Fifty bags of potatoes was a hell of a lot of potatoes. Rayne didn't know what his father was thinking. It was a bargain, of course – less than three laenes a bag – and if he could sell them for eight or nine – the going rate for potatoes in their corner of the world – they'd turn a fine profit, but that was only if he could sell them. Not that doubted his father, but … fifty bags was a hell of a lot of potatoes.
Rayne discovered that first hand as he unloaded them from the farmer's wagon. He had to get them out of the wagon and stacked beside the building before the farmer finished his drink in the inn next door. His father always bought a drink for the men he did business with – kept them coming back, he said. Rayne sure envied them at that moment. He had half the bags – at least twenty pounds each, they were – off the wagon before he paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his face. He counted himself lucky that it was late fall, with a brisk wind blowing up the main street from off the sea, instead of high summer. 'Course, if it was summer, he wouldn't have had to move the damn potatoes at all – unless they were last fall's potatoes, and then three laenes a bag was too much.
He gave his head a little shake – like he always did when his mind wandered – and grabbed the waterskin sitting on the front steps of the shop. He took a drink and splashed some on his face, his skin prickling as the cool water rolled down his neck and under the collar of his sweaty shirt. He tossed the skin back onto the step and brushed his hair back out of his eyes, his fingers catching in the tangled curls, before clambering up into the back of the wagon again.
He reached for another bag, but stopped as something unusual caught his eye. A man was walking up the middle of the street, from the direction of the docks. Few travelers ever came to Traxen by ship – merchants sometimes, and slave traders, but this guy wasn't either. His clothes were muddy and patched, and he carried only a single leather knapsack slung over one shoulder. His hair hung lank and dirty to his shoulders, blacker than anything Rayne had ever seen before, and his eyes were the dark blue of sapphires, shadowed by a fierce scowl. Rayne watched him approach, and felt his pants grow a little uncomfortable. This guy was hot, in an angry, mess-with-me-and-I'll-hurt-you sort of way.
Rayne licked his lips and wondered where he was going, what his name was, where he was from, what his mouth tasted like – He grabbed the nearest bag and jerked the tie loose as the stranger trudged past the wagon. He heaved it onto his shoulder and pretended to lose his balance.
"Oh, damn it," he said loudly as potatoes rained down onto the packed earth below, some bouncing halfway across the street. The guy glanced at him, but didn't stop. Rayne jumped down, scrambling around in the dirt as he stuffed potatoes back into their bag, a stream of curses pouring from his lips. He looked up hopefully, but the guy was still walking away. He hefted a potato and considered throwing it at him – just to get his attention – but being beaned with a tuber was hardly what Rayne would call romantic. He decided to try a less violent approach.
"Excuse me, sir," he called. "Excuse me. Sir! Hey!" The dark man stopped and turned, scowling harder. "Could you – uh, could you give me a hand? These damn things spilled all over the place and I've got to get the wagon unloaded before my father gets back or he'll … he'll beat me." His father had never laid a hand on him – and the stranger could either tell, or he didn't care. He started to turn away again and Rayne was again tempted to hit him with a potato. Instead, he called out, "I can pay you." The man hesitated and Rayne quickly searched his pockets to see how much he had. "Two laenes," he told him. "Help me clean up this mess and finish unloading the wagon and they're yours." It's hardly a fortune, but it's probably two laenes more than he's got. After a moment, he walked back to Rayne and dropped his bag next to the steps. "Thanks," Rayne said, beaming. He just started picking up potatoes, his scowl still firmly in place.
"I'm Rayne." He keeps glancing at the stranger at they work. He's very handsome, but gaunt and hungry looking. He also doesn't seem to speak. Rayne manages to fill the silence, though. "This is my father's store. He and I run the place, ever since my sister got married. She's three years older than me – eighteen now – and lives in the City. Now my brother – a journeyman blacksmith – has been gone and married for six years – lives way down south with his wife and husband and daughter. My mother's been dead for eight and a half years – pneumonia took her in early spring – so it's been just father and me for about a year." He hopped up into the back of the wagon and handed the silent stranger a bag of potatoes. He took it and waited for another. Rayne watched him, carrying one in each hand like they weighed nothing. He imagined himself in those arm, his skin caressed by those hands …
"So, what's your name?" he asked as he dragged over two more bags. The stranger glanced up, his eyes catching the sunlight and flashing blue.
"Belaeden," he said, his voice deep, but surprisingly quiet.
"Belaeden," Rayne repeated, letting the sound roll over his tongue. "I like that. So, where're you from?"
"Far away," he said, taking the bags and walking away. A sore subject? Rayne didn't care where he was from, anyway. He was only interested in where he'd be spending the night.
"You got friends around here?"
"Here on business?"
"Pleasure?" That earned him a dirty look.
"No." Rayne sighed. He had his work cut out for him, especially of he couldn't get this guy to string together more than two words at a time. There was something to be said about the strong, silent types, though.
"You're just passing through, then?"
"Yes." Aha! Now he was getting somewhere.
"Headed anyplace specific?"
"No." Rayne wondered, for a moment, if this guy was deliberately trying to irritate him, and then Belaeden reached for another sack. His hand closed over Rayne's and he jerked back as if Rayne's skin had burned him. Curious. Rayne leaned down, trying to meet his eyes, but Belaeden just scowled at the potato sacks as he took them and refused to look up.
"So, you're from far away, heading no place in particular … what are you looking for?" He almost asked what Belaeden was running from. That's what he looked like – a hunted man, a thief, a killer, maybe a mercenary.
"Work," Belaeden said, and for a second Rayne thought he was telling him to get back to it, but then he realized that it was the answer to his question. Looking for work. That meant he wasn't a lazy bum, at least.
"How old are you?" Rayne asked, and then crunched his eyes shut in self-exasperation as he turned away to fetch more bags. Could he be any less subtle? Well, yeah.
"Twenty-six," Belaeden said after a moment, and Rayne's shoulders drooped. Eleven years. Rayne didn't care, but his father would. His father didn't like him kissing a guy four years older – he couldn't wait to hear what he'd have to say about this. And he wouldn't have to wait long, either. His father and the farmer had just come out of the inn.
Rayne dragged two of the last three bags over to Belaeden, and then grabbed the final one himself. He hoisted it onto his shoulder and jumped down from the wagon, landing off balance and stumbling over a loose potato he'd missed. He staggered sideways, trying to keep the bag up on his shoulder, and felt himself start to fall. Strong hands closed on his upper arm and the back of his shirt, jerking him back onto his feet. He looked up into the unsmiling dark blue eyes of Belaeden, and noticed for the first time that he barely came up to the man's shoulder. Belaeden said nothing – big surprise – and took the last bag from me, neatly stacking it with the others. Rayne snuck a glance at his father, who was watching Belaeden, a slight scowl on his usually friendly face. After the farmer drove away, he turned to Rayne.
"So, son, who's your friend?" he asked. Belaeden stepped past them and picked up his knapsack again.
"Father, this is Belaeden," he said quickly, before Belaeden could leave. "Belaeden, this is my father, Miravek." Belaeden nods to my father and then heads up the road again. "Hey, wait," Rayne called, chasing after him. "You forgot something." He didn't stop, but glanced at Rayne as he dug into his pocket.
"Keep it, boy," he said, and lengthened his stride, leaving Rayne behind. Rayne lurched to a stop. Boy? Rayne clenched his hands into fists, the two small silver coins digging into his palm as he broke into a run. He caught Belaeden on the far side of the public well.
"You earned the damn things," he said, grabbing Belaeden's arm and thrusting the laenes into his hand, "now take them. And don't call me boy. I'm almost sixteen – a few more months and I'll be able to get married, buy a house, have kids –"
"Lucky you," Belaeden said. Rayne opened his mouth, and then closed it again. What was with this guy?
"Why don't you come have dinner with us?" Rayne asked suddenly. Belaeden stopped and looked down at him, a hint of confusion in his scowl. "C'mon, you did way more than two laenes worth of work – and when was the last time you had a home-cooked meal? And look at the sun – it'll be dark in an hour – how far are you going to get tonight? It gets really cold this time of year. We have a spare room – my sister's old room – and you can get a fresh start first thing in the morning. What do you say?" Rayne waited, slightly out of breath. Belaeden stared at him for a moment, then turned and looked at the sun, hanging fat and red above the sea, and then at Rayne's father, standing on the steps of the shop with his arms crossed over his chest. With a sigh, Belaeden turned back to Rayne.
"Thank you … Rayne," he said, and Rayne grinned at him. Yeah, love at first sight.