[CH IX]

I met Rysa back up at the ridge line, where she was waiting with Hahd just within the trees, unseen from the camp below. I had to tap her a little to get her to realize I was there, and then Hahd took the invisibility spell off of me. As soon as she could see my face, Rysa knew nothing had been fixed.

"He said no, didn't he," she said, not much of a question. Behind her, I saw Hahd moving away a good couple of yards, giving us privacy.

"He said yes, actually," I said, feeling heavy and suddenly exhausted. "But, I said no. He didn't…seem happy. I can't do that. So it's—that's not an option."

"Then, we're out of them," Rysa said. "There's nothing else. Nothing that can get you protected by our laws."

"I have to leave, don't I," I said. The heaviness in my chest was turning into a hollow, hopeless pit. "If there's really nothing else."

Rysa went tight-faced suddenly, both determined and angry. "There must be something," she said. "Just something I can't think of. We need more time."

"I'm sorry," I said. "God, I am. I'm really—I don't really want to leave. You or Keyd or anyone else. I told Keyd we'd think of something, but—nothing's going to change. There's no reason to draw this out. Keyd and I, we're not going to get married and the Worthies are never going to change their minds so there's nothing—there's no reason to wait this out. It would just make it worse, actually."

Rysa exhaled slightly. "You're right," she said. "I don't want you to be."

"I have to go home," I said. "I have to, and maybe—when there isn't a war, isn't this power game going on—we can meet again. And Keyd and I—well. I don't know."

"But even then, you can never come back here," Rysa said. "You wouldn't just have to hide your relationship with Keyd—we'd have to hide you. I told you before, they'll watch us. Name us traitors if they that know we ever contact you."

"I know. That's why I said, later. However long that is."

Rysa drew in a breath and held it for a moment, then exhaled slowly, pushing some loose hair out of her eyes. She turned to look down into the camp below us—already it was growing darker under the shade of the trees; and out in the valley the shadows were stretching out towards us, long and blue, as the sun started to slide behind the white cliffs at the opposite end of the valley.

"Would you wait for him?" she asked me, so suddenly I almost missed that she had said anything at first. Then she said it again, turning back to me. "Would you wait, for however long it is?"

Christ, that was a question. I wanted to think that I would. But, realistically, I couldn't say. I hadn't been with anyone, steadily, for a long while before I'd met him. And being with him was obviously so different from any other relationship I'd ever had—it had meant more. Been more. In a crazy romantic dream world I would say that I'd wait for him forever. But, in real life, I could only say with certainty that I'd wait a year, or two. Maybe even five. Beyond that—ten, fifteen, twenty years? There was no honest answer. And it could very easily take that long. No matter how much I felt for him, I couldn't put that part of my life on hold for something that might or might not even happen again.

"No," I said, feeling absolutely horrible for it. But I couldn't lie to her face. "No—if I'm really honest. I don't think so."

"Then," Rysa said, "you have to end it."

The rest of the bottom of my stomach fell away, into a gaping hollow hole. "Yeah," I said, with difficulty. "Yeah, I think I do."

Rysa's mouth was pressing into a tighter and tighter white line. "Keyd—" she started, and I shook my head.

"He's strong, he can—I think he can deal with whatever they throw at him, as long as it's not about me. I can even see it—he's kind of stupid when things involve me. He can deal with the war, with whatever stupid power game the Worthies are playing, he—"

"No," Rysa interrupted me, and now I saw that her gaze was going over my shoulder, past me. "Keyd."

I turned around, just as a shadowy shape dropped out of the air behind me, landing in a slight crouch between two rocks. Mismatched, black-glass wings glinted once in the dying gold light of the sun, and then folded back into his skin as Keyd straightened up slowly.

Christ, had he followed me? And, had he just—broken himself out of prison to do so?

"Keyd, what the hell are you doing here?" I said, at the same time I heard Rysa demand, "kair ghell davaji hanaat?"

"I got myself out," Keyd said heatedly, and he was only looking at me. "I—when you left, I realized I hadn't really—Alan."

"Yeah," I said, carefully.

He came forward, his pale eyes still locked onto me. There was something strange and raw in his look, and I really didn't like it, because of what it might convince me do. "Please. Don't leave."

Just those three words, spoken in an oddly soft voice, really got to me. Something deep in my chest started aching, and I almost would have married Keyd, right there in that second, just to never leave him. But it was a fleeting, insane feeling. And reality returned.

"There's nothing I can do," I said. "If there was any other way—there just isn't. There's nothing we can do."

Keyd looked like he had already known that, even before coming out here. "This is not fair," he said, quietly. "It's not fair."

"I know," I said. "Fuck, I know."

He came even closer to me then, and I really wished he wouldn't. This was difficult enough as it was. But he just kept getting closer, until he was right up in front of me, his arms going out to me. But I caught him by the wrists before he could do anything more.

"Honestly," I said, "did you ever think they were going to let you do this? That it was going to work?"

"No," Keyd whispered, shutting his eyes. I couldn't look at him, looking like that. So I stepped up to him, grabbing him, pulling him into a hard, rough hug. He clutched back at me, arms wrapping around my shoulders and bending my entire torso tight against him. He was taller than me; I had an unfortunate inclination to curve into him like this.

And—for the last time. Shit. It had been so much easier to say that I could end this when Keyd wasn't right here, warm and breathing and grabbing onto me so hard that I was probably going to have bruises. And—fuck, his breathing wasn't even and he was making little hitching sounds and if he was crying—if he was fucking crying—

Then I was going to cry too, and that would be horrible and mortifying and revealing of way, way too much that I didn't think I wanted revealed to anyone. Because right at this moment I was realizing something really terrifying and unexpected. That I really was in love with him.

I had told him I loved him before. And I knew I had meant it, of course I had meant it. But maybe I had never felt it, never felt to the point where I really understood what it meant. But this—I felt this, like an anguished ache, a part of me I was losing that I would never get back. A clawing, heaving, spinning emotion that surged and roared over me, and I was realizing that this was what it was—this was what it was like to really be in love with someone.

And it was absolutely fucking horrible. This kind of shit was not what I needed to feel, not right now. It was an awful, aching, shattering experience and I was about to choke on it and end up crying my stupid, overblown emotions all over the place. Keyd—fuck. I was in love with him. I was fucking full blown in love with him and it scared the shit out of me. Because I was realizing it and loosing him, all at once.

And right then, Keyd started to pull away from me.

"No—" I said, clutching into him as that horrible fierce feeling kept clawing at my insides, hot and horrifying and revealing, "no, don't—"

Keyd came right back, grabbing the sides of my face and holding on hard, pressing his forehead against mine and mashing our noses together. His eyes were wide and burning and I couldn't see anything else other than that sheer ice-blue color of them. My own hands found the edges of his jaw and gripped into his loose hair and for just a few seconds it felt like we were the only two things in existence, in this moment together.

"Alan—" I heard him say, a torn and muted whisper. Hearing my name like that was goddamn worse than hearing him cry. I couldn't take it anymore.

I shoved him away this time, staggering back a step. Keyd wavered in place, looking pale and miserable and shaken. I was never going to see him again. I—I felt like I was going to die. Or throw up. Both. I had to turn away, trying to get my head back. I took a few long, slow breaths, leaning over my knees like I was about to throw up, and then finally stood up again.

I turned back to Keyd, trying to meet his eyes without feeling like I was going to either scream or cry or be sick or start punching the nearest tree or a combination of all of them.

"Look," I said, quietly, to him, hating the way my voice was wavering and breaking like an adolescent boy's. "If—you know, one day if all of this is over, and you can—and it's safe to—just come find me. Okay? I can't tell you honestly that I'll wait, and I'm not asking you too either, but if—if there's no one else and you—please come find me. It would be worth it, I think…just the chance. That we could, again."

Keyd didn't say anything, just kept looking at me with his eyes too bright and wounded. He touched my face, drew me back a step forward. He just wasn't saying anything, and I couldn't handle it.

"Just tell me you will," I said. "Even if you don't, or never plan to, just say you will. I just need that."

Keyd drew in a little breath. "I'll come find you," he said, quietly. "As long as it takes."

I couldn't even look at him. I kind of wished I hadn't opened my stupid mouth because now I had no idea if he meant it or was just saying it because I'd asked him to. I'd just wanted him to say something so badly. Maybe we were both just lying to ourselves.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, I—okay." I took a step back from him, my head spinning. I lowered my hands to my sides, a kind of closing gesture. Because this needed to be closed. "Then…that's it."

Keyd made a quiet noise in his throat and turned away. He sat down abruptly in the grass, facing down the hill, clasping his hands on top of his head and putting his face to his drawn-up knees. I looked away from him, for the first time in a few minutes remembering that he and I weren't the only people here; we had a tiny audience in the form of Hahd and Rysa. Hahd was standing awkwardly some distance away, and Rysa…

Rysa was standing with one hand over her eyes, her face tilted down towards the ground and her other arm drawn tightly across her chest.

"Oh, hey," I said to her, hesitantly. "Hey—"

"I'm not crying," she snapped at me, turning abruptly away. I actually heard myself laugh at that, which was surprising. It almost felt better that I wasn't the only one having emotional control problems right now.

"Yeah, neither am I," I said, and stepped up and put my arms around her. Hers went right back around me, hard and cinching, clipping my breath out of me for a second time. Both of them, her and Keyd, just liked to hug really damn hard. But I couldn't mind it.

Over her shoulder suddenly, I saw two figures climbing quickly up the hill towards us. After a brief moment of panic, thinking we'd been found by someone we didn't want, I recognized them. The tall one had a short Caesar cut and the short one had a braid. Darban and Kir. I wasn't sure how they'd known how or where to find us, and I wasn't really sure I needed more reminders of things I liked about being here. I didn't know them well, but they'd been pretty nice to me.

"We've got, ah, company," I said, and Rysa turned out of my arms and looked sharply around.

"What are they doing?" she said, rather flatly, sounding a lot more like her usual tough self. Darban and Kir reached the top of the hill and were coming forward into the treeline—behind them, the valley was mostly fully in shadow now, the sun almost completely gone behind the white cliffs. If they had gone over to my world today, they'd probably only just gotten back. Hahd moved forward suddenly, to intercept his brother.

"Darban," he said, sounding both a little surprised and pleased.

"Hohna, akijo," Darban said, and reached over, almost absentmindedly, to ruffle his hand up through the back of Hahd's hair. I felt an abrupt, unexpected pang of homesickness, watching them. I suddenly missed my brothers. And my sisters. My whole damn family. They had never felt very far when I was only living a good drive down a freeway from them, but now they were all a whole world away.

"Damn, I'm glad to see you two are all right," I said to Kir, trying to shake it off. I'd be home soon enough anyway. "I was afraid they might have arrested you too."

Kir shook his head. "They couldn't prove anything about us," he said. "And anyone who could have didn't come forward to speak."

"I—well, that's good," I said. "I'm really glad."

"What are you doing out here?" Rysa said, a little harshly, to them. "It's not safe for you to be—if anyone saw you, followed you—"

"That's my fault," Hahd said to her. "I left Darban a note when Alan was seeing Keyd. I just thought, in case nothing was resolved—"

"He said you might have to leave," Darban said to me, like he hoped that was a giant lie.

"I—yeah," I said. My voice was going embarrassingly thin and choked again, and I cleared my throat before going on. "I have to. I got named a threat to the war—and I'm a foreigner, so they'll just kill me if they see me, and there isn't a good way to get me under your laws so they can't do that. I've probably been a problem long enough, anyway. "

"That's not true," Darban said, kind of furiously. All this support in my favor was stunning me a bit. Everyone here either wanted to marry me or murder me. It was kind of a crazy division of interest.

"You're surrendering," Kir said, and that almost made me angry.

"What am I supposed to do? Tell me something else, because if you can think of something—the rest of us can't," I barked at him, losing it a little bit. "I don't want to give up, but what else can I do? There's nothing that makes sense."

"Have you considered antshil?" Kir said, undaunted.

I stared at him, kind of dumbly. "What about it?"

He glanced at Darban, who looked as vaguely baffled as I was.

"Antshil," Kir repeated, turning back to me. "The warrior's pledge."

"I know what it is," I said, a little snappishly. I was a little pissed off at him for saying I was giving up. "Keyd and Rysa have it."

"As do Darban and I," Kir said. "It is normally between just two people. But in much older times, trios weren't uncommon."

"I—what are you saying, here?" I said. That tiny, tiny hopefully flame was trying to strike back up, and reflexively I was trying to push it back down. I couldn't hope, and then get dashed again. I wasn't sure if Kir really knew what he was talking about.

"If Keyd and Rysa added you to their antshil, you would be protected. You would be under our laws, and the Worthies couldn't harm you. At least, not as easily as they could now." Kir spread his hands, palms up. "The pledge transcends everything—gender, age, and race. It wouldn't matter that you are a foreigner."

"Is he right?" Keyd's voice said, and he was suddenly right at my side, jumping into the conversation and looking right at Rysa.

"I don't know." Her eyes were bright and unblinking, and she was staring at me.

"Could he be right?" Keyd said again, more demandingly. "If he is—if he could—"

"Kir knows the old laws well," Darban said, taking a little step forward and running his hand up the back of Kir's spine, curling his fingers around the side of his neck. It was the most intimate thing I'd ever seen them do, and Kir actually looked a little uncomfortable with it. Off to the side, I saw Hahd blinking a little bit harder as he looked at them. "His family have been keepers for generations."

This apparently meant something to Keyd and Rysa, who were now both staring at Kir. And then they looked to me, with something akin to hope.

"I thought about it, before," Rysa said, slowly. "But, I thought it was only recognized between two people…"

"Me too," Keyd said softly. They looked at each other, a whole conversation in a single look.

"What the fuck are we even talking about right now?" I said. "Somebody tell me."

"Antshil is as official of a bond as marriage is," Rysa said to me. She actually grabbed my wrist as she did, then laced the fingers of her other hand with mine. "There are records kept of all antshil partners and when the bonds were made. I thought—we both thought—that it was considered legal between only two people. But Kir is saying that three could also be allowed—that we could add you, Alan, to our antshil, and you would be legally within our bond. And—then you would be protected."

I didn't see how this was an option at all. They were talking about a warrior's pledge. There was an inherent problem with that.

"It sounds, I mean—does it even make sense?" I said. "I'm not really a warrior—"

"You have fought against the clarbach," Keyd said, interrupting me fiercely. "You've nearly given your life to protect myself and Rysa. To anyone, that makes you a warrior."

Kir and Darban were nodding in the background, and they didn't even know any of this.

"I—okay," I said. "If you—if you want to, and you think it'll work, and—you'd really do this with me?" I didn't know exactly how long they'd had antshil together, but it seemed invasive to suddenly lever my way into it. After only knowing them for a month. They'd known each other practically their whole lives, antshil or not.

"Of course," Rysa said, with a tone that hinted I was a complete idiot for thinking otherwise. Her fingers squeezed into my shoulder, and Keyd came up and took my hand, lifting it against his chest.

"Alan," he said, and the way he said my name made an involuntary, oddly enjoyable shiver run down my spine. "How could we not?"

"I—don't know, it just seems kind of intense, I—"

Keyd took my hand in both of his, then suddenly sunk down to one knee. I had to assume that this position meant something completely other than what it suggested in my world, since technically we were already engaged, and I'd already refused to marry him. And when Rysa took my other hand and also went down on one knee, I felt a little bit more relieved.

"This is probably not completely necessary," Rysa said, "but this is our true offer to you. To join us in antshil."

"And how do I—how do I accept?" I said, my voice coming out rougher than normal. I cleared my throat a little and drew in a breath, trying to center myself. It still felt too risky to let myself hope too much, but—this was better than five minutes ago. I just didn't want to be suddenly disappointed.

"Just kneel," Rysa said, and so I did. The grass was slightly damp under my jeans, soaking through to my skin. I noticed, peripherally, Darban and Kir and Hahd all backing off, putting a pretty good distance between us and them.

"This is a very private pledge," Keyd said to me. "It involves only the three of us, now and always."

"Okay," I said, my mouth suddenly dry.

"Because you don't have any full oen entities in you, we'll have to do this a little differently," Rysa said. "Keyd and I already share our energy, so now we'll pass some through you as we do. It should work just as usual."

"Okay," I said again. And then, giving them one more chance to change their minds, "you don't have to do this."

"Don't feel like we're doing this only because of the necessity of this situation," Keyd said quietly. He squeezed my hand tightly.

"Alan. You've fought for both of us, at our sides. You've saved our lives at least once, and—we've saved yours," Rysa said, looking at me with a strange, fierce expression. "We are all deeply connected, even without this bond. You are a brother to me, a lover to Keyd. We're already joined by choice, not blood or magic."

"You—really feel that way?" I said, suddenly overwhelmed. "Just—Christ. I—what am I supposed to say to that?"

Keyd laughed. "Stop saying we don't need to do this," he said. "It has nothing to do with need." He squeezed my hand again. I looked over at him, and saw the way he was looking at me. It was the same way Rysa was looking at me. They actually wanted to do this.

"Okay," I said, with new resolve. "Okay, then. Then I want to, too. Let's—let's do this."

Keyd and Rysa both smiled at me. Then they lifted their hands, palms pressing flat together. A dark purple glow surged up around their fingers, like some of that weird Disney Escape to Witch Mountain shit. Which I entirely blame my sister for even knowing about. Then at the same time they both raised their other hands, the ones they were holding mine with, flattening our hands out together into the same palm-to-palm touch.

"Kiojyatta," Rysa murmured, and I felt a brief, bright pulse flood through me from her, like liquid light or a shot of adrenaline. Where our hands touched, the same deep amethyst glow lit up. All the veins in our hands became dark and outlined—mine a dark purple-red and hers a deep blue-black.

"Iorohyat," Keyd said, and I felt the same pulse run through me, a lightning-quick flood of blinding energy. Our hands lit up in the same way, and suddenly I felt like a damn electrical circuit. I could feel Keyd's energy on one side, Rysa's on the other, flowing into me and crossing through me, mixing and streaming through my body and my blood. I wasn't sure if I was breathing, the sensations slamming through me were so strong and powerful that I felt like I was up to my eyes in purple light and energy, like I would vomit it out if I opened my mouth.

But it only lasted a second—or what felt like a second, anyway. I wasn't very sure exactly how time was passing anymore. It could have been moving backwards for all I knew. All the purple faded away to be replaced with dizzy, doubled-up and blurred grey. I was vaguely aware of breaking contact with Keyd and Rysa, and my hands dropping to the grass below me instead to catch myself. But letting go of them had absolutely no affect on what I was feeling, how much I was now connected to them.

I felt—I was even more aware of them, of their energy, than I had been. I could feel different things from them, not necessarily stronger, but just…a hell of a lot more. They were both more immediate, more present. I knew now what Rysa had meant when she had told me once that she could sense Keyd's impressions—I could sense how they felt everything, because I sensed the way energy moved and flowed through them, and thus I could also feel any physical senses they were getting from around them, what their bodies felt. And I could understand how if one of us was hurt, physically, the others would suffer from it.

"Oh my god," I said, without much else to say. This was really connection, like nothing I'd ever felt. I reeled a little, fell back into the grass. If this was what Rysa and Keyd always felt, all the time, about each other—no wonder they were so inseparable. In a way, they were. And now I was part of it, physically bound to them through the energy we were all sharing.

"A new connection is overwhelming," Rysa said. I realized I was leaning against her legs, my head propped up by her knees. She was drawing her hand over my forehead and hair, but I could feel it myself from her own senses, could feel her touch on my head from both sides, like I was both being touched and touching myself. "It won't always be this invasive—as with your ability to manipulate energy, you can learn how to control this."

"Do you both feel me—this same way?" I said. I suddenly knew Keyd had knelt next to us without even looking over at him. I had felt it, from his perspective, a change in the impressions in his body—ground under his knees, a shift in height. I did look over at him then, seeing him as mostly a silhouette against the sun, the very last of the day's light glinting through his wild hair.

"Yes," he said, and he leaned in and kissed me.

It wasn't even a kiss. It was an explosion. Opening up a floodgate of insane, overpowering physical feeling. It didn't feel like kissing myself, nothing that creepy—more like I felt the physical emotion that both of us felt, compiled together and feeding off of each other. I could feel what happened in Keyd's body, how everything came alive and awake and his energy spun madly, and I could feel him feeling me, like looking into a reflection of a reflection and seeing forever, eternity spiraling away.

Keyd pulled back with a sharp gasp, and I fell backwards into Rysa's lap, trying to heave in the breaths that I hadn't been taking. Keyd keeled over into the grass, catching himself on his elbow, panting.

"Jesus—Christ," I breathed. "Is it always going to feel like that?"If just a kiss felt like that—I thought having sex again might actually kill us.

"Like Rysa said," Keyd said, breathless, sounding as dazed as I felt, "it's new. The connection will calm down, and you'll learn to moderate it. Rysa and I only feel each other when we want to."

"But antshil was never meant to be a pledge for lovers," Rysa said. She sounded out of breath herself—and I realized that she had also felt some of what we just had. It occurred to me that I should feel embarrassed about that, but I couldn't. With a connection like this, we were already completely laid open to each other. Embarrassment was impossible. "It may never feel exactly normal for—the two of you."

"It doesn't ever feel normal," I heard Kir mutter somewhere in the background, and a laugh from Darban in response. Both of them and Hahd had come back closer to us at some point—I could see them if I tilted my head back. Darban had an arm around his brother's shoulders, and I kind of hoped they'd had something of that talk Hahd had wanted to have while Keyd and Rysa and I had been busy.

Keyd held out his hand to me suddenly. But instead of taking it, I just stared at him, slowly realizing. Realizing that I—that Keyd and I, that he—that I could stay. I could stay with him. Well, supposedly. But it was so much better than nothing. And I was feeling so much damn emotion and physical feelings from all over the place that just taking his hand wasn't going to do, not at all.

I launched myself clumsily out of Rysa's lap, at him. I grabbed him around under the shoulders and tackled him back to the grass, rolling us over in an awkward tangle. He landed flat on his back and I landed on top of him, his arms already seizing around me and griping me so hard I couldn't even breathe. But I didn't care. I grabbed him back, probably hard enough to bruise, our faces colliding in a clumsy, desperate, nothing-like-a-kiss-at-all. I could still feel everything he was sensing, a complete overload of physical feeling and even some more emotional ones—the way my chest was aching so hard was not entirely from me.

One of Keyd's knees came up between my legs and he curled a hand into my hair, breathing up the side of my neck. "Alan," he said quietly, into my ear. Not expectantly, not like he was going to say anything else. Just saying my name, like a reassurance.

"Keyd," I said, resting my forehead against his collarbone, my head tucked under his chin. I was grinning in a way that I couldn't really stop. "You know that—we're absolutely insane."

He laughed. I felt it like a rumble along my entire body. "I know," he said, moving his fingers in my hair. "No one's going to expect this, certainly."

I closed my eyes, just letting myself feel him a little, and Rysa too, through the bond. I was already starting to be able to sort out the differences between Keyd, Rysa, and myself—who was feeling what, where it was all coming from. It was definitely going to take a bit to get used to, to get it to a place where I felt them only when I wanted to. But I thought I could do it. After all, I'd figured out how to use the original bizarre ability I had. This almost seemed easier.

"Are we going to stay in the grass all day?" Rysa asked suddenly, and it was her reasonable voice that made me remember that we actually did have some other things to deal with right now. Mainly, the Worthies, and the fact that even if they couldn't just kill me without a trial anymore, I was definitely still supposed to be arrested. And so was Keyd.

Reluctantly, I got off of Keyd, and we pulled each other up to our feet. There was grass in his hair and smudge of dirt on his neck and his shirt was all rumpled up from rolling around on the ground. He kept his hold on my shoulder even when we were both standing up and stable, and I kept a grip on his arm. Christ, we just about everything we could possibly be now—boyfriends, fiancées, antshil—and I was bizarrely all right with this level of commitment. It didn't feel weird or forced or fast—well, maybe a little fast—but with him, with both of them, I had always had this sense of belonging, almost unconditional acceptance. It was just really official now.

"We…should go back," Keyd said. "I'll probably be in more trouble than I was before; I shouldn't have even come out here." He gave a sort of embarrassed smile. "Obviously."

"So do we just go back to the Worthies and have them arrest us again?" I asked. "And then—both of us wait for a trial?"

"That is…what we should do," Keyd said. "I would rather—go to my father."

He only hesitated slightly before saying it. I had an interesting moment of feeling proud of him, for even just suggesting it. Maybe it was would never be the ideal father-son relationship between them, but at least there was the possibility of it getting better, between them. I think they both deserved that, anyway.

"What can he do that he couldn't have done before?" Rysa interjected. She did have a point there.

"I'm sure there must be something," Keyd said. "None of us knew about a third antshil being allowed under the law. If we look back into other, older ones, maybe we can find something, maybe some sort of wartime leniency—Kir, would you help us?"

"Of course," Kir said. "I only wish I knew something more helpful, already."

"You've already helped a lot," I said to him. "Whatever you think I did for the two of you—" I gestured back and forth between him and Darban, "you totally repaid it."

Darban grinned widely and curled his hand back around the back of Kir's head, turning the smile onto his partner. Kir looked mostly embarrassed, but not as uncomfortable with Darban's obvious touch as he had been before. He and Darban looked at each other in this sort of—well, like they completely adored each other. It was only for a moment, because Kir turned away with a flush.

I started to turn to Keyd, because after seeing that I really wanted to touch him, or something—but he was a little ahead of me, already catching the side of my face in a soft, long, but determined kiss. One of his hands came up and cupped the other side of my jaw, to turn me, but I jumped ahead of him this time and turned my head and caught his mouth without his urging. I remembered that we had this new crazy bond thing going on only about a second before I started feeling that connection start to open and bloom between us, pushing us to the edge of some sort of insane abyss of synchronization and feeling.

We pulled apart with a jerk, Keyd oddly flushed.

"Maybe we should wait on that," I suggested, only realizing hard how I was breathing when I started talking. "Until I—don't kill us when we do it."

Keyd smiled. A wide, full one and fuck he was so gorgeous and I was so absurdly in love with him and it only made sense because my life had stopped being reasonable about a month ago. I wanted to kiss him again and throw him down to the ground and have sex with him right here because that made as much sense as anything else right now, and handling my emotions at the moment was not going well at all.

Of course I couldn't actually do that, but unfortunately some shade of my physical—er, want—got through our new connection, because Keyd gave me this look like he was half embarrassed and half wanted to take me up on it. And Rysa cleared her throat loudly from behind us. Christ, because she felt it too.

"God, sorry," I said, addressing both of them, and trying to yank back on how strongly I was feeling. It seemed to work, since I could feel Keyd and Rysa fading out of my senses a little, and I figured it was the same for them feeling me. At least that would be an incentive to figure out how to moderate this connection faster—just so they didn't start realizing how much I thought about sex. That was kind of awkward.

"Learning fast," Rysa said, with a smile that lifted one side of her mouth and the eyebrow on the same side.

"Yeah, well, I've had to with everything else," I said. "Guess I'm good at it."

Keyd cleared his throat slightly, rubbing at his face like he could scrub the flush out of his skin. "We should—go," he said. "To my father—it would be the safest place to be, for now."

"You know, I haven't seen your father today. I heard he didn't go with the others this morning," Rysa said, as though she was just remembering. "Jerh led the scouts out, instead."

"What—why?"

She shrugged. "I don't know."

"You don't know?" Darban said, sounding a little surprised. "He's been doing this more often. Being less active with things like this. "

"What do you mean?" Keyd said, unexpectedly sharp. Darban flinched a little and instantly gained a stiffer, more neutral face. I realized that even if he was of whatever high enough ranking that allowed him to sit in on war councils, and his partner had just helped us immensely, Keyd was still his superior and something like a prince, and they weren't really on an equal level at all. Darban seemed to have realized that at about the same time.

"It's been that way for several months," Darban said, much less casually.

"Rysa and I haven't been here for several months," Keyd said, and Darban nodded stiffly.

"I know—most of us assumed that his involvement was becoming less personal because he was putting more time into trying to find where you had gone."

"He was trying to find us?" Keyd said, and looked sharply at Rysa. She gave him a look like it was the first time she'd heard of it, either.

"More than usual, recently," Darban said. "He sent more scouts into other worlds, that he thought you might have gone to. But at the same time, he stopped going as much, himself."

Keyd had gone tight-lipped and stiff. "Why would he do that?" he said, almost to himself. "Twelve years, and then suddenly—"

This was all sounding a little—worrying. I wasn't sure if this was the time to mention that Maedajon's energy felt really bizarre to me, not normal at all. If it was even related.

"If something was wrong," Rysa said, a quiet mutter that was mostly addressed to Keyd, "he wouldn't tell you, would he?"

"He wouldn't think I would care," Keyd said. He'd gone oddly white-faced, and his grip on my shoulder was slowly tightening, starting to turn painful. I could feel agitation coming through the bond, heartbeats speeding up and muscles tensing up—it was coming from both of them.

"Come on," Keyd said suddenly, and seemingly addressing all of us—me, Rysa, and Hahd and Darban and Kir. "We're going."

I didn't want to let go of him—and he didn't seem to want to let go of me, either. Our holds on each other slid down into just a tight grip on each other's hands as we all started at a quick pace down the hill. Thank god nobody suggested flying. The climb down felt much faster than the climb up, and pretty soon we were reaching the edge of the camp, Keyd and I still leading out in front and everyone else coming after us. I guess Darban and Kir and Hahd all felt like they were still part of this, which was kind of a nice feeling. It wasn't just Keyd and me and Rysa alone against everything anymore.

We were heading towards the center of the camp, so towards Maedajon's tent, probably. At a junction of two of the bigger rows that cut through the tents, we came right in front of a group of five or six men who were coming down the opposite row, who all reacted when they saw us.

None of them were Eldronrhet, but I recognized at least two of them as being some of the guys, who had been his groupies when Keyd and I had been arrested. I had to guess they were some of the other Worthies. And I realized that I was still on a death warrant as far as they knew, and Keyd had just broken out from under protective hold. These three guys in front of us were going to be bad fucking news.

"Raen Keydestas," the Worthy in front bellowed, his voice echoing out like a gunshot. "You will hold."

Keyd came to a shuddering halt, also yanking me to a stop because of his grip on me. Our little entourage crowded up around our backs, spreading out around us. But it didn't look like he'd stopped because he was worried, or intimidated by them—his expression looked way more like he was going to take a brief second to hand their asses to them before continuing on to find his father.

But he didn't have to. I felt Rysa's movement before I saw it—a fast shadow flitting out from my right, coming to a defensive halt between us and the three Worthies. She faced them, crouching low with her shoulders raised like an angry cat, her teeth bared.

"You will not touch them," she snarled. She had her sword drawn and held accusingly forward, her eyes blazing, and even I wouldn't have wanted to touch me. She looked beautiful, fierce, and deadly.

"You draw your weapon against us?" one of the Worthies asked, sounding sincerely surprised. Probably no one had ever pointed a sword at him in his entire worthy life.

"I would draw against any who would hurt my brothers," Rysa said, her voice deep and almost regal, and she sounded far nobler than any of these ridiculous, desperate men. Kir and Darban suddenly stepped up to her sides, giving off some serious badass motherfucker attitudes and looking like they weren't going to let the Worthies get any closer to us for anything.

Next to me, Hahd was sliding his own sword out of the sheath at his belt. "Alan," he said, glancing at us. "Arjalaos. Go."

I couldn't even describe how Keyd's face looked in that moment as he looked at all of them. Something between the fiercest adoration and the wildest shock. He nodded, once, grabbed my wrist and we were off. Running at a dead sprint, tents flashing by on either side as night was falling more fully around us. We didn't have to go very much farther—which was good because Keyd was a much faster runner than I was and I was not in shape—before we reached Maedajon's tent, with the tall banner flag flying above it.

There was a man standing out in front of it, but it wasn't Maedajon. He looked familiar in profile and, when he turned towards Keyd and I as we pulled to a halt in front of the tent, I saw who he was. Arirsanya, the jerkass from the council. That was—not hopeful.

"Arir," Keyd said to him, one side of his mouth curling almost imperceptibly. Other than that, he was perfectly respectful. "Is my father inside?"

"No, little lord," Arirsanya, or Arir, said. I wasn't sure if that epithet was condescending or not. He glanced at me, and his face darkened and drew inwards a little. And he switched back out of frequency. "Mrir umot."

"Where?" Keyd said, his hand feeling for and catching onto my wrist, as if in defiance. His voice was getting harder, less polite. "Tell me where he is."

"Heiban ljo arjala ro suerejat ysta amakont jeel kyaim," Arir said, and even though I couldn't understand a word, I heard all of the arrogant smarm coming through his tone. He looked at me again, one eyebrow raised, and continued, "ghell reir yotoim ro reir chak."

Whatever he had said made Keyd loose it completely. His expression twisted into something enraged, hateful, and almost disgusted, and I felt his fury as a physical reaction through our bond—my heartbeat suddenly pounding in time with his. Keyd dropped my wrist, strode forward, and then—and goddamn, was this fucking awesome to see—he grabbed Arir by the throat and threw him to the ground, onto his back, hard enough that I almost felt the thud of his impact up through my legs. In the next second Keyd had whipped his sword out of his face and was looming over the other man, one foot square on his chest and the tip of the black blade right against Arir's throat.

"Do not play with me!" Keyd roared, in a voice that vibrated with enough power to shatter glass. "You pathetic, disgusting little coward. I've not yet lost my title nor status, and you will answer me. Where is my father?"

I had never seen a man look as blatantly terrified as Arirsanya did at that moment. His eyes were bugging out of his face and his skin had washed a complete ashen grey, staring up at Keyd like he was the harbinger of his personal doom. And he probably would be, if Arir didn't give him an answer.

"Mrir ojal hiisul," the man stammered out. "Ojal h-hiisul!"

It was apparently good enough, because Keyd leaned back slightly, but he didn't drop the sword tip and he kept his boot planted on Arir's chest.

"Jekahal kaagi ro massu uivan daimj," he said, dropping frequency, his voice much lower and full of warning, "ii arvu degonanvi ghell."

Then he stepped off of Arir's chest, whisking the sword away from his throat and sliding it back into his face. I'd never actually watched him do it before, and it looked unpleasantly like he was casually stabbing out his own eye. Then he turned to me, and caught my wrist again.

"Come on," he said, a quiet mutter. "Let's go."

On the ground, Arir hadn't yet moved, laying on his back and staring upwards at nothing with wide, glazed eyes. It was probably a good idea to get out of there before he recovered. I let Keyd start pulling me forward, down the row of tents to the left.

"Do you want me to tell you how hot that was now, or later?" I said, and Keyd laughed roughly.

"Later," he said. "Later, a lot. Right now, I—we have to go to my father."

"Okay," I said. I hoped that was an open invitation to have a lot of sex later because—damn, seriously. Who cared if the strength of the new antshil bond boiled both our brains when we did it. I'd pay that price. "Where is he?"

Keyd just shook his head. "I almost hope Arir was lying," he said. That cryptic statement would have been less cryptic had Arir been using frequency; apparently Keyd thought I had understood their conversation. But it didn't matter, because Keyd was obviously taking me to wherever it was, anyway.

We went down the whole tent row and took a left at the end, turning right up in front of a pretty large light tan tent. It was different from others I'd seen because it had two doors in the front. And it actually looked like there were other, smaller tents hitched to the sides of it, like added on rooms to the left and right sides. There were none of the scrolls with symbols painted on them anywhere, but in between the two doors was a dark blue sun-burst shaped thing.

Right as we got up to the tent, a dark-haired man ducked out between the tent flaps on the left-hand side. He was dressed pretty casually, mostly in a shade of tan similar to the color of the tent, and strange looking long black gloves. He didn't look much like a warrior, and he drew up sharply when he noticed Keyd in front of him.

"Arjalaos!" he exclaimed, practically tripping over backwards. "Ghell mril—"

"Eret mrir imataos?" Keyd demanded, overrunning the man like he hadn't even spoken. "A akalan dejj?"

"Farin tet," the man said, sounding like it was the last thing he wanted to say. "Daval infir—"

"Do not tell me what I should do," Keyd said, the sudden use of frequency startling me, but not as much as the cold, dangerous tone of his voice. When he continued, it was as if each word was a single, punctuated sentence. "Take. me. to. my. father."

The man looked stricken for a moment, and then bowed back and ushered Keyd to follow him. Keyd's grip was still hard and firm on my wrist, and so I was pretty much coming along whether I wanted to or not.

The inside of the tent was divided into a bunch of partitions, with big canvas "walls" hanging around from the ceiling. I couldn't see what was inside of those little drawn off areas, and we were moving by too quickly to have really seen anything anyway. Light came from small glowing globes that were hooked into the canvas of the walls somehow, making everything soft and gold and hazy. There was sort of a central passageway that the man was leading Keyd and myself down, turning us to the right and through two wide flaps hanging over a large doorway—I thought we were probably in one of the little attached-on tents at this point.

There were more sectioned-off areas in here, and the man led us to the closed flap of one of them. When he lifted his arm to push the tent flap aside, I realized that the things on his arms that I had thought were really weird black gloves weren't gloves at all. They were his oen marks, in such close together and intricate patterns that they'd looked solid at fist glance. They covered his hands and arms up to above his elbows like black versions of the marks that get put all over brides in India.

"Ojal akalan," he said quietly, moving the flap aside and standing back to let us through. Keyd ducked in first, pulling me along behind him, and the healer guy came in through after us, dropping the flap.

The first thing I saw was a little low cot, not exactly a bed but a sort of lifted framework of wood. There was a man lying on it, on his back, trousers on but no shirt. It was Maedajon. I bumped hard into Keyd's shoulder, because he'd frozen suddenly in place in front of me. I moved up beside him, staring down at Maedajon with sort of uncomprehending shock.

"Oh my god," I said, because there was nothing else to say.

It looked like every vein in Maedajon's body had turned black and poisoned. I knew that the blood of the oenclar was already blackish-blue, but it never showed through their skin like this. Twisting black threads and wavering tendrils crisscrossed under almost every inch of Maedajon's visible skin, spreading out from the heart-mark in the center of his chest, which looked like a kid's Spirograph drawing gone utterly insane. His chest was just a mess of jumbled black, and shined a dark, glistening purple in some places where the light hit it.

More dark lines jagged out of it; spiderwebbing across his torso, down his arms to his wrists, and most of his neck. His hand and face were clear, but his eyes were entirely black, like his pupils had expanded to take over the entire surface of his eyes. He was breathing roughly, his mouth slack open, but he didn't seem to be otherwise alert, or aware of us at all. And the energy coming from him was shattered, unstable and uncomfortable, buzzing and breaking in my chest.

It was what I had always felt from him, but now much stronger than before, with absolutely no feeling of normalcy around it like there'd been before. It was like—something was just jarring his energy apart, like pushing together the wrong ends of two magnets.

I glanced over at Keyd, feeling sick and unsettled. He was just standing there, looking down at his father, his face utterly blank. After a long, long moment, he moved his gaze to the healer.

"What is this?" he asked—stiff, neutral, and emotionless.

"It is degoen," the man at Maedajon's side said. He had no problem showing emotion, and he sounded and looked dismayed. "A little more than a year ago, it began."

"A year," Keyd said, still horribly blank. "I wasn't told."

"You were—gone, ljo arjala," the man said, hesitantly.

"I wasn't told now," Keyd repeated. He turned to the man, his eyes dark and furious. "Degoen, and I wasn't told?"

"That was his choice, arjalaos," the man stammered. "Very few knew—we were not to speak of it—"

"He was fine yesterday," Keyd said, a sort of dangerous warning in his voice. "What happened—why now?"

"The increased travel through the rifts seems to have accelerated it—and last night, the exertion surrounding—your arrest—it overwhelmed him," the healer said. He still sounded extremely hesitant, like he was afraid Keyd would smite him down just for relaying this information to him.

"Can you stop it?" Keyd snapped, loosing face suddenly. The way the healer's face greyed and crumpled was enough of an answer.

"Leave," Keyd said, not very loudly, but undeniably commanding. The healer nearly fell over himself getting out of there, disappearing through the dividing curtain and yanking it shut behind him. It was suddenly very silent in the little tent room, with only the sound of Maedajon's slow and labored breathing.

"Keyd," I said, having no idea what to say or what to do. I lifted my hands, them let them fall back uselessly to my sides. I wasn't sure if he wanted to be touched right now. "Keyd, I—Christ, I'm so sorry."

Keyd didn't say anything to that. He took a step forward, and sunk to one knee at the side of the cot. He lifted his hands up to his own face and made a complicated series of movements, touching his shoulders, and his forehead and mouth several times. Finally he rested his palms flat on his chest, angled inwards so the very tips of his fingers crossed over his collarbone, and bowed his head. He moved his hands up, so his fingers crossed over his mouth, rested there for a moment, and then dropped back to his chest.

And he didn't move after that. He stayed perfectly still for long, long minutes. I wasn't sure what to do, what to think, what to even do with myself. I could barely look at Maedajon because he looked—horrible. The healer/medicine guy/whatever had said that he'd been hiding this sickness or disease or whatever it was—and he'd been doing it really well. I remembered seeing the glimpse of weird shadows on his wrists when he'd taken off his glove once, and I always gotten that weird, fractured feeling from him. But that was it. He'd seemed completely fine.

I felt something, suddenly, a sensation that took me a moment to realize was coming through the new bond I had. Rysa was here, nearby. I could just sense her. I—did something, not exactly describable because I wasn't even sure how I did it—but I somehow alerted her to us, like sending her an increased impression of our presence, and our surroundings. And about twenty seconds later, she came striding through the little partition with another healer guy trailing behind her, looking upset.

"Alan—" she said as she came into the room, and then stopped, her eyes fixing directly onto Maedajon. Her hand went slowly up towards her face, floating between her mouth and her throat.

"Keyd," she said, very softly. "What—"

Keyd didn't look at her, answer her, or move at all. He didn't even seem to have heard her.

"They said it was—something," I said, numbly. "Degoen, I think that's what they said."

Rysa's eyes snapped up to me at once, going wider. "But this is—this is—" she gestured to Maedajon's body, "how did it happen so fast?"

"A year, they said. I guess he was hiding it, somehow."

She looked utterly disbelieving, and I could feel how tense she was through the bond. I reached out, and took her hand. I had never seen her and Maedajon in the same place, or interacting with each other, but he had told me that he considered her like a daughter. If that was true, then she might think of him as something like a father. Either way, I wanted to comfort her somehow. She gripped back at my hand, coming a step closer so that both of us stood behind Keyd.

We stood there for at least a few minutes, none of us moving or talking or doing anything. Rysa and I were both feeding off of each other's tenseness, but Keyd's part of the bond was just as blank as his face. I couldn't feel anything from him at all.

Two of the guys who were probably other healers came back into the little partition. Keyd didn't say anything to them—he didn't seem to notice them. Ever since he had gone down on his knees beside the cot, he had become immune to everything else going on around him. They moved around Maedajon, muttering stuff and passing their hands—which were also thick with oen marks like the other healer's—over him.

Rysa gave my hand a little tug, and it seemed to mean let's step out for a second. We moved out into the little outside hallway, the flap falling closed behind us. I noticed that the flap of the sectioned-off area right next to Maedajon's was pulled back and fixed open, and I saw inside before I'd really made the decision to. There was another man in there, on a cot but not lying on it, just sitting on the edge of it, leaning forward over his knees. A woman was sitting beside him.

I recognized the man suddenly—he'd been at the council, one of the four special guys who got to sit up next to Maedajon, not his brother or Eldronrhet. I'd picked up his name then, but then pretty much forgotten it. Right now, he didn't look very good. He looked pale and sick, with deep purple shadows under his eyes and a thin layer of sweat over most of his skin. The woman at his side was wiping a cloth over his forehead every so often, her free hand clasped with one of his. I had to guess she was his wife.

"Who—" I said, and Rysa made a little sound like a sigh behind me.

"Oredaiken," she said, quietly. "He's Maedajon's antshil."

I hadn't even known Maedajon had an antshil. "What's wrong with him?"

Rysa gave me a look. With only half the usual force it would have had—she looked tired, and lost. "Alan, you should know."

"Wh—oh. Oh, wait. Shit, you mean because Maedajon's sick, he is too?"

Rysa nodded, grimly. "Only because it's their energy, being affected. Because they share it."

"Is this going to kill him, too?" I hadn't meant to say that so callously—hinting that Maedajon was going to die—but it was too late to take it back. Rysa shook her head.

"It will kill the bond between them," she said. "Ored should…be all right, eventually."

"Christ," I said. Not that this was in any way Maedajon's fault, but it was still the worst damn timing ever. And it had been kind of bastardly of him to not even tell his own son he was sick. I could maybe understand not telling every single person in the camp, but—

I didn't want Maedajon to die. I liked the man, a hell of a lot, he was fucking amazing and I didn't know what the hell was going to happen without him. Not even with this whole gay rights business, but to Keyd, and to the politics and structure within this camp, what the Worthies would do, what would happen with the war—there were a million things floating around, up in the air and on a delicate balance, and Maedajon had been the central hub of them all.

I heard noises suddenly, loud arguing voices, suddenly from the area outside the partition. Rysa and I glanced at each other, and then moved together through the opening. And ran into a pretty sizeable crowd all crushed together in the passageway between the side tent and the bigger central one.

I saw Eldronrhet first—fucking fantastic—standing out in front and arguing loudly with two healers who were sort of trying to block their way. Behind Eldronrhet were the three or four other Worthies who had tried to stop us before, and then a couple of clarjja guys in armor.

"You can't be in here!" one of the healers was protesting at him. "This is a private area, demua mrir—"

"Then make that boy come out here," Eldronrhet ordered—Christ, was he stillon that, even now? He probably had to know that Maedajon was sick, if he was the Super Worthyor whatever he was, and he was still stuck on this stupid vendetta? It was fucking ridiculous.

"Hey," I bellowed at him, and everyone there abruptly all stopped talking and turned to me. "Shut up, all right? Just shut up. Arrest me again if you need to, but goddammit, let Keyd stay with his dad."

I strode a few steps forward to them, and held out my hands with wrists together, offering. "Look. Take me instead. Just leave Keyd alone."

"Alan—" Rysa said from behind me, warningly.

But Eldronrhet and the others didn't look like they knew what to do with me. They all glanced at each other, and then back to their leader. Eldronrhet was staring at me, his eyes pinched up and his mouth thin.

"Antshil," he said, suddenly. "Which of you arrived at that clever answer?"

I wasn't going to get Kir in trouble for having helped us. "It doesn't matter. You have to treat me like anyone else now. So arrest me, or whatever you feel like you need to do to feel powerful."

"Yes," Eldronrhet said. "That is what we'll do." He glanced at the doorway to the little area of the tent where Maedajon and Keyd were. "But first take him."

After a brief pause, two of the clarjja behind Eldronrhet moved forward, heading for the tent flaps that lead to Maedajon's little room.

"Wait a fucking second!" I said, stepping into their path. If they really wanted to get by me they would have had no problem moving me aside, but they both actually stopped, glancing at each other.

"This is really what you're going to do? He's your grandson," I said to Eldronrhet, and he looked as though he absolutely hated that I had reminded him of that.

"He is a perversion," he said, and it took every ounce of self-control I had not to slug the guy in the face. "One that might not have his father's protection for much longer."

"So what are you really going to do?" I said. "Persecute Keyd forever because of this one thing? Everything else he's ever done or might ever do can never make up for this, to you? If he became the best ruler your people ever had, would he still be worth less than the worst one, because of this?"

One of the Worthies behind Eldronrhet shifted and said something quietly to the man next to him. Both of them looked—uncomfortable.

Eldronrhet's expression hadn't changed. "We have laws," he said. "We have traditions and we have ways of life that we will not allow to be defiled. The artaln is not above the common laws, as he as has been acting."

"Oh, yeah, Maedajon told me about those," I said. "How this only became illegal because it meant no children—and maybe that made sense when you were in danger of dying out. But now it's just some irrelevant law you're following because it somehow warped itself into your ethics. But it wasn't always that way and it shouldn't be that way now." Christ, I was really on a soapbox here. But I was angry. And the longer I was here distracting them, the longer Keyd got to stay with his dad. "Maybe you could stop obsessing over this when there's something a little more important going on." Meaning that their leading was in fucking bad shape, and shouldn't that take some sort of priority?

"Don't lecture me, boy," Eldronrhet said, warningly. "You have no place—"

"The hell I don't!" I said. "You made it my place—you arrested me along with Keyd! If you didn't want me involved you shouldn't have done that. It's completely my place, now."

One of the Worthies behind Eldronrhet cleared his throat suddenly. "Eldronrhet," he said, in a very low and deep voice. "Perhaps we should allow the artaln to stay with his father, for now."

The fact that he had used Keyd's title was somewhat of a surprise, and Eldronrhet looked just as startled. "Arka heibal, kirvu?"

"Halava demua," the same Worthy said. "Entre dejj."

Eldronrhet looked, briefly, as though he was very sorry that he'd invited this particular Worthy to come along on this mission. But since most of the other Worthies were looking as though they agreed with the first guy, and even the clarjja weren't looking too enthused about arresting Keyd again, Eldronrhet backed down.

"This issue is not resolved," he said, almost specifically to me. "But for now, we will hold."

I slowly let out the breath I'd not been aware of holding as Elronrhet and his groupies turned and left the tent, to the obvious relief of the two healers. They glanced at each other, and then one of them turned away and went into the little room that Oredaiken was being kept in. The other one—he was the one who'd brought Keyd and me to Maedajon originally—moved right past me.

"Hey," I said, catching him by the arm and drawing him up short. "What is this—this degoen thing? Tell me about it."

The man looked me over once, like he was recognizing me for the first time, even though he'd seen me before. "You are Alan," he said.

"Yeah, yeah, that's who I am," I said. "Don't get intolerant on me, this is seriously not the time."

"No," the man, healer, whatever he was, shook his head. "That's not my place."

Not his place to be prejudiced? Okay, well, whatever that meant, it was fine with me.

"Can you tell me about this degoen thing, then?" I said. "I—want to know what's going on."

"Sometimes—" the man looked away past my head, like he wasn't sure how or why to explain, and he didn't really want to try, "our bodies will—reject the oen. It's more common with those who are much younger, who are not compatible from the beginning. But sometimes it onsets like a sickness, and the body and the oen will—reject each other."

"Reject each other. And that's—that's what this is. What's happening to Maedajon."

The healer guy nodded, very slightly. I was really getting the idea that he really didn't want to talk about it. Maybe he felt guilty or something for not being able to stop it. Because it seemed like they couldn't. But I was still going to get as many answers out of him as I could.

"And he's been hiding this for a year?"

The healer was now glancing around kind of quickly, like he was looking for an escape from me. "Only the jirhi and his gheret knew," he said, carefully. "It was slow, at first—difficult to diagnose. But he has been worsening, rapidly."

"Yeah, I could see that," I said.

"I really shouldn't be speaking to you about this," the healer admitted, finally. "It's not my place, and you are—"

"Yeah, a foreigner, and all that," I said. "I got it."

"You are not Maedajon's family," the healer corrected me. "But you are—connected to the artaln. I think you deserve to know."

"Well—thanks," I said. This guy, the things he said, confused the hell out of me. But at least he'd given me this much information. The healer gave me a brusque nod, and then turned and disappeared deeper into the tent.

I went back into the little room Maedajon was in, feeling incredible unhopeful. Keyd was still kneeling at the edge of the cot, silent, his hands loose in his lap. I knelt down next to him.

"Keyd," I said to him, quietly. "Hey, Keyd. I don't even really know if—if you can hear me right now. But I'm here, okay? I'm here with you."

Surprisingly, he turned to me, his eyes wide and oddly blank. He didn't say anything, or even really look like he was actually seeing me when he looked at me. And after a moment, he turned back to his father. But I felt a touch on my hand, and when I looked down his fingers were brushing against the backs of mine. I turned my hand over and closed it around his, and he let me.

#

Time passed both slowly and quickly. Because nothing changed inside this tiny room, it was hard to tell exactly how much time had gone by, and every second could have been an hour or a minute. I could sometimes hear distant noises, talking and whispers and footsteps, moving around in other places of the tent, but never coming very close. It all felt very distant and disconnected, like we were trapped in our own tiny detached world.

Keyd didn't leave Maedajon's side, not even once. He sometimes shut his eyes, and sometimes took a slightly deeper breath, but otherwise never changed at all. At one point, when he had been sitting a pretty damn long time with his eyes shut, I touched him, lightly, on the shoulder. He started to list in the other direction, like someone was slowly pushing him over—and I realized he'd actually fallen asleep sitting up.

I took his arm and pulled him back in the other direction, towards me, levering him down so that his shoulders rested against my legs, his head in my lap. He was still asleep. I put my hand on his head and sort of petted his hair, slowly, over and over. His dad was probably dying and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what would happen. Maybe Keyd didn't either.

At some point, Rysa came back. She entered quietly through the door and came to stand right over me, looking down at Keyd stretched out over the floor and my lap.

"Should we—move him somewhere?" I asked her, shifting my hand through Keyd's bangs, pushing them off his face.

Rysa shook her head. "Let him sleep," she said. "Unless you mind sitting with him."

"I don't," I said, shaking my head. "Rysa…what's going to happen now?"

She settled herself down on the floor beside us, cross-legged, and leant her face in her palm, her elbow on her knee. She looked tired, unusual shadows under her eyes and tenseness in her mouth. "I don't know."

"I'm so sorry," I said, helplessly. "I—shit, I'm so sorry." I reached out for her again, and she slid her hand into mine. Her other moved along the floor and took one of Keyd's, gripped it hard. I felt a tightness in my chest that was uncomfortably like crying, and I didn't think the feeling was all mine. I leant forward over Keyd, keeping one arm wrapped around his shoulders, and closed my eyes.

#

I fell asleep that way, because I woke up sometime later, abruptly and gasping for breath. It felt like someone had sucker punched me right in the chest and then plugged my finger into a socket. The air was crackling and dry and static was buzzing angrily along my skin. I rolled up to my knees, heading aching and chest pounding.

I'd been moved over to the corner of the partition area at some point when I'd been asleep, so I was kind of on the sidelines. There was some sort of commotion going on around Maedajon—the whole area around his cot was filled with blurred lights and shadows and movement. I slapped a hand to my face and realized my glasses weren't on—they'd fallen off in my sleep, and I grabbed them from the ground and jammed them back on.

Rysa, Keyd, and those same two healer guys were all clustered around the cot, everything hazy with gold light from those wall-hung globes. Keyd was gripping his father's hand, and trickles of dark, slow liquid were running out from between their fingers and down his arm. Maedajon's breathing sounded like a man being choked, hard abrupt gasps that cut themselves off low in his throat. The two healers both had their hands on Maedajon's chest, and similar black tar-like stuff was oozing around their fingers.

Whatever was happening, it wasn't good. It looked like the stuff that Keyd's wing had turned into, when Ahieel had made him pull it out, just a black, melting mess. Except this was all over Maedajon's body. The feel of his broken and sick energy was so strong that it felt like a sharp whine through my body, like a teakettle wedged under my chest, and my jaw was clenching responsively against it. I wasn't sure if I was breathing, or if my heart was even beating.

Then, it stopped.

Everything stopped. The whine cut out like a kill switch had been flipped and the static in the air died abruptly, everything going very quiet, and very still. For a moment, no one and nothing in the room moved. From beyond the canvas wall, in the direction of Oredaiken's little room, I heard a sound like a rough, hitched sob. And then everything was quiet again.

On the cot, Maedajon was still—completely and unnaturally still. The two healers took their hands off of his chest, slowly, both of them sharing identical expressions of flat shock. The air felt heavy and thick and stifling, and I heard own own breath echoing in my ears, over the sound of my own rushing blood.

Then Keyd stood up. Abruptly, stiff and purposeful. And—his face still utterly expressionless—he walked out of the little room. Sludgy black liquid still covered his arms, and he left a smeared handprint on the flap of the canvas. I wanted to follow him, but my legs wouldn't cooperate with my desire to stand up. I had to stay on the floor, my body shaking and barely able to even keep me sitting up.

"What—what does this mean?" I said, numbly, not to anyone specific, addressing anyone who would listen, who would know. My voice sounded loud and out of place. Deep, horrible panic was scrabbling around in my chest, and my ribs felt tight and constructed. What I had just seen—and Maedajon was—Christ, this was not happening. It couldn't have just happened. It hadn't.

Rysa was the one who answered me. She raised her head, looking at me over Maedajon's motionless body.

"This means…" she said, softly and with a strange thickness in her voice. Her eyes, bright and wide and shattered, met mine. "This means that Keyd is now the agistar."



New ending note.

Next story in the series is Nocturne, complete and available from my profile, and then the next after that is Skiagraphia, still a WIP.