By the next day the terrain had become even rougher. There weren’t any real roads but only paths that changed into mere tracks the farther westward they traveled. They were often forced to ride in single file.
At midday they stopped and dined on provisions Lee-Lack had bought at the Stone.
The Mukthar picked at his food without much enthusiasm. The robber had been observing him with more than usual interest. Although he’d rather forget the times when he had been Sanduvar’s boy, he had to admit that in a strange way he missed the intimacy, rough and self-seeking — repulsive, even — as it had been. It would be different now, if only because Yllyesh would be Lee-Lack’s boy. There was more to his indecisiveness, but he didn’t want to go there. One of the reasons he had lasted as long as he had as leader of the Renuvian Plains Robbers was because he had been able to detach himself from everything and everyone. At what price, though?
“I gave up so much to get and stay on top. I couldn’t let anyone get too close. Neither friends, nor family. And yet, when everything crumbled into dust, it hurt. And I couldn’t even let the pain get to me.”
He looked sideways at Yllyesh.
“If I’d had to take a wild guess, I’d say something similar happened to you too, my Mukthar friend.” Lee-Lack sighed. “I don’t even know how to talk to you. I don’t even know how to explain…”
“You’re awfully quiet,” he said on the spur of the moment. “You seem depressed.”
“Oh? I’m sorry,” Yllyesh said, looking up. “It’s… memories. Just memories.”
“Of what? Better times, I’m sure, but maybe it would help if you talked about them. For the longest time I had nobody I could confide in, and it… it made me bitter.”
The Mukthar looked at him, deliberating what and how much he could divulge. If anything.
“No. I’m all right. You’d just think I was feeling dejected over some silly Mukthar customs.”
“You’d laugh. And mock me.”
“No, I wouldn’t. But suit yourself. Some gauzes are so fine and delicate they almost dissolve if exposed too long to daylight. So, maybe you should keep your memories safely locked away where they are.”
“You’re a poet,” Yllyesh said.
“Hardly.” Lee-Lack chuckled.
“This trip reminds me of my first mravindava.” Seeing Lee-Lack wanted to interrupt him, Yllyesh raised a hand. “I’ll explain. You know what rouwining are. Chosen brothers. I think it was the happiest day of my life — up until then — when Annishi told me he wanted me to be his nagàrouwin, his chosen younger brother. Of course, I accepted. It was an immense honor to be asked that by a frishiu, a prince, but that didn’t matter to me. I didn’t care he was the first son of the third queen. What mattered was that he was Annishi.”
Yllyesh had been staring at the ground between his feet. Now he looked straight at Lee-Lack.
“He was all of five days older than I am, but nobody who saw us together doubted for a second which one of us was the nagàrouwin and which one the beddurouwin,” the Mukthar continued with a sad smile.
“The mra… mra…”
“The mravindava. There is no exact translation. Approximately it means the journey of attachment. Or the quest of discovery, maybe.” Yllyesh paused. When he saw Lee-Lack’s rigid face, he continued. “Rouwining are brothers. They’re supposed to care for each other and have each other’s back. They know a lot about each other. They fight next to each other. And that’s about it. But sometimes… sometimes…”
“Sometimes deeper feelings develop?”
Yllyesh colored red.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Often those feelings are confused and confusing. That’s why they go on a mravindava, a journey of discovery and bonding.”
“Don’t you mean a journey of love?” Lee-Lack asked, almost inaudibly.
“The first mravindava is undertaken to discover whether there is love, or brotherhood, or indeed just friendship and lust. The two go on a journey for several weeks, on foot and into wild, inhabited territories. They take only limited supplies with them. They travel together, they hunt and eat together, and they sleep together. They’re together all the time, day and night, without seeing anyone else. After three weeks of living together and having to rely on each other for everything, they know for certain whether they’re just rouwining or if there could be more.”
Again Yllyesh flushed.
“If they have reasons to think there could be more, they bare themselves to each other. Literally and figuratively. Naked, facing each other and with nothing man-made between them they share their deepest thoughts. They tell each other their most shameful acts, their basest desires, their darkest secrets and their greatest fears, but also their fondest hopes, their most sublime dreams, their highest aims and their loftiest goals. It’s called the immar stane, the secret talk. Nothing should be held back, and you can never reveal to someone else whatever the other has told you. That is a gift for you and for you alone. After that they know with absolute certainty if they can call each other àjemisha.”
“What does that mean?”
“Your àjemisha is your other self. You effectively become one person, sharing everything for the rest of your lives. It’s a bond that can’t be dissolved. If they agree they are truly each other’s àjemisha, they—”
“They make love?” Lee-Lack hoped it hadn’t sounded too eager.
To his relief, Yllyesh smiled.
“No, no, no. They stay naked for three whole days without touching each other. Then—”
“Then they make love?”
Yllyesh laughed out loud.
“Yes, they do, and you never have made love like that before, and neither will you make love like that ever again.”
“I can imagine,” Lee-Lack thought. “The pent-up frustration from self-denial must be enormous.”
“And this… And Annishi asked you to go with him…”
“On the mravindava. Yes, he did.”
For the first time Lee-Lack saw Yllyesh unreservedly elated. Until that moment he had thought the Mukthar was handsome, but now he noticed the radiant beauty of the young man.
“I thought I had been happy the day he asked me to become rouwining, but it was nothing compared to how ecstatic he made me feel after the immar stane, and when for the first time ever he called me his àjemisha.”
Yllyesh smiled thinking back.
“You’re so lucky to have had such a glorious experience,” Lee-Lack said, and he meant every word.
“Of course, that was the first mravindava. Most lifelong partners go on the mravindava about every five years…”
To Lee-Lack’s astonishment the euphoric young man had turned into a miserable wreck on the verge of tears almost instantly.
“No. No. Stay with the happy memories,” the robber thought.
“We didn’t wait that long. Three years later we went for the second time. And we shouldn’t have.”
Lee-Lack was dying to know what had happened on their second mravindava, but Yllyesh stood up, turned around and walked into the woods.
Lee-Lack knew better than to call after him, or worse, follow him.
He prepared himself for a long wait.