by juou no zan (女王のザン)
When General Nateno decided they were going to invade Kepprala, Haran was excited. He’d never been that far east, since he wasn’t a strong enough fighter or a sneaky enough spy to be sent out of the grasslands on his own.
When General Nateno decided they were going to settle in Kepprala, Haran was more confused than anything else. Sure, the wildstorms had been bad lately, but the grasslands of western Noricum were their home.
But when they got to Kepprala, Haran understood. He was too young to remember what a landscape unscarred by out-of-control magic was like, apparently, because he did not remember the grasslands ever looking this alive and welcoming.
Haran may not have been all that strong or sneaky, but it turned out he had a knack for Keppra, so he spent the first few months after the invasion stationed in the capital under General Ordoni’s direct command. Some of the troupe complained about the crowdedness, the noise, and the buildings of the city, but Haran couldn’t mind those things too much when the palace dormitory he was living out of had running water and soap that didn’t sting his skin. He didn’t exactly like the city, but he could see its appeal, and he definitely appreciated some of the benefits a stationary life brought.
Still, he was relieved when he heard Lord Nateno’s orders for all Deshnadians to start finding Keppralan-style employment. Anyone who was willing to try a trade that they hadn’t had back in the grasslands could just tell their commander and get the means to try it.
So Haran tracked down Ordoni when he wasn’t around any other Deshnadians. Haran was directed to the Keppralan king’s secretary’s office, which was not a place Haran would expect to find his commanding officer, but when he knocked on the door, it was Ordoni’s voice telling him to come in.
Haran hadn’t actually seen the king’s secretary in person before, and seeing him led Haran to conclude Ordoni was angling to get his own pet Keppralan. The king’s secretary was very pretty, although Haran couldn’t see any amount of attractiveness making it worth putting up with the weird shit Keppralans thought about relationships. They thought it was an insult that Nateno was fucking their king, for God’s sake. When they thought no Deshnadians were around, some of them talked about it like it would have been better if Nateno had just killed him. Like Lord Nateno wanting to fuck your king wasn’t basically a compliment!
Ordoni was sitting very close to the king’s secretary, behind his desk. The desk itself was covered in paperwork, which appeared to be the primary way the Keppralan government functioned. Haran hadn’t ever seen paper used for anything other than art and windows before they got here, but even random Keppralans on the street would walk around with little stacks of paper in folders or booklets. Everything in the palace was written down in lists, and had copies made of it, and then got sent around to other people or stacked in a box somewhere to refer to later. Ordoni said it wasn’t that complicated, but Haran was better at speaking than reading even in his native Razdot, so he’d been trying to avoid it as much as possible.
Out of respect for the Keppralan man whose office he was in, and whose work he was interrupting, Haran said in Keppra, “Ordoni, I want to be a farmer.”
The secretary’s eyebrows went up. Fair enough, Haran thought. He’d gone out of his way to avoid having this conversation around other Deshnadians for a reason, after all; even though they all understood there were good reasons for them to get Keppralan jobs, Haran’s fellows had nothing but disdain for farming in particular. That the king’s secretary would know that was not surprising.
“Hm,” Ordoni said. “Alright. You given any thought to what kind?”
Haran frowned. “What kind?” he repeated. “I don’t know, food? I guess if oil or linen is more important I could learn that.”
This time, it was Ordoni who frowned. The king’s secretary spun around in his chair and pulled a box off a shelf. Ordoni said, “Wait, you mean you want to be a farmer farmer?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
Ordoni shook his head. “Some people have been saying ‘farmer’ to mean any Keppralan job,” he said. “I didn’t expect anyone to volunteer for actual farming so soon.”
“That’s stupid,” Haran said, and the king’s secretary snorted. The secretary turned to set the box on his desk on top of the papers already spread out there, and rifled through the contents inside, before pulling yet another piece of paper out of it. He laid it on the table, and Ordoni leaned over to look at it, resting his arm along the back of the secretary’s chair.
“The king recently received a petition from a minor lord to the south,” the secretary said, glancing up at Haran, “complaining about the poor attitude of one of his farmers driving off other farmers, and causing trouble in the village. The exact word he used was ‘belligerent’.”
“Oh,” Ordoni said, looking enlightened. “The controlling asshole.” The secretary nodded at him. “Yeah, he couldn’t push Haran around the same way.”
“I doubt he would be a great teacher, however,” the secretary said. He looked back at Haran. “Do you read Keppra?” he asked.
Haran grimaced. “Sure, but it’s not my favorite thing to do.”
The secretary frowned and said, “Hmm.”
“We can figure something out,” Ordoni said. His arm was still along the back of the secretary’s chair, and the secretary didn’t seem to have noticed, or else simply didn’t mind. Perhaps Ordoni already had his pet Keppralan. Ordoni looked at Haran and asked, “Would you be willing to do that? We could probably ask the lord to split the land, so you would just have a pushy neighbor instead of a pushy colleague.”
Haran laughed, and said, “Pushy by Keppralan standards? Not a problem.”
The next day, Ordoni took Haran to the University and introduced him to a professor of botany and agriculture. Haran had known his Deshnad compatriots were wrong to think farmers were lazy, but he hadn’t realized how much there was to know.
Professor Muzza was an enthusiastic lecturer, and smiled at Haran’s questions. He didn’t seem to mind explaining very basic things to Haran; indeed, he was thrilled that Haran listened so attentively and asked good questions. But the longer Professor Muzza talked, the more Haran got the feeling there were even more details he was skimming over for simplicity’s sake. There was so much to consider, every decision affecting other parts of the farm, changing when things needed to be watered or harvested or planted. How could Haran remember all of it without writing any of it down or drawing himself diagrams?
How would he continue to learn when he was on a distant farm, with a neighbor so troublesome that his lord had written to the king for assistance?
The best way to learn farming was probably to grow up in a society that valued it, with a family that did it. That way was obviously closed to Haran. But the reason the king’s secretary had asked if Haran could read Keppra was clear now. Haran asked Professor Muzza if there were any books he would recommend.
Which was how Haran wound up in the University library, taking notes and looking up farming terminology he wouldn’t have known in his native language, let alone Keppra, so he could even begin to understand what he was reading. Ordoni commissioned copies of all the books Professor Muzza recommended, for Haran to take with him, but even with printing presses it took time to copy books. Haran worked from library copies in the meantime.
It did mean he was nearby if he had a question for Professor Muzza, which was good because knowing Keppra didn’t help when some of the books assumed their readers would already know things that Haran, who had grown up in a nomadic herding society instead of one that practiced agriculture, simply did not know.
By the time Haran’s copies of the books were ready, he was much more comfortable reading in Keppra than in Razdot, he had been introduced to Professor Muzza’s family, and he was extremely grateful that he was going to have royal support while he tried to figure out what the hell he was doing.
The wagon ride down to his new farm was slow and boring. Haran had time to read through most of the books the professor had recommended, which went easier now that he didn’t need to look up every other word. Haran had never had a horse pull more than a small sledge, and never further than a short distance, so the rate at which his wagon full of belongings and farming supplies could actually travel felt excruciatingly slow. He couldn’t fault the horse for it, of course; she was a fine mare doing a good job, and she didn’t care when Haran stopped paying attention to the road because he was reading or thinking too hard about what he could still reasonably grow a third of the way through the season.
Every four hours, like clockwork, the mare slowed to a stop on the side of the road and stood there. If Haran didn’t climb down off the wagon right away, she snorted and stamped and tossed her head until he noticed, and got down. Haran wondered if she’d keep doing it once they were on the farm, or if she’d find some other way to mark her time. Probably stick her head in the window and wake him up if he tried to sleep in. He suspected the stable-master had just been trying to rid himself of a tricky, too-smart horse, but Haran was a good Deshnad kid and had always liked a horse with more personality than sense.
If more of his fellow warriors realized that going into actual farming meant they’d be able to claim a horse again, Haran reflected, they’d be more enthusiastic about the idea. Adopting a sedentary life or living in a city was bad enough without having to live without a horse, too.
The palace stable-master had called Haran’s new horse Buttercup, but that was a plainly terrible name for a bossy lady like her. Haran decided to call her Lenda, after his grandmother. His grandmother had also been a bossy lady constantly reminding Haran to do his chores. Plus, it almost sounded like a Keppralan name, so it wouldn’t mark him out too badly to his neighbors. If he could get used to being called Harran, he thought, he’d basically be Keppralan already.
It took nearly six weeks to plod their way from the palace stables in Kepprala’s capital down to Baron Berrut’s estate. Haran continued to be astonished at how much variety and life there was in a landscape that didn’t experience wildstorms. It was a beautiful country, even if most of the common folk who passed Haran on the road narrowed their eyes at him or flipped him off when they were well away from him. Granted, the other Deshnadians weren’t much better. They’d ask why he was on his own, driving a wagon, and as soon as Haran said he was heading down to take over a farm in Baron Berrut’s territory, they looked at him like he’d just said he was going to start eating shit.
Haran passed through the village that represented his social life for the foreseeable future early in the morning six weeks after he set out. The townsfolk didn’t give him a second glance; he assumed that would change when they realized he was moving in.
Baron Berrut’s estate was smaller and more defensible than the palace or the University, or frankly any of the architecture in the Keppralan capital, including the city walls. Its only windows were small, high off the ground, or both, and the single gate had proper murder holes on either side. However, the points the architecture scored in Haran’s estimation were quickly lost by the gate being manned by a lone guard, who had his back to it so he could shade the book he was reading from the sun. The guard abandoned his post when Haran handed him the letter for Baron Berrut and led Haran to his master, leaving the gate undefended.
Who was stationed down here, Haran wondered. Had they even bothered to take this little castle, or had the single guard taken one look at the approaching Deshnad warriors and surrendered? Yes, it was convenient and suited Nateno’s plans, but Haran felt these people should have more pride. Of course, maybe they had been better defended prior to the invasion, and now they reasonably assumed no one could possibly get past the significantly more robust military might of the Deshnadians protecting them. None of Kepprala’s neighbors had been eager to help Kepprala fight off their invasion, and they wouldn’t have a chance of defeating the Deshnadian forces now they were entrenched and intermingled with Keppralan resources. Haran still found himself taking mental responsibility for the castle and the village, as clearly if anything were to happen, he would be the most capable warrior in the area.
Baron Berrut was up on the roof, where he appeared to have some kind of bee house. The guard waved at him, and Baron Berrut took off his broad hat draped in netting and two large gloves, then walked over to where Haran and the guard waited. He was an older, heavy-set man, but unlike most of the nobility Haran had met in the capital city, he did look as though he had done manual labor in his life.
After the social niceties were out of the way, Baron Berrut led Haran over to the edge of the roof and pointed. “You see that house there? With the rickety fence alongside it? That’s Tillon’s house. It’s supposed to be the main farmhouse for all the land around it, but, well, no one can stand living and working with Tillon for very long. He put the fence up after he chased the last one away, so your land is on the far side of it. I was hoping to get some sort of shelter built for whoever took it over, but you arrived much sooner than I expected. Honestly, I was surprised the king could find anyone willing to come down here. Tillon’s chased off half the farmers in the county. They keep moving further away.”
“What’s he doing?” Haran asked.
Baron Berrut made a face. “He’s…rude. And annoying. Acts like he knows more than everyone. Trouble is, of course, he is a damn good farmer, so sometimes he does know more than everyone. It’s just that he knows it, and he will not shut up about it. Even before you Deshnadians invaded—sorry, I suppose I shouldn’t say that?”
Haran shrugged. “We did,” he said.
“Well, even before that, people figured there was plenty of land to farm elsewhere, and left,” Baron Berrut said. “Now, enough people have died, fled, or had to move because someone else in their family died, there’s good farmland going untended just about anywhere you care to be. I thought for sure we’d be waiting until next spring at least, for someone to be willing to help out down here.”
Haran asked a few questions about what people usually grew in the area and what the irrigation system was like, then Baron Berrut told him which road to take to get to the farmhouse Tillon lived in, which was the closest thing to a road to Haran’s new land as there was. The guard led Haran back down to the courtyard just inside the gate, where a few children were gathered around Lenda, petting her and offering her snacks. They scattered as soon as one of them noticed Haran, and Lenda turned to give him an evil look.
“Sorry, girl,” Haran said. “Not my fault they’re afraid of me.”
They headed back toward the village and passed through it again to get to the road to Tillon’s farmhouse. It was a small village, but people still didn’t seem to notice him. He expected that would change soon.
The farm was well-situated, only a short walk outside the village, with a stream butting up against the back edge. It was sizable, too; even cut in half by Tillon’s fence, Haran’s half was more than he’d be able to tend by himself this far into the season. That was fine, as some of it would need to remain pasture for Lenda, and it was a good idea to let some land lay fallow and recover. Haran would rather start small and do minimal work on the rest of the farm than overextend himself and the land.
The barn was on Tillon’s side of the fence, so when Haran reached the gate to Tillon’s farm, he got down off the wagon and waved Lenda and the wagon through, then closed the gate behind them so they could keep going. The road was much less well-defined on the inside of the gate. Haran climbed back on the wagon not because it was a long way to walk himself, but because he knew he’d need to save his energy to unload the wagon and set up camp before night fell.
On the far side of the first field beyond the farmhouse was a man working. Haran assumed that was Tillon. He glanced up as Haran and Lenda made their way through the gate, and was waiting at the barn by the time they reached it.
Tillon looked to be about Haran’s age, give or take. He was on the tall side for a Keppralan, only a few fingers shorter than Haran. He wasn’t as broad through the shoulders, but he was stout, and Haran suspected his physical strength was comparable to a warrior’s. He was darker-skinned than Haran, not the deep brown of some Keppralans Haran had seen, but more of a chestnut color. His hair was dark, the way all Keppralans’ seemed to be, and he had a decent length of pony tail hanging down his back, wavy and slightly frizzy in the humidity.
He frowned at Haran as Haran climbed down from the wagon. “What are you supposed to be?” he demanded. “I thought you must be a new farmer, but you’re Deshnad.”
“I’m both,” Haran said. He sometimes bowed when he introduced himself to Keppralans, since they seemed to enjoy being treated as his better, but he could already tell that wouldn’t help with Tillon. “My name is Haran. I understand my land is on the other side of the fence here, but could the wagon go in your barn?”
“I guess it had better,” Tillon said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I thought you people didn’t farm.”
“Unless something changed in the last six weeks, I’m the first,” Haran said. He put a hand on Lenda’s side and began leading her into the barn.
Tillon snorted. “Well, good luck with that,” he said. He did not follow Haran into the barn, and had to shout, “I hope you don’t expect me to teach you!”
Haran smiled, and shook his head. “I have books,” he called over his shoulder.
Tillon laughed outright at that, and walked up to the doorway of the barn. “Books,” he said. “You expect to learn the land from books.”
Haran shrugged. “I was told not to expect to learn from you,” he said. With the wagon mostly in the shelter of the barn, he began the process of detaching it from Lenda. “Baron Berrut promised me support if I have trouble.”
“I’m sure he has,” Tillon said sourly. He leaned against the frame of the door. “I’m not sharing the house with another half-assed hand who’s going to give up after six months,” he said. “But I guess you can use the well. It’s out back.”
Haran was frankly glad he wasn’t going to have to live in closer proximity to this prickly man. It would make it easier to continue ignoring the rudeness, as he did when he merely said, “Thanks. You’re welcome to use the wagon, once I get all my stuff out.”
“Good,” Tillon said. “The last idiot took my cart when he left.” He sniffed, then added, “You better not expect me to take care of that horse.”
That startled Haran into laughter. “If you so much as touch her without my say-so, you’ll get a personal look at what I did during the invasion,” he said.
Tillon was taken aback. “Well, then,” he said. “Good.”
Reminding himself that he had to be the polite one in this relationship, Haran explained, “We lived on horseback, out west. I’ve been caring for horses since I could care for myself.”
“Oh,” Tillon said. “I see. Well, keep her out of my fields.”
“Of course,” Haran said.
The fence Tillon built to divide the farmland didn’t have a gate. Since he’d kept the main gate on his side of the fence, Haran’s half of the farm had no entrance at all. It wasn’t an especially large or imposing fence, having been built by one spiteful man who already had a farm to occupy his time, so Haran could easily climb over it. It did make getting his stuff over to his side kind of annoying, but it wasn’t as if Haran had never hauled all his belongings on his own back before. The books required extra trips since the crates were so heavy, but he still managed to have the wagon emptied in just over an hour.
Lenda stared at him from Tillon’s side of the fence. She paced up and down it. She came back to the spot where all Haran’s stuff was piling up and stared at Haran some more.
“Then jump over,” Haran told her. “Don’t pretend you can’t, I know you can. You don’t have that wagon to haul anymore. You don’t even have a saddle weighing you down.”
She huffed at him, not moving.
Haran sighed. He went back to the fence, picked up one of his crates of books, and set it back on TIllon’s side of the fence. He climbed over the fence to stand on top of the crate. He barely had to call Lenda over before she had presented him her side.
Haran had never ridden Lenda before at all, since she’d been in the towing harness the whole journey, or else resting before he put it back on her. He wouldn’t usually ride a strange horse bareback, but Lenda wasn’t a strange horse by now, even if he’d never ridden her. And Keppralan saddles weren’t as weird as the ones they used in the southwest, so Haran didn’t think it would be too different for either of them to manage. They only had to jump the fence, after all.
He petted her neck and mane a bit, then ran his hand down her back. Like many Keppralan horses, she was a little bigger than a Deshnad horse. She wasn’t as big as some of the horses they’d passed on other farms, but bigger than most of the horses Haran had ridden before. He felt a pang, thinking about Ketanth, the horse that had carried him east, through the invasion. When Ordoni’s troupe settled in the capital, everyone’s horses had been passed along to warriors who had lost theirs, or would need to switch out for speed as they rode to reinforce the far reaches of Kepprala where word had not yet spread of King Lorrit’s surrender. Haran knew the woman who had taken Ketanth: she was a good warrior and an excellent rider. Her horse had been injured in the invasion, and she’d had to mercy-kill it. Haran had found her weeping in one of the palace courtyards the next day. He still missed Ketanth, who had been his partner for several years.
Lenda swung her neck around to butt her nose into Haran’s shoulder. Haran smiled, gently pushed her neck out of the way, braced himself, and swung up onto her back. She barely waited for him to find his seat before she started moving, turning around as if to go down the road to the gate.
“Hey, now,” Haran said. “We only need to jump this fence.”
She flicked an ear.
He sighed again, but he was still smiling. “Fine,” he said, “if you want to warm up by going down to the gate, let’s go.”
She set off at a trot. It was not the smoothest ride, but Lenda was relaxed with him on her back, and didn’t seem to be having any problem carrying him.
He instinctively adjusted his seat when they reached the gate, and she slowed. He leaned, and she turned around, facing the farmhouse again. “Ah,” Haran said with another smile, “such a smart girl. All right, are you ready to jump?”
She took off again, her gait this time a little faster and a little smoother. They kept fairly close to the fence until they reached the barn, when they circled out to get enough distance to make the jump. Haran wasn’t even sure if he signaled her before Lenda picked up speed, heading directly at the fence. His heart pounded in his chest. This was a lot of faith to put in a horse he’d never ridden before. But she’d been taking care of him on the road for six weeks, so he trusted her and held on.
She cleared the fence easily, and he could feel she was pleased with herself as she slowed to a trot again, making a broad arc in Haran’s new land until she was headed toward the fence again, much too slowly to jump, clearly aimed at the stack of Haran’s things.
“You are such a good girl,” Haran told her. “I can’t believe that stable-master just let me have you. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, does he?”
Lenda came to a well-considered halt alongside Haran’s things. He swung off of her, and immediately went around to pet her face and neck. “You did so well,” he said. “Hang on, let me see if I have any more of those roots you like.” She waited while Haran rummaged around in the food hamper. He found one of the roots that he found a little hard to bite through when they were raw, but that seemed to be a common treat for horses in Kepprala, and turned around to give it to her. She took it carefully, and then trotted a short distance away, coming to a stop with one foot cocked, where she was nearby but out of Haran’s way.
He hopped back over the fence to move the crate of books back, then started looking for a place to set up his tent. He settled on a spot more or less in line with the farmhouse and the barn, set a respectable distance away from the fence for the sake of privacy, but close enough that it wouldn’t be a total pain in the ass hauling water from the well or fetching things from the barn. He’d need to talk to Tillon about whether or not he was allowed to use the barn for things other than the wagon; his tent was not really big enough to store all the farming implements he’d brought with him. Hopefully the way Haran hadn’t argued with him about the house or the fence would win him some consideration about the barn being communal space. He was fine living in a tent for a good long while, and he was pretty sure he could manage to build a more permanent hut to live in, but a barn was beyond his capabilities.
When the tent was set up, Haran pinned the waxed canvas that had covered the goods in the wagon to one side of it to make an overhang. Anything that couldn’t go in the tent, he arranged under that, so at least it would be somewhat protected from the elements.
After that was done, he walked around the plot of land, looking for stones that would work as the base of a fire pit, and also generally getting a feel for the area. Lenda meandered along with him, though she was apt to wander off and inspect what was apparently an appetizing patch of grass here and there.
The floodgate was on the other side of the farm from the road gate, with a little stone-lined channel from the stream to the farm. The area around the floodgate had a flourishing little stand of yakil — one of the few plants Haran could actually identify, because it was so distinctive. There were also trees running more or less parallel to the stream. As far as Haran could tell, they were there to help prevent erosion and keep the farm from getting too soggy if the stream flooded. There wasn’t actually a fence back there, just the trees and the berm running along the stream. The stream itself was shallow enough to wade across. Haran wondered whose land was across the stream, or if TIllon had scared them off too, because it didn’t look any more tended than his side did.
There was a fence around the other two sides of Haran’s land, though, which was more solid than the one Tillon had built to divide the farm. It was also low enough for a motivated horse to jump, but it would probably keep in other animals, if Haran cared to raise them. He’d gotten the impression from his reading as well as observing the farms on the route south that most farms kept some animals around for subsistence, even if they weren’t ranching them: chickens or other birds for eggs, and a cow or something for milk. That also helped ensure they had plenty of manure to supplement whatever compost they had. Tillon, as far as Haran could see, had no livestock at all.
Well, animals would also need shelter, and seeing as Haran didn’t have any himself, animals could wait, even if it would be nice to have a regular source of eggs. Bad enough Lenda didn’t have a place to hunker down out of the weather, but at least Haran knew how to care for her.
He circled back to the flood gate once he had walked the entire perimeter. Yakil was edible, so Haran thought he’d stretch his food supplies. That was an especially important consideration because a good portion of the food he’d been sent with assumed he’d have more of a kitchen than a fire pit, and Haran knew the hunting was unlikely to be good too close to the village.
The yakil made his hands itchy when he grabbed it, which Haran didn’t remember yakil doing. But he supposed plants varied from place to place, so perhaps this was stinging yakil or something. He could just strip the outer parts before he cooked it; that worked for other stinging plants, like nettles. He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and used that to protect his hand while he pulled the yakil up, and that worked to keep his hand from itching. When he had a decent amount, he climbed over the berm to rinse his hands in the stream, and that took care of the itching.
Haran went back to his tent to set up a fire and start preparing food. Lenda had found some apparently delectable grass in the other back corner of the farm, and stayed there when Haran headed back.
When all that was left to do with the fire was light it, Haran grabbed his tin bucket and climbed over the fence to get water from the well behind the farm house. He drew up a bucket, dumped it into his tin one, then sent it down for another fill after he drank a good bit of it. It was hot, now, nearly midday. It was a shame he didn’t like yakil raw. He thought about what else he could prepare either in the pan with the yakil or without cooking at all, so he didn’t have to have the fire going as long, while he walked back to the fence and climbed over to his side of it.
Haran got out the rest of his meal, then sat down on the ground near where he’d built the fire to strip the yakil with a knife, again using his handkerchief to protect his hands from itching. He started the fire, and God but the little spark-striker they’d given him was better than the flint and steel he’d grown up using. It was the same flint and steel, he supposed, but the mechanism holding them together ensured they always struck at the right angle. Keppralans’ little machines were so nice.
“Hey! Hey, what are you doing?”
Haran looked up to find Tillon running towards the fence. “Cooking?” he called over.
“No, you stupid son of a bitch,” TIllon shouted, “don’t eat that!”
Haran looked down at the greens he was about to put in his pan. He wasn’t exactly a dab hand at foraging, but yakil was distinctive enough even he could identify it. “It’s fine,” Haran called. Tillon had reached the fence and vaulted over it with more grace than Haran expected, and he was still running at Haran.
“It’s not,” Tillon yelled. “Put it down! Throw it away!”
Haran sighed, and pulled his bundle of greens onto his lap, so Tillon wouldn’t try to snatch them. “I know I haven’t seen anyone eat it in Kepprala,” he said, “but this is yakil, I’ve eaten it since I was a child.”
“No it’s not, yakkil doesn’t grow this far south, you buffoon,” Tillon said, pronouncing yakil like it was a Keppra word, with stress on the first syllable. He came to a halt a few feet away from Haran, breathing hard. “That’s rashweed,” he said. “Usually the rash is enough to keep people from eating it. But I suppose if you thought it was yakkil, you might try. But look at this.” He stooped to pick up a root bundle from the refuse pile and thrust it in front of Haran. “Even if yakkil grew this far south, which it doesn’t, does this look like yakkil root to you?”
Haran couldn’t remember ever paying attention to the roots of yakil. “Uh,” he said.
Tillon rolled his eyes. “Rashweed has fibrous roots,” he said. “See how this is just a little wad of roots, and they’re all about the same size? It usually tears up the soil when you pull them. Yakkil have tap roots, one big root in the middle, they come up harder but cleaner, and also they don’t fucking poison you. Throw these out,” he said, tossing the root bundle back into the refuse pile. “Not where the horse can get them, either.”
Haran frowned. “There’s a bunch growing back by the flood gate already,” he said.
“Yes, but those haven’t been stripped by an idiot barbarian about to poison himself,” Tillon said. “Even stupid horses don’t want an itchy nose. And that horse must be smarter than you are. Eating fucking rashweed.” He shook his head. “Do you need more food?” he demanded. “If Baron Berrut’ll pay it back, I suppose I could give you some supplies.”
“Not urgently,” Haran said. “I just thought if there was yakil right here, there was no reason not to eat it.”
Tillon shook his head again, eyes closed. “Maybe don’t eat anything you haven’t seen me or someone else from the village eating,” he said.
“Maybe,” Haran allowed. He didn’t think he could identify any other plants reliably, without having planted them himself, and apparently he hadn’t even done this one right.
“Fucking rashweed,” Tillon muttered once more, stalking back off towards the fence.
Haran needed to get plants in the ground, since it was already more than a third of the way through the growing season, but he also needed to be able to actually do the work that went into cultivating those plants, which meant he needed a camp that was reasonably comfortable to live out of. That meant something resembling a kitchen, some kind of work surface, and a solidly pitched tent that could handle any weather.
Over the next two days, Lenda still came and got in his way every four hours. Evidently she thought Haran needed a schedule while on the farm just as much as he’d needed one on the road. He ate and had a drink, and sat or lay on the ground to rest. Lenda also demanded a grooming session as the sun began to set, which Haran supposed was usually when he would find a place to camp and give her a nice going-over when they were on the road. He paid extra attention to her hooves, since he didn’t know what all she might have been walking on. Roads were a problem for horses, but at least they were a known quantity.
When it finally got dark, which took a while even this far south, Haran didn’t bother to light the lantern to try and read. Instead, he looked over at Tillon’s side of the farm, and watched his progress through the farmhouse, marked by the flickering and bobbing of lights in the windows.
On one of his breaks on the second day, Haran had looked through his books for information about rashweed. It wasn’t in the illustrated guide Professor Muzza had made sure he had, but there was a page about it in one of the other books on known hazardous plants. That book did not say anything about rashweed’s resemblance to yakil, just that it induced itching and rashes in most people and farm animals, as well as upset stomach and cramping if eaten. It wasn’t dangerous, really, just unpleasant and inconvenient. It could have been dangerous to Lenda, Haran supposed, since horses were so sensitive to gut trouble.
Tillon didn’t have to stop Haran from eating it, and he didn’t have to teach him how to tell the difference between it and yakil. He also didn’t have to do it while calling Haran an idiot, although then again, Haran supposed for someone like TIllon, he kind of did. He’d even made sure to let Haran know it wasn’t safe for Lenda to eat, either, even though he didn’t seem to care much for horses.
Haran was less sure now what to make of Tillon. He certainly wasn’t polite, or nice, but he wasn’t uncaring.
The third day, a woman old enough to be at least Haran’s mother visited Tillon. Well, she came to Tillon’s farm, but it quickly became clear she had come to snoop and see if Haran was there.
“I had no idea we already had someone new out here,” she said. She spotted Lenda and said, “Oh, you’re the fellow who passed through with the wagon, to and from the castle, day before yesterday!” Lenda trotted over to be admired, which was something she’d never bothered doing with Tillon. “I’m Morro,” the woman said, holding out a hand to Lenda. “You’re a Deshnadian, aren’t you?” she asked Haran. “You’re not planning on living in your tent, I hope.”
“Not permanently,” Haran said. “But, uh, Baron Berrut said he hadn’t had enough time to get someone to build something for me. On my part of the land.”
Morro rolled her eyes. “No, I’m sure he didn’t expect someone so soon,” she said. “And how’s this sweet creature going to get in and out without a gate?” she asked, gesturing to Lenda. “I’ll see if some other folks can spare a little help getting you set up,” she said.
“That’s kind of you,” Haran said, “but I’m sure I can manage.”
“Of course you can,” Morro said, exactly as Grandmama Lenda would have said to him when she didn’t believe him for a second. She patted Lenda-the-horse’s nose. “But you shouldn’t need to. It’s hardly any trouble at all, if everyone pitches in we’ll have a roof over your head in no time flat.”
Indeed, almost as soon as Morro left, other people started coming by, in twos and threes. Someone brought some lumber, and someone else brought their tools, and someone else leveled off the ground next to where Haran had put his tent. By the end of the day, it was clear that Haran was going to have a permanent shelter and a gate for Lenda, whether he liked it or not.
There were a few young people, barely into their adolescence, who came along with older family members. Much like the kids Haran was used to, they were sent running around and fetching things for their elders. Otherwise, most of the villagers who came to help out were Haran’s age or older. No one person or small group stayed for very long, but with what seemed to be the whole village contributing an hour or two at a time, they had a gate installed in the fence by the end of the day, and a roof up over a wooden frame by the day after that.
A man came by with two daughters, who immediately dumped what they had been carrying onto the ground and ran to see Lenda, while the man introduced himself as Korrit.
“Not that an awning like you’ve got isn’t a decent idea,” Korrit said, nodding at the waxed canvas Haran had set up to keep the things that didn’t fit in his tent out of the elements, “but ideally you’d be able to put your tools away.”
“Well,” Haran said, “I did think there might be room in the barn for them.”
Korrit made a face, and did not quite glance over at Tillon’s side of the farm. “There might be,” he said slowly. “But perhaps we could add a shed onto the shack there. So you wouldn’t have to go so far every day.”
Haran had to go past the barn just about every day to get water from the well, but he understood what Korrit was really saying. There was no guarantee Tillon wouldn’t be an ass about sharing the barn.
Haran said, “I guess storage is something I’ll have to learn to think about from now on. I’m not used to accumulating stuff.”
Korrit laughed. “I guess you wouldn’t be,” he said. “But if there’s one thing farmers do, it’s accumulate stuff.”
So Korrit plotted out a little shed in the dirt, and had his girls collect some extra wood from the deadfall back by the stream. They didn’t seem enthused about the idea at first, but then Lenda trotted off in that direction, even looking over her shoulder to see if the girls were following, and that got them running after her, giggling.
“Is that some kind of special Deshnad horse?” Korrit asked, which made Haran laugh.
“No,” he said, “just a palace horse that caused trouble by being too smart, I think.”
“Well, I sure hope you don’t mind sharing her with the local kids,” Korrit said. “I think my girls are going to tell everyone all about the amazing horse the new farmer’s got.”
“Maybe they can keep each other out of trouble,” Haran suggested, and Korrit laughed again.
As the finishing touches were put on Haran’s shack, an older woman named Dotti heard him say it was going to be odd sleeping on a floor instead of the ground, and exclaimed, “Oh, aren’t we all silly! You don’t even have a bed! Yarra!” she called to one of the pimply adolescent boys she’d brought.
Yarra poked his head out of the door. “Yeah?”
“Does your uncle still have your cousin’s old bed frame?”
“I think so,” Yarra said. He eyed Haran. “Kinda small for him, though.”
“Well, it’ll be long enough, at least,” Dotti said. “Can you go with Netta to pick it up in the cart? I don’t want him trying to lift anything that big by himself.”
“Of course,” Yarra said. He dropped back into the shack to ask the other man working on it if he was still needed, and popped out shortly after. “He’s just back at your place, right?”
“I don’t know where else he’d be,” Dotti said. “Thank you, Yarra. Such a good boy.”
Yarra was old enough that he rolled his eyes at that remark, but not so old that he didn’t duck his head to let Dotti pat his cheek as he passed.
So before a week had passed, Haran had shelter for himself, a storage shed, and a gate in the fence that would let him take Lenda in and out without having to jump it. He’d also been given an assortment of hand-me-down furniture, like the bed frame from Yarra’s uncle, as well as a table (only slightly wobbly), two chairs, and a shelf for his books. It actually made quite a livable little shack, roomier than his tent and less likely to buckle in strong weather. He still didn’t have anywhere permanent for Lenda, but if the weather got bad before he had time to get something built, she could get to the barn.
Which meant Haran had to turn his mind to the actual business of farming.
Despite reading about it for weeks—months, even—Haran looked at the land he was supposed to farm and all he could think was that he had no idea how to do this. When he looked over at Tillon’s side of the farm, he saw mahise and beans in what was obviously a pattern that he didn’t understand.
He eventually gave in and asked Tillon if he could look around and see how he was handling things. Tillon scowled at him, but agreed.
“But don’t touch anything,” he said. “And I’m not answering questions, I’m busy.”
Haran agreed, of course. He just had so little experience of farming that even walking around and looking at what Tillon was doing would help him orient himself.
Except Tillon kept stopping what he was doing, or doubling back, or yelling for Haran to come look at something, so he could explain it. Every single time he finished off his explanation, supplying answers to questions Haran hadn’t even asked, by saying, “And stop interrupting me, I’m busy.” It was funny, really, how eager Tillon was to tell someone his farming opinions, despite claiming he didn’t want to be bothered.
Haran wondered how little interest he would have to show in something Tillon was doing before Tillon stopped volunteering answers.
Several weeks after Haran arrived, Tillon called him over to the fence and held up a bottle of wine. “Drink with me,” he said, which Haran interpreted as a request because he knew Tillon was allergic to manners. But it was actual wine, with a label Haran recognized from his time going to palace dinners with Ordoni’s troupe, and as much as Haran enjoyed the questionable spirits brewed by the villagers, he wouldn’t mind something tastier.
Tillon had set up two stools and a folding table in front of the barn. Haran wasn’t sure if that was because he preferred drinking outside or if Haran was literally not allowed in the house at all. But Tillon poured a generous amount of wine into a mug for him, then poured himself some, and didn’t say anything snippy.
Haran still knew enough about human nature to be waiting for the strings attached to Tillon’s generosity. Maybe it wasn’t meant as an offer with strings attached, though, since Tillon drank enough of the wine to get himself good and sloshed; maybe Tillon needed the courage.
“Izzit true what they say?” Tillon asked finally. He was looking out over the farm, not in Haran’s direction, as he spoke.
“You need to be more pecific,” Haran said, though he thought he had a good idea what this was about. Either Tillon wanted to ask about the invasion, or he wanted to ask about sex, and honestly he didn’t think Tillon had enough tact to need to be drunk to ask about the invasion.
“That you’re all indiscriminate,” Tillon said, which was an impressive word not to stumble over when drunk. Haran probably couldn’t have managed that one sober. “Like your king.”
“Nateno isn’t a king,” Haran said automatically, though he often felt he was fighting a losing battle trying to explain that to Keppralans. They were okay with understanding him as a military leader, but they didn’t understand the idea of getting your position through merit, instead of inheritance. “And as far as I know, he’s pretty—uh.” He couldn’t figure out what the opposite of indiscriminate would be. In Razdot, he’d say satatch, but that didn’t help. “Picky?”
Tillon frowned. “He’s fucking our king,” he said. “I meant, like. You all fuck both.”
“I knew what you meant,” Haran said. Just because he couldn’t say it didn’t mean he didn’t know what indiscriminate meant. Or have a good guess from context, anyway. “But Nateno really only does men.”
“Oh,” Tillon said.
“So not all of us,” Haran said. He let that sit for a second, then added, “But compared to you Keppralans, yeah, I guess it’d seem like all of us.”
“Huh,” Tillon said. He looked down into his mug. He had almost certainly drunk too much to be contemplating whatever sexual or cultural ideas he was getting at. Keppralans really fucked themselves up with all this who’s-allowed-to-do-what shit. Tillon wasn’t the first Keppralan Haran had seen drink himself to the point of not caring about their weird little rules. Why bother having them if everyone just found ways around them?
Though it turned out Haran had drunk enough to loosen his tongue as well, because he found himself saying, “I don’t understand how you all can act like you only want to fuck someone you could have kids with. Like that’s the point of sex.”
“It is, though,” Tillon said. “Isn’t it?”
Haran snorted. “You’re not saying you’re a virgin,” he said. “At your age.”
“Fuck you, of course not,” Tillon said.
“Then since I don’t see any kids on this farm, I guess you know that’s not the only reason to have sex,” Haran said. Tillon twisted his mouth to one side. “Children are great,” Haran went on, “but I was jerking off years before I was old enough to have kids. Even a dog’ll hump your leg. It’s not trying to get puppies on you.”
Tillon’s brow wrinkled. “Gross,” he said.
“What, we’re both adults here,” Haran said. “You fuck because it feels good. Maybe your nobles are fucking to have heirs sometimes, but otherwise it’s just making each other feel good. I don’t need someone to be a woman for that.”
“So you do both,” Tillon said.
“Lately I don’t do anything,” Haran said. It had been ages since he got laid. He was wound too tight before and during the invasion to even think about it, and then, well. He sighed. “‘Salright for Nateno to do his politics thing but I felt like, you know. Invading a place and then asking people to fuck you. Even if they said yes, how do you know it’s not because they’re scared of you?”
Tillon scoffed. “You’re not scary,” He said. “You tried to eat fucking rashweed. You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, and you didn’t watch any of my people kill someone in the street,” Haran said. “It’s not that way in the cities. Or on the border.”
Tillon said, “Well, no one around here did. So none of us would be afraid of you. You wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Everyone here is married or old enough to be my grandparents or both,” Haran said. “I won’t die if I go a year or two without getting my dick wet.”
“I’m not married,” Tillon said.
There it was. Haran reached over and plucked the mug out of Tillon’s hand. Then he looked down at the bottle of wine. “You are drunker than I thought,” he said. “If you wanna continue this conversation, it’s gonna be after you sober up.”
“Fuck you,” Tillon said, standing up. He made a very uncoordinated grab for either the mug or the bottle. Or maybe it was uncoordinated because he changed his mind halfway through, and tried to go for both.
“If it makes you feel better,” Haran said, “being this drunk would make me not fuck you even if you weren’t a Keppralan who didn’t even know how to ask if I liked men.”
“I wasn’t offering,” Tillon said. “I was just….” He trailed off, presumably as he realized whatever the end of that sentence was, it was either nonsense or lies.
“Offended my undriscriminate self hadn’t come on to you already?” Haran asked. He didn’t think he’d gotten that word right.
“Fuck you,” Tillon said again, and wobbled away towards his house.
Lord Nateno’s pet king had been following him around like a puppy within weeks of agreeing to share his bed, Haran reflected, thumping the cork back into the wine bottle. Not that Haran wanted Tillon to basically marry him, which was what Nateno and the king had done. God knew most people didn’t get that lucky, finding someone they clicked with right away, without having to work at it. But most people didn’t look at ongoing environmental degradation and figure out a solution, let alone implement a years-long plan to achieve it. Nateno was a special kind of person.
Then again, wasn’t Haran? Hadn’t he looked right at the Keppralan lifestyle and careers available to him and picked the one most of his people thought was the stupidest, least glorious, and least interesting? What was that, if not special?
“I’m drunk,” Haran muttered, and he heard Lenda snort. He looked up, and saw she was standing at the fence, as near to the barn as she could get. She was a horse and she couldn’t read his mind, Haran reminded himself, but then, she was a damn smart horse and could probably read his body language just fine. Haran climbed over the fence and leaned against her, since he didn’t have any hands free to pet her.
“I’m going to bed,” he told her. “Don’t worry.” She walked with him to the door of his shack, like the overprotective creature she was. He’d known warhorses less steady and reliable than her. He loved this damn horse.
Haran was not surprised Tillon didn’t say anything in the morning about his sort-of-proposition. He was possibly ruder than usual, but that could also have been a hangover.
However, as the days went on, Haran noticed Tillon looking his way more often. He made excuses to come to the fence and call Haran over, especially when Haran got overheated and took off his shirt. Tillon was absolutely curious about sex with men, or at least sex with Haran, even when he was sober.
Nearly two weeks after the first shared bottle of wine, Tillon vaulted over the fence at sundown, heading for Haran’s shack without saying anything to Haran. Haran rolled his eyes, wiped his hands on the rag he had draped over the handle of his shovel, and headed for the shack himself.
Before he got there, Tillon came back out, holding his half-empty bottle of wine. Almost accusing, he told Haran, “You didn’t finish it.”
Haran shrugged. “It’s yours,” he said. “I only took it because you were too drunk.”
“I was not,” Tillon said. He leaned down to grab the cork between his teeth. “Helb be fidish it,” he said while he pried the cork loose.
“I thought you knew about tools,” Haran said. He reached into his pocket for his smallest knife, and offered it to Tillon.
“Ah do’t wadda cud id,” Tillon snapped.
“Then let me do it,” Haran said.
Tillon glared at him, and yanked the cork out with his teeth. The wine sloshed in the bottle, but it was empty enough that it didn’t spill. He spat the cork at Haran, who had to fumble to catch it out of the air. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
“Of course,” Haran said.
Haran ducked into his shack to pull out the two chairs and set them up outside. Tillon didn’t ask about cups, so they just passed the bottle back and forth.
It didn’t take Tillon nearly as long this time to get to what must have been his goal the whole time. He looked out across Haran’s field and asked, “So what do you even do, two men fucking?”
“Depends,” Haran said. “I mean, everyone’s got hands and a mouth.”
“I heard one of you takes the other one’s dick up the ass,” Tillon said. Haran glanced at him, and found Tillon’s cheeks were a bit more red than he thought the wine would explain.
“If that’s what you wanna do,” Haran said. He held out his hand for the wine bottle, and Tillon passed it over. “Bit more work than getting a dick in a cunt. Not worth it, in my opinion, but I’m pretty sure Lord Nateno’s a fan.” Wine this fine was probably too good to drink out of the bottle like this, but it felt homey to Haran. Deshnadians rarely bothered to use cups or glasses when they were drinking together, unless they’d set up a festival pavilion somewhere.
“More work?” Tillon asked, frowning at him. “How’s it more work?”
“You ever noticed an asshole getting wet?” Haran asked. “Doesn’t matter how turned on you are, that doesn’t happen. You have to use oil or something if you’re not into it hurting.”
“That’s disgusting,” Tillon said.
Haran shrugged. “All sex is pretty gross when you think about it,” he said. “It does feel good when you’re the one getting it, as long as the other man’s careful enough.”
Tillon was shocked. “You’ve been the one taking it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Haran said, rolling his eyes. “Obviously.”
“And you liked that better?” Tillon asked. He tapped Haran’s arm for the bottle.
Haran handed it over. “As long as I’m not the one having to do the work,” he said. He’d tried fingering himself, and found it even more tedious than fingering someone else. Not to mention hard on the wrist.
“What the fuck,” Tillon muttered, before taking another drink.
“What, did you think people just put up with it for the sake of the other person?” Haran asked. “Maybe some people do, I guess, but plenty of people enjoy it.”
“It doesn’t seem like something anyone would enjoy,” Tillon said.
“People enjoy all kinds of shit,” Haran said. “Lots of it isn’t something I would enjoy, or even want to try, but if they say they like it, I just believe them.”
“I’m not saying you don’t,” Tillon said. “It’s just fucking weird, okay?”
“Doesn’t seem weird to me,” Haran said. He wondered if knowing his king reportedly enjoyed it at least as much as Haran did would make it more or less weird to Tillon. The palace laundry mistress had to have a talk with King Lorrit about how often his sheets needed washing, and of course Haran had heard from multiple sources about the Council meeting where Nateno had fondled the king under the table until he was incapable of paying attention to anything else. King Lorrit also retired every night promptly after dinner, which was when the rest of the court did their socializing. Lord Nateno usually disappeared shortly thereafter. The conclusion was inescapable.
After a few moments, Tillon said, “I guess I figured big guys like you would always be the man.”
“What does size have to do with gender?” Haran asked, but as he said it, he realized what TIllon must have meant, and laughed. “Tillon, the whole point of having sex with another man is that you’re both the man.”
“You know what I mean!”
“Now I do,” Haran said. “I think. But I never noticed any connection between how big a man is and whether or not he likes being the one, uh.” If Keppra had words for this, he didn’t know them. Haran went with a phrase Tillon had used earlier, since Tillon would certainly understand it. “Taking it.”
“So it’s really just about who likes it better,” Tillon said, frowning like this was one of the more confusing things Haran had ever told him.
“Is that not how you decide what to do when you’re having sex?” Haran asked.
Tillon turned red. “Of course not!”
Haran shook his head. “That’s fucking weird,” he said.
“Look, it’s just obvious what you’re doing with a woman,” Tillon said.
“If you say so,” Haran said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tillon demanded.
Honestly, it sounded like it meant Tillon was bad in bed, but Haran wasn’t about to say that to his face. Instead, he said, “I just don’t take it for granted that I’m putting my dick inside a woman, which is what I guess you mean.”
Tillon screwed up his face. “What else would you do?” he asked, then immediately said, “Don’t—don’t answer that, I heard it, it was fucking stupid. I’m drunk.”
Haran laughed. “At least you realized when you said it,” he said.
Tillon took another long drink. They sat in silence for a few moments. Haran was starting to get the feeling he was going to end up fucking Tillon at some point, or apparently more likely, getting fucked by him. That was kind of embarrassing, but his options were very limited, and even if Tillon didn’t realize it himself yet, he was clearly interested.
Eventually, TIllon said, “So the king’s taking it up the ass from your Lord Nateno.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” Haran said. “It’s what Lord Nateno likes best.”
“How d’you know that?” Tillon asked, frowning at Haran. “You ever fuck him?”
“God, no,” Haran said. Nateno had never been what Haran considered approachable, even before he became their leader. “He and General Ordoni—or should that be War Minister Ordoni?”
“War Minister’s usually called ‘General’,” Tillon said. “Other ones get a Lord tacked onto their name even if they’re not otherwise entitled.”
“Ah,” Haran said. That made sense. The honorifics in Keppra were the hardest thing for him to get right, since most of them meant fuck-all to him. In the capital, he’d erred on the side of formality, which made the Keppralans happier. He went on, “Anyway, Lord Nateno and General Ordoni were childhood friends and lovers, and sometimes Ordoni would grumble about how much easier life would be if they were more sexually compatible.”
Tillon squinted at him. “Either I’m drunker’n I thought or you fucked up some words,” he said. “Childhood lovers?”
“Oh,” Haran said. That did sound funny in Keppra. “Uh, is there a word for the age when you’re…fuck.” Tillon would hardly know what age Deshnad kids started training as warriors. There was something Keppralans did around the same time, though, except Haran couldn’t remember the word for that, either. “When you start getting erections or bleedings or whatever.”
“Oh, puberty,” Tillon said, his face clearing up. “So they were, like, apprenticeship age.”
“Apprentices!” Haran said. That was the Keppra word he’d been thinking of. “Yeah, we sort of did apprentices too. That’s when lots of people would have their first sex and maybe a steady lover.”
Tillon nodded. “That’s less weird than it sounded at first,” he said. “But General Ordoni talked about it with you?”
“Not me pecifically,” Haran said. “But enough that it was kind of something we’d all heard.”
“And everyone knew what that meant?” Tillon asked. “Like, you knew General Ordoni would rather, uh, give it?”
Haran laughed. “Well, yeah,” he said. “See, Ordoni is more indiscriminant than anyone. Before we came east, even I had sex with him a few times. Or. A few might be too many. A couple? Two.”
“Oh,” Tillon said. “So that part wasn’t much of a secret, then.”
“Nah,” Haran said. “We’re not as private as Keppralans anyway. Or we weren’t. Tents, you know. They don’t block a lot of sound.”
Tillon grunted. “Hadn’t thought about that,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s the only reason,” Haran said. He reached out for the wine bottle again, and Tillon passed it to him. Haran went on, “But it’s also hard to pretend you don’t know one of your troupe had a good night when it means no one got enough sleep.”
“Huh,” Tillon said. After a moment, he asked, “So it’s just…the same?”
“Pretty much,” Haran said.
“Then what’s the point?” Tillon asked.
Not feeling like shit for wanting something, Haran did not say. Instead, he shrugged. “What’s the point of any sex?” he asked. “Feels good. It’s fun. And I mean, if you like fucking either, you’ve got more oporrtuna—opportoont—” Keppra rarely tripped up Haran’s tongue anymore, so it was doubly frustrating when it did.
“More opportunities,” Tillon supplied, then said, “I guess.” Something clearly occurred to him, as he tilted his head to one side and frowned. After a moment, he asked, “So there’s women who fuck other women, too, then, right? What do they do?”
“I expected you to know women also have hands and mouths,” Haran said. “Since you say you’ve had sex with some.”
Tillon reached over to shove Haran’s shoulder. “Fuck off,” he said. “You know what I meant.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Haran said. “It’s still sex. I guess there’s more, um.” It was so inconsiderate of Tillon to ask him these questions in Keppra without teaching Haran the relevant words first. Haran took another sip of wine while he searched for an appropriate word. “Rubbing?” he ventured.
“Oh, you mean humping,” Tillon said, and nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“You can’t possibly use the same word for what dogs do and what humans do,” Haran said, frowning.
Tillon shrugged. “It’s rude,” he said, “but it was the first word I heard for what older kids did when I was a kid.”
“That’s so undignified.”
“Oh, so first all sex is gross, and now you’re offended if it’s undignified,” Tillon said. “Make up your mind.”
“If you were fucking someone and trying to not get them pregnant, you can’t tell me you’d say you were humping,” Haran said.
“Who exactly would I be narrating my sex life to?” Tillon demanded. “You?”
Haran rolled his eyes. “Hey, baby, I had a great time humping tonight,” he said. “You want to do it again some time?”
“Shut the fuck up,” Tillon said, but he was clearly fighting giggles. “Obviously no one would do that.”
Tillon made a grabby hand at the wine bottle, so Haran passed it back. “If,” Tillon said, after taking a drink, “for some reason, I was narrating my sex life to someone, and that was what we’d been doing, I would probably call it fucking their thighs. Or just thigh sex. But that wouldn’t…” He trailed off. “Actually I guess that would work for two women, huh.”
“I don’t see why not,” Haran said.
Tillon lifted the bottle to his lips again, then frowned and peered into it. “This is almost empty,” he said. “You mind if I finish this off?”
Did he have to be drunk to be polite? It was even his wine. Haran shrugged. “Go ahead,” he said. “Thanks for sharing.”
“Yeah, well,” Tillon muttered, and finished off the wine instead of saying more.
As Haran picked up for the day, he saw Tillon leaning against the fence, next to the gate. He stashed his tools in the shed, and went to see what Tillon wanted.
“The fair’s coming up,” Tillon said, when Haran was in earshot.
“So I hear,” Haran said. “Is there anything I should know beforehand?”
“Just that you’re going to lose to me.”
“Uh huh,” Haran said, rolling his eyes. “Anything useful?”
“I think being prepared to lose is useful,” Tillon said. “I assume you’re not used to it.”
Haran hadn’t competed in a lot of things, really; hunting and fighting were situations where you succeeded or you failed. He supposed the invasion was a competition, but it hadn’t been a fair one. There was nothing particularly glorious about subjugating people who didn’t even have a military.
He shrugged. “It’s not my main concern,” he told Tillon. “Is there anyone from the rest of the county I should try and avoid?”
Tillon made a face. “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he said, with a slight emphasis on you.
“Mm,” Haran said. He took that to mean Tillon thought he was the most unpleasant person likely to be at the festival, and if Haran could handle him, he could handle anyone else. “Even though I’m Deshnad?” he asked. He’d never been around that many Keppralans at once as the only Deshnadian.
Tillon snorted. “I doubt anyone will care about that,” he said. “You’re a farmer now.” He rolled his eyes. “And everyone else from the village’ll stand up for you if anyone wants to be rude. Plus Baron Berrut.”
“I suppose,” Haran said.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about that,” Tillon said. “Aren’t you a big, bad barbarian?”
This time it was Haran who rolled his eyes. “I’m not worried someone from another town is going to challenge me to a fight,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some weird Keppralan way to insult me I might not even notice.”
“Well, that’s what the rest of the village is for,” Tillon said.
“I suppose,” Haran said again. The village kids did swarm Lenda when he took her into town, and people asked after how he was doing often enough that it sure seemed like they cared. And they had all come together right after he arrived to make sure he had the basic necessities of life.
He spent long enough contemplating it that an awkward silence descended. Haran usually tried to keep conversations with Tillon going smoothly, because God knew Tillon wasn’t going to, but Tillon also usually just walked away if he was done. Haran was kind of surprised to find Tillon had stood there and waited for him to get it together. “Did you need something?” he asked Tillon.
“I bet I can win more ribbons at the county harvest fair than you,” Tillon said.
Haran blinked, because that came out of nowhere. Although, thinking about it, Tillon had opened this conversation talking about the fair. Was this something he’d been working up to? If so, what the hell for? He was an experienced farmer who’d won ribbons at fairs before, whereas this was Haran’s first growing season ever. The outcome was in no doubt at all.
“So?” Haran asked. “You want a prize for winning prizes?”
“If you win, I’ll do whatever you say,” Tillon said. “And vice versa.”
That answered the question of what for, Haran supposed, trying to keep the surprise off his face. That seemed like a pretty transparent ploy.
It was a stupid bet, and a stupid bet to take, if Haran cared about not doing whatever Tillon demanded of him. But it seemed like a thin excuse to demand sexual favors, which Haran didn’t exactly mind. He didn’t know how else Tillon was going to justify to himself wanting to fuck Haran, and he would probably be waiting years for Tillon to do enough self-reflection to not need to justify it.
So really, even though it was a stupid bet, it was a smart bet to take, since Haran’s inevitable loss would get him what he wanted faster than not taking the bet. He was a little dismayed to realize he wanted to have sex with Tillon now, instead of just thinking it was inevitable. Tillon would probably spend the whole time talking shit about Haran’s willingness to do things Tillon considered humiliating, and Haran still wanted to have sex with him. Terrible.
Haran said, “Sure, why not.”
“Ha!” Tillon reached across the fence and poked Haran in the chest. “You better not go back on your word when I kick your ass,” he said.
Haran doubted Tillon knew it, but the implication that Haran would go back on his word was the most effective insult he’d ever offered Haran. He bristled instinctively, standing up straighter. “A warrior’s word is his life,” he said. His fingers itched to go to his sword to underline his seriousness, though of course he wasn’t wearing it.
“Good,” Tillon said, seeming unaware that he had successfully baited Haran for the first time. “Then I hope you’re ready to do as I say.”
“If you win,” Haran said. He didn’t doubt it, but he was hardly inclined to let that pass without comment now that Tillon had impugned his honor.
“I will,” Tillon said, grinning. He turned and walked away.
Annoyed, Haran went into his shack and aggressively pulled himself off. Almost the instant he finished, he felt ridiculous. First of all, Tillon was trying to wind him up, because that was what Tillon did, and second of all, he hadn’t even noticed when he actually managed it. It definitely wasn’t worth jacking off over.
But Haran was more than eight months into a dry spell, spent most of his free time around someone who obviously wanted to fuck him but wouldn’t admit it, and he was only human; there was only so much he could take.
Haran was pleasantly surprised to get any ribbons at all, since it was his first growing season, but he’d managed to turn his late start into some very tender and sweet young ears of mahise. Netta and Dotti gave out their butter to spread on Haran’s mahise, and everyone who had some agreed it was some of the best sweet mahise they’d ever had. Haran felt absurdly accomplished.
Tillon, of course, had one of the biggest yields, with the most consistent quality. He got blue ribbons for his mahise, potato berries, and the largest squash; various lesser awards; and the award from Baron Berrut for being the county’s standout producer.
“So,” Haran said, turning to Tillon when he got back to their wagon from shaking Baron Berrut’s hand after the announcement. “You won the bet. What do I have to do?”
“It can wait until we’re back at the farm,” Tillon said, not quite airily enough to hide the smugness. Yeah, he was going to go for sexual favors. Haran reminded himself not to seem too eager, or he’d shatter Tillon’s plausible deniability.
The walk back to the farm was interminable, especially with Tillon gloating the whole time. Of course he’d won more awards than Haran had, he was an experienced farmer and this was Haran’s first season. He’d also won more awards than any other single farmer in their county, and Baron Berrut was almost certainly going to send Tillon’s produce on to the festival in the capital, but it wasn’t like that was unexpected.
Haran removed Lenda’s tack and looked after her while Tillon put the wagon away. Haran had just patted her flank to signal she could leave the barn when Tillon grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. He kept his hand on Haran’s shoulder, and pushed.
“On your knees,” Tillon said, when Haran didn’t immediately go. “You’re going to suck my dick.”
“Am I,” Haran said, though he was already sinking to the ground.
“It’s that or go back on your word,” Tillon said. Now that Haran was at crotch level, he could see Tillon was already a bit hard, which made him feel better about the state of his own dick, which had been filling in anticipation the whole walk back.
“I wouldn’t want that,” Haran said without much feeling, his attention fully on the task of untying Tillon’s trousers. He had to admit, Keppralan clothing was much more convenient when it came to ease of access for sex. Rather a contradiction for a culture so determined to pretend they didn’t have sex, but it was handy.
“‘Course not,” Tillon murmured.
Haran wasted no time getting his mouth on Tillon’s dick once his trousers were out of the way. Tillon tucked the hem of his shirt up into his vest, which kept it out of Haran’s way, although he probably did so it wouldn’t block his view. This was such a bad idea, Haran thought, as he sucked Tillon to full size. God but it had been a long time since he had a cock in his mouth. Tillon’s wasn’t large enough to be a strain, but Haran could tell his jaw was going to ache if Tillon didn’t go off quick, just because it had been so long.
Hoping to forestall that discomfort, Haran pulled off and licked Tillon’s cock up and down. Tillon seemed to like it when Haran let his saliva-wet dick smear against his face, so Haran played it up a little, nuzzling his nose and cheek into Tillon’s erection.
“I’m pretty sure I told you to suck it,” Tillon said, a little out of breath.
Haran looked up and made eye contact with him as he took Tillon’s cock back into his mouth. He thought Tillon would take it as a provocation, but he didn’t expect Tillon’s eyelids to droop as he let out a soft groan. Haran’s own cock throbbed in the confinement of his more fitted Deshnad-style trousers. He got a good grip on Tillon’s hips and swallowed him down to the root, his nose tickled by Tillon’s mat of pubes.
Tillon breathed, “Fuck.” He grabbed a handful of Haran’s hair and fucked into his throat. Haran’s eyes watered. It had been a long time since he’d gotten his face fucked like this. He wouldn’t have thought a Keppralan had it in them, to be honest. Tillon was deep enough in his mouth that Haran couldn’t do much but breathe through it and attempt to take it, which. He had to take one hand off Tillon in order to press the heel of his hand against his dick to try and deal with it.
“Oh, you like this?” Tillon said. “Of course you do, faggot.” He grunted, thrusting harder into Haran’s mouth.
Haran didn’t know what that word meant, but he was sure it was rude. It wasn’t like he hadn’t known Tillon would talk shit the whole time, but he was a little surprised at the spike of arousal it sent through him. He hadn’t been that enthused about being insulted during sex before.
“Get your dick out,” Tillon panted. “I want to watch you come from this.”
Haran moaned, and Tillon’s hand tightened in his hair, painfully. It was difficult to unbutton his trousers one-handed, but Haran had done it before. He wrestled his cock out of its confinement, and was soon matching pace with Tillon’s thrusts into his mouth.
He lost himself for a while in the sensations, and only snapped back to reality when Tillon came, his cock barely inside Haran’s mouth. It meant Haran didn’t choke on a sudden flood hitting the back of his throat, but he did get the full taste of Tillon’s semen in his mouth, which was never his favorite. Tillon’s come was less bitter than Haran was used to, but it was still hot and salty, not entirely pleasant.
He was kind of surprised Tillon hadn’t pulled out so he could come on Haran’s face, since it seemed like the sort of thing Keppralans would find humiliating. As he imagined it, Haran found himself moving the hand on his cock faster. God, did he want Tillon to do that? It was certainly working for him now.
“I’m shocked you didn’t come first,” Tillon said. He eased his grip on Haran’s hair, though he kept his hand resting on Haran’s head. “Pervert.”
If Haran had actually bought into Tillon’s pretense that he didn’t want this, he would have found the way Tillon stayed right where he was, with his trousers around his ankles watching Haran fuck his own fist, rather suspicious; the way Tillon started petting Haran’s hair as Haran neared his peak even more so. But Haran was fully aware this was just the only way Tillon could let himself have sex with Haran at the moment, so he was not terribly surprised that Tillon stayed until after Haran had shot his load all over the packed earthen floor of the barn.
“Oh, dammit,” Tillon said, finally stepping back. “You got jizz on my boot.”
“At least your boot can’t taste it,” Haran said. His voice was rough, and his mouth was in fact still a little sour from Tillon’s come.
Tillon yanked his trousers up. “I thought you liked that kind of thing,” he said.
Haran shrugged. “Getting there’s fun,” he said. “But it’s not my favorite taste.” Which was odd, he supposed, as he loved the taste of cunt and even pre-come. Semen simply wasn’t as pleasant.
“Oh,” Tillon said. He clearly didn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of his flimsy excuse to fuck Haran. Haran sat back on his haunches to do up his trousers, which would have been much more difficult to do one-handed than getting them off had been. He wasn’t surprised Tillon took the opportunity to say, “Anyway, I told you I’d win,” and then all but ran out of the barn.
Tillon was shockingly good at acting as though nothing had happened. Haran supposed he had plenty of practice lying to himself.
Haran couldn’t stop thinking about how much he would have preferred Tillon to come on his face. Every time Tillon called him over to the fence to discuss when they would next take the wagon into town or passed him behind the farmhouse while Haran was getting water from the well, Haran thought about it. Every time they exchanged words or glances, Haran imagined himself back on his knees in front of Tillon, with Tillon covering Haran’s face in his come.
When Haran had the hots for someone in the past, he just asked if they wanted to fuck again. Sometimes they said no, but usually they said yes, because people liked feeling wanted even if they weren’t as into it as Haran was. Haran didn’t know what Tillon would say if Haran asked to suck him off again, but Haran wasn’t confident it would end with sex, so he didn’t say anything.
One muggy morning while Haran was hauling water up from the well, shirtless because he could already tell it was a last gasp of summer kind of day and would be hot later, Tillon leaned out of the kitchen window and called him over.
“What is it?” Haran called back. He wanted to take a bath later, and it was easier to pull the water up now than come all the way back. The water wouldn’t be as cold, but even in hot weather, Haran didn’t like his baths too cold.
“I said come here,” Tillon yelled, before vanishing from the window.
Haran rolled his eyes, finished pulling up the water, and dumped it into his larger bucket. Then he turned and went to the kitchen door.
Tillon was in one of the chairs, with his back to the kitchen table that was too large for one man. His legs were spread and his trousers untied, with his dick poking out of the waistband, which was tugged down to make that easier. Haran stopped in the doorway, staring. He hadn’t gotten a good look at Tillon’s dick before, since it had been in his mouth so fast. You might think seeing one cock would suffice for any of them, but Haran always found each one newly arresting.
“Suck me off again,” Tillon said, giving himself a leisurely tug.
God, it was so annoying trying to figure out the line between unresistant and eager that wouldn’t scare TIllon off. Haran asked, “Why should I?”
Tillon glowered at him. “You lost, remember?”
“Yeah, and I did what you said,” Haran said.
Tillon scoffed. “I didn’t say it was only going to be one time,” he said.
That was nonsense, and if it had been a wager Haran cared about, he would have said as much. But if this was the sop Tillon’s pride needed, Haran wasn’t going to complain. At least, not any more than he had to for the token resistance that put Tillon at ease. “Fine,” Haran said, and walked over to him.
It had been longer since Tillon washed this time, so his cock smelled strongly of sweat and arousal. Possibly if Haran hadn’t been sexually frustrated, he would have been disgusted, but he was horny enough not to be turned off by it. He did use his hand to slide back Tillon’s foreskin before he put the whole thing in his mouth, to check that there were no nasty surprises waiting for him, but even going several days between baths, Tillon evidently kept his cock clean.
This time, Tillon did not immediately grab Haran’s head and fuck his face. He did put one hand in Haran’s hair, but he didn’t exert any pressure, just rested its weight there. At first, he didn’t say anything, either. But as Haran worked him to full hardness, he moaned happily. Eventually he murmured, “You’re so good at this.”
Haran pulled back enough to say, “You’re welcome.”
Tillon lightly slapped the top of his head. “Shut up,” he said, “you owed me.”
That wasn’t true, but saying so would have required Haran to take his mouth off Tillon’s dick again, and he didn’t want to do that. It was easier to let Tillon’s nonsense pass.
Haran put one hand between Tillon’s legs, to fondle his balls, and the other hand between his own legs, to fondle himself. He wished there was any chance of reciprocation here, but he’d be lucky if Tillon put his foot down there and let Haran hump his leg. That thought caused an embarrassing rush of heat in his groin, and then in his face.
When he was pretty sure Tillon was about to come, Haran let Tillon’s cock slip out of his mouth and brought his other hand up to finish him off. Tillon groaned, and let his head fall back. “That’s right,” he breathed, “you want me to come on your face. Silly faggot.”
‘Yes,” Haran found himself saying. “Yes, come on my face, do it.”
And Tillon obliged, groaning again. His cock jumped in Haran’s grip, shooting lines of hot come down his cheek and over his lips. Haran adjusted his grip, making Tillon cry, “Ah!” and let out another burst of come, although it didn’t get as far as Haran’s face, landing on his wrist and dripping down his hands. Haran squeezed his own cock through his trousers before scrambling to open them up. He took himself in hand, using the come Tillon had just spilled over his hands to slick his own cock up.
It didn’t take long for Haran to finish. He was barely aware of Tillon watching him touch himself. He had Tillon’s come on his face, his hands, and his cock. He was sure now Tillon would keep asking for sexual favors. The relief only made it easier to lose himself in the arousal, and Haran shuddered as he came on the floor of the farm house’s kitchen.
Tillon pushed his chair back and stood. “Clean the floor before you leave,” he said.
As it grew colder and the rhythm of tending the farm changed, Tillon demanded blowjobs more frequently. Haran didn’t mind much, even if it was annoying Tillon always framed it through their wager. It was as if he thought anyone would have been fooled by the pretense of this just being his winnings; he had been the one to choose those winnings, after all. But on the balance, he was less obnoxious now that he was regularly getting laid. He was liable to derail arguments that were really just him working himself up by pushing Haran to his knees, which should have been more obnoxious, not less, but Haran’s dick was surprisingly on board with that development.
Haran was a grown man, he knew some people liked little power games with their sex, or sometimes instead of it. He’d experimented with it a few times himself, but much like fucking someone in the ass, he didn’t find it compelling enough to seek it out. He’d been on both sides of the arrangement, neither having any more appeal to him. He’d had lovers hold him down and call him names before, and it had never hit him like this. Maybe it was the possibility that Tillon didn’t know this was a common addition to sex, or maybe it was Tillon himself.
Tillon had more to do than Haran did, getting his part of the farm ready for winter. He even had some things to plant, specifically so they would lie dormant through winter and have a head start in the spring. He still wasn’t nearly as busy as he had been during harvest, and seemed confident a leisurely pace would suffice.
Haran did have to put some effort into shoring up his little shack. He added a layer of mud and straw to the outside of the walls, which looked terrible but plugged up the gaps, preventing drafts, and would help insulate it. He wove some straw mats for the floor, which weren’t the most comfortable but would keep his feet from getting too cold.
He should probably ask Baron Berrut to get him some better supplies for next year. A stove to put in the middle of the structure would go a long way towards keeping it comfortable in colder weather, but Haran had never built one intended to last, and he wasn’t sure how to do so. Actual rugs to put on the floor would be a hell of a lot nicer than his shoddy straw weaving, too. It was supposed to get colder down here than in other places this far south, but not as cold as it got in the grasslands, or even in the capital. It wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable, but he wouldn’t be in much danger of frostbite.
They went into the village for a bonfire cookout, which was a party in want of a celebration in Haran’s opinion, but he found the excuse for a bigger social gathering nice. One of the things he missed the most from life on the grasslands was the ease with which a night could turn into a party.
Korrit expressed surprise that Tillon was still getting things ready for winter. “Isn’t that leaving things a little late?” Korrit asked.
“I doubt we have to worry about an early frost this year,” Tillon said.
“If you say so,” Korrit said doubtfully.
Morro chuckled and told Korrit, “You know Tillon’s as good as magic when it comes to planting weather.”
Tillon stood up straighter and puffed out his chest. “That’s right,” he said, instead of thanking Morro.
He was, obviously, insufferable the rest of the evening. More than one villager dropped hints to Haran that perhaps there was something they might need to see to on the farm that would necessitate them leaving early. It was funny, having so many people who’d known Tillon for years concede Haran’s greater prowess in managing him.
But Haran didn’t have to drop any hints of his own, or even bluntly ask Tillon to walk back with him; Tillon sought Haran out while he was helping clean up after dinner, and said, “Let’s head back.”
That was startlingly polite for Tillon, and Haran wondered what it might mean.
He got his answer soon enough, when they got back to the farm and Tillon stopped Haran from going over to his shack. He led Haran into the farmhouse, which was usual enough, and through to his bedroom, which was not. Even in the chill air, Tillon’s room smelled of him.
Tillon started pulling off his tunic, and told Haran, “Strip.”
Mindful as always that he couldn’t appear too eager if he didn’t want to spook Tillon, Haran asked, “Why?”
“Because I told you to and I won the bet,” Tillon said. “Now take off your clothes.”
Haran took off his clothes. It was a bit of an effort not to shiver from the cool air, although he trusted Tillon wouldn’t leave him to freeze.
Tillon yanked his tunic off over his head and dropped it to the floor, kicking it aside. As usual, he was already hard enough for his erection to be seen through his trousers. Haran didn’t know how Tillon could continue to act as though this didn’t matter to him when he was routinely more turned on than Haran when they started. As he untied his trousers, Tillon said, “Get on the bed. I assume face down works better for ass fucking.”
Haran forgot how to talk. He stared mutely at Tillon for a moment, then turned and scrambled onto the bed.
“Aren’t you eager for it,” Tillon murmured. “Not even going to pretend you don’t want this?”
“I already told you I like it,” Haran said. “It’s not like I’m going to ruin your impression of Deshnadians.”
Tillon laughed. “That horse is long down the road,” he agreed. He opened the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a bottle.
Knowing that TIllon had thought about and prepared for this, even while pretending this was inconsequential to him, went right to Haran’s balls. He wondered if Tillon had lain awake at night, imagining what it would be like. Haran had given it some thought himself, on evenings when jerking himself off while he had his mouth on TIllon’s dick wasn’t completely satisfying.
There were wet sounds behind Haran, where Tillon had the bottle. Haran’s cock twitched between his legs.
“So I assume it’s easier to start with fingers,” Tillon said, his weight joining Haran’s on the bed. His legs were bare now too, the skin warm in contrast to the air of the room. He moved to between Haran’s feet as he went on, “Get the oil inside you and stretch you out first.”
“Yeah,” Haran said.
Tillon snickered. “You sound like you’re already about to come,” he said.
“Excuse me for enjoying myself,” Haran muttered, rolling his eyes. A slick finger touched his crack, and he jerked. Tillon slid his fingers over Haran’s asshole, then rubbed around it. Haran bit his lip and concentrated on not pushing back.
Tillon slid one finger into him, almost immediately pushing as deep as he could go. It was not the kind of thing anyone else had jumped right into, and it felt more weird than good, but Haran enjoyed the way the knuckles of Tillon’s other fingers dug into the outside of his ass. Tillon moved his finger in and out a few times, clearly not even thinking about making it feel good for Haran. That, perversely, made Haran’s cock throb.
“This is easier than I thought it’d be,” Tillon said. On his next inward push, he added another finger. Haran gasped. “Oh,” Tillon said. “That’s…a jump.”
“Mmm.” Haran’s hair was standing on end all over his body. He consciously took measured breaths, trying to relax.
“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” Tillon asked. “You have to tell me if it hurts.”
“It’s fine,” Haran said. “But, uh, give me some time before you add any more.”
Tillon grunted. He moved his fingers more slowly in and out. He started poking around, then sort of rotating his hand, apparently trying to stretch the rim of Haran’s asshole.
If TIllon found fingering him as tedious as Haran would have, he didn’t give any indication of it. For his part, Haran could gladly have knelt there with Tillon’s fingers in his ass for hours, weirdly callous technique or no. Being the focus of such sharp attention was heady. Tillon eventually added a third finger, which was less of an adjustment than the move from one to two. Haran still groaned.
“I cannot believe you like this,” Tillon muttered. His next stroke was a little harder, and made Haran cry out. “Fuck, are you noisy when your mouth isn’t full? Good, I like that.”
“Great, that’s exactly why I do it,” Haran said, panting. “Just for you.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Tillon said.
“You just said you liked me noisy.”
“You know what I mean,” Tillon said, as though decoding what he meant wasn’t an onerous enough task that most of the village had given up on it.
Haran let that pass, and focused again on the way Tillon moved his fingers. It wasn’t good, exactly, since that wasn’t what Tillon was concentrating on, but it was good enough. Haran could have come from it, if he jerked off, but he planned to wait until Tillon was close to let himself do that.
Then one of Tillon’s angle adjustments brought his fingers sliding against Haran’s prostate, and Haran let out the least intentional moan of his life.
“The hell was that?” Tillon asked, and aimed his next thrust at it as well. Haran still had very little control over the sound that escaped him. He hadn’t realized he was that turned on. “Oh,” Tillon said, sounding less confused. “I didn’t realize asses had one of those spots.”
“Women’s don’t,” Haran said, in between gasps from the way Tillon was now lightly exploring his prostate. “It’s the—the root of the cock, or something.”
“Huh,” Tillon said. He pressed a little harder against it, making Haran shiver. “Can you get men to squirt, then? Or is it not like in women?”
“I think so,” Haran said. “But it’s, ah.” Tillon did something new that was thoroughly distracting. “Fuck,” Haran whined, “you can’t ask me questions while you’re doing that!”
“Obviously I can,” Tillon said, and Haran could hear the grin in his words.
“Then you’re not going to get answers,” Haran said, and moaned again as Tillon stroked his fingers in and out of Haran, sliding firmly against Haran’s prostate. “It’s usually, mm, fuck, more common to orgasm without, uh.” It was hard to keep hold of Keppra words with Tillon fucking him like this. “The jizz.”
“Huh,” Tillon said. “Like you’re still hard, or you don’t even need to be hard?”
“Either? I think?”
“Huh,” Tillon said again. Haran shivered again, because of course he had to find the one rude, sadistic bastard in this country full of polite, mild-mannered farmers. And of course that coincided with Haran’s newfound appreciation of sadism. “That feels pretty good to me,” Tillon said, and pulled his fingers out of Haran. Haran barely managed to keep himself from whining again.
Tillon nudged Haran’s legs wider, so he had room to kneel right behind him. His cock brushed against Haran’s thighs and buttocks before finally slotting into his crack. Haran finally let himself push back, which made Tillon’s cock slide along the cleft of his ass and over his now-sensitive asshole.
“Such a slut,” TIllon murmured. He laid a hand on one of Haran’s buttocks and pushed him forward, then used that same hand to move Haran’s cheek to the side. He must have taken his cock in his other hand, and guided it to press at Haran’s hole, for press it did. He started pushing in.
It had been long enough since Haran had anything in his ass that even that much fingering hadn’t been quite enough, and the burn of his asshole stretching to accommodate Tillon’s cock told Haran he’d still be feeling it tomorrow. That was not a bad thing, Haran found. God, who was he? His ex Fado used to tease him about being too delicate to prefer taking it.
“Gods, you’re tight,” Tillon grunted, hitching his hips to work a little deeper into Haran. Was this what Fado had felt like when Haran fucked him? Was this what King Lorrit experienced? Tillon wasn’t doing anything different than anyone else who’d ever had Haran this way, except being a little on the clumsy and eager side, so why did it feel so much better?
He was so light-headed and turned on that it took Haran a minute to realize Tillon’s comment about how tight he was hadn’t sounded too enthused. He said, “Ah, more oil might—make it easier.”
“I guess it’d be hard to use too much,” Tillon muttered. He leaned over to grab the bottle back off the nightstand, which shifted the angle of things inside Haran enough for him to gasp. Haran heard the pop of the stopper being pulled out of the bottle, and then one of Tillon’s hands was rubbing oil around the rim of Haran’s hole. Tillon pulled out a bit, which was still uncomfortable, and Haran felt the incidental nudges of Tillon adding additional oil to his cock. He pressed against the rim of Haran’s hole with one slick finger, which would absolutely be too much if he managed to get it in, and which felt phenomenal. Haran’s arms quaked.
There was the thunk of the bottle being set down back on the tabletop, and then Tillon’s slippery hands grabbed hold of Haran by the hips. He pressed in again, and it was a lot smoother. “Gods,” he gasped. “That’s better.”
Haran didn’t have the faculties to speak. Tillon moved inside him, and Haran’s entire body tingled with pleasure.
It wasn’t long before Tillon was pounding into him with abandon. Haran’s elbows buckled, leaving his face pressed into the mattress, his back arched so his ass could stay up in the air. There was nothing in the world that mattered except Tillon’s cock steadily ramming him. Haran could hardly get enough air to breathe. Oh, he hoped Tillon would do this again, and not be scared off by how blatantly homoerotic it was. Fuck, this was better than he remembered it being. Tillon had forgotten entirely about his prostate, and Haran was glad, because he didn’t think he would be able to handle that at the same time as this.
“Why aren’t you—touching yourself?” Tillon grunted. “Thought you liked this.”
“I’ll come too fast,” Haran said.
“You’ll—?” Tillon groaned, “Gods, you fucking faggot. It feels that good, huh?”
“So good,” Haran moaned into the mattress.
“Fuck.” Tillon groaned again and fairly slammed into Haran.
When Tillon’s thrusts grew frantic, Haran decided Tillon was close enough, and reached down to take himself in hand. He panted into the mattress while Tillon rammed into him, hardly conscious of the crude words continually falling from Tillon’s lips. He wasn’t sure which one of them tipped over the edge first, just that they came more or less simultaneously, spurring each other on.
Afterward, lying side by side on Tillon’s bed, as Haran began to grow chilly from the sweat cooling on his skin, he said hoarsely, “Please tell me you want to do that again.”
Tillon started to laugh. “You don’t need to worry about that,” he said.
He was polite, at least by his standards, when he kicked Haran out of his bed. Haran walked back to his side of the farm feeling wobbly and satisfied. Lenda was waiting for him at the gate, huffing impatiently. She lipped at him as she pushed him towards his shack. Haran smiled to himself, and muttered, “Horse-enforced curfew,” which made him giggle off and on as he got ready for bed, until he fell asleep.
Now that Tillon had decided he was allowed to fuck Haran in the ass, or whatever went on in that head of his, he didn’t completely stop demanding blowjobs. He did cut back on them in favor of either taking Haran to his bed, or else bending him over something of a convenient height. More than once he took Haran on the ground in the well yard, with both of them kneeling in the dirt, which Haran really should not have found so hot.
It didn’t take nearly as long as Haran would have guessed before Tillon felt comfortable fucking him with Haran on his back. Missionary wasn’t a great position for anal, at least in Haran’s opinion, but he was flexible enough for Tillon to fold him in half, which was hot enough to make up for the less-than-ideal angle of Tillon’s cock inside him.
Now that Tillon wasn’t quite so nervous about having sex with a man, he was instead dedicated to finding things that would make Haran whimper. It wasn’t an experience Haran had a lot of. He supposed, based on the ideas of Keppralan romance he’d been exposed to, that this was just Tillon treating Haran the way he was used to treating women he had sex with. If Haran was a Keppralan man, he probably would have been uncomfortable or offended by it. But it was honestly pretty nice, especially since Haran had kind of been expecting Tillon to be a selfish, shitty sex partner.
Tillon also obviously did not find fingering someone’s ass as tedious as Haran did. One night he spent so long doing it that Haran came very close to begging him to stop. His prostate felt almost swollen from all of Tillon’s toying with it by the time Tillon was satisfied. Haran’s cock had leaked steadily onto his stomach, and both it and his balls positively ached. When Tillon finally pulled his fingers out, Haran almost cried with relief. Then Tillon pressed his cock in, sliding easily until his pelvis touched Haran’s ass, and Haran cried out.
Haran had been so close for so long that he started to tear up as he neared orgasm. Tillon drove into him, moving easily enough to really force the breath out of him, and finally Haran came, and came, and came. He was exhausted by the time he finished. “God,” Haran breathed, in between great heaving breaths.
Tillon did not pull out. He hoisted Haran’s right leg over his shoulder, grinding his cock deep inside Haran. Raw and overstimulated, Haran moaned, and tried to pull away. But Tillon wrapped his arms around Haran’s thigh and hitched his hips, driving more deeply into Haran. “Tillon,” Haran moaned, “I can’t.”
“So?” Tillon asked. Haran shuddered, and Tillon grinned.
Haran did not get hard again as Tillon fucked him, although his cock did leak some more sticky fluid, this time smearing on his thigh. He felt fuzzy, like he’d been washed in too-hot water and run through a laundry mangle. It was a strange experience, being fucked right through the period of over-stimulation following orgasm. His throat was completely dry from how hard he’d been panting by the time Tillon came. Haran knew his ass was going to be sore later. He didn’t know if he had ever been so totally relaxed in his life.
Tillon finally pulled out and collapsed onto the bed next to Haran. It took nearly as long for him to catch his breath as it took Haran. Eventually, Tillon said, “Uh. Was that…I mean, are you…okay?”
Haran rolled his eyes and looked over at him. “Now you worry about whether I want it?”
Tillon turned red. “You didn’t…that is, I wasn’t…” As if it physically pained him, he ground out, “You never said no. Before.”
This conversation was going to be a pain in the ass to have with Tillon still pretending this wasn’t something he had pursued because he wanted it. Haran’s relaxed lassitude from being so thoroughly fucked-out was quickly evaporating. He said, “I didn’t say no, I said I couldn’t.”
“Oh, same difference,” Tillon snapped, which was a phrase that made no literal sense but was nonetheless clear from his tone.
“So you’re only doing this to humiliate me, but if I wanted you to stop, you would,” Haran said.
“Please, you don’t find it humiliating,” Tillon said. “You like it.” He deflated a little bit. “At least, you did before.”
Haran sighed. “I’m not going to reassure you about how much I like this.”
“So you do like it,” Tillon said, almost accusing.
Haran always knew this was a bad idea, and he did it anyway. But Haran was a grown man. It was one thing to try and let Tillon come to terms with the fact he was attracted to at least one man in his own time, and it was another thing to fuck him. Maybe those two things were mutually exclusive. God, but he wanted a drink of water.
Haran swallowed, attempting to get his mouth somewhat less than desert-dry, then said, “I don’t see how we can talk about this.”
“It’s not that hard,” Tillon said. “You just open your mouth and make words.”
Haran laughed, because Tillon was so audaciously obnoxious, even when he was the one with a problem. “Fine,” Haran said. “You start. Tell me why it matters to you that I like having sex with you.”
Tillon turned red again, this time furrowing his brow and glaring at Haran. “No one wants to fuck someone who’s not enjoying it,” he said. Haran raised an eyebrow, and Tillon hurriedly added, “No one who’s not a complete shithead, anyway.”
“Uh huh,” Haran said. He stretched his arms out above his head, arched his back, then relaxed and settled his arms behind his head. “So you want to fuck me.”
“I didn’t say that,” Tillon said. He was still red in the face, but now he looked more harried than angry. “I just don’t want to fuck someone who isn’t enjoying it.”
Haran waited, looking at him with as little expression as he could manage. He might not be as good a farmer as Tillon, but he knew he had more patience.
Tillon burst out, “Considering how much you like it, I’m really doing you a favor.”
“I never asked you to,” Haran said.
Tillon scoffed. “Please,” he said. “You were basically drooling all over my dick the first time.”
Oh for fuck’s sake. Haran propped himself up on one elbow to face Tillon. “And which one of us asked for that?” he demanded.
Tillon froze. Yeah, hard to wriggle out of that one, Haran thought. He still tried, though: after a moment, Tillon said, “That wasn’t because I wanted to.”
“You made a wager you knew you would win,” Haran said. “You could have made me tar your roof, or eat rashweed again, or leave the farm, or, I don’t know, run naked through the village if you were actually trying to humiliate me, but what you did was push me to my knees and tell me to suck you off.”
“Wait,” Tillon said, frowning, “if you didn’t think you could win, why did you take the bet?”
Haran rolled his eyes again. “Why do you think?” he asked. “Don’t change the subject.”
“No wonder you didn’t put up much of a fight, you slut,” Tillon said.
“Oh, did you want a fight?” Haran demanded, because he had been relaxed, but his mouth was dry, this conversation was frustrating, and Tillon was annoying him. He shoved Tillon off the bed. Tillon yelped and grabbed for him. Haran let himself be pulled to the ground with Tillon, then used the momentum to roll them over. He pushed Tillon’s face into the floor, grabbed Tillon’s arms, and locked them at an awkward angle behind his back with his upper body weight, while he wrapped his legs around Tillon’s to pin those.
“Ow, Haran! What the fuck?” Tillon shouted into the floor.
“I have been as patient and understanding as I know how,” Haran said. Tillon squirmed, so Haran put extra pressure on his arms, and Tillon immediately stopped squirming. When he went still, Haran eased the pressure. He went on, “So let’s get this clear: you have never and could never make me do anything I didn’t want to. But no matter how good the sex is, it gets very annoying to keep pretending you don’t want it as much as I do.”
“Fuck off, no I don’t,” Tillon said.
Haran had to take a deep breath to fight the temptation to put pressure on Tillon’s arms again and risk hurting him. When he had himself under control, he said, “You just fucked me hard enough that you had to double-check that I enjoyed it. You didn’t trip and fall dick-first into my ass.”
After a moment of sullen silence, Tillon said, “Even if I did want it, it couldn’t possibly be as much as you do.”
Haran snorted. That was surprisingly close to an admission, for Tillon. “Uh huh,” Haran said. He let go of Tillon’s arms, then unwrapped his legs from around Tillon’s. “You are such a…” Haran had to cast around for a suitable Keppra word or phrase. “Piece of work,” he said, after a moment.
“That’s probably fair,” Tillon muttered into the floor.
“It’s definitely fair,” Haran corrected him. As he rolled off of Tillon’s back, he went on, “You’re lucky I’m a slut. I wouldn’t put up with you otherwise.”
Tillon laughed, a little uncomfortably. He rolled his shoulders and worked his elbows. He said, “I didn’t realize…. You never seemed bothered.”
“Oh, you bother the hell out of me,” Haran said. He wasn’t sure he’d ever met anyone more annoying. “But I thought I was less likely to get what I wanted, if you knew that.”
Tillon laughed again, and this time it sounded more natural. Haran started to sit up, so he could climb back onto the bed—Tillon’s mattress was nicer than his—but then Tillon rolled over and grabbed his arm. Haran turned to look at him, and found himself being pulled down into a kiss.
When Tillon released him, Haran saw he was blushing again, and not looking at Haran’s face. Haran asked, “What was that for?”
Tillon’s mouth twisted into a lop-sided smile. “For putting up with me,” he said. His gaze flickered up to meet Haran’s eyes, just for a second. “I know I’m…not easy to get along with.”
“Yeah,” Haran said. “But at least you’re a good fuck.”
Tillon laughed again, and put his hand in the middle of Haran’s chest to shove him away.
The next day, Tillon met Haran at the well as the sun began to set. He said, “It’s really too cold to stay in that shack of yours all winter,” he said. “You should take one of the other rooms in the house.”
Haran looked up at him. He did not point out that it had been TIllon who divided the land in the first place, and Tillon who proclaimed that Haran would not be using the house. Tillon looked a little uncomfortable, and Haran wondered if he was making this offer because he still felt weird about last night. Haran said, “It’s warmer than a tent. I’ll be fine.”
Tillon huffed. “I’ll be warmer with another body in the house, too,” he said. “It’ll save on firewood.”
Well, it wasn’t as though Tillon routinely offered things he didn’t want just to be polite. Even if that seemed possible in this case, it was probably safe enough to take him at his word. Haran said, “I guess it would be nice to not have to sleep in all my clothes.”
Tillon smiled, like this really was the outcome he’d wanted. “Good,” he said.
Haran didn’t have many things to move over, since most of the farming implements were stored in the barn now. The heaviest and most cumbersome were his books, but he took apart the little end table he’d made himself and used the crates the books had traveled in on the wagon ride down to carry them to the farmhouse.
He moved his things into the room that was not right next to Tillon’s, but also was not the furthest away from Tillon’s. It was one of the smaller rooms, but that still meant it was larger than his entire shack, and there was already a bed and some other furniture in it. The mattress smelled terrible, so Haran tossed it out the window to put on the compost pile later. The bed frame was not wood all the way through, as Haran’s last hand-me-down had been. The legs and frame were, but the supports under the mattress were ropes, or maybe just one long rope, pulled taut. That was clever, though he wondered how they got the rope that taut.
His mattress wasn’t really thick enough for that style of bed frame, it turned out. The ropes felt like ridges through it; he may as well have been lying on a pile of sticks. Haran pulled his mattress off the frame, then piled up the straw mats he’d made for the floor of his shack, then put the mattress on top of them. That was better, although a little uneven. Well, he could get more straw or leaves or whatever and even it out later; it was good enough for now.
Haran did like having a wardrobe to hang his clothes in. He thought they smelled better when he hung them up, and they definitely didn’t get as many creases and wrinkles. He still had far fewer clothes than even a Keppralan farmhand was expected to have, if the empty space in his wardrobe was any indication. He wondered who to talk to about getting Keppralan-style clothes. Haran knew how to weave, but he’d never done anything finer than a rug, and he didn’t know much about the construction of clothes, even if he was sure Keppralan trousers were simpler to make than riding trousers.
“So,” Tillon said from the doorway. Haran looked over at him. Tillon pressed his lips together, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Would I be right if I guessed you’d be willing to have sex if I just. Asked.”
“It would be less silly,” Haran said. “And I do generally like being treated like an adult who’s capable of making his own decisions.”
Tillon grunted. He didn’t immediately say anything else, so Haran wondered if that was it, or if Tillon expected him to make some sort of overture. After a few moments, though, Tillon did say, as though it took physical effort to do so, “If you ever…want to have sex…I wouldn’t be upset if you asked. When it’s just the two of us,” he added quickly, as though Haran thought it was a possibility to even imply Tillon would fuck him to other people.
“Good, thank you,” Haran said. “Do you want to help me break in this bed, then?”
“Gods, yes,” Tillon said, and entered the room.
Haran took off his shirt while Tillon crossed over to him, rather expecting Tillon to either help strip him or get his own dick out, and was surprised to have Tillon press him down onto the bed to kiss him. Tillon had never kissed him before last night. Haran supposed that was the difference between fucking someone for a bet and just fucking someone.
They had to stop in the middle for Tillon to go down the hall to his own room to fetch the oil, because Haran didn’t have his own; he’d used it all up during the weeks between Tillon winning the bet and Tillon getting up the nerve to fuck him in the ass, pulling himself off thinking about Tillon. He did not tell Tillon that, of course, just that he’d run out and didn’t have any at the moment.
When Tillon slid his cock into Haran and Haran let out a low groan, Tillon said, “Yeah, you like that, don’t you, fucking—” then cut himself off and froze.
Haran laughed, although at the moment he felt more like crying. “I don’t mind if you call me names,” he said.
“Really?” Tillon asked. “It sounded like you minded.”
“I—I don’t like it most of the time,” Haran said. He was glad he was facing away from Tillon, because his face was warm enough he knew he was blushing. “But it’s kind of hot when we’re actually fucking.”
“Gods, really?” Tillon asked, but this time instead of incredulous, he sounded amused. “Of course you do. Pervert.”
“Uh huh,” Haran said. Tillon started moving again, and Haran groaned.
By the time they both finished, Tillon had collapsed onto Haran’s back, and was moving only his hips, muttering a steady stream of disjointed filth directly into Haran’s ear. It was extremely sexy, even if it did make Haran’s back even sweatier.
As they lay next to each other afterward, Haran said, “I don’t know about you, but I felt like that was easier.”
Tillon only grunted in response, but he bent over to kiss Haran again before he left.
Tillon wasn’t nearly as fast to kick Haran out of his bed now that he was acknowledging, if in a somewhat roundabout manner, that they both wanted to have sex. At least, Haran thought that was the difference; it could also have been the fact that it was cold enough that having another person warming his bed was an appealing prospect. He wasn’t quite up to cuddling, but he did sometimes grope or kiss Haran’s body appreciatively without it leading back into sex. It turned out he was especially interested in Haran’s thighs and ass, which was kind of funny to Haran. By Deshnad standards, Haran’s legs and ass were middling. Although thinking about it, he supposed those were the main muscles developed by riding horses, or at least the ones that were easy to see and feel. So any given Deshnadian would probably have a nicer ass than any given Keppralan.
One evening, after a dinner composed principally of things one of them had grown, Tillon pressed up against Haran’s back while he was cleaning up. He was already turned on enough that Haran could feel his cock against Haran’s ass. He kissed the back of Haran’s neck while his hands roved the front of Haran’s body. This was so much nicer than pretending it was some sort of wager-based obligation, Haran thought, arching his back to press back against Tillon.
Haran managed, eventually, to finish tidying up, despite one of TIllon’s hands squeezing his cock through his trousers while he ground his hips against Haran’s ass. He turned around, and Tillon immediately stuck his tongue in Haran’s mouth. The new regular kissing was a welcome addition to whatever it was they were doing here, although it had a tendency to make Haran feel things he was probably safer not feeling for Tillon. They made out against the counter for long enough that Haran’s trousers started to chafe and Tillon’s had a little wet spot in the front, before finally stumbling down the hall to Tillon’s room. They usually went to his room, since his bed was bigger and the mattress was nicer.
Tillon had eased off the outright insults, although his mouth still ran away with him sometimes, especially when he was close to coming. It had gotten somewhat muddled lately, though; he now had a tendency to call Haran gorgeous in the same breath as he called him a slut or pervert. That night, as Haran came, Tillon moaned, “Gods, yes, come for me, you beautiful man.”
Haran didn’t think anything of it at the time, since he was occupied, but after they were done, he realized that was a rather odd combination of words in Keppra. And it was the first time Tillon had directly mentioned his gender while they were having sex, unless a faggot could only be a man. Which would still make it the first time Tillon had been positive about Haran’s manhood while they were having sex.
There had been a time, Haran reflected, when he specifically thought it would be too much trouble to get involved with a Keppralan because of the weird ideas they had about sex and relationships.
“Hey,” Haran said, when his breathing had evened out enough that speaking wasn’t uncomfortable. “Will you freak out if I ask you something?”
“Maybe,” Tillon said. Haran would have appreciated the honesty, but he suspected Tillon thought he was joking. Tillon rolled onto his side to face Haran and propped his head up with one hand. “What?”
“Are you interested in men in general, or just me, you think?” Tillon started flushing right away; Haran quickly added, “Remember I don’t care one way or the other. And I won’t bring it up again. But it would be helpful to know.”
Tillon was silent for a minute. Haran couldn’t tell if his pursed lips and slightly labored breathing meant he was thinking or stewing. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. It’s…hard to actually think about.”
Haran nodded. “I understand,” he said. “Thank you for not yelling and trying to kick me out of bed.”
That, of course, made Tillon yell and try to push Haran out of the bed.
Haran wrestled him into submission, without either of them having to fall off the bed. Tillon got out of it by cheating: he sucked on Haran’s neck until Haran’s arms gave out. When Haran collapsed on top of him, Tillon flipped them over, and kissed him.
When Tillon finally slid off Haran to lay next to him again, he asked, “What’s the difference?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said it would help to know,” Tillon muttered, flushing. “If it’s just you or not. What’s the difference?”
“Ah,” Haran said. He thought about his words before he started speaking, and therefore said, “I’m not sure you’re ready for this conversation.”
“Fuck you,” Tillon said, which Haran really ought to have seen coming. “I’m not a baby, just tell me.”
Haran sighed. “It’s not a matter of maturity,” he said. “Or weakness,” he added when Tillon opened his mouth to speak. “Most Deshnadians figure out how much they like men or women by the time they’re apprentices.” Tillon opened his mouth again, and Haran barreled on, “Because it doesn’t matter.” Tillon shut his mouth. “They have nothing to lose or gain,” Haran said. “It’s not the same for you Keppralans. You’re twice the age I was when I decided gender was not a factor in if I find someone attractive. And it is not…empty.” Tillon’s brow wrinkled, which let Haran know he’d used the wrong word. Haran clarified, “For a Keppralan, it does matter. You were supposed to like women. You were not supposed to like men. You’re convinced it’s wrong.”
“Well, it’s not wrong,” Tillon said. He was flushed again, his lips set in an obstinate pout. “Didn’t you hear the kings changed the laws?”
“The laws don’t direct your feelings,” Haran said. “It’s deeper than that.” That was one of the things Nateno and Ordoni were discussing around the time Haran left, and why they had offered such robust support to warriors taking up Keppralan trades: changing the laws of a land did not necessarily change the culture. That had been more abstract to Haran when he set out in his wagon than it was now, after months of living and working alongside a strong contender for the most repressed man in Kepprala. Haran said, “You know I’m the first Deshnadian to try farming.”
Tillon frowned. “Yeah,” he said. “But isn’t that just because you were used to taking what you needed?”
Haran shook his head. “That doesn’t work long-term,” he said. “You know that. Before we came east, we followed the herds on their seasonal routes. We hunted, and scavenged, and foraged. We culled the herds when it was safe to do so. We moved around. We said farmers were lazy, not able to keep up a warrior’s lifestyle, weak from not testing themselves against different environments.”
“That’s why the other Deshnadians are becoming hunters and shepherds,” Tillon said. Haran nodded. “And that’s why they gave you so much help getting started. Not only so it would be easy for you, but to make it look more appealing to other Deshnadians.”
“Yeah,” Haran said. He smiled. “I’m not sure Ordoni even realized I’d be keeping Lenda. I told him to tell people they’d get a horse if they took a farm. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m sure there are more Deshnad farmers now.”
“Mm.” They lay in silence for a few minutes. “I didn’t even know you thought all that about farming,” Tillon said. “You never seemed upset or worried. Or…condescending,” he added, perhaps thinking about how he would have acted, in Haran’s place.
That was true. Haran had grown up with those ideas, sure, but it had become clear to him shortly after arriving in Kepprala that most of it was horseshit. Being fluent in Keppra, especially in the early days when even Lord Nateno and General Ordoni struggled with it, meant he had spoken to lots of Keppralans about lots of different subjects. Farming, he realized, was actually a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Attempting something new did not have the immediate feedback of failure, because it took so long to cultivate plants and livestock. And it was not easy, even when you didn’t try something new, since there were so many other ways things might go wrong. Even if everything went right, some things simply required a lot of effort: maintaining water levels and shade levels and keeping bugs and wildlife away; mixing things into the soil, reclaiming waste from the harvest or from failed growth, even sometimes physically moving soil or plants around to create a more optimal distribution of resources.
After a few moments’ thought, Haran asked Tillon, “What do you know about the western grasslands?”
Tillon frowned again. “They’re west. They’re grasslands.” He smirked and added, “They’re filled with barbarians so intelligent people should keep away.”
Haran smiled. “What about the weather?” he asked.
“Oh,” Tillon said, frowning once more. “It’s unpredictable, isn’t it? And harsh. I think I heard about a year that was just alternating droughts and flash floods all summer.”
“Farming would be impossible there,” Haran said. “The storms are unpredictable and harsh. The environment changes too fast. You could set up a little plot of cabbages in the spring, and by fall the entire area would be parched. Or it might be an underwater marsh now. Only the most resilient living things can survive. It’s…stunted, compared to Kepprala.”
Tillon nodded. “You’d only ever get plants that grow very fast, or can survive a wide variety of conditions,” he said. “So it would look very similar everywhere the storms hit.”
Haran smiled at him. “I can tell you’re a five-time blue ribbon champion,” he said. Tillon grinned, and shoved his shoulder. Haran said, “I didn’t know nature could be so beautiful.” He sighed, thinking about those first weeks, crossing the Keppralan countryside. “There’s so much, and so much variety. Instead of having to know the entire grassland and its weather patterns and how they might shift, a person here can get to know a little piece of land so deeply. Like you. You’re so sensitive to the smallest things, and you know how to adapt to them. You’ve created a flourishing little piece of stability by learning how to work with the instability, instead of fighting it. Like keeping your seat on a horse,” he went on. “It’s like you’re part of your farm, not fighting it or trying to direct it.”
Tillon said, “I don’t know how you can think I’d ever find anyone else attractive after you.”
Haran watched as Tillon realized what he said, flushed, and hunched into his shoulders. He flipped over and pulled the quilt over his head, wrapping himself up.
Haran laughed. “The way into your bed is to care about farming, hmm? To respect your knowledge?” He rolled over to press himself to Tillon’s back, putting an arm around the quilt-covered lump of him. “Tillon,” he murmured seductively, “tell me more about how to use squash to shade the ground and retain soil moisture.” Tillon squirmed and shoved his elbow back at Haran, but he’d wrapped himself in the quilt too tightly to be able to move that much. Haran laughed again.
“Shut up!” Tillon shouted. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
Haran wished they had a smaller cart than the wagon he’d come down from the capital in, because picking up food or supplies from the village was usually a little unwieldy to do on foot, but hitching Lenda up to the big wagon and hauling it to town seemed silly and wasteful when the wagon would still be three-quarters empty once they’d picked everything up. So what happened instead was both of them went into town every time either of them needed to get anything.
It was fine, although the longer Haran was there, the more heavily the other villagers relied on him to interface with Tillon for them. He wondered how obvious it could get before Tillon felt he had to say something, probably by picking a fight about being ignored. For now, Tillon affected not to notice when people said hello to both of them, and then spoke exclusively to Haran afterwards.
They ran into Morro in the market square, sitting in the sun and spinning some wool. They chatted a bit. Haran asked about how her knees were doing now that it was colder, and she went into a little speech about how Haran should appreciate his joints while he was young.
“You know,” Morro said after Haran had agreed he was quite lucky to have functioning knees, “you’re really settling in here. You feel like one of us now. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about a wife, hmm? I have a lovely niece about your age, you know.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Tillon snapped. “He’s mine!”
Haran froze in the middle of forming the words no thank you. Morro looked startled, but not shocked, and Haran realized she hadn’t taken Tillon’s meaning. That was probably for the best, he decided. Tillon snapping out of jealousy wasn’t that surprising, but he probably wasn’t up to telling anyone about them yet, since he still couldn’t talk about it outright.
Morro rolled her eyes. “Tillon,” she said, “you can’t treat Haran like a farm animal. It’s good for him to have a life of his own outside you and the farm! He ought to have someone.”
“Ugh,” Tillon said. He stepped closer to Haran and grabbed his arm, wrapping his arms around it and pulling it against his chest. Haran looked over bemusedly at him. Tillon said, “No, you don’t understand, he’s mine. He’s my—” He flushed, and stumbled over his words. “My lover.”
Now Morro looked shocked. She looked even more shocked than Haran felt, which was pretty damn shocked. Morro looked at Haran, wide-eyed, and asked, “Is that true?”
Tillon made a noise and hugged Haran’s arm more tightly. Heart pounding, Haran said, “I mean, if Tillon’s willing to claim me, then yes.”
“Huh!” Morro shook her head, and said again, “Huh!” She gathered herself, and went on, “Then good luck to you. Or congratulations, I suppose.”
“Thank you,” Tillon all but hissed, clutching Haran’s arm tighter still. He dragged Haran away, leaving Morro sitting in the sun with her wool on her lap, still shaking her head.
After a moment, Haran said, “You know she’s going to tell the whole village.”
Tillon dropped Haran’s arm. “So?” he asked. “Good. At least people won’t be trying to marry you off.”
Orrin the smith had their tools sharpened, but he also wanted to get Tillon’s opinion on a new watering pot design he’d been working on. Orrin was one of the few people in the village who didn’t seem to mind sniping back at Tillon when Tillon was rude, so in a way, he was the closest thing Tillon had to a friend. Haran could see they would be loudly discussing the benefits and drawbacks of the watering pot for a while, so he excused himself to head to the public privy.
Haran was passing the square on his walk back to the smithy when Morro waved him over again. Haran went over to her, puzzled. “Did you need something?” he asked.
Morro shook her head. She’d packed her wool back into its drawstring bag, and was wrapping her spindle so it wouldn’t unspin. “I just wanted to ask if you’re really all right, you know, with Tillon. He does just decide things sometimes, we all know that. And if you’re like your king and prefer men,” she went on, stuffing her spindle into the bag on top of the wool, “I’m pretty sure one of my nephews would be interested. He’s only a little younger than you, and a much nicer boy than Tillon!”
Haran sighed. “Ma’am,” he said, “I appreciate the thought, but this isn’t a new thing. Him telling anyone about it is, but it’s been going on for a while.”
“Oh,” Morro said, staring at him with wide eyes. “Well then.” She chuckled. “Forget I said anything!” She stood and headed off across the square, shaking her head. Haran thought he heard her muttering something about it all being very well to be interested in men, but Tillon?
What was it with people and thinking Tillon could push Haran into doing something he didn’t want to? Tillon was an untrained blowhard. He was all bark and very little bite. The few times he’d actually managed to get under Haran’s skin had been on accident. Sure, Tillon was a pushy asshole and physically strong, but he wasn’t a fighter or a strategist, and frankly he didn’t have the patience to try any more complicated manipulation than wearing someone down.
Had the Keppralans forgotten Haran helped invade their country? He wasn’t soft or weak-willed. He’d learned their language in order to threaten and cow the people in the capital alongside Lord Nateno and General Ordoni. Sure, now he spent his days playing in the mud and thinking up ways to increase his yield, but he wasn’t a different person.
Although perhaps it wasn’t that they thought Haran was soft, but that they found Tillon that troublesome. He had managed to drive away quite a few people simply by being his charming self. Haran found him endearing now, but it had taken effort to ignore the way he said things long enough to figure out what he meant.
“Finally,” Tillon said, when Haran reached him. “Take this.” He thrust the larger and more unwieldy bag at Haran. “Let’s head back.”
Haran was seized with a mischievous urge, so he said, “Whatever you say, lover.”
Tillon froze, and blushed so hard his face was nearly purple. Without a word, he turned and stamped down the street in the direction of their farm.
Haran smiled to himself and sauntered after him.
They were halfway back to the farm, no one else in sight, when out of nowhere Tillon said, “It’s not just you.”
Haran looked over at him. “Hmm?”
Tillon was not looking back at him. He was looking at the top of the bag in his arms, or perhaps the ground. His shoulders were up around his ears, and he was curled around the bag he carried protectively. “A while ago,” Tillon said, “you asked if it was just you, or if I was…you know. I don’t think it’s just you.”
“Oh,” Haran said. They walked along in silence for a few moments, while Haran thought about how to respond to that. He didn’t want to frighten Tillon out of sharing things, after all. Then he said, “Wait. Did you just force yourself to tell me that so I would feel bad teasing you?”
“I don’t know,” Tillon said. He looked over at Haran, red-faced but smirking. “Did it work?”
“You bastard,” Haran said. He bumped against Tillon’s side, since his arms were full and he couldn’t just push him. “I don’t know whether to be proud or pissed off!”
Tillon scoffed. “What, you can’t do both at once? Amateur.” Haran laughed.
Haran amused himself the entire rest of the day, as they put away their shopping and rearranged the barn, then washed up and cooked dinner, peppering all his responses to Tillon with “lover”. It never failed to make Tillon turn red or yell at him, but he never got worked up enough about it that Haran worried he was actually upset. He was embarrassed, but clearly unwilling to take it back now that it was said.
“We should get the stakes in the ground for the horse stall before the ground freezes,” Tillon said over dinner. “Unless, you know.” He squashed a potato with the flat of his knife, before mixing in the butter Haran had scooped onto his plate. “There is room in the barn,” he said. “It was obviously built with the idea of housing one or two animals.”
That was true. Haran hadn’t wanted to suggest making changes to something Tillon considered his, but perhaps, if Haran was also Tillon’s now, it would be acceptable. “That would be easier,” he said. “If you don’t mind, lover.”
Tillon turned red once more. “Shut up,” he said loudly. “It’s not the big deal you’re making it! I just don’t want you to marry anyone else!”
Haran grinned, and rested his chin on his hand. He waited until Tillon looked back up at him a few moments later, and asked, “Anyone else?”
Tillon kicked him under the table.
That night, when they were in Tillon’s bed with Haran’s legs wrapped around Tillon’s waist and Tillon’s cock seated firmly in Haran’s ass, Haran heard the quietest whisper of Tillon’s voice. While he peppered kisses up and down Haran’s neck and ground their hips together, Tillon murmured, “Mine.”
Haran probably wasn’t even supposed to hear it, but he did. And God help him, it felt nice. For all Tillon was a prickly, repressed weirdo, Haran liked him. Tillon was attractive, and fun, and Haran liked him even though he was sometimes extremely frustrating. Hearing Tillon claim him publicly had made Haran’s heart skip a beat, and feeling him murmur that claim into Haran’s skin made Haran feel warm and desirable.
“Yours,” Haran agreed breathlessly.