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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Issue 34: Theme Free

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2011 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

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Shousetsu Bang*Bang Issue 34 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

Sun and Stone, by Noel Oliver

Duties, by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠),

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

The Revelation of Orev, by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神),

illustrated by quaedam

Green Planet, by Mikami Ren (三神 恋),

illustrated by erli

Seven Tears into the Sea, by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ),

illustrated by serenity_winner

The Black River Rises, by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ),

illustrated by quaedam and pseudonymeter

The One With Giant Mechanical Spiders In, by Ii Ai (粲 愛) and Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦),

illustrated by neomeruru

A Good Idea, by Lady Memphremagog

Freestyle Match, written and illustrated by MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷 裸望)

Stammering Wings, by i_crave_yaoi

Sid Stills’ Blues (Three-Quarters in the Bag in Alphabet City), by shukyou (主教),

illustrated by serenity_winner

———

Let Me Help You, by uneclochette

Ready for the Holidays, by melanofly (メラノ飛)

Front cover by quaedam

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Issue_34

Sun and Stone

by Noel Oliver

Moxley Alten opened his eyes, cursed the daylight streaming through the cracks in the shutters, and pulled the heavy quilt up over his head. Damn that Elven wine, anyhow. This was the third time since he’d come to Alvarranen that it had snuck up and blindsided him, leaving him with a splitting headache. If only he could get a proper mug of Dwarven ale.

At the moment he may as well just have stayed in bed. The whole reason he’d gotten accidentally drunk the previous night was because of the end-of-term celebration; most of the students had already left, and his fellow teachers were heading off over the next few days to spend the winter solstice with their families. Moxley and the two other dwarves who had come to Skywhisper Academy to teach that fall would be left rattling around the empty halls. At least Finn and Jessa had each other.

He gave a little grunt of exasperation at the thought and flipped over his pillow, pushing his forehead against the cool side. If he wasn’t careful he’d start feeling sorry for himself again. It was true he hadn’t really wanted to come here in the first place. Moxley had grown up a child of nobility and had only left the caverns in the heart of Mt. Drom a handful of times in his life. The dwarves called Mt. Drom “Heart of the World”; it was the center of their kingdom and, supposedly, the origin of their race. Nowadays the only dwarves who lived inside the mountain itself were the oldest and richest families. Finn and Jessa had grown up in cities spread across its foothills; they didn’t understand how Moxley could miss the constancy of his home, where it was never too hot or too cold and the days were marked by the lamplighters and not the rising of the sun.

“That sounds boring,” Jessa had declared bluntly when he had tried to explain, sometime just after they’d crossed the border into Elven lands. Finn had at least tried to be sympathetic, Finn with his green eyes and curly dark hair and wide smile. Moxley had become instantly smitten with him, only to have his hopes dashed before he’d even quite dared to acknowledge them when he saw them making out behind the wagons one evening.

He’d spent the last week of the trip juggling heartbreak over Finn, nerves over the thought of having to actually get up in front of a classroom of adolescent elves and explain Dwarven grammar rules, and a vague sense of panic at the fact that he couldn’t even see Mt. Drom on the horizon any more. He’d been outside before, of course, but never entirely out of its shadow. He tried to distract himself by reading Meluros Skywhisper’s History of Conflict between the Elven and Dwarven Peoples for the third time, because if he let his mind wander he started to wonder if everything he’d ever known had ceased to exist.

He’d found a stride, more or less, after a shaky first couple of weeks. He couldn’t say he was a particularly good teacher, but so far his students seemed to be making decent progress, and they didn’t hate him. Ultimately he was effectual if mediocre, which suited him just fine, even if it meant he had to talk himself up a bit in his letters home.

Moxley finally got up mostly out of boredom. With no classes to distract him, homesickness was starting to creep back in, so he figured he may as well go look for something to do. The Academy’s library was extensive, and the conservatory lovely. Maybe he’d even take Finn and Jessa up on their offer to show him around town for once.

He started rethinking the library plan as soon as he stepped inside. The room was wide, high-ceilinged, and drafty; he could see his breath in the air. Maybe he’d just grab some books at random, go back to his little room, and huddle up by the fire.

As he rounded one of the shelves, he was surprised to find he wasn’t alone. Sitting at one of the low wooden tables, bent over a quill and parchment, was the headmaster’s personal assistant, Lorenfaar Felbann. He was instantly recognizable; the man had the reddest hair Moxley had ever seen. It wasn’t the red-tinted brown tones the dwarves called red, but a rich, vibrant hue, like the petals of a prizewinning rose, or fresh blood, and it fell in waves down to the middle of his back. He also had a habit of dressing himself in robes of shockingly dyed fabrics that clashed awfully with his hair; today it was dark blue. He had his back to Moxley and was muttering softly to himself, but Moxley must have made some kind of noise because the elf’s shoulders tightened and he whirled. Spots of pink appeared high on his pale cheekbones as he scrambled to his feet and bowed.

“You don’t have to do that,” Moxley said self-consciously. “I’m the one who’s intruding.”

“I do apologize, Mr. Alten, I didn’t realize you were awake. I had intended on bringing you some water this morning, but I wasn’t sure I should bother you. I did notice that you seemed rather under the weather last night.”

“You mean drunk,” Moxley said ruefully. “That’s very thoughtful of you.” The entire conversation had been in the Elven language; it was basically all Moxley spoke outside of the classroom nowadays. He happened to glance at the parchment on the table, however, and was surprised to see a line of Dwarven characters, written in a shaky hand. “What’s this?” he asked, stepping closer. “Were you practicing?”

Lorenfaar flushed more deeply, the pink creeping up the edges of his pointed ears. “I’m afraid my language skills are… rudimentary, at best. I thought I might work at honing them over the break. Actually, I don’t suppose… but no, I’m sure you have better ways to spend your free time….”

“You want me to tutor you?” Moxley asked.

“Only if you wish to, and I’ll pay you, of course. I’m not sure what the appropriate rates might be.”

“Don’t even think about it. I’m already paid to be here, and I was honestly not sure what to do with myself with all this time off. I don’t know though, I’ve never taught anyone one-on-one. Finn used to tutor, maybe he’d be a better choice.”

“I’d just as well have it be you,” Lorenfaar said. “That is, as I said, only if you wish to.”

“Well, sure, why not.” It would be better than following around Finn and Jessa and trying not to look like a lost puppy, and at least he’d be making himself marginally useful. “Do you want to start right now?” He couldn’t quite fight down a smile as he looked at the childishly crooked lines Lorenfaar had scrawled across the page.

“I know,” the elf sighed, settling back into his chair. “My handwriting is terrible.”

“You’re already improving,” Moxley said. “The end of the row looks much better than the beginning. Just keep going over and over again and eventually the shapes will feel natural to you.”

The elf obediently dipped his quill into the inkpot, scratching more letters into the parchment. “It’s all of these straight lines,” he sighed. “They just feel so rigid.”

“I like to think of it as being neat and orderly.” Moxley pulled out the chair across from him and settled himself down. “The first time I saw Elven writing I thought it looked like the kinds of designs women get embroidered on the edges of their skirts as decoration. All those loops and swirls.”

“I suppose we’re just comfortable with what we know,” Lorenfaar said, meeting Moxley’s eyes with a little smile. It struck Moxley that even after spending six months in Alvarranen this was the longest conversation he’d ever had with an elf.

He watched the quill move across the page, its movements growing more and more sure. He forgot about the cold, but the pleasant quiet of the moment was broken when his stomach gave a loud rumble.

Moxley was sure he was bright red under his beard when Lorenfaar looked up at him in surprise. The elf’s arched brows knit together as he asked, “Mr. Alten, did you forget to eat breakfast?”

“I suppose I did,” Moxley said sheepishly. “When there isn’t anyone to remind me to eat….”

“I’ve noticed,” Lorenfaar said. “Cook’s been stocking up the pantry before she leaves, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting something from the kitchens.”

“All right,” he agreed. “We can continue after that.”

Finn and Jessa were in the dining hall, laughing together over plates of wheat cakes topped with honey and pears. The smell of the warm pears sent such a strong wave of homesickness over Moxley that he had to stop for a moment and let it pass.

They waved him over, and a kitchen servant – apparently they hadn’t all left quite yet – materialized out of nowhere with a plate for him almost the instant he sat down next to Finn.

“Remind you of home at all?” he asked Moxley. His own plate was so spotless Moxley wondered if he’d licked it clean.

“Pear tarts,” Moxley said with a sigh. “Our cook always made them this time of year. They were amazing.”

“I miss mince pie,” Jessa sighed. “My ma makes the best pies. And the pasties… I think I might kill someone for a beef pasty.”

“I believe that,” Finn teased. “You’re terrifying when you’re hungry.”

She mimed swatting him with her fork, which set them both laughing again. Moxley took a bite of warm pear and for just a moment he was at home, sitting at the long table with his father at the head and his siblings around him, a log roaring in the fireplace. His mother would be fussing over the huge party they always hosted on the solstice, prattling about who had responded to her invitations. The solstice wasn’t a religious holiday to the dwarves, who didn’t share the elves’ reverence for the sun; rather, they tended to see it as an excuse for a party. Outside the mountain it might have been a more meaningful occasion. Still, Moxley never imagined he’d miss it this much.

“I should make us dinner on the solstice,” Jessa said. “If I promise to clean it up I bet Cook wouldn’t mind. She keeps fretting over leaving us as it is. I can make some pasties and a mince pie and we can get roaring drunk-”

“No wine,” Moxley said. “Ale or nothing for me.”

“Ah, Elven wine, your mortal enemy. Poor Mox,” Finn chuckled, clapping Moxley’s shoulder. His hand was warm and broad and Moxley focused very deliberately on taking another bite of his breakfast.

“We used to put up paper lanterns at our inn,” Jessa was saying. “Just like the ones here.” She gestured vaguely to the round yellow lanterns hanging from the ceiling, unlit now, which the elves used as a stand-in for the missing sun. The inn Jessa’s family ran was on a major trading route and had quite a few Elven guests, at least partially because not every dwarf-run inn even allowed elves to stay. The bad blood after the last war lingered even now, seven decades after the truce had been signed.

“We usually just drank a lot,” Finn laughed. “When I was little I remember my grandpa would always buy a fruitcake somewhere, but the rest of us hated it so he’d have to eat the whole thing himself.”

“And it comes back to food,” Jessa said. Just then the door opened and Lorenfaar came in, apparently done with copying letters for now. The dwarves had all been speaking their own language amongst themselves, but Jessa switched to Elven as she called him over.

He looked somewhat confused as he made his way over to the table.

“Want to sit with us?” Jessa asked. “Since we’re the only ones here right now.”

“I’ve actually already had my breakfast,” Lorenfaar said, but he sat anyhow, next to Jessa and across from Moxley. “I just wanted to see how Mr. Alten was doing. He promised he’d help me with my rather pathetic Dwarven-language skills.”

“Studying on your vacation, huh?” Jessa laughed. “When are you going home?”

Lorenfaar shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not, actually.” Perhaps in an effort to curb the imminent awkward silence, he continued, “I live here all year. I grew up in an orphanage in town; I don’t have any family left.”

“Well,” Jessa pushed on, “at least you won’t be all alone this year, right?”

“Right,” he said with a smile that seemed just a little shy.

After breakfast the two of them retired to Moxley’s room with a pile of books and parchment and a pot of strong black tea. At Lorenfaar’s suggestion, Moxley added a few drops of brandy to his cup to stave off the cold, and he sat on the edge of the bed while the elf took the desk chair, reading passages aloud. He had a heavy accent, and Moxley corrected his pronunciation now and then, but it was clear Lorenfaar was much more comfortable reading the Dwarven alphabet than he’d been writing it.

It seemed like they’d barely gotten started before the light began to fade. Moxley was quickly beginning to hate winter. It seemed he’d just started appreciating blue skies and the dappled grass of the yard outside his window when it had started to die. He had been used to working by lamplight back home, but now when the sun started to set he just found himself wanting to go to bed.

Lorenfaar stopped at the end of the passage and fell silent, gazing out the thick pane of the window. He seemed lost in thought, and Moxley found himself reluctant to prod him.

“Mr. Alten, may I ask you something?” he said after a moment.

“In Dwarven, please,” Moxley said, falling into teaching mode out of habit.

The elf hesitated for a few seconds, forming the words in his head before he spoke. “I have a small question.”

“Go ahead.”

“This will probably sound foolish, but… I had always heard that all dwarves had huge beards. Down to your belts. And that you spent hours braiding them. Yet you and Finn only have very short ones.”

Moxley chuckled to himself, rubbing at the scruff along his jawline. “If you ever went to Baile you’d certainly see some long braided beards. Both my grandfathers have them, but they’re considered a bit old-fashioned nowadays. Besides, it’s just so much easier to keep it short and simple. You know, before I came here, I thought all elves had blond hair and green eyes.”

“Really?” Lorenfaar seemed amused, and Moxley noticed with a start that his eyes were the same shade of deep red as his hair. It seemed impossible that he hadn’t taken note of it before.

He did his best to cover his shock with a cough. “Well, I suppose that’s why we came here in the first place. The headmaster says communication is the first step toward peace.” He sighed. “I don’t know, maybe we really are doing some good. No one’s painted anything rude on the gate in a while, and whoever was throwing rotten cabbages over the walls lost interest weeks ago.”

“Maybe they ran out of cabbages.” Lorenfaar was handsome when he smiled, the curve of his lips softening his angular features a bit.

“Maybe.” Moxley couldn’t help smiling back.

The next two days passed much the same. In the morning Lorenfaar would join the dwarves for breakfast, and then he and Moxley would retire to Moxley’s room for a while. Moxley gave up on actual instruction; Lorenfaar was much better with the language than he gave himself credit for. Instead they just talked in Dwarven about all kinds of topics. At first Moxley kept the conversation to simple things like the weather and what they were going to have for lunch, but eventually, as he kept finding himself babbling about his home and family, he finally worked up the nerve to ask the elf about his childhood.

Lorenfaar was seventy-three, almost twenty years older than Moxley. He’d been born just after the last great war, and his family’s farm was wiped out in the earthquake that rattled Alvarranen around the same time. (Moxley tried not to squirm too openly at this point; many dwarves believed that earthquake was a sign from the stone itself that the dwarves were superior, but he had never been entirely convinced.)

Lorenfaar’s father had returned from the front just in time to see his home destroyed. He had taken his own life shortly after Lorenfaar had been born, leaving his wife to look after their newborn son on their own. She had traveled to the city looking for work, but succumbed to illness when Lorenfaar was still a small child.

“I wish I remembered her more clearly,” he murmured. “She must have been a strong woman to make it that long. Looking back, I’m sure she went without food some days just to make sure I had enough.”

They had abandoned their usual location in Moxley’s room for the school conservatory. The domed glass room was pleasantly warm and damp even during cold weather, and they sat on low benches as they talked, admiring the lush greenery and exotic flowers. Lorenfaar was wearing dark green robes, and when paired with his red hair he reminded Moxley of the holly boughs his family used to decorate the hearth in the winter.

“Anyway, long story short, my mother died, I spent the next forty years in the orphanage, and then when I came of age I was somehow lucky enough to get a job at the Academy. Back then I just cleaned and did odd jobs, and then I ended up assisting the head librarian for a while, copying and organizing manuscripts. Eventually the headmaster promoted me to his personal assistant, and that was that.” He stretched his long legs out in front of him and looked up at the sky, shining blue through the glass. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but as much as I love this job, I almost quit when I heard a group of dwarves was going to be coming to teach here.”

“Really? Why?”

Lorenfaar sighed. “I grew up among war orphans. There was… resentment, to put it kindly. Bitterness. Blame. I had a very close friend there who was convinced that your people were entirely responsible for the war, that they had somehow triggered the earthquake that caused so much devastation–”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Of course it is. But we were children, and we had never met an actual dwarf. We latched onto the worst of the stories because we needed someone to blame for our situation. And blaming a distant country was easier, for me, than blaming my own father.”

Moxley let that digest for a moment before he asked, “What changed your mind?”

The elf finally turned to face him, smiling. “You did.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. A week or so after classes started, I was fetching a book from the library when I heard you in one of the alcoves–”

“Oh, Stone take me,” Moxley groaned, hiding his face in his hands. “You saw that?”

“Once I realized you were crying, I didn’t linger. You’re embarrassed?”

“A grown man crying in public, how is that not embarrassing?” Moxley brushed some hair out of his eyes irritably. “That was definitely my low point, though. I was just feeling so overwhelmed, and I didn’t think I’d have time to get to my room and back between classes. In retrospect I should have locked myself in the privy.”

“Well, you certainly shook my assumptions about dwarves. I’d grown up assuming all dwarves were loud, rude, violent, prideful.”

“And here I am, a meek little weakling.”

“You’re not weak,” Lorenfaar said firmly. “You’re a young man who just left home for the first time, and who is a little unsure of himself. You’re… normal.” He chuckled. “You’re a normal person. That’s what I hadn’t been expecting.”

“Well… thank you, I suppose. I’m not sure that was entirely a compliment….”

“Mr. Alten/…”

“Moxley. You can call me Moxley.”

“Moxley.” Lorenfaar suddenly took one of Moxley’s hands in both of his, swiveling on the bench to face him eye to eye. “A year ago I would never have dreamed I could be friends with a dwarf. But here we are, and I find myself hoping you might consider me a friend, too.”

“I-I do,” Moxley stammered. He seemed to have gone warm all over.

It must have been the humidity.

The day of the solstice dawned cloudy and gray, leaving the scant few hours of sunlight muffled. Moxley went to the dining hall to find Finn and Jessa already there, but Lorenfaar nowhere to be seen. The cook had left them slices of ham and Jessa had scrambled more eggs than were probably necessary.

“I used to hate cooking at home,” she explained, “but now that I don’t have to do it I actually miss it. I’m making dinner tonight, so you and Lor had both better come.”

“We will,” Moxley agreed.

“Oh, and you got a letter from home this morning,” Finn said, grabbing a stack of folded parchment from the end of the table. Moxley held it for a long moment, fingertips lingering over the familiar wax seal with its stylized letter A, then tucked it into his back pocket for safekeeping.

Lorenfaar still hadn’t appeared after Moxley had finished his breakfast and cleaned up after himself. He paced the front hall, wondering if he should go upstairs and knock on the other man’s bedroom door. He had actually turned and headed for the staircase when he thought he heard raised voices from outside. He hesitated with his hand on the door handle. He hadn’t brought his coat, and whatever was going on out there was probably none of his business anyway.

There were two small decorative windows to either side of the doorway, and he squinted through one. The thick glass blurred his vision but he easily recognized Lorenfaar’s red hair. He was standing near the front gate talking to someone dark-haired, and although Moxley had no idea what they were saying it certainly seemed to be an argument. Both men – at least, Moxley thought the dark-haired figure was male – were gesturing wildly with their arms, and then abruptly Lorenfaar slammed the gate shut between them and turned on his heel, storming back towards the building.

Moxley barely had time to get out of the way before the door was flung open so hard it hit the wall. Lorenfaar was already halfway to the stairs, cloak billowing behind him, when Moxley found the presence to call out, “Are you all right?”

He whirled, and for the briefest of moments an expression of rage twisted his features. It melted as soon as he saw Moxley, and his shoulders sagged visibly.

“Not particularly,” Lorenfaar admitted, and Moxley didn’t think it appropriate to ask him to speak in Dwarven this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked hesitantly.

“No. Yes. To be honest, I want to break something, but talking about it is probably a better idea. Is your room all right?”

He strode off down the hall and Moxley blurted, “Of course!” as he scrambled to catch up.

The room was really too small to pace properly but Lorenfaar did anyway, traveling the few steps from desk to door restlessly, twisting the hem of his cloak in his fingers. Moxley settled on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to compose himself.

“All right,” he said finally, tucking a strand of hair behind one pointed ear. “The man I was just talking to… his name is Dalinar. We grew up together in the orphanage. We were… close.” He sighed, settling on the bed next to Moxley, fixing his gaze on the wall. “Actually, to be honest, we were lovers for years.”

“Lovers?” Moxley echoed.

“You sound surprised.”

“Well… I’d always heard elves didn’t believe in… ah…” He searched his vocabulary for the proper Elven word. “Relations… outside of marriage.”

“Don’t believe in it?” Lorenfaar chuckled. “That makes it sound like we think it doesn’t exist. No, it most certainly happens, no matter what some of the stricter priests might say. I always heard that dwarves didn’t believe in love, but I doubt that’s true.”

“Of course it isn’t–” Moxley began, but Lorenfaar held up a hand and he cut himself off.

“We can debate cultural ethics later. The point is, while I managed to move on and let go of the hate I’d harbored your people for years, Dalinar never did. Traditionally, you know, we stay up all night and watch the sun rise. Dalinar and I used to do that together, even after we’d grown up and left the orphanage. He just asked me if I would join him again this year, and I turned him down.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m not the same man I used to be, and he can’t understand that. When I told him I’d been spending time with you, he called me a traitor.”

Caught somewhere between pride, gratitude, and guilt, Moxley wasn’t sure how to respond. Finally he just said, “I’ve never seen a sunrise.”

Lorenfaar just stared at him, his utter disbelief driving all the pain from his eyes, and Moxley was immediately glad he’d said it. “I’ll watch it with you,” he continued. “If you want me to. I’d like to.”

“I would like that,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face, lighting up his red eyes. “I would like that very much.”

It wasn’t until Lorenfaar had left to get his own neglected breakfast that Moxley remembered the letter in his back pocket. He read it slowly, as he always did, a few lines at a time, pausing to let the meaning of the words sink in, sometimes re-reading a paragraph three or four times before moving on.

It started out predictably enough: We miss you, we’re doing well, we hope you are too. His mother prattled on at great length about her solstice party, how she was decorating the dining room, the band she’d booked, the gown she wanted to wear. Moxley’s sister was far into her pregnancy, and he had to put the letter down for a moment when he thought about the fact that he wouldn’t find out when his first niece or nephew was born until weeks after it had happened.

Of course I’m very excited about my first grandchild, his mother continued. In a few years when you come home I hope you find someone to settle down with. I have a few people in mind.

“Oh, Mother,” he muttered out loud. He had been so homesick that he sometimes forgot how much she liked to manage his life. She had been the one who had wanted him to come to Alvarranen in the first place, gushing about what an honor it was to be selected and how proud she’d be of him, and now she was already planning on his return?

He tucked the letter into his desk drawer, gazing out the window. The gray haze seemed thinner now, a glimmer of orange marking the sun’s slow descent into the longest night of the year. There was no sense dwelling on his family now, not when he had friends waiting for him.

Moxley spent the evening stuffing himself with pies of all kinds and losing miserably at dice games with Finn, Jessa and Lorenfaar. He couldn’t remember ever having enjoyed himself more.

Hours later, after several pints of remarkably fine ale Finn had somehow procured from the market, Moxley followed Lorenfaar up a treacherous spiral staircase onto the school roof. He slumped against the back of a bench, barely able to stay upright, wriggling around in a vain attempt to keep his rear end from turning numb with the cold. He had almost started drifting off when Lorenfaar nudged him, murmuring, “There, do you see it?”

He blinked, not sure where he was supposed to be looking, but soon realized that it really was getting lighter on the horizon. There was a strange quality to that light; it seemed white, clean, new. Was every sunrise like this, or was it just because it was the first of the new year? He stole a glance at Lorenfaar; the light caught in the red of his hair, and his eyes glowed like embers. He seemed to have no problem staring right into that light, and there was an expression on his face that Moxley couldn’t quite fathom, something thoughtful and serious. Reverent, perhaps.

Moxley suddenly found himself breathless, and his heart thumped in his chest as he forced his gaze back to the horizon, squinting. The sun caught the frost on the rooftops, setting them sparkling. It reminded Moxley of the surface of the Synde River when he’d crossed it on the journey here all those months ago.

“Isn’t it something?” Lorenfaar murmured.

“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, it is.” He felt something brush his side and slipped his hand out from under his cloak, letting his gloved fingers twine with Lorenfaar’s, not quite believing this was really happening. The other man’s thumb ran across the back of his hand, and Moxley looked up sharply to find Lorenfaar gazing down at him, expression inscrutable.

“What?” he finally managed. His mouth seemed to have gone dry.

“Nothing,” Lorenfaar said, too quickly. After a moment he relented. “It’s just that I thought I’d be spending this morning alone.”

“You could have spent it with Dalinar.”

“No.” Lorenfaar’s hand squeezed Moxley’s firmly. “We don’t have anything in common any more.”

Moxley tried to look at the sun again, but it was too bright. He covered his eyes with his free hand, little colored spots dancing in the darkness behind his eyelids.

“I’m sorry, do you want to go back inside?” Lorenfaar asked.

“No! No. It’s a little overwhelming, that’s all. But I’d like to stay with you for a little while longer, if that’s all right.”

“Of course.”

Lorenfaar was still holding his hand. Moxley wanted to ask why, but some kind of spell seemed to have fallen over them. The silence of the campus grounds and that strangely pure light of the sunrise made him feel as if he and Lorenfaar were the only two people left in the world. He shivered suddenly, the cold winter air giving him an involuntary chill, and tried to protest as Lorenfaar stood up, his hand slipping out of Moxley’s.

“You should have told me you were cold,” Lorenfaar said. “You don’t have to push yourself. Let’s go in, I’ll make a pot of tea.”

Moxley stood, but his head swam suddenly; he hadn’t realized how tired he was. His hand came up, catching Lorenfaar’s elbow to steady himself. Something was happening, something he couldn’t quite understand but wanted desperately to hold onto.

“I’ve never…” Moxley began. Looking up was a mistake. Those damn red eyes. They could have been unsettling but somehow they were so warm, and looking into them, Moxley forget whatever it was he’d been about to say.

“Never what?” Lorenfaar asked.

“I’ve never done anything,” Moxley breathed, and then he found himself leaning upward, or maybe Lorenfaar was leaning down; one way or another their mouths were meeting, and the number of things Moxley had never done went down by one.

A sweet tenor voice was singing words he couldn’t quite make out, a lilting, airy melody. Moxley blinked up at the beams of an unfamiliar ceiling and wondered if he was still dreaming. He was still wearing his clothes, minus cloak and breeches; a thick woolen comforter was pulled up to his chin, and he could hear the crackling of a fire. He felt so warm and secure he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to move.

The singing trailed off, and he turned his head to see Lorenfaar watching him.

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” he murmured.

“I don’t mind. That was lovely.” He pulled the blanket up to his chin. “Where am I?”

“I brought you to my room.” Lorenfaar settled on the edge of the bed, reaching down to gently brush Moxley’s bangs out of his eyes. “You were practically asleep on your feet, and I didn’t think I could get you all the way down the stairs to your own bed.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Not long. Two hours or so. Do you want some breakfast, or tea? I can bring it to you.”

Moxley pulled himself into a sitting position, hoping his hair wasn’t sticking up too stupidly. “Why would you go to all the trouble for me?”

“Because I like you, Moxley.” He rested his hand atop Moxley’s on the mattress. “Very much.”

“I like you too,” Moxley said, wanting nothing more than to kiss him again. “But this makes things complicated.”

“It doesn’t have to.”

Finn and Jessa would probably tease them good-naturedly. He could live with that. If they told the headmaster right away, he probably wouldn’t have an issue, as long as their relationship didn’t interfere with their work.

He couldn’t help but think of his mother’s letter. She’s not here, he reminded himself as Lorenfaar leaned in, his breath warm against Moxley’s lips. She’s not here, and he is.

He kissed Lorenfaar again, perhaps a bit too eagerly; their teeth clacked together, and Lorenfaar laughed, cupping Moxley’s chin in his hands and gentling the kiss.

“I’ve never kissed anyone with a beard before,” he said, thumb tracing Moxley’s jawline.

“I’ve never kissed anyone before.”

“That’s a shame.” Lorenfaar slipped onto the bed beside him and they lay there for a long time, exploring each other’s mouths. Moxley’s hand rested on Lorenfaar’s waist, and gradually he grew bolder, letting it slide down, tracing the curve of his slender hips.

“It’s warm in here,” Lorenfaar murmured, lifting Moxley’s hand and sitting up.

“Yeah,” Moxley replied, and was a little startled when the other man responded by pulling his robe off over his head. Beneath it he wore nothing but his simple cotton underclothes. “Oh,” he said. “You meant….”

“Is this too fast?” he asked, stroking Moxley’s cheek.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “You’re… you’re beautiful.” He kissed one pale shoulder, amazed at how white and smooth every visible bit of skin looked. “You… really don’t have any body hair, do you.”

“Oh, I have some,” Lorenfaar said playfully. “Would you like to see it?”

“Eventually,” Moxley said, feeling himself blush. First, though, he pulled his own shirt off. He wasn’t particularly hairy himself, for a dwarf, but he had a sprinkling of brown curls on his chest, and a line running from his belly button down into the waistband of his pants.

“Ooh,” Lorenfaar said with apparent interest. “Can I touch it?”

“You can touch whatever you want,” Moxley said, laying on his back. Lorenfaar ran his fingers lightly through the fuzz on his chest, making him shudder, and then touched his navel with his index finger, tracing the line of hair down his belly. Moxley was achingly hard, which would have been embarrassing if he couldn’t see the outline of Lorenfaar’s own erection straining against his underpants. Emboldened, he put his hands on Lorenfaar’s shoulders and rolled him over, nipping briefly at his slender collarbone before making his way lower.

I have never,Moxley thought to himself, put my hand around another man’s penis. A moment later he amended the thought: Now I have.

He traced its whole length with his hand, amazed at its throbbing heat even through the thin cloth, delighted by the hitches of breath his movements caused in the other man. He hooked his fingers into Lorenfaar’s waistband and tugged, and the elf helped get his underpants off entirely. He did indeed have hair there, a light dusting of reddish curls around the root of his penis. His manhood was just like the rest of him, long and slender and almost elegant, and there was a drop of moisture at the tip that Moxley suddenly, crazily, wanted to lick.

The idea of putting his mouth there came so strongly it surprised him. He had always thought the act sounded disgusting but now, with the prospect before him, it was anything but. He knelt between Lorenfaar’s legs and bent his head, slowly enough to give the other man a chance to stop him, then swiped his tongue experimentally over the tip.

There was a heavy, salty taste there, strange but not unpleasant, and he let his lips close around the head, drawing a hissed affirmation from Lorenfaar as the other man’s fingers dug into his hair. It was smooth and slippery, and the texture felt so interesting on his tongue that he tried to take more in, only to go a bit too far and pull back, coughing.

“Are you all right?” Lorenfaar asked, concern causing his eyebrows to knit together.

“Fine,” Moxley insisted, rocking back on his heels and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was going a little too fast, I think.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Lorenfaar said, and then his fingers were on the buttons of Moxley’s fly. Soon he was naked as well and they lay beside each other, hands pumping each other’s erections. Their height difference put Moxley’s cheek against Lorenfaar’s breastbone, and he could feel the other man’s heart fluttering in his ribcage and his breath panting against the top of his head. Then they were both shuddering, shooting all over each other’s hands, and Moxley realized he was babbling obscenities in Dwarven, which Lorenfaar likely wouldn’t understand, but he probably got the idea anyway.

They lay panting together after, Moxley thinking wonderingly, Did I just lose my virginity?

That thought was quickly followed by one less pleasant: My parents are going to disown me.

Lorenfaar’s arms fell around him, and he burrowed into the other man’s warmth, forgetting everything else.

They stayed in bed for hours, talking, kissing, cuddling. Now and then, when they had rested enough, they would try something new, and by the time hunger drove them out of bed hours later Moxley’s virginity had been well and truly abolished beyond any shadow of a doubt.

They fetched cold pasties from the pantry, and Moxley discovered that it wasn’t easy to eat while your mouth was busy grinning. Afterward he went back to his room for a change of clothes. Finn and Jessa were nowhere to be seen; he suspected they’d been spending their day much the same way he had.

The sunlight was nearly gone, and as he dressed in the darkness he wondered why he was bothering. It seemed likely his clothes were going to come off again before long, anyhow. When he went to meet Lorenfaar in the front hall the other man was bundled up in his cloak.

“Are you going somewhere?” Moxley asked.

“Just out into the yard. Grab your cloak, I have to show you something.”

Moxley did as he was asked, and Lorenfaar lead him out the front door, where Moxley gaped at the scene before him. White flakes drifted down from the sky, covering the dead grass and piling up on the wall. The moon, just a few days past full, cast its light from high overhead, turning everything silver. Moxley had heard of snow, but he hadn’t expected it to be so silent and so bright. Lorenfaar wrapped his arms around Moxley’s shoulders from behind, resting his chin on the top of his head. “I love that look you get,” he said softly, “when you see something new. I sometimes forget how young you are.”

Moxley had been officially considered an adult since he’d turned fifty, five years ago, but he had to admit to himself he rarely felt like one. Just now, with Lorenfaar’s arms around him and snowflakes melting on his cheeks, he felt like he could take on just about anything. He turned around, backed Lorenfaar up against the wall of the gardener’s shed, and kissed him. He probably could have gone on kissing him all night, until the snow piled up and covered them, but the peace was interrupted by a pained, incoherent shout from the street behind them.

Standing at the gate was a dark-haired elf, with no cloak or jacket, clothes rumpled and dirty. From the way he clutched at the wrought iron bars and swayed on his feet it was immediately apparent that he’d been drinking.

“Lorenfaar!” he wailed. “How could you!”

“Light grant me guidance,” Lorenfaar muttered, pushing Moxley away and crossing the snowy yard. “Dalinar. You’re drunk.”

“Of course I’m drunk,” he said. “What else was I supposed to do, spending the whole day alone? You abandoned me.”

“I did not,” Lorenfaar sighed. “Now go home and sleep it off.”

“No, dammit! I won’t go until you let me in.”

“You’ll leave if I let you in. That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Please! I just need to talk to you. Please.”

He sounded near the verge of tears. Moxley couldn’t quite help feeling sorry for him, and Lorenfaar must have felt the same way, for he pulled his key ring out of an inner pocket and opened the gate. Dalinar flung himself forward and Lorenfaar accepted his embrace patiently. Then he said something too quiet for Moxley, still standing by the shed, could hear. Whatever it was, it made Lorenfaar stiffen and step back. Moxley wished he could see his face.

“What, no answer?” Dalinar sneered. “Well, dwarf?” Moxley straightened. Dalinar hadn’t acknowledged him at all until now. “Are you two fucking, or not?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Lorenfaar said, finally composing himself.

“You are, then. You are! You really left me for that?”

Moxley felt he should say something in his own defense, but before he could form the words, Dalinar snarled “I’ll kill him!” There was a flash of steel as he drew a short dagger from his belt. Lorenfaar grabbed frantically at his sleeve and Dalinar whirled, shoving him hard against the gate. Moxley took a step, slipped in the snow, and fell hard on his ass.

There was something partially buried in the snow between him and the wall – a smooth wooden handle. He had no time to think. His hand closed around it and he surged to his feet as Dalinar closed the distance between them, swinging as hard as he could.

The flat side of the shovel caught him full in the face, and he went down in a heap, blood gushing from his nose. Moxley didn’t even stop, just kept running, skidding over the wet snow, until he was at Lorenfaar’s side. His face was even paler than usual but he opened his eyes as Moxley neared, shaking his head slowly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think he’d–”

“How could you? It’s not your fault. Are you all right?”

“I think so.” Lorenfaar struggled to sit upright and Moxley held out his hands to help him. “I must have hit my head on the gate, but I’m–” He stopped, staring in shock at the blood covering his hand. Moxley pulled his cloak aside and gasped in horror at the stain spreading dark and red across his robe. “When did that happen?” Lorenfaar asked dazedly.

“Help! Someone, please help!” Moxley’s voice sounded distant as it rose, high and panicked, and he prayed that a guard patrol would hear. Pressure, he thought numbly, apply pressure. All he could do was press his hands against Lorenfaar’s side as the blood soaked through his cloak and his voice threatened to give out from the shouting.

I missed you all on the solstice, Moxley wrote. I hope Mara is doing well. Has the baby come yet? Never mind, I’m sure you’ll let me know as soon as possible.

He paused, chewing on his lower lip, and began a new line. I met someone.

That seemed horribly inadequate. He stared at the words so long they stopped looking like words, and dropped his forehead to the surface of the desk with a groan.

“I sense some tension there,” a voice said from behind him. “I would love to bend you right over that desk and help work it out.”

“As nice as that sounds, Lor,” he said, turning to face the other man, who lay propped up on a mound of pillows on his bed, “you know you’d rip out your stitches, and I don’t want that on my head.”

“I know,” he said with a sigh. “All this waiting around to heal is what’s really going to kill me.” He fell quiet, and Moxley knew he was thinking of Dalinar, languishing in prison. Moxley set down his pen, determined to get that melancholy look off his face.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he said, climbing onto the bed between Lorenfaar’s knees. “If you promise to hold still and not hurt yourself, I’ll work out my tension on you.”

“Oh?” Fine red eyebrows lifted in amusement. “And how are you planning on doing that?”

“Like this,” Moxley said, ducking his head under the hem of Lorenfaar’s robe.

“That should work,” Lorenfaar acknowledged, giving a little gasp as Moxley sucked on the soft skin of his inner thigh.

Well, he didn’t have to write about this in his letter home, Moxley mused as he took Lorenfaar’s hardening cock into his mouth, but he would write. Elf, male, low-born: none of that mattered any more. He had a lover willing to take a blade for him, and even if the whole world disapproved he wouldn’t give him up for anything.

Duties

by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

The first few months that Johan spends in the Gravina family manor are a blur of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time while saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in the wrong place, but his uncle assures him that he’ll settle into his role in time. Serving as Young Master Hugo’s valet is an important responsibility, after all. Does Johan think he was chosen lightly? Well, then.

In some respects, his uncle is right. At least, Johan is no longer in mortal terror of being dragged from his bed in the middle of the night, unceremoniously shot in the back of the head, and tossed into a shallow grave with only a pile of lime for company, all because someone mistook his incompetence for insolence.

Not that he thinks Hugo would have allowed something like that to happen, not anymore. He’s more patient than Johan would have guessed, given his upbringing. Even kind, in his strange way. Johan can’t recall him ever once raising his voice–not even that time Johan dropped a full, steaming pot of tea on his shoulder.

…Which could be a result of his upbringing, really, but examining that thought too closely makes Johan feel unsettled and uncomfortably protective, so he lets it go.

Either way, the fact that Hugo seemed willing to overlook his mistakes had the odd effect of increasing the pressure Johan felt to stop making them.

It was the routine that saved him in the end, he thinks. When your every activity is mapped out before you set foot out of bed, and those activities are essentially the same from one day to the next, it takes a special kind of effort and creativity to go on screwing them up.

And today starts out routinely enough. Johan brings Hugo his breakfast in bed, helps him to perform his morning ablutions, and sets about the task of dressing him. Which, unfortunately, is one of those duties that continue to give him trouble.

No, that’s shifting the blame. Dressing Hugo is not the problem. The problem lies firmly with Johan, and his inability to stop sneaking glances as he works. Once or twice, he’s let his eyes linger for more than a glance, and Hugo noticed. At least, Johan thinks he noticed. He didn’t say anything, but the look he gave Johan in return seemed mildly amused and a touch smug.

Today Johan manages to get Hugo into his shirt, trousers, suspenders, and socks without even registering the spreading width of Hugo’s shoulders, the soft curve of his mouth, or the plane of his stomach.

Hugo yawns as he drops into the plush chair at his bedside, and Johan kneels to slip on his shoes and tie the laces.

He feels Hugo’s hand settle on his shoulder. It lingers before drifting lazily to Johan’s nape. Keeping his head down, Johan slides his gaze up to check Hugo’s expression. It’s watchful, in a detached way.

The hand on his neck is not an order. It’s probably not even a suggestion. But Johan thinks, maybe he could take it as permission…?

He’s thought about this countless times, usually late at night as he lies in bed and tries (and fails) to convince his body that it is not actually the least bit aroused.

Johan licks his lips and leans forward very slightly, watching for the young master’s reaction. And Hugo parts his knees wider.


Johan thinks, Yes. He reaches up to undo the button of Hugo’s trousers, which almost wrings a giddy laugh from him–he just did that button up a minute ago–but he forces it down and does his best to appear unruffled, professional.

He suspects he ought to say something. “Sir,” maybe? Or “Pardon me”? But he doesn’t trust his voice to work for him right now, so he just slides the button free and folds back the fabric of Hugo’s trousers.

The moon-pale Gravina hair that looks so fetching when it falls over Hugo’s eyes is every bit as lovely down here, just coarser and less inclined to sway in a breeze. It prickles Johan’s knuckles as he makes his hand into a loose fist and strokes a few times, slow and regular, coaxing Hugo to hardness.

It doesn’t take long, and that sends a warm rush down to Johan’s groin in turn. He bows his head, licks his lips a second time, and slides them over the head of Hugo’s cock. Bundle of nerves though he may be, Johan doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the stuttered hitch of Hugo’s breath, the way his fingers curl into the hair at Johan’s nape.

Johan slides down farther, about halfway, which is as far as he’s ever been able to go without choking. He wraps his hand around the remainder and bobs his head, settling into a rhythm as best he can. Which isn’t all that good because Hugo’s half-stifled moans, the shaky push of his hips, the way his hands card through Johan’s hair… Well, they’re distracting.

And even though Johan has enough on his mind as it is–with his jaw stretched uncomfortably wide and his mouth feeling soft and tender from Hugo’s thrusts–he needs to look up, needs to see Hugo’s face for this.

The young master’s cheeks are flushed (for the first time Johan has ever seen), head lolled back, eyes closed, lips parted around muted gasps. His expression could almost be mistaken for pain, if not for the way he moans, “Ah, that’s–yes,” when Johan presses his tongue hard against his shaft. “More like that, Johan. You feel so….” His eyes slit open to lock with Johan’s for a breath before they squeeze shut again, and his grip on Johan’s hair tightens enough to bring tears.

Bitter heat floods Johan’s mouth. He swallows, and swallows, and slides a hand up under Hugo’s shirt to stroke a thumb along the underside of his ribcage, petting his flank as he comes back down.

Hugo sinks into the chair, sated and boneless. He lets out a soft, open-mouthed sigh, and Johan tucks him back into his trousers, buttons them, straightens his clothes.

“Ah, well, if that will be all,” he says, rising to his feet and turning quickly away. He has a little difficulty walking toward the door, but he can’t linger, not when he’s–

A hand seizes his elbow, and he hears Hugo say, “I don’t remember dismissing you.”

“My apologies, sir,” Johan says, desperation rising hot in his cheeks, “but I have something to attend….” His words dissolve into a moan when Hugo reaches around to brush a hand over the front of his trousers.

“I suppose this is what’s making such stringent demands on your attention?” Hugo says, and already his voice is back to sounding calm, superior, and amused. He presses his hand down firmly, cupping and stroking Johan through the fabric of his trousers. He pushes closer to rub his cheek against Johan’s spine, right between his shoulder blades, and chuckles. “You liked it that much, did you? Having me in your mouth. Sucking me until I came.”

He trails his hand up, over Johan’s stomach, his chest, up past his throat, and traces his fingers over Johan’s swollen lips. He presses three of them inside.

They taste of salt, and Johan can feel the calluses left by long hours of filling out ledgers and practicing with knives. They don’t force his jaw wide, but his mouth still feels open and oversensitive. He moans around Hugo’s fingers when they pet his tongue.

“That’s good,” Hugo says, and pushes against his back, guiding him to the desk.

Hugo works Johan’s trousers open with his free hand and slides his fingers out of Johan’s mouth. He brings them down to wrap–strong and slick–around his cock. His strokes are slow, deliberate, and Johan leans over the desk to brace himself against the sturdy wood.

Hugo says, “Let me hear you.”

“I–I don’t think…” Johan buries his face in his crossed arms. He doesn’t know why this should embarrass him so much more than being down on his knees with a cock in his mouth, but it does, and he bites his lip as he rocks into Hugo’s hand.

Hugo stops stroking and presses close to trap Johan against the desk. “I want to hear you,” he says. He molds his body to Johan’s back, holding him still.

Johan feels himself flush even hotter. “Please,” he whispers.

“Please what?” says Hugo. His breath is warm on Johan’s nape. “Tell me what you want.”

“I…” Johan grits his teeth. The fingers of his right hand curl white-knuckled over the far edge of the desk. “I want to come. Please, I want to come in your hand, just like this.”

“That’s good,” Hugo says again, and Johan feels the pressure on his back ease just enough to give him room to move, feels Hugo’s hand resume its steady stroking. “I love your voice, the way you sound, especially now. Tell me more.”

“I’m–ah.” Johan pants, his breath moist in the cave of his arms. He can hardly think–how does Hugo expect him to talk? But he says, “I think about this, about you, when I do this to myself.”

Hugo makes a pleased humming sound low in his throat and strokes faster.

Johan shivers. “It–it makes it so much better,” he says, and the words come more easily now. He says, “But it never feels like this, never this good. No–oh god–no matter what I do, it’s never as good as–ah, Hugo, yes, like that.”

“You’re close,” Hugo says, not asking, and his voice isn’t steady anymore. “That’s right,” he says. “Good. Now.”

It’s an order Johan couldn’t refuse even if he wanted to. He comes harder than he ever has and slumps against the desk, his breaths shallow and shaky. Gradually, they even back out, and he’s able to stand on his own again, and see the mess he’s made.

“We’ll have to take care of that before it damages the wood,” Hugo says. He holds Johan’s gaze as he licks his fingers clean. “I’ll just ask Madelyn to–”

“I’ll take care of it,” Johan interjects. He doesn’t doubt for a moment that Hugo would do exactly that. After all, Johan has caught Madelyn sending appreciative glances his way, and if he’s noticed… He buttons up and smooths his wrinkled shirtfront. “I’ll go get a washcloth.”

He makes it one and a half steps before Hugo catches his tie and tugs him down into a kiss. Johan can taste himself on Hugo’s tongue. He wonders whether Hugo is thinking the same thing about him.

Hugo breaks the kiss but keeps a firm hold on Johan’s tie. “This isn’t another of your duties, you know,” he murmurs against Johan’s lips, and that foreign unsteadiness has crept back into his voice.

Johan has to stifle another giddy laugh. He smiles instead and brings their mouths back together, slow and searching. He says, “I had assumed it was an incentive.

The Revelation of Orev

by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
illustrated by quaedam

According to tradition, a bird offered to God in His shrine was to be killed by way of having its neck broken and its head twisted free of its body, but in modern times this had come to be seen as unnecessarily cruel. The current manner of sacrifice called for a hooked sakin to be pushed into the juncture between the bird’s throat and breast with a measure of precision that most laypeople were incapable of; Aryeh had been trained in it from a very young age. When he was a child, he’d felt intensely bad killing the perfect white doves the Temple bred for this purpose. The priests told him that it was good that he sympathized with the small and the helpless, because it meant he would be a good king. He could now issue the killing thrust without even having to look at the bird, and he was grateful for that.


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