Chapter I

The Stars Align


 

  

The stars and moons above Talmus are a breathtaking sight, shimmering in the dark sky like diamonds scattered on black velvet. The caravan, heavy and weary from the long journey, slowly makes its way into the base of the canyon. Khimi gazes out through the back of the wagon, his eyes drawn to the vast expanse of desert before them. The twin moons of Talmus, known as the Sisters, cast a pale glow over the shifting sands below. Khimi runs his hand over his itchy chin and smiles up at the brightest star in the sky, Stella Solaris. It had been a guiding light for his family, leading them to wealth and glory — something he himself had never felt the need to pursue. Instead, he hopes that following this star would lead him to happiness. The camels grunt and horses bray at their entry into the unfamiliar terrain. The men and women, alongside the caravan, settle their animals with gentle pats and reassurances. The caravan driver looks back, a worried expression on his face. He knocks quietly on the wooden panel behind him.

“Khimi, are you sure this is the right way?” The driver asks, peeling the canvas open.

A tall youthful man sits, his raven hair hangs messily across his brow, hands pressed under his chin deep in thought. He opens his cerulean blue eyes and peers through the open canvas. With a heated glare at the driver, his thoughtful expression changes to annoyance.

“Aye, I’ve mapped the path for us a dozen times.” Khimi says, a flicker of aggravation crossing his face. “Do you think I made a mistake, Baqil?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.

“No, my lord,” Baqil replies, removing the wrapping from his face. “I just figured I had gotten turned around, is all. No need to get upset,” he adds meekly.

“I-it’s fine, Baqil. I didn’t mean to lose my temper,” Khimi says, peering through the slit in the canvas at the canyon emerging into view.

“No, no, my young lord. I shouldn’t have questioned your direction,” Baqil admits, slowly closing the canvas curtain. “Again, my apologies.”

    Baqil clicks his tongue, and the caravan resumes its course. The carriage momentarily sways violently, tossing Khimi in his seat. Baqil is trying to kill me, he thinks with a deep sigh. He turns his head to the bench across from him, where one of his most trusted friends and advisors sits.

“Rashid,” Khimi calls over the sound of the caravan driver’s shouting. “Tell me why it is that Ziad is so keen that we provide supplies to this temple?” He questions. “I-It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Come now, Khimi,” Rashid says, clicking his tongue. “Don’t ya know every wealthy man gives to the Gods?” He chuckles at his own comment. “Makes ‘em feel better ‘bout themselves.”

Khimi grimaces at Rashid’s response, giving the man a scowl. He pulls his knee towards his chest, tightening the laces of his leather boots. He had never been a man of faith, nor had he any intention of following in the footsteps of the Faithful. Khimi knew all too well the truth behind Ziad’s faith, the man worshiped one thing and one thing only, wealth. He turns back to Rashid with his eyebrows raised.

“There is no need to be coy,” Khimi grumbles, his frustration becoming more apparent. “Whatever it is, you know, just spill it,” he says firmly, pulling the laces of his boots tighter.

Rashid sighs, “As y’re already well aware, y’re an only child.” He pauses.

Khimi nods, “Right, right,” he says, pursing his lips.

“Patience my lord. Every good story comes in time.” Rashid whispers, mimicking the voice of an old man.

“Rashid,” Khimi sighs. “Please…continue.”

“Aleyna struggled for years to give birth…well, perhaps– ya should speak with the Saint,” Rashid insists, crossing his arms.

Khimi rolls his eyes, “Just tell me,” he pleads before brushing his fingers through his raven hair.

“Well, ya’d find out sooner or later I suppose,” Rashid whispers to himself, placing his fingers under his chin, he itches the graying beard. He looks thoughtful a moment before continuing. “You may have heard some of this from household servants, Khimi. It’s nothing new. Aleyna came to this temple…and nearly a year later, you were born.”

Khimi blinks slowly in response, “And this story has what to do exactly with how much our family is donating?” 

“It is a debt, a debt owed for the Gods’ part in your birth,” Rashid grumbles, waving his hands in annoyance. “Your mother feels that a debt is owed to the Gods of life. So, here we find ourselves.” He chuckles, motioning around him. “In the middle of this canyon. On our way to see the saint and deliver goods your mother promised.”

Khimi rubs his brow and growls slightly, “Aleyna’s so superstitious, are all Sidian mom’s like that?”

“No, Khimi. I hate to say it, not all Sidian mothers are like that,” Rashid says, shaking his head. “Mine left me on the steps of the Sanctum.” He adds quickly. “Y’re lucky to have Aleyna. She’s a great woman.”

Khimi stares out of the back of the wagon in silence. He contemplates the words of his advisor, “You never brought that up before,” he says, with a hint of compassion in his voice. “Maybe, maybe, my mother has good intentions. This just seems to be an inconvenience…and a waste of the Cerulean Star’s resources. And you think there is any truth to what you’re saying?” Khimi asks.

“Who can say? We all want to believe that the Gods look out for us.” Rashid says, his voice fading to a whisper. “Now, from what I hear about this saint…this Nina…she’s the real deal though. They say she carries herself with an otherworldly air.” He adds. “Maybe she can tell you the truth of it.” 

Khimi harrumphs, “We’ll see about all that.” He crosses his arms then leans back against the wooden panel, closing his eyes. “Not that I doubt the saint…it’s just strange. You’d think Aleyna would have told me something.”

Rashid itches at the grays on his chin, “Right…well maybe ya will get some answers at the temple, assuming of course ya get to see the saint.”

Khimi pauses in thought. He had never really considered his birth, or thought that he was anyone special in the eyes of the Gods. “Perhaps you’re right.”

“Khimi, there was something else. Something that has been bothering me,” Rashid begins, pausing to bite his lip, nervously broaching the subject, “Since we’re sharing secrets here,” he whispers, leaning forward and wringing his hands. “What happened at those ruins…the ones you went to with those mercenaries?”

Khimi had never told Rashid of what happened during the years after he fled from the family estate. It was better that way. He did not want Rashid to know of all the dangers he put himself in. Of all the incredibly foolish things he did to pass the time, or how he slowly worked his way nearly to the top of the mercenary company he served. Mostly, he did not want to tell Rashid about the Efreet he encountered or the promises he made to appease her.

“Magick,” Khimi says suddenly, closing his eyes. A small flame erupts from his palm. “That’s all. It was a tomb, nothing was there,” he lies.

“I don’t like it, Khimi!” Rashid exclaims. With a shake of his head, he looks down at the wooden planks. “Legends said that place was supposed to be sealed. I did some research after you told me about it!” His voice quivers with concern.

“Go to sleep, Rashid,” Khimi says with a light chuckle, “You worry for nothing. I’ll tell you one day when I feel like you won’t scold me for being brash.”

“Khi—” Rashid starts. “Khimi, y’re brash though…always have been.”

Khimi chortles at Rashid’s comment, “I thought you said ‘ya were always a smart lad’.”

“Ya can be smart and brash at the same time,” Rashid whispers, his face screwing up in thought.

Khimi shakes his head in dismay. “Let’s get some sleep before we arrive.”

“F-Fine, but tell me about those ruins.”

“One day,” Khimi repeats while he tries his best to find comfort in the ever shaking wagon.

Khimi once more rests his eyes while the wagon sways with its passage through the canyon. Rashid rubs his graying hair, his brow furrowed in observation of his young charge’s face. Khimi grumbles with each violent motion the caravan makes, his face screwing up in annoyance.

***

Several hours later, Baqil brings the caravan before a set of steps carved into the side of the canyon. The large stone structure is nestled into the stone walls, a light brown stone, much like many of the structures throughout the Desert Cities. The scent of the ocean wafted heavily from the west towards them. Palms lie tucked along the stairs, a stream of fresh water flowing gently along the carved stairs. Beautiful hand painted mosaics line the stream, depicting scenes of an outpouring ewer and displays of childbirth. Numerous figures in white tunics, the edges embroidered with navy patterns, walk down the stairs towards the caravan. Baqil opens the curtain to the wagon once more.

“My Lord,” Baqil says with a firm shake of Khimi’s shoulder. “My Lord, we’ve arrived. Some acolytes make their way towards us.”

“R-right,” Khimi says groggily. He rubs his eyes and runs his fingers through his hair. “Rashid!” He exclaims, standing before him.

“Up! I’m up!” Rashid responds, his leg kicking in surprise at the suddenness of Khimi’s shouts. “We’ve arrived then?”

“Yes, Ser Rashid,” Baqil laughs. “Should I let you sleep and handle all the affairs myself?” He questions jokingly.

“That won’t be necessary,” Khimi says, knuckling his lower back before leaping from the back of the wagon. “I need to do something, sick of sitting down anyway.”

“You could have ridden a horse instead,” Rashid mutters, then steps down from the back of the wagon. He groans, leaning forward to grip his knee, “Unless you just wanted to keep me company the whole way?”

“You didn’t have to come…unless you were scared I would run away again?” Khimi asks with a smirk.

“The thought crossed my mind.”

Khimi unties several small crates attached to the back of the wagon. With a glance up, a tuniced figure approaches at a trot. Holding the hem of her tunic, she calls out to them in her stride, waving her free hand.

“Sir,” the woman calls out. “The caravan needs to be brought further to the west! We receive all of our supplies in the caverns. Your animals will be well cared for,” she adds, removing the hood from her tunic.

The half-elven woman offers a soft smile then continues giving directions to Baqil, her flaxen hair resting just above her shoulders. The white tunic clings tight to her form, revealing her thin figure. Rashid stares, noticeably making note of the woman, before he turns to Khimi.

“It’s rare to see such pale skinned beauties in these parts. That’s my type of woman right there,” Rashid laughs while he nudges Khimi, his eyes scouring the elven figure.

“Rashid, she’s a holy woman. Come off it,” Khimi says, unamused.

“Come now, Khimi,” Rashid laughs. “Even holy women have to have a good time occasionally, right? Besides, back at the Sanctum, the acolytes were every bit as horny as anyone else.”

Khimi scoffs while they walk along the caravan, noticing several more tuniced acolytes following behind the half-elven woman. Their hoods concealing their appearance. After nearly a mile of walking, the caravan arrives near the cavern. Baqil turns their wagon into the cavern, the ground changes from the sandy canyon into neatly cut stone tiles in a unique geometric design. Various braziers illuminate the large cavern. Small tables arranged at the back host dozens of colorful and shapely vases, hand painted with peculiar imagery. A beautiful elven woman with hair golden like the sun glances up from her work. She pauses before peering back down at the pottery in her hand to continue her dutiful brushwork. Gems along her circlet glitter in the firelight with a tilt of her head.

“Saint!” The half-elven woman calls. “I was not expecting you to be here.” She adds, bowing her head respectfully.

“Keira, you may return to the temple. I’ll see personally to Lord Zeybek’s delivery,” The saint says with an air of dignity while admiring the work in her hands.

“Of course, Saint Nina,” Keira bows once more. She clicks her tongue and motions to the two acolytes following her. In Elvish, she says, “Hurry, we don’t want to annoy the Saint. She wishes to see the Merchant Prince herself.” Afterward, they turn and follow her back out of the cavern.

“Khimi,” Rashid whispers. “Whilst I live and breathe, that’s the bloody saint herself!” He exclaims. “I’ve heard stories of her beauty…but hells.”

“Rashid, calm yourself,” Khimi laughs, nudging the elderly man in the ribs.

The woman is far more beautiful than Khimi had first realized. Every bit of her form is clear and perfect. Her soft bosoms sit against the gentle satin fabric. The silky smooth blonde hair hangs over her shoulder and reflects the light with an almost impossible warmth. Her lips are thin, but gentle. Eyes, a green unlike anything Khimi had ever seen, like the gentle meadows he had seen in paintings.

“Saint Nina,” Khimi says, giving a deep bow at his approach. “We have come bringing the supplies which my mother has promised your temple.” He says, glancing up from his bow at the woman before him.

“Your mother?” The saint questions, her eyes peering up to meet Khimi’s. “You speak as though you want no part of this. Are you…not of the Faith?” she asks quietly, before she turns the work over in her hands.

“Saint Nina,” Khimi begins again, “I was barely made aware of how much the Cerulean Star was offering to your temple until recently. When my family wished for me to stay in Rhaz to take over these routes, it was a startling revelation,” he adds quietly.

“If my intuition serves me right, then I suppose the truth of the matter is that I have you to thank for all these years of bountiful blessings,” The saint pauses her painting, then stands, offering a slight bow. “Khimi, was it?” She asks, her eyes still on the floor.

“Yes,” Khimi replies, taken off guard by the question.

“A beautiful name, a fitting name if I do say so myself. It means gift,” she whispers, walking towards Khimi she halts. “Next time you see Aleyna, send her my regards.” She adds, lightly touching Khimi on the shoulder while she passes him. “My assistant will see to receiving the caravan. I think you will find him more than capable, although somewhat crass at times,” she adds before she continues towards the moonlit canyon.

“Maybe she needs an escort?” Rashid questions, following her with his eyes while she walks into the canyon.

“I somehow doubt that she needs an escort,” Khimi says, a dumbfounded expression on his face.

“You alright, Khimi?” Baqil asks in a whisper, “You look ill.”

“I am fine, you and the caravaners should go settle down for the night. Make camp in the canyon. I will deal with dispensing the supplies and tribute.” Khimi says, looking over the eight wagons situated in the cavern.

“Ya sure, Khimi?” Rashid asks, still facing the cavern entrance. “Though, far be it from me to keep ya from taking on extra work,” he laughs, then turns back to Khimi to clap him on the shoulder.

“I’m sure…though I doubt we would finish unloading this by morning at any rate,” Khimi says, sighing while Rashid grabs his bedroll from the back of the wagon. “I’ll catch up to you in the morning. Maybe I will get a chance to speak with the saint.”

“Very well, Khimi,” Baqil chuckles, hopping from the driver’s seat and leading the horses towards the entrance. “Shout if you need us.”

Khimi watches the men and women from the caravan unpack their bedrolls and tents, heading into the canyon to make camp for the night. Sitting at the table where the saint was a moment before, he carefully turns the uniquely shaped pottery in his hand. The piece is quite beautiful, painted with blues and vibrant greens. He notes the colors that had been used in the painting, then picks up the brush, slowly bringing the tip against the jar. He loses track of time while he paints along the lines that had been traced along the jar. After a moment, he catches himself placing the pottery back on the table. It had been years since he could take the time to appreciate such things.

“It’s an ewer,” a voice says close behind him. “Though I guess it’s hard to tell since Keira can’t mold clay for shit,” the voice adds with a silvery lilt.

Khimi turns, catching sight of a blond haired beastkin[1] of short stature behind him. The beastkin’s tunic is revealing, exposing much of his thighs. A golden choker affixed with several small rubies sits tight around his neck. Golden ear cuffs hang tight on his thick, rounded ears. The figure’s tail flails behind him. He bears a massive grin across the soft bow of his lips and two lengthy scars across the bridge of his nose. He approaches, his eyes catching the light, revealing a distinct aqua color which pierces through Khimi. A strange sense takes hold of him, time seems to sit still. His senses dull with every step the beastkin takes. His hand instinctively reaches for his scimitar. What is this? The figure stops, pausing just before him with a gleeful expression.

“Pardon,” Khimi says, standing awkwardly before the small beastkin boy. “I wasn’t expec—” his words are interrupted.

“An aslan[2]?” The figure finishes. “No one ever does, apparently my kind don’t acclimate to this world very well,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding cavern. “Well, maybe just…the more refined life I guess,” he adds, stumbling over his words, his cheeks growing red. 

Khimi blushes, “I was going to say a boy,” he says, running his fingers through his hair in embarrassment. “Though, seeing an aslan outside their tribal community…is definitely a treat.”

The aslan smiles, his massive grin somehow growing wider, “Glad to know I am a treat then!” He replies quickly, his eyes avoiding Khimi’s gaze. “People here call me Lumi,” he adds, looking up at Khimi. “How bout you?”

“K-Khimi,” Khimi responds, stumbling over his own name. “You’ll have to forgive me, perhaps I am more tired than I realized,” he says, looking over the wagons, dreading the upcoming hours of labor.

“Well then, I suggest we forget our duties!” Lumi says with another grin. “And I’ll take you to see the temple instead, yeah?” Lumi asks, his face lighting up at the prospect.

“We really should make sure everything is in order first before I walk away from the wagons,” Khimi says, sighing in frustration. “But maybe a quick breath of fresh air wouldn’t hurt. The incense in this place is making me drowsy.” he adds, rubbing his eyes.

Lumi takes Khimi’s arm through his, then swings on his heels. “A man travels through the desert to a temple to drop off goods, yet fears the acolytes are going to steal his wares?” He asks with a shallow laugh.

“Ah, I can see that it might have come off that way,” Khimi begins, wiggling his arm against Lumi’s. “This is all very new to me,” Khimi adds quietly. He itches at the scar on his cheek, “I-I hope I didn’t cause offense.”

Lumi shakes his head in reply, “Not in the slightest,” he says with a quick glance. “We were told we were receiving donations…but you don’t need to worry. Everyone here is…well, they won’t steal your stuff at least!”

“I feel even more hesitant now,” Khimi scoffs, surrendering his arm to Lumi’s tightening grip.

A short silence and a quick pause in their step gives Khimi time to glance out the corner of his eyes, he watches Lumi cling tightly to his arm, peering around lost in thought. Dozens of questions rush through Khimi’s mind, yet he finds himself unable to speak. A certain unrest comes over him each time he parts his lips to ask the aslan a question. What is wrong with me? Lumi glances at Khimi once more, waiting for him to speak, before slowly continuing up the sandstone pathway.

“I can understand being concerned, but you must know Khimi that the saint is no thief. She’s the kindest person I’ve ever met, and whatever donation your parents have made will be appreciated no matter the amount,” Lumi smiles while he pats Khimi’s arm reassuringly. “Promise!”

“I must ask, Little Lion,” Khimi smiles. The path evens out before them. The cool night air rushes against his face. “Do you often walk arm in arm with all of your guests, or is this some ploy?” He questions playfully.

Another lengthy silence in which it seems like the aslan is lost in contemplation. Maybe he’s just dense. Khimi fixes his gaze onto the aslan looking ahead.

Lumi laughs suddenly, his cheeks growing flush at Khimi’s words. “S-Sorry, I-I am not used to people calling me Little Lion…but the only people I normally walk arm in arm with are the elderly!” He explains. “To aid them in their journey up the many steps to the temple. Though, if it makes you feel more comfortable, I would be more than happy to guide you from a distance, perhaps that would ease your paranoia?” He asks mockingly.

“It’s fi-fine, I was just curious what kind of evening I’m in for,” Khimi says, sighing while they continue. “This is…alright for now, I suppose,” he says with pursed lips. He peers down his nose and watches the aslan’s ears twitching.  Khimi wiggles his arm, “You can’t just call a benefactor of the temple paranoid, you know? It could be considered rude. The merchants I deal with — never mind.”

Lumi’s tail slaps against the back of Khimi’s calf, “Oh?” The aslan asks, “I wasn’t aware that it could be considered rude,” he adds with a flash of his fangs. 

Khimi narrows his eyes, “Do they not teach manners here?”

Lumi itches his cheek in thought, “Not really?” He says, unsure of himself. “Anyway!” He begins, pointing towards the large structure puncturing through the landscape. The moonlight glows brightly, illuminating the temple’s face. “This is the Temple of Life,” he says, allowing Khimi a moment to enjoy its glory. “Shall I show you around?” He asks, his eyes fixed ahead on the massive sandstone structure.

“If it pleases you, then by all means,” Khimi pauses. “Lead on, Little Lion” He smiles while the aslan tightens his grip. Why does he feel so familiar?

“Alright then!” Lumi exclaims while they draw nearer to the entrance of the temple. “If you look in front of the temple, those are the stairs that descend into the canyon. The same stairs the caravan passed before ya’ went deeper into the canyon.” He begins. “It is said that Gods led Saint Nina to this location. She and a few remaining members of her order barely escaped death at the hands of the snake-men in the jungle,” He pauses, turning towards Khimi. “Would you rather talk about something else?” He asks.

“No, I enjoy history, history is fine,” he says, his eyes following the stream of water flowing in uniquely shaped aqueducts along the sides of the stairs. “How is there fresh water here?” He asks, looking down at the aslan. “Aquifers, or is it a spring?”

“Oh, so that caught your eye, did it?” Lumi asks, his eye following the aqueducts. “Well, when the saint and her followers escaped from the jungle, they took several relics with them. One of them was an ever-flowing fountain,” he says with excitement.

“Ever flowing…” Khimi scoffs, watching water trickle alongside the stairs. “Seems like a waste of water to me. But it does create a calming space.”

Mmm, you wouldn’t be the first to suggest that. I can tell you aren’t of the Faith. It doesn’t bother me,” Lumi says bluntly. “But do you mind if I ask why you don’t believe in the Gods?” He questions.

“Not at all,” Khimi whispers. “For me, I have just never found the appeal of asking a higher power for help. How many stories, how many legends have tales of the Gods ignoring the plea of their champions? I’ve read dozens of scrolls and books containing legendary heroes who died at the whims of the Gods.”

“There are many stories as such,” Lumi nods in agreement. “Yet, all the same, there are tales where the Gods help their champions as well. Spread light into darkness, provide nourishment to the starv-”

“Sorry, I am not interested in being converted to the Faith,” Khimi groans, slight anger rising in his voice. “I only just arrived moments ago. If the saint put you up to this, you can tell her that you tried your best but failed.” 

“I assure you!” Lumi says nervously, halting in his tracks. “If I brought offense, I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to see into your head, into your thoughts on the temple and the saint.” He pauses, shaking his head. He pulls back from Khimi’s arm, turning face to face with him, digging his bare heels into the sand. “Knowing a man’s opinions on the Gods can tell you a lot about him,” he adds, his aetherial eyes meeting Khimi’s. “Look, if I offended you…I’m sorry. Really, REALLY sorry. I won’t ask you anymore about the Gods or your thoughts on the Faith. I was just curious.”

Khimi has a hard time turning his gaze away from those blinding, beautiful eyes. “Just lead on with your tour. I think I am just exhausted…I’m not offended,” he adds quietly.

Lumi chuckles, “The bashful look doesn’t suit you!” He says, extending a hand towards Khimi. “Come then, let’s keep on,” he adds, taking Khimi’s hand and placing it through his arm. “You have my word, I promise not to push the Gods or the Faith upon you!”

Lumi walks Khimi past brass braziers, their light illuminating the entrance. A shallow pool reflects dancing lights upon the sandstone walls. Beneath the pool’s surface, tiny blue mosaic tiles create a beautiful scene of the ocean, waves giving life to mankind. Khimi pauses for a moment, glancing at the curious scene, then up at Lumi across the small reflecting pool. An eerie sensation fills Khimi, one which he cannot quite place. All he knows is that while he stares at Lumi and their eyes meet, he feels that he’s known him the entirety of his existence. The aslan’s eyes are like the blue waters along the Dolman coast, inviting, bright, opulent. They draw him in. For some unknown reason, he feels as though he can trust this beastkin, he feels as if he needs to trust him. His heart pounds, drowning out the surrounding sounds.

“Do you want to stop here, Khimi?” Lumi asks from the other side of the reflecting pool. Lumi stares across the pool, his eyes fixed on Khimi. He bites his lip while he waits for a reply. “Khimi?” He asks again.

Khimi’s turns to the shallow reflecting pool, following the tile mosaics beneath the water, “Right!” He says, breaking from his trance. “I was admiring the mosaics, they remind me of my home,” He lies.

It had been ages since Khimi had gone back to Sidi. The city was so unlike the other Desert Cities. His home was often considered a palace by the locals, one that rivaled those of the wealthiest merchant princes. He frequently thought of his childhood, long days spent in the grand courtyard of his parent’s estate. Reflecting pools ran along the length of the avenue leading to the front of the massive structure, it was something of beauty which had to be seen to put into words.

“Well, up ahead is the inner sanctum, we keep many relics of the past temple stored there. Or, if you’d rather, I can show you to my bedchamber,” Lumi says with a teasing smirk on his face.

“Are your bed chambers lofty and spacious?” Khimi asks, watching the aslan walk slightly ahead.

“Well, they aren’t small…I do share a room with three women, though,” Lumi says, scratching behind his ears nervously before they draw nearer to the inner sanctum. “Maybe we should go see the relics, we probably would have more peace. I am sure the girls are all back by now anyway.”

Khimi glares at Lumi’s bare feet while he steps ahead of him. Lumi turns occasionally and glances back at him with a waiting expression. “Lead on, then, show me the inner sanctum.”

The two travel along dozens of large columns into an open sky area, the stars, and moons shine brightly above, casting their glow through the area. Lumi stops and looks up for a moment, making sure Khimi notices the unique nature of the ceiling. Hundreds of tiny blue mosaic tiles create swirling scenes of flowing water, the tiles reflecting the light, causing them to twinkle like the stars. After pointing out the ceiling, they make their way through a large arched entrance. Sandstone statues of ibis flank either side of the door, their features seemingly simple yet striking. Lumi halts before he enters the last room and turns toward several men and women praying before an ornate altar. Lumi gives a small bow, which Khimi quickly mimics. They walk around the outskirts of the wall and draw near a small sandstone table, Lumi stops abruptly. 

Lumi draws himself closer to Khimi, standing on the tips of his toes. He whispers softly, “This is one of the staves which was taken from the jungle when the Snake-men attacked. It is said to hold amazing restorative capabilities. Nina said it can restore lost limbs.”

“Can it say, bring back the dead?” Khimi asks, eyeing the oddly shaped staff suspiciously. “I’ve heard the Faithful are often torn when it comes to bringing back the deceased.”

“Probably, I don’t know the particulars of what the staff can do. I only know that its gifts are remarkable. I’ve heard it could cure hundreds of diseased people at once! And, there was one time Nina used it to bring breath back to a drowned child, so I don’t think she is against bringing back the dead!” Lumi says. He eyes the strange ebony staff, intricate carved faces with various gemstones set in place of their eyes peer back at him. “Anyway, would you like to see more relics?”

“Perhaps we could go see this magical ewer?” Khimi asks, peering back at the praying figures. “I feel a little out of place here,” he says, waving his hand through a cloud of perfumed incense.

Lumi nods while they exit the room, returning from the way they had just passed. At the area with the small reflecting pool, Lumi turns past the columns and into the darkness, light shines dimly across the stones. Khimi follows the silhouette of the aslan walking towards a sandstone staircase. Lumi halts and turns back to wait for Khimi. Khimi feels the sudden warmth of the aslan’s touch against him, his arms wrapping around his waist.

“Do you need help walking up the stairs, milord?” Lumi asks, chuckling while he tugs against him. With a flash of his teeth, he smiles, “It is rather dark for a human, I suppose.”

Khimi slowly removes Lumi’s hands from around him. “I-I am capable,” he grumbles quietly.

“Well, at least take my hand so you don’t fall,” Lumi says, weaving his fingers between Khimi’s much larger digits before he begins to walk quickly up the stairs, only stopping once Khimi pauses on the uneven surfaces.

Khimi glares at Lumi in the darkness, somewhat frustrated. “I can manage, I promise. If I fa—”

“If you fall, then it will be my fault,” Lumi interrupts, his brow furrowed. “I’d rather you just hold my hand, and then we don’t have to worry about all that.”

“Hells, you’re a pest,” Khimi says, then clicks his tongue. “I was told aslan avoid people, this must be why. They annoy everyone around them,” he adds under his breath.

“If I am annoying you…you can dismiss me,” Lumi sneers, releasing Khimi’s hand. He shrugs then says, “but I was rather enjoying our time, weren’t you?”

Khimi narrows his eyes, “Were you?” He asks, his interest piqued.

“Yeah, it’s rare…to meet s-someone with such…refined..uhm,” Lumi stumbles, his tail slapping against his leg in annoyance. “Someone who has such–”

“Very well,” Khimi interrupts, hiding the smile crossing his lips, reaching for Lumi’s hand. “Take me to see this magicked ewer.”

Lumi’s tail flicks behind him and reaches for Khimi’s hand, “Okay, it’s right up there!” 

The two reach the top of the staircase, a strange structure sits before them. Lumi speaks in an unusual tongue, his eyes blaze with a luminescent glow, several unlit braziers about the area begin to crackle with life. A large fountain sits before them, atop the structure is an ewer made of lapis lazuli, golden veins run throughout its form. Lumi sits on the edge of the sandstone fountain, observing the water flow from the small ewer at the top. Khimi sits beside him, watching the water gush from small holes in the side of the fountain into gutters which run into the aqueducts on either side of the small area.

Magick is incredible, this little thing can provide all that?

Khimi peers about the area, his eyes drawn back towards the aslan, “This is certainly not what I had expected,” he begins in a whisper. “I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest, or what I thought would be up here. The temple is…different than I was expecting.”

“This is one of my favorite places,” Lumi says, his hand still clinging to Khimi’s. “During the day you can see several miles in the desert to the East, and the ocean to the West. The breeze smells so strongly of salt, and you find yourself wanting to sleep because of how peaceful it is!” He adds, looking towards the ocean, the moonlight illuminating the water in the distance.

Khimi gives Lumi’s hand a faint squeeze, “I could see how one would find it relaxing, sitting here in the warm sun, feet resting in the cool water. Just the thought is enticing,” he says, dipping his free hand in the water. “Tell me, Lumi.” There is something about him…or is it me? This sort of behavior, this isn’t normal…is it?  He thinks to himself. After a moment, he hangs his head and whispers,“Are you like this with all men who come to the temple?”

Lumi scoffs, “No! What?! Are you calling me a harlot?!”

“No!” Khimi laughs, “I was just curious,” he adds quickly.

 “There has never really been anyone who has caught my eye before…and I think that if you see something you desire, you should take it, make it yours,” Lumi says, his cheeks growing progressively flush. “Besides…there is something about you.”

“You know, you’re moving a bit fast for me,” Khimi says, his eyes focusing just beyond Lumi. “You don’t know anything about me, I a–”

“Maybe I don’t have to know anything about you to know you,” Lumi interrupts in a whisper, his ears drooping slightly.

“What does that mean?” Khimi asks, raising an eyebrow. 

“I-It’s nothing,” Lumi stutters, his cheeks turning scarlet. “We should return to your camp. Maybe we can count everything before dawn.”

Khimi pulls his hand back from the aslan’s. “Yeah, it’s late,” he whispers. He stands, then looks back at the ewer once more.

The two continue back down the stairs, Lumi heading down first in silent contemplation. Khimi watches the aslan cross his arms as if his pride had been wounded. They draw near the entrance of the temple, Khimi pauses once more to glance at the reflecting pool. He looks over the large sandstone structure, noting the beautiful hand painted murals. Oceanic images depicting baptisms and water births. He takes a moment to lean against the pillar, his exhaustion finally beginning to set in. His mind races over Lumi’s words. What did he mean, he ‘didn’t have to know anything about me’? What is that supposed to mean?

“Lumi,” Khimi calls. “Sorry if I offended you. It’s just, people don’t often see me the way you see me.”

Lumi turns to face Khimi, “I am not like everyone else,” he says, his hands extended wide, pleading. “I am like you, so I know you— I know what it is like to need to be a certain way for others. I know you’re hiding, I know you’re unhappy,” Lumi growls in frustration.

Khimi purses his lips, “What do you mean, you’re like me?”

Lumi groans, “Do I have to say it?” He questions, edging closer to Khimi.

Yes,” Khimi whispers. His body becomes rigid at Lumi’s approach. “Say it,” he adds, taking a step closer.

Lumi grabs a handful of his linen tunic, “I know you’re like me. I can tell you’re hiding who you are. I can tell the way you look at me!” He says, his fingers tense on the cloth. “I knew the moment we met.”

Khimi sighs loudly, “So you figured me all out? Just like that?”

“N-No,” Lumi replies. “I just already feel something, something I don’t quite know how to explain.”

A lengthy quiet follows Lumi’s words. Khimi contemplates what had just been said, realizing that there was something that he could not explain either. He stares at the youthful aslan before him. Lumi’s fingers twist into the short linen tunic, exploring much of his thighs. A warmth fills Khimi’s cheeks while he watches.

The words leave his lips before he can think, “I am slow to trust,” Khimi says, closing his eyes. “I don’t know if we are both thinking the same thing…but if you can bear with me, then maybe we can explore this.” Khimi adds, smiling, then leans harder against the pillar. What am I saying?

Lumi groans, “Maybe we should sit down for a minute…you look exhausted,” he says in a bit of a panic. “Let’s head to the stairs, and we can finish this conversation there.”

“A-Alright,” Khimi responds in a whisper. He rubs his temples while they begin to walk. “Won’t be too long before the sun is up. How in the Hells are you even still awake?”

“I typically sleep during the day,” Lumi chuckles. He walks beside Khimi, helping to escort him. “Oh, this is another really nice spot, you can see down into the canyon below from the top of the stairs here!”

“This is nice,” Khimi whispers, rubbing his eyes. His exhaustion begins to set in, “How did you end up here, Lumi?” He asks between yawns.

The silence is consuming. Did I offend him? Lumi looks up to the stars, lost in thought. They make their way across the sand covered cobbles towards the stairs which descend into the canyon. Braziers burn every few dozen stairs and throw their light along the wide staircase. The palms shake with the gentle breeze, and the sound of trickling water is only barely audible above the crackling flames.

Lumi glances at Khimi, offering him a soft smile, “I think that conversation is best saved for another time,” he slaps Khimi’s thigh, and he sits on the top of the stairs. 

Khimi glances at him through his heavy eyelids, “I just thought..since I am sure the saint informed you all about the Zeybek family. You might be willing to share.”

“Surprisingly, she did not tell me much about you or your family,” Lumi whispers, he blushes then continues, “I was just shocked to see someone as handsome as yourself. Watching the way you handled the pottery…it was cute.”

Cute?” Khimi asks, he looks up in embarrassment. “I don’t think I’ve ever been called cute. I guess there is a first for everything.” He adds, resting his hand on Lumi’s knee.

Lumi looks at Khimi, “I mean, you’re definitely handsome…I think you know that about yourself, though,” Lumi says with a flirty grin, looking down at Khimi’s hand.

“Aye, I suppose I am not bad to look upon,” Khimi smirks. He itches the scar across his cheek,  “though, at the same time, I suppose I was equally surprised to see a handsome young aslan,” he adds, glancing at Lumi.

“Do you find me handsome, or are you just interested in my unique features, milord?” Lumi asks mockingly. His hand reaches over Khimi’s, their fingers interlace between one another.

Khimi leans his head towards Lumi, “Perhaps it was both,” he says. He peers into Lumi’s round eyes, noting again their impossible aetherial color, blue like the shallows of the Emerald Coast. Where just moments ago, his pupils were dark slits, they are now perfectly round saucers.  “Are you testing me, Lumi?”

Lumi smiles coyly, “Am I doing something that could be seen as testing?” He asks with a smirk.

“Did the saint send you to seduce me?” Khimi asks, raising an eyebrow. The thought had stuck with Khimi since they began the tour, but he continually pushed it to the back of his mind. “Be honest,” he says, reeling back.

“No, but I can tell there is only one person here who is keeping you from being happy,” Lumi sighs, releasing his grip from Khimi’s.

“Wa-Wait, what do you mean,” Khimi says, his fingers grip tightly to Lumi’s knee.

“You’re the only one who is stopping you from being happy. I can tell. If there is something you want, you should take it!” Lumi whispers, placing his hand over Khimi’s again. He slowly pulls Khimi’s hand over his soft thigh, his face draws nearer.

Khimi’s fingers slide beneath Lumi’s linen tunic. “Take what I want?” He questions, resting his forehead against Lumi’s shoulder, his fingertips feeling the warmth of Lumi’s inner thighs.

Lumi whispers into Khimi’s ear, “It’s okay.” His hand guides Khimi beneath the tunic.

Lumi’s warm breath sweeps across Khimi’s cheek. “Alright, little lion,” Khimi whispers, “I’ll take what I want.” He adds, his lips draw nearer to Lumi’s, his fingers run further up the short tunic, the coarse linen wrinkles against his calloused hand. The tips of his fingers brush against the soft skin. Khimi can almost taste Lumi’s breath.

Lumi!” A woman’s voice calls in a panic. “Saint Nina found out you weren’t doing counts…you’ve really done it this time.”

“Godsdamnit, Amani!” Lumi groans, his cheeks flush with color. He straightens his tunic with a flustered expression. Turning back to the woman, he shouts, “Could you possibly be any more inconvenient!?” Anger flashes across his face. His tail brushes against the sand over the stony path.

Khimi sighs audibly, “I can see you’ve got business to attend to, Little Lion,” He whispers, ripping his hand away. “Perhaps we will have the chance to do this again some other time?” He questions, standing and turning to face the woman. “Excuse me, Amani, was it?” Khimi asks.

Amani tosses a judging look at Khimi, “Mmmhmm,” she sounds, throwing her lengthy black hair over her shoulders.

Khimi bows gently, “If you’ll pardon Lumi, I was distracting him from his duties,” he begins. “I was so caught up in his tale. It’s curious, an aslan not staying with his tribe. We just lost track of time,” he lies, gauging the woman’s expression.

“I-Its true!” Lumi exclaims, his eyes narrowing at Khimi. “We just got caught up talking.” 

“Be that as it may, Lumi,” she begins, rocking on her heels, “This isn’t the first time that you’ve found a way to avoid work. You should really return to that caravan and get to wo—”

Khimi raises his hand, “I promise it was by my design that Lumi couldn’t perform his duties,” he insists, interrupting the woman with a shake of his head. “I had grown exhausted from my travels and asked to take a moment of his time to show me around the temple. He can return now and finish taking stock of the inventory, if it pleases you.”

Amani narrows her eyes at Khimi, “Either way, I suggest you return to work, Lumi,” she spits. “I am sure Saint Nina will come to check on your progress shortly. I only came to give a warning,” Amani says.

Lumi gives a low bow, “I will return to my counts immediately, Amani. If you see Nina tell her I am doing the counts. Please, I beg of you!” Lumi exclaims, his hands clapped together in a pleading motion. “I don’t want her to think I am slacking!”

Amani scoffs, “I hardly believe you will return to your counts, but I will tell her I crossed paths with you and that you said you would,” she says, shaking her head in frustration.

“Well, I will see Lord Zeybek to his camp first, then I will return to counting the cargo,” Lumi says, giving the woman a second bow. “I promise!” He adds cheerfully.

“Right,” Amani snips, her eyes narrowing while she peers over the aslan.

Khimi follows Lumi’s lead, offering the High Priestess a bow. “Amani,” he says, his head lowered. “It was an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance. May the winds of the west bring us rain,” he finishes before he stands upright.

“May the winds of the west bring us rain,” Amani repeats, returning the bow. She turns back towards the temple, turning once to glance back at the pair. “The counts, Lumi,” she clucks, “Counts!”

Well then,” Khimi begins, chuckling while Amani leaves the vicinity. “It looks like you’d best get to work. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Maybe,” Lumi looks back towards the temple a moment. “Maybe, I want you to keep me. Maybe, I need a distraction,” he says, his hand grabbing hold of Khimi’s forearm.

“Look, Lumi,” Khimi begins, looking down at the aslan. “I was tired, I had a moment of weakness. I don’t know if we should continue down this…path.”

Lumi glares in disbelief, staring back into Khimi’s piercing blue eyes. “You felt nothing moments ago?” He asks, his speech quickening. “Y-you didn’t want to kiss me? You didn’t w-want to touch me?” He hounds.

“Of course!” Khimi replies in frustration. He tosses Lumi’s hand aside. “I don’t even know you, though.” He pauses, looking into the aslan’s eyes. “And, you’re a damn acolyte of the Gods!” He exclaims, “Aren’t you supposed to be saving yourself for your Gods?”

Lumi looks at Khimi with a look of distress, “That doesn’t matter!” He whispers, reaching towards Khimi’s hand. “It doesn’t matter if I am an acolyte. And..if you want to know me first, then get to know me. I can wait for you, I’ve been here for years, I don’t think I am goin’ anywhere soon!” He exclaims, his hand gripping tightly to Khimi’s.

“Your Gods won’t forsake you for taking a lover?” Khimi asks, squeezing Lumi’s hand tightly.

Lumi sighs, “Many acolytes are called to celibacy…others are not. I have always dreamed of the day I would find someone,” He says, drawing himself closer to Khimi. 

“How do I know you aren’t like this with every man who comes to the temple?” Khimi asks, looking down at the aslan now pressed against his body. “This all just feels so sudden,” he adds softly.

Lumi’s face screws up in anger, “I’ve never met anyone that I’ve felt this sort of connection with,” Lumi replies, placing his forehead against Khimi’s leather jerkin. “Don’t you feel it too? I know you can feel it!” He exclaims breathlessly. “It’s not normal for me at all, this feeling.”

Khimi stares in quiet contemplation, slowly caressing Lumi’s blond hair. “Have you ever had a lover?” he asks in a hushed tone.

Lumi presses his face against Khimi’s chest, “No, I’ve never had a lover. I’ve never had anyone who has cared about me in that way,” he whispers. 

“Who says I care about you? The more you know me, the less you’ll like me,” Khimi says in a hushed tone. “You can’t think you can just look at me and know you care about me,” He adds skeptically.

“I don’t quite understand it myself,” Lumi begins. “The moment I watched you painting that ewer I felt my heart beating through my chest.”

Khimi growls, “You’re heart is playing tricks on you, beastkin are al–”

“All emotional beasts?” Lumi finishes, aggression in his voice. “That the only thing we feel is primal urges like animals. Is that what you were going to say?” He asks then looks up at Khimi. “You’re just saying that to piss me off.” 

Khimi purses his lips, “It is a known truth, that beastkin are emotional,” he says, pressing his face against Lumi’s hair. “Maybe it is just your heart playing tricks on you,” Khimi mumbles between Lumi’s rounded ears.

Khimi can feel his body stirring, an uncommon experience for him. Over several summers, he had seldom felt the excitement or intoxicating feeling of lust. Strands of Lumi’s hair stick to his lips, the soft scent of roses wafts into his nose. He smells like heaven. Lumi breathes softly, his chest rising and falling against him.

“You’re wrong,” Lumi mutters. “I’ve never felt this way before. I could tell when we walked through the temple, you felt something too!” He exclaims. “All those times you stopped and looked at me. I don’t know what it is.”

 Khimi can hardly think straight, his hand moves along Lumi’s shoulder, the soft skin is unlike anyone’s he has ever felt. Smooth, but with a firmness behind it. Lumi’s words bother him more than he cares to admit, but he struggles to find clarity in the moment, his mind feels dull, almost numb. Fuck. A sudden tightness in his trousers causes him to shift his body, angling himself further from Lumi.

“Even if I did, my life is already set out before me. You are not a part of that life,” Khimi begins, his voice breaking slightly. “Even if you were the person that the Gods put before me for some reason, duty calls for something else, Lumi. And that isn’t you. I am bound to serve my family.” He pulls back from Lumi. “I really should go to sleep, I’ll wake my advisor and have him help you with the counts.”

“So, this is it then, is it?” Lumi asks, a disgruntled look on his face. “You won’t even take a chance at happiness…how sad of a man you are,” he says, watching Khimi walking down the stairs.

Khimi pauses on the stairs, “I may have to come back within the next few months,” he says, without turning back. “Maybe by my next visit you’ll have moved on,” he adds before he continues down the stairs.

Fuck you, Khimi!” Lumi calls, shouting down the canyon. “I am not some whore who moves from man to man like you think! I will be waiting for your return…I promise,” he shouts.

Khimi continues down the stairs, waving his hand dismissively, “Move on, Little Lion. It’s for the best,” he whispers to himself. 

Khimi turns back once he nears the bottom of the stairs, looking up he notices Lumi’s shape in the moonlight staring down at him. The moment holds– Lumi’s unwavering, boyish form sends a shiver down his spine. The sisters stand high in the sky behind him, the light from the temple at his back. Fucking Hells. His heart thumps as if he were facing an adversary in the arena once again. Unsure of himself, he finds his hand on the hilt of his dagger. He can feel the intensity of Lumi’s eyes piercing through him, those startling blues reflecting the light back at him. The drumming of his heart quickens, an uncomfortable sense of danger and lust fills him. He bites his knuckle and growls. Not wanting to linger, Khimi shakes his head and continues towards the camp, quickening his pace. His eyelids feel like weighted lead once he nears the wagons. Almost immediately, Khimi looks for the familiar tent with maroon accents. He draws open the tent flap, peering inside. Rashid stirs from his sleep while he lays down on the bedroll set out for him. Closing his eyes, he begins to hear the advisor humming and stretching.

Rashid rolls on his side, “Khimi, you’re back a bit later than expected. You finish counting everything in with the acolyte?” He asks quizzically.

Khimi sighs, “I’d ask a favor of you,” he whispers softly.

“What can I do, Khimi?” Rashid asks, sitting up on his bedroll.

“I need you to do the counts,” Khimi begins.

“Ya realized how much Aleyna been giving the temple, eh? Or perhaps ya just got a bit tired?” Rashid asks, his voice growing serious. “But, something else must be going on. I went to check on you some time ago and noticed you were missing,” he adds, a concern in his voice. “Are you aware of what happens to me if something happens to you? Aleyna– she’d have my head.” 

Khimi sits up on his elbows, “I-I am doubtful Aleyna has it in her to punish you,” Khimi begins. “I was in no danger, but I have something I would like for you to d—”

“Khimi!” Rashid interrupts. “I understand you do not want me following you everywhere…but just tell me ya need private time and ya will have it,” He pauses to glance at Khimi. “Now what is this you’d have me do?”

Khimi’s hand grabs a handful of sand near his bedroll and watches the granules slip through his fingers. He keeps his eyes focused at the top of the tent, watching the light from the moons shine brightly onto the cloth. He turns towards Rashid, the shifting sand still slipping between his fingers.

“There is someone that is going to be helping you with the counts,” Khimi says. “I’d like you to tell me what you make of him,” he whispers pensively.

Rashid itches his chin while he weighs Khimi’s request, “Anything in particular about this person?” He asks, a baffled expression on his face. “Did he upset ya?”

Khimi grabs another handful of the sand, “He is an aslan, and he seems to be a person with an interesting past,” he sighs. He closes his eyes to avoid Rashid’s expression. “He’s curious.”

Rashid’ brightens at Khimi’s words, “Y-ya know that I support ya in anything that ya do, boy.”

“It has been many years since you’ve called me a boy,” Khimi mutters under his breath, “I’m ready for whatever lecture you’re about to give me.”

Rashid puffs his cheeks out, “Ya know that I’ve watched ya grow since ya were a child. I have never once seen ya take an interest in anyone,” he says with concern. “Not a one! All those girls Aleyna had sent, the myriad attempted betrothals.”

“I did not say that I was interested in him, just that he was interesting!” Khimi corrects, raising his brow. “You’re overreaching.”

Homosexuality is not looked down upon in the Desert Cities nor across the majority of Talmus, but the fact remains that Khimi had a duty to continue the Zeybek line, to produce a proper heir to follow in his footsteps. Throughout his life, he had kept those feelings to himself, hiding them away from others. Even when men would come onto him or offer to spend time with him, Khimi had felt obliged to refuse, denying himself.

Rashid leans forward, crossing his hands over his stomach while he sits up, “If this person is someone who has caught y’re interest, then we should drag them back to Rhaz with us,” he says excitedly.

Khimi laughs, “I believe that is a crime. And, it’s more complex than that.”

“Does he take interest in you?” Rashid asks, slowly gathering his belongings from the floor.

Khimi smiles to himself, “Rashid, this line of questioning feels invasive,” he says, peeking at his advisor with one open eye. “And I know you’ll just report back to Aleyna,” he says with a stifled smile.

“Khimi,” Rashid begins, in disbelief. “Ya know, my loyalty lies with you. I swore to my makers and swore an oath before the sanctum of balance that I would be y’re protector. Not Aylena’s, and praise the Gods not Ziad’s, but y’res alone,” he finishes, a proud expression on his face.

Khimi laughs, “I have to say, I’ll never tire of that speech,” he says, slapping his hand into the sand, “now, please don’t do anything to embarrass me! Though I know you well enough to know you will.” 

Khimi listens to Rashid scoff while he departs from the tent. His mind races back over the events from the evening, his heart pounding in his chest. Why did I push him away? Gods, is he right? Am I the daft one?  Khimi thinks. Why must I always put my family before my own happiness…his thoughts continue to race. Khimi’s fingers tremble over the buttons of his leather jerkin, laying it atop a small rucksack nearby once he slips it from his arms. What would have happened if I just let myself go, he thinks to himself.

Khimi’s fingers hastily unlace his leather trousers, then force them halfway down his thighs before his desire overcomes him. Fingers grip his girth, stroking his member with unbridled lust. His thighs were so warm, his skin was so soft, his eyes were mesmerizing. His eyes trail down his body, watching the precum pool on his copper skin from his slickened tip.Gently working his hand around his shaft, he rubs the foreskin back with his movements. I would love to have an hour alone with him, what I wouldn’t give–  His mind races while his body tenses from climax, a stream of ejaculate spraying onto his abdomen and chest. What the fuck is wrong with me?  He thinks, rushing to wipe the pearlescent liquid from his body with a kerchief. Hurriedly, he removes his trousers and pulls the fur-lined bedroll over himself. Closing his eyes, he replays the events from the night repeatedly, questioning potential outcomes.

***

Khimi awakes to the familiar sound of Rashid’s humming. The sun’s midday rays shine brightly through the open tent flap, the heat causing Khimi to sit up, removing the fur-lined blanket. Rashid stops and glances at Khimi before continuing to pack his things into a rucksack. Khimi watches the older man’s expression, concerned with what information he may have discovered about the night before.

Khimi clears his throat, “What did you make of last night?” He asks while attempting to hide his interest with a yawn.

“Khimi, I think we should pack and save our conversations for the road,” Rashid chuckles softly before walking towards Khimi. “Probably best you get dressed, the saint wants to see us off and offer her thanks,” he adds, tousling Khimi’s raven hair.

Khimi fixes his hair and groans. “I think you forget I’m an adult sometimes!” He exclaims with grit teeth. “Besides, what’d you find out? Did you meet him?”

“Yes, it was as you said. Lumi is…well, he is quite interesting. And he has quite an interest in you, it seems,” Rashid murmurs, patting Khimi’s shoulder. “Though, as I said, we should save this conversation for the road. We’ve only got the day, and it seems you missed your chance to speak with the saint.”

Khimi grimaces while he stirs, quickly dressing and packing the few belongings he has laid about the tent. Finally, finished loading his rucksack, he looks out the tent, noticing the caravans are already packed, only supplies to make the journey back onboard. Khimi furrows his brow in thought, what a damn waste, we come all this way only to take nothing back. The Cerulean Star won’t make anything from this…wasted effort. His eyes survey the area, looking for Lumi’s figure amongst the acolytes that have come to bid their farewells.

“If y’re lookin’ fer the aslan,” Rashid pauses, covering his eyes from the midday sun. “He’s just gone to bed a moment ‘fore ya woke. But, just so ya know, he asked me if he could see ya off. I told him that it was probably — what’s that face for?”

Khimi scoffs, masking his expression, “I was making sure we were all clear to head out at sundown,” he begins, “I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Admiring the weather. That’s all.”

Rashid smiles, his lips curving into a wide grin, “Don’t be an ass, boy” he mocks. “I’ve watched over ya since Saint Davani blessed y’re birth. I know when y’re lying.”

“Everyone has been acting like they know me lately,” Khimi sighs just as he finishes dressing. The laces on his jerkin are strung tight. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Well, if there is anyone who knows ya. It would be me,” Rashid begins, placing a hand on Khimi’s shoulder. “In your years, I’ve seen ya become an outstanding man. I’ve seen ya turn down dozens of betrothals, a handful of concubines, and from what they tell me, an untold number of whores,” he says with a chuckle.

Khimi pats the older man’s hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate your words, but there are things that are just difficult to talk about, especially with someone who seems to know every detail of my life.” He says, sighing while he looks over the camp.

Rashid sighs, “I’ve allowed this conversation to elude us too long. When we get into the desert tonight, we will talk, or ya will listen to what I have to say.” He grumbles, then clears his throat abruptly, “regardless of if ya want to hear what I have to say or not.”

Khimi gives Rashid a knowing glance, “I’ll be all ears, if only because I respect your advice,” he says with a strained voice.

Rashid slings his rucksack over his shoulder, walking beside the caravan, “I am going to the wagon for a few, the saint will bless our caravan when we pass the canyon this evening.”

Khimi follows Rashid, tossing his rucksack into the wagon beside his advisor, then walks to the stairs from the canyon, pausing in admiration at the beauty of the palms blowing peacefully in the sea breeze. Maybe all that water isn’t a waste after all, he thinks while he climbs the staircase. Every so often, he stops to appreciate the hundreds of desert succulents that bloomed to life from the steady drips of water from the aqueducts. Reaching the top of the stairs, he looks ahead at the two rows of palms swaying in front of the massive temple. He gives a nod while he walks past dozens of acolytes, who offer gentle bows in response. Past the reflecting pool, he stops again to relive the words Lumi had spoken to him the night before, I am like you, so I know you. A haunting feeling comes over Khimi at the realization that Lumi may be the only person to have ever understood him with such haste, to understand his desires. He continues his journey past the reflecting pool, passing several columns before he turns and heads up the familiar sandstone stairs. Nearing the top, he hears the sound of water pouring down the fountain. Water drips heavily from many points along the aqueducts running on either side. With cupped hands, he fills them with the cool water and brings it to his lips, the refreshing taste of the cool freshwater quenching his thirst.

Near the fountain, he remembers more of his conversation from the previous night. Though he was tired, the words stick clearly in his mind, ‘During the day you can see several miles in the desert to the East, and the ocean to the West. The breeze smells so strongly of salt, and you find yourself wanting to sleep because of how peaceful it is!’ He sits on a sandstone bench, following Lumi’s words. First peering out towards the desert, watching the heat causing the light to bend above the sand. Then towards the ocean, feeling the salty breeze caress his face. Khimi finds himself lying on his back against the sandstone bench, closing his eyes, the sun’s rays kiss his face. The fountain’s constant splashing lulls him into a semi-conscious sleep.

Khimi dreams deeply of the fountain, his head resting in the aslan’s lap on the bench. He turns to look into those deep aqua eyes, their aetherial glow staring back at him, Lumi’s mouth moves yet words unheard pass from his lips. Khimi watches, reaching up to caress Lumi’s soft pink cheek. A smile forms on Lumi’s lips, his fingers drag across Khimi’s stubble while he continues speaking. Khimi watches Lumi pause and look up, peering out over the desert. A long shadow suddenly casts over them both. Khimi awakens violently, aware of nearby presence.

Khimi, shielding his eyes from the sun, takes a glance up at a thin silhouette, “Lumi?” He asks quietly. 

“No,” a somewhat familiar woman’s voice starts, “though that does explain quite a lot.”

“W-What was your name again?” Khimi asks, sitting up from the bench. “Pardon, last night just felt very much like a dream.”

She glares down at Khimi, a quivering scowl on her thin lips. She sits beside him, “Amani. Though many people know me as High Priestess Amani,” she says, tightening her shawl as well as her scowl. “I believe it was the Gods’ work that made our paths cross here, Khimi,” she pauses, her face collected and stoic.

“Oh, pray tell. What do the Gods have lined up for me?” Khimi questions, and he rubs the crick in his neck. “I’ve never been fond of fate…or the belief that our destiny is determined by the Gods. You sound just like the aslan.”

“Then you are a fool, as with many other proud men. You think too highly of yourself.” Amani replies with vehemence in every word. “I was going to inform you that Lumi is gifted with some…significant gifts of divination. He has a belief…” She pauses, seemingly struggling to find the words, “he believes that you are his…as we would say in High Talman Animae dimidium meae, or rather The Other Half of the Soul. I understand that you aren’t a believer, but he believes this with all of his heart.”

Khimi exhales sharply. He shakes his head furiously. “He must be mistaken. I barely know him. Perhaps there is something wrong with him, clearly he is me—”

“Confused?” Amani scoffs. “You’re quick to judge, I’d have thought someone of your standing would learn to be open-minded, but perhaps being the son of Emir Ziad Zeybek has left your mind lacking.” She continues to adjust her shawl, looking slightly uncomfortable. She clears her throat with an audible ahem. “Khimi, I could tell you felt something towards him, I saw it myself last night. Don’t bother denying it, your agitation now tells me just as much.”

“Were you skulking about the bushes like some beast?” Khimi snaps, “I feel like this is some sort of set up, is the saint so desperate for wealth that she’d blackmail her benefactor’s own son?” He asks, scoffing at the woman.

“It’d be best if you watch your tone, My Lord,” Amani glares at him. “I won’t take insults against Saint Nina. She is the reason you even exist, so you can thank the heavens that she begged the Gods for your birth, you ingrate,” Amani spits, tying the knot on her shawl. “Besides, if you’re ever to amount to anything higher than Emir Ziad Zeybek, you should learn to control your temper, no?”

Khimi stares in disbelief at the bold High Priestess, “Right, right. So then, if I am to be this…person, this thing for Lumi. What would I need to do?” Khimi asks, averting his gaze from the woman. Never in his life had anyone spoken to him in such a bold way unless they had a weapon pointed at him. He could not help but feel equally threatened at this moment.

“Just be there for him when he needs you most,” Amani says, her voice becoming more gentle. “Lumi requires someone strong, someone who can care for him. He is emotional, indignant, and aggressive. But he is also kind, trustworthy, and loyal. He needs someone who he can believe in. Someone who will believe in him. He needs his Animae dimidium meae. Sometime before your arrival, he had a vision that he would be leaving the temple. It is a rare gift to receive such things, but Lumi seems plenty favored by the divine. For whatever reason…I can’t explain, but there is no denying that he was meant to be somewhere other than this temple. It is clear he was meant to be with you,” she pauses to clear her throat. “I understand that you feel as if you can’t trust me or the temple. But think about what I said, look into it if it pleases you. But if you are what he thinks that you are, then you would have felt an undeniable pull to him, something you could never explain.”  

“I believe he picked the wrong person,” Khimi chuckles, color rising in his cheeks while he peers across the desert. “I don’t even know who I am enough to help him,” he whispers. “Truly, I feel constantly lost…my place in the world is just as unsure as the shifting sands of the Desert Cities.” 

“You know yourself more than you think. In our hearts we all know who we are,” Amani nods, standing and looking out over the desert with Khimi. “He believes with all of his heart in this, give it a chance. Write to him, I will make sure he receives whatever you send,” she says, approaching the stairs. “Thank you. For listening. In time, you may grow to become more fond of our order. Do you have any more questions?”

“Is it real?” Khimi murmurs under his breath.

Amani lowers her head in thought, “The truth is I too struggle with the concept of fate. That our lives are predestined. But I can tell that Lumi is not meant for this temple. His place in the world is elsewhere…he is not happy here, though he often wears a smile on his face. What he wants is to be loved. The boy has known more hardships than he will ever tell you, he needs love.”

Khimi groans and drags his palm across his face, “I think all of this is some mistake…I am nothing more than a merchant now.”

Amani smiles, “If only that were true,” she replies before she takes the first steps down the stairs. “You’re so much more than a merchant, Khimi.”

Khimi sits, pondering Amani’s words. Fate? If he knew all of this, why didn’t he just tell me…maybe he wouldn’t have seemed so forceful. Hells, what should I do? He stands, looking towards the canyon. Remembering the time, Khimi rushes back towards the caravans. The dozen wagons prepped and ready to go, Baqil nods to him, making a simple gesture for him to get into the wagon. Khimi pulls himself quickly into the back of the lead wagon and glances at Rashid curled over his rucksack. Deciding not to wake the man, Khimi sits on the bench across from him in silence, opening the flap slightly to look ahead at the desert.

Khimi slaps his hand against the wooden plank, “Is it time, Baqil?” He asks quietly, looking past the cart driver.

“Aye, you missed the saint I am afraid. We all decided to give you a moment to collect yourself before we left. Don’t fear, we haven’t lost much time. The sun has barely begun to set,” Baqil whispers, his eyes darting towards Khimi, then back to the sleeping Rashid.

“I am afraid I have already slept, Baqil,” Khimi whispers, pulling himself to the front of the wagon. “Would you mind if I stayed up here for some time?”

Baqil smiles, “Lord Zeybek is welcome to do as he pleases,” he says, holding the canvas flap ajar for Khimi.

Khimi whispers his thanks then takes his seat beside Baqil, “I’m ready to get home.” 

“Did you have time to collect your thoughts, Khimi? Rashid was adamant we give you time to yourself,” Baqil begins, glancing sideways at Khimi. He clicks his tongue to spur the horses into movement.

Khimi exhales sharply, “I suppose that I was able to get some reflecting done. By any chance did a young blond beastkin come to the caravan?” He asks, peering back through the curtain.

“Hard to say,” Baqil begins, nodding cautiously. “There were dozens of beastkin that came to see us off, I didn’t take note of their features, I am afraid.”

Khimi curses under his breath. “Baqil, if you’d like to rest, I can take the reins,” he adds.

“It is alright, Khimi,” Baqil says, “I’ve just awoken a few short hours ago myself,” he adds.

Khimi rests his head against his hand, deep in thought. The wagon sways to and fro for several hours, the canyon leaving them in the darkness, the temple fading into the distance. Several figures can be seen from the top of the canyon, viewing their departure. Khimi leans back, resting his back against the wooden driver’s seat.

Wonder if Lumi came to see us off?

As the sun begins to fall beyond the horizon, Khimi watches the stars slowly spread across the sky against the harsh desert landscape, hundreds of twinkling lights filling the night sky. His mind wanders back to the events of the temple and contemplates before being startled by a loud clang in the back of the wagon. Sitting up quickly, he looks inside to find Rashid finally awakened by the rocking motion of the caravan, his rucksack splayed across the floor. Khimi moves to the back of the wagon, picking up metal cups and spoons from Rashid’s mess kit.

Khimi looks over at his advisor, “Finally awake, eh?” 

“Awake?” Rashid asks groggily. “Barely! Slept like shite once the caravan started. Pour me a drink, ouzo or arak, something strong,” he pleads, his thumbs pushing against his eyelids.

Khimi stares at the elderly man, “Alright,” he begins while rummaging, “is our conversation going to be that serious that you need to drink?” He asks, eyeing Rashid curiously. Khimi picks up a metal cup from the floor, opening a large bottle nestled beneath the bench. He pours the distilled beverage into the cup, offering it to Rashid.

“Khimi,” Rashid begins, taking the metal cup from Khimi’s hand. He takes a long sip and pauses, nervously sucking his teeth. “I spoke with a woman, I sent her to talk to you as well,” he pauses, gauging the expression on Khimi’s face. “Anyway, the woman approached me. She asked me some personal things about you, of course I did my best to skirt the subject. She said ya were someone important to that boy, to that aslan. Apparently it’s something serious. This is why ya asked me about him, wasn’t it?” He stops, then shuffles his feet.

“She approached me,” Khimi starts and glances up from the floor. “He believes our meeting was fated, that our lives are bound by fate, that our souls are intertwined or something,” Khimi says, watching Rashid. “I don’t know, it all sounds like bullshit to me.”

“Yeah. About that, while I do want ya to enjoy yourself and let loose on occasion…this sounds a little more,” Rashid says, leaning back against the wooden plank. He runs his fingers through his gray hair, then rubs his eyes. “She said that aslan was gifted with divination. Said he saw ya coming months before y’re arrival. I have to say as a man of the Faith that I find that exciting…but I don’t believe that it is your place to have to live for someone else.”

“I understand what you’re saying. But what did you make of him last night?” Khimi asks in a whisper, leaning into their conversation.

Rashid shakes his head, “He is certainly good at his job. Quick at counting, really slow at reading…he may be illiterate, but the main thing is that…the only thing he wanted to talk about was you,” he says, taking another long sip of ouzo. “Did ya have any partners? What sort of scents do ya prefer? Do ya drink? Etcetera etcetera,” Rashid continues. “The only thing that I know for certain though…is if this Dem– er, aslan makes ya happy, or if he’s something ya want to pursue. Ya won’t need to try very hard to win his affections,” he says, a hint of a laugh in his voice. 

Khimi slams his back against the wooden plank and rubs his brow in frustration. “This trip has been utterly confusing. Yeah…something almost happened with him last night. It wasn’t expected, but he was encouraging me, clinging to me. It was something I was not expecting…but I can’t deny I certainly felt tempted. More tempted than I have ever been,” he sighs, then slams the back of his head against the plank even harder.

Rashid watches Khimi’s eyes well with tears. “Don’t hurt y’reself, Khimi,” Rashid says, “What you felt, was it just lustful thoughts? Was it more? Ya know that y’re heart can race for a whore more than it can for y’re wife.”

Khimi’s face screws up at Rashid’s comment, “You always know just what to say,” he says, rubbing his burning cheek. He sucks his teeth, “I felt something for him before he even tried to get me to kiss him. There is just something about him, something comforting about being near him,” he groans with a questioning look at Rashid. “I must sound pathetic or something.”

Rashid laughs, “Rest assured that if this is your version of weakness, I’ve seen many great men display their weakness time and time again,” he says, placing a hand on Khimi’s shoulder. “Khimi, I will always look out for y’re best interest. I think…ya need to come here again on our next run…get to know the aslan if ya think he’d make ya happy. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen ya take an interest in, well…anyone.” He claps Khimi’s shoulder gently, then gives him a knowing grin. 

“Maybe I will,” Khimi says, rubbing the wetness from his cheek. He shifts from Rashid’s gaze. “Would you mind if I had a moment alone? I need to clear my thoughts.”

“Very well,” Rashid says, standing from the bench.

Khimi watches Rashid pull himself through the flap, climbing next to Baqil. His back pressed against the wooden planks, he grabs the bottle of ouzo that Rashid had left behind. The bottle to his lips, the feeling of the heat of the distilled liquor pouring down his throat, he thinks, I should have just given in. He places the bottle beside him and continues his thoughts. I don’t even know how to pleasure another man…what if he expects me to…be with him when I go back. No, it won’t be like that. He rubs his eyes, the burning sensation of the ouzo continues running through him. Hells, he is gorgeous. I wish I could have seen him and said farewell properly…maybe it would have ended like those Lorian romance stories, maybe it would have ended with a kiss too.

Hells, he’d probably want to lay together. Little Fiend,” Khimi mutters to himself, wearing a snarky smile. He rolls onto his side and looks out the back of the wagon at the caravan trailing behind them. His imagination runs rampant with thoughts of their next meeting


[1] Beastkin are a race in Talmus which have the traits of animals. Felines, canines, vulpo (Foxes), Lupo (Wolves) are just a few. They are sometimes referred to as Demi-humans in a derogatory manner.

[2] Aslan are a type of beastkin. They have the traits of lions.