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Chapter One: Khadan, The Surface



The sun was rising, a brilliant red slowly hoisting itself through the dark blues and grays of the night sky. Algar leaned against the wall of glass, sipping what little remained of his coffee and staring out over the city. In his opinion, there was no better view in Khadan than from his suite in Stonehaven. Jaris and Kings could keep their taller towers; Algar had something more pleasurable than bragging rights.


Khadan had been subject to unseasonal winter rains, and so the world was blanketed in clouds that would dissipate before long. The rays deepened to crimson, seeping into the mists of the streets and the soft rolls of the sky. It brought a smirk to Algar's lips. Some cultures saw red as a lucky color, others as a warning. He had grown up knowing red as the color of fiery passion, which could just as quickly turn to anger as to love. While he didn't give the Microshan symbols any more credence than he did any others, it seemed an appropriate blessing over Khadan. The unpredictability of the city was what drew so many to work there, try to leave their mark and live the dream. Few ever did, but that never stopped people from trying.


Algar held the warm mug to his chest and closed his eyes for a moment. Each thud of his heart beat firmly against the porcelain, as if the heat had somehow woken it. He cherished mornings like these no matter how many thousands of times he did it. Too many others had been spent cold and dark. The only thing that could have made it better was the songs of morning birds, something that he hated when he first arrived on the surface. Their cries were obnoxious compared to the cicada-like chatter of insects in Microsha. Over the decades, Algar had learned to enjoy the different cycle, and now he missed it. Perhaps it was time to start keeping pigeons or crows in the roof gardens.


Behind him, Algar heard the rustling of bed sheets followed by a deep, sleepy sigh. The sound alone put a loving smirk on his face. Though he was sure that his partner looked gorgeous in the morning light, something superstitious in him refused to turn before the red color faded. Noa was his temperance, and he wouldn't let that be ruined even by chance. Thus, he drank his coffee and kept his vigil.

Even as the sun was brightening the city, there was one permanently dark stain across the landscape. The massive, wide crack in the ground that led to Microsha spanned several dozen miles across. If he looked carefully through the fog, Algar could see the porters busy unloading car-sized pods off conveyor belts containing everything from fresh food to hand-carved caskets. Travelers came up in those pods as well, though only a few port-points were allotted for personal travel.  It's what made getting back up to the surface so expensive. Algar knew first hand how difficult it was getting out of Microsha. When he and Jaris had come up to the surface together in their late 200's, each had paid enough money to buy a house for their tickets. When they arrived in the land of sunlight they were broke and had no place to go: the same immigration story told time and again. The two of them had just been shrewd and stubborn enough to become successful.


Finally, the light shifted to an orange hue, making the clouds appear as if they were glowing embers. Algar peered over his shoulder. The rather plain man curled up in his bed was stirring, one leg poking out beneath the soft duvet and his overgrown hair a silky mess. Algar wanted to go back to bed, slide in and gently wrap himself around Noa to wake him. Morning sex might even be an option if Noa wasn't too cranky. Even so, Algar stayed and looked on a while longer. The intense orange light and the subsequent shadows complimented his picturesque form.


Before Algar could change his mind, Noa's wide hand went searching in the empty spot where Algar slept. Noa's brows wrinkled and his eyes cracked open slightly.


"Morning," Algar cooed.


There was a hoarse reply, then a drowsy yawn. It looked like Noa was about to go back to sleep, but he shifted to prop himself up on one elbow. "Why do you do this every time?" he asked. "It's not as if you'll never see the sun again."


Algar sipped his coffee. "I always miss it."


Noa shook his head. "Sometimes I still don't quite understand you."


That earned a chuckle. "I don't expect you to," Algar said as he turned back to the sunrise. "You grew up here."

There was no viable way to explain how blessed the surface was to have the sun except to stress the darkness of Microsha: an endless night interrupted by bioluminescence, fire, and lightning storms. Surface inventions like electric lights also graced many of the larger cities and towns, but Algar hadn't known many growing up. It was frightening and unimaginable to those who had lived their entire lives bathed in sunlight, no matter if you were "Glyssian" or Microshan. Even seven hundred years later, that darkness haunted Algar and radiance of the sun inevitably brought some degree of relief.

Warm arms wrapped around Algar's cold, bare chest. Goosebumps ran across Algar's skin like ripples, and a soft breath caressed his nape. Algar turned to plant a kiss on Noa's pillow-creased forehead.


"Shall I start breakfast?" Noa asked.

"Another cup of coffee first," Algar said, taking Noa's hand and bringing it to his lips. "I apologize for waking you."

Noa chuckled. "If I couldn't handle your quirks, I wouldn't have agreed to marry you."

"I don't recall any wedding," he quipped.

"I don't remember signing all the paperwork for half of everything you own, either," Noa said as he let go. He shrugged and began to walk out of the room. "But here we are."


Algar smiled, giving his not-husband a once over before turning his attention back to the sunrise. It would only be a week before he saw it again, before he could enjoy still, quiet mornings with Noa. Despite his outward persona, Algar did tend to have soft spots when it came to his pleasures. What was life without them?

"Would you like to go with me, this time?" Algar called to the next room. He kept his gaze fixed on the crevasse in the earth. "I would like you to meet Maril-omda before she passes. We would not be gone long."

Noa peeked back into the bedroom, two matching mugs in one hand. "Are you sure?"

Algar nodded, a smile in his eyes but not his mouth. "I am. Are you?"


The mousy man looked away and then disappeared from view. "I should take care of things here while you're away. Someone will need to keep up with your social calls and rearrange your schedules–"

"Ms. Orza will temporarily cover for you. She has when I'm between PA's."


Noa leaned in the doorway again, giving Algar a pointed look. "She's never okay with that, you know. It's heaps of extra work."


"If Ms. Orza truly had a problem with the work, she would have quit a dozen times already. Moreover," he said, pushing himself off the window and walking to the dining area. "She adores you. Meeting your dying mother-in-law wouldn't warrant her wrath."


It didn't appear to convince Noa, who continued doctoring his own cup of coffee. Algar leaned on the dark marble slab counter next to him, waiting for the real reason to come out. While they had never spoken about going to Microsha, he knew that there were a plethora of reasons Noa wouldn't wish to go. Stories circulated about the wild things that lurked in the darkness: the monsters that could have been plucked right out of nightmares and horror films, or beasts hungry for human flesh. There was an element of truth to the tales, but any news that made it to the surface often exaggerated the details and were, of course, only the worst stories.


Noa sat on the counter and handed Algar the second coffee, black with two sugars.  "Is Jaris going to be there?"

Algar finished his drink and moved on to the next cup. "No, he's busy chasing some Trading Company brat." Noa raised an eyebrow. "What?" Algar asked.




Noa shook his head. "Ever the green-eyed monster."

Algar put a hand on Noa's thigh. "Are you worried about competing for my attentions?"

"Never," Noa said, but Algar didn't believe it fully. No matter how many years had passed, Jaris remained a sore spot. Admittedly, time had healed the initial sting, but Algar hadn't just loved Jaris. They had known each other nearly their entire lives. Mrs. Balhan had taken Algar into the family, even allowing him to call her maril-omda, or adoptive-mother. The unusual bond the two men shared wasn't something either of them wished to leave behind. If anything, they outright refused to let their brotherhood break.


Algar stood in front of Noa, taking away the coffee before running his hands through the sides of Noa's light brown hair. "Maril-omda will love you, and there will be no comparison to Jaris. I promise you that." He kissed Noa. "I would be grateful if you'd accompany me."


Noa pressed his forehead to Algar's, eyes downcast. It was hard to get a read on Noa when he did that, but the obscurity didn't bother Algar. It was the only way Noa knew how to hide his feelings from him. After a moment, Noa nodded. "All right. I'll go."


"Wonderful," Algar said, leaning back. "I have an appointment before we leave. Call Ms. Orza to inform her, then arrange for a driver to take you to the Skyridge port. I shall meet you there."


"Who are you meeting?" Noa asked, confused but not surprised. Algar often made plans outside of the well-kept schedules Noa and Ms. Orza organized and failed to inform either of his assistants about them.

Algar couldn't hide his guilt, not from Noa. "Jaris," he said.


"His mother, as well as some business."


Noa sighed. "Are you starting another game?"


He chuckled. "Not starting one, no. We've been in the middle of this game for a very long time."

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