In The Night, She Dreamed

clouds and the moon

In the night she dreamed of domed cities with bright skies and cliffs that embraced the frantic waves.

Again and again she walked its streets and knew them to be teeming with the energies of others, yet she never saw anyone.

She was looking for something. Always looking for something. Even in that place with its golden roofs and arched pathways that led to the ocean, the red and yellow flowers spilling from the arms of the earth, the blue skies holding the grey and white clouds, she was searching. Always searching.

This felt like home and it was so beautiful that one could forget everything else in just being there, but she could never stay still long enough. She walked the avenues and wondered about the buildings rooted to the hills above, and though she opened no doors and climbed no stairs, her eyes were always searching.

When she woke up, her life folded about her like the wrinkled sheets and while she was returned to a world where the people could be seen, touched, talked with, she felt more lost than ever and in the back of her eyes she could see only golden domes.

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Wondering

 

horseonmoon

 

The horse is surprised to see you

here on the moon.

His lip is curled.

His eye rolls at you

and away.

You

have discovered his Secret.

 

If you promise not to tell, perhaps

he will not chase you and bite

your moon suit

and make you breathe space.

You can go home again and

walk in the air.

 

Walk past the fields and stroll

past the barns.

You will see the horses

and wonder

Have any of these been to the moon?

 

Have any of these been to the moon?

 

And then you might begin to look

at the cows

and the sheep and

all the rest.

 

It’s good to wonder, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

The God Seduction

picture of ancient queen

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

And it came to pass that the Queen decided she should be the mother of a god.

She had her servants bathe her in the most precious of oils and comb her hair so that it lay comely around her shoulders and array her in her finest jewels. Then she lay, naked upon a golden couch in front of the altar and spoke to the god.

“Bless me, o god, with thy presence. Look upon your servant in her nakedness.”

And the god appeared in a crack of thunder and in roiling clouds of red flecked with green.

“O god,” said the Queen. “I tremble before thee. I am not worthy, but I desire thee. Look upon me and may I find favour in thy gaze.”

And the god looked upon the Queen and she was beautiful. “Wow,” he said, “Is this an offer?”

“O god,” the Queen answered, “I offer my body to thee. Know it as a man may know a woman.” And the Queen let her knees fall apart from each other.

“Excellent,” the god replied. “Just gotta find my… where did I put that thing? I know it’s here somewhere, he he he. I can feel it, I’ve just got to untangle this… Oh! Here it…. no, that’s a meatball. Wait. Hold on… be with you in a minute…”

And lo,  the god did finally locate his Noodly Appendage and, with delight, leaned over the Queen.

But the Queen had long since fallen asleep, curled like a babe on the golden couch and the Noodly Appendage slackened as though over-cooked and withdrew.

The god looked upon the Queen with fondness and with regret and sighed a godly sigh.

“Marinara sauce,” he said, and disappeared.

Shining Moment

Burning and Pillaging

Picture from Chinese video game Three Kingdom Illation.

“This was not my most shining moment.”

“Have you had one?”

“Had what?”

“A shining moment.”

– – –

“Where did that come from?”

“I was just curious.”

– – –

“Damn it!”

“What?”

“I can’t think of one!”

“One what?”

“Shining moment.”

“Oh.”

– – –

“Have you had one, then?”

“Yeah. I think I have.”

– – –

“Well?”

“Oh! You want to know what it was.”

“Duh.”

“Not sure I want to tell you, now.”

“Don’t pout; you know I can’t stand it.”

– – –

“Well…”

“Please? Please tell me.”

“Well, it was when I pulled that guy’s head off before he could kill you.”

“Awww. That was a pretty good moment.”

“Thanks.”

“So cute. Can I kiss you?”

“Yeah – if you want to.”

– – –

“Oy! You two numb nutz bugbears! We threw you a rope five minutes ago! Get outta that hole and help us out!”

“Yeah! We’re burning and pillaging up here!”

“Yeah, and the burning and pillaging don’t take care of itself, ya know!”

– – –

“Sigh.”

“Heavy sigh. Later?”

“Later.”

“Coming!”

 

Oh, Damn

ghost group at Hardwick House, Hawstead, Suffolk, England 1884

“Oh, damn!” The ghost said, contemplating the wheezing, struggling man on the floor. “Sorry! Sorry!” He exerted himself to become more tangible in order to help the portly man back to his feet.

Red in the face, the man glared at the apologetic spectre.

“Just what do you think you were about?” he demanded.

The ghost would have blushed had he been able. “Sorry! It’s just that so few of the living come by anymore and there are quite a few of us spirits in this place and so we’ve become rather competitive, you see, and -”

The man seemed to puff up even more, his red face shading more into purple. “D’you mean to say that you’re contesting one another to scare the daylights out of unsuspecting people?” He shook a finger violently at the ghost, who glided back a step or two in alarm. “Don’t you realise such things could get out of hand? You could give someone a serious turn and then where you would be? Spectres like you are the reason honest house agents like myself have a difficulty in finding owners for these ridiculous relics and more than one ghost has gone wanting for a place to haunt when their castle falls down about their heads for lack of proper maintenance!”

“Sorry! Sorry!” the ghost said again. “Terribly, awfully, sorry. Really. Wasn’t thinking, is all.” He floated closer and brushed at the man’s suit. “All over now, though, right? No harm done, eh?”

“No harm done? No harm done?!” The finger came out again to stab at the air, then suddenly, the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell bonelessly to the floorboards.

The ghost, startled, crept closer. “Excuse me? Are you alright?” He reached out a transparent hand and pushed at the man’s chest. The man’s eyes flew open, he took a great, gasping breath, and then his eyes snapped shut and the breath blew out of him in a gust. A moment later, a portly spirit emerged from the fleshly chrysalis, finger still raised to berate.

“Oh, damn!” the ghost said.

The Truffle Hunt – Part 3.

door panel

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.

“Acan —”

“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.”

“No.”

“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.”

“No.”

“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.”

“You are?”

“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.

 

 

The End.

 

The Truffle Hunt – Part 2.

Foggy wood

No good path

The knife wound was like a slit along the side of Acan’s throat. It bled a lot at first, but from the way it flowed rather than sprayed out, Joa was sure it had missed the artery. The amount of blood was disquieting, but Joa forced himself to think of it as just another of the wounds Acan had collected as a boy. Joa had doctored all or most of those.

Sounds that were a cross between a mew and a growl sounded from the covered cage that had landed – upright – a few feet away. Joa pulled it towards him and removed the scarf, from which he tore a strip. He used part of the rest to make a pad to clean the wound and another to cover it.  They had no water, and there was no way that Joa would leave to look for any, but Acan had put a jar of spirit wine in his hip scarf at the Smiling Fish. It was still here. Joa used most of it to clean the wound. While he bound it up, he checked Acan for other injuries, but there were none he could find.

He took off his short coat and did not miss it – it was hot and humid in the Gateworld. Folding it up, he placed it under Acan’s head, then went back to the door to pound on it, yelling as he did so. There was no answer; not even a noise to indicate he had been heard.

He came back to sit beside Acan and examined the animal in the reed cage.

It stared back at him through slanted, amber eyes. Its body was covered in long fur that was several shades of dust and dirt mixed with grey. It had a very long snout with large, wicked teeth and a pair of jutting tusks. Its legs were short and there was a long, tapering tail; wedge-shaped forepaws were edged with very thick nails the color of clay.

“What kind of creature is it?” he asked aloud.

“It’s called a Badjel.” Acan’s voice was low and a little rough. “It’s a Truffle hunter; it sniffs out Man-eater Truffles. At least, I hope it does.”

Acan, obviously dizzy, was trying to sit up, but Joa stopped him.

“You were hurt.”

“Where?”

“Throat.”

Acan’s hand came up to touch the bandage and Joa could see in his eyes when he remembered what had happened. “Sa. That toad-licking bastard.” His eyes flashed to Joa. “You aren’t hurt?”

“No. When we fell through the door, I rolled back and slammed it shut. I didn’t want that man to get another chance at you. I got a bit of a bruise, but that’s all.”

“Let me see.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Let me see.”

Joa huffed and let one side of his robes slide down off one shoulder. Acan’s breath on his skin made his own breath hitch and the touch of the fingers exploring the bruise did not hurt but made him uncomfortable.

“The skin is not broken, which is good, because we have nothing to clean it with.”

“I cleaned your wound with some of the spirit wine you had.” Joa rearranged his robes.

Acan nodded, then stopped, wincing. “Good thinking. I have no idea where water might be in this place. Or what it might do. I’ve been told that practically everything in here has magical properties.”

“Like this, na?” Joa tapped on the Badjel’s cage. “He must have magic as he seems small for something that hunts things that can eat men.”

“I only hope he really is what I was told he is. No one on Yume has seen a Badjel for hundreds of years. This one was born outside the Gateworld and bought on the Market World.”

Joa was not eased at all by Acan’s looks. His face was very pale and he looked like he might lose consciousness again. He needed a doctor. “You lost a lot of blood. You should rest.” Joa got up and walked towards the Gateway. “Do you know how to open the door from this side?”

“It won’t open.”

“What?”

“The door won’t open, Joa. Once the door has been closed, it won’t open… again for two days.”

“But surely, Lord Yual’s key —”

“Can’t open the door, once it has been opened and then closed. No one knows… why. It’s so old, it may be faulty. Or someone… once set it wrong and no one knows how to correct it. For whatever reason, once the door has been unlocked and opened, you can’t open it again for two days.” Acan’s voice was breathy and it seemed he was having difficulty.

“But —” Joa looked at the door and back at Acan. “We cannot possibly …”

He broke off as the Badjel suddenly reared up in its cage, putting its paws on the bars. Its attitude was one of listening. Then its nose started moving, taking in short, deep breaths. Whatever it smelled excited it even further. It began to whine, then made a bark that turned into a howl. It bark-howled over and over and began to lunge against the bars.

“What should I do, Acan? Should I let it out?”

“No. No, don’t… let it…” Acan collapsed, unconscious again.

The Badjel’s cage fell over then tumbled over as the animal kept up its frantic efforts to escape. Even the sturdy reeds of which the cage was made began to snap under the  onslaught, and finally broke. The Badjel, with a feral light in its eyes wiggled and pulled itself from the wreckage of its cage and dashed away, dragging behind it what appeared to be a long lead. Joa saw the lead and threw himself on it, grabbing at the corded silk, but it did not tighten. Instead, it lay loose on the ground. The Badjel disappeared into the billows of fog.

Joa pulled on the leash, coiling it until the end, with its undamaged fastening, came into his hand. “It must not have been attached,” he said. He looked at Acan, whose bandage was now soaked with his blood. Two days without supplies, Acan injured, and now the Badjel – their Truffle hunter – gone. This hunt was not going well.

 

 

 

 

“I had planned to pick up my pack on the way to the Gate, but those foreigners made being able to run quickly more important. At least we have what’s left of the spirit wine. If we use it sparingly, it may last. We can do without food for a couple of days.”

Acan sat still as Joa finished re-bandaging his throat with strips from the remnants of the cage scarf. The edges of the knife cut were a little red, which worried Joa, though he said nothing, since there was nothing to be done about it.

“You still want to look for the Truffles.”

“I do.” Acan grinned that insufferable grin. “We don’t have anything else to do for two days, do we?”

Joa rolled his eyes. “I suppose not.”

After a while, and with a little help, Acan was able to stand and walk.  “Let’s just follow the road for a while. The air will get a little clearer as we go farther in.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Taking a message to the Ambassador on the Market World. The lord who was supposed to take it didn’t want to go, so I volunteered. Knowing the Daitoh’s need for rare ingredients would probably be my best bargaining point, I wanted to know as much as I could about the Gateworld.”

Joa snorted. “You’ve been here more than once.”

“What makes you say that?” Acan’s attempt at an expression of innocence was one Joa had seen too many times to count.

“When you want to know about something, you don’t stop until you know everything you want to know. Even if learning it is dangerous.”

“I knew you would lecture me, and we both know it wouldn’t stop me. So you would just worry. No sense in that, so I never told you.”

Joa made a fist and held it under Acan’s nose. “If you were not injured, I would injure you now.”

Acan barked a laugh.

“How many times then, Acan?”

“Have I been here? Mmmm… I would say seven, but this is my first time hunting magical ingredients. And that would be a lot easier if the Badjel hadn’t run off.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t move sooner.”

“And get in the way of those busy claws? I’m thankful you didn’t. Two of us injured and this Truffle hunt would likely be over.”

Joa glanced at Acan, but did not say what he was thinking – the odds that the hunt was already over were great.

As they walked on, the air did thin as Acan had said it would. Though it was still misty, it was possible to see more of the landscape: more greys, dull greens and browns. There were tall, thin plants that tended to cluster together and mounds of dirt that might be mistaken for hillocks, covered in a mossy, spongy growth. All of the plants seemed to be similar to ones Joa knew in Yume, but not one of them was recognizable as something from home.

Joa suspected that Acan wouldn’t be able to walk a great distance so soon after being injured, so he kept an eye out for likely resting places. When his friend’s steps began to slow, he picked out a grassy space and declared that he needed a break because he was no longer used to such exertion.

“You are not fooling me, Joa,” Acan told him, but allowed himself to be helped to sit. Joa had helped him to remove his short coat some while ago and then added it to his own coat to make a compact bundle, tied with the Badjel’s leash. He tossed it onto the grass and eased Acan down to lay his head on it.

“How is it?”

Acan made a minute shrug. “The wound throbs, but isn’t otherwise painful. I only wish I didn’t feel so tired.” He took a short drink from the spirit wine jar and offered it to Joa, who took only enough to wet his mouth.

“Can’t be helped. You lost blood and nothing’s been done about it.” Joa looked up. “I can’t see anything that might be the sun. How are we to tell time in this place?”

“You really can’t, although there is something that approximates night here. Damn it. I think Lord Yual would have let me go for my pack. If only that damned foreigner hadn’t interfered.”

“Then how will we know when we have to be back at the gate?”

“We’ll count the number of nights. And if we are a little late, we’ll just have to wait until they open the door again.”

“What kind of creatures live in this world?”

“No one knows for sure anymore. Most of the scrolls and paintings were destroyed. The remaining scrolls tell of various strange animals: large, carnivorous beasts bigger than a dog, the Man-eater Truffles, some insects as big as palanquins, and even possibly a type of human.”

“Human?” Joa was shocked.

“Who knows? And there are occasionally raiders  – people who bribe their way through a gate to hunt for magical ingredients. That’s one of the benefits of being exiled to the Market World as Ambassador – the bribes.”

“Does the Daitoh know?”

“He knows or suspects. But it’s not something he can do much about.”

“Acan – do you know where to find the Truffles and what they look like?”

“Everything I could learn leads me to believe they are in what passes for a forested area in the Gateworld. It’s nearer the gate to the Market World than to Yume, so another half a day of walking at the pace we went today. As for the Truffles, the best description I could get is that they look like dried dark fruit, only much larger, and with teeth. They live in underground burrows. And who knows what they eat when there are no humans.”

They were silent for a while and in that interval they heard what sounded like the cry of the Badjel far in the distance.

“Damn animal. I paid a lot of sen for him.”

“Then why did you say he was a friendship gift?”

“Obviously, the girl never told her uncle or sweetheart about the money. Those two and the others never complained to Lord Yual that what I paid was too little or offered to trade back. If I had to guess, I would say that she planned to leave her family and that her leave-taking was arranged for tonight. She probably told them that I seduced her and tricked her out of the animal so they would all run out in a fury and she could make her escape on one of the foreigner Ether ships. A good plan and clever. Why should I ruin it for her? Anyway, by now they probably know the truth of it.”

Joa rubbed his temples. “You. You are an idiot.”

“But a chivalrous one, na?” Acan grinned. “Why don’t you sleep a bit, Joa? I’ll be awake a while. Then I’ll take a turn.”

Joa pretended to look doubtful. “If you’re sure…”

“Absolutely.”

“Very well, then.” Joa curled onto his side and put his head on his arm. He stayed that way just until heard Acan’s light snores. Permitting himself a slight smile, he turned over and put his hands behind his head while he contemplated their situation.

The bad? They were trapped in the Gateworld for the next couple of days without supplies except for half a bottle of spirit wine. Acan was injured. They had no weapons other than Acan’s sword and short blade. The animal Acan had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to acquire to help them find the Truffles was lost to them. They still had to find the Truffles. And subdue them. The good? Acan had not been injured more severely. They had half a bottle of spirit wine. They were together – together as they had not been in years.

Joa turned on his side to look at Acan’s profile, watched his chest rising and falling. It had been long since he had had this view of his childhood friend. Until this moment, Joa had not realized how much he had missed Acan’s company, his voice, even his insufferable grin. Though he had not wanted to acknowledge it, it had hurt deeply to think he and his friend had drifted apart or worse, that Acan had been avoiding him.

He had known from early in their lives that Acan, as the son of the Lord, was destined for a different life from his own as a retainer’s child. Someday, Acan would be expected to swear fealty to the Daitoh, marry a Lady, and manage his domain. Joa had accepted that more than a decade ago, so why did seeing Acan again in this time, this place, make him feel both nostalgic and sad?

Maybe it was that, as separated as they had been since Acan had moved to Court, the expected path of his life could take him even farther from Joa?

But both Joa’s father and Acan’s father remained close friends, though Joa’s father had been a retainer and Acan’s father was the Lord. Thinking about it, Joa realized that might have been because both his mother and Acan’s had died. There were no other children and both men had declined to marry again since they had heirs. Both Lord Akash and Joa’s father had enjoyed exploration and risk-taking ventures and had spent much time away from home.

Except for lessons and some other duties, Joa and Acan had mostly raised themselves, much to the dismay of the Manor servants. They had been given guidance by their fathers, but also a lot of freedom to adventure within the confines of the domain. Each had been the most constant part of the other’s life. Once Acan was Lord and married, there could still be friendship, but there would be limitations on it. And there, Joa realized, was the problem.

Joa was still part of House Loha, even a member of the family by the decree of Acan’s father. Acan would want him back at the domain. Would probably want Joa to work with him on the business of running the fief. They would see each other all the time. Joa would still have a place in the domain. But — it would never again be just the two of them. Never again would Joa have all of Acan’s attention, or be the only one by Acan’s side. The place closest to him would be held by someone else.

Joa was startled to find his cheeks wet with tears. He wiped them away with his sleeve, wonderingly. Then he looked at Acan again and recognized his pain; he finally understood what it meant – it was a discovery that filled his heart and then crushed it. He was in love with Acan and probably had been since before their fathers died.

 

 

 

When he awoke, it was from the light touch of Acan’s fingers brushing aside the loose hair that covered his eyes and softly calling his name. He sat up quickly.

“Easy, Joa. Move carefully.” Acan was holding out the leash that had tied together their short coats. Joa blinked at him, then followed Acan’s gaze to where the Badjel was sitting with its head cocked, regarding them with its slanted, amber eyes.

“It came back.”

“It did indeed, though I don’t know why. But since it did, let’s not lose our opportunity. You have a better chance of leashing it again than I. I’m a little lightheaded right now.” Joa looked at him with concern, but Acan waved it away. “Let’s get the Badjel leashed.” He handed the woven silk cord to Joa, who took it slowly and just as slowly leaned towards the Badjel.

The animal stuck out a pink and brown tongue and licked its nose and shifted its front paws. Then it yawned. Then it walked right over to Joa and sat still as he fixed the lead to the collar. It seemed to smile at him and Joa was emboldened to put his hand out and caress its head. To his surprise, it leaned into his hand and panted happily, with the tip of its tongue hanging out from the side of its long snout, which was wet.

Acan laughed and lay back on the makeshift pillow. “Well, it’s not exactly wild, is it?”

Throwing the handle of the lead over one hand, Joa scooted over and felt Acan’s face. It was hot and he was perspiring freely. A fever, which meant the wound was infected.

“Acan,” Joa started.

“No.” Acan turned his head to look at him. “I will not go back to the Gate and wait until the door opens. The Badjel came back. I will continue this hunt.”

“But –”

“No. And again, no. I cannot lose to the Daitoh. I will not. This is too important to me.”

Joa felt both annoyed and dismayed. “What could be that important? What could you lose?”

Acan looked hard at him, then closed his eyes and sighed. “Everything. Everything worth having.”

Joa felt a pressure against his hand. It was the Badjel, seeking attention, which Joa gave it absently. He was at a loss in the face of Acan’s vehemence and he wondered just what everything worth having could mean.

The Badjel looked up at him and closed his eyes. Something between a growl and a hiss seemed to come from him, but to Joa it sounded more content than annoyed. Joa’s hand moved over the Badjel’s collar and the silver decoration caught his eye. He brushed some of the animal’s long hair out of the way to see it better. At first he thought the design, which curved and swooped, was merely pleasing to the eye. But the longer he looked at it, the more it looked like writing to him.

His hand slid along the length of the leash, which was also decorated in what looked to be the same design. The characters, if they were characters, were confusing. They seemed familiar but Joa could not quite read them. He felt he had seen them, or something like them, before. But where?

Acan chuckled. “Good thing none of the insects as big as a palanquin found us last night. I turned out to be a poor watchman.” He opened the spirit wine jar and took a small drink, then offered it to Joa, who pretended to drink, and handed it back. “We likely slept the ‘night’ away. We should get going.”

 

 

 

The sodden air made exertion more costly and both Acan and Joa had let their outer and inner robes slide off to hang over their hip scarves. Even so, their faces were wet with perspiration and Acan’s was red, the redness extending down his neck. Joa suspected the fever was worse.

“How do you manage to look so good while being so miserable?”

Joa turned to look at Acan and sniffed as though he found the flattery unconvincing. In his opinion, the sandal was on the other foot. Without his robes covering his chest, Acan’s lithe muscularity and smooth skin were nicely displayed. There were a few scars that looked recent and more scars than Joa remembered his friend having. He thought back to the last time they had shared a bath as boys and he had seen Acan naked. Suddenly, he felt his cheeks flaming.

“What are you thinking about, Joa-piin?” Acan’s insufferable grin was back, though surrounded by sweat droplets and damp, dark hair.

Joa did not answer, but looked ahead to where the Badjel walked. Knowing what he now knew, he found all of his thoughts of Acan had taken a different turn. One he had no intention of sharing.

For his part, the Badjel seemed unbothered by the humidity, even with his long fur. His tongue hung out and he panted, but his amber eyes remained bright and interested. He was leading the way with the leash taut but not strained.

“Look at him,” Acan said. “He even looks happy.”

Joa fanned his face with one hand, glad of the change of subject. “What else do you know about this place, Acan?”

“Not a lot, though I read every scroll I could find about it. It’s been here since before the Cataclysm. No one knows its origins or how or why it connects to the Market World. You know there are other gateways on other planetoids—”

“Everyone knows that.”

Acan grunted. “You would be surprised, I think. In any case, all of those gates connect to the Market World and not to each other and no one knows why.” He pulled a leaf from one of the bushes. “Another thing no one understands is why what grows in the Gateworlds have magical properties.” He dragged an arm across his face, wiping away the sweat in his eyes.

“I have heard that magical ingredients can grow outside of the Gateways.”

“Yes, but no one knows if they grew outside first or in the Gateworlds first and then came outside.”

“What about the Man-eater Truffles?”

Acan’s answer was slow and his voice sounded weary. “Very rare. In the scrolls I could only find one drawing and that was of a dead Truffle that had been preserved for study.”

“Does the specimen still exist?”

“No, just the drawing. Apparently, at the time that the Daitoh’s ancestor decided to abandon the outside worlds, he ordered practically everything that could cause curiosity about them or the Gateworld destroyed. What’s left is hard to find.”

“How the scholars must have wept.” Joa imagined the beautifully displayed calligraphy of his school and how he would feel if it all were burned. Not just the work of the recent masters, but those that were part of the school’s lineage; calligraphic paintings that were hundreds of years old.

“Indeed. Although there is some evidence that many of scholars were destroyed as well. There seems to be a strong streak of insanity in the Daitoh’s family.”

“Acan!”

Acan chuckled quietly. “He can’t hear me, Joa.”

“Still—”

They had crested a hillock and before them was the beginnings of the forested area that Acan had mentioned. It appeared as a dark green vegetation overlaid with ribbons of the foggy Gateworld air. It looked both thick and wide and Joa experienced a sinking sensation when he thought of trying to find what they were looking for within it.

The diffused light seemed to catch on a few things here and there, which might be reflections from a creek or a river. Certainly, the ‘trees’ of the forest would not have grown so thickly here, were there not a readily available source of water.

The whole picture seemed both tantalizingly familiar and unreal and Joa wondered what an artist or poet would make of such a landscape. It was ancient, and it looked every bit of that, paralleling the past of Yume all the way back to before the Cataclysm that had helped to create it. The Cataclysm – what must that have been like to live through?

The Badjel danced sideways, then sat and licked at a front paw. The light caught on his leash and collar and picked out the silver, making the characters stand out. Suddenly, Joa knew where he had seen those characters, written in that style. Moreover, he thought he could now read them. Excited, he turned to Acan. His friend was swaying where he stood, a hand on his forehead, his eyes too bright. Then he slumped forward and was still.

 

To be continued…