The late hours of the night were uneventful but sleepless. Adorin gazed at the cracked stone ceiling while lying on his bare mattress. It was second chime, and he’d need to be at the pens in five hours. He closed his eyes again, shifting to the side, using his upper arm to support his head.
No matter how much he pressed for answers, Ralk said nothing more. They both lost their appetites, and Ralk ended their interaction by walking into his pen and closing the door.
Why did Lydia keep this from him? It made little sense. Perhaps she feared retribution by the town if Adorin let it slip that she taught a G’yel to speak. But even after the town was destroyed, she still never mentioned it. He tried to remember, but barely anything of use came out of the tempest of thoughts raging in his mind.
He exhaled, letting the storm settle, and it didn’t take long for sleep to follow.
The forest was dim as the light of suns set in the far east, dipping below the edge of the sky island, the endless clouds and steam beyond catching fire as they billowed like puffy embers. It would have been dangerously late to walk through the woods for a normal person, but Adorin had friends.
“Co’aoli,” he shouted, surveying his surroundings. This part of the forest was thick and relatively quiet save for the okko’s that clung under branches, screeching their evening songs. They looked like little furry humans, but with broad, paddle-like tails for swimming when not climbing trees.
They didn’t make good friends though, always stealing the boy’s food or any herbs he carried in his basket. They were good thieves, but bad friends.
“Co’aoli,” he shouted again, his voice now cutting through the night insects and evening bird calls that started as the suns’ light faded. Gentle pounding on the ground got more intense, and Adorin beamed when he saw the giant beast bounding toward him.
He had known the yowlerback from a cub, and he was one of the largest anyone had ever seen. Co’aoli was never far when the boy was foraging, always keeping a protective eye out for G’yel that occasionally strayed from their territory. Adorin felt safest around his best friend.
The yowlerback slid to a stop, his massive, bear-like paws digging into the ground as he play-bowed toward the boy.
“There you are,” Adorin said, leaning in to kiss the beast’s snout that was bigger than the boy’s head. The animal purred in response, his arm-length tongue bathing Adorin’s upper body in drool. He laughed, throwing an arm around Co’aoli’s neck. While clutching his basket tight in his free hand, he allowed the lumbering animal to lift him, letting the boy slide onto his back.
Lydia’s cabin was closest, and he didn’t want to go back home tonight. His mother was likely working late again. She toiled in the fields by day, but stayed at the shop by night. His mother never let him go to the shop; she said it wasn’t a place for children’s eyes.
He never wanted to go, anyway. Lydia’s cabin was more fun than any old shop could ever be. As if he already knew, the yowlerback began romping the direction Adorin wished to go. There was a connection he had with the creature, as though they truly understood one another.
Adorin often wished he could be a yowlerback. Big and strong, and he could play with Co’aoli every day. They would be actual brothers, but he was only human—and humans didn’t have yowlerback brothers. He often pretended, though. It was fun to pretend to be one, or it was until Co’aoli took it seriously and brought him back a jaguru buck.
It was the first time he had seen one dead, its antlers chewed and guts spilled out. He cried so much, and he was so angry at Co’aoli for killing. Lydia ran to see what was wrong, and the boy dashed into her arms. That was the first lesson he learned about the harshness of life.
He knew the yowlerbacks had to kill to eat, and everyone needed to eat when they were hungry.
“Co’aoli wasn’t being mean, dear. He thought you were hungry too, and he wanted to share with you.”
He was still sad that something had to die, but he was also happy that his best friend wasn’t mean to the other animals because he wanted to be. He was also happy that the yowlerback thought of him enough to share his meal.
As they neared the small cabin between two broad, shady trees, a sweet smell of smoke and spices sailed on the wind past their noses.
“I bet she is cooking something delicious,” Adorin said, patting the yowlerback on the head. “It may be honey bread!”
Co’aoli roared with delight as he bounded faster toward the little house. He loved sweet things too, but there was never enough to satisfy such an enormous creature.
Adorin slid down the side of the beast, landing hard on his feet and hands, spilling some of the herbs he picked. He gathered them from the ground and hurried toward the cabin door, swinging it open.
“Lydia, look,” the boy said proudly, handing the haggard woman the basket. Though she looked many decades old, she was still spry on her feet. She had long, wiry hair with flecks of mossy green where dried palidweed had landed after crushing. The leaves were thin and easily blown around by the slightest movement.
Her skin was dark, but had lightened in spots with age. Uneven creases zigzagged around her mouth and cheeks, straightening near the lips. Deep crow’s feet led a trail to her lashless eyes, giving her the look of an elder village sage. There was softness behind her stare, but there was also an intensity strong enough to cast judgment on the gods themselves.
She wore a long, faded violet gown, torn and frayed along the bottom rim and sleeves. Precious prismatic gemstones lined her knobbed, spindly fingers, held there by thin golden bands. Adorin didn’t know what kind of gems they were, but they were beautiful.
“What have you got for me today?” She asked, handing the basket back over. Her voice didn’t match her face, sounding many decades younger. It was gentle and beautiful, especially when she sang her many songs to the boy.
“I—” Adorin paused and looked inside. He pointed to a messy bundle of stalks with tiny leaves. “This one is rasmine.”
“Those are delicious. Good in curries.” Lydia scooped the herbs out, shaking the dirt loose from the roots. “What else is in there?”
Adorin grabbed a red and blue speckled tuber, looking unsure. “Ta’ari root?”
“No dear. Look closer.” She set the herbs on the counter and walked over, pointing to the spots. “It is red with blue spots. Ta’ari is blue with red spots.”
“Oh,” Adorin said, looking down. “I bet they are still delicious.”
“Not quite.” The woman chuckled as she took the roots in her hand. “They are ti’ari roots, unbearably bitter and make a rather… potent laxative.”
Adorin shook with laughter. “I guess it is good that I did not try to eat them.”
“You would have spit it out before it would have done much,” she said, pointing to the basket. “You’ve got more in there.”
The boy shuffled his feet, not looking back up.
“They looked pretty, so I picked them. I do not know what they are though,” he said, pointing to the bright yellow flowers that looked like tiny evening gowns.
“Those are lady’s shade. Very beautiful, and when mixed with bitter berry and violet caps, they can help sooth and disinfect even the most serious wounds. On their own, they are sweet and make good honey bread.”
Adorin’s brows perked as he looked over at the open window which held four loaves of the tasty dessert. His mouth hung open and watered as the aroma caught him. A soft thud and deep, windy snuffles came from the direction as Co’aoli’s head popped in. His long tongue slipped around all four loaves before he thundered away with the treats in his mouth.
“You sneaky beast!” Lydia shouted, running over to the window in time to see the yowlerback disappear into the trees. She looked back at Adorin and laughed. “I should have known that would happen.”
“At least he is happy,” the boy said with a smile, a little disappointed that Co’aoli was so greedy.
“I will make us more with what you picked for me.” She grabbed the basket and stepped toward the oven, still lit and hot from earlier.
“Hopefully with no ti’ari root,” Adorin said with a chuckle, glancing at the basket.
“If I did, Co’aoli would think twice about stealing.” She stared out the window as the last bit of daylight faded. “He has gotten very big, and you need to be careful not to bring him around the other villagers.”
“Why?” the boy asked with a concerned look. “He is so sweet. He would not hurt anyone.”
“He would not hurt you, no,” she said, turning back to smile at Adorin. “You are very special, and you have gifts you are not aware of. Very few can befriend beasts as you or I can, but even G’yel, as strong and ferocious as they are, fear and respect the yowlerbacks.”
“Good,” Adorin sneered. “I hope Co’aoli eats all the G’yel.”
Lydia frowned. “Why would you say such a terrible thing?”
“Because G’yel are mean and scary, and I hate their ugly laughs.”
“You should not hate what you do not understand. Hatred is a circle, and it always comes back worse than before.” She plucked the flower petals and dropped them into her mortar before grinding them with the heavy stone pestle, making a yellow paste. “Have you ever spoken to a G’yel before?”
Adorin laughed loudly. “G’yel do not speak. They only laugh and growl and dance weird. That is what Thessa says.” Thessa was a couple years older than him, but she and her brothers would play with the boy back in town sometimes. Her father was struck by a crimson steel blade, and left to slowly die in the woods.
“There is much more to them than that, and they have their own language.” She grabbed a heavy sack of flour and began sifting it into a large bowl. “Did you know G’yel love honey bread too? They call it kolkaab.”
“Even their word for something delicious sounds nasty,” Adorin snapped back. “Do you speak to them?”
“I have.” She added herbs, eggs, water, honey, and lady’s shade paste to the bowl and began stirring until the dough was solid enough to knead. Adorin looked at her in shock.
“How do you know what they say?”
“Because I learned how to talk to them long ago, but I have since fallen out of favor of the matriarchs of their village.”
“Why?” The boy’s eyes were full of intrigue, but also a bit of resentment. Why did Lydia talk to terrible creatures like that?
“When you are older, my hope for you is that you travel the world and experience that answer for yourself. I could tell you, but you will not understand.”
Adorin scratched his head, his eyes following the skillful work of her hands on the dough. “What is there to understand? They are monsters that hate us.”
Lydia sighed. “ Do you remember coming to my cabin in tears because the other boys picked on you?”
“Yes.” Adorin’s brows furrowed. “The older boys told me I was weird for wanting to be a yowlerback, so they called me strange and stupid.”
“What did you learn from that experience?” she asked, covering the bowl with a clean, damp cloth.
“That I hate them.”
“Come now, no more of that,” Lydia scolded. “Tell me, what would you do if a G’yel wanted to be your friend?”
“Ew!” Adorin gasped with disgust. “I would tell him to go back where he came from.”
“How would that be any different from what those boys did to you?”
The boy grew increasingly frustrated. “That is not the same. G’yel are—”
“What if he was friendly, and you hurt his feelings like that? What if he had no other friends?” Lydia asked, her voice as calm as a light rain. “Have you ever been really lonely, and no one wanted to be your friend because others thought you were weird?”
“That does not feel very good,” Adorin said, looking down. “If he was nice, I would not want him to feel that way.”
“That is called empathy, child.” She leaned forward and kissed the boy’s forehead. “Since you have felt those emotions, you understand the stranger who feels the same. One day you will feel their pain even when you have not experienced what they have. It is something special about you. Something that will make you a great healer.”
“Can I really be a healer?” Adorin asked, his eyes wide.
“I would not have been teaching you about herbs if I thought you could not be.” Lydia rubbed the top of the boy’s smooth black hair and stepped quietly into the main room with the lit hearth. “Come, let us sit. The dough needs to rest, and so do I.”
Adorin followed her and sat cross-legged on the wooden floor, laying back against a soft, downy pillow near the fire. Lydia sat on her chair before placing the basket of herbs in her lap. She picked through them meticulously, separating stems from leaves.
“It would be nice to have a friend like a G’yel, if he was friendly,” Adorin said, looking up at the ceiling. “We could be strange together, but I do not think Co’aoli will like him.”
Lydia was silent, and the boy turned his head to stare at her. She was lost in contemplation as she sorted the roots.
“One day, you might meet such a G’yel, but friendship with one does not come easy. You will understand when you are older.”
Adorin rolled his eyes. “You always say that. Am I too much of a child to understand now?”
Something pulled at the boy, shaking him.
“You are late,” Lydia said, anxiety swelling in her voice.
The cabin, the woods, the purple haze of the evening out the window—it all faded to black as Adorin slowly opened his eyes, a blurry, plated figure sharpening into view.
“Adorin, get up,” Vicco said in a hushed tone, giving the sleepy man another shake.
“What are you doing here?” The young man sat up and rubbed his eyes, taking notice of the sun pouring in from the hall. “What time is it?”
“Nine bells,” Vicco replied.
“Two hours late?” Adorin wobbled to his feet and rushed toward the door. “You wait until now to come for me?”
Vicco’s boot steps clanked faster from behind. “It’s fine,” he said, catching up to the younger man. “I fed the G’yel. I figured after last night you could use more rest.”
Adorin slowed his pace as he calmed, exhaling softly. “Thank you. I could not sleep well last night.”
“It’s a wonder you can sleep at all on that mattress.” Vicco walked ahead and unlocked the gate to the inner halls. “You don’t have any covers or pillows?”
“I have not had them since arriving in this city.” Adorin’s tone turned resentful as he brushed past Vicco. “I have learned to manage without them.”
“That room is too small.” The more Vicco spoke, the angrier he seemed to get. “If you can even call that closet a room. Does Tauh pay you anything?”
Adorin didn’t look back to answer; instead, he hastened his steps before pushing the door to the menagerie open.
“Adorin,” Vicco grunted, grabbing the smaller man’s shoulder, pulling him to turn. “I know you owe him, but is he paying you anything?”
“Enough to eat,” Adorin lied, looking down. “My debt to him will take months to pay off, but after that, I will leave Nau.”
“Leave?” he asked anxiously. “That—that’s a shame.”
“Why?” Adorin turned toward the pens. “It will not be a shame for me. I am one more mistake away from being a slave or executed. I must do what I can to pay my debt and save enough to be free of this place.” He stopped by O’lua’s cage and reached between the bars to pat her head. She made loud chuffed purrs under his palm.
Both said nothing as Adorin examined Ralk, unlocking his cage before going inside.
“You just… walk right in, don’t you?” Vicco said, drawing his sword. After a moment of realization that the G’yel wasn’t moving, he let it slip back into its hilt. “I still don’t trust him.”
“Why?” Adorin asked as Ralk lay back in his bedding. The human knelt and lifted a paw in his lap, unwrapping the bandages before inspecting it. His feet were mostly healed, and the salve massage wasn’t necessary. Ralk seemed to enjoy it though, and it was better to keep the peace between them. “It seems as though he should be the one distrustful of you.”
Vicco huffed before stepping inside. “He looked like he was about to attack you. What was I to do?”
“I am not blaming you.” Adorin squinted at Ralk before picking up the jar of salve he left in the pen overnight. “It is not as though he could have told you what his intentions were.”
Ralk remained expressionless, but Adorin felt the G’yel’s leg muscles tense.
“Live with me,” Vicco said. Adorin dropped the glass container on the bedding.
“You need an actual home to live in.” Vicco knelt next to Adorin. “If I had to live like that every day—no windows, no place to walk around, or even a decent place to lay my head at night, I’d go mad.”
He wanted Adorin to live… with him? He’d be in the same house, sharing the same living space as the man he often fantasized about.
“Absolutely not,” the smaller man said sharply, forcing himself to swallow. He caught his words and tried to calm his emotions. “That—that is not a good idea, I mean.”
“I’ll not hear your objections.” Vicco stood and walked out of the pen before disappearing around the corner. “I’ll be back soon to take the G’yel for exercise, but in the meantime I’ll have the order drawn to move your belongings. There is another room I don’t use.”
Vicco raised his voice, interrupting Adorin. “I’ll have a bed delivered tomorrow.”
The menagerie door slammed shut, giving the Adorin no time to protest. A growled chuckle shook the G’yel’s body.
“Things are getting, as we say in my language, t’kirr.”
“What does that mean?”
“It is a word we use during the fertile season to describe the smell of sex.” He took in a large breath of air through his nose and let out a satisfied sigh on the exhale. “Your t’kirr is rather strong.”
Adorin’s face went hot. It was hard to look at the G’yel when he discussed such things. However, there was no one else who knew his secret except Ralk. He thought of something he wanted to ask, and perhaps the G’yel was in the mood to answer.
“Do your people fall in love?”
Ralk scratched behind his ears and shrugged.
“There is no word in our language for that. I was taught it, but it is different for us than for you.” As soon as Adorin finished wrapping his paws, the G’yel sat up next to the man.
“G’yel love their ne’aks. Mating is for procreation or for fun, but there is little room for more.”
“What is a ne’ak?”
A dreamy smile crept up Ralk’s maw as he stared at the swaying fronds of palm trees peeking over the menagerie wall. “It is a family. Very close. A G’yel without one would not survive childhood.”
“Did you have one?”
The smile vanished into sharp, gritted teeth. “Yes. Long ago. There were twenty-seven of us, but I am the only one that still draws breath.”
“What?” Adorin’s eyes widened. He lost his entire family? “How?”
Ralk buried what almost seemed like sadness behind a scowl, snorting before jumping to his feet.
“Let us converse about something else,” Ralk muttered, reaching his hand down toward the human. That was the first caring gesture he made, and Adorin wasn’t sure what to make of his strange mood.
He thought about the dream—which was actually a memory he thought he’d forgotten. It was strangely vivid, as though it happened only last week. The memory got him thinking about his empathic nature. Why did Lydia find this trait special? It was a curse and the reason for his troubles.
Adorin reached up, and Ralk’s rough, padded fingers swallowed his hand, his massive palm squeezing against his own. With a slight tug, the G’yel lifted him from the ground as though he weighed next to nothing.
“Then let us talk about Lydia,” Adorin said.
Ralk snorted and shook his head, letting go of the man’s hand.
“No,” he growled, padding over to the pond before sitting on the edge, dipping his freshly wrapped paws into the water.
“Well, what is it you wish to talk about then?”
Ralk looked up and grinned, his sharp teeth making whatever he would say next seem sinister.
“The captain,” he said. “I am curious to know what you plan to do now.”
Adorin sat next to Ralk, his legs gently splashing into the water.
“The man has already made the plans without my input.” Adorin crossed his arms. “Though as scared as I am, it will be nice to be out of that prison cell Tauh makes me sleep in. I almost considered sleeping in O’lua’s pen last night.”
“Hm.” Ralk ran his clawed finger and thumb through the fur on his chin. “I must admit, seeing you with her excited me,” he said, seeming to nod in approval. “Before I met Lydia, I thought only G’yel had the magic to calm the beasts. To see another human able to show such mutual respect and affection to one, it was… unexpected.”
“I always thought anyone could,” Adorin said, gently sloshing his legs through the water. “When I was a child, my best friend was a yowlerback. We were like brothers, and I loved him.”
“I never saw you with one before, but I had only seen you from afar a few times.” Ralk shifted as though he were uncomfortable about something.
“Five hunters died one day, all were found half-eaten outside of town. As much as I tried to keep my friend away, he would follow. One day, he did not answer my call.” Tears welled in Adorin’s eyes, and he choked on his words as he remembered seeing Co’aoli’s body pocked with bloody spear wounds.
He couldn’t speak anymore, but he felt a strong hand rest on his back.
“Ah,” Ralk said. “No need to continue. Let us change the subject again.”
Adorin nodded, wiping his eyes with the frayed collar of his ragged tunic. There was something comforting about talking to Ralk. He could tell him things he couldn’t tell other people.
“I recognized you.” Ralk’s voice sliced through the smooth ambience of the falling water. “That night.”
“During the raid?”
“Yes,” he said, looking down at the pond. “Though I did not fully recognize you, it was a feeling. That is what stopped me. If I had killed you, it would be like killing Lydia. I did not understand that feeling at the time, but these last couple days, I am noticing similarities between the witch and you.”
Adorin felt a warmth race across his skin. That was another unexpected compliment from the G’yel.
“She was my mentor.” Adorin turned, lifting his legs out of the water before standing. “I could never be as talented or as wise as she, but I am her legacy. I will try my best to live up to that.”
Ralk nodded with a grunt as he jumped to his feet. He looked down at Adorin for a moment, catching his eyes before turning away.
“He might like you too,” the G’yel said, as he walked over to the bench. He bent over and stretched his legs behind him, using his arms to lift and lower his upper body against the seat. “The captain. But his armor makes it hard to smell t’kirr. He always wears it.”
Adorin walked over to Ralk’s pen and gathered his basket of medicine. “Even if such an impossible thing were true, we could never be together in this city. The laws forbid it.”
“Humans,” Ralk grunted, still doing his exercises against the granite bench. “Pointless laws.”
“I have never been with anyone… in that way. It was always a thought, but there was never time. Now, when I am alone, it is all I think about. Living with Vicco will only make this worse for me.”
Ralk stopped and stood upright, stretching his arms. “I know what you need.”
Adorin cocked an eyebrow. “And what would that be?”
“An outlet. A nice brawl to vent all of that frustration and desire. As a slave, I worked through it, especially during the fertile season when I was most dangerous. Humans may not have as strong of a desire to mate as G’yel, but I would imagine it is at least somewhat similar.”
Adorin shook his head. “I do not know how to fight, nor have I ever had the desire to learn.”
“Trust me,” Ralk said with a smirk. “Get the captain to teach you to use a practice sword, and brawl with me.”
“I—I do not think that is a good idea.”
The G’yel rested his hand on Adorin’s shoulder. “Trust,” he said, his piercing gaze had an air of mischief behind it. Adorin wondered what Ralk was scheming.
“Fine,” he said, feeling a bit sick to his stomach. Even with practice weapons, he could sustain injury if Ralk took things too far. He pointed to the bandages on the G’yel’s shoulder, which were dotted with rusty spots where he had bled through. “Do not push yourself too hard today or those stitches will not hold.”
Ralk grunted, but said nothing as his ears pointed toward the door. Moments later it opened, and Vicco strolled into the courtyard. He stopped and eyed the tall beastman nervously.
“I see you are both ready,” he said before shooting a scolding glance at Adorin. “He really should not be out of his pen so often. You are giving him too much freedom.”
“How does him being out here but trapped in the walls of this place make him free?” Adorin pointed to the heavy iron shackles in Vicco’s hands. “And do we really need those?”
Vicco looked down at the restraints and sighed. “I suppose it is kind of pointless theater.” He dropped the shackles on the bench. “You seem a bit too fond of the beast.”
“We both have a lot in common,” Adorin muttered. “We are both treated with contempt and distrust, we are both trapped in a city we hate, and we are from the same sky island.”
Vicco cocked his head to the side.
“And how do you know that?”
Adorin felt Ralk go rigid next to him.
“Where else would the G’yel be?” Adorin asked, trying to cover his slip-up.
“I see,” Vicco responded, scratching his head before turning toward the door. Ralk bared his teeth at Adorin for not being more careful with his words as they followed.