“A goat for the Mede?” said Leontes, and Costis considered the matter slowly, scratching a spot behind his ear where a fly had bitten.
"Why not," he said.
Leontes gave him a piece of willow strap, and Costis used it to swat the goat through the fields towards the western cliffs. The goat moved very slowly, determined to acquaint every blade of grass with its teeth, but that did not bother Costis. He was in no haste. The sun was warm on his face. There was wind from the sea. His belly was summer warm with barley soup that Kamet had made earlier. He was in possession of a goat.
Kamet met him at the door and narrowed his eyes. “Is it for eating?” he asked.
Costis considered this. “I had not thought so. But if you prefer it for eating, then I suppose we can eat it,” he allowed.
“You had not thought so,” Kamet repeated slowly. He clasped his hands in front of him and rocked on his heels. A mockery, Costis thought fondly. “Then what did you think?”
“I thought you might like a goat,” Costis said simply.
“We could have milk, and make yogurt,” Costis said. “We could shear it for wool.”
“Can goats be sheared for wool?” Kamet asked suspiciously.
“Yes,” said Costis firmly. Maybe, he thought. There had not been any on his father's farm.
“And milk,” Kamet echoed. He approached the goat warily, as one might approach a siege engine. The goat bleated. It was a very calm and docile sort of goat – Leontes had promised it so. Meek enough that even his own sweet babes could sit astride it, he had bragged. Kamet tried to peer underneath the goat, bending low at the waist until his hair, grown shaggy, fell before his eyes. Once, Costis had not thought Kamet would ever allow his hair to grow wild. It suited him and did not suit him.
“What are you doing?” Costis asked, baffled.
“Tell me, is this a male or female goat?” Kamet replied.
Costis did not know. “Well, what did your eyes see?”
Kamet was snide. “Your father has a farm. Surely you, a strong milk-fed specimen of Attolian manhood, would know more than I.” He was afraid to touch the goat, Costis thought, and tried to hide his smile. Of course. Kamet was skittish around animals. A stray cat in town had curled around his ankles some few days ago, startling him, and Kamet had made a sound that could only be generously described as rather high in pitch.
“I shall grab it and we’ll look together,” Costis decided.
“If you say so.”
Costis grasped the goat, who bleated and kicked its legs. Kamet reared backwards. Costis loosened a hand and fondled the goat inquisitively.
“Well, perhaps no milk,” he said at last. “But think of it. If I am away and enemies come to the door, you would hear the goat first. It would give you time to steal away.” They had discussed this possibility before. There was a bag kept ready for this purpose, with a knife, coins, a change of clothing, and dried meat inside.
Kamet rocked on his heels again. “Ah, so the goat is to protect me.”
“It could,” Costis argued.
“When you are away.”
“Yes,” Costis said. He was often away. Kamet was not the only one ordered to keep eyes out in Magyar. They both served the same king, Kamet in the temple and on the cliffs, Costis in the woods and the caves.
“Goat Ormentiedes, Captain of the Guard,” Kamet said.
Costis considered protesting against the slight against his family name. Instead he crossed his arms mulishly. “A noble position,” he said.
“Where would we keep it?” Kamet said, and by this Costis knew he had gained a victory. He wanted to throw his head back and crow, but for politeness’ sake, he did not. “In case you have not noticed,” Kamet said, “there is a cliff but a few hands away, and that cliff leads directly into the sea. A merry leap for Goat Ormentiedes indeed.”
“I shall build a fence,” Costis said.
The house was small, and poorly put together. The roof needed thatching and the boards on the kitchen side were beginning to rot. There was only space enough for a single bed, so they took turns: Costis on the bed and Kamet on the pallet, and then the next night, the opposite. There was a family of mice living in a hole by the door. With the wetness from the Ellid Sea blowing in every day, there was no end to mold. Some nights, with the wind, they were so cold their teeth ached.
“My god, I am glad for it,” Kamet had said the first week they took up residence.
Costis, swatting away mosquitoes with his sword, had been astonished. Kamet would trade the comforts of the temple for this wreckage? But Kamet, with his eyes closed, had merely nodded, face tilted up to the sky.
“They talk too much in the temple,” he had said, and for a man who had once moved through the whispers of an imperial household, that might be reason enough.
Perhaps safer in Roa as an unremarkable temple worker, their king had once said, setting their futures into motion. So, so, so. One did not have to live in the temple to be of use there, and the house was only a morning’s walk in distance, bearable with a watersack at one’s hip. The walk was more miserable when it rained, but Kamet did not complain. That in and of itself was a marvel, and by this Costis allowed himself to hope that Kamet might be content.
During the days Kamet worked in the temple, recopying and translating their rare scrolls. It would be years of work before he reached the end of it. During the days Costis traveled further into Magyar, finding his king’s contacts and seeking news. During the nights Kamet wrote letters to Relius, summarizing Costis’ findings and his own. During the nights he was not camped under some thrush, Costis stood in the grass with the light of the lamp by the window and drilled his swordplay.
Their lives were indeed unremarkable. Quiet and dull, but useful when wielded, like a plain knife that cuts through leather or a hammer that drives a nail. Costis who, at what felt like the beginning of his entire life, had been prepared to hang. He had already experienced his share of excitement.
Well, now he had the king’s mercy. And a goat.
He was so pleased with this development that the next day he went and bought two.
Big-bellied Leontes was overjoyed by his tremendous stroke of luck. Costis was his best customer in years.
“Three goats,” Kamet said coldly.
“Your guard grows in strength,” Costis said, unfazed.
There was something calming and pleasant, he thought, about looking out the window and seeing the goats milling about the pen that Costis had built for them. As long as they had grass they did not make a fuss. They ate until they were happy and then they lay down to rest. Costis appreciated that quality very much.
It was soothing as well to see Kamet in his rhythms, now as familiar to Costis as a favourite shirt. Kamet could be predicted. Kamet was something that could be known. First Kamet pretended not to like the goats. He was haughty. He was disdainful. But then, one afternoon as Costis returned to the house, leathers grimy from the road, Kamet met him and said, “You cannot pen them. If they eat all the grass in the pen, they aren't able to find more grass just beyond.”
Costis, feeling guilty for being named a gaoler of goats, rebuilt the fence so that it circled the cliff. Now it did not enclose the goats, and Kamet voiced his approval.
The new ones were both female. Costis had checked the second time. Milk and yogurt began to appear on the table with some regularity. Costis much preferred the taste of sheep’s milk but he drank and ate heartily and complimented Kamet until Kamet reddened and set his mouth in a line that meant he was angry but also pleased.
“Where did you learn to make yogurt?” Costis asked, wiping his mouth.
“I asked the cooks in the temple,” Kamet said stiffly.
“Do these cooks box a man’s ears for speaking?” Costis said, thinking of Brinna.
“They are most pleasant and sweet-tempered,” Kamet said.
“Ah, well, good,” Costis said. He scratched the back of his neck. “Should anyone in the temple give you trouble, you will tell me, won’t you?” There were many reasons why someone might give Kamet trouble. He was, to their eyes, a Mede. He was once a slave, and though he hardly shouted this from the rooftops, there were habits and reflexes that were difficult for Kamet to cast aside, and which made him appear odd to others. Well and so: Kamet was odd. One did not rise to be the secretary of a man like Nahuseresh without being extraordinary.
“You are smiling,” Kamet accused him.
Oh? He was.
“I was once told,” Kamet said waspishly, “that Costis Ormentiedes had no sense of humour.”
“Who said this?”
“You know who said it.”
Costis grimaced. “I won’t naysay my king.”
“Good,” Kamet said. “I would hate to come all the way to Roa to report on his enemies and then find a traitor in my own house.”
“Kamet,” Costis said, delighted. “I didn’t know you had a sense of humour.”
Kamet raised his eyebrows.
“It must be the effect of the goats,” Costis said.
“It is my dearest wish,” Kamet said mildly, “that a rock could come falling out of the sky and onto your head.”
But he took care of their new lodgers, mostly when he thought Costis’ attention was elsewhere. Kamet was… not tender, Costis was not sure Kamet could ever learn to be tender, but he was thoughtful and attentive, the way he was with his books or one of Relius’ letters. He saw Kamet one morning pet a goat on its head and look off into the distance, towards the sea and the ships blotting seagull white on the horizon.
It was good for Kamet to have something to care for, Costis thought. It was an arrogant thought and he knew it, but still he could not drive it from his head. He wasn’t sure if Kamet had ever had to care for anyone other than his master before, and even that was a very particular sort of care, a language that Costis, born a free man, could never speak.
“But resist the urge to buy any more,” Kamet informed him. “We hardly need the entire goat population of Roa crammed in here with us.”
Costis smiled. Goatherds. So this was where their journeys had led them.
Somewhere, Eugenides was laughing until his sides split.
The Duke of Ferria was a man given to ambition. Kamet had said as much to Costis after they met him, and after some private observation Costis was inclined to agree. He didn’t know as much of this as Kamet, of course, who was much better versed in games of courts and titles, but the duke did not sit right with Costis. He was like a bad bellyache. Sometimes that was enough to go by.
“Are the dukes of Magyar a threat to Attolia?” he asked. He had never thought of Magyar as anything more than a backwards land of peasants and farmers bordering the east. They were poorer than Attolia, barely held together by an assemblage of landed nobles. He’d heard more than one courtier in Attolia scoff at Magyar.
“Hm,” Kamet said. “If Eddis and Attolia is the prize, then Magyar is the gate.”
“Tell me when I must act.” He trusted Kamet to do this.
“Oh, I rather hope we have a long ways to go before your kind of action is needed,” Kamet said. He made a sound in his throat. “It would be a shame to drive the duke away and lose all those scrolls.”
The scrolls. Costis looked skyward. "If a fire burned through the village and I lost sight of you, I'd know exactly where to look. In the temple, stuffing scrolls down your shirt."
"Don't even speak of such things," Kamet said, appalled.
"I'm sorry," said Costis, ducking his head. Fire was a great fear they all shared.
"No, I mean that I would never treat the writings as roughly as that," Kamet said. "Some of them are so old you'd only need to look at them before they crumble. I would at least bring a basket."
"Where would you get a basket in a fire?"
Kamet waved his hand dismissively. "Everybody has baskets."
"Oh?" Costis said, feeling mischief in his heart. "You say this so confidently. Have you been to everybody's house and seen so? Are you the inspector of baskets for the entire village?"
*Costis, you are a pedant."
Costis dipped his chin, hiding his smile.
"And fond of discussing inane subjects to little purpose or end," Kamet said. "Well, I suppose there is a reason you became a soldier. One does not need charm when you have a sword." He nodded decisively, as if believing he had scored a winning blow and so was Costis' pride wounded. Costis did not bother to hide his smile then.
Kamet narrowed his eyes in annoyance, and Costis thought — I love him.
Oh, he thought afterwards, when Kamet had walked away, his hands in the folds of his cloak, when did this happen? But he could not twist his fingers along the thread and find the beginning of it. It seemed to him a thing that had always been there, tangled up in the strings of his sinews, his bones. Only he had never thought to look. He wouldn't speak of it, he decided. Not yet. Kamet would lead and Costis would follow — that was the way of them in this place, and he would not upset that balance, as hard-won as it was.
But he wondered now if everybody saw, if it was written outwardly too, in the swing of his arm and the lunge of his sword. Costis lived in his body and his body must have known. In love, in love, in love.
They had been intercepting the Duke of Ferria's letters for some time, ever since Kamet had deemed it necessary. The duke had many hands in the temple and he wrote to them in a scrawled shorthand that puzzled Costis the first time he beheld it. It was, he thought, mightily suspicious, though Kamet laughed slightly when he said so.
"I write to Relius in code," he said.
"I know," Costis said patiently, "and you are mightily suspicious more than half of the time."
"Only half?" Kamet said. He was in a pleasant mood, having milked the goats.
"Well," Costis reasoned, "you sleep, occasionally." Not as much as he should, Costis thought. Costis had the soldier's knack of deep slumber snatched whenever the moment presented itself, though not so deep that he wouldn't wake at some strange stray noise. Kamet, as far as he could tell, spent most nights lying in the bed or on the pallet with his eyes open and white in the dark.
Costis didn't know what Kamet thought about at night, but he had his guesses. Costis wanted to put a hand on Kamet's shoulder, even now, and assure him that he was safe, that Costis had a sword, that he would protect Kamet as a wall protects a city, though Kamet would know instantly that this was only partly true. Costis had a sword and still they had stumbled pathetically through what felt like half of the Mede Empire.
"The duke," he said out loud. "Who does he write?"
"The head priest," Kamet replied. "The treasurer. The master of horse. The chief librarian." He ran a finger over one eyebrow, casually. Costis watched in fascination. "It could mean nothing. It could mean—"
"A gate, opening." Costis thought of the sea that divided Magyar and Attolia. Not so large. Or the land between Magyar and Mede, just a little strip between them, like a throat.
All post in the temple and a good portion of the surrounding countryside went past the desk of a priest-secretary named Isidoros, Kamet said. The ships brought the letters to Isidoros, then Isidoros directed them to their proper recipients. Even Relius' letters traveled this way. Costis watched as Kamet considered this, and then watched as Kamet's shoulders squared and he lifted his neck. A beautiful neck, Costis thought dazedly.
"Isidoros has a wife that he does not want his superiors to know about," Kamet said.
"Simple then," said Costis.
"We'll see," said Kamet, but it was true that letters sent from the Duke of Ferria began appearing in Kamet's bags when he came home in the evenings. Costis watched as Kamet sat at their rickety table with the uneven fourth leg and used the flat of a knife to gently, oh so gently, remove the seal. Kamet's neck was lovely, certainly, but his hands, clever and delicate as they worked — Costis wanted to kneel beside him and put his tongue to one of the knobs on his wrists and taste Kamet's pulse.
The longing was like a sickness. He felt as if he were swaying on his feet, a sea underneath him, though when he glimpsed his own face hazy-reflected in the window he saw that he looked perfectly calm.
Seal removed, Kamet unscrolled the letter and began to read. "Shorthand," he said, but then crossed one leg over the other, settling himself into his chair. "But not a very difficult one, I think."
Kamet read the letter and made notes. Then, when he was satisfied, he beckoned Costis for the wax and candle, and resealed the scroll. "You have a copy of the duke's own seal," Costis said, looking at the object in Kamet's hand.
"A thief you've become," Costis mused. "The Thief of Roa."
"Hardly!" Kamet scoffed. He put the seal in his pocket. "When would I have had time to sneak to Ferria? Much easier to see the seal on his other letters and have one made for myself." He shrugged. "It's not a perfect replica, but it is sufficient. I doubt anyone in the temple will look closely enough to notice. They will see what they expect to see."
Kamet, who would have stood behind the throne of the Medes.
His tone sharpened. "I'm not ashamed of these skills." He peered at Costis' face intently. They will see what they expect to see.
"I didn't say you should be," Costis said. "I am glad for them."
"Oh," said Kamet, sounding awkward. "Good." He turned back to his work.
Another surprising use of Kamet's skills: Nienna from the village, with her shawl over her shoulders, and a son burning with fever.
"Black haw," Kamet said haltingly. "And meadowsweet, I think." He looked at Nienna with a strange intensity in his eyes. "But I am not a healer. Whoever told you that spoke false."
Nienna shrugged. "Our village healer has been dead for months, and I'm told you know plants."
"From books," Kamet said.
"Yes," she said. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, mirroring Kamet and his newfound skittishness. "Haw and meadowsweet I have seen growing in the fields."
"I think so," Kamet replied uneasily.
Costis took pity on him. "I'll help you look," he told Nienna, and together they went down the path, past the goats, and into the fields. Although it had never strayed into healer's brews and physician's tinctures, Costis could profess his own small interest in plants. He knew the look of meadowsweet and haw, and had younger, keener eyes than Nienna. The two of them searched, and then night was nearly upon their heads, so he returned for a torch and found Kamet sitting at their table staring at nothing in particular. Costis knocked his arm against Kamet's shoulder in passing. "Books," he said cheerfully.
"She shall tell the others," Kamet said. "And they will tell their friends, and their friends will tell their friends and soon every sick child will be at our door."
"Very likely," Costis said, still smiling. "But think of all the practice you've already had with helping tender, wobbly things."
Kamet stared at him, baffled.
"The goats," Costis revealed.
Kamet's mouth flapped open. "Now I know I can't be a healer of any skill, not when I live with a man whose body and spirit are so wholly troubled."
"Hm," Costis said. "Did you know one of our goats is pregnant?"
"Yes," Kamet said, "obviously."
"So, so, so," said Costis, who had not realized until he came across Kamet yesterday, kneeling in the grass with his hands on the goat's flank, keeping her calm while he inspected between her legs.
Kamet still sounded pained. "What do I know of country herbs and animal husbandry? When did I have a chance to learn any of this in Ianna-Ir?"
"Kamet e dai Annux," said Costis, mouth slippery on the unfamiliar words. He had heard it said, only once. He heard his own voice, so gentle, so wondrous, and knew that even if he crawled in front of Kamet and slit his own belly, he would not have revealed so much of himself. He looked aside, to cool the heat of his face.
Kamet was looking elsewhere as well. "It's not a magical talisman, you know."
"Good thing we don't need a magical talisman," Costis said. "We only need some meadowsweet."
The next day Nienna returned with the news that her son's fever had broken. "Here, some bread," she said, reaching into her basket and offering it to Kamet, who looked horrified and tried to give it back. Costis watched as the two of them struggled with the loaf back and forth, back and forth, until it flopped into the dirt. Nienna's eyes glazed over.
Costis scooped it up quickly. "No harm," he said. They ate it that night for supper, with some cheese Kamet had learned how to make, and Costis said nothing until Kamet set aside his plate and sighed.
"If I don't know the answers to a question, I won't pretend that I do."
"Alright," said Costis, his cheeks stuffed fat with bread, "alright."
So it was not uncommon, after that, to walk up the cliff and see someone already there, waiting. To return and discover Kamet in hushed conversation with Nienna or Leontes or any of the others, Kamet ducking into the cottage and returning with one of his books, opening it to show the look of a plant. "I did not know you had these physician's books," Costis said. "To think of all the times you laughed at my fondness for collecting useless plants and flowers, when all along you were studying them even more deeply than me."
Kamet hesitated, as if he thought Costis was mocking him.
"It's good," Costis reassured him. "That you acquired these. To learn, I mean. What if you or I should need—"
Kamet cleared his throat. "It is all too well," he interjected, "that your head is so thick that no fever could ever penetrate it."
"Ah," said Costis. "That reminds me. Do you know that boy—" he tried to remember the name, and snapped his fingers in victory when he did. "Timon. Photine's son. With the red hair and the — the unfortunate nose. I saw him lurking outside by the fence. I asked him what he was doing, and he asked if he could have one of our goats."
"What?" said Kamet.
"I told him they were well beloved by the master of the house."
"What?" said Kamet.
"Then I asked him why he needed a goat, and he hissed at me and said, 'You know why.' But I don't think that I do." Costis looked at Kamet meaningfully, as if Kamet might be keeping from him the existence of local goat-related rituals gleaned from his many conversations with their neighbours. But Kamet shrugged.
"Better," he said, "not to think of it."
"I didn't give him any of the goats, if you were wondering."
"I was not."
The Duke of Ferria's letters to his people talked of many things. They talked of grain shipments and trade and asked for updates on the translations he had sent so many of his own scribes to perform. His letters asked about horseflesh and leatherwork and the messy business of collecting taxes. Kamet sometimes read them out loud to Costis, before resealing them anew, and as a result Costis learned a great deal about how to be a Roan duke but very little of underhanded plots to overthrow Attolia.
In his latest letter the duke informed the head priest of his intention to pass through Roa and stay for a handful of days. Rooms in the temple would need to be made ready for his household and the companions who traveled with him.
"He has invited all of the priests and scribes to join the evening's feast," Kamet said. "Generous of him."
"Will you go?" Costis asked.
"It may seem amiss if I do not," Kamet said. He sighed. "I am already unpopular. I would rather avoid giving them more opportunities to tell me how unsociable I am."
"The food will be very good," Costis said thoughtfully.
Kamet smiled dryly, and Costis wondered if he was thinking of his former master's table, heavy with meat and bread and honey.
"Remember when we ate all that caggi," Costis said.
He made reason to be in the temple as well, when the duke arrived. It was, in truth, not difficult to do, despite what Kamet seemed to think. Kamet was of the mindset that Costis was imminently recognizable, completely unsuited for any sort of work that might require him to pass unnoticed through crowds. When Costis asked why this was, Kamet muttered something about height and legs and — hair? Costis was not sure what his hair had to do with any of it. "Well, of course you take notice of me," Costis teased. "I am your best and dearest friend in the entire world, so of course your heart is filled with joy whenever I walk into a room."
"But, you know, the truth is I'm very forgettable," Costis said. "I am not even considered tall, among the Roans." Who all seemed to be giants, in his opinion. There must be something in the milk.
To the Roans, as he had explained when he and Kamet first washed up on these shores, he worked for the Duke of Ferria. A sword for hire sent to protect the scribes and to make the occasional survey of the local lands, hunting dangerous animals and dispatching bandits. To the duke's household he played himself as a temple retainer, with much the same duties. No one ever seemed to be curious about any contradictions in his story. It was apparent, when looking upon Costis, that he had only one use. His single characteristic of note was, perhaps, his friendship with Kamet but, well, who could understand the minds of two foreigners.
He stood at the back of the room, on the night of the feast. Leaning easily against the wall, he was content to nurse his mead and watch the Duke of Ferria, who was a large man, a warrior once, or so Costis had been told. The duke drank heavily, laughed often, told many stories about hunting, and seemed to look fondly on his daughter, who was very tall herself with dark, curling hair. Costis imagined that he loved his daughter; he could see the evidence himself, even without any special gift of insight.
Kamet sat with the other scribes at a long, low table. Even though there was scarce any room, all of them pushed together on the bench shoulder to shoulder, he could see that Kamet was set apart from the rest of them. Head bowed, spoon in hand, and he did not look at Costis or the duke but seemed to fixate entirely on the contents of his bowl, which must have been fascinating given Kamet's single-minded devotion to it.
Maybe it was that very intensity that made the duke take notice of him. Or maybe it was for reasons much simpler than that. "A Mede!" the duke said, and everyone quieted around him.
Kamet glanced up. Costis saw him swallow.
"I didn't think I would see one of your kind in Roa," the duke said. Costis shifted his weight to the balls of his feet.
Kamet dipped his chin, accepting this observation.
The duke smiled. It was a friendly smile. They could see the pink of his mouth, the white of his teeth. He does not know that we have been reading his letters, Costis thought. He cannot know. "Sing us a song, Mede," said the duke. "Have not my singers entertained you all these long hours of the night?"
"Your singers are fine in talent," Kamet said stiffly.
The duke waited.
"I am not—" Kamet hesitated. "I do not know any songs fit for your halls." The duke raised his eyes, and it was then that Costis dropped his cup and stumbled forward.
"There was a girl in Attolia town, could knit and stitch with the best of them," he sang. "Wish she was here with my legion!" He bumped into a priest, fell over his lap, and tipped himself onto the table. Someone yelled, someone else laughed, and by the time two of the duke's men had yanked him onto his feet and off the food, Costis squirming and singing and drunkenly swinging his fists, Kamet was gone from the hall.
He woke when he heard Kamet roll off the bed and hit the floor. Costis lifted his head from his bedroll. "What is it?" he mumbled.
"Nothing, it is nothing," Kamet answered. "Go back to sleep."
Costis waited several minutes, and then he followed Kamet outside to the goat pen. Kamet leaned against the fence in his thin sleep shirt, staring out at the plunge of the cliff into sky and sea. His hair was in disarray. It really did need cutting, Costis thought fuzzily, and how long had it been since Kamet last shaved? It made him appear a touch wild, all in all. Costis leaned his own weight on the fence.
"There is no use in both of us being miserably awake," Kamet said.
Costis did something that was, in equal measures, brave and foolish. Perhaps only the gods could say which it was. He reached and placed his hand on Kamet's forehead, feeling the stickiness of his sweat.
"Are you trying to swat a mosquito from my head?" Kamet asked.
"No," said Costis, and lowered his hand. His fingers were bright with sweat. He wanted to lick them. "What did you dream of?" He did not really expect Kamet to tell him. He did not, after all, tell Kamet what he dreamed of, and might die of embarrassment first.
Kamet tilted his head up. "A storm comes."
"Yes," said Costis. "We'll get rained on. The goats will get rained on."
"I don't think that they mind," Kamet said.
"A pleasant life," Costis agreed.
He caught the edge of Kamet's smile before Kamet turned away, hiding it. His heartbeat quickened. "The Namreen," Kamet said. "In my dream. We are running, and you are at my side—"
"Really," Costis said doubtfully. "You were keeping up with me."
A truly magnificent glower for his efforts. "I was keeping up with you very easily," Kamet insisted, "and then I look again and you are not Costis anymore, you are one of them. You are here to take me back to my master."
"Are you glad then that it was only a dream?" Costis wondered. He wondered if there was a better way to ask, in a voice not so rough and oafish but, well, Costis was honest to a fault.
"I don't know."
Eyebrows raised. "You want to go back to your master?"
"No." Kamet gave an impatient flick of his fingers. "I accept that that part of my life is finished. But I had a purpose in his household. I had a certain future. I could see it, like a carpet with many threads."
"Not so certain, I think," Costis said.
Costis took in a breath. Exhaled it. "You have a purpose here."
"Do I?" Kamet said.
"You do." Costis smiled, lopsided. "And I wouldn't worry about the Namreen. Even if they were still hunting you, which I very much doubt, they would never be able to find you. Not with that beard."
"Ah, so it is not the goats that keep me safe, it is the beard."
"That appears to be so."
He did not feel at ease, with Kamet in the temple while the Duke of Ferria lingered. He did not know Kamet's plans for the man, or worse, Eugenides'. In the mornings as they prepared to go about their days he saw the perfectly placid expression on Kamet's face that meant no end of trouble for poor Costis. Kamet seemed to float two feet above the floor, serene, and Costis gnashed his teeth.
"You will be careful?" He tried to ask it lightly, as if the answer was of no great importance to him, but knew he failed. He sounded like a boy desperate for water.
"I will be—" Kamet seemed unable to choose the right word. "I won't be rash," he finished awkwardly, and Costis stared at him until Kamet squirmed.
"I won't be far," Costis said. "Isidoros has some tasks for me on the grounds." He would at least be able to keep some semblance of an eye on the temple's goings and comings.
"Do these tasks of Isidoros' require you to take off your shirt like last time?" Kamet looked long-suffering.
The day passed. Sunlight poured shadow over the grass. It was cold suddenly. Costis shivered in his sandals.
He met Kamet on the road to their cottage. Kamet was walking very slowly, very thoughtfully, his hands tucked together underneath his cloak. Costis fell into step beside him. Kamet, not even watching where he was going, stumbled over a rock. Costis reached out to steady him. "Thank you," said Kamet, and Costis reddened. He removed his hand from Kamet's elbow instantly.
Then they heard a shout, and a boy was running towards them, from the western road that led, after many days' travel and through the mountains, to Stinos. Costis cupped his hand over his eyes, blocking out the sun, and realized it was Timon, Photine's son. With the red hair and the unfortunate nose. The boy was panting and hard-eyed. His nose looked even bigger than usual.
"What has happened?" Costis asked sharply, hand on his sword. Had the duke made some great move already?
"My sister!" Timon wheeled his arms. "Acaste! She is — we were on the road — she —"
Costis could not make heads or tails of what the boy was saying, not when spittle was flying with every word, but Kamet removed his hands from his cloak. "She is in labour, is that what you're saying," he said, and Timon bobbed his head.
"Yes, sir! And I don't what to do! It came so quick!"
Kamet turned to Costis. "Can you find us a cart?"
"I, um — yes," Costis said, thinking swiftly. "I can borrow one from Leontes." He made haste and, after acquiring the cart from Leontes' farm, met Kamet and Timon on the road. Timon looked as if he would shake clean out of his skin. He began to run westward the moment they were ready. Costis followed him, pushing the cart. Kamet trotted behind them, and Costis could hear his harsh, tired breaths.
The girl, Acaste, was lying on the side of the road. Her eyes were shut in pain.
"I found someone to help!" Timon said. "I found the Mede and the Attolian." He kneeled at his sister's side and stared plaintively at Costis, who lowered himself onto his haunches so that he could speak to her direct.
"I'm going to pick you up," he said. She nodded, biting her tongue. Costis put his hands underneath the backs of her knees and hoisted her onto the cart.
"Leontes' is the closest," Kamet murmured.
"To Leontes' we go," Costis said, silently apologizing to Acaste for the roughness of the road and the bumps they soared over. His pace was quick and hard; Kamet and Timon struggled to match it and he soon lost them down the path. Laid on top of the cart Acaste was curled up on herself, hair beaded with sweat. She groaned low in her throat.
Leontes' wife was home. Thank the gods, Costis thought. She was the mother of five children, and when she saw Acaste she immediately barked an order to one of her daughters to fetch water, and then sent her husband to locate a basin. "You," she said to Kamet when he crossed the doorstep moments later, breath knocked from his chest. "Come with me. I'll need your help."
Kamet went rigid. "I'm not a—"
She did not care for his protests, and Costis watched as Kamet was dragged into the next room. It was not by the ear, but close to.
"Should I—?" Costis asked aloud.
"No," Leontes said cheerfully. "We'll only get in the way."
Costis settled in to wait. Costis fell asleep. Costis woke on a swallowed snore when he heard loud wailing. "Oh, is it done now?" he inquired politely.
Kamet stumbled out of the birthing room, looking as if a wild boar had trampled him flat. His shirt was ripped. Half of his hair was swept and matted over the other half. "Costis," he said desperately, and Costis laughed at him, reckless and sweet, air filling the empty spaces in his lungs, one hand reaching out to steady Kamet once more.
"All is well?" he asked.
"I — she —" Kamet cast a glance over his shoulder. "Yes. Shall we go home? Before we are asked to do some other horribly difficult thing that is beyond any of our training."
Costis beamed. "Well," he remarked, as they quickly bade their goodbyes and sped into the night. "Well, well, well!" He snuck a look at Kamet, in the moonlight. Skinny wrists, skinny ankles, long thin neck. He walked with shoulders rounded from all the hours spent hunched over desks. He was as familiar to Costis as the meadow-dark itself. "To think I once thought that in Roa I might be bored."
"I find this village extremely hard on my nerves," Kamet said acerbically.
"We could have soup when we get home," Costis offered. "I know how that always makes you feel better."
"And who would be making this soup, I wonder."
"I could try," Costis said, and Kamet rolled his eyes.
Costis did not mind that Kamet was better at him in nearly all matters, soup or otherwise. It was Kamet and Kamet was brilliant. Costis wanted to warm his face in the bright glow of Kamet's attention.
But Kamet was nowhere to be found. Strange, Costis thought, opening the door to their cottage and slipping inside. Costis had stayed quite late in the temple, getting one of the duke's soldiers drunk and asking him questions about the duke's household. He was certain he had seen Kamet leave much earlier, and yet the cottage was empty with only a pile of messily strewn books on the table a sign that Kamet's presence had been recently felt.
Costis drew his sword without sound.
He could see now, how the grass had been flattened outside the cottage, torn in clumps. Someone had struggled here.
Costis, shadow-hearted, moved through the fields. He was a soldier of Attolia. He knew how to find what he searched for, and whoever the men had been, they had been rushed, less than careful. They were not Costis Ormentiedes.
Half a length to the east, by the olive grove, and two men leaped from darkness, melting through it. Costis pivoted on his heel and met their blows. He gritted his teeth.
He remembered a time when he had been very young. Before he went to the court of Attolia, before he met his king, before he had ever stolen the right hand of Nahuseresh, brother of the emperor of the Medes — before he had waited for Kamet for the first time, in that hallway, and asked him to meet at the Rethru docks. When he had been a backwards country boy, wooden practice sword in his hand, his father's attention elsewhere, his larger, meaner cousins kicking his feet out from underneath him. How wildly Costis had fought then, hair in his eyes, limbs whirling, and how fierce his rage had been, so overwhelming that his cousins reared backwards and said to each other, Go, it isn't worth it.
Costis was not skilled at a great number of things. He could not put together supper, he could not find herbs to break fevers, he could not unravel codes in letters. But he was very good at this.
He left one man standing and yanked him by the collar. "Where," he said. He marveled at how serene he sounded, as if he was doing no more than asking where he might fetch the best price for a loaf of bread.
"The old house on the — the other side," the man gasped. He was a hired sword, not so loyal that he wished to die for it. Costis knew this without being told. He could see the house the man spoke of, more a lean-to shack really, on the edge of the olive grove, long abandoned by the family who once lived there and helped tend the land. He dropped the mercenary and ran.
Kamet, with a bruise over one eye, and a choked gasp. "Costis."
"Here I am," Costis said, and there was no wildness left in him, only joy. Inside were three men surrounding Kamet. His sword was a warm, beloved weight in his hand. He moved first.
He heard Kamet cry his name out again, and turned in time to see Kamet, even with his hands bound, throw himself on top of one of the attackers. Costis watched in dismay as they toppled to the floor together, the man and his knife, Kamet and his tangled limbs. Kamet kicked the man between the legs, and kicked him again, and the man groaned before standing, dizzily, knife still in hand. There was fury in his eyes.
Costis killed one man, and another, before reaching the mercenary whose knife was now at Kamet's throat. Costis sank his sword into the man's back.
Kamet was ashen. He held out his hands, and Costis cut through his binds swiftly. Kamet trembled.
Costis touched his hair, his throat, his mouth. Kamet gasped.
"I am glad that you are well," Costis said, not knowing what else to say. He removed his hand from stroking Kamet's face. His own tongue felt as if it had grown two sizes in his mouth. He looked at the bodies instead. "The duke's men?"
"I believe so," said Kamet, rubbing at his wrists, still shaking, troubled.
Costis nodded. "Can you stand?"
"Yes," Kamet said, but he wobbled on his feet. "Oh!" he said, and Costis whipped around quickly, expecting to see another enemy, but Kamet was staring at him. "They cut you," Kamet said, "all over your arms and your — your back."
Costis shrugged. He would not die of the wounds.
"There may be more men coming," Kamet said.
Costis shrugged again. "We should go back and check on the goats."
Kamet choked on a strangled laugh. "Alright," he said, they limped across the grove together, Costis' sword dangling loosely from his hand, ready to come alive once more.
Inside their cottage Kamet found bandages and ointment. He had made it himself, Costis thought. From his books and his plants. "Sit still, you great pillock," Kamet snapped as Costis squirmed at the first touch of salve against the long ragged cut on his arm where one of the men's blades had sunk.
"You did something very foolish tonight," Costis said.
"What?" Kamet said. Now that he was no longer terrified he sounded irritable, angry, jaw set in a tight line.
"Trying to take on that third man," Costis said. "You should have left him to me. It is only by good timing that you aren't dead on the floor. You fight with the prowess of a jellyfish."
"Well," said Kamet, and he sounded unconcerned. Costis' own temper sparked and he grabbed Kamet by the wrists. Kamet dropped the salve and it rolled away.
"Don't do it again," Costis said.
Kamet lowered his eyes. "You were preoccupied. You did not notice him approaching you. Your own inattention led us to this."
"My—" Costis could feel Kamet's heart through his wrists. He was holding them too tightly, he realized. He let go. Kamet stumbled backwards and Costis' stomach flipped over, wondering if Kamet was afraid of him now, if Kamet was disgusted. So, so, so. It was Kamet's own fault. He knew what sort of man he had chosen to run off to Roa with. He should not be surprised, and Costis would not be ashamed of his choices, not when they were the chief reason why they remained alive despite many urgent attempts otherwise over the years. But he found that he did not want to see Kamet's thoughts on this. He studied the cut on his arm instead. It would scar, most like.
He heard Kamet swallow, hard. Why are you so afraid, Costis wondered, bitter, unlike himself, changed and transformed, when Kamet touched his jaw tentatively.
Costis' gaze jerked up. "What?" he said stupidly, and then Kamet was kissing him. Of course, Costis thought. Some men reacted like this after a battle, and there was no shame in it either. He groaned into Kamet's mouth, grasping him by the hips, pulling him in between Costis' spread knees. The heat of Kamet's skin was silk to the touch, and Costis found himself gasping, out of breath soon enough, leaning away to nuzzle Kamet's neck and scrape his teeth over the long arch of it.
He felt Kamet's shudder. He touched Kamet's bruised eye gently, reverentially.
"Does it hurt?" he asked.
"No," Kamet said. "It doesn't hurt."
"Liar," Costis breathed, and it sounded like a confession of love.
He had kissed others before, men included, but none of it mattered because until today he had never kissed Kamet. He could not get enough. He kissed Kamet, and kissed him, and kissed him, until Kamet was shifting helplessly on his lap, making sounds that they would both be embarrassed by later. But through the haze of near-death, everything seemed golden, perfect. Costis had no fear. He soaked Kamet's skin with kisses.
Kamet's beautiful, glorious hands were clumsy on Costis' body. Costis moaned. He helped Kamet undo the stays on his breeches and lift up his tunic. He groaned again in startled delight as Kamet grasped his cock. It was all fast, so fast, and he was reduced to quiet begging as Kamet started moving his hand, dry and rough and oh so good, and then made easier by Costis' own slick wetness. Costis thrust his hips mindlessly. He forgot the pain of his wounds. There was no pain, merely relief. If they never did this again, if it was for Kamet only the rush of being alive that made him want Costis, then he wanted to memorize every fucking moment of this, hold it behind his eyelids every waking morning.
Kamet bit his lip. Costis wished he would bite him instead. He reached up and touched Kamet's dishevelled hair, the stubble on his jaw. He was not the same man Costis had first met, many years ago. He was every bit the same.
Costis' idiotic mouth opened. "This is nice," he blurted.
Kamet huffed in laughter.
"I could use my mouth next," he offered, and when Costis ran his thumbs over Kamet's cheekbones he found that they were burning warm. It was too much. He shuddered and came.
They had a duke to take care of first.
"Is this my next appointment?" the Duke of Ferria said, amused, as his secretary ushered the two of them into the drafty temple chamber he had turned into his study. "I am not sure I even know who you are."
Kamet nodded politely. "It is true that we are two persons of no importance."
"Goatherds," Costis supplied.
"A Mede and an Attolian who have managed to wander a little too far from home," Kamet said.
"Setran, actually," said Costis.
The duke's smile did not slip. Nor did Kamet's mild, obsequious tone. "But my lord, you did ask me to sing the other night. A song of my people. I was terribly rude by refusing then, so I wonder if you would allow me to earn forgiveness by singing a song for you now."
"Most unusual," said the duke. "I think I do remember you after all. But, you know, I have heard songs about Ennikar and Immakuk before."
Kamet nodded, accepting this. "Have you heard the song about Ninkar, daughter of Ennikar?"
The duke's smile did not vanish, but Costis saw that it was different now, frozen.
"Ah," said Kamet, blinking. "I'm so sorry. I didn't give you my name."
"Kamet Kingnamer," hissed the duke.
"Yes," Kamet said slowly, "that is my name." He bowed his head courteously. "I have served many kings in my life. Kings and brothers to kings. Great powers. Their households. The slaves within. In continuing to serve, I would ask for your assistance." He bowed again and, with a gesture at Costis, indicated it was time to leave. They walked out of the study and Costis closed the door gently behind them.
He waited until they were walking down the path by the sea, looking at the ships, to ask. "What is the story of Ninkar, daughter of Ennikar?"
"Ninkar, more precious than water to her father," said Kamet. "Her jealous rival slandered her name on her wedding night to the warrior Hayasum. Hayasum turned from her. Ninkar died of heartbreak and her body became reeds dipping into the river."
Costis thought about it. "The duke has a daughter."
"More precious than water," Kamet agreed. "Think about it. The duke has been helping the empire smuggle supplies and spies into the Little Peninsula. What does he stand to gain from it? Magyar has no value in the great game. Answer, his only child is betrothed to one of the emperor's sons. The marriage will tie this insignificant but ambitious Magyar dynasty to the great houses of the Medes. But of course, her husband-to-be has never met her before. He can only hear of… rumours."
And he believed that Kamet still had enough ties to the Mede empire to do good on his threat, Costis thought. Perhaps he could. Kamet had once been a creature of those poisonous courts, by his will or not. "But why did you say you needed his assistance? Why are we walking away when he tried to kill us?" He raised his eyebrows. "I do consider it to be a minor affront, at least, attempted murder."
"I think he shall be more useful alive and tied to us than under your sword," Kamet said calmly. "Let's hurry home. I ought to write Relius on this matter. Maybe what we did today will bear fruit. Maybe it will be a mistake. Hard to say."
He hastened a few steps in front of Costis' ambling gait, and Costis studied the back of his neck. He wished to press his mouth to it, and something of his longing must have come through, for Kamet hesitated and stopped. "Costis," he said.
Costis smiled kindly. "You need not fear that anything must be different between us. You will always have my friendship."
"Your friendship," Kamet said, and he sounded miserable. Hope stirred in Costis' chest, and then halted when they saw young Timon and his sister Acaste waiting for them, by the fence that kept their goats from leaping into the sea.
Acaste had her babe bundled to her chest. She carried a basket, and Costis could see what was inside.
"We will drown in loaves of bread from your many admirers," he murmured.
"She need not thank me. I contributed very little to the whole endeavour," Kamet said uncomfortably, but when they approached he bent his head low and spoke to Acaste, attempting not to look terrified as her babe woke and began to wail.
Costis went to stand beside Timon, who was studying the goats with a forlorn expression.
"Still want one of our goats, eh?" Costis said.
"I'll never be able to gather a bride price for my beloved," Timon bemoaned.
"What?" said Costis.
"A man who gives his bride many goats shows that he is able to provide for her and their future family," Timon intoned. "What do you think goats are for?"
"For wool?" Costis said weakly. "For milk? For unjudging companionship?"
Timon looked at him like he was a locust. "You're mocking me now," he said, desultory. "Just because you are so fortunate. I'll never be able to give my beloved three goats."
They stayed for midday meal, Acaste and Timon and the wailing child. Kamet fussed over the bread and produced yogurt and olives and a slice of cheese. After their guests had left, Costis glanced at Kamet and said, cautiously, "Do you know what goats signify in Roa?"
"No," Kamet said, and Costis, to the last of his days, could never tell if Kamet was lying about this or not.
So. He thought of Kamet's hesitance earlier, Costis' name spoken in wretched agony, and Costis plunged forward. A long time he had not said anything of this, and now he felt that if he kept it to himself any longer, he would surely die. "You can have more than my friendship. If that is something you might wish for."
He saw the look on Kamet's face, afraid and hungry. I have been blind, Costis thought, and a honeyed heat spread through every part of his body. He touched the tips of his fingers to Kamet's cheek. It was softly warm, like last night.
"Or I could tell you that I adore you," Costis said happily.
"Oh," Kamet said, extremely awkwardly.
"I suppose I can tolerate that," Kamet said.
"I appreciate your efforts on this matter."
"Shut up," said Kamet. "Finish your yogurt." Costis obeyed, and moments later he felt a nervous hand against his, Kamet's fingers touching his wrist. He looked at Kamet, and Kamet was smiling.