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It was clear even to Vedran that there was a change in the wind. Agizul had been muttering about it for weeks now, but today there was a strong, warm breeze blowing through the city. It carried an almost cloying scent he couldn't quite place, familiar only from the end of the last summer when he'd first arrived in Ahkas. This was the first time, tangled in his lover's embrace, that he really understood what else the change of seasons would bring. He leaned forward to kiss the older man's lips, grinding his ass into his crotch as he helped him disrobe.

"I know," Vedran whispered against his ear, running his tongue along the rough red skin of Agizul's neck. "I understand." The strong hands that gripped his shoulders, ready to pull him back, to make him face what was ahead, relented in the face of this assertion. Their bodies joined, and for now they took their comfort in each other.

This was one of his favourite ways, maybe because it was how they'd done it that first time. By that time in his life, Vedran had had a lot of 'firsts' - first kisses, first time getting head, or giving it, first time with a girl, first time jerking off (and being jerked off by) another guy, first times with plenty of other partners (mostly, but not only, girls). Maybe it felt different because Agizul was so much older than him - older than anyone else he'd been with - and it made him feel more mature to be the one to make that push and convince his lover it was what he wanted.

The tiefling was impressively built, his large frame strengthened by compensating for the loss of most of his right leg. It made sense for Vedran to be on top, to ease himself slowly down over Agizul's slicked cock, supported by his strong arms. It kind of hurt and was kind of amazing that first time - he remember how Agi's tail had wrapped around him to steady him, just in case, the strong hands reaching up to hold his face when his eyes fluttered shut. He'd stubbornly thought he could take it all that first time, but it had been too much. It wasn't an issue now, and even then it hadn't stopped them from thoroughly enjoying the attempt. Once he'd been settled, while he was still getting accustomed to the sensation of being so filled, his own cock straining, Agizul'd wrapped the end of his tail around his shaft That had nearly been the end of it right there. But he'd held off, until they began to move against each other, leaning forward to kiss and touch, resting his head on the relative cool of Agizul's backswept horns.

There was more urgency to their fucking this time, sensing that their time was drawing to a close. He rocked his ass as Agizul bucked up in to him, running his tongue along his lover's jaw to catch the sweat that dripped from his brow. They knew each other's bodies better now, and knew just where to touch, kiss, lick, nip and pinch to make the other squirm and grunt and moan with their pleasure. Agizul had had the initial advantage, as his disability had forced him to gain much more control over the use of his tail than most of his race, but Vedran had learned how sensitive his scars could be. His amputated leg was the main target, but there were others on his left leg also, and on his tail, that didn't seem related to the injury that had cost him his leg. The tiefling shivered as Vedran ran his nails lightly across the mass of gnarly tissue that covered his stump, pinching the half-elf's nipples fiercely in turn until he cried out and Agizul smothered the sound with another kiss. Knowing that things between them would be ending soon made everything feel more intense.

"Your mystery man is out again," Merlyn drawled, leaning casually against the fountain.

"Where?" Vedran perked up. "What's he doing?"

"Up on that platform again, and I think he's just watching the girls, too." He flicked a finger discretely, but his cousin had already picked him out. At least Vedran didn't ask the usual questions - who was he? What was he doing up there? Why was he always wearing that same brown covering robe? And what was the little group of tiefling nomads doing in the city at all? Merlyn still didn't have the answers.

Vedran did have a new question though. "Did you ever notice that he seems to kind of move funny? I thought it was maybe just his tail, but I don't know."

Merlyn laughed. "I can't believe you're only noticing that now, Ved. But no, I just figured he's a veteran, or something. War injury."

"Really?" Vedran eyed the distant tiefling critically. "You don't think he's a little young?"

"No." Realizing his answer sounded very blasé, he paused, sizing up the target of their observation himself. He was tall and well built, with deep red skin, long black hair, and thick horns curling back away from his face. He didn't look much past twenty, though, and the war had ended nine years before. "I mean, yes. He would have been young, but that doesn't make it any less likely. Things got pretty rough out here, and especially for the nomadic peoples."

"Oh." Merlyn watched the half-elf think about it for a moment and file away the information for future consideration, then shrug and smile. "I'm going to go watch the dancing for a bit - I'll catch you after lunch, Merl."

He sighed. "Those girls are just going to steal your purse again." And yet this had seemed to become an almost daily ritual with his younger cousin.

"I know but.... it's so worth it! And they probably need it more than me, anyway."

Merlyn was somewhat relieved to see his cousin approaching through the crowd, but the worried looked on his face counterbalanced the effect. Sensing trouble, he cut to the chase. "Do you have it, Ved?"

The half-elf shook his head, looking anxious and contrite.

"Why in the seven holy names not?" He tried not to sound too cross, but he'd vouched to the church elders that Vedran was responsible enough for this.

"I didn't mean to! Just I had to cross through the market and I ran in to Tasafut - that's the red girl - and I thought it would be weird or suspicious if I *didn't* say hi, and I was trying to be really careful but then Lunja showed up too, and maybe I got a little distracted, for just a second! And by the time I realized they'd got it, it was too late and they'd all disappeared."

"Damnit, 300 gold may seem like pocket change to you, but this is really important! That's probably enough to keep them going for *years* and if they're not packing their tents to get out of the city right now they will be soon."

"Look, I know! I'll get it back. I'm going now, I just didn't want you to get worried if I was late."

"We're running low on time on this one, Ved."

"If I can't get it back, we can just replace it from my allowance."

Merlyn nodded, running a hand through his thick red hair. It wasn't going to be quite that simple, but the church would work something out. It might just not be in time for the people they were trying to help that day. "You have an hour. Go."

They hadn't started packing up their tents before he got back, but none of the three girls were anywhere to be seen, and their little street stall was closed off. He hesitated for a moment, but remembered that his cousin and the church of Avandra were currently counting on him, and that this was his fuckup to fix. There wasn't any kind of door to knock on, so he pushed back the flap cautiously.

"Um, hell- Urk!"

Before he'd finished his greeting (and well before he'd managed to figure out what he ought to say), he was grabbed by the collar, hoisted by strong arms up to the level of the taller tiefling's face. His yellow eyes flashed, and Vedran could feel their glaring heat.

"If you mean to claim your property, Nerathi cur, you may wish to reconsider."

His first instinct was to struggle to get free, but the tiefling's grip was too strong, and Vedran wasn't sure he understood the thickly accented speech. "I'm sorry!" He found himself responding, panic overwhelming his confusion, "It was a mistake!"

His captor snorted in disgust, and half dropped, half tossed him down so that Vedran landed sprawled awkwardly on his back with the other man towering over him. "Yes, a mistake - you think, mongrel, that because we live here we have no pride?"

"I didn't think anything!" He scrambled backwards, trying to get a bit more distance, and wary of standing up just to be grabbed again. The tiefling narrowed his eyes as Vedran babbled on. He wasn't sure the man understood him completely - his grasp of Ahkasic was not perfect, and many of the nomadic groups had their own nuanced dialects - and he threw up his hands in supplication. "I didn’t do anything, not on purpose, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend anyone, or anyone's pride!"

"You try to buy my sister, and you tell me you don't mean to insult us?" He leaned forward to loom over Vedran, shuffling forward slightly with his awkward gait. His robe hung oddly over his hips, and from his vantage point, Vedran was able to solve one of the season's little mysteries. The tiefling was missing a leg, and keeping his balance with his tail. Still, other matters were more pressing at the moment.

"No! That wasn't for your sister, she st- I mean, this is a big mistake, I'm sorry, but I really need that money back."

The tiefling glared at him for another moment before grabbing a loop of rope hanging from the tent frame and lowering himself smoothly onto a raised palette piled with cushions. Even from that position he towered over Vedran, who had managed to scramble into a sitting position. The tiefling sat oddly, his one knee drawn up and his tail coiled around him on the floor. He looked as though he might spring back up at any moment, if it were possible. "Everyone knows three hundred gold is a slave price."

"Yes... But I swear, it wasn't meant for any of your sisters!"

The tiefling's yellow eyes narrowed further, giving him a sly appearance. "No... Perhaps not. Perhaps you are just a stupid boy, foolish with his money."

"That's what I told you, Agizul." Tasafut spoke up defiantly from behind him. Vedran started - he hadn't heard her come in. Turning his head he could see that it wasn't just her, either - Lunja and Tinhinan flanked the smaller darker red girl. None of the women looked particularly impressed, but he wasn't sure if they were displeased with him, with Agizul, or with the situation in general. "I said Vedran wasn't like that."

Lunja glared down at Vedran, and then over at her brother. "I still say we should have left - with the rest we've made, it's more than Rejak's fee, and well enough to keep the elders happy for this season. This is not an issue of honor. It's all in your head."

"It's pointless to argue more," Tinhinan crossed her arms and shrugged. "We haven't left, we all know we're not going to." She looked down at Vedran as well, but her look was more appraising. "That is a lot more money than you usually carry, though..."

Breaking off his staredown with Lunja, Agizul looked back at Vedran to answer. "He stays with the priests of Olladra. He got it from them."

"It's Avandra," he corrected, smiling hesitantly at the varying receptions his interruption received. "Not Olladra. They're not really the same. But anyway, yes, it's for the Church, and I really need it back. I'm sorry - I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise!"

"You need it to pay someone else's slave price, don't you? I have heard what your Church is like - that you buy freedom for slaves who convert for you. Everyone knows the Nerathi keep no slaves. You want to stop us from having any either."

Vedran's eyes went wide. It wasn't exactly right - there were a lot of nuances lost - but it was close enough to be worrying. What the church was doing wasn't technically illegal, but most of the Ahkasic cities frowned heavily on any Nerathi meddling, and the laws and their interpretations were mutable enough that it could get quite a lot of people in danger, himself included. Agizul was looking at him thoughtfully, and the three girls had all fallen silent as well. He felt he should deny the accusation, but wasn't sure he could pull it off convincingly. "Um," he began, but the tiefling waved his hand for silence, leaning back and stroking his chin thoughtfully.

"Three hundred is a slave price," he repeated.

"Uhh... I'm not for sale!" The Treaty of Irumael had made it illegal to buy or sell Nerathi citizens, he was pretty sure, but it was the sort of thing that could be difficult to prove, or enforce. A little voice in the back of Vedran's head pointed out that if he were dragonmarked, no one could possibly make that mistake. He didn't have the chance to dwell much on that fate before Lunja laughed derisively.

"You could buy twenty trained useful slaves for a freeman's fee, brother." Vedran nodded his vigorous agreement despite the insult.

"Real city slaves are useless on the plains, anyway," Tinhinan added quietly. "You keep saying we can't even have any while we're here."

"I'm not useless," he interjected again, this time with more confidence. "I'm good at lots of things. I can pay back the money, or I can earn it for you, or whatever, but I do need it back, and soon." He paused, feeling both guilty and nervous and purposefully not looking Lunja's way. "I don't mind, ah, losing a few coins here and there to friends, but this much money is quite another matter." Accusing them directly of stealing was, he knew in his gut, a very bad idea, but he would go to the authorities if he had to. He still hoped he could come to some kind of agreement with the nomads directly, though - it would certainly be faster, and his time was running short.

Agizul ignored the girls, concentrating his attention on Vedran. "Very well. We'll see how much the silver tongue of one of you Nerathi half-elven bastards is really worth."

Merlyn noticed Vedran's growing infatuation with his new employer, for lack of a better term, before his cousin became completely aware of it himself. As relieved as he'd been to be able to carry out the planned liberation, he was concerned about Vedran's further entanglement with the nomads. The tieflings weren't a group he had much experience with, and his cousin was really still just learning how things worked in Ahkas. At least, Lady Luck had seemed to smile on him since he'd arrived, and he prayed that she would continue to watch out for the young man. Although he'd calmed down since he'd arrived on Merlyn's doorstep six months ago, he knew Vedran was still working through a lot of personal issues that only time could help him with. He might be due a few acts of teenage rebellion, but Merlyn didn't want to see him badly taken advantage of. Thinking he might feel better if he knew more about the situation, he stopped his cousin on his way out of the temple one morning after their prayers.

"Off to the markets again?"

"Yup, Tinhinan is teaching me to play the oud, so I can play for them when they're dancing."

"She's the blonde one?" Merlyn knew some by name - Tasafut was the darkest-skinned of the girls, bright red with long wavy chestnut hair that whipped around when she danced. The other two were both more pink, one blonde and the other with raven locks. The black-haired one, who must be Lunja, was the oldest, he figured - maybe even older than Agizul.

"Yeah, and she's Tasafut's sister, but by a different mother, I think? Same with Agi and Lunja, and then they're all cousins of some kind."

He nodded - he'd heard that the nomadic tiefling men kept multiple wives. Various forms of multiple partner marriages were common throughout Ahkas, especially among the nomadic tribes. "Did they ever tell you what they're in the city for? I know some of the nomads come here for trade, but it's usually more seasonal, and they don't tend to stick around long."

"Sort of." Vedran tilted his head thoughtfully. "I mean, they won't just tell me, but they need money to pay someone, a guy named Rejak. I think he is buying a horse, or training one, for Agi. Something happened to his old one, and he needs a special saddle, so the horse needs to be used to taking different commands, and he can't train it without riding, and I think there is something about who they can buy their horses from, and who is allowed to train them and stuff? I don't know. Anyway he can't ride now, and I know it bothers him, because he won't even talk about it and Lunja always glares at me if I say anything."

That made sense, and he thought it better explained why the group hadn't just taken the money when they'd had the chance - they may not have had anywhere to go. But there was no sense in being too cynical; things had worked out, after all. "You'll be learning enough about riding when summer hits, trust me."

"I know! I told Tasafut about going to Sindre and Herate with the elves, and she told me... well, she went on for a bit about this one guy that cheated her father on some deal, but concluded that elves are pretty so they can't all be bad. But she told me some things about the cities there. I guess we might be in Sindre for one of their big festivals?"

"High summer is one of Dol Arrah's holy days, yes. We should still be in the city then."

"That's one of the gods here?"

He nodded. Vedran's father had asked him to teach his son about Ahkas, but if he'd expected Merlyn to provide any sort of formal schooling, he'd have to live with the disappointment. He was content to let his cousin learn by asking questions at his own pace. "One of the Sovereign Host, yes."

"Right..." Vedran frowned, looking away for a moment. "I didn't mean to get into a lesson or anything. I said I would try to be there earlier today, since Agi is going to be busy all day with trading stuff and I won’t get to see him much."

"Don't you see him almost every day?" It had been two weeks now, and Merlyn couldn't get a straight answer as to when Vedran might be done paying off his debt, or service, or whatever agreement they had reached that had brought him running back to the rendez-vous spot, gold in hand, with only minutes to spare. At first he'd thought it was one of the girls who'd captured his attention - there had certainly been enough heavy flirting to support it. He liked them, that much was clear, and they still flirted (and maybe more), but his attention was transfixed by Agizul.

"Well... yes." Merlyn wondered if his cousin was aware of the flush that was creeping up his cheeks. "But he's really cool, and I think he likes having another guy around, too, so he can talk about things he's not supposed to talk about with girls."

"Right." He crossed his arms, leaning back against the doorframe. "Ved, I know you like this guy, and I trust you to make your own decisions... I just want you to be careful, okay? I don't know much more about the tieflings here outside of Bael Nobra other than that they're really not big fans of the Nerathi. I still don't really know what they want from you and..." He broke off as Vedran's jaw set and his look became increasingly stubborn.

"They're my friends. I'm just helping them - they need help. That's what we're supposed to do, right?"

Merlyn sighed. "Yes, that's what we're supposed to do. I just don't want to see you get hurt, if this guy takes your attention the wrong way." He smiled sympathetically when Vedran blushed even brighter. "Or the right way, for that matter."

"I'll - I'll be careful, okay? But I'm still going. I still owe them, and if I don't back up my word, they'll think I really don't have any honor."

"Alright, Ved." He wasn't sure if Vedran really knew what he was getting in to or not, but he'd given his warning, and he'd continue to give his cousin trust and support if he should need it. "Good luck."

"You too, Merl!" With that, Vedran'd raced off towards the markets.


Before they'd worked up to full on fucking, it was mostly handjobs and oral, fast and furtive, whenever they could manage it in the semi-privacy of the market tents. Vedran was sure the girls must know, but none of them said anything. He was more certain that Lunja didn't like him much, but that had been true from the outset.

"I wish we had a little more time," he'd said one day, wiping his lips with the back of his hand and rubbing his jaw, as Agi grunted, tucking his flaccid cock back into the short linen pants he wore beneath his loose robe.

When Vedran arrived the next morning the tiefling was waiting for him up on the little overhanging platform above the tent stalls where he liked to watch the market. He was leaning on what Vedran at first thought was a funny-looking staff, but soon realized was actually a huge unstrung bow, and he waved for the half-elf to come and join him.

Lunja drew him aside before he made it that far, her lips set, her usually pale gold eyes seeming to flash a little brighter, her fingers digging in to his shoulder. "You..." She paused, as if she wasn't exactly sure what threat or warning she meant to issue. "Be careful with my brother. You don't deserve his attention. You're not worth it." Spitting the last with surprising vehemence, she released him with a shove. He stumbled back, not sure that the fire he's seen flash in her eyes was entirely metaphorical.

"I am careful!" he protested, but she just glared at him, turning away as Tinhinan slipped through the curtain into their partition. The younger girl looked between the two for a moment uncertainly, but Lunja just pushed her way out past them both. Vedran stared at her, still startled. "I didn't do anything!"

Tinhinan sighed, and put her arm on his shoulder. "Lunja still can't put the war behind her, Vedran, that's all. She doesn't want Agizul to do so either. She doesn’t understand why it should be easy for him to like you."

"The war didn't have anything to do with me." He frowned, stubborn - Agi was waiting for him, and he'd been looking forward to having some time with him away from the others.

"I know." She squeezed his shoulder, her touch a contrast with her cousin's earlier violence. He thought she might have something more to say, but she smiled after a brief moment instead. "He asked me to lend you my bow - can you shoot?"

"A little..." Of course he'd been trained, though he hadn't taken to it especially well. His father hadn't seemed too terribly concerned about his lack of aptitude, or at least he'd never commented when the lessons petered out without him picking too much up. Not that he'd said anything to the tieflings about his father, or his mixed parentage.

"Alright then – you'll find it at the bottom of the stairs."

"Thanks." He turned to go, but she hadn't taken her hand away yet.

"Vedran... Lunja was too harsh, perhaps, but it's true that you must be careful with Agizul. He will push himself too hard, if you let him. He tires more easily than he lets on, even just from standing. We've learned to care for him in ways that won't insult him. It's hard on him, being in the city for so long." She let go, dropping her arm to her side, and smiled again, that same thoughtful, slightly guarded, smile. "It changes all of us. It makes Lunja angry, and Tasafut more silly. And I think too much, that's all. You should get going."

Vedran knew Tinhinan was right - Agizul was pushing himself too hard to get to this place, up between some buildings above a partially enclosed alley. He couldn’t tell if he was doing it for him, or if this was always how he was when he had the chance, away from the hovering overprotectiveness of the girls, pushing himself as hard as he could. There was a lot of climbing involved, and it was clear the tiefling had been this way many times from the way he'd adapted the surroundings to his own use. In places he had to wait for Vedran, who had trouble climbing even with all his limbs. By the time they reached the makeshift range, both of them were already sweaty and breathing hard. They were also alone, the city spread out before them.

It was early in the day, but the slate of the roof was already starting to warm up. Recognizing that they'd arrived at their destination, Vedran sprawled out, warming himself like a lizard and letting the heat soak into his muscles. Agizul lowered himself carefully, using his bow like a crutch. He sat rather than sprawled, watching Vedran quietly until the half-elf crawled over and laid his head in his lap. He didn't smile, exactly - he rarely did - but his customary sternness softened.

"That was quite the climb," Vedran muttered, catching Agi's hand as he raised it to stroke Vedran's sweaty hair back away from his face and bringing it to his lips instead.

"It's a good climb. You were slow coming in this morning."

"Mmhmm." Agi's hand tasted like sweat and the city, but Vedran didn't care, running his tongue along the lines of his palm, grazing his teeth along his callouses. "Your sister wanted to tell me to take care of you." He turned his head, nuzzling the other man's thigh through his robe. "Do you think this is what she meant?"

Like everything else about him, Agizul's hands were huge. He slid free of Vedran's grip, cupping his chin to make the boy look up at him, his palm pressed lightly against his throat. "What did she say to you."

"She said I don't deserve you." Vedran met his eyes, his expression curious.

"If she gives you more trouble, tell her I made you my farjhan."

"What does that mean?"

Agizul caressed the side of his cheek fondly. "It means I will take care of you."

"Alright. I like that." Vedran smiled up at his lover, stroking his thigh again, feeling him shift as the fabric of his trousers strained beneath the robe he wore to hide his disability. "Should you be my.... farjhan... too?"

But Agi shook his head, even as he let go of Vedran's face, stroking his knuckles along his neck and shoulder, hand spreading wide to cover half his chest as it roamed lower. "It doesn't work that way."

Vedran nodded, arching his hips up toward Agizul's hand, savouring the upward twitch of the tiefling's lips as fingers brushed against the head of his hardening cock. He reached up behind him, running his own hands up along the tiefling's ribs, tracing out the hard planes of his body. "Will you take off your robe? We're all alone up here." In the pause while he waited for an answer, he reflected on what he had seen of Agi's body - how the scars from whatever had happened to his leg jagged up towards his hip, how his cock was as thick and huge as all the rest of him, and how it made him want to see, and touch and taste more of him. The pause grew, with Agizul looking down at him thoughtfully, and he added, "I know you don't dress like this all the time. Tasafut said you'd never wear a robe like that on the plains."

"The plains are different."

"Because you can ride?"

He ran his hand through Vedran's hair again, pushing the curling strands back out of his face, and sighed quietly. "It doesn't matter, out there, if you can walk or stand, so long as you ride well and you're not a burden. I hunt. I read the wildlands. Everyone knows, they don't question, don't stare."

"They don't care, as long as you pull your own weight?"

Agi's silence told him that wasn't quite right, but he didn't press it, and after a while the tiefling shifted again. "At least can I have your robe to lie on? The roof's just really hot."

He frowned, sitting up. "I didn't think of that." He wasn't wearing a shirt underneath – just his shorts. His skin was a slightly paler red where it had been out of the sun for months, but his chest was all firm planes and sharp angles, marked here and there with old scars and brushed with dark hair that trailed from his chest and disappeared down into his shorts.

Vedran reached out for him slowly, climbing over to kneel on the discarded robe, until Agizul took his hands and brought them to his skin. He was warm and slick with the sweat of exertion.

"This is what you were after?" He made Vedran feel small as they pressed their lips together, Agi's breath as hot as the roof tiles though the cloth, his tongue filling Vedran's mouth. Vedran answered with his hands, running one down Agizul’s back and the other along his front, feeling out the shape of him. Agizul pushed him over gently, one hand on his chest, until he was lying on his back with the tiefling poised above him, shading him from the sun. His hands were busy, holding himself up, but his mouth was free for kissing, to lick his way down to Vedran’s throat, his tail pushing his partner’s legs apart so he could rest his knee more easily between them.

Vedran couldn’t stop marvelling at the other man’s body - how strong he was, how large, the warmth of his skin, its beautiful deep red. They were both sweaty, and the smell of it clung to the hair of his chest. Vedran ran his fingers through it, catching them on the waistband, wondering if Agi would let him undress him completely, or just pull them down far enough to get his cock free when they’d worked up to that - hopefully soon.

The tiefling sat up, looming even more, so that he could start working open Vedran’s shirt - he was dressed in the city’s fashion, with a short vest over a shirt that laced half-way up in the front. Once these were loose, he squirmed out of it easily, leaving him in just his pants – flowing and brightly coloured ones that ended at mid-calf. Agizul's hand covered half his chest, stroking his skin, tracking through his freckles with a finger and flicking a thumb across his nipples to make him gasp. That made him smile, and Vedran grinned in return. "I want to look at all of you." Despite his smile, despite his strength, Agizul's words were nervous ones.

Vedran wrapped his hands around Agi's where his fingers were already tucked into his waistband. "I want to see all of you, too." He added "please," knowing this made his partner more nervous than anything else, and Agizul nodded. Vedran let him loose the tie of the drawstrings, holding his arms and arching his hips as Agi drew both pants and small clothes down. He squirmed when the head of his cock caught in the fabric, and they both smiled when it sprung free, jutting up towards the tiefling. Vedran kicked free of his clothes as Agi wrapped his hand around him so that only the tip protruded, groaning.

Unwilling to be completely distracted just yet, he sat up and reached out to slide his fingers down the 'V' of the tiefling's hips. Vedran moved more slowly than his partner had, untying his shorts and carefully pushing them down, past his cock and hips and past the place where his leg ended until they got caught up on his tail and his left knee. Agi kept his hand on Vedran's dick, circling its head slowly with his thumb. It was a powerful incentive to be respectful, though all he really wanted to do was rub himself all over the other man.

Instead, he drew his fingers back along Agi's thighs, exploring. There really wasn't much leg left on the right – his thigh (larger than Vedran might have expected, though clearly weaker than his left) was truncated about in half, marred in places by irregular dark pink scars that stood out against the red of his skin. Agizul's breath caught in his throat as Vedran traced these out, sitting back, and distracting himself by stripping his shorts off the rest of the way. Still, his cock twitched a little when Vedran traced out the suture scar and he squeezed enough to make the half-elf hiss too.

"Come here," he invited, pulling Vedran forward even as he sat back, helping him into his lap and bending down to kiss him. Vedran straddled his hips, pushing up against him, rubbing their cocks together. It was electrifying, and soon they were both breathing hard, their caresses less gentle, mouths hungrier. Vedran, less patient, licked and sucked his way down the expanse of Agizul's broad chest, running his tongue along the chiseling of his abdomen. Agi laid back, holding his erection in anticipation, his tail circling around Vedran's waist.

Every time he sucked Agizul's cock, Vedran tried to take more of it in his mouth. It stretched out his jaw, long enough that even when he could push himself down so that the head of it pushed against the back of his throat and he had to try not to gag, he could still wrap almost a whole hand around the base. He knew he could do more – whenever Agi got close, when he couldn't quite stop himself from thrusting into Vedran's mouth, huge hands pressed against his distended cheeks, Agi would push Vedran just a little further than he'd thought he could go. And so next time Vedran would push himself further, hoping someday he'd be able to swallow it all.

This time, with Agi finally really naked, he had other distractions to keep him from racing for that final push. He rolled the other man's balls lightly in one hand. They were hairy, hot, and heavy, and Agi grunted, bucking against him unexpectedly so that Vedran had to take care not to scrape his teeth. There was more skin yet to explore, and Vedran remembered the hitch in his breath when he'd teased his scars and returned to them next, sucking sloppily on Agi's cock head while he brushed them, hard then soft, then grazing over them with his nails, soft then hard, to see what would make his lover grunt and gasp and demand more. When the familiar tension started to build in Agizul’s thighs, his breath gone gasping and ragged, Vedran refocused his attention on cock sucking, slicking it down all over with his tongue so that he could take in as much as possible, pumping what he couldn’t with his left hand in a rhythmic motion. The thick head threatened to block his throat, but he took a deep breath and pushed down just that little bit further as Agizul, urged on by the hungry look Vedran shot him, thrust up into his eager mouth. It did push into his throat then, just a little, and he choked briefly before Agi pulled back. When it came again he was more ready, letting the other man fuck into his throat, marvelling at his own skill.

Agizul was muttering at him, half-words in Ahkasic, his name, yes. He was close, trying to let him know, but neither of them could stop, and Vedran's mouth was so full of cock he couldn't even nod. Instead, he let go of that last few inches around Agi's base, running one hand over his scars again in encouragement, slipping his left hand around his balls and behind, to tickle the hair there. Agi sat up suddenly, grabbing on to his hair and holding him down, pushing further into him, and almost, almost all the way... He shot his first, thickest, load of cum straight into his throat, letting go at the strangled sound Vedran made in response, spurting the rest into his mouth.

Vedran swallowed down his raw throat, climbing back up into Agi's lap with his own hard cock rubbing against the tiefling's stomach, and reached up to press his lips to Agizul's mouth. Agi was reticent, at first, to part his lips and taste his own seed there, but when he gave way to Vedran's tongue, he kissed back eagerly, as though his orgasm hadn't abated his hunger at all, but only fed it. He slid his hands down Vedran's ribs, thumbing his nipples roughly as he passed them, then cupping his ass to pull him all the closer.

"I want-" He trailed off, as though he didn't know what exactly he wanted, instead delivering another hungry kiss. "I want to make you feel this good, not just the usual good." Agizul squeezed Vedran's ass, lifting him up, rubbing him against his stomach. "Tell me how." His fingers met in the crack of Vedran's ass, teasing the skin there. When they brushed against his asshole he pushed back almost instinctively.

"I want that," Vedran cried in his hoarse voice, knowing it instantly. "Please, Agi, touch me there, my ass, yes just, ahh." It tickled in a way that made his asshole feel directly connected to his cock, and promised something more. But Agizul's fingers were large and calloused, and it was rough treatment for his virgin hole. "Wait." He untangled his fingers from Agi's chest hair, reaching down to lace his hand with his partner's and draw it to his lips. The tiefling looked uncertain for a moment, but Vedran smiled, sucking Agi's index finger gently into his mouth, rolling his tongue over it loosely, coating it as thoroughly as he had done for his cock before attempting to swallow it whole. "Now try. It will feel so amazing, to have you like that, inside me, I know it will."

Vedran was babbling and he didn't care, because Agi had slipped his tail around his waist and snaked it between them so that its end could caress his cock, and the wanting of more made it hard to get his words do what he wanted. Agi nodded, looking from Vedran's eyes to the saliva trailing down the back of his hand. If the uncertainty was still there, the desire was stronger.

"Yes." When Agi rubbed his ass now, it felt slippery, good. "Vedran, my farjhan, I can do this for you - I want to make you spill yourself for me." He pushed a little, and Vedran pushed back, their eyes locked and both a little amazed. Vedran's breathing was raspy and shallow as Agizul forced his thick finger up inside him. It felt good, sensations ranging from complimentary with to distracting from the feeling of the tail caressing his cock. Agizil wrapped his other hand around Vedran's throat, stroking his chin, the drawing close for another kiss even as he pushed his finger in against the remaining resistance. It hurt for a brief moment, and then he was buried to his second knuckle.

After a moment of just being held that way, while they kissed, Vedran began to relax more around the digit – enough to ask for the rest of it. Agi obliged slowly, pushing in and then stroking forward towards Vedran's straining cock. He'd heard things about how good it could feel to have your ass fingered, or even fucked, but he'd never felt daring enough to try it himself. It was better than any of the stories had managed to convey, especially with Agi holding him up, his hot tongue running along his neck and down his clavicle, tail shifting its hold around his cock. "I need it, now," he begged, warned, but Agizul was already giving it to him—exactly what he wanted now, and with a promise of something even more. The thought had him splashing his load across Agi's stomach, dribbling his final spurts over the coil of the tiefling's tail.

Once Vedran was spent, Agizul slowly withdrew his finger, leaving him with a concerning gaping feeling. The tail snaked up to hold him up while Agi wiped himself off with his clean hand, a fierce grin on his face. He raised his hand to his face, eyed locked with Vedrans, his large tongue darting out to lick up the collected come. They both leaned forward to kiss and share the taste, and Vedran could feel Agi's cock already stirring again against his thighs.

Merlyn was not by nature an early riser, but his duties as temple attendant needed him to be up in the mornings, and he was usually able to force himself awake in time to take care of the basics before anyone came through. Occasionally, he solved the issue of getting out of bed by staying up all night instead, visiting friends and lovers until the small hours of the morning and making sure the temple was presentable, even if he wasn’t. Mornings like these, with no rest and a heavy head, were the ones where he felt lucky to be on rotation at the temple. Though he'd normally prefer to be travelling, there was something to say for comfortable beds and the ability to shut out the sun while you tried to meditate half-heartedly until your head was clear enough to let you trance. Out on the road, he'd have come back to a cot at best and likely need to press on, rest or no rest.

Debating whether the sanctuary really needed to be swept this morning or if it could be left for a day when he hadn't been up all night, he made his way to the little closet where the votive supplies were kept. It was open, and there was rustling coming from inside.

"Hello?" He thought he'd give whoever it was the benefit of the doubt – the church didn't really have anything to steal that he wouldn't have given away anyway, but not everyone knew or believed that.

The response to his greeting was a surprised yelp accompanied by the sound of something –some things in fact—clattering to the floor.

"Vedran?" He swung the door open the rest of the way to find the young half-elf wrestling a crate of prayer candles back on the shelf. "What are you doing?"

"Um," he answered with a look that was half guilty and half hopeful. "Looking for the lamp oil?"

Merlyn shook his head, coming over to help him pick up the candles. "It's the crack of dawn, Ved."

"I know…. I didn't think you'd be up yet."

He gave his cousin a long look. When Vedran had first arrived, between adjusting to the time difference this far east and generally lying about and feeling sorry for himself, it had been rare to see him up and about before noon. Once he began to shake off the cloud of teenage melodrama hanging over his head, he'd followed Merlyn's example of staying up into the small hours of the morning with parties and new friends. It wasn't until he'd started hanging around the tieflings from the market more that he'd ever been up early enough to join him for breakfast, let alone morning prayers. "Right." He let the word sit for a moment, then shook his head. "Come on. Let's get some coffee, and since you decided to grace the world with your presence so early, you can help me with some chores before prayers."

The temple of Avandra in Yeshual was the largest in Ahkas, but as it was only one of two, this wasn't too significant an achievement. It did at least have a proper sanctuary along with a dormitory that served as a central information hub and home base for the more mobile clergy. Members of the priesthood volunteered to care for and run the place, usually for a season or two at a time, and rarely for upwards of a year. It was an informal rotation, but most were happy enough to have a chance to catch their breaths now and then. The presence of the church in the city where the peace had been signed ten years before was mostly symbolic. Merlyn still felt that this reminder of the role of pacifistic Nerathi groups in promoting the cessation of hostilities was as important as any other role the church served, and was glad enough, for the most part, to serve his term. He was finding, too, that staying in the city and helping his cousin adjust to life in Ahkas were bringing him a fresh perspective. It was a little easier to be grateful, however, once he was seated in the dorm's kitchen with a tumbler of thick, steaming coffee. He took a sip.

"Not bad, Ved. Either you’re getting the hang of this, or my night out was a lot rougher than I realized."

"Well, Tas has been teaching me the tricks they use for it, but we can't actually drink it the way they do because it's too hot, and once it cools it gets all grainy and gross. So this is kind of my improvisation."

"You'll have to show me sometime." The strong drink was helping him feel a little more alert already, and he swallowed another mouthful. "So, tell me about the lamp oil?"

Vedran's blush was not a good sign. "Well, um, I guess it didn’t have to be lamp oil, I just thought it would, um, work, and you probably wouldn't miss it..."

"Work for what?" He took another sip of the thick coffee. "Is this for sex? Please tell me it's not for sex."

The look on Vedran's face was answer enough. To his credit, he didn't bother with any denials or try to cover it up. "Why not?" He asked instead, wary.

"Yeah...." Merlyn leaned back against the wall, swinging his legs up to lounge on the low bench. "You should thank Fortune that I caught you. Just think of it this way – what does lamp oil do?"

It only took him a moment to work that one out, evidenced by his grimace and telltale squirming. Merlyn could almost see new questions trying to take shape.

"My general rule of thumb," he added helpfully, "is that if you wouldn’t put in your mouth, don't put it in your ass. Is this with Agizul?"

Apparently satisfied that Merlyn wasn't going to lecture him on his attempted theft, or make a big deal out of the rest of it, he nodded, grinning just a little. "Yeah. I guess he was okay taking things the right way."

"Heh. He's a pretty big guy." It was a bit of an understatement – he was easily the tallest tiefling Merlyn had ever seen, even discounting the dark horns that curved up away from his face and back around. "And I'm guessing neither of you has done this before?"

There was a look Vedran got on his face when he was trying to follow someone's train of thought, and he was wearing it now. Instead of asking, though, he shook his head. "Not yet, but I really want to."

"Well, if his cock's as big as the rest of him –" he grinned back at Vedran's gloating chuckle. "Yeah, well, you're going to need to work up to that. Fingers, and then maybe some kind of toy. You can improvise some, but don't use anything you're not sure you can get back out again. Something with a wide base or a handle."

"What about his tail?" He sounded fairly nonchalant, but Merlyn could tell it was not a purely hypothetical question. That was interesting enough – most tieflings he'd met didn't have very fine control over their tails, but Agizul may have had to become more reliant on his.

"That could work, but go carefully. I mean, tails drag on the ground - I’d say follow the ‘would I put it in my mouth’ rule there too." He waited until Vedran nodded again before continuing. "You are going to need something for lubrication, so you had the right idea. There's lots of stuff you can improvise with that's pretty safe – olive oil's not bad – but you can buy stuff that's actually meant for sex, too, and it's usually better."

Vedran perked up, his eyes going a little wider. “You can? I mean, I thought you said that guys who fuck guys isn’t a super accepted thing here.”

"Did I say that?" He frowned, because it didn't sound like something he would have said, but he wasn't feeling on the top of his game at the moment either and couldn't remember talking about it with his cousin at all. The concentrated coffee was doing its work, though, and he felt more alert than he had when they'd first sat down. “Well, it depends. Some people are okay with it, some aren’t, just like in Nerath. Sometimes it’s a race thing – the devas, if you ever meet one, aren't concerned about bodies at all, for the most part. And the shardminds don't even have men and women, really. But really I think the divide is bigger between the cities and the nomads."

"Oh." He frowned, and Merlyn could see him putting all the pieces together. "Is that what you meant before, then, about Agi? To be careful how he’d take things?"

"Yes." He'd finished his drink now, and spun the little tumbler on the table. The thought of toasted bread and eggs danced through the back of his mind, but his stomach quickly vetoed the idea, and instead he reached out and appropriated Vedran's as-yet untouched coffee. "A lot of the nomadic groups rely really heavily on families and family ties for survival, and they're not comfortable with people who aren't contributing to that dynamic. Some men can get away with having affairs with other men, if they're married with children – and some women, for that matter, if they prefer sex with other women – but if you really aren't interested at all in the opposite sex, it can be hard. People like that tend to get pushed to the outside."

"And Agi already has trouble because of his leg." Vedran looked up after a quiet moment. "He calls me his farjhan. He said it means he'll take care of me. I don't think it is just about the sex stuff, but I don't know what he really thinks."

They'd come a long way from talking about lube, and it was Merlyn's turn to frown. "That's a word for a kind of slave that some men kept, during the war. Boys they'd captured."

"And fucked?"

He nodded this time, but it wasn't something he knew a whole lot about.

"The first time he said it, he said that's what I should say to Lunja. Tinhinan said she didn't like me because it meant Agi had put the war behind him better than she had, but maybe that's not true, or not all true. She's, Lunja I mean, is always saying how useless I am at things. But he doesn’t act like he owns me. I don't think he really thinks that."

"Well, if you're not sure what he thinks, maybe you should ask him?" Merlyn shrugged when his cousin shook his head. "Ultimately, Ved, it's just between the two of you. It you're both happy, that's what's important, and the rest can sort itself out."

Despite his words, Merlyn was a little worried about his cousin. This was a relationship without much future, and his cousin had enough on his plate without adding any heartbreak. Summer wasn't far off, and it was an active time for most of the nomadic groups, either taking advantage of the passes through the mountains, striking out to seek somewhat stable pasture for their herds, or even just raiding on everyone else. He'd been planning on heading south, and he'd guessed the tieflings would have completed any business keeping them in the city by then as well. Vedran, he hoped, would still be coming with him.

"So," Vedran said, interrupting his train of thought. "You can buy oils for gay sex? In Yeshual?"

Merlyn laughed in return. "You can have anal sex with girls too, you know. Lots of people do it that way, because there's less chance of the girl getting knocked up. And it's just fun. But I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you where you can go, and what the best kinds are, but you have to sweep the sanctuary while I go see if anyone else has turned up for morning prayers."

His cousin was already slipping to his feet, a grin on his face, any morose thoughts banished for the moment. "Deal!"

It wasn't until their third trip up to the rooftops that Agizul made any indication of a legitimate interest in archery. They'd been lying together for a while, tangled up and, for the moment, spent. The tiefling was restless, though and sat up and stretched. "Get up," he said as he reached for his shorts, "you can help me string my bow. Here, elves are all taught to shoot well. Do they teach that art to the half-breeds in Nerath?"

"Elves and Elomeni both get taught the bow. Other races too, but them especially." Vedran scrabbled over and picked up Tinhinan's bow and quiver, then pushed himself to his feet. He'd been called a half-breed all his life and term had no real bite even when it was used cruelly, but he knew that it would still be more dangerous for him here if people knew that he hadn't just been born of half-elven parents. "I'm not great at it though."

Agizul had hauled himself up to standing, supporting part of his weight on his tail. The muscles where it joined with his spine above his ass were huge, Vedran knew, but the appendage had never been intended to support so much of his weight, and it was clear that it pained him to hold himself up that way for long. He leaned on his bow, straightening out the loose end of its string before fishing another long cord, capped with leather at either end, out of a pocket in his discarded robe. He jerked his chin at Vedran to beckon him over.

"Stand on this." He gestured to the cord, draped loosely over both ends of the bow's sweeping arms. "In the middle. And keep steady."

Vedran stepped where he was told, bracing himself as Agizul began to pull up on the bow, the cord curling its arms back into a classic recurve. He paused midway through, his face a mask of concentration, steadying himself on Vedran's shoulder before pulling the bow the rest of the way with one arm only. He moved quickly then, slipping the other loop of the bowstring over the notch that would hold it in place, grunting in satisfaction once it was done.

"How do you do it when you're riding? Do you have to get someone else to do it?"

Agi grunted again. "When I'm mounted, I'm not worrying about falling over, and I can use my own foot." He shrugged, gesturing at the smaller bow Vedran carried. "Most only use a bow like Tinhinan's, if they shoot at all. They use a notch in the saddle." He shrugged though, and instead of using the cord to string this one, simply bent it by force and let Vedran slip the bowstring into place.

Vedran nodded, noticing the vein standing out on Agizul's neck the way it always did if he had been standing for a while without support, the tip of his tail twitching. "So… what are we shooting at?"

"The wall."

"Pretty big target." He grinned over, but Agizul just shrugged.

"The bricks are small enough." With that he drew one of the thick shafted arrows from the quiver at his side, nocking it to his bowstring. He lifted the bow and loosed the projectile so smoothly that Vedran couldn't pick the actions apart, and turned at the sudden clattering of one of the bricks exploding into shards as the arrow hit its target. He didn't even question that it had gone exactly where Agizul had intended. "See how close you can come to that."

Vedran tried to remember his lessons as he nocked an arrow of his own. The component parts of the motion were all clear – raise your bow smoothly, draw back to just in front of your ear, angle your bow wrist out of the way, don't hold on to the arrow once it's drawn, but loose it quickly…. He'd never been able to put it all together into the kind of smooth motion he'd just witnessed. Once launched, his arrow ricocheted off the wall about half a foot over from the small crater Agi's shot had made in the brick work. The tiefling shook his head, loosing another arrow at the wall, deepening the initial depression. Now that he was paying more attention, Vedran could tell that at least some of the areas where the brickwork looked degraded must actually be from previous practice sessions.

His subsequent efforts weren't much better than his first, despite some advice from Agizul. He understood the principles the tiefling explained, but he couldn't make his body perform quite how he wanted. Agi, in contrast, rarely seemed to miss his intended target, even when he tried more complicated shots. Vedran tried to tell himself that his own poor performance was due at least in part to his distraction and concern. Agi didn't give him much more than a look when he finally gave up, sitting down and setting the bow and quiver aside where they wouldn't get knocked off the roof. The tiles were getting hotter still, and he was careful not to touch them with his bare skin, seating himself back on Agizul's robe.

He sat quietly, but as the tiefling's aim became less sure, he frowned. The telltale vein was standing out more prominently, and the tip of his tail was twitching erratically against the slate tiles. How far was he planning to push himself, and at what point should Vedran step in? Vedran tried to think of something he could do or say, maybe some comment about the difficulty of mounted archery, but nothing clever came to mind.

"Sit with me?" Agizul turned then, arrow nocked and expression set, and Vedran could imagine how terrifying a figure he would cut when mounted, bearing down on any prey. His yellow eyes were hard to read, but there was a tightness in his face from more than just the pain of holding himself up, as though he were watching something very far away, seeing right through Vedran, or seeing something or someone else. He'd seen Lunja look that way before, staring into the fire, and the others had all left her alone to it. "Agi?" He sat up a little, worried, but after a moment Agizul lowered his bow.

"I was just.... thinking."

Vedran nodded, leaving it at that, and came over to him when he beckoned. The tiefling took out the leather-capped cord again and when Vedran stood on it this time, Agi's steadying grip on his shoulder was much firmer. Once it was unstrung, Vedran took the bow and quiver and leaned them against the wall, then took Agi's hands and braced his feet while the tiefling lowered himself. The heat from the slate didn't seem to trouble him at all, but he let out a hiss of breath once he was seated. "I could rub your back," Vedran offered, "or something?"

Agi snorted but stretched out slowly his front, flicking his tail out of the way. His muscles, when Vedran reached out to touch them, were spasming of their own accord. Vedran stroked them until they stilled and Agi gathered him up in his arms again.

"Play something for me, Vedran!" Tasafut was wearing a long silk skirt, slit in four loose panels like petals of a flower, over tight leather breeches that came halfway down her calves. When she spun, the skirts and her braided hair whirled out away from her body. They were alone this afternoon, as the other three tieflings had gone to take care of some business to which Vedran wasn't privy. He'd been messing around with the oud he'd bought, but had been working on technique rather than drawing out any of the few tunes he'd mastered. Still, they were in theory out to make money, and now that she seemed more eager to dance, he smiled her way and began to play in earnest.

The day was a little overcast, the crowds were thin, and neither of the pair was all that devoted to capturing an audience. Tas was feeling playful, and sang snatches of words and she twirled about and flirted casually with the passers-by. As far as Vedran could tell, the song was about a lady who claimed to want to get married but seemed to have no real intentions in that regard. Instead, she strung along her various suitors, each from a profession or family more exciting and exotic than the last, for more and more elaborate and ridiculous gifts. He couldn't tell if it was a ballad of some kind, or if Tasafut was making it up as she went along. Their meagre audience seemed to like it, however, and one of the vendors who'd set up nearby that morning gave her a small melon just big enough to share.

"Is that how marriage works for you, Tas?" He asked as she sat down and passed him the fruit to slice open. "Men bring you gifts and you get to pick?"

Tasafut laughed at him lightly, wrinkling her nose. "No, don't be silly! If you're going to be a first wife, then usually the parents decide. Well really it is the mothers. The men like to think they have some say, but mostly, for marriage, they listen to their wives. There are gifts though. My sister was given a, well, a very nice horse," she said, her tone making clear that she was greatly simplifying the matter, "and three bolts of fine linen from Hazzaren."

He nodded, passing her a wedge of melon and selecting a smaller one to try for himself. "But you're not married yet? None of you?"

"Not yet! My mother might find a match for me this summer. Tinhinan is promised, though. Once she's initiated, then they'll have a ceremony. She didn't tell me what all they are giving her, but the warlocks are always very close with their secrets, even silly ones like that."

"She's a warlock!?"

"Not yet," she admonished casually, spitting a seed at a beetle crawling across one of the cobbles. "She still has to-" Tasafut paused, glancing at Vedran from the corner of her eye, "-make her pact. Agi has been making arrangements with some priests, and as soon as the riders come, she'll go with them. And when the tribes come, off she'll go to get married." She smiled at that, leaving him a moment to think it all through. "What about you, Vedran? How do half-elven Nerathi choose their wives?"

"Oh." He tried to smile back, but her eyes took on a cast of mild concern, and he knew he wasn't being very convincing. He mostly tried not to think about the future, as so much of it was uncertain, but he also had to be careful here what all he revealed about himself. "I guess my father will find someone for me to marry. That's not how it always is for everyone, but that's how it will be for me."

She smiled, nudging him in the ribs with her tail. "I'm sure there will be lots of pretty girls for you to pick from. You're handsome and sweet."

"Yeah..." He shrugged. Maybe if he manifested his dragonmark, looks and charm would be enough. It would be enough for Highmark, anyway – better a bastard with a dragonmark than one without. The uncertainty was killing him. "Did your sister marry her husband because he was handsome and sweet, or because he gave her some fancy cloth and a fancier horse?"

But Tasafut rolled her eyes, selecting another slice of melon. "But Vedran, we already know your family is very rich. I'm sure you could buy sufficient gifts for whatever lady you wanted, but it is your charm that will make her choose you." She poked him again. "Unless you are going to go out wooing looking so glum! Smiles become you better."

"I know," he gave another sigh. "Just... families are complicated."

"Ha!" She spat out another seed, and grinned at him. "Complicated? You'll only have one wife to worry about, how complicated could it be?"

"How does that all work, anyway?" He asked partly to steer the conversation away from himself, but he was honestly curious. There were orcs in Highmark, and he knew that their women took multiple husbands, and he thought some of the Nerathi nomadic groups might do something similar, but he didn't really understand how it worked. "I mean, wouldn't more wives just be more people to take care of?"

Tas laughed again. "The wives would take care of you! And each other. It is easier that way." She flicked the rind of her melon over to where some birds were fighting over a few crumbs, and watched as they fell to attacking it. When she continued, her tone was more serious. "Sometimes, when the wilds are at their worst, it's easier for the tribe to split up, and families will go off and take care of their own. More wives mean more lineages, so your family will survive better on its own."

"The lineages are connected to the wives? So you have to take wives from different ones?" That part seemed obvious, and she nodded, smiling her approval. "But how does the lineage matter for survival?"

"Skill in some things is passed through the blood – the mother's blood, that binds her to her children. Some magic is that way. Sometimes it isn't skill, but secret knowledge, like Tinhinan's lineage. To survive, a tribe needs lots of special skills and knowledge - fighters, hunters, warlocks and sorcerers, traders.... All of these are passed through the lineages."

The system she explained raised a lot more questions in his mind – wouldn't they need to have more women than men? And what if you just weren't any good at whatever your lineage was supposed to do? Could men and women learn special skills, and if so, why couldn't the men pass them on? But Tasafut's attention for in-depth conversations was not great, and it would probably be easier to understand if he asked Tinhinan. He did have one more pressing question though. "What happens to people who don't get married then?"

She shook her head, patting him on the shoulder. "People, you say! Well, I know who you mean. I think that my mother asked us all to come so that he would learn how nice it is to have wives to take care of him, so maybe he would try harder to find some. He could, I think." Her expression turned inscrutable for a moment. "If he wanted. But come on. Finish your melon – they'll be back soon, and we should try and look like we've been busy."

Vedran did what he was told, setting the last of the fruit aside and covering it so that it hopefully wouldn’t get swarmed with ants. He was only starting to realize just how much there was that he didn't understand. He didn't think he would ever get all his questions answered, but he wondered if he would ever work up the courage to ask Agizul about any of it directly.

Occasionally, during sex, Vedran would touch him in some way that would cause Agizul to feel his something in his missing leg. It wasn't a bad feeling, not like the first few weeks when he thought the burning would never stop, when he would wake up delirious in the healer's tents asking if they'd done it yet, begging them to take his leg (already long gone), or his life (a close call, he knew), do anything to make it stop. The feeling was distracting, like an itch he couldn't scratch, and the memories it dredged up were painful. He usually dealt with it by drawing Vedran's hands up to his cock, or by pushing him back and offering instead the pleasure he could give with his mouth and tongue.

Usually this was sufficient, but this afternoon they had already spent themselves and lay curled together in the aftermath of their coupling. Vedran was curled up to his chest and had been lazily stroking his exposed skin, trailing fingers down his chest and stomach, over his hip, and down along the scars on his leg. The burning sensation in the phantom limb was distracting him from the fleeting contentment he found in those quiet moments, when he could usually set aside the past and forget about the future. For now, he reached down to capture Vedran's small hand in his own, pulling him closer.

Vedran looked up at him, blue eyes shining, curious and concerned – eager to please. There were moments like this when Agizul's affection turned fiercely possessive, and he just wanted to keep Vedran close forever. They caught him off-guard, and had birthed numerous improbable fantasies where he carried Vedran off with him and they made a happy life together out on the plains. The deep wrongness of his desires distressed him enough to keep from making any serious plans – Vedran was painfully young, and he belonged to other people and another world. In any case, the things Agizul wanted from the youth were as incomprehensible as they were unattainable. He pushed himself up abruptly, trying to shake away the encroaching melancholy along with the persistent discomfort in the leg he no longer had.

"Are you okay?" Vedran sat up too. "Did I do something wrong?"

Agizul shook his head, shifting his tail and pulling Vedran into his lap to quiet him. The burning was only getting worse, turning into a fierce cramping that he couldn't do anything about. Tucking Vedran against him, he reached down to rub his stump, digging into it with his fingers. Sometimes the real pain was enough to sort out the sensations.

"Is it your leg?" Vedran squirmed free of his grip, kneeling beside him on the rug. "I can do that – why don't you turn over?"

He could have argued, but maybe it would help even if Vedran didn't always really know what he was doing. He lied down, crossing his arms to cradle his head and flicking his tail out of the way. Vedran settled himself on a pillow and rubbed his hands together to warm them before placing them on Agizul's thigh. He must have grabbed some of the lubricant oil, because his hands were slick, sliding easily over his skin. Agizul tried to imagine that Vedran's hands passed lower, that his massage was focused on the cramping in his missing calf. After a while Vedran switched to the other leg, and that felt even better. It was somehow easier to imagine transposing the feeling from calf to calf and to imagine letting go of that tension.

"Is that helping any?"


"Do you want me to keep going?"

"If you like." Vedran's skill at massage had improved considerably, but it was never something Agizul would ask him to do. It was slave work – Agizul might call him farjhan, but he didn't want a slave. And in any case, Vedran mostly used it as an excuse to initiate sex. Even now, when they were both spent, Vedran's hands were working up higher on his ass, but he paused his work to stroke some of the scars that reached higher up Agizul's thigh.

"Agi? Can I ask how you lost it? I know it was during the war, but you must have been so young..."

Agizul grunted, considering. Vedran, who could be surprisingly patient at times, kept quiet while he thought, though he switched from a proper massage to a more superficial rubbing along his legs and tail. One of the reasons he wore the covering robe Lunja had bought him in the city was because he didn't like to explain. Even so many years later, the memories and feelings the story brought up felt fresh, and they were already pressing close in his mind. That it was Vedran asking just complicated the issue.

It hadn't been his first patrol, but it was the first where they'd come across any enemies. He'd been sent with the scouting party to help his uncle navigate a safe route through the shifting grasses when they'd spied the signs of a small encampment – scouts themselves, or maybe a band of Nerathi adventurers. Amalu, their leader, decided they would ride through and burn the camp, destroying the invaders' supplies and killing any they could.

Agizul had been eager for his chance to live up to the stories still told of his father's prowess as a warrior. His swords had been sharp and ready, and he'd hoped for a chance to draw them, and spill his first war blood. They'd opened the engagement with a hail of arrows though, raining fire onto the Nerathi tents and some scoring hits on the enemy's riding drakes. The enemy had rallied quickly to try and put together some kind of defense, and it was clear they weren't just random soldiers. The idea of facing real adventurers had his heart pounding, even if they hadn't planned to stand and fight.

Agizul had always had a clear memory – it helped him learn the stars to navigate by, the positions of the sun shifting through the sky in different seasons, the signs to use when making a path through the shifting lands to find your way back to stability. He remembered the taste of the air – summer dust tinged with smoke, fragrant grasses crushed under their horses' hooves, the stench of the Nerathi drake. The wind had carried something unfamiliar as well, and he'd wondered if the enemy had their own mages with them. The morning sun promised a hot day, and they cut through heavy air as they changed forward. He'd tried to make his shouts sound lower as he yelled along with the others – to sound less young, and more like a real warrior.

Their second volley had struck enemy targets, but things were moving too fast to know whose arrows had flown true. He strapped his bow to his saddle, drawing one of his swords as they closed – the one his mother had given him. The Nerathi had their own weapons drawn now, some he didn't recognize. Amalu was charging for their leader, his dark hair streaming out behind him, so confident in his saddle that he seemed part of his horse. His uncle pressed close behind, bow still in hand, concentrating his fire on a hulking armored hairy brute wielding a huge mace. He trailed behind the other warriors, gripping his sword so tightly that he could feel the leather bindings on the hilt biting in to his palms. His horse had been trained not to fear fire, but he could feel its nervousness, smell its sweat.

At this distance, Agizul couldn't sort out whether the terror he remembered was something he had felt, or if it was a later projection into his memory. He'd guided his horse to bear down on one of the Nerathi, a short round man in a dusty green robe wielding a staff that seemed impossibly tall for him. His heart was beating furiously hard, a cold chill spreading from his spine through his gut. The man's eyes went wide and white as he'd raised his sword and he could hear glass breaking his battle yell turn to screams his horse rearing tightening his hand in the mare's mane his gut churning and his leg his leg burning burning sharp not soft like flame and everywhere else cold and sharp burning pain sharp smell of acid of melted flesh and hair

Vedran's constant touch, slim fingers resting lightly on the skin of his back, kept him from falling completely into the memory. The fierceness of it shook off the phantom sensations, and he forced himself to open his eyes, to see the shaded pattern of the rug where he lay - not pressed against the neck of his dying horse, not prone in the sand, not on a pallet in a hospital tent.


He wasn't sure if it was the first time Vedran had called him. He raised his head, taking in the view of the tent around him.

"Are you okay? I'm sorry..." Vedran was moving now, pulling Agizul's head into his lap, brushing fingers through his hair as Agizul rolled over. Looking up into those deep blue eyes he felt the weight of all the unbearable loss of the past and future holding him down. He couldn't bring Vedran any closer than he already had with touches, but he knew words could to the same. They weren't his strength, not like Tasafut, or Vedran himself, but Agizul would do anything to keep him as close as he could for as long as possible. He reached up to cradle Vedran's head in his hand, running his thumb over his lips to quiet his apology and let him know he was okay.

"I don’t like to think about it," he said finally. "I remember it too well, too close."

"You don't have to say – I'm sorry, I just... I didn't mean to make you upset-"

Agizul cut him off with another shake of his head. "Hush, my farjhan, and listen." When Vedran had settled, he continued. "It was my thirteenth summer. I went with my uncle as a guide for a raiding band. We found a small camp, and we attacked them with fire. We rode against them, and one of them hit me with acid. My horse panicked and carried me away. Our healers couldn't save my leg."

He could almost feel Vedran's effort to hold back further questions. "I'm sorry," he said instead, giving the words a whole new character than they'd held moments ago.

Agizul snorted softly. It wouldn’t matter soon how close they were, or how whole, or how sorry. "Change is in the wind."

Merlyn sat with Vedran on top of the city wall, watching the riders. The tiefling encampment had sprung up quickly, and he knew it would disappear just as fast in the next day or so.

"Are you going to go and look around?"

Vedran shook his head, looking glum. His cousin had been quiet since he'd come back from the markets that morning – he'd been gone since the previous afternoon. Clearly the farewells had been difficult, and maybe he was reluctant to aggravate fresh wounds.

"Are you trying to pick him out?"

"He was supposed to get a new horse, trained just for him. With a special saddle. I helped him get the money..."

Merlyn inched closer, lifting his arm so his cousin could lean against him. Vedran accepted, sniffing quietly. The main corral of horses was on the other side of the tent city, but mounted riders were visible winding their ways through all parts of the encampment. None of the handful he could see looked to be Agizul, or even seemed familiar at all. "I've got some wine in my pack if you want to stay up here a while, but all the harder stuff is back at the temple."

"Wine isn't going to make things any better."

"Nope," he agreed. When he opened the bottle and passed it to his cousin, he drank anyway.

"Just... I don't understand. He said that I'd made him happy, and that he was glad he'd had that. Like he wouldn't ever have it again. I don't want that. I don't want him to go away if I have to know he'll be unhappy. And... there's all these things I never told him, and now I just feel like... I don't know. Like I tricked him?" Vedran took another drink, and Merlyn kept quiet to give him time to say what he needed to get out. "And I know, he couldn't stay here, or if he did, it wouldn't be any better, not really, and it's just – it's not fair."

There were things he could have said; about freedom and culture, about sexuality or physical ability, or even choice. Instead Merlyn gave his cousin another hug. "It isn't fair," he agreed, "but if Agizul was happy with you, Ved, that's a good thing. And even if he thinks that you were his only shot at happiness... That doesn't make it true."

Vedran nodded but stayed quiet, watching the tieflings outside the city with a mix of hopeful longing and resigned disappointment and fiddling occasionally with a braided leather bracelet Merlyn hadn't seen before. They made it through most of the wine before Merlyn caught sight of Agizul and could point him out. He wasn't wearing his robe, but was dressed in leathers like the others and was only easy to pick out because of his size. They watched him for a while as he worked through some riding exercises with another tiefling, but Vedran wanted to leave before the pair returned to the corral.

"I can see how much more comfortable he is that way – riding," he said quietly as he turned away. "I want to remember that, not about how things are still hard for him, and awkward. If I can think about how he belongs there, maybe things will seem okay."

Merlyn had his own reasons for visiting the little market the nomads had set up the next morning. News travelled with trade and there were things he needed to know to make his own summer plans. His excuse was certainly legitimate, but his natural curiosity about new cultural groups was enhanced in this case by his contact with the quartet who'd wintered in the city. There were stalls selling elaborately worked leather goods, dried rations and travel food, mats and basketry woven from plains grasses, and a host of more exotic materials like woven tapestries and brightly coloured printed cloth that the tieflings must have bartered for with other Ahkasic groups. A few booths sold magical reagents and potions, and he suspected that an interested and knowledgeable buyer might even be able to track down some scrolls or enchanted items if they knew how to ask.

Horses were also for sale, but their prices were exorbitant. The animals weren't native to Ahkas, and from the way the merchant he'd asked went on, Merlyn wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the tribes could trace their stock all the way back to the exodus from Bael Turath. The cheapest horses were at least twice the price of any of the two dozen slaves the tieflings had brought to sell. Even apart from the price differences, it was easy to see which they valued more highly by the care each group was shown. A tall pale-skinned woman with flashing silver eyes chased him off when he tried to address a captured genasi – no one would ever mistake him for an interested buyer.

He whispered a prayer to Avandra that the captives might find opportunities for freedom, and turned his attention back to the sellers of material wares. Apart from the artisans, most of the merchants were men, occasionally assisted by younger girls. Some of them were clearly veterans – those who weren't marked by physical scars had a hardened look to them that Merlyn recognized from previous experience. From what he'd gathered through Vedran, none of the tieflings were likely to be very foreigner friendly. Eventually he decided to approach an older man selling tea and other dried goods.

Before he'd crossed the little alley, a familiar voice distracted him – Lunja.

"I am sick of this place," she was saying. He spotted her lounging outside a leather worker's stall talking to someone he could only guess was a male relative based on his appearance. He had the same light pink skin, same pale gold eyes, and horns that curled to the side in a similar way, but his hair was a medium brown peppered with grey. "If I never see the inside of another city, I would be very pleased."

She looked up then, glaring as she noticed him. The man followed her gaze and frowned as she stood suddenly, striding towards him. Merlyn straightened a little, but smiled despite her scowl.

"Morning - It's Lunja, right?"

"What are you doing here, priest. Haven't you troubled my family enough?"

"I'm Merlyn," he offered, smiling still. "I was just here for news and trade – mostly to learn what the rains were like in the southern plains this spring."

"They were wet," she snapped, "and you're not welcome here." Behind her, the other tiefling was regarding Merlyn with a thoughtful look, hand on his chin. He shook his head.

Merlyn considered. "I'm sorry, then," he offered. "Although I'm not sure what I've done to make you so angry."

She snorted, looming forward. The man behind made a quiet clucking sound, and she deflated, glancing back at him. When she looked back to Merlyn, her defiant glare was somewhat more restrained. "I'm sure you don't," she said, quietly enough that only he could hear her over the sounds of the market. "Not any more than Vedran does – how much harder he's made things for my brother. How do you think he will fare, if I'm the only one he has to look after him? My mother can only do so much. And you – this is all because of you, and your stupid games with slaves. You Nerathi – you think of yourselves too much. We're not like that here. We care for our families."

The most honest refutation to her accusation could only make things worse. Vedran hadn't told the tieflings they were related, and nothing good would come of telling them now. "I understand family," he said instead. "I respect that you care for your brother – I can see how much you've sacrificed for him, and I'm sorry if this has hurt you. I'm sure no one wanted that." He offered her a hand – she glared at it suspiciously, but he could see the pain her anger masked now. "But don't you think he deserved a chance to be happy, even if it was only for a little while? He knew that – they both did."

"He could be happy!" Her voice raised briefly as she snapped at him. "If he would take wives. They would care for him. He's still strong - they would respect him, and he would want for nothing!"

"Do you really believe that?" He lowered his hand. She balled her fists. "It's okay to wish things were easier, Lunja. But it could be – if you would help him find his own way." And if Vedran had helped him understand himself, his desires, better, then maybe he would at least know what direction take.

Lunja turned and stalked away. She was still too hurt and angry, but he hoped his words might sink in in time. "Safe travels," he wished her departing figure, and considered how lucky he had been to catch her at all.

Vedran had been up too late the night before with friends of his cousin's from out of town. They'd brought liquor and hours of fascinating stories, and they'd all stayed up until an unreasonably early hour. He'd woken up after a couple of hours feeling wretched, and even Merlyn had seemed a little rough around the edges for morning prayers. His cousin, though, had been able to drag himself back to bed after that. Vedran had a standing obligation to pay off his debt to the tiefling nomads who were camped out in the city, and a standing interest in the group's only male member, so to speak. He wasn't sure if Agizul returned his interest or not, but he was sure that despite his token efforts, he was doing a terrible job at hiding his own. The girls, at least, had surely noticed.

When Vedran finally managed to drag himself down to the markets, Agizul snorted at him. "Go sleep until you're useful. You can stay later instead."

"Sleep where?" He hadn't been allowed back further into the rear divisions of the tent since their first encounter – it was private space for the family. But Agi jerked his head that direction. Vaguely recalling plush carpeting and a scattering of pillows, Vedran went where he was directed. It didn't take him long to get reasonably comfortable and pass out.

He wasn't alone when he woke up – Agizul was seated not far away. He seemed to be working on something, or at least had something in his hands to work on, and was intently focused on it by the time Vedran forced his eyes open. He could hear the girls beyond the curtain separating the living quarters from the business area; once he realized it wasn't just the residual effects of his hangover he was surprised at how well the thick fabric muffled sound.

"Are you feeling better?" Agi didn't look up from what he was doing, but Vedran was pretty sure he was just playing at being casual. He'd caught the tiefling watching him before, and it always made his heart race – Agizul was handsome, and mysterious, and fascinating, but he had no real idea what the other man might feel about him. Had Agi been watching him sleep?

"A little," he answered. He still felt groggy, but the pounding in his head was more manageable and his stomach was no longer threatening to revolt. "I feel like I could sleep forever."

"I had heard that Nerathi can't hold their liquor," Agi said, still without looking up. "I shouldn't be surprised to see it is true."

Vedran was pretty sure he was teasing, and that his concerted concentration was to keep from smiling. "It was a lot of liquor." He shuffled closer, his heart beating a little faster. "What are you working on?"

Agi shrugged, lifting up a length of partially braided leather. Vedran had seen the girls working on similar pieces before. They sold them to people in the market for a few coppers or, more frequently, used them to distract a potential mark while they relieved him of more valuable coin. This one was actually more elaborate than the ones he'd seen the girls making, using several different coloured strands.

"That's really nice. Can I see it?"

Agizul hesitated, his expression guarded, before he offered the braid to Vedran. Vedran scrambled over even closer to take it from him.

It was five strips of black and red leather braided into a flat band about half a foot long, with unfinished ends of about the same length. He played around with the strands for a minute, but couldn't quite figure out the pattern – too distracted by sitting so close to Agizul. The excitement of even being this intimate was enough to get him embarrassingly hard, and it was difficult to think about anything other than climbing in to his lap to finally find out if he felt the same. "What's it for?" Vedran looked up to find Agi looking down at him, his expression anxious.

" new horse." Agi was uncharacteristically nervous, and when Vedran offered him the braid back, he didn't look away. His fingers brushed against Vedran's as he reclaimed it, and Vedran could hear the hitch in his breath. It was too perfect a chance to pass up. Headache forgotten, he wrapped his hand around Agi's and straightened so that he could reach Agi's lips with his own...

Agi's eyes widened as Vedran kissed him, but he didn't pull away. His skin was warm, and he smelled like sweat and dust and leather. Vedran ran his tongue along his lips until they parted, and Agizul allowed himself to be tasted. For a moment, Agi licked back, but he broke off quickly, breathing heavily.

"Vedran..." The word was half warning, half plea.

"It’s okay." Now Vedran did climb into his lap, straddling his thigh as he moved in for another kiss. His erection pressed against Agi's stomach and Vedran could feel a thick stiffness pressing against his own leg. Agizul submitted to his kisses, responding uncertainly. When Vedran ran a hand over his cock, feeling out its length, Agi barely contained a loud moan, swallowing it into a grunt. He reached for Vedran's hand, covering it with his own, but when Vedran stroked him again, he didn't try and stop him. "It's okay," Vedran repeated, gathering up Agi's robe in his free hand so that he could reach beneath. "You've never done this before?"

Agi, speechless and overwhelmed, just shook his head. His skin felt even warmer than before, and fresh sweat beaded at his temples.

Vedran smiled eagerly, grinding his hips against the other man. "But you want it?" He pulled Agi's robe up over his hips, revealing the short pants he wore underneath. The inseams were reinforced with leather, and the right side had been shortened and sewn up to cover his stump.

"Yes," he answered, half sigh, half sob, inhaling sharply as Vedran reached a hand beneath his clothing, taking out his cock and pushing back his foreskin. He was thick enough that Vedran couldn't close his fist around it, but he did his best, stoking him evenly and running a thumb across his head. It only took a few good strokes before Agi grunted again, his body tensing and his cock spasming, spraying come all over Vedran's hand and spattering the fabric of his robe where it was bunched up around his waist. Vedran did his best to clean it up, licking his hand, while Agi recovered. "I shouldn't," he sputtered when he could breathe again, but Vedran kissed him quiet.

"I want it too," he said, grinding his still-hard cock against Agi's thigh. "Will you touch me? Please?"

Agi nodded after a conflicted moment, letting Vedran guide him, to pull his cock out of his pants, and stroke carefully. Vedran gave in to his own impatience, thrusting up into Agi's hand, greater experience helping him more easily bite back his own moans. He gave a quiet cry of warning before he came, catching most of his own come and cleaning it in the same way when Agi balked at the offer to reciprocate. He watched with fascination as Vedran licked his fingers clean, sucking them deliberately, and allowed Vedran to kiss him deeply when he was through.

Still, he pulled back, wrapping his tail around Vedran at the same time to keep him close. After a moment of just looking into Vedran's eyes, still breathless, he reached up to cradle Vedran's face. "I don't understand this."

"It's okay," Vedran reassured him again, resting his hand on top of Agizul's. "We have a little time to figure it out."