written and illustrated by juou no zan (女王のザン)
Nic was not especially sensitive to magic, but ze jolted awake at the crash of magic that reverberated through their room. Still confused from sleep, at first ze thought it had been thunder that woke zem up. But zeir boyfriend was already sitting upright, glaring into one corner of the room, which was not how Mara typically reacted to thunderstorms.
Nic rubbed zeir eyes and started to sit up, but Mara reached over without looking and pushed zem back down to the bed. Nic frowned, but Mara’s instincts were always right about magic and monsters. If ze’d listened to him and not set sail the day the church caught up with them, they wouldn’t have been to prison at all.
A robed figure faded into existence in the corner Mara was glaring into. “Mara,” it said in a deep voice, “I see your powers have grown.”
“Who are you and what the hell are you doing in my house?” Mara demanded.
The robed figure chuckled. “Your demeanor is eminently appropriate,” they said. “You truly are the avatar of the Destroyer.”
Mara swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, flinging the blanket aside and conveniently covering Nic a bit more. He cracked his knuckles and said, “That didn’t answer my questions, old man.”
The robed figure pushed back their hood and revealed quite an ordinary older man’s face, with an admittedly unsettling smile. “I am High Priest Indiyit, and I am here to bring you to your destiny.”
Mara cocked his head just a bit to the side, the way he did when he was putting the pieces of a puzzle together in his mind. Nic clenched zeir hands into fists as ze placed Indiyit’s name. He was the head of the Arizedo Church. He called Mara the avatar of the Destroyer, which Nic knew was the god Arizedoans worshiped. Was he serious? No, of course he was serious. More importantly, could he be wrong?
Mara asked, “What destiny?”
Indiyit’s smile broadened. “You were created as a vessel for the Destroyer to manifest in this world,” he said. “It has been long enough now for you to come into your powers, and awaken the full powers of the Destroyer. With your full powers, you will take your rightful place leading your followers, and rule over this world.”
Mara crossed his arms over his chest. “Hm,” he said. He thought about it for a few moments, which was alarming. Nic loved that he gave full consideration to new ideas, but the idea he needed to consider this was a little worrying. Then Mara said, “No thanks.”
Indiyit’s smile vanished. “What?” he asked. “You cannot deny your destiny.”
“I don’t see why not,” Mara said. “I don’t want to. I’m not going to.” He uncrossed his arms and made a shooing motion. “Get out of here.”
Indiyit frowned. He looked around the room for the first time. The frown deepened. “What is this place?” he asked. He turned and swept open the curtain over the window. The light of false dawn couldn’t reveal much, but evidently it was enough. Indiyit asked, “Is this a farm? Have you been making things?” He spun back around and snapped, “Get dressed. It was a mistake to let you loose. Clearly, you need guidance.”
“You hard of hearing or just stupid?” Mara asked. “I said no.”
Indiyit drew himself up. Nic couldn’t feel the magic, since it was so subtle compared to the blast that woke zem up, but ze could see the results well enough: Indiyit seemed to loom above Mara, with shadows gathering at his feet and on the wall behind him. His voice carried unnatural weight when he said, “I created you. You will leave this place and come with me.”
Mara rolled his eyes. “Look, guy, am I your god or your son?” Nic had to stuff zeir knuckles into zeir mouth to keep from laughing. Mara went on, “Either you should listen to me when I tell you to get out of here, or you don’t need me. You’ve been doing a great job oppressing people without my help.”
High Priest Indiyit narrowed his eyes at Mara. He looked around the room with disgust and said, “This place is obviously a bad influence on you. Perhaps you will come to your senses once I have razed this village to the ground.”
Mara shifted into a fighting stance and growled, “Try it, and we’ll find out exactly how good a job you did making a vessel for destruction. Get out of here before I raze you to the ground.”
Indiyit raised his chin to look down at Mara, and twisted his mouth into a frown. He said, “You cannot escape your destiny. This isn’t over.” The shadows grew until they engulfed him, then flickered out, leaving that side of the room empty once more.
When he was gone, Mara turned to Nic. “Are you okay?” he asked zem, although he looked more freaked out than Nic could remember ever seeing him.
“I’m fine,” Nic said, sitting up. Ze held out zeir arms, and Mara crawled onto the bed and into zeir embrace. “Are you okay?” ze asked.
“I don’t know,” Mara said, before pressing his face into Nic’s neck. Muffled, he said, “I bet we looked pretty silly, him in his fancy church robes and me butt naked, yelling at each other.”
Nic laughed, because that honestly hadn’t occurred to zem. “I guess so,” ze said.
They sat like that for a while, Mara just holding onto Nic and breathing. Eventually, he sighed. He pulled back enough that his words weren’t muffled when he said, “So. I guess the High Priest of Arizedo can just find me whenever he wants. I think that makes it a bad idea to stay here.”
Nic didn’t want to agree, but ze couldn’t see any way Mara might be wrong. Indiyit had materialized in their bedroom without even knowing where he was, which was really advanced magic. Very powerful magic users might be able to hone in on something else, but usually that meant locating whatever they were looking for on a map or something, and then using that knowledge to go there. Showing up without having any idea of the environment around Mara meant Indiyit was one of the most powerful sorcerers Nic had ever heard of. Which made sense; he was the High Priest of an extremely powerful church.
Mara went on, “But I think it makes it a bad idea to stay anywhere. Everyone around me would be in danger, no matter where I went. So if I want to be able to do anything without him swinging by whenever he wants and attacking people, or trying to brainwash me or whatever, I think I have to go find him and kill him.”
“You might not have to kill him,” Nic said. “Maybe you could sever the connection between the two of you so he couldn’t just pop up.”
“Maybe,” Mara said. He looked up at zem. “But…isn’t that kind of irresponsible? I mean, he’s the head of the Arizedoans. And he’s strong enough to at least think he has a shot at making some kind of vessel for a god. What if he just tries again?”
Nic hadn’t thought about that. Even if Indiyit did give up on Mara, he flat-out said his goal was to rule the world. The parts of the world he already ruled were pretty bleak places to live. Nic would know, having lived under that rule most of zeir life.
And as much as ze hated to think about it, if Indiyit was right and he’d somehow created Mara…Mara had been violent and disinterested in other things, right after the shipwreck. Nic had stopped him from doing some pretty mean things the first few days they knew each other. What would someone made the same way, by the same person, be like without someone like Nic or Ayla or any of the other shipwreck survivors? Mara’s proposed solution to just about every problem used to be “smash things, and see if that fixes it”. Which made a lot of sense if he was supposed to be some sort of mortal incarnation of the Destroyer, or a person who could become that.
“So what do you want to do?” Nic asked him.
Mara got up and walked over to the window Indiyit had looked out of. He pulled the curtains aside, heedless of the fact that he was still completely naked. Well, Nic thought, it wasn’t as if his chest was usually covered by his clothes anyway, and the window didn’t go down far enough for him to be flashing anyone when he was standing right against it. Mara looked out the window for a while. It was still pretty dark out, but even from across the room, Nic could see half the village out there, and off in the distance, the barn and the fields. Six months ago, there had been nothing here at all.
Nic got out of bed and pulled some clothes off the hooks that were serving as their temporary wardrobe. Ze shrugged into a shirt, wriggled into the shorts ze used as underwear, then walked across the room to Mara still tying the drawstring. Ze put one hand on Mara’s shoulder, and he sighed.
Mara looked over his shoulder at zem and said, “I mean, I have to go after him. And I probably have to kill him. Otherwise you and the village will never be safe.”
“Okay,” Nic said. “When do we leave?”
“You don’t have to come with me,” Mara said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Nic said, frowning. “We’re a team. I’m not going to let you go off to fight your high priest dad on your own.”
Mara’s bottom lip trembled, and his eyes filled with tears. He turned and wrapped his arms around Nic’s shoulders, burying his face in zeir neck again.
“Oh, Mara,” Nic said. Ze’d never seen him cry before. Nic put zeir arms around him as well, holding Mara tight. “Why wouldn’t I come with you?” ze asked. “What would you do if one of the lines on the ship snapped, or he’s in some invincible fortress or something?” Ze shook zeir head. “I’d spend the whole time you were gone worrying about you. Ayla would make fun of me.” Mara choked on a laugh. “And if Indiyit does try to brainwash you, you have to have someone there to break you out of it.”
“No one else knows you like me do,” Mara murmured against zeir neck. He wasn’t shaking or breathing particularly hard, but hot tears were dripping onto Nic’s shoulder and soaking the shoulder of zeir shirt.
“Seriously, I don’t know what I said,” Nic said. Mara shook his head. Nic petted his hair, taking the opportunity to move it further away from zeir mouth. It was nice hair, but he had so much of it, Nic spent a lot of time getting it out of zeir face.
After a while, Mara stepped away and wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “I guess I was worried you wouldn’t want a fake boyfriend.”
“You’re not fake,” Nic said. “Even if Indiyit did some kind of spell to create you, you’re still a person.”
Mara shrugged. “Well,” he said. The whites of his eyes were still red, and looked redder next to the vibrant scarlet of his irises. Nic supposed being created by magic would account for the color of his eyes and the pointy ears, as well as the complete lack of memory.
Nic had always thought people with amnesia remembered things gradually. But Mara didn’t know anything more about his past now than he had when they first met on the beach after the shipwreck. Nic had sometimes wondered if there was some kind of magic walling off Mara’s past, leaving things like survival skills intact. Ze guessed him appearing fully formed on the beach where ze found him would explain it.
Mara looked out the window once more. “I don’t think I knew I was worried about it until you so obviously didn’t care about it. ‘Cause I think he did. I mean, how many people died in the shipwreck?”
Nic took a deep breath. Ze hadn’t thought about that yet. But blood magic would be by far the easiest way to make an entire person. And it was just about the only kind of magic the priests of Arizedo used, because the sacrifices meant it wasn’t wholly an act of creation. If High Priest Indiyit wanted to make a worldly vessel for his god, he would almost have to kill people to fuel that magic. Nic thought about how many graves they’d had to dig, and how many more people they never found any trace of, after the shipwreck. Ze said, “Enough.”
Mara let out a short, sharp laugh. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. He turned away from the window and crossed the room to their bed, then bent over to scoop his clothes up off the floor. He started getting dressed, and asked, “How soon can we leave? Ayla’s house isn’t finished.”
“It should be livable,” Nic said. “Although if we’re leaving, she could stay here again. I wish we knew more about how Indiyit found you, but if he can show up whenever he wants, we should go as soon as we can. Tomorrow, even. I’d say today, but we probably shouldn’t leave without letting everyone know we’re leaving.”
“I don’t know how he got here, but I think I know how he found me,” Mara said. He pulled the laces on his trousers tight, tied them off, then tucked them into his waistband. “You know how I can feel which direction monsters are in?” Nic nodded, because Mara’s sensitivity to magic had helped them over and over again; making this part of the island safe, tracking down the thing in the mine that kept collapsing the tunnels, avoiding the patrols during their prison escape, and that wasn’t even counting all the times he’d been able to prevent them from being ambushed. Mara said, “I’m pretty sure I can feel which way he is. It’s very distinct magic.”
Nic wondered if that was because Indiyit was exceptionally strong, or because Mara had an affinity for the magic that had created him. “That’s good,” ze said. “Kind of.”
“It’s good for tracking him down, at least.” Mara sat down on the edge of the bed and laid his hands on his lap, frowning down at them thoughtfully.
Nic went to sit next to him, taking one of his hands in zeirs. Mara looked up at zem. “Hey,” ze said. “No existential crises. If you really need to have one, you should wait until we’ve kicked your weird magic dad’s ass.”
Mara smiled, then leaned in to kiss zem. “All right,” he said. “You’re the boss.”
Nic had not immediately thrown zemself at Mara. Following the shipwreck, there had been more important things to worry about, even if Nic did find zeir attention slipping back to the way Mara never wore a shirt.
Plus, as previously mentioned, Mara had been violent and disinterested in things other than fighting. It wasn’t the least useful reaction to trauma and amnesia, as Nic thought it must be then, but it didn’t exactly scream “boyfriend material”. They ended up spending more time together than apart out of convenience, at first; Nic’s experience studying under various craftspeople while ze was on the run from the Arizedo Church meant ze was the best choice to locate and gather materials the shipwreck survivors needed, while Mara’s fighting prowess made him much more useful as a guard than any of the rest of them.
Nic and Ayla talked about it those first few weeks after the shipwreck, how weird it was that Mara would be on the ship with the rest of them. The rest of them were all heretics captured by the Arizedoans, on the way to one of their prisons. Nic was something of an architect, with zeir carpentry and masonry experience, Ayla was a farmer from a long line of farmers, and the rest of the survivors were familiar with one or two crafts in addition to whatever building or farming experience they had from living the kind of ordinary life that made the Arizedo Church angry. But Mara was worse than useless at anything constructive, which led to the question of why he would have been on a prison-bound ship for enemies of the church.
Mara, of course, had no idea. He’d shrugged and suggested he might have beaten up a priest or something.
So Mara had been the logical choice to accompany Nic on zeir scouting missions around the island. Mara had been the one to spot the inland mining settlement, and of course he’d gone with Nic to explore it. He’d also been the one to clear the monsters out so Nic could figure out what was collapsing the tunnels. Once they got the mine safe enough to work again, Mara had also gone with Nic to protect zem when ze needed to get supplies from other islands for Ayla or the miners. They’d been pretty good friends by the time the church caught up with them again, but Nic had done zeir best until then to ignore the fact that Mara was attractive. Over the months they’d known each other, Mara never seemed interested in either romance or sex.
Escaping from the church’s prison island wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t any harder than the other things they’d done together. The hardest part had been figuring out how to make it look like they died in the escape attempt. Nic was tired of being a fugitive, and the entire village would be safer if the Arizedo Church thought they were dead. Mara helped Nic figure out how to do it, they pulled it off, and together they escaped free and clear and no longer wanted as heretics.
Nic and Mara got back to their home island and had a tearful reunion with their friends, checked to see that everything was going well with the farm and the shipments from the mine, and only waited one night before setting out to explore the island together. Being stuck in prison and then on the ship home hadn’t been easy on either of them; they both had too much wanderlust, and Mara craved movement the way he craved food.
As the sun set, they cleared the area of monsters and built a fire, which was to say Mara cleared the area of monsters while Nic built the fire, then afterward they laid out their bedding and ate their packed food together.
Nic laid back on zeir bedding. Ze hadn’t realized how much ze liked to look at the stars until they’d been stuck in that prison underneath tons of rock. They’d gotten fresh air and exercise, of a sort, every day in the yard, but they’d been shoved back inside before the sun set. The two times Nic was sneaking around outside to set up their escape, ze’d been too busy and nervous to stargaze.
Mara laid down next to zem, on his bedding. He’d been sticking closer since they got out of the prison, as though he’d missed zeir physical closeness. He didn’t sleep as much as Nic did most nights, so it had probably been lonely for him, shut up in his cell. He looked up at the sky and said, “I don’t get why you like this so much. The stars are boring.”
“They don’t change,” Nic said. Ze knew it wasn’t really true that the stars didn’t change, but it was slow and steady and regular, and that was almost like not changing. Ze added, “And they never ask us to do anything for them.”
Mara chuckled. They hadn’t been back in the village for half an hour before Ayla asked Nic to make her something. Everyone needed something from their resident craftsperson. Then Mara was silent for a few minutes, which was longer than he was usually silent when Nic was looking at the stars. Finally, Mara said, “Hey Nic? Do you remember that book we gave that guard?”
Of course Nic remembered. It had been the easiest stretch of zeir night-time sneaking, because the guard was busy leering at pornography. And he’d as much as told them that was the way to get him off their backs! All the other parts of the escape plan had been convoluted and required lots of legwork, but that guard had made zeir life easy.
“Yeah,” Nic said.
“Why’d you say that thing? About telling me when I was older?” Mara asked. “Aren’t we the same age?”
Nic’s face heated. Mara hadn’t realized what the euphemistic language the guards used to talk about the pamphlet meant, and Nic hadn’t really wanted to explain it to him in front of the guard. The rest of that night had been occupied with their escape, and hadn’t left much time for chit-chat. Ze thought he had forgotten all about it. “Uh, probably,” ze said.
Mara rolled onto the side facing zem and propped himself up on his elbow. “So if you know what was in the book,” he said, “I should be able to know.”
“Gods, Mara,” ze said, probably as red in the face as ze’d ever been. “It was a bunch of dirty pictures, okay?”
Mara frowned. “Why would anyone want to look at dirty pictures?” he said. “Wouldn’t it be hard to see what they were of?”
Sometimes people asked Nic what was wrong with Mara. Ze always told them nothing, because Mara was by now zeir best friend, but Nic had to admit, sometimes talking to him was like talking to a monster. Except most of the monsters ze’d ever known who were smart enough to talk understood things like lust and dirty pictures, and it was only Mara who didn’t. So talking to him was sometimes harder than talking to a monster.
“I don’t mean the pages were dirty,” Nic said. “It’s a figure of speech. It was pictures of people, you know. Doing sexy stuff.”
“Oh,” Mara said. Then a moment later, “Like what?”
“Oh,” Mara said again. “Well sheesh, why would anyone want to look at pictures of that?”
“Oh gods,” Nic said. “Maybe I was right the first time, maybe you’re not old enough to be talking about this.”
“I mean, most people our age wouldn’t ask that question,” Nic said.
“Well most people our age are idiots,” Mara said, which was fair, but Nic couldn’t see what it had to do with anything. Ze looked over at him and saw Mara’s cheeks were a little pink, and he was pouting.
Nic sighed, and propped zemself up, mirroring him. Ze said, “People look at dirty pictures because it makes them feel sexy. Or at least, like, horny.” Mara’s eyebrows furrowed like he was about to ask another question, so Nic hastily added, “Turned on! Aroused! Interested in having sex themselves!”
“Oh,” Mara said. “Weird.”
“How is that weird?” Nic asked.
Mara shrugged as best as he could with one shoulder. “I don’t see how looking at drawings of people having sex would do that,” he said. “I mean, they’re not pictures of the person looking at them, right?”
“Well, no,” Nic said. “But I think most people like, imagine what it would be like if they were doing the things they’re looking at.”
“Oh,” Mara said again. He frowned some more as he thought about that. “I guess that makes sense. It still seems like it would get boring, though.”
Nic thought about that. Ze hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at pornography, but not because ze’d gotten bored of it. Ze asked him, “Mara, have you ever had sex?”
He shrugged again and said, “Not that I remember. Not that that means anything,” he added.
Nic asked him, “Do you ever want to have sex?”
“I guess,” Mara said, which Nic doubted was a typical answer to that question. “I don’t have a problem with the idea.”
“Okay,” Nic said. “Just wondering.”
“What about you?” Mara asked. “I mean, if you know so much about it.”
Nic blushed again. “That is a normal amount to know at our age,” ze said. Ze was very sure about that, because it was pretty much the same amount ze’d known by puberty. Someone zeir age, the way Mara presumably was, could reasonably be expected to know about pornography. “But no,” ze added, “I haven’t ever done it, and yes, I would like to at some point.”
Mara laughed, and said, “Wow, I had no idea you ever thought about anything other than building and making things.”
“I think about them,” Nic said. “That doesn’t mean I do them.”
Mara laughed again, and Nic laughed with him. Ze loved making him laugh. He looked so serious most of the time, and Nic knew that was deceptive, but it still felt sometimes like Mara was angry with the whole world.
Ze laid back down to look at the stars again, and beside zem, ze heard Mara do the same. After a few minutes, he muttered, “I still don’t see how a picture could be that interesting. And I really don’t get why you’d need a whole book of them.”
“They’re different pictures, Mara,” Nic said.
“I figured that out,” he said, in a tone that inclined Nic to doubt he had. “But they’re all of the same thing, right? What’s the point?”
“They’re not of the same thing,” Nic said. “Why would they be of the same thing?”
“You said they were of sex,” Mara said.
“Well, some of them,” Nic said. “But it’s not all the same kind of thing.”
“There are sexy things that aren’t sex?” Mara asked doubtfully.
Nic laughed again. “Yes?” ze said. “There are lots of things that can be sexy.”
Mara was quiet for another few seconds. “Like what?” he asked.
Nic blushed and said, “Like the things that lead up to sex. Kissing and stuff.”
“Kissing?” Mara demanded. “How is kissing sexy?”
“There’s different kinds of kissing,” ze said. “If people do it in public, it’s probably not that sexy.”
“You’re telling me there’s a secret, sexier type of kissing,” Mara said.
“It’s not a secret! It’s just not something you do very much in public,” ze said. “I mean, people don’t usually have sex in public. Which is why you’d need pictures to look at.”
“So how do people learn how to do it?” Mara asked.
“I think they just kind of…figure it out,” Nic said.
Mara snorted. “Yeah, right,” he said. “People can’t figure out how to put a roof over their heads without your help.”
“Well, the Arizedoans never banned sex,” Nic said. “It’s probably easier for people to think about.” Mara harrumphed. “I mean, it’s not that complicated, really,” Nic said. “I think you’re overthinking this. You don’t spend a bunch of time thinking about how fighting works and what you get out of it, do you?”
“Hell no,” Mara said.
“Well then,” Nic said. “Maybe thinking about it isn’t going to help you that much. Maybe you’ll understand when you do it.”
Mara didn’t say anything to that, or make any noises. Nic glanced over at him, but Mara’s profile didn’t reveal much about his expression. He was frowning and staring up at the sky, but that could mean anything. Nic kind of just hoped this conversation was over; explaining the appeal of sex to zeir hot best friend who never wore a shirt was not zeir idea of a fun time.
Finally, he said, “Would you–” and then stopped.
That was strange. Mara never second-guessed something he was saying, never interrupted himself. Nic looked over at him and asked, “Mara?”
He was blushing, or at least the strangely pointy tips of his ears were pink, and Nic couldn’t imagine another way to interpret that. “Nothing,” he said, “never mind.”
That made Nic sit up to look at him. Mara was definitely blushing, and he looked embarrassed. Nic had only ever seen Mara look embarrassed when he tried to help do something and it went improbably and catastrophically wrong. “Hey,” Nic said, “you can ask me anything. I mean, it couldn’t be worse than the rest of this conversation, right?” Mara laughed, and looked up at zem, smiling but still blushing. Ze smiled back at him.
“I was just wondering if you’d be willing to show me,” he said.
“What?” Nic asked, shocked. Ze was pretty sure ze knew what Mara meant, but it had never occurred to zem that he might ask that. In fact, this conversation had made zem even more sure he wasn’t interested in sex or romance at all.
“The stuff that isn’t sex, I mean,” he said, looking away from zem. “Like, maybe just the secret kissing.”
“Okay,” ze said, almost reflexively. Mara so rarely asked Nic to do things for him; he more often tried to do things for zem. He looked back at zem and smiled again, shyly.
There was not throwing zemself at zeir new best friend, and there was turning down a perfectly good opportunity. Nic scooted closer to Mara and laid back down, and he rolled onto his side to face zem. In the firelight, his eyes could have been a normal color, although Nic knew they were not. Ze laid a hand on his cheek, and he put his arm around zeir waist. “See,” Nic said, “you do know what to do.”
“This is just hugging lying down,” Mara said. “Cuddling. I’ve seen people doing this.”
“It’s not like any of this is completely new,” Nic said. “It’s just more, or at the same time as other things.” Then ze leaned in and kissed him.
Nic had kissed someone before, at least. Ze used to hang out with a carpenter’s apprentice in zeir home village, and one day while they were collecting lumber for the carpenter, the apprentice had admitted that she liked Nic. After that, they snuck kisses behind the carpenter’s back, and stayed out late in the woods, making out. It had never gotten any further than that, because they were only fourteen, and then Nic had been sent on to a different master craftsman to hide from the Arizedoans, and that had been the end of that. Mara was not very much like that carpenter’s apprentice, but kissing him was similar. He was a quick learner.
He pulled Nic closer to him with the arm around zeir waist. They fit together like this very comfortably, Nic thought. Mara was warm and solid and comforting. Ze had to resist the urge to push him back and climb on top of him, which reared up strongly as soon as he pulled zem closer. Instead, Nic pulled back and opened zeir eyes. Mara’s eyes were still closed. His lips were pink and wet, and he looked like he could have been the subject of one of those naughty pictures.
“How was that?” Nic asked, quietly. Given Mara still had zem clutched to his front, Nic assumed it had been enjoyable, at least, but ze didn’t want to presume too much. Especially because ze was realizing ze really wanted to presume quite a lot.
Mara’s eyes fluttered open. Nic had never noticed how long and pretty his eyelashes were. To be fair, it was understandable to get distracted by the unusual red color of Mara’s eyes and not notice other things about him. Mara looked at Nic for a minute, and the longer the silence went on, the more nervous Nic got. Finally Mara asked, “Can we do that some more?”
That could have meant anything, really, but for the moment it meant Nic could lean in and kiss him again, so ze did. Mara followed Nic’s lead when ze opened zeir mouth and deepened the kiss. He wriggled his other arm underneath zem, to get both arms around zeir waist. Ze was held very securely in his arms, which ze knew for a fact were some of the strongest arms ze’d ever seen. Nic couldn’t help pushing one of zeir legs between Mara’s, to get at least a different angle if not a little friction, and was surprised to feel what had to be Mara’s dick against zeir hip.
Surprised, ze pulled back again, although part of zem was clamoring to push on, to rock zeir hips against him and touch his bare chest and find out if he caught on this quick to other things. Mara opened his eyes sooner this time, though his eyebrows drew together like he was annoyed or confused. Feeling exposed, even though logically Mara was the more exposed between the two of them at the moment, Nic looked down at the macabre necklace around Mara’s neck. Mara’s throat bobbed as he asked, “Why’d you stop?”
“Um,” Nic said, because ze didn’t know how to say “ten minutes ago you didn’t seem to care at all about sex and now I can feel your hard-on against my hip” without having to say exactly that.
“Am I bad at secret kissing?” Mara asked, which startled Nic into laughing. His arms tightened around zem momentarily, so ze knew he’d said it that way on purpose, to make zem laugh.
“Not at all,” Nic said.
“So why’d you stop?” Mara asked again.
Nic felt zemself flush, and looked back down at Mara’s necklace. It was a somewhat gruesome thing. The centerpiece was a small animal skull missing its jaw. Nic assumed when ze first saw Mara on the beach after the shipwreck that he’d made it himself, from one of the things he’d killed, but Mara said he’d woken up with it on. Since then, Nic had seen Mara try to make things on his own, and doubted that the skull would be intact if Mara had attempted to string it onto a necklace himself, much less have teeth and beads nicely arranged on either side of it. The skull generally rested just below the hollow of Mara’s throat, which naturally drew Nic’s eyes to Mara’s neck.
Maybe Nic hadn’t been doing as good a job as ze thought, not thinking about how attractive Mara was.
Ze swallowed and said, “Well, you only asked to try the kissing stuff. If we kept going, I’d want to…keep going.”
“Oh,” Mara said. After a moment, he asked, “I mean, would that be bad?”
Nic said, “No, I just wasn’t sure you were interested.”
“Hey,” Mara said crossly, “you said you knew about this sex stuff. You should probably know what a boner means.”
Nic laughed and looked back up at Mara’s face, which didn’t look cross at all. Ze knew it wouldn’t; when Mara was actually angry, he didn’t sound like it. “Excuse me for thinking you might have opinions not reflected by your dick,” Nic said, before closing the distance between their mouths again.
Ze pushed zeir leg more firmly between Mara’s, shifting zeir hip to press against his dick. Mara made a noise into their kiss and pulled back just enough to ask, “Should I–can I touch your butt?”
Nic grinned and said, “I told you you knew what to do,” which Mara correctly took as assent. He slid both hands down to zeir ass and pulled zem tight against his hips. Nic closed zeir eyes and bit zeir bottom lip as they pressed their hips together. Mara kissed zem again, his lips surprisingly soft and gentle in contrast to the way he was grinding against Nic’s hips.
Nic let zemself give in to an impulse ze’d been resisting since ze first met Mara, and dragged zeir hand down his cheek and his throat to his chest, slipping it under the open vest he wore that did so little to conceal his body. His skin was warm, despite the night being cool. Ze rubbed zeir fingers over Mara’s nipple, to little reaction, so ze let zeir hand move on, sliding down his ribs. Mara’s hips bucked against zem when ze did. Ze smiled into their kiss and ran zeir fingers back up, to test if that was really what made Mara react like that. It was: he moaned and dug his fingers into zeir ass.
That occupied Nic for a while, trying to keep making Mara’s hips stutter against zeirs without getting distracted by his tongue in zeir mouth or his hands squeezing zeir ass. Ze was probably going to have finger-shaped bruises on zeir ass later, but it felt nice, if not quite good, and knowing ze was making Mara forget his strength was pretty appealing.
And no one would know anyway, except the two of them. Which was also appealing.
Finally, Nic dragged zeir hand past the delights of Mara’s sensitive ribs to his abs (also sensitive, as it turned out) and then finally down to where his erection was distending his trousers and pressing into zeir hip. Ze had to angle zeir hips back a little to make room for zeir hand, which Mara resisted only until he realized what ze intended to do with zeir hand.
Nic had never touched a dick. At least, not in any way that was not incidental. Ze’d changed diapers and helped people in and out of baths, but those were different situations than fondling someone. Ze had not given a great deal of thought to it before, what someone else’s dick would feel like against zeir hand, but ze found it more fun than ze would have guessed. It was even warmer than the rest of Mara, even through his clothing, and it was obviously not as hard as it seemed at first touch. Ze could press into it with the heel of zeir hand–which made Mara groan–or squeeze it in zeir grip–which also made Mara groan, but in a slightly different way–or simply rub it through his trousers, which made him press back against zeir hand.
Eventually, Nic used zeir other hand to grab one of Mara’s wrists and put his hand between zeir legs.
“Oh,” Mara said, which was muffled and felt strange, given they were still more or less kissing. He did pull away a bit to stop kissing zem, but that appeared to be so he could concentrate better. He slid his hand gently back and forth, like he was afraid of hurting zem. He grew more confident, used more pressure, and Nic’s hips jerked forward without zeir input.
“You know, I wasn’t sure you were enjoying this,” Mara said quietly. “But I guess I wasn’t thinking about if you had, uh, the other one.”
“The what?” Nic said, after a moment passed and zeir brain realized Mara had said words.
“The not-a-penis thing,” Mara said, looking into zeir eyes. “I don’t remember the word.”
Nic started laughing. “Mara,” ze said. “I’ve changed around you dozens of times. It’s been months!”
“I didn’t look!” Mara said. “It’s rude.”
Nic laughed harder. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t looked, it was also that he apparently hadn’t made an assumption at all. Talking to him really was like talking to a monster sometimes. At least it was in a pleasant way. “Yeah,” Nic said, “because you’re so polite.”
“You’re my friend,” Mara muttered, looking embarrassed. “I don’t want to be rude to you.”
Nic leaned in to kiss him again. Mara was clearly relieved by the respite, and relaxed against zem. After a few moments, he remembered how their conversation had started, and moved his hand between zeir legs again.
He might not be able to remember what it was called, but he didn’t seem to have a problem figuring out how it worked, or at least what felt good for Nic. Ze only realized ze’d stopped stroking his dick through his clothes when Mara nudged zeir arm out of the way to untie zeir trousers.
He paused, with just his fingertips slipping under the waistband of zeir trousers, and pulled back enough to ask, “Is this alright?”
“Gods, yes,” Nic said, feeling very much as if ze’d let him do anything he wanted. That was probably an unwise thing to actually tell Mara, since he did sometimes say kind of upsetting things Nic was never entirely sure were jokes. Less than he used to, but still. Nic trusted him, and didn’t think he would hurt zem on purpose, but Mara’s mind tended to jump to violent solutions a little more quickly than zeirs. Who knew how that would interact with sex without talking about it first?
Mara smiled, and gave Nic a quick peck. “Good,” he said, then leaned back in to kiss zem some more as he slid his hand into zeir pants.
Nic had not realized exactly how wet ze was until Mara’s fingers slipped between zeir legs. Zeir shorts were soaked through, to the point where probably zeir trousers were damp too. When Mara’s fingers slid easily over zeir clit, it felt like getting hit with a shock spell, but in a good way. Reflexively, ze rolled more onto zeir back, to spread zeir legs. Ze felt Mara smile against zeir mouth. He sucked at zeir bottom lip as he rubbed his fingers over zeir clit again. Nic felt as though ze was going to melt right into the earth below them.
Nic pulled Mara over, so he was more on top of zem, and put both zeir hands inside his vest, to run zeir fingers along his sensitive ribs. He shivered under zeir touch, then put one of his legs between zeirs, to press his dick into zeir thigh. Nic in turn shifted zeir leg to give him something to rut against, and caressed his sides again.
Nic was trying to remember the last time ze had bled and if it would be too foolish to ask if Mara wanted to go all the way when Mara let his fingers dip lower, brushing the outside of zeir entrance. Ze dug zeir fingers into Mara’s sides. Mara’s hips stuttered against zem. He groaned, clamped zeir thigh between his legs, and Nic felt zeir thigh grow warm and damp where his dick was pressed against zem.
Mara went momentarily boneless against Nic, and forgot to keep kissing zem. It was very cute, as well as incredibly frustrating, since his fingers were now just hanging out in zeir pants and his lips were still against zeirs.
Nic gave him as long as ze could stand, to get himself together, then squirmed against him and pinched his side. “Oh,” Mara said. He pulled back, flushed and sweaty and utterly beautiful. “Should I keep going?” he asked.
“Yes please,” Nic said again, and Mara grinned.
Instead of kissing zem again, he watched zeir face as he touched zem. If Nic had been less turned on, it would have been horrifically embarrassing, but ze was too far gone to care. And Mara was clearly paying attention, because his touch went from pleasant because of novelty and unpredictability to pleasant in almost exactly the way it felt when Nic touched zemself, on the rare occasions ze had enough privacy and energy at the same time to do so. His fingers dipped down to zeir entrance again, and Nic sucked in a breath.
Mara stroked the outside of Nic’s opening with his fingers. He asked, “Should I?”
“Yes,” Nic said. Ze wanted about a hundred different things right now, but some part of Mara inside zem was definitely high on that list.
His finger slid into zem easily, and it was frustrating more than anything. It wasn’t enough. Ze rolled zeir hips, annoyed, and the movement rocked Mara’s finger in and out of zem, which was much more what ze’d been craving. Ze made a noise. Mara grinned again. “Oh,” he said, and then he was moving his finger in and out of zem.
Nic spread zeir legs, embarrassed but not enough to stop zemself from doing it. Ze covered zeir eyes with zeir forearm so ze couldn’t see Mara looking at zem. Zeir breath came in harsh pants, and every time Mara managed to rub zeir clit the right way while he was fucking zem with his finger, ze couldn’t help but moan. He pressed another finger in alongside the first, and that actually felt better, which Nic hadn’t expected. The extra pressure and stretch against zeir insides made it easier to feel the movement.
It didn’t take long for Mara to figure out the right angle to consistently rub Nic’s clit while he worked his fingers in and out of zem. Nic had only rarely managed to get everything to work in concert like this, and almost didn’t realize what was happening when the pleasure built and built until it felt like ze would burst. Ze figured it out mere moments before coming as hard as ze ever had.
Ze came back to zemself a few moments later, and found zeir hand clenched in Mara’s voluminous ponytail. He was smiling at zem, softly, not at all like the way he usually grinned during battle, or even when Nic made a joke. Nic couldn’t help but grin back at him. Ze tugged him down for another kiss.
They kissed lazily for a while, but eventually they were both too uncomfortable in their damp underthings to ignore it. They cleaned up and changed into their other set of clothes, and this time, Nic paid attention and saw Mara still kept his back turned while ze changed, even though they’d just had their hands down each other’s pants. It was silly, but endearing. Ze hadn’t noticed at all. Like, Nic hadn’t gone out of zeir way to watch Mara change, mostly because ze was trying not to think about how hot he was, but ze couldn’t exactly avoid seeing his bare chest since he never wore a shirt. And they’d had plenty of days in the hot, close air of the mine when they both needed to bathe badly enough they didn’t bother to take turns, so ze had seen him naked, albeit briefly.
When they laid back down, Nic pushed zeir bedding over to be right next to Mara’s, and Mara rolled onto his side to face zem and put his arm around zeir waist. Nic snuggled in closer and put zeir arm around him as well.
Eventually, Mara said, “That was kind of sex, wasn’t it.”
Nic took a deep breath, nervous again, although Mara didn’t sound upset. “Yeah,” ze said.
“It was fun,” Mara said, and Nic relaxed. After a moment, Mara added, “You were right. It wasn’t that hard to figure out once we were doing it.”
*Good,” Nic said. Ze was growing drowsy, and having trouble keeping zeir eyes open.
After a while, when Nic was almost asleep, Mara said, “This is nice too.”
Nic hummed in agreement and turned zeir head to press a kiss against the nearest part of him ze could reach, which was his arm. His skin was warm against zeir mouth, and ze realized as ze did it that ze hadn’t before kissed any part of him but his lips. It felt like a terrible oversight, but ze was too tired to do anything about it. Ze drifted off between one thought and the next.
The next morning, after waking up still wrapped in Mara’s arms, Nic asked him, “Can I kiss you again?” Mara’s answer was to surge forward and press his mouth to zeirs, hard enough to push Nic back a little.
After they had sex a second time, Mara murmured, “I guess I get it now. If drawings made me remember that, I’d be pretty into looking at them.”
Nic chuckled. Ze said, “I wouldn’t mind making more memories. If you wanted to.”
“Oh, I’ll want to,” Mara said.
Even though they were sweaty and Nic had been worn out just a moment before, ze couldn’t help but roll back into Mara’s arms, and they wound up making another memory right then.
After the early morning visit from High Priest Indiyit, neither of them even tried to go back to sleep. Nic got properly dressed, then went to the dining room to talk to Ayla while she had breakfast. Ayla looked up at zem and said, “You’re up early.”
Nic sat down across from her, grabbing a roll from the breadbasket. “Yeah,” ze said. “So I have good news and bad news.”
“Gods, what now?” Ayla asked. “Did Mara punch a hole in my house? Knock it down somehow?”
“Your house is fine,” Nic said. “It might be a little drafty still, but you could stay in it if you wanted to. But it might be a while before I can finish it.”
Ayla frowned and tapped her spoon on the rim of her bowl. “Why?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
Nic took a bite of zeir roll to get some time to think through zeir answer. “So the good news is, you get to say you told me so,” Nic said after ze swallowed. “The bad news is, Mara and I have to leave for a while again.”
Suspiciously, Ayla asked, “What did I tell you so about?”
“Well, Mara didn’t turn into a dragon,” Nic said, “but, uh. We did wake up to High Priest Indiyit in our bedroom, telling Mara it was time to face his destiny as the avatar of the Destroyer.”
Ayla stared at zem. Her porridge dripped off her spoon and plopped back into her bowl, splashing milk onto the front of her dress. “He’s a god?”
“I’m not totally sure,” Nic said. “There wasn’t time for questions while they were threatening each other. But Indiyit wasn’t happy about Mara telling him to get lost, and it’s not safe to wait for the next time he pops by. Mara thinks he can find him, so we’re going to go track him down.”
“You mean we spent all this time hiding from the church, and meanwhile their literal, actual god was doing chores with us?” Ayla asked, getting a little shrill at the end of her question.
“Sort of? Maybe?” Nic shrugged. “I don’t think it matters. Indiyit didn’t seem interested in sparing heretics just for harboring Mara. It sounded like he thought being near a farm somehow corrupted him, which is very funny.”
“Hilarious,” Ayla said flatly. “I’m so glad to have reached an exciting new level of heresy I didn’t even know existed.”
“I don’t see how it can be heresy if their god doesn’t even mind,” Nic said.
“If he didn’t know he was their god, then–ugh, no, I don’t want to think about theology this early in the morning,” Ayla said. She dipped her spoon back in her porridge and stirred it. “How long are you going to be gone this time?”
“However long it takes to find the High Priest of Arizedo and kill him, I guess,” Nic said.
Ayla shook her head. “You know,” she said, “if someone had told me that before the shipwreck, I would’ve thought they were delusional. But even before you told me Mara was some kind of god, I would’ve believed he could do it. If you could get him there.”
“Aww, thanks,” Mara said, coming up behind Ayla. She rolled her eyes. Mara set down two bowls of porridge, one for Nic and one for him, then slid onto the bench next to Nic. He kissed Nic’s cheek, even though they’d last seen each other barely fifteen minutes ago.
“Well, I’ve seen what you can do when you’re trying to be helpful,” Ayla said to Mara. “I can only imagine how destructive you can be when you’re trying.”
The first night Nic and Mara spent back in the village after they started having sex, Ayla had grabbed Nic after dinner for some “not-a-boy” talk. She pulled zem over to the barn, which was a grander name than the small shack of farming implements deserved. She glanced around to make sure no one was in earshot before demanding of Nic, “What the hell are you thinking?”
Nic blinked. “Um?” ze said.
Ayla rolled her eyes. “You know there’s something wrong with Mara,” she said. “He hasn’t remembered anything the entire time we’ve known him, his eyes and ears are weird, and I really don’t think he could have been on the ship before it wrecked.”
“That doesn’t mean something is wrong with him,” Nic said. “He’s odd, I’ll give you that. But it’s probably just some spell backfire or something. Not that that’s good, but I don’t know anything about magic, so I can’t exactly do anything about it.”
“And what are you going to do when he turns into a dragon or whatever?” Ayla asked. “You would’ve been heartbroken before you started sleeping with him.”
“That would have to be a really strong spell,” Nic said. “The difference in mass alone–“
Ayla stamped her foot and said, “That is not the point! What if he gets his memory back and is suddenly a different person? Or if whatever magic dumped him here yanks him back? You said you’d never even dated anyone before. Mara is the absolute worst person to get attached to.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Nic said. Ze hoped ze wasn’t blushing again, but zeir face was warm enough ze thought ze might be. “I don’t think sex is going to make much of a difference at this point.”
Ayla sighed and shook her head. “Oh, Nic,” she said. “You’re so talented and clever, and so incredibly stupid.”
“Thanks,” Nic said dryly.
She put one of her hands on Nic’s shoulder and said, “You people who like sex lose your senses about it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
“Ayla, I appreciate your concern,” Nic said. “But I really don’t think it’s a big deal.” Ze took Ayla’s hand and pulled it off zeir shoulder. Ze went on, “Like you said, I would be upset if something happened to him no matter what. We might as well enjoy ourselves now that we’ve got the Arizedoans off our backs.”
Ayla shook her head. “Well, don’t expect me to be nice and not say I told you so when this ends badly,” she said. “I’m going to bunk with Nan for a few days, I guess. So you can have your privacy or whatever. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The fact that Ayla grew up in a farming community was very handy. It would have made things much more difficult if none of the shipwrecked survivors knew how to find and grow food. But as much as Nic loved her, occasionally, Nic thought it would be nice if Ayla was a little bit less…Ayla.
She pitched a fit when Nic first suggested ze could build her own house, too. Nic probably should have anticipated her taking it personally, but she had spent a lot of time complaining about how messy and rude Mara was. Ze thought she’d be glad to have her own space, not that she’d think Nic was trying to get rid of her.
Eventually, of course, Mara just shrugged and said, “Well, okay. I think Nic was just trying to make sure you wouldn’t have to listen to us having sex all the time, but if you really don’t want–“
“What?” Ayla shrieked.
Mara looked over at Nic in time to see zem turn, ze was sure, bright red with embarrassment. “Oh,” Mara said, wide-eyed. His eyes were so red in daylight, standing out even more with his eyes so wide. “Was I not supposed to say anything?”
“It’s fine,” Nic said, even though zeir face was hot enough to fry an egg on.
“It is not fine!” Ayla said. “How long has this been going on?” she demanded.
“Not long,” Nic said, still feeling much too warm. “But Mara’s right, I did think you might not want to share a room with us anymore.”
“I certainly don’t,” Ayla said, also flushing. “But you could add another room, instead of kicking me out of my own house.”
“I can do that,” Nic said. It would be slightly more difficult, since ze hadn’t known when ze built that first house to leave room for later expansion, but it would be good practice, and ze supposed it would be easier to keep one larger home warm in the winter than two smaller ones. “But I did really think you’d like your own place. You could have a private kitchen and everything.”
Ayla crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “Let me think about it,” she said.
“Thank you,” Nic said. Maybe ze could build her a little private suite and then connect the two buildings with a common space. Would a courtyard work, or would it be better to have a fully enclosed space? Ze wished ze knew more about the winter weather here.
“Hmph,” Ayla said, and flipped her hair dramatically as she left.
Nic turned around to get back to setting up zeir workbench, which had been dismantled and stored in the unfinished workshop while they were gone. Mara hopped up on the side of the table Nic wasn’t going to get to for a while yet. He said, “Sorry if I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s really fine,” Nic said. “I just wasn’t expecting it.” Ze patted his knee. “But if you wanted to keep it private, telling Ayla was not a good idea.”
Mara let out a short bark of laughter. “I guess we don’t have to worry about telling people anymore,” Mara said. “She’ll take care of that for us.”
“She sure will,” Nic said. “Can you go get me the wagon if no one’s using it? I want to fix that wobbly wheel.”
“Sure,” Mara said, and hopped off zeir work table.
Island-hopping in a small ship was not the most efficient way to travel. Mara was impatient and frustrated by how often they had to go out of the way his senses told him Indiyit was, on top of his usual frustration at being cooped up on board a ship. Every time they made land, he vaulted over the side of the ship and splashed ashore to go kill the nearest monster before Nic could even get the ship secured.
Several days after they left their home island, Nic noticed Mara left his mace behind in his hurry to go ashore. Yet when he came and found where ze’d set up camp, Mara had a dead animal slung over his shoulders that looked very much as though he’d bashed it on the head.
“Oh good,” Nic said, “we’re almost out of jerky. Also,” ze said, nudging Mara’s weapon with zeir foot, “how did you do that?”
Mara looked embarrassed, which was almost the last reaction Nic expected. “Uh,” he said. He lowered the carcass to the ground. “I’ve been experimenting. It turns out I…don’t really need weapons.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t look like you punched it to death,” Nic said, passing Mara the knife they used for butchering his kills.
“‘Cause I didn’t,” Mara said. He arranged the body and laid out its hind legs, then quickly cut them off. He said, “It’s more like…I’m still using a mace, or an axe, or whatever, except I don’t need the actual thing.” He set the hind legs aside, then turned to the neck and cut its head off.
“Wow,” Nic said. Ze tried to suppress zeir grin as ze said in a fake deep voice, “Truly you are the avatar of the Destroyer.”
Mara said, “Shut up,” but he was also grinning as he started peeling off the skin and fur of the animal. “Yeah, well, I thought if the old man thought I was supposed to have some kind of powers, I probably did.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Nic asked.
Mara shrugged. “I didn’t want to risk hurting you if anything went wrong,” he said as he cleaned off the knife. He made the cut to pull the animal’s guts out, adding, “And I didn’t want to look stupid if it turned out I couldn’t do anything after all.”
“Oh, good idea, I’ve never seen you look stupid before,” Nic said. “That would really hurt our relationship.”
“Shut up,” Mara said again, blushing, and Nic threw zeir head back and laughed.
Before they set sail the next morning, Mara showed Nic what he meant about the weapons. He led zem into the interior of the island, where there were larger trees, and chopped one down with nothing in his hands. It was bizarre, watching Mara chop a tree down by pantomime.
All right, that wasn’t entirely fair, because even with zeir somewhat dull magic sense, Nic could tell something was happening. When ze didn’t focus on Mara, zeir brain wanted to fill in an axe in his hands. It was like he was wielding the idea of an axe.
When he’d chopped through an entire tree with the force of his wanting to chop down a tree, Mara wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He put one foot up on the tree trunk and kicked, and it did not look like he exerted enough force to topple a tree that size, but topple it did. Mara turned to face Nic and said, “So, yeah, I don’t really need weapons. And I’m pretty sure I can hit stuff as hard as I want. More than I should be able to, I mean.”
“That is so weird,” Nic said. “What do you mean about hitting stuff?”
He gestured to the tree that now lay upon the forest floor. “I don’t think you or Eli could kick a tree over,” he said. Nic nodded. Mara said, “And a couple of days ago, I crushed a rock the size of my head into sand with my bare hands.”
“What the hell,” Nic exclaimed, “why didn’t you tell me sooner? That sounds so cool.”
“I told you, I didn’t want to hurt you if I messed up,” Mara said.
Nic walked over to Mara and wrapped zeir arms around his waist. As ze suspected, the pointy tips of his ears were reddened. Ze turned zeir face up, and Mara bent down to kiss zem.
When Mara pulled away, Nic smiled at him and said, “I love you.”
Nic had never seen Mara turn so red. The blush spread down from his ears across his cheeks. Nic fancied ze could feel the heat coming off him. “Really?” he asked.
Nic kicked him in the shin. “Of course really!” ze said.
Mara ducked his head so some of his hair fell in front of his face. “Sorry,” he said. “I know you wouldn’t lie, it’s just….”
“It’s okay,” Nic said. Ze brushed his hair out of the way, then kissed him on the cheek. “Come on, we should head out. You’ve got to go kick Indiyit’s ass.”
Life in the village without the specter of the Arizedo Church hanging over their heads was…well, still a lot of hard work, but easier. Nic fixed things when they broke, drew up plans for more cabinets and furniture people needed. Ayla and some of the other villagers woke up early to tend to the fields before it got too hot. Sometimes Mara sat and watched Nic work, but most of the time he was doing the tedious manual labor Nic liked the least.
At the time, Nic vaguely thought Mara was cursed or something. He couldn’t wash dishes without breaking at least one of them, and his cooking skills were strictly subsistence level. But his sheer strength combined with his willingness to do manual labor made him a great help to Nic, and the rest of the village. He did most of the woodcutting for the village, including the lumber to build Ayla’s new house. He’d done most of the work clearing the fields, when they started farming. Nic hoped his enthusiasm would extend to shoveling snow, if this island got enough of that in the winter to need it.
It was odd, Nic reflected one afternoon as ze watched Mara hammer a window frame in place. If Mara had tried to help make the window frame, it would have split or warped, or one of the tools would have broken. But cutting the wood for it, shaping it, seemed to be fine. Hitting things with a stick or sturdy mallet was fine, though the mallets he used tended to break faster than they ought to have. Nic had asked Mara to hammer stakes into the ground before, with no problem. Mara could pound things into dust, or crush them flat, or stomp on them in a tub, without any higher risk of accident than anyone else.
He didn’t enjoy any of it as much as he enjoyed fighting, but he had endless patience for grinding burned stones into powder for quicklime. He would watch a fire with more focus than anyone else when they needed charcoal. Nic thought he might be both able and willing to do some of the exciting parts of soap-making or dyeing.
But those first few days after the shipwreck, when everyone had been frantically trying to put together the basic necessities of living, every other thing Mara tried to do broke in his hands. Nic had breathed a sigh of relief when Mara didn’t break the axe ze made him.
Nic wasn’t sure Mara being the avatar of the Destroyer actually made any more sense than the idea he was under some kind of entropic curse, if only because any stranger’s chance of being the avatar of a god had to be way lower than their chance of being cursed, but it did explain the seemingly arbitrary nature of the magic.
Looking back, divine magic would explain the way Mara could chop wood all day and somehow never track sawdust into their bed. Nic had spent many evenings washing zeir hair, pondering how Mara could have so much more hair than zem and get so much less dirt in it.
Nic had always itched to test how far the curse or whatever it was stretched, but Mara was so much happier when he didn’t break things unexpectedly. Ze didn’t want to upset him just to satisfy that curiosity, especially since they’d figured out how to work around it so it no longer caused so many problems. Thank the heavens ze hadn’t; poking at the limits of regular magic was the best way to ensure it became a problem. Nic didn’t want to know what the consequences of blindly messing around with divinity were.
Even with most of the village busy working on other things, Ayla’s house went together almost as quickly as the last house they built. Mara was the only one helping Nic with it, but they spent less time having to talk through misunderstandings when it was just the two of them. Mara understood Nic’s thought process now, and Nic knew which steps ze could leave out when telling him how to do something.
Working together with the other survivors of the shipwreck felt good, and made Nic feel accomplished, but working with Mara felt easy in a way working with other people never really had. Nic couldn’t imagine telling him so, but ze thought it felt a lot like the way ze felt when they had sex. The two of them working together toward a common goal was fulfilling to something deep in Nic’s psyche. Working with the other villagers made Nic feel like part of a community, but working with Mara like this made zem feel at home.
Nic was taking a break from finishing up the floors to write down some ideas about what to do with the scrap, so ze wouldn’t forget them. Ze never used to forget plans for things, but trying to keep track of an entire village’s worth of projects was harder than keeping track of just zeir own. Add in the different priorities things could take, and it became easy to look at a chunk of wood and think, I was saving this for something, but what was it?
“Hey Nic?” Mara asked quietly.
That was extraordinary enough, at least when they weren’t cuddling, to get Nic’s attention. Ze looked up from the plans ze was taking notes on and over at Mara, where he was sitting on the edge of the freshly-finished roof, his legs dangling over the edge. He claimed it was to get a better view to keep watch, but Nic thought he just liked being up high. Ze asked, “What’s up?”
“You never talk about your parents,” he said.
Nic huffed, not quite able to make it a full laugh. Ze looked back at the plans on zeir table. “Not much to talk about,” ze said.
“Weren’t they important to you?” Mara asked. “That bartender guy and his daughter were really close.”
“They’re dead,” Nic said. Ze smoothed out one of the corners of the plans that had gotten folded over. “Talking about it doesn’t help. Just makes it worse.”
“Oh,” Mara said. After a moment, he said, “I wanted to know what it was like.”
Now Nic felt like a jerk. Ze looked up at him again and said, “If you want to ask me about them, that’s fine. It’s just…I don’t know. I’m not going to bring it up on my own.”
“You sure?” Mara asked. “I could ask someone else.”
Nic laughed, and shook zeir head. “Mara, everyone in this village was orphaned by the church, one way or another. No one else is going to want to talk about it any more than me.”
“Oh,” Mara said again. He frowned, bushy eyebrows drawing together. “Everyone?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Nic said. “My parents are dead, Ayla’s parents are dead, I think Chiamaka’s parents converted and disowned her, Danny’s parents are dead…Eli had a pregnant wife. She’s dead. I don’t know about his parents. He didn’t mention them.”
“Shit,” Mara said. After a moment, he added, “So it’s not weird that I don’t have them.”
Nic shrugged. “Not really,” ze said. “It’s not even that weird that you don’t remember them. I knew lots of people growing up who were raised by other family members, or other people in the village, because their parents died when they were young. They didn’t remember their parents either.”
“Huh,” Mara said. He frowned again, looking more worried than confused this time. “It’s not wrong to hope my parents are dead, is it? I don’t want to not remember them while they’re sitting around worrying about me.”
Nic felt like zeir heart was breaking. “No,” ze said. “No, I don’t think that’s wrong.” Ze set down zeir pencil and walked over to where the ladder was propped against the side of the house. Ze climbed up to the roof and crawled over to where Mara was sitting. Nic carefully settled zemself next to him, letting zeir legs dangle over the edge of the roof next to Mara’s. Mara brought his arm up to put around zeir shoulders, and Nic leaned into him.
Quietly, Mara said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to remember anything.”
Nic considered zeir words for a while before speaking. “Maybe not,” ze said. “It’s kind of strange you haven’t remembered anything, at all, this whole time.”
“Yeah,” Mara said. “I thought so.” He kicked his legs out, and let his heels bounce against the wall he’d helped Nic build. “Is everyone being orphans why you never talked about trying to find a way home?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Nic said. “It seemed like a lot of work for not much of a reward. And it’s nice here. If some people wanted to try and find a ship and go home next spring or whenever, I wouldn’t stop them, but…I don’t know if anyone will. Especially with the Arizedoans still out there. I think we’re safe here, but if people tried to go home, the church would just go after them again. I mean, unless they stopped doing things.”
“What’s the point of that, anyway?” Mara asked. “People can’t live that way.”
“I think that is the point, Mara,” Nic said. “They worship a god of destruction, they don’t want people to live.”
“That’s stupid,” Mara said. “If no one was alive, no one would worship their god.”
Nic shrugged. “Hey, I don’t know. Maybe they think that’s what he wants.”
“Stupid,” Mara muttered. After a few moments, he jogged the arm around Nic’s shoulders. “So you’re not going to get tired of me hanging around, are you? You weren’t hoping I’d remember my family and leave?”
Nic blushed, even though Mara wasn’t even looking at zem. “I’m not going to get tired of you,” ze said. “I was kind of hoping, even if you did remember your life before, you’d want to stay.”
Mara put his fingers on zeir chin, turned zeir head toward him, and leaned in to kiss zem. He slid his hand along zeir jaw to cradle zeir cheek. Nic’s heart fluttered, and ze swayed toward him. Ze knew they were sitting on the edge of a roof, and it might be dangerous to move around blindly, but ze trusted Mara could keep them steady and safe. Gods, how could Mara think Nic might get tired of him? Ze loved him. Ze couldn’t imagine loving someone more than ze loved him.
Mara pulled away, but didn’t go far. He nuzzled Nic’s cheek, then pressed a kiss there. Nic smiled, and kissed him again.
Nic was not especially surprised when, once they’d gotten out on the sea again, Mara asked zem why ze said ze loved him.
“Not that I don’t believe you,” he assured zem, which was good, since his first reaction had been incredulity. He asked, “But how do you know? What’s it feel like?”
“Gods, Mara,” Nic said. Ze leaned back against the hull of the ship. “I thought you being a god would mean you asked me fewer questions.”
“No you didn’t,” Mara said, which was absolutely true. “Besides, how much could I know? I’m only a couple months old.”
Nic made a face. “Don’t say it like that,” ze said, and Mara laughed at zem. When he stopped chuckling, Nic said, “I don’t know if I can explain it. I never had to before.”
“Didn’t anyone explain it to you?” Mara asked. Nic shook zeir head. Mara frowned. “Well then, how did you know what it meant?”
“Sometimes you don’t learn things by having them explained to you,” Nic said. “You learn them by doing them.”
“Oh, like fighting,” Mara said. “Or sex.”
Nic blushed, but nodded. “Yeah,” ze said. “My parents never explained what love was to me, they just did it. But I guess it’s…kind of the same.” Ze looked up, to see what Mara was doing. He was leaning against one of the ribs supporting the outer hull, watching zem intently. Nic said, “You’re so thoughtful, and careful not to hurt people. It makes me feel safe. And you take care of me, and make sure I eat, and go to sleep, and drink water. You help with stuff, even when you think it’s boring.” Ze had to look down at the deck, instead of where ze might see Mara’s face, for the next part. “When you’re not around, I miss you. I worry, even though I know you can take care of yourself. I can’t believe I’ve only known you since the shipwreck, because it feels like I’ve never known anyone better, and no one’s ever known me the way you do. I don’t want to think about what it would be like if you weren’t around.”
“Hm,” Mara said. Nic looked up at him, and he was staring off over the sea, two faint lines between his eyebrows. He said, “But that’s different from how you felt about your parents. How do you know it’s the same?”
“Technically, I guess I don’t,” Nic said. “It’s different anyway. They were my parents, and I loved them the way a child loves their parents. You’re my boyfriend. It would be very strange if I loved you the same way.” Mara laughed at that, and looked over at zem. “But you make me happy, and I would be devastated if something happened to you, and if that’s not exactly what love is, it’s the closest thing I’ve felt to what people talk about.”
Mara nodded, and was quiet the rest of the afternoon.
Nic was not surprised, however, when they stopped for the night and set up camp, after they had dinner and sex, Mara wrapped his arm around zeir waist and pressed his mouth against the top of zeir head, and said, “I love you too.”
Nic knew before they started having sex that Mara expressed affection through acts of service and offers of violence. The first time ze thoughtlessly asked him if he wanted to do something, cursing zemself because ze knew his answer would be no, and Mara responded, “No, but I will,” then went to do it, Nic knew they were friends. It was not surprising to hear Mara say he loved zem when he’d been making sure Nic didn’t work through dinner, bringing zem water, and offering to beat people up for disrespecting zem for months.
It had been weeks since they started having sex, though it was still more than a month before Indiyit materialized in their bedroom, when Mara finally asked some questions Nic had sort of been expecting sooner.
As they walked home from the community dining room, holding hands, Mara said, “Hey, I was talking to Eli earlier, and he said men usually have sex with women. But aren’t those two miners married?”
“He’s kind of right,” Nic said. “Most men like sex with women. But yeah, I think Doug and Dave are together. I don’t know about married.”
“You didn’t say anything about gender when you were telling me about sex,” Mara said.
Nic shrugged. “Well,” ze said, “it’s not important to me. And honestly, I didn’t think it would do anything but make the explanation more confusing.”
Mara snorted, and said, “You got that right. It sounded like Eli thought I should be upset you’re not a woman.”
Nic rolled zeir eyes. They reached their little house, and ze opened the door. Ze said, “That figures. People weren’t so weird about it back east. I mean, unless you’re trying to have kids, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference.”
Mara followed zem inside, and said, “Hey, that reminds me, I thought when you introduced yourself that I just didn’t remember everything about gender and pronouns and stuff, but we haven’t run into anyone else like you. So, like…what are you?”
Nic laughed as ze kicked off zeir boots. “Oh, Mara,” ze said. “I don’t know.”
Mara frowned and flopped onto the bed. “What do you mean you don’t know?” he asked. “Did your parents not tell you before they died?”
“Oh, gods,” Nic muttered, smiling to zemself. Ze threw zemself onto the bed next to Mara. “No, it’s not that. I didn’t even get to tell them I wasn’t a girl before the church attacked our village.”
“Why would they think you were a girl?” Mara asked.
This honestly couldn’t be just amnesia, Nic had thought at the time. How could Mara have forgotten such basic ways the world functioned? Nic had read about places where more than two genders were recognized, but Mara clearly wasn’t from a place like that or he wouldn’t be asking these questions. But he was sincerely asking why someone might look at Nic and assume ze was a girl, which…wasn’t a question Nic had gotten a lot. Ze was lucky enough to have a low voice and a pretty modest figure, but Mara more than anyone else was aware of the parts of Nic’s body that would make most people assume things.
But instead of thinking more about what could be going on that wasn’t amnesia, Nic had addressed his question. “Mara,” Nic said gently. “How do you think most people figure out who’s a boy and who’s a girl?”
Mara frowned again, and thought about it, apparently for the first time. Mara was ignorant, but he wasn’t by any means stupid. After a moment, he said, “People usually divide it up by genitals, right? The same as for any other animal.”
“And what do I have?” Nic asked.
Mara rolled onto his side to face zem. “But you’re not a girl,” he said, bushy eyebrows drawn together in consternation. “That’s practically the first thing you ever said to me.”
“I didn’t always know that,” Nic said. “And until I started talking, there’s no way my parents could have.”
“So how did you know?” Mara asked.
Nic shrugged. “I didn’t like being a girl,” ze said. “I don’t feel like one. But I never felt like a boy either. So I’m not either.”
“You can do that?”
Nic waved zeir arm, indicating the world outside their bed. “Who’s going to stop me?” ze asked. “It’s not like it hurts anyone. What are they gonna do about it? I mean, sometimes people ignore me and try to act like I’m a girl anyway–“
“Oh, is that why Bunny decided you were a guy?” Mara interrupted. “She thought the same thing Eli did, but since she thought you were cute, you had to be a guy?”
Nic smiled. When Mara thought about something, he figured things out so quickly. “Yeah, that’s what I assumed,” ze said. “For a while, I would just leave if people kept doing that, but when you’re the only one who knows how to repair the well or fix someone’s roof or build a crib, you can just remind people you don’t have to help them and they get much better at remembering to play along.”
“That’s mean,” Mara said, but he looked more admiring than admonishing. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”
Nic blushed. It had taken zem a long time to get over feeling mean, doing that. It might have been easier if ze’d known Mara then. “Just because I like to help people doesn’t mean I like when they disrespect me,” ze said. “I can’t make people understand or believe me, but I can make them at least act like they do.”
Mara grinned and put his hand on zeir waist. “As much as I don’t want people to be jerks to you, I’d love to see you put them in their place,” he said.
“You would,” Nic said. Mara leaned over and kissed zem.
He pulled away after only a second, however, and was frowning again. “Wait,” he said. “So can you get pregnant, even though you’re not a girl?” Nic nodded, and Mara’s frown deepened. He said, “I shouldn’t have come inside you all those times, then.”
Nic blushed and turned zeir face toward the ceiling. “It’s fine,” ze said. “I was already making a contraceptive potion for Nan and some of the other women in town. I made some for myself after the first time we had sex, and I’ve already figured out how much more I need to brew for next month.”
“Oh,” Mara said. He grinned. “I shoulda known you had it under control.”
“Yeah,” Nic said. “But it’s good to make sure.”
“Well now that I’m sure,” Mara purred, “can I do it again?”
Nic blushed again, rolling zeir eyes. Ze put a hand on Mara’s face and shoved him away, and he burst into laughter. Nic said, “You’re a menace.”
Grinning, Mara said, “But I’m your menace,” and gods help zem, Nic’s heart fluttered. Ze’d probably already been in love with him then. Mara kissed zeir palm, then pulled zeir hand down and kissed zeir fingertips. “So is that a no?” he asked, bringing zeir hand down to rest on his ever-bare chest.
Nic dragged zeir hand out of his grip to slide it down his ribs. Mara’s eyes went unfocused, and he shivered. “Of course it’s not a no,” ze said. Ze leaned over to close the space between them, and Mara wrapped his arms around zem.
Hours later, Mara had asked, “Wait, do you think Eli said that because he thinks you are a girl? Or should be?”
Without knowing exactly what Eli had said, Nic technically didn’t know, but it seemed like a safe bet. “Probably,” ze said.
Mara tensed and made an unhappy noise. Nic would bet he was scowling. “We should kick him out,” he said.
Nic smiled. “No we shouldn’t,” ze said, although ze would have been lying if ze said it wasn’t an appealing idea, letting Mara kick out or beat up everyone who rolled their eyes at zem or constantly fucked up zeir pronouns. Ze leaned up and kissed the tip of Mara’s nose. “I appreciate the thought.”
Mara grumbled and nuzzled his face in along Nic’s neck. “If he says it again, I’m going to punch him,” he said.
“That’ll probably get him to stop saying it where you can hear him,” Nic said.
Mara grumbled again. Nic patted the back of his head.
Nic could hardly doubt Mara’s feelings for zem when he not only threatened violence for zem, but agreed not to do it when ze asked.
It was still nice to hear.
Eventually, the island on the horizon was the one they were looking for. Mara went stiff, and still, stiller than should have been possible on the ocean. He said, “That’s it. That’s where Indiyit is.”
Breaking into the headquarters of the Arizedo Church was a lot easier than breaking out of one of their prisons. Nic wasn’t sure it should count as “breaking into” at all. The first time someone stopped them to demand their names and business, Mara crossed his arms over his chest and glared at them. Nic said, “Do you not recognize him? Hmm, perhaps you’re not important enough for High Priest Indiyit to inform.” It worked better than it ought to have, but Mara was convincingly malevolent. When Nic glanced at him, his eyes seemed a little redder than usual, and he seemed to have gotten taller.
They bluffed their way through multiple layers of security. Only once did Mara have to fight someone, which Nic was sure disappointed him. Calling it a fight was generous to the guard, anyway; all Mara had to do was grab him and toss him aside. He flew across the room and smashed into the wall with a speed and force disproportionate to the way Mara moved.
Nic’s stomach twisted, watching Mara act so casually cruel. Ze knew it was an act, but it was still unpleasant to see. The guard he’d thrown across the room crumpled to the floor and stayed there.
As they got deeper into the castle, Mara took the lead. “He’s this way,” he said, turning at corridor junctions. “Not that way,” he said, when Nic looked at a door. Finally, he stopped in front of a door that looked much the same as the others in this part of the castle. “He’s in here,” Mara said. He turned to face Nic. His eyes were back to their normal shade of inhumanly scarlet, and his expression was soft as he looked at zem. “Stay behind me,” he said. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Of course,” Nic said. Ze didn’t want to get hurt, either, but ze was glad Mara wasn’t trying to convince zem to stay out here. Ever since he’d raised the possibility of brainwashing, Nic had been haunted by the idea. With the powers Mara had displayed since Indiyit’s visit, ze didn’t know what ze could do about it if Mara did get brainwashed, but ze knew ze had to try to stop it.
Mara turned to the door, squared his shoulders, and kicked it open. No, not open; he kicked it right off its hinges and into the room ahead of him.
“Who dares–oh. Mara.”
Nic edged into the room behind Mara, attempting to remain unobtrusive. High Priest Indiyit’s robes were even more elaborate this time than when he had materialized in their bedroom, although the room he was in appeared to be a study of some kind. He had an orb on a stand in front of his throne-like chair, which he pushed aside as Mara strode across the room. He smiled, and said, “So you’ve come to your senses.”
“Nope,” Mara said, before punching him.
Nic kind of expected Indiyit to explode or something, but he, unlike the guard on the way in or the tree Mara had demonstrated on, reacted as though Mara had thrown an ordinary punch. Of course, an ordinary punch from Mara was still a powerful blow, so his head snapped back and cracked against the chair back behind him. His nose started bleeding. He grinned, and he had a horrible resemblance to Mara in that expression. Indiyit said, “I see.” He raised a hand, and Mara was engulfed in shadows. Mara screamed.
Nic forgot all about staying unobtrusive. Ze’d never heard Mara make a sound like that, not even when he’d been grabbed by the thing in the mine. Ze cried out and rushed toward him.
“Oh?” Indiyit said. Nic was suddenly held in place, as though frozen or trapped in stone. Ze could barely draw in a breath without feeling as though zeir ribs were about to crack. “What’s this?” Indiyit asked. He stood up and walked towards Nic and Mara. Mara was no longer screaming, but he was whimpering like it was a struggle not to.
Indiyit frowned as he peered at Nic for a moment, then laughed. “Why, how considerate!” he said. “You brought your own sacrifice. That makes this easier.” He held up one of his hands and gestured, beckoning Mara over.
Mara screamed again. Enough magic crackled between him and Indiyit that Nic broke out in goosebumps. Slowly, Mara turned and walked back to where Nic was frozen in front of Indiyit.
Indiyit gritted his teeth. At least Mara was making whatever he was doing difficult. Gods, though, he made such an awful noise every time Indiyit forced him to take another step, Nic felt it like a needle through zeir heart.
“I was wondering,” Indiyit said, through his clenched teeth, “how to get you under control.”
Mara came to a stop an arm’s length away from Nic. Ze couldn’t see his expression through the shadows writhing over him. He might as well have been on the moon. Nic shouldn’t have come with him, ze thought. Ze’d only made him more vulnerable.
“But I think,” Indiyit said, and Nic’s heart pounded in zeir chest as ze realized Indiyit didn’t sound like he was struggling as much anymore, “a little more blood will work. It wouldn’t, without a body, and that has a certain elegance.” He took a deep breath, visibly relaxing. Indiyit went on, “That is the trouble with a physical manifestation, after all. So many…vulnerabilities.”
Nic looked back at Mara with zeir eyes, which was about the only thing ze could move without being crushed by zeir invisible bonds. He was only shadows in the shape of himself. Nic tried to blink away the tears filling zeir eyes, but evidently blinking too vigorously moved more of zeir face than ze’d ever realized, and ze could barely clear enough of the tears to keep seeing.
Indiyit flicked his wrist. One of Mara’s hands came up to rest against Nic’s throat. Nic tried to say something, but the most ze could manage was a tiny groan.
Indiyit laughed. “It would almost be cute, if it wasn’t so annoying,” he said. “I go to all the trouble of creating a body for you, and you decide you’d rather play at being mortal than take your place. You’re not supposed to be so much like a willful child, you know. It’s beneath your dignity. But we’ll be back on track as soon as you’ve killed your little heretic girlfriend.”
There was a strange shattering noise. Indiyit jerked back, startled, but he didn’t move quickly enough to dodge Mara’s hand, which shot away from Nic’s neck to wrap itself in the front of Indiyit’s robes. The shadows engulfing Mara fell off him in shards, disintegrating into motes, then nothingness. He yanked Indiyit close and growled, “Nic is not a girl.” Mara shoved, and this time Indiyit did fly across the room to slam into the wall, as well as all the furniture in the intervening distance.
The magic holding Nic in place vanished, and ze stumbled forward, falling to zeir knees. Ze looked up in time to see Mara raise one hand and clench his fist, in a very similar gesture to the one Indiyit had used to engulf Mara in shadows. But all that happened was a strangely wet crunching noise coming from Indiyit’s direction, before his body sagged.
Mara turned to Nic, kneeling down in front of zem. His face was ashen, and he had bags beneath his eyes as though he hadn’t slept well in days. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Nic took a deep breath. Nothing hurt, so ze said, “I think so. Are you?”
“I’m fine,” Mara said.
“Really?” Nic asked. “Because you look like crap.”
Mara laughed. “Well,” he said. “I was experiencing unimaginable pain for a second there. I’m fine now, though.”
They’d have to come back to that, Nic thought. Ze looked over at Indiyit’s body. Blood was leaking out of its mouth now. Ze asked, “Is he dead?”
“He better be,” Mara said.
Nic pushed zemself to zeir feet. Mara followed suit, hands hovering like he wanted to support zem but didn’t want to touch zem without permission. Nic kind of didn’t want to ask, but ze felt like ze needed to. Ze nodded in Indiyit’s direction and asked, “What did you do?”
“Uh,” Mara said, looking embarrassed. “I wanted to make sure he couldn’t be healed. I don’t know if the Arizedoans have clerics. But I didn’t want it to be, you know. Gross.”
Now Nic was more curious than anything. “So what did you do?” ze pressed.
“Crushed his heart and lungs,” Mara said.
“From here?” Nic asked, looking back at Indiyit’s body. Ze couldn’t tell if any of the blood under its nose was newer than the nosebleed from Mara’s first attack.
“Kinda,” Mara said. He looked around the room. “Should we just leave?” he asked. “Or should I find someone and like…tell them to knock it off?”
“I don’t know,” Nic said. “I’ve spent a lot more time running away from the Arizedo Church than dismantling it.”
The question was rendered moot when they finally stepped back out into the hall to find several robed priests and monsters waiting for them. As soon as they saw Mara, they all fell to the ground, prostrating themselves.
“Ugh,” Mara muttered, and Nic had to stifle zeir laughter. Mara asked, “Which one of you’s the next highest priest after Indiyit?”
A figure toward the front of the group, wearing a deep purple robe, tentatively raised their head. “I am, my lord.”
“Great,” Mara said. “So I don’t want to rule the world and I hate organized religion. Dismantle the church, stop fucking with people, and release everyone in the prisons.”
“What!” someone in the group yelped indignantly.
“Dismantle the church?” the priest in the purple robe asked, glancing up at Mara.
Mara looked over at Nic. He asked, “Is it an organizational thing, do you think? The hearing problem?”
Nic had to press a hand against zeir mouth to keep from laughing. Mara smirked, and looked back at the priests and monsters kneeling in front of him. “Yeah, dismantle the church,” he said. “You can keep having services or whatever, but stop punishing people and imprisoning heretics. And no more sacrifices. If you’re so pumped to honor me, you can sacrifice yourself, if you’re not a coward.”
The priest in the purple robe frowned. “Yes, my lord,” he said doubtfully.
Mara folded his arms over his chest. Flatly, he said, “Maybe you wanna go look at what I did to the last high priest who disagreed with me, then come back to finish this conversation.”
The priest in the purple robe paled. “Ah, that won’t be necessary, my lord. I was merely considering the…logistical challenges this will pose.”
“Sure you were,” Mara said. “Look, I don’t want to have to care about what you do. But if you’re doing stuff like destroying villages and summoning monsters to inhabited areas, in my name? That’s not okay. I will kill you.” There was a murmur of assent. Mara sighed, and uncrossed his arms. “All right, get up, you don’t actually have to kneel. I guess I’ll have to check in on you from time to time. If I find out you’re killing craftspeople or burning fields again, you better pray you’re more powerful than Indiyit was.”
Several of the priests glanced nervously at the doorway to the room where Indiyit’s body lay. Mara grinned.
It was too late to sail back to the last island they’d camped at, and one of the priests hesitantly let Mara know there were rooms prepared for him, so they stayed the night in one of the tackiest rooms Nic had ever seen.
“Did Indiyit like this kind of stuff, or did he have a really low opinion of me?” Mara asked, poking at the bas-relief gargoyle mounted on one of the walls.
“The room we found him in was pretty gaudy,” Nic said. Ze ran zeir hand over the curtains hanging from the bed’s canopy. “Ooh, come touch this.”
Mara stroked the bed hangings, and lit up. “Oh, this is soft,” he said. He touched the duvet. “So is this,” he said.
He and Nic got the idea to fling themselves onto the bed at the same time, and wound up knocking their heads together. “Ow,” Nic said, laughing.
“Shit, sorry,” Mara said. He kissed Nic’s head where they had bashed together, then kissed zeir forehead, eyebrows, and nose. Nic tilted zeir head up, and Mara kissed zeir mouth. He pulled back before Nic wanted him to. He asked, “Did I do okay? Usually you’re the one telling people what to do.”
“You did fine,” Nic said. “You know I’m always just making it up too.”
“Yeah, but you actually have nineteen years of memories to draw from,” Mara said. “I’ve got like, six months.”
Nic groaned, and flopped down into the mattress. It was very soft, but still somehow supportive. Miles above the straw and down mattresses Nic made for them back at the village. Ze wondered if they could fit this on the ship and take it back with them. Ze said, “You did fine. Telling them to pray they’re stronger than Indiyit if they want to disobey you was a nice touch.”
“‘Cause they’re priests,” Mara said.
Nic smiled, rolling zeir eyes. “Yes, because they’re priests.”
Mara cupped Nic’s cheek in one of his hands. He said, “Thank you for coming with me.”
“You’re welcome,” Nic said. Ze closed zeir eyes and leaned into Mara’s hand. “Even though you didn’t need me.”
“I needed you,” Mara said. “I always need you.” He bent down and kissed zem again. He pulled back after another too-brief kiss to say, “I always will need you.”
Nic opened zeir eyes so ze could wrap zeir arms around Mara and pull him closer without hitting him on accident. “You’re a sap,” Nic said. “What would all those horrible priests say if they knew their terrifying Destroyer was such a softie?”
“Nothing, if they know what’s good for them,” Mara said. “Or maybe if they’re real smart, ‘gee, that looks better than burning fields and killing heretics.'” He nuzzled his face into Nic’s neck. “They’ll have to find their own, though. I’m not sharing.”
“Good, because I don’t think I’m into that,” Nic said. Ze slipped zeir arms into Mara’s vest, making him shiver against zem. “And so easy!” Nic murmured, running zeir fingers down his ribs.
Mara hummed in contentment. “I don’t know if they’d care about that,” he murmured, lips brushing against the sensitive skin of Nic’s neck. “Like you said, they never banned sex.”
“Maybe,” Nic said. “But it doesn’t really fit the fearsome image, does it?” Ze stroked zeir fingers up Mara’s back. He shivered again, making a soft noise against Nic’s neck.
“Well,” Mara said, after a moment, “they seem to have either misunderstood or messed up a bunch of stuff.” Abruptly, he pulled away and propped himself up on one elbow. “Hey,” he said. “I was totally right. I said if they killed everyone there’d be no one left to worship their god. I knew it was stupid.”
“You did,” Nic said. It was nothing ze hadn’t thought a thousand times, but it was gratifying to hear the avatar of that god agree with zem. Even if ze had possibly influenced his thinking in that direction.
“I wonder if people always get it so wrong,” Mara said, looking thoughtful. “Or maybe it’s something about being real. Here. I mean.”
“Physical,” Nic suggested.
“Yeah,” Mara said, nodding. He reached out to take one of Nic’s hands. “I know I’d be different if I hadn’t met you.”
Nic couldn’t argue that one. The longer Mara worked with zem, Ayla, and the other survivors, the more Mara had seemed to care about things other than fighting. Ze said, “That’s sort of what Indiyit said, isn’t it? He thought I was a bad influence. But I bet it’s a lot harder to influence gods when they’re not down here with us.”
“Probably,” Mara said. “Pretty stupid of Indiyit not to keep me close by.”
Indiyit probably had what he thought was a good reason for that decision. Nic squeezed Mara’s hand in zeirs. “Lucky for me, though,” ze said.
Mara beamed at zem. Ze couldn’t help but pull him back down for another kiss.