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Skyglass Bonus Story: The Mud God

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #038 back issue.

(Note: This standalone story can be read on its own, but takes place after “A Box for Wolves,” Marko’s epilogue found in the complete Skyglass ebook/paperback. It includes spoilers for Marko’s life, but not the rest of the novel.)

Dedicated to Ash. And Ash’s endless patience.

The Mud God, Part I

Marko had dropped by the little market to grocery shop, not drool over gorgeous men. Indeed, one of the many reasons he had moved to the forested, backwater planet of Nenoon had been to avoid gorgeous men, to find happiness that didn’t depend on another human being, no matter how beautiful or long-legged or book-focused or unearthly blond they were, slouching gracefully in the corner of the shop. Marko was here to make a home, and he was grocery shopping because he needed eggs–because his chickens were still chicks hanging out in his bathtub under a heat lamp, being cute and decidedly not laying eggs.

But still. The gorgeous man in the market drinkup sat there, with his book and pot of tea and long, rain-tangled hair the same luminous pewter-blond as all the elfin girls in John Bauer’s paintings of Swedish folklore. Marko’s grandmother had had an old table book of those paintings; it had been his favorite when he’d been young and maybe still was. But it’d been a long time since he’d last seen it.

He looked away from the drinkup and its occupant, turned his attention instead to shaking off the rain and wiping his muddy boots clean on the storefront mat. He loved the shortcut that wended through the trees, from his house down to the community of Farhop’s tiny downtown area, but the recent downpours had made it into a mudshoot. Which made him love it even more, truth be told. But that didn’t mean he needed to track his mess all through the store.

With one final glance at the man in the drinkup–he had a half sleeve of ink on his right arm, for fuck’s sake!–Marko headed for the bulk goods. Now that he thought on it, he needed a lot more than just eggs; his pantry was looking a little bare and he’d promised his neighbor he’d bring cake to her potluck the following night. So he had to bake a cake, which meant he needed to grab flour and butter. And strawberry jam, because that would make a great filling and strawberry cake sounded really fucking good.

He took a bag from his pack and filled it with flour, wondered if he had salt. On second thought, yes, he had salt. Then he wondered if the man with the tea was new to town. A visitor? A backpacker come down from the mountains for a respite of tea and a good book? Maybe the man needed a place to stay, or dinner; maybe Marko could say hi and ask if he was hungry and if, well, actually–no. That sounded like a fucking stupid idea. If the man was here to stay, then Marko would undoubtedly see him again. Farhop was so small. And if he was just passing through, it didn’t matter, because Marko didn’t have the courage or interest for a one-night stand. He’d tried those before and they hadn’t gone well.

But still. What harm would there be in saying hello?

He grabbed the biggest jar of strawberry jam he could find (a small bucket, really, and why not? One could never have too much jam), then headed for the drinkup, intending to fill his mug with coffee and maybe strike up a conversation. He paid, shook nutmeg and poured cream into his drink–all without even a glimpse toward the seating area–until finally, finally, after putting the lid of his mug back on, he looked up.

The man was gone.

Marko cursed. Of course the man was gone. He’d probably caught Marko staring and decided it was time to get the fuck away. Probably for the best.

Marko retrieved his basket of groceries from the floor and headed back into the aisles for eggs and a scoop of consolatory chocolate-covered huckleberries from the bulk section, despite their cost. Beautiful men and coffee and chocolate. He was really screwing himself over today, but he needed the pick-me-up and also a snack for the walk home.

Resignation weighing his stride, Marko headed to the front to checkout–which was still a strange concept to him. Except for communication, technology in Farhop was hundreds of years behind what he’d grown up with. He loved that strangeness and anyway, he’d always loved old music; why not have his lifestyle match? It felt better, quieter, right–for him, at least. He was glad that he’d found some place to belong. It had been a long time coming.

There were only two people ahead of Marko in line, and when Marko realized who waited directly in front of him, he almost turned right around and marched to the back of the store to hide. Of course, of course. Fuck, fuck, fuck. But he couldn’t turn around, that would be too noticeable, not to mention rude–although the man probably wouldn’t see it, since he seemed too absorbed in his book, which Marko was very tempted to read over his shoulder, only that would be both rude and creepy. But possible; the man was tall, but Marko was taller. He always was–such was the fate of a man two meters tall.

Mark squirmed where he stood, took a sip of coffee, tasted nothing, felt very stupid. This was all a little absurd; a conversation would have been nice, but he was finding it hard enough to swallow the coffee in his mouth. What was wrong with him? He’d seen beautiful men before, slept with beautiful men before. But–but this man was fully absorbed in a book while standing in line at the grocery store to buy nine tiny potted ferns and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. Fucking gods. This wasn’t even fair.

The person ahead of the two of them finished paying, and the man finally looked up. Not at Marko, obviously, but at the cashier who said, “Hi, Ryelee.”

The cashier knew his name. How did the cashier know his name? It didn’t matter. The man with tea and tattoos and a book and nine baby ferns had a name and it was Ryelee.

Ryelee smiled back at the cashier–brief, but gentle and genuine. Then he paid and began loading his ferns and chocolate chip cookies into a box; before Marko could say a word, the cashier was already demanding his attention, asking him why he hadn’t written down the numbers for his bulk purchases. By the time they’d sorted all that out, Ryelee had long disappeared out the door–but he’d left something behind.

Marko found the forgotten fern at the end of the checkout stand while loading his own purchases into his pack.

“Uh,” he said, holding the abandoned plant up for the cashier to see.

The cashier shrugged at him. “Maybe he’s still outside. Take the poor thing if he’s not; it’s already been paid for and if he does come back for it, I’ll just give him another. We’ve plenty.”

Marko nodded. “Right.”

He paused beneath the market’s overhang, casually looking up and down the street. No one to be seen–just wet fog hanging off the tree bows, and deep puddles growing deeper. He could hear the sound of a bike rattling into the distance, the clatter of pots and pans from a restaurant up the road, rain gurgling in gutters. But no sign of Ryelee.

Marko sighed. He pulled up the hood of his rain jacket, took a sip of coffee, and tucked the fern protectively under his jacket.

It didn’t fucking matter. After all, he had a cake to make, a bathtub full of chicks to keep an eye on, and a fernling to watch over until he could give it back to its rightful owner. What more could he want? Frosting was obviously more enjoyable with another person to share it with, but the last time he’d had a kitchen to bake in, he’d been head-over-heels in love with a man who had a really complicated relationship with food, so. He could handle this. He’d queue up a fuck-ton of doom metal, bake a strawberry cake, and read picture books to the chickies. It’d be a great night. Really, really great.

But it would be even better with someone at his side.

Proceed to Page 2–>

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