Adorin woke the next morning with a sense of impending dread. The G’yel was to be fed five meals each day, and it was time for breakfast. He received the itinerary from Tauh late last night, written by the lord himself. For the next three days, Adorin’s entire life would revolve around the beast.
The list was unreasonable for one person, but this was his punishment for doing the right thing, as always. In the mornings, he was to feed the G’yel breakfast. When he finished, the wounds needed washed, and the bandages on the paws changed. At mid-morning, another meal if the G’yel was hungry, followed by exercise.
For noon, lunch and more exercise. He wasn’t sure what kind of exercise, but Vicco likely knew what to do. In fact, he’d likely require a lot of Vicco’s help, especially after what he did yesterday. The G’yel seethed the rest of the day, limping into his new enclosure, keeping to a corner. Despite being annoyed with the creature, Adorin felt terrible, especially after hearing the noise he made.
Afternoons and evenings consisted of more feedings and exercise, with a bath in the evening and a change of bandages before bed. He’d have no time for anything more, and he wasn’t suited for that kind of labor. He was a healer, not some beast’s slave.
But what choice did he have? It would take another two years at least to pay back the debt he owed and save enough to hop the next airship to Carthia. At least that city was more of a melting pot. Nau was like a bed of weeds and Adorin the bright tulip in the middle, being starved of nutrients. He would die here if he had to stay in this city any longer than that.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. He was dependent on Tauh for food and shelter, and if he lost that, how would he survive?
Adorin’s room was fairly close to the menagerie being right across the hall from the infirmary upstairs. He’d need to stop by the kitchens first to grab the G’yel’s meal and then hope that the beast would be in a better mood on a full stomach.
He and Vicco said little after the incident yesterday, and they both went their separate ways soon after the G’yel was in his enclosure. Adorin hadn’t expected to lose his temper like that. Yes, he was a fool, and he was paying for that mistake. He didn’t need Vicco pointing out the obvious, belittling his difficult decision to save lives. They weren’t dead. They were never dead, not when under his care.
This side of the building was always the hottest, and he wasn’t sure how the cooks managed. However, an interesting smoky aroma wafted from the open door ahead, making his stomach growl. There was no money left for food until Lanta when Tauh gave him a few bones to survive on, taking the rest for himself.
Thankfully, the chefs let him take the day’s leftovers to his room at night so he wouldn’t go hungry. Chef Sitha was one of the few decent people he knew. She wasn’t native to Nau; in fact, she wasn’t native to this half of the world. Her’s was the impossible rags-to-riches story of being sold into slavery only to earn her freedom and work as a lord’s private chef.
She told stories of when she was younger in Y’eshnov, a sky island to the far west of the globe where only the most durable airships risked going. Terrible storms plagued the region, and the wind never stopped blowing, no matter what the weather was like.
Her tales also included mountains that were so high they stayed covered in snow all year, even during the first cycle of Tule year when the world was closest to the suns. The only mountains Adorin saw were the short dome-shaped volcanoes of Ke’chetah.
A round man with more than a few dimples on his face walked out from behind the counter. He wore a tight cream-colored buttoned up vest, stained with brown flour and bits of purple jam. It was Aldui, the sous chef, and probably one of the most gifted pâtissiers in Nau.
“Adorin,” he bellowed with a cheery smile and a gleam in his eyes. He was always the happiest in the mornings, for obvious reasons. Mornings meant pastries to satisfy Lord Yanth’s insatiable sweet tooth. “This is for the G’yel.” He pushed the cart in front of the young man before reaching for a small basket on the counter. “And this is for you.”
“You are too kind,” Adorin said, patting the man on the back, launching a bit of flour into the air. “I haven’t had one of your lidoberry turnovers in a while.”
“This one is new,” he said excitedly. “I got a little overzealous and made more than I should have.” He lowered his voice and leaned in close. “Sitha gets a little hot when I use more than I need. So this will be our little secret.” The man gave Adorin a wink.
“Of course, I will not say a word,” Adorin replied, putting a finger over his lips. “How is the family?”
“Three moody teenage daughters,” Aldui said, spacing his words in an exhausted tone. “It’s more peaceful at work.” The two laughed and Adorin bowed before grabbing the cart.
“I had better get this out there,” he said, bowing once more. “Thank you again for the pastries.”
“My pleasure.” The chef raised his voice as a pan fell to the floor. “My croissants!” he shouted, hurrying to the back kitchen. Adorin pushed the cart through the door as a heated argument broke out behind him.
The man smiled. It was a good way to start off what might have been a terrible morning. The kitchen, though hot and temperamental, was always a place of kind-hearted people. It was no wonder their food was so delicious if they treated their ingredients the way they treated others.
Adorin stopped at the double wooden doors leading outside. He walked to the front of the cart and lifted the handle before leaning against the door, using his back to push it open as he dragged the G’yel’s breakfast into the menagerie.
He reached for a key ring on a rusted hook that was embedded in the stone wall near the door. That was when he heard a low, steady growl. At first he thought it was the yowlerback in the cage behind him, but that wouldn’t have made sense. She was sweet and made gentle purring noises when Adorin drew close to her enclosure.
The calming effect his presence had on beasts of all sizes and temperaments was a reason Lydia was so quick to teach him the magic she knew. The witch had the same gifts, and all the animals that visited her cabin kept her from being lonely when Adorin wasn’t around.
No animal would growl at Adorin, and there was only one beast in that place that made enemies. Adorin turned his head slowly to the side to see the G’yel clutching the bars of his cage, his piercing stare narrowed on the young man while drool roped from his snarling maw. Thankfully, the beast decided to wear his loincloth today.
“I am tired,” Adorin muttered as he stormed across the courtyard, glaring at the G’yel the entire time. He left the cart of food near the exit. “I do not know how to apologize to you, and I thought my feelings would reach you at least. But you are dumber than a beast.”
The young man shook as he stopped an arm’s length away from the G’yel’s pen.
“You will not eat until either you treat me better, or Vicco comes with his sword.” Adorin raced across the courtyard, grabbing the cart before pushing it out of reach of the beast. “I am hungry. So I will eat first. When you are calm, you will eat.” He wasn’t sure why he was talking to the G’yel, but perhaps he would pick up on Adorin’s intentions.
The G’yel’s hackles stood straight as he rattled the bars of his cage. He then pointed at the cart which smelled of smoked meat. Adorin ignored him, and instead pulled out the basket Aldui gave him.
When he opened the hinged lid of the wicker basket, he was hit with a strong, delicious scent of butter and bread, but that wasn’t all. There was a deeper, almost savory smell to these pastries that had his stomach groaning in anticipation. Aldui made nothing like this before.
Adorin pulled out a weighty, triangular piece of flaky strudel and bit down with a light crunch that resonated from his jaws to his ears. The mild taste of Lidoberry hit his tongue first before the spicy saltiness of stringy roast followed. The flavors were in perfect proportion, neither one overpowering the other, but working together to create a new taste… no, an entirely new experience.
The heat came from familiar spices, those of Alacotl. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought of home when he took another mouthful. This was why Aldui was so eager to give him these pastries. The flavors of Ke’chetah and Alacotl harmonized, two different cultures colliding to make something incredible.
If only people were like pastries. The villages of Alacotl and the city of Nau had their own prejudices. The Alacians were wary of outsiders, and rightfully so. Tocataui, Alacotl’s main city, had been purged of its natives. The elites of Nau and Carthia resided within the safety of its sacred walls while Adorin’s people toiled the fields to provide for not only themselves but for those that felt entitled to the land and its people with their money.
How different the world would be if there were no prejudice, but there was no cure for that disease. It infected Adorin as well, a side effect of mistreatment and injustice over the years. The G’yel and white-skins were a lot alike. They were savage beasts that enjoyed violence and taking that which didn’t belong to them.
He hated them all…
There it was again. The hatred, the infection spreading unchecked. How could he not feel justified? His people had done nothing to deserve what they had to endure.
Adorin looked over at the beast that was watching him eat, more slobber dripping to a puddle on the concrete floor outside of his pen. His ears were back against his head, but his teeth were no longer bare.
With furrowed brows, Adorin tossed the last bite of the pastry in his mouth before closing the basket, saving the rest for later. The G’yel appeared to understand that his aggression would result in his stomach remaining empty, just as the human hoped.
He walked around to the front of the cart and slid the iron key in to unlock the door, but stopped and pulled back. This could have been a trick to get him to let his guard down. The young man took a step backward and opened the cart, revealing several heavy slabs of meat. He reached in to touch a piece which was tough, not falling apart in his fingers.
He had an idea that would tide him over until Vicco arrived. The G’yel could eat and he would be safe. Adorin grabbed a broom next to the pen and unscrewed the wooden handle from the brush. The G’yel watched the man curiously, his stomach roaring as his eyes darted between the human and the food.
The broom handle was too dull to spear the meat on its own, so Adorin grabbed a hunk of meat and using his fingers, dug a small hole in the center. Afterward, he jammed the wooden rod through it, lifting the meal care toward the hungry G’yel, making sure to keep a couple arms distance from those deadly claws.
The G’yel rolled his eyes and hissed through his teeth. He snatched the meat and began ravenously gnawing, barely chewing anything as he swallowed the chunks he bit off. Adorin began work preparing another piece, jamming the handle through before offering the next hunk of meat through the bars.
The beast seemed annoyed by Adorin’s ingenuity, probably hoping he would have a chance to get his revenge for yesterday. It took mere moments for the G’yel to polish off what must have been a quarter of his body weight in meat, and he still looked hungry.
Adorin pushed the empty cart to the door and washed his hands in the pond before looking over at the creature still eying him. The human ignored the G’yel, and instead walked over to the yowlerback he affectionately named O’lua, the word for moonlight in a native language his people rarely spoke anymore.
The beast purred loudly when he approached, her paws excitedly pounding the ground as he opened the pen and stepped inside. He didn’t even think about it. This was the first time he stepped into the pen with her, but it was as though they had known each other for most of their lives.
“Good morning sweetness,” he whispered as the massive creature nuzzled his chest, him scratching behind her rounded ears. She was larger than six of him, but was as gentle as a newborn. Yowlerbacks were common in Alacotl, not really seen on any other sky island as far as he knew.
He used to track them down and play with them in the wilds when he was younger, not really aware of how dangerous the beasts were. He would learn later that they were man-eaters, but with how docile they were toward him, he never knew.
Adorin sat on the floor and leaned against O’lua, stroking her soft fur as she lay next to him. This place was too small for these creatures, and they would live out the rest of their lives surrounded by concrete with nowhere to run. He wished he could set them free, but where would they run?
The island was deadly, and they wouldn’t last long out among the carnivorous flora and choking gasses from volcanic vents. They were all trapped in captivity, all prisoners of Nau. At least Adorin was afforded the privilege to escape… eventually.
He glanced across the menagerie at the G’yel who stared at him, his maw hanging open as if in disbelief. Yowlerbacks were considered sacred and feared by the G’yel, at least from what Lydia told him. The man couldn’t help but chuckle at the creature’s reaction to seeing him so close to one.
“Adorin?” came a deep voice from the entryway out of sight.
“In here,” he responded, not wanting to move from such a comfortable position. Metal bootsteps rushed around the corner to the pen, and Vicco gasped.
“How long have you been stuck like that?” He froze, looking at the giant bear-like creature. “Don’t… move. I’ll get the handler.”
“What are you talking about?” Adorin sighed and stumbled to his feet, wiping the dirt from his pants before walking over through the door of the pen, shutting it behind him. “She’s harmless.”
“No, she’s not.” Vicco’s eyes shifted from Adorin to O’lua. “She’s killed and eaten six people since they put her here.”
“Good on her,” Adorin muttered, the words pouring from his lips with little thought. The yowlerback getting revenge on those that held her in captivity made him smile for a moment, but then he felt a twinge of guilt for having enjoyed the thought.
Vicco’s curiosity led him closer to the pen, and O’lua erupted in a fit of rage, swiping her massive paws through the bars at the armored man. He jumped away, and she calmed back down. That was the first time Adorin had ever seen her behave that way, but he’d never seen anyone get close to her before either.
“How did she not eat you?” Vicco asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I have been around yowlerbacks most of my life. I trust them more than I do most people. At least they are predictable. They either like you or they eat you.”
The larger man’s mouth hung open, the look of amazement still plastered on his face.
“That’s impressive,” he said, his lips curling into an affectionate smile. It made Adorin’s heart race. “You must be really special.”
“Perhaps.” Adorin strolled along the concrete path toward the middle of the courtyard before sitting on one of the granite benches. “It is nice being out here away from Tauh. It is quiet, aside from the G’yel growling at me.”
“He’s still upset?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Adorin asked with a light chuckle. He paused and remembered something. “Did you get the lord’s schedule?”
“Yes,” Vicco replied, his tone dropping as he sat on the bench next to the smaller man. “It is frustrating how I’ve gone from being a captain to part-time zoo keeper in just over a day.”
“Well, at least you didn’t go from healer to a G’yel’s personal masseur.”
The captain burst into laughter, his eyes watering as Adorin glared at him.
“I still can’t get the image out of my head. Why did he take his loincloth off?” There was something contagious about Vicco’s laugh causing Adorin to slip from serious to shaking his head with a grin.
“I am sure he wished to humiliate me,” he replied, his stare shifting to the G’yel.
“That’s the second time you’ve hinted at some kind of understanding. Yesterday you said he knows. Do G’yel actually think as we do?”
“Oh, they do,” Adorin said sharply. “They are much more intelligent than you think they are, even able to learn our language.”
“Really, now.” Vicco let out another laugh, but Adorin didn’t join in.
“I am serious. Remember the G’yel I mentioned yesterday? The one I saved?” Vicco nodded, removing a gauntlet to wipe his eyes. “He understood and spoke. They are cunning and deadly, and they definitely know our language—or at least that one did.” His eyes narrowed on the G’yel in the pen. “This one seems rather stupid, though.”
Adorin scrutinized the G’yel’s reaction to his words. He had been doing this since that night he changed the beast’s bandages. There was no reaction.
“Do you suspect this G’yel of understanding us?” Vicco asked.
“I do not know.” Adorin looked back at the captain and shrugged. “There are times I see something in his face, something he may be hiding. But that is probably me being paranoid around him. He is not predictable like the other beasts because he is not an animal.”
The G’yel snorted and turned around, limping back to his corner. Something caught Adorin’s eye. There was a slight dip in the creature’s hamstring. He had never really looked at the G’yel from behind before.
A chill rocked his spine as the vivid memories returned. The sound of the captain’s stomach pulled him back to reality.
“Vicco, could you leave me to my thoughts for a while?”
“Huh?” The man’s brow furrowed as he cocked his head. “I just got here.”
“Did you not eat before coming?”
“I uh—” Vicco gritted his teeth before looking down. “Kind of woke up late. Got a little too drunk last night.”
“That is not a good look for a captain,” Adorin said, his tone unintentionally condescending.
“And praising a yowlerback for eating people is unbecoming of a healer,” he snapped. “I guess we’re both unfit for our positions if we’re basing merit on our actions outside of work.”
“I never said that,” Adorin retorted, becoming increasingly frustrated. “Do not put words in my mouth. As a healer, it is natural for me to voice my concerns about overindulgence. Being a trained killer and one that sees no value in every life, one would think my reaction to the men’s deaths would please you.”
His words slipped again, and as Vicco shot up from the bench, Adorin knew he had gone too far. The way Vicco spoke and his carefree demeanor often made Adorin forget his rank.
“I’m getting breakfast,” he growled, crossing his arms before turning toward the entrance of the coliseum halls. “I’ll leave you to whatever terrible thoughts you seem to have of me.”
“Vicco,” Adorin called out, but the man didn’t turn back as he threw open the doors and disappeared.
Why was he like this? There were so many feelings he had trapped inside that he dared not let loose. Perhaps he was taking his own frustrations out on Vicco who likely didn’t understand. The captain’s cluelessness and Adorin’s fear of him finding out could have been the root cause of his anger.
He stood and stomped up to the G’yel’s pen before crossing his arms. He stared the creature down, wanting to see how far he could push to see if his suspicions were correct.
“I know it is you,” he muttered. “It was you that night, wasn’t it? You understand me, don’t you?”
He continued to study the creature’s response, but his eyes were still blank. However, the beast swallowed harder than usual.
“Speak!” he shouted. “Come on, coward. Speak to me.” He didn’t break eye contact. If Adorin was wrong about this, he very well could have been challenging the G’yel to a fight with that stare. He’d never be able to safely get close to him again.
The G’yel’s hackles rose like they did earlier and his ears slowly fell to the side of his head. However, the look on his face remained unfazed. That was all he needed to know. In a few careless seconds the G’yel gave his deception away.
“I remember your name,” he said with a smile. “It is something I have never forgotten because I told myself that if I were to ever meet you again, I would demand you tell me why.” Adorin swallowed and stepped closer to the pen. “Why did your people slaughter mine, Ralk?”
The beast’s breathing increased, and it was harder for him to keep his composure.
“Your body already gave it away, so you can stop pretending to be clueless.”
“I should have killed you.” Ralk’s voice was low and raspy, probably from not having spoke in a long time.
“I knew it. And I should have let you die,” Adorin hissed, his teeth clenching as he spoke. “Over and over I keep wanting to help you, not knowing what madness compels me to do so, and each time you remind me you are the enemy. You appreciate nothing. You respect nothing. You and your kind deserve nothing in return.”
Ralk looked down before balling his huge fists.
“I suppose it is time for your vengeance, human?” the G’yel muttered, looking back up at Adorin. “You have the upper hand, so destroy me.”
“Why?” the man asked before sitting cross-legged on the ground. “You have already done that to yourself. You are the one in the cage waiting to die, not me.”
“You know,” Ralk said, walking up to the bars, gripping them tightly. “You know the one thing I have been careful to keep from your kind.” The G’yel chuckled as he slid to the ground, sitting in a similar style as he locked eyes with the human. “I guess this is justice for you.”
“If you do not wish for me to tell your secret, then I will not,” Adorin said, his features as stern as the G’yel’s. “It is not like anyone would believe an Alacian in Nau, anyway, even if I were that dishonorable.”
The two sat in suffocating silence, each waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately, Adorin was the first to look away and speak.
“Why did you end up here?” he asked, finally able to take a deep breath.
“Because of you,” he growled, grabbing Adorin’s attention.
“Ah. I am curious to know how your predicament is my fault.”
“Because you saved me.” Ralk’s eyes turned to glass as he spoke. “I should have died that night. My people saw the wound you dressed and knew what happened. I was exiled.”
Adorin shook his head, letting his shoulders slump forward. “Maybe everyone is right about me. I do not save anyone; I only prolong their suffering.”
“My turn,” Ralk said with an air of impatience. “Why did you save me? Did you take leave of your wits that night?”
“I hear your Rhashian has greatly improved since then,” Adorin said, noting the beast’s flowing sentences. “It has nothing to do with wits, Ralk. It did not matter that you were G’yel, pain is pain to all living creatures.”
“My life has been nothing but pain that you only helped inflict, human.”
“Then die bitter about it,” Adorin spat back. “I feel better knowing healing you was revenge in its own way. My way.”
Silence fell over both of them again, but there was something else Adorin had to know.
“Where did you learn to speak?”
The beast cracked a half smile, his eyes glimmering a bit. “Ah, now that is an interesting story. One I do not feel you deserve to hear.”
“It was only a mild curiosity,” Adorin said, lifting himself from the ground before shrugging nonchalantly. “If I die not knowing your story, I’ll have not missed out on anything of value.”
“You have quite the sharp tongue.” Ralk stood and crossed his arms. He didn’t appear angry or even frustrated by Adorin’s response. In fact, he was oddly pleased.
“And you have a long day ahead of you,” Adorin replied with a sigh. “As do I.”
“Ah yes, you are my servant now.” The human jerked his head up and shot the G’yel a furious glare. “I expect you will be treating my feet again, yes?” Adorin clenched his jaw and looked away. “Perhaps you could get in between my toes more this time.”
The human stomped to the side of the pen and picked up the brush he used yesterday. “Sounds fair. Afterward, I will give you another bath,” he muttered, slamming the wooden side of the brush against his hand with a loud slap. Ralk cringed.
“The toes… don’t need that much attention.”
“Are you sure, master?” He asked sarcastically, letting the brush slap against his hand again. “Because I only live to serve.”
The door to the menagerie opened and Adorin threw the brush in a wooden pail before dashing over to the bench.
“I’m sorry,” Vicco said as he walked into the courtyard. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”
“No, the fault is mine.” Adorin caught his breath and took a seat, briefly glancing at Ralk before looking back at the captain. “I say things without thinking sometimes.”
Vicco smiled, seeming relieved that the tension had disappeared between them so quickly.
“Well, I suppose the G’yel needs some exercise,” he said, looking over at the pen. “Perhaps he has calmed down.”
“I do not think he will be a problem.” He glanced at Ralk. “Maybe if he behaves, we can take him out of that cage more often,” Adorin said, a little louder so Ralk could hear him.
The G’yel’s tail wagged for a moment before dropping back to its regular position.