by Mitsui Matsuri (蜜井茉莉)
“My mother used to be human,” said Katashi, one night.
Yori blinked slowly, his pale lashes catching the gleam of firelight. “Ah. What is she now?”
“Of course. What was it like?”
A scream across the encampment interrupted them — one of the prisoners, Yori surmised, tortured for information. He felt Katashi stiffen beside him, but if there was a tremor in Katashi’s voice, it was faint enough that Yori could ignore it.
“Skeptic. You’ve seen dead soldiers come back to life this very day,” Katashi said, poking the unidentifiable stew cooking over the fire.
“Technically, they didn’t come back to life.” Yori fussed with the worn straps of his leather cuirass, ignoring Katashi’s smothered sigh. “Necromancy doesn’t restore life — it only enslaves death. So says the Treatises on the Lower Magics.”
Katashi looked torn between annoyance and genuine curiosity. “What’s a scholar doing on a battlefield?”
“Same thing the son of a goddess is doing, most likely.”
“… needed the money?”
Katashi smiled, an unbelievably sweet expression on his usually serious features. Even the seemingly permanent line between his brows disappeared. It was also deeply irritating, because it told Yori that Katashi was indulging him.
Yori kicked a stone at him.
Lured by the smell of the stew, the rest of their company soon showed up, in twos and threes. Extra food was nothing to be sniffed at, even if none of the soldiers were about to guess the meat that went into it.
Much to his displeasure, Yori saw Jiro eyeing Katashi over the meal — and, sure enough, the two disappeared into the darkness beyond the firelight. Yori didn’t know why they bothered. It wasn’t as if Katashi was a screamer, and no one would care even if he was.
“Honestly,” Yori muttered, “You can’t say your mother’s a deity and not expect me not to have questions.”
This was how Yori described Katashi the first day they’d met, more than a year ago:
… a tall fellow in wool — in autumn! Not even a sprinkling of snow on the ground. A southerner for certain, but not from one of the salt-fish counties we used to get sent to. Remember them? Horrible places. I see the need for those who were to be empire officials to know what they’re taxing, but I never intended to step foot outside the capital.
Say, can you recall a design of interlocked circles? Very striking. There can’t be many tattoos of those around. The man has them, but doesn’t seem inclined to show them off. Odd. Perhaps it’s a religious precept? He doesn’t look like one of those awfully boring monks. Pretty black eyes — it would remind you of hematite, I’m sure.
He had written it in a letter to a friend from the Royal Academy. She was stationed in another faraway battlefield, in the mud of what was once the country’s richest farmlands. He remembered watching her wrapping books in oilskins, before wasting her fine scholarship by going off to war.
Not that he was much better, but at least he had a good reason.
Yori got around to noticing Katashi’s lush mouth and long, shapely fingers just before the day a white hawk circled their encampment four times, signalling his friend’s death. He’d stared at it for a long time, then shot the bird down with an arrow and burned the carcass.
He never did send the last letter, having lost it in an ambush. Yori thought it was just as well, really. At least he wouldn’t lie awake at night wondering if his friend was just about to write a reply. Then he’d have to carry a grudge against the person who killed poor Mie, because Yori hated losing sources for any answers.
Katashi sat up with Yori all night, repairing his boots. He’d repaired Yori’s boots, too, over half-growled protests.
“It’s stupid to do it when there’s barely any light,” Yori pointed out.
“We could be dead in the morning,” Katashi replied, serenely. He worked the leather like a professional cobbler, to Yori’s everlasting and irrational envy.
“Certainly not,” Yori huffed. He yanked at his long braid, wishing he could strangle the smug bastard with it. “I have no intention of dying before I make enough money to live my life in a harem.”
“Shut up or I will strangle you with my hair.”
Smoke plumed over the debris of a battle fought and lost on all sides, though only one could lay claim to be the survivor. Katashi looked up at the grey sky, wishing for the sun. A heavy snow would fall soon, killing the last of the wounded they’d left behind.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Yori matter-of-factly thrusting a sword through the chest of a fallen enemy, before rifling through the dead man’s belongings. A sin. Katashi quickly looked away.
The Captain caught his gaze and smiled at him crookedly. There was no doubt she’d seen him looking at Yori and knew exactly what he was thinking. Katashi was a little afraid of her and made it a point to avoid her whenever he saw the tell-tale blaze of red hair. She’d been kind to him, though, in her own way. The two long scars on his side were the results of her attempt to refine his swordsmanship, not of any particular malice.
Rumours had it she’d never been beaten in a swordfight.
In another time, he thought, she would become someone’s personal goddess after her death: a shrine would be built over her grave, and her worshipped as a bringer of victory for as long as she remained in memory. Katashi saw shadows of Her in the arrogant tilt of the Captain’s chin and the merciless grey of her eyes. An eagle’s eyes, he thought, shivering. He remembered the way She had looked at him, the day the last of his world crumbled into ashes.
A finger — Yori’s — poked between his shoulderblades, making him jump.
“You’ll never be a rich man, o squeamish one.”
Katashi sighed. This argument again. “Soldier, not thief.”
“It’s called “looting.” Where do you think the extra coins in your pay come from, little boy? They didn’t rain from the sky.”
“I don’t want to, Yori.”
His companion raised two perfectly-arched eyebrows. “You do know that the Treasury deliberately underfunds the army, don’t you? They think it encourages the generals to be a little more vicious, a little more ambitious — all for the sake of keeping their soldiers happy with the enemy’s gold.”
“I know,” Katashi interrupted. Yori was obviously winding up for a lengthy lecture, and he was in no mood for a headache. “But I don’t have to like it.”
Yori shrugged. “Then you should’ve stayed where you were.”
Katashi shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Stupid man.” Yori gave him an impatient look. “Why, what did you do? Tipped someone’s cow into a river?”
“Yes, yes, sorry for offending your dignity.” His blue eyes were cool but not mocking, and Katashi silently accepted the grudging apology.
There wasn’t much else Katashi could have done, in truth. Yori was right, as he almost always were about these things. Even if he wasn’t, Yori’s skewed moral compass ensured that the man would do whatever it took to rise to the top. He was probably already planning to marry into the family of one of the minor lords they’d come to know in the army.
Katashi almost admired Yori’s tenacity to survive.
It would have been stranger if they hadn’t become friends. They — as Yori pointed out — were the square pegs in the round holes of their company. The rest were veterans who swapped stories of impaling enemies with casual matter-of-factness, and midland farmboys resentful of Yori’s airs. Yori never let them forget that he didn’t care for them, or that he was the fifth best swordsman in the company and could crack their heads open in a matter of minutes.
Katashi privately thought that Yori took delight in being hated.
Yori was beautiful on the battlefield, his grace reminding Katashi of a golden cat in mid-strike. If there were a little more flamboyance in his motion than what was strictly appropriate, it was all just part of the exasperating bundle that was Yori of Kurotani.
It was a relief, in truth, to be the pale moon to Yori’s fiery sun. If Yori’s arrogance meant that Katashi was remembered by others only as Yori’s companion, all the better — Katashi never wanted attention to anything beyond the surface, never played the game of one-upmanship that Yori and his fellow soldiers engaged in.
He made himself available to them, pandering to the unfathomable attraction his form held to the men and women who asked after him with a half-guilty smile and a bauble stolen from the battlefield. Katashi accepted the smile but not the payment, and let their desires sink into him. Soon they forgot they’d ever seen him with a sword in hand, remembering only his mouth and the skin of his thighs.
And they made him forget, too, that he had ever been anywhere but here.
“You’re easily the best fighter in our company,” Yori hissed at him, one day soon after he’d told Yori about his mother. “Why do you put up with these unwashed perverts? There’re whores everywhere, and some of them are actually older than seventeen.”
“I’m not seventeen,” Katashi said, a wet cloth pressed against his black eye. The man who’d wanted him that night was rough, and the encounter shook him more than he’d ever admit to out loud. “Nearly thirty.”
Yori stared. “No. That’s not possible.”
“Young for my age, that’s all.”
“It’s. Not. Possible.” Yori cupped his chin and tilted his face up. “Your bone structure exhibit the typical features of a late male adolescent–”
“Is it bad to be wrong?” Katashi asked, watching Yori carefully.
“Don’t distract me, bastard.” Yori narrowed his eyes and let go of Katashi. “This… doesn’t have anything to do your mother’s alleged godhood, does it?”
Katashi couldn’t resist smiling. “But Yori, you don’t believe in gods.”
Yori rolled his eyes. “I know they exist, I just don’t see the purpose of worshipping those appalling creatures. They can’t even agree on what hell is supposed to be like.”
“… You’re strange.”
“No more than you, my friend. So: is it because of your mother?”
Katashi hesitated, and shook his head.
“Liar.” Yori’s lips tightened into a flat, pale line. “Very well. When you’re ready to tell me, come find me. Until then, I refuse to talk to you.”
He never thought of himself as a masochist. If anything, Yori considered himself to be the very antithesis of a masochist. He never got into a fight he couldn’t win, never wooed a pretty thing he couldn’t bet, and he certainly never indulged in something as vapid as longing. Or breaking vows made in fits of temper. He did have his pride to consider.
“And yet, here I am,” Yori muttered to himself under his breath, hunkering down in the shadows and pretending very hard to be an innocuous man-shaped rock. Or perhaps even some poor fool who died from frostbite, he thought sourly.
Only a few feet away, Katashi breathed out a soft groan, his hands reaching out to grip the wooden crates behind him. His eyes were closed tight — disappointing, given that they were Katashi’s best features — but his neck arched up in a sudden motion, exposing tender skin to be bitten and claimed.
A man ruined Yori’s fantasies by doing just that.
Yori growled, scowling at Katashi’s latest “catch.” Dog-riding bastard. What was Katashi doing, exposing himself to the disease of mankind’s dregs? Yori didn’t understand why Katashi gave himself so freely, without any thought to his real value and the fact that Yori was well-placed to satisfy whatever sad cravings Katashi suffered from, thank you very much.
Katashi’s body was bared now, his smooth skin impossibly erotic against the rough wool of the other man’s clothing. Yori swallowed, staring at the fluid roll of Katashi’s hips, glimpses of his erect cock, his pleasure-slack mouth. The man pressed up against Katashi said something low and rough, sliding around to grope Katashi’s buttocks–
Yori was running before he even knew it, fist swinging forward to punch the man in his smug, filthy face. Snarling, Yori reached for the hilt of his sword, but the man was already stumbling over himself in his haste to flee, not even bothering to lace up his trousers.
A gentle touch on his shoulder made him whirl around, finding Katashi staring at him, quickly withdrawing an outstretched hand. Yori stared back. Katashi dropped his gaze, wrapping his arms around himself as if to resist the urge to cover his nude body.
“You must be cold,” Yori said, his voice too high and thin to his own ears.
“No, you’re not fine.” Yori shoved Katashi against the crates, hard. “You’re not fine and you’re sick, Katashi, if you find pleasure in this and you will stop arguing with me, and–”
He drew in a breath. Katashi met his eyes again, wary and impassive.
“And I’m quite glad I didn’t draw my sword against the piece of scum sullying you, because that would be a terrible display of– of phallic symbolism.”
Katashi sighed. “… don’t understand what you said.”
“Scholarly talk. I was paid a great deal of money to learn how to obfuscate.” Yori’s grip on Katashi arms tightened.
“If you’re asking me to let you go, the answer is a no. Now. Shut up.”
I won’t remember this kiss, Yori thought. Too fast, too desperate, too entwined in the violence of the bruises on Katashi’s skin and the splinters scratching his back. Too perfect, too much to be held up as the ultimate ideal all their kisses must reach for in the days to come.
Yori shoved a knee between Katashi’s thighs, selfishly gratified at Katashi’s small, pleased smile and the way he rubbed up against Yori. Compliant. An animal in heat. The last thought made him hiss, mouthing Katashi’s neck and savagely biting down until he felt Katashi struggling against his hold, Katashi’s breathing sharp and panicked.
“Don’t,” he murmured, and kissed Katashi on the mouth. “I promise I will not devour you like a monster from legend — not that I believe in them, too many logic holes…”
Katashi muffled a snort of laughter against Yori’s shoulder and reached down to undo Yori’s trousers, sliding his hands inside. His fingers were as deft as Yori imagined, sensitive to every flex and quiver.
“We’re finding a bed in the next town unfortunate enough to host our fine army,” Yori grumbled, pulling away slightly.
Silently, Katashi turned around to face the crates, arms outstretched as if to brace himself. His dark eyes, when they peered at Yori from underneath untidy bangs, were as sensuous as the curve of his spine. Yori’s mouth watered.
“We don’t need one,” Katashi said.
They didn’t need a bed half as much as a stout sword, Yori thought, not that a bed wasn’t a welcome relief. Four months into their intimate understanding — Yori refused to call it a relationship — and still they came sniffing around for Katashi.
Fortunately, most of them at least had the good sense not to try it twice.
Beside him, Katashi sighed in his sleep and curled closer. Yori ran his fingers through Katashi’s hair gently, fanning it out over the pillow. It was growing long and unkempt, he noted. Perhaps he could persuade Katashi to wear his hair long, on Yori’s whim.
The boyish dishevelment wasn’t a bad look on Katashi, however. It certainly charmed the innkeeper’s wife into accommodating them in the second-best room at a good price. Though Yori would have to head off the trouble he saw in the glint of her eyes — he’d hate to upset Katashi by killing her; and now that they were no longer soldiers, they lost the protection of the general amnesty.
Besides, he was almost sure that Katashi was completely oblivious to the woman’s flirtations.
Now was late spring: colours carpeted the forests and farmlands in anticipation of summer, and milkmaids returned home with their beau and a promise knot around their little fingers. Yori shaded his eyes — the sun was too bright, the morning already uncomfortably hot.
Dry flower petals and possibly a highly poisonous insect or two blew in through the open window. It was so disgustingly pastoral, Yori’s fingers itched to take an axe to the nearest tree.
He wondered if Katashi felt just as out of place here, an islander marooned among grass-soft hills and trees that would never survive a seastorm. Yori found it difficult enough to believe in Katashi’s tales of fantastic sea creatures nowhere to be described within the Royal Academy’s great libraries, let alone the halting confession of what drove him away from his home.
It was easier to think of Katashi’s past as a myth told to children on rainy days.
Once upon a time there was a boy who lived on an island, so far away that barely anyone remembered its name. His people worshipped many gods, and believed them to be reincarnated in human forms.
A god reincarnated as a human rarely remembered its divine nature at birth. A few came to the knowledge as children, most were enlightened as adults — many of them already with children of their own.
The boy’s mother was one of them: an incarnation of the goddess of justice, she who came with the rain that fed their crops and drowned their beloved ones. She was a fair but harsh deity, unbending in her cold logic, utterly unlike the woman the boy knew and loved.
Ah, but of course there was always a price to be paid for power. A god cannot be entirely human, as the belief went, and so the reincarnated god slowly shed all things that tied them to their mortal life: the weaknesses of the flesh, the memories of their human hosts, the tender feelings toward other human beings.
The boy’s people considered it a great honour to have a god born into one’s family. The boy, watching his mother becoming something frightening and strange, felt differently. He wanted his mother’s embrace and her smiles on cloudy days just before hunting season, not the goddess his people prayed to for vengeance.
It took years for the last of his mother to be shed by the goddess, and he watched it all. He didn’t dare pray to the other gods, lest his heretical wishes were known. He grew quieter as the days passed, and clung to his father as if afraid that his father too would go away.
One day, when he was ten, the boy took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed his mother.
She didn’t die, of course. He wanted her to stop changing into a goddess, but he hadn’t known that mortality was the first thing his mother lost.
Katashi nuzzled Yori’s shoulder, sleepily kissing his collarbones. “Thinking of selling me into slavery?”
Yori squawked, was instantly mortified, and retaliated with a kick.
“Sorry, you’re my village idiot,” he huffed. “You’ll not escape my clutches so easily.”
Katashi slung a leg over Yori and lazily heaved himself up, straddling Yori’s hips. The sunlight limned the heartbreaking curve of his smile and the slope of his neck, drawing Yori’s eyes down like a penitent before an altar.
Yori circled Katashi’s navel with a finger, thinking about the woman who birthed him, and left him. She was impossibly perfect in Katashi’s childhood memories, but aren’t all mothers? Perfect, or perfectly monstrous.
When Yori looked up, Katashi was still watching him, still faintly smiling. At least she must have been beautiful, to have had this glorious son with eyes that made Yori wish he was idiotic enough for poetry.
“You look like…” he started, but the words died unthought, all his learning deserting him.
“Not a god,” Katashi said, leaning down for a slow, soft kiss. “Don’t want to lose this. You.”
And then there was fleshly heat and tightness around his cock, making him gasp, cry out. Yori almost pushed Katashi off, almost said no, I don’t want to hurt you; but Katashi held him down with strong hands and those eyes, and moved, and moved.
Later, as they held each other and ignored the furtive knocking at the door, Yori said:
“Don’t do that again.”
Katashi stroked Yori’s arm with the tips of his fingers and did not reply.
“You don’t need to convince me not to leave, because I don’t intend to. Gods, fate, angry mobs — they don’t matter.” Yori twitched, embarrassed. “… and I certainly don’t want to have to go without due to your thickheadedness! Yes.”
Closing his eyes, Katashi bit down on a laugh and ignored the rest of Yori’s words.