by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by beili
“Perhaps they’ve forgotten about us.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Jian, whittling at a knot he’d cut off the firewood. Bai had observed that Jian seemed to have no skill at whittling, and Jian had pointed out that he had nothing but time in which to improve. “They’ll probably send our relief tomorrow.”
Bai didn’t even bother turning from the sunset-painted landscape to fix him with a withering glare. “This is the seventh day in a row you’ve said that.”
“And the seventh day in a row you’ve said the opposite, and won’t you feel silly when dawn comes and we see them trudging up the path?”
Bai didn’t have to look to see Jian’s idiot grin. Jian was an optimist. Bai hated optimists.
“Won’t I,” was all Bai said in reply. He kept his eye trained at a single spot in the growing dark, spine straight, waiting for light.
illustrated by beili
The smell that woke him was wonderful, and for a moment Bai thought he might be back in the barracks, or even at his mother’s house again. Then he opened his eyes and saw the roof of the tower’s one-room guard shack. He hadn’t dreamt the smell, though, and he raked his hand back through his wooly hair as he sat upright. It was well beyond regulation length now; the first thing he’d have to do when the relief came and got off the mountain was to find a barber and have both it and his chin shorn close again. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Breakfast,” said Jian, that smile still bright on his lips. The pot above the room’s central iron cookstove hissed and spat as he stirred something inside it.
Bai frowned. “It doesn’t smell like breakfast.”
Jian laughed. “That’s because it’s not porridge. It’s eggs.” He turned the pot enough that Bai could see the yellow-white lumps scrambling at the bottom.
“Where did you get eggs?”
Jian pointed in the direction of the forest that covered the mountain’s lower side; it was a quarter of an hour’s walk from the tower, which was by necessity located above the tree line. “Pheasants nest nearby. My godfather taught me how to find them.”
That brought Bai to full awakeness. “You left your post?”
“Barely.” Jian clucked his tongue, his smile never faltering. When Bai’s harsh gaze did not let up, he sighed. “The other tower never left my view. I could have returned in ten minutes’ time, at a run. Ten minutes is not the difference between life and death.”
The fact that Jian was right did nothing to improve Bai’s mood. “Don’t leave again when I’m asleep.”
“Didn’t want to wake you. You sleep so peacefully.”
With an innocent air, Jian poured half the pot’s contents into a wooden saucer and passed it Bai’s way. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
The worst part was, the eggs were delicious.
“Is it your turn or mine to get the water?”
“You always say that. Which one is it really?”
“If you ask me, I’ll tell you yours.”
Bai grunted and stood. “I might be gone a while. You’ll watch, yes?”
Jian snapped off a comically serious salute. “Sir, yes, sir!”
It was more trouble than it was worth by this point to roll his eyes, so Bai hitched the yoke over his shoulders, letting a bucket dangle from each end out past his shoulders. “Just watch,” he sighed, and he stepped out into the midday sun.
When he’d been notified of his assignment to the post, he’d been ordered to pack his winter coat, because even the warm mid-autumn nights grew chill at that altitude. It had been true when he’d arrived, though now that chill was starting to creep into the day, as a wind blew down from snow-capped peaks towering not far off in the distance. High above, riding it, a v-formation of geese winged their way south. Autumn was on its way out, and still their relief had not arrived.
So far removed from the rest of the world, Bai was hard-pressed not to wonder what was keeping their replacements. The only clear path up the mountain to the watchtower involved a long, rickety bridge; a heavy rainstorm had blown through not long after they’d arrived, which could have washed it or any of the roads around it away. Progress the eastern campaign might have gone so well that every able-bodied soldier in the land had been rounded up and sent forth into battle, leaving no one to spare at the remote outposts.
Other theories were direr: A plague could have swept the countryside, killing many and leaving more under quarantine. Troops could have laid siege to the countryside, blocking off any troop movements. Enemy forces could have taken the capital city and deposed the king, with the watchtowers’ warning system never deployed, none of their great pyres ever set alight.
Or maybe they really had been forgotten. He thought of these scenarios and many others every day as he sat in the cabin, waiting for the men that never came.
A stream flowed down the mountain not far from the tower, its waters cold, clear snowmelt. In its calmer places, Bai could see fat black fish swimming about, their scales iridescent when they caught the sunlight at just the right angles. When he dipped the first bucket in, the fish scattered. He filled both and hefted the yoke back over his shoulders, trying not to topple over beneath the weight on the slick rocks; he’d done that the first time, sending himself sprawling down the bank in a disastrous tumble he was only glad no one else had been there to see. He’d grown up in the city, where water came from pipes and the occasional well. He was a soldier, and a fine one at that, but his body was trained for war, not manual labor.
As he made his way back to the tower, careful step by careful step, the clouds rolled back and he saw the faintest outline of the watchtower on the far eastern peak, still cold and quiet. It occurred to him that this was the first time he’d looked on it without expecting to see it looking any other way.
When Jian picked up his bow from the wall, Bai tensed, wondering what foe had been spotted. But Jian did not seem alarmed as he held the weapon in his long, lean arms, testing the tautness of its string. In many ways, he and his bow seemed to have been made for one another; his skin was the color of the ash wood, and his whole body had the same lithe, sprung grace. He wasn’t the one strung tight, though.
Bai cleared his throat, and Jian looked over and smiled. “There are deer in the woods, not far from here. I don’t know of the state of your stomach, but I know the state of mine — and how low our stores are getting.”
The pair whose two-week shift they’d relieved had not left much behind them in the way of provisions, and neither Jian nor Bai had been supplied with an abundance of dry goods. After the two-week mark had come and gone with no signs of reprieve from the world below, they had begun to ration and consider the use of their remaining foodstuffs carefully. Even Jian, who still maintained that tomorrow, surely, tomorrow their relief would come, had been amenable to planning for a future where tomorrow would bring no such thing.
“It could be dangerous,” said Bai. “There are wolves in the woods as well.”
“Fewer in the daylight, and fewer still at this altitude.” Jian slid his quiver of arrows over his back and pulled a small, twisted ram’s horn from his pouch. “If I need help, I’ll call.”
“Will you come if you hear me?”
Bai could not keep from turning to gaze out the window at the far watchtower. Low clouds had rolled in over the far peak, but he could still see its shape as they parted and shifted in the wind. “If you’re not far,” he said at last.
Jian laughed, a sound like shrine bells on the ankles of maidens. “Of course, of course,” he said, with no judgment in his voice. Other men would have been angry, and rightly so, at the idea that a fellow soldier would not leave a quiet post to come to their aid. Jian seemed to have no anger in him at all. With a quick check of his pouch and pockets, he grabbed the bow, gave Bai a smile and headed out.
Without Jian there, the walls of the shack seemed to creep inward, even in broad daylight. It was not a large place, and it was not meant for comfort. The room had only one bed; since the far watchtower was never supposed to go even a moment itself unwatched, no more than one man should ever be sleeping at a time. Shelves formed a pantry in one corner, and a table and two chairs filled the rest of the space, all circled around the stove in the center. The thick pane that formed the room’s sole window was so ancient that the glass itself had begun to sag in places, warping the view of the world beyond as though looking at it underwater, instead of high above sea level.
The room was too close, too warm, too quiet. Too empty. He had to get out.
He busied himself with chopping firewood. He’d felled two small trees the day before and dragged them up to their cabin, and now with his hatchet he began the process of hewing them into pieces that would fit into the stove. The day was cool, but he worked up such a sweat that he wound up stripped down to nothing more than his pants and boots, letting the dry mountain air whisk the moisture from his skin.
It was good work, because it was hard work that required just enough concentration to keep his mind from wandering to other matters. There was no world for him at the moment but that of the tree, the axe, and his body — and the far tower, where his eyes returned every few minutes, a reflex almost as natural now as breathing.
The task was nearly done when he heard a sound from behind him and turned, axe at the ready, a weapon now instead of a tool. But it was only Jian, trudging upward with a deer slung over his shoulders. Bai dropped the axe and rushed over to help him, getting up under the buck’s body right next to Jian. Together, without discussion, they hauled it beneath the overhang of the stone stairs that led up to the pyre.
That done, Jian collapsed on his back against the scrub grass, breathing heavily and laughing all at once. “I was too greedy,” he said, exhaustion evident in his voice. “I saw the deer and thought, there, I want the fat one.”
A smile curved at Bai’s lips, notable for how unfamiliar it felt. When had been the last time he’d laughed? Long before his posting here, that much was certain.
“Have you ever butchered a deer?” asked Jian.
Bai shook his head. “I helped my mother prepare chickens and geese, but never anything this large. Have you?”
“Many, many times.” Jian sat back up and shook the dirt from his hair. “I grew up in the outer provinces. My mother was a whore, so we followed the army on campaigns. Sometimes game was all there was to eat.”
The casual admission of his mother’s profession shocked Bai, who had grown up in a family where one did not mention such things. He was of course familiar with the groups of women (and sometimes young men, and sometimes those far too young to be called either ‘woman’ or ‘man’) that moved with the troops, setting up their tents just beyond where the light of the army camp could reach. Familiar in theory, that was — in practice, though his fellow soldiers had goaded him on from time to time, he’d never visited.
“My mother,” said Bai, running his hand along the smooth, soft hairs on the deer’s unbloodied flank, “was a seamstress.”
“Was she good at her work?”
“So was mine.” Standing, Jian reached down for his boot and produced a spectacular hunting knife. “And she was also the one who taught me how to do this. Are you ready to learn?”
Bai found the place where the arrow had found its mark. A single shot had been all Jian had needed. “I am.”
The pail on the stove rattled as the water in it began to boil, and Jian stirred but did not wake. There had been times Bai had been certain some clumsy noise or another would have rattled Jian up from sleep, but it seemed the man had a near-supernatural ability in that regard. No wonder he had volunteered to rest during daylight hours. With the rest of his body buried beneath the covers, the only part of him left visible was the spill of fine black hair across the pillow.
Bai took the pail by its wooden handle and walked out the front door, setting it down on the raised patch of flat, hard-packed earth he’d come to think of as the ‘porch’. Something had to be done. This was growing ridiculous.
In the frosty morning air, the water sent up clouds of steam, losing heat by the second. Kneeling before it, Bai gathered his hair and dunked his whole head in it as far as it would go, soaking his scalp and his face nearly to his eyebrows. Excess water spilled over the edges and formed a tiny stream reaching down toward the treeline. Without standing, using the same knife they’d used to butcher the deer only a few days previous, Bai began to shave his head.
Barely a finger’s breadth in, he realized what a bad idea he’d had. To begin with, the blade was sharp, but not so sharp that it could glide painlessly across his skin. For another, his hair wasn’t going anywhere. He’d never let it grow this long before, and thus had had no idea what a thick, tangled mess it would produce when left to its own devices. He was grateful that he had no mirror to tell him what a disaster it had become. Fine, then, a less severe shearing would suffice.
The water in the bucket had gone snowmelt-cold again by the time he was finished, but he submerged his head again anyway, biting back the shock he felt as it hit his scalp without the cushioning of his wild locks. He lifted his head and took several deep breaths, trying not to flinch as the water dropped from his hair to his skin.
“Next time, I’ll be glad to help,” said a voice from the doorway, and he turned to see Jian there, clad in the light pants and a tunic top he’d worn to bed. He walked to the far edge of the porch, where the stone steps would block him from the wind, and pissed off the edge.
“Next time?” Bai scrubbed his fingers through his now-short hair, shaking it as free of moisture as he could. “Isn’t our relief coming tomorrow?”
Though there was no way to miss the mocking tone in Bai’s voice, Jian only smiled. “Doesn’t have to be here. It won’t be hard to find where my regiment is stationed. I’ll even find a proper pair of shears.”
Bai swished the blade in the water a few times, then handed it back to Jian as he walked back over. “Is that what you want to be when you leave the army? A barber?”
“No,” said Jian, running his fingers along the blade’s edge. “What about you?”
“I don’t want to leave the army.”
“Career military? That’s not an easy life.”
“I’m not an easy person,” said Bai, not entirely knowing what he meant by that, but knowing nevertheless it was true.
“What will you do first, when we get back?”
Jian laughed at the question and put a new beetle on the hook they’d fashioned from a wire that had previously kept the hem of Bai’s uniform jacket stiff. They were not experienced fishermen, either of them, and Bai had agreed here that two heads might be better than one — provided, of course, that one of those heads could stand so that the far watchtower never left his sight. “Eat an entire ham.”
That answer startled Bai into an outright bark of laughter. “An entire ham? I don’t know where you’d put it.”
“Details. It’s my dream. What about you?”
“I don’t know,” Bai admitted. “That’s why I asked. I was just thinking, I don’t know.”
There was a splash, and then a sigh as Jian pulled back the line to find it empty of both fish and bait. “Nothing you miss?”
“Many things I miss. But nothing I miss so much that I’d want it to be first.”
He’d thought the statement odd even as he said it, but Jian nodded, and the expression on his face said he did understand. “What about people who miss you?”
Bai shook his head. “I have cousins, but no more than that, and they live far away. I haven’t seen them since I was much smaller. My parents died of the fever when saboteurs threw dead animals into the city’s water supply. I received a letter when it happened, and a box with some of their belongings, but that was … almost eight years ago.”
“No wife, no children?”
“No wife, no children,” Bai echoed. “When I decided the army was how I wanted to spend my life, I realized it would be cruel to ask a woman to bear that burden with me.”
“Quite considerate,” said Jian, and if he could hear another reason for this abstinence in Bai’s voice, he did not let that knowledge show. “I always thought I’d die in battle before I had to make any such decisions.”
“You sound cheerful about it.”
Jian laughed. “It’s a cheerful enough thought. The poets and philosophers say death is like sleep. I, for one, have never in my life found the idea of sleep unappealing.”
Bai, who knew little poetry and even less philosophy, nodded anyway. “I think I prefer to live.”
“Well, so do I. Just as I prefer to be awake when I enjoy the world around me. But when the time comes to rest, I shall greet it as I would a bed at the end of a long day. And if it releases me from any social obligations, so much the better!”
“Not the marrying type, then.”
“Not the much of anything type.” Jian raised a finger, as though something had just occurred to him. “Except for ham. I’m excellent at eating ham.”
They both laughed so hard at that, they nearly missed when a fish snagged the line, and only Jian’s quick reflexes landed it on the hook. Their joy continued as he tugged it out of the water and landed it on the shore, a giant flopping bass that would ensure neither of them went to bed hungry for the next couple of days. Jian looked up at Bai with a wide, delighted smile, and Bai found himself beaming back, his heart light. Not ham, then, but as desires fulfilled went, it would do.
“Is it your turn or mine to get the water?”
“Surprisingly, it’s yours.”
“I went at daybreak. Which one is it really?”
Jian just smiled. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you yours.”
Bai considered this for a moment, then said: “It’s your turn to get the water.”
“All right.” Jian ate the last bite of his stew and put his spoon back in the bowl, then stood. It was a good stew, too, with the last of the dried venison and some mushrooms Jian had found just before the first snowfall had blanketed the forest floor, disguising everything beneath inches of white. He pulled on his boots and coat, then hefted the yoke over one shoulder. “I’ll be back soon.”
“You can wait until morning.”
“I don’t mind.” Jian gave a little wave and set out, shutting the door behind him.
Though the wind howled outside, the room was warm and quiet. The fire inside the stove’s belly crackled and hissed, sending its heat up to the pot of stew that sat on top of it. Few would have called it the most comfortable place in the world, but Bai actually found it pleasant. His belly was full and his toes were dry, and it was hard to say if he needed anything more in life than that.
“…Shit,” he said, and got his coat.
Even in the last bits of twilight, Jian’s trail wasn’t hard to follow, and the only thing slowing Bai down was the effort of keeping the snow from cresting over the tops of his boots. No description had done this justice; this was winter, pure and bitter. Their conversations about the relief soldiers had disappeared with the first hints of snow, both quietly conceding the reality that no one was going to make the long trek in such conditions just to trade two unimportant men for two more. His steps crunched into the snow at a steady pace.
Then he heard a great splash, and he was running, no longer caring what snow happened or where. He knew the sound the buckets made when they plunged into the river, and this was not that sound. “Jian!” he called, wondering in some distant corner of his mind if this might be the first time he’d ever said the other man’s name aloud.
His answer was a choked, sodden cry, one that spurred on Bai’s steps. Without thinking, he plunged forward into the river to where Jian was trying to get his balance in waist-deep freezing water. He was drenched from head to toe and had lost control of the buckets, which Bai could see were wedged between the bank and a clutch of rocks just downstream. At least they weren’t going anywhere.
Bai threw his arms around Jian’s chest and hauled him backward. He could feel Jian try to grab hold of him, but he was shaking too hard to put his hands and arms where he wanted them to be. Bai understood; he’d lost all sensation in his feet, and his legs were starting to go the same way. Before he could lose control entirely, he took three powerful steps and had them both on the shore. The air was bitter and cut through his soaked clothing like knives, but there was no doubt it was better than still being in the river.
“Come on,” Bai said, or tried to say; his lips were almost too numb to move. Work would warm his blood, so work was what he had to do. Step by step, he half-walked, half-dragged them both back the way they’d come. Darkness had fallen fast around them, but the lantern in the window shone its beacon light, guiding them back to safety. His teeth had begun to chatter so loud and hard they drowned out all the other sounds in his head. He began to think of the distance to the front door in terms of steps. Fifty from here, maybe. Forty-nine. Forty-eight.
The shack was three groups of fifty steps away, but Bai made it, and had never felt such a sensation of triumph as he did when the wooden door flew wide and they staggered inside together. Bai’s coat went off first, then his shirt in a pile behind it. He felt as though he wanted to swear, as though it might make the pain abate, but all of his words had frozen in his head, so he simply said, “Come on, come on,” over and over again as he went for Jian’s clothes.
Panic had begun to warm Bai’s body, bringing life to his fingertips again as he stripped Jian and pushed him into the bed. They didn’t have many clothes between them, and what they had were more than not in desperate need of washing, but Bai piled them all atop the bed with Jian under them. He dragged a mug through the piping stew, skimming off the broth, then lifted Jian’s head and poured it down his throat as fast as he dared. Jian coughed and sputtered a bit, but at last swallowed it all, and when he had finished his lips were no longer a sickly shade of blue.
That, at least, was enough to calm Bai enough that he could finish his own undressing. He hung all their wet clothes over the two lines strung from one corner to the central stovepipe, letting the warmth drip them dry. He could even feel his own toes again, now, which was miracle enough.
“Sorry,” said Jian weakly from the bed. “Ice, and I — I didn’t see–”
“It’s all right.” Bai wrung out his socks, standing back from the cascade that fell from them. “It’s all right.”
“It’s all right.”
The high sun had warmed the air enough to make it almost pleasant outside, so Bai had chosen this day to begin a project he’d been thinking about.
“A smokehouse,” he explained, pointing to the stone side of the tower as he stripped bark from a tree. “For your deer and any fish. They’ll keep longer like this.”
Jian looked over the patch Bai had cleared of snow and gave it a nod. “Smart,” he said, grinning. “Can I help?”
With his hatchet, Bai pointed at the cabin, though that was only by way of indicating what was far on the other side. “Keep watch.”
To his eternal credit, Jian didn’t roll his eyes even a little. “Or I could go get some fish or deer to put in your smokehouse.”
“Keep watch. Won’t be ready soon enough.” Bai reached for a handful of snow and held it to the back of his neck, cooling himself before starting work again. He had no grand plans for building, and was near-cheating by using an established wall for part of the structure, but even a small smokehouse would require a not-insignificant amount of work, enough that it would be difficult to complete and keep peering around the building to watch for the distant signal fire.
Instead of returning to a better vantage point, though, Jian stepped closer. “Thank you,” he said, and he put a hand against Bai’s chest.
Bai swallowed, his throat suddenly run dry. “It’s for both of us,” he said with a shrug.
Jian crossed the distance between them, pressing their mouths together, and maybe Bai should have been surprised, to see this come with so little preamble or discussion from either of them, but he wasn’t. Jian’s lips were warm as Bai parted his own enough to fit them into a kiss beneath the midday sky. Strong and lithe, Jian’s body drew close to his, and Bai found the hand of his that wasn’t holding an axe fit so well at rest against the small of Jian’s back. Everything fit, finally, as though it had been waiting all this time just to fall into place.
“How did you get this assignment?” Bai asked.
With a laugh, Jian stretched back and turned his face up toward the sun. “Same way you did, I suppose.” In the bright light, Bai could see his nose and cheeks were dotted with fair freckles, most barely darker than the skin around them. At any distance greater than this, no one ever would have known.
“No one’s watching your mountain,” Jian teased, tightening his thighs around Bai’s cock.
“Quiet,” Bai muttered, or tried to mutter, though the sound disappeared into a gasp. Jian had beautiful thighs, soft and smooth, but strung with muscle beneath, and when he drew them together and slid Bai’s erection back and forth between them, it was all Bai could do to keep his eyes from going permanently crossed.
Above him, Jian smiled and ground their bodies together, trapping his own erection between their bellies. Strands of his long hair fell into Bai’s face, smelling of smoke — though the whole world smelled of smoke, now that several fresh-caught fish were hung and drying above a pile of smoldering embers. That would be easy food for some time to come, and if they could get a deer in there in the calm before the next storm, so much the better.
But Bai wasn’t thinking much of deer now. He was thinking of the way his hands felt as they wandered over Jian’s smooth skin. Where Bai was ruddy, Jian was fair; where Bai was the worn cedar axe-handle, Jian remained his bow, delicate and deadly at once. He gasped with pleasure as Bai grabbed his ass and gave it a firm squeeze.
Where he’d learned to do this, it seemed impolite to ask. He knew it, and he was more than willing to demonstrate his skills with Bai’s body as a canvas, and that was more than enough. Jian bent down and sucked Bai’s lower lip into his mouth, tugging it with his teeth in the midst of a grin that Bai could feel. Bai hadn’t been a virgin before this, not strictly speaking, but he didn’t think that sticky fumblings and letting the older boys at the military academy haze him counted as anything approaching education. Jian, though, knew how, and he taught with every move his body made against Bai’s. Now he pressed his thighs together and Bai squirmed beneath him, digging his fingers into soft skin to make they stayed together — even though he knew there was no real need. Jian wasn’t going anywhere.
Bai knew little of kissing, too, but Jian had a hundred different kisses, all ready for the appropriate moment. There were ones for luck, quick pecks demanded before Jian grabbed his bow or line or snare and went out about the business of finding them something to eat. There were sweet ones, slow presses of mouths that usually welcomed someone up from sleep or sent them off toward dreaming. There were the defensive ones, deployed as the fastest way to make someone stop talking, particularly about signal flares and necessary constant vigilance. There were long, slow ones that built to nothing but existed for their own sake, comforting contact during the long, dark winter nights.
And there were the hungry kind, ones almost like fighting, that wouldn’t be satisfied until they’d both wound up like this, naked and tangled and grasping for one another. Bai reached between them and pawed for Jian’s cock, rubbing its tip against fingers whose sword calluses had since given way to those more suited to wielding an an axe. Jian laughed and gasped at once, then thrust his tongue into Bai’s mouth.
“Tight, tight,” Bai whispered, and Jian was more than happy to comply, squeezing his muscular legs so Bai could fuck the soft space between them. He wanted it to last, he always did, but he also always reached a point where more than anything else, he wanted to come. With Jian’s warm body pressing down against him, it wasn’t difficult to finish. His body shuddered and quaked as he shot his seed between Jian’s legs.
Jian kissed him again, the touch tender but in no way satisfied. Bai tightened his hand into an open fist, letting Jian’s cock slide through. He was beautiful like this, pretty and needy at once, and it made Bai’s heart catch in his throat every time to know that he had done this, he had been the one to bring Jian to this state. Perhaps this was easy, that all men could be driven to the edge of their senses like this, but Bai didn’t care. This, here, together, was theirs, and how much or little it was like anything else in the world mattered not at all. It was their entire world.
When Jian came, it was with a breathy, heavy cry, one that echoed down the mountainside. Perhaps, Jian had joked once, it would scare away the wolves.
His hand slick with Jian’s come, Bai turned them so they were both on their sides, facing one another — then sat upright, giving a quick peek out the window at the landscape beyond. Jian laughed and threw an arm around Bai’s waist, dragging him back down to the bed. “Still dark?”
Instead of answering, Bai brought their mouths together in the kiss meant to make the other party shut up.
Bai was working one day by the river, arranging stones to make a sturdier pier for fishing, when he heard a great thundering sound and saw the whole white side of a nearby mountain give way. It was far enough in the distance that they were in no danger from its path, but the noise was tremendous, echoing off the far peaks. Moments later, he saw Jian running out, coat and boots hastily thrown over his sleeping clothes. “What was that?” he shouted, grabbing at his hair to knot it back from his face.
“Avalanche!” Bai yelled in return, pointing off in the distance. It must indeed have been mighty if it had been Jian’s wake-up alarm when few other things could.
With a nod to the lack of immediate peril, Jian turned back toward the house. Several minutes later, he trudged up through the snow to Bai’s side, yawning but dressed. “Should we be worried?”
Bai shook his head and pointed to the ridge above them. “Whoever built this tower did so in the safest location they could find. We’re on the windward side, which means nothing accumulates like it does on the peaks.” He’d spent several hours hiking around up on the ridge, in fact, and had never found a drift much higher than his head. He had discovered, however, what he presumed to be the high quarry where they’d broken and shaped the stones to make the tower some uncountable number of centuries ago. They were safe here, and quiet.
Jian nodded and put a hand against the back of Bai’s neck, letting the chill in his fingers cool skin warmed by exertion. “Spring, then,” he said, his voice soft.
The days had already begun to be brighter on either end — not by much, perhaps, but coming up from the midwinter darkness, even a bit was worth noticing. They were likely well into the new year, then; Bai had stopped counting moons a while back, but it wasn’t so hard to believe. Up here, where everything changed and nothing did at once, such precise measurement had little place.
“On its way,” said Bai with a nod.
“Do you know how the Bear River was dug?”
Bai looked up from where he’d been watching a lock of Jian’s hair twirl between his fingertips. “That’s a trick question. No one dug the river. The gods put it there.”
“No, no.” Jian sat up a little, shifting in Bai’s embrace so that they could see one another as they spoke. “An old man told me once that a thousand years ago, the Bear River was small. Boats couldn’t go up it during the dry season, and during the rainy season, all the silt washed into the river and turned it into mud. For most of the year, the farmers at the north couldn’t get to the capital city at the south. While the capital was small, this was okay. As the capital grew larger, it needed more food year-round, not just in the temperate months.”
This bit of history was news to Bai. He glanced out the window, then, seeing no fire, turned back to Jian. “Who dug it?”
“This would make the farmers rich, the capital said, so the farmers should do it. No, said the farmers, the capital needed the food, so the capital should do it. Back and forth they went, until it was decided — the farmers would dig to Copper Falls, and the capital would dig from there to the sea.”
“It did to the farmers, too. Before they woke up one day and found the king’s soldiers in their land, demanding three able-bodied workers from each household. The men could come to the sea and be returned when they’d dug their way back home, or the soldiers would kill three of their choosing from each household as punishment for disobeying the king.”
Bai’s expression darkened. “What did the farmers do?”
Jian shrugged. “What could they do? The soldiers had blades pointed at their wives and young children. So they sent three from each of their households — the youngest and strongest — and the king’s army took them to the capital and the sea, then pointed them back the way they’d come, handed them shovels, and told them to begin.”
“How long did it take?”
“A hundred years, the story goes. Every ten years the soldiers would go back to the farmland and take another worker from each household, so families were torn apart and reunited over and over again. They dug the riverbed deep and lined it with heavy stones, working their way back to its source. And all the while, the soldiers told them, this is good, what you are doing now will feed your family for generations. They were farmers, not laborers, but what could they do? Every day, they sank into the muddy current of the river to dig out the earth beneath it and build it up again. Every day for a hundred years.”
A hush fell as Jian settled back into Bai’s touch, resting his head on Bai’s shoulder. Bai held him there for several minutes, stroking the smooth skin of his back, before asking: “…And?”
“And what?” Jian laughed. “That’s the story.”
It wasn’t, though, and Bai sat there with him a long time after, trying to read the meaning of it out of the silence left behind. Outside, a flurry of snow passed across the window, dancing in artful swirls; he could hear the wind that carried it rattle every gap in the shack’s frame. “You’re a conscript,” he said at last.
Jian nodded. “Not that I would ever have been a farmer.”
“You can go.” Bai even let his grip on Jian’s body fall slack. “No one would question if I said you’d been attacked by a wolf or lost in a landslide. They wouldn’t look for you. You’re free.”
Jian laughed and placed a hand against Bai’s cheek, then kissed him softly on the lips. “I know,” he said. But instead of getting up, he lay back down against Bai’s body. Together they watched the snow fall, as the mountain far behind it remained dark.
He laughed as he came in Jian’s mouth, while Jian looked pleased, licking his chops like a fox. “Though you were hunting,” Bai said, breathless and only half-awake.
Jian shrugged, nodding to his bow, which hung from its customary hook by the door. “Didn’t catch any game. But I caught you sleeping on the job.”
“Wasn’t sleeping,” Bai protested — though really, that Jian had been able to come inside, take off his gear, and get Bai’s cock from out of his pants without his noticing was strong evidence to the contrary. He’d been sitting by the window in the sun, thinking about nothing in particular, and supposed he’d just … nodded off.
“A likely tale. I’ll have to charge you with dereliction of duty.”
“Go ahead.” Bai ran his thumb along Jian’s lower lip. “I’ll tell them what you were doing on your watch.”
“Ensuring the continued survival and well-being of not one but two privates in the royal army? I’ll get a medal.”
“Oh, you will not.”
“You don’t know,” said Jian with a wink. He pulled himself up into Bai’s lap, straddling the chair backwards, and draped his arms around Bai’s shoulders. “Heroic measures in the face of abandonment. There’s got to be some citation for that. Noble display of bravery. Clever use of resources. Initiative in spite of overwhelming odds. A battlefield promotion! How does ‘captain’ sound to you?”
Bai brought their foreheads together with a slight, gentle thud. “Where’s that optimism about our relief coming tomorrow?”
“I’m still an optimist.” Jian stroked down Bai’s hair, which he’d just cut short again the other day, taking it to what he had declared a ‘very handsome length’. “I’m just now more optimistic that they’ll never come.”
The view from the top of the tower was spectacular, such that Bai was stunned that for all his constant awareness of his place in the long signal chain, he had never bothered climbing up to find out what, exactly, he was meant to set ablaze. The wood was old wood, great felled trees that must have ages ago been dragged up here from the heart of the forest. Each was as big around as Jian, and twice as tall as Bai. Though they were by necessity exposed to the elements, they remained strong. With that craggy, pitchy bark covering them, Bai knew he’d have no trouble coaxing them into a blaze.
For now, though, they were quiet, as was he, as was the rest of the world, so far as his eye could see. Even at this height, the dense evergreens below him blocked most of his view of the countryside he knew lay below. He could now see to the other side of the valley, though, all the way to a little hamlet on the far rise. Humble homes lay half-buried under snow, their chimneys venting slow grey smoke into the air.
There were, too, no signs of soldiers as far as he could see, no encampments or lines of men who from this distance would look like ants on a march, if indeed they looked like anything at all.
He’d never thought about quiet before being stationed here. He’d experienced it, of course, and had even enjoyed it as an immediate contrast to some overwhelming sound, but that quiet was nothing like this quiet. This was deep and pervasive, sinking in all the way to the bone. It was not the snow’s fault, though the snow magnified it, dampening all but the loudest noises. There was simply more room here for the space between things.
Sometimes he and Jian would go days without saying a word to one another, not out of any ill emotion, but because there was no need. They had their routines; they each knew their work and how the other liked to be touched. They would lie together all night as Bai slept, and though Bai could never test this, Jian swore he never slept a moment of it. Besides, it had not yet mattered whether or not he dropped off once Bai was beyond waking. The logs atop the watchtower were still whole wood, not ash. No cause for alarm had been given. Nothing came to them from the far watchtower but more of the quiet.
In the distance, he could see Jian trudging back toward the tower, a sack slung over his shoulder. He’d been out trapping the pheasants whose eggs he’d stolen, and had said he might even try for a hare. Bai had entered a plea for something, anything vegetative, and Jian had laughed and promised he’d do what he could. With the way the sack was bulging, he seemed to have had a good haul of whatever he’d found.
Bai raised his arm in a wave, catching Jian’s eye, and Jian stopped, surprised, for a moment before waving back. It was a simple gesture, but Bai felt a flutter in his stomach at the sight of Jian’s return, one that had little to do with hunger for the contents of the sack and everything to do with hunger for the man carrying it.
The wood could wait. The signal could wait. Everything in the world could wait, except for the man approaching the shack through knee-deep snow. In the great cold quiet, he was the only now.
A loud crack caught his attention, and Bai dashed to the window — there it was, light at last, light in the east, bright and high and yellow and clear as day. His heart raced; he didn’t know what to do. He had to light the pyre. He had to find the torch. He had to put on his coat and boots. He had to do something.
He felt Jian’s hand on his shoulder, steadying him, and as he looked, he saw another light explode in the sky, this one bright red. It burst out like a chrysanthemum, scattering its sparkling petals downward. Two more followed, these sharp white and glorious, their trails dazzling as they flickered out into the black night sky. A firework-maker had one explained to him that aluminum caused that effect. Aluminum and chemicals. Fireworks. No pyres on that mountain or any other. Each explosion lit up the night and then faded into dark.
“It’s over,” Bai said, barely believing the words as he heard himself speak them.
“I guess it is.” Jian stood close behind him, pressing his bare chest to Bai’s back. “Who do you think won?”
“I … don’t know.” At this distance, friendly fireworks and enemy fireworks looked the same. Somewhere, leagues away, villages must have been at that very moment celebrating. Were they hailing victory or just welcoming home their weary, defeated loved ones? The fireworks kept exploding merrily, reflecting their colors off the snowy sides of the mountain; they gave no answer.
Jian’s hand came to rest against Bai’s hip. “I suppose we’re relieved of duty,” he said, a soft laugh lifting his voice. “We can go home now.”
Bai felt the wood grain of the window sill beneath his fingers. It was splintered, but he could smooth it down with a little effort. Warm spring would clear the land, and though much of it was rocky, some could be good for planting. It wouldn’t take much to dig a trench from the river for water, both for the crops and for themselves; like the farmers in the story, he could even line it with stone to keep it from washing away. There were more stones in the quarry, more than enough for a second room, a storehouse of sorts. He might even find a wild pig in the forest and learn how to cure it into ham, an entire ham. With time enough, anything was possible.
“I suppose we can,” Bai said. He made no move to leave his post, and neither did Jian. Together, they watched the distant fireworks dazzle, flicker, and fade until the only lights left above them were the stars.
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