“Are you sure about this?” Vicco eyed the G’yel nervously, keeping his sword drawn. “You might be able to calm yowlerbacks, but you said yourself that G’yel are different.”
“If he wanted to kill me, he would have done so many times. Plus, there is nowhere for him to run if he tried.”
Adorin looked around at the high walls that lined the center of the coliseum. The fighting area was enormous, several hundred arms in length and width. Above the walls of the fighting pits spread stairs and balconies, with more stairs and balconies on top of those. Above that was a clear blue sky, as though they were standing in the calm of a cyclone.
The suns had not risen high enough to peek over the edge, and it was cool enough to feel somewhat comfortable. Around them were weights of various sizes and shapes. There were also bars of different heights and wooden weapons and shields on a rack close by.
“I trust him,” Adorin said, and as Vicco looked away, he gave Ralk a slight nod. The G’yel returned the gesture before the captain turned back toward them.
“Alright,” the older man said, keeping his sword trained on Ralk’s chest. “Go ahead.”
Adorin slid the key into the iron shackle’s lock and turned it until a click echoed through the empty stadium. They unlatched and fell to the ground with a heavy clank. Ralk gently massaged his wrists and looked around.
“What is he to do here?” Adorin asked, walking over to the wooden practice weapons on the rack.
“Well, I was kind of hoping the G’yel would decide. It’s not like I can command him to do anything,” Vicco responded, shrugging his shoulders. “Perhaps he will see what you do and imitate it, but that’s assuming he’s smart enough to understand.”
Adorin froze, turning back to Vicco. “What am I to do?”
“I need to stand on the defensive in case the beast attacks.” The man scratched his head with his free hand. “Have you trained before?”
Adorin shook his head, his face feeling hot.
“Never? Not even in school?”
“My village did not have schools. I learned through other means,” he said, Lydia’s face flashing into his thoughts.
Ralk huffed and rushed over to the practice weapons, his sudden movement prompting Vicco to lunge at him.
“Adorin, get back!” he shouted, pushing the smaller man out of the way, his sword slicing into Ralk’s shoulder. The G’yel let out a whine before growling at Vicco.
“You hurt him,” Adorin shouted, moving over to examine the damage. Blood oozed from the deep cut. “He was coming over to grab one of these wooden things.”
“I’m sorry.” Vicco let the sword slide into its sheath. “I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Everything the beast does seems aggressive.”
Adorin gently cupped the wound with his hand, a little blood leaking from between his fingers. “Do you have bandages? Medicine?”
“I do, but they are back at the barracks.”
“Then go get them. I’ll stop the bleeding,” Adorin said, removing his raggy shirt before ripping it into strips of fabric.
Vicco shook his head. “I can’t leave you alone with him. Those are orders.”
“Tauh’s lab is close, go to him, ask for alcohol, hooked needle, and surgical thread. He shouldn’t protest since they are cheap. Get any clean cloth you can find and some water.”
“Did you not hear?”
Adorin grew frustrated as he slipped the fabric under the G’yel’s armpit, wrapping it tight at the shoulder before tying it off. The cut was at a place where he could slow the bleeding with enough pressure.
“Please,” he said, placing his hand back over the gash. “He’s not going to do anything.”
“Fine, but it is my rank on the line if you die. I’ll trust you know what you’re doing.” Vicco turned and ran to the doors, looking back briefly before disappearing.
“Damn it all,” Adorin muttered, pressing harder on the wound. “Are you feeling light-headed?”
“No, but I am pissed.” Ralk bared his teeth as he shook with adrenaline.
“Come, let us sit.”
Ralk pulled away and covered the cut with his other hand before sitting on the sandy ground.
“Do not coddle me, human,” he growled, turning away from Adorin. “I have had worse than this.”
“Fine.” Adorin crossed his arms and looked down at the G’yel. “If you would only speak, these misunderstandings will not happen.”
“Speak? To a human soldier without slitting his throat afterward?” Ralk bared his teeth again. “Do not be stupid.”
“Then I will tell him. He might kill you otherwise.”
Ralk took a deep breath through his nose and looked up at the human.
“If you let that slip, then I will tell him your feelings.” The G’yel spoke in an eerily calm tone. Adorin’s eyes went wide. “You know what I am talking about. You think no one knows, but I do.”
“That is a lie!” The human shook with fear, swallowing the dry lump in his throat.
“Please,” Ralk said with a chuckle. “You assault my nose every time you see him. I am surprised humans are so clueless. If this society is as stringent as some others I have been in, I know what would happen to you if they knew. And with a captain of the guard no doubt.”
Adorin relaxed and folded his arms again, a grin plastered on his face. Ralk grimaced. That was probably not the reaction he expected.
“We would have to put that to the test. Would people believe a G’yel over a human?”
Ralk grinned back.
“Would they believe an Alacian over a G’yel?”
Adorin’s face went cold for a moment, as if all the blood rushed from it. The G’yel was infuriatingly astute. They were both at an impasse, and though it was unlikely Vicco would believe Ralk, he didn’t want to take even the slightest risk.
Adorin let out a defeated sigh. “Alright, I will not tell, but you will need to be careful about how you move if you do not want more of these injuries.”
“Stop concerning yourself with me,” he grunted, his eyes flickering as the suns peeked over the stadium. “Why do you do this?”
“That is a good question,” Adorin mumbled. “You are not worth the concern, it seems.”
The doors flew open and Vicco ran in out of breath, supplies in one arm and a sword raised in the other hand. He glanced at Adorin standing over the sitting G’yel and slowly slid the sword back in its sheath before slumping forward, exhausted, sweating pouring from his face.
“I told you everything would be fine.” Adorin gave Ralk one last glare before padding toward Vicco to grab what he’d asked for. “You should have put these in a basket or something. You could have bent the needle.”
“Didn’t… have… time,” the man said in between breaths.
“You were really worried about me,” Adorin said with a smile, his heart fluttering again. Ralk let out an audible sniff and grunted a laugh. The smaller man’s smile faded to horror as he turned away and sauntered back toward the injured G’yel.
“Of course I was.” Vicco followed close behind, quickly recovering from his mad dash through the coliseum. “I told you, my rank is on the line.”
“Oh, right,” Adorin said, a wistfulness in his tone.
It was silly to think there was more to it than that, but sometimes it was hard to separate fantasy from reality. Being together like this was risky. Ralk knew, and Adorin needed to be more subtle.
The whole situation frustrated him. The smug look on Ralk’s face as Adorin knelt next to him made it even more unbearable. When the G’yel winked, Adorin understood what was happening. He was a bully, and there was only one way to deal with bullies.
“Vicco, draw your sword,” he said, winking back at the G’yel.
“Why? Didn’t you tell me he wouldn’t harm you?”
“This is going to hurt him,” he said, not breaking eye contact with Ralk. “A lot. If he so much as moves, I give you full permission to gut him.”
Ralk’s eyes went wide as Adorin uncorked the alcohol with his teeth and smiled.
“We will see who wins this battle, bastard,” Adorin whispered, loud enough for the G’yel to hear.
“He sure is calm,” Vicco said in amazement as Adorin scrubbed Ralk’s back. The G’yel lost in his insufferable attitude after being stitched up. He could have made it hurt less, but he had a lot of anger to work through.
“He is a good G’yel, is he not?” Adorin stopped scrubbing to firmly pat Ralk’s head like a dog. He wondered if perhaps he was taking this too far. He felt slight remorse for earlier.
The human resumed scrubbing, and Ralk didn’t move. He remained leaned over the side of the pond, this time not getting out or exposing himself.
The torches along the path lit the dark courtyard, and it was hard to see Ralk’s face. After his bath it would be time for dinner, then a fresh change of bandages for his feet and his new injury.
A sudden clack of the menagerie door startled all three of them.
“How is my beast?”
That was Lord Yanth’s voice. The noble limped through the doorway, supporting himself with a cane while being escorted by two of his guards. He’d heard that the lord suffered a terrible case of gout, and he’d been hoping to treat such an ailment. However, he knew little about the affliction, only how to treat the pain. If he was ever allowed into the library, he hoped to research it.
“Doing great my lord,” Adorin said excitedly. He poured a bucket of water over the G’yel’s fur and hopped out of the pond. “Though we had a bit of an accident today. Do not worry, I patched him up like new.”
“It seems unusually lethargic,” Lord Yanth said, stepping closer to see Ralk better.
“He had a long day of exercise,” Vicco chimed in, looking down at the blank beast, still lying against the pond. Ralk tapped on the concrete with his claw, grabbing Adorin’s attention.
“What is it doing?”
“I am not sure,” the young man lied, knowing exactly what that tapping meant. Ralk wanted his attention. Adorin hopped back into the pond and the G’yel turned to him, the shadow of darkness hiding his face as he whispered.
“Indeed, we will see who wins this battle.” Ralk leaned in closer. “I am about to put on the best performance I’ve ever done.”
“Oh no,” Adorin thought to himself.
Ralk let out one of the saddest whines as he feigned himself struggling to get out of the pond.
“What is wrong with him?” Lord Yanth’s voice went up in volume as he examined the beast struggling to walk across the courtyard. “I thought you were a healer?”
“I—I am my lord, he just—”
“He’s worse now than he was when I got him!”
Ralk collapsed to the ground, clutching his paw as he yowled in pain.
“He must have pulled something during exercise,” Vicco said, stumbling through his words. “He was fine earlier. I’m not sure what happened.”
“Fix him,” the lord said, his voice low and threatening. “Or I will have you both in the coliseum in his place.”
“Sir, please, I—” Adorin’s words were cut off when a guard drew his sword.
“You are to tend to that beast’s every need. If he is not in top condition by Tulta, I will make good on my threat, understand?”
“Y—yes Lord Yanth.” Adorin swallowed hard before looking over at a grinning Ralk, still clutching his paws. He officially hated that creature more than anything at the moment.
“Aye, Lord. We will tend to him and go easier on the exercise.”
The noble sneered before turning away, limping back to the doors. The guards held them open as he walked through.
“Tulta!” he shouted before they slammed shut.
“What in heaven’s name happened, Adorin?” Vicco asked, growing concerned.
“I will take care of this. You go for the night. There is nothing more for you to do anyway.” Ralk had officially won. He had not expected this, but the beast proved himself to be even deadlier than before—and he didn’t even have to raise a claw.
“Alright,” Vicco muttered, squeezing his fists. “If only I hadn’t injured him. This was my fault. I am so sorry to get you in trouble.”
“It is fine.” Adorin placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Do not worry, I will have him in…” He sighed, looking over at Ralk pointing to his paws. “Perfect condition by Tulta,” he finished, his voice monotone.
“I’ll do anything I can to help. Just ask it.”
“Sure,” Adorin said quickly as he slid his bare feet across the cool concrete toward the pathetic creature.
“Should I help you get him back in his pen?”
“No, I can deal with him.”
“Alright,” Vicco said, pointing to the long cords near the door. “Pull on the left rope if you need a guard. I will see you tomorrow morning.”
Adorin didn’t look back, but nodded anyway. He couldn’t even look at Ralk, instead keeping his eyes to the ground as Vicco walked the path out of the menagerie.
“The toes need special attention,” Ralk grunted, making the man shudder. He stood with little effort and shook the excess water from his fur, most of it splashing the human. He looked up at the sky as a cool breeze jostled the silky dark brown mane on his thick head and neck. “What a beautiful evening. It is rare that I say that.”
Adorin remained silent, grabbing a drying cloth to wipe himself off before following Ralk into his pen. The G’yel lay in his bedding before looking over at the human who stood expressionless for a moment.
“Well?” he growled, flexing the claws on his toes. “They aren’t going to rub themselves.” Adorin sat cross-legged on the floor by Ralk’s paws. The beast sat up and patted Adorin on the head, mimicking what was done to him earlier. “Good human.”
“I guess I deserved that,” Adorin said, his voice exhausted as he dipped his fingers into the salve and worked them into the G’yel’s foot and toe pads.
“Mmm,” Ralk grunted, laying back on his bedding. “I thought you would have more fight in you. Nothing sharp-witted to say?”
“This is not a game, Ralk.” The human slipped his fingers between the G’yel’s toes as he was instructed. “What you just did could have gotten me executed.”
“That would have been unfortunate,” the G’yel said, moaning as the fingers slipped in, out, and around. “Because no one rubs my feet like you.”
Adorin sighed. “I guess this will never stop being funny to you, will it?”
“I was serious,” Ralk said, a deep, growl-like chuckle leaving his throat. “If you died, no one would touch those paws.”
“At least they are clean,” he said, his tone a bit more light-hearted. Adorin didn’t react, still staring blankly at the task. “Listen, human… Adorin—”
The man looked up, a bit stunned. That was the first time Ralk called him by his name.
“I was angry, but I suppose I went a bit too far.”
Adorin looked back down as he took another paw in his lap. “Is that your way of apologizing?”
“It is about all you will get,” Ralk snapped back.
“Fair enough.” As he pressed his thumbs into the other paw, a smile crossed his lips for a moment. That was unexpected, though a little suspicious. Ralk had the upper hand, but he didn’t go any further. He could have made everything much worse than it was, but it seemed like the G’yel felt somewhat remorseful.
After he finished, he wrapped Ralk’s paws in clean bandages and sat back against the wall, lifting his right knee. It was almost time for dinner, but Adorin wanted to rest for a moment and enjoy the evening.
It was rare to have cool breezes in the stifling humidity of this place. Between the torch and moonlight, and the sounds of falling water in the pond, Ralk’s pen felt more luxurious than his cramped bedroom did.
He felt an awkward stare, and he met the G’yel’s eyes for a moment before turning away.
“It is a pleasant evening,” Adorin said, half smiling as he watched the blood moon rise above the ivy-covered trees. After blowing a breath from puffed up cheeks, he stumbled to his feet and stretched. “I am going to get us dinner.”
“Mm,” Ralk grunted, not saying anything as he watched the human walk out of the pen.
“What is he thinking?” Adorin wondered as he lifted the latch and pulled a door ajar. “I wonder if his words were sincere or if he’s plotting something else.”
It wouldn’t have surprised him, but for now there was an unsaid truce. Adorin couldn’t risk making Ralk angry; the beast had too many ways to make his already difficult life even more so. The upside was he’d likely die in a week and be out of his life for good.
He shook his head.
That didn’t make him feel better, and it was the second time he’d had those thoughts today. It wasn’t like him to wish for the death of others. It seemed contrary to his very nature.
Now that he knew Ralk’s secret, perhaps he could get to know and understand him better. It was much more effort than wishing him dead, but there might have been something to gain from it. The one question eating away at him most was ‘why?’ Why did the G’yel attack his village?
He never thought about it during his grief, and he never had time to think about anything more than medicine and magic after. But after Lydia died, it was all that weighed on him. That and the crushing loneliness.
He remembered the events weeks before the attack. Lydia tried to warn them all. What fools they were to pay her no heed. But where would they have gone if they listened and abandoned the town? Tocataui? His people would have received no succor from the fat lords residing within the city walls.
“Adorin?” came a breathy, female voice, jolting him from his thoughts. How long had he been waiting in the entrance? “The doors can stand on their own, you know.”
“I am sorry. Good evening Sitha,” Adorin said, bowing swiftly.
“No need to apologize.” She walked out from behind the counter, pushing a cart of meat behind her. On top of that was a basket, likely the evening’s delicious leftovers. “Tonight, the lord was in the mood for lamb curry, but it ended up being too spicy for his child-like palate.” She paused for a moment, closing her eyes before biting her lower lip to hold back growing frustration. “But that is good news for you. There is a lot—at least three days’ worth, and it keeps well if it remains covered.”
Adorin’s mouth watered as the familiar spices of earlier hit him.
“Touli, rasmine, resh seed,” the young man said, taking in more of home with every breath.
“I made more than usual, knowing these are the spices of your people.” She put a finger to her lips. “Don’t tell Aldui. He gets rather upset when I use more ingredients than I should.”
Feeling a sense of déjà vu, he ran his pointer finger across his lips. “Your secret is safe.”
“Your people have such amazing spices and seasonings, but they are hard to get a hold of. It is close to ours back in Y’eshnov, except not as mild. I do love the heat.” She chuckled to herself. “I even prepared a dish for myself that I will eat after the cleaning.”
“This is very kind,” Adorin said, holding back a bit more emotion than he thought. “It is not every day that my culture’s food is enjoyed in this land.”
“The white-skins have very sensitive tongues and stomachs and rarely try anything new,” she muttered. “Such a boring existence. But there are those in Nau like Aldui who have a fondness of flavors from all around the world.” She laughed again as her voice went sharp. “Perhaps too much fondness. I will need to suggest lighter meals for him. I am sure you have noticed the buttons on his uniform? I am terrified standing in front of him for fear one may pop loose and hit me in the head.”
Adorin burst into laughter before grabbing the cart. He gave the woman one more bow, tears streaming from his face as they both erupted into more fits. “Thank you again,” he said, wiping his eyes with his free hand. “And have a pleasant evening.”
“And you do the same.”
Adorin walked back into the menagerie in time to see Ralk sitting on the bench looking up at the sky. He had forgotten to lock the G’yel’s pen, another mistake that could have cost him. Thankfully no one was out and Ralk didn’t decide to go wandering the halls.
He wasn’t stupid. There were guards stationed throughout the structure, and he likely knew about the gates blocking this area from the rest of the coliseum.
“I have your dinner,” Adorin said softly, walking up behind the G’yel.
“You forgot to—”
“Yes, I know,” the young man replied, sighing before sitting on the other end of the bench. “It has been a tiring day, but there is no harm in you sitting out here, is there?”
“Mm.” Ralk didn’t look over, instead kept his eyes fixated on the moon. The pale red light glistened in his azure gaze, making his irises appear almost black.
Adorin turned his focus to the moon as well, and a strong breeze blew into the courtyard. An orchestra of night insects serenaded the two as the distant bustling of downtown grew fainter.
“I will finally get my chance to be at peace,” Ralk grunted, keeping the same pose as earlier.
“What do you mean?”
“I do not know what kind of challenges I will face, but I welcome them. I welcome dying like this. It will be honorable, and I will know peace at last. I will be free.”
Ralk’s words hit him unexpectedly hard. It was hopeless for a G’yel trapped in human society, exiled from his kind. How many times had he wished for death? Had he ever thought about taking his own life?
“I am sorry,” Adorin said. “I did not know that I was damning you by saving you. I only wanted you to live.”
“Why?” Ralk tore his gaze away from the sky and glared at the human.
“I do not know,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Perhaps I saw something worth saving that night, but I do not have the answer you seek.”
“None of your actions makes sense to me,” Ralk said, now turning all the way to face Adorin, his powerful legs straddling the bench. “You should want me dead. My people killed yours, you now have to serve me, and I hold onto your secret. This type of foolishness would mean your death if you were G’yel.”
“Then I am glad I am human.” Adorin turned to face Ralk. It was the first time they talked like this, calm and aware of each other. “Well, I am glad I am Alacian.”
“Do you think your race is better than other humans?”
“No!” Adorin shouted a little too loudly. Ralk picked up on what he was thinking alarmingly fast. He lowered his voice again. “I do not.”
“Do you think you are better than me?”
Adorin said nothing; instead, he looked away. He didn’t have to protest, and he didn’t have to answer. The silence would answer for him.
“I suppose that is fair,” Ralk muttered. “What I am about to tell you is not me asking for forgiveness or understanding, but I do believe you should know.”
The human snapped his focus back to Ralk before sitting in the same position, leaning forward in anticipation. Perhaps these would be answers.
“I did not want to see your village raised or your people slaughtered, but what had been put in motion could not be stopped. I do not like remembering my betrayal of my own people, but I sent warnings. I sent many warnings, but the humans remained.”
Adorin’s face turned to ice.
“It was you that told Lydia?”
Ralk bared his teeth, and his ears sunk off to the side as he winced.
“I am hungry,” the G’yel stood and padded over to the cart, uncovering the slabs of meat contained within. He grabbed a hunk and shoved it into his mouth, slobber and juices flying from the sides and dribbling down his chin.
Adorin picked up his basket and carried it to the bench. He lifted the cover but the familiar scents no longer made him hungry. Images of death and burned corpses danced through his thoughts like an ember sprite. He closed his eyes and set the basket on the ground before looking back.
“Did you know Lydia?”
Ralk swallowed and lowered the meat from his mouth. His ears remained low, but there was something sad in his stare.
“I did,” he replied. “Most of my kind knew of her. Even the beasts of the forest knew her name.”
“She never mentioned you,” Adorin said quickly, a bit skeptical. He thought he knew his mentor—his second mother. She kept no secrets, so why this? “I never saw you when I visited?”
“I was there,” he said, dropping the meat into the cart before walking over to the pond to wash his face and hands. Adorin followed. “I saw you often. I knew the times of day you came, and I kept my distance until you left.”
“What did you want with her?” Adorin’s brows furrowed. “It could not have been learning medicine. You are definitely not the healing type.”
“You are right,” he said, a dream-like smile inching up the corners of his mouth as he glanced back at Adorin. “Who do you think taught me to speak your tongue?”