by Wasureta Yume (和巣礼田ゆめ)
illustrated by Iseya Misu (伊勢谷 美寿)
When you need to travel small and quiet and on the cheap, that’s when you hire an elf.
Elven guides don’t ask much money, but they do demand respect. They won’t carry your luggage or serve your breakfast. What they will do, if you don’t piss them off, is get you across the Baltlands without too much unnecessary trouble.
Unlucky for me, we’d brought our own trouble with us in the form of my sister Ephen’s new girlfriend. She was the whole reason we were headed through elflands to the ocean, the reason we had to cut straight west instead of looping around south where there were roads and cities and a lack of wild bears. But my sister was in love with Nemul, and I had a decade of big-brothering to make up for.
We stopped in the border town of Tiffet to provision up for the journey, and that was where we met our guide. He was tall for an elf, coming up as far as my chin. It was a rare thing, not to be the shortest man in the group; Even Ephen had a good two inches on me.
It was late summer, which meant the season for travel was waning, and we negotiated a good deal on all our supplies and Niyaset’s guide fee. In startlingly clear National, he told us first thing: “You should really consider going south. The journey will be a lot easier.”
“We need to make it to the Beatific Sea before the first snow,” said Ephen, jabbing the map with a finger.
One of Niyaset’s long ears twitched. “Well,” he said. “It’s not impossible.”
Here is the difference between Ephen and me: When I hear a grudging ‘not impossible,’ I begin to investigate my other options. She just looked over at me and said, “See, Clei? Not a problem.”
To be perfectly clear, I liked Nemul quite a lot. She was a bit of an odd bird — no, wrong animal entirely, but “odd fish” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Anyway, she was quiet and dreamy and often hummed unrecognizable tunes to herself, but she was a good counterpoint to Ephen’s brashness. I would have thought they made a good couple, had their love not been doomed and also not constantly in my face every waking hour of every day. There are only so many times a man can hear his adult sister coo like a lovesick little girl. In my case, zero times. I found myself often going with our guide to ‘scout ahead,’ or in real words, escape the splash radius of their romance.
“You’re alright, leaving alone your sister?” asked Niyaset on what was probably our second or third day together. Word order was sometimes not what you’d expect with him, but he always got his meaning across. “Not afraid of wolves?”
“My sister’s a better fighter than I am,” I grumped, mood not improved by the afternoon sun beating down on us. “Besides, I believe women can take care of themselves.”
“I know they can,” he countered. His left ear twitched again, and I wondered what that meant, if it was an uncontrollable tic like a goat’s ear, or a language of its own, like an eyebrow raised in disapproval.
My only recourse was to change the subject. “What is it you’re gathering?” I asked. I pointed to the cone-shaped woven basket under his arm.
“This is shejo,” he explained, crumbling a leaf and holding it under my nose. The shejo leaf smelled something of mint, and something of tart plum, fresh and wild. “It keeps food from spoilage in hot weather.”
I took a pinch in my own fingers and licked — it tasted like a leaf. I made a face.
For the first time in the days since we’d met, Niyaset smiled at me. It changed him, like a plant that had been all buds and now was a mass of blooms.. Before he’d been just a haze marked “unusually tall elf, carries a bow.” Now I saw his fringe of auburn hair, his earth-dark skin and collection of carved bone earrings, the upturned corners of his eyes and pout-thick lips.
“You know, you’re r-right,” I gasped, “I shouldn’t leave my sister alone in the wilderness,” and I stumbled back to safety as quickly as my dignity would allow, heart thumping so hard that I fell at Ephen’s feet when I reached her. Niyaset said later that I must have sunstroke.
Nemul was the one with the deadline. She should have been furious with me, the career soldier, basically a professional of marching, for delaying us. Instead for the next two days, Nemul mothered me with an intensity I’d never before known. She kept one fishy eye on me at all times, and brought the group to a halt whenever it looked like I was flagging.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” I asked once, when she sat me down in the shade of a sycamore and put a cool hand to my sunburnt cheek.
Nemul looked sad then, and that was new. Most of the time, her expression could be described as ‘dreamily oblivious,’ or, when Ephen paid her special attention, ‘girlishly thrilled.’ Even when we first saw her at the traveling circus, and Ephen had been instantly enchanted — even then, Nemul had been only ‘vacant.’ Sadness was different, and I couldn’t fathom why she would bestow the precious emotion on me.
“Ephen is nice to you,” she reasoned. “Why can’t I be?”
“Ephen’s my sister. She’s stuck with me,” I evaded.
“Niyaset is nice to you, and he’s not your sister.”
“Do you think he is? Especially to me?” I asked, a little too eagerly.
Nemul’s shiny mouth popped open. “Oh,” she said, with all the nuance that told me she’d read me like a book.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” I begged her. “I’m hoping it’ll go away.”
“I won’t tell,” she assured me, gesturing finger to lips. “But maybe you’ll feel better if you do.”
That was advice anyone could give, especially someone in love herself. But some things just need words, and I could barely speak them to myself. Niyaset’s beauty scared me because maybe wanting him was a sign that I’d been wrong all along. All my beliefs about myself, that led me to cut all save a few ties to the world, might have just been stubbornness and pride. Maybe I was only, as the doctor who treated my stab wound in Mir d’Fa said, “deeply, deeply delusional.”
It didn’t help that wearing so many layers around my chest in this heat was making my head spin, or that my period was coming and it felt like my hipbones were a mortar, my spine a pestle and my innards grinding into paste between them.
That night, the others volunteered to keep watches so that I could get some rest and maybe recover by morning. Nemul sang me to sleep in a language I couldn’t understand, and it was so sweet it made me forget the pain for a moment. She only had a little time left. I wouldn’t let myself slow us down anymore.
The next day, I wore a linen shirt with no binding underneath. “It’s too fucking hot and I don’t give a damn” was my growled explanation. Inexplicably my chest seemed to hurt more now that it was free. For treatment, I splashed whiskey into my coffee — which I don’t recommend, by the way, unless you are also beyond the point of all damns given — and gritted my teeth.
In the army, I’d been sent north. Most men want to go anywhere but north, but I’d requested it. In the cold, we were all so bundled up, I barely had to bind at all. I got through summers by the skin of my teeth, but they were short. Here in the lower part of the Baltlands, it was hot from spring to fall.
But at least now I could breathe again, and I once more took my place in the front, with Niyaset. “This is just temporary, understand?” I warned him while Ephen and Niyaset were wrapped up in their own conversation. “As soon as I’m back in the cold, I’m changing.”
Even I wasn’t sure just what I wanted Niyaset to understand. But whatever response I was looking for, it was not the one I got. “We are all changing,” he said, “and we are all temporary.”
“Fine by me,” I replied. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m ready to get the world over with.”
Niyaset’s ears flicked down. Then light as a feather, he bent and snatched up a lake-blue flower with cup-shaped petals. “Do you know what these are called…?”
In the days to come, I stopped worrying about Niyaset. Unbound, I felt less of a man, and my desire all but emptied out of me. Not a pleasant feeling, but on the upswing, I could be his friend without other urges making a nuisance of themselves.
Friend. I hadn’t expected to make a friend out of our guide. He was just someone we hired, because he was available and seemed competent. But the four of us played cards together, and sang old marching ditties when we were bored, and competed to see who had the scariest ghost story. If the four of us weren’t friends, what were we?
I didn’t keep a journal of the trip, which must be why it’s all running together now. You’d think traveling, with new scenery every day, would help instill in the mind’s eye a clear series of events. But now I can’t remember how many days it took to pass through the valley and into the mountains. I remember it was hot when we started, and cold when we finished, but by nature mountains are colder than valleys anyway. I can remember that it was a hot day when Niyaset smiled at me, and from that day on I was his. But I also remember falling in love slowly, with every plant he taught me and every constellation he charted our progress by, every curious movement of his ears. So I have two conflicting stories inside of me: the one where I gave my heart all at once, and the one where it was drawn out of me like a fish pulled out of the sea.
Wrong animal again. I allowed my heart out into the world, as dangerous as I knew it was, but a fish always fights on the line. They know without a doubt the death that waits on land.
Another advantage to hiring an elven guide: they know how to deal with other elves.
We didn’t stop by in many towns — for one thing, northeast was elven back country and there weren’t that many places to be begin with, and for another, you never know what to expect with any given group of elves. The Baltlands had once been an empire, but were now fractured into a hundred different kingdoms. The elven empire and ours once had a treaty that pilgrims and traders could move through one another’s territory unharmed, if they didn’t cause trouble. Now, there were too many kingdoms to treat with, and which ones upheld the old rules was anyone’s guess.
But we had to trade, and sometimes, we had to take a day’s rest. Niyaset always went ahead and scouted the place out for us. Most of the time, people were welcoming, maybe just a little too curious, pestering Niyaset to translate questions like ‘What’s human food like?’ and ‘How can you see with such small eyes?’
“It helps us focus on one thing at a time,” Ephen answered. Nemul believed and was amazed, and I had to explain that sometimes my sister was full of shit.
The best was the town at the foot of a mountain, a village more like, that hardly ever got visitors. They put us up for the night in a splendid guest house. It had a thatched floor and was piled with blankets, furs and pillows for a warm, comfortable sleep.
I wanted to just dive into bed, but reading the air between the lovers, I changed behind a folding screen and whispered to Niyaset, “We should give them some alone time.”
We walked the length of the town, gazing up at the bright stars. It was a cool night, and I bound my breasts for the occasion, just to feel like myself again. I should have been paying attention to the constellations above, or the silhouettes of the ridges against the blue-black sky, but I only had eyes for Niyaset, resplendent in the moonlight.
Now that I was bound, my feelings for Niyaset came surging back. Why was my phantom dick trying to make things more difficult than they needed to be? Was it just that he was pretty and small and sweet? I’d never felt this way about a man before, and I wasn’t around enough women who weren’t my sister or sleeping with my sister to check against it.
“You’re looking especially well tonight,” he said, apropos of nothing.
I fell back on my old habits of misdirection. “What part of the Baltlands are you from, Niyaset?” I asked.
“Across the mountains and to the south,” he said. “A small town, like this one. There are my parents, brother and sister. I will go, after I take you to almost-the-sea.”
That’s right: my sister, Nemul and I would have to make the last half-day’s journey on our own. There was an elven rule, about leaving the Beatific Sea alone from the fall to spring equinox. Something about curses.
“That’s good, that you’ll see your family again. You must miss them,” I agreed. “Do you think Ephen and I could come along, after we finish up at the shore?”
“Will you really leave Nemul?” he asked.
“Neither of us want to,” I explained. “Ephen will be devastated. So, if you could wait a day for us, I’m certain she’d be grateful for the distraction. We could pay you to take us, as a guide,” I offered.
“I’ll consider it.” We spent a moment in silence. “Are you and Ephen really sister and brother?” he asked at last. “You do look alike, but you… what is the word? You’re far, long, late…”
“You mean we don’t seem very close,” I surmised. “That’s fair. I ran away from home when I was young. Twelve, I think, so Ephen would have been nine. I signed on with the army, because that’s the place for twelve year old boys with no homes to be. I gave ’em a good decade of my life, and they kicked me out when they knew what I was. Looking back, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did. Anyway, went back home to my parents, they disowned me, but my sister followed.”
“And now you’re here,” he said, motioning to our surroundings. The edge of town, now. A few more steps and you wouldn’t know anyone lived here at all.
“More or less. Some shit happened along the way, most important of which is when Ephen tells me, we’ve got to rob the circus because she’s in love with one of the acts. And I said yes to that, and yes to trekking across the known world so we can reverse-kidnap Nemul, because Ephen is all I have. And even if that weren’t true… she’d still be my baby sister. I can’t very well say no to her.”
“You’re a good brother,” said Niyaset.
I huffed. “No, I’m not. If I were a good brother, I wouldn’t be so jealous.”
“Oh,” he said, and he reminded me of Nemul in the way he could make a little syllable fill up a world. “So you’re fond of Nemul, as well.”
“No no no,” I insisted, because my love life was hopeless enough without a sibling love triangle. “Nemul is gorgeous, but that’s not why. When I left home, my parents didn’t want another escapee, so they gave Ephen everything she wanted. She learned to ride, and read, and do sums and swing a sword, because she wanted to, and she was allowed. Ephen truly believes that if she tries hard enough, everything will just work out. And for her, it probably will. In the army we all laughed together at how shit everything was, and that somehow made it okay, but to see how brilliantly she burns — it’s stupid to say out loud, because if I were a better person it wouldn’t matter, but it’s not fair.”
I’d been too busy ranting to notice him coming closer, but then there he was, leaning his small head on my shoulder and holding my arm. “And yet, you dread the day she is hurt,” he said. “You are a very good brother.”
I dipped my head an inch, testing. He tipped his head back, lips parted, and his eyes slowly closed. Our lips brushed together. Mine were thin and dry, but his were soft, warm and voluptuous. I sank into his mouth. He twisted to put his arms up over my shoulders, and I lifted him up to kiss him deeper. I sucked his bottom lip, he cradled my jaw in his hands. He grazed my lips with his teeth, I pulled him tighter to me.
I released him, panting to catch my breath. He took my hand and pulled me into the woods. We ran a few paces, then sank down against the trunk of a potbellied acorn tree, legs and arms intertwining. Our tongues lapped at one another’s lips. I brushed my thumb along the edge of his ear, marvelled at the soft hairs that grew around the tip. I wanted more, but I was too anxious to ask.
I opened my eyes. The moon had travelled a good distance across the sky, and Niyaset was pulling me to my feet. I’d drifted off next to him, and had the crick in my neck to prove it. He took my arm, and we made our way back inside.
The further we got into the mountains, the more apparent it was that Nemul was running out of time. She was always short of breath and so, so pale. When she could no longer walk, Ephen and I, and to my surprise even Niyaset, took turns carrying her. It was worrying, how easy she was to carry.
I say Nemul was in bad shape, but Ephen and I weren’t fresh peaches ourselves. Ephen, for obvious reasons: She had a lover in danger, and the best she could hope for at the end was separation. I was more of a mudslide, an all-over wreck. My hair hadn’t been cut, I was wearing thicker clothes but my breasts were still unbound as the mountain air was hard enough to breathe anyway, and the sight of my own shadow made my stomach turn.
It should go without saying that I lost all sexual urgings. Niyaset and I didn’t talk about the night we kissed, and it didn’t happen again. But he rubbed noses with me now, in the morning and at night, and spread his bedroll next to mine. What it meant, it felt too risky to speculate.
We somehow made it down the mountains without falling all over ourselves in our haste. Niyaset led us to where the trees grew sparse and the horizon just hinted at a line of dark blue. “I will wait for you here,” he told us. To Nemul, he gave a parting kiss on the forehead and said, “May we meet again, friend.”
Together, Ephen and I carried Nemul to the beach. It was my first time seeing one, and I’d always pictured them as inherently warm. But this place was cold and deserted, except for gulls and whatever little animals lived in the shells of the surf.
With a heave-ho, Ephen and I tossed Nemul into the water. A great splash, and nothing. A few long, difficult minutes of nothing. I was starting to worry. The Nemul I knew would have at least surfaced one last time to say goodbye.
A flash of iridescence shot up from the waves. Nemul, bright as the moon, leapt out of a wave, flicking her new fins. She splashed down and rode the surf back in, tumbling into Ephen’s waiting arms and soaking her.
“You’re all right, you’re all right, we made it in time!” exclaimed Ephen.
Nemul hugged her tight and looked to the cloudy sky. “It’s going to happen soon. If you really do want to come, you have to come now.”
Ephen turned to face me with tears in her eyes. My stomach dropped. “I’m sorry,” she began, “I meant to tell you earlier, but then Nemul wasn’t well, and I — the change doesn’t work after your twentieth birthday, or I’d ask you to come.”
This wasn’t real. I’d spent the whole trip preparing for how to comfort Ephen when she was left behind. I didn’t know — I couldn’t — not again–
“I wouldn’t have come anyway.” Swallow. “It’s all wet down there, and you have to swim around all day. It would get tiring. You’ll like it, though, you’ve got the energy for it.”
“Clei, I’m really sorry, I’ll have to stay under for a while, but if you come to the beach soon…”
“Ephen, now!” snapped Nemul. Ephen went down for a kiss. I saw the change start, watched her gasp as her throat rearranged itself, the fabric of her pants stretch and snap. Then a wave rolled in, and when it was gone, so were they.
I waited patiently for them to resurface. Snow began to fall. I turned away.
When Niyaset saw me coming, he hopped off the rock he’d been perched on and trotted up to me. My feet were dragging in the dirt, my eyes were rubbed red, and my pant legs were crusted in sand. “Clei?” he asked, gazing up worriedly into my face. “Are you… okay?”
I said, “I. Want. To. Sleep.”
Niyaset led me away. I was too far gone to even note the direction, all I could register is that we were moving. Together we found what could charitably be called a “settlement,” a little collection of shacks home to a fifty-fifty population of elves and humans. Or six-six, but who’s counting.
Niyaset persuaded one of the elves to rent us a room for a few nights, and I fell into bed and stayed there for the next day and a half. I don’t know what Niyaset did while I while I was out, but I remember that he brought food, and sometimes dozed beside me.
I woke now and again, and he roused me to eat. Little by little, he got the story out of me, of what happened at the beach.
When I’d finally slept enough, I woke alone. Reluctantly, I crawled out of bed and asked our hostess for use of the bath. The hot water was perfect for soaking away pains both physical and otherwise, and I stayed until the water cooled down.
Niyaset still wasn’t back, but he’d left me a collection of tools on our table: a mirror, scissors, a basin and a razor. He’d thought of everything. I shaved first, and was just about to start cutting my hair in the mirror when Niyaset returned.
He gave me a buttered roll and a double-flick of his ears that I was beginning to recognize as mild disapproval. “Give me those,” he ordered, and trimmed my hair for me while I ate. After he finished, I took the time to bind my breasts the right way, so that they sat as comfortably as they could in my chest. Then I dressed and looked in the mirror. I wasn’t at my handsomest, but at least I could recognize myself again. It was enough to make me smile.
I was, again, anchorless. Nowhere to be, nobody waiting for me. I said into the emptiness, “What do I do now?”
“Come with me,” said Niyaset. He was sitting on the bed, looking me up and down when I stepped into his view. “We can visit with my family and be free a little while. After that, it’s up to you.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” I confessed. ” I don’t know what I am to you. I don’t know if I can keep going on like this. What are we? What, what would you tell your family?”
“I will tell them, this is my friend Clei,” he answered simply. “And when they say, he doesn’t seem like just ‘friend,’ I will say we are good to each other. Will that be true?”
He slid closer to me, and I put my forehead to his. “Do you want me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said breathlessly. “I want you like a doe wants a buck.”
“You do realize I don’t have a–”
“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted. “I want you. Any part of you that pierces me, can be your cock.”
Heat flushed up to my face and down to my groin. We tumbled back onto the bed, still clothed, and kissed each other silly. His cock was hard through his clothes, and it gave me ideas. “Sit up with me.” I coaxed him into my lap, his back against my stomach, our legs spread. My hands explored him, rubbing over his chest, stomach and thighs. When I palmed him through his pants, he tipped his head back and purred.
“More,” he demanded, unlacing the pants for me. I slipped my hand inside and pulled out his length. It was my first time touching one, and I was half-afraid that I’d be repulsed. It was different from the human ones I’d seen, too, so much redder and streamlined almost like a hungry tongue. And wet like one. Clear syrup dripped from the tip and made a tiny puddle on the sheets. It was glorious.
My hand wrapped his cock and stroked it slowly, pausing to rub the wet stuff over palm and fingers. HIs hips shifted with my touch. He pushed my free hand up under his shirts, and I rubbed his nipple, which he seemed to like.
I stroked again. His hips jerked in and out, as did mine of their own accord. It was almost like… a simple fantasy I’d had hundreds of times, about having my own and being able to stroke myself to completion. My breath hitched and I nibbled Niyaset’s ear. “It’s like I’m jerking off both of us,” I said experimentally.
“Mmm, that’s good, that’s good. Get off through me,” he agreed. One of his hands came down to assist, and we pumped his cock together. My little head pulsed with every stroke of our hands. Niyaset spoke to me in his own language, and even though I didn’t understand, it made me want him more.
He cried out, and semen fountained from him, more coming with each stroke until we’d milked him dry. The puddle on the sheets was impressive, like the spill from a dropped bowl of batter.
I was plainly dying for release. “What do you want?” he asked me. “Do I suck you off?” I shook my head. Maybe eventually I would ask for that, but right now I just couldn’t. “…Rut against me?” he suggested. I nodded, flushing.
He stretched out on the bed, pulling off his pants and drawers and unbuttoning his overshirt. I kicked off my pants, leaving my drawers on, and mounted him. Our hips rocked together, his hands fisted in my shirt and he bucked up underneath me. I found just the right angle, and ground against him…
I came with a shout, and so did he, again. Niyaset trembled underneath me while I held him close. “Was that… all right?” I asked him.
“So good,” he told me in soothing tones. “My Clei, my man.”
The next day we set out. We never came back to that particular beach, though we did go to the shore that summer, and the next, and every year after. The Baltlands lost one of its finest elven guides, but Niyaset’s homeland, the Ko Territories, gained two sworn protectors. And I got a place to call home. And a family, but that’s another story. All in all, I’d say it was a good trade.