Note: All the pen-and-ink artwork is taken from Arcana, the manhwa by So-Young Lee.
They left the elf lord's palace gratefully. As they went, a shadow came creeping along behind them, twilight grey and settling comfortably onto the walls as if it meant to stay for long and musty years. They broke out of the grounds and into the open fields just before the forest, and Inez stopped and looked back for a moment, Mong huddled in her arms and peeking with her, his soft furry paws kneading anxiously against her shoulder. After a moment he leaned forward and bit her on the chin, lightly, to urge her to hurry on.
"Will she ever wake up?" she asked Yulan, who predictably didn't answer and kept on marching, his face solemn and impassive. "Will the princess wake up some day?" she asked Kyrette. He shrugged down at her and said, "Who cares?" and picked himself a tall, wide blade of grass and made it whistle insolently at her as they walked.
The elf princess had been so beautiful. No one had ever mistaken her for a boy, Inez was sure. Wearing the illusion of her face had been like shining with light. Inez held her own arms out in front of her and studied them: long and skinny-wristed, tanned dark with running around in the sun, dusted with light brown hair. She remembered what they had looked like under the illusion, smooth and pale as ivory, shapely and graceful, with fingernails like mirrored glass. Small flower hands, soft and plump, made to be kissed, or held in dancing, or to work a needlepoint frame.
Inez dropped her own hands, ragged fingernails stained with dirt, and shrugged. She hated needlepoint, and she didn't see what all the fuss was about kissing, either. It had just been a surprise when Kyrette kissed her, that was all. She made a face. It wasn't a real kiss, either. You couldn't call it a real kiss when he still hadn't noticed, even then. He still thought he'd been kissing a boy. Pervert. She glared at the back of his head.
They'd left the palace a little too quickly, though, without taking food or water. Inez thought personally that she'd rather go thirsty than drink or eat anything from that place, but Kyrette groaned when their canteens went empty at dinnertime, and said across the fire to Yulan, "Well, now what? You're the expert, aren't you? We're only half a day out. Should we go back and resupply?"
Like always, there was something sly and taunting in the way Kyrette spoke to Yulan, with one of his eyebrows and the corner of his mouth tilted up. Yulan didn't say anything, though, just raised his pale shining head for a moment to stare back at Kyrette, the reflection of the fire somehow transmuted into something cold and glittering in his eyes. Then he went back to sharpening his sword.
In the morning, though, he led them to the hollow: a soft lush wet green place like the elvenlands themselves in miniature, old rocks pillowed with thick springy moss, the waterfall spray clinging in a jeweler's shine to the frond leaves, and a chain of scentless white flowers like open hungry mouths, spattered pink and red within, climbing up the side of the rock wall. A little stream came leaping down clear as glass into the deep rocky pool, with a noise like the laughter of people who know a secret you don't.
Inez sat by the pool and tried to make out what the water was saying. It seemed as though she should be able to, but the whispering trees kept interfering, and then a small black bird with red feet landed on the branch across from her and jeered mockingly, go away little girl, go away, so that she couldn't hear a thing. She gave up at last and stuck her tongue out at the bird before turning her back and marching away to their little camp in the flat clearing outside.
Yulan was cleaning a pile of mushrooms and odd-shaped bulgy squashes with his small dagger and tossing them into their rice pot, while Kyrette lay on his back with his long legs stretched out, heels propped up on a rock, cracking hazelnuts in his bare long-fingered hand and eating the meats. "Give me some," Inez demanded, and stole one out of his hands before he could pop it in his mouth.
"Get your own, lovely—unless you'd like to buy these from me," Kyrette said, blowing her kisses to indicate the method of payment.
"I don't think so," Inez said coolly, and took Mong out to hunt for her own hazelnut tree. She got distracted by a berry patch along the way instead, and returned to camp only an hour later, disheveled and thorn-scratched and triumphant, with a basket and a mouth full of sweet fragrant wineberries, having done battle with the annoying red-footed bird and his relations and come out victorious.
The camp was empty and the pot was sitting on the banked ashes of the fire, still hot. She put down her basket with Mong to guard it—no sense in eating the berries until she could do it in front of Kyrette—and went looking for them.
Tall bushes made a sort of tunnel to the hollow, their branches tangling over the narrow lane that Yulan had opened by pushing them to either side. They resented the intrusion and had already begun poking branches and fringy vines back in, which tugged at Inez's hair as she struggled through the lane, until finally she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled the last bit of the way, to stop just at the mouth of the lane.
Yulan was standing in front of the waterfall, the pool up to his waist, his flax-white hair damped down to gold against his neck, little rivulets trickling over his shoulders. The water had carried a few green leaves into his hair, bursts of color against his paleness. Although they'd been on the road for weeks now, his face and hands were no darker than the rest of him, as though the sun refused to leave a permanent mark. He didn't see Inez; he was looking up at the bank.
Kyrette was standing at the edge of the pool, peeling his shirt off over his shoulders. He tugged his head free and shook it out, his dark hair falling in loose wild tangles around his neck. He was already barefoot.
He tossed his shirt carelessly on top of the neatly folded pile of clothing and weapons Yulan had left, the staff leaning against a tree. Kyrette's sword was lying unsheathed on the grass beside him, a thin silver gleam Inez could barely see.
"Is the water pleasant?" Kyrette asked, that same sly note, that same wink in his voice. "It certainly looks refreshing."
Yulan said nothing, just kept watching him with his strange unblinking eyes, green with the reflection of the pool. Kyrette grinned and unbuckled his belt. His trousers slipped easily down off his slim, straight hips with only a shove, and without any warning Inez had a perfect view of his bare backside, curved and full and dimpled at the base of the spine, of his lean, muscled thighs and the soft dark shadowed place between his legs. Kyrette put his arms up over his head and stretched, showing off, and trailed his foot into the clear water.
"Not too cold," he said. He stepped down into the pool, graceful as a snake, and submerged himself for a moment, coming up gasping and wet, pushing the heavy dark curtain of his hair out of his face as he came face to face with Yulan. "Not too cold at all," Kyrette repeated softly, and put his hand on Yulan's cheek.
Inez crept a little closer without really meaning to. She couldn't hear them properly, that was all, not over the waterfall. They were standing so close. Kyrette was tanned to his waist and paler below, his hand brown and strong against Yulan's skin, and both of them looked like drawings out of her grandfather's books of myths and legends, the ones that didn't look like real people, with the legs and the arms too long, the enormous sweeps of hair like silk strung on a loom before weaving, tangling in gold and black.
Yulan hadn't moved, his expression hadn't changed, but where Kyrette's fingers moved over his skin, a faint impression of color followed them, like a flush rising to the surface for just a moment. Kyrette smiled secretly and leaned in to brush his lips over Yulan's cheek, staining it briefly red; then the corner of Yulan's mouth; then the wings of his collarbone, and by then the color was lingering. Kyrette lifted his head and bent to kiss Yulan full on the mouth, and then, then, finally, Yulan moved.
He was so fast Inez barely understood what was happening: just all of a sudden he was pushing Kyrette against the smooth mossy rocks, raising him up out of the water, cascades spilling down and away over Kyrette's hips like silver ropes. Kyrette's mouth was parted, and his eyes were heavy-lidded somehow even though he looked wide awake, his hands braced on Yulan's shoulders, helping. Inez craned her neck, trying to see; the water was hiding everything.
Ha, ha! the red-footed bird laughed, hopping along the branch over her head, and she bit her lip and pulled herself closer. Kyrette was frowning oddly in concentration, his chest rising and falling urgently. His legs were wrapped around Yulan's hips, and it almost looked like he was pushing against Yulan's shoulders now. Kyrette's thigh hid most of it from her, but she could see the crown of his cock jutting from the water, wet and dusky, and she blushed hard despite herself, a quick hot shiver that went right down her spine.
"Oh, shut up," she muttered under her breath at the cackling bird. It wasn't as though she didn't know what it looked like, she'd gone to the water-hole and spied on the village boys, like all the other girls. It was just—different.
Yulan took hold of Kyrette's hips. "Wait," Kyrette said, "wait," but Yulan just gripped him and jerked, quick, upwards, and Kyrette said, "Ah!" and flushed suddenly, the dark color coming even as far down as his chest. He was clenching tight on Yulan's shoulders.
Inez tried to lick her lips. Her mouth was so dry! She put out a hand to one of the big cupped leaves and tilted the dew into her mouth for a quick cool swallow. There was a strange tightness between her legs, and she pressed her thighs together hard around it. Yulan pushed again, and Kyrette's whole body shuddered. His head was hanging forward, hidden by the fall of his wet hair. But she could see Yulan looking up into his face, with a strange, fierce, almost cruel expression of triumph, like a falcon making a kill, and then he thrust again, lifting Kyrette further out of the water with the force of it.
"You heartless bastard," Kyrette said, breathless and admiring, and then he flung his head back and laughed and said, "All right, do your worst." Then Inez had to scuttle backwards quick to keep out of sight, because Yulan was carrying him up out of the pool, Kyrette's legs still locked around his hips, bringing him down to the soft green grass. Inez heard Kyrette laugh again, more breathless, the sound of it sliding between her thighs. She put her hand there and pushed against her fingers.
Yulan was holding Kyrette open, his strong hands denting the flesh of Kyrette's thighs. Kyrette was half-struggling underneath him, his hands reaching and grasping blindly at the grass. Yulan was fucking him, Inez thought, the word a hot delicious wickedness in her head, and Kyrette was letting him, Kyrette was just spreading his legs and laughing while Yulan put his cock inside him. She could see it sliding into him now, the smooth flushed-pink length of it, going in easily, coming out again, a steady hammering beat, one-two, one-two. Yulan was doing it, he was fucking Kyrette with quick ruthless thusts, rocking him into the grass.
"Yes," Kyrette said, his eyes shut now, "yes, oh, yes." He was stroking his own cock, big and dark red against his belly. Inez loosened her belt and slipped her hand inside her pants. She was wet and slippery and hot. Kyrette had let his head fall to one side and was gasping wordlessly. Yulan fucked him harder. Kyrette's hand was clenched around his own cock, squeezing, and then suddenly he went very stiff, arching up, and his cock jerked in his hand, once, twice, painting milky white streaks up his stomach, and his arm fell away limply to the side.
Yulan smiled a glittering savage smile, and pressed forward. Kyrette moaned, something between pleasure and pain. The red-footed bird, left speechless for once, burst into flight and vanished away into the canopy. Inez crept carefully backwards away from them, all the way back to the camp, and then she hurriedly rinsed off her fingers with some canteen water and wiped them on the leg of her pants, and then she drank some water and then she drank some more.
They came back out in fifteen minutes or so, dressed again. Yulan looked exactly the same as always, calm and impassive. He sat down and built the fire back up to flame without a word. Kyrette flung himself down on the ground, disheveled and still flushed, looking sleepy and satisfied.
Inez was sitting eating a bowl of the vegetables and rice, feeding Mong berries out of her basket. "Wineberries!" Kyrette said, catching sight of them. "You do mean to share those, don't you, sweet?"
Inez looked down at the berries and smiled to herself, a secret no one else knew, and answered, "Well, maybe I'll let you buy some from me."
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