by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
To say that the chaos and noise of the capital city was a little overwhelming to a provincial farm boy was rather like saying that the war with Semaska had gone on a bit too long. Even inside one of the buildings, Kale still felt stifled and half-crushed by the sheer number of people crowded around him. He was fairly certain there were more people in this one tavern than in his entire home village.
Shoving his way through the crowd, he made his way towards the long counter where the bartender – and presumably innkeeper – presided over the barrels of ale and beer. “Excuse me,” he called, trying to get the man’s attention. It was so loud in the room that even Kale couldn’t hear his own words, and he frowned and raised his voice. “Excuse me!”
“Eh? What’s this, then?” The burly man looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “If y’want a drink, boy, find a seat and order from the wenches same’s everyone else.”
Kale shook his head. “I’m looking for lodgings, sir. Sergeant Darsten recommended you,” he explained, practically shouting to be heard over the crowd. The recruiting sergeant had taken one look at his worn and stained travelling clothes, and gruffly directed him here to this low-class inn. Kale had been a little embarrassed, but he didn’t really mind. It wasn’t as if he could afford anything better, and surely he wasn’t the first poor farmer to show up looking to join the army.
“Oh? Billy sent ya, did he? Off to the front lines, are ya?” The innkeep snorted. ” ‘Nother green farm boy off t’get himself killed. Well, ’tis no difference to me if ya want to die on a Semaskan’s sword, boy. Silver penny fer the night. Includes the meal,” he added not unkindly, seeing Kale’s involuntary wince on hearing the price.
Kale grimaced, but he really didn’t have a choice. Once he passed the tests and made it into the Elite he would be fed and housed at the army’s expense, but for this one last night it was up to him to fend for himself. At least it meant he’d get dinner too, even if he probably didn’t want to ask what kind of meat was in the stew he could see people eating at some of the tables. It had taken almost everything his family had scraped together to get him this far, and paying for this room would be the end of his money. He didn’t particularly want to go to bed hungry, not when tomorrow was such an important day.
Reaching for his belt pouch, Kale got a nasty shock when his fingers closed around nothing but dangling leather ties. Eyes wide, he looked down and confirmed what his fingers had already told him; the thongs holding the pouch to his belt had been cut clean through. “What? No!” Panicked, Kale automatically looked around on the floor as if the pouch might have just fallen, even though he knew what must have happened. He’d heard of pickpockets, but he’d thought the difficult knot he’d tied in the pouch string would prevent them from stealing the little he had. He’d underestimated their resourcefulness, apparently.
“Looks like the boy got hisself plucked,” one of the other patrons commented, and everyone in the area laughed. Red-faced, Kale ducked his head and frantically tried to figure out what to do. With no money, there was nowhere for him to go. He couldn’t just wander the streets all night – he’d be lucky to survive at all, let alone in any condition to go through the testing tomorrow. Assuming the night watch didn’t toss him into jail for ‘suspicious behaviour’.
Desperate, he looked up at the innkeeper with a pleading expression on his face. Maybe he could work for the price of his lodgings, or something. But before he could even get the first word out, the man was shaking his head. “Kingsman or not, you’ll pay the king’s coin or not see the inside of a room here,” the big man told him. “Nothing personal, y’understand. I’ve got a business to run.”
“I understand,” Kale replied, defeated. He turned to go, much subdued and struggling to think of what he could do next. Well, just because this innkeeper didn’t want to let him work for his room, that didn’t mean everywhere would be the same. He’d just have to try every inn in the city until he found somewhere that would take him.
“Hey.” Someone caught at his sleeve, tugging him to a halt. Startled, Kale looked up and saw another man about his own age smiling back at him from a seat at one of the tables. “Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing,” the other man said. “The recruiting sergeant sent me here, too. Listen, if you don’t mind sharing a room with a stranger, I wouldn’t mind having the company. Truth to tell, I’ve just been sitting here worrying myself into a panic. It’d be good to have someone to talk to about it.”
Kale blinked, studying the other man and trying to decide if the offer was genuine or if it concealed an ulterior motive. He couldn’t imagine what the stranger could hope to gain by luring him into some kind of elaborate trap, since Kale had already had his penniless state embarrassingly revealed to the whole room.
“I’d like that,” he agreed, relieved beyond words. “If you’re sure you don’t mind me imposing.”
“Not at all,” the other man said, shaking his head and shifting down to make room on the bench for Kale. “I’m Paxton Ulland. Pax, to my friends.”
“Kale Coulter,” Kale introduced himself, settling onto the bench. Pax shoved his loaf of coarse rye bread over, and Kale accepted it gratefully. It wasn’t much, but it was worlds better than nothing at all. He bit into it hungrily, studying the other man as he chewed. Pax had paler skin than Kale and a hint of red to his brown hair; his hands were callused, but not nearly to the same extent as Kale’s. Probably the son of a lower-class merchant of some kind, unless he missed his guess.
More importantly, the air around Pax shimmered with a faint golden glow, the sure sign of someone with the ability to use magic. It wasn’t nearly as strong as many of the mages Kale had seen since leaving his home, not even as strong as the priest who had tended to his village, but it was definitely there. And Pax was likely mostly untrained, so there was potential for growth there as well.
“You’re trying for the Elite, aren’t you?” Kale guessed once he’d swallowed, and now it was the other man’s turn to look startled.
“How did you know?” Pax asked. “Everyone else I’ve talked to assumes I’m just going into the regular army.”
“You’ve got power around you,” Kale explained, a little shyly. All his life people had looked at him strangely because he was ‘different’, his ability to see magic setting him apart from everyone else around him. He hoped it would be better in the Elite, where he would be surrounded by other people who were all just as different as he was. At the very least, his abilities would command respect instead of derision. The Elite were the best of the best, mages trained as warriors to be the ultimate weapons in the king’s army.
“You can see that?” Pax looked impressed when Kale nodded. “Ya, I’ve got a bit of the magic touch, or so I’ve been told. I can’t do much with it, just lighting candles and little things like that. I certainly can’t see other people’s magic!”
“Well, I can’t light a candle except with a match, so we’re even,” Kale countered, smiling and relaxing a bit. That was exactly the reaction he’d hoped for, that casual acceptance of him and what he could do. Being an Elite, having a place where he belonged, would be better than any other life could be. It was something he’d dreamed of ever since he’d first understood what all the colours around him meant, and why other people couldn’t see them.
“Shall we share a drink then? A toast for our success tomorrow,” Pax smiled and gestured for one of the serving wenches to bring over another mug of ale, despite Kale’s automatic protests. “As I assume you’re after the blue uniform yourself.”
“I am,” Kale admitted, reluctantly taking the mug Pax pressed on him. “You really don’t have to spend money on me, you know. I’ll be fine…”
“Na, it’s for good luck,” Pax insisted. “To chance meetings with a kindred spirit, and may it bring us both fortune.” He raised his mug, and Kale gave in and knocked his cup against the other man’s before taking a long swallow of the bitter drink.
It was surprisingly good, considering the general quality of the place. Kale made an appreciative noise, feeling the warmth of it burn its way down to his stomach and spread through the rest of his body. “To reaching a dream, and following your heart,” he offered as his return to the toast, and Pax grinned back at him.
“Ya, I’ll drink to that,” the redhead agreed, and they both tipped their mugs back once again.
By the time they staggered up to the tiny closet of a room Pax had bought for the night, Kale had lost track of how many toasts they’d shared, let alone how many mugs he’d downed. He wasn’t truly drunk, but he was certainly treading a fine line just on the other side of it. Pax was no better off, his laughter ringing bright and loud in the hallway as they leaned on each other.
Once inside, they stripped off their outer clothes and let them lie where they fell. Kale didn’t much care what happened to his old homespun garments, not when he would hopefully be wearing the bright blue of the Elite uniform come tomorrow. Pax crawled into the bed first, squishing himself against the wall to make room on the narrow mattress for Kale.
Taking his place, Kale squirmed to try to find a comfortable position. The bed had clearly never been meant for more than one person, but he’d grown up sharing a small room with both of his brothers and he was used to crowded conditions. Something felt different about having Pax’s lean body pressed along the length of his, though. It was nothing like having his brothers curled up against him, and Kale briefly felt even more light-headed than the ale could account for.
Despite that they both settled down quickly, and Kale was drifting half asleep when Pax spoke quietly into his ear. “Na, Kale. Are you scared?”
“Yeah,” Kale admitted, alcohol and drowsiness making him more honest than he might have liked to be. Those soft words made all the doubts and fears he’d been trying to ignore for months come crashing down on him, and he shivered. “If I don’t make it, I don’t know what I’ll do. And even if I do…”
He trailed off, not certain how to put his feelings into words, but Pax picked up where he’d left off as easily as if they’d shared the same thought. “If you do get in, then what? What if you’re not as good as everyone else? What if they think less of you for being so lowborn? What if you get out there on the battlefield, and you’re facing an enemy ready to kill you…”
Now it was Pax’s turn to fall silent, but Kale picked up the soft litany. “An enemy ready to kill you, and you freeze? I’ve never been in battle, Pax. The only dead people I’ve ever seen were old or sick. I’ve never even seen anyone hurt bad by an accident. I’ve never touched a sword before, or ridden a horse.”
“I’m scared of horses,” Pax confessed, his voice wry. “Damn near reconsidered being an Elite when I found out they ride everywhere. But what else am I to do? Go off to follow in my father’s footsteps, selling useless trinkets all the day long? Na, thank you. I’d rather die in battle, I think.”
“I know I’d rather face the enemy than another season of endless ploughing and harvesting,” Kale agreed. “But I’m glad we met, Pax. It helps not to feel so alone.”
“It does that,” Pax said. He shifted closer, curling around Kale so his face was buried in Kale’s hair. “Na, d’you suppose the stories are true? About the men in the army, that some of them turn to each other for comfort?”
Kale had heard the rumours, usually in the context of people making fun of him for wanting to be a soldier. The other boys in his village had teased him with it when he was growing up, saying that he only wanted to go off to war so he could be as perverted as he liked.
The worst of it was, he’d never been able to completely argue them down. There hadn’t been any girls in the village he’d been interested in. That was at least partly because there wasn’t exactly a broad range of selection, but that had never stopped the other boys from at least trying to woo the local girls.
“I don’t know,” he said cautiously, not certain where this was going or what Pax thought of the idea. “I guess maybe some of them do. Not a lot of women around out on the front lines, I wouldn’t think.”
“Do you think it helps?” Pax asked, making Kale shiver as his lips brushed over the sensitive skin of Kale’s throat. “They must be scared, too, out there knowing they could die in the next battle. Maybe it helps them take their minds off it.”
“Maybe.” Kale’s voice came out a little hoarse, and he felt his body reacting to the way Pax was pressed so close against him. He’d experimented on his own, on the rare occasions when he’d had a bit of privacy away from his family, and he knew what was happening. It made him a little nervous, because he’d never really wanted to believe that the other boys were right about him, but at the same time he couldn’t deny how good it felt to have Pax’s body against him like that.
Especially when the other man rocked his hips subtly and Kale could feel something hard and warm pushing against his thigh. Knowing that Pax was as aroused as he was made Kale feel dizzy, and he shivered. “Maybe we should try it and find out?” he suggested, hardly able to believe he had the courage to say the words at all.
“Ya, maybe,” Pax murmured, and rocked into him a little harder. His hand drifted over Kale’s bare chest, his breath teasing the sensitive skin of Kale’s neck.
Moaning, Kale turned onto his side and reached for the other man in turn. Their mouths met in a clumsy attempt at a kiss, and it was obvious that Pax had no more experience at this than Kale did. They bashed their noses together and pulled back, staring at each other. Despite himself Kale started to chuckle, and a heartbeat later Pax joined him. In moments they were laughing outright, clutching at each other and almost giggling, giddy with alcohol, fear and desire.
Kale shifted closer, and his hard cock pressed against Pax’s through the thin cotton of the breeches they both still wore. That made him groan, and they stopped laughing as abruptly as they’d begun. This time when their lips met it wasn’t nearly as awkward, and Kale felt heat rushing through him when Pax swiped his tongue over Kale’s lower lip.
Experimentally he ran his hand down over the other man’s bare chest, feeling soft skin and a dusting of hair that tickled his fingertips. His rough nail caught briefly on the tight nub of Pax’s nipple, and that drew a surprisingly loud moan from the other man. Curious, Kale did it again deliberately, and was rewarded when Pax shuddered beneath him.
“Gods above and below, Kale,” Pax murmured against his mouth. “Ya, you feel so good. Wanted you the moment I saw you.”
Kale flushed, with pleasure as much as embarrassment. “I didn’t… I mean I’ve never…” he fumbled for words, finding it hard to think as Pax rocked harder against him and the motion put delicious pressure on his aching cock.
Pax hushed him with another kiss, and Kale happily allowed himself to be distracted. Uncertainly he ran his hand farther down over the other man’s chest, feeling skin give way to fabric as he reached Pax’s pants. He hesitated for a moment, until Pax groaned and rocked his hips again in obvious encouragement. Giving in to what they both obviously wanted, Kale slipped his hand inside the loose waistband and curled his fingers around Pax’s hard cock.
It felt bizarre to hold another man’s cock in his hand, and stranger still to hear unfamiliar moans as he stroked along the solid shaft. He grew a little bolder, and rubbed his thumb over the tip, feeling wetness gathering at the slit. His own erection ached with neglect, and he copied Pax’s earlier rocking motions in an attempt to get the pressure he needed.
Pax was making the most amazing little whimpering noises in the back of his throat, and Kale was entranced. He wanted to hear more, and he tried slowing his strokes to see if he could provoke Pax into reacting.
It worked even better than he’d hoped, as the redhead cried out and arched up into his hand, trying to get him to move faster again. When Kale refused to budge, Pax retaliated by sliding his hand inside Kale’s pants in turn, and moments later it was Kale’s turn to whimper as Pax gripped him firmly.
Why it should feel so much better to have someone else touching him, Kale had no idea. At that moment he couldn’t have cared less about the ‘why’ of it; all he wanted to think about was how incredibly good it was.
It didn’t take long before they were both shuddering, the rhythm of their strokes faltering as they both neared the edge. Kale tumbled over first, orgasm hitting him harder than it ever had before, and he was left literally panting and breathless with the power of it. Somehow he managed to keep enough of his wits not to stop stroking Pax, and a moment later the other man followed him over into bliss, stifling a shout as his hot seed pulsed out over Kale’s hand.
For a few minutes they lay there, tangled together and breathing hard, both trying to recover their composure. “Thank you,” Kale finally whispered, his voice hoarse with more than just the aftermath of pleasure.
“Mmm. Promise you won’t forget me, Kale?” Pax asked, sounding drowsy and content. “Even if something happens and we don’t make it. We can be friends anyway, ya?”
“I don’t think I could forget you if I tried,” Kale told him with a smile. “But we’ll both make it, you’ll see. Maybe they’ll assign us to different squads someday, but we’ve got to train for years first, right?”
“Maybe they’ll let us be roommates,” Pax suggested, a thread of heat in his voice despite how sleepy he obviously was.
Kale shivered, the thought far from an unpleasant one. “Maybe,” he agreed. “Either way, I promise I’ll remember you. No matter what.”
As they drifted off to sleep, Kale found he couldn’t stop smiling. Finally, finally, everything in his life was going the way it should be. He’d found a place to belong at last.
“What do you mean, I’m not a mage?” Kale stared at the Elite officer who faced him across the desk, disbelieving. “I have to be! I can see magic, your people said themselves that they’d never seen anyone as sensitive to it as I am.”
“I’m sorry, Coulter, but the tests we ran are exhaustive,” the captain said. “I can’t explain it. We even had the mages look over your results, and they don’t know what to make of it either. Except for being sensitive to magic, you have no other signs of ability. You can see it, but you can’t tap it or use it in any way.”
“But I’m just blocked, aren’t I?” Kale insisted, trying not to sound like he was begging. “They said at the beginning…”
“We’ve tried every method we know. There’s nothing we can do.” The older man shrugged. “You’re welcome to sign on as a regular private, of course. We can always use another trooper, of any kind. Your ability may even prove useful in the future, despite its aberrant nature.”
His words were encouraging, but his tone was dismissive. Kale stood there, watching his dreams shatter like the illusion they had apparently been. ‘Aberrant nature’. Wasn’t that exactly what he’d been his whole life? An aberration, something out of place and different, someone who didn’t belong.
Bitterly he saluted, the motion clumsy, but he didn’t wait for the man to nod an acknowledgement before he turned and headed for the door. Kale walked through the Elite wing of the army headquarters in a daze, hardly even aware of where he was going or what was happening around him.
Once outside he stopped and leaned against a pillar, trying to get his bearings. As much as it felt like the world should be ending, it seemed to be stubbornly continuing to exist despite his personal anguish. Kale stared out at the brightly lit courtyard where soldiers were drilling, feeling his heart squeeze as he watched a small squad of Elite sparring. They were faster than any human had a right to be, their movements full of a fluid grace that was as beautiful as it was deadly. He should have been one of them, but now… now he was just another wistful farm boy with stars in his eyes, who couldn’t live up to his dreams.
He couldn’t go home, that much was certain. Not only would everyone make fun of him and spend the rest of his life tormenting him with the fact that he hadn’t made it, but even the small taste of life away from the farm he’d had so far had been addicting. He couldn’t go back to that tiny, restricted life, he just couldn’t.
Across the square he saw a flash of reddish-brown hair, and recognized Pax. The other man was smiling broadly and dressed in a crisp new blue uniform, being led towards what Kale thought might be the barracks by a senior Elite officer. So the other man had made it, then. Kale wasn’t sure whether to feel bitter, or grateful that at least one of them had managed to find their true place in life.
He touched the bracelet around his left wrist, feeling the smooth glass beads strung along the leather thong. Pax had given it to him that morning, one of the ‘trinkets’ he said his father sold by the dozens. He’d laughingly claimed it was a good luck charm to get them through the tests, and taken a matching one for himself.
Pax was looking around, probably searching for him, and Kale quickly pulled further back into the shadow of the pillar. He didn’t want the other man to know about his failure. Pax would figure it out soon enough when Kale didn’t join him, but at least Kale wouldn’t have to suffer through the pity that would surely result.
Turning away, Kale squared his shoulders and headed for the recruiting desk. Being a regular private wasn’t anything like what he’d thought he would be doing with his life, but it was at least better than being nothing at all. Touching the bracelet again, he resolved to keep it as a reminder that for at least one day of his life, he’d felt like he’d had somewhere to belong. Maybe someday he would find someone or something that could make him feel that way again, but until then, at least he had one memory to cling to.