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Cultural Exchange

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Pallas pours for Lazar last.

Not out of form or ill-will, he’s simply seated farthest from the campfire, in a lazy sprawl against a tumble of slate. He watches Pallas approach, the corner of his mouth lifting at the same time his hand comes up for the wine. His eyes travel the length of him, and Pallas gives thanks that he doesn’t show color easily. Not like these soft, overbred Veretians.

“We’re doing this backward,” Lazar says. “Usually I drink with a man before I see him with his ass in the air.”

At least, that’s what Pallas thinks he says. Pallas’s Veretian is rather sparse.

“And I’ve seen your ass not at all, as it stayed planted in your seat while the real men wrestled." The foreign words are slick in his mouth.

Lazar looks at him. Then he laughs so hard he has to put down his cup, head thrown back, boots pushed into the rich red soil. He looks happy and exhausted.

Raising the cup to his lips at last he says, “My donkey does what?”

Pallas flees back to where he can blame his flush on the heat of the flames.


Fuck me. You’re lying.”

Laughter rattles Pallas’s chest. “No, I swear it.”

“Fuck. Fuck.” Lazar pours out another two shots, lending himself a drunkard’s eloquence. “He actually told you to come in? While they were--.”

“I thought that’s how it is done,” Pallas answers, “In Vere.” Lazar pushes him a glass and their knuckles brush, warmth blooming up his neck and into his cheeks.

Hooded grey eyes watch him in the firelight. “Not in front of soldiers. And not the Prince. The Prince, he doesn’t--.” Lazar drinks and winces. The only foreigner Pallas has seen drink griva without making a production of it is Laurent himself. “The Prince doesn’t fuck.”

Pallas raises his brows toward the inn’s upper floor, where Charls and Lamen had vanished discreetly a quarter of an hour ago.

Lazar grunts. “Strange times.”

Pallas has to agree. He is watching the shadows of the flames as they lap at Lazar’s neck, dig hollows beneath his cheekbones. He likes him. He likes that he doesn’t seem to mind that Pallas is young, that he had only been chosen for this mission because of his performance in the games. The rough manners that had so grated at Marlas fit here, on long dusty stretches of road, installed in corners of inns drinking terrible liquor.

“I wish you had enough Veretian to tell me what his cock looks like.”

Pallas flushes. “I wish you had enough common sense to guess I looked away as fast as I could.” He says it in Akielon.

“I’m too drunk for translating.”

Griva strikes like a snake and kicks like a horse,” Pallas agrees, an old saying, soldiers reminding each other how they’ll feel in the morning.

Lazar narrows blurry eyes at him. “More about donkeys now?”

Pallas laughs hard enough to bend himself forward across the table. “I am as drunk as you are!”

“There’s the truth.” Lazar reaches in to trace the seam of Pallas’s lips with his thumb. “But our words are so pretty in your mouth.”

An image comes to Pallas, Lazar wrapping his hand around the back of his neck, pulling him in, irresistible force. But it’s just the ghost of a touch, fleeting warmth. He can read the thought behind the action. There is too much need for caution here in the south, danger in drawing attention. And they will be sleeping in the barracks tonight.

Pallas doesn’t know how much longer he can stand this.


He stands it for another week, long enough for the Prince of Vere to fall into his uncle’s hands and for the Exalted to give himself up in a selfless gambit to save him. Long enough to witness the end of a farcical trial, for the truth to lie bare and ugly at the feet of the Akielon court.

Pallas had not been in Ios when Kastor’s men had taken the palace, but he imagines it must have been just like this. Hard bursts of fighting in the corridors, tapestries ripped down off the walls, the pure white stone sullied. The palace guards, taken by surprise by the abrupt change in leadership, surrendering quickly.

As the bells toll out across the cliffs to proclaim a new king’s rising, Pallas finds himself disheveled and breathless, arms spattered with blood that is not his own. He had lost sight of Lazar at the start of the battle, the tides of the fighting pulling them apart. Inertia throws him through the tall, airy halls, his breath coming fast whenever he passes a pale-skinned corpse.

An urgent tension rises in him as he finds nothing, as he leaves aside the victory shouts of his fellows in favor of searching, sword still naked in his hand. Pallas tries to calm himself, to accept the realities of war, of service--

A familiar barking laugh has him spinning, and there, just a few steps from him--leaning down to speak with another soldier, an injured Veretian Pallas doesn’t know. Lazar’s gaze is hectic, and when their eyes meet it goes momentarily blank.

Appeased, Pallas turns away, content to leave him to his men. It is enough to know that he survived the day.

Heavy footsteps, a presence at his back, a shadow on the wall. Fear fills his mouth. Idiot boy, growls a voice in his head that sounds much like General Makedon’s, never lower your guard around Veretians. He is pulled round and pushed hard against the warm stone of a pillar. Pallas struggles, but then a mouth is on his, a hand solid and steady on the back of his neck.

Lazar reeks of fear and perspiration, of blood and unwashed skin. Pallas’s heart soars even as his legs tremble. He braces for shouts of reproof for this display on what only a few minutes ago was a battlefield, but none come, nor do the whistles and jibes he has come to expect from his Veretian comrades.

Of course not. The one who would be whistling is the one kissing him. Pallas clutches the back of Lazar’s shirt and loses himself in it.

“Your country has too many stairs,” Lazar grunts, stubble scraping along Pallas’s jaw. “Why did your king build his palace on a fucking mountain? I’m too old for this.”

“I need you to fuck me.” Pallas buries his fingers in fine, short hair, gasping the words in Akielon. “I need you to fuck me and not say one more word about stairs or strange times or donkeys.”

“I have no idea what you just said." Lazar's laugh is full of haggard warmth. “But I’m for it.”