A Cumbuck’s Tale Ch. 09

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A Cumbuck’s Tale, Ch. 09

Chapter 9 — Navigating a New Course

The young Lord’s men gave him a meal and more gold than he could carry. The two henchmen conveyed him, hooded again, back to his boat, along with the gold. When he reached Tualla three days later, he found a letter waiting for him, informing him that a vault had been purchased in his name in a banking house in Dazunor-Rannuli, into which someone—no one would divulge whom—had deposited a sum of gold fit for a Lord.

Cam used a portion of his new wealth to try to buy Ralen’s freedom. For the very first time in the year they’d known each other, he asked a favor of Myron—and the man complied, providing him with a reference that put him in touch with a well-known litigator. That man helped him find and hire a Staubaun intermediary of sufficient stature to bribe the magistrates in Merath. But the process stalled in Gobba where the Lord of that domain kept the only records of prisoners and was not interested in answering questions about the fate of Kheldish sympathizers. After spending a week in the city, Cam was advised not to push too hard. The Lord of Gobba was more likely to kill a man a Kheld wanted to free than he was to release him. Disheartened, Cam left with a heavy heart, not knowing what else he could do. Though he now had wealth, his fortune was great only by Kheld standards. A few more bribes and it would be gone.

It was strange how at first he had only wanted to survive—survive Penargos, survive being a cumbuck, survive the river—and he had clung to anything that would help him in that. Now that his survival was less pressing and his situation less dire, his wants were more elusive.

Even after all these months, he did not understand fully why he so wanted to find Ralen. The Staubaun bastard had stolen him from his ignorant village life and dragged him into one even more confused—but none of that mattered. All that mattered was that while the sex had been great, the smiles had been heaven. His night with the young Lord had taught him that sex was not love and that hate was complicated. He did not know what he had taught the young Lord, except that they had shared knowledge from the same bowl.

On returning from Gobba, he stopped only briefly in Dazunor-Rannuli to replenish supplies and learn that his orders had been placed and picked up according to schedule. He spent the evening on a tavern deck overlooking the wharves, nursing his ale and watching what took place in the shadows. The strolling, arrogant Staubaun men. The slight, furtive figures of twisted Kheld boys and men hopeful of scoring Staubaun cock. Where before he had felt hopeless, knowing what lay in wait just under his own skin, he now felt only sick.

What he did not feel, though he still lived in terror of it, was the craving that had once driven him to lurk in those same shadows.

“Cumbuck?” a man whispered hoarsely, pausing at his table. He was Staubaun, not uncomely and seemed reasonably clean. His direct gaze held more hope than disdain, and conveyed knowledge that not all cumbucks were slovenly or desperate. Before, Cam would have considered him.

“No,” he answered, feeling no craving at all despite three weeks without. “Look elsewhere.” He said it forcefully enough the man left.

He left soon afterward himself, having arranged an assignation with Myron. He wanted to thank the man for his help, and express it breath on breath and skin on skin. The litigator had let slip that Myron was a renowned poet, and shown Cam a slim book—widely praised and read, said the man—that celebrated the poet’s relationship with a beautiful young man he meets while crossing the dark river of his sorrow over a lost love, reviving his ardor upon grassy banks with honeycomb kisses and loins like a hibiscus. Cam didn’t think he was any of those things, but if Myron thought so it brought no harm.

As he walked the narrow street toward the room, he felt strangely hollow and bereft, afraid Myron would strive to comfort him and fail. His cravings were gone, but there was something he still wanted to find, if only he knew where to look.

* * * *

He spent his next overnight in Rainill and the following evening made Omadawn, surprising his sister. The rest of his family was still awkward with him and Gereg never spared calling him a Staubaun cumwhore. That Cam lived, and indeed thrived because of his trade on the river, brought no comfort to a father who had preferred thinking his son dead to knowing the obscene nature of his survival. Whenever Cam paid a visit, Gereg would leave the house, and so Cam’s visits to Omadawn were few.

This day he had goods to deliver: Merathi cooking pots and Sordan-milled spices awaited by a Kheld shopkeeper and two boxes of fine Lacenedoni linens and brushes for a peddler whose sole supplier he was. He left the latter with the peddler’s wife, along with a box of ointments and pomades such as city folk used in their grooming and for which he was certain the peddler would find buyers. Khelds fancied society’s luxuries to the very illegal bahis degree they did not have such items for themselves.

Only one bundle more did he have as he walked to the town fringe and the house Bren had built for Henna out of hand-hewn wood and local stone. It was a sturdy house, as sturdy as their love, and Cam had helped her to furnish it comfortably. Now she had gotten with child and was as round and happy as any woman he had ever seen. In Dazunor-Rannuli, he had bought a gift of fine soft blankets for the baby, and was surprised to find the child not born yet.

“Cam!” Henna exclaimed, waddling to embrace him. Her belly pushed like a ram’s round head against his body. “Where have you been? The peddler’s been asking and there’s a man looking for you in Tualla.”

He hugged her as best he could, given the encumbrance. “A man?”

“The town sent a message here, but we had to say we hadn’t seen you. He either wants work or to give you some,” Henna reasoned. Her round face was all smiles and she touched her hand to his cheek, an unexpected tenderness. “You look different.”

“Worn out, most like.”

“No,” she said, studying him, her mouth tugged by indecision. “Less burdened.” She fingered his jacket of dense gray wool and blue leather. “And you’re wearing finer clothes.”

Cam laughed, because he had gotten a new wardrobe from the best clothier in Skairen, hoping to favorably impress the magistrates in Merrydn and Gobba. “And I’ll get you some, too, once you get back your figure. How big is that thing going to get?”

When he left in the morning, Henna gave him some advice along with a bag of food for the day. “It’s time you get a wife,” she said. “Mother would tell you, but you never go visit. Find yourself a good girl and build her a house.”

It was Kheld custom for a man to build a house to shelter his new bride and their children. But Cam now knew why he had never found a girl to pursue, and why he never would. “I’m not going to get a wife, Henna,” he said. “I like men and always have, probably always will. And men also like me, so if anything I’ll end up with one of them.”

Her big eyes rested on him sadly. “So it’s like Badda said.”

“Mostly.” He swallowed. “But we’ll never change, Henna—you and me. I love my family, it’s just—I don’t fit in anymore, because of that.”

She wrapped her arms around him and crushed her face to his jacket. “I’m glad you came back to us, Cam. It’s only that I want to see you happy. And right now you seem so sad! Find a man, then, if that’s what you want.”

He laughed. Finding a man might well prove harder than finding a good girl.

* * * *

With spring runoff, the Dazun was swollen and wide, more so at Tualla than at Rainill. The river bulged at the town before flowing between ranks of high hills toward Trulo and the Frendel valley. The water was high as evening drifted near and Cam tied his one-man boat to the slip of his small pier and warehouse. It was a good location, leased early on the now prosperous waterfront, with solid plank work he and Bren had spent a good part of the last summer putting down. Over the last year, he and his sister’s husband had renewed their friendship and were again easy with each other. His barge was tied at pier, half-loaded with lumber from the local mill, and he knew his second boat would be unloading at Gustan. As he approached the building, he saw the man sitting against some bales of straw under the overhang, watching him. He lost a step as he wondered what to do. Until he saw the man stand, Staubaun tall. Until he saw his face.

“Gods, Ralen,” he said. Life, clearly, had treated the former smuggler hard. The big man was thinner now, had lost muscle and health. But it was the same face, with its once broken nose and sardonic smile. The gold hair was now streaked with grey.

“Hey, Cam. Gods, you haven’t changed. Still the beauty. I—I’m surprised you remember me.”

“Remember you? I’ve never forgotten you.” Cam embraced him then, threw his arms about his neck and clasped him close. Ralen had washed, for he smelled of good Kheld soap, the kind town wives made of white lard and sweetgrass oil. “Hells, Ralen, I’ve been looking. Come in.”

The man wobbled, looked uncertain. What had they done to him in that Staubaun prison? Cam fumbled with the latch, even the simple lock too much for his racing mind. The rooms inside served as both office and, in the back, his sleeping quarters. The furnishings were plain but sturdy, and there was a stove in one corner, though as yet no fire in it. He showed Ralen to the best chair and soon had the fire going. He set out some beer from the pots he had brought back from Omadawn and what was left of the food Henna had given him that morning. A true Kheld wife, she had given him enough bread and meat for three men.

“I’ve been looking the whole while, when I wasn’t keeping my body together, but them damn Staubauns, you know—no one would tell me a thing. How did you find me?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you that if you tell me how you did it.”

Cam illegal bahis siteleri sank into the other chair, the table between them. “Were you in prison, then? In Gobba?”

“Ever since the day the bastards caught me.” Ralen met his gaze and granted a crooked grin. “Imagine my surprise when one day they haul me out of that lightless hole and into clean air. All they gave me was a boot to the ass, passage to Merath, and an envelope with two words on the paper inside.”

He did it. That young Lord. It was the only explanation. “What two words?”

“Cam and Tualla.”

“He left it up to you. To find me if you wanted to. Damn cruel way about it.”

Ralen sighed and took a deep drink of his beer. “Crueler not to. Now you tell me your part in it.”

Cam could not keep the smile from his face, so overwhelming was his joy at seeing Ralen and knowing that one night had so changed his life. “I don’t know. It’s the strangest thing. I—I’ve had a few rough times of my own, but I got this boat going, you see, and this business. But I won’t suck men where I live, see, so I set it up where I would be in Dazunor-Rannuli every seven day and small ports in between, where there were regulars.” He blushed at the look Ralen gave him, pained and also sympathetic, letting him know that he felt responsible for that. “Well, it worked for me. But then a couple months past, I docked in Dazunor-Rannuli and these two men stopped me. Said they knew who I was and who I was meeting, and that all they wanted was me to come with them, cuz their Lord needed a little something.”

“They all do.”

“Don’t they? Especially that kind. But this one was different. Not what he wanted, so much, that wasn’t different—but he was. Hell, he was the same age as me.” It would only hurt Ralen, maybe, to know he had enjoyed the sex, so Cam didn’t see any point in telling that part. “In return for what I did, he asked what I wanted. Anything, he said, and he sounded like he meant it, so knowing he was a Lord and all, I told him I wanted you out of that prison.”

Ralen stared at him, eyes blinking, then he put his face in his hands. When Cam saw that his shoulders were shaking, he went to his friend’s side and cradled Ralen’s head to his body, holding him best he could, stroking his head and hair until the Staubaun’s sobs subsided. It was a release, he knew. Maybe only now did Ralen accept that his freedom was not a fluke, that it had a cause and was real. Cam had shed tears for himself a few times, though usually alone and for pretty much the same reasons.

“Damn it, boy,” the big man murmured, getting a grip on himself. “Damn it. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anyone cared. I thought if anything you had to be dead, fucked over by those sons of bitches, living in hell as a slave . . . I didn’t know . . .”

“I thought you were dead, at first. Meuk told me you were.” He met the question in Ralen’s tear-wet eyes. “He got me off Rahn Rock, but he put me to work. I got away from him in Dazunor-Rannuli. After I got on my own, I asked around for you, but no one knew anything for sure. Some said they thought you was dead. It didn’t sound right to me, see, so I kept asking. Then one man told me you might be in prison.”

“That bastard Meuk, he’s slime and always has been. Gods, I’m sorry, Cam, that he ever got his hands on you.”

Cam wasn’t about to hold it against him. “It turned out all right, didn’t it? I grew up fast is all. Saw quick enough that I’d do better on my own. And I did, even before that young Lord gave me gold enough. Guess he liked the service.” He grinned to Ralen’s grimace. “Stay with me, Ralen. I want you to.”

The big man shook his head, not so much in denial as disbelief. “I look like hell.” He rubbed his neck. “The town must be talking. I sat out there three days, waiting for you.”

“Well, you found me.”

* * * *

The prison had been hell. The Staubaun soldiers had spared Ralen’s life on account of his pure race and what he might know, but the Lord of Gobba had not been lenient with him. The swords Ralen had been selling to the Khelds for years had been used too often to kill Gobba’s soldiers and enable Kheld squatters to infest the Lord’s sparsely populated land. His sole encounter with Engordon Skolos had been violent and brief. But Ralen was Staubaun and had a few powerful friends who might be offended by his execution, and so the Lord had simply tossed the captive into his deepest dungeon—where he could be forgotten.

He had been raped during his captivity. Not every brute inclined to such acts preferred Kheld prisoners or found Staubaun men intimidating. After the first few months he had made some friends among the guards, many of whom were permanent and bored, and so he had not passed his days in isolation.

The first few weeks of his ordeal had been the worst. He had not known Cam’s fate and the thought of the Kheld youth fallen into Staubaun hands filled him with despair. If the soldiers had not killed the boy, certainly they had raped him, just as Ralen had been raped, multiply and canlı bahis siteleri viciously. If the young Kheld survived that, he would be given to some Lord for his pleasure, or worse, be sold to a brothel. The foulest fate of all, and perhaps the most likely, was that some officer would claim the youth and pander him from camp to camp, town to town, to any man with a coin. His inquiries brought neither news nor answers, only pain, for the soldiers had told him none had escaped and, thinking it great fun, would bring him body parts in proof. And so he had ceased to ask. In time, he convinced himself that Cam was dead. He resigned himself to living day by day, never completely without hope, but without hope of that. To think that the lively, good-looking boy he had loved might be suffering because of him was torment beyond bearing.

And then the prison doors had opened and a man he did not know had simply thrust an envelope into his hand and, giving him the warning that he must never again set foot in Gobba, had put him on a barge to Merath. Opening that envelope and reading the words it contained had filled him with hope. But prison had left him wasted and weak, and he had sickened on the journey. In Merath, the barge hands left him retching on the wharf.

A good woman of the Stol Dorma had found him and taken him to the public sick house, where he had drifted for several days in a dangerous state until he could properly drink and eat again. It had been another week before he could get a barge to take him on, and that only because he claimed he could cook. That barge went to Trulo, but passed Tualla on the journey. The barge had signaled the town and a small boat had been sent out to fetch him. The one coin the women of Stol had put into his hand upon his departure from the sick house, he gave to the fresh-faced lad who had pointed out to him the warehouse of Cam Gereggson. So that is his kin name, he thought, for he had never asked it. To know the boy’s family would have been to know there were others in his life who might miss him or claim him. Had he found them again? Tualla was not far across the river from Omadawn.

It made sense Cam would stay near the river. Once a cumbuck, always a cumbuck. Cam needed to suck Staubaun cock, and there were Staubauns all along the river. The boy had clearly done well enough for himself. He owned boats, the lad had said, and this dock and building. Who knew but that Cam had found himself a wealthy patron or two. It stood to reason.

Cam. Tualla. Ralen pressed out the folds in the note, read it for the thousandth time, then folded it again. The message never changed. It never vanished or faded as do dreams, no matter how many times he took the paper from his pocket and opened it to reveal the words. Cam. Tualla.

A kindly Kheld woman, having been told of him, gave him meals and a place to sleep until the young trader returned. “He’s sometimes gone two weeks or more,” she said. “Has kin on the other bank.” But she knew nothing more than that. Her food was filling and gave him strength, however, and he walked patiently each morning to the warehouse to wait for the rest of the message. A man came on the second day he was there, a middle-aged Kheld with bull-like shoulders and nearly no neck, to receive a wagon-load of crates, which he loaded onto one of the two boats at the pier. He left soon after, saying he did not know when Cam would return but that he was taking these goods to Gustan. The man seemed as honest as he was plain and it amused Ralen to think of Cam as having someone in his employ.

As the last day edged to dusk and he had seen the small boat approach, he had not immediately known who it would be. Many boats throughout the day came to Tualla, as Cam was not the only trader there nor even the most prosperous. But when the boat did not deviate from its course, but headed toward the jutting angle of the heavy pier, Ralen had risen to his feet. He knew the young man even before he saw his face, knew the movements of that body, limber and light, the quick energy with which he leaped from moving boat to solid dock. The way he lashed a line. He had taught him those things. Now it was his heart that leaped, his hopes that lashed his fingers to the note he clutched in his hand. Just to see Cam again was a triumph of wonder.

More wondrous still were the things he learned next—that the youth’s heart remained unchanged, that he could still smile and care, and that he had forgiven all that he had not forgotten.

* * * *

“It’s a good location. We’re the closest Kheld port to Trulo, see?” Cam pointed down river to the bend, just beyond which Dazunor’s capital city would be found. “A canal here would cut two days off anything going by way of the Frendel to the interior, so I have plans.”

Ralen could not help being amazed by him. “You’ll build an empire yet.”

“Might,” Cam laughed. He sank down onto the grassy rise. His boatman had arrived early to work at the warehouse and so he had taken Ralen out in the small boat to show him the scope of his enterprise. They were now well down river from the town, the boat tied to the bank below this high hill. Tall trees—chestnut, maple and oak—rustled leaves of flame at their backs as the two men surveyed Dazunor’s swells of hills across the river.

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