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Hymns of Orogenesis

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/324454.html)

The weather was wet and sloppy, the sort of skyborne misery halfway between rain and snow that flaunted the worst aspects of each, and if Riaag had been able to have things his way he would’ve been spending his afternoon in a nice, dry tent with his toes thawing out in front of a blazing firepot. Having things his way came second to the well-being of the stronghold, though, so instead he found himself hustling across the traveler’s field towards the caravan that had set up there earlier in the day. You never dug barbecue pits in that sort of weather or they’d just fill up with freezing slush, and while the visitors’ palates were foreign to him—so foreign he didn’t know what their kind were actually called, aside from the names of the lands from which they hailed—they probably didn’t want half-cooked, soggy mutton for dinner, so from the moment the clouds broke he’d been scrambling to revise his original plans. A lot of improvisation and a whole lot of yelling had seen the caravan ringed with busy kitchen tents, their makeshift hearths burning bright against the dreary winter’s gray. It wasn’t perfect, but it was going to have to do.

Or it would do so long as everyone remembered the rules of cooking for guests. He’d already caught one runner trying to deliver jarred meat to a kitchen, and the terrified young man swore up and down that the cook had requested it by name, so Riaag had taken it upon himself to personally remind each kitchen what was and was not allowed in a soup pot when guests were being served. It also meant he could quickly sample dishes to make sure they would be suitably delicious, and offer advice in the odd instances they were not; if he was making up a bit for skipping lunch due to the emergency reorganization, well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t earned it.

He grumped his way from station to station as the day continued finding new ways to be unpleasant. Each dash outside lasted long enough to catch fresh snowflakes in his beard and each stop by a fire was long enough to melt them again. Most of the cooks had been preparing meals for visiting Usoan dignitaries for months by now, and while the River People could be tender-bellied around aged meat there was still plenty in the Rhoanish cupboard that anyone could safely eat, so there was no excuse for the kitchens to be putting carrion in front of people who weren’t orcs. Maybe roaring at the poor novice cook who’d thought the appearance of the food was the problem had been a bit much, since the garnish he’d put atop the roasted fermented duck had looked quite nice, really, but someone had to be a hardass in this sort of situation, and Riaag was very good at playing that role. He’d also taken the unfortunate novice aside and promised them they’d work together later to put those garnish skills to good use when they weren’t at risk of giving someone food poisoning; he didn’t have the heart to leave someone in tears when they were only trying to help. You never made things personal unless you were willing to get personal yourself.

By the time Riaag had terrorized his way through every kettle and coal basket on the field there was still about half an hour to go before serving was due to start. Any less and he might’ve simply stayed out in the cold to help carry things, but that much time spent avoiding his official duties would risk insulting their guests. You couldn’t call yourself a god-speaker’s personal skald if you weren’t around to immortalize whatever things were happening around said god-speaker, and you definitely weren’t any sort of herald if you didn’t actually sing what you knew. It would probably be a lot more comfortable than sitting around in the freezing air with ice riming up his tusks. Riaag had the presence of mind to slurp up the final fin of stewed fish tail he’d brought along from the last kitchen he visited before he shook off the worst of the snow on his coat and ducked into the main tent.

Inside the air was thick with the scents of foreign dust and foreign spices, and while Riaag’s keen nostrils could also pick out how their guests didn’t smell like anything familiar, he’d dealt with non-orcs enough to know that mentioning how someone smelled was considered a social faux pas by people who didn’t live partially through their noses. More important was the scent he was looking for: it wandered across the makeshift antechamber a bit before disappearing behind a divider, where barring anything weird happening its source could still be found making a nuisance of himself. The armed warriors posted inside eyed Riaag nervously but let him through, though he was still careful to put down his hood to show his face and flourish his coats to show he was unarmed. He nodded to them politely as he picked his way through the piles of things cluttering the front part of the tent; Riaag was the last man walking the earth who’d complain about a guard doing their job.

The divider did a better job than he expected, as the moment he passed through it he was hit by a wave of heat, noise, and scented smoke so strong it nearly covered up the smell of the people carousing inside. A few Rhoanish attendants stood by with jugs of wine and hot water, but with one exception everyone else was a whatchamacallit with round ears and short teeth and white all around the colored parts of their eyes. Riaag attempted to make himself as small as possible—not an easy feat, as he was a ways taller than even the guards outside and easily twice as broad—and knelt at the side of the aforementioned exception, who was busy trying to tell a pun-laden story in a language he couldn’t really pun in and laughing delightedly at the trouble it was giving him. Riaag had hoped the most important orc in the room was too busy confusing their guests to draw attention to his entrance, but no sooner had his knees touched the cushions than he found himself the target of a grin as bright as the sun and no less warming.

“And here is the man I told you of before: Riaag Bough-Breaker!” Riaag averted his eyes as he dipped his head in reverence to their assembled guests. “As you know, because I have told you, he is my heart and my shield, and my dearest companion, and a teller of our tales.” The merchants’ preferred tongue didn’t have an exact word for “skald,” just as it didn’t have an exact word for a lot of things, so some inexact translation was necessary. “He dug the first places to lay walls for this entire stronghold, you see, and—”

“God-Speaker White-Hair, will you not let the man speak for himself?” asked one of the more richly-dressed merchants. She had a jeweled ring in her nose that sparkled when she talked. “Your words already number as as many as the flakes of snow in the air. Surely your teller of tales can take that burden from you for a bit.” Riaag would have been mortified if he hadn’t agreed with her. Sarouth White-Hair was many things to many people, but “likely to shut up” was not one of them.

Sarouth was unfazed. “Ah, of course, the weather has me forgetting my manners,” he said, scarcely missing a breath. “I can finish my joke later, once the feast has started!” Riaag tried his hardest to focus on the pattern of the carpets laid down around him, but he could practically feel some of the visitors cringing. Sarouth’s comedic timing was notoriously bad. If you needed a ritual run or a sermon orated, Sarouth was your man, but if you were planning on telling nice stories around the fire, you ideally gagged him and locked him in a shed before he could share any more of his excruciating attempts at humor.

Of course, now everyone’s attention was focused on Riaag, which was its own form of uncomfortable. He breathed slowly and prepared his herald’s voice. “The feast is nearly ready, Holy One,” he said, making sure to pronounce each syllable carefully so the merchants could understand. Their language wasn’t about to handle a title like “Faaroug” or “Agritakh-ruhd,” but he could still more or less use the honorifics he was used to. “I have been outside to check the kitchens and they will have plenty of food for our guests. There are meats and cheeses and some green things we have stored from the harvest. Every piece of every dish is fresh.”

The merchant with the nose ring hummed thoughtfully. “Most of us have never had orc-food before. It will be interesting to have it.”

Riaag had expected something like this when he’d first learned the stronghold would be serving Rhoanish cooking to non-Rhoanish guests, and that this time they couldn’t fall back on existing pacts to cover up any diplomatic missteps along the way. He was grateful to his past self for already puzzling out a good reply. “It is true that those of orc-kind eat many things that other blood-kinds do not. We of Naar Rhoan know this well. I humbly invite you to enjoy the breads we have baked for you and the soups we have simmered. Save for meats that are smoked, or pickled, or soaked in fine sauces, every beast we will put before you drew breath a few days ago.” Assuring guests they weren’t going to be given carrion without actually saying the word was a delicate balancing act. Bones people were less worried about, though he knew from experience that most Usoans didn’t have the jaw strength to crush them the way you were supposed to, but you just couldn’t take chances with fermented meat.

“A good thing to know,” said another merchant with a length of dark silk wound around their head and face. “It is not a custom I or my companions understand, and we are grateful your people have been so thoughtful in welcoming us.” Riaag didn’t know enough about their visitors’ language to tell if the speaker was being sarcastic or not, so he decided to take the courtesy at face value. It wasn’t like he was getting a knife pressed to his throat, unlike certain other meetings with foreigners he could think of.

“We are grateful that you accepted our invitation!” chirped Sarouth. It was true; Riaag had expected their offer to be politely declined, or not-so-politely laughed all the way back to the lowlands, but the messenger they sent at the beginning of the past spring had returned home a few short months later with a dazed expression and a head full of necessary preparations. Dealing with people from beyond the mountains wasn’t unheard of, but having so many of them visit in such a capacity was another animal entirely. They actually rode on their horses instead of eating them like reasonable people. Strangers were weird. If he later learned they grew wings at night to fly behind the moon he probably wouldn’t give it a second thought.

The conversation turned back towards exchanges of pleasantries so Riaag let his mind wander, one ear pricked in the event someone tried to talk to him, until the time came for him to head back out to direct the parade of food runners. He resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn’t be able to get a feel for the kinds of dishes the merchants preferred until they’d been camped for a few days and he could mingle with their own cooks; the scents he kept catching on people’s skin or wafting from bundled supplies fascinated him. Would there be new ingredients to trade for, or methods to learn, or combinations they’d never thought to try? Would there be crops that grew better in Rhoanish soil that they could trade back at a profit? Maybe thinking about food so intensely was just what was expected of him—he was, after all, a very fat man in addition to a very tall one—but Riaag didn’t care. The underlying layer of any lasting trade agreement was making sure everyone had enough to eat.

His mental sandglass ran out right during a lull in the conversation. Riaag stood and genuflected to those still seated. “Excuse my leaving,” he said, and he wished he knew more of the language so he sounded less stiff when speaking it. “It is time for us to serve what we have made for you. I will return later once I am no longer needed to tell people where to be.”

Sarouth beamed but said nothing, which was just as well as it would’ve been drowned out anyway by the sudden rustle of excitement. He waved Riaag out without any further hand signs or furtive glances, so that meant there probably wasn’t anything important they’d need to discuss in private later on; it was just as well, since Riaag was already too caught up in who he needed to direct where to pay things much mind in the first place.

Outside was still cold and snowy, which Riaag wasn’t thrilled with but could tolerate, and the space between the meeting tent and the kitchens was filled with a chaotic swarm of half-bundled runners trying to keep their platters in hand from getting ruined in the weather. It was like wading through a chicken yard when the springtime eggs were hatching. Riaag snorted to himself; this was the sort of mess he knew how to handle. He cracked his knuckles, adjusted his coat and gloves, and took a deep, throat-opening breath.

You chucklefucks listen up!” he roared. It didn’t silence the crowd entirely, but it did cut through the noise like a freshly-honed carving knife. Dozens of eyes focused on him. Riaag allowed himself a satisfied smile; Rhoanish was an excellent language for getting people’s attention. It felt much better in his mouth than the merchants’ tongue. “I want kitchens red one through green two getting food inter the main tent on the regular, and space some out so there’s new plates ter bring out soon as empties come back! Blue one, y’all is feeding grooms and drudges, blue two, y’all go ’round with baskets and get them guards some hot soup afore they freeze their asses off! You got problems you come ter me ’bout it, not nobody else, and there’ll be no fucken around with these people even if you get funny looks! We got guests and we is gonna show them we is motherfucken civilized! Do I make myself clear?

It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, since with so many people involved there were plenty of chances for things to go wrong, but a few years of overseeing festivals had given Riaag exactly the kind of experience he needed to keep things from going too pear-shaped. He waited until he heard the general patter of one of Sarouth’s toasts—generally much easier to appreciate than his stories—followed by a chorus of other voices, then visited each kitchen tent again to make sure the cooks were doing well. He walked the perimeter to check on the guards, Rhoanish and otherwise, before he accepted the fact that he probably did need to be making a good impression on the people Sarouth was probably already threatening to tell another joke to. They needed him in there. He gave a final few directions and grudgingly returned to the feasting chamber.

It was full and bustling the way he’d hoped it would be. Empty platters were getting replaced as soon as their last morsels vanished into someone’s eating bowl, and while there were mixed emotions regarding dishes made with seasoned sheep’s eyes everything else looked to be finding a waiting stomach. Not even the curls of incense in the air couldn’t overpower the heady aroma of a meal well-cooked. Riaag felt a swell of pride as he took count of all the attendants keeping the feast running smoothly.

One such attendant handed him a horn of hot tea with a bit of honey in it. Riaag drank it gladly, as zipping back and forth between the kind of mess still coming down outside and the shelter of warm, dry tents was the sort of thing that always gave him a sore throat, and he was halfway through his second refill before he realized that he hadn’t yet retaken his seat of honor. Based on the pained-looking expressions of the people around him, Sarouth was probably trying to finish that story of his. Riaag bolted down the rest of his tea and returned to the conspicuously empty spot at Sarouth’s side.

His return did not go unnoticed. “I see your beloved has joined us once more, God-Speaker White-Hair,” said a man with beads woven into his henna-reddened beard. He looked relieved to have a reason to politely change the subject. “It seems he knows how much you speak of his songs, and wanted to be with us, that we could hear it for ourselves.”

Where Riaag wanted to be was underneath a quilt, some heavy furs, and Sarouth, in no particular order, but that wasn’t the sort of opinion one shared in polite company. Instead, he said, “I would be honored, guest of our land.” A plate of pickled eggs started making its way towards Sarouth; Riaag had already seen Sarouth down a half dozen of the things already, so he intercepted the plate, passed it over Sarouth’s head, and continued talking. “I know a fine one, but it is in Rhoanish, and I do not know if it would be an insult to sing in a language you do not know.” He’d yet to meet anyone who was that fussy about experiencing a new land’s native customs, but one couldn’t be too careful about these things. There were worse things than a reputation for being overly courteous.

The man with the beaded beard sucked on a bone thoughtfully. It was unnerving seeing someone chew on one without scraping it clean with their (small, smooth, weird-looking) tongue first, and Riaag did his best not to stare. “Perhaps if you tell us what it means first, we can enjoy the way you sing it for us,” said the bearded man. This got murmurs of agreement from the important-looking people around them. Riaag’s stomach growled in dismay and the bearded man chuckled sympathetically. “Of course, if you would rather eat first….”

Riaag clasped his left hand around his right fist and straightened his back. “Let the tables creak with plenty. Let no one sleep hungry. Our fortune is yours.” He probably hadn’t gotten the vowels quite right, but there was just enough of a tell on what he could see of the other merchants’ faces to prove his research had paid off. If you didn’t at least look into a proper meal blessing for your guests, what were you even doing in the diplomacy business?

It was difficult not to let his enthusiasm show as he finally got a chance at his first proper meal since the modest breakfast he’d split with Sarouth at daybreak. Between smelling it cooking for hours and only getting nips and nibbles throughout said hours, his stomach was like a vast cavern yawning for a sacrifice. Still, there were guests present, important ones, and even at his most famished he loathed to disrespect his meals by eating them sloppily, so he counted to twenty each time he tore off a chunk of bread and took smallish bites from his vegetable-stuffed pheasant. Everything melted against his tongue. The cooks were damned good at their work, and they’d have better been, since Riaag had trained many of them himself. Naar Rhoan was as serious about food as it was about the bandits whose remains bristled from its walls.

He stopped himself long before he was sated, partially since the merchants were small people with small stomachs and he didn’t want to risk coming off as a glutton, but mostly so he wouldn’t malform his singing voice with too much seasoned porridge. A swig of hot water cleared his throat nicely. Once Riaag found a lull in the conversation he stood up and beckoned for the visitors’ attention, which wasn’t hard to get for someone with a god-speaker at their side and trophy skulls on their belt, to say nothing of how he was about a head and a half taller than most everyone else in the room. Ignoring the brief, icy rush of worry for having so many strangers’ eyes on him, he settled into as much of his herald’s patter as he could manage in a language he hadn’t been speaking since he first learned words.

“Guests of Naar Rhoan, I will sing a great story of ours to you. Its words are in Rhoanish, and to sing it in another tongue would require skill I do not have, but I will tell you their meaning, that you can feel the shape of its story.” People murmured with mild interest. That was a good sign.

“This is a story of the Star-Eater,” he continued. “In the days before days, when there was no world, our stories say there was nothing but an empty place of stars, and gods, and the places between them. The gods needed a place to be gods. They watched the stars and saw that those that died were consumed by the Star-Eater, who we call the First Scavenger, and because He did this new ones replaced them that were brighter and more lovely than before. He could touch and change the stars in a way They could not, so the other gods asked Him to make a world out of stardust so that They could become greater as well. He dreamed of a way to do this, so He gathered stardust and made it into a lump of raw clay, but the world fell apart as soon as the gods touched it.

“The Star-Eater remade it again and again, but nothing would stay whole when the gods’ hands touched it. He wept into the stardust and it still fell to pieces, and He bled into the stardust and it still would not hold. He fell into sorrow, and He dreamed again. He saw that His dreams were of nothing but the wholeness of the place He had made from dead stars, and if He slept then the strength of those dreams would protect it from the presence of other gods, even though He would eat no more stars and no longer see their light. With sorrow he shook away his name until only the First Scavenger remained. He drew the broken pieces around His body like a cloak and fell into His dreams.

“The pieces sealed up until there were no seams between them. The gods went down to that new place and it did not fall apart at the touch of Their hands or become ruined when They walked upon it, and They were filled with great joy, as They could make it into a fine world. Soon the First Scavenger’s dreams came up like water from down below, so even as the other gods worked it His touch shaped the raw places into the earth, where life could hide and grow.

“This is how the Star-Eater became Agritakh, our Hill God, He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, and while it is not the end of His deeds it is the end of this story. The dreams of a person are grand, and the dreams of a god are grander. This is what I will sing for you.”

It was a clipped, awkward retelling, since he had to leave out a lot of the good parts and he didn’t know suitably meaningful words in the merchants’ language, but Riaag was not the herald of Agritakh’s favored god-speaker for nothing: perhaps they were moved and perhaps they weren’t, but he had kept his audience’s attention and given them a framework for understanding divine loss. Now they were ready for the real story. He took a final sip of water and began to sing.

Both Riaag and Sarouth were giddy with excitement by the time they returned home to their own tent built in the shadow of the sacred hill. Sarouth had chattered excitedly while hanging off Riaag’s arm the entire walk back and persisted even as Riaag was lacing up the tent flaps against the cold. It was hard to blame him. Tomorrow would be the first day of proper trade negotiations, and if the merchants’ reactions to Rhoanish food and Rhoanish song were any indication there would be plenty more the stronghold had to offer them.

“You were fantastic!” Sarouth said for the tenth time. He tried to twirl Riaag around with limited success. “I think I saw one of the ones in heavy scarves wiping away tears, even!”

“Mighta been ’cause they was seated right next ter one of them incense burners, Faaroug,” said Riaag, though if he was being honest with himself he was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. He busied himself getting some lamps lit; their tent’s felting was thick enough that it was dark as a barrow inside it in all but the brightest sunlight, so some good brass oil-burners had been a major part of the furnishings ever since Sarouth had acquired the thing. Some days Riaag would get home and stumble straight to bed in the dark, but it was only a few hours past sundown and he could already tell he was going to be too wound up to sleep for a few hours more. “Tomorrow we’s still start out with showing off what foods we want ter export, right?”

Sarouth didn’t stop bouncing in place when he answered. “That’s the idea. Foodstuffs first, then wool and other fabrics, and we gradually get less utilitarian until we’ve made it to the spices, steel, and porcelain. Prosperity before luxury, you know? We need to show these people we have staying power as a long-term trade partner.” It wasn’t the kind of thinking that came naturally to Riaag; Sarouth, however, practically breathed and bled planning for the Rhoanish people generations into the future. That potential allies might be put off by how the stronghold was only two and a half years out from the laying of its foundations was not the kind of problem he seemed to worry with. Then again, Sarouth was the kind of man who would shout at the god in his head until he was hoarse if he thought the divine was being unreasonable, so maybe his definition of “problem” was different from other people’s.

“That’s for tomorrow, though,” he continued. “I don’t know about you, brave warrior, but I’m wide awake. We don’t have anywhere to be until mid-morning, so I thought we might enjoy a little private time together. The guards are all well, our guests are being cared for, and I renewed all the wards already. We’ve got the whole night to enjoy one another’s company. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’ve had a plan or two brewing since before our guests arrived.” He smiled up at Riaag, the lamplight catching the yellow of his exposed eye. “You in the mood for a game of rooster’s comb?”

Riaag blinked. “I thought you was gonna ask if I wanted ter touch your dick.”

“Well, yes, that’d be very nice, but would it be okay if we played a round or two first?” His smile turned mischievous as he added, “I can make it worth your while.”

Rooster’s comb was a game that used dice and pegs and little glazed tokens made of clay, and they had played it so often over the years that the board was worn smooth in places. Riaag was usually a terror behind the pegs, as ever since the first time the rules had clicked in place in his head he’d found it relaxing to think about moves and countermoves while doing chores; he could only claim to usually be a fierce opponent because Sarouth could easily gain the upper hand simply by existing and being distractingly handsome. The way the corner of his mouth quirked up when he rolled a particularly good number was devastating. If it was harder than it should’ve been to arrange a linking move across a few turns, Riaag couldn’t find it in himself to mind much.

Of course, that was when Sarouth was playing fair. The several layers of wool and furs he wore should have made his silhouette about as appealing as a sack of turnips, especially since he rarely went for robes that hugged his figure unless he planned to wear something over them, but Riaag’s eye was more interested in about how much space there was between the open air and the dark green of Sarouth’s skin. This was bad enough, but it got worse when Sarouth was wearing jewelry befitting a man of his station, which was to say lots of gold set with polished gems and bits of colored glass, and worse still when he was intentionally flirting, which he was very, very good at. Some men relied on filthy mouths or rude gestures to make a point, but all Sarouth had to do was casually brush a fingertip against Riaag’s glove when retrieving a token and Riaag may as well have been undone. It was an intense struggle between his desire to play a good game and his desire to give in and fawn all over his favorite person the way they both liked. Such was the burden of the Faaroug’s oathbound.

Things were close one way and then the other, but Riaag finally rolled a lucky number that let him get all the points he needed for a full comb. He grinned shyly as they collected their pieces. “Do I get ter make a request since I won?”

“What kind of request?” asked Sarouth with another dazzling smile. He tilted his head like a bird, enough to make the forelock that fell across his left eye sway part ways out of place.

Riaag felt his cheeks flush pink. Sarouth was always telling him to be more assertive, and he’d agreed he needed to work on it, but actually walking that walk was difficult. “I request we take a break from board games and shit and maybe spend some time in the back,” he said as he pretended to be interested in the embroidery on his overcoat cuff. “That thing where I said I thought you wanted me ter touch on your dick a little? I’d actually kinda like ter do that. See what you meant by ‘make it worth my while’ and all. It’s, ah, it’s been on my mind some.”

Sarouth gave him a sly look that on its own was enough to send goosebumps racing across Riaag’s skin that had nothing to do with the weather. “Ever since I suggested we spend a little time together?”

“Uh. More like ever since noon.”

“And you were running around in the cold organizing everything while all that was going on in your head? Your dedication to your duties never fails to amaze me, Riaag.” He reached across the table to cup Riaag’s cheek in his hand. Riaag closed his eyes and leaned against Sarouth’s palm, allowing himself a sigh of contentment. Half a year ago even this much contact was the stuff of dreams; now they ate together, bathed together, and so long as nothing came up during the day they shared the same bed every evening. What a difference six months could make.

Sarouth didn’t stop at a hand on the face, either. He ruffled Riaag’s beard as he pulled away to stand, but before Riaag could do the same Sarouth relocated to his lap, his arms draped around Riaag’s neck and their foreheads pressed together. This was not, in Riaag’s opinion, a problem.

They rested together for a while without saying anything, content in sharing space and breath in relative silence. Sarouth’s short-cropped claws toyed with Riaag’s hair—having someone who wanted to groom him back was another thing Riaag had never seen for himself until recently—as Riaag held him close, his weight warm and comforting against Riaag’s chest. Their kisses were brief, soft things. Sarouth was a man who could command the earth itself to rise up catastrophically, and Riaag had killed both wild beasts and wild people with nothing but his bare hands, but those were skills for dealing with the horrors of the world outside; in the safety of a lamplit tent Riaag was as gentle as a lamb, and the only commands Sarouth had for him were sweet ones. Most orcs’ bands had numbers you needed at least two hands to tally; as for Sarouth and Riaag, they had never not been a band of two, but in Riaag’s opinion they more than made it count.

While Riaag likely could have been happy if they spent the evening in chaste intimacy, he was also a bit relieved when Sarouth carefully returned to his feet and held out his hand. “Come on,” he said, and he nodded towards the curtain that divided the more public part of their tent from their private quarters. Riaag didn’t need further prompting: he scooped Sarouth up in his arms to the tune of much surprised laughter and carried him the few strides from one side of the divider to the other. The part where he unceremoniously dumped his oathbound on the bed in order to tend the firepot was somewhat less romantic, but so was freezing their asses off, and Riaag would rather be beaten with a length of briar again than suggest Sarouth have to strip down in a cold room.

“What was that about?” asked Sarouth, who looked happy to be horizontal. He’d already kicked off the closed-toe shoes Riaag insisted he wear in the snow. That man would wear sandals in the dead of winter if left to his own devices.

“Always kinda wanted ter do so,” said Riaag. He allowed himself a sheepish grin. “It was this kinda big part of some of them stories I’d tell myself back afore we was together in the manner ter which we is accustomed. You know the ones.”

“I do,” said Sarouth, who was now propped up on his elbows with his fingers laced beneath his chin. The thing with the stories had been a little embarrassing to admit—because how could it not be when you had to tell someone you used to concoct elaborate sex fantasies about them in your head before you even knew if they liked you back or not, much less in that way—but Sarouth had been nothing but understanding, and now and again he even asked to hear one for himself. “So was the bit where I bounced a little when I landed part of it, or just a side-effect?”

“Ah. ‘Twere an accident, sorry.” The coals finally kindled, Riaag stepped out of his boots to lie next to Sarouth on top of the blankets. Even though they slept next to each other all the time, he’d yet to get tired of the thrill of being that close to someone who wanted him there and in the same way he wanted them; the several heavy layers between them may as well have been so much gossamer.

Sarouth shifted his weight with a clink of jewelry, still comfortably smug. The way his tattoos traced the contours of his neck bordered on criminal. “So, o winner of games, what other requests do you have for me?”

That was a harder question to answer than it sounded. Riaag mostly just wanted to get Sarouth off, or be gotten off, or some pleasant combination of the two, but he hadn’t given much thought to the “how” part of the equation. His thoughts raced. It was like trying to decide what to have for supper after being hungry all day: everything sounded good.

Sarouth must have noticed his distress because he was quick to offer suggestions. “Do you want me in your lap again, maybe? Or would you like to see more of me first?”

“The, uh. The second one. But,” and it was a quick, insistent “but” since Sarouth had already moved to unfasten the clasp of his cloak, “I. I want ter first. Ter first be. Um.” It felt like his tongue was trying to tie itself in a knot, which was a pretty good trick since he’d never quite managed it the time or two he’d tried. He squeezed his eyes shut and spit it all out in one breathless exhalation. “I-want-you-ter-get-me-that-way-first-afore-you-take-anything-off. It’s. It’s very important.” He covered his face with his hands. “Why’s it so much easier ter think it than it is ter say it?” He’d meant to merely think that part, too, but it came out aloud. Fantastic. Riaag was wholly convinced his face was now the same color as a pomegranate.

“That’s okay,” said Sarouth by his ear. He felt the mattress push down next to him differently than it had been. He wondered if that was a good thing, but was still too embarrassed to look. He couldn’t look just yet. If he looked, he might see Sarouth leaning over him with one of those intense looks he got, the kind that made Riaag want to go limp and bare his throat and do whatever he was told. It was a natural thing to be taken hostage by the sheer force of an Agritakh-ruhd’s personality, after all. Maybe he liked being overawed a little bit. Maybe he liked it a lot.

Sarouth’s hand—and it was definitely Sarouth’s, since nobody else had hands so soft despite working in the fields as much as he did and nobody else had claws that short and carefully filed down—touched his face again. He felt a thumb trace his lower lip and up the curve of one of his tusks, and his mind conjured up the thoughtful face Sarouth made when studying him whenever they were alone like this. Riaag usually hated being the center of attention, but this was different. This was letting someone see him up close, with none of the acting he did to get through the day. This was letting someone in. This was letting someone whose life was stuffed with dreams and visions see that he was real.

Those questing fingers eventually moved away from his face to fuss with the collars of his coats until he could feel smooth, just-warm-enough skin resting against the side of his neck. A few fading bruises still lingered there and Sarouth pushed against them gently, making them ache; they could have been fresher, and there could have been more of them, but Riaag still sighed with genuine contentment as a good, dull pain bloomed inside his slowly-relaxing muscles. It was the same thing as a token he might wear in his hair or affix to his belt, really, and if his reminders of Sarouth’s love happened to be affectionately gnawed into place that just meant he didn’t risk losing them while doing chores. Not that he minded how they were put there, of course. He would need to ask for new ones later if Sarouth didn’t end up taking the initiative.

His belt loosened and he felt the weight of his carryalls and trophy skulls fall away to the side. A sleeve still carrying the scent of foreign incense rustled against his outer coat, followed by hands coaxing him to lift his back off the bed so they could guide the fur and quilted leather layer away from his arms and upper body. The sleeves of his middle coat followed suit, and then those of his caftan, leaving him shivering with nothing more than a tunic between his bare torso and the open air. He could feel Sarouth nearby the same way he could feel someone standing behind him without looking, but Sarouth was taking his time touching him directly. That was fine. A little frustrating, sure, but fine, and honestly it was sometimes more fun if he didn’t get everything he wanted right away. He trusted Sarouth enough to know it would all happen in due time.

Riaag’s gloves went next, and between having his eyes closed and how he’d been wearing a really durable pair that day the return of so much nuanced sensation was startling. He instinctively pulled his arms up against his chest like a mantis’s scythes. Sarouth’s hands were against his own, then, their fingers intertwined, and Riaag struggled to relax and allow Sarouth to unfold him; it had just been an old habit, not a revisit of any old, bad memories, so he kept his breathing calm and even and focused on nicer things, like how Sarouth had straddled him to lace their fingers together. Even when Sarouth’s hands pulled away he stayed where he was, and that suited Riaag just fine.

Sarouth’s hand rested itself against his sternum, or at least on top of the layers of wool, fat, and muscle between Sarouth’s palm and the bone. He leaned in then, his hair tickling against Riaag’s face, and Riaag, expecting a kiss, had already parted his lips welcomingly when he felt warm breath against his ear instead of against his mouth. “Will you open your eyes for me?” murmured Sarouth. His voice was a lance of honey and smoke that went right down Riaag’s spine. It was exactly the way a messiah was supposed to talk. “I want to see them. They’re so pretty.”

That was not a word Riaag had expected to hear used for himself, not from someone else. It wasn’t a word that someone shaped like he was shaped got. “Pretty” was for flowers and birds and the way sunlight reflected through icicles at sunrise, and definitely not for scarred-up bodyguards, no matter how badly they wanted it to be. There were some complicated emotions tied up in that word, but he was determined to save them for later; until then he would just enjoy the compliment for what it was. He cracked open his eyes just enough that he could still hide behind his lashes if he needed to. Just because they’d had sex like this plenty of times before didn’t make it any less embarrassing to be the one who’d actually requested it in the first place.

“There they are! Hello,” said Sarouth, who had straightened up a bit but still hunched over Riaag like a curious vulture. He radiated happiness. “Look at you, brave warrior. So strong and so clever, so handsome and so kind. No one else has that determined brow. No one else has that sweet smile. You’re perfect.” Riaag could find several flaws in that statement, but he knew better than to try and correct Sarouth in the middle of things.

The next thing out of Sarouth’s mouth wasn’t more praise, though. “Would you lift your butt up some? I need a little help getting your trousers off.”

“That the only thing you need help gettin’ off?”

Sarouth cackled. “And here you are, playing the shy little blossom before saying things like that! I’m pretty sure I won’t need any assistance for the important parts, though.” He shuffled backwards until he wasn’t sitting directly on Riaag’s pelvis, though that was likely more for his own convenience than Riaag’s. Riaag raised his hips obediently so Sarouth could slide his loosened trousers down until they slithered to the floor, and shortly after his breechcloth followed suit. The tip of his dick poked out beneath the hem of his tunic. It reminded him that the room was extraordinarily cold.

Sarouth gave him a pat on the belly. “There you go. Now you’re ready for Chant!”

“Very funny, Holy One.”

“Oh yes, I’m hilarious,” said Sarouth with a nod. His smile turned hungry. “My turn now, isn’t it?”

“But I ain’t fully—”

Sarouth held a finger to Riaag’s lips and chuckled to himself. “You want a bit of a show, don’t you? You’ll be keeping that on until I’m done, otherwise your nips might freeze off.” He gave one of Riaag’s nipples a playful flick through the fabric. While it would have been nice to assume said nipple was pert as a pearl solely due to desire, the tent was icy without any layers to trap the heat of the fire. Maybe it would freeze off. Riaag grumbled a little for show but lay back down without further fuss.

Sarouth’s clothes peeled away like the skin of an unusually well-dressed snake. His layers weren’t as thick as Riaag’s were, in part because half the time he had to be begged into wearing more than two in the first place, and while the valet part of Riaag’s thoughts always worried about frostbite, the part of Riaag that was currently flat on his back and most of the way nude was more interested in just how much of Sarouth’s figure was visible through the dyed wool. Sarouth was trying to be sultry as he stripped, which meant he was trying just a little bit too hard and therefore coming off as a little too silly, but it was fine. It was all part of the Sarouth experience. Not even the interlude where he ended up briefly tangled in his own underclothes could spoil the mood.

The last robe fluttered away from Sarouth’s shoulders and he paused to finger-comb his ponytail back in place. He was magnificent. Sometimes you heard stories of foreign clerics who stayed indoors and shied from hard labor, but Sarouth was nothing of the sort: he swam, he farmed, he sparred with Riaag (and sometimes even won), and whatever it was he did while dreaming his way through the Labyrinth each night seemed to help keep his midsection toned. His skin was darker than Riaag’s by several shades, taking a bluer cast than Riaag’s own yellow-tinged leaf green, and it contrasted sharply with the pale hair both on his head and between his legs. The mazelike pattern of tattoos that crawled across his arms and back was an impossibly vivid red. Riaag knew every spot and freckle on Sarouth, but he could never be sure those tattoos looked the same way twice.

When Sarouth moved to pull off one of his armlets, Riaag’s breath hissed between his teeth in dismay; this earned him a worried look as Sarouth froze in place. “Are you okay? Do we need to stop for a little bit?”

“No. Sorta. Not really, it’s just that you. You, er.” Riaag trailed off. Here he was, stumbling over his words again. A fine poet he was! “You need. Ter keep them shinies on. All of ’em, not just one or two bits. It’s. It’s. It’s, uh….”

“Important?” offered Sarouth.

“Yeah. Very.” He wet his lips. “I really like how you look in it.” That was a gross oversimplification, as it didn’t even begin to touch on how Riaag thought it made Sarouth look regal, and how he felt valuable and worthy by extension when someone with the luxury of wearing that wanted anything to do with him, and the very important fact that it made Sarouth look even more naked than when he simply wasn’t wearing anything at all, but much like the business with “pretty” that was a whole chain of thoughts that could be forged another time. There were important things to think about, like how the man he loved above all else was hovering about a hand’s breadth away from his cock, itself quite hard in spite of the frigid air.

With a final rustle of clothing Riaag’s tunic parted ways with his body. Sarouth was right: it was very, very cold, and it took all of Riaag’s willpower to keep from yelping with dismay when the chill hit his newly-exposed belly. Sarouth, who was not paying nearly enough attention to the temperature as he should have been, and who still kept his hips at the perfect height and angle to keep their cocks from brushing against each other, grinned like a lynx. “Don’t you look nice, yourself,” he said as he traced a claw along the side of Riaag’s chest. Riaag rumbled; he might not have agreed with the statement, but when he tried talking more humbly about himself it just made Sarouth upset, so these days he did his best to just accept compliments without speaking up to quantify them.

Sarouth folded his hands behind his head, the agate slice affixed to the front of his circlet briefly flashing as it caught the glow of the fire. He wiggled his shoulders, which sent flecks of reflected firelight sparkling across the tent wall, and as far as Riaag was concerned there was no more fitting raiment for a god-speaker than things that resembled the stars. “So was this the sort of thing you wanted to see?”

“Yeah.” It was true. The real version was far superior to his imagination. He was still long enough to drink in the scene, then added, “I think we might outta stop dicking about and skip ahead a little, though.”

“Oh? What happens if we don’t?”

Riaag shivered violently, only halfway on purpose. “Then I’m gonna freeze ter death and die, and you’ll be sad.”

“And that would be terrible,” said Sarouth with a sagely nod.

They burrowed into the blankets like weevils to find that the sheets were still quite cold, though without Riaag lying on them first they could have been much worse, and he and Sarouth were happy to simply huddle together side by side until their body heat made things a little more bearable. Once Riaag’s teeth stopped chattering he rolled onto his back, pulling Sarouth along with him. There might not have been as much of a view this way, since in the name of insulation they were both up to their necks in quilting with blessed little to show elsewhere, but he could feel Sarouth’s chest against his and Sarouth’s arms around him and Sarouth’s cock…

…still nowhere near his. Damnation! Riaag growled in disappointment and lifted his hips, which should have worked, but Sarouth slid off to the side until his lower half was resting on the mattress while he kept as nose-to-nose with Riaag, or at least as much as he could given their differing heights. He hadn’t even kept his waist facing the same way, so there wasn’t a chance of Riaag being able to sneak a feel of what he knew was erect and eager. Sarouth was still cuddling him, which was lovely, but keeping all the more exciting bits out of reach, which was less so. What sort of torture was this? Riaag’s growl thinned out into a needy whine.

A familiar hand came to rest on his inner thigh, high up enough to be lewd but still low enough to not actually be touching anything important. He shivered again, this time not from the cold. This had to be another of Sarouth’s ideas of encouraging him to be more proactive. Well, proactive wasn’t as easy as it sounded, but he could at least use his words a little. Riaag arched his back and attempted to coax Sarouth’s hand closer to where it could do some good. “Please.”

Sarouth gave him a kiss on the shoulder. His hand didn’t move any closer to where Riaag wanted it to be, though, which was troubling. “Please what?”

What kind of question was that? Wasn’t it enough just to ask? “Touch me. Or lemme touch you. Something. Anything.” Riaag writhed in place. This was it, he was going to die from sexual frustration. He was going to die and come back as a ghost, and then he’d just have to haunt Sarouth for eternity, forever seeking reparations for not being allowed to touch the cock he’d so longed to in life. Even his intense fear of the unquiet dead wouldn’t be able to keep him from returning as a vengeful dick-starved spirit. The sagas would remember it for generations: a woeful story of a god-speaker followed by the ghost of his oathbound, tormented by the—

“I can do that,” said Sarouth. Riaag felt the tension in his body melt away even though Sarouth’s hand stayed in place; Sarouth had said he’d do something, and so he would, and that meant there was no need to plan songs of doomed, thirsty ghosts pursuing trysts that would never come. Undeath was highly overrated, anyway.

A warm hand cupped his balls and gave them a friendly squeeze. It wasn’t quite the same thing as getting a chance to feel up Sarouth himself, but Riaag would take what he could get. He spread his legs to allow Sarouth easier access while craning his neck downwards to attempt at a kiss. The former worked better than the latter: Riaag couldn’t reach much beyond Sarouth’s forehead but Sarouth could reach plenty, and just because he didn’t have the best view of what was going on didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the devious things Sarouth could do with just five fingers and a willing shaft.

When Sarouth pulled his hand away—before Riaag finished, of course, but long after Sarouth had commanded his attention—it was hardly a surprise when he swung his leg around to seat himself back in Riaag’s lap, their bodies flush against each other with their cocks pressed between them. Riaag’s claws sank carefully into Sarouth’s right delectable ass, just enough to hold him close without the risk of drawing blood. The temptation to just thrust their hips together until he came was tremendous. That would risk implying he didn’t trust Sarouth to get him off, though, or (perish the thought) miss out on whatever delights he still had planned, so Riaag concentrated on his breathing even as his favorite god-speaker advanced ever-further into his personal space.

Sarouth ran his tongue up the side of Riaag’s neck, replacing the lick with kisses as he worked back down towards Riaag’s shoulder. He homed in on a patch of skin that didn’t have any marks on it. “Would you like something here?” he asked, his voice soft and eager. Riaag nodded furiously.

It was hard not to swoon when he felt the first sting of Sarouth’s teeth in his flesh and harder still when Sarouth put his jaw into it. Most people nipped at others in their band on a strictly casual basis, the sort of quick nibble on the ear between friends and family that served as a reminder of their mutual closeness; this was nothing like that, though no less binding. It hurt exquisitely. Riaag’s embrace tightened as Sarouth continued to worry at his shoulder, Sarouth’s weight atop him both comforting and inescapable. If he wanted to he could have resisted. If he wanted to he could have shaken Sarouth away like a bag of dried leaves, stood up, and walked out into the night without a second thought. He wanted neither of those things: what Riaag most desired was to offer his throat and offer his service, and for Sarouth to take what he fancied from each.

It ended all too soon, and just like always Sarouth gave him a little kiss on what would no doubt be a hideous-looking love bite before pulling away. The dull pain that lingered was soothing. Between Sarouth’s hand and Sarouth’s teeth Riaag was heartbeats away from orgasm, and even though part of him despaired over leaving a job unfinished a more rational part of his thoughts pointed out that Sarouth was not about to disappear just because Riaag came first. After all, if that was the case then Sarouth would have crumbled away like so much loose sand a good half a year ago.

Sarouth paused, and it took Riaag a moment to realize that Sarouth was actually waiting on him to make the next move. Well, if proactive was what the man wanted, proactive would be what the man got, even if it was a shy and awkward sort of proactive that had more enthusiasm than skill and kept trying to hide behind its hands. He tapped the top of Sarouth’s head and grinned as their eyes met. “Hey, uh,” he said, quietly cursing himself for nearly losing his words again. “I think I’m ready. Ter, y’know. Do what we came back here for ter do.” He flexed his claws where they still held Sarouth in place against him. “This ain’t a bad time, is it?”

“No, not at all.”

“Okay. Okay, that’s good, ’cause I really wanna touch your dick with mine some, if’n you’d be so inclined and it ain’t too much trouble.”

A soothing hand touched his cheek and he leaned against it. Sarouth’s voice was fond and gentle when he said, “Riaag, my brave warrior, I am very inclined and it is never too much trouble.”

Riaag’s palms pressed more firmly against Sarouth’s ass, still minding where he had his claws, and he ground his hips into Sarouth’s with slow, methodical motions. What he really wanted was to rub cock against cock like he was trying to start a fire between them, but that wouldn’t have been much fun for Sarouth; since the evening had ended up a lot more complicated than just him snaking a hand up Sarouth’s robes and sharing a little stress relief, it was worth doing things right. “Doing things right,” in this case, meant gradually ramping up the speed and intensity while thinking very hard about sums in his head—since otherwise he risked coming too soon for Sarouth to have any fun—but even the kind of problems where you had to split up one large number by another couldn’t hold things off for long. Riaag bit down on his lip and let himself go.

A really good orgasm usually meant two things for Riaag. Firstly, it meant that he could feel the stress that had been building up over the course of the day wick away into the air as his head cleared again, and that in and of itself was worth the effort. Secondly, it meant he probably had a bit of a mess on his stomach, and this time around the only thing keeping it from soiling the sheets was Sarouth, who was still lying on top of him. He hadn’t yet heard his name hissed from between clenched teeth or quiet cries of devotion, which probably meant Sarouth still needed a helping hand. Well, that wouldn’t be too difficult at all.

What he wasn’t expecting was to find Sarouth resting his chin in his hands and looking up fondly with one of his dreamy half-smiles. He didn’t look a flick of the wrist away from coming. Riaag frowned. Had he not been doing things right? “Ever’thing okay, Hol…Sarouth?” They had a little rule that Riaag wasn’t allowed to use formal titles in private, and while he was generally pretty terrible about remembering he at least tried. It still felt weird saying Sarouth’s name in such a familiar manner, but it made him happy, so Riaag did his best to relearn years of herald’s etiquette.

“Yeah. Just looking at you,” said Sarouth. He wrinkled his nose like a rabbit. “I like the faces you make when we’re together like this. They’re so cute.” Sarouth said that kind of thing a lot. It was nice, Riaag would never deny that, but it felt weird and anticlimactic after all they’d done to just get a few compliments instead of his desired goal. Sarouth must have sensed that somehow, because he craned his neck forward to bump his nose against Riaag’s. “Hey, it’s been very nice, I’m enjoying myself a lot, okay? It’s just hard to keep from thinking of a hundred things at once with merchants behind the walls and He Who Sleeps going off in my head every so often. Before you worry, He mostly just wants to know about the weather. I told Him it was shitty.”

“Okay.” Riaag put on his best hopeful smile. Here was another opportunity for proaction! “You want me ter get you the rest of the way? I’d really like ter do so.”

The mattress rustled as Sarouth propped himself up with his elbows. He pulled one of Riaag’s hands away from where it clung to him possessively and placed it against his (still hearteningly firm) shaft, then wrapped his fingers around both. “Want to do it together?”

If Riaag had nodded any harder he would’ve cracked the back of his skull against the headboard.

Two people stroking the same cock was a difficult enough proposition when everyone was seated upright with plenty of room for their elbows, and when both parties were lying prone under several blankets with one party atop the other it was even more troublesome. What made it work was the way Sarouth’s skin glided against Riaag’s palm and how his cock was warm and gently shuddered in time with his deceptively swift heartbeat. Riaag kept his eyes focused on Sarouth’s face, and it was worth it: he could see every gasp and grimace from that angle. If he hadn’t been so tall they might even have been able to kiss.

It didn’t take long for Sarouth to tense up and whisper something that sounded like Riaag’s name, leaving Riaag with a happy cleric and a sticky hand. Usually both of them coming around the same time meant it was someone’s cue to get a damp rag and wipe up any stray jism; “usually” didn’t account for it being bitter cold even with a tent between themselves and the worst of the weather, so Riaag cleaned up as best he could by licking things off his hands. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was warmer than the alternative.

They shared a brief kiss—relatively brief, at least, since Sarouth chose that moment to use a lot of tongue, either ignoring or enjoying Riaag’s recent grooming attempts—before Sarouth shuffled around to take his usual place nestled against Riaag’s broad and scar-spangled back. They fit together like stacked bowls. Riaag’s mind was alight with ideas, as it was still too early to consider bedding down for good, but the feeling of a warm oathbound cuddling with him against a backdrop of good sex was very nice to think about no matter how alert he was. He drifted along on tomorrow’s plans.

A little while later Sarouth nuzzled against his neck and nipped comfortingly at the nape. “Still wide awake?”

“Yeah.”

“Still horny?”

“Nah.”

“Me neither. Let’s get some clothes back on before we ice over.”

It was too early to stay in bed to talk until they fell asleep, so once they were dressed again the two of them returned to the front of the tent. With one firepot in the back and another, larger one blazing merrily in the front it was an almost acceptable temperature inside. They played two more rounds of rooster’s comb, each winning a single game, then drifted towards individual interests: Riaag sat down with some sewing while Sarouth rummaged around in the storage baskets he kept near his standing loom. The latter wasn’t unusual—Sarouth had always liked spinning and weaving during downtime, and lately he’d been seized by the urge to make camel-wool blankets for some of the stronghold’s newer converts—but he was oddly furtive when he pulled out a few new skeins of dyed yarn.

“You got somethin’ in there?” asked Riaag.

Sarouth startled, but swung around on his seat to grin at Riaag. “Maybe,” he said, pulling each vowel apart into long strings, like melty honeycomb. He kept the skeins in his lap. “It’s going to be a surprise, okay? Please don’t look inside.”

“Promise I won’t,” said Riaag, who had a surprise of his own folded up in a chest back in his private tent. His surprise was a charcoal-gray robe with fat bands of orange and gold embroidery along the hems; he’d been working on it for months, and with luck it would be ready to give to Sarouth by year’s end. This year there would even be someone he could kiss at sunrise! Riaag was determined to keep quiet about the robe as long as it took to finish it, so could respect whatever it was Sarouth was hiding from him on his end.

The loom clattered to life once Sarouth was satisfied with the color-matching of his newest length of yarn. It was hard for Riaag to do anything involved with his hands while watching people weave, so he focused on repairing a pair of trousers he’d torn while mending a fence and let his thoughts drift. There were worse accompaniments to a quiet evening than the clack of a treadle.

The sun had not yet roused from its burrow beyond the horizon when Riaag awoke the next day. He stretched as best he could with Sarouth clinging to him, then with great trepidation shuffled out of the warm warren of blankets, bundled himself up, performed his morning ablutions, and saw to preparing a light breakfast of bread and ripe carrion for the both of them. He ate his half quietly. Sarouth would probably be asleep for a little while longer, no doubt dreaming his way through sacred puzzles meant to teach him how to juggle better or something, so Riaag was sure to poke up the firepot in the back room before taking a woodcutting axe from the tool rack and heading for the south gate and the treeline beyond.

Chopping firewood was the sort of chore he was probably important enough to ask someone else to do for him, but Riaag found he was at his best if he had at least one mindless task a day to keep his hands busy and his head centered. It was, after all, no coincidence he was named Bough-Breaker. Some people’s adult names were chosen because they had an unusual skill, or felt a higher purpose, or in the case of people like Sarouth had physical traits that were impossible to ignore, but whatever it was was something so true to your nature you would tie your own first name to it; Riaag had always been a simple man, so when the time came for him to choose his he’d gone with something that told everyone he was someone you could rely on to chop big chunks of wood into smaller ones. In later years he found people assumed his name was because he was strong enough to tear a tree apart, which wasn’t exactly wrong. Even his skill on the battlefield had first come from knowing how to hack up a stump! It was funny how he’d grown into his name instead of the other way around.

That wasn’t to say he’d neglected his humble roots by any stretch. Keeping fires lit was a key part of any good drudge’s duties, and first disciple of the long-foretold messiah or not somebody had to take care of the shitty jobs nobody wanted to do, so Riaag had taken it upon himself to be the best drudge he could possibly be whenever his other obligations permitted. He carried wood (and even through his gloves’ padding he could feel if a branch would be worth burning) and hauled water (always knowing which would be sweetest for drinking and which would be clearest for cleaning), and the midwives had just short of declared him a gift from Scorpion (carrier of children, protector of the young) when they learned he would change a thousand diapers in exchange for getting to cuddle with new babies. Just as Sarouth felt the words of the Hill God in his bones, so too did Riaag resonate with a need to get shit done. It was also why even though he’d been running his ass nearly off the evening before he was up at the crack of dawn to work on some of the woodpile he’d started at the tail end of autumn.

A familiar shadow appeared in the corner of his eye. Riaag didn’t turn to look at it, instead busying himself with counting up how many logs he still needed to cut to size. He was getting used to forest shadows. “Mornin’, Etxeloi.”

“Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said the shadow in heavily-accented Rhoanish.

“Here ter keep eyes on them visitors we got?” asked Riaag. Etxeloi tended to pop up whenever anything interesting happened in the stronghold, and a lot of foreigners making camp inside its walls was plenty interesting to Riaag’s reckoning.

“Yes. Also no.” He stepped directly into Riaag’s line of sight, which meant the huge wolf he kept as a companion was probably to Riaag’s back. There weren’t any footprints in the slush around his boots. Well, that was fine. Etxeloi had a hard time not being intimidating on social calls and an even harder time not being spooky in general. He was willing to share what he and his fellow forest-walkers saw with allies, so part of the price of knowing what was happening outside Naar Rhoan’s sphere of influence was accepting you’d get people from Usoa emerging from the trees every so often to strike up weird conversations.

The phrasing he used was a bit odd, though. “What do you mean, ‘yes and no’? Don’t tell me we got more fucken ghosts again.”

“I say yes because I have reasons to know where the caravan goes and where it does not,” said Etxeloi. He put the emphasis on the wrong syllable of “caravan,” but Riaag wasn’t about to shit on the efforts of someone who hadn’t even known a word of Rhoanish a few months ago. “I say no because I come to tell you that others of my blood are coming. You have two days before they are here.”

Was it already trading time again? He’d thought it would be at least until year’s end before they saw the next batch of wonders from the river, but maybe there was a holiday between then and harvest he didn’t know about yet. “Well, huh. We hadn’t planned on displaying goods of Usoan make, but I figure it’s a good day fer it. We’s gonna be showin’ off the kinds of things what they can expect ter get hands on if they choose ter make an agreement with us and add us to their trade routes—”

“They do not come to trade, Riaag Bough-Breaker. They come because they think Naar Rhoan sends us illness.”

“They fucken what?” said Riaag, and it was only muscle memory that saved him from putting a gash in his leg with the axe as he wheeled to face Etxeloi properly. He heard the wolf growl from somewhere behind him, where he’d suspected it was. It was unnerving not being able to smell it. “We send food and aid and people ter rebuild and they say we’s plague-bringers? The fuck is going on with your kinfolk, Etxeloi?”

Etxeloi stood firm in the face of Riaag’s anger. His eyes were slitted like a fox’s and looked worried beneath his dark, concealing hood, but said worry clearly wasn’t because an orc of Riaag’s build was baring tusks at him. “It is for them to say, not me. I tell you this because I think the truth is not what they think, and because you and your White-Hair have done great kindnesses for us, so I wish for you to be prepared. I do not want this to ruin things for your blood.” He fussed with one of the furred flaps of the cap that kept his long ears out of the cold. “If Naar Rhoan suffers, so Usoa suffers. I say this much already. But they do not listen to me when they are not in need of news and secrets.”

Riaag groaned. “So in two fucken days we’s gonna get a buncha river people who say we’s shittin’ in the water or somesuch, and they do this in front of people we is trying most desperately ter convince we is civilized, and then we gotta figure out what in the fuck is actually the cause of the trouble, and then probably a buncha fucken bandits show up while everyone’s pants is down or some shit.”

“Ah,” said Etxeloi, and Riaag’s heart sank.

“We’s really gonna get them, too, huh,” he said, now more exhausted than angry. It wasn’t Etxeloi’s fault that there were jackals prowling the steppes, but Riaag halfway wished he hadn’t seen so much as a mottle of Etxeloi’s cloak that morning. At least he’d have had peace of mind that way. Taking care of bandits was a classic example of the metaphorical shit in need of getting done, however, and he hadn’t built up Naar Rhoan from empty dirt just to let some unknown assholes piss all over his hard work the second his back was turned. “So, which way is they coming from, and how many we need ter expect?”

“North. They follow the merchants’ trail. They hear Naar Rhoan is a place that eats bread, so they lie to themselves and think it is weak. In two days they arrive. The way they move, it will be after ones of my blood come here. Maybe the same time?”

“And I reckon they woulda been right up on our nuts already if they hadn’t got harried by mysterious shapes in the night, huh?”

Etxeloi didn’t reply, but he did so in that careful form of omission that was an answer all by itself. Riaag would never call him a reliable ally, but a good one? That was the sort of thing Riaag would be willing to swear an oath over.

“Well, we cain’t just go flush ’em out since that ain’t how we does things here, but I’ll get extra guards on the gates and watch up on the walls. Someone starts shit, we end it.” He snortled and began to stack up his most recent pieces of cut firewood. “Should I assume that them folk from Usoa is gonna arrive close ter when them bandits show up? Encourage ever’body ter play nice and focus on a common enemy and all?”

“Your axe is sharp, Riaag Bough-Breaker. Be sure it is sharp enough to cut off a head.”

By the time Riaag looked up from the woodpile with a fresh log in his arms, Etxeloi was already gone.

“Two days?” said Sarouth as Riaag carefully shaved away the evening’s worth of white whiskers that had sprouted on his chin. “That’s inconvenient. We were supposed to be riding out to show off the borders of the fields then, weather permitting, of course. So that’s bandits from the north, River People from the south, and us stuck in the middle trying to keep everyone alive.” He waited for Riaag to pause between razor-scrapes before heaving a heavy sigh. “Well, what do we have done already?”

“I got Kala Cold-Iron briefing guards and upping patrols already. She’s running extra field drills since I figured it’d be good ter show off how organized we is when it comes ter defensive matters. It seemed like a good thing fer maybe-possibly-allies ter see.”

“Very smart. What else?”

“Mayze Bitter-Beak has her scouts out ter keep an eye on the far perimeter. Soon as any of ’em hear so much as a mouse fart they’ll get ravens in the air. We already got a messenger bird flapping out ter Rotte Long-Stride since he’s still patrolling the roads up ’round Riv Kuth, and we know he and his ain’t been waylaid yet since their last coded message came in fine this morning. I ordered the south traveler’s field cleared so we can put them folks from Usoa somewhere that ain’t in someone else’s armpit, ’cause if we can swing how nice we’s playin’ with them it might come in handy fer us. Aside from that we got the stalls gettin’ set up on time so today goes normal as it can.” He rinsed Sarouth’s face and offered him a towel. “Also I got cords of fresh firewood ter ever’body so the guards stay warm and the guests stay dry.”

“I couldn’t run this place without you, Riaag,” said Sarouth around a faceful of linens. He wiped away the last of the moisture and tilted his head backwards to look at Riaag without actually turning the rest of his body around. “So do our guests know we have fuckheads on the horizon?”

Riaag scratched at his jaw. “Well, ah, figured that should be somethin’ they hear straight from your own mouth,” he said. He averted his eyes. “You’s better at handling this kinda shit, anyway.”

Sarouth reached up to pat Riaag on the cheek. “That’s fine. I tangle with the divine every single day, so what’s bringing bad news to a few mortals in comparison? We’ll take care of it soon as we’re done here.” He turned over in his seat to rest his arms over the chair back. “Once you finish getting my hair under control, would you like me to do anything for you? You always make me look so nice and I’d like to return the favor.”

Well, that was a tricky subject. Riaag took great pride in his hair ever since he’d been able to start growing it out properly, so he usually spent a little time every day making sure the wavy black mane that fell halfway down his back was properly combed and clean. The only one who was ever allowed to touch it was Sarouth, who liked to ruffle it on occasion to show he cared, but even then he would only ever run his fingers through it or otherwise play with it a little if they were being intimate. Letting Sarouth actually groom him was another story entirely. Riaag’s was so much thicker than Sarouth’s, so who knew if he was prepared to comb it out right; what if there was a bad tangle and it pulled too hard and it reminded him of the bad old days that always left him upset for hours? What kind of experience did Sarouth have handling that sort of thing?

His flustered mental questions answered themselves. He’d been present when Sarouth had taken some teasel stems to what looked like a solid knot of wool, and yet before he knew it there was nothing left but a mass of smooth, spinnable fibers. Someone who had originally trained to be a weaver was the perfect choice for this sort of thing. “Would you braid it fer me?”

If Sarouth had looked any happier he would’ve started actually emitting light. “I’d be delighted to!” he said as he cracked his knuckles. A skinny scrap of fabric materialized from the pouch he kept on his belt; it wasn’t pink—Riaag’s favorite—but it was patterned in a fetching red and gold, which still looked very nice. Assuming the whole braid thing worked out, Riaag would have to see if the merchants had brought any ribbons with them to trade.

Having had about seven and a half years to perfect his technique Riaag had no trouble brushing out Sarouth’s hair and rearranging it into its usual tail and forelock; while he chose to add a few extra ornaments to help impress their guests, there was a general common shape and structure to Sarouth’s preferred coiffure that Riaag’s hands could effortlessly ease into being. Making Sarouth look good was as simple as could be. What was hard was finding the willpower to swap places so it was his ass in the chair and Sarouth holding the combs. Riaag made sure none of his hair was still tucked into one of his coat collars, centered his thoughts, and gave Sarouth a nod.

The brushing started gentle and low along the ends (exactly the way you were supposed to), and the longer things went without any nasty pulls (which were what the former method was meant to prevent) the more Riaag relaxed. Each pass of the comb worked slowly higher until its points dragged along Riaag’s scalp, then wandered back down, all without so much as a snarl; his hair, while thick enough to risk snapping the sturdiest tines, was generally well-behaved, and that morning was no different. It felt rather pleasant. Pulling his hair into separate strands tugged gently and there was no real way around it, but Sarouth paused after each one so Riaag could catch his breath, so it wasn’t so bad. Once the initial weird wrenching sensation passed he was able to sit still long enough to let Sarouth finish. So this was what it was like having someone else do things for you! It was such a simple thing but it felt as though he’d just scrabbled his way up a mountain.

When it was all done he had a long, thick braid with the patterned fabric woven through it like an extra strand of the plait so the color showed even from beneath a hat. There hadn’t been enough to put a bow in it at the end, but he would survive. Riaag arranged his coats to make sure the back of his neck and the bite mark on its side were properly covered. He’d already taken his claws to a scratch-rope that morning and brought his beard under about as much control as it ever could be, so outside of swishing with ash-water again there was nothing else he could do to make himself look more presentable. Hopefully the merchants would agree. If nothing else he knew he looked a damn sight better now than he had when he was half-sodden with snow.

He flashed Sarouth a smile. “How’s it look?”

“Great! And I’m not just saying that because I helped.” Sarouth pulled Riaag to his feet and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Ready to go give some bad news to people we barely know?”

“No.”

“Me neither. Let’s get going.”

“If you will follow me this way, you will see where we keep our public kitchens,” said Sarouth as he herded a crowd of dignitaries through Naar Rhoan’s snow-wet grounds. Riaag tailed along behind him with a torch in his hand, himself a living beacon in the unlikely event they lost a merchant somewhere along the way. Its mild heat was welcome in the wind. “While our hope is that all who live in Naar Rhoan have their own stores of food, we do not want any to go hungry, and so we prepare food here. Many of our crops and animals become one of two meals we serve each day. Some of those who have joined us do nothing else but cook fine foods for the stronghold. You can see some of them preparing the midday meal already.” He waved at the sprinkling of cooks loading dough into ovens and chopping meat. A few of them waved back uncertainly.

“Is it common for orc-folk to do this?” asked the merchant with the silk wrapped around their face. They were bundled up in more clothes than before and still looked a bit miserable in the weather.

“I am glad that you asked! While I do not know how it is done in your homeland, Naar Rhoan is not a usual place, and our desire to bring our people together with food and shelter is different from many strongholds….” Riaag already knew everything Sarouth had to say about the difference between nomads, other strongholds, and the Rhoanish way of life, in no small part because he’d been a major player in establishing what “the Rhoanish way of life” was in the first place, so instead he kept a wary eye on the merchants as they flowed along in Sarouth’s wake like a school of curious fish.

There was just so much that he suspected wasn’t quite making it across the cultural barrier, like what it meant for orcs to be milling flour and baking bread when generations of tradition considered it anathema. It wasn’t that the older methods were strangers to complex cooking, since Riaag had first learned some of his most treasured recipes while still tromping through the wilderness without so much as a tent to his name, but a crop other than rice grown for diners other than animals was the sort of thing you just couldn’t get some people to eat without holding their heads face-down in a bowl of gruel. Not even swearing up and down that the Hill God Himself had blessed their efforts helped. It was an entire skillset most Rhoanish cooks had to learn from scratch.

Actually finding people who would both be willing to work with grain and actually had a knack for it was another tricky bit. Riaag’s own relationship with cooking had gone from a necessary chore done to keep from troubling others with the work to an actual, if ephemeral, art form. Sometimes he caught himself thinking it was so easy anyone could do it if they tried, but that was unfair; Sarouth could manage to burn water, and he was easily the wisest, most capable man Riaag had ever met, so it clearly wasn’t the sort of thing you were shitty at solely for lack of cleverness or competence. There were enough people who could manage it, thankfully, and so the stronghold ate every day.

It was a bit of a losing proposition to convince visitors that the soil was fertile after everything had been harvested for the year, but Sarouth tried anyway. He walked the merchants by food stores and within view of the western fields, neither of which Riaag had much to say about, but when they neared the paddocks an opportunity presented itself: a novice beastmaster busily mucking out a rabbit hutch. Riaag knew her as Visz—just Visz, as she was still too young to have chosen a surname—and had spoken with her enough to know she liked living in Naar Rhoan much better than wandering the hills with her old band. Who better to promote the future of the stronghold than the next generation in the flesh? He handed his torch off to Sarouth so he could approach her without drawing too much attention.

“Hi,” he said once he’d reached a respectful distance. He squatted down to lean on a different hutch than the one Visz was cleaning; when you were over twice someone’s size and age alike it was simple good manners not to loom over them.

“Hello,” she said. She didn’t look up from the befouled bedding she was replacing. “You’re Bough-Breaker, yeah? The singer the leader-man likes?”

He’d been called much worse in his lifetime. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Okay.” Visz leaned out of the hutch and peered up at him, the fur-lined hood of her coat making her face look like an owl’s. “Whatcha need?”

“We’s gonna show some people that Naar Rhoan’s the best. You in?”

She grinned and clapped some of the straw off her mittens. “Yeah! What do I do?”

Riaag cocked a thumb over his shoulder at the merchant group, which was currently enduring Sarouth’s opinions about the quality of Rhoanish mutton as he petted a ram that had wandered up to the fence to investigate. The merchants had all had the decency to wear blatantly foreign clothing and enough of them had exposed faces to reveal that they weren’t orcs. “You see them folks over there talking ter White-Hair?”

Visz goggled. Given how many Rhoanish still weren’t used to River People yet, Riaag had expected her to be taken aback by so many strange people in such close quarters. She didn’t look frightened, though, which was the important part. “What are those?” she half-whispered to him.

“Guests,” replied Riaag, since it was true enough and he still didn’t know much about them beyond a few cultural quirks and what you weren’t supposed to feed one. “We gotta show ’em what a good job everyone in the stronghold does of bein’ good ter each other, plus any beasties what’s in our care. If it’d be all right with you, you wanna show them folks your bunnies? You don’t gotta hand it over, just let ’em see how good a job you’s doin’ what with keeping ’em strong and clean. I’ll say any questions they got fer you in words you know. How’s that sound?”

Visz puffed up proudly. “I’ll show ’em how good Rhoanish beastmasters are!” she said with a thump of her chest. She hurriedly laid down some fresh straw before pulling an enormous black rabbit with white spots from the hutch. “This is Stars. They’ll like Stars. She’s big and soft and she’ll taste so good when her hour comes up.” Visz juggled the rabbit a bit until she had a better grip on it, then nuzzled it fondly. “You’d have to be real silly to say we don’t know how to treat animals good after you got to pet her!”

While he had a limited knack with animals himself, as his experience with his horrible bastard asshole of a riding horse had taught him, Riaag had great respect for those who dedicated their lives towards taking care of creatures, and combined with his love of children he was already fond of Visz. She fed Stars by hand as they watched the swarm of merchants meander its way through the winter-calm beehives and towards the hutches.

As Sarouth took his place at the front of the crowd once more Visz’s bubbling enthusiasm drained away. “Is the leader-man gonna be with them?” she asked Riaag, her expression suddenly uncertain.

“Yeah,” said Riaag. He’d been expecting this. “Don’t you worry, though. You’s gonna do a good job, and he’s gonna be so proud of you and Stars and how strong you’ll show them folks Naar Rhoan is. If you get scared, well, that’s just fine so long as you just remember ter grab one of the tusks on these here bones, a’ight?” He knocked on one of his trophies for emphasis. “White-Hair loves me so he ain’t never gonna hurt nobody I’m lookin’ after, ‘specially not small fry like y’self. Sure as I’m his disciple I swear it ter you. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Visz. She clutched Stars tightly. “I promise I’ll be brave.”

Riaag beckoned to Sarouth, who quickened his step without missing so much as a syllable in what sounded like an ode to the quality of the wines they’d been aging since the first year’s grape harvest. The crowd gathered in a semicircle around Visz and her hutch; from where Riaag stood he could tell that more than a few of their guests were grateful for a break from endless agricultural speeches, so he nodded to Sarouth and introduced Visz in the merchants’ own tongue.

It was awkward having to translate everything the merchants said into Rhoanish so Visz could understand, and vice versa, but Visz did her best to answer every question she was asked: she gave her name, how long she’d been working with animals, and even some highly enlightening opinions on why she liked living inside the walls more than exploring the freedom of the open sky (which mostly boiled down to safety, security, and how she was able to eat plums more often than when her family was nomadic). Their guests were thoroughly charmed. Riaag caught a few murmurs about “the darling orc-child” once they’d exhausted their curiosity, which was a bit patronizing but at least reasonably nice, and by the end Visz was bold enough to allow a few of them to pet Stars. She didn’t even seem that put off by Sarouth’s presence after a while, which was hardly a given when it came to children and god-speakers, and she replied boldly and respectfully the few times he asked her a question directly. That the rabbit didn’t misbehave the entire time was a small and welcome miracle.

Once the crowd was headed towards where the eating horses grazed and Visz had closed up the hutch again he slipped her a bone chip to crunch on. “You did good, kiddo.”

“Do you think it worked?” she asked around a mouthful of half-chewed shards. A little bit of bone dust puffed out along with her clouds of breath.

Riaag shrugged. “Dunno. Hope so. I heard ’em saying nice things ter each other, so I think it helped our case if nothin’ else.” He smiled and gave her an avuncular pat on the shoulder. “You just keep being good ter your creatures and next time they come back you’ll have even more and better things ter show off, right?”

“Right!” Visz wiped her mouth on the back of her mitten and peeked in at the rabbits. “I better get back to my chores, though. The bunnies don’t like being in smelly homes.”

He nodded to her politely and hustled a bit to catch up with the crowd, who still looked a bit confused by the Rhoanish placement of horses on a dinner plate. The merchants had ridden in on some, though said horses were tall, lean beasts that looked more like burly deer than the squat little dumplings Riaag was used to, and Riaag could not imagine for the life of him why anyone would breed something so delicious into something so stringy and tough. Not that he had no familiarity with riding horses—Sarouth owned one named Karsta that he practiced riding several days out of the week, and Riaag grudgingly coexisted with one that he referred to as “the stupid horse” that he endured sitting on more often than he ever wanted to—but Rhoanish steeds had more toes than other breeds, and they were so big and stocky that he hardly thought of them as horses until he caught whiff of one after another hateful day of riding practice and the smell made him start salivating again.

“Ah, glad to have you back with us!” chirped Sarouth. He handed over the torch again. “I think we are almost ready for the midday meal, after which we can exhibit some of Naar Rhoan’s less consumable craftsmanship. We have just started planning how to build more permanent structures, which is an exciting prospect for us, I can tell you.” The woman with the jeweled ring in her nose grumbled a bit too loudly at this, and Sarouth wheeled immediately to face her with a face full of genuine concern. “My apologies if I have offended! Is something the matter?”

She sighed. Riaag had seen that sigh before, usually from people who felt Sarouth was trying to talk around them. He braced for the worst as she said, “You are showing us rabbits after not this morning we were told that there are marauders heading towards us, White-Hair. We see guards training but are not told about them, as though we should look through them. How should we feel?” Riaag was starting to appreciate how straightforward these foreigners could be.

“You may feel however you do, as such is your right,” said Sarouth with such speed and confidence he had to have been preparing for the question. “I have sworn on the divine within me that you and yours will remain safe so long as you are within Naar Rhoan’s walls. We are fierce to those who would harm us. We also do not harm those who do not bring trouble to us first. Until then, why should we waste your valuable time when we could be doing necessary trade?” He flipped his ponytail over his shoulder purposefully. “We have scouts. We have guards. We have many people trained and willing to defend their home. All of these things will protect you. Consider it a show of Rhoanish might, perhaps.”

“You are very calm about this.”

Sarouth shrugged. “You have noted I speak solely of the Rhoanish ways, not orcish? We are outliers among our own people. Naar Rhoan is not even three years old, but already we are this size, and that means we have our enemies. Some are bandits. Some are marauders. Some are from rival strongholds. Some are those who believe I am a heretic and that this land must be cleansed by spilling my guts across it. They claim we are not orcs at all, but demons that must be crushed, and that we have spat on the songs of our ancestors. In spite of this, we thrive.” He waved his hands at the people going about their business around them. “You see how we busy ourselves with acts of growth, not acts of war, or at least not those beyond keeping our eyes open and our weapons clean. We do this because we know we are prepared.”

“You speak bravely, White-Hair. Bold words indeed for a man who fears death as much as the next.”

He smiled, his tusks bright in the winter sun. “You assume that I do.”

The crowd murmured to itself. Riaag chose to pointedly study the fortifications, and several eyes followed his; the wall-walks were lined with the remains of those who had most grossly defied Rhoanish mercy, their corpses separated from the sacred earth to await the judgment of the birds, and there said corpses would stay until they either succumbed to the weight of their atonement or were taken away by the vultures. Riaag had carved several of the pikes himself, choosing strong wood that wouldn’t despair at its duty, and had been present for when Sarouth laid the first blessings upon them. They’d harvested saber-tooth fangs together to make spearheads powerful enough to keep even the most dreadful spirits in check. It was easy to forget how many people had been nailed to the sky in the short period of time since the stronghold’s founding, at least until you stopped to count them. There were dozens. If the merchants would not accept Sarouth’s words, well, there was still ample proof of his deeds for them to see.

“I will accept your answer for now,” said the woman after a while, “but know that I am still wary, and that we have no agreements yet between us should things go badly.”

“A fair statement. If there are no other questions…?” No one answered. Sarouth clapped his hands together and rubbed them eagerly. “Well then! As I said, it is time for something to eat! Who is hungry?”

With a few final glances at the charnel wall, the crowd proceeded uneasily towards the roasting pits.

Leftovers were not exactly the most dignified of meals, but if there was one thing Sarouth loathed more than making a bad impression on guests, it was wasting food; thanks to the clearer weather there was at least plenty of hot barbecue to go around in addition to the remains of last night’s offerings. It was less oppressively cold so most of the guests were content to eat around the winter-barren pergolas or under a pavilion Sarouth had arranged to be raised that morning. Not being jammed up against everyone else’s elbows had Riaag in a much calmer mood even as he had to occasionally stop servers to check if everything on their platters was acceptable. At times he nearly forgot the ever-looming threat of bandits.

Being more relaxed meant that he was more inclined to be an active part of the conversation that never really stopped so long as Sarouth was awake and around potentially-friendly people. It had mostly been chatter about local scenery, the weather, and the significance of certain animals—that people could live so closely with other creatures and not be aware of their place in the symbolic world was hard for Riaag to wrap his head around, but he’d planned for that sort of culture shock ever since he learned they would be hosting guests—and for once Sarouth wasn’t responsible for the bear’s share of the talk. The topics stayed constant but mild.

Mild, that is, until the person with the scarf around their face asked something interesting. “We have been told that orc-kind eat long-dead meat,” they said, and they picked their words as cautiously as one might pluck crabs from a bubbling pot. “I beg forgiveness for not knowing kinder ways to phrase it, but do you truly feast on rotten corpses? Your words last night gave a strange impression and we have no such traditions in our country. Is there more that we should learn?”

It was an honest enough question given how mildly it had been asked. Riaag saw an opportunity to tell another story, however clipped; the issue was simply guiding things to where it could happen naturally. He caught Sarouth’s eye, nodded determinedly, and cleared his throat before speaking. “It is true we do this. Our blood-kind is nourished by it. We help clean the land and leave it fresh for new things.”

“So you do eat such things?”

“Yes, we eat the dead, but not our own dead. Those are for another.” He shrugged into his tale-teller’s persona. A song would’ve been best, of course, but songs required people to know more Rhoanish than the amount it took to ask where the closest latrine building was, and that wouldn’t’ve ended well for anyone. “There is a story about how we learned these things, if you care to hear it…?”

Fishing for compliments wasn’t the subtlest thing, but given how much stress he was handling Riaag felt entitled to a few. They made it easier to keep himself useful. The encouragement came quickly and from more than just the single speaker, accompanied by the attention of the other curious diners, and Riaag glowed with satisfaction. This was the kind of crowd an orator lived for. He quickly translated some of the opening verses in his head and took a deep, head-clearing breath. It was time to bring the Chant to a new audience.

“In the first days, when all people were Old People and all hearts were wild, these first people knew nothing of Agritakh, and He knew nothing of them. They lived as beasts, though unlike most beasts they felt a strange hollow place inside. These first people walked the land and lived with this hollow nature, and so it was for generations, with life and death being a matter of tusk and claw, and the winter brought with it great hardship. No great purpose came about in those days because the first people knew nothing of making their lives richer. They would exist, but even the simple lives of animals were rich and full compared to the way the first people did with their hollow places. It was like eating without tasting.

“It was then that the first people came upon Beetle. Beetle is the greatest of all beetles, and a part of all beetles, and never was, and always has been. Beetle’s wings shone in many colors and Beetle’s shell was bright like metal, and these colors and this brightness called to the first people, who sat and watched Beetle’s nature. Beetle crawled over the remains of things that died, and Beetle was great in number: by eating things that fell as well as things that were hunted or gathered, Beetle made the land clean.

“From Beetle the first people learned to birth many children, so their families were like Beetle’s grand broods, and Beetle showed that old meat was sweet and good when meals were few and far between. Beetle taught them beauty, and through study of how Beetle was always clean while still eating that which was old and rotted, the first people learned much. Through Beetle the hollow places inside them were partly filled, and they were grateful, and we are grateful to this day. Beetle is tied to blood: the water that eases thirst, the tie between parent and child, the promise of life, the proof of death. This is why Beetle has become known as the first of the Scavenger Kings.

“For all Beetle’s wisdom, Beetle is not a creature of drive or purpose. The first people wished to do more than birth children over and over, and still their hearts ached with the hollow places inside them. They left Beetle’s side and went out into the land again.

“It was then that the first people came upon Jackal. Jackal is the greatest of all jackals, and a part of all jackals, and never was, and always has been. Jackal’s teeth were sharp and Jackal’s kin hunted fierce as wolves, and this fierceness and these bonds between kin called to the first people, who sat and watched Jackal’s nature. Jackal picked at the remains of things that died, and Jackal was swift of foot: by eating things that fell as well as things that were hunted or gathered, Jackal made the land clean.

“From Jackal the first people learned to work together to finish difficult things that would be impossible to the same number of hands not linked in kinship. Jackal taught them the power of many, and how a single creature with a fierce heart becomes mighty when many stand together. Through Jackal the hollow places inside them were partly filled, and they were grateful, and we are grateful to this day. Jackal is tied to steel: strength made from hardship, new things created by will and purpose, a fine and rare treasure that is greater than the humble parts used to make it. This is why Jackal has become known as the second of the Scavenger Kings.

“For all Jackal’s wisdom, Jackal is not a creature of loyalty or valor. The first people wished to do more than run from that which frightened them, and still their hearts ached with the hollow places inside them. They left Jackal’s side and went out into the land again.

“It was then that the first people came upon Vulture. Vulture is the greatest of all vultures, and a part of all vultures, and never was, and always has been. Vulture’s face was stained black with grief and Vulture’s wings were broad, and this sorrow and this majesty called to the first people, who sat and watched Vulture’s nature. Vulture carried away the remains of things that died, and Vulture was closest to the sky: by eating things that fell as well as things that were hunted or gathered, Vulture made the land clean.

“From Vulture the first people learned to look to the skies in pursuit of dreams, and to delight in the earth below to understand the world. Vulture taught them the way to seek out mysteries, and while Vulture would not share why tears followed in Vulture’s shadow, this desire to know brought boldness to the first people. Through Vulture the hollow places inside them were partly filled, and they were grateful, and we are grateful to this day. Vulture is tied to fire: scouring away that which is filthy, changing that which remains, that which dances in the air, a friend in foe’s clothing. This is why Vulture has become known as the third of the Scavenger Kings.

“The first people felt full up with being as they drank in Vulture’s wisdom, and they would have stayed at Vulture’s side forever, though Vulture is strange and unknowable. Vulture had heard songs on the wind and counted the hidden secrets in the stars, though, and knew that little would come to pass if the first people stayed comfortable. With a great cry, Vulture flew off, and while some of the first people watched with sorrow others followed after by falling into dreams. Some would be eaten by these dreams, but others would listen for Vulture’s call and go forward into hidden places within the earth. What they found was the Hill God’s place to dream, what we call the Labyrinth, but these first dealings with Agritakh are another story for another time. Know that it was Vulture who led them there and Vulture who guides us still, should Agritakh wish it.

“Three Scavenger Kings to lift us up from animals. Three Scavenger Kings to echo Agritakh, the First Scavenger. We do as we have been taught and keep the land clean: we eat that which has turned to rot, and with it we grow many, and strong, and wise. Let this truth become yours, that you may know us better.”

Riaag sat down to light applause, which was not the sort of thing he was used to after telling a story, but it wasn’t like the merchants knew any Chant or appropriate hymns with which to reply. It felt a bit weird telling a story of the Kings in such a clipped manner, to say nothing of how his listeners hadn’t grown up learning how each King touched their lives on a daily basis. Still, just as Sarouth was being a good ambassador by being a chatterbox with an iron will and access to Rhoanish trade, Riaag figured he was doing his part by helping their guests understand more about the subtle purpose and meaning woven into the simplest fabric patterns. You couldn’t expect someone who lived their life in a different land with different customs to just know these things.

He nibbled on a bit of cold herbed cheese and waited for any questions, but if the merchants had a problem with “eating carrion because the animals said so” as an answer they didn’t make it known. Apparently an abridged retelling that didn’t even touch on the covenant with Agritakh and the reclamation of the dead by the earth was good enough for guests, and the fact that he hadn’t even hinted at that part of the story looked to not have piqued so much as a single soul’s interest. Riaag found himself a little disappointed at that.

Sarouth clapped him on the arm fondly and ruffled his hair. “What an unexpected treat!” said Sarouth in Rhoanish. He kept his voice low, presumably to keep from alienating a non-fluent listener. “I’m glad we’ll be sending them back home a little more educated than when they arrived. I heard that we might get to peek at some of the goods they’ll potentially be trading with us once we’ve shown off our own set. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Yeah,” said Riaag. He popped the last bit of cheese in his mouth and chewed. It wasn’t that he wasn’t excited, but there was more on his mind than just seeing what baubles the foreigners would want to swap for homebrewed dyes. “Any ravens in from them folk we got in the trees? I ain’t heard nothing new yet and it’s bothering me a whole fucken lot.”

That got Sarouth’s attention. He popped his lips thoughtfully. “No, nothing yet. Aside from the odd all-clear, that is. I’m assuming that means our unwanted extras are either still on schedule, or that they’re moving outside of where they can be tracked. From what you told me I don’t think they can do that second one with as many people as they’ve supposedly got.”

“I don’t like this, Holy One. Why cain’t we just ride out, have ourselves a talk, and get it all sorted afore they get too close ter home? It feels wrong just sittin’ here like ducks on a nest.”

Geese on a nest,” corrected Sarouth. “We need to stay here to make sure that little surprise Etxeloi warned us about isn’t some kind of diversion, especially with so many vulnerable people we need to watch out for, right? If it’s nothing, we’ve proven to our guests we take visitors’ safety seriously. If it actually comes to pass, well, we sit here on our eggs, and if someone tries to grab for one we bite the shit out of ’em.”

“And why ain’t we just delaying fer a bit?”

“Simple: they need to keep to schedule. If they leave too late then they risk the pass through the mountains getting snowed in, and that’d just be one thing toppling another like so many bad fenceposts. We’ve only secured the road in that direction so we can’t guarantee their safety any other way, you know? We might as well use the time we have wisely, since this way they leave when they’ve planned to and won’t have to worry about supplies or anything else.”

“Surely a single day ain’t gonna make or break a caravan this big.”

“You’d be surprised, brave warrior….”

Riaag grumbled. It was difficult working with Sarouth sometimes, since a man who drifted through life in a divination haze had very different priorities from those more connected to a single state of being, and while the average person had a sense of self-preservation paired with a fear for their life, Sarouth had died so many times in those horrible sacred dreams of his that the idea of it happening for real didn’t seem to stick. On more than one occasion Riaag suspected one of his gravest tasks in being a bodyguard was just protecting Sarouth from himself.

If they’d kept talking they likely could have gone in circles for hours, and when it came to matters of security Riaag knew he would be far more likely to dig in and argue with Sarouth than with nearly anything else, so it was just as well they were interrupted when the man with the beaded beard stepped up to gesture for Sarouth’s attention.

“We have finished our meal, White-Hair, and would like to know what you have planned next for us,” he said. A cursory glance revealed that the merchants’ bowls and platters were all cleared away, and some were fidgeting. Had Riaag really spent that long worrying about bandits that had yet to show their faces?

Sarouth popped upright with a hop. He brushed a few stray crumbs from his robes and was all smiles again, his mood as free and easy as someone who had little to worry about but what color kerchief to wear. You’d never have known he’d just been quarreling. “Yes, yes, of course! You have all seen our lands and sampled our foods, but these are only part of the heart of trade. Allow me to show you some of Naar Rhoan’s finest worked goods! They are right this way….”

The crowd followed him gladly, presumably eager for things to see that weren’t empty cropland, and Riaag took up a torch once more to serve as a walking beacon. Argument or not there was still a lot of work to be done. It would probably be fine. He was probably just overreacting. The thing with Usoa would blow over and the bandits would be a silly misunderstanding and nobody was going to get hurt at all. They’d all be fine friends after everything was sorted out. Riaag set his jaw and willed himself to at least look a little more cheerful.

Try as he might, though, he couldn’t quite shake the dark cloud of concern that trailed after him.

Once everyone made it to the makeshift marketplace Riaag’s job got a lot easier. Individuals could browse stalls at their own pace and nobody needed to be keeping up with the rest of the group, so as soon as Sarouth had finished giving broad summaries of what all Naar Rhoan had to offer, Riaag left the merchants to break off in groups of two and three to study the Rhoanish wares; they were far more interested in the luster of glazed porcelain than in whatever he had to say at the moment. While he’d had a break from playing sheepdog at lunch he was all too happy to take a break from it again.

Not that there wasn’t anything for him to do at all, of course. As some of his sewing was among the goods offered he made excuses to sneak over to one of the clothing stalls to fuss over it. Just because he’d tested the seams and run his hands along the embroidery dozens of times already didn’t mean it hadn’t somehow started unraveling when no one was looking. It wasn’t until he’d sated himself by looking for loose threads on a caftan for approximately the thirty-seventh time that he let his attention fall on things other people had made. Chief among these was carefully checking the fingers on each set of gloves being offered up for inspection; those that didn’t already have leather caps needed to have their tips sewn up all the way, since people who didn’t have claws—again, how did they get anything done with fingers like that—wouldn’t want their fingertips getting exposed to whatever it was they wore gloves to cover up from. He imagined they’d likely have similar woes when importing sets made from the lovely fabrics the merchants wore, but that was why they had shears, after all.

What he hadn’t expected was for some of the visitors’ attendants to be setting up stalls of their own, since that sort of thing wasn’t scheduled until the next day, presumably before the marauder attack (which wouldn’t happen) and the Usoans’ accusations of plague-bringing (which had to be a mistake somewhere down the line) but after a nice breakfast (which would hopefully be delicious). Peeking would be rude, so Riaag did his best to keep focused on the little ghostproofing charms on display in the Rhoanish side of the market; it turned out to be a fruitless attempt anyway when someone vaguely man-shaped holding a basket nearly barreled into him.

“Ah! Big man, do you like fine things?” chirped the man with the basket. His accent was a bit harder to understand, and Riaag must have been scowling in confusion because the man immediately shuffled backwards. He said something so quickly and oddly Riaag couldn’t catch it.

“I do not know what you mean?” Riaag tried keeping his tone light; he was large and loud with a face that naturally creased into a war-mask, and all of these things made him sound much scarier than he was. While helpful when keeping Sarouth out of trouble, it was less useful when trying to convince someone they weren’t about to be eaten.

The man lifted up his basket and ran his fingers through its brightly-colored contents. “Fine things, I mean! Ribbons! Silk flowers! You like them?” Riaag brightened. Did he! The fabric Sarouth had woven into his braid that morning was quite nice, of course, but he could only imagine how he’d look with a proper little bloom tucked into one of the strands. His mind swirled with ideas. There were so many ways he could think to wear them: maybe one behind his ear, or maybe one where his braid was gathered at the nape of his neck, or maybe even one in his beard if he felt whimsical. The colors were so bright they’d look luminescent against his dark hair. He was about to ask if there were any good pink ones in stock when the basket man launched into another part of his pitch.

“Fine silks, fine flowers, all made with colors exotic, sure to win you many a kiss from the one you love.” Riaag could agree with that much; Sarouth never failed to be thrilled whenever Riaag felt at peace with how he looked on any given day, and it would be nice for both of them if those days came more often, wouldn’t it? The little man kept talking as Riaag’s eyes wandered through the different blossoms. “Silk flowers always bloom, never wither! Have yourself some color all winter long. Get one, get several, never know how many you might need, right? Big, rough man like you must know a pretty lady who wants a pretty flower. Give one to your she-orc and watch her croon with joy.”

Aside from some puzzlement over the term “she-orc” (and who the fuck used words like that? did they take them for wolves?), Riaag wasn’t sure of what to make of the basket man’s offer. He knew several pretty ladies, particularly his friend and fellow god-speaker’s aide Miid Catch-Fire, but he wasn’t about to give any of them a gift like this; it’d send the wrong message entirely. He supposed he could give one to Sarouth, but Sarouth looked better in glass and metal than in little flower crowns, and why get someone something they’d be unlikely to use for fun? Sarouth was most definitely not a “she-orc,” but maybe the basket man wasn’t used to dealing with fine-featured clerics with dainty tusks and had assumed that’s what Rhoanish women looked like. It wasn’t a very flattering mistake but it was at least one Riaag could see someone making.

“Well? Don’t tell me you’ve no lovers to please? Come on, look and see, surely there is something for them here.”

Why was the basket merchant making such a fuss about this? They were such nice little flowers that Riaag was confident that takers of all sorts must have loved them back home. “I do not want one to give to a woman. I would like to trade for one for myself,” he said as he thumped his chest with his knuckles. That was sure to clear things up. You never could predict this sort of misunderstanding when dealing with unfamiliar customs, so why worry too much about it? “I do not have anything to offer right now, but I—”

The little man crowed. “Ah, you’re very funny!” he said, smiling brightly. “You’re getting one for a little child, then? Maybe you have many children, yes? You should get many presents for them! Such lovely gifts for lovely orc-children, sure to make them smile. Don’t you agree?”

It wasn’t meant to be personal, since most trading banter was nothing but pleasing fluff meant to convince someone to buy things, but that comment still hit Riaag like a well-aimed punch in the stomach. Someone like himself, the father of many children? Ones he could love and hold and raise to greet children of their own and, yes, give nice little trinkets? What a terrible reminder of things he didn’t have. Why should the basket man have thought Riaag was being serious about wanting a ribbon of his own? Of course they weren’t for him. Pretty things were for pretty people, and he knew better than to think he was one of the latter; in that case it wasn’t unreasonable in the slightest for the man with his basket of silks to assume it was a childish desire. Riaag was tall, scarred, and bearded, but apparently even a stranger like this one could tell his heart was stunted. It was crushing to realize just how bad his play-acting had been if someone could tweak to that so quickly. At least the man had told him so fairly kindly, complete with many polite ways Riaag could divert the conversation, but as grateful as he was even a falsehood as benign as being a parent tasted bad in his mouth. Thankfully he still had another option.

“Thank you, but I do not think I want one anymore,” he said in as even a voice as he could manage. He stepped away briskly, wove through the other merchants still studying knives and wood carvings, and managed to keep himself together until he reached the privacy of his side tent to cry.

He stayed inside to stew in his own misery for what felt like an eternity, though it couldn’t have been more than an hour or two until someone rapped on one of the tent poles. That almost never happened, since his private quarters were given a wide berth by most of the stronghold and not even Sarouth would step inside, but it was reasonable enough that someone might need him to stop being a wailing baby for a few minutes on a day as busy as today. He wiped his eyes and nose on a handkerchief and tried his best to compose himself before answering.

“Who’s out there?”

“It’s me,” said Sarouth’s voice from the other side of the tent flap. “I just wanted to stop by to see if you were feeling well. Pretty busy out there today, isn’t it?”

“Reckon so.”

There was a pause a little too long than a normal lull in a conversation, then: “Do you want to talk right now? I can leave you alone if you just need some quiet.”

“Dunno. Maybe. Gimme a minute.” Riaag sat up on the little cot he kept among his private things. Talking to Sarouth would make him feel better, wouldn’t it? It would mean either talking through a thick layer of felted wool or leaving his little warren, since Sarouth considered Riaag’s privacy sacrosanct and had refused to step foot inside Riaag’s own tent as long as they’d had proper tents to sleep in, and of the two only the second was likely to result in a hug, so he undid the lacing and poked his head outside. “Hi.”

Sarouth beamed up at him. “Hello!” he said, oozing optimism and goodwill. Riaag still didn’t know how he managed it without being obnoxious. “The showing is going quite well. Our porcelain is beyond compare, of course, but there was definite interest in some of your metalworking, to say nothing of our assortment of sturdy winter clothes. So far everyone is so impressed. I wanted to let you know you did a great job organizing!”

That was something. Riaag knew he was at least competent enough to keep people from falling apart when there were big projects in need of doing, as he’d managed exactly that countless times by now. Even children could herd cattle. He coaxed one corner of his mouth into a half-smile. “Yeah? Thank you.” Riaag shouldered his way out into the open air. He didn’t feel like explaining why he’d pulled away like a snail in its shell, at least not yet, but keeping their talk relevant felt important to do. “You see anything nice from the guests? I know we ain’t formally brokerin’ shit with them until tomorrow, but I saw folks setting up already.”

“Yes, actually! I traded a toothache amulet for something I think you’ll really like. Just a moment….” He dug around in his carryall for a moment before pulling out something inexplicable.

It was a thing made up of different-colored stone beads set into a frame that looked a bit like a loom with dowels for strings, though it was small enough to be held in a single hand. Each bead was shaped a bit like a disc with a hole in it so they could move up and down their given length of wood. Sarouth’s fingers fluttered across the beads and they clicked against each other like dice. “It’s for numbers!” he said, answering one unspoken question while raising many new ones.

Riaag’s half-smile faltered. “Numbers…?”

“You count with it, see, and you can do fancy sums and figures. The different colors keep different places. I’m still getting familiar with how all it works, but it’s going to be so useful!”

“I suppose it will be,” said Riaag, though the exact how and why of the geegaw’s use was still to be determined. “The fuck’s it called, anyway?”

Click click click. “I think the word they used was ‘abacus.’ That sounds like a fine enough name to me.” Click click. He held up the abacus between them and peered at Riaag through the dowels. “Go on, ask me a tricky figure. I think I’m starting to understand how this all works.”

Sometimes Sarouth would stop in the middle of a sentence to listen to the ineffable voice of He Who Sleeps, and sometimes he’d topple over in a swoon if his attention was requested for something more intense. On one instance during the previous month he’d even spaced out in the middle of sex and come back five minutes later with strong opinions on irrigation. His entire life was a long string of small, strange interruptions. Sarouth showing up out of nowhere to request Riaag ask him math questions was, in its own way (and for better or for worse), a reflection of the divine, and Riaag wasn’t about to deny him this small pleasure.

“Uh…okay, what’s three sevens put tergether?”

“Twenty-one, but I can do that in my head. Give me something harder!”

“Five thousand, six hundred and thirty-two cut up inter seventy-six pieces?”

“Maybe not that hard.”

They walked and talked and traded sums, their trail winding casually across holy ground. In the end Sarouth hadn’t quite figured out the abacus as well as he’d thought, but he looked to be having a good time as he pushed the beads around and swore when the numbers turned out wrong, so that was good enough for Riaag. Their time spent on the abacus business helped him center himself a little, too: Sarouth didn’t talk to him like a child—and Riaag had been around him long enough to know what that actually sounded like—nor did he ever talk down to him even when Riaag was mired in the worst corners of his own mind. Sarouth had always been as reliable as a stone against the storm. Maybe there wasn’t anything to worry about for once, marauders and Usoans and sticky political situations notwithstanding, and maybe he wasn’t really just being a silly little boy trying to pass as an adult. Surely the things the man with the basket had said were just the sort of awkward rudeness that happened when two cultures touched for the first time, each with different aesthetics and symbolism from the other. Surely that man hadn’t meant anything cruel by it, as he surely didn’t have any way to see into Riaag’s soul and pull out the raw and wounded parts all for the sake of a little bit of silk. Surely that was the case. Surely.

After a while, Sarouth put away the abacus and said, “You look like you’re feeling a little better.”

“Yeah.”

“Is there anything you wanted to talk about from earlier? You were fine most of the day, then just disappeared. Did everything catch up with you at once?”

That was a delicate question. “Suppose you could say so,” replied Riaag. “Just a little sensitive ter petty shit today.”

Sarouth frowned. “Sensitive how?” He wasn’t quite puffing up in anger, but there was a sudden intensity in his eyes—the visible one of the two, anyway—that Riaag had learned to associate with the great and righteous wrath that hid beneath Sarouth’s many layers of good cheer. Usually Sarouth was a long-burning candle when it came to patience; when it came to anyone treating Riaag less than kindly, however, that metaphorical candle’s wick was cut down to a nubbin.

Having a loved one who could blaze up with fiery devotion at the drop of a hat meant being sure he didn’t accidentally burn any bystanders in the process. The merchant couldn’t have meant any harm. Riaag shook his head firmly. “Ain’t nobody’s fault, Holy One. I just ran inter a fella who’s with our guests, and in the coursea our negotiations he made it known he thought I was there ’cause I was someone’s pa, is all. Not in a bad way, though, like he just asked if I was looking fer something fer my kids. Said I probably had plenty. It made me feel real weird, so I, uh, I stepped out fer a bit. You know I don’t like ter make a fuss when that happens.”

“Oh, Riaag, bless your sweet heart.” Sarouth’s mood melted instantly, replaced by a much gentler warmth that was welcome in the afternoon cold. He took one of Riaag’s hands in his own and gave it a squeeze. “I’m glad you were able to take care of yourself. Just remember that if you ever need me to speak to anyone about this, or anything else, well. I’ve held my own against far greater opponents.” That was certainly one way to say Sarouth did not always agree with the Hill God on how to best enact His will, and Riaag had brewed a lot of honey-lemon tea over the years when the one-sided screaming matches had gotten a little out of hand. Being an Agritakh-ruhd’s attendant had been an eye-opening experience in many ways.

Riaag shook his head again. “Nah, t’won’t be necessary. It was just a silly fucken mistake, the kind anybody coulda made if they don’t know me too good. The small fry always follow me around, so it’s, uh, it’s right reasonable ter assume they’s mine, yeah?” He nudged Sarouth with his elbow and grinned. “We got a buncha great kids in the stronghold. I reckon it’s a mighty fine complement if’n they’s assumed ter be my own brood.”

That didn’t get an immediate reply aside from Sarouth squeezing his hand again and giving it a little kiss before he released it. There was a distant look in his visible eye. “I’m glad that isn’t the case, then,” he said. “People being terrible, I mean. I’d rather think kindly of our guests.” He tucked his hands into his sleeves and puffed a few cloudy breaths, his sudden silence becoming more intense with every second. Sometimes they could be comfortable simply being near each other without saying a single word for hours. This was not one of those times.

“So we, ah, we did good out there, huh?” asked Riaag. He fussed with the end of his braid and tried not to think about how much he still wanted one of those nice silk ribbons meant for pretty people with pretty children. “You said they was right taken with the shit we showed ’em, but do you think it’s something they’d wanna repeat more’n just the once?”

Sarouth shook off whatever tangent he’d gotten lost in and focused on Riaag again. “Hm? Oh, yes, yes, I think so. They try to talk around it, but from what I’ve learned I believe this one caravan, or at least the organization they’re aligned with, has a reputation of reliability but lack of exoticism in their homeland. A bit too safe, right? And their competition has most of the other options tied up already. With me so far?”

“Yeah. They is too fucken boring ter compete back where they live.”

“Right. So when our diplomat showed up it was at exactly the right time, since they figured they could coast along on novelty value for a while. What they weren’t expecting was for us to be organized, much less civilized, and what they really weren’t expecting was for us to have things they were willing to haggle over.” He looked smug. “So long as we keep on the track we’re on, I think we’re going to come out of this even better than we planned.”

Diplomacy was not Riaag’s strong suit, as most of his problems were solved through either hard work or the edge of an axe, but he’d absorbed enough of Sarouth’s plans that it was still prominent in his thoughts. “You think they’s really gonna be inclined ter speak fer us in matters across the mountains?”

“That’s…less certain.” Sarouth popped his lips. “I’ve had all the luck in the world talking about importing new breeds of grain and getting access to raw metal that doesn’t come from one of the mines we deal with now, but whenever I try to bring up political representation someone always changes the subject. They’re in an awkward spot, you know, very at risk of losing face among their peers. Where they come from the orcs are different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, they sound like a bunch of assholes, really. Think a bunch of opportunistic jackals that travel in bands easily tenfold the size of what we see here, except they’re also much better armed, somehow, and I’ve yet to hear how they support themselves. From all I’ve heard they don’t listen to Agritakh or anyone representing Him, nor do they have any suitable theological replacement.” He laced his fingers together and rested them against the back of his neck. “I’m not saying that’d solve all their problems, but you’d think they’d benefit from something that keeps them from murdering each other indiscriminately. At least we have standards for that, you know?”

Killing a thinking, breathing person was a lot like properly slaughtering an animal: you had to have good reasons for doing so and you had to make sure you weren’t being wasteful. Maybe they were an oathbreaker who’d defied the laws of blood-debt, maybe they had committed crimes against kin and kind, or maybe they were just some violent shithead with a sword and a desire to see you impaled on it, but even the most grotesque criminal was worthy of a little dignity, and dignity required acknowledging everything they’d been and everything they would never be because of what you were going to do. You just didn’t pick up a spear one morning and start stabbing people willy-nilly with it no matter how fearsome a warrior you were. Riaag’s own trio of trophy skulls had been the result of conscious action and several blessings after the fact, and harvesting those had just been another form of cleaning the rotten pieces from the land so new things could replace them. Bandits were trouble because they didn’t cleave to that ideal. The thought of a lot of well-armed people with bad attitudes and no sense of obligation made Riaag’s stomach hurt, and the thought of them being allied with the marauders somewhere on the horizon didn’t help things at all.

“So, like, they just…fuck around and raze shit? How’s that even work? Where do they get enough fucken food fer that many people?” Riaag huffed. It just didn’t make sense; other strongholds loathed the Rhoanish practice of growing crops as people-food instead of solely as fodder for their beasts, but at least other strongholds understood the idea of harvesting hay, tending small vegetable gardens, trading for rice, or anything else that lessened the strain of a lot of hungry omnivores in one place.

Sarouth wrinkled his nose. “Honestly, Riaag? I have no idea. I asked if maybe they rode horses or something to get around, since I’ve heard some foreign nomads do that, but no, just a bunch of men and women, all on foot and causing problems.”

“That oughtn’t fucken work.”

“No, it really oughtn’t.”

“You think they ain’t got the whole story?”

The wind picked up slightly, setting Sarouth’s hair to fluttering. He squeezed his left eye shut and fought to pull his willful tresses back into place. It was only partly successful. “Oh, I know they don’t,” he said. “But I don’t, either. That’s our problem.”

“I thought our problem was a buncha River People claiming we was sendin’ them food all slathered in sickness.”

Sarouth raspberried. “Okay, that’s also our problem. You know what I meant.” He pulled out one of his hair clips and fastened it to the bottom of his forelock, where its weight kept his eye mostly concealed again at the cost of looking a bit silly. “I don’t think it’s going to slush on us again, but they won’t need us again until tomorrow morning and this weather is starting to really get on my nerves. I’m heading back home. Feel like coming with? Or would you rather have more time to yourself?”

Most of Riaag’s thoughts on his nonexistent fatherhood had been shoved back into his mental cupboards by then, which meant he had plenty of time to fixate on a thousand other things that were far easier to manage if Sarouth was around to calm him down, so he nodded affirmatively. Another quiet evening, with or without sex, promised to be a good antidote to his lingering unease. They’d walked a good ways across the most blessed parts of holy ground—namely, those where the sacred hill’s shadow fell the darkest—so it would take a while to get back to their tent, but the return trip promised to be calm enough that it’d be soothing in its own way.

Smoke from dozens of cooking fires curled through the air, the wind already strong enough to whip it into invisible shreds a few paces up. Said wind also carried the faint hint of spices from where the caravan had put down stakes, which thanks to Riaag’s woodcutting had its own share of smoke trails drifting from among its wagons. The merchants would be given another round of leftovers for that meal but their representative had assured Sarouth that it was their custom to eat from their own stores on the second and third nights of a stay; Riaag had his doubts about that, but strangers in a strange land were allowed to have their share of quirks. More importantly, it meant he didn’t have to oversee another grand feast until the day after next, so outside of showing up to make Sarouth look more important (and maybe to sneak a look at some of the other foreign wares for trade) he could focus all his attention on whatever bullshit was approaching from the north.

Ravens croaked as they circled overhead. The biggest and fattest of the lot paused atop one of the poles that supported Sarouth’s tent, and Riaag squinted to check if it had any message beads tied to its leg; he saw none, nor were there any bands or beads on any of the other birds flying around it. The fat raven flew off before they were close enough to beckon to it, unlike a trained messenger bird would. Riaag furrowed his brow. It wasn’t bad news, at least, and maybe sometimes a raven was just a raven, but it was worth keeping in mind for later. You never could trust divinations.

A faint patina of warmth from that morning’s still-smoldering coals clung to the inside of the tent, and Riaag went right to the front room’s firepot to kindle it back into something fit for orcish habitation. Sarouth busied himself with the daily checkup of the various pickling, fermenting, or otherwise curing foodstuffs hanging from the latticed tent supports, and Riaag wouldn’t have assumed anything was out of the ordinary had Sarouth not performed a violent double-take halfway through shaking up another pouch of seasoned meat and strong, booze-laced vinegar.

“Oh shit, I left it out…!” he cried, then promptly tripped over a stool in his frenzied attempt to get to whatever it was that had upset him.

Riaag instinctively turned to look, responding more to Sarouth’s flurry of motion than to the words themselves. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to see: maybe a mysterious potion vial from Sarouth’s collection, or an ominously unbound ward, or perhaps the dreadful god-given weapon Sarouth had dug up a few years ago, said black iron mace having finally tired of waiting to be fed between altercations and now hungry for fresher blood. What he hadn’t expected was the distinctive shape that still stuck halfway out of Sarouth’s storage baskets. This one was definitely not an abacus. “You keep a harp in there?”

Upon extricating himself from the wiles of free-roaming furniture, Sarouth sheepishly pulled the harp the rest of the way out of the basket and sat down with it in his lap. He plucked a few strings, which rang out loud and flat, then fussed with the pegs holding them to the frame, though how he was able to tune it without being able to hum a reference tone Riaag didn’t know. “It’s surrounded by soft things in there, and the worst threat it faces is getting knocked around if I’m not careful putting my distaff or teasel stems away, right?” He strummed a chord, which was still flat but less so than before. “It also means I’m more likely to stumble across it during free time and actually think to practice a little.”

“I didn’t know you had that thing in the first place.”

“Ah. Well, yeah, I’ve not had it for very long at all. I’ve mostly been playing while you’ve been out so I wouldn’t bother you too much. Sometimes I take it down into the oracle chamber under the hill if I really want privacy. Did you know that place has great acoustics so long as you don’t mind being half-high on the fumes?”

Riaag hadn’t, actually, but that was in no small part due to him avoiding the inner sanctum of the sacred hill whenever possible since it smelled very, very weird in there. That wasn’t the biggest question, though. “Why didn’t you ask me ter help some? I got, you know, a pretty okay understanding of musical shit.” A multi-octave range and perfect pitch probably qualified as “pretty okay” in someone’s opinion.

“That’s just it,” said Sarouth. “I wanted to try and at least be worth your time before I surprised you with it. You sing so wonderfully, and I…well, I don’t sing, at all, ever, so I thought something that used my hands was a better idea?” He wiggled his fingers demonstratively, then gestured between his harp and the loom. “It’s already kind of loom-shaped, and I already know my way around one of those, so I figured I already had an advantage. Logic, right?”

“Yeah, logic.”

It was a bit awkward sharing the same space with someone who wasn’t very good with their chosen instrument. Riaag tried to distract himself with checking the edges on his knife and his axe—both still sharp as shaving razors from the last time he honed them—and then checking the hobnails on his metal-toed boots—also in fine shape and a perfect fit—but he could only take so many awkward scales and short, repeating note patterns before his thoughts started crumbling like so much dry cake. He stood up, made sure everything was on its rack where it belonged, kindled the firepot, then made his way to the back of the tent.

Sarouth’s music practice didn’t miss a badly-fingered note. “Going to bed early, brave warrior?” he asked.

“Nah,” said Riaag as he added fresh chunks of wood to the other firepot’s guttering blaze. “Gonna take a bath. I been feelin’ stinky what with the cold.” If he just so happened to be taking one at that moment because it would keep him from being rude about someone’s honest attempt at creative self-improvement, so much the better. Sarouth had been very kind about his first combustible attempts at cooking, after all, and the sheer wonder of not being screamed at for fucking up had given Riaag the necessary enthusiasm to figure out how long you really did have to ignore a boiling pot before its contents would taste any good. Soaking in nice hot water sounded like a great way to shrug off some of the chill that threatened to creep into his bones in spite of the fire, too.

While the big wooden tub that doubled as a side table had originally been intended for washing an entire band’s worth of laundry (and indeed that had been why Riaag had acquired it in the first place), it was also big enough to fit several hundred pounds of orc with enough room left over for soap suds, so every winter when the stronghold’s bathing lakes iced over it was pushed into pulling double duty. He filled it part ways with room temperature—that was to say, nearly freezing—water from the rain barrel, then slowly heated up more water a kettle at a time until the tub was actually suitable for a man to dip his nethers in. It couldn’t quite compare to the freedom of swimming a few laps or ducking underwater to wet all his hair at once, but it was warm where the room was not, and the soap he added didn’t get washed away in an instant, so there was still something to be said for a good tub bath.

Riaag filled a final kettleful from the rain barrel and set it to heat for later, since even if his water didn’t need future freshening up Sarouth might be interested in a rinse of his own. He dearly wanted to dawdle even though there was only so long he could expect things to stay hot. Willpower finally triumphed and he peeled out of his layers; stripping down was just as unpleasant as it’d been the previous night, and this time he didn’t have any cheerful company to divert his attention from how every hair on his body was trying to stand straight up. The brief jaunt from the carpet into the tub felt like trying to stare down a glacier.

He sank into the sudsy water until it rose just below his collarbone, which was about as much as he could hope for; it was a big tub, but he was a bigger man. He gripped at the edge of the tub with his thumb-claws and reflected on just how much had changed since last winter. Probably the biggest of said changes was how this was the first year he’d not had to drag the tub to his tent to soak. Technically the whole “unrequited love finally turning requited” deal was bigger than that, but even though it’d only been a thing since that summer he already felt like he’d been with Sarouth his entire life. Depending on how you looked at it it was absolutely correct, too.

When’s your birthday? Sarouth had asked him back during their first year traveling, back when they were both still a pair of goony kids with more boldness than brains.

Dunno, he’d said, because he didn’t.

Oh, okay. How old are you, then?

Old enough ter know better, I guess. It was the only answer he could give; his dam had sold him when he was still a baby and the man who bought him hadn’t cared to share any details. He’d asked about it, once, when he was very young, and for his trouble he’d been thrashed until he didn’t have a single part of him that didn’t hurt. It was just one of many lessons about not asking stupid questions he was still struggling to unlearn.

Well, that means you can just decide for yourself when your birthday is! Just pick a day you like and that’ll be it. Then when it next comes around, we’ll celebrate. Makes sense, right?

He hadn’t said it then, but he’d thought of a day already many months old by then, one that marked the first time someone had ever given a shit about him. He’d ended that day with clean water to drink and clean bandages on the wounds he’d been left to die with. Maybe it wasn’t when he’d been born, but it was easily when he’d first started living, and that was good enough. These days they shared a meal of his favorite bean cakes every time that fateful date came around again.

Water sloshed against the sides of the tub as he scrubbed himself with a chunk of pumice. Riaag had no idea what orcs smelled like to non-orcs, assuming they could smell anything at all given how strong those incense chunks had been, but he was damned if he was going to spent time around himself if he stank like an armpit; since winter clothes kept sweat so close to your skin and winter weather made hygiene that much more difficult to attend to regularly, he made every bathtime and every sliver of soap count. The pumice stone was great at keeping his elbows and heels from getting scaly in dry weather, though it was a shame it couldn’t scrape off any of his scars or some of that damned bristly hair on his gut. He scoured away at the places where his clothes rubbed at his skin—you had to be extra careful there, since you never knew what kind of rash you’d get under half a dozen layers of badly-ventilated wool—and took pains to get under his chin and behind his ears. The bruises along his neck ached when he scrubbed them. It was a good ache. That was another nice part about bathing: he could give himself reminders of Sarouth’s love just by making sure he didn’t have any accumulated collar crud.

Something rustled and he realized Sarouth’s harp playing had stilled. Maybe that meant he’d gone outside to tend to something, though it couldn’t have been that since Riaag hadn’t heard anyone knock on the tent poles nor voices asking permission to enter, and Sarouth would’ve told him if he was going to be leaving him exposed like that. The loom wasn’t clacking, he didn’t hear the click of runestones being cast, the abacus beads weren’t rattling, and the last pair of threadbare socks had been mended yesterday, so Sarouth couldn’t be sewing. He wasn’t trying to strike up another conversation, either, so that only left…oh. That left the obvious answer, then.

Riaag closed his eyes and leaned back against the edge of the washtub so the end of his braid risked brushing the layered carpets. “You creepin’ on me while I’m in the bath?”

“Yep!” Sarouth had the dignity to be cheerful in his shamelessness. “I hope you don’t mind. I kept getting the fingering wrong during my harp practice so I decided I needed a break.”

“Uh-huh. A break that’s got nothing ter do with how I got my dick out.”

“Oh, it’s pretty much got everything to do with that.” The swish of layered robes passed behind Riaag, followed by the gentle creak of the bed. That was probably Sarouth getting himself comfortable. It was kind of nice how chipper he was about preparing himself for a show, however likely (or not) getting one actually was that evening. Not that this was unusual: Sarouth had what could be politely described as “a fixation” whenever Riaag so much as changed his shirt after working in the garden. At least it made it easy to guess what he was up to.

“Want me ter heat up an extra kettle fer you?” asked Riaag as he shifted in place. It’d take more than just the one to refill things, since only some kind of gross savage would try to wash up in someone else’s bathwater and the tub would need a quick airing out between occupants, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get the process started.

Sarouth rolled over with a rustle of quilts. “Maybe tomorrow morning,” he said. “If you don’t mind, for now I think I’ll just continue enjoying the view.”

“Suppose I’m all right with that, then.” Riaag leisurely soaped himself up and rinsed off again, and while he did this exact thing in public all the time in warmer weather it felt downright scandalous behind closed doors. Funny what context could do for everyday tasks. He squinted at Sarouth through the water still clinging to his lashes. “Shame you gotta keep your claws trimmed down or they’d probably help you play. You always is filing them away ter nothin’.”

The color blob that lounged in Sarouth’s place fidgeted. “Oh, it’s that obvious? I thought by now people assumed mine are just short by nature.”

A bit of water sloshed out of the tub onto the rags ringing its base as Riaag scrubbed at his back. “Well, that’s the thing, ain’t it? Nobody’s ever gonna say you got yourself the biggest set of scrabblers in the land, right, but long as I’ve known you you always take so much time with the snips and files and shit of that nature, and in doin’ such render ’em downright teeny. Now they’s being most troublesome when what you need is a good sharp pick on each finger. Symbolism’s kinda neat, though.”

“And what might that be?”

“Well, it seems pretty fucken obvious ter me, but it’s all ’bout how you is extending an open hand what’s willingly been made more welcoming, kind’va show of mercy and humility in addition ter the friendship thing, and also a kinda subtle implication in how you ain’t in need of physical might ter keep your shit together. All, like, ‘here I am, the welcomer of the lost, I won’t bite and I won’t need to.’ Nice little package all put tergether.” He paused. “What, is it actually ’bout something else?”

The soft cough Sarouth made was one Riaag had learned meant he was embarrassed about something, which was strange. Weren’t god-speakers all about symbols and layered meaning? “Well, that’s a very generous interpretation, Riaag,” said Sarouth, “but it’s, ah, for a bit of a baser reason.”

“Base how?”

“To be frank, brave warrior, it’s a sex thing.”

Riaag paused mid-scrub. Claws weren’t a problem if you were careful jerking someone off, and they were even less of one if you were just frotting against each other, so what…oh. Oh. Oh, goodness, that was not a mental image Riaag had prepared himself to consider. Given his track record with this sort of thing he suspected he was already blushing as red as a haunch of fresh venison.

“It’s more a force of habit these days,” added Sarouth, hurriedly. “I’d hate to make you feel like you owe me anything because of it!”

“It’s, uh, it’s fine. I know you’s always good ter me. Just kinda taken aback is all.” The subject had never come up before, after all. Back when they had first fumbled around for proper boundaries Riaag had been adamant about the few things he knew he could do, and exactly zero of those options had involved anyone putting anything inside anyone else. An exception was kissing, though he’d been too shy to ask for that until a week into things, much less the really good kind with tongues and the odd lip-nip, and it wasn’t like anyone had been kissing him before that to make it weird. Sarouth had never once questioned it.

Soon the water went cold, which he refreshed with extra from the kettle, and then that went cold, which meant it was time to get out. Standing up reintroduced Riaag’s body to the wonderful world of shivers. He squatted in front of the firepot as he dried himself as fast as he could, and it was a shame he couldn’t have taken his time given how Sarouth was watching him so intently he could feel each long, lurid stare drifting over his exposed skin. His teeth chattered. When the weather in the lowlands was too cold it was just too damn cold.

Layer by layer Riaag bundled back up until only his face was left exposed. Once he emptied the tub outside, rinsed it out, and propped it up to dry by the fire, he returned to the back of the tent to poke up the fire and see what it was Sarouth wanted.

“Oh, nothing really, I was serious when I said I wanted a break,” said Sarouth upon being asked. He leaned on Riaag and played with a strand of Riaag’s hair that had escaped its braid. “Also the part where I wanted to see you naked, I was serious about that, too.”

Riaag leaned back. Sarouth was always nice and warm, even when he had to be scolded to wear enough clothes to keep from getting frostbite, and it made cuddling nice when the weather wasn’t too hot. The day had been emotionally exhausting and Riaag felt a bit playful, so he decided to take the bait and flirt back a bit. “So didja like what you saw?”

“Mmm-hmm. I liked it a lot.”

“Worth coming back here instead of playing a dice game up front?”

“Oh yes.” Sarouth tilted his head up to breathe gently in Riaag’s ear. “I know you just got dressed, but if you’d ever like to show off a little more….” He placed a hand on Riaag’s thigh and stroked it. His fingertips lingered slightly every time he brushed inwards while the blunted tips of his claws pulled just enough at flesh and fabric both to demand attention. New goosebumps bloomed that had nothing to do with the weather. Sure as the sky was blue and things fell down when you dropped them, Sarouth was horny again.

That raised some important questions. Riaag had mentioned Sarouth’s claws, so did that mean that he’d accidentally signaled his interest in having said claws visit new places? It wasn’t a bad idea, per se, but one he’d have to do a lot of preparing to approach, and that was assuming it’d feel good, which it might not. What if it hurt? Claws were made for digging and climbing and fighting and keeping nicely groomed, not for sex, or at least not sex that way, and there was a good chance it’d hurt if even the slightest thing went wrong. Lots of things could go wrong, even when people loved each other, and sure the time Sarouth had accidentally kneed him in the balls when trying to shift his weight hadn’t ruined him forever or anything, but that was something that happened on the outside where he had plenty of fat and thick hide to keep him safe, and his insides were another matter. What if they couldn’t laugh this one off once the swelling went down?

Then again, it all boiled down to how he was more playing at being fit for a god-speaker than actually capable of it. Sure, he could sing as clear and bright as a horn call, and build a warm fire out of nothing, and clean the worst stains out of the fanciest clothing, and fell a fully-armored foe so hard they’d bounce when they hit the ground, but that didn’t really matter in this sort of situation. Who cared how well you cooked when they wanted an orgasm in your company? Proper adults would’ve considered it a fun challenge to try something new. A proper adult would be able to do things like this. A proper adult could be brave in bed without having to hype themselves up for days. A proper adult could ask to hear their loved one say parts of them were pretty, and they wouldn’t throw those words away as soon as they heard them. But Riaag wasn’t a proper anything, was he?

“Riaag.”

And now Sarouth had noticed and it was likely he was just trying to be nice about it but he could tell Riaag wasn’t fit to be in a relationship with someone with actual developed wants and needs and all the nastiness that had first come up during the ribbon situation that afternoon was spilling out everywhere and here he was having forced Sarouth into an oathbond of misery and you just couldn’t break those or you’d be no better off than the people that’d sired Riaag and where did a bastard son of oathbreakers think he came off trying to court a god-speaker who clearly had a lifelong appreciation of asses when he couldn’t so much as think of someone touching him there without getting lost in a panic—

Riaag.” A warm hand on his shoulder, the glint of purple agate in the lamplight: most of him was still mired in a fog of despair, but he could focus on those two things as he tried to actually hear what Sarouth was saying and not just be present for the sounds coming out of his mouth.

“Whuh?”

“Do you remember when we talked about how brains can get stuck in patterns sometimes? And how it’s not because you’re a bad person, just that you were taught to think that way? I think it might be happening again.” Sarouth kissed his forehead. “And it’s not because I can read your mind. It’s because we were cuddling and you were doing fine, maybe a little shy but fine, and then you stopped dead in your tracks and started crying, and not in the happy way.” The distinction was important: sometimes Riaag cried when he helped new parents meet their round little babies for the first time, or saw a particularly striking field of flowers while out hunting, or heard someone else sing about brave animals. Sometimes he cried when Sarouth told him he loved him, too. It was like every single emotion he’d bitten down on as a child was coming back for a second go-around, and this time they’d had litters of emotion-puppies.

“I’m…I cain’t…I….” The words didn’t come. Maybe the right ones weren’t there at all.

Sarouth squeezed his shoulder. “Hey, that’s fine, it’s going to be all right. You do what you have to do to feel a little better, okay? Even if that means crying more.” That sort of talk always made Riaag go off like a cloudburst, and this time was no different. The way Sarouth held him until he was done wasn’t any different, either.

Later Sarouth put some water on for tea and Riaag worked his way through the whole pot of it between sniffles. The blend was mild and flavorful, the sort of thing that helped him sleep without feeling sick in the morning; he felt the vapors slowly spread out through his nose as they chased away the sorrow-snot that had already soiled two rags and was severely threatening a third. Not half an hour later and it was hard to really put his mind in the same place to figure out what had sent him stumbling down into bad old habits. Sure, Sarouth was almost always ready to get his dick touched—the first time they’d had sex was after he’d nearly been bisected in a duel, for land’s sake, and just because Agritakh had healed up Sarouth’s iron-sundered flesh didn’t mean He’d done a lick about the pain—but that didn’t mean Riaag was obligated to do anything unless he was of similar inclination. The part of him that was convinced he was a fraud at everything regularly tried to tell him that Sarouth would go away forever if he wasn’t waited on constantly. That part was a fucking shitbird asshole. Riaag needed to remember not to listen to it more often.

Sex didn’t happen at all, which was fine. They cuddled until Riaag decided he wanted to get in some quick evening stretches before prayers and an early bedtime; for a day that hadn’t been much beyond standing around and sometimes talking to people, he was exhausted. There was still so much left to do for their guests and the weight of responsibility pulled at him like shackles. Sarouth tucked him in, unbound his hair, and said something to the effect of coming to join him after more time with the fiendish implement that was the harp, but Riaag scarcely heard him. He was out a heartbeat after his head touched the pillow.

That night all the tea Riaag had swilled earlier made itself known just as his dreams were getting interesting. He shuffled his way to the chamberpot and was halfway through doing the necessary when he realized something: he hadn’t needed to peel Sarouth off of him to escape the bed, nor was there any light in the front half of the tent beyond a dim ember glow from the firepot. Where had Sarouth gone? Perhaps in a more typical situation he might’ve just washed up and returned to bed, confident that wherever Sarouth had gone he’d be back in the morning, and in a more typical situation he would’ve cared more about warming up the blankets than the whereabouts of wayward Agritakh-ruhds, but the past few days had conspired to constantly remind him the situation was anything but ordinary. The lack of Sarouth’s cacophonous snoring made it hard to concentrate. Riaag pulled some coats on over his sleeping clothes and went out in search of wherever his oathbound had gotten to.

It wasn’t a very long search. Sarouth sat at the top of the sacred hill with the counting thing—abacus, that was the word—in his lap, his head tilted upwards at the stars overhead. Sometimes he’d dreamily slide a bead along the abacus frame. He wasn’t dressed nearly heavily enough for the sunless cold, which was to be expected, really, nor had he brought a lamp or torch with him, because god-speakers were uncannily agile in the dark. Riaag draped a blanket around Sarouth’s shoulders and knelt next to him; the top of the sacred hill was too knobbly during the winter months for him to sit on without squirming, and how someone with a build like Sarouth’s that involved significantly less ass padding than Riaag’s own did could stand it was one of life’s many mysteries. Riaag was at his right, so he couldn’t see for sure, but it looked like Sarouth studied the sky with both eyes uncovered. Nobody looked an uncovered Agritakh-ruhd in the left eye if they could help it.

The sacred hill was the highest point in the stronghold, higher even than the walls, and from that vantage it felt like the whole world spread out around them like the spokes of a wheel. Sometimes Riaag climbed it to people-watch. Naar Rhoan was quiet at that hour save for the calls of guards on patrol and the odd tent burning the midnight oil; even the merchants’ caravan, which had bustled bright and lively late into the night, now slept still and dark where it spilled across the northern travelers’ field. It was high up enough to look over the wall and out towards the horizon, whether that meant mountains or forest or open steppe. There certainly wasn’t anything bandit-shaped out there.

After a while Riaag realized Sarouth was counting, very quietly, under his breath. He wasn’t just playing with the abacus to give his hands something to do, either, as with every set of ten he’d slide another bead, and every ten beads meant he’d slide one of the ones along the top of the frame. He didn’t stop any of this until a bead caught against a drooping corner of the blanket, at which point he looked down at what had happened, set the abacus aside, and folded his hands in his lap.

“The stars,” he said in response to the unasked question. “I need to check on their numbers. If there are too many, or if there are too few. It’s…important.”

Riaag craned his neck. Even with part of it blotted out by clouds the sky swirled with constellations, many of which he knew and many of which he didn’t. The evening star, Naar Rhoan’s namesake, was bright and clear as a shard of ice, and the moon was as distant as it always was. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. How did you know if the stars were wrong? How did you know if they were right, for that matter?

“This a new thing?” asked Riaag. He was used to Sarouth staring at the night sky all the time, but numbers were a strange new part of the equation.

Sarouth hissed through his nose. The vapor drifted around his face like the fumes that churned beneath the hill, and even without their distinctive scent Riaag could tell he was still halfway consumed with sights beyond sight. “I was given a vision of a shepherd spilling grains of salt, and each grain became a sheep, and he bred them and slaughtered them as all good shepherds do. While at first he was content in their number, he did not see how many of them fell into a damp place, and were gone. Because he did not see the damp place he did not prepare for the rain. His salt-sheep were destroyed because of his negligence.”

Sometimes Sarouth’s visions were caked in so many layers of weird that Riaag was worried he’d somehow started to run a fever, but this one was straightforward enough that a child could have untangled its mysteries. “So He’s worried ’cause He ain’t able ter eat dead stars no more, huh?” Riaag asked. He stroked his beard. “Ain’t they been getting on fer eons without His loving teeth by now? I mean no disrespect, I know what all He done gave up fer us, I’s just curious.”

Sarouth shrugged and wrapped the blanket a bit more snugly around himself. “What’s time to a god? Perhaps our whole lives are contained in barely a blink of His eye, and there are things beyond our ken which He would warn us of.”

“Sounds kinda like busy work,” said Riaag, who wouldn’t realize his near-blasphemy until much later. As he would yet to be struck down with anything worse than the bullshit inside his head, he would then come to the conclusion that the Hill God was either feeling merciful or had a sense of humor about His mandates. “Ain’t that why you show Him the sky all the time, anyway? I just don’t see why He’d ask fer more.”

“I’m used to it.” For seventeen years Sarouth had been used to it, by Riaag’s reckoning. Seventeen years of strange demands and sudden swoons, seventeen years of being alone in a crowd save for the voices in his head. How he kept himself together—and helped others! so many others!—was a miracle in itself. Sarouth took no shit from no one, be they man, woman, or god, so why would he give in to something as trivial as this? Where was the righteous anger Riaag knew?

“Don’t it piss you off, though?”

“Riaag, my love, our duty is to our people and to our land and to our god, as each contains parts of the others. By respecting this I in turn respect all things more. It is my nature as the chosen of Agritakh. It is the nature of His love. For Him, I will do it. And for Him, I will take this time to pull my heart apart to see what remains.”

Riaag frowned. “What do you mean, ‘pull your heart apart’? You ain’t unwell, is you?” he asked. What signs was he missing? Was there even anything to miss?

Sarouth turned away and gazed back into the heavens. “There is no love so great it should never be questioned. If it’s strong enough, it’ll survive.” When he next spoke it was in a soft voice as he counted up from one. He didn’t so much as raise a hand farewell when Riaag stood and walked back down the hill by lamplight.

That final phrase stayed with Riaag even after he returned to bed and echoed in what few dreams he had in the remains of the night.

Two days could be a very short time, and it felt like they had just heard word of visitors from the south when said visitors appeared at the south gates. Riaag met them on horseback and in full armor.

“We are those of Usoa, whom Naar Rhoan calls ally, but we feel your blood-kind have wronged us in spite of our treaties. We demand to see Sarouth White-Hair, the leader of this place,” said their herald, whose accent was lighter than Etxeloi’s and lilted with the sound of regular practice. She sat astride one of the crescent-horned deer the River People favored, its barding bright with colors and chimes, and Riaag noted with approval how she carried both a signal horn and a scimitar at her belt: here was a woman who both spoke for her people and would fight to defend them. Maybe they would have a lot in common once neither party was convinced of malice on the other’s part.

“Enter, quickly. You are all in terrible danger,” he said. It felt wrong to speak in a different dialect, but they didn’t have time for non-native speakers to puzzle their way through his usual ground-gravel diction. He whistled to the guards at the gate and they began working the mechanisms to open it wide enough for the entire procession to fit through. “Please, hurry. We have received word there are warriors heading this way and we do not wish you hurt while walking our lands.”

The herald narrowed her eyes. “You would lure us into a trap?”

“I can’t stop you if you want to stay out here,” Riaag snapped, “but if you want to leave your children orphans and your families’ hearths cold, then yes, stay where you may be cut down more easily. Where is Bixenta? Did she come with you?”

“Our warlord remains home, to guard against winter thieves,” said the herald, and Riaag growled in frustration. Bixenta was about as approachable as a standing stone and maybe half as outgoing, but she’d been a major player in the forging of the Usoan-Rhoanish alliance, and she’d seen Sarouth defend her home with her own two eyes; knowing her, she probably thought the claims of poisoned food were bullshit, and also knowing her, she was likely beholden to the whims of whomever had replaced the old, dead representative of their River God. At least the workers from Naar Rhoan who were spending the season abroad would be safe.

“Fine.” He palmed a little charm from a pouch on his belt and held it out to the herald. It was embossed with the stylized fish that most followers of the River God had somewhere on their person. “Give this to whomever came with you. I swear on its metal that we mean you no ill will, and that you will be at risk if you don’t get your asses behind these walls lickety-fucken-split.” His slide back into his normal voice wasn’t intended, but at least it got her attention. You didn’t invoke a charm of someone else’s god if you weren’t ready to face divine retribution. Riaag might not have understood the will of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, but he knew he was still precious in His sight and that he had nothing to fear from the River God so long as he swore by Her honestly.

The herald took the charm and studied it sternly before she wheeled her steed into the crowd of Usoans—all of whom appeared to be armed and armored, Riaag noted—and murmured to someone inside a palanquin in the middle of the whole mess. His Usoan wasn’t good enough to follow their rapid conversation save for the sense that both of them were surprised and upset in varying degrees. They might’ve argued for hours if a runner hadn’t rushed to Riaag’s side with an urgent message. This whispered exchange didn’t require any debate at all.

“Hey!” said Riaag in a voice just shy of a roar. “Our scouts tell us we have a problem coming from the north! You lot either get inside or we lock the gates on you! May the ground drink mercifully of your blood!” The stupid horse nickered as he urgently nudged it with his heels. It was a hateful thing to leave allies outside and unguarded and he knew he’d have trouble sleeping for weeks if it came to pass, even with amulets to soothe his dreams, so when the herald rode after him with the rest of the Usoan contingent at her heels he didn’t bother to hide how relieved he was.

“We follow you, but know that the waters watch for sin,” said the herald. Her deer easily kept pace with his horse. “Where should we stay until this threat passes?”

He pointed her towards the southern traveler’s field, which still lay clear and stocked with plenty of fresh water and firewood. “Here. We heard you were coming, so we prepared a place for you and yours to camp. I regret not having a feast for you, but we’re already entertaining.” A commotion went up from the far side of the stronghold and Riaag sat bolt upright. “I gotta go help take care of this. I’m Riaag Bough-Breaker, White-Hair’s steward and oathbound. Anyone gives you shit, tell them I’ll handle it later in person.” He dipped his heavy-helmed head respectfully to the herald. “With whom should I say I spoke?”

“I am Agurtzane,” she said. A few soldiers mounted on deer of their own rode up to meet them, accompanied by war-wolves and some strangely silent figures in heavy cloaks; the latter wore fiendish masks beneath their hoods, but Usoans wore a lot of masks, so Riaag wasn’t sure if that meant anything unusual. Agurtzane gestured to both sets of warriors. “These are those of us who wish to meet this foe you speak of. As orcs bled for Usoa, so shall we bleed for Naar Rhoan.”

Riaag drew his axe and saluted. “We are honored by your gift of war,” he said to them. “Come this way. We must join White-Hair!” He reared up dramatically and the skulls on his horse’s barding caught the late afternoon light like a deathly choir. The others fell in behind him, the soldiers humming a war song and the wolves snarling to one another while the cloaked warriors said nothing. He told himself he kept the stupid horse’s pace a modest one because it was courteous to those followers on foot. It had nothing to do with how much he hated riding, absolutely nothing at all.

Sarouth was also on horseback when they joined him, perched sideways in the saddle because of his robes. He didn’t look surprised at Riaag’s companions and instead greeted them in Usoan: “May your throats never be dry.” The ones not in heavy cloaks repeated the blessing. “Thank you for joining us,” continued Sarouth. “We do not know what they want, but we were warned they would come. I will try to end this without tears or anger.” The soldiers rattled their spears at his words. Riaag hoped they would take the hint, as who knew how bad River People could get without a proper outlet for their notorious bloodlust? At least the Rhoanish part of the stronghold’s defenses had seen them enough on trading days to not be surprised when small, snake-eyed folk joined their numbers.

Riaag kept to Sarouth’s left side as they rode out to meet the marauders; they strode towards the stronghold right when the raven-carried messages had believed they would. “Marauders” might have been too shabby a word for them, as Riaag had never seen so many orcs in the same place outside of another stronghold, nor had most of the wandering jackals he’d helped take care of looked this organized. Or this armed. It wasn’t quite an army but it was far more than any band of nomads he’d met. He tightened his grip on his shield even as he cling to his saddle.

“Welcome to Naar Rhoan!” said Sarouth. He raised his staff of office and jingled the charms on it before clashing its butt against a metal fixture on the side of his saddle. “I fear we don’t have enough room for all of you at once, but we’re always glad to take new converts within our walls. To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”

A huge man—not as big as Riaag, as few men were, but still a veritable meat-miracle—pushed through the throng. Now this was the kind of orc that appeared in travelers’ tales: broad, scowling, underdressed for the weather, with jagged tusks and muscles like an ox. His helmet had ram horns on it. His axe was a massive, double-bladed thing that looked like it weighed as much as a toddler, and while Riaag suspected it relied more on its size and weight than actual good smithing, said size and weight were probably more than enough to get the job done. What was actually concerning was the brace of vulture skulls around his neck. One you might get away with to help guide you through life or grief, but that many? It was hopelessly tacky.

“I’m Tokkav Blood-Drunk,” said the man, and Riaag tried not to roll his eyes. Some people tried a bit too hard when they chose their names. “We heard you had outlanders here,” he continued. “Their stink is so thick in this place it cuts through the funk of that trash you make people eat. I think you’d best hand them and their wagons over if you know what’s good for you, heretic.”

That word got thrown at Sarouth a lot, even when he had been a lot more proactive in cleansing the land of false god-speakers, and yet every time it slid off of him like water off a duck’s feathers. Being the Faaroug probably did wonders for your self-confidence. This time was no different, as he simply laughed and tossed his hair. “That’s pretty open for interpretation, the heretic thing,” he said. “You’re welcome to your opinion of how we do things here. I’m seeing no reason we shouldn’t just close the gates on you until you get bored and leave, though.”

“You won’t be the first fools we’ve starved out,” said Tokkav. “You may have food now, but we will surround your forests and burn your fields to nothing.” Riaag chose not to mention that they did that second part at the end of every harvest to prepare for the next planting season; some people just didn’t get agriculture. “We will poison your water and foul your air, then cull what we want from the remains when you finally surrender. Is that what you want? Dead brood? Give us what we want and far fewer will die.”

The crack about hurting children was a low blow, but Riaag had been present for enough of these clashes to know that trading atrocities was just the sort of thing a certain type of person thought was appropriate behavior; he focused his rush of protective anger on scanning the warband at Tokkav’s back. There were so many of them. Some of the faces in the crowd looked strangely familiar, and the colors they wore belonged to families long since disbanded. Riaag racked his brains. He’d seen them before, but where?

“They told us of your witcheries, White-Hair.”

“That’s nice. Who’s ‘they’ this time?”

“Survivors of your tricks! You may have turned them away one time, but they’ve returned to you, they’ve been promised revenge.” Well, that was weird. Naar Rhoan had never banished anyone, not yet, as those found guilty of crimes against kin and kind either found ways to repay their debts or ended up on the wall. Sometimes people left of their own free will, and while it was always sad to see people go they could hardly be said to be turned away. Riaag let his eyes unfocus: the abandoned clan colors scattered through the crowd combined just right and the answer struck him like a comet.

This was what had become of the remains on the raid on Usoa.

Sarouth must have come to a similar conclusion as he rapped his staff against his saddle-plaque again. “I’m sure some of you remember me. Maybe you’ve had a chance to change your minds since then. I still offer you a new way, o wayward children of Agritakh, and those who seek sanctuary will find it here behind these walls. That goes for you, too, Blood-Drunk. Step forward and claim solace, and be blessed.”

There was something about Sarouth’s demeanor that could turn even the staunchest fanatic, in no small part because every word he said was true. How could anyone explain what it was like feeling the presence of a god-speaker in person? It was like describing a dream, or the way a memory tasted. Sarouth was not the only cleric Riaag knew, and every single one he’d met had a muted electrical thrum behind even their most casual words that gave them an added layer of majesty. When one spoke with authority—be it through Chant or rite or in an offer of salvation—they spoke with Agritakh’s own voice echoing with theirs, and it was a power that was nigh-impossible to deny. Or at least it should have been, in Riaag’s opinion; some folk were too stubborn or angry to care, and they were the ones who were most often a problem. Those kinds of problems rarely ended well. Why couldn’t people make things easier on themselves?

Most of the warband stood defiant. For a moment of despair it looked as though none of them would accept Sarouth’s offer, but in the ringing silence after his last words a few of the marauders broke away from their fellows with reverence on their faces. Some knelt in prayer, others hesitantly approached the well-guarded gate with their weapons sheathed, and one bold soul approached Sarouth directly to kiss the hem of his robe. It was hardly the first time that sort of thing had happened. Seven years of keeping the faith had made Riaag a witness to seven years of others’ highly interesting reactions to being offered a life in His grace with no questions asked. You did what your heart urged you to in the moment and the rest of the pieces fell into place later.

The man who kissed Sarouth’s robe looked up adoringly from beneath his helmet. “You will show us the way? You’ll remake us?” he said in a voice that quavered with awe.

Sarouth nodded and placed his fingers against the man’s forehead in blessing. “Your second chance begins now, if you want it to.”

There was no light nor heat nor choir of ancestors to accompany those words, but something in the air still felt as if it had changed. The convert gasped. “You really are the Hill God’s chosen,” he whispered. “I will follow you wherever you go.”

That was when a javelin exploded from his chest. He died with a look of loving wonder, not pain or confusion, and that was as good a death as one could ask.

“That really wasn’t necessary,” said Sarouth with a sigh. He uttered a quick battlefield benediction for the souls of the dead and dying; the poor supplicant wasn’t the only one who’d been cut down by their former allies, though not a single convert had turned back in the face of imminent betrayal. Sarouth gave Tokkav a pained look. “Why hurt your own people? They did nothing but have a change of heart.” Riaag wondered the same, though it was hard for him to keep from shaking with anger. The fighting hadn’t even started and already there were casualties! What sort of nightmare was this going to end in?

Tokkav spat and hefted another javelin. “The loyal live. Traitors die.”

“Neither of us wants this,” said Sarouth. “It’s only going to end badly. I offer you one last chance to negotiate peacefully. Think of your families, and what fine things you could bring them if you leave this place in friendship.”

“Fuck you and fuck your negotiations, heretic scum.”

Sarouth shrugged. “If you insist on doing things the hard way….” He clicked his fingers and the ground began to shake.

Tokkav roared a battle cry and twisted out of the way just as the earth erupted beneath his feet, narrowly avoiding being skewered by a flow of rock that reached up like a monstrous, hungry mouth. Stone fragments rattled to the ground as the formations slid back from whence it came. As far as Riaag knew Sarouth couldn’t throw those at people all day, which was a pity; if Tokkav had just been a little slower or Sarouth’s aim just a little to the side the situation might already be defusing by now. Instead they had a pissed off warlord with a small army at his back. As Sarouth said, they insisted on doing things the hard way.

The sun was low but the sky had yet to turn red, so there was enough light to gleam off the head of Tokkav’s javelin as he hefted it for a second throw. There was no question who his new target was. Riaag spurred the stupid horse forward out of sheer instinct, shield in hand and reins in his teeth, and with a powerful swipe he batted the javelin out of the air; the impact was so fierce it rang his shield’s potmetal like a bell. Momentum carried Riaag forward and into the light trees just off the road, but not before the stupid horse smelled blood. He could feel it tense with excitement underneath him. Good. Riaag hated that damn animal as naturally as breathing, but anything that was eager to help him obliterate those who wished Sarouth harm was still worth having as an ally. Riaag bellowed the call to attack as he urged the stupid horse back into the fray. A surge of Usoan wolves and cavalry spilled from the gates as the stronghold’s guards mobilized behind them.

That was when the fighting started in earnest and things got chaotic.

Tokkav was the pillar that supported the weight of the warband’s rage. He was gruesomely strong, enough to cut a crescent deer nearly in half with a single overhand chop with a bit left over for the rider, and as long as he stood his people crashed like waves into the Rhoanish defenses. Riaag tried to disarm him on the first pass but ended up with another ringing blow against his shield for his trouble, and the second and third charges were equally fruitless; on his fourth attempt he simply leapt from the saddle and pulled Tokkav down with him. That wasn’t the end of their fight, of course: the two warriors grappled furiously, sometimes upright and sometimes on the ground, but save for his initial blow that shattered Tokkav’s shoulder guard Riaag couldn’t make much use of his axe or shield, as the close quarters allowed them little more weaponry than claws and teeth and butting heads. A ring of open space bloomed around them after the first few bystanders got winged by flying elbows. There was no time for finesse; being away from Sarouth’s side in the midst of such a mêlée filled Riaag’s heart with dread, so every second mattered.

It was ultimately Riaag’s superior armor and superior weight that turned the tide in his favor and allowed him to pin Tokkav in place. He flipped his axe back into his hand from where it had fallen, placed his hands at either end of the handle, looped his arms around Tokkav’s neck, and pulled on the handle until Tokkav finally went slack, unconscious. Riaag kept his knee on Tokkav’s back until said warlord was properly trussed up and helpless.

Upon seeing their leader captured the marauders’ will to fight was snuffed like a candle under salt. They might have met a bad end had Kala Cold-Iron not ordered those Rhoanish under her command to stand down. Sarouth rode up to Riaag with blood on his robes—not his own, surely? was he okay? was he hurt?—and his mace resting against his shoulder. Its head was clean. That didn’t mean it hadn’t seen use, of course, since its head was always clean no matter how much it ate.

“I see you’ve got the situation under control,” he said, tossing his mace into the air and catching it like a baton. His horse nickered. “Very well done, Riaag. Is he dead or just a-swooning?”

Riaag knelt in reverence. “Fucker’s lost in an airless dream, Holy One. I choked him out. Nasty way ter do it, but he were bein’ a nasty kinda fella.” He hauled Tokkav to his knees, though the latter’s head still lolled drunkenly. It was like trying to pose a bag full of turnips. “Reckon he’ll wake up in a bit. He’s already been gone a little while.”

It turned out to be a few minutes later when Tokkav groaned, swore, and found his head wrenched upwards by a pair of firm, gloved hands. “Seems you’ve lost, Blood-Drunk,” said Sarouth. He sat with his ankles crossed, still perched sidesaddle. It was like he was reviewing the scene from atop a portable throne. “You know, I think you’re a tremendous asshole, just an awful orcish being, but I’ll give you one more chance to give up and go home. This really doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Fuck your mercy,” said Tokkav between gasps, “and fuck you.

“No thank you. I’m already with someone. That’d be him making eyes at me for permission to break your neck, by the way. You should say hi.”

Tokkav swore viciously. Riaag dearly wanted to give him a knock in the head for his insolence, but there was a clear line between efficiency and cruelty, and roughing up someone who was helpless was smack bang in the middle of the cruel side.

Sarouth was unfazed. “I’ll offer you the chance to walk away one last time,” he said as he rapped the butt of his staff against his saddle again for emphasis. “You came here with a heart weighted heavily with sin and a head full of very nasty plans for people I’m pretty sure haven’t so much walked over your footprints, much less wronged you. Not a good prognosis, you know? I swear to you that there is still time to burn yourself clean, though, and you can be rendered fresh and new and with all of your insides not on the outside.” He rested his staff across his lap and leaned down, his expression as serious as a flood. “Are you sure you won’t try not being an asshole for a little while?”

“I’d rather die!”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” said Sarouth with a sigh. “I guess we’ll have to figure out what to do with you lot, then.”

“You can’t imprison all of us,” Tokkav croaked. “You said yourself you lack the food for it.”

Sarouth hopped down from his place in the saddle, drew his knife, and expertly cut Tokkav’s throat. He turned and beamed at the subdued warband as their leader bled out into the soil, his hands (and the bloodied knife) raised over his head. “Good news! We’re not taking prisoners today!”

Some of the marauders (those marauders that hadn’t fled by then, at least) lept at the mercy Tokkav had rejected while others resigned themselves to a clean death and proper rites, as the chance to slake Agritakh’s endless thirst was worth a lot to people too headstrong to live under different laws. It didn’t take very long. Once Sarouth finished his work he joined the healers in tending to the wounded on both sides, and while he couldn’t join in their surgeon’s song he was still able to speak soothing words of the Chant to those in pain between daubs of rot-banishing liquor.

Riaag kept close to Sarouth once he was sure the new converts would be watched carefully but treated kindly. He pulled off his helm and shook out his hair, as even in cold weather a full outfit of armor got hot obnoxiously fast, and the token Sarouth had fixed there that morning was still right where it was supposed to be behind his ear. It felt weird wearing it at first, then a little exciting, and by the time he’d been shouting at people to get inside the damned walls already the idea of keeping one of those little silk flowers the merchants had brought was exactly the way things were supposed to be. Sarouth had even thought to get a pink one. That it had been Sarouth who’d sealed the deal and not only traded for it but encouraged him to wear it had been touching in a way Riaag couldn’t easily wrap his heart around.

Hair flowers and the identity politics thereof were not the heaviest subject weighing on his mind, though. “So I was kinda busy for most of that what with how I jumped off my horse onter a guy, but I still noticed somethin’ weird during the fight, Holy One.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

Riaag scratched his beard and tried to think of the politest way to raise his concerns. “It’s them extra-masked folk from Usoa. I know they was out and fighting, ’cause I saw one just rip some poor fucker apart soon as they busted out from the gates, but they’s all real fucken spooky. Any idea what’s up with that? Ain’t never seen their kind before.”

“I’m sure it’s got a perfectly sensible explanation,” said Sarouth as he bound up a warrior’s arm. He said something else, but whatever it was was drowned out by a furious rising scream that resonated from just behind the treeline. They traded glances before mounting up and galloping—or in Riaag’s case, holding on very tightly while the stupid horse charged vaguely in the same direction he wanted it to—after the sound.

The source was, fittingly enough, one of the masked people, and they clawed at the air wildly as two of their fellows tried to keep them from attacking a cowering convert, a trio of wolves circling all the while. Riaag steered the stupid horse between the two parties and thumped to the ground on the same side as the thrashing Usoan, which earned him an errant blow to the stomach that actually risked staggering him. River People were smaller and finer-featured than orcs, and while this hardly meant they were fragile there was a certain grace and delicacy to their movements; all of that was hucked overhand into a midden as far as the raving Usoan was concerned, as they fought like a demon and hit like a mule. Riaag suspected he was going to have a bruise in the morning, and not the kind that was fun to get.

“Murderer! Scum!” the Usoan bellowed from behind the enameled wood. That was the gist of it, anyway, since Riaag’s Usoan wasn’t robust enough to pick out the subtleties of a nuanced, tonal language being screamed by a very angry person. Their full-face mask was so thick and heavy it looked more like a long-fanged helmet, and what appeared to be a chunk of oily colored glass hung from the collar that held the mask in place.

Riaag darted from side to side as the screaming Usoan hauled against their restraints. “What is going on?” he asked one of the more rational Usoans in their own tongue. This one had been one of the cavalry, and while she was clearly upset by the whole weird little interlude her eyes were still bright and alert through the holes of her own mask.

“This one was wed. Their husband fell when Usoa was attacked in the summer. They remembered the face of who did the deed, and it is the man who hides behind you.” Concepts like “wed” and “husband” were a little hard to understand, but as near as Riaag could tell it was a bit like being oathbound, so he could still follow along. The soldier strained as her comrade lunged forward with enough force to nearly pull her and the other soldier off their feet. “Help us! We cannot do this very long!”

Sarouth watched from a respectable distance away. “If they want vengeance, we will be happy to sort out a blood-price for the deeds of this Rhoanish,” he said. “We will take up the burden of paying for what he has done to their kin.”

“You do not understand—oh!”

The masked figure threw back their head with a howl that didn’t sound like it could come from a frame as slight as theirs. The glass blob at their throat began to shiver and rattle. It would have been a concerning enough sight if Riaag hadn’t known enough about how sound worked to realize that as loud as it was the howl had no business vibrating glass that way, or if he hadn’t noticed how the war-wolves had taken to cringing back in a way he’d never seen an Usoan wolf do. Something unnatural was afoot and he was stuck right in front of its nostrils. Fan-fucking-tastic.

“They call down vunxailo!” cried the soldier. “We are all dead!” That was another unfamiliar word to Riaag, but it looked like “big fucking problem” was as good a definition as any.

Whatever a vunxailo was, it couldn’t stand up to the force of an arrow—that was the name of the weird little spears Usoans fought with, wasn’t it?—that zipped from somewhere in the canopy, where its broad, silvery head struck the glass and shattered it. The raging Usoan’s roar lasted a few final moments before it faded into a dry rasp. They wept and shook with emotion, but when the soldiers lowered them to the ground they did not resist and when their arms were released they crumpled. One of the wolves crept close enough to lick the exhausted warrior’s hand. Riaag leaned over the back of his horse to check on the convert, who had passed out. He couldn’t really blame him.

The source of the arrow never revealed itself, but since the color of its fletching matched the color of Etxeloi’s distinctive mottled clothing it didn’t really need to.

Cleaning up after a battle was messy business even with the comparatively mild casualties during and after the fray. The ground was churned (though of course it was, as everything churned up if you so much as sneezed during the winter wet) and in certain sacred places it was the fierce red of blood, as it would be for days. It was a shame as many marauders had asked for the knife as they did. By the time Tokkav went up on the wall some of the merchants—who had wisely spent the fight barricading their wagons—had emerged to study the aftermath. One of them was painting a picture of it. Paired with the odd twittering of birds from somewhere in the trees it was a deceptively serene scene given how much death it’d seen that day.

Riaag rode around the stronghold several times, three of his laps being a perimeter sweep and the fourth being a result of him not being able to convince the stupid horse to stop running. When he coaxed it into slowing down he took the time to check in with each set of guards and scouts. Everything had worked perfectly and his heart felt like it would burst with pride. Sure, you could say it ended too quickly to truly test Naar Rhoan’s defenses, or that they’d lucked out by not having the other gates attacked while the north ones were still open, and Riaag would acquiesce both points, but every single person that worked to defend the stronghold had done their job well, and that was what mattered. The Rhoanish clearly loved the weird little home they’d all built together.

The converts milled around in the big public tents knocked together to keep them out of the worst of the weather. Dealing with them and how they would atone for past bad behavior—and there were many ways, just as there were many kinds of wrongdoing with many different motives—was Sarouth’s duty, and it was also his duty to see that they accepted Agritakh’s forgiveness once their penance was served, but when it came to the day-to-day details like making sure the water was clean and the latrines didn’t fill up, that was where Riaag (and however many other people he delegated to help) got involved. He would have stayed on the stupid horse in the name of having a higher vantage point for overseeing the setup, but you couldn’t easily help place firepots when you were a ways off the ground and his ass was starting to fall asleep anyway, so he spent the last of the light stomping around, shouting orders, and generally feeling magnificently useful.

He was halfway through setting up the last row of cots when Sarouth slid up next to him and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Hello, Riaag. Looks like you’ve got things under control here.”

“Reckon so, Faaroug. You had the chance ter talk with the Usoans yet? I know you been busy just keeping the merchant-folk from freakin’ the fuck out over us offering sanctuary ter people what wanted us dead this morning.”

Sarouth wavered a hand. “I’ll be speaking with them a bit in private this evening,” he said, “but everyone’s rightly frazzled from the whole fighting thing and we still have merchants to watch out for, so they’ll hopefully agree to saving a more detailed list of their concerns for tomorrow.” He counted up the assembled supplies. “Do we need this many? I haven’t worked with them all yet so I don’t know how many people we gained today, but this looks like we’ve got more than that here.”

“The extra’s ’cause there’s a few what’s gonna be laid up in the healers’ tents fer a few days,” said Riaag. “This way they won’t feel so much like an extra leg once they’s well enough ter get out and about and not having ter smell poppy tea mixed with boiling pitch all fucken day.”

“See, this is why I trust you to be in charge,” said Sarouth with a smile. He popped up on tiptoe and kissed Riaag’s cheek. “How much more do you have left to do? I’d love to have you present for the meeting, but if you’re going to be occupied I’m sure I can manage solo.”

Riaag sucked on his teeth. Left to his own devices he’d probably be able to find things to do until the moon and sun traded places, and he had been the Usoans’ first point of contact, hadn’t he? A herald’s work was never done. “Lemme make sure everybody got a place ter sleep and I can come on with.” He adjusted the thin sheets on the cot he’d just put together. Truly it was the providence of Agritakh that had brought the warband there with its own supplies and bedding or he’d feel like an asshole giving people little more than badly-woven lettuce leaves to keep the cold out. No doubt more than a few cots would be pushed together come the morning, whether for warmth or for other reasons. “Just be warned, Holy One. They was giving me some lip when we last left. We gotta deal with whoever replaced that big-hat fella from before and I think they got a powerful sense of bloaty self-importance.”

“Everyone’s nerves have been burning high and hot. They think we’ve tried to poison them! Or maybe fill them up with disease or something, I’m not really sure about that part.” Sarouth tossed his head confidently. “I bet now that we’ve all bled together they’ll be much more open. Here’s to laying lots of productive groundwork for tomorrow!”

“Well that sure were a right jerkoff of a time,” growled Riaag much, much later.

Sarouth lay facedown on a pile of seating cushions in the front room and groaned. “Never in my life have I dealt with such difficult people,” he said as he groped at his face with his fingers. “I thought you said their herald, what’s her name….”

“Agurtzane.”

“Right, her. I thought you said she was friendly towards us?”

“Yeah, that’s the fucked up thing. She is.”

Riaag had dealt with his share of nastiness during his years as Sarouth’s disciple. He’d been blasted with spell-fire, mauled by an avatar of Wolf Wolfself, held as a very courteous hostage in a cursed riverside palace, left at the mercy of the stupid horse, and sucked into a ghost’s own private nightmare world, much of which had all happened in the same year, and yet he would have seriously considered reliving most of those if it meant he’d never have to sit through a boring political discussion again. At least when the ghost had dragged them all into its misty mirror world they’d been able to openly complain about how fucked up the situation was.

“What I wanna know,” said Riaag after a few long minutes of thought, “is what all they was talking about when they brought up the, uh. Confluence, I think? I ain’t never heard of such, not in any such words. It sounded important.”

“I’ll be more interested in whatever that is once we clear Naar Rhoan’s good name. Assuming that’s even possible with these people. And I can’t even get upset with them because at least one of us should remember the terms of our agreement!” Sarouth pressed his face into a smaller cushion and groaned. If he’d been any more tense he might have exploded like a fistful of snapped sticks, so Riaag made the executive decision to give the messiah a shoulder rub.

Things had started out awkward but hopeful, then slowly soured until everyone was glaring daggers at everyone else. What a way to treat people who were supposedly your allies! Just getting details out of the leader had been difficult. While Sarouth had thrown as much diplomatic charisma as he could at the problem, Riaag had instead been distracted throughout the meeting by the leader’s hat and its long, preposterous feather; the last time he’d seen that hat it had been on the head of a man who’d tried to kill him, and part of him worried that the hat somehow remembered what had happened. It had set a mood that he’d never quite shaken off.

Our people grow riddled with sores, White-Hair, Agurtzane had translated for the official. Their skin is burned and bruised, their mouths are raw, and some are sick in the belly as though they had eaten foul poisons. If we do not die from starving, then we surely will fall to this.

It sounds dreadful, and our hearts go out to Usoa, said Sarouth. Has it happened before?

No, never! Only when we make deals with Naar Rhoan does this happen. Only when we take gifts of orc-food and allow orc-kind in our fields do we become sick. We are not fools. We can see when one thing leads to the other.

So you truly believe we would harm our new friends? Sarouth had sounded so hurt, and Riaag had yet to find a reason to disagree. Didn’t these people have laws of hospitality where they came from? Sending workers to help Usoa till its dying fields and transport surplus food to help the village survive the hard months wasn’t that far off from providing for someone staying within the boundaries of the stronghold itself.

I can believe nothing else, said the leader with a voice that shimmered with the icy calm of a frozen lake. That point marked about where negotiations broke down.

“What. Is wrong. With those people?” moaned Sarouth into his cushion. “I’ve never even heard of a sickness that irritates the skin in such a way, and while I don’t doubt there’s something terrible going on it sounds more like what happens if an animal eats too-moldy fruit. But I’ve been checking over every single shipment of food myself to make sure it doesn’t have jarred meat or anything like that in it, so unless it’s all going rotten not a day out of the stronghold I just don’t know what’s going on. Why did this have to happen when we need to impress foreign merchants at the same time as finding a purpose for so many converts at once? Couldn’t we just have two out of three?” He went limp as Riaag kneaded away at a tension knot in his neck. “You know, I bet He Who Sleeps is getting a kick out of this given how sassy I’ve been with Him recently. Not that I’m learning a lesson from this, oh goodness no. He knew what He was in for when He chose me.”

There is no love so great it should never be questioned, Sarouth had said. If it’s strong enough, it’ll survive. Riaag hadn’t thought to consider just whose perspective that phrase was taking. It still put a knot in his stomach and still sent icy-hot twinges of worry under his skin, no matter how blithely Sarouth acted.

The shoulder rub became a back rub, and the back rub slowly expanded until Riaag was taking a deft touch to everything between Sarouth’s temples and knees, and then from there Sarouth rolled on his back to grin lewdly up at Riaag. It would take a lot more hot water soaks and numbing bark to chew on before Riaag’s everything didn’t hurt, and unlike Sarouth he just didn’t have it in him to have sex while it felt like he was being slowly and repeatedly punched, so they kept things simple: Sarouth lounged while Riaag touched him. They kissed until Sarouth gasped into Riaag’s mouth and his cock jumped in Riaag’s hand. Sarouth sighed, as relaxed as he’d once been strained. He likely could have nodded off right where he was had Riaag not carried him to bed.

Riaag’s mind was too busy to sleep, so instead he waited until Sarouth was happily snoring before he returned to the front half of the tent to practice some basic stitching while he turned over the events of the day in his head. Most of the crops they sent to Usoa were the same breeds the Usoans grew themselves, so it likely wasn’t some kind of allergy; Rhoanish soil was laden with blood and prayers, but the Usoans drank water from the same river they used for sacrifices, so that was out. They raised the same kind of sheep for wool and the same kind of chickens for meat and eggs. Was it the wine, maybe? That could account for the raw mouths and sour stomachs. Or maybe it was how the Rhoanish used iron-headed tools instead of the weird silvery stuff River People used? All it would take was a sliver of a plow coming off during the planting season and everything would be ruined…which was why Sarouth had been clear that ceramic tools were to be used by anyone helping the village. So many partial answers presented themselves, but nothing hit all three symptoms. At this rate it was probably going to be something silly.

He ran the rough side of his tongue against his upper lip. There were a few days left in the merchants’ stay, but by then he was half-convinced that situation would just resolve itself on its own. Accounting for all the converts would be tougher. Bastard though he was, Tokkav had been right about the Rhoanish not having an endless source of food. Naar Rhoan had enough to make it to spring, but what about after that? Would there be enough animals to eat if their population expanded by that much? If they did, would it be at the cost of turning away people who needed the second chance Naar Rhoan could give them? And that wasn’t even factoring in new babies! Riaag loved how many children lived in the stronghold, but all children had to grow up someday. How close could they cut things and still be able to feed everyone all year if the next harvest was a bad one?

Maybe he was thinking about this the wrong way. It was highly unlikely the River People were lying to them, but what if they didn’t see what was happening the same way a second set of eyes would? Riaag closed his eyes to picture the two afflicted Usoans who had come out with the gaggle of soldiers and politicians and weird shrieky people wearing glass chunks around their necks. Both ailing farmers—they were both farmers, he knew, since he’d asked about that—had sore mouths, and not the same way someone might get cold sores now and again but in a way that looked burned. Usoans’ diet involved hot seasoned soup all the time, which made it unlikely they were reacting to the temperature of food or the intensity of new spices. That they were falling ill and the visiting orcs presumably were not wasn’t too suspicious, since different blood-kinds were susceptible to different illnesses all the time, like how a cat usually didn’t get sick when a pig in the same pen had a fever. In theory the mystery disease had been going on since late summer and only after Usoa had allowed orcs inside its borders; before that they’d never seen such a malady. It made sense to assume Naar Rhoan had something to do with it. About the only good thing with the whole debacle was how the patients seemed to be improving with time away from home, though this only made the Rhoanish look even more guilty of sending tainted supplies. The logic, while frustrating, was ironclad.

Riaag ran his fingers through his hair. He’d seen the patients with his own two eyes so he knew they weren’t just making up stories about the nature of the illness. The bruising was weird, too, though the afflicted were skittish about showing it off. It looked to be concentrated around muscle groups; Usoa’s healers had their hands full back home, but an account from one of them claimed there were often scratches around the bruising. Nobody thought twice about a farmer with scratches because you had to keep your tools sharp and briars grew in the most annoying of places, but when the other symptoms started showing up it was a lot harder to ignore them. Weird that poison or plague would do that, though. Was it possible to get so sick your skin scratched itself? Riaag briefly entertained the thought that maybe ghosts were responsible, which ended up with him clutching one of his spirit-repelling amulets as tight as he could and counting to fifty until he was able to tamp down his fear to reasonable levels again. Fucking ghosts causing problems just by him thinking about how they might be involved! The unliving had no business in any of this given how frightened he was of them.

He swished with ash-water and spat into the pot they kept with their toiletries. Of all the gross things in jars he handled it was probably the worst since it always smelled a little bit like bad breath and chemicals. You had to be careful with ash-water in general, since unless you were actively making it into soap or using it to jelly meat it was just begging to splash on someone and cause a burn. There was some business about floating an egg in the stuff to test the strength after you brewed it; the higher the egg floated the stronger it was, and the less you should stick your damn fool hand in there to get your egg back. How some curious soul discovered it could also freshen up the foulest vinegar breath was a secret of forgotten ages, since what was it about mouths that could handle a dilution of water leached through wood ash that skin couldn’t? You’d get a horrible chemical burn if you shoved your hand into ash-water no matter how often you rinsed your teeth with it. It was like how the average person’s stomach could break down crunched-up bones all day long without any trouble, but if they got sick and spat up it risked searing their throat with the acid.

Acid, the same stuff that laced orc spit with an unwanted sour-grapes smell but wasn’t usually found in the mouths of dogs or horses or, presumably, River People.

“Fer fuck’s sake!”

The snoring on the other side of the curtain stopped with an abrupt snarfling noise. He could hear Sarouth rustling around back there. “Riaag? Are you okay? I thought I heard a shout.”

Riaag leaned against the washing table, angry and laughing at the same time. “Think I done solved this mystery.”

“You are making a strong claim,” translated Agurtzane for the Usoans’ leader (and his hat) when they met the next morning. “It is…quite a thing to say,” she added, this time more clearly speaking for herself.

“I realize this,” said Sarouth. “It puts us both in a spot, doesn’t it? We were in the wrong, for Naar Rhoan has had a clear hand in this happening, but we are also in the right, because it is nothing so vile as toxins or sickness. I’m glad the cause is more or less benign.”

“So you say. I have yet to see if it is a wise thing to allow orc-kind to remain among our own.”

Sarouth shrugged. He was unable to hide his wildcat grin, which had the unsettling effect of reinforcing how long his normally modest-looking tusks really were. It was uncanny how quickly he could go from affable to an avatar of Saber-Tooth in the space of a single expression. Riaag, naturally, was into it. “You do not put a beastmaster among cattle without telling them how not to be kicked,” said Sarouth. “We do not fear dogs because they might bite us, just as we do not fear scorpions even though they creep into our shoes. It’s all a matter of learning how to coexist.”

“But to claim it is because our kinds are lying together?” The leader scoffed. “Who would do such a thing? It is unnatural!”

A soldier shyly cleared his throat and raised his hand. He didn’t have the patches of burned skin the patients did, but when he reluctantly unfastened some of his armor the scratches and bruises were as clear as the morning air. He mumbled an excuse; to Riaag’s understanding, the soldier had taken a shine to one of the local women the first time he’d visited the stronghold as a traders’ escort, one thing led to another, and now he looked for any excuse to head back to Naar Rhoan to see her. He hadn’t spoken up about it because he hadn’t made the connection between the sickness of his fellows and the light injuries he got from spending time with his lady friend. It wasn’t like his peers had said anything: nobody noticed if farmers looked a little worse for wear and they definitely didn’t notice when a cavalryman did.

Riaag took a surreptitious sniff in the soldier’s direction while said soldier was stumbling miserably through explaining himself; sure enough, in addition to the natural way River People smelled (high and sharp, in a way that made Riaag think of foxes even though they were nothing alike save for the eyes) and the lingering ghosts of the Usoan diet (fish, ginger, garlic, cinnamon) there was a faint, familiar vinegar scent that was just strong enough to have been from the night before. His story checked out. Riaag could understand someone sleeping with the reminders of kisses on their cheeks while out on the road, after all. It wasn’t like the Usoans had been given bathtubs of their own to wash in.

“You claim that this is what causes the illness,” said the leader through Agurtzane, “but why does this one not burn where the others have?”

“Could be many things!” Sarouth began to tick off answers on his fingers. “Maybe because he has only just seen her for the first time in a long while, so there is not enough time for a kiss to hurt his skin. Maybe because she eats different things while she lives here, so her spit is different. Maybe she is cautious with her tongue, because she knows that the River People should not be scoured like meat from a bone when she lies with one. Maybe she was simply born with a softer mouth. I think that the most likely reason is that maybe she remembers to clean her mouth with ash-water every day, though, and the workers we sent to rebuild your village have not been so careful with their grooming. They rasp with their tongues, which makes the skin raw, and since the acid is not washed out it gets into the scrapes.” Bad hygiene and bad manners! What situation couldn’t those make worse?

The leader’s hat feather bobbed as he turned from one adviser to the other. “You explain many things, White-Hair,” he said after much deliberation. “You have left out one thing, though: why do some of ours become so sick in the guts? Some have nearly died!”

Riaag pinched the bridge of his nose. He was going to have a very long talk with the visiting Rhoanish workers the next time he was visiting down by the riverside. “The fuck we been telling our people ’bout not sharing aged meat with folk what ain’t orcish?” he growled, and Sarouth repeated his words for their guests in a less Riaag-styled dialect. “These River People ain’t scavenger brood! Of course it’s gonna make ’em sick! Even if’n it gets cooked up first!”

Convincing a room full of doubting dignitaries that everything was fine so long as proper safety measures were taken was not where Riaag had ever expected to find himself, yet here he was, brainstorming ways for orcs and River People to coexist—which really meant “screwing each other silly,” since two groups of people in close contact would either fight or bed down together, and there were treaties in place preventing the former—without causing too much trouble for either side. Usoa would brew ash-water, Naar Rhoan would remind its people of the delicacy of foreigners, and any foodstuffs that involved suitably rotten ingredients would have markings painted on their jars. All this talk about carrion kept reminding Riaag of how light his breakfast had been again and it was truly the grace of the Hill God Himself that kept his stomach from making rude noises every time someone brought up the pungency of well-fermented food.

Once the crux of the matter was resolved the talk naturally turned to other, more pedestrian topics like how the once-failing Usoan soil looked these days. It was remarkable how quickly Sarouth could jump from subject to subject without forgetting any details. With a brain like that it was a wonder he needed a herald of his own to keep details straight.

“This must be what it was like when we still attended Concordance,” said Agurtzane to herself in the Usoan tongue as the leader was lost in a tangle of words about the logistics of winter fishing. It was such a soft aside that to most people it might have sounded like a sigh or a little grunt as she shifted her weight. Her words were not quite quiet enough to escape the sharp ears of two Rhoanish men whose veins were still afire with adrenaline, though, and Sarouth lept at the chance.

“So tell us of this ‘Concordance,'” he said, smiling as sweetly as a snake wrapped around a mouse. His tusks poked out of the corners of his mouth as a silent reminder of his earlier grin.

“We…are not welcome there,” said Agurtzane. She wasn’t translating for the leader this time, giving her words a subtly less stiff inflection, and while Riaag had a bit of trouble telling the ages of the smooth-faced River People he got the impression some of her manner was because she was a great deal older and better informed than the new leadership. “Once we were, and once we would go there in our boats to speak of things across the world, but our natures offended them. Now we live further up the river than we once did, and speak with no one. Our dealings with orc-kind are a very new thing. It is the first time we have done such, with anyone, for many years.”

“And you’re banned for good?”

“We cannot return until we have a sponsor to claim our ways have changed. No allies among the Concordance means no sponsors.”

Sarouth steepled his fingers. “Tell you what,” he said. “You want a way to trade with outsiders without leading them right to your doors, right? And you also want someone willing to say you’ve changed your ways enough to reclaim your seat at this gathering of minds thingy. We could use people speaking kindly of us to the merchants we are hosting now, right this moment, on the opposite side of the stronghold, as well as a way to join the grander political stage. We’re already allied with each other. I think we both have something to gain here.”

“And if we do not wish to?”

“Oh, I don’t know, probably nothing too awful,” said Sarouth. He propped up his chin in his hands with his elbows resting against the short table they all sat at. Riaag knew better than to find him charming when Naar Rhoan’s future was on the line. “But it could be interpreted that this whole fiasco with accusing us of trying to kill you all through treachery might reflect badly on you. Maybe in ways that strain the nature of our agreement. You owe us seven years of loyalty, one for each of ours you drowned when our peoples first encountered each other. Surely you don’t want us to invoke this as a breach of that?” He grinned again, and his teeth were very sharp.

An Agritakh-ruhd was the voice of Agritakh. It was right there in the name. Agritakh was a loving god, a caring god, a god that sometimes really wanted to chat about if the vegetables were coming out nicely that year; Agritakh was also a thirsty god, a wrathful god, and a god that had once devoured the weakest of the very stars themselves in the interest of making room for new things. Echoes of that ancient purpose reverberated throughout Rhoanish culture. If the alliance proved to be a weak one, well, weren’t people ultimately made up of stardust, too?

Not that things came to that. Sarouth had the Usoans by the throat and they knew it, and while they were a violent and headstrong people they were by no means a foolish one. Nobody wanted a war. Riaag stepped in a time or two when it seemed like Sarouth was taking a bit too much pleasure in making them squirm, but since the strongest of their resistance had fallen to pieces there wasn’t that much that really needed to be smoothed over. The agreement would allow Usoa to trade with outsiders without actually inviting said outsiders into the River God’s backyard, and in exchange for getting first pick of Usoan goods and a portion of any surplus items, Naar Rhoan would happily host them. Acting as a proxy for the River People meant more regular trade, more regular trade through the stronghold meant more caravans from Usoa, and more caravans meant more puppet shows, and graceful dancers, and maybe that one man who could breathe fire while he juggled things with his feet. The agreement also meant having a valid way to get involved with the next Concordance if the merchants didn’t mind taking one half-unknown party’s word about the other. It sounded like a good deal for everyone.

They had been seconds away from swearing a new oath of allegiance—Sarouth was prepared to cut his hand and bleed into a candle and everything, because Sarouth did not half-ass anything having to do with ensuring his home’s future—when a runner burst into the tent with an urgent message.

“Trouble at the new blood’s camp,” she said, and neither Sarouth nor Riaag waited an instant before bolting out towards where the converts were housed.

Riaag was surprised to hear hoofbeats approaching behind him as he ran, and as he loped across the unpaved ground they pulled even with him. It turned out to be Agurtzane astride her deer, the lanterns hung from its horns swaying in time with its gait, and while there was no sign of other Usoans behind her he found it comforting that someone as important as their interpreter-herald would bother to join them on some spontaneous troubleshooting.

“Does this happen often?” she asked. She kept pace with him, which made sense: it wasn’t like she’d know where that part of the stronghold was without being shown. Riaag was big enough to follow through the heaviest of crowds.

He could run in full armor and still shout orders loud enough to be heard above the roar of combat, so chatting with someone while on the move and dressed in day-to-day clothes was nothing to Riaag, even though the cold air made it a little harder to breathe. “What, shit going weird out of the fucken blue? All the fucken time. At least it weren’t in the middle of us two foolin’ around fer a change.”

Agurtzane pressed her lips together awkwardly. “Ah. So did that…?”

“Happen often? Yeah. You know how the old palace back in your village got its wall all smashed up from magic water or some shit?” She nodded. It had taken weeks to repair the damage. The first owner of that ridiculous hat that Riaag met had held very strong opinions about how to treat hostages, and if there was one thing you never wanted to go up against it was a foreign god-speaker with a grudge. “Guess why White-Hair wasn’t in the room he was supposed ter be.”

“How unfortunate,” she said, and he could forgive how she unsuccessfully tried not to crack a smile.

When they arrived it was to a familiar sight: another masked and collared figure, this one wearing distinctly masculine clothing, was trying to get at one of the converts, who had taken to hiding inside a barrel. There were no arrows from nowhere this time, though, and Sarouth and Riaag had arrived too late to try and smash the glass bauble themselves. As soon as they got within grabbing distance the mysterious vunxailo made itself known.

The screaming Usoan bent backwards as though someone had pierced his chest with a hook and now was trying to pull him into the sky. He didn’t glow, or burn with strange energies, but there was a feeling of something being consumed that tapped into fears left over from orcs’ first ancestors. The bauble that rattled at the Usoan’s throat melted away into nothing, almost as though the collar itself had drunk it up. Riaag wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Maybe he’d been thinking it would be like a skin-changer’s transformation, or like when a god-speaker of fire wreathed themselves in sacred flame, but the masked man simply staggered forward, drew his scimitar, and went berserk.

Riaag had brought his axe along that morning for ceremonial reasons, so he wasn’t completely unarmed in the face of a whirling storm of silvery metal, though since politics usually didn’t get violent until everyone got back home he was dressed more to keep out of the cold than to keep out of harm’s way. Not having a shield with him further complicated things: he knew he couldn’t dodge everything, he had nothing to parry with, and not only would that whirling sword slice him like a ham but it was no doubt oiled with some of the nasty contact poisons the Usoans knew and loved. What a terrible day to not wear his scale coat!

He didn’t have the luxury of time. The converts’ weapons and much of their armor had been confiscated the day before (for very obvious reasons, he felt) so the converts themselves were helpless to defend themselves. Two of them died horribly before Riaag was able to wrench a brazier out of the ground, and another fell in the time it took for him to close the distance between himself and the berserking Usoan. He charged the berserker from behind and cut a gash in the man’s back that reached from his left shoulder to the meat of his right thigh; nothing resisted his strike but the judder of metal cleaving bone, as save for the mask and his strange clothes, the man wore no armor. Who would go on the battlefield like that? The blow’s force would have been enough to stagger a man Riaag’s size, and given the angle it very likely had shredded a kidney. Riaag followed up his attack with a bash of his makeshift shield that sent hot coals showering across the berserker. He might as well have blown a kiss, as the man wheeled in place to face him with scimitar upraised. Clouds of breath spilled from the slits in the berserker’s mask. No one who was bleeding out should have moved like that.

That was when the earth lurched up and grabbed the berserker by the leg. The distraction bought Riaag just enough time to jump backwards, as that gleaming silver sword crashed into the ground right where he’d been. He glanced over to see Sarouth—who was standing a safe distance away, thank goodness—reaching out with a clenched fist. Stray rocks and dirt orbited his robes at ankle height, whipped up in a divine tell as Sarouth commanded the movement of the ground through borrowed authority. His teeth were clenched in concentration.

“He’s fighting me, Riaag!” snarled Sarouth as sweat rolled down his face. “You have to do something, and quick!”

Problems that couldn’t be solved by hitting them with an axe were not the kind of problems Riaag wanted to puzzle out when lives were at stake. In addition to the three dead there were plenty of injured, most of the injured were showing signs of the scimitar’s toxin, and the healers were already overworked from yesterday’s fight. This was not the way he’d wanted to address the issue of there being too many mouths to feed! Cracks formed in the berserker’s shackle of soil and hardened as soon as they appeared, but that was already a bad sign if someone so far gone could put up any amount of resistance against an Agritakh-ruhd. Riaag racked his brains for an answer. Had there been any warning in what he’d heard before, any hidden clues?

It came to him in a rush: Your axe is sharp, Riaag Bough-Breaker. Be sure it is sharp enough to cut off a head. Etxeloi was a cryptic little weiner even at the best of times, but damned if he didn’t give good advice in the end.

Braziers were meant for providing heat and light, so when Riaag was able to catch the berserker’s sword between its struts and twist until he heard the crackle of wrist bones he was almost surprised it worked. A broken hand wouldn’t last him long if a sundered kidney barely did anything; working quickly, Riaag wound up with an exaggerated twist at the waist before throwing everything he had into a gruesome blow that wrecked the leering demon mask and sheared through the joint in the berserker’s neck bones. The berserker, now headless, shivered in place a moment before collapsing in a gory heap. Riaag chopped the corpse’s hands off just to be sure.

Sarouth only had enough time to give Riaag a relieved hug before he set about to tending the wounded. Agurtzane rode up next to Riaag to survey the damage, her face pensive. He looked from her to the corpse and back again.

“So that’s what a vunxailo is, huh?”

She frowned. “Yes, it is,” she said. “Where did you hear that word? It is not one we share with outsiders often.”

“We had an incident yesterday where one of these creeps tried ter take a convert apart,” said Riaag. He nudged the corpse with his foot. He would’ve kicked it, but the last thing he needed was innards all over his good boots after he’d only just gotten them clean again. “Some of your soldiers held ’em back, and then they started screaming real strange, and that’s when I heard that word. T’weren’t an issue fer long ’cause someone who shall be going unnamed busted up the glass-a-doodle on the mask afore they could turn all the way.”

“It is meant to be a last resort. When you call it, you eat up the ghost of sorrow and anger that is kept in the collar stone. Your mind goes and all that is left is hate. You cannot be stopped. You can die and still move, and so long as you move, you destroy. That is why it is a path only taken by people who feel hollowed out by whatever great pains would drive them to such a sad fate.” She eyed the berserker’s severed head from where it had rolled out of the broken mask. “I see you figured out the only way to end it.”

Riaag grunted. “Never hurts ter listen ter shadows. Sometimes they got good advice.” Good advice that had kept things from falling apart entirely, no less. He’d have to make something nice for Etxeloi as thanks. What did you give a River Person who stayed in the trees all day? Maybe a nice new hat to keep those ears of his warm, or a pouch of soup to drink on cold mornings, paired with a fresh haunch of mutton of that trained wolf that palled around with him….

Sarouth picked up the severed head and scooped the mask fragments into a bindle. He held up both with an exasperated look on his face. “You come to negotiate with us and you bring these into our home?” he said, giving Agurtzane a pointed look that pinned her in place. “Look at this mess! We have children here! I hope your leader brought extra pillows to sit on because I’m about to go chew his ass off.” He hefted the head and looked it in the eye. “Good thing we hadn’t yet sworn that oath. Dipshit here just reminded me of a few more demands I might want to make.”

Agurtzane cringed. Riaag’s heart went out to her: it wasn’t like she’d been the one making all those bad decisions, but as the face of the delegation she was on the receiving end of everyone’s foul mood. “Should I prepare myself for the worst, White-Hair?” Sarouth, already storming back towards the Usoan camp, didn’t hear her. She slumped in the saddle.

Riaag patted her deer’s barding comfortingly. He’d been there before himself. “I’m sure it ain’t gonna be too bad, promise,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘not too bad,’ Bough-Breaker?”

Oh, that was easy. Visions of Usoan buildings swirled in his head, and if he knew Sarouth (which he did, sure as he knew the Chant) then the next step after getting people to add bread to their diets was getting them to live in housing you couldn’t just roll up and tuck in a satchel when you were done. It was doable, Riaag was sure of it. They just had to figure out how. “Y’all got any architects we could borrow?”

In the end there was more talk of sponsorships amid demands for help with future construction and entirely too much of Sarouth swinging that damned head around like a censer. He kept making broad, sweeping hand motions even when meeting with the merchants afterward—Riaag had fretted at first that they had felt forgotten in all the excitement, but the woman with the nose ring assured him it was better to be left to the side during other people’s affairs—to the extent that if his wrists were somehow bound he’d simply find a way to gesture with his feet. At least by then his tendencies were well enough known that people expected him to be weird.

They had one day remaining before the merchants packed up for good, which Riaag had spent in a rotation of checking the kitchens, checking on the converts, and browsing the merchants’ wares for anything he couldn’t live without until their next visit, particularly seasonings. Nobody gave him trouble for wearing his hair flower throughout.

His prized find was a set of scented candles. There was some sort of oil mixed in with the wax, so when you burned it the smell was released into the room. It was like having a cylinder of incense that gave off enough light to work by. They were very nice, of course, and someone had taken a knife to one of them so it was carved all over with fanciful shapes, but he’d seen trick candles before; as an orc it was what he noticed through his nose that had won him over on the lot. Riaag only knew half of the smells from catching whiffs of them in the merchants’ food, but if lighting a savory candle to make a plain meal taste better was wrong, he didn’t want to be right.

Riaag was arranging his new treasures in a storage trunk in their tent when he heard Sarouth announce himself (always appreciated whenever Riaag’s back was turned) and make a beeline for his loom. That loom was going to get a real workout all winter long; once the existing Rhoanish were kitted out for the weather, Sarouth was sure to start making things for less fortunate members of the new crop of repentant marauders, and even accounting for those who left or passed away by then the number was not insignificant. He could probably weave enough to fill the Labyrinth itself if he wanted. Riaag lit a candle that supposedly smelled like figs and peered over his shoulder to see what color of yarn Sarouth would be working with that day.

It wasn’t a skein of yarn Sarouth pulled from the basket, but his harp.

Ah. The harp. Riaag had a lot of really strange feelings tied up in memories of what they’d talked about the first time he saw that harp. Said discussion had been running through his head ever since, and each permutation had pushed him closer and closer to something that needed to be said out loud. He knew himself well enough that if he didn’t act now he’d lose all his nerve and never bring things up until he had his next brush with death. Which very well could be next week, knowing his luck, but he didn’t want to push it.

“Hey, uh, Sarouth?” he said. He stared at the ceiling. “I been thinkin’ about the, uh, the thing you touched on a while back. About why your keep your claws so short. Been kinda hard ter avoid the idea, really.”

Sarouth paused, then glanced down at the harp where it sat in his lap. His face showed exactly when he fit the details together. “Oh, Riaag, I’m so sorry,” he said as he covered the harp’s frame with his sleeves, “I didn’t mean to upset you, if you’d like me to put it away so you don’t have to be reminded—”

Well, that wasn’t what he’d meant at all. The harp practice was kind of trying to sit through but he had much more important things to have nightmares about. “I kinda wanna try it. The, the thing you keep your claws short fer, I mean. Don’t gotta be now, but at some point. If’n you’d like. Yeah?”

“You what now.” Sarouth’s expression was frozen in a blank look with a hint of flat half-smile at the corner of his mouth.

Finding the right words was just the worst sometimes. “It’s just that I figure even if I end up not liking it too much I’ll at least have given it a try, and that’ll mean I’ll have tried ter push myself a little bit outside my nice little comfy spot, and it’s something I asked ter try, and all them things’ll mix tergether inter a thing I can come back ter whenever I get ter thinking too shittily about whether or not I’m a good match fer you, okay?” He twisted the claws on his index fingers together. “You won’t think it’s gross, will you?”

Sarouth broke out of his stunned silence with a laugh. “Riaag, earlier today I literally reached into a man’s belly, grabbed his split guts, and demanded them to knit themselves together before he shat into his own veins. Then I helped him wash up so the healers could give him tea. Please believe me when I tell you I’ve seen much worse in this world than a loved one’s anus.” That was a bit more visceral than Riaag had expected, yes indeed. At least it got the point across.

The harp returned to its basket without sounding a single note. Sarouth guided Riaag past the curtain and explained, very gently, how things were going to work, and it sounded simple enough, in theory. There was an interlude involving some warm water, a personal area, and a bucket while Sarouth faced the other direction and rummaged through his potion collection. Riaag always took great care to keep himself tidy so it didn’t take long at all to clean up and set aside any unnecessary clothing. The sex appeal was somewhat hampered by the necessities of the weather; wearing coats and top layers but nothing beneath the waist was probably not going to catch on as a fashion trend. He sat on the edge of the bed and focused on not wringing his hands. It was okay to be nervous. It was okay to have second thoughts. It was okay to ask Sarouth for this. Everything was going to be fine.

Sarouth pulled out a wax-stoppered vial of something and set it next to the stand he kept for his mace. “We’ll probably want this later,” he said, though he neglected to mention what it was. Fancy liquor, maybe? It wouldn’t be the first time Sarouth had raided his potion collection for drinks. Riaag figured he could be partial to a little post-sex tipple regardless of how things went.

There was still a lot to do to get ready, of course. Sarouth removed his rings and kept his right hand by the fire so he could warm it as he talked. “So, sometimes this is easier if you lie on your stomach, but I’m guessing—”

No.

“Right, right, I thought so,” said Sarouth as he took a step back. “That’s fine. We’ll just prop you up on some cushions and this will be just as good.”

“Some” cushions meant basically all of them, with Riaag’s pelvis up in the air and his feet dangling off the side, which felt about as dignified as it looked. They’d put a spare cloth between his ass and his coattails and another across his belly just in case. He kept his hands behind his head for lack of anything else to do with them, and while the rise of his stomach made it impossible to see the future action he decided he was okay with it; sometimes it was easier to think about how sex made him feel than what it looked like. Based on the faces he made Sarouth could see everything he wanted to, which was the important part, and that helped keep things fun. It was so nice being with a person who wanted everything to be fun for everyone. That said person was handsome was just the glazing on the vase.

“I’m just going to touch you a little bit so you can get used to having my hand down here, okay?”

“Okay.”

Save for the odd tug of a thumb against the sides of his asshole—Riaag had never figured out a good surrogate for that word that didn’t sound stupid to his ears, which was a shame—it was a lot like any other time they’d had sex using their hands, complete with lots of lovely attention to his balls and the sensitive space beneath them. He slowly relaxed. Even if nothing got past this stage he would be fine, and seeing Sarouth run his tongue over his teeth when he didn’t think Riaag was looking was a sight he’d be holding on to for later. He might be too big and weathered be pretty but he damn well knew at least somebody found his weird, hairy body desirable.

Sarouth rubbed the pad of his thumb all around the little puckered ring of Riaag’s asshole. What a great idea that was; Riaag made a happy humming sound in the back of his throat and scrunched up his toes in approval. Was this what he’d been worrying about? More fool him to have not asked sooner. His eager mind could already think of all sorts of ways they could fit it into their usual routine. A few circles later and that questing thumb pressed flat against the asshole proper in such a way that it felt a little like he was going to slip it in but ran no risk of actually doing so. It was a tease, a taste of things to come. What a fine reason to keep your claws cut!

“Want me to go to the next part?” Sarouth murmured in his smokiest voice. Riaag nodded dreamily. Sarouth broke the wax seal on the vial and dipped his pinky finger inside. It came out slick with something that looked like fresh cooking oil.

“What’s in there this time?” Riaag asked. “Magic potion? Booze?”

A dab of the same stuff touched his asshole. It was quite cold. “It’s slippery, see,” said Sarouth. “Some on you, some on me, and we’ll slide together easy as you please!”

“Huh. Okay.” Riaag had never heard of the stuff before Sarouth mentioned it ages ago and he still didn’t know why you’d need some, but any time he brought up never using it himself it just made Sarouth look sad. That wouldn’t do. Maybe there was something to extra-slippery sex Riaag just hadn’t tweaked to, anyway, so it could be a learning experience in more ways than one.

“I’m going to be using this finger first,” said Sarouth as he twirled his pinky. “It’s the smallest I have, so it should be the easiest on you. It might feel a bit weird at first but I want you to tell me if it ever feels bad. We can slow down or take a break whenever you want to. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Here we go.”

Riaag had kept himself willingly celibate for the first several years he’d spent as Sarouth’s disciple (they did not discuss the first something-teen), and even the sex he’d had with himself had involved nothing but a few wistful thoughts and a hand on his cock. This was not like that at all. Riaag knew for a fact that Sarouth’s hands were so much smaller than his own and stayed lotion-smooth all through the year, which made the fact that it felt like Riaag had an axe handle gradually vanishing up his ass all the more suspicious. He was very…full. A head full of poetry and all he could think of was “full.” Not a bad full, but not something he was used to yet, and it stretched him out in ways he didn’t know he could stretch. He did his best to breathe out as Sarouth went in. It sort of worked. In and out, in and out, so long as he kept breathing he was going to be fine.

“How is it so far?” asked Sarouth.

There was only one honest answer. “Kinda like takin’ a shit in reverse.”

Sarouth raspberried. “That’s…basically correct, yes.” He patted Riaag’s thigh fondly. “You’re doing great, by the way. You feel very warm.”

Warm was good, wasn’t it? Riaag would have preferred something like “welcoming,” which was about as weird and unbidden a thought as it was appealing. He didn’t have time to reflect on it further because Sarouth chose that moment to wiggle his finger a bit; in doing so he ratcheted up the full feeling by several degrees. Something tucked away in there felt awfully nice whenever a little bit of pressure came its way. Riaag gasped. Forget being stretched in unfamiliar ways, now he was really exploring bold new territory! It certainly explained the appeal of this sort of thing a little better.

“More of that,” he said in a voice huskier than he’d meant, and while he wasn’t in the mood to beg, well, if that’s what it took to get things done, he knew a lot of fun ways to say please.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. That’s…pretty fucken all right.” Another twirl and the pinky was gone. Riaag missed it already. “Aw, c’mon, put your hand back!”

Sarouth chuckled. “You’ll get it back, brave warrior, don’t worry. But do you want it to use this finger,” and here he waved his little claw, “or this one?” He wiggled his pointer finger. It looked a lot more dextrous than his pinky.

Well, that was easy. It was easy living up to his nickname when there were important boners on the line. “The bigger one.”

He prepared himself for that full feeling but more so, and Sarouth’s pointer was very much more so. The breathing thing came in very handy. From bits and pieces of conversations through the years he knew Sarouth used to do this kind of thing all the time, both giving and receiving, but if a man as big as Riaag was feeling like a thimble being worn as a glove after just a single digit, how on earth could someone with slim hips like those handle it? Maybe it came with practice. Or did you build up a sort of ass-callus? Perhaps it was the inverse of how the rest of the body exercised, where the more you did hard labor involving the butt muscles the more pliable it got inside. Assholes made no sense. When Sarouth crooked his finger a bit and nudged that little something hiding somewhere deep inside it made even less sense, but Riaag was far too busy with happy contortions to care. While he couldn’t see himself wanting to bother with all the prep work every time he wanted sex, this would be a fine addition to the rotation, indeed.

He felt Sarouth hug his leg. That was encouraging; he put it up over Sarouth’s shoulder to give him a bit more room to stand. It was too much to keep his eyes open, but he could still hear that gentle smile in Sarouth’s voice when he asked, “Now, don’t feel like you have to say yes to this, but would you like another one? At the same time, I mean?”

“Yes!” said Riaag, though it ended up more like a warble and some sibilants than a proper word. Sarouth understood him all the same.

Two fingers pressed together like they were invoking the divine sure felt interesting going in, even though Sarouth kept them crossed a bit during the insertion to give them a bit of a taper. He uncrossed them once he was up to his second knuckle. Riaag had to fight to not clamp down around them and force them out—and a curse upon his willful anatomy for making that difficult—but even though he knew he was going to be a little sore in the morning he could see what some of the fuss was about. The feeling of friction against his asshole was still as exhilarating as the first, second, and forty-fifth stroke, even though the metaphorical axe handle up his behind had become a metaphorical log. To think a cock was bigger than both of these at once? Whoof. No, that one could wait. It was like pacing himself at a feast someone else was organizing: there was no sense in trying every single thing so fast and in such gluttonous amounts that he made himself sick because of it.

One finger curled inside him was an event to remember; two fingers crooked together were literally eye-opening, as Riaag’s went wide in surprise at the sensation. They were slick like fresh meat or a parsnip ready for the frying pan was slick, and Riaag was slick, too, which meant he could feel Sarouth’s knuckles bumping against his now quite tender asshole as easily as one might have put their hand through a shirt’s sleeve. Sarouth’s thumb still caressed the space between Riaag’s balls and his ass, which had Riaag panting. He wriggled with joy. That joy turned to lip-biting ecstasy when Sarouth took Riaag’s cock in hand and stroked him at a different pace than his fingers thrust. Riaag came in barely any time at all.

He flopped against the bed and put up no resistance as Sarouth cleaned away most of the clear slippery stuff and made sure none of the come on Riaag’s belly cloth had gotten on anything. His knees stayed propped up on the cushions. A few draped blankets weren’t the same thing as a good pair (or two) of trousers, but it sure beat freezing his nuts off. They were good nuts. It’d be cruel to send them away after they did so well at such important work.

Sarouth washed his hands in some water he’d left by the fire to heat. He laughed in the manic way he affected whenever he was high-strung, nervous, and not inclined to be pissed off at something. “Was I okay? I’m so rusty I was worried I’d forgotten everything.”

“I’d say you was pretty fucken all right,” said Riaag with a grin. That was what Sarouth considered a rusty performance? Riaag was both intrigued and terrified by the thought of how that sort of sex might work with practice. His eye drifted towards the tented fabric at the front of Sarouth’s robes. “I’d offer ter do you similar service at some point, but I kinda like keeping my claws as they is.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m sure we’ll think of something more suitable if we think long and hard about it.”

It might have just been a slip of the tongue, because the average person said accidental innuendos all the time without meaning to, but no, there went Sarouth’s eyebrows a-waggling. Riaag groaned and lunged for him across the bed.

“I didn’t say anything! Mercy!” said Sarouth as he laughed and covered his face, but nothing could stop Riaag in his mission to get him in a headlock and mess up his hair. Not even a lack of pants.

The sun had not yet risen on the final day when the merchant caravan awoke to pack, and by the time the sky glowed with ruddy light they were all but finished. Riaag and Sarouth met with them one last time.

“We thank you for visiting us,” said Sarouth. “It usually is not so exciting, but in a way it is good to know how we care for guests, yes?” He flashed a smile. “We will be so happy to see you again! And at the Concordance, as well!”

“We are glad to do it,” said the man with beads in his beard. “Should Usoa be found worthy of returning, we will gain face from welcoming them back among our number. To say nothing of the respect we garnish from introducing your own people to them, of course. There have never been orc-kind at a Concordance before.”

The woman with the nose ring and the person with the wrapped-up face both nodded in agreement. “We will perhaps present your stronghold’s sponsor and fineries first,” said the woman, “and mention your blood-kind after, to ensure there is no…hmm. Ill will? I hope you will understand.”

Sarouth tossed his forelock. “If your people have to deal with marauders like those every time you meet orcs, I think it is to be expected,” he said. “In six months we will try and change such thinking.”

Six months’ time marked the start of the Concordance, which was hopefully good, but it clashed with the date of Riaag’s and Sarouth’s first anniversary, which felt very bad. Riaag tried to tell himself everything would work out—he managed this without ever wondering if their love would be out of their systems by then, which was a landmark occasion of sorts—but his idea of celebrating a special day was one that involved songs and fine food and several hundred fewer people than a meeting of the land’s powers would host. And to think most of them thought orcs should be slain on sight! Would they even have a room to themselves or would it be the kind of gathering where sexy privacy was at a premium? There is no love so great it should never be questioned, Sarouth had said. Riaag felt in his heart theirs was strong enough to survive, but he didn’t look forward to all the questioning he planned to do.

“I hope you stay safe on the road,” he said in the interest of sending the merchants off on a genuine thought. “Our scouts tell us the way is clear, and our patrols will watch for any change to that. Please send a raven when you arrive home so we know you are safe.”

“We will try,” said the one in the scarf. “Perhaps we will be back in the spring, to see how it looks when you are planting.”

Springtime might also be a long enough for more spirits to distill, but neither Sarouth nor Riaag mentioned it. Why ruin the surprise? Instead, Sarouth said, “It will be good to have guests, always! We will be sure to have you try Usoan food if you do. There is no carrion at all in it! You like fish, yes?” There was a certain breed of monster that would spring fish sauce on unassuming foreign palates, and its name was Sarouth White-Hair.

Upon scanning the skies for new messages and finding no ravens with beads in tow Sarouth declared that there was no bad news with ironic timing waiting for anyone, so with all the appropriate courtesies and blessings exchanged the last of the merchants loaded up into their wagons. Whips cracked, wheels creaked, and from inside some of the wagons Riaag could hear the hint of foreign music. It would be a long journey back across the mountains to the ocean coasts the merchants’ people called their own. He hoped that whoever they had back home had missed them.

Half a year. It felt like too much time and yet no time at all, as there would be the overseeing of Usoan builders to get done in those months, and the integration of converts into new bands and families, and having a stern talk with careless lovers of River People, and more trade to oversee, and and just riding out the rest of the winter. Would there be houses by the time the Concordance came, or just a bunch of holes in the ground? They’d made a lot of promises to a lot of people over the past few days. Riaag was determined to keep every single one.

The caravan disappeared into the distance and Sarouth turned his attention to the sky. For once he didn’t seem to be scanning for divinations; it was nice seeing him so casual. “Look at that sunrise,” he said. “It’s such a great hue. Amazing how you get something as big as that and it’s solid color from horizon to horizon. Just, wow! In a few hours it’ll all be a lovely blue. Or maybe gray. Gray’s good, too, nothing wrong with a good, soothing gray from time to time.” He looked Riaag in the eye and smiled. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Oh. There was no mistaking why Sarouth had chosen that word. Riaag looked up at the sky with new eyes: it was painted with blazing orange that caught the light of the late-year clouds, and it was the same sky that housed both flocks of playing birds and mountain-leveling storms. It held the sun, the moon, and the stars, which would be nothing without places to wander when they crept from their homes under the earth or behind the air. Everyone knew the fury of a lightning strike but nobody questioned someone who admired the way the snow danced on the wind. It was big, that sky, but maybe that was so it could be large enough to house so many ideas at once.

He laced his fingers with Sarouth’s. His cheeks might have been wet, but who cared? Maybe that just meant there was more rain on the way. “Reckon that’s so,” he said, and they watched the sun come up together.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang Wiki

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