“The Unseelie are free, the Seelie are proud, the Dragons are wise, the Humans are inventive. But the Merrow, oh the Merrow love with their whole souls. They love the sea, and only their mates do they love more than the water.” ~ Abran, Librarian of Fumasivia.
The boy was beautiful and exotic. Kutanga had spied him in the market that morning as his master led them around the stalls, handing him packages. Kutanga hadn’t paid any heed to what the old man purchased as he usually did; on a normal day he watched with rapt attention, hoping to gather every grain of knowledge for the day he ran a shop of his own. Or so was the plan. But today the aquamarine eyes that reminded him of the sea had all his attention.
The boy flitted between the rich merchants, his hands deft. It took Kutanga a long moment to understand what he was doing. If asked he would’ve blamed his gaze being on the unusually coloured eyes and the hair that fascinated him. But he had never witnessed a pickpocket in action before today and he was a sheltered child, though he’d bluff otherwise.
The teen moved with grace, almost catlike. His eyes were a deeper shade of blue-green, like the deep water the fishers ventured out into. His short spiked hair reminded Kutanga of the water when little waves rumbled through the reef, lightening it with foam. Kutanga had an itching desire to go speak to him but he knew that would be frowned upon. A glance at his masters robe covered back, turned to speak to a fat merchant, tempted him but he satisfied himself with just watching.
At times the figure disappeared between merchants and once he darted into an alley between the bakers and the candlestick maker. Kutanga had searched for the source of his panic. A moment later pair of men of the town guard passed through, sparing only Kutanga’s master a glance, the old man nodding in greeting. Everyone knew Vekare, everyone who liked sweets anyway. No one noticed Kutanga in his shadow.
The object of his fascination returned to his work when they left and Kutanga noted the pleasant way his body reacted to the flash of tanned skin when the tunic pulled up as the lithe pickpocket snatched a gold chain off a stall and then darted out of sight of the merchant distracted with a sale. The boy was pale compared to his own skin, pleasantly alien. He reminded him of a rare animal, captured but ready to flit away at the first chance.
Kutanga didn’t stop to wonder why he was so fascinated. The hormones didn’t need that question answered to do their work.
“Tanga. Did you hear me?” His master glanced at him with raised eyebrows; his apprentice was always attentive and interested. He couldn’t fathom what had the boy in another world inside his own head.
Blinking, the Unseelie teenager glanced at his master. He blushed now for a different reason. “Sorry.” He scuffed his bare feet together, glancing at the parcel his master held half extended to him. He quickly grabbed it and added it to the bag he carried. “I was distracted.”
“So I gathered. I asked if you would like a pastry?”
“Oh. Yes please.”
Smiling in his likeable way, the old man dropped two copper coins into the hand of the merchant and handed one of the two flakey pastries to Kutanga.
“Thank you Sir.” Kutanga smiled, accepting the pastry, the back of his mind still wondering about that boy.
The old Elf waved off his thanks with a smile, biting into the treat. Getting flakes of golden-brown pastry in his beard. “I swear sweets taste better when you don’t have to make them yourself.” He laughed, slapping his prodigious belly. “Not that it ever stopped me eating my own.”
Kutanga chuckled at his masters attempt at levity. “Mother will be putting you on a diet if you’re not careful.”
“So, what has you distracted? Something catch your eye?” Vekare wiped crumbs from the front of his robes and licked sticky filling off his fingers. “Or someone . . . .”
The younger Unseelie frowned at that insight.
“Someone it is. A pretty lass? Who could be more beautiful than me, though?” Vekare wiggled his eyebrows.
Kutanga blinked, taken aback, and then giggled. “No one is prettier in a dress than you.” He teased, poking his master. “A bright pink one, like that thing Lady Vloss wears when she visits.”
“I’d drown in such a thing, thank you very much! I haven’t eaten that many sweets yet.”
“I’ll give it a day or two then.” Laughing, the pair moved on from the stall.
Kutanga wiped his fingers on his breeches, suddenly serious. “Not a girl, though. A boy.”
Vekare shrugged. “Well, good for you. Not that I didn’t suspect . . .”
“What!” He let out a yelp, making people look, but they turned away when they saw nothing worth gossip. Satisfied they were unobserved again, Kutanga blushed. “What made you suspect?”
“You nearly fell over yourself trying to ‘help’ Naka Fuma around the shop.”
“I was only trying to improve my customer service.”
“He’s going to be a heartbreaker when he matures. Nothing wrong with seeing that.” Vekare rested a hand on Kutanga’s shoulder. “I don’t really need to say this, it is not like a man liking a man is forbidden among Unseelie. But I support you. Have you told your parents?”
“No . . . .” Kutanga fidgeted with the handle of the bag, and then let out a sigh.
“I was worried they’d disapproved. Mother is always talking about wanting grandchildren.”
Vekare shrugged. “She’ll be fine. If she is anything as observant as I give her credit for, she already knows.”
“Oh.” Kutanga didn’t know what to say to that. He thought he’d been subtle. He’d never been with anyone, and he didn’t even flirt.
“It is your coming of age next month anyway, Tanga. You don’t need anyone’s permission for liking or even loving whoever you want. You know the First Law.”
“Live life as you want, not as others want.” He dutifully repeated, nodding when he took a moment to think about it. “I guess I get that.”
“Xewkan will bless whoever you love. If you need guidance, you can always come to me, you know. Or your parents, or even a Priest of Xekwan will give you guidance. They can be surprisingly wise.”
The white clad priests of the Divine of Love always intimidated him. He definitely wouldn’t be doing that. But he felt warm inside at the assurance his master was there to ask questions of.
“Now, lets find us some spices for the new buns I want to bake. This recipe from Gite is said to be incredibly warming, and I think they’ll sell well in winter.”
# # #
The boy was at the market the next day when Kutanga went to pick up a bag of apples for the second version of the new buns his master was trying to perfect. The theory being that the sweetness would go well with the warm spices. Kutanga sometimes wondered how his master came up with ideas that sounded so silly on the surface, but turned out wonderful almost always.
This latest idea was expensive; apples were a rare delicacy, and Kutanga was fascinated with the hard green and red fruits. But he knew his master was only successful because he never cut corners.
He hefted the apples onto his shoulder, done easily with muscles lean from days of carting things to and fro for his master. When he turned, the object of his fascination from the day before was right next to him. He froze. The other boy also froze, Kutanga’s coin purse in his hand.
“How . . . .” Kutanga trailed off, amazed at the grace with which the boy had freed his little leather sack of coins from his belt. “Nevermind. I’m Kutanga.” He tried his best dazzling smile. His heart beat like a drum under muscle and sinew, betraying his calm smiling facade.
The smile seemed to unnerve the other boy and he slid the coin purse into a pocket and took a step back without speaking, eyes darting across Kutanga’s face. An uncertain look passed over his features.
Enthused by being this close to the beautiful aquamarine eyes, Kutanga didn’t even worry about the coins for a moment. The boy must pickpocket for a reason, after all. You didn’t choose such a life style. He studied the pale ice-white skin and the deep sea eyes with fascination.
No one spoke for a moment and then finally the boy took another step back. He pivoted on the spot and disappeared into the crowd without a sound.
Kutanga had a skip in his step as he returned to his master's shop, the apples light as a feather. He couldn’t stop thinking about the strange, alien boy. He’d actually seen him, face to face. There was hope to find out more. So close to the pale boy, he noticed not only the beautiful eyes but the dirt smudged skin and the worn clothes hanging on a undernourished body.
He felt sorry for the nameless boy and once he’d helped his master with the apples - coring and peeling them, then chopping them and letting his master show him how to mix them with sugar and slowly stew them, he disappeared to his room to plot his next meeting with his strange fascination.
Kutanga didn’t mention being robbed to Vekare; his few coins were nothing in the face of infatuation. And his master would be outraged. Sometimes the old Elf could be overprotective but Tanga reminded himself he should be thankful. His apprenticeship with Vekare was a dream come true. Few other shopkeepers were as successful, or as kind to their apprentices. Every day he learned something new and exciting. Like how to paint the pastry from the West with butter and layer it to make crunchy, flakey tarts. The thought of the berry filled ones made his stomach growl.
Kutanga ignored his stomach and crossed his legs underneath his body. He stared at the plank wall and imagined possibilities. He could set a trap, perhaps. A sack of coins easily visible? But anyone could steal them. The fascinating boy wasn’t the only thief in town. Not put off by that idea, he determined to keep thinking. As he thought, Kutanga idly studied the veins on his hands, tracing them with his eyes, his mind busier than his actions suggested.
“Are you okay in there Tanga?”
The voice of Vekare roused him hours later, and surprised, it took him a moment to respond. “Uh . . . yes, thanks.”
“Thinking of your someone eh? I was a teenager once. Just make sure you clean up afterwards.” Vekare chuckled from the other side of the door, his voice trailing as he walked off.
Face burning, Kutanga was left voiceless. He wouldn’t admit out loud he’d considered that but he was a teenager. Of course he had. But for his master to just say it out loud! It was impossible to imagine the jolly old Unseelie was once someone his own age with similar desires.
Kutanga glanced out the window and frowned at the position of the sun. Half the day was gone because he had become so enveloped in silly fantasies. He had plotted how to approach the boy and puzzled over if the stranger might like him back. Unseelie he could judge - they were rarely subtle in expressing their desires - but the pale teenager would be a challenge.
Feeling like his cheeks wouldn’t stop burning, he buried his face into his pillow with a grunt, no closer to an idea than when he began.
# # #
For a week he didn’t see the strange boy at the markets. Kutanga worried at first he’d been caught by the guards so he’d checked the board outside the prison. No arrests fitting the strange boy were posted, and he was so exotic he was sure it’d be the gossip of the town. He fretted about it, too much for someone he’d didn’t even know the name of. But something about the boy had captured his heart instantly.
When he saw him next a large bruise discoloured the porcelain of his face, angry and purple. Kutanga frowned at the sight of it but he looked politely away a moment later. He didn’t want the boy to think he was gawking, even across the market square with so many people dividing them. Instead, Tanga focussed on his master purchasing a new spice that had come into the port. He keyed his ears to their haggling.
“Very rare, Sir. You won’t find it anywhere else.”
“I certainly won’t find it so overpriced elsewhere.”
“But you can’t compare the quality! You get what you pay for.”
“Don’t kid me, Herld. You probably paid some poor sap a sixth of what you’re asking for it.”
“You’re a hard man, Vekare. I can give you it at ten percent less.”
“Humpf. I’ll just go without for that extortion.”
Kutanga almost jumped out of his skin when another voice, much closer, broke his concentration. He wondered for a second if that was how breaking your neck felt, the whiplash a product of the speed at which he moved his gaze from the spice merchant's stall to the source of the voice. He focused on the aquamarine eyes. “Oh. Hello.”
“Thank you.” The strange boy smiled slightly, his face obscured by looking down at the dusty ground.
“I don’t know why you didn’t call the guards, but thank you.”
“You looked like you needed it more than me.” Kutanga shrugged. It made perfect sense to him.
The boy didn’t answer; instead he wrung his hands and stepped back, body tense. Ready to spring away.
“What is your name? I’m Kutanga.”
The boy paused, surprise playing across his features, the sea coloured eyes widening. “I am Lihai.”
“Do you live around here?” Kutanga searched his mind desperately for what to say, fearful the boy would dart away again; he saw it in the way his muscles coiled and his eyes darted, constantly watching everything.
“I, well, kind of do.”
“Do you want to go somewhere? You look like you need a friend. If I can help.”
Again, surprise warred with wariness on Lihai’s face. “I’d umm like that.”
Kutanga held tight on the cork that threatened to release the delight that sprung up inside him. “I know a cool secret place, if you want to go there . . . . .”
“I don’t really know anywhere, so I guess that’d be ok.”
Kutanga grinned and spun on his heel. “Sir, can I have the afternoon off?”
Vekare turned, giving a raised eyebrow at the presence of the other boy. But he was an astute man for someone whose childhood had been centuries ago and he smiled. “Okay. But be back by dark fall.”
“Thank you Sir.” Kutanga gave Vekare a brief hug and then turned on his heel again, grabbing Lihai’s arm. “Follow me!”
He led his silent new friend out of the market and down an alleyway and then out a small gate in the town’s simple wooden wall. “So, I’m Kutanga, like I said. I’m an apprentice baker.” He smiled at Lihai encouragingly.
“Lihai. I kinda, live?”
“Oh. Well, living is good.” The response struck Kutanga as odd, but kept the pace brisk, making their way over a track beaten by many sets of feet over the ages. The seaside town disappeared behind them as the track wound down the side of the cliff. “How long have you lived here?”
“A month or two. I didn’t pay attention much. It is just a place.”
“I love it. The market is so colourful. The seabreeze is wonderful. Master Vekare is wonderful.”
“You like that word.”
“I guess. It is a really useful word.” Kutanga just smiled and tentatively Lihai smiled back.
“How long have you lived here?”
“All my life. Which will be 18 years next month. Young, for an Unseelie I know . . . Technically an adult, but we don’t finish growing till we’re nearly 30.” He shrugged, glancing over the edge of the path to judge how far they had to go.
“Oh. I guessed you were Unseelie. Everyone here seems to be one.”
“Well, you are in the heart of the Unseelie lands. What are you?”
“No you’re not. Wrong ears.” Kutanga gestured at his own delicately pointed ears. “Yours don’t point like mine.”
“Oh. I should’ve thought that through more.” Lihai looked anywhere but at Tanga, red colouring his cheeks.
Kutanga decided Lihai was cute when he blushed. “No worries. I won’t press if you don’t want to tell me.” He shrugged and stepped off the path onto the soft sand. They’d reached the base of the cliff and a little cove spread out in front of them. Crescent shaped, with soft sparkling shallows and white sand that pressed up against crumbly sandstone cliffs.
Lihai gasped. “It is beautiful.”
“Isn’t it?” Proud of showing his hidden place, the Unseelie boy spun around in the sand, kicking it up with his heels. “Not many people come here.”
Lihai laughed at the other boys antics, stepping onto the sand as well. He leaned down to pick up a handful, letting it run between his fingers. The purity of it made his skin look pink, not white.
Flopping onto the sand by the water's edge, Kutanga patted a spot next to himself and looked up at the sky. It was cloudless and blue.
Lihai tentatively sat next to the Unseelie, a little smile on his face.
“So, how old are you?”
“18, last week.”
“Happy birth day!” Kutanga propped himself up on his elbows, grinning.
“It isn’t really important.”
“It is to me. I should’ve got you a cake. Master Vekare makes the best cakes.”
“Oh.” Lihai frowned like that statement was confusing to him.
“What happened to your face?” Kutanga raised a hand, his charcoal black skin looking even darker as he gently traced the edge of the ugly blotch on his new friends face.
Lihai pulled his head away from Tanga’s touch. “It’s hideous, isn’t it?”
“You could never be hideous.” Tanga blushed as soon as he had said it, looking away as well.
Silence stretched between them for a moment, one that felt like it threatened to become an eternity. And then Lihai broke it. “Thank you, that is kind of you to say, even if it isn’t true.”
“It is true. And I don’t want to hear otherwise.” Smiling, Kutanga sat up. “Do you want to swim?”
Lihai glanced at the Unseelie in confusion. “Does your energy ever run out?”
“No.” Shucking his thin cotton tunic, Kutanga exposed a lean torso earned from hard work. His shorts joined the tunic on the sands, and he jumped up and ran into the softly lapping waves. The water broke against him as he dived into the deeper part a few metres out.
Lihai watched with mute horror until the Unseelie broke the water again, spluttering and laughing. “You’re crazy.” He shook his head, secretly relieved; his heart had sunk for those seconds that Tanga didn’t surface.
“Come in!” Kutanga called out with a wide, infectious grin on his face.
“I don’t swim.”
“Everyone swims.” Kutanga settled his feet on the sandy base of the cove, the water lapping at his shoulders. “Look, I can even stand up.”
Lihai sighed and slowly stood up. He glanced at Kutanga with another, deeper sigh. And then he pulled his tunic over his head and shucked his shorts, before following Kutanga into the water.
Kutanga didn’t hide his gaze as he watched Lihai strip, noting the exposed ribs and the faded bruises that were almost invisible with age. His heart ached for his new friend, and he resolved then to make today memorable for him.
Lihai slid into the water more sedately than the Unseelie had, settling his feet onto the sand and wading out, letting the water slowly lap its way up his body. But his plan was fooled as grinning, Kutanga heaved his arms and sent a wave splashing onto his mysterious friend.
Sputtering, Lihai glared at Kutanga playfully and quickly splashed him back with a whack of his hands into the water.
Kutanga shook water out of his short brown hair, the locks dripping down over his face. The grin didn’t leave his face as he leaped forward and tackled Lihai, tugging him under the water. They both surfaced a moment later gasping, hair slick to their heads, and laughing like madmen.
An hour later they both pulled their wet bodies out of the cooling sea and flopped onto said, getting it all over them as they simply laid there, letting the warm sun beat down on their naked bodies.
“What for this time?” Kutanga smiled, propping himself on his elbows to look at Lihai, purposefully avoiding looking lower than his chest. He didn’t need more to fantasise about at night. He was already trying to avoid that.
“For being a friend.”
Exactly why he was avoiding that. “Of course.”
“Hey, let me show you a trick.” Smiling the brightest he had all day, Lihai ran his fingers through his hair.
Kutanga watched with widened eyes as the beautiful sea-foam coloured locks changed in front of his eyes, to a vivid orange like a burning flame. “Wow!” He leaned closer, needing to convince himself it was real. He reached out a hand and gently touched the closest cowlick. “A . . . you’re a changeling!”
“Yeah.” Lihai looked downcast.
“That’s so awesome!”
Kutanga’s new friend lost his sad frown. A smile tried to break free but was denied and instead a suspicious glare won the battle. “Really?”
“But why do you not blend in? Wouldn’t looking like . . . this . . .” he gestured to the teen’s wet body “. . . be suspicious?”
“I got sick of lying. This is what I want to look like.” Lihai sighed and slumped against the sand. The sun suddenly felt a lot less welcoming..
“That’s cool.” Kutanga shrugged. “No judgement from me.”
Lihai looked surprised again but he just smiled this time. He was finding Kutanga surprised him a lot.
The Unseelie smiled, pulling his hand back from his friends newly coloured hair. “Can I share a secret too?”
“I like boys, not girls.”
“Really?” Another turn of raising his eyebrows and looking surprised. There Kutanga goes again.
“Yeah. You won’t think less of me for it will you?” Uncertainty made Tanga flop onto the sand, afraid to look at Lihai’s face.
“Of course not! How could I? I’m the same.”
“Oh.” That wasn’t what the Unseelie teen expected. It was more than he could have hoped for, really. Kutanga smiled once again, glancing up at the flawless sky. “Lets just enjoy the sun then.”
# # #
The next month was a whirlwind. Kutanga spent every moment he could with Lihai. Once he got over his nerves, he was witty and kind, Tanga had discovered. Lihai had also let slip that he had nowhere to live, so Tanga used his savings to rent the boy a little room with an old lady who needed the help around house, and tried to keep him out of trouble with the law. That had been their first argument, a week after they met.
“I don’t need your charity, Tan.” Lihai had given him that nickname on the second day they hung out at the cove. He thought it funny given the charcoal skinned Unseelie could never get a tan, while a few hours in the sun made his own skin golden.
“You’re pickpocketing Li. I don’t want you to get hurt or worse, caught. They’d hang you.” Tears threatened to prick at his eyes.
“I don’t want to be taking advantage of you.”
“I earn my money, I never spend it on anything. Let me spend it on you please.”
“I can’t.” Li had a stubborn flame in his eyes now, which Kutanga learned quickly meant this wasn’t going to go anywhere fast.
“Well . . . I don’t know. If you really need to, you can work for it.” Kutanga sighed, slumping into the sand of their little private cove. Maybe another tactic would work.
“That’d be better. But I still wouldn’t feel right about it.”
“Old lady Charla will accept your help cutting her wood in return for meals. Will that help?”
“And you need to eat them. You’re skin and bones.” Tanga poked his friends ribs for emphasis.
Lihai saw the truth in those words, as much as he begrudged admitting it. “Okay okay. And the rest of the money?”
“I could always pay you to be my concubine.” The Unseelie teased, running his eyes over his friend's body. They’d grown more comfortable with each other but nothing had happened yet.
Chuckling, Lihai shoved Tanga’s shoulder. “Perv!” The tension was broken.
“Thats me.” Kutanga rolled over onto his side to face Lihai, a smile wide on his face. He smiled more these days, and so did Lihai. “I have to do chores like feeding the hens and cutting wood for Vekare. You could do those in return for the money. But you’d have to come up to the bakery every morning.”
“Okay.” Lihai felt much more at ease with that idea.
“I’ll explain it to Vekare. So you’ll do it?”
“I said okay, didn’t I?” The changeling teen frowned.
“Sorry.” Tanga didn’t look sorry with a mischievous grin on his face.
The room turned out to be warm and comfortable when Lihai was shown it later the same day. ‘Old lady Charla’ was a wealthy widow, supported by a cane now, her hair as white as Lihai’s skin before it tanned and her sense of wit sharp. She smiled a lot though, and it made her seem years younger. Lihai was given a tour of the house with Kutanga watching proudly.
He nodded in agreement to all her rules - the main ones being that he must return home before dark, and that the fire must be kept going all night else Charla’s bones ached. It made her house sweltering and he was sweating by the time he left again to follow Kutanga to his masters bakery. But a bit hot was better than huddling in an alleyway he shared with rodents.
When they arrived at the bakery, it turned out Vekare was a jovial Unseelie Elf of nearly five hundred. He seemed absolutely ancient to Lihai, with his fading pink hair and his wrinkles. But like Charla he smiled constantly and it made him look young. He wasn’t thin or bent like Charla either. He even greeted Lihai with a hug that was unexpectedly strong.
“Young Tanga has told me a lot about you. I’m glad to meet you at last.” He had said, shoving a sweet pastry in front of Lihai as he made both of them sit down and accept cups of tea. “You need more meat on your bones, youngin!” was his admonishment as he wandered around the kitchen, heating water and pouring it into a pot with tea leaves. Soon a strong brew filled three cups, and he sat down with them.
“Yes thank you Sir.”
“Polite. I like him.” Vekare grinned at Kutanga as he poured milk into their cups and Lihai turned scarlet.
“So, I hear you’re rooming with old lady Charla.”
Lihai coughed. “How did you know that?”
“Small town. And Charla likes sweets and always knows the best gossip. We exchange tales and baked goods regularly. You should take some of the new buns I made down to her when you go.”
“I’ll do that Sir.”
The conversation strayed into mundane questions from then. Lihai found he liked Vekare; he was polite and never probing. He asked how Lihai liked the town, how long he’d been there, how the two met. He complimented his hair colour and said how glad he was Charla was getting some help ‘before she has a heart attack lifting logs. Why at her age!’
Kutanga had teasingly reminded Vekare he was only ten years younger and Vekare had protested that ten years was a long time. The two got on well, unlike any apprentice and master he’d seen before. Vekare acted more like a kindly uncle to the young Unseelie.
Hours later, they’d headed back to Charla’s and Kutanga had said his farewells, promising to see him in the morning for the chores. Despite Lihai’s protests, he’d declared he would help the Changeling with them.
# # #
As the rest of the month wore on, Lihai’s bruises faded. He no longer had to sleep rough, skip meals, or suffer beatings from irate merchants. The changeling put on muscle and Kutanga enthused that he was so much healthier than when they met.
Kutanga’s coming of age ceremony marked the end of the first month of their friendship. Lihai had laboured over ideas for a present. He was convinced he needed something to prove his gratefulness to the young Unseelie. The boy had changed his life in just a month.
Charla had proven amenable and soon his rent had become free in return for cleaning and cooking. He even earned a copper a day for picking up her groceries. “I’m rich and I can afford to be generous,” the old lady had told him when he protested being paid so much for something so simple. But he’d squirreled away the coppers and the day before Kutanga’s coming of age Lihai slipped down to the market and eyed the wares. He didn’t know what to buy, he just hoped something would leap out at him.
The morning was spent looking at beautiful fabrics like the crimson one that reminded him of blood, spices with their scents heady and filling the air around stalls, carved stone bowls, and finely painted pottery, and the furs of strange animals. Finally he drifted to a jewellery stall. Items with precious stones glinted in the mornings sunshine, and he dismissed them as too expensive. But a simple gold arm ring caught the eye and Lihai couldn’t look away.
Under the scornful eye of a merchant who doubted he could afford it, he counted out his coppers. He spent every penny but left clutching the parcel containing his prize, a smile that could outshine the stars on his pale face.
The morning of Tanga’s ceremony he sped through chopping Charla’s wood and loading her fire and she let him off cleaning till the afternoon so he could rush up the hill to the bakery as the sundials traced the tenth hour of the day. Vekare greeted him at the door of the bakery with a smile, having closed for the occasion. He unlocked the door and let Lihai in.
Kutanga’s parents sat on chairs in Vekare’s lounge, and Kutanga looked up from opening a small parcel when Lihai entered. He smiled brilliantly, pulling out a new tunic with a hem embroidered in scarlet. Lihai settled himself on the floor as Tanga hugged his parents and thanked them for the present.
“Late as usual.” He teased Lihai, settling on the floor next to his friend, legs crossed.
“I brought you a gift, Tan.” Lihai offered his twine wrapped parcel.
Tanga’s eyes widened. “Really? You shouldn’t have you know.”
“I didn’t steal it, if you’re worried about that. I paid for it fairly.”
“Of course not. I trust you.” Tanga hugged him.
Lihai stiffened at the embrace, looking at the adults in the room with wide, embarrassed eyes. But finally he relaxed and hugged his Unseelie friend back.
Kutanga reverently unwrapped his gift, setting the brown fabric and twine aside, and pulling out a package of black felt. He looked at Lihai curiously, before unfolding the felt. His eyes widened at the gold that twinkled underneath. “This must’ve cost you a month’s work Li!” He gasped.
“Yes . . . but I needed to say thank you.” Li shrugged. The money wasn’t important to him.
“Would you . . . .” Tanga offered the ring to Li.
He nodded, undoing the simple clasp, and opening the ring. He leaned close to Tan, sliding the ring onto his bicep and clasping it closed. It sat snugly. The gold was brilliantly highlighted against his friends midnight skin.
“Thank you.” Kutanga didn’t resist the tear that ran down his cheek as he hugged Li close. “I’ll treasure it.”
# # #
Li opened the door shirtless when Kutanga came to visit a week later. He blushed, and welcome his friend into Charla’s house. “Just a moment.” He said to Tan, turning to face the room to the lounge. “Ma’am! Tanga is here to visit. Do you mind if I go out with him?” He called out.
“Have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t.” Charla smiled, appearing at the door leaning on her stick.
“I promise we’ll have lots of drunken parties then.” Kutanga teased. “I’ve heard about your youth.”
Charla’s laughter followed them as they exited the house.
“Sorry about not having a shirt.” Li tried to apologise as they padded down one of the town’s many streets.
“No worries. I know how it is; Charla’s house is boiling! And it's not like I’ve not seen you naked before.”
Li blushed bright red, following mutely for a moment. When they passed the last house and headed out onto the dirt road, he spoke again. “About that . . . .”
“Oh?” Tanga raised an eyebrow, the sun beating down on their heads.
“I was . . . well . . . wondering . . . .”
“Spit it out Li.” Kutanga playfully pushed his friend.
They dropped onto the sand together, and Li ganced at Kutanga again. “Now you’re of age. I was kind of hoping . . . well, you said once thatIwashandsome.” Li’s words merged together in a sudden flood.
Tan laughed, poking Li’s bare shoulder. “You are. Point being?” He was starting to get the idea.
“Well.” Li slid a hand under Tan’s tunic. His friends stomach was warm and lean underneath his clothes. When Kutanga didn’t push him away, he spoke. “Will you go all the way with me? Be more than just a friend?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Tanga laughed, leaning forward. Kissing Li.
# # #
The Holy Day of Krujant came two months later. Li was no longer skinny or nervous. His frame had filled out with muscle from hard work and good food. He and Tan spent their free time playing, talking, and getting dirty in the sand or the shallows or once or twice on Tanga’s bed. He’d never known life could be so fulfilling. They could talk for hours about anything and everything. The people who went through Tanga’s masters shop, the weather, the latest silly thing done by the town council. The last fishing catch, Charla’s antics. And deeper topics, like the Gods and the meaning of life. He felt more comfortable in Tan’s company than anyone he’d ever known. Though that wasn’t many good people.
Life had been so much darker before the charcoal black Unseelie boy had come into it. Tan had asked about it eventually, when he was sure Li was comfortable with talking about it. He’d told him about his mother dying in childbirth, and his father being killed by priests of Krujant. Just for being a Changeling.
“Priests of Xewkan took me in.” Li shrugged, laying in the sand with the pleasant sweaty aftermath of their coupling cooling on both their bodies. “I left when I was 13. I was being a rebellious fool, thought I could make it on my own.”
Tan didn’t judge, he just shrugged in his usual way.
“I ended up in trouble quickly. I fell in with a criminal who paid young teens to steal for him. I ended up working for him. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. The merchants had plenty to spare, right?” Li sighed, rolling over to face Tan, admiring him for a moment.
He didn’t continue for a moment. He let his hand trail down Kutanga’s chest, admiring the way his muscles were defined. A distraction from the hard words. “I worked for him until I was 17. Eventually, he got too demanding. Once you were older, he wanted . . . other things from you.” Li shuddered.
Tan pulled him closer, kissing his forehead. “That is in the past now.”
“I left when he got more weird in his demands.” Lihai pushed down the memories and focussed on his new friend. Boyfriend, even. “I ended up wandering, keeping ahead of the authorities. I came to this town after six months of it. I got caught in the town before, and beaten nearly to death.”
Tan tensed his fists and then let them relax after a long moment, a sad grimace on his face. “I wish I could’ve been there to save you.”
“That's sweet of you.” Li smiled, reaching out to touch Tanga, wanting to wipe that frown off his face. He settled for letting his hand drop onto his chest. “A Priest of Hajitu found me and nursed me back to health. But I couldn’t stay, the merchant whose thugs beat me found out I was still alive. So I came here. Here was sparser pickings. And the merchants, if they caught you, would kick you and some would get their thugs to beat you. But no one went too far at least.”
“Then I met you, and you saved me.”
Kutanga smiled, pulling Li to him, and they laid in the sand and the sun, not speaking. Just feeling the comfort of being close to each other. The soft slap of the waves made it easy to be lulled into sleep.
An hour or more later - it was hard to tell - Li woke again and he slid out of Tanga’s arms, moving down to the water to wash the other teen’s semen from his skin and the sweat of their antics. He looked up with water dripping from his hair as Kutanga stirred and glanced up at him.
“Washing me off, eh?” Tanga teased, stepping into the waves beside the changeling.
“You smell, that’s why!” Li teased, shoving Tanga playfully. The other boy flopped into the water and came up spluttering. He grinned back and grabbed Li’s leg, pulling him down as well.
They splashed in a heap for a moment, untangling limbs and climbing out of the salty water. Li wished they could spend forever here, but chores called.
They pulled on shorts and carried their tunics as they headed back up the cliff path and into town via the dirt track they used so often.
Tan frowned as they entered by the side gate and headed further into town. The sound of drums echoed between the houses, muffled by distance but overpowering the soft sounds of the sea. “What in the world is that?”
Li shrugged. “No clue. One of the temples?”
“Maybe.” Unconvinced, the Unseelie continued forward until they could see the market square.
The market was empty of the usual crowds; forest green robed figures paraded in a single file line along the street, the front one pounding a drum to a slow, ponderous beat. “Which temple is that?” Tanga turned to Li, to find him shivering. “What’s wrong?” He pulled him close, kissing his forehead again.
“That . . . those are Krujant’s priests.”
“We don’t have a temple to Krujant. This is a sea town.”
“They’ve come for me.”
“Wh . . . Oh.” Kutanga frowned. “Oh. I see. Someone dobbed you in? Did you tell anyone else?”
“No . . . .”
“I’d never betray you!” Tanga’s voice trembled, and he wrapped his arm around Li’s shoulders.
Li smiled up at his Unseelie partner, hoping he instilled a sense of reassurance in his voice, as much as it wanted to waver and break. “Of course not. They may not even know for sure. But an odd coloured person like me will always attract suspicion.”
“You need to hide. We’ll go to Vekare’s.”
“We can’t risk that. They’ll not care about violating his privacy.”
“I don’t care, Li. And he won’t either. He’ll want you safe.” Tanga pulled on Li’s arm, hurriedly leading him up the path to the bakery, glancing behind them. The priests hadn’t moved yet. They still chanted and walked in a single file line from one end of the deserted market to the other.
Lihai didn’t protest the tug on his arm. He just limpy followed the Unseelie, any coherent thoughts paralysed with fear. He was such a fool to think that this could continue. That a Changeling could ever find happiness.
They reached the bakery and Kutanga pulled Li inside. He was grateful to find no one inside, so he turned the sign to closed and barred the door with a heavy piece of wood designed for times like these.
Li was shaking like a leaf now and Tanga kept his arm around him as he led him into the house, straight to his room. “Sit. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.” He gestured to the bed, pulling out a simple bag and starting to pull clothes from his drawers, stuffing them into the bag. His mind whirred as he thought what he’d need.
“What are you doing Tanga?” Vekare appeared at the door with raised eyebrows. The sound of the door had attracted his attention. Flour still dusted the front of his apron and he wiped his powdery hands as he waited for a reply.
“There is a problem, Sir.” Li’s voice trembled.
Vekare’s voice sharpened. “What?” The door of the bakery echoed as someone slammed a fist on it. “Wait a moment.” The old elf turned and disappeared.
Tanga slid a small fishing knife into Li’s hand. “Here, use this in case anything happens.” He smiled at the changeling again, and then disappeared from the room. He slid behind the door between the house and the bakery, listening and watching through the little slit left by the ajar door.
“Sir, we have reason to believe you are harbouring a Changeling.”
“A what?” Vekare’s voice was sharper than Tanga had ever heard it.
“A shapeshifter, forbidden by Krujant. We’ve come to exorcise it.” The priest loomed over the smaller Unseelie, his hand on a gnarled oak staff that he leaned upon, making his true height even greater.
“I don’t know of any such thing here.” Vekare was worried, Kutanga could hear it in his voice. He’d never heard that note before. The old baker had always been as solid as the stone on which the town stood.
“We need to search.”
“I won’t have my privacy violated like this.”
“I’m afraid we must insist.”
“This town is no follower of Krujant. We are the people of Xnixx, priest. And I don’t believe you have jurisdiction here.”
“We have power wherever our god commands it.” The priests knuckles whitened as he gripped the staff.
“What gives you any idea I have a Changeling, in any case?”
“We seek the white one called Lihai.”
Vekare inhaled sharply. “Give me a moment.” And he swung the door closed on the priest.
Tanga backed up from the door, but he wasn’t fast enough. When it swung open, he was face to face with his master. His face was like the sea on a calm day; unreadable, hiding the true power of its anger.
“What is this about Li being a changeling?”
Kutanga took another step back, looking anywhere but at the old Unseelie.
“Is it true?”
Kutanga nodded slowly.
Vekare’s shoulders slumped. “That is not good. Did you always know?”
Kutanga nodded again. He didn’t trust his voice.
Vekare rested a hand on his proteges shoulder. “Do you love Lihai?”
“Yes. With my whole being.” Kutanga spoke at last. He could say that with conviction, so it was easy. His palms were clammy in fear of Vekare’s response. Would he abandon them to the priest?
“Then, go into the bedroom.” Vekare turned on his heel. He looked half his age and twice as intimidating as he closed the door behind him, the jolly old man gone in favour of one whose family was threatened.
Kutanga did as he commanded, dashing back to his bedroom. His gaze was only on Li, who sat on the bed shaking, a tear running down his cheek. He pulled him against his chest, and whispered soothing nothings into his ear.
Crash. Someone hitting the front door. He ignored it. Shouting echoing out into the street. Surely people would come to see what was going on. Vekare was respected; he knew everyone of note. And he was rich. They couldn’t just . . .
A scream. Female. An onlooker perhaps. Li shook and Tanga clutched him closer.
The door into the house smashed back against the wall, rattling the walls. Tanga shielded Li with his body, glancing up as the priest from before appeared in the door. His mouth was suddenly as dry as the bones in a crypt.
“Move aside, Unseelie.” The priest gestured with that gnarled staff. Tanga noticed blood on the head of it.
“No.” His voice shook badly but he stared up at the man defiantly.
“Move aside or I will strike you down with the hellspawn you protect.” The priest snarled, his face twisted in absolute disgust. Like he looked upon the most horrifying thing the mind could conjure.
“Never!” Tanga spat back. He grabbed the closest solid thing - his bag. And sprang from the bed, swinging it at the priest.
The staff slammed into his skull with a sickening crack and Kutanga flew against the wall, sliding down to the floor. A trail of blood ran down the planks.
Lihai gasped and scrambled from the bed to the side of the fallen Unseelie. The fear made his his features lose cohesion as he grabbed Kutanga’s hand, feeling for a pulse. He barely even noticed as his hair turned red, then blue, then pink in quick succession and his features shifted; from face to face. People he’d met or seen; anything simmering in the back of his mind that the subconscious had picked up. Unaware of it all, Lihai crouched in front of Kutanga protectively. The knife raised in one hand.
The startling affect of the constant changes made the priest pause for a moment. But he recovered and he lifted his staff to bring it down.
A flash filled the room. Kutanga moaned painfully. Lihai yelped. The priest paused and turned, eyes widening.
“How dare you defile the home of my servant.” A figure stepped out of the light. Clad in aquamarine skin, his body swathed in fabric layered like waves, in the colour of seafoam. The figure touched the priests staff and it crumbled to dust outwards from where the single finger laid upon the wood.
Another flash. Li’s eyes widened at the figure of a slight man, ephemeral wings fluttering softly behind him. But his face was rage. “You touch a priest of mine, Xnixx; you are beyond your realm. Cease!”
Li pulled Kutanga closer to himself, trying to shrink into the floor as the two powerful figures glared at each other. The priest stood forgotten and confused.
The third figure didn’t flash. He or she stepped through the door from the hall silently. Li looked up and suddenly felt warm and happy, like he had seen the most beautiful thing in existence. Yet the figure wasn’t real; it was neither properly male or female, and Lhai couldn’t recall a single detail when he looked away, except for the soft perfume filling the room. “Krujant, you trespass here.” The figure spoke and the voice made his heart fly and his body sing, but only for a moment. It plummeted again when he looked at the blood dripping from Katunga’s mouth.
“Xewkan. How dare you appear! You have no claim to this situation.” The pixie man turned from the first man to the new intruder.
“But I do.” The figure smiled peacefully, touching a hand on the aquamarine man’s shoulder. “You have interfered in true love. This young man was prepared to die for his love, and so he invoked me unknowingly.”
The winged figure snarled in response, and raised his hand. “I will smite them where they lay. Don’t be pathetic, siblings.”
“No you will not.” Nothing changed in that heavenly voice, not that Li could hear. But suddenly palpable rage filled the room. The air became frozen, and a wind howled through the wood.
The green skinned sea god glared with hatred that was more mortal, displayed in his hand clenched on the pommel of a sword. “I claim these two and their kin as my own, Krujant. They are servants of mine. You will go.”
Krujant growled. Flash. The figure was gone.
The heavenly, genderless one turned to the blue-green man. “Take them Xnixx. Find them a home in the sea, where Krujant can never touch them again. He is beyond reason now, and even my threat will not stop him.”
“Thank you Xewkan.” The blue green one bowed his head.
The shapeless one vanished without a sound or a light. They were just gone one moment.
The fish man knelt by Li’s side and the Changeling moved himself in front of Tanga with a hiss. “Worry not, young one. I will help your mate.” He smiled and rested a hand on the brown hair, matted with blood.
Tanga let out a moan of pain but as Li watched, the bloody wound faded away. He glanced at the aquamarine man. He felt too many emotions to display them all.
“I’m sorry this has happened to you, youngling.” The god stood. “In one day, I will return. Pack what you can; talk to your family and friends, and anyone else who will come. If they will follow, they are welcome. I must take you from the land and bring you to my realm. Krujant made Changelings and he threw them aside. He is irrational, and I won’t have him hurt you more.”
“Tha . . . thank you, Lord Xnixx.” Tanga blinked wearily at the god, raising himself on his elbows with a grunt.
With a flash, the man was gone, leaving just the salty scent of the ocean.
# # #
“So . . . that is what happened.” Li concluded, slumping back on the chair. Vekare, Kutanga’s parents and Charla sat across from him. His Unseelie partner - mates, Xnixx had called them - sat beside him on the arm of the chair. Just hours had passed since the priest had forced his way into the bakery.
Vekare had a swollen lump on his head where he had been struck. Kutanga was still covered in blood, though they’d changed clothes they had not bathed. Time was precious now. Kutanga’s mother was shaking, and his father was open mouthed. Charla seemed unphased by it all.
Kutanga’s mother spoke first. “So, Xnixx wants us to go with him? Just leave everything?”
“The priests of Krujant tried to kill our son, Merell.” Kutanga’s father rubbed his wife's shoulders, staring off into the distance except for when he spoke. He had the same chocolate eyes as Tanga when he focussed on them. “We can’t let that happen again.”
Vekare shrugged. “Tanga has come to be the son I never had. The bakery matters little in the face of protecting him.”
“Thank you Sir.” Tanga smiled thinly, and pulled Li closer, the comfort of touch making it all feel less scary. Li shook still; two hours ago, he’d watched the only love of his life almost die.
“Lihai is a honest, hardworking boy. And he loves Tanga with his whole soul. It lifts years off me to see them.” Charla patted Merell’s hand. “I for one look forward to this adventure.”
Lihai let out a relieved breath when Charla spoke, and he smiled at her. “Thank you Ma’am. You’re like the mother I never got to know, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Oh that makes me all soppy to hear that.” Charla dabbed her eye with a piece of fabric.
“So, are we all for it?” Vekare asked, a curious eye focussed on Kutanga’s parents.
“Yes.” Merell let out a weak sigh. “I’d never abandon my son. Or my sons, plural, it seems now.”
“Then, to adventure!” Charla grinned. “Vekare, let's break out the good stuff before we leave. I know you have that bottle of Gitan Rum around here still.”
Vekare stood up, chuckling. “Of course. To adventure.”
The others repeated the words with various levels of smile; from the weakest, to the brightest on the face of Tanga. He snuggled with Li, content to see what Xnixx had in store for them.
# # #
Lihai rolled from a soft bed, the once-Changeling dropping his feet onto a rough green floor. His bare feet pattered across the floor to the window, where he settled onto the window seat, glancing out.
A small town spread out below the window now. A year ago, nothing had graced this segment of the ocean floor. The blue-green light still seemed strange to him, filtering down through the crushing force of water that spread out above a glimmering dome. It was different but he thanked the gods, except for the vile lord of nature, every day for what had happened. And Kutanga had made it all happened.
After that nearly fatal day in the bakery Vekare had gathered his family and friends, and so had Charla, and Kutanga’s parents. They’d told them the story, though much of it was already on the wind as rumours. Some had left, unwilling to give up their lives, but their closest confidants had stayed. The next day Xnixx had returned as he promised and taken them all away. Kutanga worried that Krujant would still smite his home but Xnixx assured them that he had no power to strike innocent mortals; only those who protected Changelings.
The sea lord had made them the town they lived in now. A shimmering shield held out the water, and the coral could be grown into the shapes of houses. The talents of people like Vekare had to be adapted to what they get down here, but they were figuring it out.
Finally, Xnixx had granted to each of them the abilities of a changeling, and shown them how to shift their bodies to swim like the fish. It was liberating. Like flying; darting through the cool water, watching the aquatic world slide past below you.
Glancing at his mate where he laid in the bed, sheets draped over his body, Lihai felt his heart lift. And he breathed a grateful prayer to Xewkan for bringing them together.
Thank you for reading. Your comment will mean the world to me, so please leave feedback; constructive criticism well welcomed. ~ Wicked