S.L. Armstrong and I participated in the Goodreads M/M Romance group’s Love is Always Write event. We each chose a prompt, but we quickly realized we’d be co-writing the shorts together. Jungle Law came out June 18th, and you can download it for free from Storm Moon Press, but I thought I’d give a couple of teasers to it.
No, no witnesses. If there were no witnesses, fewer hunting parties came looking for leopards. For him. He had to find the boy. At some point, the boy had washed his stink off in a little pool of water. The boy was clever, but that cleverness didn’t help against a leopard. He could still smell the boy, potent and terrified, and then the boy’s cleverness ran out.
He could smell the sharp ammonia scent on a bush nearby. It was the third bush he’d smelled it on. This time, though, he also smelled blood. It would make the boy easier to find. Blood and piss. He followed the trail, moving silently through the dense underbrush, careful where each paw landed. He was close. Blood and piss and sweat now. Sweat didn’t last as long on the air, so the boy was near. Probably by the lake. Fresh water was important, even to poachers. He’d find the boy there. His tail flicked impatiently as he stalked along an edge of water, the sun high and hot, the water inviting. But he ignored the water itself.
Piss and blood and sweat and vomit. Vomit and sour mushroom. The boy must have eaten one of the floor fungi. From the acidic edge he could scent, it was one of the blue gilled ones. The boy, with or without his furious intervention, was on borrowed time. He almost wanted to leave the boy to suffer. His leopards hadn’t been shown any mercy or peace, and so why should he offer them any? The boy would suffer a few days more before the mushroom’s toxins took his life, and suffering…
He growled. If he did that, though, he’d be as cruel and terrible as the men who invaded his jungle. Damn it. Damn him. He followed the scent of vomit until he heard soft weeping, a rustling of dry vegetation. Cleverness, it seemed, had run out when hunger drove the boy to eat unsafe food. With a loud growl, he entered the small clearing, crouched low to the ground with his tail sweeping back and forth behind him, his teeth bared. The boy, writhing on a poorly made bed of fern fronds, saw him, cried out, and tried to scuttle back, but the pain wracking his body made it impossible.
One piece of the fruit led to another, and then another, but when he reached for the fourth, Deshi pulled it back before he could grasp it. He frowned and reached again, but Deshi chuckled and kept the slice of fruit just out of reach. “Open,” Deshi ordered softly, pointing to his mouth.
His frown deepened, but he did as Deshi said, opening his mouth a little. Deshi placed the fruit past his lips himself. It was a little awkward, and he didn’t understand the significance of such a ritual. The only time he had ever fed another was when his cubs were too young to feed themselves. He chuffed at Deshi. “Kaanan not weak like cub.”
Deshi’s cheeks turned a vibrant pink at that. “No. I see Kaanan,” Deshi breathed, gesturing to help add meaning to his words. His name was spoken with Deshi’s hands cupped outward at his forehead like feline ears. “Kaanan strong… smart… beautiful.”
Each word was given a motion, but the last one made no sense to him. He tilted his head, trying to understand. “What beautiful?”
He watched Deshi’s face flush up, and the scent of arousal pricked at his nose as Deshi motioned to different things around them. “Fire. Water. Sky. Kaanan beautiful.”
It was a compliment, then, one that obviously meant something special to Deshi. And Deshi was saying it not only about his human form, but about his natural feline form. He couldn’t help but purr at that, and when Deshi offered him another piece of fruit, and then bites of the fish from their roasting sticks, he allowed Deshi to place it into his mouth without a fuss. It was when Deshi’s fingers were replaced by Deshi’s lips that he finally tensed again, staring at his human companion.
Deshi pressed his fingers to his lips again. “Kiss.”
“Kiss.” He knew that caress of lips to lips. He’d had female mates in the past. There had even been two males in his long history of protecting this forest. None of them, though, had been part of a poacher’s party. Deshi had come with the humans who had intended to take the skins of his brethren. He shifted, frowning. “Killer. Came with killers of the cat,” he said. “Kill the beautiful.”
Horror filled the boy’s face. “No!” Deshi shook his head. “Killers bought me.”
He frowned, growled. Bought? What did bought mean? “Tell Kaanan.”
Deshi huffed. “Mother, Father, owed coin. They had no coin. They had me. Sold me to killers.”
Bartering he could understand. Debt owed and coin scarce. He remembered a distant winter when he’d gone into a village for supplies he’d been desperate for. He’d needed to give something in order to receive the supplies. What Deshi was saying, though, meant that the boy’s own parents had used Deshi as the coin to fulfill the debt owed. What debt was so great that parents would barter their own child to killers? “What debt?”
A child for food? “Food?”
“Food. Village starving. Needed food. Traded food for me.” Deshi tossed a stick into the fire. “Village had food then.”
Food for child. Probably with a promise that the child would be well taken care of. He growled. “Deshi worth more than food.”
Deshi flushed. “I am?”
He nodded. “Yes. Deshi smart. Quick.” He looked Deshi over, trying to see him with an eye for pleasure. “Pretty.”
“Pretty?” Deshi laughed, the sound pleased, amused. “Kaanan beautiful, Deshi pretty.”
“Yes,” he declared.