Mornings were the worst, especially waking to one after a hard fight and exposure to metal-magery.
Tsuyoshi woke up, reflecting sleepily that there were worse situations; at least his throat wasn't cut and he hadn't been captured for the slave-markets one heard tell of in rougher provinces. He lazed for a moment, curled up on his side on the hard bedroll, absorbing details of his surroundings to bring him from his tangled waking dreams to the present.
He was in the halfling Calleigh's storeroom in the back of her business establishment. Dust-motes swam in the shaft of light that fell across him from the room's sole window, and he was crowded on his bedroll behind a pile of wooden crates. Tsuyoshi wrinkled his nose. And why wasn't he enjoying the comforts of some fine establishment...?
There had been a fight, he remembered with a trace of anger. Short in purse, he'd agreed to a contract with Korvhan, a smuggler posing as a merchant...but the man had turned out to be after the bounty on his head, after all.
The frown was replaced by a softer expression and he twisted on the bedroll, careful not to pinch his silken tail beneath him as he turned over. There was only one reason besides his own skill with the blade that he'd escaped the trap he had so obligingly walked into.
Ahrin Morgan lay on his side as well, and now that Tsuyoshi had turned to face him they were practically nose to nose. The human man was still sleeping, breath stirring the golden hair that had fallen partly over his strong features. One of Tsuyoshi's hands crept forward and pushed the hair out of Ahrin's face. He puzzled over the human and what his sudden appearance in Tsuyoshi's life might mean to them both.
It was thanks to Ahrin that he had managed to escape the hired men who had come after him two nights ago. With a wince, Tsuyoshi put a hand to his head. He still had a lingering headache from the aftereffects of the magic this man had used so unexpectedly. He had determined, shortly after crashing through Ahrin's window, that the man was a swordsman. That he was a mage, as well, was an almost unheard-of possibility...and that had saved their lives.
"You helped me for the commission I offered," Tsuyoshi whispered to the sleeping man, "but got more than you bargained for, I think."
He sat up, rubbing at both arms to chase away the shiver that had prickled along his skin. Tsuyoshi wanted to get up and away from Ahrin for a bit; he needed to put some space between them and push away the things that he refused to think about until there was time and the opportunity to think them.
Cracking open the door to the storeroom, the youko peered out into the slice of room he could see. His stomach asserted itself, reminding him that he couldn't forage off of the antiquities and other inedibles that were all the storeroom had to offer.
"You can come out," a feminine contralto informed him. "There's no gai in the shop." Calleigh's voice. Her use of the youko word for 'outsider' let him know it was safe.
With more assurance, Tsuyoshi pushed the door open, swaggering into the shop as if he'd intended to do so all along. "Calleigh." He put on a smooth expression.
"Give off, you fraud," Calleigh said. The tall blonde half-youko was leaning against her cash counter, arms crossed over her meager breasts. "You're angling for me to feed you again, aren't you?"
She wasn't alone this morning. On the floor shop between the high, wide shelving that flanked the cash counter, a red-haired youko stood in a casual stance. He was male, as was most of their race for varying reasons depending on whose theory one paid heed. The redhead was dressed in colorful, filmy green attire embroidered with geometrical black patterns, and wore a green headdress arranged around the tufts of his red-furred fox ears.
The youko gave Tsuyoshi an appraising smile, vivid golden eyes raking him from head to toe in the expected compliment.
Tsuyoshi nodded to him, leaving invitations to his or Calleigh's discretion. As he was in hiding, he preferred to keep to himself, but he didn't mind if another youko knew of his presence in the shop.
"Martine, this is Tsuyoshi," the shopkeeper said, turning back to her customer, and spread her hands. "I'm sorry, but I won't be getting more of those particular oils until the next shipment from Brassil."
The redhead shifted, putting a hand to his hip. His wrists were thin and ringed with golden bracelets that chimed with the movement. "My customers will be disappointed, Calleigh," he said in a broad accent that identified him as a southerner, hard consonants and rounded vowels.
Calleigh smiled. "Surely you have other talents to keep them beguiled," she said with a teasing lilt.
"I have never had complaints," Martine replied with a shrug. He bowed to Calleigh, gathering Tsuyoshi in with his eyes. "If you need assistance -- of any kind -- I am at the Silver Drake in the pleasure quarter."
"Ah," Tsuyoshi said, smiling inadvertently at that. Youko radiated sensuality as a matter of course, sometimes, but he had suspected upon seeing Martine that he might be registered with the Courtesan's Guild. "I'll remember that." He wondered how much, if anything, Calleigh had mentioned to Martine of his unfortunate situation.
Once Martine had departed with the blonde shopkeeper looking after him as far as his backside was in view, Tsuyoshi moved himself into Calleigh's direct line of sight. She shook herself out of abstraction, pulling her fingers out of her hair where she had been absently braiding the right side into plaits.
"Is he out of your reach for the same reasons I am?" Tsuyoshi said in teasing voice.
Calleigh sighed. "Yes and no," she said. "From what I hear, he goes either way in the quarter...but I want a partner, not a bedmate, no matter how pretty the children he sired would be."
"Maybe some day he'll give up the trade," Tsuyoshi offered, and dropped the subject at the dangerous glint that entered her eyes.
"Now what?" she changed the subject, waving a hand to indicate the world beyond her walls. "You're all but destitute, you're trapped in my shop with a bounty on your head, and you need to Bond w--"
Tsuyoshi made a frantic shushing motion and she pressed her lips together, a frown between her brows.
"Need to what?" echoed a masculine voice.
Tsuyoshi turned his head. "Need to have breakfast."
Ahrin Morgan had emerged into the greater part of the shop, tousled hair spilling around his broad shoulders, blue eyes still sleep-unfocused. He accepted the diversion without comment and followed them from the shop into Calleigh's rear offices, where miraculously the halfling had brought enough food to satisfy a starving youko and young man.
"Now," Calleigh said in a firm voice, hands on her hips, "the two of you come up with a plan to get Tsuyoshi out of Coriandar intact. I want no part of it." Suiting actions to words, she left them to it.
Tsuyoshi cast a helpless look in Ahrin's direction, noting the intense blue of the swordsman's eyes. Like wolf eyes, they were.
Ahrin held his gaze. "The best plan is the simplest," he suggested.
"I agree completely."
Tsuyoshi had been forced to leave many cities in an ignominious fashion, but jammed within the stifling confines of a straw-packed crate, he reflected that his current circumstances were the most undignified yet.
Several plans had been drafted and scrapped in rapid succession. Speed and anonymity were key to getting Tsuyoshi out of Coriandar and out of the hands of bounty hunters. Thankfully Ahrin hadn't pressed for details on the bounty; Tsuyoshi couldn't explain it himself. He hadn't considered the gems he had stolen to be that valuable.
"We'll ride out," Ahrin had suggested, "right out of town tonight...it's not as if they can stop us."
"And be seen by Korvhan's spies, and end up facing a small army," Tsuyoshi retorted. "No, thanks."
They had mulled it over some more.
"What if we smuggle me out on Korvhan's outgoing shipment?" Tsuyoshi had suggested. "It goes out tomorrow. It's the last place he'd look."
A peculiar expression had crossed the blond man's features. "You're insane," he'd said.
"I didn't say that. It might work."
Tsuyoshi fretted as he picked straw out of his hair, keeping it from betraying him into a sneeze. A possible weakness was that Ahrin had turned the crate over to a third-party merchant when Calleigh had kept true to her word, refusing to get involved. If anyone connected Ahrin Morgan to the golden-maned swordsman who had fought with him, enabling his escape...well, that meant checking out of his rooms would be the least of Ahrin's troubles.
The wagon bumped and juddered over the road, distracting Tsuyoshi into more immediate concerns. Ahrin and Calleigh had packed him into straw and it itched abominably. Worse, it didn't cushion at all from the ruts of the wagon-roads that left the city. He was going to be black and blue by the time Ahrin managed to relieve him.
The plan was as simple as they could make it. By now, Ahrin should be shadowing the caravan. They had discussed the possibility of his approaching the foreman to contract as a guard, and rejected the idea. It was simplest to pace the caravan, then cut through any opposition and pilfer his crate from the wagon during the night. It was a risky plan, but it had surprise and simplicity in its favor.
The wagon stopped.
Tsuyoshi had several lengthy moments to entertain panic as the crate was hefted up and out of the wagon. He was knocked about in the crate as he left himself limp, as transported goods would be. It was too early to stop, and from the way his weight was balanced, there was more than one man carrying his crate...perhaps four.
Try as he might, he could not extend his senses beyond the reek of old straw, the disorienting sensation of being carried, and noises of the city.
Tsuyoshi and Ahrin had argued, briefly, on whether or not to make the top breakaway from the inside. The youko found as he scrabbled at it now that the debate had been useless, for even if he could force his way out, there were men waiting for him.
It did not occur to him to believe that the crate moved for any reason but one worthy of alarm.
Tsuyoshi spent several long, anxious moments filling the anxious journey with fervent prayers to the ten little gods that Ahrin had escaped. That was the only thing he could hope for, because he knew he himself would not likely get out of this alive.
The crate stopped moving. The room, beyond the grunting of men straining at the nailed lid, was quiet and small from the feel of the echoes.
The lid was lifted free, and his eyes were bedazzled.
The pleasure quarter of Coriandar, filled with a brilliant spectrum of color and fragrance, held itself to a more languorous pace than the rest of the commerce-driven city. Ahrin Morgan, striding through with brisk haste, appeared to be distracted by none of those tempting sights and sounds laid out for public consumption that invited further perusal within. One look at the man was enough to dissuade any in the pleasure quarter crowd from approaching; he wore a broadsword strapped to his back and a grim expression as he hurried through.
At the anteroom of the Silver Drake, he did as Calleigh had instructed.
"Martine?" the perfumed individual repeated,. The anteroom attendant was of indeterminate gender, beautiful either way, slender body clothed in an attractively androgynous wrap. "You've a taste for youko?"
Ahrin growled at him. "A mutual acquaintance sent me," he said.
For all the good of a recommendation, the attendant left him idling in the anteroom for close to a quarter-hour. It might have had something to do with the fact that Ahrin had borne arms into the pleasure quarter. He was a hairsbreadth away from surging into the establishment to tear it apart unarmed when the veils opposite him dilated.
A youko faced him, his angular features racially similar to Tsuyoshi -- though as he made the comparison, Ahrin considered Tsuyoshi to be the more beautiful of the two. This one's hair and ears were a vibrant shade of red, and his wine-gold eyes were quick and assessing.
The similarity made Ahrin's chest tighten for the thought of Tsuyoshi carried off and in the hands of bounty hunters. He had realized as they took Tsuyoshi's crate that he was not enough to face them. This time Korvhan had hired professionals of a higher caliber than those of the other night's rout.
"Why are you here?" the youko asked him, a southern-continent accent lengthening his words.
"Tsuyoshi," Ahrin began, unsure what more he could, or should say. "He's been taken--"
Martine held up a hand. In an eyeblink his expression transformed from aloof to cold focus. "Let us continue negotiations in my room."
"Negotiations?" Ahrin had enough wits to protest, but looking at Martine's hard eyes and imagining the details of Tsuyoshi's capture left him with nothing left to resist.
"Did you think you'd escape me so easily?"
Bound, Tsuyoshi had been hustled from a dark warehouse into a grimy back office. Predictably, the professionals had tied him to a chair. He didn't have to wait long after that for Korvhan to put in an appearance. The smuggler was dressed as he recalled: a well-heeled merchant to all appearances, slightly heavyset and bearded.
Baring his teeth, Tsuyoshi said nothing. It wasn't worth the breath to beg for his freedom. All he could do was watch for his chance as Korvhan passed him over for the bounty...and hope they wanted him alive.
"Now, I'm not going to bother asking where the gems are," he said, one beringed hand stroking his coarse-cropped beard. "Those that want you, I'll let them extract it out of you."
Tsuyoshi narrowed his eyes.
"I'm not above collecting a little something 'extra' before I turn you in for that bounty, though," Korvhan added, hands going to his wide belt. "Always hear stories about youko...never really cared to pay to find out...If you know what I mean."
Tsuyoshi did. It would do no good to tell him he was stupid if he thought he could pay for any youko. A youko rutted where he willed.
Korvhan stepped forward, unbuckling his belt.
It was growing dark, but not nearly enough so for Ahrin's tastes, flattened as he was against the alley-side of a storehouse. The silence and seeming security of his position made his teeth grit; he longed for the moment of action, the promise of violence that lay ahead in his night. There would be no retrieving Tsuyoshi without bloodshed.
It might be enough to vent the frustration of his failure to protect him.
He resisted the urge to edge around the corner for a look. Martine had told him he would return after scouting out the resistance they faced.
Calleigh had led him to believe that Martine would put him in touch with someone who could help him fight his way to Tsuyoshi. It had been a shock to realize that Martine was the one, and not only that but he was an assassin who bartered with him, sharp-eyed, to settle on the price for Tsuyoshi's freedom.
"I don't have a lot of money," he'd told the youko.
At that, Martine leaned forward looking predatory. "But you are a mage. It has been awhile since I've found one I can trust."
Ahrin had raised a brow at that. "Trust?"
He could puzzle over it even now and not understand Martine's reply. You are bound to Tsuyoshi, I can tell, and that is why I trust. Ahrin didn't question the truth of it. He wondered at the manner of that binding, because though he had met the youko only a handful of days before, he felt obligated to him...for no particular reason.
Tsuyoshi hadn't paid him yet, after all.
Shadows limned the alley wall, pooling closer, jumping as a group of men passed with guttering torches. The shadows danced, then took shape man-high and detached from the alley floor. Ahrin jumped inside his skin, forcing his racing heart calm as he recognized Martine's black-garbed figure.
"That's a neat trick," he murmured, nearly soundless. "I didn't know it could be done."
"Few do," Martine returned, edging beside him.
"There are four," Martine spoke low into his ear. "Two at each exit, two within. I'll take the rear -- there's a man with a scalplock, leave him to me. He is on a different level from the others."
Ahrin shrugged and put his hand back. "So I'm to go through the front?"
"The faster, the better." Martine gave him a feral smile. "Shear your way through." Then he was gone.
Ahrin loosened his broadsword in its scabbard, moving forward. He scanned the street back, forth. During this hour it was free of traffic. The man on guard spotted him as Ahrin was halfway to him, striding in a manner that meant business.
"Hold, you--" he began.
Ahrin drew his sword and struck in one extended motion, putting the formidable strength of his upper arms behind the blow. He cut the man in half and midsentence, face working into a startled expression even as it was over.
The door was open.
Shaking blood from his blade, Ahrin crept into the warehouse. He was disappointed at the ease of entry.
Intuition, a breath of air, something alerted him and Ahrin ducked, pivoting in a crouch that kicked his leg out and brought his sword in a deadly-swift, wide arc of silver. The man jumped out of its range.
"What are you doing here?" his opponent snarled. He was a nondescript man in battered, professional gear. His two curved blades might be a match for Ahrin's broadsword if he knew how to use them well. "The valuable cargo shipped today."
"The most valuable one is still here," Ahrin gritted back, launching an aggressive attack.
They feinted, tested one another, steel clashing. The man drove him back with a shallow score to Ahrin's upper arm. He was good, Ahrin could tell from their opening moves, and the fight could go on for quite some time if not for...
"I don't have time for this," Ahrin decided, shifting his two-handed grip to just his right hand. He dipped into his pouch, locating the device he wanted by touch.
There was suspicion in the fighter's tone when he demanded, "What are you doing?"
Korvhan released Tsuyoshi's ripped shirt and pulled away, thwarted. "You--" Korvhan's face twisted with loathing. "That's disgusting. You're an abomination." His hand fell to his knife, then dropped away.
"What, don't you have the guts to cut through to the essentials?" Tsuyoshi taunted.
Korvhan flinched. "Let's see how cocky you are when you're collared." He sidestepped, making Tsuyoshi's eyes widen as he picked up a thick iron band.
That was when the explosion hit.
Hot white light rent the air, screaming through the building and rocking the warehouse office. Korvhan turned his head, bright light silhouetting his profile even through the office door which meant it was magic, bright and burning. The smuggler pivoted, panic flaring in his face.
"Dagger, Varhies!" Korvhan yelled, voice ragged.
There was no answer.
Tsuyoshi grinned, spitting blood in Korvhan's direction. "Did you think you'd take me so easily?"
The man gave him a hate-filled look, tossing the metal collar to the floor, and he turned to run. Beyond Tsuyoshi there was a back door that he fumbled open.
Korvhan gave a sharp cry that gurgled into silence.
Tsuyoshi twitched, recognizing the southern accent. He could have broken his neck craning his head to see. "Martine," he uttered, as the black-garbed courtesan approached, flicking a short curved blade free of blood. "What are you--"
"I said you could come to me for assistance," Martine cut him off, kneeling to free Tsuyoshi from the chair. "I'd heard of the bounty. Ahrin came on your behalf."
Tsuyoshi slumped once his bonds were cut, bracing himself on his knees. He was dizzy and he'd been punched in the ribs and belly one too many times. "Where is he..." he trailed off as he tried to stand, and the room spun away.
Ahrin walked through the remnants of his explosion, dispelling the barrier with a flick of his fingers and pocketing his focus. The door to the rear offices was still intact, and this he kicked open with satisfying force.
He jumped forward with a cry as he took the scene in at a glance.
Tsuyoshi was crumpled on a chair, dark hair hanging in his face, pants around his thighs. Ahrin glimpsed red weals and flowering bruises against pale skin before the dark shape of Martine moved in, blocking the other youko from view.
"Tsuyoshi..." The scraped-raw whisper was barely recognizable as his own. Ahrin's eyes moved beyond, to a body slumped on the floor. His hand moved without thinking to the hilt of his sword.
Martine's ears swiveled, then pricked up. "They're coming." He turned his head.
"You said there were only four," Ahrin said with a scowl, dropping his hand from the great hilt. "Did you miss a sentry?" He started forward, standing beside the two, and Martine stepped back. Tsuyoshi lifted his head, face milk-pale but for a darkening mark on one cheek. He tottered and Ahrin grasped for him reflexively.
"They have seen your bright beacon," Martine said blandly. "Must be reinforcements. The two of you must take the back door and go."
Ahrin hesitated, then looped Tsuyoshi's arm securely around him. "You going to make it?" he asked, and Tsuyoshi grimaced at him. He took it for assent. Loosening the ties that kept his belt-pouch on, he sifted through it one-handed, retaining two gem-studded metal pieces that would be too difficult to replace. He tossed the entire pouch to Martine.
The assassin peered into the pouch. "This will do," he said appreciatively. Then his golden eyes flashed up at them in pure command. "Now go. I leave him in your hands, Ahrin Morgan."
Ahrin didn't pause to question it again. "May your gods protect you," he said, hustling Tsuyoshi toward the door.
The last he saw of Martine was that feral smile. "I don't need it."
The long, cold road was behind them as Tsuyoshi settled into Ahrin's borrowed cloak with a contented sigh, enjoying the scent of it almost guiltily. He watched the swordsman move around their fireless camp, setting devices to protect and warn, and chuckled softly in the darkness.
"What's so funny?" Ahrin wanted to know. He triggered a magical focus that began to hum softly, then dwindled into background noise unobtrusive as crickets as a warmth spread over their makeshift camp.e ligh
"In the end, we rode right out of town like you suggested," Tsuyoshi said.
Ahrin gave him a crooked grin, melting into a cross-legged position nearby. "It was the simplest plan." He unsheathed his broadsword and began to tend to it. After some time, during which Tsuyoshi thought he had almost fallen asleep watching Ahril through the veils of his lashes, the man looked up.
"Tsuyoshi?" he said softly.
Ahrin hesitated. "Did Korvhan..." He stopped, face working in a complex blend of fear and rage.
"Rape me?" Tsuyoshi supplied. He held his breath, recounting those tense moments, the bite of the belt on his thighs, the sheer fury on Korvhan's face when he'd realized he couldn't get what he wanted. "No...I closed myself to him."
"Closed...?" Ahrin echoed.
Tsuyoshi pulled Ahrin's cloak around him tightly. "Youko have certain flesh-shaping abilities," he began delicately.
"Oh." Ahrin sounded thunderstruck. "OH."
"Too much information?" There was laughter lurking in his voice.
"Much too," Ahrin agreed.
Silence filled the spaces between them again. Tsuyoshi was roused now, watching Ahrin sheathe and set aside his broadsword, unable quite to let himself slip into sleep. He wanted...but what he wanted was best not dealt with for now. He shifted, tired but unable to rest, eyes drawn whenever his thoughts drifted to the figure of the swordsman so nearby.
Tsuyoshi started fully awake as hands touched him and he became aware of the warm body beside his. He hadn't even realized his eyes had closed.
"That's the only cloak, you know," Ahrin rumbled, sounding amused. "And I didn't have time to secure a bedroll..."
"Mmm." Tsuyoshi was only too happy to share, opening his arm like a wing so that they could split the cloak and the luxury of body-heat between them.
Ahrin's mouth was very near his ear when he murmured, "You know...about that commission..."
"Yes, about that," Tsuyoshi said, turning his head, drawing sparks between them as breath touched more intimately than skin on skin. "I've decided you'll just have to become my partner to recoup your losses."
Any further objections were drowned in the kiss that followed to seal the deal.
Tsuyoshi licked moist lips. "Dividends of the spoils to be settled at a later date."
Ahrin growled, reaching for him. "I'll show you the meaning of dividing the spoils."