The news that they couldn’t harbor in Arisle came as a blow to Denny, as he had been quite eager to see his sister and family again. In an attempt to make up for the disappointment, Life took him along for the debriefing that evening. He was ignored by the Feoreans for the majority of it, until they asked him to give as much information as possible with regards to Korvalstieniav itself, and Visnek’s lodgings especially. As a result, Denny took great delight describing every detail.
The meeting lasted all evening and eventually had to reconvene the following day. It was asked that Mila be present as well, and once she had consented, she gave her own description of Korvalstieniav and Visnek’s lodgings in broken Arislean with Denny helping to translate.
The following day they levied Life with a heavy fine for leaving his post in Feor to risk a solo mission, which had to be paid in full upon returning to Feor. The fine was so accurate, he was quite someone had carefully determined the maximum amount they could charge him that he could actually pay.
Though losing the money hurt, having Denny again made it worthwhile; he also hoped despite giving away the secret of steam technology that he could still turn a profit with his original ship design and production. Being the first steam ship builder certainly had to carry some sway in Feor—as well as the Jarae name.
Before the week was out they had regretfully put Arisle behind them; it was not the homecoming any of them had wanted, and Denny did not take it well knowing that his sister, who had risked her life to get word to Life about Denny’s capture, still didn’t know that he was safe.
Life sympathized, though he was eager to get back to Feor and show Denny all of the things he had spent the last seven years building up.
When they were finally allowed to rendezvous with the Phoenix, they ran into complications reclaiming her, as she and her crew had been taken over by the Feorean war effort. It was only Paramis’ authoritative voice that finally got the ship, and her crew, handed back over.
Her supplies were so low that the Phoenix needed to be towed; the crew would run out of food if they had to spend six months sailing back.
It should have been as peaceful sailing from Arisle to Feor as it had been sailing from Korvalstieniav to Arisle, but it wasn’t. It had been summer in Arisle when set sail out, but as they passed the equator and approached Feor, the weather slipped into winter. The drought in Feor didn’t extend over the Aegappa Ocean and as a result they were wet more often than not. Towing the Phoenix also obscured most the stern view and gave a foreboding sense of being followed.
The marvels of ship life had worn for Denny, and on days that the waters were particularly chopped, he was often sick. His lute did not take well to the damp, which meant he rarely took it out to play, and not playing made him restless. With the added crew of the Phoenix and inability to resupply, they went on unappetizing rations, and their coal supply ran low—which mean they often forewent using steam at all.
As a result it took them over four months to reach the Feorean coast; significantly less time than it would have taken them in the Phoenix alone, but longer than they had anticipated. The sight that greeted them was an impressive one indeed—commerce had returned to Feor, but in the form of shipyards. Steam ships clogged the ports all along the northern coast, and where they didn’t there were half-built ships being built. The amount of work that had been done in seven months was quite impressive.
After negotiating docking fees—they had no cargo and no itinerary—they were finally given clearance to dock in Misanti. It was no surprise to anyone then, when they finally separated the ships and put the anchor down in the harbor, that Paramis gave the crew of the Phoenix an extended shore leave, with no definite date on when to return. They weren’t going to be doing any international trade with Arisle any time soon. Life certainly had no desire to get back on a ship just yet.
With all his belongings packed up and the Lightning securely moored, Life caught up with Kovel on the docks, as he made his way off the ship. “You’re sure you want to take your shore leave on the Phoenix?”
Kovel chuckled. “I’m certain. I’m used to living on a ship these days, and . . . well.” He smiled ruefully.
“I’m sure Amist staying there has nothing to do with your decision.”
Kovel shrugged helplessly. “I promise to visit you and Den at your place sometime. Especially if you serve something better than salted meat and hard tack!”
“I can assure you at least that. You’re welcome any time—all of you.”
Kovel put his hand out and gave Life’s arm firm grasp. “And you’re sure you don’t want to take Mila back with you? I’ve warmed up to her, don’t get me wrong, and I’m grateful she saved my life, but she is still Korvalstieniav. I don’t especially want to live with her if I don’t have to.”
Life checked that neither Mila nor Denny were nearby him. “The choice is hers and Paramis’. If Paramis trusts her on the ship with you and that is what Mila chooses, then the choice is out of our hands.” He squeezed Kovel’s arm back. “I wouldn’t fret. She’s a clever woman; I know Denny will miss her.”
“Well, you’re both welcome to visit any time.”
“Thank you.” Life shook squeezed his hand again and released. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other soon. You had better let me know before you set sail again.”
“I’ll see to it that we do, though I don’t imagine it will be any time soon! Good luck!”
Life waved as he continued down the docks, where he found Denny sitting on a trunk of belongings they had already carried out. He was staring forlornly at the amber sand cliffs that made up part of the distant shore.
Though Life longed to reach forward and reassuringly run his fingers through Denny’s hair, he didn’t dare do so in Feor. “You don’t look as happy to see land as I had expected.”
Denny started to his feet at Life’s voice, the wistful expression on his face fading. “Oh. It’s nothing.” He picked up the case containing his lute. “Are we ready to go?”
“Yes. I’ll find us some transportation.” He didn’t immediately move off, instead glancing to the sand cliffs that had caught Denny’s eye. Some days they looked bleak and imposing, but just then the sun was hitting them at such an angle they absolutely glowed. “You don’t find them beautiful?”
Denny didn’t look back, bending to pick up the sack of things Life had just carried out. “It isn’t that. I’m just . . . I suppose, after so long in the snows of Korvalstieniav, I wanted to see trees again.” He scanned the city and shook his head. “There are even fewer here than there were there.” He shook his head. “I’ve never seen a place with so few trees. The color palette here is so drab. I miss the green in Arisle.”
“There are trees in Feor. I’ll show them to you, I promise. I spent months south in and around Aeoss Leor. We’ll visit sometime. It’s . . . it’s a different sort of green compared to Arisle, but there are plenty of trees. You’ll like it.”
Denny nodded and his eyes swept uncertainly up and down Life’s frame. For a moment Life feared Denny was going to hug him, but he just turned away, slinging his lute case over his shoulder. “Do you live very far from here?”
“No, not very.” Life ached at his inability to reach out and touch Denny, and the fact that Denny knew he couldn’t—or wouldn’t. Clenching his jaw, he picked up one end of the trunk and began dragging it.
Perhaps Denny would forever resent coming here with him. Perhaps Life had been a fool to think that his love for Denny could survive the harsh reality of life in Feor. Life couldn’t pinpoint why, but being with Denny away from Arisle and the ship made their relationship feel completely different.
They eventually reached a thoroughfare where carts for hire could be found, though not one was eager to pick them up. Across the street, Life saw several Feoreans who had no trouble securing rides; the drivers, casting dirty looks their way, rode past Denny and him to get to them.
Life did not need to ask to know what was causing the delay.
After twenty minutes, Denny, biting his lip, quietly said, “Would it help if I hid for a while?”
“Don’t say that. It’s just . . . it’s a busy time of day. Someone will stop eventually.” Life set the end of the trunk down and stepped closer to Denny. “There are quite a few Arislean refugees in Feor now, and none of them have much money. It isn’t anything personal.”
The muscles in Denny’s jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth. He didn’t look Life in the eye when he said, “Did you ever feel so unwelcome in Arisle?”
“Oh, Denny.” Not caring anymore who saw or what they thought, Life gathered Denny into his arms, holding him close and stroking his hair. As a Fioryssean, he had been stared at in Arisle, but it hadn’t been like this. He had experienced some disdain, especially from the locals in Dunica, but it hadn’t been like this at all.
A few seconds later, to his surprise, a cart came to a halt in front of them. The driver was close to Denny’s age and had his long black hair tied back with a strip of plain cloth. A faint smile tugged the corner of his mouth. “You two going far?”
“No, it isn’t far.” Life gave him his address and showed that he had money for the transport.
The driver grinned and said, “Get in!”
The cart was just barely big enough for both of them and all their belongings, but Life certainly didn’t mind having to sit close.
“Just got in from Arisle, did you?”
Life smiled tightly. “That obvious?”
“Standing on the docks with an Arislean in tow? I’d say just a little.” The driver slowed for some foot traffic. “Any news on the war?”
“Not much to say, I’m afraid. The Korvalvs know what they’re doing; things are at a standstill.” He nodded to one of the shipyards they were passing. “I notice there are a lot more steam ships being built than there was last time I was here.”
“Yeah. Funny story about that; the guy who invented them just gave away the secret and then took off. Steam ships have been popping up like crazy ever since. Rumor has it the guy fled to Korvalv to sell them the technology to get back for a bad deal done to him here.”
Life grimaced and glanced at Denny, but he was staring into his lap, not even looking at the bustle of the city outside the cart window.
“Your friend sure is quiet. Deaf?”
“No, he, uh—” Only then did Life realize he was speaking Feorean and that Denny probably only understood a handful of words. He swallowed tightly. “He doesn’t speak Feorean.” Switching to Arislean, he turned to Denny. “Are you all right?”
Denny blinked a little at being addressed. “What? Yes, sorry, I’m fine. I’m just a little tired.”
Life smiled tightly. “I know this isn’t what you expected. I promise it does get better. And just think—we’ll have a proper bed to sleep on tonight, with no fear of a wave tossing us to the floor.”
Denny managed a small smile at that. “So long as I’m with you I’ll be happy.” He leaned his head against Life’s shoulder. “Will you teach me Feorean?”
“Of course, if you’d like.” He felt tense at the intimacy with the driver so close. “Denny, we probably shouldn’t sit like this . . .”
Denny didn’t move. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s the same as we are; why else do you think he stopped?”
Life didn’t get a chance to question how he came to that logic, as the cart stopped in front of Life’s old house. It was cold and dark and quite unlived in. Denny slid out taking his lute case with him. Life sat in the cart for a few moments, stunned into silence. Certainly he knew there were others in Feor—and even in Fioryss, where the penalty for such a thing was far worse—but he had never actually met one. Or, if he had, he’d never known it.
He realized the driver was waiting for payment, so he quickly handed over the money and dragged the trunk and the rest of their things out of the cart. He wanted to ask the driver to confirm, but the man just waved, wished them good luck and drove away. Life doubted he’d ever see him again.
Turning back, he found Denny eyeing the house warily. “You can tell no one’s lived here in months.”
Sand had blown in over interim, accumulating in a neat little drift against the front door. Life kicked it aside and unlocked the door. “It just needs to be aired out a little.” He unblocked the windows to let in sunlight, though this just revealed the degree of sand and dust that had blown in through the cracks and settled on all the furniture.
Life picked up a throw blanket, shook the dust and sand off of it and then used it to dust off the large leather couch. “I’ll get someone in here to clean up the place tomorrow.” He set about finding oil to refill the lamps, but watched as Denny came into the room. He traced one hand along the sandstone walls and then rubbed the grit that come off between his fingers. Life quickly got the lamp lit and hung it up, strangely comforted by the lamp shadow it cast.
It was the strangest thing to see Denny standing in his house, illuminated half by lamplight, half by sunlight. It was a sight he never dreamed would actually happen and now that it had, he felt far more uncertain about things that he had ever expected.
Wetting his lips, Life awkwardly stepped forward. “You must be dirty from all this travel. How about I draw you a bath so you can wash while I tidy this place up a little? We’ll need to restock the food as well, at least a little.”
Denny finally set his lute case down against the couch. “That’d be nice.”
It wasn’t hard to read the uncertainty in Denny’s voice either, or the fact that he was agreeing simply because Life had suggested it. It was absurd, wasn’t it—to bring a lover to his home and then leave him alone while he did the cleaning and shopping without him. A suddenly surge of love and protection shot through Life and he found himself crossing the room toward Denny before he considered what he was doing.
In a moment he slipped his arms around Denny’s waist and drew him in for a long kiss; doing so in Feor, even in the privacy of his own home, sent hot sparks through him. Denny yielded immediately; eagerly. His fervor was so strong Life was shocked Denny’s usual forward attitude hadn’t brought them to this the moment the door was shut. It only served to highlight how out of his depth Denny felt, and made Life kiss and love him more.
Suddenly Life knew what Denny needed; what he should have been doing from the moment they reached the port. With a soft grunt, Life reached around Denny and lifted him off his feet. He carried him the short distance into the kitchen, where there was a polished sandstone counter. He set Denny on top of it and, stepping between his legs, began kissing him again. He worked on unfastening Denny’s clothes, eager to use his mouth and hands and body to show Denny just how much he belonged there and how happy Life was to have him.
They made love there on the counter top and it was dirty and awkward and rough and it also absolutely confirmed their feelings for one another. It was the best sex they’d had since reuniting, based solely on the emotion behind it.
Afterward, leaving their dusty clothes in the kitchen, Life showed Denny the bathroom, where he soon had his large tub filled with steam-heated water. Luxuriating in the large tub together was an unparallel delight, and Denny was soon positively glowing. Life knew he’d made the right decision after all; that whatever hardships they had to endure, moments like these would make all worthwhile. He’d lived in this house for years and never once had it resounded with laughter the way it now did.
They scrubbed each other in between kisses and got out only when their skin was beginning to prune and their hunger demanded their attention. They dressed and went out together. Instead of hiding Denny away in his sandstone fortress, Life walked the aisles of the market with him, telling him the local names of all of the food they passed and how to prepare and eat it. After being together at home, the distance between them in public felt natural and unstrained.
They bought fresh roasted corn from a kiosk seller and then grilled sausage. Life laughed in delight watching the grease stream down Denny’s cheek and helped him wash up with sand at a public wash stop after. They finished the meal with cellar chilled koess wine poured over a medley of chopped fruit.
When they were satiated, they spent the last hour the market was open buying food to take back home with them. They walked shoulder-to-shoulder on the way back, Denny practicing his new vocabulary while Life corrected his grammar and accent.
The sun had set by the time they returned, and they spent the next few hours lighting lamps and tidying the house. It was suddenly a fun chore to do together. When at last exhaustion took them, Life pulled Denny back into the bathroom, rinsing them both clean of dust and sand. They went from the bathroom into the bedroom without dressing and on the freshly made bed they put to use the fine massaging oil they’d bought earlier.
Only a few hours later loud voices jolted Life out of a deep sleep. He blinked into the darkness in confusion, alarmed at the noise. He was on his feet by the time the men burst into the room, but defenseless and naked, Life had no chance to put up a fight.
“Liar aum Jarae den, I presume?” the man who had twisted Life’s arm behind his back asked.
Life didn’t answer.
One of the men brought a lamp into the room, and that was how they discovered Denny in his bed. The man who spied him first began laughing. “Hey, look at this!” It took only a moment for them to drag Denny to his feet. It came as something of a surprise to Life that they weren’t immediately beaten or humiliated.
“The gods blind me! I don’t want to see that.” Life found himself shoved by the man holding him. “Put some clothes on, fast.”
It was only when Life stumbled toward the wardrobe and caught a glimpse of the man who had been holding him that he realized the man was wearing a Feorean military uniform. He had always known Feor to be more tolerant of same-sex unions than Fioryss; surely he hadn’t been out of the world for so long that it had become criminalized.
“Hurry it up!”
Life found a linen shift in his wardrobe that hadn’t been worn in years. He pulled it on and turned to see if Denny had found something to wear. To his surprise, Denny still stood stock still where he’d been dragged out of bed, his hands trying to cover his nudity. He looked terrified.
When Denny noticed Life’s gaze, his eyes widened. “What’s going on?”
It was only Denny’s use of Arislean against the background Feorean that made him realize Denny hadn’t understood the order. Life pulled another dusty shift out and handed it to him. “Here, put that on. I don’t know who these men are, but that one,” he inclined his head, “is wearing a Feorean military uniform.”
Denny glared at him. “Even the Korvalstieniavs didn’t burst into homes in the middle of the night.”
“Here, what’s all this chatter?” The man in the uniform strode forth. “Doesn’t speak Feorean, does he? Well, that’s probably another fine.” He looked Life over. “Now, you going to answer me this time, or do you really want me to have to get physical?”
Life lifted his chin. “Forgive me, I seem to have forgotten the question.”
“Are you Liar aum Jarae den?”
His eyes darted around the room, taking in the three other men that had accompanied the officer. There was no way out of this. “I am.”
The man nodded and one of the others approached, carrying a length of rope. He spoke as he bound Life’s wrists behind his back. “Then, General Liar aum Jarae den, I am hereby ordered by Feorean Militia to bring you in on charges of treason against the high king, abandoning your post without leave of absence, and for unpaid fines incurred when you went missing seven months ago. I am to escort you into holding at the Mistani base and to secure that property which, when auctioned, can equal to the amount in the fine owed.”
Life’s eyes widened. “This is absurd! I just got home today! I need time to consolidate that much money!” He struggled against his binding, but found them well tied. “I never asked to be a general in the first place!”
“I suggest you not try to evade arrest, sir. That carries another unpleasant fine.”
Life stopped struggling, but he felt so angry and humiliated he thought he might burst into flames.
“What’ll we do with this one?” one of the men said, giving Denny a shove.
The leader shrugged. “Tie him up and bring him along too. Better make sure he’s not here against his will. We got people who speak that Arislean back at base, don’t we?”
“Sure do, captain.”
Life twisted on his binds again. “No, listen, please. Just leave him here. He isn’t involved in any of this.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, sir.”
Denny’s eyes were wide. “Life, what’s going on?”
Life found it increasingly difficult to switch between Feorean and Arislean as tired and bewildered as he was. “I’m being arrested for taking leave of absence without permission, and for unpaid fines. I’m sorry, but they’re keen on dragging you in with me.”
“Hey now, what’re you two going on about?”
“I’m just explaining to him why you felt it was important enough to break into my house and arrest me in the middle of the night.”
“Couldn’t have you slipping off again, could we? You’ve got a track record for that sort of thing.”
“Look. I won’t run away during the night. You can leave a guard posted here. Hell, you can all stay; I’ll make you tea and breakfast. Just wait until morning and then I can get the money you need.”
“I’m sorry sir, but you should have thought about that earlier. I’m just following orders now. If it’s all a big misunderstanding, then I’m sure you can sort it out on the base.” The man waved his hand. “All right, men, let’s get a move on. Hurry up, on the double!”
They separated Life from Denny when they loaded them onto the military wagon, and that was how he knew that these men had no sympathy. A well-liked and rich man would have easily been able to hand over the fine money and a sizeable bribe for each of the officers. He had had nothing but a naked man in his bed. If it had been his wife, he was certain they would have let them ride together. If it had been his neighbor’s wife, he would have probably been given a slap on the back. Instead, he had to worry about Denny being lost and confused—or worse.
At the base of operations, he caught a glimpse of Denny as they were led out of the wagon and into the holding cells. Though he had expected it, Life was unsettled that they put Denny into a separate cell. He was so far away Life couldn’t even speak to him across the corridor. His thin shift was cold and provided no warmth from the cooled sandstone cell. He felt alone and helpless and sick with guilt over putting Denny through this.
How wonderful the day had gone; Life was not someone who cried easily, but to be finished off like this put him close to tears.
He could only imagine how much worse it was for Denny, who was more prone to tears, and who was in a foreign country and couldn’t understand anything anyone said.
Were the gods coming to take their revenge now that he was finally back within their jurisdiction?