Fiction~~Nature's Choice~~Ch. 5


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Nature's Choice
Chapter 5 - Lanosh Keep

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Slouching on his bedroll as the dawn-gray sky slowly darkened to blue, Nemaro tried to figure out how, exactly, things had gone wrong.  He usually liked mornings. Shivering with the sting of morning air, his eyes would blur pleasantly from the light the second they opened. His ears would perk up as he heard the riot of furry and feathered creatures exploding with their bestial joy over being alive.  And if it wasn’t his turn to cook, he was usually assaulted with the smell of oat porridge or grilled – possibly charred – fish.

It was a pretty damn good way to wake up: an instant sensory buzz.  

Too bad today wasn’t like most mornings, not when his life had taken such a sharp turn the night before.  Not when Nemaro had played the filling in a three-way, for both Horu and Mosumato.  His cock thickened and he shivered, gripping the blanket around his shoulders tightly.  What in all the hells had he been thinking?

No, what in all the hells had Horu been thinking, dammit!  The two gods didn’t even like each other, and suddenly it was fine for them to come together to fuck Nemaro?  He still couldn’t understand it.  And worse, he couldn’t forget it.  The gods’ fingers had burned like no woman’s ever had.  Their hard bodies had caged him in like a rounded female never could.  And those long, thick cocks, swollen and dark? 

His mouth salivated thinking about the smell of them, the feel of them in his mouth and his body, the sleek look and bitter, musky taste.  His gut clenched, low and deep, and Nemaro wished desperately that he could figure out what had happened to his strict, female-only life. 

If only he knew what last night meant, to him and Horu both, maybe he’d know where to go from here.  All that went through his mind, though, was how much their little sex-fest resembled the stories he’d read in the histories.  The old, erotic tales had been dog-eared from decades of covert perusal by the younger acolytes.  They talked of men and women carried off and used by nature’s gods, changed forever, if they were even seen again.  And the cautionary tale embedded in all of the stories slithered through him, no matter how many times he pushed it out. 

The gods didn’t make friends with humans; they used them.

Except Nemaro didn’t believe that of Horu.  He never had.  Mosumato might be a thoughtless, unfeeling bastard, but Horu cared. Nemaro was certain he did.  How much he felt, though? Nemaro had no idea.  The god taken his pleasure with plenty of others since Nemaro had known him and never felt anything but mild affection for any of them.  Why would sex with Nemaro be any different, even if he was a friend?  

And did he want it to be any different?

Rubbing a sweaty hand over his face, he sighed.  Why couldn’t he stop thinking about this!  He needed to stop it, and damn quick, or-

Glancing up, Nemaro couldn’t help his instinctive hunching as he saw his three female companions.  Shit.  They were already staring at him again.  Tension rippled over his skin. He really didn’t want to be here with three nosy, suspicious, mocking camp mates, without the fourth that might have mitigated some of the shit that was likely going to come down on him at any moment. 

As they watched him, he smiled weakly and immediately stared back down at his breakfast.  Nestled gaily in a wide strip of peeled bark in his lap, the fantastically elaborate selection of greens was mouth-watering.  The sheer rainbow of colors was literally a work of art.  Nemaro still couldn’t believe Horu had made it for him.  Considering the god never took more than a few leaves from any one plant – wouldn’t do to actually injure one - he must have been gathering for hours to get a salad this large.

Had Horu slept at all? There would hardly have been time to rest, not with this much work. Shoving a few pungent leaves into his mouth, Nemaro chewed quickly and swallowed the greens along with the curious lump in his throat.

Horu had gone through so much effort to make this for him. Did that mean something?  Or did he make this type of gesture for all his lovers?  Nemaro had never thought to notice before.

Tossing a handful of pink into his mouth, his senses sang at the subtle burst of citrus followed by a musky sweetness.  Orange Hanaru blossoms and…raspberries?  Where the hell had Horu found raspberries this time of year?  Nemaro sighed shakily. The flavors spread across his tongue, giving him a desperately needed distraction from his own scattered thoughts.

There was something missing in the dish. 

Kara’s feet scuffed against the dirt across the camp as she shifted and he flinched.  She looked like she was about to start the inquisition already.

The food.  He should focus on the food.  A creaminess would complement the salad’s flavors, s-something not too rich, something a little pungent.  Maybe a nice bit of goat cheese?  He quickly took another bite as he caught Meeta stretching ostentatiously out of the corner of his eye.

P-Perhaps a few chopped nuts for a little texture.  Horu could probably find some if Nemaro asked, and-

Sha cleared her throat and his shoulders snapped tight so quickly he thought something would tear.  He shoved another mouthful of salad in.  He was not going to look up again. 

Was. Not.

He could feel the women staring at him.  Bombarded by their sharp-stick eyes that jabbed at him, his skin was already oversensitive from the abuse.  He wanted to growl at them to stop, except he knew they could easily move from imagined sticks to real ones, if he pissed them off enough.  Dammit, hundreds of people he could have fallen in with after he’d finally joined the real world outside the temple, and he’d had to decide on busty, barbarian busy-bodies.

Couldn’t they leave him be?  He needed peace after an event like last night, and instead, the moment he’d woken up, they’d…

Flushing, he swallowed as he remembered the actual waking.  Nemaro only had vague memories of coming back the night before, the feel of Horu’s soft hands tucking him in, the barest touch of lips on his forehead.  But this morning was a hell of a lot clearer. Horu’s was the first face he’d seen, shaking him awake with a smile and a comment on his laziness.  The god had barely given him enough time to wrap his nudity in a blanket before handing him his food. 

And then the insensitive clod had left to check the trail up ahead without saying a word.  Strode away as though it was a perfectly normal day.  The oblivious male had been hotter than hell in the habitual tight breeches he always wore.  The damn things had hugged the heavy, groin-tightening curves of Horu's thighs obscenely.  He could have at least covered up so the sight wasn’t so tempting. But since he hadn’t, Nemaro had stared after him, licking his lips as he focused on Horu’s ass until the god’s form was lost behind a bend in the trail.

And only after had he finally looked around and realized his mistake. 

Because he hadn’t been alone and coveting his new lover’s body like an addict lusting after a shipment of dream flower.  He’d been sitting stupidly with the world’s toughest, pushiest, most obnoxious gossips ever: Sha, Meeta, and Kara.  As he’d wiped the sleep from his eyes and caught them staring, the entirety of his situation had hit him like a war hammer in the gut.

They’d seen him drooling over Horu.

Bad enough he’d been nude in the bedroll that morning. He’d avoided doing that in front of them since the first day they’d grown impatient at his sleeping past dawn and stripped off the covers.  Meeta had smacked his ass with the flat of her sword to wake him up, the witch.  He’d never made the mistake of sleeping that way again, until today.  Combine it with his mooning after the god and he might never get them to leave him alone.

Just the memory had him sweating.  He took another bite to keep from babbling. Hitching up the blanket to cover his nudity as best he could, he moved his eyes over the ground to hide from their intrusive glances. If he could just avoid the coming interrogation, or at least occupy his mind enough to ignore them...

All he needed something to catch his eye, or his ear.  Anything would work at this point.  There! A beautiful, perfectly round stone of iridescent blue and green. Lying on the ground next to his clothing, it reflected the sunlight in dusty brilliance.  The colors were almost the exact same tones as Mosumato’s and Horu’s skin.  He flushed and swallowed uncomfortably. He’d been hoping for something that would take his mind off of the night before, not something that reminded him of it.  Peeling his eyes from the fascinating, erotic pebble, he looked at his clothes instead. Cleaned and lying next to the foot of his bedroll, they were folded so badly a blind ferret could have done a better job.

And Nemaro knew he wasn’t to blame, because he hadn’t touched his clothing since he’d stripped them off before the bath.

He smiled without even realizing it, reaching out to touch the soft fabric of his shirt. Horu didn’t fold – his clothes landed where they fell and stayed there until the morning came and he put them back on again. So the thought of the god carefully working on this lopsided mess, simply for Nemaro’s benefit, was curiously endearing.  The warmth it brought to his skin probably had him glowing as brightly as the gods did.

He was going to have to stop doing that really damn soon.

He glanced back at the pebble and picked up the vibrant aqua and emerald rock before he thought better of it.  It was warm and sandy in his palm, sandy enough that he placed it on his clothing rather than hiding it away in his bedroll.  If he could drill a hole through it and make it into a pendant, then…

His cock stirred to remind him what the two colors symbolized, to his libido anyway, and he flushed brighter.  He could just imagine what the women would say if they knew.  But so what if he was keeping it?  He could have something tangible from last night if he damned well wanted to.  There might never be anything else. The clothes could be nothing more than a type of thank you; with the gods, anything was possible.  Horu’s reaction to Mosumato made that perfectly clear.

Just because Nemaro’s ass seemed to have developed some strange muscle memory that was already insisting there should be something inside of it, well, it didn’t mean anything to anyone but himself.  And if his bizarre obsession with Horu’s body seemed stronger than ever, that was his own business, too.

Licking his lower lip, Nemaro forgot himself and looked up, straight into Sha’s face.  She watched him curiously, her hand tapping her knee while she ate.  Trying for casual while he flushed dramatically, he looked away and saw Kara with the same stare and a little half smile on her face.  And Meeta – Meeta was watching him with eyes that made him feel like he should be confessing to something.  Anything, really, as long as she stopped staring.  Trying to dodge confronting them, frantically looking for something to talk about that wasn’t in any way related to Horu, he finally noticed their food.

Oh hells.

They were never going to stop teasing him; he was damned to crude, female torment forever. 

What had Horu been thinking? 

No one else had a salad. The nutty fragrance of cooked oats was coming from bowls of porridge that sat in each woman’s hands, with not a flower or leaf in sight until he looked down at his own dish.  Nemaro got a lovely, bright, blooming salad, the first greens he’d had in days.  What did the women get? 

Mush.

All Horu’s hard work, creating this gorgeous work of gastronomic delight, just for Nemaro. And the others were obviously wondering what he’d done that made him worth the extra effort. 

“So, ‘Maro, what happened last night?” Meeta’s voice cut across the camp like the release of a drawn bow and Nemaro’s skin flushed from the tips of his ears down to his chest.  He spilled half his salad onto the ground.  With a self-conscious shift as he pretended to adjust his blanket, he made a quick decision. Lie.

“What do you mean, what happened? I had a bath, came back, and went to sleep, that’s what happened.”

Meeta snorted derisively.  “In a Filan hell you did.”

“I was on watch when you came back to camp,” Kara said, gesturing at him with her spoon like she was poking him with a weapon.  “You looked like you were about to collapse. And Horu had to go back and get your clothes.”

“I- I just- I got too cold in the stupid spring.  You know how overprotective Horu gets about that since last year.” Nemaro tried not to wince.  As much as he enjoyed waking up, he wasn’t at his best in the mornings, and neither were his lies. 

“And Horu took your shift at watch, as well.  Said you’d had a long night,” Sha concluded.  Nemaro tried not to see her in his periphery vision and failed, catching her grin as it spread across her face. 

“So, was it a long night, or was it a long, hard, sweaty night?” she asked.

“I was just cold and tired!”  Nemaro glared at them, furious that he couldn’t stop the crimson creeping across his face at the look in her eyes.  It was such a smug, knowing look.  “Crap, can’t a person get a little help from a friend without you three thinking something sexual happened?”

Meeta snorted again.  “No.  Not when it’s you and you’re getting little flower arrangements from the man you spent the night with. You must be good – two gods in one month.  I’m impressed.  I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I didn’t spend the night with him!  We took a damn bath!”  His cheeks were ruddy with color from the smirks aimed at him.  This was going to be just as bad as he’d worried it would, and they weren’t even serious about teasing him yet.

He hoped. 

Kara hummed under her breath and patted her lover's leg. “I think you’re mistaken, Meeta. If it’s the two of them in one month, doesn’t that mean he had ‘them’ in him?” The three women chuckled as Nemaro stared at them in petrified shock before quickly narrowing his eyes as he tried to glare.

Merciful face of the god, just grant him death now and be done with it.

He shoved the last of his salad in his mouth and grabbed his clothes.  As long as he looked pissed, they wouldn’t guess it all, he told himself.  They’d think they were giving him shit over nothing.  And he was upset enough that stomping off wasn’t going to be any different than what he really wanted to do.  Keeping a tight grip on the fabric around his body, he stood up. 

Clothing was the only armor he had around these perverts. 

“You’re all delusional, and I’m not staying here to be unjustly maligned.  I’m getting dressed.”  He turned to go and Horu walked out from the bushes right in front of him. 

Nemaro froze.  Horu’s brown tunic and leggings still hugged his body, his braided hair was tight behind his back just like always, but all Nemaro could see was Horu glowing naked in the moonlight.  Horu kissing him with heartbreaking delicacy.  Horu’s face, feral with lust as he talked about taking him. 

Nemaro’s legs shook.  His lungs seized and he tried to catch his breath while Horu took one step closer with a huge smile. 

“Good morning, ‘Maro.  Finally awake now?”

“Y-yeah.”

“Did you like the salad?”

“Yes.” Nemaro searched Horu’s face and tried not to be disappointed.  The man didn’t seem interested in him at all. Horu was smiling as brightly as he ever did, his body relaxed and slightly dusty.  No tension, no dark-eyed lust, no sign of the worries that had plagued Nemaro all morning.

Nemaro hadn’t realized how much he’d hoped something as small as a ridiculous salad meant something, not until just that moment. His stomach felt hollow, the food an unpleasant lump.

Horu continued smiling. “I’m so glad.  I wanted to make sure you’d be awake enough to enjoy things.”

“I already said I liked the greens.“

“Very funny, smart-ass.“ Horu chuckled as he stepped in and one pale green hand reached around to bury itself in blond hair.  Nemaro squeaked in surprise and then Horu’s mouth covered his lips, kissing him deeply.  He clutched at Horu’s clothes and his own blanket, his arms trapped as Horu pulled him close. 

By the time Horu finished, Nemaro could only stare at him stupidly, mouth open and eyes glazed.  He blinked as he heard clapping and a loud catcall.  Almost too afraid to turn his head, he couldn’t seem to help himself.

“Kiss him again, Horu!” Sha yelled out, and Kara echoed her while Meeta wolf-whistled loudly.

Horu shook his head, one arm still wrapped around Nemaro’s body, and smiled again.  “We’ll do our kissing on our own time, not yours, thank you.”

Nemaro flushed so brightly his entire face felt hot and he pushed away.  He went from trying to convince the women that they hadn’t done anything, and now Horu just…   He’d just walked over and…   As if it were nothing different from every other day!  Without even asking what Nemaro felt about it!

He swallowed, unsure whether he was more offended that Horu was standing there looking so unaffected, or embarrassed that his private life was now so blatantly less private.  The jagged spike of pleasure wasn’t something he wished to acknowledge just yet.  Except, if Horu was doing this now, did that mean he would want to do something again?

“So, you were just a little cold, huh, Nemaro?  Took a bath, that’s all?” Sha called out.

He turned to glare at her.  This wasn’t funny; it was serious!  Didn’t she understand that he needed a minute to think, dammit?

Sha smiled cheekily and continued.  “What was it, a tongue bath?”

Nemaro growled and started to move around Horu towards the brush.  He looked up as he started to pass.  Maybe there was something there, he thought.  A barely noticeable warmth in the god’s eyes that made him feel flushed all over again from the inside out.  That was more than a friendly look, he thought. It had to be.

Didn’t it?

Hell. He was far too naked to deal with this yet.

“I-” Horu had amazing eyes, he realized.  They were so soft right now. “Uh… I need to get dressed.” Horu nodded and moved out of the way, patting his ass as he went by. Nemaro’s buttocks tightened in embarrassment.

“Hey, wait up, Nemaro.  We need to decide who’s going with you this time.” Kara yelled.

“He’s fine,” Horu said quietly.  “He can dress without supervision.”

“You’re so sure Mosumato didn’t follow us, then?” Meeta asked.

“Mosumato won’t be a problem any longer.” All three women looked at Horu and then their eyes slid to Nemaro.  He could feel them through the back of his head and he started walking faster.

“Well,” Sha said slowly, “that’s unexpected.  Any particular reason why?”

“We’ve come to an understanding.  He’ll stay away now.”

Nemaro wished he were as sure of that as Horu. At the moment he was just happy to regain his privacy as the bushes closed behind him so he couldn’t turn around and see the women’s faces. He knew just what they were thinking – Kara’s speculation about how many times Mosumato would take his ass before he left him alone popped into mind. They were going to tease him to the wilds of Nehman and back.

“He’ll stay away now?  Reeeally,” Kara purred.  “Hmm.  It sounds like last night you had a very good bath then, eh, Nemaro?”

Nemaro disappeared further into the sparse vegetation as quickly as he could, flushing anew at the sound of feminine laughter.

~*~*~*~*~*~


It was impossible not to stare at the first glimpse of Lord Lanosh’s keep, and none of them save Horu even made the attempt. If someone had poured solid granite in between the two tallest peaks and carved the results into a starkly beautiful edifice, it couldn’t have been more impressive.  The late afternoon sun made the stone shine like dirty ice, and highlighted the deep crevice that separated the keep itself from path leading up to it.  The open air was spanned by the largest drawbridge Nemaro had ever seen.  Walking up the wide path that hugged the side of one of the granite giants, Nemaro couldn’t figure out how they’d built the damn thing. 

“How would they even get granite blocks over that maw?” he wondered out loud.

“Those aren’t blocks, ‘Maro.  It’s carved from the rock.” Horu corrected.  His voice came with a subtle caress of Nemaro’s ass that had him jumping like a startled flea.  He glared pointedly and Horu didn’t even have the grace to look ashamed at pawing Nemaro when he wasn’t ready for it. 

Just like he’d done for hours now.  The god had no shame at all.  There really wasn’t a lot of question in Nemaro’s mind anymore over whether Horu wanted to be intimate again, the way he’d been acting.   Unfortunately, he didn’t think there was any question in the women’s minds either, based on their mocking grins most of the day.

Nemaro, however, wasn’t sure what he wanted.  If they were intimate again, no matter how good it felt, would it ruin their friendship when it ended?  Would it be better to stop after this one time?

Meeta grunted at them both, too focused on the behemoth in front of them to notice Horu’s groping. “That’s impossible.  No one could carve something on this scale.”

“Of course they could, if they had a few generations to work on it.  One of the stone gods helped the founder out on this thing, though.” Horu molested Nemaro with his eyes as he spoke.  “If I remember right, he was trying to get into the Lord’s pants at the time and decided to show off a little.”

How he’d thought Horu wasn’t looking at him differently for that brief moment this morning, Nemaro would never know.  The man had been talking dirty to him with just his eyes all afternoon. 

Wait…what had he just said?

“Into his pants?  How the hell can you know that?  What, god histories keep track of who lusted after whom?”  Nemaro suddenly flushed as he wondered what histories of the gods would say about him. 

Horu was already laughing and slapped him on the back just hard enough to sting.  “The gods don’t write histories, grump.  I remember that obsessed lecher going on and on about how much work he was going to have to do before he got to play.  The first Lord of the Keep was a real prude.”

The sound of the wind seemed very loud in the sudden silence. 

Sha cleared her throat.  “Horu, I thought this keep was 400 years old.”

“Hmmm, I think that’s about right,” he said absently, still watching Nemaro’s ass.

Nemaro exchanged a glance with the others. Damn.  He’d known gods aged differently, but he’d never had the idea hit him quite so forcefully.  Horu was fucking ancient. 

Something about that niggled his brain, but it was quickly swept away by the sexual implications. Was this why Horu was so damn good at kissing?  He imagined Horu using hundreds of years of experience to give Nemaro a blow job and blood swelled in his groin.

“So,” Nemaro cleared his throat until he thought he could speak with words that were actually recognizable. “Do you know anything about the layout of the buildings?”

“We know the basics, that should be enough to start with.” Horu turned back to the Keep and Nemaro poked him.

"And the basics are?"

Horu looked at him strangely. “Don't you remember? The information I got from the groom a few days ago?” Nemaro couldn’t quite keep the blank look from his face and Horu sighed. “It's about the same as the last time I was here, when the old Lord had a separate area within the Keep’s walls, on the south side. His chambers should be up in the Northeast corner of the castle, above the main dungeons.”

Nemaro cleared his throat. “I was thinking more of the layout of the town,” he lied. He’d forgotten all about the damned groom.

“Ah, that’s easy.” Horu crouched down and started to sketch lightly in the dust built up on the side of the trail. “The main road runs from this gate all the way through the town to exit on the other side of the mountain, here. Poorer residences are along the edges, wealthier towards the middle, and the merchant section’s in between. There’s water running in channels underneath the entire area; a lot of wells throughout the city.”

“Then could we-”

Horu shook his head before Nemaro could even finish. “The Lord’s wells are from a separate source. We won’t be able to use them to gain entry. Too dangerous, besides, unless you can hold your breath for thirty minutes, see in the dark, and swim against a current all at the same time.”

Nemaro grumbled under his breath, and then eyed Horu’s crouching body. The brown pants were cupping his ass so tightly they might as well not even have been there. Even the crevice between his buns was separated. Nemaro looked away as quickly as he could, but it was too late. He was already seeing Horu naked in his own head. Naked and wet. It was far too easy to imagine Horu swimming through some sparkling underwater cavern in search of treasure, his hair billowing behind him as he swam towards you. Nemaro swallowed heavily, biting back a moan at the thought of seeing him like that.

He hoped he wasn’t making a tent underneath his kilt.  

“…want to confirm what the groom said about the troops. It sounds a little too lightly guarded for what I’ve heard of the current Lord. He seems more the type to overdo everything, including security. We’ll need to do some digging.”  Horu glanced at Nemaro, brow furrowing as he looked at his face.  “Is something wrong?”

Nemaro wasn’t sure what he’d given away, but he wasn’t going to say something here. “Nothing.”

Horu frowned, inhaling deeply and glancing at Nemaro’s kilt, but at least he didn’t call him a liar.   “Well then, you won’t mind staying with the women for now?”

“Maybe. Why?”

“I want to check and see what’s around the Lord’s castle that I can use when we go in. It’s mostly granite and lichen around here; even the trees are stunted. If we need help, I need to know what vegetation is available. And besides, everyone remembers a god.”

“Conceited, are we?” Sha said, poking at Horu as he stood back up.

“You know what I mean. Everyone knows a god doesn’t need to steal.” Horu ignored Sha’s derisive snort. “But they’ll remember anyone with me. When the map goes missing, I’d rather you don’t stand out in their minds. And if they figure out you’re responsible anyway, we’ll have a bit of a surprise for them when they come for you. They won’t expect you to be under a god’s protection-”

Kara chuckled and interrupted him, turning to Nemaro with a grin. “Why Nemaro, I didn’t realize you were under a god’s protection. First a thief and now a god’s concubine. You’re moving up in the world.”

Even Horu smiled, running his eyes over Nemaro with an exaggerated leer. He started laughing when Nemaro colored up like a virgin. “You’re so easy, ‘Maro.”

“Stop that,” Nemaro muttered. “And I’m not your concubine.” His cheeks were so hot they prickled. He was going to have to start powdering his face to hide it if he couldn't stop reacting like this.

“Of course not.” Horu kissed him on the forehead and the women hooted at them both.

Nemaro scowled. “Dammit, will get your heads out of the gutter and back to business?”

“They're not in the gutter, they're in your bedroll,” Sha said. Nemaro growled and she held up her hands, still laughing along with the others. “All right, all right. Fine. We’ll play nice.” It was still a few minutes before they calmed enough to keep talking, though.  And then they had to wait for a small party of merchants to pass by, the guards eyeing them suspiciously.

Sha spoke again after the group rounded a curve in the trail. “Look, if word at the last tavern was right, Lord Lanosh is still looking for people to use on his newest treasure hunt. The three of us might be able to get ourselves hired on.” Sha rubbed her sword fondly as she looked over at the keep.  “We’d probably be training on his private grounds.  It would give us a chance to see what people have heard, how hard it might be to get to the map.” She looked at Nemaro and smiled slyly.  “And you can be the cute, submissive toy we smuggle in.”

“Sha!” She grinned at him and Nemaro gave up. He wasn’t responding to one more damn thing they said. “However we get in, it’s going to be a pain in the ass. Getting into a damn mini-fortress is different than breaking into a mansion. We’ll have to make it out of the entire castle, the Keep around it, and down out of the mountains before we’re safe.  Do you know how hard that’s going to be?”

“It's more like a granite mansion than a castle,” Horu corrected. He stared at Nemaro and then over at the Keep, rubbing his thumb over his braid. Horu was frowning by the time he was done.  “You’re right. This is going to be tricky. I don’t know about having you involved on this one, ‘Maro. You get into trouble far too easily.”

Meeta shook her head as she looked at both of them.  “It’s likely Lord Lanosh would keep the map close, if he’s so obsessed about it.  We’re going to need finesse more than brawn. Nemaro’s essential for that, as long as he can keep his head on straight.  Besides, if he’s found inside the living quarters, he’s the only one of us who can actually pull off lost, confused, and helpless.”

“Kiss my ass, Meeta. And I didn’t mean I couldn’t do it, Horu. I just need to find out more about the situation to see what I’m going to need in order to get this done,” Nemaro said. It was hard to see how he was going to get in. Nemaro was good at sleight of hand, not too bad at pretending to be a servant hired for his looks rather than his skill, but he didn’t think either of those would work here. Something about this job felt off. His stomach wasn’t rebelling, but it was fluttering unpleasantly.  Hard to tell if it was simply uncomfortable, or trying to tell him something.

He hadn't seen such an enclosed city since the temple, with so little avenue for escape if it all went to hell. A part of him wanted to go along with Horu’s hovering caution, for once. “Maybe we can find a guard I can flirt with a bit-“

“No flirting,” Horu barked. 

“It could be a good way to do it,” Kara said softly.  “There are a lot of men and women who find Nemaro’s looks attractive and-“

No flirting.  We can find another way in.”  Horu glared at Nemaro with a hot, dark look and Nemaro’s buttocks clenched in reaction. “And we need to make sure we can get in to help you if something goes wrong, so we don’t do anything half-assed, understand? Nothing today.  No flirting, no sneaking, no masquerading as some servant in need of a job. I need to get up close and see if there are any plants I can feel that might be inside the castle, or up close to the walls on the far side.”

“How about we check out the town inside the keep, then?” Sha asked reasonably.  Horu opened his mouth - it looked like he was about to argue - and Nemaro added his two cents.

“I need to check out what supplies are available.  If I’m going to be getting in, there’s a few things that might help that I don’t have on me.  Although how much they might cost…”

“I can pay for it.  Tell me the total later and we’ll go get it.” Horu’s back was stiff, dissatisfied with the way the conversation was going.  “Find what you need and we’ll meet up at the far end of town, at dusk.  The Stone’s Crown on the east side should be discreet enough, if it’s still around.  Just be careful in town.  This place left a bad taste in my mouth last time.  It’s too bare.”

He paused before reaching out to grab Nemaro in a quick, one-armed hug and kissing the top of his head. “And make sure you keep an eye on Nemaro. Like I said, he gets into too much trouble.”

“Hey!”  Sputtering as he pulled free, Nemaro was even more offended that the women were nodding without even bothering to argue.  “I do NOT get into trouble!”

There was a pause, a flurry of disbelieving looks, and a few incredulous snorts. 

“I don’t, dammit!”

“Of course not, ‘Maro sweetikins.”  Kara crooned, and he glared at her.

‘You are such an annoying bitch.”

“Just like you.” She smiled back and he resisted the childish urge to stick out his tongue at her, or kick her in the ass. 

“Fuck.  Get going, already.”  He turned and was snagged again as Horu grabbed his arm, spun him back around, and kissed him once hard before resting his forehead against Nemaro's.

“I mean it, Nemaro.  No flirting.  Find what you need, get me a total, and meet me at the tavern.  We’ll figure out what to do tonight.  There’s no need to rush this and do something stupid.”

“I’m not a moron,” Nemaro grumbled, his face red.

“I know, but you get…distracted.  I want to take it extra slow this time.  No mistakes.” Horu’s voice was firmer than the path they stood on.  Nemaro rolled his eyes and nodded without meaning a non-word of it.  Whenever Horu got like this, you couldn’t budge his stubborn soul.  It didn’t happen often, but it was like the whole pneumonia thing.  The man could be such a pain in the ass.

Which brought to mind what else he could do to one’s ass and Nemaro felt swollen and aching as Horu walked away.  Nemaro and the women waited a fair amount of time, letting a few other travelers pass by to distance themselves from the god’s company, and then headed up the path themselves.  The closer they drew to keep’s drawbridge, the more intimidated and impressed Nemaro was.  It was hard to believe something like this existed.  It was so ungodly huge – he wouldn’t be surprised if half the town could fit on the drawbridge at one time.

He felt like gnat crawling across an apple skin by the time he reached the enormous portcullis.  Standing there gave him the creepies; castle gates always did.  When he’d been planning his escape from the Arcane temple, every trapped hallway, every arrow slit, even the murder holes had been marked on his blueprints of the grounds.  Unfortunately, to find them all he’d had to research the history of the temple itself, and knowing all the gruesome ways they’d been used to kill intruders had left a lasting impression.

Nemaro hated fucking castles, and he didn’t see much difference between a keep guarding a mountain pass, and a castle guarding a hill.  He could feel eyes watching him from up above, just waiting to let loose with their bows and boiling water from the shadows. It was intimidating beyond words.

Acting as ornamental as he could, Nemaro batted his eyes while Meeta chatted with the guards at the gate. Hints that they were checking out work for hire with Lord Lanosh got them directions to the Lord’s little ‘granite mansion.’ It was only minutes before they were passed through and could enter the town. He thought his stomach would calm down once they passed the gatehouse, but the place still felt like a too tight set of boots.  Knowing he’d have to walk through the same gate to get out, with a possibly angry Lord and his guards after them, didn’t leave Nemaro feeling very safe.

At least it was clean, though. The roads were made of stone so smooth it looked polished.  The houses were rather uniform, but even that was attractive in a strangely symmetric, rectangular pattern. And the people were, well, people: dark and olive skinned, polite, a little distant with those they didn’t know, but nodding to them nonetheless as they walked by.

“Is it just me, or are we getting more stares than normal?” Sha asked quietly.

“I think it’s Nemaro,” Meeta muttered back.

He flushed as the women glanced at him.  “Don’t be ridiculous. No one’s looking at me.”  A tall, older guard caught his eye and winked at him.  Aw, damn.

“I keep telling you to dye that damn hair.” Meeta smacked him in the head before he could duck.

“There’s got to be hundreds of people traveling through town to use this pass.  Blond hair can’t be that unusual.”

“Could be his face.  You do kind of glow today, ‘Maro,” Sha commented, smirking broadly. 

“It’s sweat!”

“Maybe it’s just his ass,” Kara said, reaching out to pinch it underneath his kilt and laughing as he jumped.  “Seems to be attracting a lot of attention these days from everybody else, why not Lanosh Keep?”

“Dammit, will you fucking let up, already!”  They looked at each other a moment before shaking their heads and he could see them gearing up for another round.  “Shit.  Let’s just go see the bastard’s house so I can go get my supplies,” he grumbled, stepping ahead quickly to keep out of reach. 

Just couldn’t win, not with the three of them ganging up on him. His skin prickled with awareness as they kept walking.  A pair of older women peered through a window and waved cheekily. Another guard blew him a kiss.  Three men lounging outside a tavern leaned forward to watch him with speculative expressions that he was really hoping he was misreading.

He was getting a lot of attention.  What in the hells? This was worse than back home! And Nemaro could just hear the women going on about it to Horu when they met him later, so all four of them could mock him until they found the damn Eye. 

About to turn the last corner before Lord Lanosh’s private residence, Nemaro glanced around again and stopped as he realized the women had paused outside a store window.  He waited a few minutes for them to catch up and had to stomp back when they refused to move. 

Seeing the display in front of the shop almost broke his mind.  A dress shop?  The leather-clad trio were gushing over a seamstress’ store?  Admittedly, it looked like a very high-quality shop.  The dress in the window was an exotic peach creation of silk and embroidery, laced up the front with the flat bodice that was so popular these days, trying to make even the most buxom women resemble young boys.

And it would look utterly ridiculous on any of these three.  Except they started murmuring to each other over the price of the dress and whether it was something they could afford if they pooled their money.

“You’re not seriously considering buying one of those?  It would not be flattering.”  

All three stopped talking and turned to look at him with rather predatory smiles. “We weren’t going to buy it for us, ‘Maro.  After all, we’re not the pretty ones in the party.”

It took him a moment.  “Oh hell no!  What makes you think I would ever wear something like that?  I do not enjoy wearing women’s clothing.”

“Are you sure?  I got the impression from last night that you enjoyed playing the woman,” Meeta mumbled. 

“Meeta!  You-  You..!”

They blinked at him as though he were speaking gibberish, then Sha finally broke and started laughing. “If you could see your face!” She punched him in the arm playfully.  “Calm down, ‘Maro.  We were thinking of it for Chira.”

He flushed.  Sha’s sister.  Of course.  “Oh.”  He cleared his throat.  “I-  Well, that would look lovely on her, then.  She’s got the coloring for it.”

Sha and the others smiled and looked at it as well.  He felt so stupid.  Of course they’d been looking at the dress for Chira; they always brought something back to her when they went somewhere.  She found it so hard to travel with her bad leg they tended to spoil her terribly.  He knew that damn leg cramped up on her so badly that some days she could barely move. Who could blame them for bringing something into her life to take her mind off of the pain?

“Is it a good price, ‘Maro?”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, examining it after glancing at the price listed on a card in elegant calligraphy. “Well, that looks like Sintarn silk. The velvet looks to be good quality, although I don’t recognize the origin. And the embroidery is very well done.  Honestly, I think the price looks too good.  I wonder if there might be a problem with it.”

“Let’s go in and check, then.  You can look it over for us, peacock.”

Nemaro was dragged inside as he protested about the need to still get to the Lord’s place.  And his supplies.  And how soon they were going to have to go meet Horu.

“This will only take a moment.” Sha barreled over his protests and took him to the mannequin form to get a good look at the dress.  “Now examine it while we distract the proprietress.”

Grumbling, he started running his hands over the cloth, checking the seams.  It wasn’t long before he lost himself in the feel of the dress.  The slick strands of embroidery floss slid under his fingertips in silky knots.  Rustling softly in his ears, the underskirt made the entire dress shimmy in a way he knew would accentuate a woman’s walk in a very seductive fashion.  The sleeves were puffed, frivolous things that had him smile.  The girls were right; this was perfect for Chira.  It was even her size, which was a rare thing.  She was built a bit wide in the shoulders for a woman and the cut of the dress would give her a more feminine shape that he was sure she’d enjoy.

Perhaps that was the reason for its price.  If the person who’d had it fitted decided not to pay in the end, it would be hard to find another this would suit, not without a a great deal of work.

“Well?”

Meeta’s voice startled him so badly he almost fell into the mannequin.

“Dammit, Meeta!  Don’t sneak up on a person like that!”

Her face didn’t move, which expressed her opinion on his reaction more than words. 

“Quit staring like that.” She didn’t move and he huffed to himself.  “It looks fine.  I think it’s simply the size that’s lowered the price.”

Meeta turned to grin at the other two, and the owner who was standing between them, before pointing at the dress. “We’d like to try this one on.”

Nemaro wondered what in the hells had gotten into her.  “It won’t fit any of you. What are you-” His eyes went wide when she grinned at him and he tried to run. She grabbed him after one step and started to muscle him towards the backroom.

“Meeta, dammit, let go!  I’m not trying on the damn dress!” he hissed at her as Sha and Kara continued to talk with the proprietress. 

“You’re the same size as Chira.  We need to see how it will look before we decide for certain whether we actually want it.” 

He knew from her grin that she was enjoying this way too much.  They’d bought cartloads of clothing for Sha’s sister without his help; they were just enjoying fucking with him today.

“I will NOT try on a dress!”

“Mara, don’t be a baby.  You know how much you love pretty clothes,” Kara said lightly as they came close enough for the woman and barbarians to hear him.  He glared at her, then grit his teeth as she joked with the store’s owner. 

“My charge is such a little princess.  She’s been pouting ever since she found out she has to return home and marry.  Ran all the way to Kimarn dressed like this!” Nemaro flinched as she picked the town where the main Historian’s temple worshipped the Arcane face of the God.  It was just coincidence, but it made him tense.  “We need to make sure she has something suitable to wear before we get back or her poor mother will die from the shame of it.  I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Oh yes.  Rebellious daughters are a curse.”  The woman nodded emphatically and he glared at her too.

“Kara, what are you- Ow!” Nemaro rubbed the back of his head where the studs from Meeta’s glove had just left a welt.  “Meeta!”

“Watch your language when you talk to your retainers, Mara.”

Kara sighed ostentatiously.  “You see what I mean?  She’s incorrigible.  Dressed in a skirt shorter than a doxy’s.  I shudder to think what would happen if we tried to take her home like this.”

“Kara!  Will you stop-”

“Well, I’m sure her new husband will beat it out of her.”  Meeta’s voice made it clear that she would, if his imaginary husband didn’t, and he shut up.  They all beamed at him while he wanted to disappear into the knothole in the floor. 

Stupid barbarian humor.

“That man won’t put up with this type of thing for long,” Meeta continued, and pushed Nemaro towards the back room where a small, homely seamstress stood already holding the dress from the dummy.  “Go get dressed, Mara.  We need to see how this fits and get going.”

He scowled and stomped back, pushing his way into a small, curtained area with a growl.  Nemaro turned as the little seamstress held out the dress, her crooked lips smiling timidly.  After she handed the gown to him, he gently pushed her out of the enclosure and stripped, trying it on. 

“This is so fucking ridiculous.  I swear, I’m going to spike their food for this.”  Swearing as he laced himself up, he wrestled with the yards of fabric in the tight space, finally fluffing it all down as he finished up the last loop. 

Looking in the small reflecting glass provided, he jumped as he thought for a moment he was looking through a window.  Well… 

Damn.  He looked good.  The warm velvet overskirt had panels of silk that showed when he moved his legs; it was stunning. And the soft coral color set off his skin so that it glowed with rosy highlights in his cheeks and lips.

“Which would be great if I was really a woman.” He started to slump but the stiff front panel made that impossible.  “They are going to tease me until my next life about this.”

He knew they were capable of coming back to get him if he tried to hole up, so he was about to go out when he heard the bell above the door tinkle.  A shrill voice was punctuated by a low, irritated murmur and Nemaro stopped. He wasn’t going out to show himself in front of even more people.  He’d wait until they were gone before he humiliated himself in front of his companions.

That was the plan, at least, but after nearly half an hour of hiding, with the couple still in the shop and growing more strident every minute, he was fed up.  He’d been sure Meeta would have come in by now to force him out, but to his surprise they’d let him be. They were so contrary sometimes he wanted to wash his hands of all three of them.

Covering his ears at the screech from the other side of the hallway, something about the ‘fat, clumsy, cow’ jabbing the woman’s ass with a pin, he shoved aside the curtain to his alcove and strode out in the room, holding up the skirt as he did so. He was frustrated and tired, but it was such a beautiful material, he couldn’t stand the thought of dirtying it.  Even if it made him look like a damn woman. 

He was watching the floor, trying to maneuver around the bolt of cloth that had fallen in his way, and ran into a body that grabbed his arms before he could tumble them both to the floor. 

“Damn.  This stupid thing makes it so hard to-” His throat closed as he looked up and stared at a richly brocaded, extremely male, chest. Shit.  It had to be the strumpet’s keeper, and by the look of his clothes, he was a wealthy one.  Just what Nemaro wanted to do today: piss off one of the local Lords.  At least he looked like a frilly girl right now.  Maybe he could play it up and get out of this without them having to suffer whatever passed for Lord’s justice here.

Especially as it usually involved a disproportionate amount of pain on the part of whoever offended them.

“I’m so terribly sorry.” There, that was high-pitched enough, wasn’t it?

“Hm.  No harm done, pretty.  It was my pleasure.”  The deep drawl popped Nemaro’s head up to find a man with exceptionally dark eyes, and an even darker leer, watching him.

Well…shit.

“Yes, uh, that is.  Of course.”  Well, what the hell was he supposed to say?  Especially when the man’s entire face changed the second Nemaro looked at him.  Like a child who’d just found a new toy.

This was so not good.

“You aren’t injured anywhere, are you?” Broad hands started to run up his arms like they were going to do a full-body examination himself and Nemaro stepped back.  They gripped harder just below the fluff of his sleeves, but didn’t let go.

“I’m fine.  Just fine.” He glanced to the right. Meeta, Kara, and Sha were standing very still, staring at them with blank faces. Through the window, he could see the backs of at least a dozen guards and a gilded carriage.

Well, that would explain why they were tense.  It was never a good idea to cross someone whose men outnumbered you three to one.  Even if the women could probably beat them with one hand tied to their waists.

A screech and the crack of a heavy-handed slap sounded behind them in the other dressing area and Nemaro winced as the man’s hands tightened painfully over his arms. The Lord’s lips curled in the screamer’s direction before he smiled down at Nemaro again.

“Has anyone ever told you how lovely you are?”

What an oily bastard.  “Yes. Often.  My husband says it all the time.  After he comes home from his assassin’s training. At the dark temple.”

Laughing, the Lord’s hands softened against Nemaro’s skin and one hand went up to cup his chin.  Nemaro had to grit his teeth not to yank away and kick the man in the balls.  If the knives strapped to his leg weren’t so hard to get to, he’d have cut him already, Lord or no Lord.

“He must be a man of discerning tastes.” That damn drawl again; it was making Nemaro’s skin crawl.  “It’s a pity he found you first.”

“I’m certain your lady wife doesn’t feel the same.  She seems very-” There was a crash as something was thrown and smashed against the wall. “-spirited.”

“Matild?  She’s dross compared to your silver.  And she’s trying my patience today.”  The hand on Nemaro’s arm slid down around his waist and pulled him in closer.  “You, on the other hand, are far more intriguing.”

Son of a bitch! Nemaro could feel the man’s erection pressing against his hip and it made him want to scream. This was why he hated the Lords!  Slimy, self-serving bastards.  He was going to-

Sha cleared her throat and it helped him choke back his anger.

“Please let go, my Lord.  I’m a married woman.”  His friends could tease him over this later, as long as it worked.  If he hit the bastard, the man’s guards would be inside in a heartbeat. 

“A beautiful married woman, who I almost injured with my carelessness.  I would be a poor man indeed if I didn’t find a way to give you some form of recompense.  I must insist that you have dinner with me tonight.  It’s the least I can do for nearly causing such a lovely woman to fall.”

Nemaro’s hands curled into fists at the covetous look in the man’s eyes.  Least he could do?  The least that he was planning, maybe!

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly.  As much as I appreciate the gesture, my retainers and I are leaving to return home tonight.  We’re late as it is.  I’m also sorry to say that my husband doesn’t approve of my spending time alone with other men.”  Well, Horu had said no flirting, anyway, and he was as close to a husband as Nemaro had at the moment. 

The man’s eyes darkened to hard ebony.  His grip on Nemaro’s chin felt bruisingly tight before he smiled and released it. “One more night in Lanosh Keep couldn’t hurt, lovely.  And I wouldn’t want you to think I have something nefarious in mind.  It’s simply a dinner party; there will be plenty of company for you there.  Nothing even the most stringent of husbands would disapprove of.”

“I’m terribly sorry, but-”

“I insist.” The man’s voice dropped slightly, his drawl disappearing as he showed his teeth.  He released Nemaro’s waist to take his hand and began heading for the door.  “Your…women… can find their way to the house.  It’s the largest in the keep.  I’m sure you’ll find the carriage much more comfortable.” 

Meeta, Kara, and Sha stood straighter while Nemaro tried to figure out what he was going to do.  Did the shop have a door in the back they could make a run for?  Damn, he didn’t think so.  He remembered a large building backed up against this one, just before they’d come in.  They had to get out of the shop and see if they could run, then.

“I-I haven’t paid for the dress yet, my Lord.  If you’ll just give me a moment to give the money to my retainers?”

The creepy bastard stared at him hard for a moment and then released his hand.  Nemaro could feel himself shaking as he walked over to the women.  Fighting off a Lord when he was in his own kilt, and a hell of a lot more mobile because of it, was usually bad.  Always chancy.  This? 

It was going to be more than bad.

“Can you pay for the dress?” he whispered as he came up to them.

“Yeah.  You can’t go with him, ‘Maro.  He’s obviously a snake.” Kara fingered the hilt of her dagger as she glanced at the Lord by the door.

“He’s also Lord Lanosh,” Sha added, and Nemaro choked on his own spit.

“What?”

“I heard them call the woman in the back ‘Lady Lanosh.’  Which means you’ve just been invited to come visit the man’s house by the Lord himself.”  Sha’s expression was flat, uncertain.  “It would be a good opportunity to get in.”

Meeta scowled at them both. “No.  Not on his own.  It’s too risky.”

“I know it’s risky.” Sha looked just as frustrated as Meeta. “I’m simply saying that, if we can play this right, we might have an in.  Can you put him off and make him think you’ll go with him tomorrow instead?  If we knew the layout a bit more, and Horu was with us, we could use this.”

Nemaro bit his lip and finally shook his head.  “I can’t manage it.  I don’t think the weasel is going to be dissuaded by anything other than a kick in the gut and some damn fancy running away,” he whispered.

They all glanced at the man standing impatiently by the door.  “Then we run.  We can find another way.  We’ll get outside where we have some space and then run North.  Meeta, you help Nemaro if the dress trips him up?” Sha patted Nemaro’s hand as Meeta nodded and turned to go pay the main seamstress, who stood watching them all with eyes that said she only hoped they didn’t start a fight inside her establishment.  Kara slipped into the back and snagged his clothes. 

By the time Nemaro turned back to Lord Lanosh he had what he hoped was a shy smile to meet the dark look.

“I hope you finished your preparations.” The Lord's voice had an edge that Nemaro had learned to associate with nobility by this point.  That anger that someone had inconvenienced them, in any way, as though the world should exist to make things pleasant.

By all the faces of the God, why had he been such an idiot to have to come out when he did!  He suddenly thought of Horu, telling the women that Nemaro got into too much trouble, and he wanted to groan.

“Of course, my Lord.  Although truly, there’s no need to go to this trouble.”

“That decision is for me to make, not you, pretty.” The last word had more of a bite than such an affectionate term should.  “Come.  I don’t wish for us to be late.”

He held out his arm and Nemaro lay his own hand on the man’s elbow.  At least that way the bastard wasn’t holding him so he could break away more easily once they went outside.  The door opened and he tried to keep his arm from giving away the tension in the rest of his body.  A few more steps, just long enough for the women to get clear of the store too…

His stomach sank to his toes, and he knew he must be pale as a sheet from how dizzy he felt as he looked at the road surrounding the carriage.  It wasn’t simply a dozen soldiers, it was dozens and dozens of them!  Filling the street on either side of the window, hidden by the walls, he couldn’t even count them all. Horu hadn’t been exaggerating; Lord Lanosh went to extremes!

This man must be truly hated if he felt he had to go out with this many protectors.

But there was no way they could make it through them, not all of them, not uninjured.  The men surrounded them on both sides of the street, and Nemaro saw the same realization on the women’s faces as he looked back at them.

And he saw that they were willing to try anyway, if he gave them the nod. Nemaro almost did, but he bit the inside of his cheek hard to stop himself.  With a weak smile, he straightened and turned away.  There was no way he was fucking having one of them die just so he could avoid a little…unpleasantness.

He didn’t want to think of how unpleasant it might actually get.  But Nemaro knew they’d get him out, all he had to do was stall a little.  Horu would help.  The god would be furious beyond belief, but he’d help.  Nemaro glanced back at the women, caught Kara heading off away from the Lord’s house – probably going to find Horu – and he tried to smile at Meeta and Sha as they joined the other guards to walk after him.

The Lord gestured to the guard with the most silver piping along his shoulders.  “Send the carriage back for Lady Lanosh once we’ve arrived.”

“And the guards, my Lord?”

“Leave her ten.  She can be more pleasant next time if she wants more protection.” He barely smiled until he reached down to help Nemaro up into the carriage.  Nemaro snarled into the dark interior as he felt the bastard grope his ass before he got fully inside. As he stumbled up the last step, he took a quick, evaluating look and then sat in the farthest corner.  He spread out his skirt out to take up the entire side of the carriage, forcing Lord Lanosh to sit on the other side unless he wanted to play his hand immediately.

Nemaro hadn’t been sure he wouldn’t, but the slime seemed to be willing to wait to be a complete bastard until they were back in his home.  That was something, at least.

Closing his eyes, he hoped that Kara found Horu soon.  And that Meeta and Sha didn’t decide that it was taking him too long and came after him.  If they got hurt trying to help him, he didn’t think he could live with himself.  Nemaro moved his fingers over the skirt, avoiding pressing it down over his groin and possibly highlighting his extra parts accidentally.  Without the focus, he knew he was going to start thinking about what was going to happen to him when they found out he wasn’t a woman, and that truly scared the shit out of him.

He opened his eyes and caught a grimly pleased expression on Lord Lanosh’s face.  He couldn’t muster a smile in return. 

Nemaro really, really wanted Horu right now.

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