by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
Weariness was pretty much a constant state of being on the battlefield. Kale was used to that after a year in the army, and he’d learned to work through it for the most part. But a week’s hard riding through the worst part of the mountains had left him completely exhausted, not just tired. He was still an indifferent rider at best, having only learned the skill a few months before, and keeping up with a unit of Elite warrior-mages would have taxed even an expert.
His eyes were crossing as he tended to first his horse, and then Jaren’s. He had to concentrate hard to avoid mishandling the gear and triggering one of the spells stamped into the leather, and he got a bad bruise on one foot when Jaren’s destrier stepped on it. By the time he staggered into the tent he shared with his captain and lover, Kale was ready to fall over in a dead faint.
Unfortunately he couldn’t rest just yet; the whole reason they’d ridden so hard to reach this camp was that the 64th Elite were badly needed here. At the very least there would be a briefing before they could sleep. Kale fervently hoped the commander would realize how tired they all were, and wouldn’t assign them a patrol or station until morning.
He was a little surprised not to find Jaren waiting for him in their tent. Kale had no idea where the command tent was, and they wouldn’t let a mere private through anyway unless he was accompanied by one of the Elite. Well, either Jaren or one of the others would probably be by for him shortly. He might as well see what he could do about getting the worst of the travel dirt off his uniform before reporting to the commander.
Their bags had already been placed in the tent by one of the others. Kale moved to grab his bag and was surprised to find a piece of rough paper sitting on top. He puzzled over it for a moment, then shrugged and set it aside. It was Jaren’s writing, he was fairly certain, so it was probably just a list or reminder to himself about something.
He got the worst of the dust and grime off his pants and tunic, until they looked green again instead of brown. Sitting on the roll of their bedding, he pulled off one boot and set to giving it a quick polish. His eyelids drooped no matter how he fought to stay awake, and he wished Jaren would hurry up and come fetch him.
The next thing Kale knew someone was shaking him by the shoulder. Groggy and disoriented, he forced his eyes open and found Jaren frowning down at him. “Oh, is it time to go report in?” Kale asked, scrambling to try to wake up properly.
“No, that was an hour ago,” Jaren said. For the first time Kale could remember, his lover sounded angry with him. “Where were you? I told you to meet us at the south quad as soon as you could. I know you’re tired, but you don’t keep a general waiting!”
“What? You never told me any such thing,” Kale said. He shook his head, trying to jolt his brain into restarting. “You said to tend the horses and meet you at the tent, but you weren’t here when I got here.”
“No, General Blanchet called for me to come before the rest of the unit. That’s why I left you that note.” Jaren’s frown deepened. “I know you saw it, you had to move it to get into your bag. That’s why I put it there in the first place.”
“Note?” Kale looked around, and found it lying on Jaren’s bag where he’d set it. “That was for me?”
“Did you just set it aside without even looking at it? How tired are you?” Jaren sighed, but looked a little less angry. “How did you miss seeing your name in great big letters across the top?”
Kale picked up the paper and studied it with a new perspective. It never failed to amaze him how a bunch of lines and circles and squiggles could be made to represent so many things. How could the four little symbols at the top of the page be him? It was like its own kind of magic.
“Jaren…” he hesitated, looking up at the older man. Jaren was so high above him, both in rank and birth, that Kale hated reminding him of his own excruciatingly low status. Kale kept waiting for him to realize that he wasn’t good enough for the attention and affection Jaren showered on him. In this case, unfortunately, he couldn’t avoid emphasizing the difference. “Jaren, I have no idea how to read,” he admitted, hanging his head.
“You don’t know how to read?” Jaren rocked back on his heels, plainly astonished. “But how… no, gods, of course you can’t.” He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “They don’t bother to teach the rank and file, do they? Kale, I’m sorry. All the Elite are taught to read the moment they enter service, if they didn’t know how already. I forgot you weren’t trained like the rest of us.”
The fact that Jaren had forgotten that Kale wasn’t truly an Elite made Kale feel like someone had just handed him a medal. He was always worried that he was slowing the others down, that his unique ability to see magic eventually wouldn’t be enough to make up for his inability to use the magic he saw. But he couldn’t be doing that badly, if Jaren was thinking of him as one of them.
“I’m sorry I missed the meeting. I hope you didn’t get in too much trouble.” Kale shrugged. “At least now you know, so you won’t make that mistake again, right?”
Jaren was still frowning, but it was a thoughtful expression now. “We can’t just leave it at that. Elite rely on written communication fairly often, that’s why we’re all taught in the first place. I’ll have to teach you.”
“Teach me? To read?” Kale stared at him. “Jaren, I’m… I’m a pig-ignorant farmboy. I can’t learn to read, I don’t have the brains for it!”
“Nonsense. You’d have learned if you’d made it into the Elite,” Jaren pointed out. “Don’t be so down on your intelligence, Kale. You’re ignorant, not stupid. Ignorant can be remedied.”
“Jaren, I don’t even understand half of what you say when you start talking all high-minded like that,” Kale complained. “There’s no way you can teach me something as complicated as reading!” He was sweating and nervous. Admitting his ignorance was bad enough, but if Jaren insisted on trying to teach him, he would only be disappointed and frustrated when Kale failed to live up to his expectations.
Inspiration struck. “Besides, we don’t have time for lessons,” he said. “We’re always exhausted at the end of a day of riding or fighting. We’d have to give up sex,” he teased, secure at least in the knowledge that Jaren would not be willing to give up what little time they did have to enjoy each other’s bodies.
The smug smile that spread over his lover’s face was not reassuring to Kale, however. “That’s what you think,” Jaren said. “We’ve just been assigned here for at least the next month, and for the most part we’ll just be running patrols to keep the Semaskan mages off our backs. I doubt we’ll see any real fighting. Mage-blasting a camp full of defenceless troopers is one thing, but attacking a camp that has a full unit of Elite is another. We’ll have plenty of time.”
Kale could see this was a losing battle. He gave in with poor grace. “Can we at least not start tonight?” he begged. “I’m done in, Jaren.”
“Not tonight,” Jaren agreed. “But first chance we get.”
Glumly Kale nodded, while privately resolving to do his best to make sure Jaren forgot all about it.
Jaren’s estimate of their workload proved to be overly optimistic. General Blanchet seemed determined to make the fullest possible use of the Elite unit while he had them, and he kept them hopping . Kale in particular he sent ranging out all over the place, assessing the magical offensive and defensive capabilities of the Semaskan encampments in the area.
It was the first time a commander had truly understood and made use of the full potential of Kale’s ability, and also the first time he really believed Jaren’s insistence that Kale was as valuable to the army as any regular Elite. By the end of a week Kale was walking on air despite being tired, feeling like he actually belonged as part of the 64th.
Jaren’s threatened reading lessons failed to materialize. Kale heaved a sigh of relief and assumed his lover had realized the futility of it. He promptly forgot all about it, determined not to dwell on the difference in abilities between him and Jaren any more than he absolutely had to.
When Jaren thumped a pile of books down on the bedroll beside him one night, Kale jumped and stared. “Decided to catch up on your reading?” he asked, bewildered. There weren’t generally many proper, bound books to be found in an army camp, being too bulky to easily transport and mostly useless besides. “Where did you find all of those?”
“I sent to the nearest city for them,” Jaren informed him, kicking off his boots and settling himself next to Kale. He picked up the first book and waved it at Kale. “Since we’re here for a while, it won’t be a hardship to have them and it will be much easier to teach you this way. These are the primers used to teach the Elite cadets to read.”
“What?” Dismayed, Kale stared at the books. “Jaren, you shouldn’t have done that! There was no reason to spend money on it.” Now he was going to feel even worse when it all proved a waste of time and effort.
“Oh, I just had them sent through military courier,” Jaren said. “One advantage of being a captain, at least.” He held out the book like an offering, an expectant and pleased look on his face.
Gingerly Kale took it from him and opened it to stare at the first page. Instead of neat black lines of characters marching across the page like he’d seen in other books, this page held only one large character, some pictures, and many small empty boxes.
“That’s the first letter of the alphabet,” Jaren said, taking a lecturing tone as Kale traced the lines with his finger. “It’s also the first letter – and therefore the first sound – in each of the words represented by the picture.”
“I’ve seen this before,” Kale realized. Seeing it in stark black had thrown him for a moment, because he’d always seen it in brilliant colours before. “It’s a glyph in a lot of spells.”
“Yes, many cantrips and simple spells are written in this alphabet rather than runes,” Jaren said, nodding. “I forgot you can actually see the glyphs of spells. That should help you remember the uses of them.”
“There’s more than one alphabet?” Kale looked at Jaren in dismay. “How many do I have to learn?” This task might be even more hopeless than he’d first thought.
“Only the one,” Jaren assured him, chuckling. “Don’t worry, Kale, I’m not going to ask the impossible of you. Now, pick up that pencil, and let’s see you draw this letter.”
Jaren drilled him remorselessly over the next few weeks. Kale recited his letters while patrolling, in their tent at night, over his meals, and even while bathing. Jaren proved to be a good teacher, patient with Kale’s mistakes as long as he could tell Kale was really trying, but merciless when he thought Kale wasn’t giving the task his full attention.
It was futile to hope that the rest of the squad wouldn’t discover what was going on, but Kale kept it quiet as long as he could. Unfortunately the person who first realized why Kale could often be heard muttering the alphabet under his breath was the last person Kale wanted to know about it.
“I suppose you think you’re nearly as good as one of us now, eh, Coulter?” Ryen taunted Kale one night in the mess when Jaren was giving a report to the general.
Startled, Kale looked up to find Ryen staring at him challengingly. Jaren’s second lieutenant hadn’t liked Kale from the moment he’d officially been assigned to the 64th, and was firmly convinced that Kale was nothing more than Jaren’s plaything. The rest of the Elite affected uninterested poses, looking anywhere but at the two of them. The common soldiers sharing the mess tent weren’t nearly so kind, staring openly and sniggering to each other behind their hands. Kale saw money changing hands in a few places, and realized they were betting on the outcome of what they expected to be a fight.
Seeing that Kale was only going to stare blankly at him, and not reply, Ryen’s sneer grew. “First you trail around after us like a lost little puppy, and now you’re trying to learn to read. Always trying to ape your betters. Do you put on his uniform at night and pretend you’re really one of us?” He paused, while Kale’s face went hot with mingled rage and embarrassment. “Then again I suppose clothes don’t really figure in his plans for you, do they? Did you think if you learned to read you’d be good enough to be something other than the captain’s bedwarmer?”
“That’s enough, Westal,” rumbled Leor, second in command of the 64th. “Stop picking on someone who can’t fight back. Or are you trying to provoke him into striking an officer? He’s not that stupid.”
Kale was grateful for the rescue, but at the same time he resented needing it. He stood, finding he had very little interest in his dinner now. Doing his best to ignore the sniggers and catcalls of the other soldiers, he headed for the exit.
“You’ll never be good enough to be one of us, Coulter,” Ryen called after him. “Stop pretending to try. You only make an ass of yourself.”
The derisive words echoed in Kale’s mind all the way back to his tent. Once inside he sat on the bedroll and pulled out one of the textbooks Jaren had given him, but he couldn’t force himself to concentrate. Was Ryen right? Was he giving himself airs, trying to act like he was above himself? Never mind that it had been Jaren’s idea and Jaren’s insistence that he do this. Kale already knew his lover had some very odd notions about rank and station, notions that weren’t shared by anyone else Kale had ever met.
He was still deep in thought, staring blankly at the same page in the book when Jaren returned. “Hey, are you okay?” Jaren asked, coming over to sit next to him.
Kale looked up at the older man, and was dismayed to see a sympathetic expression in Jaren’s eyes. “You heard,” Kale said, sighing. Not that he was really surprised. Soldiers were ten times worse than farm wives for spreading gossip; doubtless rumours were all over the camp, most of them wildly exaggerated.
“I heard,” Jaren confirmed, not unkindly. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Kale. There’s a small but vocal faction who believe that only the wealthy and privileged should be allowed to try for the Elite. That you should have to buy your commission, like officers in the regular army. It’s just a bunch of jumped up merchants’ sons who don’t want to admit that the ‘lower class’ are just as good as they are.” He shrugged. “It will never come to anything. We need every Elite candidate we can find, and too many highly positioned Elite were low-born. Ryen’s just taking out his frustration on you because he can.”
Kale looked wryly at his lover. He’d often suspected that Jaren was at the very least the acknowledged by-blow of a noble. He had the fair features of someone who hadn’t grown up working at hard labour, and the unconscious assumption of authority common to those born to privilege. It was easy enough for him to ignore such talk, since it would never touch on him directly.
Still, Kale couldn’t take out his upset and frustration on Jaren. “I’m fine,” he said, trying to force the words to be true. “It’s not like I haven’t heard it before, and I’ll hear it plenty more in the future.”
“Well, unless you want to prove him right, we’d better get back to work,” Jaren said after a long moment.
Kale groaned, but obediently turned his attention back to the textbook. Jaren’s opinion of him mattered a lot more to Kale than Ryen’s did, after all.
If Kale had thought learning the letters themselves was difficult, he soon discovered that putting them into words was nearly impossible. It was easy enough in the beginning when the words were simple, but quickly got complicated.
“Why bother making rules if they’re just going to break them?” Kale demanded late one night. “What’s wrong with spelling things the way they sound? Who thought adding silent letters was a good idea?”
Jaren was laughing softly, and Kale hit him. “I’m sorry,” the Elite apologized. “I’m not laughing at you, truly. It’s just I remember saying exactly the same thing to my tutors. I don’t know why it’s done this way, but this is how it is. We just have to deal with it. I promise once you get the hang of it, eventually you don’t even have to think about it.”
“How long will that take?” Kale muttered, glaring balefully at the book.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Jaren admitted. “Maybe years before you’re truly comfortable with it. But Kale, look how far you’ve come already. Would you ever have thought you could read even this much?”
Tracing his fingers over the printed words, Kale had to acknowledge the point. “I wish there was at least something more interesting to read,” he sighed. “I can see it makes sense to use their alchemy lessons as practice for reading, but it’s not useful to me. And I swear whoever wrote this was trying to see how quickly he could put people to sleep.”
Jaren laughed again. “I remember making that complaint, too. Well, if motivation is your problem, maybe we can do something about that.”
Kale eyed him warily, not trusting his lover’s intentions when Jaren had that particular look in his eyes. “We have patrol first thing in the morning,” he reminded the older man.
“I know,” Jaren replied, all innocence. The act might have been more believable if Kale had been a bit less familiar with how his lover’s mind worked. It was even less convincing when Jaren slid around so he was at Kale’s back, legs on either side of Kale’s hips and his arms loosely around the younger man’s waist. “Just keep reading.”
After a moment Kale let himself relax back into Jaren’s embrace, and just rested against the taller man. They didn’t get many chances to just sit together and be close to one another. It was hard enough to find private time together, and now his reading lessons had been eating into what little they did get. Perhaps Jaren was just hoping that making him enjoy the reading more would encourage him to keep doing it.
Well, Kale was certainly not loath to spend a while curled up against Jaren’s chest, so he turned his attention back to the book. Slowly, sounding out the complicated words as he went, he started to read. “Likewise, the salt of metals is the… Jaren, what are you doing?” Kale broke off, shivering as the older man ran his hand up under Kale’s loose undershirt.
“Motivating you,” Jaren answered blandly. “Keep going.”
Kale squirmed a bit, but Jaren made an encouraging noise and he finally started reading again. “Is the stone of the Philosophers, for our stone is a water con… conge…”
“Congealed,” Jaren supplied, murmuring the word against the soft skin just below Kale’s ear, the whisper of his lips and the vibration of his voice making Kale shiver. “It means, ‘solidified’. You know, like what the camp food does if you wait too long to eat it.”
Kale laughed, but the sound came out a little shaky as Jaren’s hand ghosted lower to play with the muscles of his abdomen. “A water congealed,” he repeated, sounding out the long word carefully, doing his best to ignore what Jaren was doing, “into Gold and Silver and res-resists the fire…” He lost track of the words when Jaren slipped his hand into Kale’s pants, running his fingers over the rapidly awakening length of his cock.
Moaning, Kale tipped his head back against Jaren’s shoulder. To his frustration Jaren stopped, just resting his hand lightly against Kale’s length. “How is this a motivation and not a distraction?” Kale asked, breathless.
“Because,” Jaren whispered into his ear, and Kale could hear the wicked smile in the older man’s voice. “I’ll only keep going as long as you keep reading.”
“That’s not fair!” Kale protested, squirming to try to press himself against Jaren’s hand. The irritating bastard just moved so he was still keeping the same light pressure against Kale’s cock, refusing to move.
“All is fair in love and war, and last I checked we were still at war,” Jaren replied cheerfully. “Keep reading, Kale.”
Drawing a deep breath, Kale opened his eyes again and tried to focus. “Resists the fire and is resolved again into its water of which it is co-com-compounded in its kind.” The words would have made little sense to him ordinarily, the mysteries of alchemy being something as far beyond him as reading had once been. With Jaren slowly stroking his cock in time to the rhythm of Kale’s words, they became completely incomprehensible.
He continued as best he could, stumbling as often from what Jaren was doing as from a real problem with the word. Jaren’s fingers slid up and down the length of his shaft, sometimes curling firmly around him and sometimes barely in contact at all. Whenever Kale got a particularly difficult word right, Jaren rewarded him by rubbing his thumb over the head, picking up the salty liquid already leaking there and smearing it over the sensitive skin.
Shortly Kale was squirming, his hips jerking up despite his best efforts to keep them still. Jaren just laughed against his neck and slowed his pace further, making Kale swear at him. To Kale’s further frustration, the bastard really did stop all motion the moment he stopped reading. “Jaren!”
“I told you, keep reading and I’ll keep touching you,” Jaren teased him. “Making up your own lines, however inventive the swearing involved, doesn’t count.”
“You are an asshole, you know that, right?” Kale accused him, moaning. His cock was throbbing with the need for release, but he had a feeling Jaren wasn’t going to let this end any time soon.
“Read,” was Jaren’s implacable answer. With another moan, Kale obeyed.
“There is a double way in this art,” he continued, his voice shaking as Jaren resumed stroking him. “ac-accor…”
“According,” Jaren prompted, and hitched Kale a little closer to him. He’d undone his pants at some point, and now Kale could feel his hardness pressed tight against his ass, with only the material of Kale’s trousers between them.
“According to the Philosophers, that is,” Kale read, squirming again in Jaren’s lap. This time he was rewarded with his lover’s sharp intake of breath when the motion rubbed Jaren’s cock against Kale’s ass, stimulating him as well.
This time when Kale rocked his hips into Jaren’s stroking, the movement was deliberate and calculated. Kale could feel Jaren hard against him every time he settled back, and the little involuntary noises of pleasure Jaren was making were better than music. “The universal way is easy… and rare,” he read, torturing them both by drawing out the words so that Jaren would be forced to slow his pace, “and it is that… which is brought forth… from true and natural beginnings…”
“You’re doing that on purpose,” Jaren accused him, sounding a little breathless himself. He pushed up against Kale, squeezing harder at the same time.
“Obviously,” Kale retorted, trying hard not to pant with need. “You started it, so don’t complain. By which a speedy and reformative virtue…” He rocked back harder with every other word, hardly even aware of what he was saying now, as Jaren tightened his grip and began to stroke him in earnest.
Kale’s eyes kept wanting to slide closed from pleasure, and he had to fight the instinct to be able to keep his eyes on the page. “…yet it is more natural than otherwise, because… because…” He couldn’t focus anymore; the words were swimming on the page as pleasure wound so tightly within him he knew he was going to explode any moment.
“I’m not telling you that word,” Jaren said, his voice strangled. He gave Kale one or two more strokes, as if he couldn’t bring himself to stop, then finally let his hand rest at the base of Kale’s cock. He was trembling as well, his breath coming in hot little puffs against the back of Kale’s neck. “For the love of Amera, Kale…”
Somehow, somehow, Kale managed to keep going. “Because by nature… no strange or foreign… thing… oh gods, Jaren!” He came hard all over Jaren’s hand, shuddering and pressing back tight against his lover. Jaren gave a low, soft cry and let himself go as well, and Kale could feel the tremors that wracked his body.
When the world resolved properly around him again, Kale was leaning back against Jaren’s chest, panting, the book having slid off his lap to end up on the bedroll. “That was not fair,” Kale declared faintly, unable to work up a proper sort of wrath just yet. “Not fair at all.”
“You read it a lot faster than you usually do,” Jaren replied, cheerfully unrepentant. “Though you did stumble a bit more than normal. I suppose you’ll get better with practice.”
“I’m never going to be able to read again without thinking about this,” Kale muttered, turning his head to hide his hot cheeks against Jaren’s shoulder. “I won’t even be able to look at a book without thinking about it!”
“All the more incentive to read more often,” Jaren purred into his ear. “I’ll just have to keep finding ways to motivate you.”
“You’re evil,” Kale said, shaking his head. “Why did I have to end up with an evil bastard of a tutor for a lover?”
Jaren laughed. “You think this is bad? Just wait until I make you start writing.”