Ratings/Warnings: PG; vague death-by-sword
Summary: After The Privilege of the Sword, Kyros is not as different as Richard might have expected.
Notes: Written as a Stocking Stuffer for Thornsmoke in Yuletide 2007. Kyros is based liberally on my memories of Cyprus. Title from John Gorka's The Gypsy Life.
It was hot by the time they reached Kyros, and Alec had gotten a taste for travel. They crisscrossed the island, moving on because of boredom or chance or a rumor of something interesting elsewhere, the only rule being that they never stayed in one place long. Richard suspected they'd run out of new places by the end of the season, but for now Kyros seemed large enough.
The wine here was red, mostly, and very dry; Alec cursed it, and when he'd had too much, threatened to make concoctions of the sour wine mixed with the sweet, golden local honey, though he'd yet to carry through. The land was like that, too: a mix of extremes. The interior of the island was a vast plain marred only by a few, dusty roads; the heat relieved only by the air's utter aridity. It was unlike any summer Richard had experienced. He knew summers thick with thunderstorms, the air steamy enough to make the heat hard to bear, horizons lost in a haze. On Kyros, though, there was no rain in the summer. He could hear bells sometimes, goat herds heading out for baked yellow grass, but the fields lay fallow, having been harvested months before. Alec described groves of olive trees, trunks thick, he said, as ugly girls, and gnarled as the hands of old swordsmen, but there was nothing much else in the interior.
It was the coasts that were different; the whole island was circled with places where the land dipped gently to meet the water. It was here that the few others who weren't native to Kyros clustered, though neither Richard nor Alec felt much inclined to seek the company of these fellow travelers. Some of the beaches were soft beneath Richard's feet, blanketed with fine sand, and others were rock-lined, either slippery or sharp. But the water was always cool and the wind strong, and the fish for sale was different from what they'd eaten in Riverside. Alec spent long stretches of time trying to describe the color of the sea for Richard, never quite managing it to his satisfaction. They spent most of their time here, comparing the water at one town to the next, and Alec's skin tasted like salt, his hair dried in thick ropes that fell against Richard's face and chest at night.
The inns were always similar, though: small and often short, with thick walls of clay brick and small windows. Alec protested the resulting aesthetics, but the rooms were cool and dim during the day. Most inns had small courtyards, and grew pomegranate trees, or lemons, or grapevines trained across a trellis to keep the area below in shadow. It was the month for these fruits, and their juices often appeared at the meals these inns served, mixed with water or spirits. Alec had brought enough coin from his resigned dukedom that the inns were always happy to see them, though Richard wondered how long that, too, would last.
Evenings were long on Kyros; there seemed to be hours of red sunset and purple twilight, full of the calls of swallows and other birds. Alec and Richard had picked up the local habit of not eating until after dark, and staying awake long into the night; it was more pleasant then, and the blazing afternoons were better slept through. Richard still wore his sword, from habit mostly, and for the feel of it, and perhaps it was that which started the fight. Perhaps, though, it was like many others, and Alec had done something Richard hadn't seen, or said something, though he seemed less needy for violence since Richard had last sat in ale-rooms with him.
It was one of those long evenings, and Richard had been thinking mostly of the smells of dinner cooking, and whether they would move on again tomorrow, and a song he had heard that morning, which he couldn't quite remember the words of. It almost surprised him, how quickly the argument started from the lazy talk, and how quickly it became obvious that a fight was inevitable. Alec was tense, enough so that Richard could feel it even without touching him. "Why," he said, his voice calm and drawling, "would either of us be interested in fighting you?"
But Richard nodded acceptance of the challenge, and put his hand over Alec's as he rose; Alec's fingers beneath his were cold, too stiff to shake. The man laughed, his voice low. He spoke neither Richard's language nor that of Kyros fluently, but a mix of both with yet another, and all of his words heavily accented. So many travelers at these seaside inns, Richard thought. And all of them eager for a fight; a crowd gathered hurriedly and cleared tables and chairs to make enough room for the combatants. He listened carefully to that clatter and scrape. The space they cleared wasn't large, and he would have to remember the boundaries during the fight. He wouldn't want to lose for the sake of tripping over a chair leg.
The man growled insults, making it easier to follow him as he circled the edges of the cleared space. He was a bit shorter than Richard, and his voice was deep enough to suggest a wide chest. Richard didn't bother to answer his calls, instead picturing the man. They paced for a minute without violence, the audience loud with talk and laughter. Their swords finally connected, heavily and with a crash, and Richard's scraped against his opponent's in an unexpected way; the sword was shorter but wider than the style he had fought most often. It wouldn't make things difficult, though. This man's fighting was showy and predictable, not venturing out of the simplest patterns. Even Katherine, on the first day he had fought her, had been a better swordsman, if only because she hadn't yet learned bad habits.
It was easy. Far easier, really, than he would have bothered with years ago, but it was harder to predict those sorts of things without seeing his opponents. He thought of drawing it out, for the sake of the crowd or for the rumors too quick a victory would cause, but it didn't seem worthwhile. He made that choice and then it was quick; another parry, and then a feint, and then the point of his sword met a resistance that gave way, that slid slick and down as the weight of the man's body collapsed onto Richard's blade. He slid further down, then off, and hit the floor with a liquid thump.
The inn was busy then, as others came in to hear the story told again and again, and those who had been lucky enough to witness it bought wine for Richard and tried to slap his back. Alec was restless, and Richard had never enjoyed this sort of praise, and so they left soon after.
Their room was full of the scent of the salt water below, bracing after the stuffy common room. "You had your eyes closed," Alec said. He shut the door behind him, and stayed there.
Richard unhooked his belt, drawing out his sword and wiping it off with an old cloth. "Less distractions. Still, I should remember to keep them open. It bothers my opponents when I don't, and when they're uncomfortable, it's harder to predict what they might do. I don't-"
Alec laughed, wildly. He caught Richard by the arm and pulled the sword from his hand, letting it drop, then drew his hand up to touch his chin, his cheek, the corner of his eye. Richard kissed him, and Alec still laughed, tasting of that dry wine. "I feel real now," Alec said, breathlessly.
"Do you?" Richard asked, genuinely curious. "Does it always take blood for you?"
His own hand was on Alec's face, and Richard felt the sharp curve of his grin, but Alec didn't answer him that night.