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Famine or Feast

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Once that the late-winter snows settled in, life in Emor's capital grew grim.

The city council – not often remembered, overshadowed as it was by the Great Council in the palace that loomed over the capital – proved its worth by sending out an army of laborers after every snowfall, shovels in hand. Thanks to the laborers, the city streets remained clear of snow. But the city market had closed for the season, and even the butchers ran out of food eventually. Families that were too foolish – or too poor – to have stored up much food during the warm seasons struggled every day now to keep alive.

Those of us in the army were in no danger of dying. We dined daily on what the commissaries offered: a steady supply of dried vegetables and salted meat, which we used as a base for our soups. The unchanging diet grew tedious after a while. The more prosperous members of the army – those who were titled or otherwise rich – bought their food from the plentiful coffers of the palace kitchens. The more generous of these men invited their friends to supper.

I had just returned one evening from a feast with Sewell – at least, it should have been a feast, but the palace kitchens failed to deliver the evening's meal, so all that Sewell could offer his guests was the usual army soup, watered down so that he could feed his many guests. My stomach was growling by the time I reached the one-room cottage where Carle and I have housed ourselves for the winter. Carle, who is skilled at knowing when trouble is ahead, had declined the supper invitation; I found him sitting by the fire, stripped down to his undertunic for a night's sleep, but squinting in the fading light as he perused a bound book.

I had a moment to be chagrined that Carle could sit half-dressed in such weather, while I, with my southern blood, would have died of the cold during these Emorian winter nights if I had not chosen to spend the winter with my wine-friend.

"What is that?" I came over to give him my usual kiss on the cheek; then I set about the unpleasant business of stripping off my cloak without leaving a puddle of water on the floor. The winter storms had come again; my cloak was coaked with snow.

"A journal," said Carle in a distracted manner. "I found it in the cave under Mount Skycrest."

My silence alerted him; he looked up, saw my expression, and gave a crooked smile in his kindly manner. "Not your journal," he clarified. "It's written in a foreign tongue I've never encountered before – mainland, I suppose. I wouldn't read your journal without permission."

Feeling ashamed that I would attribute such dishonor to my dearest friend, I came forward and hung over Carle's back, joining my hands together against his chest. He briefly raised his hand to squeeze mine, his skin as light as a death spirit's against my dark skin. Then he reached for the wine-cup sitting next to him on the bench. After he sipped it, he handed it to me.

I finished off the wine, feeling, once again, the joy of receiving Carle's wine of friendship. My eye was on the journal, though. It was indeed written in a language I had never seen before – and by now, thanks to Carle's tutoring, I could recognize the languages of all the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula.

"The journal has pictures," Carle said, flipping the pages to show me. "The pictures are labelled, so I've been able to use them to translate the tongue."

I laughed. "Of course you have. You have the best book-learning of anyone I know. What does the journal say?" Pressed as I was against Carle's back, I was beginning to feel warm again for the first time in hours, though my stomach continued to growl. I said nothing of this; I knew that Carle had eaten no better this winter than I had.

Carle frowned. "I'm not sure. I think I may have translated it wrong."

"What makes you say that?" Curious now, I shifted round to Carle's side so that I could see the journal better. In an instinctive manner, he welcomed me within the embrace of his arm.

Closer up, I could see that the journal's pictures held a pattern: they were all of two young men, strangely garbed, and in far few clothes than I would have expected of mainlanders. Perhaps the youths came from the eastern mainland, whose climate is no colder than Emor's. The pictures showed the young men in various stances: talking together, running together, throwing an oddly misshapen ball back and forth, and most mysterious of all, staring together at a box. The box was black; it wasn't clear what fascination it held for the young men.

"'Best bros.'" Carle read aloud the words written on the cover of the journal.

I cocked my head in enquiry. Carle had translated the first word into Emorian; the second word I couldn't understand. "'Bros'? What does that mean?"

"Brothers, I think. As far as I can tell, the journal-writer and his friend consider themselves to be blood brothers or wine-friends or whatever is the equivalent in their tribe."

"Best brothers," I said, nodding. "That makes sense. So why do you think you've mistranslated the journal?"

Carle's brow was creased now; I reached up and pulled back the hair from his brow so that I could see his eyes better. Without raising his gaze from the journal, he said, "You're from the south, so maybe you know customs with which I'm unacquainted. These men are clearly wine-friends; they sip alcohol from the same drinking vessel. They declare that they will be best bros forever, which sounds like a blood vow of friendship to me. And yet . . . Have you ever heard of a place where the custom is for friends not to touch each other?"

"What?" I nearly grabbed the journal from Carle's hands, so startled was I by this suggestion. "Carle, you can't mean that!"

"I do," he said, his brow still puckered with puzzlement. "That is why I am questioning my ability to translate this journal correctly. I've found references to the friends touching each other in passing – for example, when handing objects to each other. And sometimes they pound each other on their backs—"

"Pound each other?" I stared at Carle. "Why would they want to hurt each other?"

"Some sort of mainland rite, I think. The pounding often happens when they're staring at 'the box,' which I suppose must be their god." Carle was frowning now, as he always did at references to gods.

"Perhaps the box is symbolic," I said quickly. "Like the Chara's throne."

"Perhaps." The anger cleared from Carle's face, but he still looked troubled, so I settled my head upon his shoulder. Recognizing the comfort I was offering, Carle grazed my hair with his cheek – Carle is so reserved that he has never gone so far as to kiss me – and then he said, "But those are the only references to touching at all, in the entire journal. These two men, so close in spirit that they want to spend their lives together, keep as much distance from each other as a chaperoned maiden does from the man who is courting her."

I thought about this, now thoroughly warm from the fire and from Carle's body. The daylight through the cracks in the shutters had disappeared altogether, but I could still see the journal in the light of the fire. I paged through the journal and saw that the question of interpretation was not merely a matter of Carle's ability to read the language correctly; none of the many pictures depicted the men touching each other either – except once, when they did that strange pounding-each-other-for-love ceremony that Carle had spoken of. I pointed this out, and Carle grunted in acknowledgment. His hand had begun to knead the back of my neck, easing out some of the tensions of the day.

"Perhaps there's some sort of custom in their tribe that friends can't touch each other until they have proved their worth to each other," I said finally. "Or perhaps" – sudden enlightenment came to me – "the friends are twisted. They're honorable enough that they don't wish to give in to their lusts for each other, but to be safe, they don't touch each other."

Carle shook his head. "I thought of all the obvious explanations. No, it's more than that. Adrian, how many times since I met you have I spoken of my friendship for you?"

I had to think. Carle is reserved, as I have said; whereas I tell Carle almost daily how much I love him, I could count in my mind the number of times that Carle had spoken of his feelings for me. "Not over a dozen times, I should think. But you make your love clear in numerous ways," I added hastily.

Carle nodded. "I've always thought myself a man who keeps his feelings deeply hidden. But what would you say if I told you these friends had never said the words 'I love you' to each other?"

Now I was truly speechless. It came to me, with a sickening of the stomach, that these men must come from a tribe where the most basic instincts of civilized men were absent. A tribe so barbaric that it did not partake in the elemental customs of civilization.

Grasping hope that I had misinterpreted the evidence, I said, "Perhaps these particular men are childlike in their minds – too weak in reasoning to understand what behavior is proper between friends. Or perhaps" – I culminated my suggestions with the most likely explanation – "they are madmen."

"All barbarians are madmen." Carle thrust away the journal with disgust, as though it would contaminate him. "That's what it comes down to. They weren't born in Emor."

Then I laughed – laughed and laughed, till I tumbled down onto the pallet next to the fire. Belatedly realizing the full meaning of his insult, Carle grew red in the face. Then, seeing that I was unoffended, he sheepishly grinned. Rising from the bench, Carle smoored the fire for the night; then he joined me on our pallet.

Warm against each other's bodies, we fell asleep at once. My stomach remained empty, but my spirit was filled with the renewed richness of our friendship.