by Shirozubon Saruko
illustrated by Iron Eater

Ilya was shaken awake by a rough hand, and blinked up at a candle’s glow in the dark. It lit the sharp planes of Brother Yuri’s strong, square face, now wide-eyed and drum-tight with fear and alarm.

“Brother Ilya, please help us,” Yuri said as soon as he was clearly awake, making no effort to keep his voice low in deference to the darkness. “The Patriarch has sent the army to the village. They’ll kill everyone. We have to get the villagers inside.”

Struck dumb and baffled on a hundred levels, Ilya blinked some more, struggling up on his elbows. Now that his awareness was filling in, he realized he could hear the sound of running feet in the hallways, and shouting somewhere more distant. “What — why would — ” He sat up, scrubbing his eyes. “The Patriarch? Why — ”

“There’s no time to explain,” Yuri cut across him, sharply. Ilya had always had the impression that Yuri had all the social graces of a harassed bear at the best of times, but he was in especially rare form now. Not that Ilya could entirely blame him, if what he said was true. But how could it be? The Tsar’s soldiers, in tiny Sosnovka, backwater of backwaters? From the Patriarch himself? Yuri might as well have said that Heaven itself had sent flaming chariots and many-headed seraphim to scourge them. “It doesn’t matter anyhow. Get up and help us, or stay here cowering.”

Ilya stared into Yuri’s furious set face for only a second or two longer, faltering — and then clambered up to his feet, fumbling his cloak off the wall and over his robes. “I’m coming. I’ll help.”

Yuri vanished almost at once after waking him, but when Ilya stumbled out of his cell, he found more candles and lanterns lit along the halls, and other monks rushing past for him to follow. His head swum and spun all the while he made his way to the main doors, trying to make sense of what was happening. It was the dead of night by the look of it — he hadn’t had time to look at the clock in his cell, one of the handful of luxuries his family’s name kept the abbot politely ignoring — and bitterest midwinter, but the sounds of chaos and action only grew louder as he neared the front wall.

He burst out into the frigid night, and nearly stopped short at the sight in front of him. The village proper was a little ways down a hill from the monastery and the river behind it, the land around rolling and open from generations of farming and its blanket of snow bright in the dim glow of stars and lanterns. He had a clear view of what was happening. Men on horseback poured in a ragged stream from the darkness to the west, shouting with sabers raised, uniformed in wool and fur and leather. Hooves pounded the dirty snow and cobblestones between them as they flooded into the village’s little roads, scattering fleeing, screaming families, young and old, women with infants in their arms. As Ilya stared, stumbling forward on sheer momentum, a soldier’s galloping steed overtook a young man barely more than a boy, trying to make it to a doorway’s shelter; the man swung his sword at the youth’s back and blood gouted like water in a fountain, the boy falling and not rising. Half-shadowed down another road, two soldiers who had gotten down on foot backed out of a cottage, hauling an old woman by her arms while her legs kicked behind. More horses passing mercifully obscured Ilya’s view of however that ended.

Heretics die!” he caught in a faint snatch on the wind from the throat of another soldier, this one closer — a man with a tall fur-lined helmet and ornate raised sword, who gigged his horse up prancing along the monastery path, much nearer than the others. Ilya supposed numbly that this was the captain. Now that he was outside the doors, the man’s voice battered his ears along with his panting breath: “This is the price! No quarter for heresy!

Heresy? That what was claimed as cause, for this? Insanity on insanity. These were simple people, pious and rudimentary, so far as Ilya had ever been aware. If asked, he would have said they lacked to a man the intelligence and the creativity to so much as willfullly misinterpret a parable. It had to be… what? Some ghastly mistake? A lie, spun to some unimaginable purpose?

Unless —

He had been faintly aware for some time now, at the edges of his hearing, of the occasional whisper exchanged between the other monks, the occasional gathering of bent heads around a candle after Vespers had been sung and no discussion should have remained. The murmurs and grumblings, after the decrees had come from Patriarch Aristarchus that the new practices were the only orthodoxy, and all the old ways should cease. He had paid them no mind at the time, of course. What harm were a few disgruntled monks? People always disliked one thing or another that came from on high, but that was all it ever was. He could not have imagined that their objections could be of any consequence to him, and certainly not to the Patriarch himself.

But now… what should he think? It made no sense, but neither did anything else.

Well, and more than that, it was as Brother Yuri had said. It didn’t matter. Whatever the cause, this was not, could not be right. He couldn’t simply do nothing.

Ilya found his feet and balance again and ran down the hill, nearly falling over himself and the tangles of his robe in the thick snow, toward what most would flee from. Swords flashed, and blood ran in the gutters, stained the stones. Other monks had made it ahead of him, and were calling to the panicked, running villagers from the edges of the fray, motioning them up toward the monastery doors and some supporting the wounded on their way. Others still appeared to have waded into the worst of it, no doubt trying to save lives, and more than one robed body lay among those of the village dead.

Something was tightening inside Ilya’s chest: wrapping deeper and deeper between his ribs, clamping them until they creaked while growing heavy and hot. Something he began, only slowly, to identify as fury.

As he neared the part of the path where the captain perched atop his horse, shouting orders and condemnations, a woman came running up the hill toward Ilya, clutching the hand of a grubby, wailing child. Her face was a shocked, chalk-pale oval in the circle of her kerchief, her eyes round and huge with terror. Ilya ran to meet her, a shout to keep running until they were inside rising to his lips — and then dying there, all at once. The captain had seen her, too, and the pounding of his horse’s hooves brought all three of them staggering and wheeling around toward the silhouette of man and horse bearing down on them. He was shouting something Ilya could no longer hear, the broad bearded face within his helmet coming clearer as he approached with dreadful speed, to show an expression of savage satisfaction. His sword was still raised high, but already moving to swing.

Fury and fear tangled into one, and exploded inside him. And then, for a moment, Ilya had no idea what had happened.

His first impression was of sheer brightness: sudden brilliant light all around him instead of barely-lit darkness, consuming everything and stabbing pain into his eyes. He had the confused idea for an instant that it was somehow later than he’d thought, and that the sun had broken over the mountains to the east, illuminating the world again. But no — further away, it was still dark, out in the snow-covered fields he could see that darkness still reigned. The light was blinding, but it was only very near to him. And — shifting, its glow pulsing and changing and rippling in a curiously familiar way.

Ilya looked down at himself, the sheer surprise knocking his very mortal concerns of a second ago clean out of his head. And he saw that his whole body was rolling with fire.

It should, certainly, have been cause for pure mad horror. But he felt no pain, not even any heat. His cloak and robes were burning, spiring up with their own incandescent flames like torches; a corona of fire lit his head and eyes, both his hands were wreathed in a blazing shell when he lifted them. But it did not seem to harm him, and did not seem that it would. What should have been a new terror was only dazed, distant wonder laid on top of the old. And then he looked up: up at the captain who had been bearing down on him a second ago, who had now caught up short with his horse balking and rearing in eye-rolling panic, the man himself staring down at Ilya as blindly wide-eyed as the woman had been before.

Ilya did not particularly think about what to do. He only walked forward, striding toward the man and horse even as the latter shied and bucked away from him. Without stopping he reached out and seized the captain’s leg in both his burning hands and pulled, and there was never a second’s question of whether the fire itself was simply heatless; even before he had made contact, both horse and rider were screaming, and the leather of the captain’s saddle and boot blistered and cracked, even the wool of his trouser-leg taking on a smouldering glow and beginning to lick with fire as Ilya seized it. Unquestionably the fire burned; it just didn’t seem to burn him. The fur lining the captain’s coat caught much more brightly, as Ilya’s arms hauled him, screaming, overside of his saddle. The horse bolted at last then, all its training finally giving way to terror, and the captain’s burning body jounced and flopped hideously entirely off it — with his near foot still caught in the stirrup, however, so he dragged behind in a plume of flame and meltwater, a human-shaped torch at the horse’s heels.

As that monstrosity lurched away from him, Ilya became aware, all at once, that all of the activity ahead of him had faltered to a stop. Soldiers on their resisting, snorting horses sat and stared open-mouthed from the edges of the village. Peasant families had frozen in their tumbled huddles, under the sagging arms of monks who had meant to guide them and now were only rooted in place.

Again, he couldn’t think about it. Thinking would lose him his chance.

Get out!” he roared, with all the force and fury he could muster, and began striding toward the riders, flame rolling before him and bare burning grass trailing behind. “Leave this place and these people! The Lord commands you!

They barely gave him time to finish. Blades had fallen from nerveless hands; soldiers kicked and rein-yanked their horses around with white moon faces, some shrieking just as the villagers had been so soon before. The stampeding stream reversed itself, rushing back out between the cottages and stones and into the night. Some villagers were running as well, either in fear or just to avoid the fury of hooves around them, but more — Ilya saw as though at a very long, dark distance — only stayed fixed where they stood, staring at him like a garden of statues. A few even seemed to have fallen to their knees.

How do I put myself out? Ilya was aware of thinking, hanging on to a stance as strong and tall and flaming as he could manage as the last billowing horse-tails disappeared into the night. And then the fire was surging around him, the stars wheeling overhead and the sky and ground entirely mixed up, the waves of rage and fear and confusion and amazement and trembling exhaustion all crashing and colliding inside him, and everything spun and spun away from him and became finally, mercifully, quiet.

He swam back to himself out of uneasy darkness, to find himself ordinary and flameless in a heap of blankets and furs on a hard floor, not in his own cell. As he blinked the shadows away and pushed himself up, struggling the pelts down from his chin, he found he was in the rear of the chapel, the rest of which seemed to have been converted into an extension of the infirmary. Wounded villagers were stretched out in other makeshift bedding, on the pews in some places, with monks moving between them and tending to them. There was little urgency in their steps, and even the echoing space was mostly quiet, only a few soft voices in conversation and a few snatches of quiet weeping, none of the moans and wails he might expect from the grievously injured. He supposed most of those who had been harmed were either dead or treated, praise God. Thin grey pre-dawn light was just beginning to touch the windows, making it possible to see beyond the candles’ small circles.

As he sat up longer, staring with bleary gummed eyes blankly into his lap and trying to somehow believe that anything that had just happened could possibly have been real, he began to become aware of other voices, as well: not the murmurs of monks speaking with the injured ahead of him, but harsh, urgent whispers from the ajar door out to the cloisters behind. The wind that skirled through the crack was cold enough to make him glad of the furs, but the voices it carried on it he found he recognized.

” — trick, or an illusion?” asked one that he knew as Brother Dmitry’s, a sweet musical tenor. “I don’t think it serves us to be too hasty.”

“Hasty?” That was Brother Yuri again — snappish and annoyed. “You saw it. We all saw it. What trick could it be, Dmitry?”

“I don’t know yet,” was Dmitry’s much milder reply. “I only mean to say there’s much we don’t understand.”

“How much do we need to?” And that was Brother Ivan’s voice, which made Ilya frown slightly. Ivan didn’t quite come from a family like Ilya’s, but he was reasonably well-born, not someone Ilya would have expected to find associating with the other two, and what he suspected of them. “As I see it, the question is not one of veracity, but of utility. You can’t ignore that this is exactly what we needed. Shouldn’t we seize this moment, and worry later about what it means?”

“And you call me cynical,” Dmitry said, sounding amused, but Yuri spoke again almost over him.

“That satisfies you? Really? I think knowing what it means is the most critical thing of all.” One of them tried to speak up in response, but Yuri wasn’t finished. “If it is real — not a trick, not an illusion — why? Why now, why him? A posing, feckless, arrogant nobleman’s son — ”

“I beg your pardon,” said Ivan, although he also sounded amused now. The small disgusted plosive in answer could only have been Yuri’s.

“You know what I mean! There are so many different ways it could change everything! Yes, I’m frightened — we should all be frightened. We don’t even know if he would agree to help us, or what he might do.”

One of the other two said something to that, something more placating, but Ilya ended up missing most of it in the process of hauling himself up by inches to his feet, and pulling several of the blankets with him to wrap around himself. A number of eyes, all around the chapel, might have immediately focused on his figure as he rose, but if so, he was determined not to notice. Instead, he shuffled his way to the door, and let himself out into the cloister’s freezing pre-dawn light.

They all stopped arguing as soon as they saw him in the doorway: Dmitry’s pale eyes steady and his thin, finely-boned face composed, Ivan’s mouth parting and then eyes quickly turning elsewhere, Yuri’s dark gaze stern but fraught with a strange species of desperate hope that Ilya could not at once interpret, and that made him very uncomfortable. He came to them hesitantly, where they clustered along the colonnade around a candle the dawn was slowly eclipsing, and stood before them without even being entirely sure what he would say.

“What happened?” was what it turned out to be. His voice was quiet and sounded rusty in the cold stillness. The three of them seemed to pass around a single glance, before returning their attention to him.

“We had hoped you could tell us that,” Dmitry said, with more warmth than their conversation might have led Ilya to expect. Ivan was also stepping closer, concern written on his darker face.

“Are you all right, Brother Ilya?” he asked, with a kindness that was also somehow surprising. It caught Ilya up short, made him swallow.

“Yes. I… I think.” He shifted in his heap of blankets, clearing his throat. “But what I meant to ask was… what happened in the first place? Why were the soldiers here?”

They all looked uneasy to varying degrees at that, but it was Yuri who answered. “There is a faction among our brethren that opposes Aristarchus’s reforms, as I’m sure you’ve realized,” he said — not warmly, but with a quiet confidence that was somehow as unexpected as Ivan’s concern. “The Patriarch has learned as much as well, and seeks to stamp out all resistance. The monastery is defensible, though, and who knows — Aristarchus may have balked at killing men of faith outright. So he attacked the villagers we live with instead, to punish us.” His mouth twisted into a harder set, his brow furrowing into a deep grimace of what Ilya newly recognized — with some awkwardness — as more pain and guilt than anger. “Many of them are also against the new ways, at that, especially the priest and presbyters. I suppose he felt justified.”

“That’s — ” Ilya spluttered a moment, trying to wrap his mind around it. “He’d kill people over a few different gestures and words? You’d see people die for that?”

“You don’t understand,” Yuri began, furiously, and then Ivan had stepped in.

“We didn’t want anyone to die for it!” he said, with less heat than misery behind its force. His eyes dropped quickly away from Ilya, to the stones of the path, sorrowing. “We… we thought we could escape his notice, at least long enough that we could unite with others and become stronger. We thought he might even see reason. But it seems impossible.”

“It isn’t just a few words and gestures, either,” Dmitry said when Ivan had trailed away, and he was cooler by contrast, more composed, his gaze more steady on Ilya’s. “The Patriarch’s changes are intended to consolidate his power, and make him the church’s dictator. How do you think he’s become so close with the Tsar? We no longer perform our Mass; we perform his. It lets him and his cronies shape what the people do, what they say, what they believe. You may not see it now, Brother Ilya — but it matters. And we won’t change our minds.”

Ilya tried to consider that for a moment, but it seemed too much, all at once, to take in; he let it drop, his head burrowing down into the blankets against the wind. “Will they come back?”

“It’s hard to say.” That was Yuri again, sounding calmer now, even cautious. “We’re in a better position now, certainly, with everyone inside. And… it may be difficult to find men who will ride against us, now.”

And here it was: the crux of the matter, after they had somehow managed to avoid talking about it so far.

“Do you have any idea how it happened?” Dmitry asked, after a moment’s pause, his gaze boring into Ilya more intensely. “Anything at all?”

Ilya shook his head, his whole mind feeling as numb as his lips in the chill. “It just… happened. Everything was going on at once, he was attacking me, and it was just — there. Just like it was supposed to happen..But… it’s impossible. Isn’t it?”

None of them seemed to have an answer for that. After a moment, Ivan spoke again, with very slow hesitant deliberation. “Many of the villagers will talk of nothing else. Some of the monks too. Some of them…” He paused a moment, seeming to consider his words very carefully. “Some are calling it a miracle. A sign from God, that our cause is righteous.”

“A miracle,” Ilya repeated, too faint to even tilt into the question he meant it to be. The word, applied to anything having to do with himself, he found far more terrifying than how exciting he might once have imagined it.

“We know you’ve never been a part of our movement,” Ivan continued, as though he hadn’t spoken, and now Ilya could hear a bit of Ivan’s upbringing in how artfully he chose his words. “We have no right to demand that of you, of course — not unless, once you’ve had some time to consider it, you decide that it would be right to join us. But these people are our neighbors and friends, and they’ve lost so much tonight. It means so much to them, to have something that looks to them like a sign of hope. Perhaps you would consider… letting them believe what they believe, for the time being? Speaking to them a bit, even, and just not — doing anything to disabuse them of the notion?”

Once again, Ilya had no idea how to respond to that. He stood dumbstruck under the weight of the question, looking at all of them and then at nothing, his eyes wide and unseeing. A symbol of God’s favor? A miracle worker? The holy human torch of a band of heretics the Patriarch wanted dead? It was too much. He’d slept all of three hours and killed a man with his own flaming hands tonight and he had no idea what to do with any of this. And still the question lingered at the back of his mind, impossible to produce aloud: And all of you? Do you think I look like a sign of hope, too?

He didn’t have to ask it anyway. He’d seen the answer in Yuri’s eyes, the way they had made him so uncomfortable, as he’d approached them.

“I suppose so,” he heard himself saying, in a rather uncharacteristically small voice, from what felt like a very long way away. And he found he could not look in any of their faces, and risk seeing the response.

The Belyaevs were hardly cousins of the crown, but they had been entrenched in affairs of the capitol for generations, and commanded a comfortable amount of respect. Ilya had grown up mostly on the family estate in the countryside, dressed and fed by servants, only lifting a finger to attend to his studies and to ride out and hunt game with his four brothers each time the weather began to warm. They had all scattered now, though, to either war or politics — or both, he supposed, and weren’t they so often one and the same? — even as Ilya had been set on his quite different path. For the most part, the monasteries were the province of the common people, but it had become very fashionable of late to have a noble son enter the priesthood, and monastic vows were a typical pathway to holy orders. When Ilya’s mother had begun to ask him, brightly, if he didn’t think that he surely felt a vocation, he had seen no sensible way to resist her expectations. Nor had he ever, for that matter.

He had resented somewhat being sent off to tiny remote Sosnovka, more than a week’s ride east even from his father’s lands, but the abbot there was an old friend of the elder Belyaev’s from their misspent youth in the city, and had promised to see him well tended to. And for the most part, he had been. He had even found it no particularly disagreeable life, to his mild surprise, passing his days in only prayer and contemplation and scarcity rather than decadence; at least he had more time to himself, and he was devout enough, he supposed. The simple path laid out before him, to fulfillment of his promises and then ordination and then the taking of some respectable country parish closer to home, had seemed the only proper one to walk, and without question. What questions could there be?

And now, all of a sudden, he seemed to have nothing but questions — and certainly not simplicity, which of all things had most completely fled him.

The winter wore drearily on, but like no winter had before: with all of them crowded into the monastery, all of its spare cells and rooms opened up and converted to housing for the villagers. Teams of those most able, monk and farmer alike, made excursions down to the village regularly, to retrieve stores and necessaries and, increasingly, handfuls of crude weapons from where they were stockpiled in houses and barns. The main heavy doors were shut tight and barred all day and night otherwise, and amateur lookouts posted in the highest windows in shifts, to cast their lanterns out over the snow.

But with time, the barred doors came to be opened a bit more often — as small bands and families came clamoring, one by one, to the monastery step, pleading with whoever was on guard for shelter. From what Ilya gleaned from sitting quietly by as the chief conspirators talked and argued in the evenings, the soldiers who had attacked the village had not been tight-lipped about what they’d seen, and word of what had happened had spread like… well, fire. Every sympathizer, every staunch supporter of the old ways, for miles on miles around seemed to be packing up and making their way to Sosnovka, as the Patriarch’s grip tightened all around its small stronghold. Quietly, gradually, they were filling the monastery walls to bursting, increasing their numbers to ones that were frankly alarming.

And Ilya, as had so often been the case in his life to date, found nothing else to do but step into the role that had been prepared for him, and shoulder it willingly as a cloak against the cold. He circulated among the villagers and pilgrims when they gathered, smiled at them, gave blessings, let grandfathers and young milkmaids alike clasp his hands and stare at him in stunned awe, if they were of a mind to. He regularly joined the meetings between the three strongest agitators from the monks and their friends amongst the townspeople, listening to their discussions and understanding more and more each time. He sat staring out at the snow, blankly, when he had a moment to himself, thinking of the word miracle and wondering what would become of him, of any of them.

He wasn’t alone in wondering. “We can’t stay here forever,” said Lidiya in one of the evening meetings with still weeks before the first thaw, her features tense and drawn below her kerchief. She was a local who had been a part of the inner circle from early on, a tall and sturdy young woman who had grown up her whole life with three soldier brothers and knew her way around a sword and horse better than any man Ilya had ever met. In the warmer parts of the day, she had taken up the task of battle-training the most able of the villagers and pilgrims in the courtyard, shouting out drills like the most seasoned of generals. She was also very pretty, with smooth features and long waves of straw-colored hair she mostly kept bound up, although Ilya thought the grim sourness of her habitual expressions rather spoiled the effect. “It’s well enough against a pack of idiots playing at being raiders, but it won’t be if the Tsar sends a real force. As long as we’re here, they know exactly where to find us, and we can’t defend against an army.”

“Where could we?” Yuri replied, although it seemed for once like more of an honest question than a challenge. Often he got on well with Lidiya, and just as often they fought like cats in a sack, with nothing seeming to fall in between. “We’re safer here than anywhere but a fortress, and we don’t have one of those. I don’t want to get caught in the open looking for somewhere better.”

“The quarters are a bit close,” Ivan pointed out, as he passed Lidiya a cup he had refilled with steaming vodka for her. “If nothing else, it would help to find a more spacious place to entrench ourselves. Especially if more are planning to make their way to us.”

“More would be good,” Lidiya said. “More hands, more swords, that means better defenses.”

“And less room.”

Dmitry had been quiet for some time, sipping from his cup, and now he raised his eyes. “We could go east,” he said, soft and thoughtful. “Through the mountains, into the taiga. There are places we could settle there, it’s a longer ride for an army, and no one will want to make it. And with enough altitude, we’d be able to see anyone coming from any direction, even if they try.”

The whole group seemed to give that a moment’s respectful pause — and not the immediate scoffing outcry Ilya might have expected, and maybe even hoped for.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Yuri admitted, at the end of it, cocking his head on one side. Ivan was frowning, deep in apparent thought.

“We have children and the elderly with us,” he said. “It would be a hard journey for them.”

“It’s hard for them here,” Lidiya pointed out. “We could do it safely, with time to prepare. And we could pick up more of the people who agree with our cause, in the towns along the way. Bring them along and train them too.”

“You’re talking about an army,” Ilya said quietly, in the gaps between them. And that seemed to bring everyone up short, and around to look at him.

“I think perhaps it’s time we did,” Yuri said, looking at Lidiya. And her slight nod back just sent Ilya’s stomach sinking, sinking, ever further inside him.

It took a little over a month, all told, after a few weeks of preparations and building and equipping themselves. They crossed the mountains in a ragged caravan of horses and carts and wagons, taking winding ways to find traversable passes, pushing north as well as east when they could. Each time they passed near towns and settlements, sure enough, their numbers swelled with sympathizers, new horses and wagons thickening and lengthening the column they made. There were plenty of minor illnesses, minor injuries, and one dreadful cold that they all passed around between them for what seemed like ages, but beyond that it was as Lidiya had said: with enough determination and preparation, they seemed to manage all right. Ilya actually found himself a bit impressed, at the sheer industry and cleverness of the people he’d lived alongside these past years and none the wiser. He began to learn the names of the men he rode beside, the matriarchs of the biggest families, and at the same time to become increasingly uncomfortable that he hadn’t done so before.

It was early spring by the time they made it into the true taiga, but you would never have known it to look around. Long slopes of snow and evergreens surrounded them, the treeline thinning and fading at the highest peaks, and the wind was funneled through their frozen valleys like an endless torrent of tiny knives, cutting all warmth and life to ribbons. That was where, at last — miserably — they lost a few of the oldest and the sickest, their sobbing kin having to leave them under cairns of icy rock since the ground couldn’t be broken. And that was where, right at the worst of it, the next wave of soldiers overtook them.

They had slowed to free some of the heavier wagons from a particularly high wind-drift of snow, and the wind and trees masked the thunder of hooves until it was too late. By then, the column of the Tsar’s soldiers — still small, at least, but that was little enough help to them now — had rounded into the white curve of the valley to the west, the dark splotch of their formation tumescing as it approached like a cloud of hornets. Lidiya galloped her horse down the ragged line of the caravan fast enough to be reckless amid the snowdrifts, shouting to everyone she could reach; they gathered themselves as best they could, the armed men bristling between the oncoming force and the wagons of young and old.

And Ilya, without a word having to be spoken to him, slid down off his horse, and rushed to stand in front of all their horses and upraised swords and sickles.The soldiers bore down in the center of his vision, and he closed his eyes, and breathed deep.

He had no time to worry that, now that it came to it, he wouldn’t be able to do it on command. No sooner had he wanted the flames than they sprang to life around him, throwing blazing light over the thick snow and melting it to soggy ground. The villagers’ horses pranced and snorted nervously, and even the soldiers bold enough to be riding toward them now — he was almost certain he saw — began to slow their approach, with sudden uncertainty.

But they still came. And the time that followed that he would never quite remember clearly.

It happened very fast: the soldiers crashing into their ranks around him, most of them trying to avoid him as best they could. Ilya ran at them, though, shouting, in spite of how suicidal it felt — waving his arms at horses to spook them, grabbing for men where he could and trying to catch exposed flesh, set uniforms alight. He was dimly aware of the clash of steel all around him, the villagers fighting the onslaught as best they could, amid shouts and cries and screams. Everything closed down to a very small tunnel of the world, a blackness around all sides except the narrow slice of what was right before him.

Which, he would suppose later, was how he and all the rest of them had missed the second thunder of hoofbeats, from almost the same direction.

Get them!” someone loud and powerful roared from far too close, and there was no time to wonder who was meant. Another stampede of mounted shapes poured with frightening speed down the nearest slope, throwing up plumes of snow all before and around them, and even as they landed between the clashing fronts of soldiers and peasants they turned with a breathtaking fury on the former. Dumbstruck, brought up to a pause even in his very urgent business, Ilya could see the new intruders mainly in flashes of colored cloth and metal and rippling tails of dark hair, the cutting of strange weaponry. A man went slashing through a line of soldiers with something like a bladed circle jutting from each hand; another swung a hook through the air at the end of a long chain, catching one of the Tsar’s soldiers and dragging him from his horse. And at their head —

At their head was not a man at all, but a massive, hulking, vaguely manlike shape, atop the largest and strongest-looking horse Ilya had ever seen. By the sound of his battle-roars now, he was the one who’d called that first charge, and now he cut down the soldiers before him with such enthusiasm it gave every impression of savage glee — with an enormous weapon that looked like a polearm with a full, spiked scimitar at its end, swinging and slashing and spearing soldiers no matter their distance away. He was a raging storm of destruction, and the men who followed him were scarcely any less powerful; and in what seemed like only moments, the soldiers lay dead to a man and Ilya’s ragged company more or less alive, the snow thick and red with blood under their feet.

As the silence filled back in, Ilya could more see than feel the fire die around him, fading back into his skin rather than sputtering away like an ordinary flame. He staggered in its absence, but before he could fall villagers and monks alike were rushing to him, with arms around him, holding him up. Someone held a skin of water to his lips, squeezing its top to break the skim of ice, and he drank greedily; someone else, he thought maybe Brother Ivan, draped a heavy fur coat over his suddenly shivering body, which was the first thing that made him notice that what remained of his clothing was in blackened tatters, where it hadn’t burned away entirely. He caught himself, leaned on his supporters, regaining his strength by degrees. The exhaustion was overpowering, a soft wall against him.

Ahead of him, the massive horse wheeled around, and the leader of their unknown rescuers turned back to face the rest of his men and give Ilya his first real look at him… and it made him feel, again, that he would reel entirely off his feet. No, not a man at all, but something with only the most passing similarity. The creature before Ilya was dressed in the same gleaming armor and colorful cloth as the rest of the group, but he wore no helmet, nor could he have worn any ordinary one: he had the long, narrow, scaled head of a snake or a lizard, with holes in place of ears and dark glinting eyes and a slit of a mouth splitting his snout that was so long it seemed, somehow, like a sly smile. The scales covered a long, thick, pouchy neck and disappeared down under the collar of his armor, which Ilya now saw was the same pattern but a different cut from the rest of the soldiers’. It was designed to accommodate the shape of a body that was not only unusually expansive across the belly and hips and thighs, but that canted forward differently than any human man’s, not to mention sprouted a long and enormous tail from its rear. The hands that protruded from the armor’s mail sleeves looked ordinary enough, covered in thick gloves as they were, but they were huge and not precisely jointed in what seemed like the right places, even as one held the reins and the other held out the man-lizard’s blade, almost accusingly, toward his fellows.

“What did I tell you?” the man-lizard bellowed in their direction, and brandished the wicked curve of metal at the end, now caked with blood. His voice was so deep and strong it seemed to rumble the earth underfoot, but otherwise entirely normal: not even accented. “Frozen! Coming out of that bastard’s neck one minute ago, and now frozen solid on my fucking guandao! Mother fuck, this place is cold! Why would anyone ever come here?”

“Stop being such a baby, captain,” said one of the strange warriors, who had a sweet boyish face beneath his helmet that was now split in a cheeky grin. He and the others, Ilya saw through the fog of his shocked confusion, had the narrow deep eyes and varying shades of the golden-brown skin he had only seen on traders from the kingdoms to the southeast. “You wouldn’t last five minutes where I come from.”

“Yeah, because you’re a bunch of lunatics who like to sit in the mountains worshipping your navels,” the man-lizard agreed, cheerfully. He eyed the weapon — guandao? — again, and then sighed, shoving it back into a strange long holster along his back and swinging down off his horse with stunning grace and ease. What gritted in the snow, Ilya saw wide-eyed, were not boots but thickly-furred sleeves, wrapped around some kind of sprawling, long-toed feet.

The man-lizard ambled over to where the cluster of supporters around Ilya had turned uncertain and rather protective, and looked among them all before finally settling his black eyes straight on Ilya. He was even stranger, even wilder, and somehow realer up close, close enough to touch those curious rough-looking scales. “Ho there,” he said, amiably, his long mouth splitting in something like a grin with a flickering purplish tongue at its center, and raised one of his strange hands like any ordinary rider’s greeting. “You must be him. The monk who catches on fire.”

Ilya found that he had no immediate idea how to respond to that description of himself. “I… suppose I am,” he settled on at last, in a voice that came out rather faint and distant. “My name is Ilya Belyaev. And you are?”

“People call me Jin,” the man-lizard said, dipping his head in a friendly nod. “I’m one of what’re known as the Dragon Warriors, and I serve in the armies of his Majesty Qiang Fen Shi, the Dashing King, far to the south. These men are my squadron. The one with the smart mouth ” –this with a gesture back at the man who had spoken a moment ago– “is my lieutenant, Anjiang.”

The man Anjiang, still horsed, nodded and smiled at Ilya. “Pleased to meet you, your Holiness.”

That was also a title Ilya was in no way prepared to accept from anyone anywhere, let alone in these circumstances. He tried to school his whirling thoughts into order, though, to settle on something more relevant. “I’ve heard of the Dragon Warriors before,” he said, after another moment’s struggle, “but… I beg your pardon, but I always assumed that was more metaphorical.”

Jin blinked at him a moment, surprised — it was curious how readable his expressions were, even on so alien a face — and then roared with laughter, throwing his head back with his hefty shoulders shaking. “Nope! I guess we’re pretty literal folks, on the whole.” He turned his strange grin back to Ilya, as though sizing him up. “Come to that, when I was sent to find ‘a fiery monk,’ I could’ve figured that was a metaphor too. Looks like both of us deliver exactly as promised.” And for the crowning surreality, this last he said with a clear look down all of Ilya and then back up again — even seeming to linger on the glimpses of skin that the flames had cruelly exposed to the air. Ilya found himself, absurdly, fighting not to flush, clutching at the coat around him.

He struggled to ignore that for the time being, wresting his mind back around and through what Jin had said. “…You were sent? By whom? Why?”

“At the King’s own order, to protect you and your followers,” Jin said. “We saw those bastards’ fires from the road when we were still heading north looking for you, and rode to intercept. We were hoping to overtake them before they got to you, but didn’t quite make it. Close, though.”

Ilya was reeling again, though, still a few steps back; his sense of the unreality of all this only seemed to grow deeper and deeper. Dimly, a part of him wondered why none of those gathered around him spoke, not even smooth-tongued Ivan; why did they all look to him, how had it all been left to him, as though he carried their torch instead of just being it? “Wait, your King sent you to — us? To protect us? Why would he care– How does he even know of what’s happening here?”

Jin seemed to hesitate a moment at that, and then scratched at the back of his scaly head. “That’s a bit of a longer story, Father. I’d be much obliged if we could talk about it around a fire, or if you could set yourself on fire again, or something that could get me warm.”

“That’s more like it,” Jin said in his carrying rumble, when the caravan had been arranged into a camp for the evening and they sat at last before a large bonfire. He held his oddly-shaped gloved hands out to it, from where he sat on what looked like an entire felled tree, and heaved a pleased sigh. “This cold’s the worst. Feel like I can hardly pick up my feet some days, like I’ve got to break the ice on my blood to get it moving again.”

Ilya didn’t disagree, but it hardly seemed like the most pressing issue. He had been settled into furs and blankets again in front of the fire, blessedly hot tea pressed into his hands by whoever had been able to heat a samovar first. “Forgive me for insisting, but — you were going to tell me about why you’re here?”

Jin nodded, and turned a steady gaze on Ilya, made all the more disconcerting by the flicking of his tongue. “Sure. You want to know what I’m supposed to tell you, or the truth?”

That startled Ilya into a second’s staring silence, and then he frowned and sat forward in his heap of warmth. “They aren’t the same thing?”

“I guess you’ve never worked for a king before,” Jin said, and laughed at Ilya’s expression. “Well, I’m supposed to say that the King heard about what’s been happening to you and the people who believe like you do, and he sympathizes. He hasn’t been on his throne but fifteen years or so, and it was a common people’s uprising that put him there, too. He wanted to show support for other ordinary citizens turning on a shitty government.”

Ilya took a moment’s pause to consider that. He’d known very little of politics outside his own homeland until recently, and honestly almost as little about those within it. “Then what’s the truth?”

“He’s hoping if you and yours last long enough, you’ll destabilize your government and shake their hold out here in the east,” Jin said. “Then he marches in and conquers the outlands up here while you’re distracting them. He’s got a young regime and he’d love the chance to get more land under its belt, especially up north. The horse-breeder tribes between here and there already support him; they’re the ones who got my squadron here. So it’d be a reasonable next move.”

Ilya stared at him, and Jin continued to warm his hands at the fire as though they were still just discussing the cold, entirely unbothered. After a moment of that in the face of Ilya’s thunderous silence, Jin glanced over at him, with another curiously legible expression: wry understanding.

“He really does feel for you folks too, I expect,” he said. “He’s not a bad guy. I know him some, from when he led the armies in the rebellion, though I wasn’t much more than a green kid then. It’s just politics. Turns everything to shit.”

“If that’s not what you were supposed to tell me,” Ilya managed, after another moment’s struggle to collect his thoughts, “then why did you?”

Jin shrugged, a clear roll of his sloped shoulders. “Because I think you deserve to know it. I’ve got a lot of respect for what you all are doing, even if I can’t say I much understand the details. You’re standing up for what you believe in, even when much stronger people are trying to kill you for it. That deserves some respect.” His gaze fixed back on Ilya, its intensity disquieting. “I guess it’s up to you what to make of it. You tell me: how much do you really care if a foreign king steals some land from those assholes or not?”

“I’m not sure,” Ilya admitted, after another second of pause, not able to think of any response but the truth. “But — thank you for telling me. We’ll have to talk about this.”

“Sure. You’ve got good people here. We’re just here to help you look after them.” Jin stretched his fingers one last time and then folded his hands back in his massive lap, and then turned a sudden considering look toward Ilya again. “Speaking of which, there’s one other thing I meant to tell you. Those soldiers’ fires aren’t the only thing my boys and I saw on the way here. About fifteen versts south, there’s this compound kind of thing with a lot of buildings all down the slope of a big hill. Looks like it might have been a prison camp, or an outpost, or a little of both. We rode right by, though, and it seems like it’s been abandoned for a while. Might need some repairs, but the stonework’s solid, and there’s a wall and a couple sentry towers.” He spread his hands, equably. “I was thinking it might be a good place to set your people up for a while, if you’re of a mind. You can’t keep riding forever. If your Tsar’s soldiers don’t get you, exposure will.”

“It’s already started to,” Ilya said, nodding, and stared down into his teacup as he thought. “Is there room, do you think?”

Jin cast a critical eye over the encampment around them, before considering his answer. “I’d say so. And there’s room to build, if there isn’t.”

Ilya nodded again, and looked up at Jin. “I’ll talk to the others about that too, then,” he said. “I… don’t know how to thank you, Jin. For everything you’ve done. I don’t know how we would have survived otherwise, or if… I think God must have sent you to us.”

That just sent Jin into another roar of laughter, though — leaving Ilya uncertain whether he should be offended or not. “Ah, that’s fine by me,” Jin said between chuckles as he started to settle, though, and leaned back on the huge log. “You think He’ll take this fucking wind back in trade?”

A half-day’s ride the next day brought them to the compound Jin’s men had seen, and sure enough, it was crumbling at the edges but solid at the core. The weight of snow and wet of summer melts had caved roofs and rotted doors, but neither could tear down the stone that made up the majority of the walls and buildings. For seemingly endless days Ilya was completely occupied, alongside his fellows from the monastery and the leaders of the Sosnovka church and Lidiya, with directing a mass confusion of needs: getting all members of the caravan set up in temporary camps at the compound’s corners, scheduling watches and patrols and forages for food beyond their dwindling stores, assigning repair labor to every able-bodied member of their company. From sunrise to midnight there never seemed to be a minute when Ilya wasn’t telling someone what to do, alongside the rest of their makeshift leaders. Each night he dropped like a stone into the furs laid out in one of the more intact houses, and slept like the dead for the few hours he could snatch before daylight brought new voices and new questions to him. There was never enough time to even wonder why this duty was falling to him, instead of someone from the villages they’d picked up who might have the slightest experience in such matters. Even when he wasn’t burning, he seemed to glow like a beacon to all the others, and he wound up just too busy doing it to worry about how he didn’t know how.

And all the while, Jin and his company continued to look suspiciously like a Godsend: carrying wood and water, hammering struts and lighting the cold disused forge they discovered for one of their number to fashion hinges and hasps and still more swords, joining in the watch rotation and riding the perimeter, without ever a second’s complaint and in fact with high good cheer. They seemed on the whole to regard the situation as some sort of exciting vacation in a strange frozen land, rather than a grim duty they couldn’t lay down, and their humor and helpfulness and surprising good manners seemed to help bolster the spirits of the common folk all around them, too. Ilya definitely spotted several of the men being handed companionable cups of vodka around the fires at day’s end, laughing along with the locals whenever they spluttered at the taste. He saw others chatting comfortably with the villagers they worked beside even on the coldest mornings as he walked by, easy as old friends.

Jin, not surprisingly, was able to do the work of some three ordinary men at his prodigious size, and he took every opportunity to use the advantage. Everywhere he went Ilya seemed to be met by the strange sight of Jin towering over the ordinary men around him, carrying three heavy pinewood doors over his head or boosting a man up onto a rooftop to thatch it, no ladder necessary. He also went out with hunting parties every time Ilya did, which was often enough. For the most part everyone seemed to try their best to keep him out of the restoration work beyond commanding it, apparently feeling that building a privy was not an appropriate task for a walking sign from God, but once it was clear he was one of the better bow-and-arrow hunters in their numbers, none would prevent him from putting the skill to use — not when it was so needed.

“Are you to be my personal bodyguard, then?” Ilya asked one day as they rode at a walk along the bottom of the valley, wending through the snowy needles of trees. Jin glanced at him from atop his enormous mount, amused.

“Aren’t you from some rich noble family out west? Seems like it shouldn’t be a new thing for you.”

Ilya hesitated. “No, it isn’t. It just — seems like a rather menial task for a seasoned officer.”

Jin laughed, guiding his horse a bit closer to Ilya’s as they stepped away from the frozen banks of a stream. “You think so? Protecting the holy flaming symbol himself?” At Ilya’s increasingly uncomfortable look, he just grinned. “Don’t worry about it. The fire’s a good trick, but it’s better offense than defense. Somebody’s got to look out for you, too. Not that I doubt that gal Lidiya you’ve got training your soldiers would volunteer, if anybody’d give her the chance.” He paused another moment, his horse picking its way through the snow. “Mind you, I think she’d do a good job, personally. Hell of a woman. She’s a good fighter and a good trainer: you don’t often get both of those in one skin. And such a fine-looking skin, too!” He bellowed another laugh, even as Ilya turned to look at him with eyebrows climbing high. “I wouldn’t mind a bit if she felt like riding a dragon, if you take my meaning. What do you think, any chance she’d be up for it?”

“You would — do that?” Ilya found himself spluttering. Mostly for want of any other way to respond to such a shocking and thoroughly vulgar question. His face was already flamingly warm against the bitter wind. “Go — to bed with a human? You could?”

Jin glanced over at him, black eyes dancing above that wide grin. Ilya couldn’t keep looking at him. “Why not? Lots of my kind actually prefer humans. I’ll grant you, not all the bits line up perfectly, but it doesn’t matter what roads you take as long as you get where you’re going.” He paused a moment, and when Ilya risked a look back up, he was dismayed to find Jin looking at him more intently than ever, and grinning harder. “Any particular reason you’re interested in the subject, Father? I know monks don’t usually go in for that sort of thing, but there’s always exceptions. Maybe you’re the one looking for a ride?”

“I — no!” Ilya was sure his color had to be entirely apoplectic by now; he actually felt a bit faint from the redistribution of blood under his skin. “No, I, I, I was just — asking — I certainly didn’t — ”

“I wouldn’t mind that a bit either,” Jin said, though, as though he hadn’t spoken at all. His voice might have gone a bit lower, and darker, and that strange lizard’s grin never wavered. “You know, I never saw a human with hair that color before — like copper. It’s pretty. And so’s the rest of you.” When Ilya could muster no response at all to that — not even, it felt like, breathing — Jin just made a small grunt of a noise, difficult to define as a laugh or a harrumph or neither. “Well, if you ever get curious enough to change your mind, you know where to find me. I’m going to ride on ahead a minute; there’s a break in the trees and I can get a better look at what’s coming.”

And just like that, he’d clucked his horse forward and was trotting away — leaving Ilya staring at nothing so hard his eyes blurred, feeling that his face alone could heat the whole frozen wilderness.

He was able to put the whole matter fiercely out of his mind for the rest of the day, at least. Still, though he was as exhausted as ever when he stumbled into his makeshift bed that night, alone at last inside the half-repaired hut, he lay awake staring up into the dark, as his traitorous mind fell to replaying each thing that Jin had said to fluster him so completely. Jin had an odd sense of humor sometimes and Ilya was sure it must have been only teasing to embarrass him, but — what if —

He thought of the way that, when Jin was handed a bowl of stew for the evening meal, the long pink-purple mottled muscle of his tongue darted out and flickered over its surface, an apparent reflex of which he did not even seem aware. His mind skated far too easily, miles too easily, to the idea of it doing the same thing along his own bared skin as he lay under Jin on a bed of heaped furs, scenting him like a meal laid out. Brushing his neck, his chest, the nestle of his stones, the head of his cock — and then before he could even try to stop himself his own hand, here and now, had shoved its way down into the simple peasant trousers he’d traded his robes for, pulling out and fisting his cock in hard furious strokes. Seeing in his mind Jin’s massive bulk over him, a thigh between his legs large enough to spread them wide apart, feeling those dry sleek scales sliding on the skin of his cock —

And he came in seconds, gasping in great heaves into the rough pillow, where he’d pressed the heat of his cheek.

Exhaustion pulled him down into sleep after that so fast he barely had time to wipe his hand clean, or tuck himself away. That was probably for the best, he thought the next day, as he studiously avoided being anywhere near Jin or even looking at him as much as he could. There was no sense at all in thinking any more about this.

The work of restoring the outpost carried them through spring, and the land around them transformed by degrees even as their new home did. With each passing week, the cold slowly faded into milder days, and the snow ebbed away from all but the highest peaks, leaving behind a muddy mess that bloomed gradually into vivid greenery. Even Jin could be heard from time to time to proclaim the weather “almost livable,” and eventually he even doffed his bulky, motley coat of stitched-together furs from over his armor and curious long high-necked tunics. Ilya applied himself to pretending that he could not see the breathtaking bulge and surge of muscle under those massive sleeves, and to enjoying the few spaces of rest he actually began to have, as there began to be a little less to do.

With the dawn of stability, however, came time to question. Their small informal council of monks and village leaders began to meet again as the restoration work settled out, and increasingly, the uncomfortable matter before them was what happened next. They were in a kind of limbo, for now, knowing that there was sure to be more trouble ahead but not knowing from which direction it would come, or whether it would be worth trying to stir it themselves.

“Should we just hide here forever, waiting to be slaughtered?” Brother Yuri asked around the fireplace in their makeshift town hall, which from the rubble they’d found there at first might once have been a prison barracks. “Waiting for the Patriarch and Tsar to declare war on us outright, now that we’re a credible threat?”

“We have removed ourselves from the heart of the nation,” one of the village elders pointed out, leaning on the walking stick planted between his seated feet. “Perhaps with the threat so distant, they won’t see the need.”

“I wish we could believe that,” Brother Dmitry said quietly. “But I feel certain that we’ve only delayed the inevitable. And it would be too risky to assume otherwise.”

“What’s the alternative?” Ilya asked. He found himself speaking more and more in these meetings, to no one’s greater surprise than his own. “Keep running until we freeze to death? Send assassins? Maraud in the capitol?”

“You’re joking,” Lidiya said, with no evidence at all of amusement, “but the truth of it is, we’re growing stronger. Making the first move would give us the advantage.”

Ilya shook his head, pressing his lips together hard. “Defending ourselves is one thing. But raising an army for insurrection? I told you what Captain Jin said to me — the southern kingdoms are only waiting for a chance like that to strike.”

“And what’s that to us?” Lidiya said, over an aggressive thrust of her chin. “Our nation has betrayed us. Perhaps we should join with them, to strike back at it.”

“And how many people would die between us?” Ilya asked. “Innocents, with no stake in either side?”

That sent an uneasy glance around the fireside room. Finally, Ivan shifted his weight in his chair, clearing his throat to draw all of their attention.

“In any case, we’re plainly not ready to do anything right away,” he said. “But we can’t keep fighting amongst ourselves. We need a leader — someone we can rally behind, who can make these difficult decisions, when the rest of us have talked ourselves into circles.”

Ilya couldn’t help a small sigh of relief. “Now that I agree with,” he said, even managing a slight smile. “How would we choose, though?”

There was another exchange of awkward looks. For the first time, discomfited, Ilya began to suspect he was being left out of something important.

“I think the choice has already been made for us,” Yuri said at last, when no one else would seem to speak. The firelight outlined his forbidding expression where he stood, casting it in stark planes and shadows. “Don’t you?”

Ilya looked around the room, puzzled — and was first even more so, and then dawningly horrified, as all the eyes there were staring back at him.

Me?” he managed, after a moment, his throat suddenly so dry words stuck there. “That’s not — I don’t even — ”

“It’s the most sensible thing,” Ivan said, in those gentle cultured tones that just now made Ilya feel rather like screaming. “Who else would our people follow? Who would they accept? You are our sign — at least in their minds — and a symbol to them of our cause. Your voice would lead them anywhere.”

“But that’s just — superstition — playing on their faith to keep them calm,” Ilya said, stumbling his way through. No one else looked even the slightest bit perturbed by the suggestion, he was dimly horrified to notice; they looked as though they’d been expecting it all along. “I’m not a leader. I’m not even one of you!”

“We’re well aware of that,” said the priest of Sosnovka, with a sourness Ilya rather clung to with relief at this present moment. Ivan had cut in almost at once, however.

“Even if you aren’t fully a believer in our cause, Brother Ilya, you’ve shown yourself time and again to care very much for the fate of our people,” he said. The burden of kindness that loaded the words was unbearable. “I rather contend that you are one of us, in every way that matters. And you are the one with the most influence and the most visibility, among those who follow us. No one here can help but agree on that point.”

“Did you all discuss this?” Ilya asked, so low and strained as to be almost a whisper. No one answered him directly.

“Of course we would still stand with you,” Dmitry said instead. “We all would. But if our cause could rally behind you, as our symbol of God’s favor… that would be powerful indeed, Brother. Surely you cannot disagree.”

Ilya opened his mouth to argue further… and then shut it again, sinking back into his chair and his own skin. No. He could not. He saw the logic of it, certainly; it was where he had wound up, time and again, at the front of all of them, because it made sense. Whether he wanted it or not, whether he knew how or not, he wound up at the forefront, because that was what had fallen to him and in the moment there was never any time to question. And if now he was stuck here, stranded out front, well, there was no one to blame but himself, was there? They weren’t forcing this on him out of nowhere: they were only stating what was already obvious. And when had he ever been able to say no? When had he ever done anything but exactly what was expected?

“All right,” he heard himself saying, as if from some distance. “I see your point. And… I suppose that makes sense.” He almost thought he could see the whole room relax into their chairs, little though he wanted to be aware of it. “I’ll do what needs to be done. But… Brother Ivan is right. It’s too early to know exactly what that is.”

Yuri nodded, the firelight sliding on the angles of his face. “Quite so. For now… How should we arrange the watch for the next fortnight?”

And their talk went on, to mundane matters, even as Ilya reeled inside his head and could contribute little if anything at all. He stumbled out into the night, when they were finally done, glad for the lingering cold in the air after dark; at least it could soothe and sober him a little, bring him back into himself and clear the whirlwind of his thoughts. He walked across the outpost in the chill with no thought for where he was going, apart from the dim knowledge that it wasn’t back to the house that had become his, that he couldn’t face its walls and his solitude yet. He still wasn’t sure, in fact, until the very moment that his feet brought him up to another cottage door near the outer edge of camp, and his hand seemed to rise to knock at the door on its very own, with no guidance at all from him.

When Jin opened the door, he blocked its doorway almost completely, so that the light from behind him was blotted out to only an outline around his body. He looked down at Ilya, on his doorstep, with mild surprise. “Evening, Father. What can I do for you?”

“May I come in?” Ilya said — blurted, really — also with no real knowledge that he was going to say it. It didn’t seem to trouble Jin at all, though; he only stepped back so that his bulk could allow someone else into the cottage edgewise, pressing the door out of the way.

“Of course. Make yourself at home.”

That was a taller order than Ilya could follow, however. He hovered just inside the single room as Jin shut the door behind them, wrong-footed and completely off his balance. On the inside, the little house was not what he might have expected, if he’d had any idea what to expect at all: it was tidy, comfortably warm from the roaring fire if not even a touch too hot, and largely anonymous, with nothing much to it but a heavily reinforced bed, a truly massive chair by the fire, and some shelves, aside from Jin’s armor and weaponry racked neatly in the corner. Ilya supposed Jin’d had cause to bivouac in all kinds of strange climes in his time of service, and by now would do only the least that was necessary to make himself at home there, as well.

“Have a seat,” Jin said to him now, though, and lumbered past to the shelves, picking up something. “Want a drink? I was just getting myself one.”

Ilya let out a breath that almost had a laugh in it. “Yes, I very much do. Thank you.” He surveyed his options for having a seat as he had been bid, and could not in the end overcome his flush to sit on the bed; after taking off his coat, he perched on the chair instead, feeling rather like a child playing pretend in his father’s seat with how it dwarfed him in size. Jin returned to him momentarily, holding out a small clay cup of some cloudy liquid.

“It’s rice wine,” Jin said as Ilya accepted it, and carried his own cup over to sit on the edge of the bed himself. Ilya dodged his eyes away from the sight at once; perhaps he had miscalculated after all. “This is what we’d normally drink back home — nothing like that stuff of yours, that smells like it could strip paint and hits like a bag of hammers.” He took a sip from his cup, and then at Ilya’s look of amusement, added, “Not that I’m complaining, mind you. That stuff’s great. You northerners have got some good ideas.”

Ilya accepted that with good grace, then sniffed delicately at his cup and took a sip. It was an unusual flavor and texture, not quite like anything he’d ever experienced: plain and light in flavor, but also a bit sticky and sweetish, thick in his mouth. “Interesting,” he said, when he’d swallowed what he had in his mouth, and glanced up at Jin with a slight smile. “It’s very different from any wine I’ve had before. Thank you.”

“Sure. Always happy to share a cup.” Jin leaned back on one arm on the bed, looking disconcertingly comfortable. “So what’s on your mind, Father?”

That was, also, more of a challenge to answer than it might have seemed. Ilya hesitated a moment, sipping at his wine again and then only staring into its clear surface.

“How long have you been an officer?” he asked, at last. It was something he felt that he could say, at least, to start. Jin tilted his head.

“Oh, about… nine years now, or so. I climbed the ranks in the King’s war, and then got my commission some time after. Why?”

“Isn’t it difficult?” Ilya asked, instead of answering — his voice seeming to come out softer all the time. “Having your men’s lives in your hands? Knowing that if you make the wrong decision, or a mistake — it could hurt them? Kill them?”

“Of course it is,” Jin said, with such ready equanimity that Ilya was surprised for little reason. “If it wasn’t, everybody would want to do it, and they don’t, trust me. But I’m good at it. I know I am, or they wouldn’t let me do it.” He huffed a little laugh, swirling his wine. “The thing is, mistakes happen. Dumb fucking decisions happen, all the time. No matter who you are or how good you are. But I don’t make as many of them as most of the soldiers I’ve seen, so it makes sense for me to do this job, and not them. If I get it wrong, I have to carry that, but I know it would’ve been worse if I walked away and let somebody who didn’t know what they were doing take that burden on instead. You see?”

Ilya had to sit with that for a long moment, ruminating. “I… think I do.” He took another drink, and then sighed, staring past the cup now at the floor. “How did you learn? How did you become so talented at it?”

“Don’t know,” Jin said, cheerfully, and then: “I mean, I know. I worked hard at studying the people who did the job right. I figured things out by being in situations and seeing how they worked out, good and bad. But would it have worked the same way for the guy next to me? Did he just not try, or is there something about me that he hasn’t got? No clue. I figure, the only way you can find out if you’ll be any good is to do the work and try, and see how it goes.”

“And if you’re not, it could ruin people’s lives in the meantime,” Ilya said, softer than ever. “Or end them entirely.”

Jin was quiet for an uncharacteristic moment, and then sat forward on the bed again, a shift that was almost seismic in sound. “Let me guess,” he said, not at all unkindly. “They want you to be in charge.”

Ilya huffed another laugh, glancing up at last. “Am I that transparent?”

“Every now and then,” Jin said, with his long mouth parted in a smile that managed to be gentle, in spite of its sharp teeth. “It just makes sense, too. You’re the big symbol, they’ve got everyone rallying around you. And you’ve kind of been doing a lot of the job already.” When that took Ilya aback, Jin sat forward, his gaze growing more intent. “You do know how much of it you’ve been doing already, right? Working with a team and then just saying what you decide loud enough everyone can hear? Leading doesn’t have to mean leading alone. I’d be pretty fucked without Anjiang to keep my head on straight — don’t tell him I said that, though, I’d never hear the end of it.”

“It doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing much of anything,” Ilya confessed, setting his mostly-empty cup down to lace his fingers in his lap. “I just keep… stepping in because no one else is doing it.”

“Well, hell, that’s most of what leading is. If you’re doing it right, and not just trying to get power for yourself, anyway.”

Ilya sighed, his head drooping forward. “I still feel like a fraud. I don’t even know why I can create the fire — if it truly comes from God, or if it’s just some sort of bizarre trick I don’t understand.”

That seemed to take Jin a bit by surprise, and he tilted his head. “You really don’t know at all?” Ilya shook his head, and Jin shrugged. “I always just figured it was some kind of magic, to be honest.”

“…What?” Ilya found himself caught up entirely short, knocked out of the run of his thoughts to just stare at Jin. “How… could it be magic? There’s no such thing. Fairy stories, parables, but — ”

“Sure there is,” Jin said, though, as easy and matter-of-fact as ever. “What, you don’t use magic here? I heard there were some places people didn’t, but…” When Illya just kept staring at him, he spread his hands. They were ungloved tonight, Ilya dimly noticed: long and massive scaled fingers that didn’t quite curl like human hands, tipped with thick claws that had been filed to smooth, blunted nubs, almost no longer than the fingertip. “Magic’s just a part of life, back home. People use it like you use — a hammer, or a paintbrush. Just a way to get things done.” Ilya’s incredulity didn’t waver, and Jin chuckled, but not in a way that said he was joking. “Didn’t you ever think to wonder why my boys and I speak your language like we were born to it? Do we seem like a bunch of scholars to you?”

That, at last, made an impact, and Ilya felt his brow clear and then rise in answer. “That’s… a fair point, actually.” He fell quiet for a moment, thinking. “And it’s — magic, that did that? Something that happens all the time in your country?”

Jin nodded. “I guess it could be what’s going on with your fire thing, come to that. You just might not know you’re doing it. Some people are just born with it in their blood, even if they don’t know how to go about using it.”

It was a lot to take in — too much — and Ilya decided it would be best to leave most of it aside for now. At least one conclusion, however, seemed inescapable. “Which would mean… it really isn’t a sign,” he said, quietly. “It’s just some natural ability of mine, as mundane in some lands as wielding a hammer. All of it just random chance.”

He would be hard-pressed to say right away how he felt about that. The idea of his ability’s being a miracle born of divine providence had been terrifying; the idea of its being nothing of the sort, however, was somehow equally devastating. If only, perhaps, because it was such a disappointment of expectations: he had not lived up to the role that had been laid out for him, after all, for the second time now in all his life.

“So I don’t just feel like a fraud,” Ilya said with his voice still low, after Jin had left him a moment’s silence. “I am one.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Jin said, again with more kindness in his voice than Ilya might have expected. “Even if it’s magic, that doesn’t make it not a sign, either. It’s helped you and all these people. If your God’s all-powerful, why couldn’t he put magic in a kid from the start, so he could push the right cause when he grew up? Makes about as much sense as putting fire in there out of nowhere now.”

Ilya blinked at that, taken aback again. “I… suppose that’s true.” He considered another moment, and then sighed. “Even if that were the case, though, I don’t think that’s how any of the rest imagine it to be.”

Jin shrugged, his big shoulders rolling. “Sometimes things aren’t how people imagine them. That doesn’t make anybody a fraud.” He eyed Ilya a bit too closely for a moment, and then went on: “Can I ask you something a little personal about that, though?”

“Why not?” Ilya said, with a wan smile. Jin kept watching him, not answering it.

“Do you want it to be a sign? Do you actually want to be the guy everyone’s looking to one way or another — apart from feeling like you’re faking it, or you’re not going to be any good?”

It was the heart of the matter, really, and it brough Ilya up short, hovering on the precipice. “I — ” He swallowed, and dropped his eyes, fixing them on nothing. “I don’t know,” he said finally, quietly, only the truth. “There is an attraction to it, I suppose. As dreadfully vain as that seems. But it’s at least as repellent, too — and frightening.”

Jin nodded, with no judgment on that one way or the other that Ilya could detect. “So what do you want, out of all this? If you’re not a believer, what’s kept you from just running off?”

“I’m not sure I know that, either,” Ilya confessed, after another moment’s pause. “To survive? Maybe no more than that. Except… for everyone else to, as well.” He thought about that for a time — casting his mind back on how he’d felt that first night, running out into the snow and the flare of moonlight off steel. “…They don’t deserve this. All they’ve done is try to keep their faith in the way that’s truest to their hearts; they’ve harmed no one. Aristarchus’s war on them is a madness for even more power, when what he already has is far too much for sense. It’s wrong. I just want them to be safe, and at peace.”

He faltered to a stop there, and Jin only let the words linger in the air for a few more heartbeats, watching his face. At last, he said mildly, “You know, the more you talk like that, the less you sound like somebody who just fell into leading people, and the more you sound like somebody who should be.”

“Don’t say that,” Ilya said, the words almost coughing out of him on a laugh. He pressed both palms over his face, dragging them down. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I want any of this or not. I don’t think I have much of a choice one way or another, in any case.”

“I don’t know about that,” Jin said, a touch cryptically. “But all right. Then let’s forget about that for now.” He finally set aside his cup as well, on the floorboards by the head of the bed, and leaned forward on its edge again. “Let’s talk about what you know you want. Even if you’re not going to say so.”

Ilya caught up short on that again, his eyes fixing back on a low nowhere that kept him from meeting Jin’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

Jin’s voice seemed to be deepening as he spoke, pitching itself at a lower rumble than ever. Softer, too, like a cat’s paw. “Here’s how it seems to me, Father. That council of yours told you they want you in charge, and you came to me. I don’t think that was just because I’m not from around here, or because I’m captain of a squadron. I think what they were asking spooked you, and you went looking for something that looks like the opposite of that: something you think you wouldn’t be in charge of at all.” Ilya was aware of JIn’s eyes boring into him even as he absolutely could not look back at them, even as heat was crawling up his neck and sweat starting to prick out of his temples. “But you’re not going to ask for it, because you don’t want to be the one who asked for it. You’re just hoping it’ll kind of happen to you, so it won’t be your fault.”

Ilya said nothing. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even move.

“But that’s not how it’s going to happen, if it happens, because I don’t do it that way,” Jin continued, gentle, rumbling, relentless. “I don’t take anything for granted, when it comes to this kind of thing. So if you want to, you’ve still got a chance to tell me you’re sure you don’t know what I’m talking about and say good night and walk out of here. We’d never have to bring this up again. We could still be friends, because I think we’re getting to be friends, and that’s great.” He let that sit for a few seconds, before pushing forward. “But if that’s not how you want things to go, I’m going to need you to tell me what you want instead. That’s the one thing you have to do.”

Ilya’s hands, he was dimly aware, were shaking. Gooseflesh had broken out along his shoulders and the sides of his thighs. Of course the only thing that made sense was to do the first thing that Jin had offered: to pretend he didn’t understand what was being said, excuse himself, and leave. To try to forget any of this existed, like he had been for some time already.

But Jin had seen through him too sharply for even that to feel safe anymore. He found himself all of a sudden caught so profoundly that to try to defend himself seemed pointless: his exposure was already absolute. And was that feeling an intoxicating one — liberating, even? Was the feeling of already having lost all control of the situation so deeply seductive that he was already addicted, and could never have freed himself now?

“I want to change my mind,” he said, hearing himself as though from far away. His voice was so small and rough with breath it was really only a whisper. “About what we spoke of before, when you said I could change my mind. I…” He closed his eyes, struggling to breathe. “I want you to take me to bed.”

“There we are,” Jin said, all the way down now to something like a purr. “That was good. That was very good.” All Ilya’s body seemed to burn fever-hot with a confusion of emotions: shame, embarrassment, sudden deluging lust, bewildered pleasure at Jin’s praise. He gripped his own knees with white-knuckled hands. “All this pressure on you to be somebody important — all of this business, and even before that, being from a big important family and carrying around that name — it’s a lot of weight on you. You want to put it down for a while? You want me to strip all that pride and dignity off you, and let you just be naked?”

Ilya shuddered, hard, and somehow a breath later managed a quick jerk of a nod. Jin nodded back, slower, and the curve of what Ilya would have called a friendly smile at his mouth suddenly seemed much more inscrutable.

“Couple of ground rules,” Jin said, and he could have sounded as casual as if they’d gone back to talking of rice wine, except that low darkness was still deep in its rumble. “First rule: if anything crosses a line, or makes you feel bad or uncomfortable, or you don’t even have a reason but it’s what you want right then, you tell me to stop. Just say ‘stop.’ Don’t try to push through or worry about what I’ll think or if you’re going to hurt my feelings. I’d rather stop than hurt you, so say it. Any time you say it, I’ll do it, right then and there. You can always trust that, you never have to wonder if I won’t. I’m trusting you to do your job, and you trust that I’ll do mine. Understood?” Ilya nodded, and Jin nodded back again. “Good. Let’s hear you say it. See how it feels in your mouth. Try to feel how you’d feel inside if you wanted to stop, and say it.”

It was very hard through the buzz in his head right now, but Ilya tried to do what he was told — imagined a sour, shrinking feeling into the pit of his stomach, at a nameless something making him somehow no longer want more. At least it had the benefit of actually taking the most overpowering edge off his arousal, temporarily. “Stop,” he said, out of the silence, and was surprised by the firmness of his voice. Jin nodded again, that reptilian grin less unreadable now and more true.

“Excellent. You’re a natural.” Was flushing with pleasure again at that ridiculous? Ilya no longer cared. “All right, second rule: I’m going to check in sometimes, myself. Just ask you if you’re still okay or if this is all right. When I do that, you take it seriously, and you tell me the truth. Every time. All right?” Ilya nodded again, and Jin tilted his head. “Like right now, to start. You good? Do you still want to keep going?”

It didn’t take much thought, but Ilya still tried to make that thought serious: to check into the core of himself and learn the answer, even if it seemed obvious. “Yes,” he said momentarily, close to a whisper again. “Yes, please.”

“Good to know,” Jin rumbled, and his smile was pleased, warm, and a bit leering. “Then get up, strip, and come stand right here.”

The instructions landed in Ilya like lightning in the heart of an old dry tree: an explosion of light that seemed it would split him in two. He rose to his feet as though he were dreaming, but he had never felt more fully in his skin, more able to feel every crawl of the air on his hot face and every minute tremble in his hands. He unwrapped the belt shakily from around his middle, and then pulled his loose tunic from its bottom hem up over his head, only holding it between his twisting hands for a moment before finally settling on leaving it on the chair behind him. The singlet underneath he tugged away from his trousers next, acutely aware of Jin’s eyes on him as he bared his chest, the light skim of red hairs rising with gooseflesh and nipples tightening even in the room’s over-warmth. Then there was nothing for it but to clumsily kick aside his boots and unlace his trousers, pushing them and his underthings and socks all together down and away, to set them aside in nothing but his skin. The few steps that took him to stand in front of Jin’s sprawling, massive knees felt like a walk that went on forever, maybe over a tightrope that spanned some great abyss. His cock, hard again in the extreme, bobbed absurdly as he went.

“Good,” Jin said in an approving purr, though he only sat with his elbows on his knees, as though they were still just talking. “Now, hands behind your head. And spread your legs a little wider.”

Ilya swallowed, but didn’t hesitate, just lifted his arms and slid his feet out to either side to leave him more exposed and bare than ever. His blush was so total it made a mottled pink patchwork all the way down his chest. Jin made an approving sound, and took familiar, comfortable hold of Ilya’s hips, the dry smooth scales of his hands electrifying on pale sensitive flesh — and then as he did, his long tongue darted out a few times as well, making quick thoughtful touches under Ilya’s arm and then at the spread fork of his legs. It was so exactly what he had fantasized, jerking his own prick with furious shame in the dark, that Ilya could not contain a small muffled cry, or keep his knees from loosening and threatening briefly to drop him. Jin chuckled, a crowning humiliation.

“You like that, huh?” he said, though it seemed rhetorical. “You know that’s how I smell things, right? I’m just breathing you in. Checking out how much you want it.” The tip flickered again at a line of sweat near his pubic hair, perilously near the base of his cock, and Ilya panted and wavered on his feet. Jin laughed, and patted the curve of his rump. “This is a good look on you. You’ve got a pretty cock too — especially so thick and wet I think you’re going to come if I just keep looking at you.” Ilya bit his lip against a strained whimper, his arms behind his head trembling and not only with exertion. “Let’s hold that off a bit, though. Turn around and bend over, spread those cheeks with your hands so I can see the rest.”

Face flaming, feeling so completely adrift in some mad dream that his feet seemed to make no contact with the floor at all, Ilya turned himself and bent. Jin’s hands let his hips slide away for him to move, but took hold again as soon as he was positioned, now holding him securely at the hip and low on his belly so he didn’t overbalance without the help of his own hands. Those he cupped around the inner curves of his rear and drew them apart as he’d been bidden, squeezing his eyes shut even with Jin entirely behind him and impossible to see. Even the warm air felt cool on all the vulnerable, visible flesh that was meant to be kept secret, the weight of his stones, the exposed pucker of his hole. He couldn’t see where Jin’s gaze fell but that was somehow worse, somehow more unbearable than anything.

Then only one hand was holding him, and a single finger, dry-scaled and capped with the smooth hardness of blunted claw, touched deliberately to the underside of Ilya’s bollocks, making him jump and stutter in Jin’s grasp. The touch remained, though, and drew shudders all through him as it rolled and traced under the sac, behind it, and back to circle the exposed edges of Ilya’s hole with torturous slow gentleness. In his indolent youth he had found himself in the occasional tryst, certainly, with powdered women and men he had found of equally little real interest, but no inch of that particular skin had ever come in for this kind of profoundly lingering attention before in all his life. All of it seemed woken now from a slumber he hadn’t even known held it, lines of fire lingering where Jin’s touch had passed.

“You should see the way you’re twitching here,” Jin said, with what could only have been a smile in his voice, his finger still making very light and gradual circles that Ilya struggled to tear any part of his mind from. “Like you’re begging for something to split you wide and fuck you. Any of those folks out there know what a slut you are for it?” His fingertip now rubbing smooth and firm right across the pucker itself, and every line of Ilya’s limbs and body shaking. “Seems like a shame to keep something this pretty to myself. I feel like I ought to be showing you off to anyone who wants a look.”

Ilya couldn’t contain himself: a strained, whimpering cry tore out of his chest, his whole head now hanging down as though that could somehow hide him, with so much of all the rest of him on display. He could barely keep himself upright, barely keep his quavering arms and legs in order. And as if in answer, Jin’s finger stilled, came to rest on him just for a moment.

“Still doing all right?” he asked, in rather a different tone of voice than just a moment ago. “If you need to stop, just shake your head.”

Ilya took a long, shuddering breath, and held himself as still as possible where he was. After a moment, a breath seemed to flow out of Jin, too.

“Stand up and turn back around,” he said, much closer again to that same warm, teasing purr. “I’m going to fuck you on my fingers, and I want to see your face when I do it. I want to watch your dick twitch every time I bottom out.”

Floating in a disconnected world of nothing but Jin’s voice, Jin’s hands, and his own oversensitized skin and throbbing cock, Ilya opened blurry eyes to stare down at the hand of Jin’s still wrapped around his hip. They were truly massive: each finger was nearly the size of an ordinary man’s member, come to that. He swallowed again, even as he was fumbling back up to his full height, and turning back toward Jin.

Jin moved too even as he did, turning to rummage through a pack half-folded beside the bed. He straightened back up with a plain glass bottle in his hand, but tossed it aside on the bed for the moment. Instead, he set his other hand at the small of Ilya’s back, shifting and pushing his own leg out at the same time that he pulled Ilya closer to him, so that Ilya had to stumble his legs wide to straddle the enormous bulk of Jin’s knee between them. The smooth weave of Jin’s trousers brushed obscenely along the insides of his thighs, waking more tender skin to utmost sensitivity. Ilya’s freed hands curled nervously, convulsively at his sides.

“You want to touch yourself, don’t you?” Jin said, amused as ever, making Ilya’s eyes flutter closed for a second. “You done that before? Jerked yourself off thinking about my hands on you? Made yourself come and wished it was me?” Ilya made a thick, choked sound in his throat and was barely able to nod, looking anywhere but at Jin’s face as he laughed. “Hmm. I’d like to watch that sometime, but not right now. Let me fix it so you’re not tempted.”

Ilya was able to crack his eyes open just enough to watch, panting through parted lips, as Jin unwrapped the endless length of sash from around his own strange upper garment and looped it casually in his hands. Then he was leaning forward and gathering both Ilya’s hands behind his back, handling them gently as he wrapped their wrists in soft fabric and knotted them up in some intractable way, with easy, unthinking expertise. Ilya could flex his fingers but not much else; his sense of his helplessness, his utter naked vulnerability, which he had thought could be no greater, swelled to a new devastating crest. His knees had all but buckled around Jin’s leg, more of his weight leaning against its press than he had intended.

“Much better,” Jin said, and sat back to cast a long approving look over his handiwork. “Look at you, trussed. Now you just get to take whatever I want to do to you.” He ran a hand up the inside of Ilya’s thigh, its pliant smooth scales still feeling a little rough against the greater smoothness of that skin, and stopped just short of his stones to smile up at him as he gasped. “But you don’t come until I say you can. Understood?”

Ilya just nodded again, blind with hunger at the promise of that hand. Jin chuckled, and retrieved it so Ilya was left aching after its ghost, to pick up the bottle off the bed again and unstopper it. From it he spread some glistening liquid over his big fingers, rubbing them together, before closing it again and taking Ilya’s hip back in his clean hand. Then he was curling his other arm around behind Ilya, and one finger slid back into the cleft of Ilya’s rear, making him gasp again: it left behind a coolness in its wake now, wet and smooth. It slid on him, and then into him, with a slippery ease that made Ilya’s head heat and swim even further, even as he shivered and tottered against Jin. The smooth taper of claw plunged into him easily, and then the larger knob of Jin’s first knuckle drove the breath out of him, stretching his flesh around its shape as he tensed by reflex and then struggled to relax. Jin stroked his hip soothingly, murmuring some gentle sound, and slid in with such steady slowness that Ilya felt he could feel each individual scale on his flesh as it pushed inside.

It felt like a year that it took for Jin’s finger to slide all the way in, for Ilya’s body to allow it. Finally, the thicker knuckles at his hand pressed up against Ilya’s arse, but that feeling was at once drowned out by another, much sharper and more shocking sensation: a flare of eye-watering, searing pleasure at the deepest point, as Jin’s blunt claw touched firmly to something Ilya could not even have said he’d known existed. He choked a little cry, and Jin answered by drawing his finger a little back and then pushing it even harder to its end, bringing on another spark that felt for a second like he would come at once in its torrent of pleasure, in spite of any good intentions. He could only pant for air when Jin finally held still, his harrowing nearness to the edge clamping around his cock and bollocks in a leaden ache.

“There it is, all in you,” Jin said, warm and fond, letting him have only scant breaths to recover. “You took that like you’d been waiting for it all your life. Does that feel good?” He drew his hand a few slow inches backward, pressed in again until Ilya was again writhing at that last overpowering press. When he somehow managed to jerk his head up and down again, though, Jin shook his head, with a look of amused patience. “No, you need to say it this time. Tell me out loud.”

Ilya hadn’t been able to unstick his tongue for a single word in all this time, and even apart from somehow making his face flame even hotter, trying to force his voice out made him feel like he had to clear a desert from his throat. “Yes,” he said out of his efforts, barely a whisper. Jin only looked at him expectantly, and he gasped for his breath to school it into shape, eyes fluttering. “Yes… it feels good.”

“When I do what?” Jin said, steady, and flexed just the tip of his finger, nowhere near enough. Ilya whined deep in his throat and swallowed.

“It feels good when you fuck me.” His voice, dry and dusty, broke halfway. Jin looked pleased, though — and more importantly, pushed his finger into Ilya again, again and again, taking on a piston’s rhythm that had Ilya leaning hard against his leg and heaving half-voiced breaths.

“You like that one so much, I think you’re going to take another one,” Jin said, after only a moment of that, and began to draw his hand back with slow care even as Ilya’s eyes opened wide. His fingers were so big — “I’m going to stretch you so wide you gape. You’re going to be feeling me for days — every time you move, you’re going to think about me wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, and get hard like you are now. We’ll see how long it takes someone to notice.” Leaning in, his finger mostly withdrawn and already leaving an unhappy emptiness behind it, and the press of a second claw now beside it, with that smile shaping his whole voice. “You’re going to take everything I feel like giving you, and beg for more.”

He didn’t have to, of course. It could stop right here. Stop, just as simple as that word, and he could all but feel its shape in his mouth, ready to be spoken. Ilya found that he had no doubt in his mind even now — none at all — that the second he said it, Jin would. He could trust that it would end as soon as he wanted it to, if he didn’t think he could stand it, if he didn’t think he was strong enough. Jin was nothing if not an honorable person, trustworthy, had never been anything but honest with him. If he had Jin’s word, it would be so.

It was only that knowledge that made it possible to realize, in a wash of pleasure and lust and surprise and slight fear, that he didn’t want it to stop — not even for a second. No matter how what was coming next might be.

Ilya said nothing, only stood panting and scarcely softened in the slightest from his trepidation, and pushed back slightly into Jin’s hand. And Jin chuckled low under his breath, and pressed both fingers in.

It did hurt — like it hadn’t hurt before, the single finger moving into him had felt like a fullness but not enough to stretch beyond what he could take and find only pleasure from, slicked on its way and slow. Now there was a hot crackle of a burn in the edges of him here and there around Jin’s fingers, a strain to take them that he could feel. But there was so much pleasure too, the friction and the obscene, exciting, humiliating knowledge of what was being done to him, that the pain only seemed to spice it: added in to a heady mixture that pricked water at the corners of his eyes and held his mouth wide open around his shuddering breath, made him thrust his sore shaking legs wider apart to make it easier and better. Jin went slow again, slower than ever, making the journey last so long that Ilya could find himself inside it and even make peace with it before Jin’s fingers were fully seated. He felt entirely cut free, unmoored, floating, vibrating inside the hot heart of a moment that seemed endless and connected to nothing. Jin would give to him, and he would take it. That was all he needed to know in the world.

Pleasure flared into him from Jin’s fingertips as they reached the deepest point in him, rocking him, making him cry out. And then Jin was gathering his free arm around Ilya’s waist, encircling him easily and drawing him closer, until his wobbling legs struck the edge of the bed and Jin simply boosted him up to kneel instead, blessedly, on the edge of the mattress with his legs split wide around Jin’s thigh. He perched over Jin’s leg, dwarfed by Jin’s large body, his own arms bound behind him and Jin’s hands keeping him steady, one from his hip and one from deep inside.

“Are you all right?” Jin murmured, newly close to his ear with his head craned down from above. “You know what to say.”

Ilya nodded so hard, so quickly, that it brought his head lightly to Jin’s chest, and he ended up just letting it rest there in spite of whatever he might have intended. The smooth fabric warmed to the heat of his cheek almost at once. “Please,” he gasped, half-muffled. “Please, I’m fine, please — ”

Jin’s fingers went to work at once, moving inside him to draw slowly out and push back in deep, setting up a relentless tidal rhythm. It hurt and felt better than anything in his life and wracked his whole body with need, making him arch and twist and pant on Jin’s lap. His untouched cock was a torture beyond description, at the edge of pain in its hardness and hunger, but he didn’t dare try to squirm forward to press himself to the rise of Jin’s thigh or the swell of his belly, for fear that either he would come at once or Jin would rebuke him — or more likely, terribly, both. He writhed and spread himself open for Jin’s fingers instead as they sought his depth, again and again, those bursts of untenable hot pleasure coming at gradually faster intervals. His voice was no longer caught inside him at all now: every breath out came as a helpless cry.

“You should see how you look,” Jin rumbled, again almost beside his ear, that smile shaping his voice. “Fucking wrecked and desperate.” He paused for a second, thoughtful, while Ilya gasped hard breaths and whimpered. “You know I never locked that door? Not just for a friendly visit. If somebody else comes by looking for me, they’re going to get a hell of a show.”

Ilya couldn’t contain a full-throated, wavering sound at that, and his hips jutted forward into empty air in spite of himself, making him sob with the lack of contact. “Please!” was all he could answer after a few more seconds, his voice so thin and breaking it was more another cry than anything else. “Please, let me come, please, I — I need it, I need — ”

The increasingly punishing rhythm of Jin’s fingers never faltered, but Jin shifted his arm to a slightly new angle — curling it more securely around Ilya’s waist, so he could take his other hand from Ilya’s hip. Instead, it snapped up to where Ilya’s head rested, seizing Ilya’s bearded chin in big fingers and drawing it up in a grip that was both gentle and unforgiving as steel.

“Look at me,” Jin said, still warm but stormcloud-dark, enough to make Ilya drop the faint resistance of surprise at once and raise his wide eyes. “Look right at me. You don’t get to hide.” Ilya’s throat worked in a convulsive swallow, but he held Jin’s gaze, Jin’s eyes somehow looking blacker and more alien than ever before. And even now he was fucking his fingers into Ilya on every breath in an endless piston, pinning him, making thought and sanity impossible. “You need to come? From having something so big fucking that hole of yours until you can’t think?” Ilya’s head stuttered so wildly it was barely a nod, at once; he was dimly afraid that if Jin needed him to repeat it this time, he wouldn’t be able to control his voice to do it, but that seemed to be enough for now. “You need to come from thinking about everybody seeing what a fucking slut you are for this, how bad you want me to use you like this?” Ilya’s breath burst through his open lips in another strangling whimper, and he nodded again. Jin let that hang on the air for another few seconds, an agonizing eternity that burned in every one of Ilya’s muscles like hellfire.

“Then do it,” Jin said, and then all at once the pace of his fingers was frantic and his other hand had let go Ilya’s chin to wrap, massive and smooth and tight, around every aching inch of Ilya’s cock. It pulled squeezing on him in fast strokes, and his vision darkened and burst in light, he was aware from miles away that he was shouting and crying out hard enough to hurt his throat —

He came with a force that was torrential, obliterating, bucked and jutted on top of Jin’s thigh as though lightning-struck or in the most holy ecstasy, making sounds he could barely hear and beyond all of his control. His seed painted up his belly all the way to his chest, spilled on Jin’s hand and sleeve, the front of his clothing. Every possible thought and sense of self was destroyed, washed away in nothing but the purest pleasure, a disaster of sensation all through every part of him that was powerful it was almost pain. That even if it had been, it could make no difference.

Sense began to return out of the shatter of everything as he gulped breaths against Jin’s chest again, where he had somehow fallen amid his throes. Jin’s hands were mostly still in him and on him, though every now and then Jin’s palm would press a light soothing squeeze against his softening cock or fingers would flex their position very slightly, making him shudder with another wracking burst of aftershocks. Their release of him was gradual, gentle in the extreme: not baring him to the air all at once but in a slow, soft loosening and unwrapping, sliding out from inside him by tiny degrees that followed and moved with the flutters of his own muscles. Finally Jin’s fingers were free and hand had released him, and he was empty and hollowed out and entirely limp, nothing but breathing weight against Jin’s solidity.

“There we go,” Jin murmured, and somehow plucked and unrolled the tight sash from around Ilya’s wrists with absolute ease, before wrapping the big slabs of his arms around Ilya. He kept his soiled hands held away for now, his head curled down toward where Ilya rested. “There now. Everything’s all right. You did so good. You were perfect.”

Ilya shivered, burrowing a bit against Jin’s chest by reflex and shifting his sore arms forward to grip Jin’s shoulders. Jin wasn’t warm beneath his clothes, exactly — not in the way a human’s body would be — but the vast shape of him was deeply comforting in its own animal way. Tears surged behind Ilya’s eyes suddenly, senselessly, bewildering and shaming him, and he pressed his face into Jin’s shirt and tried to breathe and will them away. He could think of no way to respond and so said nothing, and they only stayed like that, with Jin holding him and him clinging to Jin, for a few moments.

Finally Jin shifted position, arching his back a bit with a grunt. “All right, let’s get you into bed a minute. It’s still too damn cold.” His arms around Ilya’s waist easily lifted Ilya as he sat back, and shifted him to the side as Jin turned and Ilya began to have the coherence to help move himself off of Jin’s lap. He crawled awkwardly out onto the bed behind Jin, tugging with numb clumsy hands at the covers for almost no reason than to keep following directions, like a lifeline. Jin smiled at him, dipping an approving nod. “I’ll be right back — just going to clean up and get some things.”

“Please lock the door, too,” Ilya said — shocking himself just with his ability to say it, let alone the raw rusty sound of his own voice, and the fact that he could still find it in himself to blush a bit. Jin glanced back at him from hefting his weight up off the bed, and shot him a broad cheeky grin.

“Oh, I did first thing when you came in,” he said. “I figured we might be headed this way, honestly. I just saw how much you liked getting teased about that and thought I’d push it a little further.” When Ilya could only stare at him at that, wide-eyed, his smile became softer in a way that Ilya would have been hard-pressed to define, except that he was sure that it was so. “I mean it when I say I don’t want to do anything to hurt you. But we can play around with that, if you like it.”

“I — do,” Ilya admitted when he could push it out of his throat, and dropped his eyes away from Jin’s growing smile. “…I trust you.”

From the corner of his eye, he thought that might have had its own effect on Jin’s smile; but he didn’t dare look up to find out entirely.

He made himself as comfortable as he could while Jin moved around the cottage, cleaning his hands at the basin in the corner and then retrieving a few items as promised. It was really almost no time at all before Jin was back, stripping off his come-smeared shirt (again Ilya could find a little embarrassment in himself) before setting the bed groaning with his weight. Finally bared in all this, the flesh of his upper body was fascinating, distracting: speckled over his shoulders and back like his neck and hands, but only smooth dun-colored scales over his chest and belly, marred by the occasional sign of scarring and damage. He settled in next to Ilya and looped an arm back around him companionably with no pause at all, and offered the leather skin that was one thing he’d brought back.

“Drink some water and take it easy,” he said, settling Ilya in against his shoulder, and gestured to a small cloth-wrapped packet he’d also tossed on the bed. “There’s some rations in there too, if you feel like eating something. I can’t say they’re great, but at least they keep.”

Ilya hesitated, with the water-skin still clutched in his hands, and craned his head to look up at Jin. “Are we..?” Jin looked at him, curiously, and he cleared his throat slightly. “I just mean… if there’s anything you want…”

Jin looked briefly surprised, and then grinned at him, tugging him close again. “You’re sweet. Trust me, though — I got exactly what I wanted. I’m good.” When Ilya only faltered for another second, though, Jin nudged him gently. “Drink some water. Sleep here, if you want. It’s good having company.”

With no way left to argue, Ilya drank, and increasingly greedily as the water woke up the dryness of his throat. At Jin’s urging, he even ate a bit of the rations, all while leaning on Jin and curled into the circle of his arm. Occasionally Jin touched or stroked his shoulder, or his hair. It was stunning to think of how long it had been since someone had last touched him so much, so intimately — somehow so much more so than any of what they had done before.

He had just begun to think about how it really wasn’t that late, how he should probably get up and get dressed and go back to his own little house if only to avoid any further risk of scandal, when all at once awareness had vanished from around him like the fire back under his skin, and he fell deeply asleep still sitting up and leaned on Jin’s large shoulder.

The next few weeks saw their encampment becoming truly something like a village, as spring warmed to summer, with the establishment of ordinary activity and ordinary routine. Ilya felt the comfort of that transition at least as much as anyone — even if his new routine mostly revolved around much-anticipated nights of sneaking off to Jin’s cottage under cover of dark. By day he took on the mantle of reporting the little council’s decisions to their followers, speaking and encouraging and inspiring at increasingly organized meals and gatherings, and watching with both unease and uneasy gladness as all faces began to turn to him with trust and expectation. By night, meanwhile, he stood or knelt or lay naked in Jin’s little room, bearing no mantle at all, nothing expected of him whatsoever except that he bear whatever shamefully pleased him and say stop to anything that didn’t. He did have cause to say it a time or two, in fact — once when Jin strayed into striking him open-handed, even though it was only to the point of the lightest sting, and once when a teasing bit of name-calling landed just wrong under his skin — but if anything, those experiences only increased his trust in their agreement, and his pleasure in all the rest. Jin stopped so immediately and completely, each time, held him and praised him so lavishly for drawing the line of what he truly didn’t want, that he could only feel more shored up and certain, more ready to push another boundary in the knowledge that it would never push past safety.

He came more and harder in that dark little room, all through those weeks when the hillside was lush and warm and green, than he had ever imagined possible. The most difficult thing about any of it was keeping himself away long enough to attend to everything else he needed to. One memorable day when he was able to claim infirmity and hide himself away, he passed most of the afternoon lying in Jin’s bed with his hands tied to its frame over his head and his ankles tied wide to its base, on his back so his weight pinned in deep the large, vaguely phallic casting of bronze set into a broader base that Jin had produced and worked with slow patience into him, its torment only worsening the more he squirmed sweating as far as his captivity would allow. All the while Jin sat propped up on pillows beside him, reading a book with characters completely unrecognizable to Ilya even at the best of times, with one hand only resting lightly over the wet red straining of Ilya’s cock. Very occasionally he would give it one slow, voluptuous stroke, or else take his hand away entirely for a few seconds, to turn a page. His tail nestled comfortably in a coil over Ilya’s leg, tip flicking occasionally at the inside of his thigh. It must have been over an hour of only absently shushing Ilya’s begging before he relented, rolling amused over Ilya to finish him off with both hand and flickering tongue.

Most nights, Ilya left before dawn, making his way back to his own bed with darkness still to hide him. Many nights, however, he slept at least a few hours in Jin’s bed beforehand. If he were being entirely honest with himself, he would have to admit that the intense sense of safety in lying beside Jin’s bulk, in Jin’s arms, after Jin had held and soothed and cared for him at the end, was at least as intoxicating as all the other strange rituals of what they did together.

“What are your people like?” Ilya asked on one such night, resting spent and pillowed atop the rise of Jin’s chest, with one of Jin’s arms over him like a blanket of iron. Jin propped his own head on his other arm to blink up at Ilya, tongue flickering thoughtfully.

“Big? Scaly?” At Ilya’s expression, Jin laughed, and shrugged.. “I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”

“I… don’t know if I am either,” Ilya said, after a moment’s reflection. He settled his crossed arms under his chin, over Jin’s ribs. “I just don’t know very much about you. Are you just… like everyone else in the southern kingdom, then, except for how you’re shaped?”

“Well… no, not exactly.” Jin appeared to consider that, idly stroking Ilya’s back. “We… hm. It’s a bit hard to explain. We aren’t actually from the kingdom, originally — a lot of people who live there aren’t. From what I know, we started off way further south, down along the peninsula and the coast. Our kind started making our way up into the area back when it was just a bunch of territories who couldn’t get along, maybe even earlier than that. It was very gradual — just handfuls of people looking for more room.”

Ilya frowned, his own arms pushing his chin up into it. “More room?”

For one of precious few times in all the time he’d talked with Jin, Jin didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his subject. “Yeah. Back in those days, I understand we tended to be pretty solitary. Kind of like a race of hermits. If one of us took up in a hut by the shore, the closest one over would build his place in the inland marshes, or maybe leave them in between just for good measure. Didn’t like to see much of each other.” He glanced at Ilya, saw the frown deepening there, and sighed. “We fought, when we got together. I don’t know if it’s something about us, or just something we got in the habit of doing, but it’s the way things were. Whenever we got together, we’d tear each other apart as often as not — not because we meant to, just because we couldn’t help it. It was easier just to stay apart. Even families: a man would stop by a woman’s place and they’d fuck, he’d take off and she’d lay the eggs and hatch them, and if she could manage to keep from snapping the little ones’ necks they’d take off as soon as they could take care of themselves. That comes sooner for us than for humans, so there’s that.”

“You said ‘back in those days,'” Ilya said, after a moment to think about this, and digest it. His first instinct was of course to be appalled — but if he thought about it honestly, could he really say he’d never heard worse about human parents? “Is that not true anymore?”

Jin made a little sound, almost a laugh. “Yeah. No, it isn’t.” He paused to consider. “Eventually, we started having more to do with the humans around us, at least. They looked at us and saw a lot of potential for helping fight their wars, but they knew they damn well couldn’t make us do shit. So a lot of them tried being friendly, instead. Sometimes that went okay, sometimes not so much. But eventually, we started living more closely with them, and picking stuff up from each other. And one thing we really picked up from them is this… I don’t know what you’d call it. Philosophy? Religion? A lot of humans practiced it — still do. But my people picked it up and ran with it.” Ilya propped himself up a bit higher, intrigued, but Jin sighed again. “It’s… aw, hell. I couldn’t be less of a priest or a philosopher, I’m in no position to explain it to anybody. But it’s just… everything we do, you know? It’s complicated underneath, but the big stuff is just about doing right by other people, before anything else, before yourself. Compassion is the most important, the most — holy thing you can do. And you can be better than you are, if you do the right things, the best things. Anybody can. Not just saints, not just rich people, not just humans. Anybody.”

Jin glanced at Ilya, a ghost of his reptilian grin now on his mouth. “So we got really into this stuff, like I said. And we figured out how it could finally let us live together. We’ve got systems. Everybody follows the rules, everybody disciplines themselves, everybody focuses on showing compassion to each other first and being better than what we could be. Sure, sometimes we fuck up, but who doesn’t? It works well enough, and now we live in our own families and towns and shit just like humans do. We improved ourselves.”

“That’s impressive,” Ilya said, after a moment to consider all of this. It was foreign to everything he knew of faith, of course, but maybe not as foreign as he might have imagined. “…You mentioned once that many of your people prefer to be with humans, rather than your own kind. Is that related? Is there still this — fear that you’ll hurt each other?”

Jin nodded, his expression more sober now. “Yeah. I’m a little surprised you got that.” He took a long breath. “It’s… not always easy, all of this. It can be easier with someone who’s not always trying to walk the same line you are. I know it is for me.”

“It’s hard to picture you struggling to find compassion.” Jin glanced up at Ilya, startled and with his long snout scrunched a bit in a frown, and Ilya smiled, almost shyly. “It’s a bit strange to say, considering… some of this, but I think you’re probably the kindest person I’ve ever known. You…” He cleared his throat a bit, dropping his eyes away. “You care for our people like yours. Your soldiers are like your family. And… in all of this, between us. You saw what I needed, and you gave it to me, for that reason. You take such care in everything you do. You should know how much I value it. How much it has meant to me.”

It took Jin a tellingly long time to respond to that, although Ilya still couldn’t look at him in the meantime. “I… thank you. I mean that.” He took a short struggling pause, and then added with a touch more humor: “Don’t assume I’m doing any of it to be totally selfless, though. Trust me, I’m getting plenty out of this.”

“I do,” Ilya said. He looked up to find Jin frowning at him again, and could only smile, and clarify: “Trust you.”

And then Jin’s oddly readable face changed in some way he could no longer look directly at, and he was gathered up tightly in Jin’s arms; and they spoke no more about it that night.

It wasn’t long after that when Ilya found himself thinking, on another evening, as he lazed in Jin’s bed and still in his embrace. He propped up a bit on his side where he lay, making Jin’s arm slide down to drape his waist and Jin glance at him and smile.

“Ready for another round?”

“Not just yet, I think,” Ilya admitted, and then hesitated. “Actually, I was wondering — would you ever want me to touch you?” Jin started to draw breath, already looking amused and patient, and Ilya hurried on ahead of him. “I know you like it just as well without — I’m not worried about that.” He had worried about it at first, of course, but Jin’s continued assurances had finally made him let the matter go, thought it had probably taken longer than it should. “I just wondered if it it were only something that you don’t require to enjoy yourself, or if you were actually opposed to the idea. Of course I wouldn’t press if that’s the case.”

“No, it’s not like that,” Jin said, after a brief pause, taking the words slowly. “I don’t have a problem with it. I’m just good either way, so it mostly seems like just extra trouble for you.”

“I want to do it, though,” Ilya said — finding his voice quieter than he’d meant. Jin only looked at him for long enough to make him drop his gaze, but he pressed on. “Not to meet an obligation, or anything like that, but… because I want to. Would it be all right?”

“It’d be fine,” Jin said, and there was a little reassurance in his tone now, as well as in how he blessedly didn’t make Ilya wait through another hesitation. He tilted his head. “Are you sure, though? I’ll warn you, it’s not like what you’ve got. You might be kind of put off.”

Ilya did hesitate himself at that, if only for a second — what did that mean? — but in the end he only looked back at Jin with a smile that was both a touch challenging and pert. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were being shy,”

Jin blinked at him in a second’s astonishment — and then laughed, hard, startled out of him. “You’re pretty cocky for someone who was squealing with his ass in the air half an hour ago,” he said, though it was warm and fond enough to keep it from stinging even while Ilya still couldn’t help blushing. “All right, give me a second. Don’t go anywhere, though, I’m going to need your help.”

That was more mystifying than anything, but Ilya shifted aside to the edge of the bed even as he frowned. Jin pushed past him to his feet, and stripped matter-of-factly out of his long tunic and then the trousers he wore under it, drawing his tail one-handed through the slit for it in the back. He kicked them aside at last to reveal a lower half Ilya had never seen unclothed in all the time they had been spending nights together. The sight of it, before Jin turned from fully facing him to sit back down on the edge of the bed, did nothing to allay his confusion at all, however. There was the broad, pendulous curve of Jin’s belly, smoothly grey-brown as his chest, and there were the speckled curves of his hips into the huge wide thighs of his curiously-shaped legs, and there was… nothing in between. Jin’s belly was considerable, but it wasn’t big enough to hide anything that should have been at the fork of those thighs, and yet there was nothing. Only scaled skin that seemed to fade back into a wrinkled recess where his legs met, and nothing more.

“All right, get up here,” Jin said, and patted the broad plateau of his thigh, reaching for Ilya’s waist with the other hand. “Even if you don’t want to go again right now, I’m going to need you hard again to do this.”

“To do… what?” Ilya could no longer contain himself from asking, even as he pushed up on his knees and clambered obligingly onto Jin’s lap. Jin glanced at him and smiled, and before answering, took one of Ilya’s hands into the dwarfing size of his own. Ilya watched, puzzled and fascinated, as Jin drew it to the sprawling spread of his thighs… and then his fingers touched an indentation in the scaled skin, a place where it was more yielding and pliable, that he could soon tell was the edge of a slit into the flesh, as long as perhaps the length of Ilya’s hand.

“Ours don’t just hang out like yours do,” Jin said, as Ilya tried that spot gently with his fingers in increasing wonder. “Everything’s tucked up in there. It doesn’t come out unless I smell a partner who’s turned on. Apparently we’ve got enough in common with humans at this point that it can work with one of you, too.” Ilya glanced up at him, and Jin smirked, releasing Ilya’s hand to stroke both palms over his hips. “I won’t say we never do it — there’s other ways, I hate to say — but we didn’t have the word ‘rape’ until we learned it from humans. Just not as much of a thing for us.”

Ilya considered that a moment, letting his touch linger at that unfamiliar orifice on his own. “So does it… come out, then, when…?”

Jin’s smirk spread into a grin, and he tilted his head to flick his tongue deliberately at Ilya’s neck, where sweat had dried in his earlier extremity. “Do you make me hard too, when I’ve got you spread out and gasping on my fingers, you mean? Every damn time.”

The breath caught inside Ilya’s throat, and he shivered hard, his hand on Jin’s shoulder clutching it convulsively for a second. He drew the other away from the slit between Jin’s legs at last, not wanting to make some terrible error, and lay it on Jin’s chest instead. “I think I should be able to help, in that case,” he said, his voice already half breath, and Jin chuckled even as he slid one hand down from Ilya’s hip to cup the stirring softness of his cock.

“I knew I could count on you.”

It took embarrassingly little time, actually: with Jin’s thigh between his straddling legs, Jin’s hand gently stroking his still-sensitive shaft in long caresses, and his curiosity about what would happen afterward heady and tantalizing in his mind, it wasn’t long at all before Ilya’s cock had grown thick and hot and heavy in Jin’s grasp, his head sagging toward Jin’s chest as he bit his lip and squirmed. Jin took his time even so, squeezing the curve of Ilya’s rear in his other hand, not speeding up even as Ilya’s hips began to try to crest into his hand. Finally he stopped, and took his hand away — leaving Ilya flushed and bare and throbbing, already wanting to protest the loss in spite of himself — and only clasped his hips again. He actually lifted them a little higher than they were, even as he leaned back and sank down a bit on the bed, and lowered his head so he could dart out his tongue and lap the head of Ilya’s cock.

Ilya couldn’t contain a thin, wavering sound, and Jin hesitated only a second before doing it again, even more deliberately: slowing the motion that was normally only a quick, glancing flicker, to let the long muscle linger over the liquid beading at Ilya’s tip and lave around it. It was slick and smooth, fading to a forked tip that managed to caress Ilya’s skin between its prongs. Closing his teeth and panting through them, Ilya only rocked on Jin’s thigh for a moment, before fumbling up his clenched hands to shove weakly at Jin’s shoulders.

“That’s enough, I’m — ” he gasped, carefully avoiding the word stop purely by reflex, and then yelped again as Jin’s tongue flicked back to him again and darted quick teasing touches all around his cock-head. “This is just supposed to be helping you!”

Jin laughed, although he did it even as he was deigning to draw himself up to his full seated height again. “It is,” he protested, and when Ilya managed to catch a bit of his breath and blinked his eyes open, Jin only gestured again to the fork of his own legs.

Where, to be fair, the change was quite unmistakable.

“Oh, there are — two,” Ilya blurted, before he could contain himself. “Why are there two?”

Jin snorted, at least before he could fear that he’d offended. “Why do you have one? Why is the sky blue?” Which Ilya supposed was a reasonable response, come to that. “Our women have two holes, that’s the best I can tell you.”

“Of course, I was just — surprised.” Neither had his surprise entirely left him. His own erection mostly forgotten, he leaned back a bit on Jin’s thigh for a better look, and then climbed entirely off to an equally familiar position from other contexts, kneeling on the floor before Jin. Now he had an unobstructed view of what was presented to him: a pair of curved, protruding members that bent toward each other like antlers, stretching out the slit he had felt before wide enough to show vulnerable pinkness within. Their flesh was ridged with rippling protrusions of flesh, their bright coloration shocking against the muted grey-green-brown of the rest of Jin’s scales — a vivid golden yellow shading toward orange where the ridges were most pronounced. He looked at them a moment, and finally Jin spread one hand above him, making another small sound of amusement.

“So, yeah,” he said. “Little bit different.”

“They’re beautiful,” Ilya said, which Jin didn’t seem to have much response to one way or another. And they were, in their way, he meant it, but yes, also very different — and also large, not as much as they might have been compared to the rest of Jin perhaps, but quite substantially so compared to any part of Ilya. He hadn’t questioned it before, but now he could certainly see why Jin might have hesitated. It was hard to say what to do with something of this nature.

But he still did want to. And there was nothing for it but to try.

Before Jin could draw breath to do something dreadful like tell him it was all right, he didn’t have to, they could do something else, he leaned forward with one hand braced on Jin’s knee, and reached out with the other. He touched deliberate fingers to the curved shaft of one of Jin’s cocks, running them along its outside arc, marveling at the texture of all the bumps and crenelations of its flesh. Jin made a low, rumbling sound, bracing one hand behind him on the bed, which Ilya chose to take as a good sign. He moved to touch the other along its inner curve instead, exploring how it felt and how its shape could seem to wrap around his hand. Moved his hand up then to the tip, curling his palm around its head to cup and caress it, letting the back of his hand rub at the same time against the head of the other.

“Ilya,” Jin said low — not a warning or a demand, just a given name that was still new in his mouth, after he had finally been insisted away from Father in this room. And Ilya shivered, his erection already swelling back toward fullness after flagging in his distraction, and leaned in with his shoulder pressed close to the security of one of Jin’s thighs.

He brought his mouth this time to the tip of the opposite one of Jin’s cocks, curling his hand around the other’s shaft almost absently in the process. The second tip prodded into his cheek as he pushed his head forward, rubbing along its side above the line of his beard as he opened his mouth to the head of Jin’s other, but he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t enjoyed much greater indignities by the side of Jin’s bed. The cock he tongued around the head of, licking at the underside and the ridges near its end, was bigger than any human one he’d encountered but not impossibly so. He was beginning to see how he could manage this, and to feel his own cock stiffen even further than ever at the thought.

“Fuck, that feels good,” Jin said in a heavy breath, and his hand that had been resting on his knee drifted up to caress Ilya’s shoulder, and stroke his hair. Ilya’s hips jutted in the air of their own accord, even as something in his chest softened at the sound of Jin’s voice. It was very warm, and tinged with an unfeigned wonder that suggested that none of this was well within Jin’s usual realm of experience. Of course Jin would care far more than he was cared for.

Jin’s cock was likewise not so big that Ilya couldn’t stretch his mouth to take it in, though the feeling of its ridges sliding over his tongue and lips was foreign. The shape was the bigger challenge, and he had to stop at the sharpest part of the bend, cupping his other hand instead around the inches left at the base. Jin let out a shuddering breath as Ilya settled there, mouth around what he could take, hands around what he couldn’t on both sides. Jin held very still, all except for that gentle hand still stroking Ilya’s hair, as Ilya found a rhythm and began to move, drawing on the cock in his mouth, stroking his hands in mirrored movements.

The room fell into breath-holding silence except for the occasional wet sound of Ilya’s mouth moving, or of Jin letting out a long, soft groan. Ilya sucked, he stroked, and all the while he hardened until he was flushed between Jin’s cocks and shifting restlessly on his knees, from Jin’s sounds and the stroking of Jin’s hand and the hard ridged weight in Ilya’s own mouth. It was so good to give Jin something in return: some measure of all the heights of pleasure he’d experienced in all this time, things he’d never imagined himself capable of. Jin’s desire electrified him, made him bob his head in more messy eagerness and speed his hands, squeeze them where his fingers fit among the ridges.

Finally Jin’s breath was coming hard and ragged above him, and Jin’s huge weight shifted, his hand dropping to give Ilya’s shoulder a gentle warning squeeze. “I’m going to … come here in a second, you keep that up,” he said, on a heave of breath that broke his voice up deliciously. “You good with that?”

Ilya wasn’t exactly in a position to answer or even nod, but he responded as best he could. Namely, by shivering, and then diving his head deeper than ever onto Jin’s cock, speeding the squeezing caresses of his hands for all he was worth. The flesh under his hands pulsed and twitched, a faint strange taste spilled into the back of his mouth as Jin’s cock jumped —

Fuck!” Jin growled — harder, edging toward a roar — and his thighs and hips shuddered as though he were barely containing himself from a thrust. He was rigidly tense a moment, hand heavy on Ilya’s shoulder, thighs spreading to either side —

And then liquid pulsed into Ilya’s mouth, and at the same time, splashed and splattered across his cheek, with enough force to make him glad that his eyes were already closed. He stayed where he was, though, working his mouth and hands in furious tandem, drawing out the last gasps and sputters and twitches. Until, at last, he was distracted by his task by the gradual quaking of Jin’s thighs and belly, and the sound of his laughter.

“Well, how’s that for convenient?” Jin said, as Ilya drew back off his cocks to stare up at him in a heat-haze of arousal so deep he was incapable of the more appropriate indignation. “You don’t have to pick whether to swallow or get come on, you get both at once.”

Ilya did flush at that, although even that he could find little sincerity for, and he was smiling sheepishly around his fast heavy breath. “Was that — good?”

“That,” Jin said, the laughter drying away quickly to leave a depth of sincerity that rather caught Ilya’s breath in his throat, “was fucking great. You’re incredible, you know that? Not the symbol, not the fire, not the leader. Just you.”

This time Ilya’s flush definitely did have his heart in it, and he ducked his head down a little rather than bear any of that, his eyes squeezing shut. Jin’s hand caught around his chin at once, though, lifting it back up and stroking at the line of his beard.

“And now,” Jin said, with the edge of that old leering grin starting back into his voice, “I want to see you lean back right where you are, and get yourself off in front of me with my come still all over your face.”

And in that moment, as he scrambled to comply as quickly as possible, Ilya didn’t think he could think of anything he would have been happier to do, whether ordered to or no.

Not wanting to shirk his share of duty, regardless of his role otherwise, Ilya took a shift in one of the outpost’s watchtowers when he could spare some time. There had been no sign of the Tsar’s soldiers since that last attack on their way here, but none of them had any illusions it would stay that way forever. He was surprised to climb up just after dawn of a few mornings later, however, and find that the partner waiting for him at the top was Brother Yuri. Even in early summer Yuri wore a light coat against the morning chill, and Ilya was glad enough to accept the cup of tea he offered.

“I hope you don’t mind my joining you on your shift,” Yuri said, with the slight smile that seemed to be the most of such an expression that would ever dare his face. “I was hoping to find some time to speak with you.”

Ilya frowned, sipping the tea as he took up his post at the platform’s railing. “Oh? About what?”

“Nothing urgent. Just…” Yuri trailed off, with his eyes skimming away across the tops of the trees and hills that loomed before them, and then sighed. “I wanted to apologize to you, actually.”

That only deepened Ilya’s frown, and he turned more fully toward Yuri. “For what?”

Yuri didn’t speak immediately; he was still looking out across the distance, and seemed hesitant to meet Ilya’s eyes. “I feel that we’ve all asked a great deal of you,” he said, after a time, measuredly, and finally turned back toward Ilya with eyes downcast. “Pressed you, even, into things you would not have chosen. And I regret that, even if it was circumstance more than anything that forced our hands.” Ilya opened his mouth at that, but Yuri shook his head, raising his eyes at last back to Ilya’s with a stubborn jut to his chin. “But you have risen to those expectations, time and again. And it’s come to shame me, for how ill I thought of you when all of this began. At first, I thought you not worth the gift that had been given to you — a spoiled and lazy noble, with no understanding of how the rest of us struggled.”

“I know,” Ilya said, quietly, and offered a slight smile to Yuri’s look. “You didn’t think it wrongly, either. I was all of those things, truly. I never thought of the people I lived beside, never considered them equal to myself. I was blind, and selfish.”

“You’ve changed, if so.” Yuri cast a long, close look over his face, searching. “You’ve come to support us. Protect us. You aren’t just a leader of convenience; you really do lead.” Ilya hesitated, discomfited, and Yuri’s gaze bored into him more than ever. “What changed for you? If I may ask?”

It took Ilya a moment to think of how to respond to that. At least, how to do so decorously.

“”For in our humiliation the Lord remembered us, for His mercy endures for ever; and redeemed us from our enemies; for His mercy endures for ever,'” he quoted at last, softly into the rosy dawn light off the spires of the trees. “As compassion was shown to me, I suppose, so I found compassion in my heart for others.” He did not quite dare risk looking at whatever Yuri’s reaction to that might be, only looking still out at the morning. Choosing his words carefully.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, or what we’re going to do next,” he said after a moment; “not yet. Whether we focus our efforts on protecting those who’ve already come to us, or whether we choose to fight instead, and extend that compassion to those elsewhere who are still suffering under the Patriarch’s yoke… either way, it must be out of kindness, and either way, someone will be hurt. Someone will suffer, some lives will be lost. There’s no avoiding that, and that will be on my hands, when it happens.” He thought another moment, and then let out his breath in a sigh, looking over at Yuri with a small quirking smile. “But I’d rather it be me than someone who doesn’t care.”

“So would I,” Yuri said, answering his smile.

And then they stood only in a companionable silence, sipping tea, keeping watch. Later, Ilya could shed this weight again, at the feet of one who cared for him, if only for a while; but for now, he could carry it. He could care for everyone else, instead. And he could hope that it would be enough.

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5 thoughts on “Polyeleos

  1. FUCK.

    Fuck. I was cackling when I realized what you were doing. This was a fucking delight, I loved it so damn much.

    And the ART! Love me some lizard dick. Good job all around.

  2. HMMMMM yes I see what you have done here <3 This is extremely sexy and it's a great story about Ilya figuring shit out about how to be a leader. I love it!
    Gorgeous illustration as well! And yes, it was clearly the perfect scene to provide a visual aid for.

  3. Wow, hot damn that was good. The second Jin started explaining to Ilya what he wanted it was absolutely electrifying. Perfect balance of safe kink practice and the fun kind of controlling.

    Really emotionally satisfying overall, too. Watching Ilya blossom into a good leader was wonderful!

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