What Lies in the Hearts of Jzamneh
A new dawn crept over the forest, casting soft light over the village. Vénes opened his eyes slowly as sunbeams began to peek into the room. He found himself in a bed, warm and cozy beneath a thick blanket. The balcony doors were open, letting in a soft breeze that carried the rich scent of the woodlands outside. He tried to sit up, but his body was too weak to comply, and he decided that he’d rather not fight it.
“Shu-Giri?” he called, seeing a figure with brightly-colored hair on the balcony outside. It hardly came out louder than a moan. “Is that you out there?”
“Vénes!” Shu-Giri cried out. He rushed inside and he bounced onto Vénes’s bed without hesitation. “Awake at last!”
Vénes gazed up at him. “You were waiting for me?”
“Of course I was,” Shu-Giri told him with a bright grin, leaning in close with the familiarity of friends who had known one another for years. “Did you think that I would give you a piece of myself and then wander off? I may have my duties to attend to, but I would never go far from you.”
His kind words made Vénes feel shy, and he scooted back a bit. “I can hardly move,” he groaned, changing the subject.
“But you can see, at least. We almost lost you altogether!” Shu-Giri leaned closer over him and peered into his eyes. “The green is much better. That holy light was so eerie, Vénes; I am glad to see that it has gone. As for your strength, give it time. You were lucky that your brother was here to tell me about your sorcery.”
Shu-Giri chuckled. “So you can remember him too.”
“You mean I almost forgot?”
“No,” the treasure-hunter replied between chortles. “You almost gave up your body to Kearr– and almost left me missing a man I hardly know!”
Vénes blinked, not sure that he understood Shu-Giri’s sense of humor.
“I mean it; I am glad that you made it through. I want to get to know you better,” Shu-Giri added, rather abruptly. He rolled over to lounge across the bed as he spoke.“You do have a piece of my heart, after all!”
Vénes recalled, for only a moment, the glowing realm that he had visited. It seemed so far away, so far removed in time, and he was no longer sure when he had gone there– if he truly had at all.
“Was that real? The astral plane?”
“Very real, Vénes”, Shu-Giri replied, more serious now. “What I gave you is also very real.”
Vénes was startled to realize that he may have accepted something too important, something that he had no right to claim from someone whom he had only recently met. “Are you all right? Is that not the most important part of you?”
Shu-Giri shook his head. “If it had been, then you are now an important part of me.”
Vénes blushed at the sound of those words. The Jzamneh elf had said them in such a smooth voice that he could not help but catch his sultry tone. His reaction made Shu-Giri chuckle once more.
After a moment, he was serious again. “Whatever else happens, just remember that I did not give you that gift expecting anything in return. You already gave me the gift of protecting my forest and home. You nearly gave me your life! All I did was preserve it for a little longer. Besides, it was also a favor to Mearrk’hal. I do not take every injured soul I meet to the astral plane, after all,” he added with a wink.
“Thank you,” Vénes whispered when he had the chance. He was not sure what else to say, but Shu-Giri’s joyful smile told him that it had been enough.
“We should eat now,” he informed the sorcerer. “You look so thin!”
Leaping from the bed, Shu-Giri went into the hallway and called to someone. Vénes heard a female voice reply in Fae, and the two spoke for a few moments before he came back into the room and hopped back onto the bed.
“Phiare will bring us lunch.” Then, not caring a single bit that he was changing the subject so suddenly, he said, “Will you tell me what it is like in the desert?”
Taken aback by the question, Vénes only gave Shu-Giri a confused stare.
“Where you are from!” the treasure-hunter urged. “Your home.”
Vénes let out a long sigh and shook his head. “The desert has never been home to me, Shu-Giri. It was home to my father, but he left it around the time that he met my mother.” Seeing that the other man was listening closely, transfixed, he went on. “He–”
“He what?” Shu-Giri asked, raising a brow.
Vénes looked down, shaking his head again. “I was very young, so my mother didn’t explain everything to me. I know there came a time when he did not return to us. I’m not sure whether he went back to the desert, or if some terrible fate befell him.” His voice trebled on his last few words, and he looked away.
“Am I prying too much?” Shu-Giri asked, his voice tender. “I am curious by nature, Vénes, but you can stop talking about it if you want to.”
With a sigh, Vénes replied, “No. It is only that nobody has asked me about my family for many years, and never in the way that you have. My mother was killed in Ayafir over forty years ago– when I was a child– and I never had the chance to track down my father.”
Shu-Giri’s mouth was agape. “You have my condolences, Vénes!” He threw his arms around him, embracing him tightly. The sorcerer returned the embrace, albeit tentatively.
“I had not realized that you’ve lived through such tragedy,” Shu-Giri told him after a few minutes. “So you have never been to the desert?”
“Never. They are a secretive people, my mother told me. My father had been ostracized for wandering off and taking a sorceress from another land as his lover… My mother hoped that he would one day be able to restore peace with his family. It was hard enough on him that I had not been born on the desert sands.”
“There is magic in the sands, they say,” Shu-Giri interjected.
With a nod of agreement, Vénes added, “That is said to be the reason for their secrecy, but my mother believed that there was more to it.”
“Where were you born, then?”
The sorcerer shrugged. “Maybe Mithkyn, maybe Kaj’Darem… maybe any of the other small kingdoms beyond the sandstone mountain. Perhaps my mother could have told me, but I was too young to care about such things before she…”
Compassion welled up in Shu-Giri’s brightly-colored eyes. “I can understand now why you looked so pained.”
Vénes looked away, his voice more sullen. “That is part of it, I suppose. I had the great fortune of escaping Ayafir with Vincent at my side, and being found by Mearrk’hal. I am grateful to them both.”
When the sorcerer looked to Shu-Giri again, he was deep in thought.
“Forty years ago… Was that not when the king purged Ayafir of anything and anyone not devoted to Kearr?”
“That king has died,” was Vénes’s only reply.
“He was awful!” Shu-Giri said. “His own son was caught up in the flurry of those killings, and met with a tragic fate. I am surprised to hear that you were in Ayafir when Arialla’s summons reached Mearrk’hal. Why did you even go back?”
Vénes bit his lip, reluctant to say anything more on the subject. “I am not sure,” he admitted as the door opened.
A woman stepped into the room, a tray of food in her hands. She smiled at the both of them, her tangerine eyes shining. her short ruffled skirts bouncing with her movements, as did her waves of green and orange hair,
“Thank you, Phiare,” Shu-Giri told her, gesturing her closer. He turned back to Vénes. “Can I sit you up?”
Before he could reply, Shu-Giri had pulled him forward and was piling pillows behind his back. When he leaned back on them, he felt much more comfortable. Phiare let Shu-Giri help her unfold a set of lets on the bottom of the tray so that it could sit across Vénes’s lap like a small table. She had brought an assortment baked vegetables, sprinkled with herbs that filled the room with an earthy aroma, as well as grilled meat. Another plate was cold with slices of fruit that was kept chilled in the cellar, and one more with soft white cheeses and bread that smelled like it was fresh from the oven. There was also a carafe of a faint pink liquid that Vénes supposed was the juice of a fruit that only grew in Jzamneh Forest, and two short glasses to pour it into.
“A fine meal!” Shu-Giri commented as he looked over the assortment. He grinned at the woman and thanked her again.
She smiled back, then excused herself and walked out of the room.
“Do you think she is cute?” Shu-Giri asked once she had closed the door.
Vénes blinked and stared back at him. “You ask the strangest questions.”
Laughing, Shu-Giri piled food onto a plate and handed it to the sorcerer. “You have the most interesting reactions to them.”
“I am here for your humor, then?”
“Only if you want to be,” Shu-Giri replied before biting into a forkful of vegetables.
Tempted by savory aromas of the meal, Vénes took a bite of his own. They were quiet for a few minutes, and he felt that they would be able to eat in relative peace. Shu-Giri seemed to be as hungry as he was, which made Vénes wonder whether he had eaten while waiting for him to wake up.
“Vincent told me that you do not take interest in women,” Shu-Giri blurted out after a while.
Vénes nearly choked on the bread that he’d been chewing on. “My brother told you that?” he gasped once he recovered.
Shu-Giri nodded. “I asked him how you had broken your heart,” he explained matter-of-factly.
“And his answer was that I do not chase after girls?”
“Not directly, no.” Shu-Giri filled his mouth with more food in order to avoid having to say anything more, suddenly worried that he had said too much already.
“What did he tell you, exactly?” Vénes demanded, by now irritated.
“Well…” Shu-Giri began meekly. The sorcerer glared at him, forcing him to continue. “He only told me because he cares about you! Well, not like Lysander did, but–”
“Lysander?!” Vénes cried out, pushing himself from the pillows, not caring whether the food spilled, and grabbing the other man’s shoulders. He was gasping, outraged, tears building in his eyes. “Vincent– my brother– told you about Lysander?”
Startled, Shu-Giri stammered, “W-Well– I’m sorry, Vénes. I should have stopped him before– I should have let you tell me. But he seemed concerned, like I needed to know… so I just listened. I promise you, I was not prying. I had no idea that I had touched on something so… so heart-breaking.”
Weakened, Vénes let his body collapse, then buried his face in Shu-Giri’s chest. He could feel his tears flowing like a river past a broken dam. When Shu-Giri heard sobbing, he wrapped his arms around his shaking body.
“Shhh… It’s all right,” Shu-Giri whispered. “I never meant to remind you of him. I am very sorry, Vénes. Vincent told me that I should be gentler, but–”
“But he died in my arms, Shu-Giri! The only person I have ever loved, and he died!”
Unable to respond to that, Shu-Giri went back to rubbing the sorcerer’s back. He also began humming a song, then sang the words on the refrain. Vénes did not understand the Fae words, but appreciated their gentle tones nonetheless. He looked up at the other man, holding back another flood of sobs.
“Why, in all of creation, did he tell you?” he whispered, knowing that there had to be an important reason for Vincent to talk about his past.
“I– well…” Shu-Giri could hardly find the words to reply. “Why don’t we just eat for now? I will tell you later.”
Vénes laid on his back, his head on Shu-Giri’s lap, and crossed his arms. “No.” His voice was stern and serious, and even though the sorcerer was too weak to do anything to him, the other man decided to comply.
“He told me because… Well–” Shu-Giri changed his mind halfway through. “He was just concerned.”
“Because I had nearly died?”
“Exactly!” the playful elf said with a grin.
“Shu-Giri, Vincent would not tell you about Ly– about him just because you saved my life, or because I was dying. Why would you lie to me?”
He bit his lip. “I know not.”
“You do know!”
“Maybe,” Shu-Giri half-whimpered, his brow furrowed in concern, “but you are not ready to know!”
Hurt by those words, Vénes forced himself to sit up and glared at Shu-Giri. The treasure-hunter hesitated between giving in and holding his ground, not sure which would be safer. When the sorcerer’s tears began to fall again, his heart softened.
“Please don’t cry,” he said, embracing him once again. “I cannot bear it.”
No matter how long he waited, the sorcerer made no reply, which agonized him as though he were being tortured.
“If you must know…”
Vénes looked up at him, hopeful. “It would only be just.”
“I told Vincent that I thought… That is, that I felt like I was…” He sighed, hardly able to explain it. His heart was racing, and he found it hard to think. “I told him that I was falling in love with you.”
Vénes stared at Shu-Giri, shocked and wide-eyed. The other man was stammering, trying to explain something else, something more, but he could not hear his words. He sat unmoving, not taking his eyes off of him, uncertain how to react or whether, in fact, he was ready to accept those feelings. Finally, the Shu-Giri noticed his distress.
“Are you angry with me?”
Numb, Vénes only shook his head.
“It wasn’t because of what I did on the astral,” Shu-Giri went on, feeling the need to explain more. “It is the other way around, really. It started when you first came here…”
“What about Phiare?” Vénes asked when his words faltered.
Shu-Giri sighed. “Vénes…”
“Why did you ask me about her? Do you like her, too?”
“Well– no! Not that way. She looks after my home when I am busy. She is sweet, but–”
Shu-Giri stopped talking and grabbed Vénes by the shoulders. He pulled him close and let one hand comb through the sorcerer’s dark waves of hair, pleading with his eyes, and then leaned forward. Their lips met softly, and neither refused the kiss that ensued. Vénes melted into Shu-Giri’s embrace, welcoming the sensations that he had lost so many years ago, enjoying the strong hands that caressed him. When he sat back again, his eyes were softer, his emotions less intense.
“If you would rather that I did not love you…” Shu-Giri began, his voice trebling with sadness as well as fear, but also gentle and sincere.
Vénes shook his head. “I am not refusing you,” he whispered.
Shu-Giri smiled, his relief evident as the tension melted away. “Thank you, Vénes!” He leapt to steal another hug from him, wanting to snuggle closely. “You are a wonderful person, and I promise to be gentle with you. I expect nothing in return–”
He stopped when Vénes took his hands. “Expect what you long for most,” he urged him. “Perhaps it is time for new a beginning for me after all.”
Overjoyed, Shu-Giri kissed him again. “Fantastic! I think you find, in time, that coming to Jzamneh will have been very good for you indeed. I do love you, Vénes. You will see– one day– just how far my love can go.”
Vénes nodded, showing him a rare smile as he squeezed his hand. “I think I would like that.”