It was a quiet meal the three travelers shared with their host that evening, as the sun sank below the grassy hills. A fresh pot of stew bubbled over the fireplace, filling the cottage with spicy, meaty scents. Kulgan tentatively lifted a spoonful from his bowl, his eyes trained on his wife who sat on the other side of the room. Would she poison him? That was a stupid question. Of course she would poison him. The real question was, had he pushed her to that point already?
She was sipping her own soup, eyes locked with his, and didn't seem to be keeling over. That didn't mean much, but... well, he was still her husband. She might give him something to paralyze him or put him to sleep, but he doubted she would kill him. Yet. So, hesitantly, he took a bite.
It was good. Better than the one she'd made earlier. Not that the first one had been bad —Kio had always been a good cook—but this one tasted like she'd put more effort into it. Maybe she'd gone out of her way to make a proper dinner, hoping that it would convince Kulgan to stay with her.
Or maybe, he thought, turning to look at the simmk who was sitting by himself in the corner, hunched over so nobody could see him when he peeled his mask back to eat, she decided to enlist a little help.
The thought almost made him chuckle. How had Adlis reacted to that, he wondered?
The zik maiden sat by herself as well, though she ate with a lot more gusto than Kulgan did. Not that he blamed her. She'd survived the last few days on nothing but trail rations. That didn't excuse how recklessly she crammed her mouth with food, though. Especially food prepared by somebody else. Well, if Kio had put anything in the stew, Adlis would feel its effects before he did. With that in mind, he began to eat with more confidence.
The warmth felt good in his stomach after the day he'd had. A son... he was a father, even if his offspring was six feet under the ground. That was exactly why he hadn't wanted to come here. All these emotions, all these painful memories, and Kio had only added to them. He blamed himself. He'd been distracted coming out of the mineshaft. If he'd had his wits about him, he would have recognized that pit trap instantly. They could have avoided it, and his wife, and been about their way. But no, he'd let his guard down, and now here they were, in Kio's house, eating her food, and about to spend the night. Even as he ducked his head and ate, he could feel her eyes crawling all over him.
And the silence crept on.
We both know what you're thinking, he thought irritably, refusing to look at her. Just ask already!
She didn't, though. Instead, she got up, went to her pantry, and produced a pitcher.
“Want anything to drink?” she asked, holding it out to him.
A strong, sour smell came from the pitcher. Home brewed beer.
“You made this yourself?” he asked, looking down at its murky brown contents.
She gave him a wry look. “I've had a lot of time on my hands.”
Adlis wrinkled her nose at the scent, but it made Kulgan's mouth water even more than the soup had. He hadn't had a drink since he'd left Everdry, and seeing Kio slosh the beer around inside the pitcher was enough to make his throat feel parched. A quick glance at Adlis told him he couldn't count on her for a taste test this time. He knew he ought to refuse. It was only common sense. Instead, with a sigh, he nodded, cursing his pathetic willpower as she poured him a mug.
He pretended to take a drink while Kio poured a mug for herself. When she'd taken a good, long swig herself, he finally gave in and let the frothy, bitter liquid wash down his throat. The alcohol's warmth was even more welcome in his belly than the stew's. He felt himself start to loosen up a little —just a little—as it did its work on him. When he slammed the empty mug down onto the table, he noticed Kio looking at him expectantly.
A chill ran down his spine. So she did something to it after all, lying little—
“Do you actually think I'm going to poison my own husband?” she snapped.
Kulgan froze. “What? No, I—"
She shook her head. “It's written all over your face. For such a good liar, sometimes you're easier to read than a book.”
Kulgan didn't say anything, and let his gaze drop back down to the bowl in his lap.
“I suppose you three'll be setting off again in the morning?”
Kulgan nodded. “Gotta get Adlis back to Arborough. I'll take them through Yahmen. Maybe then we can hop on a coach to take us the rest of the way.”
Kio thought for a second. “Yahmen, huh? You know, it'd be faster to go through Embraus.”
“Yeah, but I'm not feeling particularly suicidal.”
“Could've fooled me earlier.”
Kulgan didn't reply. She had him there.
“But I guess you're right,” she finally said. She laughed. “A Twister taking a witch through the holy city. You'd get caught before you were ten feet past the gates.”
“I'm not a witch!” Adlis exclaimed, her ear turning red.
“Doesn't matter,” Kio said. “If the priests see those,” she pointed at the zik maiden's ears, “you're dead.”
Adlis' ears turned from red to gray. “I... I could wear a hat.”
“It's too risky,” Kulgan said, shaking his head. “One glimpse, and it'd all be over. Besides, you don't even have a hat.”
“And I sure as the Pit ain't giving you one,” Kio added.
The zik maiden's ears darkened to blue and she looked away, not saying another word.
“Za's going to need a new coat, though,” Kulgan told his wife. In the corner, the simmk jumped so hard he nearly spilled his stew. “He'll burn to a crisp dressed like that.”
Kio smirked. “You've got a lot of nerve, Kulgan. You come to my house after abandoning me, you eat my food, drink my beer, and then make plans to leave me behind again. And on top of that, you demand that I give your simmk one of my coats?”
A spark of irritation shot up inside him. She wanted him to take the bait, to fight with her. He wouldn't.
“You've got to have one that you never use,” he insisted. “We'll take anything, so long as it keeps the sun off his skin.”
The other Ranger shrugged. “We'll see. So, what time are we leaving?”
Kulgan sighed. There it was. He was impressed—it had taken her longer to bring it up than he'd expected. He pretended not to know what she was talking about, though, and cocked his head.
“We?” he asked.
“Don't play dumb with me,” she snapped. “You know good and well what I mean. I'm coming with you!”
Adlis' head snapped up when she heard this, but she wisely didn't say anything. Kulgan just shook his head.
“No, no you're not,” he said evenly and coolly. “You're staying right here where you'll be safe.”
Safe from me.
He shook his head, chasing those thoughts away. “And if you're lucky—”
“Oh, go to the Pit with that!” Kio yelled, getting to her feet. “If I'm lucky I'll never see you again, right? Just like the last time you abandoned me. Well, not this time. I waited four years for you to come back, and I ain't letting you leave me behind again!”
Kulgan stood up too. “And I'm not dragging my wife along on some crazy escort mission that's probably going to end up getting me killed!”
“Dragging me along?” Kio put her hands on her hips. “Is that what this is about now? I'm a Ranger just like you, Kulgan. I'm the last person you have to worry about dragging!”
He clenched his fist. “You're not coming,” he said again.
“Why do you want to come?”
Kio threw her hands in the air. “You really have to ask me that? You're my d'yargo husband, Kulgan! Of course I want to come!”
Kulgan took a deep breath, clenched his eyes shut, and let it out again. When he opened his eyes, his expression softened.
“All right,” he whispered. “Fine.”
Kio blinked, looking as surprised as if he'd just slapped.
“What?” she asked.
Kulgan sat back down, scowling, and retrieved his bowl. “You're just going to follow us again, and this time you won't have a child to keep you here. So fine, you can come.”
His hand shook a little as he looked down into his stew, and he couldn't stop it. What was he getting himself into? What was he getting her into? She acted like he must hate her because of what he did. It was the opposite, though. He did what he did... he left her behind... because he still loved her.
She deserved better than him.
Just like he'd feared, though, when she heard this, Kio's eyes lit up with joy. She dashed across the room, wrapping her husband in a bear hug so tight that she lifted him right out of his chair.
“Yes!” she practically sang.
Kulgan tried to smile, but couldn't, so instead he hugged her back. In her delight, Kio pushed him up against the wall and pressed her lips to his. Guilt tore at him from inside, but he buried it. He hadn't seen his wife for four years. Why not enjoy her just this once?
“I missed you so much,” she whispered when they pulled apart. There were tears glistening in her eyes. “All this time, I thought you really were never coming back. But you're here now. We never have to be apart again!”
Kulgan looked into her eyes. So bright, so full of hope. So beautiful.
“Right,” he managed to croak.
Kio went back to her chair, a fiery new spring in her step, and Kulgan became aware of Adlis and Za's eyes on him. Well, Adlis' eyes, anyway, though that didn't stop Za from staring unblinkingly at him with the big, yellow circles painted on his mask. His face turned scarlet.
That must be how Adlis' ears feel, he thought dumbly. At least my face only turns red.
He cleared his throat. “Well, we've got a lot of ground to cover tomorrow. I say we should all go ahead and hit the sack.”
Adlis nodded wearily, and Za didn't raise an argument. It had been an exhausting day for both of them. Not as exhausting as his, Kulgan thought, but exhausting nonetheless.
“I have some blankets in the closet,” Kio said. “They can sleep on those.”
Kulgan nodded and went to help her get them down. Adlis' blanket went by the fireplace, where there would be some warmth during the night. Za chose to curl up in his corner. Taking a third blanket, Kulgan made for the stretch of floor by the door.
“I'll sleep here,” he said tossing it down. Adlis wasn't the only one looking forward to a good night's sleep. In fact, the idea of getting up early to strike out again made him want to groan. After everything he'd been through today, he felt like he could sleep for a month. Just as he was about to lie down, though, a firm yet soft grip wrapped around his arm, and he looked up to see Kio standing next to him.
“Nuh uh,” she said firmly. “You're not sleeping on the floor.”
Kulgan looked at her, nonplussed. “Then where am I...” he paused, then shook his head. “If anybody's going to sleep in the bed, it should be the lady.”
Adlis sat up again when she heard that, obviously looking forward to sleeping in a real bed for once.
The sly look on Kio's face told a different story, however. “The lady will be sleeping in the bed,” she replied, “and she wants to share it with her husband!”
Kulgan's eyes had just enough time to widen with realization before Kio turned and darted into her bedroom, towing him along behind her. She slammed the door as soon as he was inside, and then wasted no time in throwing her arms around him mashing her lips against his again.
“Kio, wait!” he gasped when they broke apart to take a breath. “You don't—”
“I know exactly what I want,” she cut him off, and then kissed him again. Her body was pressed up against his. “I want you.”
Before he could react, she grabbed his shirt and tore it open, scattering buttons all over the floor, and pulled it off of him. She reached out to caress his muscled chest, but he stepped back.
“Kio, you don't understand!” he exclaimed. His heart was pounding like a drum and a cold sweat had broken out across his body. “We can't!”
“Why not?” she asked with a coy smile as she began to unbutton her own shirt. “We're married, aren't we?”
Kulgan gulped as he watched her shirt open up down the middle, exposing more of her dark skin by the second. He wanted her just as much as she wanted him, but...
“Because of this!” he yelled, forcing himself to close his eyes just as she shrugged the shirt off entirely, letting it fall to the floor. He grabbed the pendant that was still hanging from his chest, and held it out toward her. She stopped moving. “Kio, I'm sorry, but you don't know what you're asking!”
He kept his eyes closed, waiting for her to say something. Any second now, she'd kick him back into the kitchen. There was no way she really wanted to be with him, not now that he'd thrown his shame right in her face.
He listened for her disgusted, scornful words, but instead all he heard was a zzzip followed by the rustle of clothing. His eyes snapped back open, and he saw his wife toss her pants into the corner and stand before him completely bare.
His mouth fell open.
“So you have an ugly rock on your neck.” she said, stalking toward him with an inviting sway of her hips. “So what?”
He ran his eyes up and down her, taking in everything. D'yargo, he'd forgotten how beautiful she was. It had been four years since he'd last seen her like this. Four years since they'd...
“No!” he yelled, backing up again just before she came close enough to touch him. His back hit the wall, and he held the pendant out toward her again. “It's not just a rock, Kio! I- I'm not human anymore because of this thing. I'm a monster!”
She paused, scowling at the small chunk of Vashiila. Then, with one swift motion, she grabbed it, whipped it up and off his neck, and threw it into the corner with her clothes.
Kulgan froze in surprise. Then, his body acting on its own, he lunged for it. Every cell in his body screamed in desperation. He wanted his pendant back. He needed his pendant back! As soon as he moved, though, Kio was in front of him. She wrapped her arms around him, throwing all her weight against him so that he was pushed back into the wall again. He struggled against her for a few seconds, but she was a Gray Ranger just like he was. If she didn’t want him to move, he would have had to hurt her to get away. As much as he wanted the pendant, he didn’t want that. And her body was so warm, her skin so smooth, so soft…
He stopped fighting.
“You're right, Kulgan,” she said in a soft whisper. She let go and stepped back. “You are a monster. But that d'yargo rock doesn't have anything to do with it.”
“But I'm a...”
She stepped up so that their bodies were touching again, her naked torso pressed up against his own. “Being a Twister doesn't mean you're not still human. The problem is in here.” She poked his chest, right above his heart.
Kulgan could feel tears prickling in his eyes again, and he shook his head. “I want that to be true. I want that more than anything. But even if you were right, the church is still going to hunt me down someday.”
“Who cares what the church thinks?” she snapped. “I'm not the church, I'm your d'yargo wife, so stop assuming that I agree with them!”
“Kulgan,” she hugged him again, pulling him so close that he could feel her heartbeat. “I’ll love you no matter how the priests tell me to feel. And I haven't seen you in four years. Please, just... just stop fighting what you want and let yourself be happy. Just this once!”
She looked up at him with her big, beautiful brown eyes. Kulgan's heart began to race again. She still loved him. Even after what he'd become. Even after he'd abandoned her and his unborn son. He closed his eyes, letting a wave of tears spill down his cheeks.
“Kio,” he whispered, “I don't deserve you.”
“But I want you. Even if it's just for tonight, I want you.”
Neither he nor Kio moved for more than a minute. Then he kissed his wife more passionately than he ever had before. Kio tipped over backwards and they fell onto the bed.
After that, everything became a blur for Kulgan. A very happy, pleasurable blur.
NEXT TIME: Hot d’yargo! Atta boy, Kulgan! The poor guy deserves a little R&R, doesn’t he? But Kio and Adlis traveling together? I see several… complications… coming from this.