Joa wrung out yet another compress and placed it on Acan’s head, then continued sponging his body with the creek water.
It had been difficult to bring him this far. Getting Acan up on his back while still holding onto the Badjel’s leash had been the trickiest part. From then on it had been a matter of staying on his feet and continuing to trudge forward with only the occasional glance up to gauge the distance to the forest. Tall shrubs or thin trees started to make a spotty appearance and the air seemed to cool a little. When there were a few of the plants together, Joa would lean a little against them to get a brief respite from Acan’s slack weight. He did not dare let Acan down or even to kneel to give his screaming back and leg muscles a rest. He was not sure that if he did, he would be able to rise again.
Once they were within the wood, the trees grew closer together and the air was distinctly cooler. This gave Joa a much needed second wind and he managed to carry Acan in to the point where the sky was largely obscured by branches. Magic or no magic, what they both needed was water and soon.
Just when Joa thought his strength might have finally run out, the Badjel started pulling on the leash, headed off of the cobblestone road and deeper into the woods. Joa knew he did not have the strength to restrain the animal, so he let go of the leash and waited to see if it would run away as it had done the first time.
It did not.
Instead, it ran forward then came back to wait until Joa and Acan were within a few feet, then it dashed off again. After a while, Joa had heard the blessed sounds of water over rocks and tried to quicken his pace. The trees thinned near a gentle slope and at its bottom, Joa had seen the Badjel alternately swimming in and drinking from a large creek. Muttering praise to the gods, Joa had carefully descended the slope and gently lain Acan at the creek’s edge. Then he had walked into the water and sat down, then lay down, his head outside on a bed of pebbles.
The first thing he had done after his muscles had stopped trembling was to tear off the bottom of his inner robe and make compresses. Another piece became a wash cloth, which he had used to sponge the water onto Acan’s hot skin. He had considered putting Acan into the creek, but worried that doing so might shock his friend’s weakened body and make things worse.
He had been sponging the water onto Acan for some time now. The Badjel was lying nearby and the loop of the leash was once again around Joa’s wrist. He was no longer sure it was necessary, but he somehow felt better to have this connection to the animal.
“Thank you for bringing us here,” he told it. “In gratitude I give you the name Tosh, which means ‘luck bringer.’ I hope you will accept it.”
The newly-named Tosh wrinkled his snout and sneezed.
“Are you…are you talking to the Badjel, Joa?”
Joa’s heart stopped a moment then beat again in a quick rhythm. “Acan.” He leaned over to see his friend’s black eyes open and clear.
“What happened? Where are we?”
“You collapsed from the fever and the Badjel led us to a creek. I’ve been bathing you to bring the fever down.”
“But the water —”
“— may have magical qualities, I know. I don’t care if it gives us tails like snakes or heads like leaves of cabbages. We needed it. You needed it.”
Acan sighed. “I’m desperately thirsty, Joa.”
Joa took the jar of spirit wine, filled it in the creek and gave it to Acan, who drank until it was empty. Joa refilled it, drank some, and gave Acan the rest. When he came back from filling the jar a third time, Acan’s gaze was on the sky above, which was somehow dimmer. “The second night.”
“Acan, we should go back. You can be treated by a doctor, get the supplies, and return to the Gateworld.”
“If the Daitoh gives his permission.”
“Why wouldn’t he? Doesn’t he need the Truffles for the Competition?”
“Yes, but I don’t have to be the one that finds them.”
“But you have Tosh, I mean, the Badjel.”
“Tosh, is it? Yes, I have…Tosh…now. But when we get back, the Daitoh’s Chamberlain may rule that he should be returned to the foreigners. Then those same foreigners could be induced to give or sell him to the Daitoh.”
Joa was exasperated. “Why are you so cynical?”
“Joa — I have spent the last ten years at Court and the last five of those licking the sole of every sandal in my reach. You must believe me when I say I know how the Court – and the Daitoh – operate.” He sat up slowly and looked at the slope. “There’s that mossy stuff there on the bank. Let’s rest up there where we will have fewer pebbles poking into us.”
Joa helped him to stand, and followed by Tosh, they walked halfway up the slope to where a few young trees grew in a cluster. Joa took off his outer robe and spread it over the moss, then helped Acan do the same. They sat down and Joa re-bandaged the knife wound, which was still red but did not look any worse.
“Joa – when we get back, what will you do?”
“Besides making sure you have a doctor? Burn these robes and have the longest bath ever taken in the history of Yume.”
Acan barked a laugh. “A bath?”
“Yes, a bath. And while I’m having it, I will eat copious amounts of Fire Berries and Rokk fish.”
Joa reached over and pulled off the tie holding Acan’s long, black hair. He finger-combed through the hair to loosen it and remove the tangles. Acan sighed. Combing each other’s hair was something they used to do after their bath at the end of a day of hard play. It was a motion both familiar and soothing, and Joa relished the opportunity, which he had not had for ten years, and might never have again. He felt tears prick his eyelids, but he blinked them firmly away.
“I’m sorry, Joa.”
Joa’s fingers paused in their work. “For what?”
“For bringing you on this cursed hunt.”
“You didn’t bring me. In fact, I practically brought myself by falling in on you.”
Acan laughed. “That’s true. But I’m sorry, all the same.”
Joa resumed combing. “I’m not.”
At that moment Joa’s stomach growled.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Joa pulled Acan’s hair back sharply and fastened the tie around it. “I’m glad I was here.” He turned around and without being asked, Acan undid Joa’s own heavy, dark-brown braid and combed through it with his fingers. Joa continued, “I haven’t seen much of you these last years and as unpleasant as parts of this have been, being here was almost like being back at the Manor when we were boys. We’ve just had another adventure, is all, and soon it will be time to go in.”
“But we’re not boys anymore.”
“I know.” Joa’s voice was quiet. “You’ll be head of House Loha, and whether it’s sooner or later, you’ll marry and have a family, and be too busy for tree-climbs or fighting imaginary Ether Pirates.”
Now it was Acan’s turn to pause.
“Joa, will you come back to the Manor?”
“After I’ve finished my apprenticeship, yes. It’s where I belong, after all. And I will help in whatever way I can.”
“You’re family, Joa. Father’s Will made it legally so, but you must know you always have been family. To Father, and to me.” Acan finished re-braiding Joa’s hair and secured it. “Nothing will ever change that.”
They said nothing for a while. Joa knew Acan was thinking about their situation. Stubborn he could be, but his weakened condition must surely give even him pause. There were faint sounds that seemed to echo in the moist air, and Joa presumed they were animal noises, though none sounded familiar.
Acan spoke. “Very well, we’ll return to the Gate. In this state, I’m little more than a burden and I’m probably putting both of us at risk. Without supplies, it’s just stupidity to try to stay any longer. I’ll just have to hope the gods and the Daitoh will give me a second chance.”
They lay down. The spongy moss was not uncomfortable to lie upon and Joa could feel sleep coming rapidly upon him.
“What is it?”
“If you had been able to find the Truffles, what would you have won from the Daitoh?”
Acan took so long to reply, that Joa thought he might have fallen asleep. But then he said, “What I would have won hardly matters, Joa, if I cannot have it.”
Joa woke to an odd sound.
When he realized he was sitting up and holding his breath, the sound was gone. Joa looked around and saw Tosh creeping towards him. The Badjel uttered his growl-purr and insinuated his head under Joa’s hand.
“Was that you, Tosh?” Joa whispered. “Come.” He patted his lap and the Badjel climbed up, turned around twice, then lay down and closed his eyes.
The sky was, if anything, dimmer than it had been when Joa and Acan had lain down, though it was still light enough for Joa to see; somewhat like the dusk he was used to on Yume. He wondered how long they had been asleep. He glanced at Acan, and his friend seemed to be resting well. There were no signs of fever that Joa could see. He let his gaze linger awhile on his friend’s face, but turned away when he began to feel melancholy.
He lay back down, but there was something underneath him. Tosh’s leash. As he pulled it free, he remembered that he could probably read the characters, now. After some puzzling and turning the leash this way and that to get the best light on it, the script started to come together for him. It strongly resembled a hand seen in a calligraphic painting his Master had given him to study at one point. One of the oldest scrolls they had at the school, it had been painted more than 200 years ago and was a poem about the change of seasons. When he had translated it, he and the Master had discussed his translation and compared it to others and then talked about the calligraphy. Joa had copied it many times until he and the Master had determined he had probably learned as much as he could from it; at least at this stage of his training.
“When…” he could not make out the second word. It seemed to be a name of some kind. “milks at dawn…let it…run.” What a strange saying. Joa could not recall ever having heard it before. Let what run? Possibly the Badjel. That made a sort of sense. But…what was the something that milks at dawn?
“You’re awake.” Acan’s eyes opened.
Joa smiled. “Yes. And so are you.”
“What are you doing?”
“I heard a noise. Probably Tosh. Then I remembered about being able to read the inscription on his leash.” Joa told him when he had recognized the characters and what he had determined they meant.
“And you have no idea what the name could be.”
“No, I’ve never heard or read it before.”
“What are the characters?”
Joa told him and Acan frowned. “That beast I mentioned – the insect as big as a palanquin. It could be that. The characters sound very similar to what I read in the library scrolls.”
“Truly?” Joa felt his eyebrows climbing. “It sounds unpleasant.”
“No doubt it is. But why would it be mentioned on something attached to a Badjel? And milking? That’s altogether strange. When we get back, I’ll have another look at those scrolls. For now, though, let’s try to get a little more sleep.”
To Joa’s surprise, Acan moved closer to him, putting his head on Joa’s shoulder. He had no idea what would happen in the near future, let alone what might occur after they returned to Yume, but for this small bit of time, Joa felt he could be happy.
The next time Joa awoke, it was to find Acan’s hand over his mouth.
“Don’t say anything,” Acan hissed into his ear. “Look.”
Joa nodded and Acan removed his hand to point across the creek.
Farther downstream from them there were many reed-like plants growing near the water’s edge. Nearly camouflaged among them were ant-like insects, some of them as large as a pony. They were mottled in dull colors with eyes as big as a man’s hand with fingers outspread; their mandibles were curved and wickedly serrated. Each insect had two pairs of arms and in one pair they held large, dark, rounded objects which they set down on the creek bank and carefully turned this way and that until they were satisfied with the position.
As soon as the objects were situated as desired, the insects turned towards the water and began digging around the plant roots. One found something and brought it up, wriggling. To Joa, it looked like an eel, but had many legs like a centipede. He thought about how he had freely sat in the water upstream from such a thing and felt ill.
The insect took the writhing water creature over to one of the objects on the bank and dangled it. To Joa’s surprise and horror, a wide gash appeared in the object, full of pointed, yellow teeth. The teeth spread wide and the insect dropped the eel-like animal into the gap. The yellow teeth snapped shut upon it and the mouth moved as the animal was eaten.
Joa and Acan looked at each other.
“The Truffles!” Acan hissed.
The Man-eater Truffles were cared for and fed by the giant insects, who Joa could easily believe might snap a man into pieces and deliver those pieces to the yellow teeth.
There was a sharp growl-bark and a tug on the leash as Tosh strained against it. Both Joa and Acan made moves to quiet the Badjel, but the insects seemed not to have heard the noise.
“Maybe they’re deaf?” Joa hazarded.
“Maybe. But I’d wager they see very well. If they looked in our direction, I have no doubt they would see us. They are probably not used to being hunted anymore though, so they’re careless.” He reached for his sword sheath and partially withdrew the blade. He handed the sheath with his short blade to Joa. “You haven’t forgotten how to use one, I hope.”
Joa shrugged a little. He looked at the insects feeding the Truffles and then at Acan. He had a rising feeling of panic. “You – surely you aren’t thinking of going down there and taking those Truffles!”
There was that insufferable grin.
“This chance is gods-sent, Joa. Just when I thought my dream was broken. Of course, I am.”
“You idiot!” Joa’s voice was as edged as a blade. “You can’t even move right. Those insects will cut you into pieces and make you Truffle food.”
Acan’s mouth went from grin to a thin line. “Nevertheless.”
“Then we both go.”
“Yes! You have little chance against them by yourself. You’ll need a distraction. Perhaps Tosh and I can provide that. He’s not big enough to take on one of those things, but he’s likely fast enough to steal a Truffle from them. It may be what he was trained to do, after all. While he and I are confusing them, you can also take a few of the Truffles and run.” He placed his forehead against Acan’s, ignoring his friend’s startled look. Still no fever. “Hopefully, humans can run faster than those insects. You can roll the Truffles into our outer robes. The doubled fabric will help to keep them from fastening those teeth on you. I’ll lead the insects away to give you the time you need.”
“No, Joa. The chance of you being caught by them is too high.”
“But it’s the only plan we have, unless you can think of another.”
“Or we can give up and go home.”
“Then it’s my plan.”
Acan said nothing for a long while, but Joa was sure that if he wanted the Truffles as badly as he seemed to want them, he would have no option but to agree.
“Joa.” When Acan spoke again, what he heard in his friend’s voice made Joa turn towards him. “I truly don’t want you to do this.”
“But – I don’t understand you, Acan. You want the Truffles, don’t you? I know you do.”
Acan looked as though he was at odds with himself. “Yes, I want the Truffles. I want them badly enough to risk my life, but not yours. It’s too important to me. You are too important to me. I can’t lose you, Joa. I am in love with you.”
Joa blinked in confusion, then felt his chest tighten as his heart seemed to grow larger to accommodate the joy it now contained. He reached out to touch Acan’s face with his fingertips. “A fine time to tell me this.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Then we shall just have to be careful.”
Acan put his hands up to his head and squeezed his eyes shut. After a moment, he opened them and nodded.
They crawled off the outer robes they had used as bedding and tied them together at the sleeves.
“I’ll use my sword to knock the Truffles into the robes.”
Joa nodded. “Let’s wait until most of the insects are foraging in the creek.”
They crept down the slope nearer the water; the Badjel growl-barking the whole way.
The insects were still feeding the Truffles. To Joa’s eyes it seemed as though the Man-eaters were a little larger than before.
One of the insects fed a Truffle, but instead of returning to the creek, it took the Truffle in two claws and raised it above its head, careful of the Truffle’s teeth. With the other pair of claws, it stroked the bottom surface of the creature. After a few such strokes, a milky fluid was dispensed from the bottom of the Truffle. The insect spread its mandibles wide and swallowed the fluid.
Joa was glad he had not eaten, certain he would now be revisiting that meal in a most unpleasant way. Beside him, Tosh was beginning to keen and then to howl. He wanted to be free to run.
“Acan! The inscription! When the insects milk at dawn, let it run. That’s what it means. Whatever Badjels are meant to do, this is when they are meant to do it! We have to let Tosh off the leash.”
Acan looked doubtful. “I don’t see how such a small creature can fare well against those giant bugs.”
“Nor do I, but he is a magical creature.”
“So Tosh becomes our distraction.”
“Yes, and we both harvest the Truffles.”
Acan nodded and Joa pulled Tosh closer to him. The Badjel was as frantic as when they had first arrived in the Gateworld and he had broken out of his cage. There was no doubt that he was reacting to an instinct he could not resist.
“Come back safely, Tosh,” Joa whispered, and released him.
As soon as he was free, Tosh ran straight at the Truffles. Following behind him, Joa thought the Badjel would most likely grab the nearest and run. He hoped the direction in which Tosh ran was the direction in which they needed him to run. Joa and Acan had already set their own sights on three Truffles that were unguarded and fairly close together and they had their sheathed blades ready to knock the creatures into their makeshift bag.
Yet, instead of continuing on to take a Truffle, Tosh was heading for the insects. And with each step he took, he grew larger. By the time he reached the first insect, he was as large as they were. He fell upon three of them grouped together and his weight knocked them into the creek. Using his tusks, claws, and teeth, he savagely shredded them before wheeling around and heading for new targets, barking and keening.
The insects, so long unused to being hunted themselves, fell into confusion. They offered only a token resistance. The majority of them scurried back to their Truffles, snatched them up, and ran. Six Truffles were left sitting on the creek bank where they were easily pushed or knocked into the bag.
Joa and Acan worked to knot the improvised bag carefully and Acan found a branch to push under the knots so they could carry the bundle more easily and safely.
Tosh’s piercing keen could be heard fading into the distance. It continued for a while, then stopped. Obviously, the Badjel had pursued the insects, harrying them. Joa wondered if they had gone to ground in the burrows Acan’s scrolls had mentioned. Just at the point where he was concerned they might have to leave without the animal, Tosh trotted back into sight, licking his lips.
Acan shook his head. “Chasing giant insects seems to be fun for Badjels.”
In the creek, one mandible moved slowly, its owner not quite dead. With a squeak, Tosh jumped upon it as though it was a favored toy. Bracing his forefeet against the body, he tugged at the mandible until it came free, then crunched it between his teeth while he jumped up and down on the carcass until it sank under the creek water. Still biting on the broken mandible, he came to Joa and sat still to have his leash re-attached. He was still larger than his normal size, but rapidly becoming smaller.
“Time to go,” Acan said. “Before those insects come back with reinforcements.”
They climbed carefully up the slope, gingerly carrying the six Truffles in the bag between them and Joa set them in the direction of the cobblestone road. Tosh trotted beside them, looking pleased with himself and biting and chewing the mandible until he had eaten all of it.
Acan shook his head again. “You have strange tastes in food, Tosh.”
Joa laughed. “Says the man with carnivorous Truffles growling at him.”
The Gate was still shut when they arrived, but Acan told Joa he thought it would open soon. They settled down to wait, and now that the adventure was nearly over, Joa found himself feeling somewhat shy and embarrassed by what Acan had told him earlier. It was definitely more than he had known he wanted when he had made the discovery of his own feelings, much more. He reasoned that no matter what happened in the future, this experience, insects and all, would remain a joyful memory.
“Joa, sit here with me.”
Acan pulled on Joa’s hand to bring him down next to where he sat by the bag of Truffles, which moved occasionally as one of the creatures opened its mouth and tried to bite another. Tosh had come close to sniff at it, turned his back and kicked dirt on it with his hind legs. Then he had settled down for a nap.
Acan stroked the fingers of Joa’s hand. “I meant it, you know.”
Joa blushed. “Your confession.”
“Yes. I told you I love you.”
Joa savored that a moment, smiling.
“And I haven’t given you an answer.”
Acan squeezed Joa’s hand. “You don’t have to. I already know what it is.”
“What are you saying? How could you – that is, I only just knew — ”
Acan sighed, but to Joa it sounded happy. “I know that you love me, Joa. I’ve always known. Or, almost always.”
Joa was relieved to realize his mouth was not hanging open. “Why have you never said anything?”
Acan laughed. “Because you didn’t know, yet. I wanted you to realize it before I said anything. I wouldn’t have told you now except that I was afraid something might happen and you might never know.” He smiled at Joa. “But I guess from what you said just now, that you did realize it. Didn’t you?”
Joa blushed. “Yes. What you told me about the Daitoh possibly choosing a bride for you and I thought of how it would feel to stand beside you and know you could never be mine…when I thought of that, it seemed my heart would break.”
This time, Joa was sure Acan’s sigh was a happy one.
“Joa, another reason I didn’t tell you was that we weren’t in control of our lives. I wasn’t sure what might happen when I was forced to live at Court, so I began to see you only occasionally, though it was more difficult than I would have believed. I truly missed you. Sometimes, I missed you so much I had to see you. I would watch you from a distance, pretending to be doing things with others, wanting you to notice me and at the same time hoping you wouldn’t.”
“I missed you, Acan. At the time I thought it was because we had been so close, and of course it was that. But it was also because —”
“Please say it.”
“Because I loved you so much, though I didn’t know it. I was lonely for you.”
“I’m so happy.” Acan picked up the hand he held, and kissed it.
“So you stayed away from me to…protect me?”
“Yes. I thought it was best to keep you at a distance so you wouldn’t come to the Court’s attention.”
“Why?” Joa was sincerely puzzled.
Acan laughed again and put his hands on either side of Joa’s face. “You have no idea, my Joa. You never have. Even with your robes torn and dirty, even bruised and needing a bath, you are beautiful. People are always looking at you. Even in the middle of that business with the foreigners, Lord Yual noticed. If the Court had seen you, they would have all been scheming for you, which would have made things much more difficult for me.”
“As if I would be interested,” Joa moved his face out of Acan’s hands.
“Even so, I could be more at ease working on my plan if I didn’t have to worry about what others were doing.”
“What is this plan you’ve been talking of? The one that’s required so much support and a dangerous trip here to get these?” Joa indicated the bag of Truffles.
“Well, getting back to the Daitoh choosing brides —”
Joa nodded. “Marriages that benefitted His Highness and not necessarily the Houses being joined.”
“Indeed. Well, I didn’t want Loha to be one of those Houses. So I gathered support within the Court, became – acquainted – with the Chef, and found Tosh so I could make a proposal to the Daitoh: if I managed to bring back the Truffles he needed for the Competition, he would allow me to choose the person I would marry, as long as that person agreed.”
Though the thought of Acan being joined to someone he did not love for the rest of his life made Joa’s heart sink, he had to admit it was a clever ploy. Rather than having to ally with a family that suited the Daitoh’s needs, Acan could make the match best for the interests of House Loha. It was what a responsible Lord would do for his domain and Joa would support Acan’s decision — and Acan’s wife — to the best of his ability, even if it meant never hearing another word of love from the one he loved.
Quietly, he asked, “And do you know who this person is?”
Acan squeezed Joa’s hand again. “Yes, I do. Now all that is left is to find out if this person agrees.” He tilted Joa’s head up so their eyes met. “Do you?”
Joa was confused and then shocked. “Me? But —”
“I was very careful in my wording to the Daitoh and even more careful when the agreement was set to parchment. I would be allowed to choose not the Lady I would marry, but the person. And you are that person. So what is your answer, and let me say that any word but ‘yes’ is unacceptable.”
Joa could feel his face going red to the tips of his ears. His voice deserted him and it took three tries to say, “Yes.”
He felt lightheaded when Acan pulled him close for their first kiss, which was followed quickly by the second and then the third. Eventually, Joa lost count.
Though happy being held within Acan’s arms, Joa’s thoughts were whirling around in his head. What might the future be like for the two of them? He had never heard of a marriage between two men and wondered if it was even legal. Certainly, it would not have been possible between a Lord and his retainer. But Acan’s father’s Will making Joa family dealt with that. Still, the whole thing rested on very technical details. There was sure to be an uproar, even with the work Acan had been doing over the last five years to gain support. Would the Daitoh be willing to keep to the agreement? Or would he find a way to get around it?
“What’s bothering you, my love?”
“I’m worried, Acan. Now that it seems I am about to be gifted with greater happiness than I had even known was possible, I’m afraid it may be snatched away.”
Acan’s look was grim. “Yes. I’ve thought of it. As clever as I have tried to be, there is always that possibility. We all know that love between men and love between women happens. More than one Lord or Lady has taken a lover of the same sex. But I was unable to find a single instance of such a marriage in Yume’s recorded history. Also, there are those in Court for whom the lives of others are just game pieces; they could block or support based on whim alone. It will not be easy. But I’m prepared for that as well.”
“Of course. Who do you think I am? Have we not just proved ourselves capable hunters of magical ingredients? We bring back not only the Truffles but valuable information about the creatures and landscape of the Gateworld; information that would be just as valuable on the Market World as here on Yume. And there are other planetoids, besides.”
“You would give up the domain?”
That insufferable grin was back. “I’ve seldom been home in the last ten years. And I’ve begun to see what Father saw in traveling. There are worlds out there that haven’t been stuck in the past, as we have. Even if His Highness keeps to the agreement, it might be wise to remove ourselves from Court for a time, and even farther away from it than the domain. I think I would be fine with that, if you were.”
Joa smiled. “Yes.”
A noise drew their attention to the Gateway. Tosh’s ears perked up and Joa scooped him up and placed the Badjel into the front of his robe, making him less visible. He and Acan stood and took hold of the bag of Truffles. Then they walked forward to where the small door was slowly swinging inward, opening onto a future that Joa had never imagined for himself. Now that he could imagine it, he had no intention of letting it get away from him.