Adorin watched from above as Vicco and Ralk brawled viciously in the pit. Something was different about their behavior this time. Before, there seemed to be a bit of sport to it, but now as wooden swords whipped through the air with malicious intent, it seemed more like an actual fight.
This angered Adorin more as he watched the two batter one another. Ralk was bleeding from his nose and one ear, and Vicco’s left eye was swollen after taking the G’yel’s fist in a surprise uppercut as he feinted a swing. There were large dents in Vicco’s plate, and five splintered practice weapons strewn across the sand-covered floor.
Despite Vicco having the advantage of armor, it barely leveled the playing field when it came to Ralk’s inhuman strength and speed. Neither yielded to the other, despite their injuries, and Adorin wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to sit there watching them.
As much as the younger man wished Vicco would leave, he couldn’t—not until Tulta. It was awkward now, considering how Adorin stormed out of the courtyard expecting the captain to be gone before he returned. That didn’t happen, and the three barely spoke to one another as Ralk ate. It was unbearable.
After another high-pitched yelp from Ralk and a labored groan from Vicco, Adorin stood and stepped down from the cement seats before taking the main walkway out of the coliseum. He reached his limit, no longer able to watch them both devolve further into barbarism.
Instead of taking a right back to the menagerie, he turned left toward the marbled lobby and monolithic onyxinth doors. Such an elaborate décor for a place of cruelty. The entire city was like that lobby, a beautiful façade hiding the decay and suffering from ignorant eyes.
The larger main entrance doors were too heavy for one person to open, so he walked further to the right, toward a single door on the far wall. As he reached for it, uneven footsteps reverberated through the towering atrium.
“How is my G’yel, boy?” Adorin turned back as Lord Yanth hobbled carefully over the slippery tiles, his cane clacking with each step. The man appeared to be in a more pleasant mood than the other night.
“He is doing well and has gained all of his strength. He is sparring with the captain in the pit.”
A smile slipped across Yanth’s face, dimpling his pale, fleshy cheeks. “Marvelous news.” He stepped closer, a few hands from where Adorin stood. “I see Tauh was right choosing you for this task. You have been taking excellent care of my beast. After speaking with your master about your work in medicine, we both agreed that a slave should not be entrusted with the lives of humans. But you seem to have a way with animals, so I am changing your duties.”
As large as the room was, the walls felt like they were collapsing on top of him. Healing was his calling. He was Lydia’s legacy, and without that…
“But…” Adorin caught his tongue before looking down at the polished, black floor. He glimpsed his reflection for a moment. Had his face always looked so drained?
Yanth cocked a brow and waited for the young man to continue his objection, but when it didn’t come, he continued. “You will be in charge of maintaining the menagerie during the night when the caretaker is asleep.”
Adorin nodded, trying to hold back his anger and tears. Being stripped of his freedom was terrible enough, but not being allowed to heal the injured and sick hollowed him.
“And Ra—” Adorin caught himself. “I mean, will I be taking care of the G’yel too?”
“Especially the G’yel. We need to keep him in top shape, at least while he has favor.”
Adorin swallowed hard. “What will happen to him after that?”
“He will fall in the coliseum, with the others that came before,” Yanth replied, ice in his cheerful tone. “It will be glorious.”
“Why not… keep him alive?” Adorin tried to be calm, but his voice came across as pleading. “I could take care of him.”
A burst of laughter shook the man’s gut. “He is not a lost pup, young man. He is a fighter, and will die a fighter’s death—bloody and in front of thousands of well-paying patrons.” The man’s brows furrowed as he looked at Adorin’s horrified expression. “Oh, don’t look so glum. That beast would sooner rip you in half than be a pet.”
The lord patted Adorin’s shoulder before limping in the pit’s direction, likely to catch a moment of the skirmish before it ended. What a disgusting human being. He thought back on what Ralk asked him the other day.
“Do you think your race is better than other humans?”
The answer to that question was simpler than he thought: all races were equally terrible.
Alacians were not immune to Nau’s corruptive influence. Though the city of Tocataui had been overrun by foreign elites, there were plenty of his own race willing to take advantage of those not fortunate enough to be born into wealth.
Why did everything seem darker now that he was older? Even looking back on his childhood, there were very few nostalgic moments outside of his and Lydia’s time together. But even in the worst times, things still seemed hopeful back then. There was goodness in everyone when you were a child.
Adorin wrinkled his nose before grabbing the door and pushing it outward. Children were imbeciles. There was no hope or hidden benevolence in the hearts of men, at least none of the ones that mattered—the ones that could actually change the world with their influence and power.
Why would they change things for the good of everyone when the status quo was working so well for them? Why work toward fairness and justice when corruption and tyranny had more immediate results? Slaves kept society going. Every beautiful city, no matter where it was built, hid the broken bodies of those forced to build it. Tocataui was no exception.
Adorin stepped into the scorching heat, amplified by the lack of trees and abundance of concrete that turned the front of the coliseum into an unnatural desert. Rows of statues many arms high provided the only shade for a half a parce until the concrete ended and the greenery of the inner city began.
It didn’t matter where he went, as long as it was away from there.
He followed the cobbled roads lined with shady fruited palms and sprawling, vine-covered oaks. Even in the shade, the heat was unbearable. There were hardly any winds today. During summer Tule years, no wind could be deadly in Ke’chetah.
Adorin hoped he would never have to spend another Tule summer on this island, but it appeared as though the season lived up to its name. Tule was the god of punishment for sinful deeds done and those that will be done. It was the most dreaded of seasons.
According to the scholars, Xayn’s dance around the suns was elliptical. It took four years for one revolution, and the years she was closest or furthest from the suns, those were Tule years.
During a summer Tule, the hotter months lasted twice as long. The opposite was true during winter. Both years were brutal and deadly when not properly prepared for them. Extended summer meant crops could grow all year; however, they could only grow if a nation overcame the severe droughts in the second half of the season.
But winter Tule was much worse, especially on the southern islands. Though Adorin preferred the cold to the heat, the dim light of the suns and the daily plunges in temperature meant food was harder to grow, and impossible when winter was at its harshest.
Ke’chetah sat lower in elevation than most islands, closer to the lava-streamed wastelands far below. Winter was never an issue due to its geography, and it all came together to ensure this region’s climate was as infuriatingly hot as possible.
Tempers were just as hot in Nau on days like these as shouting merchants and hagglers fought over price. It was no wonder even the plants on this island were so angry.
The disadvantages of being Alacian and a slave had their upsides while traveling through the city. He was invisible. No one acknowledged his existence, which meant no uncomfortable altercations.
It was hard to walk through the streets on an empty stomach. Every culture on Xayn manifested in the delicious smells overwhelming him from every direction. Even the scent of Alacotl wafted along the stagnant air, but none of the chefs actually represented the places the food came from.
His stomach growled as he hurried through the angry, bustling streets. After a half an hour of walking, the ground went from tawny road to green as he stepped into the unruly grasses and weeds that grew along the parameter of the city. It wasn’t far from his usual spot, the place he often went to contemplate.
He strolled along the patches of grass that thinned the closer he got to the edge of the island. The greenery turned to stone, and the stone became a rocky cliff’s edge, steam and gas billowing hundreds of arms below, obscuring whatever hellish landscape existed underneath.
Adorin inched closer to the ledge and gazed out at the vastness beyond the speck of land on which he stood. The steam was dense, almost solid in appearance, like one could step onto it and walk forever into the heavens. It stretched far into the horizon, contrasted by an invisible line that separated a cloudless azure sky.
He often imagined himself growing wings and flying over everything—far away from this place. Every day he came to this spot, he could look out in the distance with hope. Soon he’d be on the next airship to Nauctide or an island he might call home, finding the love he desperately wanted, healing the sick as Lydia taught him, meeting new beasts he’d befriend.
That wasn’t what he saw today as he stared, eyes devoid of hope. Instead of imagining exciting places he’d see out there in the beyond, he only saw emptiness. He didn’t have wings to escape. The world was no longer vast and full of mystery; it was limited to a single island in the sky, surrounded by nothing.
The edge was right there, so close.
“No,” Adorin whispered, taking a step back. “Ralk needs me, and I won’t abandon him.”
He let out a light sob as he knelt to the ground, sitting cross-legged near the edge. If Vicco’s gods did exist, they were as cruel as he suspected. Why make him like this and then punish him for who he wanted to share a bed with? Was all of this a punishment, as Vicco suggested earlier?
It would make sense. He was cursed to feel the pain of others. Those he befriended often died, which scared him away from others who might become friends later. Now Ralk would suffer because of this curse. The G’yel should have never revealed his feelings or apologized.
He blinked once, and the suns suddenly appeared lower in the sky. How long had he been sitting there? Time often misbehaved when he was lost in thought. Adorin couldn’t stay at the edge of oblivion forever. He had new responsibilities now that he was no longer a healer, and Ralk needed to eat.
The hair on the back of his neck stood straight as gentle footsteps approached from behind. He glanced back to see someone he barely recognized without armor. What was he doing there?
Though he was upset, it was refreshing to see him in commoner’s clothing. His sleeveless gray tunic clung tight to his broad chest, a hint of thick, black hair peeking up from the low-cut collar. His newer black pants were a bit looser, not revealing anything indecent, but that didn’t stop Adorin from making sure.
He was angry at the man, and he hated himself for still finding him alluring. His handsome face was swollen and bruised, sliced in multiple places from the fight earlier.
Adorin turned away and continued staring out across the endless white and blue.
“I had a feeling you’d be out here,” Vicco said, stopping next to Adorin before sitting so close their bodies touched.
“I was about to leave.” Adorin swallowed hard. He didn’t avert his gaze, though he could see Vicco intensely staring at him from his peripheral. “I take it you two savages are satisfied with your injuries.”
“Very much so,” Vicco said sarcastically with a grin. “Ralk won this time.”
Adorin folded his arms and scowled. “You both are making extra work for me. I will need to tend to his injuries when I get back.”
“He’s fine.” The sharpness of his tone made Adorin turn to face him. “I’m more beat up than him.”
“Good,” Adorin retorted, keeping his tone subdued.
“Good?” Vicco picked up a rock and tossed it over the edge. “You talk of treating his injuries, but you don’t seem to care about mine.”
Adorin forced a frustrated hiss through his teeth. “Because you will live. An injury—any injury he sustains might put him at a disadvantage when he fights for real.”
“He’s going to die, Adorin.” Vicco’s heartless words made the younger man’s stomach turn. “There’s nothing you can do to change that. He was bought for this purpose, and you can’t go on pointlessly worrying about him. He’s just a G’yel.”
“And you are just a man,” Adorin said, bitterness rising in his voice. “Your life is just as worthless as his, at least in Nau.”
“I am captain of the lord’s guard,” Vicco grunted, turning to face Adorin again. The younger man met his stare head-on. “There is nothing worthless about my life.”
Adorin grit his teeth and grabbed the captain’s tunic by the collar, pulling him close. He leaned in, and his lips pressed hard against Vicco’s. It startled the larger man, but he didn’t push away. He opened his mouth and their tongues met. The feeling was hotter than any Tule summer as passion burned in the Alacian male. That was all it was. Passion, lust… and a need to prove a point.
Adorin pulled back and pushed the man away.
“Your life is worthless now,” Adorin muttered, wiping his lips. He turned toward the city and stood, trying not to stumble as his legs shook. “Or it would be, had anyone happened upon us together like that.” The younger man eyed the towering pyramids in the distance with hatred as he walked away. “We’re all one mistake or misfortune away from losing everything in this life. We are all worthless to the masters pulling our leashes.”
Adorin opened the menagerie door, his heart still racing from what he did earlier. That was bold—too bold. It was risky too, but Vicco’s reaction was just as Adorin predicted. It was unbelievable. The guard captain found him just as alluring as Adorin found him. What were the odds?
A splash caught his attention as he looked over to see Ralk smiling up at him. The only part of him that was visible was his large, hyena-like head as it bobbed along the surface of the water.
“What are you doing?” Adorin asked, kneeling next to the pond. The concrete surrounding it was too hot to sit on.
“Surviving,” Ralk said, dipping his head under for a second before resurfacing. “G’yel are not made for this heat. I miss our island. It was much cooler there.”
“I miss it too.” Adorin looked back at O’lua who lay in her stream of water, rolling in it to cool herself more. “Yowlerbacks aren’t made for this either. Poor girl.” He looked around at the other animals. The only ones enjoying the heat were the ones with scales, especially the drake.
“Join me for a swim,” Ralk said as he stood, revealing his rippling, fur-covered torso. He didn’t seem as beat up as Vicco was, but his fur could have been hiding a lot.
“It is tempting.” Adorin leaned in and scooped a handful of water, splashing his face. “But I don’t want to walk around in wet clothes all day.”
“Then take them off.” The man looked over at the G’yel as he grinned.
“You have fur and wear next to nothing. They expect you to be indecent. Suppose the lord walked into the courtyard demanding to speak, only to see me naked in the pond.
Ralk reached under the water, bending slightly as if removing something. To Adorin’s horror, he pulled his soaked loincloth to the surface and flung it at him. The piece of clothing slapped the concrete with a sloshing sound. “Then wear this.”
“Ralk!” Adorin lowered his voice as he looked around the courtyard before staring up at the clinic window to make sure no one was watching. “Have you no shame at all?”
“You said yourself, they expect me to be indecent.”
“I cannot wear this.” Adorin reached down and pinched the edge of the garment with his thumb and forefinger before holding it away from him. “For one, it is too big.” He threw the loincloth back at Ralk. “And two, it was just touching your nethers. What is wrong with you?”
The G’yel let out one of his loud, whooping laughs as he picked up the cloth and dropped it on the edge of the pond to dry in the sunlight.
“You were worried about being naked, so I gave you an option,” Ralk said. Adorin rubbed his forehead with his hand. “What? They are clean. I have been in here for at least fifteen minutes.”
The man stared seriously for a moment before breaking into uncontrollable laughter. Ralk joined in, which made it even worse.
“Come, join me,” he said, splashing playfully in the cool water. “You know you want to. It is too hot.”
Adorin sighed and began removing his shirt. “Fine,” he said as he folded it neatly, setting it on the granite bench near the pond. Ralk lowered himself back into the water, his head peeking out as he watched the man undress.
Adorin loosened the straps on his trousers, letting them fall to the ground. As with his shirt, he folded them and placed them on the bench. The only things he wore were a tattered loincloth and a pair of thin sandals. The concrete was too hot to take them off before he got in.
As he walked forward, Ralk stood out of the water again. “Not brave enough to be free, I see.”
The G’yel grinned. “Come on. Be naked. It is fun.”
“It is the middle of the afternoon, Ralk. It is bad enough being seen in this.”
“Fair enough,” Ralk said with a laugh as Adorin jumped into the pond, splashing him in the face. The G’yel crouched into his usual position, and Adorin did the same, only their heads sticking out of the water.
“Thank the gods for this,” he muttered, dipping his overheated face into the pool for a moment.
“No more pen until Tule is over. We stay out here and never leave the water,” Ralk said jokingly as he dipped his snout under and exhaled, forcing bubbles to the surface. It was wonderful to see such a playful side of him. With each day, the G’yel tore down another terrible preconceived notion of what he was.
“We will get awfully hungry in here if we do not leave,” Adorin said with a laugh.
“You can leave the pond and get the food, I will stay here.”
“But you would have to come out to eat it.” Adorin leaned back against the smooth stone side of the pool, the suns lower in the sky behind him. Ralk followed, sitting next him.
“Then pretend I am a hungry basilisk and toss them to me. I will catch them in my mouth.”
They both chuckled. He did kind of remind Adorin of a water-lurking carnivore when he stayed mostly submerged. They both said nothing for a moment before Adorin broke the silence.
“I heard you won the duel.” The man looked over at the proud G’yel and smiled. “Vicco was not happy about it, or so it seemed.”
“That is because it was not practice,” Ralk said with a slight snarl.
“That was real?” Adorin asked, half already knowing the answer. Of course it was real. It was what drove him from the arena in the first place.
“Yes,” he muttered. His breathy response seemed tired. “We had something to fight over.”
“There is nothing important enough for you both to hurt each other that badly for.” The man glared at Ralk who didn’t meet his eyes.
“Of course there is. There are a lot of precious things worth fighting for in this world, and there always will be.” He finally turned his head and sighed. “Damn. We have to leave the pond.”
“Ah, let me guess. The stalls are calling?” Adorin said, dipping his face back into the water before taking in a mouthful.
“I did that, just now,” Ralk said. Adorin spat the water out, coughing on what he accidentally breathed in.
“What? Do not pretend you have not relieved yourself in water before.”
Adorin swam under the waterfall and held his mouth open, gurgling the fresh water before spitting it out. After he was done, he turned to Ralk and shook his head.
“What I mean is,” Ralk continued from earlier. “You left the arena today, and you did not train.”
“It is too hot for that,” Adorin whined.
Ralk walked over to the man and slipped a heavy arm over his shoulder. “Then we do it tonight, under the moonlight.”
“Why are you so adamant about this?”
The G’yel took in a deep breath, his arm pulling Adorin close.
“Trust me,” he said softly, looking down at the much shorter human. “This is important.”
The look he gave was earnest, but concerned as he held onto Adorin. As light-hearted as the conversation was moments earlier, the mood changed in an instant, snapping him back to stark reality.
“He is a fighter, and will die a fighter’s death…”
Those words screamed at him as he met Ralk’s piercing blue gaze. He could drown in those eyes if looked long enough. They were so different from before. The light danced in them as they reflected life.
It was hard to breathe, but he couldn’t break away. Adorin always thought he knew what the world looked like. He had seen it the same way since birth. The grass was green, and the sky was blue. They would always be green and blue. But his perception of the G’yel changed—and Ralk was much more than a friend.
As if on its own, the man’s hand crept up and brushed the G’yel’s dripping cheek. He swallowed the knot building in this throat as he realized what he was doing. Ralk already knew. The G’yel reached for Adorin’s hand and caressed it with his own, leaning into it.
Adorin could feel Ralk tremble under his touch—or was that him? There was a maelstrom brewing inside of him, a mixture of excitement, terror, sickness… and longing. He longed to touch Ralk like this, but he could never fully understand those feelings before now.
“This cannot… happen.” Adorin screamed out in his mind as the two stood there. “This is wrong.”
Ralk slowly knelt into the water again, pulling Adorin down with him until their bodies were fully submerged. The G’yel closed in before pushing Adorin’s back against the wall of the pond. His solid body was hot, pressing against the human as he leaned in closer.
As Ralk’s thin, strange lips met his, the world seemed to freeze in time. The water falling behind them went still, and the birdsongs fell silent. All he could hear was the pounding of the pulse in his head as he opened his mouth, taking in Ralk’s long, slender tongue.
Twice in one day his mouth was probed, explored… and satisfied. The G’yel was gentle but rough, bestial passion constricting Adorin’s wet muscle like a hungry serpent. How long had it been? Seconds? Minutes… hours?
He didn’t want this to end. How could Ralk make him come alive so easily? Every inch of his body quivered as his loins ached and throbbed.
“This is wrong.” The voice scolded, but his body paid no heed. Ralk was embracing him now, both arms wrapped tight around the human’s small frame, his claws raking across smooth, caramel skin. It hurt, but it didn’t. Pleasure—pain, it was all the same. Had they even breathed yet?
Ralk pulled away, his eyes wide and glassy. The water fell again, and the birds resumed their songs as time flowed, as it always had. The sky was still blue, and the grass was green…
But Adorin was different now. There would be no going back after this.