Agostino watched Kadri's men and women break camp, wrapping their belongings and goods in colorful bundles that were stacked high on the backs of horses and camels, the activity kicking up dust in the air, making a general haze that hung like smoke. "To be clear, you're still a prisoner," Balian said, beside him over the shouting and the boisterous complaints of the camels. "But if you'd rather walk with the porters, I can find someone to keep an eye on you. They might make you work, but you'll get a better lunch." Appreciatively better treatment overall he'd imagine. He found he had no desire for the company of soldiers or their guards.

"Thank you. That sounds preferable."

He gave a curt nod. "Alright come on then."

Tadaaki was tall and heavy set, a former warrior with a deep white scar over one eye. He had a hearty laugh and liked to watch Agostino try to control the cantankerous train of camels as they picked their way across the landscape, stepping in as needed to quell the chaos and save the cargo. It was obvious Agostino was fulfilling the role of entertainment for the day, but Tadaaki also called him "little brother" in that affectionate way that older Uthroo men could, and his teasing didn't feel mean spirited. For Agostino's part he did his best, gathering a layer of dirt and sweat honestly, the little aches and stings a constant reminder of the man that had made them.

They took shelter from the midday sun in an olive grove and Tadaaki shared his jug of water and the little flask of wine he kept cool at the bottom of one of his bags. They ate rice and spiced lamb wrapped in grape leaves, little fish preserved in oil that they spread over bread and seasoned with chilis and garlic, crisp slices of pear so tart they made his mouth pucker, but turned mild dipped in honey. The land was golden, smattered with patches of green, the late spring breeze promising the hot breath of summer. The Black Mountains loomed in the distance, a tinge of blue to their silhouette—an indigo grey that seemed to tint everything cast in their shadow. Then others gathered around them. A woman with pretty eyes and a sleeping baby strapped to her chest, produced the deck of cards, dealing to the players with easy practice.

Agostino was surprised when he also received a hand. "Oh no. I'm sure I would just ruin your fun," he said, trying to give the cards back. "I don't really know how to play."

Tadaaki gave him a hard clap to the back. "Nonsense little brother. If you want to be Uthroon, you play cards."

"Alright, alright," he said with a laugh. "I concede. What are the rules?" They amused themselves another half hour before packing up supplies and rejoining the group, wrestling camels that had become accustomed to rest back into motion. Tadaaki took it as an opportunity to interrogate Agostino on his Uthroon musical knowledge, regaling him with two folk songs and one rather popular piece from a play drama. That was the beauty and the mystery of the Middle Kingdom, for all its unstable shifting politics, its web of city states and tribal affiliations, it had a vibrant culture that stretched across the whole of it, carried by the Uthroon themselves. When Tadaaki was tired of singing Agostino tried his hand at an epic, the tale of the hero Ahmet and the shepherd boy Omer who was really the god of dawn. He had always loved the ancient poems, their intrinsic beauty and the way the word play challenged his language skills. It amused Tadaaki enough to hear a foreigner attempt a portion of the Sun Cycle that he clapped him on the back again and brought out the wine skin to cool his parched throat.

Just before sunset they drove the camels down to the river to drink. Agostino washed his face and neck, took off his boots and stood at the water's edge, letting the cool current run over his feet. Little birds had come out to eat the insects, making swooping half circles in the air and he watched them with idle interest. What a strange series of events had conspired to bring him to this wild place, the eye of a storm before the winds came and swept him even further afield from the life he had known.

It amused him to imagine dissipating into the Middle Kingdom—maybe he would learn a trade, become a camel driver or a tanner, make his own way as some eccentric expat and nothing more. He had been as much in Merdeth, save for the small matter of his family's generous allowance. He wanted so very badly to carve out a true purpose in life, to have his actions mean something, but it had been a very long time since that had felt within reach. He could probably make his way to his mother's people, given time. He'd spent nearly a year in the Cytinium court when he was a teen and while he found their cerebral philosophies and propensity for long winded public debates tedious, he was not in a position to turn down protection from his uncle just because it sounded like it wasn't going to be fun. He sighed, knowing in his heart of hearts the only thing that would truly bring him peace would be to know Cosimo was free and rightfully sitting on the Abreanian throne—his love for his brother ran deep enough to ache—damn him anyway.

He was putting on his boots when he saw Balian approaching them. He had his usual flat expression, but Agostino gave him a smile anyway. "Good evening."

"Come on then." He stood, nodding a goodbye to Tadaaki and falling into step with his hurried pace, a nervous flutter building in his stomach as they approached camp. There were fewer tents tonight and many people had forgone them altogether, laying out bedrolls instead. Balian simply pointed to where Kadri was seated on a pile of blankets by the fire and continued on his way, calling out the chieftain's name as he passed. Kadri looked up and made eye contact with Agostino, a slow smile playing on his lips as he crooked his fingers. He felt a shiver of anticipation run up his spine, memories of the night before playing though his mind. When he approached, Kadri moved over, making room for him on the blankets and he cautiously sat beside him. The fire was a warmth down the front of him, but Kadri's body pressed along his side made an entirely different kind of heat.

"Is this the one that speaks Urthdoo?" The man was smooth skinned with intricate jewelry, his long dark hair kept in four braids that lay across his chest.

Kadri nodded. "He does, so mind your tongue, Deniz."

Deniz scoffed at that. "As if I am the most likely to talk out of turn. I mean for gods sake, Sebeli is sitting right there."

Sebeli casually took off her sandal and hit him with it. Her eyes were painted in thick coal, hair wrapped up in a green scarf. "Just for that, it's your turn to deal."

Kadri handed him an orange, fat and heavy in his palm. "Do you want a cup of wine?" His demeanor was casual and unhurried as he drank from his own cup.

"Yes, please. Oh wait, deal me in if you don't mind." The others stared at him and he could feel a blush creep into his face. He glanced at Kadri who only looked back with open curiosity. "Oh I apologize," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to impose."

Deniz gave him a toothy grin, skipping back to deal to Agostino. "Oh no sorry necessary, friend. Uh right?" He looked at Kadri who gave a small nod of approval.

"He can play if he wants to."

"Okay good." Deniz said. "What should we call you by the way?"

"Ciro. Ciro Esposito." It was an alias he had used for years, usually when participating in things less than appropriate for a man of his station. In his imagination, Ciro was the indolent son of a successful wine merchant—well versed in worldly things and less so in self preservation.

"Alright Ciro. Let's see what you're about." He peeled the orange between card hands, throwing the peelings in the fire and bursting the segments of fruit between his teeth. The wine was darker than blood and heavily sedimented, but drinkable and strong. He was by no means an excellent player, though he was getting the gist of the game, certainly enough to know a primary strategy was to not to play every move to win. Less experienced players went instinctively on the defensive, but often taking an early loss to maintain the anonymity of one's true cards served better.

He watched Sebeli put down the 6 of wands. "Do you think we'll come back here before the olive harvest?" She asked. From what he had gathered through Tadaaki and the others, Kadri and his entourage wintered in the lowlands, below the shallow rapids of the cataracts, holding court in his manor house and trading olive oil, wool, precious metals and stones with merchant ships on that wide section of the river that led to the sea. It was the goods they received in return that they were transporting back to their people now. He would stay the summer in his mountain keep, returning to the lowlands in the fall.

"Normally I wouldn't think so, but it is shaping up to be a weird season isn't it?" Deniz said, playing the 8 of wands. "Might have my gran make me a charm against the eye while we're up on the mountain. There's something downright spooky in the air."

Kadri put down the queen of coins, a trump card. "Bal is already in a pissy mood, thinking about traveling in the heat," he said, the rumble of his voice a vibration where they touched.

"Poor Bal, he gets so wilty off the mountain in summer," Sebeli hummed as Agostino considered his options. In the end, he sacrificed his ace of wands, knowing he had the king.

"A shame about your Ace," Kadri said, taking the trick before refilling Agostino and then his own cup. It wasn't surprising that the man sought dominance in this game as well, using his best cards to call the suits. A fine strategy if a little luck was on your side.

Balian joined them, settling in next to Deniz, drinking directly from the wine jug when it was passed his way.

"A good day then?" Deniz said, raising an eyebrow. Kadri, true to form, played the ace of coins, quickly divesting Sebeli of her king as she swore under her breath.

"Do you suppose it's worth trying to ransom any of these Abreanian bastards?" Balian asked, scratching his short beard. "I get wanting to be done with it. I want to be done with it, but maybe there are political considerations?" Kadri was starting the next suit with the king of souls.

"Nobody's titled if that's what you mean," Agostino offered unsolicited. "Hired mercenaries from poor families, the lot of them. Though in my opinion that makes them more worthy of mercy—an enemy by circumstance rather than ambition."

Balian considered a moment. "Hmm. What about you?" he challenged. "Circumstance or ambition?"

Agostino raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh my family wasn't poor, but they are all long in the grave," he shrugged. "I do have a sizable inheritance that you are more than welcome to." Agostino played the ace of souls, taking the trick, "but it's in a bank in Merdeth."

"Oh well done," Sebeli clapped her hands. "You're getting the hang of it."

"Yes, well done," Kadri said, mouth close to his ear and fingers trailing down his back. They stopped their movement when he opened the suit with the king of wands, a minimal smile playing on his lips. He'd bet that "inheritance" that Kadri was thinking about the ace of wands he'd already lost.

"You little sneak," Deniz said, laughing. "You're either a fool for wasting that ace earlier, or you've nothing but wands left and this is about to go very poorly for us."

"Beginner's luck?" Agostino suggested as he proceeded to win the hand.

Kadri had him on the bed the moment the tent flaps had closed, mouth hungry and fingers in his hair, pulling his head back to expose the line of his neck. The weight of him was immense, leathers digging into his skin in uncomfortable ways. "I'm going to fuck you so hard you'll feel it in your throat."

He thought about the utter pounding he'd received the night before, the memory going straight to his cock. He groaned, body flushing hot. " Gods yes. but, ow, not with all this on. Move back." He squirmed, trying to sit up, hands going to the straps of the armor. "How the fuck do these even work?" Kadri pushed him away, sitting up, unbuckling and striping away the pieces of leather and metal with ease before dropping them to the floor.

He removed his tunic as well and then scowled at him. "You're awfully entitled, telling me what to do like that."

Agostino scoffed. "That's kinda ironic coming from you, don't you think?" Kadri had him by the throat a moment later, pushing him down into the mattress, hand tight, but not yet bruising. In an act of complete lunacy his face split into a grin, a thrill of lust and excitement rolling through him. The power in just this man's arm, the sheer size of him looming over him felt erotic.

"You're a brat."

"Maybe you're just mad I beat you at cards." Kadri growled, lunging at him, knocking the breath from his lungs as he attacked his tunic, ripping it violently over his head. His mouth found a nipple and bit, making Agostino keen, back arching up. His breath came in short, cut off gasps as Kadri worked him over thoroughly with teeth and tongue, igniting the ache of old bruises. He undid the laces of Agostino's pants, yanking them from his legs and then paused.

" Fuck, oil ," he snarled, getting off the bed and stalking across the room to his travel trunks. Agostino took the opportunity to catch his breath, palming his aching cock.

"You're out of your mind for talking to me that way," Kadri was hovering at the foot of the bed, considering him.

"Am I?" Agostino asked earnestly, propping himself on his elbows. "Would you really hurt me?" He'd not thought so, but he did barely know the man.

Kadri made a sound of exasperation, gazing up at the ceiling. "If I had my way, your ass would be so red you'd not be able to sit comfortably for a week. But you said no hitting so…"

Agostino fought the smile that twitched on his lips. " Impressive restraint ." He crawled forward, coming to sit on the edge of the mattress, pulling a standing Kadri between his splayed knees. He worked the laces of his trousers, looking up at him through his lashes. "Don't choke me this time." Kadri made a noise of pure disbelief, and maybe Agostino shouldn't goad him so much, so soon, but then he had his cock in his palm, enjoying the weight of it and the way Kadri's eyes burned as he looked down at him. He took the head into his mouth, rolling the bitter taste across his tongue, caressing the petal soft skin of the shaft before taking the length of him in. He splayed one hand across Kadri's bare hip, setting an easy rhythm, running his tongue along the vein, letting the head nudge the back of his throat, relaxing the muscle and taking him deeper as he hollowed his cheeks. He moved a hand lower to gently squeeze his balls, enjoying the sharp gasp that elicited. Pubic hair tickled at his nose as he took him to the root, the sweat musk scent of him growing stronger. Kadri's breath came in rapid gulps, chest heaving, his thighs beginning to tremble. Pleased, Agostino caught his hand, placed it to the back of his head, eyes flicking up as he gave a little nod of permission. The sharp sting of his grip shot through him like an arrow and he struggled to relax his jaw further, trying to contend with the sudden assault of Kadri's snapping hips, the just a little too deep intrusion, the excitement of being so thoroughly used. Kadri came quickly, groaning as he spilled in his mouth.

Agostino leaned back, smug, trying to estimate the man's mood and found himself hauled up and tossed unceremoniously to the center of the bed, head bouncing. He scrambled backwards, but Kadri had him pinned to the mattress a second later, using his weight to hold him in place, gathering his wrists in one hand and pinning them above his head. He pressed his massive thigh against his cock, hot and unyielding, leaning down so his breath caressed his ear. "You forget yourself, little bird. You're very clever, but you're still my prisoner and any freedoms you've been enjoying are because I let you have them. Don't test my generosity."

If he'd wanted to find out what winding Kadri up would accomplish, he was not disappointed. He squirmed, heart thudding in his chest, feeling hot all over, that tilting vertigo sensation that promised the illicit pleasures of submission. " Oh fuck." he whined, grinding up into the searing flesh pressed between his legs. Sucking a cock that was not force fed to him was all well and good, but this was so much better, the heady novelty of being completely overpowered, the fire it sparked in him, burning through his common sense and melting him from the inside.

Kadri grabbed his legs, flipping him over, arm scooping under his hips to pull him up to his knees. He found the oil, preparing him quickly, twisting fingers in with far less care than he had the night before, but Agostino's body yielded easily—a combination of arousal and the fact that he'd had him only just that morning. Nonetheless, the fat head of his cock ached going in and Agostino sucked air through his teeth as Kadri seated himself, balls resting against his ass. Then he took his hips in both hands and fucked him in an aggressively straight forward manner, picking up tempo, strokes becoming faster and deeper as his fingers dug marks into his skin.

Agostino groaned, reaching between his legs before Kadri slapped his hand away, grabbing his wrists and easily pinning them at the small of his back as he continued his relentless use of his body, driving into him with bone rattling thrusts that took him to the border of pleasure and discomfort. Kadri pulled out and changed angles and Agostino saw stars on the next stroke, gasping at the intensity of the sensation. He worked him like that, making him moan and twitch, muscles spasming until he came with a guttural sob, body tightening around the cock buried in his guts until he whimpered. When Kadri finally released his arms, the pressure unknotting from his shoulders, Agostino's knees gave out with them. He collapsed, boneless and gasping for air as Kadri crushed him with his full weight, grinding down as he came. When he didn't move after, Agostino made a noise of objection and the big brute finally rolled off of him.

His mind swirled for a moment, hazy from the intensity of his orgasm, his body thrumming with residual sensation. "I'm not sure that was the lesson you intended to give. More like threatening me with a good time."

"Ciro, do shut up," Kadri said, dousing the lights. "It's late and I don't have the energy to fuck you again for being difficult."

"Okay." He stifled a yawn. "Good night, then."

"Just go to sleep," he told him, rolling over and pulling up the blankets. He listened to Kadri's breath even out in the dark, the crash of adrenaline leaving him feeling shaky and vulnerable. He'd wanted that hard rut with all his heart, but now that it was over he felt unsettled, like a hangover from a night of too much drinking. He got up and poured a glass of water, found a cloth and cleaned the semen from his thighs and ass. Then he lay back down with a sigh, closing his eyes and willing himself to sleep.

"Surprise attack...has it on reliable authority that they are moving from the North...a great army...but if Qamar falls, it's the doom of us all." Agostino shifted, coming to wake at the sound of voices. "Yildiz and his sons plan to cut the Abreanian army off at Lover's Sorrow. I think if we leave tonight we can just meet them in time."

"How long did it take the messenger to reach us?" That voice he recognized as Kadri.

"A day and a half."

Kadri swore. "Send runners to the villages to call for able fighters. We'll need supplies from the storehouses as well. Make an inventory and I'll review it. Do that now. I plan to leave within the hour."

He sat up, running hands over his face. "What's happening?" He asked, voice heavy with sleep. Qamar was a seaside city to the south, the wealthiest in the Middle Kingdom, and an important trade port. If his uncle had amassed a large enough army to invade a city of that size well that...was alarming.

Balian and Kadri were huddled, heads bent together over a map. I plan to leave within the hour. Kadri looked up and met his eyes briefly and then looked away. "You should get dressed," he said, voice cool.

"Alright," Agostino said, sitting up a little further and reaching for his discarded tunic.

"Abrea means to go to war in earnest and I intend to oblige them."

Agostino felt the grip of sudden gut clenching fear. "Do you know if Cosimo di Rosmarino still lives?" Surely Paoluccio wouldn't be stupid enough to execute his nephew until after he'd secured some public approval with a successful military campaign. Surely .

"I've heard nothing to the contrary."

He let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "So you will try to cut off Paoluccio's army at the Pass? Why on earth— " he cut himself off. This seemed like madness when Abrea had a sizable naval fleet. Why by all things holy would they get bogged down in a land war in the mountains? He pondered this, itching to have a look at whatever was on that map. "Does Qamar even have any war ships?" That was the problem with the decentralized nature of this region, an accumulation of singularly significant power was rare. In a world where most things were negotiated along the complex ties of familiar bonds, that kind of demonstration of strength was unnecessary—one simply didn't crush your 3rd cousins into the ground over a trade dispute. What Paoluccio meant to do was colonize the Middle Kingdom, disassemble it into usable resources. The idea of it turned Agostino's stomach.

"I'll take him, now," Balian said. "Ciro, finish getting dressed."

He stood and obediently put on his pants, stomping into his boots a moment later. "Take me where? I can be of significant use, I promise. Not just languages, I know cultural and military histories…"

Kadri shook his head. "Prisoners are being transported directly to Qamar with the supply convoy. They are better equipped to deal with such matters. Until we are at peace, I serve under Yildiz, my honored uncle and the king of Qamar. It is for him to decide what to do with you."

His heart sank, throat constricting as he attempted to swallow every word he wished to say. "I see." Well fuck . It wasn't like he was unfamiliar with being sidelined and at least in this case his expectations were low to begin with. "I'll wish you swift victory then. May your gods protect you in battle."

"You seem glum, little brother."

Agostino grimaced, not liking that he'd been caught moping over a man, especially such a spectacular asshole as Kadri. "I'm fine," he shot Tadaaki a weak smile. He was being stupid, he told himself, just sulking because he'd had a tantalizing bit of political influence yanked away. Not that sticking around and fucking Kadri's brains out would have turned his ear, but oh how he would have tried. The day was clear and bright. He'd spent the better part of the night helping the porters sort supplies, separating what was to be sent to the front lines of Lover's Sorrow and what should travel with them to the city. He had watched everything reconfigured and loaded with shocking efficiency, even as the camels groaned and complained to be loaded again so soon. They'd started moving at dawn, taking advantage of the cool weather, but he hoped he'd have a chance to nap in the heat of the afternoon. "Have you been to Qamar before?" He asked, changing the subject. Kadri was gone and there was nothing to do but get over it. .

"Yes, but it's been a long time. They call her the jewel of the Middle Kingdom, the lady on the sea, an embodiment of her patron Amphitrite, that mysterious salt soaked goddess, encrusted with pearls and coral. They say there is a womanliness to her nature, ruled by the tides and the moon. I think it is a very strange, beautiful city, but I feel more myself when I return to the mountain."

He hummed to himself. At least he had that much to look forward to. He'd only ever seen architectural drawings and those had seemed wholly unbelievable. "Is it true that it's built directly on the water? How can that be? It seems impossible."

"Oh it's quite possible. In the old wars the tribes protected themselves from attack by driving the foundational stakes of the buildings into the salt marsh itself. Now the city floats, all of it—its palatial homes, its stone plazas and temple gardens. Perhaps that's what I find disconcerting, the way the buildings groan and creak, the sea breath smell that seeps into everything from below."

For some reason Augostino's heart quicked, a melancholy longing welling up in him in a way he had no words to describe. "I look forward to seeing it for myself," he said at last—even if it wasn't as a free man.

By late afternoon they had begun their descent towards the lowlands and the camels needed more forceful prodding to continue down the rocky hillside, grunting and throwing their heads as they navigated the steep grade. One managed to knock an exhausted Agostino to the ground as it attempted to back up, hoof barely missing his temple. Tadaaki stepped in immediately, giving a sharp shout and striking the animal across the nose to subdue it. "You alright, little brother?" He reached a hand down, helping him to his feet.

"Sorry, that was dumb," Agostino said with a grimace, dusting himself off and wiping the sweat from his brow.

"Nah. Don't beat yourself up more than you've already had from that fellow. They've all got a little demon in them. Glad you're okay though. Seems a shame to end your journey in this life with a swift kick to head from a camel."

"Aye," Agostino agreed, rubbing at his bruised shoulder. "Thanks for the rescue." Several of the prisoners were watching their exchange with interest. For the most part he'd avoided their company thus far, but the nature of their small convoy would make that an impossibility in the long term. When Agostino's eyes met with Matteo's, the most animalistic part of his mind shot a jolt of fear through him, a warning as potent as the stench of death, the scalding of hot metal, the way his stomach dropped looking down from a great height. The man openly and thoroughly loathed him and he had no doubt he would do him harm if he found the opportunity.