by Shouga Naiko (生姜ないこ)
Kei was weird and he didn’t talk to people much and he wasn’t afraid of anything. Kei was — a mess of dark hair, wide dark eyes and a wide red mouth set on a spindle neck and a taut, narrow body full of knuckles and joints. And not entirely human: it was common enough knowledge, as such “knowledge” goes, that his mother was a fairy. Everyone knew, as well, that he’d sucked off this one boy two years older than him in lunch break once. He wasn’t much liked, but he was just strong enough and strange enough not to be picked on by anyone with sense. He was twelve and a half years old and precocious, fast like a wild animal, stained green with the moss of old buildings. He avoided school as much as possible, with its dusky, high-walled rooms and its smell of boys and blackboard erasers. He wasn’t very clever in school ways. But then, that wasn’t his world.
Kei was taught to play the pianoforte by old Miss Pethergill, in her room without windows. The piano, which was always barely accessible through the stacks of indecipherable objects. The slow, honey-coloured light, sticky with particles of dust that gathered in the corners of Kei’s eyes and the grey dips of Miss Pethergill’s naked, plucked-bird chest. Her jutting, folded collarbones. Miss Pethergill had left town in her youth as part of a stage show and been brought extravagant gifts every night by her adoring admirers, who changed every week as they moved from town to town. The dangerous, swarthy Cossacks, the officer Sergei Ivanovich, with whom she would have gone away, ah! my dear …
This she told to Kei, who neither understood nor cared, caught up in the horror of her perfume, her naked front. The itching closeness of her powder-caked wrinkles. Miss Pethergill would put a hand on Kei’s side or extend one over his shoulder to the yellowing ivory keys, and the spider fringes of her pomegranate-embroidered shawl would brush Kei’s skin, pricking it to attention in goosebumps.
He’d never seen her outside her room nor seen any food in there, and frightened himself for fun sometimes with the rumours that she was a vampire and that in among those stacks were the folded-up sucked-dry bodies of the children she ate, dessicated like the dead cockroaches that got caught between the strings of the piano.
He liked sunlight and old stone walls and secret places that no-one else knew of, quiet and comfortable in their decay. Paths that didn’t look like paths, opening up only for him as he explored, up and through and around and down. Even down to the impossible, impossibly huge chains that anchored the honey-coloured rock of the town, built over on all sides, to the dark, jagged mountains. He got to the bottom once or twice, clinging like a frog to beardy creepers, buildings, stunted trees, his back exposed to a gaping space too big to really apprehend, and which Kei consequently took little notice of.
Kei picked his way down to the docks to see Mesung the eunuch, who told good stories and always let Kei beg sweets off him.
Mesung was busy talking to an acquaintance, though, and sent Kei off to play together with the Arab boy who helped with the stall sometimes, giving them money for ices.
Kei didn’t particularly like the boy, Hassan, who was pretty enough, but in a way that made him look like a girl, and who cried far too easily. Kei’d used to have to look after him when he came to school in intermittent stretches; he’d dragged Hassan off to skive with him instead and become exasperated and contemptuous at how timid Hassan was, and how useless at climbing.
Kei set off fast for a flat rooftop he was fond of, and was chagrined to find that Hassan followed him easily. He’d become stronger. Kei sat on his heels in silence, using his tongue to lick up sorbet from the paper cup while Hassan used his fingers.
“That doesn’t look too smart, you know,” remarked Hassan.
“Yeah?” said Kei, who wasn’t listening. He’d burnt his mouth from the cold and his tongue tasted of blood, lips red in his white face and wet from the ice . The air smelt of pistachio nuts and rice paper, and the stone tiles that were grey in cloud had turned honey-yellow under the sun.
“Hey, you just gonna blank me?” said the boy. “Oi, deaf-aid!” He pushed Kei, who fell without resistance, catching Hassan’s clothing and dragging him down as well. They fought, not very seriously, and Kei ended up on top, gasping and giggling. Not so much stronger, then. He could smell warmth and lichen then, and captured boy beneath him.
Peeved, the boy slid a hand between Kei’s legs. Kei sat on it to keep him from squeezing, and stuck his cold, wet tongue into Hassan’s ear.
“Hey, are they all freaks here like you?” snarled Hassan, as Kei ran off and scrambled up higher, turning to pelt him with tiny stones, laughing like a stray dog.
Kei rolled himself in his quilt and slid his hand between his legs for comfort. He stroked himself idly, his girlparts and his little dick, until he started to become both hard and wet. He pulled his pillow down between his legs and tensed around it, rubbing himself against the fabric and breathing faster. It made him warmer, and he lay panting for a few moments after he came, before drifting off to sleep.
The days and nights here slid into one another, and he didn’t notice them go.
“You took quite a tumble there, didn’t you? Come, let me see.” He ran soft, faintly clammy hands over Kei’s limbs, his head and ribs. Kei curled his bad wrist close against his chest, but let the monk take it, if reluctantly, and palpitate it with his strange, soft hands.
“How far can you move your wrist? Does this hurt?”
“How about — ”
Kei hissed, and tried violently to pull away.
“Ssshhh, sshh, calm down. I”m sorry.”
Kei glared, mute and distrustful, tucking his legs up on the seat. But the monk still had his wrist.
He carried on poking and flexing it.
“There, you’re okay, no bones broken. It’s just a sprain.”
The monk fetched salve, a roll of bandage, water, cloths. Kei sat obediently while the monk bound his wrist and cleaned the grazes on his hands and knees. He could have taken care of himself, but this man didn’t seem angry, at least.
“Make sure you don’t do that again, now.” The monk’s fingers were at Kei’s string belt. Green through the moss-smeared window, fleshy green like cactus leaves, and grey. At the vulnerable curve of the hip. They slipped under. “Stealing cherries, at your age… there are plenty of better things to do with your time… a boy like you…”
“Mm,” agreed Kei. This wasn’t a cane, and he was glad of it. This was — much easier to deal with. “A boy like me…”, he didn’t bother to say. He smiled when the monk’s fingers curled under him and paused in surprise.
“Well now,” breathed the monk. “Aren’t you something special?”
Kei clenched himself and arched forward to sit half on the monk’s lap, keeping the monk’s hand still between his thigh and the monk’s. He shifted his hips delicately, rubbing himself against the warmth and damp skin and folds of coarse fabric, and clutched at the shoulder of the monk’s robes with his good hand. “Thank you for helping me,” he murmured, glancing upwards with a polite, shy, learned smile. His breath shivered in as the monk started to move his fingers in response, stroking, pressing inwards.
Kei shut his eyes and breathed in the cool, grey smell of the old, old stone walls. And of the monk, dun-coloured; book-dust, lanolin from his robes, the smell of his skin. This man was smooth and plump under his wispy beard, young for an adult. Moss-stains on his own body. His blood. Warmth spiked at his upper lip, his stomach, between his legs.
He came back to himself with a yelp, rudely disturbed, when the monk shifted him on his lap and tried to put his dick in.
“Sssh, quiet!” hissed the monk.
“That hurts! You’re too big,” hissed Kei back, squirming and scowling.
“Okay, okay, sssh, easy now.” The monk put away his anger and slipped an arm around Kei’s shoulders. He started to stroke with his hand again, touching inside Kei and then smoothing his wet fingers over Kei’s little cock. Kei shut his eyes and started to move in time, letting himself get used to the feeling as the monk pushed in, more gradually this time.
The monk took care of himself, slow and easy. He kept Kei from touching his own cock. Kei whimpered and tried to move harder, thrusting himself against the monk’s cock and his bunched robes. He was almost crying, half desperate to be fucked harder, half in pain from being stretched too far already. It was good, he felt, gasping, clutching at the monk’s shoulder and burying his forehead there as he came several minutes before the monk. He lay still as the monk finished, becoming half-hard and then soft again, starting to be able to see the smeary light coming in through the window.
The monk dipped a cloth into the bowl of water, still warm, and cleaned himself and then Kei, considerately. Kei had bled, but only a little. He sat up straighter and tried to clamber off the monk’s lap, nodding to him. He could feel his heart beating up on his tongue, fast and oily. The air seemed very heavy, thickly green with plant must.
The monk caught him as he fainted.
He woke alone in the same room to the call of someone else’s name. Mikhail… that must have been what the monk was called, he supposed. Not that it mattered. Kei picked his way carefully to his feet. He was sore, underneath and where he’d fallen, but not hurt very badly, really. He tiptoed out, the flags cold under his bare feet, before anyone could come in or back for him.
Kei liked to hang around the docks, as what he might be given in exchange for just that thing was enough to keep himself, away from school or his sister’s house, for days and then weeks at a time. He was a little sore inside from the touch of a merchant, who had offered him stew beforehand, which he liked, and wine, which he didn’t. Perversely, he enjoyed the ache. He was fond of secret things.
Mesung coaxed Kei over to him as he might a wild bird – for Kei, though he knew him, was quite happy with the ritual – and gave him a piece of nut brittle. Kei inclined his face into the touch of Mesung’s hand, and bit lightly at the thumb.
He was not right for around here, that was increasingly obvious. His unearthly mother – a dragon? Mesung thought; he’d been closer than anyone at the time, and still wasn’t sure. The half-sister in whose household Kei nominally lived would have neither the authority nor the knowledge to let him go. He’d have to speak to the boy’s father and hope the man wouldn’t be incensed by the reminder of his past – embarrassment. At any rate, the man owed Mesung, who was more of a doctor in these matters than anyone in this half-cleared-out frontier town was likely to be.
“Do you go with those officers?” asked Mesung, sharply, as Kei came in to see him the next day.
“Um,” said Kei. He tried to gauge whether saying would get him into trouble. “Once, I think. Not the ninth, my brother’s in that regiment.”
Mesung didn’t tell him off, just gave him a long look. “Well–” he stopped himself, and his hand came up to caress Kei’s jaw, “no. No, you’re okay, aren’t you?” he said, softly. Kei could be so naïve.
Kei didn’t know how to react to that, so he stayed still. With Mesung, who looked at him that way sometimes, but didn’t seem to like when Kei tried to kiss him, and who knew so much and had been everywhere, even the old court — Kei’s judgement seemed always a bit off, so he was always getting it wrong. But he didn’t mind trying.
Hassan ducked into the stall with a packet of hot meat buns, glared at Kei upon seeing him there, and left again.
“He’s a bright kid,” observed Mesung, measuring out tea leaves. “Could be anything he wants, with the right education. I can’t possibly keep him.”
Kei looked at his feet, mottled purple and yellow from being sat on.
Mesung changed the subject, starting to tell Kei about a roc he saw from the pass over the mountains, much bigger than the ones at court. “There’s one of those in the empty houses up Elvet,” said Kei. “It’s dying, or something, it never moves from this one room. It smells really rough.”
‘That’s a long way north to come… That street? I thought it was closed off.”
“Unh, but you can get through this cellar and then under in the open by these vines, and back onto the roofs, like – ” Kei gestured with his hands, “but some of it’s not safe to go on, this bit of floor broke and I fell right through and cut myself on all this rubble, and there were, you know, really loads of spiders…” He broke off, his face animated, aware he was probably saying too much but happy to tell it nonetheless.
He carried on, more quietly: “It’s silly no-one uses it at all – I mean, most of it’s good… I don’t have to go back to the house too often in summer, there’s plenty of other places.”
“Do you like it there?”
“S’okay … ”
Someone knocked him over as he went out into the dusk. Rolling over and fighting by reflex, Kei was not entirely surprised to find it was Mesung’s Arab boy.
“He’s mine,” hissed Hassan, fighting and not quite managing to stay on top.
“Eh, you want to stay with him your whole life? You want to have your thing cut off like him?”
He tried to bite. Kei pinned him down by his hair.
“You, you freak.” The boy was nearly sobbing. “What makes him like you better than me?”
He didn’t follow when Kei got up and left.
Later, Hassan clearing the bowls away, trying to yell at Mesung in his child’s voice, scrubbing more and more often at his eyes. And later, his knuckles knotted in Mesung’s robes, his pretty, sulky mouth and his dark eyes crumpled up with tears. He’d be persuaded, for he had sense, but he was still a child after all, and couldn’t help but be upset at the thought of having to leave soon.
Matters were arranged with Kei not being sure what had been done, only that Mesung had done it. He started to sleep in Mesung’s hired cabin in the zeppelin that stopped by two weeks in every six months, red with scents and patterned rugs that seemed more threadbare every time Kei saw them, with Hassan heating up water for cooking on a battered, foreign Primus stove among the bags of tea leaves and plastic tat that Mesung sold.
The motion of the ship, once it left port, did not agree with Kei. He felt ashamed of himself for his stupid, uncontrollable weakness — on a thing he’d been on and off all his life, no less! — but mostly just sick. Mesung gave him a spoonful of some syrup that made him drowsy and dull, but stopped him from throwing up. Hassan, curled over scholarship papers in a corner, stared at Kei and flicked sunflower seeds at him when no-one was looking. Kei opened his mouth lazily, to give him something to aim at. It seemed pretty funny, in a hazy way.
Mesung got Kei to strip later and ran sure hands over him, checking his hair and joints and mucous membranes. Kei became half-hard despite himself, shivering and uncomfortable in the small cabin. Mesung made a few notes, and put a blanket around Kei’s thin shoulders, covering him.
“Kid? Kei,” said Mesung. “You’re going to be all right.”
Kei stared vacantly out of the porthole. At the receding, venous clot of his birthplace, fading among grass seeds and a hot, sun-coloured wind. You could see their route for days in the steppe, so huge it seemed nothing and the mountains curled-up, papery edges. A roc, a Mongol pony, he might run and ride for ever if he needed to, or he might not.
Though he affected not to hear, Kei believed him.