Alemi drove in the final tent peg, then threw down his mallet. It landed in the sand with a dull, satisfying thump. "That should do it," he said. His brow was streaming, his throat parched. "I'll take some wine now," he said to Elgion, "if it's still cold. If you've left any," he added with a grin.
The young harper, who'd been watching the tent assembly from the shade of a large rock, laughed and tossed Alemi the bottle. He caught it deftly. It still held plenty of wine, which, he soon discovered, was still delightfully cool.
"Sit down," Elgion said. "You look half-roasted."
On a cooler, cloudier day, Alemi might have offered a retort or a jibe; he'd been toiling, after all, for the past half hour and was no doubt bright red, while Elgion's skin was still milky pale and he'd yet to break a sweat. But it was too hot to think of anything clever enough for the harper, so instead, he dropped down beside Elgion, leaned against the rock, and took another long drink from the wine bottle.
"Beautiful day," Elgion remarked for about the fifth time since they'd left the Hold. Alemi nodded, and thought once more that he ought to feel at least a pang of guilt. If his father, Yanus, knew he was ducking his responsibilities like a senseless young boy… But Yanus was abed with a fever. Not a dangerous one, just a…convenient one. A fever just bad enough to convince him – to convince his lady to convince him, rather – to relegate authority to Alemi, who, in turn, relegated it to someone else so that he might spend the day and night with Elgion.
Spend the day and night watching a clutch of fire lizard eggs with Elgion, he amended in his mind. The harper had discovered them two sevendays ago, and told no one but Alemi. The responsible thing, they both knew, would have been to tell someone at Benden Weyr. Though several years had passed since the Weyrleaders' plan to distribute fire lizard eggs among the worthies of Pern had been implemented, they were still in high demand. And yet…
This was such a small clutch. Elgion had counted eight eggs before little queen whose clutch it was had chased him off.
They alleviated their misgivings by promising themselves that if the eggs did not hatch before they broke camp the next morning, they would send word to Benden. A part of Alemi hoped that that would be the outcome; as badly as he wanted a fire lizard, as badly as he knew Elgion wanted one, he was Yanus's son, and Yanus believed firmly in rules and obligations. Moreover, he owed Benden Weyr a great deal. Well, every man on Pern looked to the Weyr for protection from Thread, but was especially beholden. T'gran of Benden had rescued his youngest sister, Menolly, when she'd been caught out during Threadfall. The weyrfolk had sheltered her, cared for her when her own parents had not. And T'gellen of Benden had rescued Elgion, when he'd been caught out during Threadfall. Had the riders of Benden been lax in their own duty – as the Oldtimers were said to be – then…
To banish abhorrent thoughts of what might have been, Alemi took a final drink, before handing the bottle back to Elgion, and looked out to sea. The sun was moving slowly toward the horizon, where a thin line of clouds waited, like a bed. There was a breeze, which flicked foam across the crests of the waves. Occasionally, out of the corner of his eye, Alemi caught a flash of gold, bronze, brown, blue, or green, as the fire lizards dove among the rock pools, searching for the tiny fish that washed up there and became trapped.
Gradually, he became aware of Elgion's voice, close by his ear. The harper was singing very softly. Alemi could not discern the words, but the tune was vaguely familiar, and soothing. He let his eyes drift closed and tilted his head back.
When he opened them again, it was to a sky vast with stars. "I fell asleep," he said in mild surprise.
"So you did," said Elgion. The harper was still seated beside him in the sand, but he'd retrieved a blanket from his carry-sack and thrown it about his own shoulders.
"Must've been the wine," said Alemi.
"And the heat," Elgion said, "and my singing. Are you cold? This is big enough for both of us, I think."
The sweat on his skin and hair had dried and he was cold, and the blanket was big enough. Under it, they sat close together, though they did not touch. If he leaned just a little to his right, Alemi thought, then they would be touching, and he wasn't sure why the thought set his nerves afire.
He'd been with women, though he'd always preferred the company and companionship of men. Lately, he'd been aware of a preference for Elgion's company above all others, but he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on that realization. It was discomfiting. He was the Sea Holder's son, not a green or blue rider, and Elgion was his harper. Traditionally…
Shards, he thought. If we clung to every single tradition, Menolly would not now be at Harper Hall, and I wouldn't be camping on this beach tonight, fulfilling a boyhood dream.
The waves, crashing up the beach, then softly withdrawing, were indistinguishable from the blood roaring in his ears. He tasted salt on his lips, and wine. The stars seemed to move overhead in a circular dance, and Elgion's hand was on his shoulder. His bare shoulder.
Elgion's hand was gentle and cool, the fingertips callused from gitar-strumming. This was wrong, Alemi thought. It was wrong, he was going to be Sea Holder some day, and Elgion would be his harper still, and this was—
When Alemi lifted his own hand, it was to brush Elgion's away, as casually as he could, but that wasn't what happened. Alemi's fingertips touched Elgion's knuckles. Then he was grasping Elgion's hand, lifting it away from his shoulder and bringing it to his lips. Tasting with his tongue the salty palm, then the smooth, cool skin over the pulse at his wrist.
One of them – Alemi would never be sure exactly who – tossed the blanket aside. Then Elgion was on his back in the sand and Alemi was on top of him, both his hands in the harper's curly hair, the breeze rolling over his back. Elgion's eyes were wide and full of stars, and he never said a word as Alemi moved against him, but he laughed deep in his throat, and his laughter was musical. Alemi felt like a boat, surging over crest and trough, rising, falling, tensing, shuddering…
In the instant before he drifted to sleep for a second time, he was aware of three things: Elgion's collarbone beneath his cheek, Elgion's fingers stroking the back of his neck, and a feeling of homecoming.
When they awoke at dawn, the fire lizard eggs were still intact, which meant that Benden Weyr was to have them. Alemi was slightly disappointed. But only slightly, he thought, as his arms wound about Elgion's waist and they stood watching the sun rise over the sea.