He barely beat Leander and Wilanu home. Finding fresh venison steak had proven harder than he had expected; he had to stop at four different butcher shops, make sure they followed jhatka practices, and then had to settle for the very last steak the last shop had on-hand. Then the Miwok butcher had delayed him with a rambling complaint about jhatka, shechita, and why couldn’t everyone just slaughter their animals the same way, they end up just as dead so what does it matter?
Eager to get home to his husbands, Kiran bit his tongue, nodded, and bolted for the door.
Grumbling under his breath now — and contemplating a lesson plan on dietary laws and cross-cultural concepts of compassion — he parked in front of the three-unit building and climbed the stairs to the top floor. He offered a quick thanks at the shrine to Hestia in the entryway, and dumped the meat in the cooler. Hearing the rattle of the front door, he called out “In the kitchen! I could only find one steak! Will that work?” He grabbed three glasses from the cupboard and a small clay jar of red wine and stepped back out into the living area. “There was a run — ooohhh.”
He was dressed in his exercise clothes: loose knit black pants and loose black short-sleeved shirt with a red gorgoneion emblazoned on the chest. His hair was a sticky, tangled mess and his skin had a weird reddish-sticky texture.
“Uh, do I want to ask what happened?”
Leander patted their husband’s shoulder. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to tell you all about it in the shower. I am going to change and get dinner started.” He chortled as he trotted down the short hall, seemingly oblivious to Wilanu’s wine-souring glare.
Kiran set the jug and glasses on the low central table in the middle of the living area and walked over to wrap his arms around Wilanu’s waist. He smiled up at his husband.
The corner of Wilanu’s mouth twitched. He rolled his eyes. And finally the sour expression evaporated.
“Missed you today,” Kiran whispered.
“Mm.” Wilanu ran a hand through Kiran’s hair, tugging gently when his fingers caught in the dark loose curls. “Missed you, too. Though the lunchtime kiss was nice.”
“Hey, yeah, that was pretty nice, wasn’t it? Can I have another one?”
Wilanu tipped Kiran’s head back. One kiss followed another and then another. Kiran barely noticed when Wilanu pushed him into the bathroom and kicked the door shut.
They emerged much later, but only after Leander shoved the door open and threatened to toss out the very nice dinner he had just made.
After pulling Kiran in for one last kiss, Wilanu toweled himself dry and threw on a comfortable pair of knit pants. The scents that drifted down the hallway had him drooling before he even saw the food. Barefoot and shirtless, feeling blessedly clean again (and satisfied), he dropped onto a pillow around the central table and made an appreciative growling sound.
Leander set the pitcher of salted mint lassi on the table. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively and flopped onto the pillow across from Wilanu. They both waited politely as Kiran performed pūjā at the shrine of Sarasvati and Ganesh, lighting an incense stick, whispering prayers, then sprinkling a few drops of wine on the statues of Athena and Hestia.
When he was done, Kiran set the wine jug back on the table and knelt on the remaining pillow. He inhaled deeply. “That smells delicious.”
“Venison stew with onions and garlic. Spinach salad with roasted walnuts, goat cheese, and raspberries. The last of the red wine — ”
Wilanu frowned, remembering the sound and feel of a dozen clay jars breaking beneath his body and all around him.
“ — and salted mint lassi for dessert.”
They dove in, munching and humming happily. Only when they set aside their plates and bowls and Leander poured them all glasses of lassi did Wilanu finally relate his catastrophic encounter with the merchant’s outdoor stall. Said merchant — bent with age and near-sighted — had shrieked in outrage at the destruction of his wine, honey, and oil jars and started swatting at Wilanu with his cane. When Wilanu had picked himself up and continued his pursuit of Green, the elderly citizen had followed, attracting a parade of other merchants, tourists, priests, and a couple of dogs. Fortunately, Green had a hair stick in his thigh by then and had only made it another block before Wilanu was able to tackle and cuff him.
Watching his husbands laugh, Wilanu realized that, just perhaps, it was funny after all.
Chuckling, he drained his cup and leaned an elbow on the low table. “So, what about you?” he asked Kiran. “How was the rest of your day?”
“Normal. Well, mostly.” He frowned. “Eurus Economides picked up his daughter. She seemed happy enough to see him.”
Leander squinted into the dregs of the lassi jug, clearly hoping there was more. “Not frightened?”
“No.” Kiran hesitated. He handed his glass over to Leander, surrendering the last of his lassi. “There was something odd about Folia, though.”
“Economides’ servant. Driver, I guess. She gave me this very strange look … almost as if she was angry or … suspicious.” He shrugged.
Wilanu pulled his hair over his shoulder, absent-mindedly braiding and then unbraiding it. “Have you met before? Has she accompanied Economides before?”
“No, not that I recall.” He shrugged again and sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I completely misunderstood Calliope this morning. Maybe it was just a nightmare or she misunderstood something her father said.” He heaved himself to his feet and grabbed a stack of plates. He bent to kiss Leander. “My turn to do the dishes. Dinner was delicious.”
“I’ll help.” Wilanu grabbed a handful of glasses and utensils and followed Kiran into the kitchen. “Your parents still expecting us for Eleutheria?”
“Yep. I should call, though, just in case. You’re both still off tomorrow, right?” Kiran laid the plates down in the sink and turned on the water. He pulled a handful of dissolvable soap beads out of the cupboard and, within moments, the basin was full of bubbles.
“Yeah. They want us fresh and well-rested for Eleutheria.” He slid the dirty cups, knives, and spoons into the foamy water. “Of course, I’ll probably be sent on errands all over the city to pick up last minute cooking supplies.”
Leander’s voice echoed in from the living area. “I heard that. And it won’t be all over the city. Only four or five places.”
One more trip to pick up the wine and lassi jugs, and the table was clear. Leander stretched out on the low couch by the window to nap while Kiran and Wilanu finished the dishes and set them out to dry. Wilanu was certain he could hear Leander muttering recipes in his sleep.
He leaned against the counter, drying the wine jar. “He really should have been a chef.”
Kiran drained the sink, watching the water and bubbles swirl. “He considered it. He apprenticed with Hauksdottir at Dýr.”
“… I didn’t know that.”
“It was before I met him, so, maybe nine years ago. Only lasted a month. Said he felt like he wasn’t doing enough.”
Wilanu grunted and set the jar in the rack, silently wondering if he was doing enough.
“Kiran, you’re not calling to cancel, are you?”
He could hear the disappointed frown in his mother’s voice. He shifted the phone, squeezing it between his ear and shoulder as he dug through the dresser for a clean pair of pants. He laid them out neatly beside the rest of his clothes, ready for him to hop into first thing in the morning. “No, Mother. Just calling to make sure your plans haven’t changed.”
Her voice brightened immediately. He winced as she yelled. “You see, Yashpal, I told you they were still coming!” A muttered response from his father that he couldn’t make out and then his mother was saying, “We’ll be at the temple of Sarasvati at dawn. The icon procession should pass by around noon, so that should be plenty of time to weave the flower wreaths.”
“Uh, right, I won’t be there that early. I’ll stop by the house and drop off the food, and then head over to the temple.”
“And Wilanu and Leander?”
“They won’t get off until well after dark. They’ll join us when they can, and we’ll stay the night. … Listen, Mother ….” He glanced at the bedroom door. He could hear his husbands in the living area, laughing softly about something.
“You’ve known Eurus Economides for how long?”
“Economides?” She paused, a confused uptick at the end of the word. “Oh, we’ve worked on projects off-and-on for about fifteen years, I think. Not just the new business center, you know, but also portions of the Bouleterion and the mass-trans Alpha Station and, oh, lots of other things. Your father taught some business ethics classes for his executives at some retreat or another — isn’t that right, Yashpal?”
Another unintelligible response from his father.
“Why do you ask?”
“He never expressed any odd views, did he? Like, he was planning to hurt people? Maybe a business rival?”
“What? No. … Kiran, you’re beginning to worry me. What is this all about?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll see you for Eleutheria. Love you both. Bye.”
The next morning, Wilanu dropped Kiran off at the Academy. Pulling him in for a deep kiss, Wilanu whispered “Call me if you need anything” and then drove off, the cruiser’s windows glinting in the early light.
Within minutes, the first students began to arrive. Bag over his shoulder, Kiran and his fellow teachers patrolled the courtyard and parking lot as the students were dropped off, exiting cars and school vehicles in a rush of voices and laughter.
Kiran waved to Arvind, who was leaning against one of the Academy’s long cars, a fat copy of Sappho’s collected poems in his hand. A moment later, Kiran caught sight of Calliope as she stepped out of her father’s luxury vehicle. No sign of Economides and he couldn’t get a good look at the driver.
Calliope’s head was down, and it stayed down for most of the class period.
When they took a break for a midmorning snack, he gently led her to a pair of pillows next to the windows. The Nestor Academy was high enough in the hills to offer a partial view of the Long Bridge and the bay to the north; and, off to the west, the dark blue-grey ocean. The bay was already beginning to fill with colorful wooden ships, some flying the flags of Roma Aeterna, others the banners of Magna Athenaia.
By the time they reached the windows, tears were sliding down her cheeks. She started babbling before he could ask her a single question. “I don’t like them. I don’t! I don’t like them! They took my picture! They’re mean!” She hiccuped, panting.
Kiran folded his hands over both of hers, leaning closer. He kept his voice low and gentle. “Who is mean?”
“Folia! And — and — I don’t know!” she wailed and crawled into his lap. “They had a fight! They were yelling at Papa!”
“Citizen Lal …?”
Kiran looked up at Achillea’s tentative question. She hovered a few feet away, hands braced on her knees, a concerned expression wrinkling her forehead. The other children were watching them, with Alexa’s face beginning to crumple in a sympathetic cry.
“Could you see to Alexa? And then bring us some water and a cup of fruit and nuts?”
Murmuring a “yes, of course,” Achillea trotted away.
Kiran dropped his head so he could whisper, low enough that the other students could not hear, but close enough that Calliope could understand him through her sobs. “Folia and your Papa had a fight?”
Calliope nodded, snot dribbling from her nose. “Huh-hunh. And — and she took my picture!”
More nodding and crying.
“With her tablet?”
Calliope pushed away from his chest. She scrubbed at her nose with her sleeve and glared at him like he was being stupid. “No! My picture! My picture that I painted yesterday! She took it!”
Late that afternoon, Wilanu pulled slowly into the Nestor Academy parking lot. The vehicle still smelled faintly of rotten mattress, but more so of the fruit, bread, olives, and honey that filled the backseat. The combination made his nose twitch.
A very long line of private and school vehicles preceded him. For a moment, he considered taking the reserved emergency vehicle slot, then decided against it. When a car three rows back finally pulled away, Wilanu dove into it, snagging the spot before anyone else could claim it. Scrambling out of the cruiser, he dodged other cars, clumps of students, and harried parents to make his way towards the front archway.
A fancy car stood idling near the entrance. A woman in a stark grey suit and hat stood beside the back door, her hands behind her.
Narrow nose. Pointy chin. Grey-blue eyes and thick black hair pulled up into a tight knot. Back straight, legs at shoulder width, head moving back and forth as she watched the chaos of students happy to have a day off from school.
Steps casual, Wilanu continued towards the entrance and through the wide archway. Children dodged around him. He side-stepped a shrieking little girl waving a paper ship, sliding on his toes to cast a quick glance back towards the parking lot.
The woman was still looking around, her face in profile now.
Familiar. She definitely looked familiar.
He found Kiran in the courtyard, chatting with Achillea. He wrapped his arms around Kiran from behind and kissed his cheek. Kiran half-turned and smiled at him, covering one of Wilanu’s hands with his own.
Achillea pressed a hand to her heart in greeting, then in farewell, and slipped into the crowd.
“How was the shopping?”
“It’s done, although I’m still not sure what a cherimoya is.”
“How was Calliope today?”
His husband immediately sobered. He took Wilanu’s hand, leading him towards his classroom. “Semi-hysterical. Something is definitely going on in Economides’ home.”
Wilanu listened, arms crossed, as Kiran collected his bag and jacket, and related the little girl’s breakdown that morning.
“Folia is the woman outside, in the grey suit?”
Kiran looped his bag over his shoulder and stepped back out into the colonnade, pulling the door closed behind them. “Yes. How did you know?”
Wilanu hesitated. “She looks familiar, but I’m not sure from where.” He scratched his cheek. “I’ll look through the Polinomia’s profile database tonight. If I find anything, I’ll call Egilsdottir.”
Kiran drew a deep breath. “Should I be worried that now you are worried?”
Wilanu just shook his head and took Kiran’s hand.
Exhausted from a day of baking and now pleasantly full from dinner, Leander knelt and wrapped his arms over Wilanu’s shoulders from behind. He rested his chin on his husband’s head. The thick black hair tickled his nose.
“Smuggling?” Leander frowned at the image of Economides on Wilanu’s tablet. A long line of text scrolled passed the picture.
“Hhmm.” Wilanu absently pushed around the crumbs of baklava on his plate, all that remained of his dessert. “Three years ago the Polinomia launched an investigation. They suspected Economides of slipping building materials and other items through the port without paying his customs fee. The investigation was dropped after a few months due to lack of evidence. Egilsdottir was actually part of that team.”
“You’re going to call her.”
Wilanu rolled his shoulders.
Leander dropped his arms, slid the plate out of the way, and sat on the low table beside Wilanu. He could hear Kiran snoring lightly through the wall; no doubt hogging an entire half of the bed and most of the pillows. Leander stretched out his legs, still sore from spending the entire day hopping around the kitchen. He knew to wait.
Wilanu took his time answering. “Economides’ building projects have all been successful, and have served to better the city. He treats his employees well, donates regularly to various charitable organizations and temples, and pays his taxes. An exemplary and loyal citizen of Magna Athenaia.”
“Except maybe for some smuggling.”
“An unproven rumor.”
“His daughter has spent the last two days freaking out.”
“An eight year-old child who could just be having bad dreams.”
“According to Kiran, she witnessed a fight between Economides and his driver.”
“Disagreements between employers and employees are not uncommon.”
Leander crossed his arms and leaned forward slightly, looking Wilanu in the eyes. “You’re still going to call her.”
“Yep. You’ve got that look.”
Wilanu scrunched his nose. “What look?”
“That brave-frustrated-confused-determined look.”
Wilanu blinked. “What?”
“You remember the second day we were out on patrol together? We got called to the bakery on Gamma and the woman there said that this strange man kept coming in?”
“He would come in, look at the pastries, not say anything, and leave again.”
“Right. Absolutely nothing illegal. Not even threatening. But you — ” he poked Wilanu’s shoulder “ — got that look on your face. I told you we had to get back on patrol, but you insisted on waiting. An hour later he shows up again and tries to stab the baker. You remember what you said to me?”
It was Leander’s turn to blink. “No?”
“How can you not remember? It was profound.”
“It was six years ago, and I say a lot of profound things.”
Leander snorted a laugh. “You said ‘Sometimes you have to trust the whisper in your heart.’”
Wilanu’s eyebrows shot up. “That is not profound. That is idiotic.”
“Well, it was profound at the time, and you say a lot of idiotic things, too.” Leander picked up Wilanu’s phone from beside the tablet. “I know you. You never feel like you’re doing enough, even though you are the hardest-working, most dedicated member of the Polinomia that I have ever met.” He held out the phone. “Call Egilsdottir. Even if it comes to nothing, at least you’ll be able to sleep better.” He kissed Wilanu. “Then come to bed.”
His husband nodded wearily. Leander kissed him again and headed into the bedroom.
Kiran was, indeed, hogging more than his fair share of the bed. And nearly all of the pillows.
Smiling affectionately, Leander stripped and climbed under the sheets, carefully shifting some of the pillows out of the way. Kiran mumbled, rolled onto his side, and dropped an arm across Leander’s waist. Leander slid him closer, listening to the low murmur of Wilanu’s voice through the wall.
It was nearly an hour before Wilanu finally came to bed. Leander blinked awake, pushing the blankets aside. The bed dipped beneath Wilanu’s weight and then he was cuddling against Leander.
“The Chiliarchos going to look into it?” Leander asked, voice low.
“She’s going to ask some discreet questions, but, since virtually the entire city will be shut down tomorrow, she may not get very far.”
Kiran snorted and mumbled.
“Better.” Wilanu rolled onto his side and traced a finger across Leander’s jaw. “Thank you for knowing me so well — and for remembering my profound advice.”
Leander chuckled and pulled Wilanu in for a kiss.
Early the next morning, Leander and Wilanu helped Kiran fill his car with food. Kiran could only gape at the plates and bowls and platters filled with lamb curry, jasmine rice, roti, khaman with green chilies, goat stew, oat bread, roast duck with juniper berries, melomakarono, and yogurt with honey and walnuts.
His stomach rumbled. He slammed the door closed and turned to his husbands. “You’ll call me, right? If Egilsdottir finds anything?”
“Assuming she calls us, yes,” Leander assured him, and pulled him in for a hug. “Drive safe.”
Kiran caught Wilanu’s hand and pulled him into the hug, as well. “I will. You two, stay safe. Call me when you get off duty.”
Wilanu kissed him. “We will.”
With a last wave, they climbed into the cruiser and set out on patrol. Returning the wave, Kiran tossed his jacket into the passenger seat, slid into his car, and attached his tablet to the dashboard. It flickered. Traffic would be bad today, but he was heading south; most people were headed north, hoping for a good view of the mock battle near the mouth of the Great Bay and the Long Bridge, or for a good spot along the processional route. It was slow, at first, but by the time he reached the long winding road that wrapped around the Twins’ Peaks, traffic had eased considerably and he was making good time. Through the trees and buildings, he caught glimpses of hot air balloons floating lazily high above the bay and puffs of smoke from the fake cannons.
He looped his way around to the back side of the Eastern Twin, wondering how far Leander and Wilanu had made it along their patrol, wondering if Chiliarchos Egilsdottir had made any progress in her inves —
“Collision alert!” the tablet barked.
Kiran flinched as the car suddenly lurched forward. Plates dinged and bounced off one another. He heard the stew slosh over the edge of the bowl. The vehicle swerved and he hastily righted the wheel, pulling back into his own lane.
“What — ?”
He frowned in confusion at the tablet. The split screen showed a map of the traffic and a rear view of the car behind him, its front end noticeably dinged.
Growling under his breath, Kiran carefully steered the car to the side of the road. There was a narrow dirt patch, not quite wide enough for a vehicle. The other car followed, the driver pulling in immediately behind him. He had to wait for two cars to pass before he could get out.
Sliding his hand along the outside of the car, Kiran bent to examine the damage. He grimaced. The bumper was caved in on the left hand side and the light was smashed.
He heard one of the doors on the other car open.
“It’s not too bad,” he called out.
He looked up.
Folia. Folia sat in the driver’s seat.
She smiled at him.
For a moment, he stopped breathing. His body went cold.
He turned to run, to get in his car, to drive, to call for help, but the world went dark.
[End Part Two. Continue to Part Three.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]