Paths of Desire: Part Two
I am the fly who dreams of the spider
The path to the web becomes deeper and wider
I dream of the silk that is tangled inside you
And know that I want to be somewhere beside you
I'm drawn to you... I'm caught in you...
When Ashley woke again, the grey light of early morning was already seeping in through the wooden shutters of the inn. The fire was now nothing but smoldering embers, glowing dull red like a dragon's dying eye. The warm spot on the mattress beside him was all that remained of the boy who had called himself Starling, but who, in sleep, had dreamed of another name and another forgotten life.
Ashley sighed. Oh well, he'd probably made off with his clothes and his purse and his--
A shadow stirred near the fire, and flames licked up from the fading blaze to caress the new wood shoved in the grate. The light glowed warm on the bare skin of the boy's arms, and he dipped a cloth into the metal bowl he'd placed on the hearth to warm the water inside. Ashley kept his breathing even, wondering why he hadn't sensed the boy's presence. Was the Dark abandoning him? Or was the boy simply so gifted that he could mask himself? The third possibility was not one that Ashley was sure he wanted to think about: Perhaps the boy's presence was so natural that sensing him was unnecessary, as unneeded as Ashley sensing his own soul.
The blood-sin on his shoulders pulsed warmly.
The fire cracked and popped in chuckling contrast to the sounds of water dripping from the boy's fingers as he wrung out his cloth and carefully began to wash himself. Ashley, as caught in this as he had been in the dream, could not help but watch the graceful turning of the pale body. By the kinder light of the fire, he no longer looked underfed, just slender. In the movement of his arms there was the same deliberate, slow delicacy of fingers tipped in steel, the same grace of Sydney's motions. Sydney had always looked, even in the midst of combat, even trembling with pain, as if he was on the verge of dancing; Müllenkamp's legacy of swiveled hip and arched foot was unhindered by the sharp metal limbs.
It was said the priestess had often danced with swords.
In another person, Ashley would have called it performance, melodrama. But in Sydney it was simply the way he moved, waltzing through his own deadly game, belly bared to the blade that was his partner.
Ashley had never thought, till now, that he might have wanted him. Any need for Sydney had always been only in retrospect, months later when he could step back and see what had happened. He had teleported back to Leá Monde and found nothing. The dead slept blissfully, moldering, and only mice and sleepy bats inhabited the paths below city. The high arches of the Cathedral had crumbled lower, and falcons already nested in the stone walls, greedy for the rabbits and badgers and foxes that made their own tunnels far below. The sweet stain of Sydney's blood had faded to a subdued rust brown on the marble stones, and Ashley remembered a flash of bitter anger that it should pale so easily. He had expected the blood that had dampened his knees to stay a crimson mark forever, gleaming like claret ink in a word of sacrifice.
The night had come and gone by the time Ashley left the Cathedral, deciding it was best, that Magick was better left unspoken within Leá Monde, and he would be enough to remember Sydney. That was seventeen years ago.
Ashley had returned to the city since then, but his shadow had not darkened the door of the cathedral since.
"For one who claims no interest in me, you are quite free with your gaze, sir." The boy did not stop his activity, swirling the cloth in the water and squeezing it before scrubbing the back of his neck.
Ashley lifted his shoulder in a shrug, not looking away. "You remind me of someone."
The boy ran damp fingers through his hair. "An honest answer, Ashley Riot."
"Are you surprised?"
The boy looked at him then, his eyes the same cold color as the pewter-morning light. "Something tells me you have honest intentions, but a reason to lie." He draped the cloth on the hearth to dry. "I have heard of lizards who change their color to blend in with their surroundings. It is a form of protection; they are not, by nature, deceivers."
"They are called chameleons." Ashley watched the boy stand and hold his hands out to the fire.
"Was it a lover?"
Ashley tilted his head. "A lover?"
"That I remind you of." The boy looked over his shoulder at Ashley, firelight making his features ruddy.
"In a way," the former Riskbreaker considered this, "the relationship was similar."
He turned around, and Ashley kept his eyes on the pale, proud face. "What was his name?" His tone was singsong, almost lilting. Teasing.
The name burned in Ashley's mind, but would not shake itself from his lips. "Nothing of import."
A smile touched the boy's lips. "I have a Christian name, you know. No one remembers it. Not even the priest who christened me, I'm sure."
Ashley was hesitant to ask. "And what might it be?"
The boy rocked back on his heels, staring up at the thatched roof. "It might be anything. It might be what you're thinking." After a moment, he moved silently across the floor to stand next to Ashley's side of the bed.
...As if he were on the verge of dancing...
"Do what your eyes say you want to do to me," he said, "and perhaps I will tell you."
Ashley sat up in bed, eyebrows lowering. "But you said--"
"Just because it was not your intent does not mean that it was not mine." Long fingers lifted Ashley's face, shamelessly tracing the fullness of his lower lip. "You are sweet and dark and I cannot unlock you, Ashley Riot. But I know you. Even though I cannot see through you as I can every pale fool in this county, I can read you as if you were a gilded Iocus gospel." The boy leaned forward, pale hair crimson-gold in the firelight. "But I cannot comprehend you. What language are you inked in, Ashley Riot?" Their lips brushed as he moved, his breath warm on Ashley's mouth. "Speak it to me. I would not spread my thighs for a night in an inn, but I would hand you my soul for the gift of your words."
"I--" Ashley's mouth was dry, the boy's weight had settled across his thighs, the long fire-warm fingers sliding into his hair, lips ghosting over his shoulders. "I do not want your soul."
The boy pulled back, smiling, and Ashley had to fight not to call him by another's name. Dangerous, to call on the dead so. "Then what do you want, Ashley Riot?" One hand slipped beneath the quilt, firehot and bloodwarm to wrap around his desire. "Come and taste that, instead." His kiss tasted of frozen berries: wild and tart and sharp and well-thorned. But the coldness was only in flavor; the tongue that eased into Ashley's mouth had all the heat of a Valendian summer day, with sunlight burning green-gold through the leaves. Ashley's hands betrayed him, wrapping around the narrow waist and feeling the familiar but never-touched rise of hipbone, brushing over the faint half-moon of softness below his navel.
But it was wrong, and Ashley knew it even before the Dark sang discordant notes in his mind.
The boy made a startled noise as Ashley pushed him violently away, his arms flying out to catch himself against the mattress.
"I'm not so easily bought," Ashley said, rising and fumbling into his shirt, to mask shaking hands. "Despite your skills I do not take well to being played. And not by the likes of you."
"The likes of me?" There was fury in the light velvet of the boy's tone, and the berry-taste in Ashley's mouth had a lingering burn of poison. "What mean you?"
Ashley shrugged, shaking out his breeches. "There's coin to spare in my purse, if that's what you want."
"You think me a common harlot? Did you not hear a THING I said?" The bed bolster was goose-down, and heavy; the boy wielded it with alarming skill, catching Ashley on the shoulder, feathers flying. "Damn you! Eighteen years I've spent in this miserable pit of the world, but you!" He swung the bolster again, with more anger than aim, and Ashley easily deflected it. "I PRAYED for you, damn you! For the one with the Words, for the face I've seen in my dreams since I was old enough to do so." He gestured at himself furiously. "This is all I have to pay my passage, currency uncirculated, I warrant you, and you fling me back like palm-worn penny. Better to have let the stones crush me, better to have left me to kiss death in the cold than to taunt me with my own desires!" He would have lashed out with his fists but Ashley caught him, holding his arms as the boy kicked and thrashed with all the instinct of a captured hare.
"Calm down! Before you wake the whole damn inn--"
"Let go! Unhand me before I--"
He froze, panting. "What?"
Ashley felt the Dark blossom, as if speaking the name was the sigil keeping the boy locked. The was no question in Ashley's mind as to the boy's identity; touch, sight and scent all thrummed with recognition, and the blood-sin was practically singing for joy. Guiltily, he remembered his insinuations. The boy was no whore, only starving for more than food. The Dark so familiar, but still beyond his fingertips, lingering and elusive as dreams. Eighteen years of that in this barren hole of a country, Ashley would be furious as well. "Sydney. That's your name, isn't it."
He struggled again, but it was half-hearted. "What if it is? It makes no difference to-mmfft-!" His protests were cut short by Ashley's hand, clamped firmly over his mouth.
"Listen to me." Ashley said, looking unwaveringly into those painted-glass eyes. "And listen closely. I will not take what you offer because it is a gift that I have not merited. You do not know what prices you have already paid, the gift you have already bestowed upon me. To take what you offer now would be too rich. Can you understand that?"
He started to protest, but Ashley's hand became a silencing finger over his lips. "Trust me."
Sydney was thoughtful, absorbing this. "If you are in my debt as you say, then I ask two favors of you."
Ashley nodded. "Ask them."
"Take me away from this place. I never want to see it again."
Ashley could well understand that. "I would not have left without you, anyway." He offered apology in the curve of his grin. "I might have been found bludgeoned to death by a bed-bolster. Your other request?"
Sydney's eyes narrowed, but not in anger. A chuckle might have stirred beneath Ashley's fingers. "Let me go. You're standing on my foot and I'm nearly twisted in half."
"Oh." Sheepishly, Ashley released him. He stood back to watch as the boy-Sydney righted himself and smoothed back his hair. "I didn't mean to insult you."
"Fair enough. I'm afraid I've acted rather badly." Sydney turned to offer him a smile. "But I had no choice in the matter."
"Some things never change," Ashley said, and realized belatedly that he'd never actually put his trousers on. "Excuse me."
"Certainly." Sydney sat down cross-legged on the rumpled bed and looked hopefully in the wine bottle. It was empty. He sighed.
"I'll get us some breakfast, if you'll just... one moment." Ashley held out the clothing he'd pulled from his saddlebags last night. "Here, before you catch your death."
Sydney accepted it graciously, the folds of fabric leaking out of his fingers as he held up the black shirt. "Is this... silk?" he asked, holding it to his chest.
Ashley shrugged. "Yes. I'm afraid it won't be too warm but I'll ask the innkeep about a cloak and--"
"I've never touched silk before." Sydney slid his hands down the garment, over his skin. Ashley fought to swallow.
"Yes, well. It's nearly dawn, so if you want to get dressed I'll... I'll leave you be." He hurried out the door.
When he returned with his winnings, Sydney was already dressed, the shirt hopelessly large on him, draping open as he bent to tug the bedding straight.
"Are you hungry?" It was only porridge, but it was warm and generously lavished with honey.
Sydney lifted his head, eyes bird-bright on the wooden trencher. "Usually."
"Here." Ashley handed him the warm bowl. "I've already had mine. See if these fit." He tossed a leather jerkin and a pair of soft boots across the bed, and pulled a wool cloak from his shoulders. "I bought them from the innkeep, it was the best he had. And slow down before you choke; I don't think the porridge will try to escape." He knelt to unpack and repack his saddlebags, adding a wrapped cheese and a loaf of hard black bread.
The concept of a pair of shoes of his very own was enough to make Sydney abandon his breakfast. "Where are we going?" he asked, from inside his jerkin. The extra length in the trousers he pulled down over his feet before sliding the boots on and smoothing out the leather.
"I'll tell you when we get there..." Ashley looked up, and smiled faintly. The jerkin fit nicely and held in the extra volume of Sydney's borrowed shirt; he was still fidgeting with the boots and trying to decide how the lacings should hang. Ashley had been lucky the innkeep had such good stock; Sydney looked like a lesser noble, albeit an underfed one. He'd do. Ashley wanted to give the impression that they were equals traveling together, it would cause less questions and scandal than a well-dressed nobleman carrying a waif of a young boy on the front of his saddle would. Sydney, deciding he was dressed, returned eagerly to the rest of his meal.
"I'm going to get the horse, just come down when you're--"
"Mmm-mm, I'm ready." Sydney downed the last bit of his breakfast and stood, swirling the cloak around his shoulders with a graceful flick of his wrists. "I must admit," he said, holding out his arms to admire the soft sweep of fabric, "I didn't expect to leave this village so well-dressed."
"I thank you for you patronage, sire." The innkeep happily jingled the coins in his palm. He had been right twofold about this one. "If ever you pass this way again--"
"I'll know where to stop." Ashley nodded absently. He had no intentions of returning; his life was long, and the world was large. In the nearly two decades he'd been wandering, unaging, he'd seen more country than most people believed existed.
"Begging a word o' your lordship," the innkeep reached out to touch Ashley's sleeve, "I've no qualms about your tastes, sire, but if I was you I'd get rid of that boy soon. 'E's nothing but trouble, got fey blood in him."
Ashley looked out the window, where Sydney was standing in the snow, rubbing noses with Orpheus, long cold hands smoothing the rich black mane. The horse tossed his head playfully, catching the boy off-balance, and he danced back, laughing silently in the early morning. As if knowing he was being watched, Sydney lifted his head and looked to the windows of the inn, his smile nowhere but in his eyes.
"I'll keep that in mind, Good Sir." Ashley said, and tossed an extra coin as he left.
"Are we leaving now?" Sydney asked, as Ashley crunched through the snow towards him. He was eyeing the saddle dubiously. Ashley doubted that the boy had spent much time on horseback.
"Yes." Ashley gave him a boost and followed him up, considering purchase of another horse soon. It would be a while before he could find one to keep pace with Orpheus. "Is there anyone you want to say goodbye to?"
Sydney shook his head. "I want a view without this damn swatch of dirt in it."
Ashley grinned, silently urging the horse to the road. "You and me both. Have you ever been to South Valendia?"
"You must be jesting. I've not been to the south of Goody Winthrop's cornfield, much less the country." Sydney placed a hand over Ashley's arm around his waist, looking uneasily at the distance between the saddle and the ground.
"That's going to change." Ashley said, and if the air was icy Sydney did not seem to care, lifting his bare face to the wind, his eyes hungry on the horizon as Ashley turned Orpheus's head to the South, and Leá Monde.