Moonlight illuminated the surface of the river as Garen walked from Yura’s house. The water ran slow, sluggish. The late autumn rains not yet begun; summer had been dry and hot. The stone of ancient embankments bared themselves below newer river-walls: bleached sandstone above sludge-greyed marble, lain in reigns of richer kings.
He trudged slowly, listened to the lowered water lap against the stone. The streets were empty despite the hour, gaslights dimmed, yet stars still unseen. The world was distant, empty: he a ghost in a city that marked not his passing.
Though cured by Yura’s tea of the morning drink-sick, his head pounded with thoughts. Fear. His teacher’s seeing had failed. She gave no comfort, no direction, for his first provisioning. Years before he looked towards this day, certain he’d need no advice. Now, without her help, he was terrified.
He remembered little from the morning’s demand. They needed a provisioner. Diviners chose him over others. He would fulfill his obligation to the Fathers or forfeit his life. Simple terms, no ambiguity, no escape.
They gave three days to prepare, without word for what he was to prepare. They told him where to meet them; they would depart the city upon his arrival.
He did not even know who they were.
Yura had provisioned six times in her life, her other students twenty times between them. She’d said none of those provisionings involved such secrets. “We used to find them, you know. None of this them-demanding-us sort of thing. Things have changed. Now, they just come around telling you what you gotta do. I don’t like this.”
Her words echoed in his fear-filled head. He knew the history, how once authorities once honored and feared provisioners. Now they were only tolerated when they served the empire.
“On forfeit of your life,” the demand had said. He did not tell Yura this. She would have raged.
Lost in his thoughts, he’d missed a turn. He’d been walking too far along the river, a longer route. Garen stopped, looked for a street sign. He found one, read its faint letters in the moonlight, and closed his eyes.
Why’d he come back here? He’d not meant to. He’d not, anyway.
He stood before the stables. “This is stupid,” he muttered, even as his feet walked to the door.
“No,” he whispered, watching his hand slip through the gap between masonry and wood, trying the latch.
Garen fumbled in the darkness, met the reek of horse and moldering straw with unbidden nostalgia. He could see nothing, no moonlight filtered through the slate roof. “Sorn?” he called. His voice echoed back much louder than he’d hoped. “Hey—it’s Garen. The guy from the river.” He stilled his breathing, strained to listen for a rustle, a whisper, a snore.
Garen latched the door on his way out, tried to walk hard away from his stupidity. Of course Sorn wouldn’t be there. Garen bit his lip as he tread the streets, biting even harder each time he threw a glance backward in empty hope.
He arrived home and stormed up the stairs to his room. He didn’t care if his landlord was sleeping, nor if the whole house heard him, nor the entire street. The world was a bitter place—it deserved no more of his kindness, and definitely none of his care. He threw himself into bed. Too tired to undress, too tired to light her candles, too tired to fuck his hand, too tired for everything, and definitely too tired to dream.
Morning came, and with it a knock on the door of his room.
Garen didn’t answer. The knock came again, and again, and again, then stopped. He listened as footsteps fell away, down the stairs, the heavy slow gait of his landlord.
Garen hadn’t paid rent for two months after the rent-rise. He had the money, but intended to wear down the old man rather than give in. That was Yura’s suggestion. She always chided him for how easily he bent his back to people above him, too eager to please them.
“I mostly don’t want the trouble,” he’d protested when she pressed him.
“Then you don’t want life,” she’d answered, not without kindness. “It’s all trouble.”
His landlord was an ass anyway. Prattled endlessly that immigrants were ruining the city, how the lords were never harsh enough with enemies. He’d prefaced the rent-rise with his bloodthirst. “War’s coming, and it’s about time. And about time you pay what this room’s worth.”
War’s coming. His landlord hadn’t been the only one to say it. War was always coming, though—Garen couldn’t remember a time when the land wasn’t preparing for war. This time though it did seem like war would come. Soldiers everywhere, banners draping taverns and shops, covering windows, suspended from lamp-posts.
He remembered no time like this, nor did Yura when he asked. “There’s a war coming, sure” she’d said. “It’s not my war, and they better not try to make it mine, because I don’t fight for anyone.”
Garen had no intentions of fighting either. He’d not used his fist for something besides pleasure since he was 14, had never held a sword not between a man’s legs.
Sorn’s. Garen remembered it. Bigger than his own, thicker, unhidden by the thick coat of black hair around it. Limber, muscled legs, a mantle of fur cascading from his chest down his stomach. His face, though—not quite human, or maybe more-than-human. Narrow grey eyes, piercing under thick brows, staring as if hungry.
Garen groaned. He’d not noticed he was thrusting into his fist, his hand wet and slick from cock-spit. A second later and he was panting, grunting, not bothering to stifle his voice as he came.
His shuddering woke him into life. He had provisions to gather, prayers to offer. He ran his hand through his hair. He got out of bed quickly, crossed the room to the shrine. He knelt, lit two new candles, and waited for an answer from she-who-forsees.
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