Chapter Three

Zephyr didn't return to the small room, leaving Rune to sit on the edge of the only chair and stew in her own thoughts, which were so far removed from herself she felt very alone. She inspected herself for a moment of distraction. Men's clothes, artistically sewn to hide the true shape of her body – although not much effort was needed. When she saw herself for the first time in the mirror, she had expected some sort of fear or lack of recognition. But only a strange sense of removal came, as if she tried hard enough she could convince herself it wasn't really happening.

As she thought some more, she slowly admitted to herself that she didn't know if it was real or not. Only that sense of distance filled her, a black gap inside that she couldn't summon any sort of way to cross.

The skin itched somewhere on her back, and with a lack of thought she shifted slightly and scratched her lower arm.

She heard footsteps approaching, and looked to the door already on guard. It opened swiftly, Zephyr leaning heavily on it. He smiled weakly at her, and asked, "Can I get a bit of help?"

She hesitantly crossed the room, but the pale color of the boy's face made her demand, "What's the matter?"

"Room won't stop moving." Zephyr tried to force another smile, as he linked his arm around Rune's neck for support. He felt the youth stiffen slightly and chuckled.

"Don't tell me ya hate ta be touched too," he mumbled as Rune helped him stumble to the bed.

"I must admit…I am not accustomed to it." Zephyr shook his head at the formal speech.

"Nobles," he scoffed playfully, which turned into a wince and a gasp as his back arched and he cursed. Rune helped him get onto the thin palette, where he settled on his stomach. Rune's eyes trailed down the boy's back, where his tunic was stained red.

"You were whipped?" Rune asked.

"Part of ta job," Zephyr replied with a shrug that he regretted. "Just been a while. Guess 'Tri over stepped the bounds today about ya. Roland hates me."

Rune stood in silence for a moment, and Zephyr could see the mind behind the brown hair and blue eyes working.

"I ain't got a clue as ta what you're thinking," he stated with a grin. "Say something."

"I don't know what I'm thinking either," Rune admitted. "Except that whipping boys – or shadows, as you say – are wrong."

Zephyr looked at the half-grown kid in front of him, and chuckled before shutting his eyes to rest. "Some noble you make."

The door opened yet again, this time making Rune jump in the air. Having someone approach unexpected was not a familiar feeling. Scipio stood in the doorway holding a bag, looking past her at Zephyr on the bed. His green eyes ran down Zephyr's back and immediately recognized the position before the stains.

"Would you like me to bring you some food?" he asked without hesitation.

"Something I could drink would be nice," Zephyr replied, his eyes still shut. "Take Rune. Make sure he eats. He's too thin."

"I agree." Scipio's eyes went to Rune for the first time, with a hint of humor behind them. Rune scowled back, but Scipio turned to exit before he could see it. They stepped into the hall together, Rune a half step behind Scipio with uncertainty in the new surroundings. Scipio simply ignored her as he led the way.

"After dinner, I'll tell you how to dress Zephyr's wounds," Scipio stated.

"I know how."

Scipio looked at her then. "Funny thing for a girl to know."

Rune's eyes narrowed and she grabbed his sleeve. "Don't say that!" she hissed.

A snarl from behind surprised her, and she turned to see the giant wolf behind her with lips curled back to reveal dangerously long fangs. Scipio yanked his arm free of her hold.

"Luka," he chided gently, and the snarls ceased. The shaggy creature padded past Rune, those strangely deep eyes watching as she went to Scipio. He knelt slightly and scratched her ear, and Luka's tongue darted out to lick his cheek.

"Why…" Rune started, but was unsure how to word her question.

Scipio stood up, ignoring her once again as he continued down the hall with Luka at his heels. The wolf looked back at Rune, as if daring her to grab Scipio again. She didn't.

They turned into a larger corridor that had seen more foot travel, and Scipio approached a door where a young dark haired servant girl stood, her face hesitant and solemn. "Scipio…they want you in the main hall. Would you…like to eat something first?"

Scipio smiled softly at her, and Rune was left puzzled. "No." He cast a glance at the disguised girl following him before continuing, "But if you would see that Rune eats and get some broth for Zephyr, I would be pleased."

"But Scip!" the girl's voice suddenly dropped all formality. "You have to eat! You were already exhausted earlier-"

"Stop it Becca," he ordered firmly before he handed her the bag he held, and with a flick of his fingers motioned to Rune. "Just take care of him." The girl went silent and nodded, obviously upset. But Scipio turned and started away from them, Luka following with a sway of the great shaggy tail.

Becca took a shuddering breath and turned to Rune, forcing a smile as she played with the end of her brown braid. "So, you're the new boy?" she asked.

Rune fairly exploded. "What's going on?"

Becca's face tried to take on several expressions at once, before returning to the one that looked as if she were about to start crying. "Come with me," she stated more than asked, grasping Rune's hand before heading down the hall after Scipio and Luka.

They returned to the large hall where Rune had seen the young prince, who was there now, along with Scipio, the large man called Roland, and two guards holding a man between them with his feet in irons.

Becca's fingers were digging into Rune's wrist, as Scipio removed his gloves silently and the prince was plainly arguing with his advisor.

"Scipio isn't prepared for this! Allow him a day's rest before-"

"He was the one who ran away, sire," Roland returned cockily.

"Your highness, it was my fault," Scipio interrupted flatly, removing the other glove.

The man in irons recoiled from Scipio. "Don't let that freak touch me!" he snapped. Scipio ignored him and placed both his hands around the man's, who yelled angrily at the boy and tried to pull free.

The whole thing was so…anticlimactic. Becca released a soft sob and Rune was left wondering what was going on.

Scipio released the man and stepped back, before collapsing. Luka was right beside him to break the fall, and Scipio almost wrapped himself around her.

"Scipio?" Roland demanded expectantly.

"Your accusations were correct," Scipio murmured without looking up.

"You are dismissed."

Without another word, Luka departed with Scipio in tow for the second time that day. The prisoner howled his innocence as Becca tugged on Rune again.

"Scip will get mad if he sees us spying," she whispered, and led Rune away. Rune was still mulling over what had taken place when they reached a kitchen. Becca released her only then to bustle over to where food had been lain out in rough bowls, where several servants were eating swiftly.

"What was that?" Rune demanded, following her.

Becca was sniffing, struggling to hold some composure as she gathered food up, including a flask of broth from some sort of vegetable stew. Rune was getting frustrated with this girl. Becca turned to Rune, braid swinging like a lazy tail, and asked for help carrying the food.

"We'll stop by Zephyr's room first," she stated, obviously trying to maintain a level tone in her voice. "And give him the broth. Then we'll visit Scipio's room."

"And when are you going to inform me what just happened?" Rune demanded.

Becca shook her head as they departed the kitchen towards their destination. "I don't…really understand it myself." She adjusted the tray in her hands, which held various samples of food and a large pile of red, uncooked meat. "But when Scipio touches things…especially people…something happens. He sees something. Sometimes, he doesn't even have to touch."

She stopped, and Rune opened the door for her since she was unable to with the tray.

"What do you mean he sees something?" Rune demanded, and Zephyr looked up at the two with a frown.

"Becca, you ain't supposed ta be here," he snapped.

"I don't care," she retorted and motioned for Rune to set the flask down for him. "You're my friend, and Scip and Dmitri's too."

"Ya'll get punished!" Zephyr hissed, and the anger flared in his eyes. "I won't watch them beat ya again!"

"I'm a strong girl," she smiled. "They don't hit any harder than my pa did." With a rapid subject change, she said, "Zeph, tell Rune about Scip. I…can't."

Rune looked at Zephyr expectantly, and Zephyr sighed as he realized that the argument with Becca was lost. "Scip's some sort of mystic," he stated plainly. "He touches people and sees their thoughts – their memories. He can touch plain old objects too, and gets 'em. Just different, he told me. He can ignore those most of the time. 'Swhy he wears those clothes."

"Post-cognitive?" Rune asked in disbelief. Both of them looked at her, clearly not understanding the word she had just used. "I thought they were almost non-existent!"

Zephyr scoffed. "Nah, lots of 'em are born. They're still rare, but they get rarer. Most don't live past a year or two, cause they feel every pain of their ma at birth. They cry, ma holds 'em, they cry more. Ma basically kills the baby."

"How?" Rune asked, still marveling over the thought.

"The memories, the emotions," Becca explained gently. "The baby gets so full…it pops."

After Rune figured that she didn't mean literally, she looked at Zephyr. "Then how…did Scipio…"

Zephyr shook his head. "Won't talk ta no one about it."

"Speaking of Scip…" Becca nodded to the tray in her hands. "We better go see if he feels up to eating."

"Make sure he does," Zephyr ordered.

"How? He's more stubborn than you!" Becca teased, and exited. Rune was swift to follow, curiosity not yet sated.