Chapter 11: The Storm

Menacing gray clouds hung thick in the sky, threatening to cut short an already uneasy outing. Instead of exercising at the pit, Vicco reluctantly agreed to let Ralk stroll along the perimeter of the island. He hadn’t seen the outside of the building walls since his first arrival in Nau.

The captain kept his distance, walking several arms ahead while Adorin trailed behind Ralk, examining the tension between the two. The ‘experiment’ earlier didn’t yield the results he expected. If anything, it may have further strengthened Vicco’s resolve.

He said nothing after he left the shed, merely grunting before stepping out into the corridor, leaving the two behind in the menagerie to wonder.

Ralk stopped and turned toward the sheer edge of the island and stared out. Because the weather was dreary, everything looked white and grey, not the usual sharp contrast between the colors of steam and sky. Adorin stopped to stand next to him. Vicco looked back before perching on a boulder with a loud clank.

“I guess I should not have expected a miracle,” Adorin muttered, kicking a small stone into the abyss.

“No, but at least what I did to him will seal his lips.”

“There is no guarantee of that.” Adorin shook as a chill hit him. The wind blowing in from the weather system was cooler than usual. “I do trust him though. It is a feeling I have.”

Ralk glanced back and caught Vicco’s attention. The man watched them closely, but there wasn’t much emotion on his face. The G’yel slipped his arm around Adorin’s waist and smiled before looking back out across the grey, shapeless horizon.

“That is not what I meant. Vicco irritates me, but there were feelings he gave off. He enjoyed what we did.” Ralk chuckled. “He really hates that. I see it in his eyes, and he will not tell our secret because he knows he is just as guilty. I do not trust him the way you do, but I do trust he is a man of honesty.”

“I wonder what he is thinking about?” Adorin asked, a wistfulness in his tone. “I had hoped—”

Ralk’s arm slipped away from the man’s back before his rough hand clasped Adorin’s, pulling him along. “Let us not wonder. He is right there.”

Vicco’s eyes widened, and he jumped down from the boulder before turning to walk ahead.

“Stop,” Ralk demanded, rushing to the captain before grabbing his shoulder. “You are being rather childish for your age.”

“Don’t lecture me, Ralk.” There was a hint of rage in the man’s voice. “I am having a hard enough time deciding what to do about all of this.”

“You will do nothing,” the G’yel growled, forcing his grip harder on the plate before turning the man to face him. “Come to terms with your feelings on your own, but for now I want your word that you will not put Adorin’s life in danger.”

Vicco shoved Ralk away, hard enough that the G’yel lost balance and fell to the ground. “I didn’t put his life in danger. You did,” he shouted. “I won’t be the one that gets him killed, you will. I have no intention of letting what happened between you two leave my mouth.” Vicco scoffed and looked over at Adorin. “Neither of you seem to have much control over yours.”

Ralk pushed himself to his feet and wiped the mud from his fur. “I believe you lost a little control yourself.”

“Shut your mouth, G’yel.” The man’s voice shook. 

“But you desire me on top of you, wishing I would—” A plate gauntleted fist struck the side of Ralk’s face, sending him to the ground again.

“We will speak no more of this,” Vicco muttered, turning away. Adorin ran to Ralk’s side and helped him to his feet. The G’yel rubbed the side of his face, a bit of blood dripping from his maw. “It never happened.”

“We should duel again.” Ralk had a slight lisp to his tone as he held his face.

Vicco stopped walking, a metallic squeal leaving his fists as he clenched them. “No, because I’ll kill you next time.”

He said nothing more as he continued walking ahead, pushing further from the city’s boundaries. Ralk and Adorin followed, though the G’yel had a slight unsteadiness to his gait. Vicco hit him hard.

“Where are we going?” Adorin asked, looking back at the distant pyramids that seemed to get smaller.

“I don’t know. I don’t care. Let’s just walk,” Vicco muttered. “Silently.”

Adorin wanted to strangle Ralk for pushing an already unstable man to the edge. What was he thinking? He looked over at the G’yel, who seemed at ease, despite the unbearable tension.

“It is nicer to have a human captain writhe in pleasure under me than be a corpse. Much more fun.”

Adorin shoved his elbow into Ralk’s side, but the G’yel didn’t flinch. He was doing this on purpose.

“Stop,” Adorin whispered.

“I would shout my story from the hills of Alacotl to all who would hear. I, Ralk made Vicco, the strong captain of the guard scream my name as he took all of my cock.”

Vicco stopped and turned again. Adorin scurried away, knowing what was about to happen. He drew his sword, but Ralk caught his arm before he could pull it from the sheath.

“No,” he growled. “Remove your armor, drop your sword—and fight me. I will not use my claws or speed. I will give you the first strike. Hit me as hard as you want with your bare fist.”

The captain’s rage seemed to seep from his pores like steam. “You want to disarm me now, while we are out here with no witnesses? How foolish do you think I am?”

“Vicco,” Ralk shouted, his deep voice echoing through the jungle as he shook the man. “I could have killed you so many times, but your death is not what I want.” He let go of the captain and backed away. “Trust me.” There was a growl to his voice. “Fight me.”

With a huff, the captain unbuckled the leather strap securing the sheath of his weapon before tossing it to the ground. He glared at Adorin. “Help me out of this armor.”

The younger man nodded, running up to undo the series of taut straps holding the breastplate in place, starting from the sides before working his way to the shoulders. Before he could finish, Vicco lifted the armor above his head and tossed it to the ground.

Adorin could feel the miasma of hatred radiating outward from the man. It made him want to slink away, but he continued undoing the straps of the greaves. Once again, Vicco didn’t wait for Adorin to finish as they loosened enough for him to kick the plate away.

As his gauntlets, vambraces, and pauldrons fell, he stood in sweat-soaked commoner’s clothing. How did he survive wearing such oppressively heavy equipment so often in this heat?

“Let us—” Ralk only managed those words before Vicco’s fist slammed into his gut, catching the G’yel off-guard.

“No words,” the man grunted. “Just fists.”

Ralk stood upright and smiled briefly before a snarl revealed several sharp teeth. Staying true to his word, he kept his claws hidden in his fists as he swung toward the human’s face. There was no speed in his form like there was yesterday, and Vicco dodged easily.

“Stop,” Vicco growled. “Stop handicapping yourself. That’s not your speed.” He threw out another swing, striking the G’yel’s jaw. What was he doing? Even Adorin could have avoided that blow.

Ralk grinned again and dashed to the side, his right fist slamming into Vicco’s stomach. The man gasped, but was able to dodge a swift left uppercut in time. He used that opening to send an elbow barreling into Ralk’s ribs.

The G’yel yelped, but caught Vicco’s arm. With a swift motion, Ralk shoved his upper back against the man’s chest. Leaning forward, he pulled Vicco’s arm, and flipped the man over his shoulders, onto the ground with a loud thud.

A G’yel fighting a human in hand-to-hand combat was less than fair, but Vicco was the one that demanded Ralk speed up. He was still holding back a lot, giving the man openings he wouldn’t have normally.

The G’yel got closer, but Vicco swiped his right leg outward, catching Ralk’s calf before sending him to the ground. The man shouted as he used the opportunity to jump to his feet and leap onto his opponent, pinning him in place.

Vicco reared back and struck the G’yel once more in the face, then again—and again. His knuckles were swollen and bleeding, and as he swung forward for the fourth time, Ralk caught his fist.

Calmly, he grabbed the other arm and flipped Vicco onto his back, putting all of his weight on the captain as he straddled the man with both legs. Ralk’s grip tightened, locking the man in place as he leaned in, panting, blood dripping from his nose and mouth onto Vicco’s sweat-drenched face.

The captain was tense at first, bucking and shouting, but after a few more moments of struggling, he went limp. Ralk leaned in and pressed his head against the man’s chest.

“You are so strong for a human,” he said, his speech slurred from the repeated blows. Ralk pulled back, releasing the man’s arms while his thick, muscled legs still weighed him down.

Vicco lifted his head for a moment before letting it fall as he took a deep breath, looking up at the sky. Light droplets of rain mixed with the sweat and blood on his face. After another moment the clouds lost their form, and what was once a shower turned into a deluge.

Ralk stood, looking up as the water washed away the blood. Adorin leaned against the boulder, the cool shower providing relief from the heat.

Vicco tried standing, but slipped and fell into the mud with a splash. He shook with laughter.

“I can’t get up,” he said, snorting before trying again. His bare feet slipped on the mud and he landed on his side. His clothing was covered in runny brown clay. Ralk whooped and howled, making it much worse for Vicco as they both went into fits.

Adorin shook his head, not finding the humor in any of this. The two had inflicted so much injury on one another, and now they were laughing? He crossed his arms and glared at both of them.

Ralk reached to grab the man’s hand, only to be pulled down into the mud as well. The G’yel’s snout went under the slick, silty mixture. Gloopy bubbles pushed to the surface of the puddle as he breathed out before lifting his head. They both resembled swamp creatures as they splashed around in the muck.

A smile inched its way across Adorin’s lips as he watched them. It was reckless, but Ralk knew what he was doing from the start.

“I know what you need. An outlet. A nice brawl to vent all that frustration and desire…”

Ralks words came to him as he watched the two scramble to their feet, grabbing onto each other for purchase so they wouldn’t slip. Perhaps beating each other senseless worked for the two of them, but Adorin preferred more passive ways of resolving conflict.

They limped toward Adorin, the rain doing little to wash away the filth as it held firm to fur, skin, and clothing. The Alacian’s arms were still crossed as they approached, a stony stare replacing the smile he wore moments earlier.

“Are we done here?” Adorin muttered as he examined both of their faces for possible serious injury. From the way they struggled to stand, they could have had mild concussions.

“Not quite,” Ralk said as he leaned in and wrapped Adorin up in a grimy embrace.

“Let go,” Adorin shouted in disgust, trying to shove the G’yel away as the mud seeped into his thin tunic. Vicco approached from the other side and mimicked Ralk. “I hate you both.”

They backed away, leaving the younger man covered in brown. Patches of it dripped down his face where Ralk’s cheek rubbed into his.

“We are done now,” the G’yel said, bending over to grab Vicco’s discarded greaves and gauntlets, holding them in his arms. The captain grabbed the breastplate and sword, and Adorin picked up the vambraces and pauldrons. He was thankful Vicco never wore the full set. Plate was heavy enough as it was, and completely unnecessary.

The storm intensified as the three hurried along the island’s edge back to the city.

Vicco’s home was modest, and it stood twenty arms or so from the edge of a curved, ivy-covered outcrop that towered above the merchants’ quarter below. It was one of the few smaller houses that overlooked the city. The rest were larger villas and mansions that loomed in elaborate excess from the other side of the bowed cliff face.

Some of them had massive gold-striped onyxinth pillars supporting them, as tall as sixty arms, perhaps more. Marbled statues of gods and goddesses peeked over the stone walls that kept most of the courtyards and villas hidden from plebeian eyes.

Adorin sat on one of the five plush floor cushions that decorated the porch in a circle. They were dark colors of hunter green, royal purple, sapphire blue, burgundy, and black. Wicker torches flickered against cracked, tawny brick walls, and a few colorful abstract paintings decorated the extra space between corners.

The porch was similar to a courtyard; however, instead of being uncovered, surrounded on three sides by the home, it had a roof with two stone pillars supporting it where there was no wall.

Breezes sometimes blew in a bit of rain-scented mist. For the first time in a while, the temperature was cool enough to enjoy being outdoors. There would have been a beautiful view of the city from this area if it hadn’t been raining so hard. The pyramids that usually dominated the skies around Nau were completely shrouded in white.

Ralk lay on his cushion, fading in and out of consciousness with the light thunder crashes and pattering of rain on the roof. He was completely nude while waiting for his loincloth to dry by one of the lit torches. Adorin wore a black, subligaculum Vicco gave to him while his clothes dried. It was much nicer than the itchy linen loincloth he often wore, though it was a bit large for him. The fabric breathed and was smoothe against his sensitive skin.

Vicco was the only one fully clothed, as he sat on the black cushion, his legs crossed. Like Ralk, he also had a hard time keeping his eyes open. They were all clean, having washed in the cold rainwater draining from the gutters. The captain had contemplated trying a bathhouse on the way, but a muddy G’yel and a slave would likely be barred from entry.

Ralk began snoring, and the two humans sat in silence as more thunder rattled the paintings on the walls.

“Thank you for letting us wait out the rain here,” Adorin said, smiling. The man’s stare was distant, and he didn’t respond. “Vicco?”

He jolted and looked over at Adorin. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said thank you.” Vicco nodded before his gaze went back toward the city. “Are you still mad at me for earlier?”

“I—I don’t know.” Vicco glanced down at the naked G’yel, who scratched his crotch before turning to his side. He appeared to fall back to sleep unusually fast.

“I am sorry,” Adorin whispered. “I do not know what came over me. Perhaps it was fear, or the excitement of the moment. Maybe I was still angry at you.” He paused and let out a sigh. “Actually, I was angrier with myself because I am a hypocrite.”

The older man raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Adorin stared at his lap, his shoulders slumping forward. “Because I berated you for believing in the gods’ punishment, but I also feared retribution. I feared it after I kissed you, and again after Ralk and I did the same. Hate the gods. I want to cast them away and pretend I don’t believe, but I fear them on a deeper level.”

“Adorin.” Vicco scooted closer, placing an arm around the Alacian’s smaller frame. “I’ve been thinking…” He paused for a moment to find the words. “Gods have I been thinking a lot, and you’re always the one that starts it.”

“I am sor—”

“Let me finish,” Vicco interrupted. “After what you said yesterday… and then after what happened today—” He swallowed hard and took another deep breath. “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore. I’m having a hard time making this decision.”

“Ralk doesn’t believe in gods,” Adorin whispered, looking over at the G’yel who was still snoring softly while facing away from them. “G’yel males leave their mothers young to go live with large groups of other males in families called ne’aks. There is no one person they fall in love with; they each care for one another, all of them… in every way.”

“That’s a bit overindulgent,” Vicco said with a chuckle. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well,” Adorin continued. “They enjoy each other without fear of judgment from gods, because there are no gods to fear. Do not get me wrong, G’yel society is probably crueler than Nau, but their ne’aks are different. They help bring joy to what could be a terrible and short life.” The young Alacian smiled, staring back at Vicco. “When he told me about all the wonderful things he remembered, I thought about it. How would it feel to never be alone? To have so many care about you and want to be with you?”

Vicco’s expression softened, his watery eyes reflecting the torchlight from the far wall.

“That would be nice,” he whispered, his arm squeezing Adorin tighter.

“I am his ne’ak now.” Adorin tensed, wondering if this was a good time to discuss such things. “I am all he has, and I have grown quite fond of having him around. There is so much more to the G’yel than you think you know. They are not that different from us when you look past their physical appearance.”

Vicco didn’t respond, and Adorin sighed.

“I hoped you could be a part of the family too,” he said, his voice a half whisper. He wondered if this would lead to another argument. “It would be nice for him to have two people to fight for tomorrow. And I have grown fond of having you around too.”

Vicco finally opened his mouth to speak.

“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I hoped to court you.” Adorin was relieved when the man let out a chuckle. “To think, the first man that attracted me came with a G’yel attached.”

“You do not have to be with him that way,” Adorin said, his face getting hot as he imagined it. “Just be his family—his friend. That is all he wants.”

“That’s not all he wants with you.” Bitterness crept back into his voice. “Who do you want to be with—me or him?”

The torrent of rain hitting the roof quieted as the thunder became more distant. The once dark clouds had a shimmer to them as the system slowly passed.

“It feels like it may be getting cooler,” Adorin said, trying to change the subject. “There are not too many weeks of summer left.”

Vicco pulled away and glared at the younger man. Adorin already knew the answer to the question, but he was scared of how the captain would respond.

“I cannot choose,” Adorin muttered, grinding his teeth for a moment as he paused. As usual, Vicco remained silent. “I want to be with both of you.”

“You can’t… do that.” Even though his tone was low and irritated, Adorin was thankful he said something. “You have to choose. I don’t want to share you with someone else if I can make this work somehow with you being a slave and all.”

Adorin inched closer to the proverbial ledge, seeing how far he could go before falling. “I would share both of you, if you also felt for Ralk what I do for him.” He eyed Vicco, the memories of earlier still fresh in his mind. “You did feel someth—”

“Stop,” the captain interrupted, anger building in his tone.

Adorin’s eyes watered as he grabbed Vicco’s hand. “Then…” He took a breath of the fresh petrichor wafting into his nostrils from the breeze. “I will not choose either.”

The captain slammed his fist against the ground. “You are infuriating,” he shouted, grabbing Adorin’s shoulders. “Just tell me so I can move on.”

Ralk sat up and turned to watch what was happening.

“How long has he been awake?” Adorin thought to himself as he noticed how alert the G’yel was.

“You do not have to choose anything,” Ralk said, glancing at Adorin before grabbing Vicco’s arm, pulling him away. “I am fine with friendship. He is my family, and I will be satisfied no matter what.”

Vicco held his other hand to his face and rubbed his head. “I just want…” he trailed off as Ralk let go of him. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.” The man broke. It was unexpected and sudden, but tears poured from his eyes. He tried to hold them back—he’d been holding this back for a while, covering it up as a soldier would.

“Then the solution is simple: do not be alone,” Adorin whispered, leaning in to kiss the man on the cheek. There was something endearing about watching a large man lay his soul bare. It happened with Ralk too. “One column alone will crumble if it bears too much weight. Two can take a heavy burden. But three can make it lighter.”

Ralk’s hand squeezed the man’s shoulder. “He is right, Vicco. I do not care if what we did was anything more than some meaningless leave of our senses. But I will be your friend, if you wish it. I saw something in you that first day—something I respected. It is why I enjoy sparring with you. Today, I knew what you needed, and it worked, yes?”

The captain wiped his eyes and snorted a laugh. “It felt good to beat the hells out of that ugly face of yours.”

“Be my ne’ak, Vicco,” Ralk grunted, as he released the man’s shoulder. “We can be three strong pillars, as Adorin said. I need Adorin’s soft heart, and I need your warrior’s spirit. Both of you challenge different parts of me, making me better. This is what ne’ak does. Where one falls, another lifts him up, making him stronger than before.”

Ralk slid his thick arm around Vicco’s neck, playfully jerking him close. His grin sharpened as their foreheads touched.

“We are stronger together. You are one of the strongest humans I have ever faced. It would be an honor to have you as my family.”

Adorin watched as Vicco’s eyes lit up. They didn’t seem as awkward together this time, and the young man realized that his clumsy way of trying to bring them close was a mistake. This was the way it should have been.

Ralk understood the two better than they did.

“Gods damn everything, you smelly bastard,” Vicco grunted, pulling away from the G’yel. “Fine. I’ll… be your ne’ak.” The grin Ralk wore exposed every sharp tooth in his mouth as his tail went wild. Vicco glanced down at a mass of pink that flopped against his leg. “Put your damn loincloth back on you animal.”

The stars were brighter tonight than they had been. The pond and streams had flooded earlier and receded after the rain stopped. The damage was done. While it was good that the water washed away excrement, it also soaked all the straw bedding, dispersing it around the menagerie.

Ralk helped Adorin replace what was destroyed. He carried the bales on his strong back and the Alacian took them into the pens to remake the bedding. They worked well together, and a job that should have taken a few hours was finished in less than one.

The night was cool and comfortable as gentle breezes drifted over the walls. Adorin made another bed in Ralk’s pen so he could stay without being so close.

“Tomorrow is Tulta,” Adorin said, his voice catching in his throat.

“It is.” There wasn’t anything somber about his reply. He seemed excited. “I will win.”

“I wish I had your confidence.” The younger man stared at the red moon now peeking over the wall.

“I have two in my ne’ak now. I will be twice as strong.”

Ralk always knew how to bring out a smile in Adorin, though he wished he didn’t have to force it now. He gazed at Ralk for the fifth time in the last ten minutes. He wanted to burn the G’yel’s face into his memory so he’d never forget every black speckle, tooth, and eye. Though they met all those years ago, they hadn’t known each other long enough to make many memories.

“Do not look at me like that,” Ralk said as he sat up and leaned forward, planting a gentler kiss on the man’s lips. Adorin had lost count of how many times they kissed as soon as it was dark enough to hide. Their sessions were much more intense earlier in the evening. They wouldn’t attempt anything more, though. Breaking away from this was much easier than breaking away from sex if someone walked into the courtyard.

Adorin still wanted to know what it felt like to be with him in that way. It was funny thinking about the stages of acceptance and how quickly they evolved over the days. He went from finding the G’yel repulsive to wishing he could be wrapped up in him.

“After tomorrow, we must find a way,” the Alacian whispered as he slipped his arms around Ralk.

“For what?”

Adorin pulled back and grinned. “For more,” he said, scooting backward onto his bedding. “We can do anything you desire, but only if you do not die. That is a promise.”

Ralk’s eyes went wide as his smile deepened. “That promise just assured my victory.”

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