Arrivals (J.M. Frey)

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An Accidental Turn Novella

After seventeen years of adventuring, Bevel Dom and Kintyre Turn are finally returning home.

Forsyth Turn—brother to Bevel’s long-time questing partner and newly Paired lover—has left both Hain and a hell of a lot of responsibility behind. He’s bequeathed the Shadow’s Mask and position of the king’s spymaster to Bevel, and the seat of Lysse Chipping to Kintyre. It’s a lot to take on, and it will mean an end to questing forever if they do.

But it might also mean a chance for Bevel and Kintyre to find a Happily Ever After of their own.

Unfortunately, Turn Hall seems to be infested with eligible young maidens out to snatch away the freshly returned Lord of Lysse, determined to destroy the fragile happiness that Bevel has built. Faced with more decisions than he was prepared for, Bevel battles with foes unfamiliar, making him wonder if life on the road really wasn’t all that bad.

But if there’s one thing Bevel Dom isn’t afraid to do, it’s fight for the man he loves.

An Accidental Turn novella set between The Untold Tale and The Forgotten Tale, Arrivals follows Kintyre Turn and Bevel Dom as they step into Forsyth’s vacated life and face the surprising responsibilities he’s left in his wake.

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ISBN: 978-1-942111-48-1 Category: Tag:

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Read The First Chapter

One

It’s too late to climb down a bloody mountain. Even with the skies clear and the night’s first stars starting to peek out. Instead, without asking whether Kintyre agrees with me or not—I’m not going to be the one who has to wrap up his ankle when he twists the ruddy thing because we can’t see where we’re walking—I hunker down by the small ring of stones we used to make a campfire last night and get to the business of making another.

Writer’s nutsack. Just last night, Kin and I had been sitting close, trying to see how much play we could get away with while Bossy Forssy and Pip sulked in the shadow of the Rookery wall. And now they’re . . . it feels a lot longer than just a day, what with all the fighting, the shouting, the tears, and the goodbyes. My shoulders are stiff, and I shrug and roll them out as I poke through the ash for some charred charcoal to prop up the kindling.

“Staying, are we?” Kin asks, when he realizes what I’m doing, and then, without me having to ask, he trots up the granite stairs. His silhouette is distinctive and, yeah, heroic against the lingering orange of the setting sun. I watch him collect dried scrub and fallen branches, and pause every once in a while to scan the horizon.

The chirrup and caw of birds slowly swells as the gloaming becomes complete. The riddling ravens have returned to the Eyrie with the Deal-Maker and the Viceroy gone. Up on the ridge, Kin makes sure that nothing and no one can sneak up on us in the night by sharing our travel crackers with them.

Down in the basin, waiting for Kin to get back, I rest against the Desk that Never Rots, my pipe clenched between my teeth, and decide it’s worth using up one of our precious few matches for a smoke. I’m gasping for a bit of time to myself and a bowl of my orange-blossom and molasses hash, and Kin’s not here to whine at me about the smell. I’ll use Pip’s trick of chewing dried peppermint after, so the taste will be out of my mouth before he can come back and kiss me.

A ridiculous, childish grin curls at the corner of my mouth, and I can’t help licking my bottom lip in anticipation. Kissing Kin is one of my favorite ways to pass the time. Lucky for me, it’s one of his favorites, too.

Dinner—dinner can probably wait until I’ve got my burly barbarian nice and kiss-fuddled. I’m feeling lazy, too; I can make a meal of the scraps we have left. We’ll hunt down in the Stoat Forest tomorrow, so we can afford to finish it all up today. Besides, I’m not keen on dragging everything back down the mountain after dragging it all up the damn thing in the first place.

“Here,” Kin grunts when he drops an armload of logs and brush by the cold firepit. I tap out my pipe, return it to my pouch, pop some peppermint into my mouth, and make my way back to start laying the fire.

One of the nice things about having been on quests with Kintyre Turn for the last seventeen years is that I no longer have to nag the oaf to chop the wood instead of just dumping it on the ground. He’s already got the small axe out of his saddlebag. Good. Before he applies himself to breaking up some of the bigger bits, he strips out of his Turn-russet jerkin and sweat-stained canvas shirt.

Ah, yes. Excellent.

Right. So, there’s one thing that’s changed about our quests. Now, when Kin parades around shirtless in the reaching dusk and flattering firelight, I can look.

Not that I didn’t look before. I’d have to be blind, a eunuch, and cursed by the Writer before I’d have been able to ignore a shirtless Kintyre Turn. But now, I can look openly.

Because Kintyre is mine.

The possessive curl deep in my guts flares warm and syrupy, and when Kin bends over slowly to pick up the first log, arranging it over another one for chopping, I know the cheeky bastard has caught my smirk. He’s doing it purpose. And that, Writer-be-blessed, is a damn good show.

As the seventh son of a seventh son, I had to make do a lot as a kid. Mum had taught all us boys the art of cookery, as she’d had no daughters to chain to the hearth. She’d taught us how to stretch the bread and water the soup so there was something for all the little bellies. I’d resented being tied to my mum’s apron-strings when I was a snot-nosed little goblin-turd, wanting always to be at the forge with Pa. Besides, I was going to get a wife who would take care of all the woman’s work for me, wasn’t I?

But when I followed Kintyre Turn out into the world—him still a narcissistic lordling fleeing his responsibilities with an enchanted sword he’d just found and didn’t yet understand—I was happy for the cooking lessons. And the sewing, too, turns out. ‘Cause I’ve done my share of repairing battle-rent clothes and stitching torn skin out in the wilds of Hain.

Kin’s always harassing me to add a tome of roadside recipes to my legacy of adventure scrolls, but the idea is even less appealing these days than it usually is. Mostly because I’ve been failing pretty spectacularly as a cook since Kintyre Turn became my lover. I have burnt, over-seasoned, and boiled-dry more of our meals in the last three months than I ever did in the first year of our adventures. And every single incident was Kintyre’s fault. Because the rat-bastard keeps doing things like this.

He keeps on chopping, long after there’s enough wood piled up by the fire, long after I’ve got the grub on the go. Because I’m watching. Right, fine then—I was going to wait until after we’d eaten, but if he’s keen for our usual post-battle celebration now, who am I to deny the Lord of Lysse his whims?

I snort at my own fanciful thinking.

This time, at least, I have enough blood in my brain to take the potatoes out of the embers and cover the stew pot before I go chasing down my shirtless, sweaty ruffian. And, hells, it feels good to be able to. To not have to second-guess myself or try to gauge how my advances will be received, or to wonder if I will be forever ruining our friendship. It’s easy.

It’s so good, and it’s so easy.

A little while later, the sun has set and I’m filled with a dusky kind of glow all my own. Sweat cools on my skin, and I feel the pleasant soreness of exertion well-earned, the burn of an over-extended stretch. Kintyre is finishing the last of the stew right out of the pot, intent on his spoon, starved in a way that only fighting, followed by a good bout of bedplay, can make him.

I’ve eaten, and have something else to preoccupy me. Firelight dances over the planes and elevations of the Shadow’s Mask. I turn it over in my hands again, and again, and again, silently reciting the Word Forssy whispered in my ear with each turn.

That’s it. Just one Word, one gesture, one moment, and . . . and I could be the most powerful man in Hain. Forget the king; I’d know all of his secrets, too. I know most of them anyway, but with the mask, with Dauntless, with the cloak, and with . . . well, Forsyth took Smoke into that strange place that is the home of the Writer, but I’m sure I can commission a replacement. One with a bit more heft to it, something a man can really swing. And once I have that, once I have all the trappings, I’d be the Shadow Hand of Hain.

Me. Scrappy, sassy, small little Bevel Dom, who’s never had a thing to call his own that couldn’t fit in a saddlebag before, and never minded a bit, besides.

It’s bloody terrifying.

I’ve stared down dragons, and kraken, and fought off flesh-eating sirens, and Iridium-mad Night Elves. At sixteen, I ran away from home to chase after a boy I’d fallen in love with at first sight, though I didn’t realize it until ten years later. I’ve abandoned my sleepy town, my sure place at my Pa’s side and in his forge, to travel the world and shiver in the open and cold, to never know where my next meal is coming from, to face starvation, and dehydration, and hypothermia, and dying of exposure, or infected wounds, or poison from politicos whose schemes I’ve thwarted. I’ve looked Kintyre Turn in the face and told him (my voice and hands shaking, my face burning with shame and hope) that Lucy Piper was right, that I did desire him, that I do love him, all the while bracing for the punch in the mouth and the shouted vow that Kintyre renounced our friendship and never wanted to see me again. A punch and a vow and a shout that, thank the bloody Writer, never came. (What had come instead was fists in my collar, and chapped lips on mine, and a kiss that was desperate, and wonderful, and just right, and terrifying in its desperate wonderful just-right-ness).

But nothing has scared me the way this does. This Shadow’s Mask, and all that it means . . . I don’t even really know what it all means. The responsibilities, and the knowledge, and the way that, if the mask doesn’t like me, it could melt off my face. The acrid smell of burning flesh and the memory of the way goopy strings of Bootknife’s skin came away on the metal makes me shudder. I could very easily lose not only my face, but possibly my life to the mask if I do this wrong. Or even, really, if I do this right, and everything else is wrong.

And the most terrifying thing of all: if I do this, there’s no going back.

Writers hairy left nutsack.

While I’m busy being horrified by the thing I’m holding, Kin plucks it out of my hands. His fingers are still smeared with grease from the last of the jerky, and he leaves cloudy prints on the silver, which seems just rude. Without wiping them away, he tucks the mask into its black velvet bag, then into the saddlebag by his knee.

“Kin, you shouldn’t—” I start, but the ruddy oaf pulls me tight under his arm, my head on his chest. The rest of my scold crumbles in my mouth as I listen to his heartbeat, smell the sweat and the sulfur of our fight, the blood and the leather of his jerkin, the musky aftermath of our bit of bedsport, the stew on his breath. I inhale deeply, close my eyes, and hold on.

We are both shaking, but it’s not from cold.

With our habitual post-fight celebration done, our meal eaten, and the last distraction set aside, we now have time to . . . to let the truth sink into our skin.

We did it. It’s over.

The Viceroy is gone for good. The relief leaves me feeling giddy and lightheaded, like I’ve had too much pipeweed or just that one ale too many. It’s joyful. It’s freeing.

The villain is gone forever. I have my hero, and he has all his limbs and all his wits. We are hale, and hearty, and we are lovers now. I close my eyes, wrap my arms around his waist, and squeeze. Kin grunts, but squeezes my shoulders back.

In every and all senses of the word: we won.

 

 

The trek back down the Eyrie takes all of the next day. I kick Kin awake at sunrise, and we shuffle through breaking camp before the sky is really blue. We have a lot of practice erasing our presence in the landscape. After all, someone with ill intentions may use it to track us.

Though, I do wish we had brought the kettle up the mountain. Bugger all, tea will just have to wait until we’re back in the Stoat.

Of course, by the time we hit the foothills, it’s not tea I want anymore, but a good slug of dragon whiskey and a bitter ale to chase it down my gullet. It’s near supper by the time we get back to the clearing where we left Karlurban and Dauntless, and my belly is rumbling loud enough to scare off any creature that might be licking its chops as it watches us. There are no such creatures around the horses, of course. Though there’s some blood on Dauntless’s left forehoof that hadn’t been there before. The Shadow’s Horse is shod with dwarvish steel, so I’m not too surprised when Kintyre, distracted by his own rumbling belly, steps right in the smashed mess of a goblin scout’s skull.

“Oh, yuck!” Kintyre bawls, and wipes his foot on the grass like a prissish miss. Dauntless wickers like he’s laughing at Kin, and I can’t help but join in. “We’re not staying the night here.”

“No, best not to,” I agree, pointing at the red pulp in the grass. “They might wonder what happened to that one. Saddle up.”

Kintyre’s stomach growls again. It’s loud enough that Dauntless’s ears flick back. Then the horse—clever bastard—looks over his shoulder for his master.

“He’s not coming,” Kintyre tells the horse softly, and I’m startled to hear how shaky and damp his voice sounds. He reaches up and runs his hands over Dauntless’s neck, swallowing and blinking hard.

I’m just flat-footed enough by Kintyre’s emotional confession that I decide to leave him to it, alone, to not call attention to it. Because if I did, I would have to say something, and I have no idea what it would be. Instead, I check on Karlurban, and review the supplies we left with the horses in the lean-to of pine boughs. We’ve got four people’s worth of gear to juggle between us now, since Forssy buggered off. I’m very tempted to leave some of it behind, but good gear is good gear, and a waste is a waste.

Hells, we can sell the extras and doubles if we need to, anyway. No point leaving it to rust or rot out here when we could turn some coin on it. Never know when you’re going to need an extra bit of clink. Lysse is awful far away by messenger hawk, and there’s no lordling there anymore to send us a loan if we’re desperate.

A hot ball of grief lumps up in my throat and I swallow hard, blinking against the burning in my eyes.

Bloody hells. Forsyth isn’t dead, he’s just . . . gone. Unreachable. Forever. I shake my head, annoyed with myself.

He’s got his Happily Ever After, don’t he? No need to weep like a milkmaid over that.

Annoyed, I force my attention back to the gear. Everything is still where it should be, at least. Though it looks like some small rodent has chewed its way into one of the spare packs and made off with a satchel of nuts. Little beggar.

There’s still another package, though. I toss the nuts to Kin and take some apple chips for myself. They won’t silence the beasts in our bellies entirely, but it’ll do us until we’re situated somewhere less filled with the pungent reek of dead monster.

We skirt the outer edge of the Stoat. The forest isn’t dangerous, really, but with goblins a possibility, it’s always best to stay along the foothills, where we have a clear sight-line. The horses, restless from their several-days’ boredom, filled with grass and tender shoots and skittish energy, are as ready to be far away from any potential violence as we are. They bolt into a canter that takes us around the edge of the forest and well toward the Valley of the Tombs by the time night has fully fallen.

We make camp on the edge of the forest. Kin and I are too hungry to do more than set snares, finish the dry rations from the saddlebags, and curl up together like a knot of naga. Ah, yes, body warmth is a lovely thing, even when there’s nothing else salacious about it. Waking up next to Kin, with his big rough hand on my hip, cradling me close like I’m more precious than Foesmiter? That’s nice, too.

There are rabbits in the snares when we wake. Kintyre cleans them while I harvest tubers and the last of the autumn berries from the shrubs at the growth line. Now that we’re clear of goblin territory, there’s no rush. It’s always good when we have the opportunity of a leisurely start. We roast one rabbit to break our fast, splitting the berries between us. The skins we clean, rinsing the fur free of blood, to sell to a tanner in the next town. The rest of the meat goes into a stew with the tubers and a few pinches of the precious spices I hoard in the small metal cylinders adorning my belt.

Next to our string of coins, the spices are our most precious commodity—not for the wealth they represent, but because of how dire road-food can be without them. They go everywhere with me, even into battle. You never know when you’ll need cinnamon or turmeric.

Once the stew is reasonably thick, I clamp the lid on the pot, hang it from Karl’s saddle where it won’t burn the horse, and break camp. It’s noon by the time we’re back on the road, and with our bellies full, we have time to contemplate other things.

“It’s strange to think he won’t be there,” Kin says as we trot toward the Valley of the Tombs. I don’t have to ask who, or where, because I was thinking the same thing.

His thoughts are on Forssy, and Turn Hall. Mine are on Forssy, too—not on the legacy he’s left behind for me to uphold, but a task. A position. A promise, maybe. Maybe a threat, too.

The Shadow’s Mask is back in my hand (the one not holding the reins), and I can’t help but run my thumb along the inside of it, stroking back and forth over metal made smooth by the brows and cheeks of a hundred men who have had the same choice thrust upon them as me.

“Yeah,” I say.

“No fussy Bossy Forssy to yelp and cringe about his whiskey. No dire looks over the state of our boots in his grand foyer . . . our grand foyer,” Kintyre corrects himself. And then, quietly, he adds in a crumbly voice: “My grand foyer. Blast.”

“Kin,” I say softly, just loud enough to be heard over hooves, but I don’t know what to add to it, so I just look back down at the mask.

“Put that thing away,” he says. “Stop panicking.”

“I wasn’t—”

“You are.” He levels a knowing look at me—the one that says, very clearly: I know you. You cant fool me.

I put the mask away.

 

 

It takes several days longer than it could to reach the tomb of King Chailin, because Kin and I are reluctant to speed our journey. We both know we are headed toward . . . something. The end of something. The start of something else. A change. And so little has changed between us in seventeen years—even when we became lovers, admitted our feelings for one another and pledged our Pairing, nothing really changed.

We shared one bedroll instead of using two. We bought each other new jerkins in Turn-russet, putting away our purples. We kissed, and swived, and didn’t need a woman between us to touch each other, didn’t need the lie anymore. But we traveled, and ate, and bickered, and fought villainy all the same. Things got simpler in a way I never thought they would, actually. That change was a good one. There’s no telling that the next one will be. And so, we’re reluctant to race toward it.

A thought’s been tumbling over and over in my brain these last few days, jolted with every step of the horses, scrabbling when I try to sleep: were fiction.

I didn’t remember right away, what with the battle finished and the joy over the Viceroy’s final defeat, the unexpected and surprising grief over the loss of Forssy. I’d never liked the pompous, self-important arse, but these last few weeks of questing with him had shown me a side I think I could have befriended properly if he’d stuck around.

And all of this because Writer and Readers are real. We’re all fictional characters in a story-scroll. Takes a bit to get your head around it. And if we’re Written, then in this world devoid of the Viceroy, who are Kintyre Turn and Bevel Dom? What do they strive for? How do they spend their time? What awaits them at Turn Hall, and all that it houses, all that it represents?

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not the most profound of blokes. I don’t overthink things much, though I know I’ve got the better head for strategy and planning between my lover and me. But dwelling on the idea that, in some strange way, I’m not real? Nah. That makes me nauseous.

So, what’s waiting for us at Turn Hall, then? Concrete things. Real things. Real beds, and fresh bread daily, and meals I don’t have to cook if I don’t want to, and a steady stream of clean clothing, and warmth and comfort. A life—new and different, and safe.

But also responsibility, and permanency, and being tied to a place and a people. How are we ever going to live up to Forsyth Turn, beloved by his tenants, patron of a Free School and friend of the Sheriff?

I fight the temptation, daily, to suggest we just . . . run away. Run off into the wilds, like we always do when the battle is over and the damsel safe at home, when we’ve been feasted and fattened and tupped and thanked. Run off before we can be pressed, or tricked, or cornered into titles, or marriages, or duties. Run off to where responsibility can’t catch us.

Run off so that it’s just the two of us.

It’s only a small temptation, though, because we promised Forssy. And a Writer-be-damned last promise means something. If a man isn’t good to his promises, what good is he to the world, anyway? That’s what my Pa used to say.

The chill of the Valley is a welcome distraction from our wordless worries. We make camp on Chailin’s front porch, in the same place we had less than a fortnight ago, when our pursuit of Bootknife had led us to the unlikeliest of adventurers and changed everything about how we saw Forsyth Turn. And his damsel. And the world we inhabit.

While Kintyre builds the night’s fire, I pay a visit to the unmarked, still-fresh grave of that bastard Bootknife. Just to be sure, you see, that the monster is still underground, where he belongs. Kintyre didn’t bury him deep, so it only takes a few minutes to uncover his face and chest. They’ve both begun to sink, and a gruesome pleasure fills me to see that the worms have already eaten through one of his cheeks and out an eyeball. I take great joy in driving one of my arrows through his heart before I close up the grave again. Petty, yeah. But a stake through the heart is a cure for more than just vampire troubles, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

When I come back, I stop to wash my hands in the cold stream that bisects the valley, and Kintyre doesn’t ask why they were dirty in the first place. He doesn’t need to.

Once the sun has set, and we’re both wrapped up warm against the chill of the night, we take the time to clean and hone the dagger Kintyre’s been carrying at his waist for over a decade. When the blade is sparkling and sharp, the few remaining gems shining once more in the firelight, we take a torch into Chailin’s tomb and return the fallen king’s dagger to him. I say a few Words of Peace, and Gratitude, and Good Rest as Kintyre slips the blade back into its moldering leather-and-gold sheath. We carefully push the lid of the sarcophagus closed, and reseal the edges with the pot of pitch we usually save for kindling fires.

We sleep poorly and light that night, starting at every sound and shivering with every gust of wind. You never know what might accidentally wake the dead. If it wasn’t stealing a beloved symbolic dagger, then it might be returning it.

All the corpses stay where they should, though, and our luck holds for at least one more night.

In the misty, watery-weak light of day, we decide to cross the Cinch Mountains to the west via some of the dwarvish tunnels we know, and take the opportunity to resupply in Chasmshine. From there, we can cut through North Urland to the Salt Crystal Caverns to give back the Cup that Never Runs Dry, and then double back into fertile Miliway and head to the Lost Library to return the Parchment that Never Fills. Winter is nearly upon us, and crossing the Cinch even a few weeks later than we are now would be foolhardy. There are no dwarf cities in North Urland, and we would have to go over the mountains there, instead of under them. No, better to cross now, and head back south to Miliway Chipping later, save the easier road for the harsher weather.

Chasmshine is another two day’s ride. Queen Andvari Stoneborn welcomes us to her halls, as I knew she would, and promises us a quiet night to recuperate and bathe, a day’s restocking and catching up with her—her way of saying “gossip about the world of the humanfolk”—tomorrow, followed by a feast to see us off. It takes a day, at least, to put together a proper dwarvish feast, but we don’t mind the wait, really. It’s always worth it.

As soon as we’re in our rooms (human-sized, for those out-sized guests who need to visit the dwarf kingdom occasionally), Kintyre strips to his skin and streaks with unashamed eagerness to the attached bathing chamber. The stone basin is sunk into the floor and filled with steaming hot spring water from the heart of the mountains. Massive prismatic diamond windows line the chamber and look out onto the underground portion of the Northwash River that eventually flows over the waterfall of the Crystal Caverns much further north of us. Kintyre flops into the water like an ungraceful selkie toddler and, as I’m hot on his heels, splashes the mineral water in my face.

“Oh, that’s the way of it, is it?” I shout with a grin, and jump on his shoulders.

What follows is probably the most ridiculous battle in the history of heroics. In the interest of never sullying our good reputation as questing adventurers and knights, I vow never to write it down, even as I yank on my lover’s hair and spit water in his face. Once we’ve had our rumpus, I steal back into the sleeping chamber in naught but my towel. I’m looking for the wine the dwarves always keep by their bedsides and, finding that, come across a tray of broken cold cheeses, rolls, and pickled root vegetables that some poor chambermaid must have delivered while we were carousing. I wonder what sort of tales are already circulating among the serving staff about the clumsy, oafish, too-large and too-loud humans. Doesn’t matter, really. We are too-large and too-loud for dwarvish tastes. And Andvari will squash any whispers that get too prejudiced or hateful.

While I’ve been gone, Kintyre’s mopped up the worst of the splashes, and created a rolled pile of towels around one end of the basin so we can lay our heads back on the edge and just turn to soup. I put the tray on the floor beside this, and Kintyre cuddles close as soon as I’ve slipped back into the water. For my kisses, I had hoped, but he just snatches the wine bottle out of my hand, the magpie, and swigs off the first swallow.

“Brute,” I complain, but he holds the bottle out for me, and tips it against my lips sweetly, so I suppose I forgive him.

“I’m the brute?” he asks, after taking another swig and turning onto his stomach to pick at the tray of savories. “Look at this. No meat.”

I smack one of the plump arse cheeks bobbing out of the water, and he yelps. “You know dwarves eat no meat. Don’t be an elfcock,” I say, and smack his other cheek for symmetry.

“Wouldn’t hurt them to be hospitable,” Kintyre mutters with a scowl, and then grabs my wrist before I can land another playful blow on his rump and starts another scuffle which sends splashes of water flying from our elbows and feet.

“Elfcock,” I repeat, and then use his distraction to snatch the wine bottle out of his hand.

“This is nice,” Kin says, when he’s got me pinned to the side of the tub so he can monopolize the wine. “I feel so weightless.”

“I like big baths like this, too.” I wrap my legs around his waist to demonstrate.

“No, I mean . . . yeah, the bath, too. But . . . no Viceroy. I never realized how much I . . . I worried about him. And Bootknife. Never realized how much I thought about them, all the time, in the back of my mind, you know?” he says, eyes going squinty as he tries to figure out how to say what he means. “It was like a mosquito in my ear. I used to think about him a few times a day, wonder where he was, what he was up to, what he was plotting next. I would check on you, when that happened. Wake up from sleep or look over on the road. Make sure you were still there.”

“You would?” I ask, pleasantly startled by this revelation. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Kin says, and kisses my neck, and each of my eyelids, and the tiny scar under my eye from Bootknife’s blade.

“And now?”

“Now I just look at you because I like what I see,” Kin says with a wicked grin, and grinds closer against my hips. “And every time I think about the Viceroy, it’s like a . . . a surprise, you know? But a good one. Because I get to remember all over again that he’s gone. And it’s like my whole body relaxes, and I get giddy because . . . because I don’t have to worry anymore. I never have to fear . . .” He doesn’t admit what he feared, but he kisses the scar under my eye again, and I can guess. He feared having to face me across the battlefield the same way Forsyth was forced to face a green-glowing Pip across the lavender-gray expanse of the Rookery.

We nibble and roll about in the water for another hour, until a messenger knocks on the door and politely informs us that if we’re quite finished ruining the floors, Queen Andvari would like us to join her in her private parlor for a nightcap. Kin and I each quickly scrub soap through our hair and make ourselves as presentable as we can with the clothes from our packs. They’re wrinkled, but they don’t reek of the road and horses, so that’s something at least. What we were wearing when we arrived has already been carted away to the royal laundry, thank the Writer.

Hair still damp and sheepish grins on our faces, we make our way to the queen’s suite. We are greeted at the door by the queen’s second spouse, Nyrath. The Princess Consort is plump-cheeked and glowing, her tightly curled black beard adorned with Rose Quartz and Malachite.

“Writer’s balls, you’re pregnant!” I hear myself saying before I can shut down my stupid mouth when I parse what the stone-language message means.

Nyrath giggles coyly and ducks her head, and from behind her, Andvari’s distinctive braying laughter rings across the stone ceiling. “And you, Bevel Dom, have changed not a bit.”

“Well, maybe a bit,” I call back as Nyrath leads us over to her wife. I hold my hands out, showing off my Turn-russet short robe.

The queen’s eyes widen, then narrow shrewdly and jump between Kintyre—who is also wearing Turn-russet—and me.

“Writer’s balls,” she echoes, jumping up from her wingback chair by the fire. “Finally.

Dwarves, as a rule, are about four feet tall, but Andvari stands at nearly five. There’s mixed blood in the Stoneborn line, some say, while others whisper that the Stoneborns are larger than most because they are filled with the destiny of their people. Andvari once confessed to me that it was just a family trait, and meant nothing whatsoever. Andvari is also thick with muscle, where her wife is plump and her husband slender.

Sviur was a bard and poet who charmed the crown princess while he toured the dwarvish courts, and she had asked for his hand as her first spouse just before we first met her. I’ll never forget the headache of trying to help her unravel the political bellyaching that occurred because she’d chosen a commoner as First Spouse while also trying to keep Kintyre from rushing off to the Urlish wars with no idea of what being a common soldier was really like.

Wars that caused the death of Andvari’s father and her ascent to the throne. In retrospect, it’s a good thing we did stay, because if Sviur had never got an eyeful of Foesmiter, Kin would never have known that his weapon was one of the Ten Magical Swords of Legend, nor how to work in harmony with the blade’s magics.

To appease the courts, Andvari had next married Nyrath, the daughter of a neighboring kingdom—a shy, sweet girl raised to be some other ruler’s wife and knowing from a very young age that she would be sent away from her homeland and all she loved dear for political gain. Instead of growing petulant and resentful at her lot, Nyrath had determined to chart her own destiny, hold her own power in her future spouse’s court. She had studied the art of treaties and warfare, bargaining and trading, politics and backroom deals. On the surface, sweet-faced and sunny Nyrath was nothing more than a pretty, biddable girl. But under that, she was a shrewd and sneaky chess-master. Andvari was luckier than she had ever thought she would be in her choice. Andvari’s genuine admiration for Nyath’s political prowess had made the marriage smoother and, eventually, a love worth treasuring had grown between them.

As soon as I get close enough, Andvari grabs my hand and pumps it energetically, her grin sharkish behind her fire-red beard. Her hair is down for the night, the braids of rulership now loose, waist-length waves that swing around when she turns to punch Kintyre in the kidneys.

“About time, you clueless granite-skull!” she bawls joyfully.

Kintyre doubles over, not expecting the blow, and Sviur rises from where he and their son Virfur—by the Writer, how he’s grown!—were practice-strumming his lute. Sviur’s lost none of the grace his dancing days instilled in him, and he offers both of us a polite greeting. We shake hands, clasping at the elbows to check for concealed daggers in the dwarvish way. Sviur’s golden fall of hair is loose, too, as it must be because of his common birth, but now it’s threaded with white. The braid at his chin is almost entirely colorless. Much more so than I was expecting. Virfur comes to stand beside Sviur, shy in the way young children are. He’s probably just on the brink of ten years old, but that’s still young for a dwarf—closer to our two or three. When we saw him last, though, he was still a babe in arms.

Some small secret part of me pangs with hurt. I was hoping to hold the baby again. How silly of me to have forgotten that the world below the Cinch wouldn’t just freeze like winter ice and wait for us to come back. Ridiculous.

“Sit, sit,” Nyrath admonishes. She bustles us onto cushions on the floor, which is what we prefer in order to be eye-level with the dwarves when we’re in casual company. Sviur passes us both cut-crystal glasses of the clear root-vegetable liquor the dwarves specialize in. Kintyre downs his immediately, in one gulp. I shoot Sviur a look of apology, but the dwarf shakes his head. He’s used to Kintyre’s manners by now, and just refills the glass without comment. Kintyre sips this second one, at least.

Virfur, curiosity overcoming his shyness, crawls immediately into Kintyre’s legs and stretches up to stroke his naked chin with wonder. Kintyre clamps down on his grimace, picks the toddler up from under the armpits, and deposits him on my lap. I hastily set aside my glass, putting it up on a side table and out of the child’s reach. His parents laugh.

“Not one for children, Kintyre?” Andvari asks in that rumbling contralto of hers.

Nyrath narrows her eyes at my lover, but says nothing. Neither does Kintyre.

“It’s not that Kin dislikes children,” I say, and I’m reminded, sharply, of when Pip had once called me Kintyres walking apology. At the time, it hadn’t annoyed me, or even really registered as an insult, because that was part of my relationship with the man who had been first my master, then my friend, and then my brother-in-arms. But now, sitting beside him on the floor of a queen’s salon, holding the heir presumptive, Kin’s Paired and supposedly now equal in rank to Kin, I’m still making excuses for his poor behavior, enabling his entitled assumption that I would smooth things over, that I will hold what Kintyre doesn’t want to, that I will fetch and carry and cook and bow my whims to his.

Bloody aggravating.

“Then why?” Nyrath asks, forcing me to continue the lame half-explanation, half-veiled request for forgiveness for the insult of passing off a prince like he was a sack of rotten meat.

“He just . . . doesn’t really know what to do with them until they’re old enough for him to roughhouse with,” I say lamely. “He likes my gaggle of nieces and nephews, to be sure enough, but more so now that they’re all walking and talking on their own.”

The dwarves seem to take this at face value, and attention turns back to conversation. In my lap, Virfur wobbles his way upright. The boy doesn’t seem to mind whose lap he’s in, as long as he can explore the oddity of a smooth face. Kin and I indulged in a shave with hot water and proper lotions before we answered the queen’s bidding, and it feels fantastic to finally be scruff-less, after so long on the road. Must be odd to the boy, though.

Oh, that will be one of the advantages of our return to Turn Hall, to be sure. A daily shave, with proper tools. Sublime.

But Pip’s words are circling in my mind now, distracting me from what’s being said, taking on a sharper and sharper tone with each repetition. Kintyres walking apology. Arent you sick of it, Bevel? Something querulous and cranky lodges in my guts, something shapeless but quickly solidifying, something unspoken but pushing against the hollow of my throat.

Something . . . something . . .

I’m the only one in my immediate family who is unmarried and childless. While Kin and I are officially Paired, we haven’t made it known that we are a Romantic Pair by pledging our Troth. It hadn’t seemed important before, when all I wanted was a visual acknowledgment that Kin was mine. Let others see our shared Colors and assume we were only pledged as brothers-in-arms, if they prefer. What does it matter to me if their assumption is wrong?

But now, watching Andvari pull her pregnant wife in beside her on the wingback chaise, the pleased curl of their mouths and the striking picture of their very different skin tones mixing together as they clasp hands, seeing the way Sviur joins us on the cushions so he can lean back against his wives’ legs, the way they are all so content and unashamed and casually public in their displays of affection . . . I’m struck, suddenly and hard, with a kind of envy I never thought I would experience.

Married.

I want . . . I want to . . . I want. But I don’t know what it is I want, exactly.

It’s not skin, or warmth, or sex. I have those. It’s not even affection, because Kin gives that freely, too, gifts it like a lord bestowing bags of grain to the pathetic, needy, starving peasants he has made pathetic and needy and starving by his own blind and selfish nobility.

No, it’s something else that I want.

Kintyre is too busy chatting, already sharing news of our latest quest—how we had fled Turn Hall in our individual rages, how we had separated and come back together, how we had confessed and hashed out our relationship, how we had scented Bootknife’s trail when we stopped in Nevand to commission our Colors, how we had followed him down to the Valley of the Tombs—to see the upset on my face.

I feel it growing out of my guts, infecting my expression, my posture, and I’m . . . I’m angry, and I can’t . . . I cant . . .

Virfur catches it, and babbles something sweetly soothing at me in the secret language of the dwarves, one that I’ll never have the privilege to learn.

If you put on the Shadows Mask, you would know it. The thought jars against my wallowing self-pity so quickly that the room spins. You would understand the boy if you put on the mask. You would understand everything.

“And what about you, Sir Dom?” Sviur asks, and I blink, hard, trying to wrench my brain around to the question he asked.

“What?”

“I asked you how you felt the morning of your Pairing. I had a stomach filled with bubbling sulfur the whole week before Andvari and I got married.” He flashes a brilliant smile at his first wife, and she threads her free hand through his hair, affectionate. “What were you like before your wedding?”

Resentment boils up faster than I can contain it. “Yeah, well, we’re not really married, are we though?” I say, and then click my teeth shut hard enough that the whole room can hear it.

By the Writer’s left nutsack, is that what’s been brewing in the cauldron of my frustration?

“We’re Paired, though, Bev,” Kintyre says affably, like all the hurt in what I just spoke has passed him by completely. “And it’s not like two blokes can get married among the humanfolk anyway. Not married, married.”

“And since when have we ever cared about what humanfolk normally do?” I say, and in my arms, Virfur plops down on my knees, making me wince. He reaches for the lute and strums the strings in a discordant twang, looking up at me with the expectation of praise and a grin that matches his father’s. Instead, I hand the boy off to his mother. I cannot bear to have a child in my arms right now. A child that’s not . . . that’s not . . . but there never will be, never could be a child that’s . . .

Andvari gathers Virfur up, and he hides under her beard, both of them startled by the abrupt arrival of my foul mood. I swallow hard, trying to pull this strange, roiling ball of emotion and confession back down into my chest. But I’ve repressed my discontent for so long it seems like now the cork has been popped from the bottle, I can’t just jam it back in.

“I . . . thank you for the invitation, and the drink,” I say, waving at my untouched glass. “But I’m tired.”

“Bevel—” Andvari and Kintyre say at the same time, but I’m already on my feet.

“Goodnight, Your Majesty, Your Highnesses,” I say with a curt bow, and then I run away with my tail between my legs.

 

 

“Why are you so pissy?” Kintyre grumbles at me when he crawls into bed a few hours later. I wasn’t asleep, lucky for Kin. I would have walloped him if he’d woke me up from a comfortable sleep on a real feather tick, especially after so many sleepless nights on the hard ground with only a travel-worn bedroll. His breath smells like liquor, and his hands are too warm. Likely he and Andvari have been playing that palm-slap game that rock-headed dwarves and thick-skinned human heroes seem to love in equal measure.

“I’m not pissy!” I snarl, which just proves how much I’m lying.

Those warm hands land on my shoulder and suddenly I’m on my back. Kin knows how much I hate it when he uses his size against me. I kick him in the jewels and he curls in on himself and falls off to the side of the mattress, gasping in pain and looking at me with big, stupid, betrayed eyes that are just so damned blue I want to scream.

What . . .” he gasps. “That was dirty! What did I do to deserve that?”

And it was dirty. It’s awful, the pain of being sacked, and I have no idea why I did it, how I could do it, to my lover, let alone to a part of him I enjoy so much. Only that maybe it’s the symbol, the center of everything that’s annoying me and I’m a warrior, rough and brutish, and I attack those things I can’t control, that annoy me, that make me angry.

And hows that for insight? Forssy would be so proud! Ha!

But at the same time, I’m still angry. I’m utterly filled with a tickling, twitching, zinging energy, and it’s not arousal, or hunger, or hatred. I don’t know what it is, except that it’s awful.

Kin gingerly levers himself onto the bed. I shove the blankets back and clamber up onto his torso, pinning his arms against his sides, controlling, the one in charge for once, and kiss him hard enough that I taste blood.

“What? Bevel, stop, ow, off—” Kintyre mutters, words smeared into my mouth, and with a fancy bit of calisthenics, he has our position reversed again.

“No!” I snarl, shoving hard at his shoulders, kicking his knee out from under him and squirming off the bed in a display of pretty impressive calisthenics myself. “No!”

“No, what?” Kintyre says, kneeling, hands out, palms up as if he expects to have to plead for his life. And I don’t know; in the mood I’m in, maybe he will. “I don’t understand what’s going on here!”

“Neither do I!” I snap, and the words froth and boil in my mouth. Words that I don’t understand, that I’m scared of saying because I don’t know what they’re going to be.

“Then what in the name of the Writer’s blue balls has gotten into you?” Kin snarls back.

“I can’t do it anymore!” I shout, and it’s loud enough that the sound of my voice rings across the high stone ceiling of our chambers. Probably loud enough that the guard in the hall heard it. Probably loud enough that Andvari and her spouses heard it in their own bedchamber.

“Do what?” Kintyre shouts back, though at half the volume. “You’re not making any sense!”

“Anything! All of it!” And I fist my hands in my hair because I can’t find the words. Oh, the blessed unbelievable irony of it! Bevel Dom, scribe to the Great Hero of Hain, the man who singlehandedly turned the bumbling adventures of a stupid, selfish man-child into a thing of gorgeous poetic eddas: speechless. “I cant . . . I can’t be . . . I can’t do . . .” I pace in a circle, scrubbing, tugging, and the pain in my scalp matches the pain itching, itching on the underside of my skin, the writhing, wrathful thing in my belly.

Kintyre slowly shuffles to the edge of the bed, reaches out to wrap soothing arms around me, shushing me as if I was his Writerbedamned horse, and I duck away. I don’t want to be shushed, and soothed, and petted like I’m some stupid fretting maiden.

I want . . . I want . . .

“It’s not fair!” I finally bawl, the dark, writhing thing inside me vomiting up out of my mouth. “Why didn’t the Writer make it so that two human men could have children?”

“What?” Kintyre asks, and he looks exactly how I feel—utterly poleaxed by what I’ve just said.

But the puking confession isn’t over, apparently. Even though I back up, press myself against the wall, turn my face away, screw my eyes shut, smash my fists back against the ornately carved stone, I can’t seem to shut up.

“It’s not fair!” my mouth says again. “Dwarven women can get children on their wives, why not human men?”

“That’s what all this is about? A baby?” Kintyre asks, that frown I know so well furrowing down between his eyebrows.

“No!” I say, then, with a grunt of frustration, “Yes!” Then: “No! I don’t know! It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s the way you hand everything off to me, Kin! I’m not your tag-along, or your squire, but you dump the gear on me! You toss the baby at me! You think a Pairing is enough, and I’m somehow, someway, always . . . always . . . always . . .”

“Always what?” Kin asks warily.

Less!” I snarl. I turn my back to him and punch the wall again. It smarts, and my knuckles make a sharp cracking sound. The scent of blood fills my nose, but I pull back my arm for a third strike.

Kin’s big hands grab both of my elbows before the blow can land, and he pulls me backward, hauls me off my feet in exactly the way I don’t appreciate, entitled and pushy and bigger than me. We tumble back again onto the bed, him on his back, me on his chest, and he wraps his giant thighs around my waist and his giant biceps around my upper arms. He makes me feel small, and it’s hateful.

Peace, Bevel, peace,” Kintyre says as I squirm and struggle.

“No, no, let go!” I snarl. I gnash at the air, and I’m certain that if the stupid oaf tries to cover my mouth with his hand, I will bite the officious bastard. “I hate this! I hate it when you do this! I hate you!”

“You don’t hate me, Bev,” Kin says, but his voice is tinged with a desperate, gulping hurt I haven’t heard in it since the night we fought and raged and confessed our love. “You’re just tired. You—”

“Don’t you condescend to me, Kintyre bloody Turn, lord’s son and Chosen One!” I hiss. “Don’t you dare.”

“Is that what this is?” Kintyre asks. “Going back to Turn Hall and—”

“No! Yes! All of it!”

“All of what?” Kintyre thunders. “Speak!”

“I can’t . . . I can’t do it,” I say again, and there’s some stopper in my throat, something that is keeping the right words from escaping me. “The . . . going back. Being just your Paired, being the lord’s . . . bumboy. The arrogant little goblin-snot from a nothing village on the forgotten border, always one step behind, the seventh son of the seventh son, unmarried and childless, the scribe with no more stories to tell, useless.”

And there. There it is.

There it all is.

The anger and fear and fury fly from me so suddenly that I feel like a zombie whose necromancer has been abruptly slain—I flop back against my lover’s wide chest, all tension gone, stringless and boneless. Tears form behind my eyes in a hot, burning lump, and they are equally tears of relief, and shame, and embarrassment at what I’ve confessed, how I’ve behaved. I turn into Kin’s shoulder, and he loosens his hold enough to allow me to turn over and bury my flushed face in his neck.

“What if Forssy made a mistake?” I whisper, because I can’t talk about the rest of it. I can’t say it again. I can’t even admit that I just said it. “What if I’m not good enough for the mask? I’m no hero, Kin. I’m just the sidekick.”

“Oh, oh, Bevel,” Kintyre says, petting my hair, and it doesn’t feel condescending now, only comforting and kind. “Oh, Bevel, how can you not know? It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks about you. You’re my hero.”

About The Author

Toronto-based J.M Frey (pronounced “fry”) is a science fiction and fantasy author, as well as a fanthropologist and pop culture scholar who appears in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH has been nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards,  won the San Francisco Book Festival award for SF/F, was nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly.

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