Rasnake by Megan Derr

Chapter One

The air was filled with birdsong, which was beautiful, and mildly raunchy travel songs, which were not. But what Milton lacked in holding a tune he made up for with enthusiasm and joy. It was one of the things Tallant loved best about him. Few people were as openly happy and joyous and cheerful as Milton. It definitely wasn't the way people behaved back home.

Tallant laughed and shook his head. "You really are excited to be going home. I don't understand it."

Milton grinned. "That's because your family is nothing like mine. If my family was as backwards and zealous as yours—"

"You'd be dead because you suck at keeping your foot out of your mouth," Tallant cut in with a matching grin.

"Probably," Milton agreed easily. "But only because you elves are so fussy about that sort of thing."

Tallant rolled his eyes, but didn't bother to deny it. There were reasons he'd left home, after all.

Milton snickered. "My little brother will positively die when he sees you, unless his obsession has faded."

"You've mentioned before he had an interest in the markings," Tallant replied, amused as ever by the obsession everyone seemed to have with his tattoos. People outside his homeland tended to gawk, like they didn't have tattoos of their own. Although he was always willing to acknowledge that nobody did tattoos even half as impressively as elves.

He was literally covered in them: what was called a rune crown across his forehead, the master mark right in the center, vaguely resembling a stylized bouquet of wildflowers. There were more along his cheeks, called guard marks, sharp and twisting. A choker wrapped around his throat, four master marks at four points starting what were called master trails—one that went straight down his chest, another down his spine, and the remaining two went down the sides of his throat, along his shoulders, and down his arms to spread across his hands and fingers. From these master trails, other runes spilled out, covering the greater portion of his body in patterns that made sense only to other elves and the few outsiders who could read them.

The master trails on his arms were only thin bands that led to the work on his hands. The rest of his right forearm was covered in an intricate pattern of rune-work that identified him as battle-bonded. A matching tattoo covered Milton's right forearm. They had met ten years ago, and had been battle-bonded, sworn brothers, for nine years.

His left forearm was bare, save for the master line; it would remain so until he was life-bonded to someone.

If his family saw him, they would wail and shriek like the world was ending. They were part of a group of zealots back home, who favored pacifism above all else. They would despair to see the eldest son of the clan chief covered head to foot in the black, blue, red, and green markings of a full-fledged battle mage. When he's first declared that was what he wanted to do, they'd been furious. And while they hadn't exactly thrown him out, they hadn't really protested when he'd said he was leaving. At first, he'd sent letters home. When no replies ever came, he'd stopped.

"I don't know how he might feel now, but yeah. We met one of you freaks when he was eight. He went home and stole ink and pen from the duke's scribe and tried to duplicate the marks." Milton sniggered. "On his left arm."

Tallant grinned. "So what you're saying is, your brother will like me lots. How pretty did you say your brother was, by the way?"

Milton punched his arm. "You are not allowed to have sex with my brother. You're not even allowed to flirt with him."

Snorting in amusement, Tallant said, "I hate to be the one to break this to you, but it's been ten years. By now I'm certain your brother has learned many things that you can't teach him."

Rolling his eyes, Milton retorted, "I bet you wouldn't be nearly so amused if we were discussing your sisters.

Tallant snickered. "My sisters were all betrothed the day they were born, or near enough. By the time I came along, any opinion I might have had was moot." He frowned slightly. "Not that it really matters, but would it really trouble you if…"

"Don't be stupid," Milton replied, reaching out to swat him on the arm. "It would be weird to see my battle brother getting amorous with my blood brother, but at least I know you'd take care of each other. I just like whining and being dramatic." He winked. "You know that."

"You just like being an ass, you mean."

"At least I'm not a disgraced elf lordling."

"Better than being any sort of human."

"Snobby elf."

"Uncouth human."

"What was it that whore the other day called you?" Milton tapped his chin, pretending to ponder. "Ah, yes. An expensive, fussy flower that—"

Tallant kicked a leg out, tripping Milton up, nearly sending him crashing to the dirt path they walked along. "Shut up."

"Heh." Milton smirked at him.

"I really can't wait until we're finally at your precious home, so you'll be inundated in people happy to see you and keep you so busy that you'll stop harassing me. Or noticing me at all." He tensed, prepared to run. "Or noticing when I take your brother to the stable for a 'riding' lesson."

He bolted as Milton roared in protest, laughing and running at the same time, something that proved to be a bad idea as it slowed him down just enough for Milton to catch up to him and grab—

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