by Johannes T. Evans
Dust has been walking for hours when he finally sees the tower of the temple sticking out from between the trees – he’s trudging and stumbling down a path hewn into the valleyside, and when he sees the black stone and the glitter of the windows, he hears himself heave in a gasp of desperate relief.
There’s blood on his clothes and he’s almost bled through the bandage wrapped tightly around one of his thighs; there are grazes and abrasions and small cuts all around his calves from stumbling through the undergrowth. There are splinters and thorns dug into his feet, and his shoes, little more than house slippers, were never made to be worn outside, so they’re ripped half to shreds, his feet showing through.
He’s clutching at his belly, feeling the ghost of the stitch that had begun to torture him almost as soon as he’d started running, but he still hadn’t stopped running until he physically couldn’t anymore, until he’d stumbled on wheezing and breathless and aching all over. He doesn’t know from how many places he’s bleeding.
He feels dizzy, and doesn’t know that he has much blood left to bleed.
Dust is distantly aware that he’s been lucky, stumbling this way – he hadn’t known there was a temple here, only hoped he’d see some sort of settlement or home or something, somewhere where people were, somewhere where someone might take mercy on him, offer him sanctuary.
He trips in a creek and slips on his arse a good ways down the hill, only catching himself on a muddy bank before he can slip even further into the rushing waters of the river another hundred feet down. He stains the water red, and as he slips messily to his feet, he feels a rush of guilt for having done so; at the same time, another wave of dizziness hits him. Dust knows that he’s shivering on an intellectual level: he’s so cold, the freeze of it bone-deep, that he can’t really feel the tremor of his hands or his legs.
A lone figure stands on the bridge, walking slowly toward him, and Dust raises his hand to wave to them, but finds he cannot lift his arm all the way above his head. He’s bent double, wheezing and breathless, his vision darkening to black clouds at the edges.
“Please,” he tries to shout, but the word comes out as a wheeze, as a whisper: he cannot fill his lungs enough to give it life, to give it any volume at all. The tears on his cheeks are so hot they’re unbearable, and they hurt more than any of the wounds on his body, hurt even more than the muscle he’s pulled by running, hurt more than the terror that feels like it’s carved into his ribs. “Please,” he whimpers again, although the man in the cloak can’t possibly hear him from so far away.
Dust’s knees are weak, and when he stumbles this time he cannot stop himself from falling, his body dropping into the mud and skidding a bit down the path. Under the wet dirt are little stones and more thorny pieces of branch and nettle, and he cries even more at the way they all cut and dig into his already shredded knees.
“Please,” he moans, or tries to: he can’t even hear the word in his own ears, only the roar of the water and maybe the wind. His vision is almost completely black, and his head feels heavy on his shoulders, lolling from side to side and tipping forward entirely without his permission. “Please…”
The cloaked man’s hand touches his shoulder, and when Dust’s body falls forward, it’s against his chest.
* * *
Dust wakes reclined on a bed beside a crackling fire, his head rested against some pillows. He feels very tired and groggy, but the dizziness is gone, and he does a sort of inventory of his body piece by piece, beginning with his head, his neck, his shoulders, his chest, his abdomen, his hips, his thighs, his knees, his calves, his feet.
He’s been stripped of his clothes entirely, and that makes him feel a twinge of fear, of shuddering uncertainty – there are bandages around one of his shoulders, on his belly, and under the thin muslin sheet that covers him, he can see that the biggest gash in his thigh has been stitched shut.
“Here,” says the cloaked man, although he isn’t cloaked anymore: he holds a cup of steaming liquid to Dust’s mouth, and Dust drinks from it, relieved to find it isn’t actually hot to the touch. It tastes faintly minty and is surprisingly easy to swallow down.
The priest is tall and handsome in a plain, forgettable sort of way – he has dark eyes and an angular jaw, his hair dark brown with curls of lighter colour where the sun has bleached it. There’s stubble on his cheeks, and his lips are a handsome, dusky pink-brown. Around his neck, he wears a golden chain with several carved panels strung on it, and he wears a similar chain belting his waist, worn overtop of his skirts.
He wears kohl around his eyes, probably to protect him from the sun that shines down into the valley – there are a great many mirrors here inside the temple, too, reflecting light around, such that it’s incredibly well-lit even though there are no windows within Dust’s direct line of sight.
The dark stone walls are carved with panel after panel of complex, intricate designs, and Dust can see that one of the closest has tentacles expanding out from a central source, but before he can look more closely at the centre, the priest touches his cheek and turns Dust’s head toward him.
Dust lets out an involuntary sound at being touched, unused to it, but the priest says nothing, holding up a candle close to his cheek with a mirror behind it to concentrate the light on his face. Dust flinches away from the brightness, and the priest murmurs quietly for him to open one of his eyes and then the other, leaning in to peer inside, as though he might find something interesting behind them.
“Have I been asleep a long time?” asks Dust. His voice is hoarse, and the priest immediately brings the cup back to his mouth, bidding him silently to drink.
“Some days,” he says quietly, in a voice like distant rain. “I worried that you might not wake at all.”
He eases Dust back into a reclining position, and Dust goes back, watches the priest as he stands and moves across the room, his skirts flowing. From a cauldron over the fire, he takes up a ladle of some thick broth and puts it into a bowl, bringing it over to him.
Dust tries to hold it between his palms, but his hands are weak and he can’t quite support it as yet, so the priest brings it to his lips and bids him take another sip. The broth is salty and well-spiced, not too hot, and he swallows it down surprised by his own greed, how hungry he is for it.
The priest is patient, keeping the bowl steady as he feeds Dust from it, and he gives him a piece of flat bread after a few moments, waiting patiently again as Dust chews, swallows, nods for more of the bowl.
After he has eaten his fill, the priest sets the bowl aside and brings him a mug not of tea this time but fresh water – the cup is small enough, and he is now fed enough, that he has the strength to hold it himself. Dust sips at it frequently as the priest settles into the seat beside him, his knees held to one side, his hands laid in his lap. He looks down at Dust unblinkingly, his expression focused and interested, but there isn’t anything extremely critical in his gaze. Dust doesn’t feel as scrutinised under him as he has under the gazes of others.
“What is your name?” Dust asks.
“Levos,” answers the priest. He does not ask Dust’s name, and nor does he ask what he was doing in the forest, why he was running, who from. He does not ask if Dust knows the name of this temple, or who Levos is priest to, which in both cases, he does not.
“Are you all alone here?”
“Alone but for my master,” says Levos, “to whom I am pledged.”
“Your master,” Dust repeats. “Is he awake?”
“My master sleeps,” says Levos, shrugging his shoulders. “It will be some time before he wakes – he will wake only when the time comes for him to do so, when certain stars are in alignment.”
“Oh,” says Dust, and exhales, embarrassed. “Sorry. I thought— I thought you meant a master priest. A senior.”
“Ah,” says Levos, and gives an easy shrug of his shoulders. “My only master at this time is my god. And this temple, unfortunately – being the only priest means I am permitted a great many liberties about my time and how I spend it, if only this tower did not continuously beg my attention.”
“What attention does it need from you?” asks Dust, looking about the room, at the carefully aligned mirrors and the beams of light that ran between them, at the clean stone walls, the swept floor, the furnishings.
“Oh, it must be cleaned and kept in good order,” says Levos, “its pantries stocked, its gutters washed out, its drains emptied, its tiles relaid, its bricks set. The lawns tidied and fresh flowers cut and set in vases and the trees pruned and the fruit brought in, the honey harvested, the mead brewed, and all the rest. The temple must be kept in good repair, in case of guests. Like yourself, for example.”
Levos gestures widely with a handsome, beautifully-manicured hand, and Dust wonders how much of his time is spent keeping himself in order, painting his face with his kohl and brushing out his hair, bathing himself so that he smells as fine and faintly sweet as he does.
“My name is Dust,” he says. “I will help you.”
“Help me?” repeats Levos, tilting his head to one side and gracefully arching one eyebrow.
“Let me stay as I heal,” says Dust, “and I will help you.”
“You need not help me as payment,” says Levos. “I am bound by my own oaths to heal the sick and injured, and aid passers-by should they come upon this temple. I require no payment, so long as my duties are fulfilled.”
“Let me stay anyway.”
“I would not turn you out,” says Levos quietly. “Your wounds must heal before you leave, and this will take time.”
Dust presses his lips together, feeling as though he should keep on speaking even though he doesn’t know what he should be asking for, what he should be begging for, when this man seems ready to give him everything he could want. His breath catches in his throat, his stomach twisting with shame and anxiety, uncertainty.
“I’m sorry,” he says, because they are the first words that come to him.
“Whatever for?” asks Levos.
Dust looks down at the stone floor.
“The wound on your thigh is deep,” says Levos. “And slit clean across. Who cut you?”
“I did,” says Dust.
Levos blinks at him. “Oh,” he says. “I did not expect that.”
Dust swallows the next apology before it can work its way out of his throat, and Levos smiles at him before he stands to his feet.
“You should rest a while,” he advises quietly, smoothing out his skirts although they don’t seem wrinkled to dust. “I have work to do, but if you call for me, I will hear you.”
“Thank you,” says Dust. “Thank you, Master Levos.”
“I am no master, young man,” says Levos, stopping in the doorway with one hand on the jamb. He turns his head to speak over his shoulder, and Dust feels slightly flustered and warm at the curve of his half-smile, the way it pulls at his lips. “Call me Brother, if you must; call me Levos, if you would.”
“Levos,” says Dust, and Levos goes.
* * *
The days come and go in a muzzy daze – Dust sleeps for hours at a time, during the day and during the night, and normally eats or drinks a little between each sleep. On the first day he mentions feeling guilty for it, for not just sleeping through the night, and Levos shakes his head and simply says, “Your body is ailing, and it will sleep as it needs, when it needs. For now, we will sate your hunger, your thirst, your fatigue, as they come to you. When unwell, whose schedule should you keep but your body’s own?”
It’s not at all the sentiment that Dust is used to, but it feels as if it would be rude to voice it, to disagree with his saviour’s philosophy whilst reliant on his hospitality. He wants to be useful, but from his bed, there’s little opportunity to be – he can barely stand unaided, let alone help Levos with his physical labours, and he can’t even concentrate enough to read through the books and pages in the place.
One or multiple of the teas that Levos is bringing him, Dust suspects, are analgesic in their nature, or perhaps even hallucinogenic. Although he’s exhausted and struggles to stay awake some days enough to even finish his meals, he’s in absolutely no pain, and his dreams are vivid and bright and utterly immersive, even though the details flit away from him as soon as he wakes.
On the fifth or sixth day, Levos pulls back the bandage on the slit across Dust’s thigh, and Dust looks down on the healed cut, the way that the flesh has knitted itself together with the stitches Levos had put through it guiding it into place. Most of the cuts and bruises on his hands, his feet, the rest of his body, are healed now – the bruises have lightened and are only now visible in the right light, and where the deeper cuts and grazes have scabbed over, the shallower ones have disappeared entirely.
“You did this to yourself, you said,” Levos says, taking out a green paste from a bronze cannister and rubbing it between his fingers before he begins to daub it onto the seam of the wound. It’s cold and tingles faintly, but Levos’ fingers are warm, and it feels nice to be touched.
Everywhere Levos has touched him as Dust has healed has felt nice, his touch ever gentle, his body strong and easily able to support Dust. He had carried Dust inside once he’d collapsed, and Dust thinks on how easily he’d done it, how Levos’ muscle and weighty body had meant he didn’t so much as falter as he scooped up Dust in his arms and moved with speed.
The question is not nearly so pleasant as the thought of Levos’ beautiful hands on his body, and Dust considers for a moment pretending he’s asleep or otherwise not really able to hear it. He feels guilty just for considering the thought, and he turns his head to look at Levos’ placid expression, to meet his calm, unjudgmental gaze.
“Yes,” he says haltingly, and Levos nods his head. A faint smile crosses his lips.
“You don’t want to talk about it,” he says in soft tones, as if he’s musing his own thoughts aloud.
“But you want me to,” Dust says.
Levos shrugs his shoulders. “I am starved of stories here. Merchants come by and they sell me books and texts as much as they do the food that stocks our pantry – a man is not sustained by food alone. But naturally, when guests come through, I crave to hear their stories as well.”
Dust’s stomach roils, a faint nausea threatening on the horizon as his gaze drops away from Levos’ face and again to his fingers as they finish patting the paste over the mostly-healed wound. He swallows, reaching up to rub at his throat.
“But my guests have no obligation to share their stories,” Levos says, wiping the paste from his fingers and then gently squeezing Dust’s knee, making him shiver. “A story sustains a man, that is true – but to be forced to share it, to be forced to share any thought within his head, that is to be bled, is it not?”
Dust doesn’t say anything, and Levos pats his knee again, making his flesh tingle, before he stands to his feet again.
Dust cannot sleep for some hours after that, his mind turning over and over again the thought of Levos’ hands on his knees, the thought of his fingers gliding to touch other parts of his body, perhaps, sliding up to his hips, to hold his waist, to touch the side of his neck, to cup his cheek, tangle in his hair.
Shame pulls at him, wraps him in a shroud, the sensation that he’s being horribly ungrateful, that something awful will befall him for daring to withhold his stories, the truth, to withhold anything.
He’s never been good at withholding anything. He wishes it could feel glorious, exciting, feel like something gloriously new, rather than a weight around his neck.
* * *
Within a few more days, Dust is on his feet again, and he moves around the central domestic rooms of the temple – the main living quarters, the kitchen, a wine cellar where there are meats and cheeses curing and kept preserved, a pantry where there are grains and flours and other dry goods kept in jars and sealed cannisters.
Levos’ room is little more than a simple cell, and Dust peers into it one morning when Levos is out on his knees in the yard, painstakingly pruning and caring for the plants lined up in his vegetable garden, which is beautifully ordered and maintained. There is a bed against one wall, some shelves of books, a wardrobe, a mirror. It seems strangely plain and empty, for one man to live alone in, for a man with so few outside entertainments, but Levos supposes he isn’t confined to his bedroom as so many are to theirs, that he can move about freely through the temple and its grounds.
They prepare dinner together, Dust cutting vegetables as Levos neatly butchers a rabbit he had caught in a trap, its skin set aside to dry.
“Do you know Riena?” asks Dust, filling the silence between them.
“It’s a village, yes? I know it from maps, but I’ve never been. It’s quite a way from here.”
“Yes,” says Dust.
“Is that the village you hail from?”
“You journeyed some way to get here,” Levos comments. “It’s no wonder your feet were shredded.”
“I was running,” Dust says. “Fleeing.”
“I thought perhaps you were,” says Levos in that calm, placid way of his.
“Where do you come from?”
“It isn’t there anymore,” Levos says, not without a trace of sadness in his voice, his lips shifting into a small frown. “I came from a city a long way away – far further away from here than Riena. I used to pick flowers outside of the city’s walls. My father was a dye-maker, you see. Horse piss could be collected in town, but a lot of the fruits, leaves, roots, and flowers we used I would travel to collect and return home with.”
“How old were you?” Dust asks, swiping the sliced grass peppers from his board into a bowl and picking up some of the powder fruits, feeling their weight in his palm, feeling the textured surface of their skin and the give of their flesh. “Going out on your own to gather materials?”
“The first time I travelled alone, I was ten or eleven, perhaps,” says Levos. “I moved within the city walls for years before that, collecting or delivering small parcels, mostly in the neighbourhood where my father’s shop was. People knew me, knew my name, my face, knew my father. When first I stepped outside of the walls, the guards teased and laughed, asked if I was going off on some distant wanderings – of course, I was going only to the market just outside of the walls. As I grew older, to twelve, to thirteen, fourteen, I went a bit farther, into the nearby fields and meadows, combing along the river, into the woods. It was the day of my fifteenth birthday when I was dispatched to the Great Wood to hunt for mushrooms.
“I don’t know if they exist anymore – some of the flowers I used to gather have long since ceased to bloom and propagate, and with their extinction went the extinction of the unique colours their pigments imparted to dye. These mushrooms might well have gone the same way, although I could not say – this valley is somewhat more humid and damper in its climate than the area I grew up in. The moisture from the river clings here in the valley, gives life to the flowers and trees here – and the trees themselves help keep that moisture here in the basin – but outside of this cut into the earth, the air is so much dryer, the earth sandier and more prone to dust. Where I grew up, I walked barefoot on carpets of grasses and flowers, with few patches of empty earth.
“Outside of the valley, there are many plants and roots, but they sprout from beneath the ground in small patches and shoots.”
Dust thinks of his own village, of the nature of the ground compared to here down in the valley, but even here, there is no full carpet of grass or flowers outside of the tighter copses of trees, and he struggles to imagine it, to envisage it, a full meadow of grass and flowers outside of the shadow of trees or valley. Surely under the sun, no such carpet could survive?
“It must seem desolate,” says Dust. “Compared to what you grew up with.”
“No, no, not desolate,” Levos says, shaking his head. “The plants are still there – life is still there, I promise you. Only those roots and plants, many of them are buried beneath the ground to keep them safe from being baked and dried out entirely by the sun, or they grow hard, leathery skins to stop themselves from being dried out. Mosses and mushrooms grow in caves and caverns, or in the eaves of houses – here in the towers, in the old stone, even, where moisture gathers and is kept inside. But even in the places where no plants grow, no flowers, no mosses, no mushrooms, that is still not desolation, nor devastation. There are animals and plants alike that thrive in those places which could never thrive elsewhere.
“Were it not for the arid air where your village is, the climate in mine would never have been possible, nor vice versa. All these airs, all these soils, these rivers and seas, these lands, they all feed into one another.”
Levos’ hand touches Dust’s shoulder, his thumb sliding over Dust’s upper arm through the fabric of his shirt, and Dust shivers at the heat of it, at the gentle pressure. Dust turns to look at him, at the smile on Levos’ face.
“Were it not for the climate to which I was born, I would not be called Levos. I was named for a flower that, when comes time for it to propagate itself, its head detaches from its stem – carried by the wind, the flower’s head rises up and only then is it turned over, emptying its pollen like excess from a bowl. The flower blooms high in the mountains, where few insects live to carry pollen, you see – only through this method is it able to spread out its pollen, and thus, create new flowers.”
Levos’ hand raises higher, his fingers brushing the side of Dust’s cheek and cupping it, and Dust, who had been enraptured by the whole thing, by the easy way Levos spoke at length about his home, about climates and flowers and wind, feels his breath catch in his throat at the tenderness of it. His hand is clean of blood – the rabbit is fully butchered, and he must have wiped his hands before coming to touch him.
“Were it not for the climate outside this valley,” Levos goes on, his lips quirked into their easy little smile, “perhaps your name would not be Dust.”
Dust swallows, the gulp audible, and he feels something flutter in his chest at the way Levos’ eye drops down to the movement in his throat, his thumb coming to brush against the apple of it.
“I chose my name,” says Dust.
Levos smiles, his eyes glittering. “What a wonderful thing,” he says immediately, and as casually as anything he draws his hand away, pushing the rabbit meat into a pot to braise. “It had never occurred to me to pick a name – my own is so old. I don’t know that I could be called anything else, having carried it with me for so long. I think I would miss it, as one might miss a favourite garment.”
“Well,” Dust says, not having expected such effulgence, let alone approval. “Sometimes we outgrow a garment.”
“So we do,” Levos agrees. “Would you pass me the salt?”
* * *
Levos does not ordinarily wear shirts inside, but he has several of white linen to wear when he works outside, and a net-fronted hood he wears to attend the bee hives he harvests honey from on the temple’s lands.
He’s paler than Dust is, and when they’re out in the sun Dust is cognizant of the patches of skin that are bared to the light – his hands, his face and neck – and how the white of his skin seems creamy under the light instead of tinting slightly. Sometimes he turns his hand in a certain way under the sunlight, and Dust can see his veins underneath his skin, can see how blue they are in his hand and stretching across his palm.
On the first day that Dust stood from his bed and started to help him, Levos had come in with a small crate of clothes – shirts, a jacket of blue silk, trousers, socks, even some shoes. All of them fit him very well, so much so that he was surprised when he rose to try them on – the trousers were slightly loose about his waist, but otherwise, they fit him so well he might have believed that they had been tailored to his measurements.
The work, as Levos had told him it was, is never ending.
In the first few weeks, Dust helps him cook, helps him clean and move furniture about, helps him arrange the library better – he’s been meaning to get to the work for years, he tells him – and then once Dust’s wounds are more healed, he employs his aid in other tasks.
They repair some shelves, revarnish one of the floors in a tower, clean out some gutters, dust and clean up cobwebs in one of the higher ones. Once Dust’s cut no longer requires regular balm on it, Levos invites him outside to work, and shows him how to tend the crops that feed and sustain them, how to till and maintain the fields, how to prune back some of the fruit trees so that they grow larger and grow up rather than outward, how he drains the honey from the comb by turning it in a vat with a sort of crank.
This is fairly new to him, in truth – while he’s comfortable looking after the chickens, collecting their eggs and feeding them, clucking his tongue with them and stroking their feathers, and equally, while he knows how to reset the traps and butcher the animals they catch from them, much of the crop is new to him, different. Similarly, the household work he’s comfortable with, already knows how to point a brick wall, how to work with wood, how to clean, but he cannot cook with the confidence and ease that Levos does.
When Levos tells him he’s going to teach him something new today, Dust is uncertain, is frightened that Levos is going to put a hood on him and bring him to tend the hives. He’s relieved when it turns out that what Levos wants to show him is how he brews mead, which he trades for the books, meat, and other goods traders bring to the temple.
“You’ve never brewed before,” Levos says, observing him with interest.
“Not mead,” he says. “I’ve never lived so close to bee hives – I know people keep them, but I’ve never seen what the hives look like, or the things you wear to tend the bees. But I’ve seen people keep grapevines, and ferment them into wine.”
Levos nods, and the two of them go to work bottling the mead and setting it aside.
“Did you learn to do this as a child?” Dust asks as he watches Levos mix the water, honey, and yeast together with dried flowers and herbs, setting it to ferment. Levos works with skill and ease, obviously habituated to the whole of the process.
“No, actually,” says Levos. “I had learned how the hives were maintained, as we traded for the wax, but I learned to maintain my own hives and make the mead later on, once I came here.”
“You were young?”
“Somewhat,” Levos says, shrugging his handsome shoulders and making the gold around his neck clink and shift. “I became lost after departing to hunt for mushrooms in the Great Wood – I heard a call deep within, and I followed it… That call took me days away from my home, weeks from it, months. I finally came here and became disciple to my master, and I’ve been here ever since. Is this the first time you’ve been away from home?”
Dust is quiet, feeling a thickness in his throat. They don’t discuss his home, much – Levos has been artful about avoiding the subject, hasn’t asked him too many direct questions about it.
A few times, in the past few weeks, Dust has woken screaming and sobbing, feeling ghostly hands on his body, scared of something stirring alive in his gut, and Levos has come to care for him, but has not laid hands on his body until Dust has invited them.
The first time Dust realised that, that Levos was waiting until Dust assured him he could before he touched him after he’d woken from one of these nightmares, he’d sobbed until he felt near ready to vomit.
“No,” says Dust.
Levos has seen him naked, has seen him entirely stripped of his clothes – the clothes Dust was wearing when he arrived, or at least, the blood-stained rags that remained of them, have been washed and set aside to be used as scrap pieces. Levos had cut his clothes away from him, and Dust thinks about it, thinks about the idea of Levos observing his body unclothed, the shape of his chest, what lies between his legs.
He’s made no mention of it, has said nothing of it.
“I’ve left home before,” he says when Levos asks no questions and doesn’t immediately comment. Levos always watches him so intently when Dust is getting ready to speak, even though Dust so rarely speaks at length. Dust feels guilty for so rarely indulging him, for not speaking for longer periods even though it’s plain that Levos craves to hear him do so, that Levos aches for his company, for Dust to speak to Levos as easily as Levos does him. “When I was small, I went to the city for a time, I, um…” His mouth feels dry, and there’s a ringing in his ears.
“You needn’t tell me,” whispers Levos. His lips are frowning, his brows knitted together in quiet but no less obvious concern. “I can see it ails you.”
“No, it’s… I want to,” says Dust. “I went to the city when I was young, nine or ten – I’m the youngest of five. My family are stonemasons, and my eldest brother was involved in much of the business. My sister, she and her husband were both also engaged in it. In the middle I had two more brothers – one of them was apprenticed to the farrier, and the other came to the city with me.
“He caught ill while we were in the city. A plague was moving through the streets we were staying in when we were with our family, and he and some of my cousins died. I did get ill, but I managed to survive… And I stayed in the city for some time, too. I worked under my aunt and uncle – they worked stone somewhat, but primarily wood furnishings and small pieces of domestic carpentry. I was gone until I was eighteen or so, but then my eldest brother died, was thrown from a building by a strong wind. My other brother was killed by one of the horses he was shoeing. So I went home, went back, and then, um… My sister died last year, in childbirth. Her first child.”
“So much grief,” Levos says. “I’m so sorry.”
“Mm,” Dust murmurs, giving a curt nod of his head. His mouth tastes like sand.
Levos’ expression is distant as he continues his work, his brow slightly furrowed, his lips twisted. “Is it—” he begins, and then quiets himself, his brow knitting tighter together and furrowing further. “No. You don’t wish to discuss it – I would not press the matter.”
“You can ask,” says Dust.
“Merely that I don’t see why that should have you flee,” says Levos, tilting his head to one side. “Unless the deaths of your siblings, it all amounted to some conspiracy.”
“No, nothing like that,” Dust mumbles, and he rubs his elbow, staring at one of the pots of honey, at the golden strings of goodness that haven’t been scraped into the jug to brew.
“Here,” says Levos, following his gaze, and swipes his fingers through some of it, bringing them to his mouth and sucking them clean. Dust feels a hot tingle run down his spine at the sight, at the way Levos’ lips curve around his fingers, at the quiet wet sound as he sucks on them. “You can have some.”
He holds out the pot for Dust to touch, to swipe his fingers through, but Dust is distracted by a single droplet of honey clinging to Levos’ lower lip. The brewing shed is not like the stone rooms of the temple proper – it’s mostly dark, and the only light comes in from around the frame of the closed-to door, putting a thin square bracket of light against the opposite wall with their shadows visible in it.
Dust touches one of the golden necklaces Levos wears, feeling the warmth of the metal under his fingers and touching the pad of his fingertip over the carved relief on the panel: it depicts a man on his knees, praying, bowing, capitulating, maybe.
“The metal is heavier than it looks,” says Levos. “Would you like to try—Oh!”
His sound of surprise is muffled as Dust tugs him down, curling his fingers around the back of his neck to tug him down to his level, their lips crushing together. Levos’ lips taste sweet from the honey and he’s yielding as Dust kisses him, shivering and warm and eager. Dust’s tongue swipes across his lower lip, tasting the sweetness of the honey on it, and as the tip of his tongue touches wet and hot against Levos’ skin, he lets out a keening, eager sound, his mouth opening.
Dust almost laughs, feeling giddy and hot all over as if he’s a teenager again, and he pulls Levos down into a harder, more bruising kiss, sliding his tongue into Levos’ mouth as if to plunder it.
Levos is trembling and making sharp, breathless noises as Dust kisses him, and he goes easily, utterly pliable, as Dust pushes him back against one of the stone tables and stands between his spread thighs, controlling the kiss.
Levos’ cheeks are so warm where their faces are touching that he seems about ready to explode, and his hands go from hovering awkwardly at his sides to wrapping around Dust’s body, eagerly pulling him closer as Dust tilts his head, kissing him deeper, sliding his tongue against Levos’ and drawing more of those delicious, desperate noises out from his throat.
Reaching up, he tweaks his thumbs over Levos’ nipples, and fuck, but the sound that Levos makes, hoarse and with an edge of desperation that Dust has never heard a man make before, his whole body jerking, goes straight to Dust’s cock.
Grabbing him by the waistband of his skirts, Dust pulls him forward and then hooks one of his feet behind Levos’ ankles, dropping him back onto the floor – Levos is a big, strong man, some head and a half taller than Dust and covered all over with lean muscle, but he’s unused to being grappled, it seems, and he drops to the floor as easily as if he were half Dust’s size.
He stares up at Dust with wide eyes, evidently taken aback at being dropped back on the dirt-and-hay floor of the brewing shed, and there’s something about it, the way that Dust can so easily move and physically manipulate this big man that makes his libido thrum, that makes his heart beat fast in his chest and a kind of hunger burn in the back of his mouth as much as it does his cunt. He’s wet and eager, his cock hard, as he drops to straddle Levos on the floor, and Levos moans helplessly, his hands going to Dust’s waist as Dust leans back on his muscular thighs, shoving up his skirt.
Levos’ cock is hard and thick, and Dust lets out a moan at the sight of it, wrapping his hand around its shaft and shivering in anticipation of the feel of it splitting open as he finds that one of his hands won’t wrap all the way around its girth. Levos scrabbles at the floor, his head tipping back into the dirt and his back arching into the tight grip of Dust’s hand, at the way Dust strokes him up and down and flicks his wrist as he makes his way to the fat head of Levos’ cock, catching his foreskin with the palm of his hand and using it to rub over the sensitive, wet skin underneath.
Levos is whimpering, his beautifully manicured fingers digging into the dirt, and he’s looking at Dust as though Dust is the sun he sees by, as though he can’t quite bear to look at him directly but craves to, is desperate to see him, to watch him. The noises he’s making are incoherent and clumsy with lust and want, his hips jerking and spasming up into Dust’s hand, thoughtless and desperate and full of need.
Dust is so wet he’s sure there must be a wet patch on the inside of the trousers Levos had given him, and he eagerly gets to his feet and kicks off his slippers, shoving his trousers down his legs and dropping them on top.
Standing over Levos with his feet either side of his hips, he puts his fingers to the flesh at his mons and pulls it back, his pinkies on the fat swell of his outer lips to draw those back too – staring up at Dust’s bared cunt, at the fat bud of his cock, he lets out a wordless noise, a kind of animal keen.
Dust grins, his cheeks burning, his whole body feeling sensitive and with a tingle under the skin, and he drops to straddle Levos’ waist, bending over him to kiss him again as he lets the head of Levos’ cock kiss his wet cunt.
Levos lets out a howl of pleasure, his hips jumping at the sensation as the head of his cock nudges against Dust’s cunt lips, smearing through the wetness there, and grunt after grunt eke out of his throat as Dust bears down, sliding his cunt against shaft of his cock so that Levos can feel how wet he is, how open, how ready to be fucked.
Dust doesn’t think he’s ever sat on a cock as thick as Levos’, doesn’t think he’s ever been stretched so wide, and he wants it, needs it, wants to feel the stretch.
“Going to sit on this cock,” he murmurs against Levos’ mouth.
“What?” Levos asks, seemingly uncomprehending, and Dust raises his eyebrows, smiling.
“Let me demonstrate,” he says, and raises his hips, sinking down slightly with Levos’ cockhead nudging against the entrance of his cunt. Levos’ eyes almost roll back in his head in pleasure, but then he seems to get a handle on himself, his eyes widening further.
“No!” he protests, suddenly gripping Dust under his arse and thighs and lifts him up again, flipping them over.
Dust exhales at the way his body is dropped back in the dirt, at the rapid way Levos scrambles down his body – he lets out a noise of loss, thinking that he’s getting up to go, but he’s just on his knees in the earth between Dust’s thighs, staring down at him.
“Come on, I’m no virgin,” Dust says. “And I have an enchantment in place to keep myself barren, it’s not like your seed will take.”
Levos’ giddy noise in response to that makes Dust’s body thrill, but not quite as much as the position does, as being on his back and looking down at Levos does, at Levos’ slightly open mouth and how kiss-bruised his lips are, what Dust has done to them. They’re a bit more swollen, even pinker than they were, spit-slick.
“No, no, I can’t, I can’t do that,” Levos whispers, although there’s such an ache in his voice that Dust knows he certainly wants to, that all he’s thinking of is how good it will feel when his cock is buried in Dust’s cunt, when he sinks himself into that tight, wet heat. The words are ready on Dust’s tongue, ready to tell him how good it will feel, that it will feel even better than he’s imagining, and then the words are lost to the world, because Levos has dropped his head between Dust’s legs and begun to suck his cock.
It’s Dust’s turn to let out a wordless scream this time, his body arching right off the floor – it’s been months and months since another man has touched him, over a year since another man’s sucked his cock, and the sensation of Levos’ tongue on his skin is enough to make him writhe, even before he hollows his cheeks and sucks on him. Levos is a clumsy kisser, and he does not suck cock with a great amount of skill, but his eagerness to please outweighs any need for dexterity – he wraps his lips around Dust’s cock and sucks wetly as his tongue swipes and plays over the sensitive head, rubbing back and forth over it, and Dust can scarcely stand it, how fucking good it feels.
“Fuck me,” he whines, aching with how empty he is, with how desperate his cunt is for a cock inside it, especially knowing how thick Levos’ is, how it will feel to open up around it, how the stretch will have the most beautiful edge of hurt in it, a deep ache as his muscles are forced to accept it.
Levos doesn’t, but he bobs his head as he sucks on Dust’s prick, making him feel as if he’s fucking Levos’ mouth, the underside of his cock rubbing again and again against the surface of his tongue; at the same time, he plays two fingers around the edge of his cunt, not pressing in but tugging and playing at the outer ring of muscle. It’s sending ticklish, throbbing sensations to the very core of him, and Dust can scarce stand it, can’t bear it.
“This is torture,” he gasps out. “Just, just do it, just fuck me, fuck, put your cock in me, Levos, please, I need it, I need it—”
Levos shoves three fingers forward in one harsh movement, pressing down at the same time he sucks harder than he has so far, and Dust comes so hard he sees stars behind his eyes, a yell splitting the air and his whole body going stiff as he arches right off the ground and fucks his hips into Levos’ face.
He grinds his hips into Levos’ face as he rides it through, the orgasm crashing over him in wave after wave, and when he finally drops back into the dirt, breathing heavily and feeling suddenly exhausted, Levos is left crouching over him, his chin smeared with Dust’s juices and his cheeks mottled with red.
“Fuck,” Dust whispers. “You can— You can still fuck me. Come on.”
“I— Ha. No. I can’t.” Levos swallows, blinking a few times and wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. When Dust leans forward, he sees the wet patch on the dirt floor where Levos has come untouched, and he exhales, almost a laugh.
“Fuck,” he says again.
“I’ve never done that before,” says Levos. “Was it alright?”
Dust stares at him blearily, trying to pull himself together, to see if he has words in his mouth – or his brain – to explain that that he’s just come harder than he’s ever done in his fucking life.
“Yes, Levos,” he says. “It was more than alright.”
* * *
In the days after, in between chores, meals, and other work, Levos and Dust can’t keep their hands on each other.
Of all the men Dust has ever fucked, he doesn’t believe a single one has been so eager for Dust’s touch on his skin nor to touch Dust back, and he’s had no shortage of excited and generous partners – Levos reaches for him as though he’s never been touched before, as though the whole of Dust’s body is a novelty to him, as though any body might be new to him.
The first time Dust sucks him off, dropping to his knees when Levos comes into the room one morning, he thinks that Levos’ knees will buckle, that Levos will drop to the floor at the sheer sensation of having his cock in Dust’s mouth. It’s difficult going, hard to open his mouth wide enough around Levos’ massive cock without grazing it with his teeth, but it’s worth it just to feel it, to feel the powerful pulse of its shaft and the musky taste of sweat on his skin, the scent of him.
Levos forgets himself, so eager as he is, at one point grips Dust’s hair and pushes forward, and Dust chokes around the whole of it, so thick he’s certain that where its head is pressing into his throat it must be bulging out, visible from the outside – he’s jerking himself off as he sucks Levos off and the sudden thrust into his throat makes him come, moaning and whining as Levos comes down his throat, his cock pulsing so that Dust can feel it on his tongue.
He eats Dust out for what feels like hours some mornings, spreading him out in bed or pushing him back over counters and tables, all the better to spread him apart and taste every part of him with his tongue, to trace around the head of his cock and suck its shaft into his mouth, to swipe the tip of his tongue into the folds of his lips, the inner and the outer, to trace it around the ring of his open cunt. The first time he throws Dust’s legs over his shoulders to give him a better angle as he laps at Dust’s cunt, Dust is left squirming and gasping, and that’s before Levos leans in and thrusts his tongue inside him, curling it against the roof of Dust’s cunt and making his whole body sing with pleasure.
He rims him, too, swipes his tongue over Dust’s arsehole and then flicks and plays at it with his fingers when he finds that Dust’s responsive to it, whenever he’s eating him out. He plays with his fingers, rubs and squeezes at Dust’s thighs, pulls on and squeezes his cock with a gentle thumb and forefinger, then presses his thumb against it and strums it hard and cruel against his pubic bone, until Dust is screaming into the pillow as he comes to the sensation.
He puts his hands on Dust’s chest, interested by the ever-so-slight swell of his chest – Dust had caught it too early to let puberty swell his chest noticeably big, but it’s big enough to feel where the flesh is a little bit softer, softer than Levos’ own similarly flat chest is. Dust’s nipples aren’t particularly sensitive, but Levos’ are – Dust spends more than a few evenings suckling on and blowing cold air over them, enjoying the way Levos whines and shudders and fidgets under the attention, how loudly he moans when his nipples are tweaked and tugged and pulled on, how he comes untouched one night when after teasing them for ages, Dust takes one in his mouth and bites down hard enough to mark him with his teeth.
Levos is sensitive to being finger-fucked, too – Dust first fingers him while sucking him off, sliding one finger he’s wet with his own juices into Levos’ arse, and he thinks that Levos might well faint he looks so utterly taken aback by it. Dust presses directly on the bundle of nerves under his cock and draws back just as Levos comes, and he laughs in disbelief at how powerful the resulting expulsion is, how Levos’ cock pulses and spatters the whole of his chest and some of his own cheek with white come.
The only thing Levos won’t allow, the only thing he refuses again and again, is to fuck Dust with his cock. With his fingers, yes, in Dust’s arse and his cunt, but he refuses to sheath his cock in any of Dust’s holes but his mouth, and it drives him mad at times – when Levos has him bent over the table and is fucking his cheeks and then his thighs the friction is such that Dust has slick all over his inner thighs, not even considering the amount of it wetting Levos’ cock, and although Levos nudges and rubs against the sandwich of his lips, although now and then he’ll nudge against one of his holes with the blunt head of his prick, Levos won’t actually fuck him.
Dust craves it.
“Why?” Dust begs him, and Levos simply shakes his head, drawing Dust into another kiss as he fucks him with four fingers, their cocks rubbing together as Dust straddles his lap.
After, they lie on their sides in Levos’ bed, both of them naked and glistening with sweat, and Levos traces absent patterns over Dust’s body, playing over his chest, his belly. When not fucking or working, they’ve talked in the past few weeks, but little about their lives before.
They’ve discussed the flora and mushrooms native to this valley, discussed the animals and birds, and in doing so, Levos has also talked about flora and fauna in the country he grew up in; Dust has spoken about the animals and plants around Riena, about the difference between them and the city of Ov, which has a more humid climate and is surrounded by marshy wetlands, about how many birds there are, how many fishes, how many large wild animals somewhat more varied than those around Riena’s desert expanses. They’ve talked about poetry and literature, about the books each of them have read – to Dust’s surprise, Levos has read many of the books he has, and although he must have read hundreds, if not thousands of texts in his time here at the temple, he seems to remember them all.
They debate poetry as they do dishes together, discussing whether one ancient poet was in favour of the war he wrote of, whether he found glory in the deaths of the soldiers in it, or whether he was condemning it, whether his words were solemn and full of regret; they argue about politics as Dust milks Levos’ cock of come, mouthing and biting at his shoulders as he fucks him with his fingers and Levos frots against the mattress beneath them; they laugh about old jokes, and Levos tells Dust ones he’s never heard before until his belly is aching from laughter and he has to beg him for respite.
They talk about philosophy and beauty and art and architecture and agriculture, talk about festivals and music, talk about all manner of things, although Dust is always aware of the isolation Levos lives in here at this isolated temple in this isolated valley, and he aches at how familiar it feels.
So much music, so much art, so many of the things they discuss, Levos has only read about in books, or seen etches and sketches and reproductions of – he can read music, but whenever he speaks about hearing it played, the occasions are rare and far-between, always on occasions when bards have happened through the valley with their instruments in hand. Not since he was a child had he experienced the hustling crowd of a festival march, of the band surrounding you on all sides or the loud players with their drums and great instruments on top of a stage, of how when everyone is singing at once you feel full up with it, feel the music echo in your ribcage, inside your own skull.
Dust remembers how fall the world suddenly felt again when he left Ov and returned home to Riena, how it had felt like he shrank down to fit. For all Riena was small and had such a limited number of people living in it, for all his parents were difficult to contend with, for all its flaws, there were people there.
Who does Levos have in this black temple, buried in the base of the valley?
Travellers come through, bards and traders, but all of them are on their way elsewhere – none of them stay except Dust, now, and it’s not as though it’s Dust’s intent to stay forever. He’d been expecting someone to come after him, had been expecting to be tracked down, but there’s been no sign of anyone coming down into the valley, let alone someone from Riena.
“When you first came here,” begins Dust one morning as they walk down to the river to check the fish traps, “how many priests were there?”
“None,” says Levos, and Dust blinks, not understanding what that means as he looks at Levos’ back, at the handsome spread of his naked shoulders, the flex of muscle in them. There are scratch marks on them from Dust’s nails, from the way Dust was scrabbling at his back this morning and digging his heels into his lower back trying to coax him into actually fucking him instead of just frotting against him.
Levos glances back at him, adjusting the grip on the basket he holds under his arm. There’s anxiety writ in his features, his lips twisting slightly. Dust feels he’s getting much better at working out the meanings of Levos’ expressions, the way he so often smiles while hiding more complex emotion.
He isn’t even smiling now.
“None?” he repeats.
“As I told you, I heard a call from within the Great Wood,” says Levos. “I followed it, and after I walked and walked and walked, I came out at the other end of the valley. I… had dreams, then. Dreams that taught me, told me what needed to be done, what work had to be completed.”
Dust feels a sort of aching fall inside his chest – moving through the rooms of the temple, so many of them empty, with furniture covered over or no furnishings at all, he had always thought that once upon a time, perhaps the place bustled with priests in skirts like Levos’, dozens of them. There are so many rooms, able to be used as cells, not to mention a lofty dining and dancing hall – there’s an altar room, too, and that is huge, a sort of stone bed laid over with red silks.
Why is the place so lofty and huge, if not to be filled with priests and worshipers?
“And your master,” says Dust, “the, the head priest, or the… he was asleep then, too?”
“You’ve been alone this whole time?” Levos turns his face away, moving toward the river, and Dust says, “Sorry,” before he can even take his next breath, so desperate to get the word out as he follows Levos down to the river’s side, dropping his head between Levos’ shoulders, his hands wrapping about the other man’s waist.
One of Levos’ hands rests over Dust’s, and he leans back into Dust’s body, into his grip.
“I’m glad I’m here with you,” Dust murmurs against Levos’ back, and Levos squeezes his hand. He pulls away as Levos steps into the water to check one of the traps, and Dust goes to one of the others, bending over to pull out the fish stuck in the wicker’s grip.
They work in silence for a few minutes, pulling the fish out of the traps and dropping them into the basket, and Dust pulls out one of the traps that’s gotten damaged to take it back and repair it. He wonders how many of these skills Levos has been taught through dreams, how to repair or set the traps, how to butcher and cook the meat they eat, how to garden, how to harvest?
He was having nightmares for some time but of recent, his dreams have turned more pleasant. He no longer wakes screaming or confused, no longer experiences disturbed sleep that leaves him groggy and confused some mornings. He sleeps through the night and doesn’t really remember his dreams.
At first, Dust had dreamed of his family coming for him, dreamed of some men from Riena coming to track him down and drag him back, dreamed of being pinned on his back or his belly and being forced to—
He doesn’t want to think about it, a little nausea pulling at his belly, a sour taste burning in the back of his throat. But he no longer has those dreams anymore, in any case.
Frequently, he dreams of gentle touch on his body, on his arms and shoulders, stroking down his back and between his thighs, imagines a slow, meandering touch over his belly, rubbing it in easy, pleasant circles. It’s not specific or particularly one person or another, he doesn’t think, is defined primarily by sensation rather than any particular face or body or person – when he wakes, it’s with the distant dream of the sensation still lingering on his skin, and it’s nice, calming.
“It must have been lonely for you too,” says Levos as they start the trek back up the hill. “In Riena. With your siblings lost to you, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Dust says quietly. “When I left Riena I was the youngest child, and when I went home, I was the eldest son. I, um…” He bites his lip, glancing back at Levos, and says, “They didn’t— My parents.”
Levos looks at him attentively, his expression quietly interested, and Dust wonders if he’s about to see it change, if Levos is going to look at him with disgust or distaste, with anger, not at what he is, not at what he’s become or the state of his body, but at the lies he has told, the truths he hasn’t.
“I let them— The aunt and uncle I went to stay with, in Ov, they’re very different to my family in Riena. Very different. Almost as soon as I came to the city, they knew what I was, that I didn’t want… That I didn’t want to become a woman. That that wasn’t right for me. My aunt knew almost as soon as looking at me, I think, and she was so gentle about asking – I had no words for what I was, what I wanted. All I knew was that my mother always talked about how when I was older I’d be a wife and birth babies like she did, that hopefully I’d have way more than five like her, and it made me feel so sick, so awful. But she didn’t make it sound like I had a choice, in any of it – to be a woman, to be a wife, to be…” The word tastes like ashes in his mouth. “To be pregnant. Bred.
“And my aunt told me I didn’t have to do that if I didn’t want to. That I never had to go back to Riena if I didn’t want, that I could stay in Ov and never marry, that she could take me to get a contraceptive enchantment, too, that I need never worry about getting pregnant if I didn’t want to. And then she— We talked about it, first. She talked to me about my feelings and what they were like, what… What I needed, what I wanted. What I was frightened of. At first she just took me to a wizard to get an enchantment to stay my puberty, so that it wouldn’t come on so quickly. My brother was starting to get taller, put on muscle, and get hairier, and I was jealous, I wanted that.
“I remember being in tears, saying that I didn’t want to be a woman, that I didn’t want breasts or to look— to look like that, that I was going to look like my mother and my sister, and I didn’t understand why it so distressed me, why it felt so wrong. But that I didn’t want to stay a little child forever, either.
“And she said, “Well, what do you want?”
“And I said, “Well, I want to be like Samael, but I can’t, because I’m not a boy.”
“And she said, “Well, you can be. We’ll just go back to the wizard – put you on the right path, a man’s path, instead of a woman’s. If that’s how you feel, then that’s what we’ll do.” I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t… That it was so simple. That the agony I lived under, the terror I felt just looking at an ordinary future, could suddenly be so relieved from me – it was as though I were suddenly alive, when I hadn’t been alive all my childhood.”
Levos is staring at him, his expression soft and focused, and he reaches out and delicately curls his fingers around Dust’s upper arm, squeezing. His smile is encouraging and warm.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” he says quietly. Dust feels gooey and warm and loved in a way he doesn’t really know he can describe.
“Well,” he goes on, “My parents wouldn’t have accepted it. And we kept it secret, didn’t— My aunt and uncle just didn’t mention it. It took some two or three months for messages to go between Ov and Riena, depending on the season, the journey being so long and so arduous, the caravans irregular. When Samael and I were ill, my aunt and uncle were distraught, didn’t know if either of us would survive, and when I did and Samael didn’t, they just… They talked to me about it first, obviously. My uncle said that they would never pressure me, if I didn’t wish it, that they would never force me into a lie if it could be avoided, if— It was his idea, and I think he felt guilty for it being so. Felt guilty for seeing an opportunity in the death of his nephew, who he loved so much. But he said… He said that as Samael was dead, and it had been three years since my parents had seen either of us, and I was growing into a young boy myself, that he would write to them and tell them that I had died, not Samael. I would live his life, and my parents would never need know what I had done, what I was.”
Levos looks at him with such an expression on his face that Dust feels like bursting into tears. It’s utterly compassionate, full of quiet pain, but somehow that’s worse for a reason he couldn’t describe were he pressed – the idea that he’s come from a family, a situation, so awful that it should prompt such a display of sympathy.
“Would your parents really have been so unaccepting?” he asks, horror weighing down each word.
“I wasn’t sure,” Dust admits. “But my uncle had thought of the idea because he was so worried about their response, didn’t— My aunt wanted to just keep on not telling them, to just not say anything. My uncle’s concern was that if they found out, they would try to turn me back. To take me back to the wizard and force me into being a woman when I wasn’t. If they never knew what I’d done, if they thought I was Samael, it wouldn’t be a concern – after all, while they would want Samael to take a wife, to spread his seed, they wouldn’t force the matter, wouldn’t deny it in precisely the same way.
“Women in Riena are just— The treatment is different there, than in Ov. Life is harsher, more isolated. Women are more easily controlled – if you don’t like how you’re treated, don’t like your husband, what can you do? Walk out into the desert, bake in the sun, die there? You can’t make the journey to the next town alone, and nor would anyone go with you.
“And what I am, what I… If I ever went back to Riena, I would be anathema to the people there. For them to even suspect, they wouldn’t think of me as a man anymore – I would be a woman who had transgressed, who needed to be corrected. I wasn’t certain if my uncle was right, at the time, I was so young, but I gave my assent.
“And he was right.” Dust feels the weight of those four words linger on the air between them, the two of them stopping in their movement up the hill. “I don’t know if they would have been the same, if my brothers hadn’t died, and my sister, if I wasn’t— I don’t know if they would have been better, if I wasn’t the only one left. I had gone back because they begged me to, because they wanted one son of their own, they said, to work with.
“But they found out a few weeks before my sister died, and they were already being a little strange about it – standoffish, sharp, but my sister counselled in my favour. She made sure they didn’t want to tell anyone else in town, implied it would be embarrassing for them, and it wasn’t— I didn’t like it. It wasn’t perfect. It was nothing like my aunt and uncle were. But what could I do? I was stuck there. And then when my sister and her husband died, they… It just flipped them. They sent for a wizard to travel by caravan, and they had selected a husband for me, and they were going to…”
Nausea hits him in a swell, and he shakes his head. “Getting me pregnant would have sped up reversing many of the changes,” he says. “And it wasn’t… Because it wasn’t just that. You know in Ov, there are men who are pregnant? There was an armsman, a weapons trader, and I saw him one day, this big, bearded man sitting and feeding his baby from his breast, resting the bundle of him on the swell of his next. They would never allow for that in Riena. It would upset their whole— All their rules, their expectations. My parents wanted more grandchildren, wanted me to have children, but I couldn’t just have children myself. They had to force me to be a woman to do it – and not just a woman, but a wife.
“My uncle was right, believing the worst of his brother. My father sort of ranted to me one day, how poor a wife I was, how hard it was to convince a man to take me, how much they were having to give as a dowry, what other trades he’d had to make alongside.
“All that time he was raving and shouting, I couldn’t even leave the room – they had boarded up my window, and barred the door when my father wasn’t home to restrain me. When I slit open my thigh, it was to prove to them I would do it. I had a knife to my throat on the verge of escape, and they said I would never, that a woman would never – I slit open my thigh to show I would. They fell on me like dogs, tied me up. And then I…” He shakes his head, rubbing at his thigh through his trousers, feeling how smooth it is now, the cut not even thick enough that I can feel it through the linen. “I woke in the night, dizzy and confused, managed to shake my bonds. Fled on foot, and just ran and ran and ran… I never even knew this turn into the valley – I fell into it by luck.”
Levos’ arm wraps around his waist, pulling him closer, and his lips are gentle and warm where they brush against his temple.
“You need never go home to those ugly people again,” he whispers. “What they did to you, that is— that is unconscionable. They cannot and will not come for you here.”
Dust exhales, and nods his head.
It feels as though a weight has lifted from his shoulders, telling Levos that story, being met with such care, no judgement whatsoever – and he believes Levos, in fact. Perhaps he really won’t be tracked here, perhaps he’s safe.
“Come,” says Levos. “We should start these fish, if we want to eat some time today.”
Dust nods, and starts back up the hill.
* * *
In his dreams, the touches are more definite than they were before.
As Dust sleeps alongside Levos’ one night, his face mashed into the pillow, Levos’ breathing even and easy behind him, coaxing him further and deeper into sleep, he dreams of other touches on him. He dreams of a firm, slow press that slides over his lower back and curls around him, dreams that he’s being lifted up by a strong and secure grip that surrounds him on all sides, curling about his arms and shoulders, his middle, his thighs.
Spreading him open.
He wakes so alight with heat and want that he rolls over and straddles Levos, who still lies asleep. His cock is stiff as a masthead in his sleep, and Dust grinds his cock against the shaft of it, groans quietly at the wet smear he leaves down it. He aches to have Levos’ cock, so thick and long as it is, buried in him, wants for that perfect fullness of Levos’ cock in his cunt, in his arse, even.
How long has it been since he’s been fucked? Too long. A year at least, perhaps even two, and his cunt hungers for it.
Levos’ eyelashes flutter, and as his eyes open he looks up at Dust blearily, his lips parted, as Dust continues to grind against him, clenching down on bare air.
“Won’t you fuck me?” asks Dust softly, his tone as beseeching as any worshiper’s might be in a temple like this, and Levos’ brow furrows, his expression crumpled.
“I can’t,” he says woefully. “I can’t…”
“Please,” Levos whispers, but his gaze is upward as the word drops from his lips, and Dust lets out a noise of surprise as a rumble passes through the temple around them, offsetting his balance. He grinds down all the harder against Levos’ cock, and Levos arches, catching Dust in a kiss and flipping them over.
Dust moans headily at the clumsy thrusts of Levos’ cock against his lips, between his legs but not catching on his hole and sinking in – Levos has gotten much better at kissing as the weeks have passed between them, and Dust’s head spins as Levos kisses him deeply and the ground and stone and walls quake and shake around them.
Some dust comes from the ceiling and scatters atop them, over Levos’ bare back.
“My master wakes,” says Levos against Dust’s mouth, and Dust’s eyes widen, his head tipping back. “He would meet you.”
“He craves you as I do,” says Levos, sliding his hands up Dust’s sides, gripping at his thighs, his hips, then gripping his waist tightly, keeping him pinned down beneath him. His cheeks have darkened, his lips spit slick and kiss-bruised, and his eyes glint with reflected moonlight from outside – it’s still some hours until sunrise. “Would you serve him?”
“Yes,” says Levos, and his tongue flicks over the bottom part of Dust’s lip, making him shudder. “Would you serve him? Would you stay?”
“Yes,” says Dust before he can stop himself, before he can even think of saying anything else, and Levos needs no further assurance or assent – he’s on his feet and pulling Dust with him, carrying him like a bride in his arms.
“When I came here, a young man, I knew nothing of the world, knew nothing of this temple, nor of my master,” Levos tells him as they move, carrying Dust as easily as he did the first day, as easily as anything. “I had never touched a man or been touched by one as I’ve touched you now. For years on years I’ve waited, Dust, waited, craved the companionship of another – my master would not wait until there were two of us. Both of us are needed to bring about his divine vision.”
Dust feels as though he’s been dropped into a hot bath, his skin warm all over and tingling. He squirms a bit in Levos’ arms, surprised by the sensation of his blood pumping all the harder, his heart beating fast, his skin doubly, triply sensitive. When he takes in a breath, it feels like it’s rushing to his head, and he feels drunk, somehow. His cunt is so wet it must be dripping, because his arse feels wet too, wet and ready and open and greedy.
Will Levos’ master fuck him?
Is that what he’s been waiting for?
The thought hits him in a wave and he lolls back in Levos’ arms, moaning softly – with swimming vision, he sees that in the dark of the temple halls, lit only by the moonlight outside with all their candles doused for the night, the carved reliefs on the corridor walls seem to shift and move before his eyes. The swelling masses of eyes and tentacles and strange flesh seem to writhe and move with the wan light and flickering shadow, and it occurs to Dust that for all these many weeks he hasn’t even looked at the carved art on every tile and stone in the temple, and why not? How many times has his gaze wandered to the walls or the ceiling and moved straight over these great, twisting designs, not even taking them in, digesting them?
He sees eye after eye, clusters of them gathered together like grapes on the vine, and surrounding them are masses of thick, coiling tentacles, all of them thicker and more muscled than any octopus’ he’s seen in etchings in Ov.
The darkness reaches out to swallow them as Levos takes him down a set of stairs and into the big altar room – a stone bed covered over with red silks dominates it, and in the dim, creamy light, the red fabric looking smooth as liquid and richly pigmented. When Levos drops him back onto the covered surface Dust can’t quite believe that it’s not a pool, that he isn’t sinking into it as easily as he might a bowl of wine.
Levos falls atop him and is kissing him, and Dust’s eyes must be closed, but he still knows as the room tremors again that the hall has darkened to pitch black.
He lets out a sound in the dark, feeling a curling touch against and around one of his wrists, his legs falling open, and he arches up and into Levos’ body as Levos comes to kiss him again, their hands sliding against each other’s bodies. He’s wet and open and so fucking hungry for it.
Levos is talking in a language that Dust doesn’t know, and something about the shape of it, the sound of it, makes his drunken body throb and ache at the core of it, makes him squirm and shift. He’s so hungry for Levos’ touch, craves it, needs it – and yet this language, strange and old and new to him, is so thick and so full of magic that it dances over his skin.
With the complete darkness on every side, it feels as if the two of them are suspended in it, the ground shaking and quaking, and although the ceiling must be shaking too, the sound of grinding stone ringing in his ears, no dust falls on them this time, not that he can feel.
The first press against Dust’s cunt makes him whimper, and Levos is still talking, still chanting, the words rich with magic and power, and Dust tries to hold back the noise but he can’t manage it as the cock finally slides inside him and spreads him open.
His wail echoes off the tall ceiling and around the hall, because finally, finally, there’s a cock inside his cunt and it’s spreading him wide, his thighs apart, his back arching. There are desperate, hungry moans coming out of his throat as Levos just keeps chanting, keeps speaking to his master, and his hands are gripping Dust’s hips, they’re sliding around his thighs, gripping his ankles, his wrists, pinning him back against the red silk backing and surrounding him on all sides. He’s warm and wet and strong and all-encompassing, his voice a constant rhythm.
His fingers come and tweak and play over Dust’s nipples, and then somehow, even though he’s still chanting, he sucks on one and then the other, the sensation making him yelp and hiss even though he’s normally not so sensitive here.
He keeps thrusting inside Dust’s cunt, keeps on thrusting, and fuck, fuck, but his cock is just getting deeper, deeper than Dust would have imagined, so deep that Dust feels as if it’s going to fill him right up, come out the other side.
His voice is louder now, getting louder, and the chanting seems to be building to a crescendo as he raises his voice and then shouts to be heard over the grinding stone and the quaking earth and the thunder and the falling rain outside, all the noise, the roar of it all.
His cock is thick as he comes, and Dust moans at the sensation of Levos’ come finally pumping into him, the hot spurt of it in him, the way his cock is wider, wider— There’s something thick, something different, a kind of burst and pressure, pleasant, but… But…
There’s a burst of lightning outside, or maybe inside, because in the flash of sudden light Dust lays eyes on Levos, and he’s not bent over him with his cock buried in Dust’s cunt – he’s standing in the centre dais twelve feet away from him, his gaze on the ceiling and his hands raised up to the sky, the gold around his neck shining in the bright light.
Dust howls as another of the master’s tentacles slides into his arse, forcing its way past the ring of muscle, sinking so deep within him he feels like he’s about to be pierced all the way through. He’s surrounded on all sides by them, each tentacle dark, gleaming red and glistening with wetness, and they’re coiling all the way around his body, two mouth-ended ones sucking at his tits, the others plunging into his holes.
Another bulge spreads his cunt and he moans, staring down at it as it’s accompanied by another gush of fluid, and he realises what’s happening, that the master is awake and depositing its eggs deep within him.
In the next flash of lightning he sees that the ceiling is made up not of stone but of a hundred unblinking eyes, each and every one of them fixed on him, and he opens his mouth to scream – another tentacle thrusts inside him, sweet like honey over his tongue before it slides down his throat. He wants to be scared, wants to be frightened, wants to make some kind of protest, but it feels so good being fucked like this it’s hard to remember what he should be scared of.
The tentacles are thrusting into his arse and his cunt, are plunging in and out of him, and he’s so full up with them, so aware of the touches massaging and sliding over his arms, his legs, every other part of his body.
Levos stops chanting, and in the darkness Dust has nothing to concentrate on but the mass of the master’s tentacles he’s been given over to, the way that he can feel his orgasm building inside him, feels like he’s going to explode when the tension finally breaks.
There’s another bulge, another, and Dust’s breath hitches in his throat, somewhere around the tentacle that’s buried in it, because the eggs are sinking into him faster now, one after the next. He can feel them bulging out his belly, can feel the weight of them inside him – he swallows and moans around the tentacle in his mouth, clenches down and feels the two tentacles crammed inside him.
“That’s it,” says Levos. He’s closer, now, close in the dark. “I’ve been waiting for you – we’ve been waiting for you.”
The tentacle in his mouth draws free, and Dust heaves in a ragged breath, then moans as Levos’ lips touch against his, as Levos kisses him. The honey sweetness of the master’s tentacle is still clinging to his tongue.
“I don’t want to be a woman,” Dust groans, and Levos cups his cheeks.
“You won’t be. You’re not,” says Levos.
“Still a man,” says Levos, and Dust is hot all over, his body aching, his body thrumming, and he drags Levos down into kissing him again. “We’ve been waiting so long,” he whispers against Dust’s mouth. “Some thousand years I’ve been in this valley, Dust, waiting, waiting for you—”
Dust can’t conceive of that, can’t quite understand what Levos is saying as more eggs drop into him, his stomach a round swell that Levos is stroking his palm over. For some reason he doesn’t feel sick, doesn’t feel scared, as he always used to, thinking of pregnancy, thinking of all it entailed.
This is different.
“My master’s children will bring about an end to all that never ailed you,” Levos whispers. “An end to a world that didn’t deserve you.”
His blood runs hot and cold at once, a sort of terrifying thrill, and helplessly, he pulls Levos closer to him – one of the tentacles slides out of his cunt, leaving him empty, and before he can finish the noise of loss that comes tumbling out of his mouth, Levos takes his master’s place.
Dust pulls Levos closer to him, his hands gripping at Levos’ arse as the tentacle keeps fucking his arse, Levos’ cock sinking into his cunt.
Lightning flashes again, and Dust sees Levos’ face, worshipful, eager, desperate – all of that emotion concentrated on Dust alone. “I have you,” he whispers as he leans in close again. “I have you.”
The tentacles are swarming them both now, wrapped around Levos’ body as much as Dust’s own, and he feels like the two of them are floating in it, like the two of them are suspended in the dark together, alone in this temple – in this valley, even. Thousands of years—
“Fuck me,” Dust moans, and Levos does as he’s told.
* * *
Some time later, Dust lies back on the bed of soft silks, belly heavy with eggs, and stares across the valley – the roof is still above their heads, but some of the walls have fallen away, much of the temple collapsed. The rain is coming down heavily into the valley, flooding the river and bringing the banks up higher and higher.
The master has retreated for now, but staring at the roiling water, Dust sees the shadows of tentacles from time to time, the great leviathan beneath the surface.
Even in Ov, Dust’s never seen so much water in his life.
“This world will drown,” says Dust quietly, and he’s surprised by how powerful the statement makes him feel, how it adds to the sense of warmth and satisfaction he already feels, fucked silly and full up with a clutch of monstrous, wondrous eggs.
“We won’t,” says Levos, and pecks his cheek.
Dust, laughing softly, grips his wrist and pulls him closer, kisses him properly before he pushes the priest back down between his legs.