OF LOVE AND TURTLES
by Michael Key
edited by Michael Lyons
Adapted from an original story by Aram Vartian, Doug Horn, Steven Hardos, Michael Key and Kay.
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The morning sun blazes through the translucent curtains of my room in the Shellback Inn, illuminating motes of dust I watch dance through the air from my bed. I can't remember the last time I slept in an actual bed... a real bed, not the thick stone slabs in Kadar with little more than a threadbare sheet for warmth, not the open-air hastily-constructed gnarled hammocks of the wood elves, but a real bed. I could get used to this.
I turn over, away from the blinding light, and there he is; my traveling companion, Pera, sleeping off a night of heavy drinking in the bed next to mine. As a warm breeze drifts through the window lifting the curtains, the sun falls onto Pera's face, alighting him like a hearth fire in the darkened room, kissing his brown skin and silky locks of black hair.
From the moment Pera had bravely saved my life, I began to see him differently. I didn't expect a week ago that I would be making a study of his sleeping face, mapping each freckle and memorizing every lash.
Only days ago, Pera and I stood faces-to-skull with a reanimated corpse in the Temple of Orrum and I faltered. I will never forget the smell of the fetid, burning embers of a calcified horror that Pera held at bay with his power over fire. If it weren't for Pera fighting back, unarmed and with his very clothes already burned to ash, I would have been skewered by the walking abomination. My last sight would have been the dull green glow of the orbs that once held eyes of the undead skeleton. Instead, I am laying safely in bed, watching the gentle heave of Pera's breast, listening to the quiet symphony of his breath. I had misjudged Pera.
Only two days have passed since my friends and I survived the deadly mysteries of the wretched temple. Even as the thick stone doors of the temple slammed together in a final meeting, we were surrounded by purse-lipped and leery elves who called the Ironwood home. The elves wasted no time drawing their bows upon us, demanding that we leave.
I was actually happy when the angry wood elves escorted us out of the wilderness and back onto the human road leading to Turtle Bay. I had enough wet mud in my shoes. My body was slick with the sticky moisture of sap, sweat and dew. My throat was course with the pollen of a thousand exotically toxic plants.
Maybe things would go better for us at "Turtlefest" in Turtle Bay. Tales of games, prizes, dancing and feasts were enticing, but the very prospect of laying in a hot bath with steam clearing my throat and sleeping in a plush, inviting bed had become irresistible. For the first time in a long time, my friends and I weren't being pursued. We could just be care-free teenagers. Maybe we could pretend for just a few days that a whole nation wasn't hunting us.
I watched Pera's hand in the Ironwood the other day, wondering if my hand would fit nicely in it. How could I ever not have noticed him? How could I ever not be intoxicated by his smile?
I know the answer, and it slices through me like a jagged spear at my belly. All of these thoughts are against my training. And my training has made me say and do things I regret.
Had I treated Pera badly? Yes. I was trained to find weakness in sentimentality. I was trained to find grief as weakness. Pera had both of these. Am I failing my training? Absolutely.
I was brought up in the Southern Shield in Kadar. Even as a fourth son, I knew of my place. I was to have an arranged marriage, as two of my three brothers before me. We are the direct descendants of the founder of the Antitheot religion. There can be no deviation: we are to marry a woman of appropriate character who will bear children with the Preaten name. That was to be my destiny and my poor future wife's sentence. Circumstance saved us both from that. It's not that my people are against two men or two women discretely being together, but one is expected to do one's duty and it is seen as selfish for one to not pass on one's name: especially a name like Praeten.
It doesn't matter now, I would be thoroughly disowned if ever found by my family: not for thinking Pera is cute, but for a far graver infraction. The gravest. I am Awakened. That's what I heard an elf call it. I don't know quite what that means or what I am yet, but I do know I have powers that grow by the day. So too do the powers of all of my new friends: the human farmer Pera, the imperious high elf noble Phryane, the perpetually drunk dwarf Torrvic and the halfling street urchin Dorro. In my society if one is even found hiding an unauthorized magical item (and almost all magical items are unauthorized in Kadar), that person is publicly executed to the gleeful cheers of the condemned's erstwhile neighbors.
Imagine what my people would do to me or my friends! They don't even have a punishment for an infraction of this scale. I don't just have a magical item: I am magic. I can take some comfort in knowing that Pera can't be burned at the stake. That's my father's favorite sentence to prescribe. I was forced to watch several public executions in my youth: it was expected of a son of the spiritual leader of the Highlands of Kadar to be in attendance.
Pera can control fire, which is dangerous and the most powerful of any of us. Phryane can control fire to a lesser extent, as well as cast many spells. I just like listening to her voice, it seems magical too. Dorro can disappear and reappear in another spot at will. Torrvic can sooth wild animals and is handy with a war hammer. And I . . . I'm not entirely sure what I can do. I can cast a few spells just as the sorcerers of old, but there is something else there too that I don't quite understand. But we all seem to get more and more powerful each day.
So here I lay on a downy bed, free from the strictures of my old society. I am free to question my father's beliefs. I am free to stare at a beautiful guy and wonder if he might feel the same for me as I do for him.
Pera was very affectionate last night at the State Dinner, but it may have just been the alcohol. Pera is a lightweight. I probably am too, but I've never tried drinking. There are some Antitheos of Man beliefs that I still agree with: not drinking alcohol is one of them. Drinking makes people sloppy. When one is being pursued by many forces, one can't afford to get sloppy.
On the upside, drunk Pera kept putting his arm around me at the dinner. I enjoyed it, even though it might have been just to keep his balance and stand. I could feel the heat of his skin on me. Pera is warmer than most. It might be because he is a pyrokinetic, or maybe he just runs hot. Either way, it was a wonderful sensation.
It is decided, I'll have to find out more of Pera and what he thinks of me, but I... am going to allow myself to feel!