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Over the Mountains, Under the Stars

Chapter Text

They reach the first slopes of the Taymets by noon, the sun hanging hot overhead. Here there are the cypress and cedar that dust the slopes and they are able to find shade to rest in before starting up the mountains.

They’ve divided the food from Vedra between their two packs, though Costis had made sure he was taking the lion’s share. Kamet looks better for a couple good meals and a good night’s sleep, but he is also looking slimmer and much more worn than when they left Ianna-Ir. Costis feels a flicker of guilt as he looks sideways at Kamet, who is frowning into the middle distance. He hears Kamet’s words, This is all your fault isn’t it, and the guilt deepens and his mind skitters away from the memory.

“Give me your waterskin,” he says to Kamet, “and I’ll go find some meltwater.”

Wordlessly Kamet hands the skin over, and Costis is almost relieved to leave him behind and take his guilt with him.

The stream he finds is clear and bone-cuttingly cold, and his teeth ache as he cups his hands and drinks from it. The bruises on Kamet’s neck have almost faded but Costis isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to unsee them. He shakes his head angrily at himself. They are both alive and well and free of the slavers and Kamet is free of Nehuseresh – even thinking the name makes Costis’s blood start to boil – and Kamet hasn’t brought up what had happened since he’d asked how it was so easy for Costis to kill the slavers. But why would he have brought it up, another part of him says, if he’s terrified of you.

Costis splashes water on his face, gasping at the cold, and returns to Kamet. 


 

The way up into the mountains is clear. They are shaded by the cypress and cedar, and they see so many streams of snowmelt they don’t need to worry about conserving water.

The trails they follow are clearly meant for walking, not game tracks they have to pick their way along. They’re not obvious, but once you know where to look, they’re clear enough. For the most part, Costis and Kamet can walk side by side.

Costis keeps sneaking glances out of the corner of his eye at Kamet, making sure that he isn’t struggling. Kamet is so proud, but at this point Costis feels like he can read him fairly well, can tell when Kamet is keeping something to himself.  He doesn’t seem to be, is just walking along comfortably enough beside Costis, but Costis keeps worrying. At one point, Kamet looks back at him questioningly, and Costis feels himself blush and stops the glances.

The cold water may have quieted his mind briefly but now that the way is so easy, there’s nothing to distract him and he can feel himself slipping back into the spiralling thoughts. He tries to focus on the trail, the mountains, tries to think of a song to hum, tries to think of something innocuous to say to Kamet.

Except everything he thinks sounds wrong and he can’t stop thinking about how comfortable and peaceful Kamet looked last night after a good dinner and how well he looks today after a good rest and how now he’s leading them up into the Taymets, into more danger, into more uncertainty and Kamet isn’t going to have that comfort and peace again for a long time yet. Or ever, a part of him says, after all, you’re bringing him to a backwards, stinking cesspit, and who’s to say he’ll even be safe there, there’s the Mede ambassador and probably all sorts of spies and –

Costis has to stop himself, there, has to remind himself he can’t control what will happen, all he can do is get them through these mountains, get them through this day. The rest is in the gods’ hands. He tells himself this, but it doesn’t quiet his racing mind and he’s starting to feel like if he doesn’t say something he’s going to end up blurting out the first thing on the tip of his tongue.

“Kamet,” he says slowly, deliberately, carefully and Kamet turns to look at him, question on his face.

Gods, he thinks, now what are you going to say. He rubs the back of his neck.

He wants to apologise again but then Kamet will ask why and he’ll have to stumble his way through every single thing he feels guilt over, I’m sorry for stealing you away, I’m sorry for the Namreen and the lioness and Koadester and the slavers and for almost killing you Kamet, I’m sorry.

Instead he says, “Are you doing all right?”

Kamet’s brow furrows. “Yes,” he says, edge of uncertainty in his voice.

Costis wants to kick himself.

They don’t speak the rest of the afternoon. 


 

Evening comes quicker in the mountains, the sun sinking behind the peaks and the shadows stretching dark over them. They stop for the night on a flat stretch carpeted with fallen needles from the trees around them. There’s plenty of dry wood and kindling to make a fire, and they eat well.

Costis sees Kamet’s eyelids drooping across the fire and smiles to himself. It’s not long before Kamet has wrapped himself in his blanket roll and his breath evens out with sleep. Costis watches the fire as it dies down, flames to embers, embers to ash. The sky is clear, and the stars wink through the canopy. He can see the same constellations as in Attolia, and wonders if they have different names here. He resolves to ask Kamet later. The familiar night sky makes him feel oddly homesick, here in this land across the sea.

He glances at Kamet, who has rolled over and is facing him, eyes glinting in the remainder of the firelight.

“Did I wake you?” Costis asks.

“No,” says Kamet.

“What do you call the constellations in Mede?” Costis asks.

Kamet sits up.

“Sorry,” Costis says belatedly, “I should let you sleep.”

Kamet brushes the apology away.

“There are great catalogues,” he says, “from long ago. I suspect that now we have similar names for the constellations. I can tell you some of the old names, though.”

He comes around the fire to sit beside Costis and cranes his head back.

“There,” he points, and Costis follows his hand up to the sky. He can see Taurus, but Kamet says, “the Seven Sisters.” And he finds the small cluster of stars.

“That was called the star of stars,” says Kamet. “They were said to be seven demons.”

His finger tracks over to Orion, “Orion was called Anet’s Shepard, or the Loyal Shepard of Heaven. Sirius,” he indicates the brightest star, hanging just above the mountain tops, “was the Arrow. Hydra was called the Serpent. It was said to be sacred to Death.”

Costis drops his eyes from the sky so he can watch Kamet pointing out constellations, watch his eyes on the stars.

“A lot of the names are the same, or similar at least,” says Kamet. “The twins, Gemini. The crab. Pieces, the fish.”

He drops his hand and looks at Costis. “Sorry,” he says, “I am showing off again.”

Costis shakes his head, “I asked you.”

Kamet shrugs, and drops his eyes. He moves back to the other side of the fire, little more than embers now, and curls back up under his blanket.

Costis lies down too, but before he closes his eyes he says, “Kamet?”

Kamet looks over at him.

“Thank you,” says Costis, and is rewarded with a small smile.

Chapter Text

The second day is much the same as the first, gentle enough slopes through cedar and cypress groves, the sun pleasantly warm, balanced with a gentle breeze. Like the day before, the Attolian matches his pace to Kamet’s. Kamet is glad to not feel as though he’s falling behind, but he worries that he’s holding the both of them back.

“We don’t need to hurry,” the Attolian says, reading Kamet’s thoughts in that disconcerting way of his. “We can afford to take our time over the Taymets. No use rushing and ending up at the bottom of a crevasse.”

Kamet supposes that’s reasonable. He just hopes that the way they are taking is unknown enough to keep the Namreen off their trail. Or perhaps they found the dead slave under the rockfall and have given up. Kamet doesn’t think that’s likely. His luck has never been that good.

The Attolian leads them from game trail to footpath to narrow track with an ease that amazes Kamet, who had translated Hemke’s directions without really managing to absorb them.

They walk in the companionable silence that Kamet has grown used to. Mountain birds sing out, calling to each other in bright voices. Kamet has never been very good at identifying birdsong, but he hears a few familiar calls, though most are foreign to him.

As the sun creeps towards its zenith, the Attolian begins to whistle, joining the birdsong in the clear air. It’s a light tune that Kamet doesn’t recognise, but the song seems to unwind just behind his ribs, lifting his spirits.

“What is that?” he asks.

The Attolian shoots a questioning look sideways at him.

“That song,” Kamet explains.

The Attolian blushes, “Sorry,” he says, “sometimes I don’t notice when I’m whistling.”

Kamet hadn’t minded, and shrugs off his apology.

“My friend Aris,” says the Attolian, “used to needle me mercilessly over it.”

“That’s the name you gave to Romanj,” Kamet says, remembering.

“So,” says the Attolian, “I didn’t see Aris coming to Mede anytime soon to confuse the issue.”

He has spoken of his king so often in comparison to the rest of the life he left behind in Attolia, and Kamet finds himself suddenly curious about that life. Not curious enough to pry, but he feels like the pieces he’s gathering about his Attolian are forming a mosaic that he’d like to see.

“You’d like Aris,” the Attolian continues, grinning at Kamet. “The two of you could commiserate over all my shortcomings.”

It’s Kamet’s turn to feel heat blushing his face. He doesn’t say anything, because he is not going to Attolia. He is not going to meet the Attolian’s friend and compare notes about their idiosyncratic companion.

His guilt over lying to the Attolian is growing day by day and he berates himself over it. It’s stupid, he tells himself, to get attached to this man who is stealing him away on the wishes of a weak and spiteful king, who probably doesn’t care one bit for Kamet (he remembers the Attolian’s apology in the mountains by the silver mines, he remembers the Attolian holding him as he sobbed out his terror on the road to Perf) and who besides is going to hate him when he finds out how Kamet has lied to him. It’s stupid to get attached to anyone because everyone leaves and everyone dies and the only person Kamet can depend on, the only person he’s ever been able to depend on is himself.

The peaceful feeling is gone and Kamet’s heart hammers as he tells himself this over and over, you only have yourself, you only have yourself.

But a time later, when the Attolian begins to whistle again, Kamet feels his heart still. 


 

They find a cave as the sun begins to dip below the mountain tops, and inside they find incontrovertible evidence that others have taken this way before them. Firewood is stacked as though waiting for them, and there are even a few shallow pans and a cookpot sitting neatly beside the wood.

Kamet is immediately suspicious, though the Attolian seems pleased with their find.

“Do you think someone lives here?” Kamet asks. He doesn’t want the rightful owner of the cave to come back to them like the lioness near the road to Perf.

“No,” says the Attolian, with a certainty Kamet finds implausible. “People leave places like this for other travellers, to help each other out. Or if they have to make the journey several times.”

Kamet gives the Attolian a skeptical look, but he brushes it off. “You’re not exactly used to travelling like this,” he says, gently teasing. “Trust me.”

Kamet has to concede that he has a point.

It is nice to have a cookpot again, and that they don’t have to spend the time to find firewood. Kamet retraces their steps to a stream of snowmelt they’d crossed a little way back while the Attolian starts a fire. He’s hurrying, not wanting to get lost as the daylight is sucked from the sky. The water is as cold and clear as ever, and he lets himself hiss quietly as it seems to cut down to the bones of his hands.

He fills their waterskins first, and drinks long from his. The frigid water hurts his teeth, but it’s something to focus on that’s not the turmoil of his own thoughts. The cookpot is heavy when it’s filled up with water, but the trail back to the cave is easy, and he shouldn’t have any trouble

Somewhere a bird cries, a haunting sound that makes the back of Kamet’s neck prickle. He fumbles the pot, drops it. He scolds himself. Its just a bird, it’s just the coming dark and his mind conjuring things that aren’t there. He has no use for an overactive imagination.

He refills the pot and hurries back to the Attolian and the comforting light of the fire. 


 

There’s already a noticeable temperature difference in the mountains, cool air rolling down from their snow-capped peaks, especially in the cool cave that sits in a perpetual shadow. Kamet curls himself small under his blanket, as close to the fire as he dares. At least the cave shelters them from the wind, which Kamet can hear shushing through the trees outside.

The Attolian has fallen asleep as quickly as ever, and Kamet envies him as his mind flips over and over.

When sleep eventually finds him, it’s no relief. The Namreen, led by his master’s ghost, chase them through the mountains. Kamet can’t run, it feels as though he’s moving through wet clay, and the Attolian is getting further and further ahead and Kamet is alone and he can’t move and Nehuseresh says his name in a rattling breath that is all too familiar for all it’s terrible and twisted and a grey hand reaches out to grab him –

And he wakes, feeling as though the breath has been pressed from him. He gasps as quietly as he can, nails digging into his palms, trying to hold himself together and silent. He glances over at the dim shape of the Attolian, who doesn’t appear to have stirred. He hopes he hasn’t woken him.

Kamet creeps past the sleeping Attolian to the mouth of the cave. The stars are out, and the thinnest sliver of a moon has risen above the mountains. A breeze ghosts past him and he pulls his blanket tighter around his shoulders.

In the darkness, a night bird calls and Kamet puts his forehead against his drawn-up knees. It’s just you and the Attolian and the mountains, he tells himself. Behind him he can hear soft noises, and then someone sits down beside him. He doesn’t look up. A hand rests lightly on his back. Kamet breathes in; breathes out. The bird calls again, or maybe it’s another answering the first.

Kamet isn’t sure how long it is that he sits there, but his muscles protest when he gets back up and goes back into the cave. The Attolian doesn’t leave his side the whole time, keeping that gentle pressure on Kamet’s back. If Kamet dreams the rest of the night, he does not remember.

Chapter Text

Costis is up before the sun and leaves quietly so as not to wake Kamet. He scouts ahead a little ways, and when he returns Kamet is up and has packed and collected deadfall to replace the wood they had used.

They don’t speak of the night before, don’t speak at all, just continue their climb. The trees are becoming sparser, the trails narrower and more treacherous. They snake in switchbacks up the side of one slope and down another, and Costis tries not to get so far ahead of Kamet that he will inadvertently cause a landslide onto the other man.

They are climbing one such trail when Costis sees several goats uphill from them, seemingly oblivious to the humans climbing towards them. When he reaches a flattish plateau where the trail switches back, Costis waits for Kamet, slipping his pack off his back.

“Wait here,” he says when Kamet reaches him. “I’m going to see if I can get us a goat we can actually eat this time.”

Kamet nods silently, panting slightly, seeming glad to drop his pack and sit down on the rocky ground.

Costis has to leave the walking trail to follow the goats and is glad that he has left his pack behind as he follows more and more precarious paths uphill. He finally gets to a flat stretch, and brings out his bow, nocking an arrow to it. There are three goats snipping at the soft leaves of the low bushes, one old billy and two smaller, probably around the two-year mark.

They seem totally unperturbed by his presence, which he takes to mean they haven’t noticed him. He sights on the closest one and looses the arrow.

The goat bleats, but goes down, the other two startling away. He lets them go. The young billy is not dead, he’d hit it in its side, and it struggles and bleats, trying to bring its hooves back under it, eyes rolling in panic. Costis takes his hunting knife and quickly slits its throat, holding its head until it stills.

 

Kamet is napping when he returns with the goat, and Costis feels a small smile creep onto his face as he approaches. Kamet’s eyes flicker open when Costis drops the goat beside him, and then he grins up at Costis, ducking his head slightly like he’s trying to hide his expression.

“Success,” Kamet says.

“So, so, so,” Costis replies.

It’s just gone noon, but they decide to backtrack to a plateau they’d passed some ways back. Costis wants to take the rest of the day to butcher and cook the goat.

“And this way,” Costis says, “we’ll save the snow for tomorrow.”

“You think we’ll reach it tomorrow?” Kamet asks. He doesn’t sound thrilled at the prospect.

“I thought we would reach it tonight,” Costis admits.

Kamet grimaces.

“We don’t have the time to dry the meat,” Costis says, “but we can try to smoke some of it.”

Kamet nods, but looks vaguely bewildered, like he hopes Costis won’t ask for his expertise in butchering and cooking the goat. Costis has to stop himself from laughing at the expression.

“Maybe you can tell me more Immakuk and Ennikar,” he suggests, and Kamet relaxes onto familiar footing.

“What do you know about Mede gods?” he asks, after a moment of thought.

“Not much,” Costis admits.

“So,” Kamet says, putting on his tutor voice, “Ashtoreth is the daughter of Anet, and the goddess of love and desire. She is said to be very beautiful but could be very cruel.”

Costis nods, not looking up from the goat carcass. “Sounds about right,” he says.

Kamet doesn’t respond, and when Costis looks up he is frowning into the middle distance. Costis isn’t sure if he’s stumbled into dangerous territory, but Kamet doesn’t look upset, just thoughtful.

“So, let me guess,” Costis says, trying for levity, “Ennikar gets into some trouble with this goddess.”

“Actually, it’s Immakuk’s turn for trouble,” says Kamet, refocusing.

He taps his slender fingers against his bottom lip and Costis feels his mouth go suddenly dry. He tries not to examine too closely why that might be, just swallows, turns back to the goat, and listens to Kamet speak.

 

Great king Immakuk

      King of Ianna-Ir

      Washed out soiled locks

      Threw from him soiled clothes

      Dressed himself in fine garments

      Placed the crown of Ianna-Ir on his head

Ashtoreth, queen of heaven

      Saw the beauty of Immakuk

      Was transfixed by his beauty

Said to Immakuk

      Come, be my husband

      Grant me your exquisiteness

      I will have harnessed for you a chariot of gold and lapis

      With wheels of gold and amber

      I will harness to it the greatest of mules

We shall have a house with the fragrance of Cedar

      And the kings of many lands will bow before you

      And the people will bring the gifts of many lands as tribute

      And all your beasts shall bear triplets

 

“Hard to say no to that,” Costis says wryly.

“Hush,” says Kamet.

 

Said Immakuk to Ashtoreth

      What would you demand of me if I married you

      Demand oils and garments for your body

      Demand food and drink fit for the gods

      Where are your husbands you swore to keep forever?

Loved you the mighty lion

      Yet dug for him seven and seven pits

      Loved you the stallion

      Yet ordained for him the lash and goad

      Loved you the shepherd

      Who provided to you the finest grains

      Who slaughtered for you daily the most supple of kids

      Yet turned him to a wolf to be chased by his hounds

      And now you say you love me!

      And ordain for me the same fate!

 

Costis can’t help himself, “Fine, that’s a little easier to resist.”

Kamet just glares at him, and Costis turns away to hide his laughter.

 

Begone from me!

              There is nothing you could offer I would desire

              I have my city and the love of my people

              And the love of my brave companion Ennikar

 

When Ashtoreth heard this she fled

      Jealous Ashtoreth in bitterness

      Fled to her father Anet weeping

      Fled to her mother crying:

Over and over has Immakuk insulted me

      Has he recounted despicable rumours about me

      Father, give me the Beast of the Heavens

      So he can kill Immakuk in his dwelling

Said Anet to his daughter Ashtoreth:

      Was it not you, daughter, who provoked Immakuk?

      So he recounted despicable rumours

If you demand of me the Beast of the Heavens

      So there will be seven years of famine for Ianna-Ir

Then Ashtoreth spoke to her father, saying

      If you do not give me the Beast of the Heavens

      I will level the gates of the grey lands

      Ford the eternal river

      And the dead will outnumber the living!

When Anet heard her words he placed in her hands

      The lead for the Beast of the Heavens

      So Ashtoreth led it down to the earth

 

When it reached Ianna-Ir it climbed into the river Ianna

      Drank deep from the river

      Emptied the river

      Dried the marshes

With one stamp of its hoof

      Opened a vast pit and 100 men of Ianna-Ir fell in

      With the second stamp of its hoof

      Opened another pit and 200 men of Ianna-Ir fell in

      With the third stamp

      Opened another pit and in fell Ennikar

      Strong Enikkar fell in to his waist

Then clasping the hand of Immakuk

      Out jumped Ennikar

      Seized the Beast of the Heavens by its horns

Said Ennikar to his friend Immakuk

      My friend, I and you, we must stake

      Your boldness and my strength

So Ennikar grabbed the Beast by its tail

      Held it with both hands

      While Immakuk like the best of butchers

      Between its nape and its horns thrust his sword

 

After they had killed the Beast

      The companions sat together

Ashtoreth went up onto the wall of Ianna-Ir

      Cried out as though in mourning

      Woe to Immakuk who has slandered me

      And who slew the Beast of the Heavens

 

Then Ennikar, hearing her words

       Tore from the Beast a hindquarter

       And flung it at Ashtoreth

       Flung words at Ashtoreth

       Could I reach you I should slay you too

       That you should no longer trouble beloved Immakuk!

 

Hearing this Ashtoreth fled to the heavens

      And Immakuk and Ennikar washed in the Ianna

 

“How could they wash in the river if the beast of the heavens emptied it?” asked Costis.

Kamet shoots him a look that says he’s on to Costis, and Costis grins back as innocently as he can manage.

“May I finish?” asks Kamet.

“Please,” says Costis.

 

      Proceded hand in hand

      Striding hand in hand

      Through the streets of Ianna-Ir

And the men of Ianna-Ir gathered

      Staring at the two, saying

      These are the bravest of men

      These are the most devoted of men

      Never have there been two like Immakuk and Ennikar

 

Costis looks up again as Kamet falls silent. “Ennikar to the rescue again,” he says.

He wants to ask about that last image, Immakuk and Ennikar triumphant, hand in hand, but doesn’t know what to say.

Kamet shrugs, “Only together could they defeat the Beast.”

“So,” says Costis. Only together, he thinks.

After a moment he asks, “Did Immakuk or Ennikar ever marry?”

“Not that we know of,” says Kamet, “though they both took many lovers.”

Costis nods. He had privately thought of Kamet and himself as Immakuk and Ennikar, though in this respect at least he differs from the legendary warrior.

“Thank you,” he tells Kamet, who ducks his head, part pleasure, part embarrassment, Costis thinks.

He grins to himself and returns to the goat.

Chapter Text

The Attolian is right. They reach the snows in midmorning, at first patches clinging to shadow, and then stretching out over the slopes. They try to stick to rocky tracks, picking their way around and above the snow, but it soon becomes futile.

The Attolian stops, waiting for Kamet to catch up to him.

“We need to wrap our feet,” he says. He has pulled a spare tunic out of his pack and is tearing it into ribbons. “Are you cold?” he asks Kamet without looking up.

“No,” Kamet says. Keeping up with the Attolian has kept him warm, and the sun is shining brightly in a cloudless sky.

The Attolian finishes with the tunic, and gestures to a boulder. “Sit here,” he says.

Kamet perches on it and the Attolian kneels in from of him. He doesn’t know where to look and settles for staring at the top of the Attolian’s bowed head as he removes one of Kamet’s sandals and wraps the fabric around his foot and up his ankle, tucking the ends in like a bandage.

Kamet stifles a shiver, something other than the cool air slipping down his spine. The Attolian finishes binding Kamet’s other foot and fastens his sandals back over.

“Canvas or oilskin would be better,” the Attolian says, “but hopefully this will keep us warmer than nothing.”

Kamet stays on the boulder as the Attolian wraps his own feet, looking at the ground.

 


 

It’s not long before Kamet’s feet are cold and soaking, edging towards numbness. He thinks the Attolian must be likewise uncomfortable, but he gives no indication, trudging on silently ahead of Kamet.

The sun is slipping down the sky and Kamet is falling further behind, unused to walking in the wet snow. His feet feel like two blocks of ice and keep slipping on the snow and on the rocks hidden just beneath it. He takes slower steps, desperately trying not to fall, catching glimpses of the Attolian getting further and further ahead in between watching the ground. When the Attolian finally disappears around a bend he tries to move faster, stumbles, falls, arms out, hands hitting soft snow and, a split second later, the hard ground beneath. He doesn’t cry out, though his hands sting from the cold and the blow, just waits for a breath, two, three, pushing himself up onto his knees.

He can feel panic building in his chest as he kneels there, alone, the snow soaking through his trousers, and tries to force it back down, to just get up, Kamet. His feet feel almost warm, and the soft snow seems to whisper to him, stay, stay here.

The Attolian comes back into view. When he catches sight of Kamet, he hurries over, and as he draws near Kamet can see the concern on his face and he still can’t make himself get up and the Attolian crouches down, puts a hand on Kamet’s shoulder and says, “Kamet. Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Kamet says softly, the panic turning to dense shame in his chest. “I stumbled.”

I am sorry,” the Attolian says. “I came back to tell you I found a cave just ahead. I thought we’d stop early again today. I shouldn’t have left you so far behind.”

He stands and holds a hand out to help Kamet up. Kamet takes it, unsure of what to say. Kamet, a burden, a hinderance, does not deserve apologies, does not deserve consideration. It feels like the calm before a storm, like a gentle plane before a precipice, like all the Attolian’s kindness is just softening him up for the next terrible event to follow this.

The Attolian is still peering at him in concern. “Are you okay to keep going?” he says. “It’s not far.”

“I’m fine,” Kamet says, snaps, sharper than he’d intended, and the Attolian’s face shuts and he turns away.

 


 

Once again, the cave has firewood stacked neatly beside several pots and pans, all the more necessary as most of the brush above the snowline is scarce and scraggly. The Attolian takes a couple pots outside to collect snow, leaving Kamet to start a fire. The cave is cold from being shaded all day, and what he wants to do most is unroll his blanket and wrap himself in it. He wants to slink into the darkness and not think about the Attolian or the mountains or anything. It’s like the snow has settled over him and is slowly bearing him down. Stay, it says. Stay here.

He starts the fire.

The Attolian is gone longer than Kamet was expecting, so Kamet begins to get out the end of the bread, as well as vegetables and the strips of goat meat for a stew. For the first time, Kamet sees a small packet wrapped in linen, like one that might hold dried herbs.

He unwraps it carefully and sees pale green stems, capped with delicate yellow flowers. It’s not an herb he’s familiar with, and he sniffs carefully.

It smells vaguely familiar, but he can’t place it. He has never been good at identifying spices by scent or taste. The Attolian comes back, and with his back to the entrance of the cave his face is cast in shadow and Kamet can’t tell what expression he is making. He wonders if the Attolian is still angry with him.

Kamet holds out the packet, a peace offering, an apology, a diversion. “I don’t know what this herb is,” he says.

The Attolian takes it from him, fingers brushing Kamet’s and Kamet feels the brief contact tingling up his arm. He wants to shake his hand, as though to shake something off. He wants to touch the Attolian’s hand again.

He studies the Attolian’s face. He does not look upset, just curious. He smells the herb and his eyes flutter closed.

“It’s tea,” he says, the barest trace of strong emotion in his voice. He opens his eyes and looks at Kamet, the hint of smile on his face.

They have been speaking Attolian and the word he uses is in that language. Kamet remembers it from his own time in Attolia and realizes why the herb smells so familiar.

“Mountain tea,” he says in Mede, before switching back to Attolian. “That’s what we call it.”

“Have you had it?” asks the Attolian, brushing a thumb unconsciously over the dried flowers.

Kamet dips his head in assent, “In Attolia I developed a cold one winter.” He had done his best to hide his illness from his master, but the servants in the kitchens had been more perceptive. After a cook scolded him for sneezing near a rack of cooling rolls, a servant had taken him aside and pressed a mug of steaming tea inot his hands.

“Someone in the kitchens made it for me,” he continues. “They said it would let me breathe easier.”

It had helped soothe his sore throat and the dull pain in his head. He can’t remember now who it had been who had given him the tea, just how grateful he had been.

“In Eddis they used to call it a panacea,” says the Attolian. “A cure-all,” he adds, as if he thinks Kamet won’t understand the word.

Kamet almost points out that he knows what ‘panacea’ means, then swallows his pride.

Together they make a stew and eat it straight out of the pot, careful not to bump heads or knuckles and then the Attolian takes a smaller pot of melted snow and adds the mountain tea to it, setting it to boil over the fire. It’s a different way of making tea than Kamet is used to, bringing the water to a boil with the herb in it as opposed to adding it afterwards.

When the water boils, the Attolian lets the pot cool, and then hands it to Kamet. There’s an almost hesitant look on his face, like he’s searching for something in Kamet’s own expression. They don’t have cups, just their waterskins, so Kamet drinks directly from the pot. The tea is warm and strong and vaguely sweet, and it makes him think of that winter in Attolia. He had been miserable and lonely, but the tea had warmed him for a time. It tastes like that, he decides, slightly bitter, slightly sweet.

The Attolian is still watching him intently, so he says what he is thinking. “It reminds me of Attolia.”

It is only then that the Attolian looks away, and Kamet wonders if he’s offended him. He reflects bitterly that he can’t seems to say anything right concerning the Attolian’s homeland. He is about to apologize when the Attolian looks back up and says, “It reminds me of home.”

The way he says it, Kamet knows he doesn’t mean Attolia, but something more intangible. There is something in the Attolian’s eyes that Kamet can’t read, and now it’s his turn to look away, into the dancing firelight.

“It’s better with honey,” the Attolian says after a moment, taking the pot from Kamet.

Kamet thinks it’s sweet enough as it is.

Chapter Text

Costis goes to collect wood to replace what they have used, but it’s more difficult above the snowline. There are scrubby bushes here and there clinging to rock, but without an axe it’s difficult to hack anything off. He settles for the little kindling he can find, feeling vaguely guilty.

Kamet has packed up when he returns, and they set out. It’s as hard going as yesterday. The snow is sticky and thick and walking through it is like wading through porridge, if porridge was numbingly cold and hid sharp rocks beneath.

The trails they follow are still narrow and cling precariously to the edges of steep drops. Costis is careful not to get too far ahead of Kamet today, haunted by the image of Kamet stumbling again and tumbling out into nothing. Costis glances down once early on, and his stomach lurches. He thinks of Eugenides, balanced on the crenellations on the outer wall of the palace. Then he hears his king saying you’ll never die of a fall unless the god himself drops you, and feels a little better.

They stop for a break, scrambling to the top of a large boulder just to get out of the snow for a bit. Costis can feel shooting pains lancing through his feet and ankles as though spikes are being driven into them. He unwraps the fabric from his feet. It’s soaking, so he wrings it out and lays it flat to try and dry a bit. Beside him, Kamet is doing the same, wincing.

“I would trade all our food for a good pair of boots right now,” Costis says.

“I’d trade you for a mule to ride,” Kamet replies, grinning slyly at him.

Costis knocks his shoulder against Kamet’s, mock rebuke.

Kamet squints down at the ground. “How does the snow stay when the sun is out all the time?” he asks.

Costis shrugs. He’d been wondering the same thing. “Maybe it feels warmer than it is,” he suggests.

“I never said it felt warm,” Kamet says.

Costis laughs. “It’s a far cry from Ianna-Ir,” he agrees.

“So, so, so,” says Kamet. The tiny smile he gives whenever he uses the slang, the one he probably thinks Costis won’t notice, warms Costis’s heart.

“Are you very cold?” Costis asks. “We could make a cloak out of your blanket.”

“No colder than you are,” Kamet says, and Costis wants to roll his eyes at the stubbornness.

“I would trade the sun for more tea right now,” Kamet says after a minute or two.

Costis hums in agreement.

“Do you know what they do in the Breaels?” Kamet asks.

“What,” says Costis.

“They have packs of dogs that pull carts across the snow.”

Costis looks at him, eyebrows raised. “Really?”

“That’s what I’ve read,” says Kamet.

“Why don’t they just use mules or horses?” Costis asks. He tries to picture dogs yoked together, hauling a cart along. He can’t wrap his mind around it.

“It’s not a big cart,” Kamet explains, raising his hands to sketch out his words. “It’s lower to the ground and on runners that go on top of the snow. So, it’s lighter, and probably faster if the snow is deep.”

Costis still isn’t entirely sold on the concept, but he can see that a heavy cart could get stuck if the snow were deep enough. He’s still not sure why mules or horses couldn’t pull a smaller cart, though.

“Are you ready to keep going?” Costis asks, after they’ve rested a bit more.

Kamet grimaces, but nods, and they wrap their feet back up in the still-damp fabric, and continue up the mountain.

 

Costis figures they’ll reach the height of their path through the Taymets this evening, and the higher they climb the deeper the snow gets. There is ice now too, crusted thinly on top of the snow so they break through it with every step, clinging to rock faces, enclosing branches of the few scrubby bushes. It scrapes their legs and makes their feet slip and Costis is really wishing they had a pack of dogs to ferry them over top of all this.

They stop again and both get their blankets out, wrapping them around themselves like cloaks. Not for the first time and not, Costis suspects, for the last, he curses the fire on the Anet’s Dream and the loss of so much of their gear. It seems like so long ago.

No use worrying about it now, he thinks and then hisses as a sharp piece of ice scrapes his shin. The sun seems to have grown more distant, shining ineffectually from the cold blue sky.

“Is it possible,” Kamet says behind him, “for blood to freeze? Because I think that has happened in my feet.”

Costis laughs. “You’re in good company,” he says.

“Who needs all their toes anyway,” Kamet adds.

His tone is light and joking, but Costis turns to glance back at him anyway.

Kamet raises an eyebrow at him.

“We can stop again,” Costis offers.

“If we stop,” Kamet says, “I may freeze in place.”

“People will talk about the beautiful ice sculpture at the top of the Taymets,” Costis says. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“So,” says Kamet.

 

Costis breathes a sigh of relief when they find another cavern. There’s less firewood than before, but there is almost nothing to gather outside, so Costis is glad. Kamet is shuddering, his fingers slipping as he tries to set the fire.

“Come here,” says Costis.

Kamet squints at him.

“Leave that for a minute,” Costis says, approaching him

Kamet stands, and Costis takes one of his hands between his own, tries to rub some warmth back into it. Kamet’s eyes flick up to meet Costis’s briefly, before he drops his gaze to the floor.

 

Costis can’t sleep. Last night the cave had been smaller, the night slightly milder, but tonight the cave they are in is large and there are drafts coming from the entrance and from some other openings in its inky depths. Outside the wind whistles and cries over snow and bare rock. Costis has tried to make himself as small as possible, wrapped in his blanket, sitting as close to the fire as he can. Kamet is curled up under his own blanket, shivering but, Costis hopes, sleeping.

Costis gets up to bring some more wood to the fire, puts a split log on. Flames quest tentatively up its side, before catching on a papery strip of bark.

“Can’t sleep?” says Kamet, and Costis starts. While he’s been tending the fire, Kamet has gotten up, and now he moves to sit beside Costis. There are five hand’s-widths between them and Costis feels the space like a physical thing. He blinks stupidly at the ground between them. His thoughts feel like they’ve been frozen too.

“I’m fine,” Costis says belatedly.

Kamet fixes him with a skeptical look. “I couldn’t sleep for the cold either,” he says.

Costis pokes at the fire and doesn’t say anything, but then a gust blows into the cave and he shivers violently. He can feel Kamet watching him and clenches his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

“You’re an idiot,” Kamet says softly, and then he is scooting over and throwing his blanket around Costis’s shoulders, tucking them both under it.

Costis blinks, processing this development, and looks sideways at Kamet.

“We’re both cold,” Kamet explains, not looking at Costis now, looking at the fire.

Costis drapes his own blanket over Kamet’s shoulders so they’re both under two blankets now.

Kamet shudders. “Your hands are like ice.”

“Sorry,” says Costis, tucking his hands under his arms. Kamet is still looking very fixedly at the fire.

Their shoulders bump each other and Costis is still watching Kamet, searching his face for… something.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Kamet glances over at him and away. “Yes,” he says.

Costis sighs and drops his gaze to the ground. He is warmer, their combined body heat in this cocoon of blankets and bodies, and he finally feels the tiredness that the cold had been hiding.

As the fire begins to fade, Kamet’s head drops onto Costis’s shoulder, his breathing becoming more even. Costis moves him gingerly, and Kamet shifts and mumbles something Costis can’t make out, and then curls up, seeming not to wake. Costis lies down beside him, both of them under the two blankets, knees pressed together, breaths mingling. Costis’s heart beats steady and strong behind his ribs and he wonders if Kamet can hear it, if it will wake him.

Costis listens to the gentle crackle of the fire, the moaning of the wind outside, Kamet’s soft breath. Then he sleeps.

Chapter Text

The day is bright, the sky a uniform ceiling across which the sun seems to diffuse evenly, light reflecting back and forth between the snow and the clouds.

“We should make it out of the snow today,” says the Attolian, “I hope.”

Kamet is not entirely sure how the Attolian has determined this, but he’ll be glad to not have to walk through the cold, wet snow anymore.

By mid morning Kamet’s eyes are aching as though he’d spent the day peering over the faintest of texts. Different colours seem to flash in his vision, and if not for the Attolian, beside and a little ahead of him, contrasting against the pure white of the snow, he is not sure he would know if he is stepping on solid ground, or out into empty space.

He rubs his eyes, which feel as though they are being stung by hot sand. He hisses in discomfort.

The Attolian looks back at him, and Kamet can barely make out his face, patches of red and blue obscuring his vision. His heart starts to race.

“I can’t see,” he says, and his voice is high and anxious and the Attolian curses.

The small part of Kamet that is not panicking over his lost vision agrees. He squeezes his eyes shut, now that they’ve stopped moving, hoping to get some relief. The inside of his eyelids are red and hot and colours burst and dance.

“I thought it was just my eyes that were tired,” the Attolian says, and Kamet hears a sound like cloth tearing.

“Here,” says the Attolian, and Kamet feels hands on his arms, opens his eyes as the Attolian eases the pack off Kamet’s shoulders.

“Keep your eyes closed for now,” the Attolian says. Kamet can tell he’s trying to sound calm and reassuring, but he can hear the edge of worry in his voice. The Attolian puts Kamet’s pack on the ground and manoeuvres Kamet to sit on top of it. Kamet shuts his eyes again.

“It’s snow blindness,” Costis says. “Gods about us, I’m an idiot.”

“We’re blind?” Kamet says, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice. Years of carefully trying to keep his eyesight and these damned mountains have undone it all.

No,” the Attolian says vehemently, “no. You can still see a bit right? No, don’t open your eyes, you could see enough to stay with me, it’s just temporary, we’ll be fine. I just should have realized sooner.” He is talking fast, as though this is something he can talk them out of.

Kamet is not reassured. His head is pounding and he can feel his breath shallow in his chest. Blind, his mind echoes to him.

“Here,” he feels the Attolian tying a strip of fabric around his head, and blinks his eyes open, expecting to see darkness but instead looking through the thinnest of slits cut into the wrap.

“I hope these will help a bit,” the Attolian says, tying another strip of cloth around his own head, “but we need to get out of the light.”

Kamet can’t see any better than before, and he feels trapped behind the fabric, stifled by the narrow field of vision.

“Kamet,” the Attolian says in that way of his like he’s putting all of his strength into one gentle word, “it will be okay.”

He grabs Kamet’s wrist and helps him up, then takes Kamet’s pack and slings it over his shoulder.

“Just concentrate on following me,” he says.

The Attolian somehow finds a narrow cavern of some description; Kamet can’t entirely make it out, just allows the Attolian to lead him into the cool darkness.

“Don’t strain to look,” the Attolian says gently, guiding Kamet to sit on the ground, “try to keep your eyes closed.”

He doesn’t have to say it twice. Kamet welcomes the darkness behind his eyelids here, out of the sun, though sparks of colour still seem to dance in his vision. He hears the Attolian moving around, and then feels a blanket being draped around his shoulders.

He’s not cold. His chest is tight and his skin feels clammy and he realizes that his breath is rasping in the small space. What he assumes is a small space. He can almost feel the press of rock around him.

“Kamet,” says the Attolian softly, and Kamet thinks in panic, don’t stop, don’t leave me alone with the silence and my breath.

He feels a hand on his shoulder, and he reaches up, grasping with shaking fingers.

“I’m not going anywhere,” the Attolian says, and Kamet wants to cry. Maybe he is already crying. Gods, his eyes hurt.

He feels the Attolian settle in front of him, so they’re sitting knee to knee. He drops their hands, still joined, so they rest on his leg.

Kamet can’t speak for a while, but the Attolian lets them sit in silence.

“It’s your turn,” Kamet finally says, and has to clear his throat and try again. “It’s your turn for a story.”

“I’m no storyteller,” the Attolian says.

Kamet shakes his head, not even sure if the Attolian can see it. His heart is slowing, but he can still feel the panic waiting to drag him under again. “You’ve said that. I don’t care.”

The Attolian sighs. His thumb is running absently over Kamet’s knuckles and Kamet feels like he may split apart. The part of him that speaks so rationally, the part that has kept him alive tells him to let go. He ignores it.

“You probably know more Attolian stories than I do,” the Attolian tries again.

“Tell me about your god,” says Kamet. “Miras, right?”

“So,” the Attolian says, sighs “so. Alright. Have you heard about Miras and King Periclymen?”

Kamet shakes his head, “No.”

The Attolian sighs again, “I warn you, you’re going to find me a poor storyteller.”

Kamet tsks, “Stop stalling.”

 

In Iolia, in the mountains, there was a young king named Periclymen, who was known for ruling justly over all his people. He was king, yet his kingdom was not vast, was in fact small enough that he could walk around it all in one day. He knew each of his subjects by name and they all loved him for his kindness.

One night a great storm raged, as though the Gods were warring in the heavens, and a young man came to the king’s door. The man wore only rags and was dirty and exhausted, as though he had traveled far. He must have, for Periclymen did not know his name.

The king took the young man into his home and bathed him with his own hands, fed him from his own table, dressed him in the finest of his own clothes, and bade the young man to sleep in his own bed.

“My king,” said the man, “how can I ever thank you for your kindness?”

Periclymen waved away his gratitude. “As king it is my duty to look after all those in my land,” he said, “whether they have lived here their whole life or are simply passing through.”

Then Periclymen asked the young man his name, but he only shook his head and said he could not answer.

“Then where do you journey from?” asked Periclymen.

Again, the young man shook his head regretfully, “I cannot answer you, my king. But make me your servant and I will serve you faithfully, to repay the kindness you have done me.”

Periclymen did not need any more servants, but he recalled the young man’s ragged state, and supposed he would do well to stay in the king’s land where he would be well fed and cared for.

“Very well,” said Periclymen, “I will give you a home and food and clothing and you will serve me.”

So the young man became a herdsman for the king, and spent his days in the mountains looking after the king’s goats and sheep.

It seemed that the young man has a knack for tending the flocks; he was able to always find the sunniest of pastures, and the clearest of water. He kept the wild animals from the flocks and that spring all the ewes bore twins and all the nannies triplets.

 

Kamet chuckles. “The stories are big on herd animals reproducing well,” he says.

The Attolian laughs as well. “So, so, so,” he says. “You always know a god’s about when your animals are unexpectedly fruitful.”

 

During this time the young man was clothed and fed well, and Periclymen often visited with him. A great love soon grew between the two men, but the young man still would not tell the king his name or where he was from.

In the kingdom, word of the young man, who the people took to calling Xenon, spread. It was said that he was particularly gifted with animals, and so when someone had a beast that was injured or sick they would take it to the young man. Sometimes he was able to heal the animal, and sometimes he was not, but still the people believed in his gift.

Periclymen asked him about this one day as he lay with his head on the young man’s lap in a pasture kissed by the bright sun.

“I just do my best to care for the animal, to ease it’s pain,” said the young man. “It is not magic, just care.”

“Did you learn the care of animals where you come from?” asked Periclymen.

The young man looked away. “My king,” he said, “I regret that I cannot answer you.”

The king was used to this response and did not press the matter further that day.

That year was a golden one in Periclymen’s kingdom. It seemed that the sun shone brighter on the mountains, the moon was fuller, and the hearth fires of all lasted longer into the nights. There was prosperity throughout the tiny kingdom.

A year and a day after the storm that brought the young man to the king’s door, Periclymen came to the pasture where the young man was tending the flocks. The young man was facing away and did not see the king, but Periclymen saw that the sunlight seemed to shine down upon the young man like a beam of gold.

Then the king heard a growl behind him, and spun to see a wolf. Old and thin and crazed with hunger, the wolf leaped at Periclymen, but then fell backwards, a golden arrow bursting from its chest.

Periclymen turned back to the young man to see him, radiant in the sunlight holding a golden bow with a quiver of arrows hanging from his belt.

“King Periclymen,” said the man. “For this past year you have shown me your love and kindness and for that I thank you. It is time for me to return to my home, but before I do, is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes,” said Periclymen, “tell me your name.”

“I am Miras,” said the god, for god he was.

Periclymen dropped to his knees before Miras. “My god,” he said, and could say no more.

Miras grasped Periclymen’s hands and lifted him to his feet, and Periclymen recognized the smile he had seen upon the face of the young man that whole year.

“You need not kneel to me, my king,” said Miras.

 

The Attolian is silent a minute before Kamet realizes that the story has finished.

“Is that it?” he says

The Attolian laughs. “I told you I’m no storyteller.”

Kamet feels his face warm. “No,” he says, “it just ended abruptly. I enjoyed the story. I just wonder why Miras chose to serve the king for a year.”

The Attolian hums. “In some versions he is being punished by being made to serve under a man for a year,” he says.

“It didn’t seem like much of a punishment,” says Kamet.

“So,” says the Attolian. “Sometimes, he chooses to serve the king because he has heard of his great kindness.”

He drops Kamet’s hand, and Kamet can hear him getting up and moving around.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a fire tonight,” says the Attolian. “But we can eat a little and then try to get some sleep. With luck we will see again as good as new in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Costis wakes before the sun is up and looks about himself. The snow outside reflects the barest hint of light into the cave, but after yesterday Costis is glad for the dimness. At least the glamours that had obscured his vision have gone and all he’s left with is a dull ache behind his temples. He looks at Kamet, still sleeping beside him and feels something in his chest which he puts down to concern.

He gently slips from under the blankets, stands and stretches. The cave is little more than a crack between rocks, and if they had moved much further into it, they would have had to turn sideways. Costis slips out of the narrow entrance. The sky is just beginning to flush with dawn in the east, the sun still low beneath the high horizon made by the mountains. Costis looks around for landmarks, trying to place himself. They hadn’t traveled very far the previous day, but Costis is not concerned. Zaboar isn’t going anywhere and here in the mountains Costis feels a security he hasn’t felt since…well, he hasn’t felt it in some time.

He clambers up above the cave, plotting the day’s travel in his mind. He thinks they’ll descend back out of the snow today, barring any other delays. Snow is rare in Attolia, especially on the coast, but Costis thinks he’s had his fill of it for a while. Between never feeling entirely dry, the deep cold that sinks into the bones of his feet and the snow blindness – something Costis has heard about but never really experienced – he’ll be glad to leave it behind.

He returns with an armful of wood and is building a fire when Kamet begins to stir. He groans and rubs his eyes with the heel of one hand in an action that is so un-self-conscious that Costis is unable to help a grin from stretching across his face.

“How are you?” he asks.

Kamet blinks over at him, looking a bit like an owl caught in torchlight.

“I can see,” he says, hesitantly.

“Well, that’s up for debate,” Costis jokes, “but I will accept ‘I can see as well as I could before yesterday’.”

Kamet glares at him. “I can see that we haven’t made it out of the snow yet,” he says.

“So,” Costis concedes, biting back a laugh. “In my defence, I did get us blinded for most of the day.”

“I’m not sure that’s a defensible position,” Kamet mutters.

They boil some grain and eat it with the last of the smoked goat meat, and then start out.

Today is not as bright as the previous day, the sky more open, but the sun still dazzles off the snow, so they both tie on the makeshift goggles Costis had made. The thought of leaving the snow behind them has put a spring in Costis’s step, and Kamet too seems eager to get a move on.

They walk beside one another when the trail is wide enough, and Kamet sticks close behind Costis when it narrows. With the goggles cutting off his peripheral vision, his world seems to narrow to the snow before him, and without turning his head he can only use the sound of Kamet’s footfalls to know that he is still there.

They don’t speak most of the morning, and while the silence starts out as comfortable, before long Costis’s thoughts become loud and insistent.

“I’m sorry,” he says after a while. He doesn’t look at Kamet. He wonders if he will ever be through apologising. He wants to wipe away every terrible thing that he has done, that the world has done, to Kamet. But all he can offer are the words.

“For what?” Kamet says.

Costis shrugs. “Not thinking about the snow blindness,” he says. For one, he thinks. “It was stupid of me,” he adds.

“You’ve encountered it before?” Kamet asks.

“No,” Costis says. “I’ve heard about it. In the north where they get snow. In the mountains.”

Kamet tsks, “You can’t anticipate everything.”

True that may be, but Costis rather thinks he should.

 

“Did you grow up in the capital?” Kamet asks. “In Attolia,” he clarifies.

It’s after noon, and the snow has become more patchy, once more clinging to shadows. They’ve taken off the snow goggles and unwrapped their feet, now that they do not have to walk directly in the snow.

“No,” says Costis, wondering where Kamet’s sudden interest has come from. “My family has land in the Gede Valley.”

“Do you miss it?” Kamet asks.

Costis remembers asking Kamet if he’d always been a slave on the road from Traba, and supposes turnabout is fair play.

“Some parts,” he says. “I miss my father and my sister. Sometimes I miss the olive groves. If it wasn’t time for harvest, it was very peaceful.”

He had been terribly homesick when he first left home, he remembers, as excited as he had been to join the guard. He had missed Attolia, too, when he has first come to Ianna-Ir. Any place could grow to feel like home, he supposes, after a while.

Kamet is studying him, Costis can see out of the corner of his eye. He steadfastly watches the trail before them. It could be that Kamet wants to learn more about Attolia, but no, Costis reminds himself, Kamet has spent plenty of time in Attolia, and besides he’s ridiculously well read and probably knows more about Costis’s homeland than he does.

Which seems to imply that Kamet is interested in learning about Costis, which to Costis seems frankly unlikely.

“Perhaps,” he says tentatively, “when we reach Attolia, you could see the farm. Meet my father and sister.”

Kamet looks away quickly. Costis isn’t sure if he’s offended him somehow. He keeps blindly treading on Kamet’s feelings, and wishes he could figure out how to stop. He decides to let the conversation drop.

“Was it just your father, sister and you then?” Kamet says, after a moment, to Costis’s bewilderment.

“Yes and no,” Costis says, not entirely sure of his footing. “My father got in an argument with his cousin. We moved out of the main house. But we still saw the rest of my family often enough.”

“More often than you would have liked,” Kamet says, choosing this moment to become piercingly intuitive.

Costis shrugs, “I didn’t get along with my cousins.”

The simple statement does not convey the enormity of how he had felt in his childhood. His cousins had been ruthless, seeming to know exactly where to press Costis to leave him feeling worthless and ashamed. The little house he shared with his father and Thalia had been a refuge, an island where Costis could just be.

Kamet is looking at him again and Costis makes himself meet Kamet’s eyes. He has the uncomfortable feeling that Kamet is reading all of this in Costis’s face.

“I’m sorry,” says Kamet, and Costis isn’t sure if he’s apologizing for starting them on this trip into his past or offering sympathy. The way Kamet says it, the look on his face makes him think it’s the latter, and for some reason this makes him feel suddenly uncomfortable. He’s not sure what he’s done to deserve Kamet’s sympathy.

“It was a long time ago,” is all Costis says.

 

By the time they stop in the evening they have left the snows far above them. Again, someone before them has left firewood piled inside a cave, and it’s the work of a few minutes to get a fire started.

“How much longer until we reach Zaboar, do you think?” asks Kamet.

Costis thinks through the directions Hemke had given, and says, “Three days, maybe four.”

Kamet nods slowly, brow furrowed. Costis can’t tell if he’s worried about the remainder of their journey through the mountains or of reaching Zaboar. Costis has been glad to be in the Taymets, out of the Empire. Zaboar is not going to be entirely safe, he thinks, but they are getting so close to crossing the sea and reaching Attolia. So close to being beyond the Emperor’s reach.

Costis wants to press out the furrow in Kamet’s brow like he’d smooth out a wrinkle in cloth. He wants to siphon away all of Kamet’s worry, to leave it to melt with the snows.

Instead he says, “It should be warmer tonight.”

Kamet nods, but still does not speak, so Costis stays silent too.

They eat and the sun sets and the stars start to peek through the mouth of the cave and Kamet keeps glancing at Costis with an inscrutable expression, but he doesn’t say anything and Costis doesn’t say anything even though he wants to ask, are you okay, are we okay.

He expects Kamet to take his own blanket and curl up on his own, now the night is milder again. But as the fire dies down and the stars peek in the mouth of the cave, Kamet takes out both blankets and stretches out on the floor, sleepily telling Costis, “Don’t stay up too long.”

Costis blinks at the casual familiarity of the words. There’s something uncoiling under his ribs, warming his face. He presses a hand to one cheek, then roughly rubs his face. Costis, you idiot, he thinks.

He doesn’t stay up too long.