I was sweating. I’d managed, in the intervening moons not to think of the things that fuelled my dreams and nightmares. I set Ili next to me and skinned off my shirt, letting my pendant fall back onto my chest, unbuckled my kilt and slid under the covers of the bed. Like all Yeoli beds it was softer than I was used to. A stack of feather ticks or wool-stuffed mattresses in a box frame to hold everything together with feather quilts and sheepskins on top and enormous feather pillows. I pulled the quilts up over my cold hands.
“I guess we have time for some stories now,” I said.
Gannara nodded. “We’re in a safe place. Safer than in Arko. I want to know how you know Ch’venga. You used to go to the Mezem, I know.”
“I helped teach him his first Arkan.”
“You did? I thought his boy did.”
I had to smile. “Well, he said he didn't understand what okas and fessas and aitzas were... I was eleven and thought of him as 'My gladiator', arrogant little snot that I was. And I barged into his room at the Mezem... or tried to and found he'd locked the door.
“Really?” I’d intrigued him.
“Yeah. I could have had my Mahid break the door down. He taught me to say 'can I come in please. I never told you all of this, I guess because it was too dangerous you knowing... with Amitzas. Now, I can.”
“Yeah, we're fikked if he finds us now anyway. Those Mahid try to chase us here... anyone sees a hair of them, they're dog-meat.” I guess, but I hope Joras isn't one of them. He's been taught how to act like a normal Arkan, so these people wouldn't know him as Mahid.
“I'm hoping Amitzas wouldn't even think of looking here.”
“No, he'd be expecting you to stay in the empire somewhere, and he wouldn't think you'd be able to help me at all.”
Gan giggled. I smiled back at him. “So Ch’venga was teaching you manners.”
I shrugged. “I didn't know the difference between ‘Let me in!’ And ‘May I come in please?’ I’d never had to ask for anything. I just took it.”
“Hmm. You were the Heir. The Spark of the Sun’s Ray…” He tossed the idea away with a head and hand toss, so like Chevenga. “Eh, you were the Imperator's son.” I told Gan and Ili the rest of that story and Gan laughed when he found out that Chevenga had hugged me the first time then.
“And you didn’t think he wanted you as as sex boy because he touched you?”
“No… well, I asked him and he didn’t touch me like that.”
Gan got up and got us some water from the pitcher, and I talked. I told them about sneaking down to the Mezem and the lessons Chevenga taught me. I talked about the political lessons.
I told Gan about the secret way out of the Marble Palace and they boys chasing me to the Mezem and Manas the Wolf’s suicide and the morgue and… all of it. Gan, if anyone, deserved to know. His face was calm and I worried more and more what he must be thinking of me. What was he thinking? Was I losing him earlier than I thought? My stomach clenched. It didn’t matter. He would be safer away from me, and back with his family. Safe home.
Ili went to play with his bears for a while but came back, listening wraptly when I talked about how the fat guy had introduced us and how he’d peed on me.
“I peed on you?” He bounced on me, giggling.
“Yeha.” I looked into his eyes, so like mine. He’d been going from a pudgy toddler to a lanky boy, but muscular not fat any more. His face was less like the fat guy’s now. “And Chevenga wrote me… since it was too dangerous for him and for me to visit him… he wrote me and told me that the way to have you as a little brother and not as an enemy was to show you how much I loved you. You were just a little baby and the fat guy was making us enemies and that was wrong. And you loved me.”
Without a thought, without a hesitation he flung himself on me hard, one of his knees just missing my vile organs, driving my wind out of me. “’Course I love you! You’re just a big poop sometimes!”
“Ow,” I managed to gasp. “Chevenga was the biggest poop.”
“He made me do stuff I didn’t want to a lot, but it all helped me. He was a better dad than the fat guy, who acted like a worse baby than you ever did, Ili.”
“What?” He didn’t let go his strangle-hold on my neck. “SHEFENKAS was a daddy?”
“Yes. IS a daddy. He has his own children and missed them and I think he ‘fathered’ me as much as he did because he missed them.” I caught my breath, putting my thumbs under Ili’s stranglehold. “He could see how much I needed him. He’s like that.”
“GOOD!” Ili was fierce in his loving me. “He showed you how to be a daddy, then!”
Even though I was only eleven, yes. He did. “So, Ili, can you let me breathe, in your love?” He put a smacking kiss on my cheek and my forehead and let me go.
Gan was looking at me with the same thoughtful look Chevenga used to give when he was figuring things out. “So he was your first really good friend, hmmm?”
“Yeha.” I had started using the fessas slang for yes all the time now, almost without noticing it. “He… he was the most important person in my life next to Bin…” My throat caught with tears and I had to swallow hard. “Binshala.”
“So why didn’t you just run, to his army before the fat guy could send you away with all of us?” Gan looked at me intensely. “I don’t remember much about when we were picked, except that I couldn’t take my eyes off the fat guy. And they took me away to make me into a scarred copy of the sem—“ It was his turn to choke up. I waited for him to catch his breath. “— Ch’venga Aicheresa.”
“He gave his position that Arko learn the vote to the bones, Gan. He’s like that.”
“Yeah. I’m still mad about that.”
I nodded. He might have to yell at me as the only available Arkan to be mad at for losing his cherished semanakraseye.
“So if he was your friend, why didn’t you run to him?”
I closed my eyes. “He… he…” I couldn’t get it out. “He’s not my friend anymore, Gannara. He hasn’t been for a long time. I… I tried… I…” I couldn’t force the words out of my mouth. Gan was looking alarmed as I fought to say what I should. I couldn’t.
“I can’t tell you. If he’s healed. He must hate me now.”
“What?” Gan made the Yeoli throwing off sign. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
I took a deep breath and clenched my eyes shut. “It was the fat guy. He showed me… how much I’m like him.” I managed to sob, through a locked shut throat. “And damned me to Hayel all at the same time. Gan. Don’t ask.”
“Min.” He took both my hands in his and I… remembering down to my bones what had happened with Chevenga… cringed. He didn’t let me go and that made it worse. “Min, listen!”
I threw my head back and forth, eyes clenched shut. “No. No! Gan, get away from me!” He finally, mercifully, let go my hands. I could barely hear Ili’s voice as he called my name. “All of you, get away from me!” I folded my arms over my head. My vile organs were stirring as if I had woken them by recalling my first true sexual experience but I was too tangled in the covers to throw a fist into them.
For a long moment I lay buried in the layers of the bed, quivering. “I… trust me, Gan. He hates me now. He must. I love him still but I am not safe to be around if the evil in me rises.”
I could feel him take a deep breath and braced for him to yell at me, but he was very quiet when he said. “Do you think I don’t recognize Mahid kyash? Come out from under that pillow and have a glass of water.”
I hadn’t even realized I was under the pillows. I fought free of the bedding, my hair all over my face. “Oh. Thanks.” I accepted the glass he offered me. “I’m sorry. I’m a little twisted up around Chevenga, amimya.”
Once I was sitting up again rather than curled tight around my pain I was able to smile at him, who looked so much like Chevenga. “You think?” he said. “Take a breath. Most of that is kyash and I can see why you don’t think about it. So. Once we find my home, maybe you should go to Haiu Menshir? Get rid of that?”
“Yeha. I guess. Maybe after I go do my research in Vae Arahi.”
“Idya. You can’t do anything easily, can you?”
“Yeha. And I’ve told you almost all about Chevenga and I, and you’re still avoiding finding out what town you are from…”
He looked at me from under his lowered brows. “I… yeah… I guess. Look… maybe both of us need to go to Haiu Menshir.”
“Min,” Ili said. “Gan, the Mahid hurt both of you? 2nd Amitzas? And Boras? And Mathas?”
“Yes,” Gan and I answered together.
“They did, Ili. I hope they didn’t hurt you at all, did they?”
He shook his head no. “Kaita told me… Kaita said… be like a baby around them. They’ll leave you alone longer.”
Oh, thank Selestialis. “Good.”
“So why don’t you go to Haiu Menshir and get fixed?”
“I… I guess I will, Ili. Once we find out where Gan’s from.”
“So let’s do that!” He grabbed the map book from where it had been dropped and flipped it open. Gan went pale but came over to sit with the two of us.
“All right, Ili, you can help me.” His finger came down on the next little town. “Kolanina... Inanga… He read names for a while, with Ili reading the Enchian next to the Yeoli. “Nakalai… that’s a big city.”
“Ah, but no thoughts... no.. reactions?”
He glared at me. “What are you looking for? If something sounds familiar? They all do!” He huffed, angrily. “Menichiya...”
“'tai,” I said. “But more... kind of like when you were ordering dinner you kind of twitched once but you said nothing was wrong.”
“Well, nothing was wrong!” he snapped. “I was just ordering dinner!” He was getting angrier and angrier as he read down the coast, down toward the Enchian border.
“You stopped once.”
“Did I? I thought I just ordered.” He’d obviously forgotten his reaction in the eating hall.
“B'ru, amimya, you stopped right in the middle.”
He didn’t answer me, just rammed his finger down on the next dot and read “Erealanai. That means ‘town at the mouth of the Ereala’.”
“Does it? Have you ever seen the place?”
“I...” He was greenish and swallowing hard. “I don't know. I just know what it means, all right?!”
“Kifaeranina... ‘ina’ means port. Like Selina.”
“I'm just explaining why so many of them end with that!”
“I understand.” Gannara was tense as a bow-string as well as getting more irritable.
“Theraha... Ateraigina...Imichina... I'm almost done. End of the Yeoli coast is the Enchi border. I don’t think I’m from a port town.”
“You only have a few more to read.”
“We should look upriver maybe.” He looked away from the book and Ili looked up at him, reached over and put Indispensible Bear under his arm. Gan twitched as though Ili had poked him.
“Thanks, Ili.” He cuddled both of them, and took a deep breath before freeing the book out from under the toy. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Just finish the coast. You’re almost done. Then we can look up the Ereala. It’s only a few more.”
“All right! Fine!” He sighed heavily and turned back to the map. "Mikeleya! Choramina! And one last big city, that’s all! Asi…” He froze again, his finger shaking as it pointed. “A… A… Asin…”
“’t…t…tai.” His eyes were full of tears, and he fought to stay silent but sobs forced themselves out between his teeth. It was my turn to hold hard onto him. “I… think… I think… that’s…” he took a deep breath. “That’s where I’m from.”
“A very wise man said it's good to let it out. That was Chevenga. Go ahead and cry, Gannara. I've got you.” Gannara turned his head into my neck and cried.