at once. It looks real good.” Real good didn’t even begin to describe things. It was time to start counting twelves again or he’d risk showing up for the centerpiece of Concordance a wreck with a tent in his pants.

“Thank you!” said Sarouth, brightly. He settled down in the chair Riaag had prepared and placed his circlet in his lap. “I’m counting on you to put the finishing touches on this ensemble. Anyone can wear nice clothing, but I am here to show these people how the Faaroug of Agritakh does it.” A flick of his claws and the little tie keeping his hair in its usual low ponytail came free. “If they’ve been ignoring us before, they won’t have that luxury now. It’s up to them whether they care to be on the right side of history or if they’d rather be ground to dust.”

Riaag took up his comb and started pulling it through the ends of Sarouth’s tresses in pursuit of hidden tangles. “Thought you didn’t come here ter pick a fight.”

“Oh, I didn’t. I’m here to make us some very, very good friends.” He smiled, and his little tusks were long and sharp in the muted light of morning.

Nearly four years of keeping an Agritakh-ruhd alive had felt like both a yawning eternity and the briefest blink of an eye to Riaag; it was as though they had always been this way, Sarouth leading and him following, but at the same time it felt like only yesterday that Sarouth had pulled him up, broken and bleeding, from the dust. A lot had changed over those years. He was taller now, for one, since he no longer felt compelled to stoop in an attempt to make himself as small as he could, and actually eating proper food instead of garbage no one else would touch had told his flesh and bones that they could come out of hiding. It was still a little strange to look at his reflection and see a big, strong man look back at him, one with a clean face and well-brushed hair and clothes that actually fit. All it took was a smile to remember who he was looking at—there was no hiding his fucked-up teeth, especially not the big gap between the two in the front—but that sometimes made it even weirder. People like he’d been just didn’t get the chance to become people like he was now. If it was a dream, he hoped he’d never wake up.

That evening he’d finished with dinner and chores, and since they were waiting out a storm Sarouth had foretold would hit in the coming week their shelters were set up from the day before. The shallow cave they’d pitched their tents inside was easy to clean and protected from the worst of the elements; as Riaag had spent the morning living up to his name by chopping firewood, there wasn’t really much left for him to do aside from watch for intruders or animals that risked getting too close. A perimeter walk also seemed like the best way to clear his head, since if the weather was going to turn foul soon Riaag felt it appropriate to enjoy the crisp autumn air while he could.

He had just rounded the big rock he used as the southernmost landmark from their camp when a mist rolled in out of nowhere. With rain on the way it made sense, but Riaag was startled at how suddenly things had gone from a clear moonlit evening to fog-clogged nothingness, and despite carefully counting his steps he soon found himself back at the landmark rock again. He frowned. Usually his sense of direction was pretty good, especially if he could see the sun or stars, but the mist blocked everything he relied on to navigate. Pulling out his pocket lodestone didn’t help much, either: it had led him safely through two different blizzards and countless smaller storms in the past, but this time it simply turned and turned like a raven scouting a corpse, refusing to point towards the north. No matter which way he went, or for how long, he always ended up back at the rock, and no matter how loudly he called he couldn’t hear a thing; even the usual bugs and night birds were gone.

It wasn’t until he saw the wolf that he truly became worried.

Riaag was used to dealing with wolves, as was anyone else who roamed the highland forests, and he’d recognize those dark-against-light markings anywhere, but this was no ordinary wolf. Its eyes shone brighter than his torch should have reflected and its teeth were longer, but those Riaag might have brushed off as simply being quirks of breeding; what he couldn’t ignore was its massive size. The thing had to be the size of a pony, maybe even bigger! Riaag waved his burning brand at it but it didn’t fear fire the way a normal wolf did, either. It snarled and he snarled back. He refused to let his terror overtake him despite wanting nothing more than to turn and run. It didn’t really matter if he got eaten (except it did, at least on the level that he really didn’t want to be mauled by an animal if there were options available), but Riaag had been cooking meat with their supper, and if the wolf followed its nose it could find the rest of their food stores easily. If it found their food, it would find Sarouth. Riaag could not let that happen. He didn’t have his axe but he did have his own teeth and claws, and if that’s what it took to keep Sarouth safe then so be it.

Riaag howled a challenge that echoed in the air the way nothing else would. The wolf lunged at him and sank its teeth so deep into his shoulder he could feel them scrape bone, blood erupting from its mouth to stain his nice new tunic. Things got confusing after that.

It was dark by the time he made it back to camp. He was dizzy and everything hurt, but he was pretty sure he was still alive, and if for some reason he wasn’t, well, Sarouth was a capable exorcist. Riaag had lost his torch somewhere during the fray; in its stead he dragged the corpse of the monstrous wolf, its meat still cooling and its muzzle still red. It was funny, really, how the instant he’d overcome the beast the mist had cleared out, and while his head knew differently his eyes said he’d been a mere minute or two away the entire time.

Sarouth came out of the cave to greet him, his mouth already open to share whatever was on his mind, but his expression turned to one of horror when he caught sight of Riaag’s wounds. He rushed to Riaag’s side. “Holy shit! What happened?”

“Got in a fight, Holy One.”

“I can see that much! Hold on, I may be able to bargain for healing for those wounds—”

Riaag shook his head. “Don’t.”

Sarouth paused mid-laying-on-of-hands and curled his fingers into loose fists. He probably could have called upon Agritakh’s aid just by touching something with his nose, or maybe petitioned for an invocation via butterfly kisses, but it was the symbolism that counted. “Are you sure? That bite looks horrible! It’s going to leave a whopper of a scar.”

“Feels important ter keep this’n.” He staggered his way to in front of the fire they’d built in the common space between their shelters and dropped the wolf’s corpse by a pile of cut wood. It still looked remarkably alive in the firelight. “I think fucko here weren’t no ordinary wolf.”

“No?” asked Sarouth. He sat himself on the folding stool he’d presumably been using before Riaag returned; while Riaag didn’t know how warm the seat still was, the spindle and distaff left next to it were an easy way to tell if Sarouth had been killing time somewhere.

It felt silly saying it out loud, but Riaag had to do it. “I think it were a messenger of Wolf. Like a little itty bit of Wolf proper.”

“An avatar?”

“Yeah.”

A flicker of movement in the corner of Riaag’s eye meant Sarouth was spinning again, which meant he was thinking but didn’t want to get up and pace around to do it. “That’s very interesting. Are you…okay, though? You’ve lost a lot of blood. That shirt was white this morning.”

What had been a white shirt was now a lot rust-redder than he’d left camp with earlier. Riaag sighed. “Ain’t gonna lie, Holy One, this hurts a lot and it right fucken sucks, but I got this, this feeling inside. Like I done the right thing somehow, and now Wolf done blessed my ugly ass fer it.” He ladled some water from the bucket he’d drawn earlier that day and drank greedily. Did water always taste so good after a divine intervention or had he just gotten lucky with his two separate experiences? “I mean, I cain’t say whether or not I deserves such an honor, seein’ as how I ain’t a being of such stature m’self, but I dunno if’n I’s gonna live up ter them expectations.”

“And what might those be?” asked Sarouth, who looked to be trying to reach for his medical bag with his toes without raising suspicion and failing at both.

Riaag shrugged and immediately regretted it. “Shit but that hurts…but what I was sayin’ is, ah. Well.” He drank some more water. “Wolves run in packs, right?”

“Right.”

“And so does people, at least usually, right?”

“Right again.”

“So why does Wolf think I oughtta be blessed, like very muchly so, fer runnin’ with a band of two? I ain’t complainin’! It’s a mighty grand honor! It just seems like, eh.” Water was so delicious. It helped him think and helped the dizziness not feel quite so nauseating. “Overkill?”

The medical bag, its strap having been seized by the curl of the claw on Sarouth’s thumb-toe and now resting in his lap, rustled as Sarouth pulled clean bandages from it. “Maybe Wolf has plans for you?” he asked, his words slightly mangled by the fasteners he held in his mouth. “Ones that wouldn’t work out quite the same way if everyone waited for them to be pertinent for you to be blessed. Like, plans you grow into, maybe. Also I’m going to keep you from exsanguinating whether you like it or not, so you may as well start heating up some of that water.”

Riaag sighed. It wouldn’t be the first time Sarouth had bound his wounds and it probably wouldn’t be the last, and it didn’t really count as being touched so long as there were bandages involved. “I dunno, Faaroug. It just feels like it coulda gone ter somebody more deservin’ than myself.”

“That’s how it always feels with these things,” said Sarouth. “Now, let’s get you lying down with your legs lifted up on something….”

He let his thoughts wander as Sarouth cleaned, smeared salve on, and bandaged him. If Wolf wanted him to carry a blessing, well, that didn’t say much for Wolf’s judge of character, but he wasn’t going to argue with one of Agritakh’s many retainers. He’d want to look the part for it. The bite-scar would be something, naturally, but he hated going without a top on unless he was preparing for a swim, so if he wanted to display his boon he’d need to make a cloak or a hat out of the avatar carcass. No, not a hat, a helmet! The thing’s skull had been tougher than any bone he’d encountered before, and as both a cook, an epicurean, and a warrior he’d crunched rather a lot of them in his time; something living deep inside him where his instincts lay knew that it would be tougher than stone, tougher than iron, tougher than even steel, maybe. He’d wear Wolf into battle; he’d look the part even if he didn’t feel it yet.

Lightning sizzled through the sky outside, followed by a tooth-rattling clap of thunder, itself followed by rain so hard Riaag knew it would be pointless to try and go back out in it to hunt. Instead he planned how to use the dead wolf: the bones and pelt he’d take, the rest they’d eat. Wolf meat was generally not very nice, as meat from predatory beasts rarely was, but if they were stuck in a cave for who knew how long it would be a lot better to cringe through tasteless bowls of wolf soup if it meant not chewing sticks for nourishment. Riaag winced as another bandage was pulled tight and fastened in place around his arm. He didn’t understand it and he still doubted whether He Who Sleeps Within the Earth had made the right choice by assigning Riaag to one of His own, but at least Riaag knew someone down there was watching out for him.

The final treaties had been struck hours ago, but it wasn’t until they had endured another feast, a lot of exchanged pleasantries, and far too many boring conversations that they finally had time alone again. Sarouth was positively giddy, and even though he had yet to change out of his finery he still bounced around their room like a young goat.

“That went great! Just amazing!” he said, grabbing Riaag by the lapels and trying, unsuccessfully, to twirl him around. “Better than I ever could’ve planned!”

“You think so?” asked Riaag. “They kept sayin’ no ter all them things, though.” Expecting a small, controversial newcomer like Naar Rhoan to sweep Concordance off its feet was an unrealistic goal, Riaag knew, and he had gone into the day’s negotiations hoping they’d simply be invited back in a few years whenever the next one was held; long after the final agreements had been set he was still having trouble processing everything that had happened.

“I know so,” said Sarouth with a firm nod. “Don’t worry about all those proposals that got struck down, those don’t matter. I needed some pointless little losses so no one would suspect we were racking up too many victories. It’s an old negotiation trick: ask for more than you need to have a chance at getting what you actually do.”

Riaag couldn’t argue with that. Actually reflecting on things was exhausting after a day of herald’s work; whatever had gotten into Sarouth had given Riaag a bit of a miss, so he had to go slow and easy while absorbing the events of the day.

Sarouth had been his usual dazzling self throughout the affair, of course, all bright smiles and goodwill, but he had also bothered to pick his battles. Just because they were allied with ibn al-Qazi’s people didn’t mean the Rhoanish could do much about whatever dispute they were having about oases, and while some of the northland forest-dwellers had tried being shitty about the movement of orcs in their territory Sarouth had managed not to take the bait; he was supportive of what allies they had whenever something came up, but the affairs of the valley and the stronghold always came first. Riaag wondered how much he struggled to not explode with fury any time bounties on orcs came up, particularly those well outside Naar Rhoan’s sphere of influence. That was an issue that wasn’t going to be solved overnight.

They could have done better but they also could have done far worse. It wasn’t the quality of Rhoanish goods anyone objected to—that had actually been one of their strengths, as it was hard to deny the strength of their steel or the luster of their porcelain—but the Rhoanish themselves, as who in their right mind would trust a gaggle of green-skinned savages with delicate diplomacy? Quite a few people, apparently, thanks to Sarouth’s aggressively friendly socializing over the past several days, and Naar Rhoan found itself on a few more trade routes than before. Sarouth even managed to prop up Usoa a bit, speaking long and loud (if not entirely fluently) about the many ways their two settlements had enriched one another, and how Usoa was probably not going to be murdering absolutely everyone who got too close anymore, although it was probably still a good idea to trade with them by proxy. This earned him some withering looks from the Usoan leader and understanding nods from the rest of the Usoan contingent, so Riaag supposed that went about as well as it could have.

Sarouth had lived up to his sabertooth mantle in a subtler way than anticipated during the talks, as he took no mercy but neither did he speak of warfare beyond bandit patrols or Naar Rhoan’s gruesome, yet effective, methods of defense. Riaag had cautiously nudged things in one way or another whenever he spotted some of that layered meaning he’d first picked up from Manouchihr, and Sarouth had evaded what had sounded suspiciously like diplomatic traps in the process. He managed to come off as dangerous despite not carrying so much as an eating knife. The palace decreed that no weapons could be worn upon its grounds, and he had honored that, but no decree could strip him of his claws, nor could any treaty blunt his teeth. Maybe that was why people took him seriously. It might have been him being the Faaroug, too, but Riaag wasn’t sure how much people would care about that if they didn’t follow the Hill God or adhere to His covenant. God-speakers’ authority was hardly transitive.

Not that it mattered, at least not right now. Sarouth had gone from trying to twirl Riaag to giving him an expectant look. It wasn’t the sort he wore when he was interested in sex, which was honestly a surprise given how that was his modus operandi when coming down from a stressful situation, but still hopeful and eager.

“You got somethin’ you wanna ask me, Sarouth?” he asked.

The little smile Sarouth wore broadened slightly. “Well. Yes, I do.” He took a deep breath. “I haven’t forgotten that surprise I said I was bringing with me on this trip. Remember that?”

Riaag did. “Yeah,” he said with a curious nod.

“Is this a good time for you? For me to, you know. Give it to you? Even though it’s late?”

He nodded again. “Yeah. I’d like ter see it.”

“Of course! Of course, of course, just a moment.” Sarouth pored through his travel chest, the layers of jewelry he had still yet to remove clinking together now and then, and produced a little pouch with a knotted drawstring. He clutched it like it was filled with precious stones, though the way the bag sat in his hands implied whatever was inside it was lighter than any gem. There weren’t any markings on the pouch, nor was it dyed any significant colors, so its contents couldn’t have come from a stronghold market day, and Sarouth had packed it before they left, so it couldn’t have been acquired during their stay at the palace. What was in there? That was assuming the bag’s contents were what Sarouth was talking about and not something he had dug up by coincidence.

Making assumptions did no one any good, so Riaag went for a neutral comment. “Interestin’ bag you got there.”

“It’s about to get even more interesting,” said Sarouth, and he undid the knot in the string before emptying the pouch into his hand. “I made this for you.”

It was a long ribbon made of silk, both sides adorned with the familiar repeating shapes that made up Sarouth’s clan pattern; unlike the embroidery on his robes, this instance of said pattern had been woven directly into the fabric, leaving its surface sleek and shimmering. The ends were decoratively notched and hung with short lengths of fringe, themselves strung with tiny pearls no bigger than seeds. It was the sort of thing Riaag would expect the palace servants to wear, or maybe some of the dancers they’d seen. Why Sarouth thought he should have it he couldn’t understand.

Riaag stood stock-still as Sarouth looped the ribbon around his neck. The silk felt cool against his skin. Was this a new game or something? Usually Sarouth was more forthcoming when he had games in mind, no matter if they were the sexy kind or the more regular sort. He felt Sarouth tie the ribbon in place and let himself be guided over to a mirror.

“See? Isn’t it pretty?”

The ribbon was very pretty, indeed, and the bow Sarouth had tied was a fancy one, but the problem was how both of them were currently on Riaag. Was this what Sarouth wanted their oath to look like? Riaag wasn’t ever going to be on Sarouth’s level, he knew that and had come to terms with it, but trying to dress up and pretend that wasn’t the case felt wrong. It wasn’t even that its make was so nice—and wearing something that very strongly marked him as Sarouth’s own was also nice, but in a different, more sensual way that Riaag really didn’t need to be dealing with right now—but that it felt like it was covering him up, pretending that the craggy face and bad teeth just weren’t there and that everything was fine. Don’t mind how this man has no family, said the pretty little bow, just say that he’s something else, and then nobody has to worry about a thing. It was like it wanted him to be an accessory to something bigger rather than be his own man. That should have been a fun feeling when it was just the two of them. It wasn’t.

“Do you not like it…?” Sarouth’s voice sounded very far away.

Riaag closed his eyes. He could still feel the ribbon in place, but at least this way he didn’t have to see it, and if he didn’t have to see it he didn’t have to see how out of place it looked on him, and if he didn’t have to see that he didn’t have to think so much about how badly he wanted to own things just like this, as foolish a desire as it was. Had he been that obvious when he’d been eyeing dancers’ outfits or talking to the servants about how they dressed? Didn’t Sarouth already go along with this sort of thing plenty? Riaag already had nice things of his own, and sometimes when they were out Sarouth would braid wildflowers into his hair or tuck them into his beard, and Sarouth would even tell him he was pretty no matter how big or rough or scarred-up he felt, and why wasn’t that ever enough?

“I can, ah. I can take it off for you if you don’t want to wear it,” said Sarouth. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Riaag, I didn’t know it’d make you upset.”

He didn’t resist as Sarouth loosened the bow, and Riaag might have easily stayed lost in a fog of misery if he hadn’t been distracted by the sound of Sarouth’s trunk slamming closed. Sarouth was now seated atop the chest’s lid with his head in his hands, and where his fine clothes had previously looked majestic on him they now just put an accent on all the weariness he’d been building up throughout the summit. Riaag had seen Sarouth sad, angry, worried, and a thousand over emotions in between, but this was the first time he’d ever seen him so devastated. He’d feel sorry for himself later; right now something was terribly wrong with his oathbound. He couldn’t let that stand.

“Sarouth…?”

“No wonder you had such doubts about our oath,” muttered Sarouth. His words came out in a self-loathing snarl. “I keep fucking everything up!”

“Didn’t mean ter not like it.” Riaag hadn’t, either. Right up until it had ended up on him it had been a lovely gift.

“That’s it, right? That’s the problem. That’s always been the problem. I think I know what’s right for everyone, or right for you, and I just do whatever it is I think up, and damn the consequences, and this happens! Every! Time!”

This looked bad. What would Sarouth do if their positions were reversed? Riaag had been on the receiving end of comforting words often enough he found he had a few on hand thanks to sheer osmosis. “But you did just fine earlier,” he said. “You was real good at all them important talks. You did what we done came here ter do, yeah?”

“I’m not talking about that part. Who cares about that part? I mean the other part. The important one.”

“I don’t get what you’s sayin’, here.”

Sarouth growled in frustration. “I mean it was stupid of me to think I could make this last! A year’s a long time, of course I’d be willing to overlook the cracks. You’d think I’d know by now that I’m just not that good at being with other people.”

“Why d’ya say that?” asked Riaag. “I don’t think that’s right.”

“Riaag, I’m the Faaroug. I’m the fucking avatar of Agritakh, He who was the Star-Eater. I’ve got the very nature of the void woven into the fabric of my being. Of course I ruin everything I touch.”

It was Riaag’s turn to growl. “You’s fucken impossible some times, you know that? Maybe you ain’t so good with some people, but you’s always been good ter me, and even if’n you fuck up a little bit you don’t never mean me ill, and I’ve put up with your frustratin’ ass fer over eight years now, and I plan ter keep on dealin’ with your shit fer lots and lots more.”

“You were crying—”

“Like that’s so fucken hard ter make me do! Look, I’m doin’ it again right now!” he added as he rubbed at his eyes. “Ain’t you even gonna ask me what got me so wound up? Or does you always assume the worst any time I sees little baby bunnies and just cain’t handle it?”

Sarouth popped his lips, which meant he was thinking. Thinking was going to be helpful here, since thinking meant he was looking other places than entirely inward, and Riaag had plenty of experience with what happened when you couldn’t swivel your head back around again. “Okay…well,” he said, his voice wavering but sounding more like his usual even patter than it had been. “Will you tell me what bothered you, Riaag?”

Thank you!” said Riaag as he threw out his arms in relief. Actually going through with the conversation was going to be much harder than this, but at least now he felt like they could start listening to each other. “Look, you and I know I ain’t got no clan of my own, yeah? I ain’t super happy with it, I got all matter of worries from not havin’ no ancestors waitin’ fer me in the hereafter, but I try and deal. I don’t wear clan colors. I’s not gonna try and hide who I is. I mean…I ain’t gonna start a conversation sayin’, ‘oh by the by, I were born untouchable and unclean and were raised bein’ told I were only bein’ kept alive so as not ter inconvenience others with the hauntin’ sure ter follow my fool ass dyin’, ain’t this weather a delight?’ Bit much ter bring up. But I ain’t gonna tell somebody I got family I don’t if’n they ask. I done a lotta bad shit over the years, but lyin’ ain’t one such thing. And havin’ that little dec’rative on my person, with clan marks that ain’t mine? It felt like I was lyin’ ter myself.” He’d been worried he couldn’t voice it in words, but here they were, and there were probably more on the way.

“That wasn’t the reason I chose…no, never mind,” said Sarouth. He adjusted his seat atop the trunk and drummed his claws on the lid a few times before continuing. “I just know how important it is for you to feel good about how you look. I thought this would be something that would be nice to wear, just like all the gifts you’ve made for me.” The ghost-proofed armlet he wore chose that moment to reflect the light dazzlingly, as though it had been listening in on their talk. Sarouth didn’t pay it any heed. “I should’ve thought more about what it’d mean to you, not just to me. I’m sorry I fucked it up. I…I know how much it hurts you, sometimes. I wanted to try and make it better.”

Riaag took Sarouth’s hand in his. “Cain’t you just let yourself realize you cain’t fix ever’thing?”

“Honestly? I don’t know if I can.”

The metal of Sarouth’s rings was cool against Riaag’s palm in spite of how warm his skin was. Riaag didn’t know if they were magical things or just pretty, as much like the contents of Sarouth’s potion collection they tended to show up as though they’d always been there. A lot of Sarouth’s more precious belongings, from the mace still peace-tied in its baldric to Riaag himself, had just appeared in his life like windfall from a tree. Maybe that was one reason Sarouth was like this: every part of his life was skewed to tell him that since he was one of Agritakh’s own he had to be the one to make things right, he had to be the one to take the lead, and if he didn’t try and mend something, no one would. It didn’t take the sting away but it did explain it a little. Riaag squeezed Sarouth’s hand and waited for the rings to heat up at his touch.

“So, uh, there’s one more thing,” said Riaag. “About the ribbon.”

“Yeah?”

Deep breaths. This was fine, this was how adults handled their problems. “I dunno if I’s ready fer that kinda thing yet. I want it. It’s just like, like, y’know how we’s traded words ’bout how there’s a buncha shit I wanna do with you that I can think about some but cain’t actually do right now? Like, sex things, not how I wanna go home and fry up some horse chops and not be in this fucken palace no more.”

“It’s like that?” asked Sarouth as he nodded.

“Yeah. S’like that.” So much like that that Riaag hadn’t realized it until he’d actually said so, but it made a lot of sense in his head. Why shouldn’t wearing lovely clothes be a difficult thing if it dealt with similar delicate subject matter? “Maybe I’ll work up ter it later. Wearin’ it, I mean. You gonna be okay with that?”

Sarouth nodded. He rapped his knuckles on the travel chest. “It’s in here, safe and sound. I’ll leave it out later so you can take it when you want to, and you don’t have to wear it until you’re ready. If you ever are. Is that okay?”

“Yeah.” He scratched at the side of his face. “It’s real pretty, though. Dunno if I said that. Reckon I oughtta make sure you know.”

Sarouth smiled wearily. “Thank you, I appreciate that.”

“You wanna hug or somethin’?”

“Please.”

Maybe later, when he wasn’t feeling so fragile, he’d suggest something they could do with Sarouth looking so nice; for now a chaste hug felt like the most wonderfully intimate thing in the world. Riaag’s feelings were complicated and everything was messy, but there was something comforting in being able to share that mess with someone else.

“So why the shit is we goin’ ter Concordance, again?” Riaag felt self-conscious for asking so much, but the sheer idea of Concordance was so far out of his depth he had trouble wrapping his head around it. “Sorry fer askin’ so much.”

Thankfully, Sarouth was a very patient man, at least where Riaag was concerned. “Don’t worry yourself, my love, it’s fine,” he said. “I could say we’re attending for trade reasons, which is true, or for diplomacy reasons, which is also true, but mostly? Mostly we’re going to let the rest of the world know that they can’t ignore us, because we are not about to ignore them.” He stroked Riaag’s cheek. “It will be difficult for us both, in different ways. But I know we can do this.”

The stronghold spread out around them from where they sat beneath one of the many pergolas yet to be harvested for the season. Sarouth helped himself to some of the grapes growing there and offered one to Riaag, who accepted shyly; better part of a year or not, it still felt weird and intimate taking food from Sarouth in public. Not just anyone could say a god-speaker openly offered them gifts.

“He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth has commanded me to nurture this place and make it thrive,” said Sarouth around a mouthful of fruit. “How can I say we’re thriving if I don’t understand the world outside the valley? How can we be bountiful if we don’t seek to share what we’ve made for ourselves?” He swallowed and licked his fingers, which was more distracting than it should have been. “And won’t we do better ourselves if we help out foreign friends?”

“I got that part, I think,” said Riaag. “And it’s in a big fuckoff palace?”

“That it is. The Palace of Concordance. Built entirely to host the thing, if you can believe it! There’s someone installed to keep it clean and tidy during the years they don’t hold it, and I think it serves as a seat of government for the port built along the river—we’ll be seeing that for ourselves, in fact, since Usoa has kindly offered to help us travel there by water—but the palace itself is said to be a masterwork of construction. Maybe we’ll see a few things we like that we could bring back home, hm?”

It wasn’t the worst idea, actually, since Rhoanish architecture was more a bunch of vague ideas and scaffolding than anything concrete at that point, but Riaag’s skin still prickled at the thought of being inside somewhere so big. He could go down beneath the sacred hill and be fine, and he could be in wide open spaces and be fine, and he could squeeze himself into barely any more space than a storage trunk without any problems at all, but there was something about being inside, yet so far away from walls and things, that gave him the wiggins. It was like the time Sarouth had led them down hours’ worth of natural tunnels until they came out into a cavern so big there was a waterfall inside it; the dark had pressed in against him like boiled marrow and had been so black, so deep, that Riaag had feared they’d never come out again. Would the palace be like that? Granted, now he’d be able to reach for Sarouth’s hand if he got scared, but he didn’t know if anyone would take him seriously as a bodyguard if he had to spend all of Concordance clinging to Sarouth like a child.

“We won’t need to worry about the shapes of things,” continued Sarouth, who was on a roll. “Patterns, maybe, or the way things are put together, but I suspect most of it will be on so grand a scale it’d be utterly useless for our more utilitarian needs. Still, it can’t hurt to see how other people do things. We might even get some good ideas they’ve yet to dream up that way.”

That was one way to put it. Riaag certainly had formed some opinions on what he’d want out of a permanent, foundation-supported, not-a-tent-or-yurt-or-anything home during his visits to Usoa, and most of them involved places where he could bathe in private thanks to the lovely rooms dedicated to said purpose he’d seen. It wasn’t that he disliked swimming in a lake whenever he wanted to wash up, as it was actually rather nice being able to chat with people through the universal medium of everyone being casually naked, but only the crassest bathers bothered getting up to something in someplace so public. Riaag had accepted that he was the sort of person who really, really liked the idea of getting up to something in such an environment, so therefore any time the issue came up he was sure to remind Sarouth of now nice it’d be to have their own place. The only danger was whether or not they’d ever actually leave.

“It’s just weird ter me,” he said.

“What is?”

“This whole thing. I mean, four years ago, this place? It was a buncha fucken holes in the ground, t’weren’t nobody here save fer you and me. Now it’s all full up of more people’n I’ve ever seen, and they’s doin’ pretty good, you know? And we’s on trade routes. And now we’s gonna be goin’ ter this thing what’s so important you cain’t even get in without someone sayin’ you’s worth it, and on top of that they’s so impressed by us that we’s gettin’ Usoa back inter things even after they done fucked it all up fer theyselves years back.” Riaag ate another grape. “What I wanna know is, how’d all this good stuff come outta us two assholes?”

Sarouth was physically unable to get his arm all the way around Riaag’s shoulders when they sat next to each other, but Riaag could still feel him try. “Your guess is as good as mine, my love.”

A hesitant hand reached for Riaag’s own and he took it. “Ain’t complainin’, though,” he said, giving Sarouth’s fingers a squeeze. “If I gotta live in a big weird unlikely mess, least it’s our own.”

“You mean it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I guess that makes all this mess worth it, then,” said Sarouth. Riaag supposed it did.

It had felt like an eternity had passed since they first arrived at the summit, but Concordance was finally, finally coming to a close. All the treaties that could be forged had been sworn on; all they had left was fiddly bits and socializing. The socialization of the day had been riding, which meant Riaag was grumpy and sore, but he felt proud of himself for staying in Stupid Horse’s saddle even as the beast chased down a snake, stomped it to death, and ate it. How Usoans could practically ride sideways on their weird little deer he’d never know. At least whether or not he looked like a dipshit in front of foreign dignitaries wasn’t important anymore.

What was important was the very nice rubdown Sarouth was giving him, complete with some sort of pine-scented oil that had come out of the potion collection. They’d originally left mixed company under pretense of practicing some music to perform during the trip back home; this had been entirely true at first, with Sarouth accompanying Riaag on his harp, but it had been very easy to get distracted. Sarouth really was rather good at muscle rubs, especially since Riaag had extra padding to get through to get at any sore spots, but the further south his hands went, the more distracting he became.

Riaag was very worried he’d go cross-eyed if Sarouth kept massaging his thigh the way he was. He had to say something or he’d risk being very rude. “So didja invite us back here just ter make a little music?”

“Oh?” replied Sarouth, slyly. “Did you have something in mind?”

Of all the times for him to play coy! “Maybe.”

“Maybe isn’t the same as yes, brave warrior.”

“Um. Well. You touchin’ on me is kinda givin’ me a boner, and that’s great, but I smell like sweat and horse—”

“You smell great,” Sarouth purred. Oh, right. Sarouth was a little weird that way. Riaag could understand the horse part, since who could fault them for smelling delicious? The other part, well, so long as Sarouth was happy he wasn’t going to complain.

“Guess I could help you outta them robes or somethin’. You know. If that sounds nice.”

“Show me.”

It took very little time to get Sarouth naked and on top of him, the touch of skin against skin something Riaag hadn’t realized he’d been needing since that night in the sand garden; he’d been rubbed too raw before to try anything, but now that there had been some time since their past altercations he was happy to make up the difference. It was the first time they’d had sex since the anniversary of their oath and Riaag felt needy all over. He needed Sarouth to kiss him. He needed Sarouth to touch him. He especially needed to feel the sting of Sarouth’s teeth on his neck and shoulders, each bite a loving acceptance of who Riaag was and what they meant to each other. Sarouth gave him all of these and then some.

The first time they’d been together Riaag had touched Sarouth, and then himself, and it had been perfect. This time they rubbed their cocks against each other, their hands elsewhere, and it was even better. Sarouth’s lean muscles rippled beneath his inked skin with every forceful grind of his hips. He was a gorgeous creature, the look of serene intensity on his face all the better because this was a way only Riaag knew him now. It had gotten easier to enjoy the feeling of Sarouth’s yellow gaze travelling across his body with desire. He had a long way to go before he could see things the way Sarouth did, but if someone as self-assured as a demigod wanted what Riaag was, who was he to argue?

Sarouth came first with a gasp of Riaag’s name. He grabbed the base of his shaft and squeezed out the last few drops onto Riaag’s sticky stomach, hissing with pleasure the whole time, though once he’d milked himself dry he didn’t rear back the way he usually did to admire his handiwork. Instead he slid off to one side (a matter of necessity, as Riaag’s broad frame didn’t agree with the maximum angle at which Sarouth’s legs were able to bend) and leaned over Riaag’s face, their noses nearly touching. His eye was inescapable. It was a moment of such intensity that Riaag at first didn’t realize that Sarouth was finishing him off with his hand, and he might not even have realized he’d come if he hadn’t bit down hard on his lip at the same time he made a series of soft vowel sounds.

Sarouth waited for Riaag to catch his breath before whispering in his ear. “Told you I wanted to make some music together.”

Riaag groaned. “That joke’s real shitty, Sarouth.”

“And you loved it!”

“Yeah…yeah, I did.”

After washing up they dressed themselves again and went to stand on the balcony. It was the last time they’d really be able to appreciate the scenery, Riaag figured, so it was a fine time to look at everything, really look at it, before they left. The distant river waters glowed in the afternoon sun. The last time Riaag had been so high up he’d been looking down into the valley, and this time the scale of everything felt grander than ever.

“World’s real fucken big, ennit?”

“Yeah,” said Sarouth.

“Glad I got you lookin’ out fer me. I’d probably get my ass lost in alla that without help.”

Sarouth chuckled. “I could say the same for myself.”

“Yeah.” Riaag pulled Sarouth closer into a one-armed half-hug. “I don’t got much ter my name, but I got you, and that’s enough fer me.” Riaag watched the caravans belonging to more far-off lands as they filed out of the palace, some towards the port and others making their way up the grand highway system that led who knew how many other places. Once the two of them had been quiet enough, and things were calm enough, he added, “I do love you, y’know.”

Sarouth looked startled, but just a little hopeful. “Really?”

“Yeah. Kinda always have, a little bit, but it’s, it’s a good thing fer me, havin’ you love me back. Guess it’s time I got around ter saying it more.” He scratched his chin with a claw. “I mean, what if our boat sank or a lucky sword stab stuck me good or you swooned and never came back afore I said it proper? I’d feel like a real asshole.”

This got a cackle out of Sarouth. “And I’d feel like an asshole if I forgot to tell you something nice about your eyes,” he said, bumping his nose against Riaag’s. “I’m no good with words, but this skald I know once told me I could try saying they’re like the sky at sunset, when the clouds catch the sun and the whole horizon glows, or like fire, when it’s bright and blazing like a friend to keep the chill away.”

“That’s why you asked me ter tell you how I’d describe that fucken fruit, weren’t it?”

“Guilty,” said Sarouth.

Before Riaag could say anything in reply there was a knock at their chamber door. It was a wonder it hadn’t interrupted their earlier tryst, given their bad luck the previous year.

“Oh, way to spoil the mood,” said Sarouth. “Look, I can tell whoever it is that we’re having a moment….”

“Nah, don’t bother.” Riaag gave him a kiss on the cheek and squeezed him close before letting him go. “You do what you gotta. I know you’ll be back.”

Sarouth gave Riaag a kiss on the knuckle before fluttering off to attend to whatever last-minute tea party someone had invited him to, leaving Riaag by himself on the balcony. The whole world spread out before him like the biggest quilt ever made. He closed his eyes. He was eager to get back home, away from this land of strange smells and strange food, but he knew it would be only a matter of time before he missed the wind off the delta. Hopefully he’d be able to keep himself together until the next time they held a Concordance, however the fuck many years away that was, because of course he’d be attending, and of course he’d be at Sarouth’s side, and of course they’d have another chance to stand on a balcony much like this one and watch the stars come out.

Riaag sighed wistfully. He had no doubt that the future held its share of disagreements, and that he’d do some stupid shit or Sarouth would do some stupid shit and regardless of whose stupid shit it was they’d both have to deal with it, but that was the way of people who cared about each other, wasn’t it? For the first time in a long time he felt the weight of his oath again, but it was a good weight, like when Sarouth lay on top of him to cuddle. It felt real. Just because he needed to remember to speak his love, and just because Sarouth had to get better at seeing all the ways Riaag showed it without words, didn’t mean things were going to fall apart; most people who were oathbound didn’t have to deal with half the trouble either of them did, so why judge things based on other people?

A hawk shrilled as it flew past, though he couldn’t tell if it was wild or a trained bird. Hawks on their own never wore fancy leg-bands or magnificent collars, he mused, but just because you put something nice on one it didn’t stop it from being a fierce predator that could take down its prey with a flash of talons. Nobody said a hawk was less of a hawk because its beastmaster dressed it in colors its plumage could never display, right? No, instead they marveled at the bird’s natural splendor and admired how its bells and bejeweling looked against its feathers. Riaag could live with being a man-shaped hawk. He slipped his fingers inside the pouch he wore on his belt and stroked the ribbon Sarouth had given him; even if he never felt worthy of what it meant to Sarouth or what it meant to him, he’d have it nearby, just in case.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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