The girl leaned forward and giggled, biting at Sky’s ear. The feel of her breath on his skin made his face go hot again. He closed his eyes and put his hands on her arms. She kissed him on the neck and he felt her tongue moisten the skin beneath. He pressed her away gently. “I really shouldn’t, Peter, I should go…”
“Please!” Peter laughed and motioned to the girl who gently pried the coin from Sky’s fingers. “Lana, I’ve a date with Lena, so why don’t you make Sky… welcome?” Then he was gone, swallowed by the crowd of women and flickering candlelight. The girl, Lana, smiled at him and slid close again. She took his hand and led him into one of the secluded outcoves. Sky There, Lana gently guided him down onto a padded bench and straddled him, looping her arms behind his neck. “How old are you?” she whispered.
“Fi-fifteen… fa-falls,” he managed. “Give or take a season, maybe two?”
She leaned close and whispered. “At fifteen, some boys are made men mm?”
Made a man, Sky thought. I would be made a man. He blushed and grinned, chewing on his lip.
“Mmm,” Lana said, swaying her hips against his. “Young, but I like them young. I’m young too, guess how old I am?”
Sky didn’t know and guessing felt beyond him. He blinked and sputtered and put his hands on her hips, intending to gently nudge her away. She took his hands and placed them on her backside instead. “Six and ten springs,” she said and nipped at his nose, then kissed his cheek. “I’m no maiden but I can pretend if you like?”
“N-no,” Sky said and closed his eyes. His heart was beating so hard in his chest that she must hear it, that everyone must have heard it. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! His secret could not be kept from a whore. “Do not lie with anyone,” Sir Henric had warned him. “Less you be found out and then what will I do?”
“I can’t,” he said and pushed at her, but her legs were strong and she squeezed tightly, holding him there. “Yes you can,” she said and pushed his head back. He felt her tongue slide from his shoulder to his lips. The world was far away and getting further. She kissed him, and he did not resist.
She reached between them so suddenly that he could not stop her. Her hand squeezed between his legs, paused and then groped. She was searching and he knew he had to go. Sky pushed at her arms, trying to move her hand away, to stop her. She broke the kiss, her brow furrowed, eyes narrow. “The hell?” she said, a look of confusion in her eyes. He took her lapse in control to push her off of him and slide of the chair. She stepped back, blinking at him, and Sky moved into the crowd before she could say a word.
Peter was no where to be seen within the throng of patrons and girls attending them. It was a simple thing to wind his way into a corner and hide. He could have gone to the door but that meant going near Lana again.
He was about to turn and try and find a back door out when he stopped. He saw her, and she was grabbing at Peter’s tunic, trying get his attention. Sky’s heart pounded in his chest, but he stood, frozen. Peter wasn’t talking to the girl but a man, a large man with a scarred cheek and a nose that must have been broken half a dozen times. The man spit. Peter turned and Lana spoke in his ear. His face had a curious expression on it. Lana said something again, her face red in the candle light, but Peter only looked puzzled before his eyes caught Sky’s.
When Sky turned away, Peter was there in a moment, catching his arm. Sky wrenched it free and backed away. Peter hung back, as if unsure. His face still wore that curious expression. He seemed to be looking at him, appraising him.
“I think… I think I’m done here,” Sky said and turned, making for the door. “Sir should be back and he’ll give me a beating.”
He was halfway to the inn before Peter caught up with him. The warmth of the brothel and heat of the evening, combined Sky’s hasty retreat had made Peter hurry after him. When he caught up, he was sweating and his dark hair was tousled. The smell of him made Sky’s skin prickle. They said nothing at all until Peter sighed.
“Sky I didn’t mean… I mean, I thought that…”
“Shut up, just… shut up!”
They said nothing more until the inn was there and they were sneaking around the stable to the rear stairwell. Both of their knight’s horses were gone from their stalls yet, so Sky hoped he would never know his squire had been gone all evening.
“Sky,” Peter called. “Sky, talk to me.” Sky had rounded barn and was coming up on the stairs to their rooms. Peter was at his heels and grabbed at his shirt sleeve. Sky turned and shoved him.
“Leave me alone,” he said, wishing his voice had more heat than it did. To his ears it just sounded weak and unsure. Peter must have taken it the same way and didn’t let go.
Peter took a step up the stairs when Sky heard the horses. Peter frowned and looked over his shoulder with a curse. Sir Henric was riding up on Nightsong and even in the fading light Sky could see the man’s fury. When he caught sight of them, the knight cursed. The old man never curses.
Corgan rode up then, singing about a sun-kissed maiden on her wedding night. Peter sighed and came around to take his horse. Sky, knowing he’d been seen already, slumped his shoulders and went to Nightsong, taking the big black’s reigns. Sir Henric pulled his gloves from his hands and thrust his sword and scabbard at Sky. When he took them, Sir Henric belted him so hard in the ear that Sky staggered.
“Sir!” Peter shouted but Sir Corgan silenced him with a slap of his own, then laughed.
“Your knight would have had all of the men of Shield Port looking for you boy, but all the others were busy!” The fat knight stroked a thick mustache and laughed again. “He’s in quite the temper. I can contest to that. Rode his horse like a man possessed.”
“We were just at the brothel, Sirs, ain’t mean nothing by it.” This time Peter was silenced by a withering look from Sir Henric, which he then turned on Sky. He indicated the sword.
“Take this to the room and clean it, and we’ll talk of this.”
Sir Corgan laughed. “You needn’t be such a poor sort eh? Don’t take it out on the boy, he is just a boy and boys will chase wenches.” At the words, the older knight stiffened and turned. Nightsong danced slightly and Sky had to grip the reigns tightly to keep him from rearing. He was favoring his left foreleg and when Sky looked, he saw the shoe had been thrown and the hoof was bloody.
“Chase wenches?” Sir Henric roared. “My squires do not chase baseborn sluts.” He looked down at Sky, all anger burning in that gaze. “Is it true, were you at a whore house?”
Sky could not answer, his throat felt tight and he shook. The fear from that gaze took him and he felt tears welling in his eyes. Never cry, men never cry. The mantra did nothing and he shut his eyes instead, and nodded. He waited for the slap that did not come. After a moment, he opened his eyes and Sir Henric had dismounted. The knight didn’t look at him at all.
Sir Corgan looked amused. There was something else too, a glassiness of his eye. The man is drunk, Sky realized. Peter must have noticed too and dropped two coins into Sir Corgan’s saddle bags. Sky thought it an odd thing, and Peter didn’t seem to notice that he’d seen. Sky shook his head and looked for Sir Henric, meaning to ask if he wanted the horse re-shod.
Sir Henric shouldered open the door to the common room and heaving himself up onto the steps, his gate seemingly weary. The remaining knight slid from his horse and ruffled Sky’s hair. “So you’re Henry’s boy eh? Skinny thing. Got any muscle on you beneath all that wool?”
“Yes,” Sky said, gripping the sword his knight had handed to him tightly. “I can fight too. Sir Henric taught me good.”
“Taught me well,” Sir Corgan corrected and smiled. “That’s how you say it boy. He taught me well. Say it to me now, again.”
Heat burned on Sky’s cheeks and his knuckles turned white from his grip on Sir Henric’s weapon. “He… taught me… well, sir.”
“Good lad. Come see me tomorrow morning. I’ll have you spar with Peter here. What do you say, mm? Say an hour after sunrise?”
“Absolutely not!” Sir Henric shouted from the door, turning and slamming it behind him. He stalked to Sir Corgan and pointed at Sky. “The boy is two years your boy’s lesser and half-trained. Useless in a fight.”
The anger in him made Sky react too quickly. His tongue was saying he’d do it before his brain could tell him to stop. He was embarressed and eager to prove he was not useless. Peter opened his mouth but Sir Corgan grinned.
“Settled then! On the morrow, we shall have glorious combat!”
“I said, no, Sir.”
“Your boy doesn’t seem afraid. Are you afraid, boy?”
Sky had seen his knight angry, but this fury was beyond it. His mailed fist clenched and his beard quivered. He thought he could hear Sir Henric’s teeth creaking.
“For that insult I should fight you. But if my boy wants a good beating and Peter will oblige him, so be it.”
And then, he was gone and Sir Corgan too, though he left with a belly of laughter. Sky wrapped Nightsong’s hoof and put him into his stall. Peter did the same for Sir Corgan’s charger, though he didn’t need to wrap any hooves. Sky was still rubbing down the destrier when Peter came to lean against the stall’s post. “You don’t have to do it, you know.”
“I’ll do it,” Sky said, too quick to be a simple decision. He flushed. “I’m not afraid.”
“Destroyer take Sir Corgan,” Peter said and put a hand on Sky’s shoulder. “I wasn’t saying you’re afraid. It’s just… Corgan’s a drunk and all he sees is his ‘glorious battle.’ He hasn’t fought in one actual battle, just tournaments.”
“Really?” Sky turned and frowned. “Why do you squire with him?”
“Same as you I bet, no real choice. I was given to him by Lady Inara.” Peter pulled back his coat and tunic and showed a white scar that ran from his neck to past his collar bone. “My father… he was killed and I got this. Lady Inara said I could still be of some use, and gave me to him. It could have been worse I suppose. Some boys never get picked to squire at all and spend the rest of their lives as paiges.”
It had all come out in a rush. Peter’s face had gone red, his eyes looking through Sky. He felt the sudden urge to comfort him but… that would give it all away. So instead, all he said was, “I’m sorry.”
Peter shrugged and looked about to spit but stopped himself. “Sir Corgan’s a pompous ass. I can outfight him with any weapon. Tomorrow?” The older boy suddenly frowned. “Back out, there’s… no honor in this.”
“I said I’m not afraid.” Sky turned his back on him then and closed his eyes. Make you a man. Lana’s words still clung to his mind and the feel of her fingers between his legs came rushing back. The tears came unbidden then, followed by silent sobs. The memories came too, of Sarina Gray and Kehli Stonefort sitting on their little stools. “Let’s play a kissing game!” Sarina had said. “Let Skyah be the boy, she is always wanting to be one!”
She hadn’t felt Peter come to her, but when his hands touched her shoulders, she flinched and turned, flailing to get him off. He said nothing but drew her close then, his arms strong and warm and full of tenderness. His breath was on her cheek and she stopped flailing.
“I know…” Peter said, his voice a croaking whisper that faltered and broke. She shook in his arms, the last of her mask falling away like snow shaken from bare tree limbs. She became all too aware of the curve of her hips, of his arms squeezing close to breasts that were wrapped in tight cloth. He knows. She closed her eyes.
“I don’t know what… I’m not…”
“Shh,” Peter hushed her, and she felt a hand squeezing her shoulder. “You don’t have to deny it. I know you’re a girl. I know.”
“How did you know?” she asked, unable to move, or push or escape. In Peter’s arms she felt suddenly safer than she ever had and didn’t know why. It scared her. “I never told no one.”
“Lana said you had nothing between… well nothing…” he faltered and Skyah felt her cheeks burn. “And then I looked.. and… I saw. I saw you.”
“I should have never gone, I’m so stupid!”
“No!” Peter’s voice was soft and when she opened her eyes, he had leaned back to smile at her. “Not stupid, brave! So very brave. Braver than… than any woman I’ve ever met. Why do you hide it? Why do you pretend to be a boy?”
“I forgot how not to,” she said and leaned against his shoulder. He held her and ran a hand through her short brown hair. He took the strands of it and combed through the thickest parts. It felt so good that Skyah forgot to cry.
“You’re beautiful,” Peter whispered. “And brave.” She felt his lips touch her cheek and she winced. Kehli had kissed her first. Skyah had been smaller than both of them, only twelve, and Kehli had been twice the weight. They had pinned her down, and Sarina had pinched her nose until she stopped screaming. The kiss had been rough and painful, Kehli biting her lip until it bled. When she’d cried out, Sarina had put the pointed toe of her shoe between her legs and pushed.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said and stepped back. “I should not have done that.”
She didn’t realize she was crying. Without him to hold her, she slid to her knees and gripped at her shirt. She drew it tighter around her, wanting to cover herself even though she hadn’t even unlaced her shirt. The sobbing grew suddenly so violent she couldn’t breath. The tears blinded her. He put a hand on her shoulder and she twisted away. “Go!” she shouted.
“Go! Get away from me!”
She didn’t see him go, but she heard the doors to the stable shut. She shifted back into the stable and nestled into the hay. Nightsong nuzzled at her but she turned her face into the stall’s wall and cried.
In time, she slept.