Chapter II

Betset, City of Springs

The vessel glides smoothly along the cliff side docks to the north of Betset, the dark hull cutting through the calm waters. Dozens of merchants bustle about, their voices and footsteps creating a symphony of activity while they unload their cargo from the various vessels. Lumi, thrilled to be back on land, dashes across the sturdy planks with his arms raised above his head, like a bird taking flight. Free from the constant rocking of the sea, he praises the Gods for the solid soil beneath his feet and falls to his knees to kiss the dirt. Khimi and Ennui follow closely behind, observing Lumi’s curious behavior with amusement.

Ennui barks orders to the remaining crewmen before striding purposefully across the bustling docks. She quickly negotiates for horses and wagons to transport their precious cargo, offering to stay behind and ensure its safety. Khimi agrees to her proposition, eager to get Lumi settled in Betset.

As they make their way through the foothills of Betset, the barren landscape suddenly transforms into a vibrant burst of flora. Golden wheat fields stretch out in all directions, dotted with verdant palms that line the inner rim of the city walls. It is a stark contrast to the desolation that surrounds many other Desert Cities. Khimi, lost in a sense of familiarity, takes in the sight — he had spent years as a mercenary in Betset, it had become a second home to him.

Lumi clings tight to Khimi’s back during their passage through the golden wheat fields. They approach the towering red mud walls of Betset, the wooden gates stand open in welcome, inviting them inside. The sun begins to dip below the horizon, painting the sky in hues of red and orange, they finally enter through the gates.

The streets are lined with tall palm trees that sway gently in the salty sea breeze. The last rays of sunlight fade, lights flicker to life in the red sandstone buildings, casting a warm glow over the city. Khimi clicks his tongue, signaling for his horse to halt by a small pebbled creek that runs alongside the sandy streets.

Khimi gracefully slides off his horse, bending down to cup a handful of water from the sparkling spring. He brings the cold liquid against his lips and takes a refreshing sip. “It’s clean,” he says, glancing up at Lumi with a smile. “Try it.”

“I’ve drank from puddles,” Lumi insists while he dismounts from their horse and joins Khimi by the spring. He dips both hands into the water and takes a long drink. “It’s so cold,” he says in surprise.

Khimi smiles at Lumi’s reaction and sips more water from his cupped hands. He looks up at the sky, now filled with stars, and turns to Lumi with a soft expression. “The city has dozens of natural springs that flow from the ground,” he explains. “They have been engineered to irrigate the fields outside the city.” Khimi takes another drink before continuing, “It’s almost like magick in its own right.”

“Where did they run before?” Lumi asks, gazing up at the spiraling trail that leads into the city.

Khimi’s smile fades, he remains silent for a moment. Then, looking out of the corner of his eye, he speaks softly. “There is a whole labyrinth beneath the city. Legend has it that it was once used by a prince to hide his treasure.” He takes another sip of water before adding, “But it was later discovered to have belonged to a minotaur who was slain by some man…who then masqueraded as a prince.”

Lumi sighs with disappointment. “So then there’s no treasure?”

“It’s been gone for a while now,” Khimi confirms with a pat on Lumi’s shoulder. “But it’s not completely abandoned. They’ve turned it into an arena for competitions.”

“An arena under the city…that’s interesting,” Lumi remarks and scratches his head.

Khimi takes the bridle of his mare and starts leading her through the streets. “It actually makes sense,” he says thoughtfully. “Though, it requires a lot of light down there for the humans. And it’s relatively safe, being inside the city walls.”

Lumi grabs Khimi’s hand, hurrying to keep up with his long strides. He looks around at the empty streets and can’t help but ask, “Have you ever been down there?”

“All the time,” Khimi replies with a laugh, enjoying Lumi’s excitement. “Sometimes we would go to watch brawls and fights with high stakes.”

Lumi’s brow furrows in concern. “And when you were a mercenary, did you fight in this arena?” he asks quietly, squeezing Khimi’s hand tighter.

Khimi’s expression turns serious. “Yes, I have,” he admits before they continue on their way through the deserted streets. Khimi clenches his jaw, his dark eyes narrowed in thought. Lumi’s question hangs in the air. A tense silence falls between them before Khimi finally responds with a hint of reluctance, “Sometimes…I’d end up in the arena.”

“Why though?” Lumi presses, his tone betraying a hint of annoyance.

Khimi turns to face Lumi fully, his expression guarded. “Don’t give me that,” he says, pursing his lips in frustration.

“I’m not!” Lumi insists quickly, sensing Khimi’s agitation. “I just think…it’s unlike you. I can’t imagine you willingly putting yourself in such a reckless and dangerous position.”

“Reckless,” Khimi repeats with a wry smile. “I suppose it was a different time back then. It was thrilling. Exhilarating,” he adds, absently brushing a stray lock of dark hair from his deep blue eyes.

Lumi follows closely behind, releasing his grip on Khimi’s hands. “I didn’t mean that. That you were careless,” he says, his voice faltering.

“It doesn’t matter,” Khimi mumbles, turning back to Lumi. His hand reaches out, resting just below Lumi’s chin. “I was careless, reckless even. But…none of that matters.”

Lumi peers up at Khimi, his eyes reflecting the light through those aetherial blues. “I just can’t really imagine it…you fighting for coin,” he says softly.

Khimi stares back, smiling at Lumi. “Eh, I only took enough to last me for a bit when I ran from home. I knew I’d need some source of funding, and the arena worked out for a bit…and between mercenary jobs” He says, looking thoughtful.

Lumi places his hand over Khimi’s. “Did people die in those fights?” He asks, while a lone passerby looks them over.

“Sure. All the time. Sometimes they’d end things before they got to that point,” Khimi replies, turning back to the path. “We should find our inn.”

Lumi nods, “You’re right,” he says, following closely behind.

Their hushed conversation continues while they make their way through the dusty streets of Betset, passing rows of abandoned merchant stalls. Near the center of the city, a low hum rises from below their feet. Lumi’s ears perk up and his body tenses in response to the growing rumble. Khimi gives him a reassuring smile before leading him further up the hillside towards the source of the noise.

They pass by several small grottoes fed by natural springs, each one adding to the symphony of sounds that surround them. Finally, they come to a stop outside a large red stone building with its back facing out over the city. The road leading up to it is lined with thick brush and tall grass, giving the impression of abandonment.

Khimi secures their horse to a post outside and motions for Lumi to follow. Together, they push through the heavy wooden doorway and enter into a world of nostalgia. The air is filled with the sweet scent of smoke, emanating from a nearby table where patrons sit and chat. The patrons, dressed in vibrant kaftans turn to look at Khimi and Lumi at their entry. Lumi remains close to Khimi’s side while they approach the counter.

In a quick exchange with the innkeeper, Khimi arranges for a room and stable for their horse for the night. The other patrons give them somber nods as they head towards their temporary lodgings, eager to rest after a long day’s journey.

Walking down a long passageway, Lumi turns to Khimi and takes in the vibrant colors of the tapestries that line the hall. “Rashid is supposed to meet us here?” He ponders aloud, his voice echoing off the stone walls.

“He knows the place,” Khimi whispers, adjusting the rucksack on his shoulders which holds their water skins and spare clothing.

Lumi’s gaze falls upon a bright yellow door ahead. “This is us, the sunflower door,” he announces with a hint of excitement.

“Seems they’ve decided colors work better than numbers for the rooms now,” Khimi replies with a small smile, pushing the pin key through the plate on the door.

Once the door is open wide enough, Lumi rushes past Khimi and collapses onto the mattress. “You won’t fit on it,” he comments with a laugh.

“You’ll just have to sleep on top of me again,” Khimi replies wearily. The rucksack smacks onto the rough wooden floors with a thump. “Or we could sleep on the ship.”

“No,” Lumi chokes. He looks up at the ceiling, unable to help but express his surprise. “You know, Khimi. I’m shocked. No one here even bats an eye at my clothes. Back in Rhaz, I felt like everyone stared at me,” he confesses, glancing at Khimi from the corner of his eyes.

Khimi sits on the edge of the bed, his hand running over the coarse cotton sheets. “It’s night. No one’s seen you. That outfit…it’s actually Dolman fashion. Many traders here come from Dolmas,” he explains, placing a comforting hand on Lumi’s leg.

“I feel kinda silly sometimes,” Lumi begins, turning on his side and facing Khimi. “I barely know anything about Nina’s order or the Temple of Life, and yet I spent so much time there,” he admits, taking in the plainness of the room.

Khimi begins to remove several layers of his travel attire, pausing to notice Lumi’s gaze lingering on the room. “You were getting used to all that finery, weren’t you?” He chuckles under his breath.

“N-No!” Lumi insists, sitting up behind Khimi. “But where are you running off to?” He asks, helping Khimi pull his arm through the sleeve.

Khimi turns back with a sly smile, “I’m starved,” he announces, his hand gliding across Lumi’s exposed abdomen. “I thought I smelled pork belly when we walked in,” he teases with a slight grin. “Pork belly over beans…maybe some sausage.”

Lumi smiles, “I guess we can’t let you starve now, can we?” He says, fighting to pull Khimi up by the arm. “Wanna go foraging?”

“Yes, foraging in the tavern,” Khimi mocks, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Lumi forcefully pulls him by the arm through the door. The savory aroma of roasting meat fills the hallway, causing Khimi’s stomach to growl in hunger. “When was the last time we had fresh meat?”

Lumi rolls his eyes playfully, “It wasn’t that long,” he chuckles. “It’s only been about a week…I think,” he muses out loud. As they enter the common room, Lumi drags Khimi by the arm, drawing curious glances from the few patrons scattered throughout the dimly lit space. With a mischievous smirk, Lumi asks, “Anywhere you wanna sit?” His eyes scan over the available tables and seats.

Khimi surveys the room, his gaze landing on a table near the entrance. “Anywhere that faces the door is fine. Maybe we’ll spot Rashid when he gets here,” he suggests, pointing to the table.

“I’ll go get us something to eat,” Lumi offers, holding out his hands eagerly.

Khimi rubs the back of his head sheepishly. “Oh, low on funds again?” He teases.

Lumi lets out a sigh and blows air through his lips. “You know I don’t have any coin,” he reminds Khimi gently. “I’m just an acolyte.”

Khimi chuckles and reaches into his leather pouch, pulling out a shiny silver coin. “Here,” he says, placing it delicately in Lumi’s palm.

“A single silver? Really?” Lumi raises an eyebrow skeptically at Khimi’s offering. “That isn’t enough for drinks and food…”

“Fine,” Khimi concedes with a sigh, closing his eyes briefly in resignation. “Just don’t drink too much,” he warns with a quirk of his brow.

Lumi takes the additional silver coin, examining it closely between his fingers. “Why not?” He asks with a curious smile, glancing up at Khimi.

“Wanted to show you something later, and I don’t feel like carrying you all the way there,” Khimi says, attempting a smile before Lumi turns towards the barkeep.

There had been days when Khimi would find himself questioning his affections for Lumi. At times, he wants nothing more than to hold him tightly and tell him how important he is. Yet, there had been moments when he had wanted to place the world between them. He struggles to make sense of his own feelings, but the one thing he is certain of is that Lumi had weaseled his way into his heart. Despite his conflicting feelings, he knows there is only one thing that can be done; dive further into the whirlwind and see where he lands.

“You didn’t mind carrying me before.”

“I-I, right…I mean yeah. I don’t,” Khimi stammers, still lost in his thoughts. “Fine, drink whatever you want.”

Lumi shrugs his shoulders and turns to the bar, leaving Khimi alone at the table. Khimi taps a coin against the wood and peers about the bar until he stands and strolls about the room. He admires the dozens of beautiful tapestries hanging from the walls. It’s changed a lot in the last few years. He recalls the tavern, once full of rowdy patrons, brawling mercenaries, and Dolman dancers. It’s so quiet now. He leans back in his chair, turning his head to the closest patron.

Khimi clears his throat, “It’s been a while since I’ve been to Betset. Is it always this quiet now?” He asks a man dressed in a crimson kaftan.

The man turns to Khimi, his sun kissed lips stretch into a smile, “Been a while has it? We come to Betset on occasion, most people go to the arena now in the evening,” he says, offering Khimi a nod.

Ah,” Khimi begins with a nod and a click of the tongue. “The arena was popular then, but it didn’t silence the city before.”

The older man pulls the empty chair beside him out, “Care to share our table?” he asks, “Been a while since I’ve heard the Sidian dialect.”

“I would, but I am with my friend,” Khimi replies, glancing at Lumi’s boyish form leaning against the bar.

The man follows Khimi’s gaze, “The boy is welcome to join us,” he grins, “an unusual travel companion.”

A second man stands from the table, dragging a chair across the floor to the group. “Yes, you and the aslan are welcome. I would love to hear how a Sidian man and an aslan find themselves together,” he says in a lilting accent, its pitch falling and rising like a song. “Together, right?”

The older men move their seats, adjusting the plates to allow space for them both. “We appreciate the generosity,” Khimi begins, sitting at the table with the three older men. “Might I trouble you for your names?”

“Of course,” the second man begins, lowering his shawl from his head. His graying hair falls against his face. He brushes it from his almond colored eyes, “Zaeem,” he says and gives Khimi a small nod. 

“Soad,” the man in the crimson kaftan says, giving Khimi a hearty smile. His accent is soft and usual, difficult for Khimi to place.

The third figure lowers their shawl, revealing lengthy drooping ears neatly tucked beneath the headwrap. “Please, call me Raife. Raife of Dolmas,” the lapine[1] says.

Khimi can not help but to stare at the lengthy, drooping ears. “It is a pleasure to meet all of you. I’m Khimi of Sidi, and my friend there is Lumi,” he says, gesturing towards the aslan staring at them from the bar.

Raife grins, glancing at Lumi. “Is your aslan a dancer?” He asks, looking between the others. “We had guessed as much with his attire,” he says with a grin.

“He dances when he drinks,” Khimi laughs, looking between them. “But he isn’t a dancer by trade. He’s actually an acolyte.”

“By what way did an acolyte come to travel with a merchant?” Soad whispers, leaning in, “It must be some tale.”

Khimi laughs, “I swear, we just…I-I don’t know, I suppose. It’s hard to say why we’re together.”

“He looks very happy,” Zaeem responds, lifting his chalice up. “There is nothing greater than finding happiness,” he says before taking a drink.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Raife insists, stirring his thick rusty soup. He takes a spoonful to his lips. “Which temple is your acolyte from?”

Khimi leans back, “Temple of Life. North of Rhaz,” he replies. “Though, I don’t believe that it was ever his intent to remain there anyway…I think at least.”

“I know the one. Have you ever asked him?” Soad asks, sipping from a brass chalice.

“I-I never had the chance really,” Khimi replies, stroking his chin. “He seems much happier now…he’s said that things were complicated at the temple.”

Raife looks up from his soup, “Then that is all that matters. Long as you’re both happy,” he whispers and blows the steam from the chunky tomatoes.

“How’d you match us so quickly?” Khimi asks, giving them a curious glance. “I…prefer not to reveal my relationship.”

Soad leans in, “Wasn’t that hard,” he says in his gruff voice with a wink. “Saw the way he looked at you when you were getting the rooms. Course, we only took interest ‘cause…well isn’t everyday you see an aslan traveling outside their own.”

Raife stifles a laugh, pushing Soad. “He has a wife, he wasn’t keeping his eyes on your friend.”

Khimi chuckles, “I wouldn’t be worried if he was,” he says, watching Lumi speak to the barkeep happily with two pewter mugs in his hand. “He claims to not have eyes for anyone else.”

“Claims?” Zaeem asks, laughing quietly with a glance up from his drink. “You don’t believe him?”

“I-Im sorry…maybe this conversation isn’t appropria—“

“Nonsense,” Soad laughs softly in his lifting voice. “We’re strangers in a strange land. We may never cross paths in our lives. Share our table and our bread. Our stories are yours, and yours are ours.”

Khimi shakes his head, unused to speaking so freely. Suddenly wishing he had never opened his mouth. “I don’t understand him— I don’t think I ever will.”

Raife gives Khimi a soft smile and nods his head. “It’s hard for you. Not being like us. Beastkin. We feel different. Our hearts, our minds, our emotions. When we love, we love like no other. So if the boy says he loves you, Khimi of Sidi…if you return his love, he’ll be with you until the end of his days if you care for him.”

Khimi can feel the pit in his stomach. The words feel heavy, like molasses weighing him down. The end of his days. Care for him. Return his love. His head snaps up from the table at the sound of Lumi’s voice.

“We’ve made new friends?” Lumi asks, raising his eyebrows at Khimi. His tail swishes behind him, “She said she’s going to bring us pork and lentils,” he says, placing the pewter mug before Khimi. “And she said their cider is really good!”

Khimi takes the mug, “Have a seat,” he says while he pulls the extra chair out for Lumi before introducing the other men at the table. He takes a long drink of the cider. “It is certainly crisp,” he says, placing his hand on Lumi’s thigh.

Lumi sips the cider, looking over the three men at the table. He smiles while he peers over the top of the mug, “What were you boys talking about?” He asks with a smug smile.

“Uh, right,” Zaeem says, motioning to Raife. “We were telling Khimi about Porat,” he says and reaches for a bowl of roasted peas. “Khimi was just telling us about your travels.”

“You’re all from Porat?” Lumi asks.

Raife tilts his head, his long ears perking up. “Zaeem and Soad are. I on the other hand am from Dolmas,” he says with a glance up from over his bowl.

“I’ve only ever traveled through the outskirts of Dolmas…when I was younger,” Lumi begins. “But…I’ve been learning it’s not quite the place I thought it to be.”

Khimi squeezes Lumi’s thigh, “It’s really not that bad, Lumi. We just had a bad experience.”

Raife perks up at the comment, “A bad experience with Dolmans?” He asks, placing his chin on his hand.

“Unheard of!” Zaeem and Soad laugh in unison.

Lumi brings his cider to his lips again, “Are there many Dolmans slavers?” He asks, taking a long drink.

Raife shrugs, his ears twitching. He gives Lumi a blank stare, “Slavery in Dolmas is common, but most Dolman slaves are debtors, the ones that come from elsewhere…well we don’t ask those questions in Dolmas. It has always been that way,” he offers plainly.

“When…we were attacked, they seemed interested in Lumi. Beastkin must fetch a higher price at market?” Khimi asks, giving them a curious glance.

Soad laughs, setting his chalice on the table. “Anything rare catches a higher price. Can’t tame an aslan though…minos, lapine, felines…sure. But an aslan, it won’t happen, they’d sooner bite their tongue off,” he says, giving Lumi a nod. “I recall a story once in the open markets of Falan. They had an aslan captured and for sale…on the bid day he bit his tongue off in front of all the buyers.”

“That all sounds very bleak,” Zaeem says, “How about we change the subject to something more pleasant?” He asks, standing from the table. “I’ll have the barmaid bring more drinks.”

Lumi turns back to Raife, “So you’ve never feared…being taken when you were in Dolmas?” He asks, looking at the lapine’s drooping ears.

“I grew up the son of a wealthy merchant, I never feared being a debtor. I grew up around the culture, so it never phased me,” Raife attests. He moves in his chair uncomfortably. “But I do understand where your feelings come from. I myself have departed Dolmas, moving to Porat. Where I met these fine gentlemen.”

“Are you and Zaeem…partners?” Khimi probes, looking between the two men.

Zaeem laughs softly. The older gentleman raises his chalice, “Not at all,” he says, looking at Raife. “We’ve all got wives back home in Porat. Raife…has two,” his laughter breaking the unease.

Raife shrugs at Zaeem, “I couldn’t help myself,” he says, looking at Lumi and Khimi. “I’m a lover,” he adds with a hand over his heart.

Lumi looks at Khimi, “I’ll be fine with just having one.”

Fields of Gold

Time seems to still as the five companions sit around the worn wooden table, sharing tales and feasting on hearty meals. Lumi and Khimi listen in awe to the three merchants recounting their journeys through distant lands. The night wears on while they watch travelers come and go through the bustling tavern, but Khimi comes to accept that Rashid will not be joining them this evening. Eventually, Raife, Zaeem, and Soad head to their rooms, leaving them to wander outside into the cool night air. In a comfortable silence, they make their way back to the outskirts of the city. Betset is now shrouded in darkness, with only scattered lights from within buildings casting a soft, warm light. The stars twinkle brighter with each passing moment, lighting up the streets below. Lumi catches up to Khimi and laces their fingers together, thrusting his arm into his, just like he did when they walked arm in arm through the temple when they met.

Khimi’s grip tightens on Lumi’s hand while they pass through the sturdy wooden gates guarded by cloaked figures. The sound of a nearby creek echoes around them while they continue on toward their destination. The guard nods respectfully to them at their passage  through the gates, his lips curling into a gentle smile.

The fields of wheat stretch out before them, golden stalks swaying in the gentle breeze. The earthy scent of freshly cut wheat fills Khimi’s senses. He closes his eyes briefly, taking it in. Lumi takes in the surroundings with wonder, his gaze drawn upwards to the stunning display of stars above.

After a brief pause, Khimi opens his eyes and leads Lumi to a lone desert ironwood standing tall in the field. Lumi breaks away, running ahead of him and spinning around with arms spread wide. His eyes glisten with admiration for the endless expanse of shimmering stars above them. The irrigated fields teem with life, dozens of mourning doves take flight at their approach. Khimi trudges through the field, making his way towards the tree, while Lumi continues to dance and twirl in the golden glow.

Together, they reach the base of the tree and gaze up at the starry sky, feeling small yet connected to something vast and eternal. The world seems to fade away, leaving only the two of them under the watchful eyes of the stars.

“It’s so beautiful!” Lumi exclaims, his face breaking into a wide grin while gazing at the stars. His laughter rings out happily, filling the air with joy.

Khimi can not help but smile at Lumi’s infectious delight, slowly making his way towards him through the swaying wheat. “I used to come here…to clear my head,” he murmurs softly, watching Lumi dance around the clearing.

Gods, he’s…so different.

Lumi laughs again and reaches his arms up towards the heavens, pointing out a specific constellation. “I can see Stella Solaris right there!” he exclaims with childlike wonder.

Khimi joins him, standing behind him and wrapping his strong arms around Lumi’s slender waist. The warmth of their bodies melds together while they gaze up at the twinkling stars.

Lumi purrs softly at Khimi’s embrace, his tail swatting playfully against Khimi’s leg. “K-Khimi,” he whispers in awe while Khimi’s hands slide down his abdomen.

“I wanted to show you…somewhere that has been dear to me,” Khimi whispers into the boy’s rounded ears, nibbling gently on the thick edges. “I’ve never shown anyone this place.”

Lumi’s heart flutters against Khimi. He places his hands over Khimi’s, following them along his body. “Thank you…for showing me,” he says with sincerity.

Khimi begins to untie the knot on his loincloth. The blood pumps in Khimi’s ear, he can only hear the sound of his heart pumping while he pulls at the knot, Lumi’s hand guiding him.

Khimi’s large, calloused hand slides down the front of Lumi’s loincloth, letting it to fall to the ground in a crumpled heap. His lips press hungrily against Lumi’s soft neck, murmuring words of desire and longing. The cool night air brushes against their skin, they stand entwined, lost in each other’s embrace.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you,” Khimi whispers fervently, his breathing ragged with emotion. “I don’t understand…” Before he can finish his thought, Lumi turns around in his arms, looking up at him with wide, adoring eyes that glisten in the starlight.

“Now you know how I feel,” Lumi murmurs. With a bright smile, he reaches up to cup Khimi’s cheeks in his hands. Their lips meet again in a passionate kiss, their bodies pressed together as if wanting to merge into one.

Lumi’s body writhes against his, pushing against him with an intense desperation.

“I’ve always known how you feel,” Khimi replies, his voice husky while he leans in to capture Lumi’s lips with his own. “I just…I’m not like you.”

Their kiss deepens, each exploring the other’s mouth with fervent desire. Lumi’s hand tangles in Khimi’s hair, pulling him closer, completely lost in his desire. The taste of Lumi’s mouth, the heat, the scent of his breath. Every part of him makes Khimi’s mind numb. His inhibitions fade with every passing moment.

They break apart suddenly, their foreheads touching while they try to catch their breaths. “Are we…doing it here?” Lumi asks, the flush color in his cheeks spreading down his neck and chest.

“Right now,” Khimi breathes, excitement evident in those words as he pulls back from their embrace to tug his shirt over his head, revealing his muscular chest glistening with sweat.

Lumi’s hands fumble at the sash holding Khimi’s trousers, struggling to remove the tight knot in his eagerness.

Right now?” Lumi grins up at Khimi, his purrs echoing through his words. His fingers finally loosen the knot and he hurriedly begins undressing.

 In one swift movement, Khimi undoes the golden clasp around Lumi’s neck and the heavy black chestwrap falls to the ground, revealing Lumi’s smooth chest underneath.

Khimi looks down, watching Lumi eagerly roll the stockings down his thighs. “Hells,” he whispers, his fingers stroking Lumi’s cheek. While Lumi works to undress, he gently places his shirt over the ground and rolls his trousers down his legs, pulling them over his feet.

Lumi lays back atop Khimi’s clothing, his body obstructed by the tall wheat around them. Khimi lowers himself on top, supporting himself by his elbows. His hand runs along Lumi’s arm, pausing to trace the edges of the golden armband. He’s still wearing them. His eyes lock with Lumi’s, his firm muscles rub against his smooth skin, their abdomens teasing against one another. Lumi’s ears lay flat while his hands reach behind Khimi.

Khimi can taste the cider on Lumi’s breath when their lips brush together. His hand shifts to Lumi’s waist and grip tight, pulling Lumi roughly against himself. Their lips smash together, parting for their tongues to find one another. His tongue is so rough, he thinks, their tongues gliding together. Lumi gasps for air through his nose, tilting his head back in surrender, begging for air.

“K-Khimi,” Lumi finally mutters, pulling their lips apart. Struggling for air, he murmurs, “I can’t breathe.”

Khimi’s lips graze Lumi’s cheek. “You’re fine,” he insists, licking at Lumi’s cheek. “Quit whining.”

“Let me taste you,” Lumi whispers while Khimi continues to lap his tongue along his cheek.

Khimi’s heart seems to thump even louder, just like it had when he faced his fiercest opponents in the arena. He chuckles, squeezing Lumi’s narrow waist. “Your purrs are so loud,” he says, filled with confidence. 

Lumi averts his gaze, his cheeks flushing ever brighter. “You like it…”

Oh, I do,” Khimi’s voice sings of his pride, his tongue sliding across Lumi’s cheek in a slow, deliberate motion. Lumi turns his head to meet Khimi’s lips, their tongues pressing together once again. With a gentle suction, Lumi draws Khimi’s wet tongue into his mouth, savoring the taste of him. He can not help but let out a soft laugh at the surprise on Khimi’s face. Khimi lowers himself onto Lumi, their bodies pressed together. Lumi wraps his arms around him, pulling him closer. The heat between them is electric. Lumi’s foot brushes against Khimi’s inner thigh, tracing circles up and down his leg. They kiss breathlessly for what feels like an eternity.

Khimi rolls onto his side next to Lumi, a smug grin spreading across his face. “You’re blushing,” he whispers, running his fingers through Lumi’s hair.

Lumi mirrors Khimi’s position and places his hand over his racing heart. “Can’t help it,” he purrs, “you’re not givin’ me a chance to breathe. I think my heart is gonna explode.”

Lumi reaches for Khimi’s shoulder and pushes against him, forcing Khimi onto his back. Khimi grunts, his back smashes against the soil and Lumi climbs on top of him, straddling Khimi’s abdomen with his thighs. He gives Khimi a playful squeeze and places his hands on Khimi’s heavy chest. Khimi begins to lift himself to meet Lumi, only to be forced back against the ground.

“Thank you for everything you do for me,” Lumi whispers softly, bringing his face close to Khimi’s chest. “But…just relax,” he adds in a low voice, his prickly tongue gliding teasingly over Khimi’s skin. “How does that feel?” He asks, looking up at Khimi with genuine curiosity.

A deep rumble of pleasure escapes from Khimi’s throat. He tosses his head back against the ground. “You know how it feels,” he whispers, reaching up to stroke Lumi’s cheek with a calloused hand. “That fucking tongue,” he croaks, unable to articulate any more words while Lumi teases him with his tongue.

Lumi’s coarse tongue dances over Khimi’s skin, occasionally stopping at his nipples to gnaw at them with fanged teeth. Khimi struggles beneath him, lost in the ecstasy of Lumi’s attention. Lumi’s tail brushes against Khimi’s groin, while Khimi places a hand on Lumi’s chest and trails it down the boyish body straddling him until it reaches the slickened tip.

With a knowing grin, Lumi raises himself slightly. Khimi props himself up on one elbow. Moving with practiced ease, Khimi guides his fingers between Lumi’s legs and towards his twitching entrance. Without warning, he pushes inside, Lumi’s body arches in pleasure. Khimi slowly moves forward, laying Lumi back onto the ground between his legs.

“Khimi,” Lumi whispers, bringing his legs at Khimi’s side. Khimi pauses, noticing the tears glistening in Lumi’s eyes.

“Is everything okay?” Khimi asks, leaning down to gently brush away a tear from Lumi’s cheek.

Lumi sniffles and wipes at his nose, struggling to find words. “I…uhm, you’re the only one…to ever want me,” he whispers, his voice breaking with emotion. “I know I’ve said it before…but I mean it.”

Khimi’s lips curve up into a gentle smile, his dark hair falling in front of his eyes. “I know,” he consoles, his fingers tightening on Lumi’s thighs. “You know…before we met,” he starts, his voice trailing off into a wistful tone.

Lumi braces himself up on his elbows, curious. “What is it?” he asks, wiping away a stray tear from his cheek.

“I-I…it’s nothing,” Khimi stammers, meeting Lumi’s gaze with a soft intensity. “I can’t quite put it into words…but I felt alone. Maybe even sad or angry,” he admits, frustration coloring his features.

“Do you still feel that way now?” Lumi asks, placing a comforting hand over Khimi’s.

A small smile tugs at the corners of Khimi’s lips. “No, I don’t…not since we’ve met. You make me feel different,” he confesses, intertwining his fingers with Lumi’s.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise,” Khimi replies earnestly, unable to hide the genuine joy in his expression.

Lumi smiles back with watery eyes, using the back of his hand to wipe away any remaining traces of tears. “You know, I would do anything to see you happy,” he says in a pensive tone, his head against the folded stalks of wheat.

“You don’t have to do anything to make me happy,” Khimi insists, warmth radiating from his touch. “Just be yourself.”

Lumi laughs softly, gazing up at the starry sky above them. “I swear by Stella Solaris…what I told you that night in the temple stands true…you’ll have to keep me,” he declares playfully, crossing his arms over his chest.

“And I intend to,” Khimi promises, then starts to pleasure Lumi with his fingers.

Khimi ponders a moment, glancing back at Lumi’s face, carefully watching his expression flicker with each movement of his fingers. Lumi’s ears twitch in excitement. When do I tell him…should I tell him about what Cecilia said. His fingers delve deeper into Lumi’s softness. What if he already knows, and I just make things awkward?  Khimi kneels upright, his fingers working diligently against Lumi’s quivering entrance. With a sudden surge of pressure, he forcefully presses his middle finger against that sensitive spot and elicits a low groan from Lumi, who in turn reaches down to slowly stroke himself. Khimi continues to work his finger skillfully, his other hand reaching for his cock and wetting his fingertips with precum. The digits glide effortlessly back to Lumi, slipping inside the welcoming warmth. A sharp whimper escapes Lumi’s lips once Khimi adds a second finger, stretching him open further. His walls clench tightly around the thick digits, while Khimi begins to move them in a more insistent rhythm.

Khimi chuckles at the sight of Lumi weakly pleasuring himself. “You’re going to wake up the whole city, kitten,” he whispers with a smirk.

 Lumi’s cries and whimpers echo through the field. “Your fingers are so big!” He moans. “You a-always push them so deep.”

“Well, I thought you liked deep?” Khimi playfully counters, positioning himself closer to Lumi and pushing his fingers in until they reach the knuckle. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

“Y-Yes,” Lumi winces but stares eagerly at Khimi’s nodding girth. “I don’t know if…I’m ready,” he insists, his eyes fixated on the frequent bobbing motion and the steady stream of precum dripping from the tip.

“I thought you were going to do all the work this time?” Khimi mocks, gripping the base of the throbbing girth.

Lumi glances up at Khimi with narrowed eyes. “Things change,” he whispers seductively, spreading his legs wider.

With a barely contained laugh, Khimi leans in against Lumi and guides the tip to his entrance. Gripping Lumi’s leg, he pulls him closer and pushes his thick length inside without pause. Lumi gasps, Khimi’s girth burrows deep into him.

Khimi bites his lip, murmuring to Lumi, “You’re so warm…”

Lumi can barely manage to speak, but nods eagerly for Khimi to continue.

Khimi’s hands wrap tight around Lumi’s back, lifting him off the ground and positioning him in his lap. Lumi instinctively guides his legs on either side of Khimi while Khimi begins to move them both with powerful motions, driving Lumi onto his up and down on his length. Unable to contain himself any longer, Khimi sinks his teeth into Lumi’s round ears, eliciting sweet whimpers of ecstasy from the boy.

Lumi’s breathy moans fill the air. He buries his face into Khimi’s chest, muffling his cries. With each thrust, Khimi drives the full length of his shaft deep into Lumi’s body, eliciting a chorus of stuttered “Kh-Khimi’s,” and whimpers that escape from his lips. His arms cling tightly to Khimi’s shoulders, holding on for his life.

As they move together, Khimi can feel warm slickness coating his abdomen with every thrust, evidence of Lumi’s continuous orgasms. Lumi grows weak in his arms, but Khimi whispers reassuringly to him, “You’re okay,” he whispers repeatedly.

Lumi’s forehead repeatedly taps against Khimi’s chest with each thrust, his cock eagerly exploring every inch of Lumi’s hot, moist insides. His weakening grip tightens instinctively around Khimi, desperate to draw out every last drop of pleasure from their coupling. Meanwhile, Khimi’s hand descends to grasp the lengthy whip-like tail, the joints of the appendage yielding slightly under his touch. Lumi moans louder when Khimi applies pressure to these sensitive areas, expertly massaging and stimulating him.

With his fingers interlocking behind Khimi’s neck, Lumi pants heavily with ecstasy, sweat begins to form across his glistening body. His usually bright golden locks are now dampened and darkened with perspiration. Khimi pushes their pleasure further and bites into Lumi’s rounded ear again, harder than before.

Lumi’s body tenses and trembles with each thrust, his moans growing louder and more desperate with Khimi’s cock pushing into him. His head is nestled against Khimi’s chest, his breathing ragged and erratic. “I can feel every inch of you,” he mumbles between gasps.

Khimi brushes his stubble through Lumi’s damp hair and whispers, “You’re so tight. You’re always so tight.”

 Lumi looks up at Khimi with hazy eyes and whispers back, “I love you,” before exhaustion overtakes him and his face relaxes into a peaceful expression.

Khimi’s hands tighten around Lumi’s ass while he lifts and lowers him over his girth. Each time Lumi descends, Khimi’s shaft pushes against his insides, filling him entirely. Khimi groans and rests his chin between Lumi’s ears, pushing him firmly against himself until he is fully sheathed inside of him. He reaches across Lumi’s back, pressing him further down onto himself, Lumi whimpers and curls his toes at Khimi’s sides, stretching his legs out from pleasure.

With a final thrust, Khimi’s girth pulsates and releases its heavy load inside Lumi. He breathes heavily, still buried deep inside of him. Cum drips from Lumi’s entrance in thick, milky streams. “I know you’re tired,” Khimi whispers between kisses on Lumi’s neck.

Lumi rubs his nose affectionately against Khimi and replies, “It’s okay, I wanted this. I always want this.”

Khimi smiles softly and places a hand on Lumi’s cheek, looking deep into his eyes. “Going to fall asleep on me, eh?” He asks before slowly reclining against a bundle of clothing.

“Thank you for tonight,” Lumi whispers, nuzzling his head against Khimi’s shoulder. “It was special,” he yawns, his embrace growing tighter around Khimi.

“I…” Khimi begins, but falls silent as he feels Lumi’s breathing grow heavy and steady, a contented purr emanating from him. Love you. He looks down at Lumi’s peaceful face and pulls him closer into his arms.

Khimi rests in silence, Lumi’s body keeping him warm. The cool night breeze blows from the coast, Lumi’s damp hair flops in the wind. He gently runs his fingers through Lumi’s locks, admiring him in his nakedness. What would have happened if you stayed at the temple? Khimi thinks, watching Lumi’s chest rise and fall with heavy breaths. Khimi looks up to the stars, marking the constellations across the sky. He remembers the nights in Sidi with Aleyna, so many nights spent studying the stars. A merchant’s business is fated by the stars. When all else is lost, follow their guidance. He recalls her words carefully. The stars led me to Lumi…

“Lumi,” Khimi begins, speaking so softly as not to wake him, his voice a gentle hum in the stillness of the night. He reaches out and shakes Lumi’s shoulder, hoping to stir him from his slumber. But Lumi remains motionless, lost in his dreams. Undeterred, Khimi continues to speak, his words cautious and uncertain, “There is something you need to know.” He pauses for a moment, searching for the right words. “Even if we were to wed and spend our lives together, our souls…they are marked for different planes. Our eternity will not be spent together. Whatever we have can only be temporary.”

Lumi purrs softly, a comforting sound against Khimi’s chest.

“I need you to hear me,” Khimi pleads, his voice barely above a whisper now. “I need you to promise me that you’ll never put yourself in danger, that you’ll live your life to the fullest…with me.” He closes his eyes tightly, willing Lumi to understand the weight of his words. “I don’t fully comprehend why, but you mean everything to me. Maybe you always have, even before I met you.” 

Khimi opens his eyes again and gazes up at the starry sky above them, holding Lumi close against himself. He silently prays for guidance and answers from the Gods. And as if hearing him, shooting stars streak across the darkness with a dazzling display of light. A small smile tugs at the corners of Khimi’s lips as he takes it as a sign from above. He lays back on the ground, letting himself finally relax while Lumi’s warm breath passes against his skin. With one hand tangled in Lumi’s hair, Khimi embraces this unexpected turn in his fate. I never would have imagined this would be my path, my destiny. He suppresses a laugh at the memory of their first meeting and how hesitant he had been to give into his desire. But now, he realizes the depth of Lumi’s love and how much he had fought for them to be together. I see it clearly now, Lumi. I finally understand. All I want is for you to be happy.

He brushes his lips gently against the top of Lumi’s head, whispering softly in his ear, “I love you.”

Rashid Returns

The following morning, Khimi makes his way back to the inn just as the sun begins to rise. Feeling exhausted from their nightly activities, they rest in their room. The bed offers little more comfort than the wheat fields, and Lumi is forced to sleep snugly against Khimi, tucked between Khimi and the wall. After only a few hours of sleep, rapid knocks at the door jolt Khimi awake.

Khimi crosses the room, groggy and exhausted. He holds a cloth over himself, hiding his nakedness. “We’re up, who is it?” Khimi shouts through the thick yellow door.

“Is that anyway to greet your best friend?” Ennui’s voice comes muffled through the door.

Khimi groans and reluctantly opens the door a crack. “Give us a minute,” he says, peeking out while still trying to hide his exposed body. “Lumi’s still asleep.”

Ennui shrugs and tries to catch a glimpse inside. “Leave him be, he looks exhausted anyway. Must’ve had a long night,” she snickers.

“Not funny,” Khimi retorts before shutting the door firmly in her face.

“You’re lucky this inn has doors. Most just have curtains!” Ennui sneers, her voice fading while she walks away. “I kinda want to see if he can still walk!” she yells back towards the door.

Lumi stirs at the commotion, yawning and curling up under the covers. “Everything alright?” he asks while rubbing his eyes.

“Yeah, all good. Get some rest,” Khimi says softly before placing a hand on Lumi’s forehead.

Lumi grunts in response and pulls the covers over his head. “Just wake me if you need me,” he mumbles before drifting off again.

Khimi watches his peaceful slumber for a moment, admiring the way the morning light filters through the mess of blond hair. With a sigh, he reluctantly rises and rummages through their bags to find his clothes. Dressing in his blue kaftan and sarouel, he can’t help but stare at Lumi sleeping.

With one last glance at his sleeping partner, Khimi heads out the door into the dimly lit hallway. The richly colored curtains are pulled shut over the windows, casting a warm glow. Dust particles dance in the rays of light with Khimi’s passage. He tugs on his sleeves to itch at the irritating golden thread that reminds him of his obligations. Over the years, he has come to hate the itch of the fabric and its constant reminder of the duties he must fulfill.

“Lookit you, lookin ‘all spiffed up!” Ennui exclaims at his entry into the main hall.

Khimi attempts a cheerful grin, “What’s with all the urgency?” He ponders aloud. He halts in his tracks.

Rashid grins at Khimi. “Been a while,” he mutters, hobbling towards Khimi.

Khimi’s lips curl into a smile, “Rashid!” He calls out. The elderly man’s embrace takes him. He nearly spins Rashid around in his excitement. “It has been a while! A few months, has it?”

“I knew you’d be happy to see your old man,” Ennui laughs, crossing her legs on the barstool. She lifts her cup to them with a roll of her eyes.

“Too right you are,” Khimi replies, grinning. “I rejoice at our reunion!”

Rashid pushes himself apart from Khimi, “How has Rhaz been? Did you bring y’re lion? I still gott–”

“Yeah, he’s asleep though,” Khimi interrupts, pointing to the hallway. “Should I wake hi–”

Oi, don’t bother the poor thing,” Rashid chuckles.

“How about some drinks? Khimi’s paying,” Ennui laughs, tapping her fingers over the table. She quickly demands a pitcher of cider, turning back to the two. “Now, tell us what you’ve been up to, old man,” she says, kicking a stool to Rashid.

Rashid grumbles before taking the seat. “Been about the Desert Cities, here and there. We started in Betset, then to Sidi, back to Rhaz, Porat, then back here again.”

“Anything noteworthy during your travels?” Khimi inquires, dragging a stool towards Rashid.

Rashid itches at the scar beneath his eye. “Oh, just the odd bandit here and there. A herd of wildebeests almost tore apart our caravan,” he begins, his eyes shifting between Ennui and Khimi. “Hells,” he laughs, “There was one particularly nasty thing. A Dolman mercenary, leading a small band of snakemen. They had one that was so far gone….he was raving mad. Screaming nonsense.”

“Bad business, yilan,” Ennui whistles, taking a long drink. She picks up the pipe from the wooden counter. “Did they hiss at you with their snakish tongues?”

“Ignore h–”

“They did!” Rashid exclaims, his brow rising with his laughter. “Shoulda heard em’. A truly terrifying thing,” he says before trying to imitate their sounds.

Ennui’s face screws up. Unable to control herself, she bursts into laughter. “Please, you must use those sounds in combat…it’d be enough to make any sane person piss their pants,” she laughs, slapping the table, while her tail slaps into the wooden bar.

“She’s got the right of it,” Khimi chuckles, “You must use those calls in combat. I fear any person with their wits might flee.”

“Laugh it up!” Rashid shouts. 

The barkeep drops the pitcher of cider between them. She pauses a moment, leaving two polished glasses. “Couldn’t help but overhear,” she begins. “Heard about yilan roving through the desert lately. Best keep a tight guard on things.”

Khimi takes a glass, “Your warning is noted, and appreciated,” he says, plucking a silver piece from his leather pouch. He places it on the table, sliding it towards her, “Though our travels from here aren’t through the desert.”

The barkeep leans forward, her honey colored hair spilling over her shoulders and framing her sharp features. She looked up at them, her gray eyes glinting with curiosity. “Mind if I ask for your route?” she inquires, her voice smooth as silk. “Perhaps I could offer some insight.” As she speaks, she absentmindedly brushes a strand of hair behind her ear, revealing a small silver earring that twinkles in the dim light of the tavern.

Ennui clicks her tongue, “We don’t normally share our direction of travel with strangers,” she begins, leaning across the table and smiling at the pretty youth. “But seeing as how you’re soft on the ey–”

“The Isles,” Khimi interrupts, rolling his eyes at Ennui.

Rashid laughs, “We’ve got business in the Isles.”

“I’ll geld you, Khimi,” Ennui jests, narrowing her eyes maliciously.

Khimi laughs, “I think Lumi would kill you if you attempted.”

“The lion can find another slab of meat to fill him,” Ennui murmurs under her breath.

“Right,” the barkeep says, peering over the curious three. “Then you’d be wise to be wary of corsairs. With the way things have been in the Desert Cities, there are a lot of desperate folks out there,” she warns.

Khimi fingers another silver in his pouch, “You’ve heard much of them from other travelers? We’ve barely seen but an odd few since coming to Betset,” he asks, glancing at her from across the bar.

“Much of corsairs?” She asks, clearing the bar of several empty clay plates. “Heard a bit from some travelers the other day, Sahuagin attacking ships and lizardfolk on sea bound vessels.”

“Troublesome news,” Khimi groans, tossing another silver across the table. “We’ve already experienced enough Sahaugin to last me a while.”

Rashid’s head whips to Khimi, “Sahuagin?!” He asks, his voice wavering.

“It’s true!” Ennui says, pushing Rashid’s shoulder. “They attacked the ship…we lost some crew. The little lion floundered about for days,” she smirks. “Got all down on himself for a few deaths.”

Khimi glowers at Ennui, “How bout you cut him some slack?”

Rashid looks between them, “Sounds like I missed out on some real adventure,” he grumbles.

“Lumi almost got stabbed again,” Ennui begins, waving her hand dismissively. “That’s something.”

Khimi raises his eyebrow angrily, “He helped you!” he utters.

Rashid leans against the bar, “I’ll be honest, of all the things that I’ve encountered in my travels. Sahuagin always gave me the shivers. The way they suddenly burst through the water or crawl up the side of the ship. Their sense of rage, like a bloodlust,” his voice trails, he grows quiet. “I’ve seen their handiwork a few too many times to want to come across anymore.”

Ennui, Khimi, and the barkeep stare at Rashid silently, waiting for him to continue his story. The honey-haired youth nods slowly, walking away from the three and into a backroom. Ennui sighs, pushing the barstool in.

“You bloody scared her off!” Ennui exclaims to Rashid, she scowls. “Soft. Supple…Hells,” she groans. She takes the pitcher of cider from the table. “You don’t deserve this,” she announces, drinking directly from it.

Rashid shakes his head in amusement, “Don’t hurt y’reself, Lass,” he chuckles, then turns back to Khimi. “How was it without me the last few months?”


“We all got along famously,” Ennui interrupts, “Lumi even hit me with a stick a time or two. He’s improving, if you want to call it that.”

“Just a time or two?” Khimi glares. He sighs, placing his hand under his chin. “I remember he got rather good at reading you.”

Oh ho,” Rashid sounds. “I knew he was capable, he just needs to learn to control his emotions,” he adds, rapping his hand over the counter.

Ennui scoffs, “Fat chance of that. He’s a Godsdamned cry baby,”

“H-He’s gotten better,” Khimi whispers, taking a glance back at the hallway. “I don’t want him to change.”

Ennui sits at a table across the bar, pitcher in hand. She takes a long chug from it once again. “Course ya don’t. You’re fuckin’ him after all,” she croaks and wipes her chin.

Rashid places his palms over his face, “That’s crass, lass!” He exclaims, massaging his head in frustration. “Told ya, Khimi. Best to watch the company ya keep.”

Ugh!” Khimi sighs in an attempt to segway the conversation. “Things went…well enough. Seems we’re in the clear for everything with Omar. His children all fight over who will lead the Kappas Estate. Meanwhile, we’ve had several merchants turn leaf and come seeking an audience.”

Rashid smiles and runs his fingers through his gray beard. “You didn’t need me after all. Couldn’t be more proud of ya, Khimi.”

“Wholesome,” Ennui whispers under her breath.

Khimi shakes his head, “Things certainly would have been easier with you around. Rest assured. I admit I had grown fearful that Revya would send a gaoler to take me any day,” he says, speaking softly while glancing about the empty room.

Rashid shakes his head, “Though I think what ya did was foolish…ignorant ev–”

“Ignorant?!” Khimi interrupts.

“Ignorant!” Rashid exclaims, “I think it was ignorant! But there is no way Revya could arrest ya for what happened. Had we broken it down…the only one of ya who should be in a gaol…is that one,” he says pointing at Ennui.

Ennui blows air through her lips, spitting cider at Rashid. She kicks her feet out in front of her, “So you kill a few house guards to save your supposed lord…what of it?” She asks, unamused.

“Some of those people could have been innocent. Had ya put a sword in their face…they would’ve run,” Rashid says, wagging a finger angrily at her.

Ennui’s tail flits behind her aggressively. “Better a blade across their throats. Not my fault they chose to serve him,” she adds, chugging more from the pitcher.

“Please, you two,” Khimi mutters, pressing his fingers to his temples. “Are you always going to be this hostile towards one another?”

Yes!” They reply in unison.

Khimi smirks, placing his head in his hands, “Alright, children,” he sighs, standing from the counter. “How about we go see about getting our ship filled before we head to the Isles?”

“Been a while since we’ve walked the streets of Betset,”  Ennui replies, giving Khimi a teasing wink.

“About going to the Isles, Khimi.” Rashid says, a worried look comes across his face. “We need to talk.”

[1] Lapine have the traits of rabbits. They are usually split between north and southern lapine. Northern lapine having lighter hair and complexions.