A/N: Welcome to the last novel of the Light and Shadow series (a little later than I said it would be)! I don't have much to say here except there's been a little jump in time between the end of Nocturne and the start of this one; it'll be clear how much pretty early on. And, uh, hope you enjoy it. :) DRAMA.
Author: Alyn Drasil
Rating: overall R
Disclaimer: still mine
Warnings: swearing, m/m stuff
Beta: I have one! The lovely Naatz is doing non-SPAG for me and helping me beat this messy thing into something coherent. Grammar mistakes are still all mine.
The desert was cold at night. Not just cold, it was a sandy subzero nightmare. During the day, the sky was so pale blue that at the horizon it burned white, and the air was dry and thin and blisteringly hot. But at night, it was pitch black and freezing, with sharp winds that bit down to the bone. Right now, it was just at the end of dusk, the sky a purpley-rose color along the horizon that faded up to indigo blue. But the wind had come up already, flapping along the edges and doors of the canvas tents of the oenclar camp and slicing through all my layers of desert clothes like mean little knives made of ice.
This was Srishis Srittsh—or that was the closest to the name of the country that we could actually spell or pronounce. The people who lived in this desert had an odd hissing, whispery language that was pretty much out of the grasp of anyone not raised speaking it. The actual world was called various things by all the various different ethnicities and societies living all around in it; a fairly common name for it was Kaumun. The oenclar were here because it was the world that the clarbach had moved on to target after they had abandoned their efforts on Earth, even in the middle of the ongoing fight over Clarylon.
And I was here because I was dating the leader of the oenclar, Raen Keydestas.
And not only that, but I had an actual legal title in the clar government. It was a title that hadn't been used for a few generations, but my scarily knowledgeable friend Kir had dug it up from some place and assured us it was still legit, and Keyd and Rysa had slapped it onto me pretty quick. The Worthies hadn't been able to say anything against it, and they were the ones with the serious old-school prejudices who would have really liked me to just go die quietly somewhere. So I was hiejjan now, which in the most simple of translations was equivalent to secretary. To the agistar. Who happened to be my boyfriend.
The title was basically an excuse for us to stay together more or less constantly, otherwise as not a soldier or a healer or anything else—and as a foreigner—I wouldn't have been allowed out in the field or to half of the places Keyd went to. That would have sucked a little.
Right now I was walking back from what served as a mess hall in this camp, a big tent set up in the middle of everything, usually crammed full of soldiers eating food with names I still couldn't pronounce well. I was taking a shortcut back to the tent that Keyd and I shared, walking along the edge of the camp where the light from the oil lanterns bled off into the dark blue shadows of the desert dusk. Outside this little city of tents was just miles and miles of hard-packed earth and loose reddish sand and scrubby little bushes and weeds poking through. And somewhere out there, beyond the long shadows of light cast by the lanterns, was a little settlement of natives—the desert people who survived out here
As I got closer to the tent that was temporarily Keyd's and mine, someone else was coming up to it from the opposite direction. It was a soldier, tall—but all the clar were tall, so that was a bad defining feature—with short cut hair that had a little bit of a wave in it. I recognized him pretty quick. It was this guy named Rhetylas, casual name Rhet, who was kind of like my secretary, in a way. He did a lot of running around and menial errands, especially bringing and sending messages. I assumed that was what he was here for now, and I sped up my pace to a jog and caught him at the tent doors.
"Hey, Rhet," I said, catching his shoulder as he turned to face me. "What's up?"
"This came for you," he said, holding out his hand. He was holding a plain, ordinary envelope, with one of those Liberty Bell stamps in the upper left corner, fluttering a little in the wind. It was from my world.
I had a P.O. box in a random mail center in west Los Angeles. It was so my parents or other people could reach me if they needed—since Verizon didn't exactly cater between space/time rifts in the universe. I had Rhet check it for me now and again, since I didn't have the time to keep jumping back and forth between whatever the hell world I was in and Los Angeles. I'd even trained him to stop bringing me junk mail. Sometimes it felt pretty cool to have subordinates.
"Thanks," I said, taking the letter from him. Rhet gave me a little nod and a bow, and left. He was always fast and efficient like this; no time-wasting. I glanced down at the envelope he'd handed me. The address of the P.O. box on the envelope was my mom's writing, and at the bottom there was a note reading Urgent Please! Only my mom would entitle something as Urgent! and then add please after it. Not that many people wrote to me other than my parents, but still.
I ducked in through the doors of the little tent, ripping the letter open as I did. The tent was empty, like I'd expected—Keyd was in a council right now. Not a capital C Council, which were the big meetings with the gheret and ghereen and other terms with no English translations, but a small one that was basically a very long update on the status of this specific camp. I could have been there if I wanted, but even though I had an official title and was dating the agistar, a lot of people still considered me as an outsider and foreigner. And gay. And sometimes it was easier if I just didn't go.
There was pretty much no light at all coming into the tent, so I stumbled over through the shadows to the little collapsible desk, which had an oil lantern sitting on it. After a minute of fumbling, I got that lit up and bright enough to fill up the tent with flickering gold-orange light. I shook the letter out of the envelope—my mom always wrote on nice personalized stationary, mostly because our whole family kept giving it to her for Christmas—and read over it. I was just getting to the end of it when I felt an increasing sense in the bond I shared with Keyd and Rysa—which meant that one of them was getting closer to me. And it couldn't be Rysa, because she wasn't even here.
I went to the tent door and leaned my head out, just to keep my body in the slightly warmer air inside. Keyd and someone else were walking along the row that led up to our tent. Keyd was holding a significantly sized roll of parchments in one hand, which was going to be all the stuff he'd probably have to get done tonight. The guy next to him was someone I didn't recognize, but probably a high-ranking commander in the camp. He was a little taller than Keyd and looked about twice his age. In the blue shadows and orange light from the camp lanterns they both looked ghostly and strange, their voices carrying as echoing mutters towards me.
I ducked back into the tent and stood off to one side of the door. Keyd didn't bring work "home" a lot, but it had happened. I heard their slushy sand footsteps stop outside the tent doors, and more quiet muttering in their own language. I tried to listen in just to practice my understanding of it, but they were talking too fast and quietly for me to really get anything. I caught the word for war several times, but that was it. That was one of the first words I'd ever learned in Isji, and it was pretty useful for the current situation.
After a few minutes, Keyd stepped in through the flap, by himself. He was looking down at the roll of parchments in his hand, and rubbing at the dark oen mark around his left eye. I waited a few seconds to make sure that other guy wasn't coming in after him, and then reached out and caught the wrist holding the papers. Keyd startled, a little, and looked at me.
"Hey," he said, in English. He'd picked that up from me. Along with several other slang terms. He knew a lot of English now in general, and I knew…some of his language. I wasn't very good at it. We still used frequency to talk most of the time.
"Hey," I said, pressing my fingers against the underside of his wrist, feeling warm skin and a slow pulse. I pulled him towards me, and kissed the side of his mouth lightly, testing. But Keyd turned his face towards me and kissed me back, touching his other hand to the back of my neck. It wasn't for very long, but it was nice. We'd hardly seen each other today.
When I pulled back, I could still tell that half of his attention was somewhere else. I tapped the roll of parchments in his hand with one finger, not really letting go of his wrist. "Stuff to do?"
Keyd nodded, looking down. "A lot," he said, turning his wrist a little in my hand. "It needs to be finished before we leave tomorrow. I'm sorry."
"No, it's cool. I understand—I mean, of course I do." I gave him a squeeze, and dropped my hand. "I have something to do too, anyway."
Yeah, I could answer my mom's letter. That'd only take about five minutes compared to however many hours of work Keyd had, but whatever. I'd signed on for this. Keyd was the warrior-king-president of a people at war, and it wasn't even a job—it was a life. Pretty soon after Keyd and I had really seriously hooked up as lovers or boyfriends or whatever after my horrible and kind of unforgivable betrayal of his people a while ago, I'd figured out that we wouldn't have much time to actually be lovers or boyfriends or whatever. He was just too damn busy.
"What is it?" Keyd said, going over to the little desk along one side of the tent and rolling the parchment tube onto it.
"I got a letter from my mom today," I said, and Keyd's fingers stilled briefly in the middle of untying the string.
"Oh," he said, after a pause. "Really?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's my dad's birthday in a few weeks. My mom's gonna make a big deal out of it because it's his fifty-fifth, she just really wants to make sure I'm back there for it." I laughed a little. "Christ, fifty-five—he's younger than you are."
Sometimes I forgot that, because Keyd looked about the same age as me, and in relation to the way the clar aged and how their society worked, he was really only the equivalent of about nineteen. But he was actually sixty years old. I just usually didn't think about that until something reminded me of it. And it went both ways—people my age in Keyd's society were pretty much thought of as little kids. Our age difference was a little weird for both of us, at times.
Keyd gave me a smile at that—close-mouthed, but still a smile. He looked tired, and the start of shadows under his eyes looked even darker in the light from the lantern, flickering on the corner of the desk. He unrolled the long scrolls of paper and planted little metal weights up at the top corners to hold them in place. Then he glanced at me.
"Do you need the desk to write, then?" he said, and I shook my head.
"Nah, I'll use one of the trays."
The trays were little rectangles of wood with folding legs that we used, sometimes, when we ate together in our tent. Usually we never did; I ate in the mess halls like I had tonight, and Keyd ate whenever he could find time. When Maedajon—Keyd's father—had been the agistar, he had never seemed this busy. But they hadn't been in a state of open war at the time I'd known him, only between battles. Things had changed, especially now that Clarylon had become the epicenter of the war between the oenclar and clarbach. It was a personal fight over their homeland, and it was much more than just another battle.
I sat on our cot and settled one of the trays over my legs while Keyd lost himself in an endless pile of papers and parchments. There was enough light from the desk lantern that I could see well enough to write, using a ball-point pen I carried around just to make letters to my family look like they hadn't come out of Victorian England. Keyd, and all the clar, used quill pens to write. And my writing was pretty unfortunate even without attempted calligraphy, so I never even tried.
My letter back to my mom consisted of a lot of vague generalities about what I'd been up to recently, and the reply, yes I'm coming home for dad's birthday. I glanced up at Keyd before ending the letter and signing off, watching his back move with his breathing in the lantern-light. I'd been home at least four or five times since picking up and mostly moving out of my world entirely, but always by myself. I'd just never been sure how I would have explained Keyd to my family. My family didn't even know he existed, or that I was even in a relationship. And Keyd and I had been together (we were still technically engaged, even) for almost a year now. Every time I went home, I thought about asking him along, but always chickened out at the last second. Just like I was doing this time.
Sighing a little, I signed my letter and folded it up. I could give it to Rhet tomorrow before we left and he'd get it back into the mail system and to my parents. Then it would be up to me to remember to go home for my dad's birthday. I always kept track of what the date was over on Earth, since the clar didn't exactly have a similar calendar. I hadn't completely figured out the way they kept track of the date at all, actually.
I glanced back at the desk. Keyd didn't look like he was going to be done with his work anytime soon, which meant that there wasn't going to be any 'us' time tonight. For a second, I thought about going over there and distracting him, which sometimes worked, but decided against it. It was so cold right now that it would have been nice to have some…physical activity, but Keyd had seemed tired tonight even without all this workload. I'd just let him be.
So instead I just rolled myself up in a bunch of the blankets from the bed and tucked myself down until just my eyes were uncovered. I watched Keyd move a strand of hair absently out of his face as he leant forward to write something at the top of a long scroll of parchment, the light from the lantern flickering gold shadows off his face. The shifting light on the canvas tent wall was a little hypnotizing, and I got drowsy pretty fast, watching the shadows waver and flicker.
I had no idea how much later it was, but I was nearly asleep by the time I heard Keyd start moving paperweights and rolling up parchment. I pulled myself awake just enough to catch Keyd blowing out the lantern and throwing the tent into deep blackness. A few seconds later, the cot dipped and shifted as Keyd slipped in beside me.
"Are you asleep?" he whispered, touching a hand to my hair and carding his fingers through it.
"Nn-nn," I lied. "'m not."
Keyd made a soft sound like a sigh and shifted closer, his forehead resting against mine. His hands were cold and found mine clumsily in the dark, and his nose and mouth were chilled when he kissed me. We wedged our bodies together and I closed my eyes into the comforting hum of his energy and the slow, steady beat of his heart. It was worth everything—everything we'd gone through, everything we were going through now, and everything we might ever go through—to be with him like this. I couldn't even imagine what my life would have been like without him, or what it would be like to lose this. We'd both fought so hard, and were still fighting in a lot of ways, and moments that reminded me why we did, like right now, were perfect. I closed my eyes, and fell asleep against the familiar feel of his body curled to mine.
The next morning, Keyd and I were up and leaving the desert through a rift before the sun was even half up. We were going through Clarylon, for a recon meeting with the rest of the government about the state of the whole of Kaumun, and probably some other things as well. Our destination was Abyah, an ancient ruined city on the eastern coast, currently one of the larger strongholds in the war. Lojt, the main oenclar city, was about a hundred miles north of that.
Clarylon was a war zone now. It wasn't nearly as chaotic as it sounded, since the clar arranged battles in a very chivalrous and proper way, setting up times and places and then meeting there to try and destroy each other. Still chaotic, but it wasn't like it was Vietnam or something, with people dropping on you out of trees or up from tunnels in the middle of the jungle. It was still war, which was always messy and horrific and destructive, but it wasn't really dangerous to go there for a non-military trained noob like me.
Abyah was a few hours off in time difference from Srishis Srittsh, which happened a lot with world-jumping. We left one place at dawn, and two seconds later it was about noon. Not that it made much different to the amount of light—Clarylon was still pretty dark in general. Not all the time, and actually it was the brightest in the middle of the day. For a few hours there was a little increase of light, like a very brief sunrise and then a sunset immediately afterwards. So when Keyd and I came through the rift, it was just about as light as dawn in the desert had been.
The oenclar camp was set up on a mildly sloped hillside above the ruins of Abyah. The Council tent was about in the dead center of it, about a thirty second walk from the general area the rift had dumped us. It was pretty much impossible to get right back to the exact spot you left from even with a permanent rift, just because worlds were always shifting around against each other a little, or something like that. I had this tiny fear that someday I'd pop out in the middle of a tree or a wall or another person or something, but nobody else seemed to worry about that.
When Keyd and I got to the Council tent, there was a man waiting for us in front of it, standing rigidly with his hands behind his back and his face set into a permanent frown. His black hair was short and raked back to lie flat against his head, and his face had the lines and creases of someone in their early or mid-sixties. But he was a lot older than that. His clothes were all in deep reds and browns and embroidered with all these fancy little designs. And that scowl on his face was directed at me and Keyd.
This guy, Eldronrhet, was top on my list of people who could seriously just fall off a planet, any planet, and disappear forever. He was the Supreme Worthy, the boss of the rest of the Worthies, and also Keyd's grandfather. Not that either of them really liked or recognized that fact. They were probably more antagonistic to each other because of it. Keyd had kicked Eldronrhet off the gheret when he'd become agistar, which was pretty unheard of since the Supreme Worthy was always supposed to be on it. But Keyd couldn't stop him, or any of the other Worthies, from being on the ghereen. And they always showed up.
Keyd still bowed politely to him when we got up to him, and Eldronrhet did a jerky little twitch that was sort of a bow. Not at me at all—he barely looked at me. He usually didn't recognize my existence unless it was to insult me, or Keyd.
"Worthy Doan," Keyd said to him, using the man's family name just to add more respect. "Is the Council ready to begin?"
"You are the last to arrive," Eldronrhet said, with an unspoken that makes you late tacked on to the end. Vindictive asshole. He had probably waited out here just to call more attention to that fact, since being late was pretty rude. Especially for Keyd, who was supposed to be the first to arrive and the last to leave for these things.
"Good," Keyd said, and strode past him without another word, pushing into the tent. Eldronrhet looked at me, one corner of his mouth sneering up a little. This guy liked me just as much as I liked him, and neither of us were really shy about it. I didn't really have to show respect to him like Keyd did, but I usually did anyway just to piss him off.
"Worthy Doan," I said, bowing lower to him than Keyd had and gesturing to the tent door. "After you."
Eldronrhet grunted and swooshed past me in a flap of excess fancy fabric. I ducked through the flaps after him.
The Council meetings were set up in the shape of a T;two long lines of the members of the ghereen sitting on their knees on thin cushions, facing each other across the wide middle aisle. At the end of the aisle, a perpendicular row of five people faced the rest of the tent, sitting on either side of Keyd. That was his gheret, his more personal entourage. Of course, Rysa was part of it, also my buddy Darban, who caught my eye and gave me a little head jerk of greeting when he saw me come in. The three others on the gheret were Keyd's uncle Jeraldan and his son Orealdan, and the last man was Oredaiken, who had been Maedajon's antshil.
The ghereen itself was arranged by blood and title and rank and a whole lot of other variables, but it meant Eldronrhet and the other Worthies were all fairly close up where Keyd and the others were sitting. Guests sat by the doors and kept out of the way, and that's where I went. I was more or less a permanent guest of these Councils, since I didn't really have a place in the government. I had my title, but it didn't guarantee me anything.
Councils always started the same way—a single clap from Keyd, and an accompanying single word; okumamai. Which meant, more or less, let's start. It was just tradition to do that, one of the thousands that the clar liked to uphold. Once Keyd began the council, pretty much anyone was free to speak. Although Keyd usually started, which he did now.
"As far as the situation in Kaumun is proceeding," he said, "the clarbach build up there has not increased more than we predicted it would, and our matching forces there are still a respectable match. They have, as of yet, made no official motions towards open war there. There have been reports that it seems their relationships with some of the native countries are not as strong as the ones we have made, that their presence is not as welcome."
"What about our dealings with Naum?" said one of the Worthies, named Hesketoan, spoke up. "Our relations with that country were precarious at best several months ago—how do they stand now?"
"Prince Toal and I have already made a solid agreement on the terms of our allowed presence there," Keyd said, a little stiffly. "I believe I laid out the agreements of our pact at our last Council regarding Nuam, if you had forgotten. I am sure that Enten Kirebeylas would be very willing to provide you with the documents if you wish."
I caught Darban smiling down at his knees at that—Kirbeylas was his boyfriend. Keyd had made Kir something of his personal record keeper, or at least used him as a foreman for dealing with the Keeper caste, who kept track of all this documents and records kind of stuff.
"Nuam is the largest country in Kaumun," Hesketoan said. "Its cooperation with us is imperative, as a model to the rest of Kaumun's people, and its accord with us was reached with odd and abrupt haste. I only ask after its continued good will, arjalaos."
"Nuam is abiding by the terms of our pact, as are we," Keyd said. "There is no issue between us."
"Perhaps you would finally like to share with us what caused prince Taol to agree to the pact," Eldronrhet said. "We would hope that, with the sudden speed at which it was reached, there was nothing illicit about what it took to convince him."
I seriously could have punched this guy every time he spoke up in Council. Almost all of what he said was usually obviously pointed to undermine or downcut Keyd. Most of the Worthies—and even some of the other ghereen members—were on this warpath to make Keyd look totally incompetent as the agistar, so that he'd step down or the government could overthrow him or something. Most of their problem with him was that he was now openly gay, and trying to make them deal with homosexuality way more than they wanted to. And Eldronrhet was using the fact that a lot of the kingdoms in the Nuam country were generally bisexual to make insinuations about how Keyd had achieved the peace accord.
"I don't see why that is a relevant topic to discuss, Worthy Doan," Keyd said to him. "These agreements were settled months ago and if you had concerns with them, you should have spoken up then. We have prince Taol's full peace accord and there is no current issue with our relations with Naum."
"May I insist that we move on to discuss the recent movement of clarbach troops into the Kitsa valley," Rysa, sitting to Keyd's direct right, said just as Eldronrhet opened his mouth again. "Darbanyon has a report of the numbers and positions, and we believe these may be primarily new troops from Uillad, placed in the valley as a display of size rather than tactics."
"The Kitsa valley," Darban picked up smoothly, "is less than twenty kolots from Lojt, as you all clearly know. The presence of this many new troops there would seem to be a response to our actions in Lojt—namely, the repopulation of the city."
That was a pushbutton word here; repopulation. That was the ultimate goal, what the oenclar were really fighting for here. Above everything else, the oenclar just wanted their home back. Even Eldronrhet and the Worthies agreed on that. Rysa had jumped in with the perfect topic that everyone in the entire tent could actually see eye to eye on, and I caught myself smiling as everyone started muttering in agreement. There were definitely a few people who had Keyd's back, at least, and Rysa most of all.
"Orealdan, if you would first report on the current status of Lojt," Keyd said. "As it seems that there are some who haven't paid as close attention to previous councils, it would be best if we were all equally informed."
Somebody in the ghereen laughed, a quiet sound that turned into a throat-clearing, and Orealdan gave his cousin a fast little smile along with his head-bow.
"Of course, amaken-anta," he said. He and Keyd were only a couple of years apart, but Ore already had a wife and kid. Both of them were living in Lojt, so Ore had been more or less permanently stationed there, which meant he was the best authority on stuff going on over there.
Ore cleared his throat a little before starting. "We have recently relocated five hundred civilian families from various safe worlds back into Lojt, alongside the family members of the soldiers stationed there," he said. "This took place early last month, and as Rysanys and Darbanyon have said, recent clarbach troop movement has placed a sizeable force within twenty kolots of the city, from a western approach. Only the lands to the south and north of Lojt have been reclaimed by our forces, so this movement is well within their rights. However…"
"They have never acted to directly threaten civilians before," Darban put in. "We believed Lojt was safe for this reason."
"Then the relocation obviously took place too soon," Eldronrhet said, and he sounded happy about it. Of course he would be. Because who had authorized that relocation? Keyd had.
"Progress in Clarylon has been tipping in our favor for some time," Jerhaldan said. "The Kitsa valley is the closest unsecured area to Lojt, and that is almost twenty kolots away, as has been mentioned several times already. While several other cities are certainly unfit for repopulation, Lojt was not a careless decision, nor a brash one."
"And you expected to move citizens back into our main city without the clarbach retaliating with an equally brazen countermove?" another man spoke up. Not a Worthy, but just as obnoxious—Arirsanya, a high-ranking commander currently stationed here, in Abyah. His personality was a fun mix of jerk, homophobe, coward and bully.
"If I recall correctly," Keyd said to him, in the very quiet voice he used when he was getting angry, "the relocation plan was discussed among the members of this very same council. If you will place blame, you will place it upon all of us. Including yourself."
"But perhaps not all of us wished to implement this relocation, arjalaos," Arirsanya said, adding the title with a blatant slap of sarcasm.
Keyd didn't even blink. "Then it was in your power to make your objections known at that time."
"You have so disregarded the influence of the ghereen, and the Worthies, that I'm sure you wouldn't have given credit to any opinions your elders might have held," Eldronrhet said, and a couple of the men seated in the ghereen made little mutters of agreement.
"And perhaps you should judge me on what I do, rather than what you think I will do," Keyd said. His anger was thrumming through the bond at me, his sped-up heart rate and pounding pulse and shortened breath. I saw Rysa touch his wrist, very subtly, and some of it faded. Just a little, but it did. And it made me wish that I could be sitting up that close to him. But Keyd's gheret was unconventional enough, with both another openly gay guy and a woman on it, and there were about a million other reasons why I wouldn't be allowed or accepted as part of it.
But at least Rysa was there, and it was both lucky and difficult that she was. Rysa was the only woman in this tent. The oenclar were pretty cool with women being in their fighting forces, but having one in the government it was really, really uncommon. And especially one that had originally come from their enemies, and who was as close to the agistar as she was. Her title was akiotar, which literally translated to 'brother of the ruler', because it wasn't a title meant for women. Because of her gender and her origins, she'd occasionally had some problems of her own in these Councils.
"I think," she said now, still holding on to Keyd's wrist, "that what we should be addressing is the current issue, not the past actions that led to it. Those we can't change. We must decide how to respond to the clarbach movement into the Kitsa valley."
"And that decision will be made by those fit for it—those who may not have other loyalties," Hesketoan said. Yeah, here it went. They were going to start poking at the fact that she'd grown up in a clarbach city and her whole family was still there.
"Who would you chose as trustworthy enough to make that decision?" the last man on the gheret, Oredaiken, suddenly said. He didn't talk much, but when he did, everyone listened. He was the oldest man on the gheret and had been Maedajon's antshil, and both of those things were pretty positive factors in his influence. Everyone turned to look at him as he spoke. "If you had been listening to this council, Hesketoan, rather than usurping it with your biases, you would find it just as I have. A petty, personal argument thinly veiled by talk of our problems. You wish a decision made by those fit to make it—I could not name anyone in this Council who could make any decision here unaffected by some sort of prejudice or hate."
Then Oredaiken looked at Keyd. "Your father would not have allowed this kind of backhanded disrespect," he said. "He would have brought the underlying issues to the light, forced everyone to confront the problems that are affecting the entire way we conduct ourselves, the way we are fighting this war. I hope that you, one day, will have the strength to do that same."
Then Oredaiken stood up, gave a brief head-nod to the rest of the gheret, and walked out of the tent.
I'd been in a lot of Councils over the past year, and I had never seen anyone do that—just walk the hell out right in the middle. And I was pretty sure no one else had either, given the way everyone looked totally stunned, and a deep uncomfortable silence fell over the whole tent. I was mostly watching Keyd, who kind of looked like he'd been slapped. Probably more from what Oredaiken had said to him rather than his dramatic exit—it had been a pretty ballsy to say to the agistar, even for someone of his rank.
"Fool," I heard someone—maybe Eldronrhet—say, and that seemed to snap Keyd out of it.
"It's unthinkable to carry on this Council with a primary member absent," he said. "I conclude this council, to be readdressed at another time. You will all be informed of when that will be."
Then Keyd took a breath and stared down at his knees. I was feeling a little sick to my stomach, and I wasn't sure all of it was coming from me. Rysa murmured something in his ear as the ghereen shifted and started to get up, muttering and whispering to each other. They gradually filed out, all moving past me and my little cushion while Keyd and his gheret stayed at the back of the tent, not speaking to each other. Rysa, who had been sitting next to Oredaiken, was staring at his empty cushion like she expected it to explode.
Once the whole ghereen was out, the gheret could leave. Rysa touched his hand one last time before she and Darban left together, both of them nodding at me when they passed. Keyd's uncle and cousin were right behind them, and that left me and Keyd alone in the huge tent. I was really supposed to be out of here by this time too, but sometimes I just had to fuck these stupid rules. When Keyd finally stood up and started walking down the middle aisle, I stood up to meet him.
"Hey," I said, and Keyd gave me the weakest, thinnest little smile in response. He was really rattled by everything that had happened, that was easy enough to tell. He pushed aside one of the tent doors and ushered me through without a word. And as soon as we were outside, he started walking, a straight stride away from the tent. I had to nearly jog to keep up with his stupid long legs.
"That was really bad," I said, once the council tent was out of view and he'd slowed down a little bit. "And I mean way more than usual."
"I know," Keyd said quietly. "I don't—know what to do about them. I don't know how to stop this."
That was kind of a lie. If I went away, and Keyd got respectably and heterosexually married to a woman—there was a good chance the Worthies would lay off him a lot. Keyd would probably still have issues with them, because those guys had been jerks even when Maedajon—perfectly straight and totally beloved—had been the agistar. But Keyd's sexuality, and his openly being with me, was an incredible stigma. It was really hurting him, but I guess both of us were just too stupid and selfish to give it up. But something was going to have to change, on one side or the other, and soon.
"I'm ready to get out of here," Keyd said, throwing a glance over his shoulder in the direction of the council tent. He pressed fingers to his forehead, wincing a little. He was getting a headache. I knew, because I could feel echoes of it in my own head. "I've—we're going to Jat Tou today, yes?"
"Yeah," I said. "D'you want to take a break, or something, first? I mean, it's okay, we have some time—"
"No," Keyd muttered. He was still rubbing at his temple. "Let's just leave."
Keyd worked so damn hard, and he got so much shit back for it; I hated when Councils went like this. And I couldn't even really touch him, not even a kiss or a grip on his hand, not in public like we were now. We'd really cut back on demonstrativeness, just for reasons of PR and keeping public distress about homosexuality to a minimum—not that it had really helped very much. The only thing I could do was put my hand on his shoulder, which was acceptable, as we kept walking towards the area of the camp that was designated for rifts. He was shaking a little under my hand, but his expression was perfectly controlled and neutral. He was still good at that, no matter what people threw at him.
I tried to send calmer feelings to him through our bond, but I wasn't feeling too calm myself, so I wasn't sure how effective that was. We reached the crumbled down ruin of a large building, the inside of which had all the foundations of stone walls still stuck into the ground, forming the outlines of rooms. There were a couple of soldiers in here, as well as a few really tiny tents that looked like those old fashioned beach changing rooms. Each one had an opening to another world set up inside it.
Two soldiers jumped to attention at once and hurried towards us when they noticed Keyd. They got up to us and both bowed low.
"Your destination, arjalaos?" one of them said to him.
"Xot," Keyd said. He looked like he was gaining his composure back from that mess of a council, and that was a good thing. It wasn't that I hadn't seen him shaken up before, but I really didn't like the reasons. The Worthies were getting more cutting and more personal, and they might eventually just openly start attacking the thing that really bothered them—Keyd's sexuality. I really didn't want that to happen, not only for the sake of the small gay rights movement here, but just for Keyd's mental wellbeing. He seriously didn't need it.
"There is no permanent opening to Xot here currently," said one of the soldiers. He turned to the other and held up his hands, palms flat. "We'll make one, arjalaos."
That was one thing Keyd and I couldn't do, even thought we had antshil—we couldn't make rifts yet. It was probably mostly me, because I wasn't fully trained at this stuff. I was getting a lot better, but some things were still totally beyond my grasp. The two soldiers put their palms together and, after a jarring surge of energy, formed a weird thinness in the air. Like someone had painted a picture of the Abyah ruins and stretched it over a blurred photo of something else. That was our doorway to Xot.
"Thank you," Keyd said to the soldiers, with a little nod. They bowed back and stepped away, and Keyd and I stepped through the rift and into our third world of the day.
Xot had been a player early on in the war, years and years ago, but the oenclar had won and now they used it as one of their 'safe' worlds—a place to give their homeless civilians somewhere to live. With all this swords and sorcery kind of stuff that usually went along with the oenclar, I had never really expected to be in a world that was equally or more so technologically advanced then Earth – but this part of Xot was. Keyd had told me a long time ago that advanced technology didn't seem weird to him even though the clar didn't have it, because he'd been exposed to it before. He'd probably been talking about this place.
The city that the oenclar had one of their own small towns near was called Jat Tou, and it was a huge spreading metropolis of giant shining skyscrapers and towers built in bizarre foreign architecture with these streamlined tubular trains zipping around through them all fifty or a hundred feet about the ground, and the streets filled with weird mechanized things that kind of looked like cars, if Dr. Suess and H.R. Geiger had collaborated to design a Light cycle. It always seemed to be sunny here, which was probably an effect of the oenclar, but the sky was always brilliant blue and near cloudless, the air always warm and breezy. I'd kind of been around in the place once or twice—the people were all a couple of shades lighter than coffee brown, super friendly but completely incomprehensible, speaking in rapid-fire bursts of single syllable words. Like Earth, Xot was a muted world, and the people couldn't access the presence or frequency, and it was really hard communicating with them. But they seemed to be pretty cool with the oenclar.
Keyd made routine checks through the various army training camps, just kind of overseeing things. None of them were in Clarylon, they had all been sectioned off into different 'safe' worlds that the oenclar had won in, and that their presence wasn't objected to. There was one here, an army base plus a civilian town, set up past the outskirts of Jat Tou. I was pretty sure they'd built their own buildings, since they didn't look anything like the ones in Jat Tou, and by comparison they looked really old-world and out of place. There were about twelve hundred soldier trainees here, along with some number of instructors and all the civilians living here, so in all it was about four or five thousand people. It was one of the more elite barracks, Keyd had told me, and where a lot of kids from high-blooded warrior families were trained ever since Clarylon had become inaccessible.
Keyd and I came out of the rift near the general area of the entrance to the barracks camp, just inside the large wooden gate on a patch of dusty sun-bleached grass. It was a nice sunny day here, cloudless and warm and bright, and I felt like I was blinded. After the near dark of Abyah, this was like a Halogen in the face. I winced and clapped a hand over my eyes, smacking right into Keyd's back because he'd stopped walking. Probably blinded too.
"Shit," I heard him mutter, in English. Another word he'd picked up from me. I was a really good influence, obviously. "Ow."
I shook my head a little and peered through my fingers, because I could hear someone coming our way, and it was probably bad form to meet someone with your hand over your face. It took me a second of blinking and adjusting before I could totally lower my hands, and Keyd was doing the same next to me.
It was Marjaehl who was heading our way, walking as fast as he could without actually running. You didn't run up to the agistar unless you had something really important to say, or some really bad news. It was just one of those Not Done things. Marjaehl was something like an overseer or proctor of the barracks. He had once been a soldier himself, and on Keyd's grandfather's ghereen, so I think he respected their entire family line. He always treated Keyd like a real authority figure, at least. He looked like he was maybe in his mid-sixties—just a really fit, athletic sixties—and of course his hair was still jet black. Nobody had grey hair with these people.
"Arjalaos," Marjaehl said, bowing to Keyd. "And hiejjan," he added, looking at me. He seemed to be okay with me, too—he always treated me all right. Not a lot of people even bothered to address me like that. I gave him a little bow back.
"Balahekka Najeen," Keyd said to him, using his title and family name. He was still blinking a little harder than normal against the sunlight. "Good morning. Your reports, please."
"Of course," Marjaehl said as and Keyd started walking at a casual pace into the camp. Because this was a permanent one, the buildings were all actual buildings, and not tents. They were sleeping barracks and mess halls and offices and studying and teaching rooms, and they even had a little library here, manned by a Keeper. The sky was a clear and cloudless blue above us, and over the roofs of the buildings I could see little smoke trails rising up from the town that sat behind the camp. I kept up at an even, but politely distanced, pace with Keyd and Marjaehl, walking slightly behind them and to Keyd's left. I was acting as my title right now, which I was even lucky to have, so I couldn't really complain about having to dog at Keyd's heels. I was still worried about him, after that nightmare of a Council, but he was acting like it hadn't even happened.
Marjaehl was giving Keyd a rundown of the last month or so in the camp, going on with statistics about resource consumption, something about the new soldiers who had just come in to start their training, the morale with the locals of Xot, a lot of stuff. I just tagged along and listened to it all, mentally filing away the most important of it. Morale was a really key thing, in any world, but the—I don't know, Kottians?—were still groovy with us, according to Marjaehl. Everything else seemed to be fine in the camp; it usually was, Marjaehl ran it pretty efficiently.
I felt something suddenly as we walked through the camp, a sense coming through the antshil bond that Keyd and I shared, familiar and strong. Keyd felt it at the same time as I did, and he glanced back over his shoulder at me.
"Rysa's here too," I mouthed at him. Keyd nodded, smiling a little before turning back to Marjaehl.
I was excited about Rysa being here at the same time as us. We'd just seen her in Abyah, obviously, but that had all been business. We saw her any time there was a Council (or a battle, unfortunately), and we were always by passing each other in different places, but only a couple of times a month did we actually get to like, sit and talk with each other. Keyd and I both missed her a lot. I had a pretty good idea of why she'd come here, too, and it didn't entirely have to do with us.
Marjaehl was apparently taking Keyd to go meet the new group of soldiers that had just started training, since we were heading towards a group of neatly lined up soldiers in front of one of the buildings. There were about twenty of them, all young and stiff and determined to not look as nervous as they were. They were all kids of high-blooded elite ranked soldiers anyway, but they probably had never met the agistar personally before. Cadets had the most boring uniforms ever, mostly in browns and dark greys and blacks, and they all wore green sashes tied around their waists which signified their low rank.
A guy with a grayish-blue sash was standing in front of them all, and he broke away to come up to Keyd and Marjaehl. Grey-blue meant he wasn't a cadet, but he wasn't very high in the military structure either. Marjaehl had a tan sash, which was a higher rank, and Keyd's dark red one was obviously the highest you could get. I didn't get a sash or a color, because I wasn't really in the military, technically. Keyd spoke with the grey-blue sash guy for a second, then both he and Marjaehl stood off to the side while Keyd went up to the first soldier in line, a kid with wildly curly black hair and an expression somewhere between awed and stricken.
Keyd had to talk to each other of these guys personally, which wouldn't have happened with any other group of rookies. But that was kind of what happened with all this high-blooded elitist stuff—blatant favoritism. And Keyd was expected to show it. If he didn't, it was actually disrespectful. I was pretty sure Keyd disliked doing it, since he was a hardcore equal rights guy, but it was more politics and tradition and he was pretty stuck. He got deep bows from each of the overwhelmed-looking kids and spent a little time talking to each of them, until he got to about the fifth kid down the row.
This guy was mad about something, even before Keyd said a word to him. I had no idea what about, or if Keyd even knew him personally, because I sure as hell didn't recognize him. But he looked like he'd just about rather throw a punch at Keyd than bow to him. He did bow, but in a jerking, strained way that even made Keyd, who was still not so good at reading people, notice that something was weird. He gave the kid a second glance and said something to him that made the kid look away and give a stiff, one word answer. He was almost visibly shaking, his hands bunched up at his sides. Which was weird in general, because clar didn't usually display emotions eagerly, especially these military guys.
Keyd frowned a little—which came out as just a slight tightening of his eyes—but moved on to the next kid, a girl who was blinking very rapidly and looked pretty pink in the face. Nobody else in the line reacted like that other guy, and I kept my eyes on him. He was staring at the ground, his fists still curled hard at his sides. I saw the pink-faced girl whisper something to him after Keyd had moved on from her, but he just shook his head tightly.
When Keyd was almost done addressing the new troops, a woman in leather under-armor came along between two of the barracks buildings at a brisk stride, heading for Marjaehl. She got up right to his side and spoke, in a subtle little murmur, into his ear. This was how people always spoke to each other when Keyd was around, and I'd gotten used to it. It was like they didn't want to bother him if it wasn't important enough to tell him personally about it. He listened to her for a minute, said something back, and then turned me.
"You must excuse me for a moment," he said. "Please make my apologies to Keydestas."
"Ah, sure," I said. Keyd was still busy with the rookies, anyway. "I will."
Marjael gave me a brisk little head-bow, turned and strode off together with the woman. I watched Keyd finish up chatting with the cadets, and then they all went off in an orderly line after the guy with the grey-blue sash. That left me and Keyd basically alone together. And since Marjaehl was gone, I didn't have to stay stuck behind Keyd anymore. I sidled up to him and nudged him with my shoulder, and he put his hand on me, close to my neck. Not anything real affectionate, just a casual touch that would even have been okay between any two men of this society, but it meant more to us.
"Hey, Marjaehl had something to go deal with, I guess," I said, trying not to lean into him too much, because that wouldn't have been as okay. "So we should find Rysa. It's been a while."
Keyd nodded. "I was thinking the same."
He rubbed his thumb just a little into the muscle of my shoulder, and I laughed and shrugged him off. "Stop flirting," I told him, and Keyd smiled down at his feet.
"Sorry," he said, and bumped his shoulder back against mine, lightly. It was a really hard fight to not just push him up against the side of the nearest building and screw all this stupid public decency, but I managed to keep myself in line. We weren't in danger of getting killed for it anymore, but now it was just a matter of professionalism. I put my hand on his arm instead.
"Are you okay?" I asked him, and he nodded.
"Better," he said. "I don't want to think about that Council right now, or what will happen because of it. Let's just find Rysa."
That was easy enough. It was pretty simple to find another person when you had a bond with them that got stronger with proximity, and could act like a sort of mental GPS. Keyd and I barely had to focus at all to know which way to head to find Rysa; deeper into the camp back towards the soldier bunkhouses. We walked together side by side, but not touching, both of us following the impression we were getting from Rysa through antshil.
It didn't take long to find her—and I'd been right about why she was here. She and a soldier named Damaojuhn were walking along the path between the bunk houses together. They weren't touching or holding hands or generally looking like anything more than two people walking next to each other (like Keyd and me, really), but Damao kept brushing non-existent wrinkles out of his shirt and Rysa kept smoothing her hair behind her ears every time the breeze blew it forward. And the last thing Rysa ever worried about was her hair. I mean, the girl was wearing body bulkening leather armor pads all over her body and was carrying a sword strapped to her back and two knives at her belt. Her appearance was always practical and appropriate to what she was—a warrior.
Though, she definitely deserved to be a girl sometimes, and if worrying about her hair in front of a guy she kinda liked was the worst of it, then that was hardly anything at all. She was gorgeous anyway, so she shouldn't even have worried. She caught sight of me and Keyd walking towards them, and looked a little startled—which meant she hadn't been paying attention to the bond very much. Then she smiled and veered towards us, and Damao followed her.
Damao was tall, square-jawed and black-haired, and had this Celtic-looking mark on his face that had actually gotten bigger since I'd met him. The physical marks of the oen actually did that as they and their hosts got stronger; I'd even noticed the mark around Keyd's eye had changed a little since we'd first met. Damao had once been my jailer when I'd been under arrest for betraying military plans to the clarbach, but he'd been a good guy. I didn't know him well, but I trusted Rysa's judgment on people.
Damao looked like he wasn't sure if he should bow, faint, or run away when he and Rysa came to a stop in front of us. Keyd stepped forward and threw his arms around her, and Rysa squeezed him back hard for a second before reaching out, grabbing the front of my shirt, and hauling me in to join their hug. When we let go of each other, all of us were flushed a little—from our bond, from seeing each other again, and maybe from grabbing each other too hard. Damao, meanwhile, had slid off to the side, his eyes fixed nervously on Keyd. Rysa noticed this, rolled her eyes, grabbed his hand, and pulled him back into place next to her.
"Keyd," she said, offhandedly, "have I mentioned to you that Damao has accepted my offer of ouharma?"
"I'm glad to hear it," Keyd said, with one of his mild—but genuine—smiles. Damao looked slightly more relaxed, and he inclined his whole upper body into a deep bow towards Keyd.
"I would have hoped that you would approve," he said, with only the slightest of stutters. I understood why—trying to date the agistar's adoptive sister would probably be really scary for a non-ranked and fairly average-blooded guy like Damao. If dating was what they were doing. He was doing a pretty good job of not being a total basket case, and at least Keyd was smiling at him. Keyd could be seriously intimidating, I knew that as well as anyone, and if he was legitimately angry or unhappy about something it was really damn terrifying to have him confront you about it. Or to see him confront someone else about it.
"I do," Keyd said, looking at Rysa. She gave him a little smile, brushed her hair back behind her ears again, and firmed up her grip on Damao's hand.
"Are you here for long?" she asked, meaning both of us.
"I still need to confer with Korenrajh," —he was something like the mayor of the little civilian town next door— "which does not leave us much free time," Keyd said, frowning a little.
"We'll be here until tomorrow," I said. Hey, I did have a minimal amount of influence over Keyd's schedule, if only in being able to push the timeline back a little. I could totally clear space for Keyd to catch up with his as-good-as-blood sister. Plus, I missed her too.
"Good," Rysa said, and she winked at me.
"Later tonight, then," Keyd said to her. She nodded, and she and Damao headed on past us, Damao still looking a little like he'd survived a deadly encounter with a wild animal. Rysa still had a grip on his hand, and I had to feel just slightly jealous that she got to do that without worrying about who cared.
"So, what was that?" I asked Keyd, as we walked back towards the main central area of the barracks. "That Rysa was saying—that ouharma thing."
"It means that she and Damao are courting," Keyd said, and then added with a smile, "rather, Rysa is courting him."
"And that means what?" I said, not surprised to hear that Rysa was the active force in whatever kind of relationship she and Damao had.
"It means they are…" Keyd scrunched up his eyes a little, like he wasn't sure how to explain. "That they…want to spend time in each other's company for purposes beyond that of friendship."
"They're dating," I said, nearly laughing at Keyd's dumb and endearing way of putting it. "Okay, I got it. That's nice. I'm glad she's, you know, got someone."
It had been impossible to ever think of Rysa like a third wheel to Keyd and mine's relationship, just because of our friendship and the antshil bond all three of us shared, but I always felt a little guilty that Keyd and I spent a lot of time together and left her out, since I was pretty new in his life compared to her. And she had never been perfectly accepted with the oenclar, just because of having grown up in a clarbach city and having an entire clarbach family, and Keyd had been all she had had for a long time. I was glad Damao didn't seem to care about her origins. And as far as I knew, he'd liked her for a pretty long time.
"I am too," Keyd said, and his hand found mine and slipped our fingers together. After that Council, I was pretty surprised he would even risk doing this. But I squeezed his hand back and hoped we could do it for just a little longer. I missed stuff like this. A lot of the time I missed it more than I missed being able to have time for sex.
We were back in the open central area of the barracks now, and lots of soldiers and cadets-in-training were around. Keyd still had my hand, and he wasn't letting go, even as we walked through the more public area. I saw a bunch of the kids from the new training group hanging around by one the buildings, including the guy who had reacted so badly to Keyd. He glanced at us as we passed, and quickly looked away.
"I should tell Marjhael that I need to meet with Koren," Keyd said, glancing around. "Where'd he go?"
"I dunno, he ran off with that woman earlier," I said, looking around myself. Marjhael usually stuck pretty close to us when we were here, but sometimes he had stuff to deal with. One thing about the clar, nobody was a slacker. They were always doing something.
"I suppose he could figure out for himself where I've gone," Keyd said. He moved his hand in mine a little, and I thought he was going to let go, but he only adjusted his fingers and kept the same firm grip. "We could go and get this over with now, and have more time with Rysa."
"…right," I said, a little distractedly. My face felt warm, and most of my attention was focused to where Keyd was touching my skin. It felt stupid to get so worked up over something like this, but we just never did this in public, and I felt kind of giddy about it. We kept things incredibly platonic, but people were still offended by us anyway. Maybe we could stop being so concerned about what we couldn't change. And hand-holding was pretty mild, anyway.
Keyd turned to me and give me a little smile. He had gotten much better at reading me, over the course of a year, and he could always tell when he was affecting me. And we also had this little bond that just happened to transfer a good amount of physical feelings. Useful a lot of the time, embarrassing the rest of it.
"And maybe time for us, too," he added, and I laughed a little.
"I gotta learn to be more subtle," I said. Keyd touched the side of my face with the back of his fingers, then threaded his hand around the back of my neck, and pulled me to him. Damn, Keyd was being really ballsy today, especially after what had already happened with the Council. But it was really fine with me. I dug my hands into his hair and kissed him back. His hands, warm and firm and gentle, slid down from my shoulders all the way down my back, to grip my waist and tug me just a little closer.
We didn't kiss for that long, but I was grinning stupidly by the time he let go of me. I'd pretty much forgotten we had stuff to do or even where we were. I'd taken an unconscious step back towards him, staring at his mouth, before I caught myself and hung back. Keyd pushed some hair out of his face and gave me an almost shy smile.
"I—" he said, but that was as far as he got before I heard a shout from behind us, and felt a deep crackling surge of someone forming a lot of wild, uncontrolled energy. Just feeling it was like getting pummeled in the chest by an electrified hammer, and I lurched back a little in pure reflex.
Something hit me in the back of my head, something heavy and burning like heated metal, stabbing deep into the back of my skull and spreading like molten heat down my spine. I lost feeling, instantly, through my entire body. I heard a high-pitched, droning ringing, and my vision went grey.
Then, total blackness fell over that; heavy and cold and complete.
Pwwmf. Oh, yes, small added notes.
There's a lot of set-up in the first part of this novel for payoff in later parts. So it doesn't appear like things are happening relevantly or really being anywhere near plotty for a while. But they are. It just doesn't start out as obvious like the rest of them mostly have. I realized that just a few days ago and thought, 'wow, this really looks like it has no plot for a while'. So I thought I'd better explain myself preemptively. :)
A note on reviews/reviewers: you guys are awesome and amazing. Seriously, I probably read every review I get like thirty times, and randomly go back once in a while (when I'm procrastinating on writing) to read them all again. I try to respond to a lot of them, but sometimes I forget to, or I think I wrote something but really I only thought of a response in my head. But, um, yeah. It feels really cool to see how many people really enjoy this series, because it was just this little doofy idea that really ran away from me and tried to make itself epic. Even the quiet people who just fav/alert (I totally understand that, because I'm a super huge lurker) are totally, completely appreciated.
Bah, short notes are not short.