The Peninsula

The Fiction and Poetry Archive of Liana Mir and scribblemyname



It was cold out. Winter had never been particularly friendly to the wayfarer in the wilds beyond reach of city or road, let alone to fugitives, fleeing their former masters. Snow had piled deep through every thicket and stretch of the wood, ice coated the river in all but the most rapid sections, and no path was visible in any direction.

In short, Ishalt was lost, which wasn’t a terrible thing in summer when there was food for forage and the only thing that mattered was suitable distance from one’s pursuers. In winter, it could mean life or death to find shelter.

He pressed on, determined that no one would find him before he made good his escape. The distant barking had faded behind him by now, the woods were at least sheltered from the worst of the wind and still falling snow, and somewhere on the other side of the woods, he was sure he could find the road again that led to another city. All he needed now was some hunter’s lodge, safe and hidden, to pass the night so he did not freeze. But one did not appear, and Ishalt pressed on.

By the time he found the high wall, his lashes had frozen over and his coat and gloves were frosted. He stumbled through the open gate onto the grounds and fell still, barely even seeing the nearby sanctuary of what appeared to be a large house. His eyes began to close, but not before the vague impression of a person moving toward him. He felt warm pressure on his face, then no more.

Ishalt woke to cool fingers gentle on his face, warmth surrounding the rest of his body. He opened his eyes and the hand withdrew. A straight-mouthed, bronze-skinned man, young and slender with very dark hair and eyes, stared down at Ishalt where he’d been tucked into a bed piled thickly with blankets. His host’s tunic was a plain off-white, reflecting the sunlight streaming brightly in through the windows, and it looked very soft, expensive, and hard to clean without causing wear to the material.

Not that Ishalt had worked laundry since he was just a young boy. He dragged his gaze back up to those intent eyes. “Where am I?” he asked.

“You were lost in the storm,” the stranger said. “You stumbled onto my lands.” He gestured to the side table next to the bed. “Food and water.”

Ishalt forced himself to make the gesture of gratitude, one that might be made by a free man and not a slave, however high ranking. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

The man stared at him, seemed to see right through the gesture, and even perhaps know what Ishalt was doing, but that was irrational. It was his fear speaking. The man’s mouth tilted upward in a tiny smile far from reassuring. “You must tell me when you want to be found,” he said in a low voice that made Ishalt shiver.

It was bitterness that prompted his words. “And if I want oblivion?” He shouldn’t have said it, he thought the moment it was out. He didn’t want anyone to send him back.

His host shot him a piercing look, frowning again. “Then you came to the wrong place,” he said sharply. “No one may reach oblivion from here.” He stood and moved toward the door.

Ishalt caught him just before he disappeared. “Who are you, my benefactor?” Much of appropriate behavior depended upon the answer.

The man merely glanced back and said, “Shir.”


The woman who held the deed for a property others would destroy her for. The older sister trying to save her little brother from sharing her life of hardship. The man who found stolen goods in his possession that he had certainly not thieved.

In their extremity, they prayed for deliverance.

He was not an unkind god for all he was rarely sought after for any of the things that truly brought him power and gave him life. (He was rarely sought after at all.)

They prayed to lose that which they had, and he honored their requests.

When Ishalt felt strong enough, he washed himself in the provided basin and wrapped the provided loose-fitting tunic around his body. It matched the color and texture of his host’s and was as soft as he had predicted. Ishalt was no stranger to fine things. His rank had certainly been high enough for some to forget his status.

He took his own measure in the mirror, glad now he’d not objected as a teenager to having his facial hair permanently removed, as he’d hardly had time to shave, and also glad he’d never given cause for beatings or scars. The tunic had a very broad open neck and there was no hiding his tattoos but there was no help for that. That was entirely the point of them. He was old enough to have fulfilled what they promised.

He rubbed his thumb over the coil of red hair braided around his wrist, the life braid binding him to his family and name. Things had changed, and if he didn’t do everything exactly right and arrive at exactly the right time, he may not have saved himself at all. There was nothing to do for it now, so he finished tying the tunic and brushing down his hair, then considered what next.

There was no scent of food or noisy bustle of servants to guide him when he slipped out the door of the bedroom and into the corridor just outside. Windows ran the length of the hall on one side, letting in much light and a view of gardens behind the house and a fountain in the midst of them. Ishalt had found himself out on some sort of estate buried deep in the woods far from any well-traveled path.

An eccentric lord perhaps. But with no servants? A guardian spirit maybe, perhaps even the spirit of the woods. Ishalt had never met one, but there were rules for interacting with them. He would remain cautious.

He touched nothing as he followed the corridor to the main hall and saw how the house was divided into wings branching off of it, one leading clearly toward the kitchens and workrooms that went into running an estate with quarters likely behind or below them, another leading into the courts and halls for entertaining or the work of the masters of the home, and the one he’d emerged from a large residential wing, each with their own large entry and corridors leading back deeper into the house.

He decided to try the kitchens.

The estate was usually very quiet and almost still, the air moving only with Shir’s passage and the flow of the breezes through and around his home. His lands were not home for any but himself, though many passed over his property and never knew the estate sat upon it and never met Shir.

He’d been a child as his people counted it when he first arrived here, a little startled and uncertain, but he was an intelligent child and knew the powers of his family. He knew if he stayed calm and looked after himself, eventually his sister would find him.

The house formed itself around him, the lands moved in answer to his wishes, and the shape of his needs called forth answer and provision. He came to realize in time that his power had drawn this place around him, the nature of his power coming clear only when the missive from his sister arrived and explained to him why she would not be coming.

He did not reject those who came over the years and passed through. He would aid those who were dying and send them back to life or on to death as needed. Most, he never saw at all, for they returned on their own to wherever their path would take them. None of them stayed. None of them became close. He was quite used to being alone.

It’s why he barely looked up from his tea and his letters when the traveler entered the warmth of the kitchen with its bright colors and cheery light. The snow seemed to make everything brighter, and Shir had never minded the cold. He gestured vaguely toward the extra large cold box where most of the already prepared foods were. “If you’re hungry.”

“Have you eaten?” the traveler asked politely in reply, and it made Shir blink and actually look at him.

It was an insignificant question, the polite response, easily explained by his appearance, but no one else had ever asked it. He was beautiful, the golden tone of his skin as though he’d been kissed by the god of light, Nakor, with chestnut hair and warm brown eyes that gleamed with interest and bright intelligence. He was slender but strong with a grace as he moved that spoke of excellent training. He wore the mark that showed where he got that training.

“You’re a slave,” Shir commented.

The traveler stiffened, but there was no denying the stunning swirls of blue ink covering his shoulders and running down to touch his collarbones. “I finished my term,” he said simply. The mark then did not stretch over his back.

Even so, Shir gave him a sharp look with even sharper displeasure. He was no god of truth and lies, but any god could see through falseness. “Do not lie to me.”

His eyes seemed to darken. He studied Shir for a moment, then, “I finished my term,” he said with the bite of bitter belief burning in his voice.

It was sufficient. For some value of the words he was saying, he believed them truth.

“Very well,” Shir said. “I will not inquire further. For now.” Since he insisted on talking to Shir… “What do they call you?”

“Ishalt.” A lengthy pause as Ishalt glanced over the tea and pile of fine parchment on the table. “Would you like some food as well?”

Persistent. Shir waved him off. “I’m not generally hungry.” Food was a pleasant diversion to those who enjoyed it, but Shir had found enough sustenance without seeking any out. Humanity was forever losing things and never thinking well of having lost them.

He retreated to his letter again, pointedly reading. Ishalt moved away to put together a meal for himself and left Shir in peace.

The gods could not be lost, but they could lose things, notes and letters and even whole care packages, however much it exasperated him. He scrawled a reply that his sister would find sometime and tell him about later in a lost missive. He couldn’t help anyone in particular find anything, but he could help a thing to stop being lost.

Shir wrote out additional replies, knowing those would have farther to go. It took someone with his sister’s skill to find what had never gone missing. His favorite papers hadn’t come from lost care packages.

By the time he’d finished, Ishalt had cooked something pleasant smelling and settled in a lower seat to eat it. He’d hardly been not a slave for long, and not all of his behaviors had been updated apparently. Shir had certainly seen runaways pass through his lands before, though most had done so entirely by accident and did not seek any aid he could grant them, if they even knew to ask. Ishalt didn’t wear their furtive aura. He adopted the mode of a steward of a high estate and stayed present and available yet out of the way.

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” Shir told him suddenly, unsure what made him think it would be a problem. “You are a guest here.”

Ishalt blinked, then gestured assent even while he studied Shir speculatively. It was common to exchange goods or service for aid, but unexpected of those one made or called a guest.

Shir didn’t want a servant and didn’t want Ishalt to feel obligated to him. That had never been his nature, to take instead of to give.

No one usually wanted his gifts.

The grandmother drifting from one realm to another. The forbidden love one could not marry. The child never born to life. The small missed items, the surrendered dreams, the opportunities closed before they could be realized. He was not an unkind god, but who ever sought after loss?

He helped those who did not wish to remember their pain, claimed that which was left abandoned to the point of ruin, aided those in desperate need. The only ones who took any pleasure were those who wished to lose their childhood or their virginity or their innocence, and some of them still regretted it in time.

Shir stared at Ishalt, resting his chin in one hand. And Ishalt stood there, allowing it, bright eyes wide, put on independent footing and seeming to have to adjust to the feeling. But Ishalt didn’t know why Shir studied him, wondering.

No one usually wanted his gifts.

It took all of less than two days for Ishalt to itch to feed him. There were no visible servants, no friendly gossipy chattering to give him insight into Shir’s mind, and Shir was prone to very quietly wandering in and out of his study or his library and over to windows with a good view of the currently frozen gardens, like what he really wanted was some warm air so he could sit by the fountain.

He went in the kitchen for tea, he nodded politely at Ishalt in passing, and gave him leave to wander through the public parts of the estate, but he never seemed to eat anything.

It wasn’t rude, technically, not really, at least not by his mother’s people’s standards of hospitality and guest etiquette, so Ishalt finally fried up two portions of vegetables and rice and made the tea before Shir emerged and set them at his usual seat at the kitchen table. The dining room was large and formal and Shir had yet to enter it, so Ishalt stuck to what he knew.

Of course, Shir might take it wrong, thinking he was trying to serve him or whatever, but Ishalt had been a house servant for less than a year as a child, and this wasn’t really his style, even if there wasn’t someone else to delegate it to. It wasn’t even about repaying the food and care and shelter. It was just something Ishalt needed to do.

When Shir did finally enter, Ishalt stared at the rice he was putting in his mouth. Shir paused, then only sat after a long moment. Ishalt wasn’t going to blush. He ruthlessly stifled his embarrassment and uncertainty and focused on eating.

There was a small clank that wasn’t from the teacup. Ishalt glanced up to see Shir taking a bite then dropped his eyes back to his plate.

They ate without talking and Ishalt stifled his smile rather than a blush.

“Would you like to see the library?” Shir asked quietly.

Ishalt popped his head up in surprise.

Shir was studying him with those dark eyes, waiting with a slight frown for Ishalt’s answer.

Finally, Ishalt gestured assent, a little unsure of what to expect but with some amount of anticipation. He still wasn’t entirely sure whether his host was lord or guardian, but the books he’d seen Shir with looked intriguing. He hadn’t wanted to handle them himself without invitation.

And he wasn’t wrong.

When Shir showed him the library, it was larger than it had seemed from the hall. Bookcases surrounded the room from ceiling to floor and made hallways and nooks within it. Ishalt peered around a corner and realized he couldn’t really make out the back of the room. There was a comfortable reading area under the wide windows—Shir seemed fond of windows, Ishalt was realizing—complete with a small stack of books that had clearly been dug into and a tea station by the windowseat and couch.

The couch looked suspiciously slept on. Ishalt refrained from mentioning the rumpled texture of the cushions and the haphazardly folded blanket on one end. For whatever reason Shir did not hire help, he wasn’t wholly un-self-sufficient.

Shir was watching Ishalt take it in, not moving forward himself, and Ishalt wasn’t entirely certain what gesture he was missing. This wasn’t a business transaction, wasn’t a supplicant or guest of his old master, and Ishalt had played the host more transparently than Shir whenever called upon to do so.

He moved to the nearest row of bookcases and studied the broad spines. He blinked. “The Annals of the Founding of Kushir?” He turned and stared at Shir.

“Yes,” Shir answered simply.

“That book has been lost for centuries!” Ishalt turned back to the book, ran one finger delicately against the print, but the book was as clean and sturdy as if it were still fairly new. He read the titles after it, more histories and poetry, stories and legends of the civilization that had predated his own. It was said most of their writings were destroyed in the conquering of them. “These books are all lost,” he whispered, awed, then turned. “You find lost books?” The possibilities were startling, and already Ishalt was wondering what else was hidden in this library no one had the chance to read anymore.

“No.” Shir stared at him a long moment, then said with a shrug, “While they’re lost, they remain here.”

Ishalt wasn’t entirely certain he understood, but it wasn’t difficult to find books to read or to welcome a shared tea near the window. After a few hours lost in the tomes, he finally looked up at the newly slanting sunlight over Shir’s face.

“You don’t seem much inclined to make me go,” Ishalt mentioned cautiously but in an offhand tone. It was a manner he’d had much reason to practice.

Shir looked at him sharply, then sighed. “And shouldn’t you be finishing your business?”

“Not now,” Ishalt answered, more honestly than perhaps was safe. “I need to wait until they no longer expect me. The first to the magistrate generally fares best in a case.” It was something he knew from plenty of experience handling his master’s affairs.

But Shir frowned, eyes narrowing as he considered that. “Then shouldn’t you be there now?”

“I’ve always had many tasks and errands,” Ishalt said. “I was lost in a storm.”


The magistrate would not declare him a runaway until it could be proven he had not simply been taken by the elements. Ishalt had too few resources not tied to his master to not take such advantages as he could. Which meant arriving in the city when no one expected him or lay in wait, when he could make his own way to the magistrate and have them send word of the need for resolution.

Shir shrugged again, that slight thoughtful frown he wore so much on his face. Ishalt thought he’d like to make him smile.

“You are a guest here,” Shir said. “Stay as long as you like.”

He’d made do for a few days with the clothes provided by his host and the ones he’d been wearing, but they needed washing. He could find his own way to the laundry, but Shir had lately taken to showing him the places he wanted to go.

The laundry was home to entirely more socks than one person could ever hope to wear in a lifetime. “Shir.”

The ones that should be on lines were on lines, and the coarser, less delicate socks were piled in laundry bins neatly stacked on what seemed an endless row of shelves. Every so often, a bin with something other than socks hid unobtrusively between.

“My sister once wrote me that I should be called the Lord of Socks rather than Shir,” Shir commented, nonplussed. Hashar. It was similar enough to draw a smile.

Ishalt plucked at a lacy white stocking that certainly belonged to a lady. “Do I want to know?”

“I don’t wear them,” Shir said, exasperated.


He teased that over in his head. Did that make him Hashir, Lord of the Lost? Or just Shir, lost. Ishalt put his clothes in a basin and ran the hot water he’d need.

Shir’s estate seemed to take care of him, and Shir really didn’t get hungry often, but Ishalt went out of his way to start imposing order on the necessary tasks of a household, pleased when Shir didn’t object. There were meals to be had and evening bells to chime. The first time Ishalt set them ringing in the manner dictated by tradition, Shir appeared startled and just stared until the fifteen chimes had sounded, one to honor each of the high elder gods. Perhaps Ishalt imagined it, but Shir seemed vaguely pleased.

Ishalt didn’t intrude too deeply into the library nook Shir preferred, but he did get the wrinkles out of the couch and properly fold the blanket in the mornings, leaving a hot tea around the time Shir would want it.

“You’re not a servant here,” Shir said once a day, a trifle exasperated.

Ishalt agreed readily from where he’d stuck his head in a priceless book or manuscript or from one of the games or treasures he’d been allowed to use from any of the many rooms hidden throughout the house. “Someone has to take care of you though.”

Shir blinked at him, then apparently resigned himself and took his finished letters to wherever it was he went to deliver them.

“I don’t know why you assume you’re not discriminating.” The words held entirely too much obvious amusement. “You’ve never even shown interest in taking a lover after a few thousand years. I doubt you need my approval before doing so now.”

He’d have liked to resent his sister sometimes for when she decided to be fussy and interfering without cause or when she decided to let him muddle his own way when he was outright asking for advice, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. He’d never been interested in anyone else before. For all that, he’d never spent enough time with any of the others passing through his lands to have the opportunity.

He only sent her one note that day. “You’re not helpful. Or funny.”

Somehow she lost another slip of paper within an hour, not even bothering to wrap it in an envelope. “I found your note. Of course, I am.”

Shir did have work, and blessings to deliver, and prayers to answer, and his studies, and when the weather was fine, he did much out of doors between his garden and the forest and checking on the poor lost souls who’d offended a guardian spirit somewhere. He wasn’t without things to do.

Somehow, he still found himself gravitating more toward the things he could do while in the general area where Ishalt was. Ishalt thankfully hadn’t gotten it into his head to be a general cleaner or maid, but he was currently updating all the blessings in the borders of the house that were “charmingly ancient” in Nakor’s words. He’d started finding some of the items intentionally lost by Shir’s family and relocating them carefully to the areas where Shir would find and use them. There were more questions in his eyes than Shir genuinely felt like answering.

And there was always that thought in the back of his head, this couldn’t last.

“You’re weird.”

“I am not.”

“Who doesn’t like peppers?” Ishalt asked, nose wrinkling as he set a plate of pepperless breakfast in front of Shir.

“Anyone with sense and a tongue.”

“Don’t be rude.”

“You insulted my taste first.”

“Don’t be juvenile.”

Shir shot him a baleful look. “You are the guest.”

“Ah.” Ishalt grinned. “‘It is an act unbefitting of a man of stature to blame his words or deeds on another.'” He said it in the manner of a quote or proverb, one Shir didn’t recognize.

Shir frowned. “I’m unfamiliar with that saying.”

Ishalt blinked, clearly stifling his surprise. “Everyone knows Basulf,” he said, failing to completely keep it out of his voice.

Shir sighed and picked at his food. “I don’t.”

“Perhaps you have a volume of his in th—”

“No.” Shir didn’t wait to cut him off. He would know if anything like that fell into his power, but a light tug found only emptiness, and he let go immediately, the better to pretend he hadn’t even tried. “It doesn’t matter what he said.”

Ishalt stared at him for a moment, bewildered, then slowly replaced his expression with one of self-repression. “All right,” he said finally. “I’m going to do a circuit of the grounds’ blessings if you don’t mind.”

“‘Charmingly ancient,'” Shir murmured to himself.

Ishalt stared back with a deliberate mask of blankness that likely meant he disagreed thoroughly on the charming.

“It’s fine,” Shir said.

Ishalt was in fact familiar with the customs of the spirits, even if he’d never met any before and never received any messages from the gods. He was acquainted quite thoroughly with the sort of boundary markers around woods and glens that warned of a guardian spirit protecting them and how these differed from the glyphs and etchings and special ward stones used to lay down the periphery of a temple or shrine.

When he’d climbed to the roof, he had an excellent view of the entire grounds surrounding the estate house, all its gardens, and the high wall Shir had brought him within from out in the storm. The wall’s four corners, the way it was laid out, the gate and its design—it took a moment for Ishalt to take it in and that it was the original which temples merely alluded to. That stone shifted, as watchful and responsive as the protection wards evoked. The stone wasn’t merely engraved but alive with power in shapes not quite familiar. They were not blessing sconces placed on each corner of the outer wall, but the similar but not identical forms of prayer receptacles, only these like the wall held power, not mere forms.

Shir was no eccentric lord, hidden away in the forest, Ishalt realized abruptly as he stared, stunned, at the four points denoting the boundaries of sacred ground. Nor a guardian spirit, whose domain had never been within the sacred but outside of it. Nor was he a priest of a temple, however holy or real, nor keeper of a shrine, for he’d been exasperatedly allowing Ishalt to begin to fill that role and certainly did not act as the steward of his own estate.

Which could only mean…

“You’re a god,” Ishalt said, trembling in the entry hall into the residential wing.

Shir stopped and tilted his head slightly as he studied Ishalt for a long, fraught moment. He’d been just leaving his office when Ishalt found him and now stood in the hall just outside it. His expression shifted to sardonic amusement to match his tone as he replied, “I finished my term.”

Ishalt clenched his fists without thinking as startling, unjustified anger burned through him. “Don’t lie to me!”

The amusement vanished into a sigh. Shir turned and went back into his office, waving with one hand for Ishalt to follow.

After an uncertain moment, Ishalt obeyed that gesture and stood before the desk as Shir dropped into his chair behind it before regarding Ishalt openly.

“Rare is the man who prays to a god, then does not recognize the answer,” Shir commented.

“I didn’t pray to anyone!” Ishalt protested, certain of that at least, less to a god he didn’t even know.

But Shir only frowned. “You wished that no one would find you, to be lost.” His eyes turned dark and resentful. “And I answered.”

Ishalt could only stare at him. Everything he knew about Shir and this house suddenly falling into a different light. Lost. No wonder there was no one else here, though he knew Shir had sent other travelers on their way, for he’d said as much from time to time. Other people who were lost.

He floundered for a moment with his feelings, for words. What did you say to a god who had taken you in? A hundred formal phrases, right for different occasions or supplicants, flitted through his brain, but nothing was right for this person he knew that had neatly avoided any display of power of his nature directly in front of Ishalt, however much he claimed Ishalt should have noticed.

Ishalt finally dropped into the chair on the opposing side of the desk and just asked frankly, “Why did you hide it?”

Shir stayed quiet for a moment, but finally shrugged and answered, still a little resentfully, “I didn’t.”

Ishalt blinked at him. What was it he had muttered under his breath? Charmingly ancient. “You don’t do things like other gods because you’ve been alone so long?” Ishalt said slowly, putting even more pieces together.

Shir shrugged again. As much as an affirmative.

Right. Ishalt felt his cheeks heat with embarrassment. “I apologize for my presumptuousness.”

Shir narrowed his eyes. “Don’t just say things because it’s proper.”

“You can’t not say the proper things,” Ishalt snapped back. “You can’t offend the gods.”

“You’re offending me by being dishonest.”

Ishalt really wasn’t sure why it made him angry or why he thought it fine to respond to such a statement, but the words were out of his mouth before he could catch them back. “I thought maybe I could have a place here, and I can’t if you’re a god.” He drew back, muttered. “I didn’t understand anything.”

Shir was studying him openly again, and Ishalt gestured apology, perhaps more sincerely, and fled the office before Shir could tell him such a hope was as presumptuous as it was.

“Why not?”

Ishalt stumbled abruptly to his feet, all his lessons in being instantly at attention somehow fleeing him in this moment. He managed not to knock over any of the stacks of books they’d left in the reading area.

Shir had waited some amount of time to come after him, but he was here now in the library, a flat frown on his face, in his tone, demanding. “Why can’t you have a place here? Is there some taboo I’m breaking? Some binding rules on my kind I’m unaware of?”

Ishalt was blushing again, at the dark sarcasm in that last question. If anyone knew the rules of the gods, it was Shir and not Ishalt. His instinct was to lower his head and wait out the tempest of displeasure, but he chose to stare back at Shir instead. You’re offending me by being dishonest.

“Guardians don’t mind humans tending their shrines,” Ishalt made himself say. “Lords have servants and companions. But the gods are not known to live in their temples nor take humans as companions.”

Let alone someone like Ishalt.

Shir did not answer for a long moment, long enough for Ishalt to worry he should have kept his tongue still in his mouth and done as he’d wanted to.

“Gods do as they please,” Shir said at last, “within the confines of their power.”

The word choice took him flatfooted, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Ishalt could see that Shir embodied the name he wore, the power he held. He had no idea what pleased Shir though, for he’d rarely seen his smile. It came out faint and noticeable only for the determined seeker when Ishalt gave him food tailored to his tastes, at the first signs of winter beginning to relent, over one of those letters he read so often.

“And they help people,” Ishalt pointed out. He rather doubted that it always pleased them to do so, however much their supplicants attempted to make it so.

“As they wish,” Shir replied. “I wish it.” He had yet to look anywhere else but Ishalt, and now he stepped forward and Ishalt had to fight down an urge to step back. “Do you wish a place here?”

Ishalt stared into Shir’s dark eyes, that intense, demanding gaze, and felt for a moment, he’d never known him. Shir was older than he appeared, far more powerful, and rarely gave voice to his thoughts. Ishalt didn’t really know him, however much it felt that way, and didn’t know the depths of whatever Shir was capable of. He had yet to even think through all the implications. It didn’t change how he felt. “Yes.”

He wanted to stay, almost as badly as he wanted to see his family again. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to bring them here, but that would hardly matter if Ishalt could go and come.

They were so close now, close enough that Ishalt could make out Shir’s eyelashes and couldn’t properly see his mouth and then they were kissing and Ishalt had never been kissed before. It was warm and brief, and then Shir had pulled away to look at him again and judge his reaction.

Ishalt caught his breath and went with it. “You think too much,” he said and pulled Shir in for another kiss.

Shir lowered the tunic from Ishalt’s shoulders and traced the spiraling marks of Ishalt’s tattoo with his fingers, then with his mouth. Ishalt wrapped his hands around Shir’s shoulders, then slid them upwards and tightened his grip at Shir escalating to hot, open-mouthed kisses. Shir winced but did not complain.

Ishalt was getting dizzy with the heat sparking between them, and thinking too much was not a problem. Shir wound his fingers through Ishalt’s and brought his hand up to kiss the inside of his wrist softly, and Ishalt just about choked.

Shir didn’t stop though, kept kissing warmly up Ishalt’s arm and traced over those spirals again with his fingers as his mouth moved downward, then they were scrambling onto the couch because standing wasn’t working any more and Ishalt wasn’t even sure if he could keep supporting his weight anyway.

It took him a bit to realize it, but it hit Ishalt somewhere along the way that neither of them knew what they were doing. The hesitation when they finally got their clothes entirely out of the way, that sharp assessing look in Shir’s eyes that was less about Ishalt and more about what to do next. Ishalt blinked, surprised, but touch and desire and instinct could make up for a great deal of ignorance, and he didn’t take long to wonder about it, for Shir had finished making whatever battle plan in his head and put his mouth back to work.

And really, Ishalt wasn’t thinking any more at all.

“We’ve defiled the library,” Ishalt said after a bit.

Shir made an indecipherable noise into Ishalt’s shoulder but made no effort to move or otherwise respond. Ishalt felt wrecked, sore and sleepy and utterly satisfied. Shir looked wrecked, and it was a good look on him. Ishalt gently ran his fingers through Shir’s now tangled hair and enjoyed the warm weight of him.

“You know, you shouldn’t live in a library,” he commented, while he was thinking about it. It had become his favorite room in the house, besides the airy kitchen, but it wasn’t meant to be an all-purpose living place.

Shir made another indistinct noise of protest and raised his head just enough to mutter, “I have a bedroom.”

“Oh.” Ishalt thought of that, flushed hot and tried to stop thinking about that immediately. “I’d like to see it sometime.”

Shir turned enough to talk properly, and there was that faint smile Ishalt was always trying to catch a glimpse of. “Very well.”

“Just like that.” Huh. Ishalt leaned back comfortably. The blanket shouldn’t have been big enough for them to share, but somehow they’d made do and it was comfortable, tangled together on the couch.

Shir sat up on one arm and kissed him heatedly. As he pulled away, he murmured close to Ishalt’s mouth, “I don’t ever want you to be found.”

Ishalt hadn’t quite expected that. He tried to find how to protest without protesting the sentiment. “Well, I want someone to find me at some point.” He stumbled through words he didn’t wish to offend by saying. It wasn’t like he wanted to leave. Maybe visit. Definitely visit.

Shir stiffened and frowned, his gaze intensifying. “Why?”

“I have family,” Ishalt blurted out, then looked away, blushing. “It’s good when someone cares enough to try to find you.”

Shir blinked at that, breathed out softly, “No one ever tried to find me.” A moment’s silence while Ishalt digested that, and wondered at what sort of family Shir had. “No one appreciates loss.”

Ishalt sat up on his arm. “What?” he demanded.

But Shir just shook his head, more mulish in expression.

“I don’t regret the twenty years,” Ishalt said softly, conceding somewhat. There was cause for appreciation. “When I was still small,”—Ishalt thought back to that but couldn’t remember much more than being of walking and scrambling about age, and tucked up in his father’s arms anyway as the bargain was struck—”my family was destitute and couldn’t feed me. They indentured me to the city judge of Kienmar in exchange for a family living. I was trained as his left hand where his son was raised as his right.”

Such arrangements were not uncommon, where a child of the right proclivities made a worthwhile slave for a standard twenty-year term, and the purchased fosterling gave a poor family enough to educate their other children themselves and not starve in the doing.

Running away from a high-ranking position and so close to the end of one’s servitude was not common at all.

Shir frowned. “What happened?”

Ishalt had been happy once there, proud of what he’d accomplished. He recited dully, “I overheard Master Kienmar telling his son that I had done such a good job, he’d hired framers to get me tried and given over to him for life.”

Shir stared at him a long time, seeming to weigh that and feel out everything it implied.

Ishalt had run weeks before the end of his servitude, close enough that to run away had risked almost as much as what he fled. “I couldn’t lose them again,” he said, back to the first question, why he wanted so badly to be found.

Shir’s dark eyes narrowed. He brushed his hair from across them with one hand. “Again.” His frown deepened. “You built a life for your family and siblings, even as you gained the skills you now possess. You never resented their freedom with it so far distant when you had none. Was the first time not a worthy loss?”

Ishalt had little answer for that. He’d missed his family, but it had been worth it. “But I always knew I’d see them again. I hadn’t truly lost them.”

Even in such a short time as it had been, Ishalt felt he knew Shir well enough to read the disagreement in his eyes. “I would not wish you a slave,” Shir said at last. He settled back down against Ishalt, arm sliding over his waist. “I’m sure someone will find you.”

Ishalt woke dazed and chill, compared to what he had become accustomed to. The bed had grown hard overnight, and he shivered as he dragged himself upright in the blanket. He was in the woods, the snow less than it had been but not altogether gone, wrapped in blankets, a full pack tucked beside him in his tree-shaded shelter.

Everything felt dreamlike as he struggled to process this sudden state of being. Was there an estate behind that stone wall he could no longer see? Had he truly stumbled into Shir’s home and lands? Had he dreamed up everything in a hypothermic daze?

It didn’t make sense. Ishalt was not so light a sleeper someone could carry him out into the cold and abandon him without him waking.

It should have stung, but all he felt was numb as he gathered up his things, packed away the night goods, and refreshed himself out of his pack. There was certainly more provisions than he’d taken when he fled. He shouldered his pack and set forth, a vague remembrance of the map he’d tried to imprint into his mind, of all the paths and roads and secret ways to the city of his birth.

He was found, a young man who looked so much like Ishalt, but hair dark as Shir’s rather than Ishalt’s fairer chestnut, and more slender. Ishalt had written his family with Kienmar’s permission, and he’d tried to arrange a rendezvous he’d almost certainly long ago missed.



It was his brother. He was found.

He’d lost his grip on his lover sometime in the night, and it wasn’t uncommon for such things to happen. No one ever wanted to stay lost, whoever had willed it or prayed it upon them. He did not push any of them away, but he only sighed when his sister gently reached out and plucked them from his hand. He’d done what he could while Ishalt was still his own.

“Take care of him,” Shir whispered low at the window. Even the gods had been known to pray.

The homecoming was warm enough, filled with food and celebration, and it was true enough that he’d been expected to arrive sometime around this time, a little sooner, if he’d fulfilled the twenty years of service they’d indentured him for. His mother’s arms were not so strong as he remembered, but they were still warm and loving. His father’s voice was still stern to outsiders but kind to his children. His younger siblings still looked up to him and peppered him with a million questions. No one asked why he’d come home early because he’d come home late, but Ishalt had run a city under the watchful eye of his master, and he knew that such things came home to roost.

The first night he came home, when they gave him a room with its own bath, he’d gone in and shut the door, then pulled off his tunic to inspect the broad sweep of spirals and lattices tattooed over his shoulders—the mark of his term.

It wasn’t alone.

Ishalt stared, startled and shuddering with the sudden absolute knowledge he hadn’t dreamed any of it. The mark of a life claim covered his back with wings and circles and spirals and knots, running right up and over the mark upon his shoulders. The blue covered so much of his flesh with a divine signifier, rare for any to wear but the priests, a clear statement he’d been taken by a god.

Shir. Lost. Who’d somehow ensured Ishalt would never be returned to Kienmar as his slave.

Within the week’s grace for recovery from a long journey, Ishalt brought an offering and his paperwork and contracts to a city magistrate and sat before him until brought forward with his case. He removed his tunic and laid out the contract of his term and showed his back before the judge.

“Three weeks before the end of my servitude, I was claimed by the god. He has since marked me with a life claim.”

The magistrate considered the matter. He calculated the appropriate fee for three weeks of Ishalt’s service, against the price paid for his term, and added to it the life fee obligate by the temple of a god who would make such a claim without consulting any man’s prior claim.

“Which temple must the restitution be paid from?” asked the scribe.

The magistrate gestured to Ishalt.

“I do not know the god,” said Ishalt, “only that his name is Shir.”

The general temple was called and a priest-scholar summoned, who opened the rolls of the legends and found nothing but a brief passage that there was one whom his family lost and whose name was lost and not written in the scrolls, that he gave shelter to those who wandered in dangerous places and returned many again to the families who prayed their safe return. It was good enough to determine there was such a god among all those known and unknown, and the general temple of all the divine without their own temple seat in the city paid out the portion from their treasury and sealed it in a pouch before the scribe and the magistrate. This was then sent to the City Judge of Kienmar, who sat in judgment over all the city and all the lesser magistrates of that city.

Ishalt was free. He rose up, put on his tunic, and returned to his family’s home.

Weeks passed, months. Ishalt was welcome in his mother’s home and took in hand stewarding it, putting his back also to what labors the family did for their own: expanding the house of their cousin, cooking for feasts of coming of age and marriages, hauling and helping their elder and infirm and their caretakers. He laughed with his brothers and sister and learned from and taught his father. It was a good time, warm in his belly and heart, but there were moments, he felt more wistful and lonely than perhaps he ought, the memory of knowing fingers and dark eyes and a low laugh and sardonic smile.

Ishalt rested on the front step of nights to stare upward at the stars, hands still on the scrolls he’d left open to stories and legends and histories that never mentioned the lost.

He favored his mother in appearance, and when she sat beside him, no one wondered if he was truly in his home at last. Even so, she reached up and placed a hand across the swirling tattoos, deep blue against his golden skin.

“Is it so wrong,” he asked softly, “that I’m not ready to lose you again?”

His mother gave a thoughtful hum and rubbed gently over the mark. “I would lose you gladly, son, if then you would find your own happiness. It would be worth it for that.” She held him warmly and he held her back in their own moment of goodbye.

That was toward the end of spring and it was some weeks again before he found his way to the general temple and asked to commit himself to the god in exchange for a life allotment for his family.

The priests and keepers consulted, for the god he had chosen had no temple, no gold set aside in his coffers to pay the standard price for this. So they agreed that they would pray, and Ishalt also, and if the god answered and accepted his commitment, the general treasury would bear the price.

As it was the general temple and prayers to an unknown god could have any manner of rules to be able to know or interpret the answer correctly, first two priests were chosen to preside over the prayers, a man and a woman, and they invoked the god of stones.

The weights given for the interpretations of dreams and answered prayers were blessed and prayed over, then flung in the air within the sacred circle. Ishalt stared as they slowed down before finally landing on the stones.

“The god of stones will speak through the stones,” the first priest said, his voice resonating through the space.

Ishalt didn’t even remember praying the first time, but it certainly wasn’t how he prayed when intentionally asking a god for something. He considered and finally just thought what he wanted to. “You laid a claim on me. I want to accept that claim and come back to you. They want you to acknowledge that though before I can officially be committed.”

They cast the weights three times, at designated intervals, consulted, then shook their heads. “Perhaps you must change the manner of the prayer,” they suggested.

Shir couldn’t just do things the reasonable way. “You wished that no one would find you, to be lost.”

Ishalt bowed again and gathered his thoughts and memories of everything he knew about Shir, everything he’d managed to deduce in the time since, thinking about it. Lost. He was willing to lose his life with his family again if it meant he could have Shir. He’d had time with them, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone left their family to join another’s.

The priests cast the weights, and in the first cast, they stopped, for the answer was clear and direct.

They asked to lose the things they could not keep, the things they did not need, and Shir had chosen to use his power to bless where he could. Few ever bothered to ask such things, and he had little power to comfort those who had not requested nor desired to lose what they had.

Shir found power in every thing and person lost, regardless of the means by which it came. His power had lost him his family, and he could hardly wish that Ishalt would never see his own family again.


“The god accepts your price but will not grant your request.”

The woman priest bowed her head near the other’s and murmured, “I’ve seen the it the other way but not this.”

Ishalt put on his blankest of expressions while internally muttering imprecations at Shir and whatever was going on in his head.

“The price?”

“Your service,” she replied promptly.

Of course.

Then let me lose this life, the one I’d have here if I stayed.

The priest hadn’t even cast the weights when they fell. Both priests stared at them, then one gestured for the scribe. “The god accepts your prayer.”

His mother looked anxious when Ishalt returned to the house, the scrip for the allotment in hand and his name safely in the rolls of those whose claim by a god had been confirmed. It was his father who spoke first.

“Merchant Poris sends his apologies, but his old steward has returned and he no longer has a position open.” His father looked at Ishalt as if it was Ishalt’s fault. “Your mother received a message while you were away that your aunt needs a room to stay and we have none.”

The loss of the life he could have had. That was quick.

Ishalt managed to smile. “It’s all right, Mother. It’s only what I asked.”

His family wasn’t so easily mollified but with the proper explanations and the allotment scrip, and several reassurances he would come back to visit, they were eventually satisfied.

“It’s a pity to lose an heir twice,” his father said at the end. But though his voice was rough and the words businesslike, there was a certain telling softness in his eye.

His mother just hugged him hard and whispered, “Go. Be happy.”

The woods seemed different when Ishalt returned. He frantically searched above and below, near the path and far from it, the way he remembered leaving and the way he remembered entering in. It didn’t seem to matter how he searched; the results were the same: nothing.

Why couldn’t he find him? he wondered in frustration, but it was only on his tenth circuit through that he stopped startled at the sight of a woman sitting on a stone under a tree. She was stunningly beautiful with bright hair and dark eyes, dressed formally so only her slender hands were visible below the neck and her robes seemed alive with power. A sword lay open in her hand, etched with living figures and glyphs across its surface. He knew her without asking and dropped to his knees in proper obeisance before saying anything.

She seemed amused as she rose gracefully to her feet. “I am Riskalayeln.” The goddess of finding and of difficult causes. “You want to find my brother.”

Ishalt looked up properly. “Yes,” he answered, desperate for aid if she was inclined to give it.

“You search for the one entity that cannot be found,” she said severely. “However, your cause is difficult and your love for him sincere, so I will help you. You cannot find him, but you already know what is necessary to reach his lands.”

He could have bit his tongue in frustration. “Please, great lady, tell me what it is I have forgotten.”

“Did you pray to lose the memory?” she asked.

And it came to him. She smiled and vanished, and Ishalt whispered thanks for it should have been obvious from the beginning.

He wished to be lost.

Ishalt found Shir in the gardens, staring into the fountain, gleaming with its deep bed of lost coins. After everything that had happened, it seemed almost surreal to step back into this world, to be standing so near.

“I tried to find you,” he said quietly. Someone had tried to find Shir. And further, “It is a worthy loss.”

Shir stared at him for a long time with such open longing, it took Ishalt’s breath away. Finally, Shir left the fountain and drew Ishalt close to kiss him, the first of many, many times.


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