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Greater Seasons

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The first year, Costis developed an unseemly fondness for ugly scraggly plants. In leaving to scout the land he took his sword, his sheepskin bag, some bread and a cloth filled with dried dates. Smiling at the door, he would say, "So, I will not see you for some days, Kamet."

"You do well enough in the wild," said Kamet in reply. "You don't need my say-so."

Costis took his sword, his bag, bread, and dates. He returned with plants. They were dry, dead leaves that he cradled in his fist, showing them to Kamet, who worked by the window that took in the morning sun. "These grow rare in Attolia," Costis said.

Weeds, thought Kamet, snappish because his eyes hurt, and too early for that. But perhaps it was characteristic of all Attolians to be so excited by foliage. It was a kingdom of mostly farmers, after all. He had a thought in his head of Costis' mother and father, of various assorted cousins, all of them with Costis' face or something near like, standing in a row beaming over plants. It disturbed him.

Out loud he did not put up a fuss. Costis was useful to him in Roa. He thatched their roof, hauled water from the well, tinned their pots, and once fought brigands who sought to waylay Kamet on the road. He may well keep his garden of precious, pathetic things.

Costis named each plant for Kamet, and when he didn't know the name, he went into town and asked. The townsfolk gave him even more plants. It was endless.

There were rocks, as well, and animal bones.

The first year was a hard year. Kamet was shamed to know that he could be glad and angry at the same time. Freedom was not gold in the hand, warm when clutched and easy to spend. Freedom was something to be learned and practiced, and Kamet was unhappy when he failed at the doing of it, when the townspeople looked at him keenly and called him strange. He was a Mede, in their eyes, and perhaps they could tell that he had been a slave too. He bristled when he couldn't pretend otherwise.

He was not ashamed of what he had been. He had been a valuable slave. He could have run an empire. But that was water already sieved away, and now what Kamet wished the most was to go unnoticed.

"They stare at me too. We're both foreigners here," Costis said. But Costis had the trick of seeming at ease no matter where he went. He was a big man who could fit into small spaces.

"You have said that you are vain," Costis said, smiling, attempting a light touch. Kamet hunched his shoulders, and then stopped when he realized he was doing so. "If they talk, it is because they are in awe."

"In awe, yes. Of love letters for drunks and bills for tailors," Kamet muttered, an old, tired joke between them.

"Of your work at the temple, sent on behalf of the King of Attolia," Costis said. "Kamet Kingnamer." They were already beginning to call him that, though not in Roa. Kamet's ears burned and he turned away from him, away from the mass of plants creeping on the wall by Costis' head, or the hides Costis had skinned from his last hunt, or Costis' sword leaning innocently against the leg of a table. It was their cottage, and yet Costis made a mess everywhere. He picked up his tools again.

Immakuk and Ennikar, Kamet thought, listening to Costis bungle about behind him.

"The beans I washed for you," Costis said suddenly. "You were meant to mash and cook them for our supper."

"I forgot," Kamet said. Kamet Kingnamer, masher of beans.

He could hear Costis' sharp breath of irritation. Kamet did not turn around.

"At least we don't have to eat caggi, eh."

Costis, ever forgiving. "At least it is not caggi," Kamet agreed.

 

:::

 

The second year, Costis stood at their door but not to depart for several days' worth of mapping. He peered into the distance instead, mouthing to himself.

"What is it?" Kamet asked. He was crouching, tying on his sandals. He planned to go to town to trade some of Costis' goat meat for wool, and there was a letter to be sent to Relius with the next ship leaving harbour for Attolia.

"We have so much land, and the soil is passable," Costis said. "We ought to grow something."

"Hm," said Kamet. "Well, I am leaving now."

Costis, like a hound, trotted after him along the road. He could not even tell when his presence was unwanted, Kamet thought sourly. "Will you think about it? We could grow olives. Or corn," Costis added thoughtfully. "I know how."

Costis' family grew olives and corn, in addition to enthusiastic, overly muscular young men. "Do what you like," Kamet said. "Swing a sword or a sickle, I see no difference."

"Oh good," Costis said. He sounded pleased. Kamet walked even more rapidly in the direction of the town. Costis fell back.

"Thank you, Kamet," he called.

Of course it was in his interest to indulge Costis' inane enjoyments. If Costis yearned to dismantle their entire cottage and move them to living in a cave by the sea, Kamet would have tolerated it. He had grown too used to Costis' presence in Roa where he had no other friends, and some more plants, some olives, some corn — it would keep Costis interested for another year. Before he decided it was time for him to return to Attolia.

The land was fair, but it had not been tended to in quite some time. The cottage had once belonged to a widower with no children. A sad ending. Costis used the springtime to weed and dig, and in the summer he began the planting. Kamet watched him from the windows, looking up every so often from his writings. Costis' skin blazed bronze in the sun; his stomach was flat and well-defined. Kamet wrote harder. Then, when he grew too tired of his own troubled thoughts, he brought Costis a jug and a ladle for water.

"It seems to me," Kamet said, "that most must farm or die, yet we have coin enough. I've never heard of a man who wished to take on the yoke of a farmer for passing fancy."

"Even here we might die," Costis said. "A man can starve anywhere." His hair was crowned in sweat. Kamet busied himself taking his own swallow from the ladle.

"So, so, so," said Costis, hands on his hips. "We shall find out soon enough if I've done us well or made you watch me all day for no reason at all."

Kamet's skin felt stretched tight over his bones. "If I watch you," he said shortly, "it is because you are a fool, and fools need caretakers."

"Yes, I know," Costis said. "You will save us both."

"I saved you from a well."

"Woo—oo—hooo-o," said Costis, and Kamet coughed until he laughed. It seemed unfathomable that Costis could be a wilder creature, a thing of the woods and the grasses and the trees, than he did before when they were miserably strolling their way in any direction that might lead towards Attolia. But he had dirt in his hair, darkened freckles, and his shoulders were beginning to burn red. He looked like the child of a sun god. Kamet frowned.

"Does it hurt?" he asked. What a nonsense question. Better to ask a bird if it sings.

"I have leaves that will make an ointment," was the absentminded reply. Costis and his plants.

"Tomorrow we'll go to the temple and pray for your corn," Kamet said. "We'll do it properly."

"Between your gods and mine, we'll have nothing but luck," Costis said, smiling.

Their luck was ill-gotten that year. Kamet could not say if it was by the gods' will or, more likely, Costis' overconfidence, but what came out of the soil that autumn was withered and nubby. Costis was crestfallen.

"Soldiers soldier," Kamet said philosophically. "Farmers farm."

Costis glared at him. "I must write to my father, for next year."

"Write to the King as well, so that he may steal you a pair of wits," Kamet said. Funny how when he said the King, he only ever meant one person.

Costis paled. "He must never know. Kamet, he'll laugh."

"You are his favourite," Kamet said, "and I am his—" he waved a hand. The word friend would not come easy to his tongue. "Do you think there is anything we do that he doesn't know, even here?"

The thought was sufficiently distracting. "I had wondered," Costis admitted, "if it might be Iason at the inn."

"Iason?" Kamet scoffed. "Certainly not."

"Who do you think it is then?"

"Phoba," Kamet said decisively. He had put a great deal of consideration into this matter.

"Phoba?" Costis said incredulously.

"You underestimate her because she is sickly," Kamet said.

Costis shook his head. "Phoba," he said under his breath, wonderingly, and then sighed. Costis sighing was like a great warship swaying to and fro in the water, a gust of wind billowing out its sails. "So!" he announced. "I will write to my father and ask him about the corn. I will try not to be too pitiful about it. I will ask the other farmers in town as well."

"I had thought," Kamet said mildly, "that you'd already sought their advice."

Costis coloured. "Well, next time I will ask and listen."

A fortnight later, the merchant ships from Attolia made port from across Ellid Sea. They would not return until the spring. Kamet looked at Costis; Costis looked at the fields. Costis stayed.

 

:::

 

The third year, Costis tried again. It was a good project to keep him occupied. It was important that he be occupied. Kamet had no end of work at the temple. The King had grossly understated the amount of scrolls that needed to be recopied, and there was more work coming from the Duke of Ferria even besides, with the King occasionally taking a very pointed interest in what Kamet produced, or what he saw on the ships coming to port.

He did not have to fear being idle, or his skills going to waste. It was a relief. But a man like Costis could hardly carry on unendingly performing minor tasks for grateful villagers, and there was increasingly less land nearby for him to scout for the King.

So for Costis there was corn again, and barley, broad beans, and lentils — he was bold for someone who had yet to raise a single successful crop, Kamet thought privately. There were olive trees he had planted in their infancy the year before and now watered delicately, for fear that they too might fail.

Costis' big hands moving in tender work. Costis kneeling in the dirt, head bowed. Costis, singing.

Kamet knew himself, and by that, he knew what he wanted. He did not have the comfortable featherdown of self-delusion. It was the reaching for that he didn't know how to do.

He had heard stories about Attolians, and the behaviour of Attolian soldiers in particular. If Costis wanted, he would know how to ask. Either he might choose to want, or he would decide that he did not. It was simple, Kamet thought, very simple.

Life was simple. For Kamet, who had once swam the politics of the imperial household, its honeyed corridors, its silken threats, life in Roa was unbearably easy in its routines. The days spent scribing, making trips to the temple or the town. The household management of a household that was very small and its needs few. Evenings with Costis, sitting on stools outside their cottage sharing wine from recent ships and watching the wind through the newborn fields. They had lately begun to debate whether the better wine came from Attolia or Magyar. Costis, always loyal, argued until his voice grew thready and thin.

Kamet closed his eyes one night after too much wine. When he opened them again groggily, he was inside, on his bed. Costis was sitting in Kamet's usual spot by the window. He was whittling a piece of wood.

He smiled when he saw Kamet watching. "You'll at least admit that Attolian wine is the headiest."

He was beautiful, in the moonlight, surrounded by his plants. Something sharp and painful to look upon. Kamet might have spoken then, but he did not. Bravery wasn't a quality they ever bred in people like him.

Costis' father must have given good advice, through whichever scribe he had hired to write a response to his son's faltering letter. In the third year, the plants grew to harvest. Many died, but most did not.

Kamet took the harvest and traded bushels for what they needed: a better sword for Costis, new boots, pots that did not leak, enough salt to last them another year, fat for candle-making, thread for mending clothes. Books too, though Kamet would have never dared ask, not until Costis came back from bargaining with a lately landed ship captain, and there was a book of poems on Kamet's desk. A poet from Sounis, evidently.

"I don't know if you will like it," Costis said sheepishly.

The poems were dreadful. Never expect a Sounisian to write good verse.

After the harvest, the cold began to come, and the rain. Kamet hated the wet.

"Iason says there is a wild boar in the woods, and people are scared of it," Costis said.

"Of course there is," Kamet replied, "and of course you must go to kill it. None of this surprises me in the least." Heroes in the Attolian tales were always killing boars to prove their strength.

Costis took his sword, a bow, his sheepskin bag, his bread and dates. "I don't think it will take me more than two days," he said thoughtfully.

Kamet, ill-humoured, did not respond.

Five days later there was no boar, and there was no Costis. Kamet cursed him in five languages, packed his own bag, took the sickle Costis had bought for the crops, and went into the woods. There were too many trees, he thought, and the earth was damp and springy, and the mud was terrible when he was wading mid-ankle in it.

He shouted Costis' name, first plaintively, and then in tones of great annoyance. He followed Costis' own maps, tracking his way from one observation point to the next. By the end of the first day he was exhausted.

"Costis!" he called.

"What if the boar hears you first?" said a voice behind a bush.

Kamet stalked to him in fury.

"Hello Kamet," Costis said serenely, sprawled on the ground, matted with blood and piss. "I fear I've done something to my ankle."

"You — you —" Kamet's voice was strangled. "Never mind," he said, and tipped his waterskin to Costis' dry lips. Costis drank until he spilled the water all over his front, and then he nodded encouragingly at Kamet's dark glare.

"Find me a long stick," he said, "that I can use to walk."

"It's the middle of the night!" Kamet snapped. "You want me to thrash and fumble looking for a walking stick, I'll accidentally find the wild boar instead!" But there was nothing else to be done about it. Costis' existence was a great trial to him, even now.

"I might also be slightly delirious," Costis warned him when Kamet returned. "With hunger."

"Here," Kamet said. "I have berries, and cheese, and when we go home I'll make you — I'll make you honey cakes."

"Oh," said Costis, and he wrapped an arm around Kamet's waist. For balance. "I'm spoilt."

"You're a wool-headed idiot, is what you are," Kamet said, while Costis leaned into him.

"Yes," Costis said agreeably, his body warm.

 

:::

 

The fourth year, he knew that Costis would not say anything. Every other Attolian male rutting against anything that pleased him, but Costis was nothing if not extraordinary. The fourth year, Kamet took careful stock of his surroundings and found that he didn't know how to compel someone to stay when there was no collar to bind them.

It was not that Costis seemed especially homesick, most days. Work was a salve for him as it was for Kamet. He did speak from time to time of his parents, his sister, and his beloved King and Queen. Kamet let those words drip like fat in his ears, though he didn't hear any secret meaning behind them, not until one night after Costis had scrubbed the cooking pot vigorously, turned to him, and said, "My sister has had her second child, and asks me to visit. Yells at me to visit, really."

"I know," said Kamet.

"Read my letters, do you?"

Kamet made no pretense of it. Costis only looked amused. "The next ships come to the harbour in five days' time," he continued. "I will be gone a month, perhaps two. I'd like to visit the capital after my family."

"So," said Kamet.

"You could—" But then Costis stopped, as if uncertain. Behind him, the fields were newly sown; the fourth year, and Costis had been talking about trying to grow grapes and figs.

"One of us will need to stay behind, to tend the fields," Kamet said.

"I'm sorry," Costis said. "I know you have little time for it."

"More time than some, I think," Kamet said sharply.

Costis, tender-tongued, said: a month, perhaps two. But Kamet knew what would happen. Attolia was home, and people who loved him with more riches than Kamet's small, tired heart could give. They wondered why Costis had been gone so long, and when he was with them Costis would remember that Kamet no longer needed him. Kamet knew how to sow and raise crops. Kamet knew how to calm a sheep and shear it for wool. Kamet knew what herbs to use when he had a fever, or when his bowels disagreed with him. Kamet knew these things because Costis had taught him.

He recalled that feeling of seeing that man on the dock, very Costis in poise and in gait. A ridiculous hope, he had thought then.

Kamet's mood turned savage. Five days' time until the ships came, and he spent three of them in the temple on the cliffs, eating and sleeping there, ink-stained halfway up his forearm until the priest came to find him in the archives. "The Attolian is looking for you," the priest said.

"You're angry at me," Costis said, ducking into the room, too tall for it. "Don't lie — I can see you clenching your teeth."

"It's a shame," Kamet replied, "that I've lost the gift of seeming perfectly complacent no matter what people say to me."

"But why are you angry?" Costis asked, baffled. He came around the table and nearly knocked over a stack of parchment. "I know it must have to do with my leaving, but if it bothers you so much, you should come with me." His face was terribly earnest. "The King would be glad to see you again, I know this."

"He sent me here for a reason," Kamet said. "Who do you think will watch for the ships from Mede if I leave? Who do you think will whisper in his spymaster's ear?" He glowered. "I have a purpose here."

"So do I."

"What purpose do you have?" Kamet scoffed. "Fixing broken chairs? Climbing trees? Threshing grain? Gods, this is ridiculous. Go and leave me to my work, the candle is dying, I've hardly any hours left—" But Costis had grabbed his hand.

"I have been building," Costis said, hair afire in the dim archive's shadows. His fingers were strong and roughened. "Building you this."

"Building me what?"

Costis seemed to struggle clumsily for words, so Kamet said them for him. "Building me a farm? What need have I for a farm, you idiot? What need have I for crops or a garden or olive trees or—" He stopped, and his mouth fell open. Great Anet, he thought faintly, he thinks he has been courting me.

Costis saw the realization on his face, and his cheeks turned red.

"No?" he said gently, and began to tug his hand away. Kamet was no fool. He immediately grabbed it back.

"How was I to know?" he asked, harsher than he meant it to be, but Costis did not take offense.

"Kamet," Costis said, "you know everything."

"Well, I clearly did not know this!" Kamet snapped, but then he saw Costis smiling at him, and he bowed his head, in embarrassment, in overwhelmed emotion. "I am not practiced at this sort of thing," he finally said, and Costis did not make him explain why. Costis already knew.

"I think it'll be quite simple, actually."

"Oh?" Kamet squinted at him.

"Yes, I'll tell you how it goes," Costis said, gaining confidence. "Don't spend the rest of your night here. It's far too dusty. Come home with me. We'll eat mashed beans for supper again. I'll sing you a song. You'll tell me a story—"

"You imagine after four years I haven't told you all the stories I know?"

"I think you haven't," Costis said evenly.

"You think—" it pained him to say it, when his pride was so great, "—too highly of me."

Costis came around the table, took Kamet in his arms, and kissed him. Kamet flailed and elbowed him in the stomach. Costis was laughing.

"Hm, you know what, I was wrong," Costis said. "Kamet, you don't know anything at all." And then he was kissing him again, and Kamet was groaning. Costis' mouth was summer-soft, and his hands rested on Kamet's hips, his fingers gently stroking. There was a fire dug under Kamet's skin.

"Leaving in two days, and you do this now," Kamet said.

"I'm sorry," Costis said.

"You're not."

"No," Costis said, and then grinned. "Woo—oo—hooo-o," and Kamet hit him over the head.

 

:::

 

"The plants will all be dead by the time you return," Kamet said.

"Very likely," Costis said. "Next year then."