[VIII]

Kir and Hahd and I all got up against each other right away, kind of a three man back-to-back with the alley wall covering the last side. In some part of my mind I felt awesome about these guys trusting me to keep them covered. They hadn't moved to protect just me, but we'd all moved to protect each other. I didn't know how we'd been found out, or if somebody had sold us out, but ten or fifteen soldiers showing up on top of us meant something had happened, and it wasn't good.

One guy stepped out from the group of guards that had followed us from the plaza, and came right towards us. He was super fucking tall, even more than usual for these guys—pushing or even breaking seven feet—and his short hair had skipped over blond and gone straight to white.

I recognized him right away. His name was Asaed, and he didn't like me much. The feeling was pretty damn mutual.

"Fuck," I said through my teeth, and at my side Kir made a low questioning noise in his throat. "I know this guy."

Asaed clearly recognized the hell out of me, too. I was really the only one of the three of us he was looking at, and it wasn't in a friendly way. I had prickles running fucking relay races up and down my spine, and it was all I could do to hold still and not just make a run for it. My flight reflex was on full throttle, but there wasn't anywhere to fucking go. We were cut off and surrounded and all these guys had swords and I'd probably be dead before I took three steps. And then Kir and Hahd would probably be dead, too.

"I wouldn't try it," Asaed said, looking straight at me. He could probably tell how bad I was itching to run. I didn't know what the hell he was even doing in the city because from what I knew of him, he was some kind of big commander guy who got in on a lot of war action. I mean, he had a blind eye and a giant scar across his neck. I rarely saw anybody who was that obviously battle damaged, and I was around soldiers 24/7.

Hahd muttered something in Isji then that was so quiet I didn't even catch it. But Asaed must have heard, and he didn't like it much. He stepped forward and backhanded Hahd right across the face in one fast move.

This was a hit from a seven foot tall soldier. Hahd wasn't exactly a small guy either, but it actually knocked him sideways into the wall. He went hard, didn't get his balance in time and stumbled to his knees. He didn't get up right away.

"Don't speak that slave language near me," Asaed said to him through his teeth. He looked at me again. "Get him up."

Sure, pick the smallest guy to help out the biggest one, right, that was awesome. But I got down at Hahd's side and grabbed his arm, slung it around my shoulders. I got pretty close to him as I did, enough so I could talk to him without anybody hearing me.

"You okay?" I muttered right in his ear. Hahd nodded and dragged his hand over his mouth. It came away bloody. And there was already a big red mark across his face where Asaed had smacked him. Hahd mostly got himself to his feet; I really only helped to steady him.

"I will speak to you, then," Kir said to Asaed while we were doing that. I think he was talking clarbach at him. "So that you are not offended."

I almost wanted to laugh—Kir really had some balls on him. Even I wouldn't have said something like that to Asaed right after seeing what he'd done to someone who said something he didn't like. Asaed didn't look much happier that Kir could speak a language he could understand, but at least he didn't hit him. He made quick choppy motion with his hands, and some of the guards around us started moving closer in.

"The three of you are under arrest," Asaed said, as one of the guards grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me away from Hahd, wrenching my arms behind me. I couldn't fight him off; it wouldn't even be smart to try. Kir and Hahd were getting manhandled in about the same way. This was what—like the third time I'd ever been arrested? This was the first time by the clarbach, but my criminal record was getting pretty impressive here.

Kir wasn't done being a smartass. "For what reasons?" he asked, real politely, like he didn't actually fucking know. I was still waiting for Asaed to smack him around for all this, but all he did was stare real hard at Kir for a minute, then snort and turn away. Another fast little hand motion over his shoulder, and the guys who were on me and Kir and Hahd started moving us after him. No Miranda rights here.

They didn't take us back towards the plaza, or towards the main part of the city at all. We cut through more back alleys and once across a wider main street, passing a couple of groups of people who'd probably been at the festival since they were all in whites and blues. None of them seemed to care much about the huge clump of guards walking through the street. Not all of the ones who'd tailed us from the plaza had come with us, but it was still Asaed and six other guys.

It wasn't long before we hit the river, and went over an arched white bridge to a real small island sitting right in the middle of the water. So small that there was only room for one little building on it, round and kind of squat with a dome on top. The single door was narrow and dark and there was a super complicated looking lock right in the middle of it. Asaed started messing with something on his wrist, some kind of cuff or bracelet, while the guards corralled me and Kir and Hahd up on the steps behind him.

Asaed unlocked the door with whatever the thing on his wrist was, and pushed the door open into darkness. He disappeared inside, and Kir and Hahd and I were marched in after him. Lights washed on along the walls, in the single room inside. It was round and boring and empty in here. White brick walls and a chalky stone floor. The only thing in the entire little building was the metal handrail of a spiral staircase that was going down into the ground. Why did so much shit go underground in this city? First the temple, and now this—it wasn't like they didn't have any room up here.

But down was the only place to go, and so down we went; two guards in between each of us. The stairs emptied down into some kind of underground tunnel. I'd figured it'd be damp and dark and kind of awful down here, since we had to be under the river. But it was actually dry and cool, and the space we were standing in was lit up with a bunch of lights strung in two lines along the rounded ceiling. They weren't a lot bigger than Christmas lights, but they were bright as hell. I would've thought it was electricity, but I was pretty sure these guys didn't actually have that. Not that I'd ever seen.

Once we were all down in the tunnel, we turned a hard right and started walking. The lights moved with us, blinking on a couple feet or so ahead of us and fading off again once we passed by, so we were always in a bright patch. The tunnel was long and narrow and echoey, and all I heard for a long time was the noise of our footsteps ringing back off the walls at us. It smelled kind of like dirt and something more chalky and bitter down here. Once in a while other tunnels opened up off to the sides, but we never took one. Just kept heading straight and forward, nobody talking, our shadows harsh on the tiled floor.

After a good long time, the tunnel dumped us out into a big round room. There were more tunnels branching off of it—maybe they went through the whole city, some kind of underground system. The tiles on the floor were patterned in a ring, and there was another spiral staircase right in the middle, twisting up and out of sight through the ceiling.

And that's where we were going. Two of the guards went up first and disappeared. Then Asaed knocked Hahd hard in the back and shoved him forward at the stairs.

"Hey—" I started, because that was totally unnecessary, but I caught a sharp look from Kir and shut up. I didn't know why Asaed seemed to have it out for Hahd suddenly more than me, maybe because of whatever he'd said before that Asaed hadn't liked, but it was getting me angry. If Asaed wanted to rough somebody up, it should be me.

Once Hahd was on the staircase, he was pretty much stuck—there was a metal railing going around it and he couldn't go anywhere else but up. Another two guards went up after him, and then Kir got moved forwards and marched up by the last two guards, until it was just me and Asaed left alone. He turned towards me, and I grit my jaw and started for the stairs myself before he could start shoving me around. But Asaed side-stepped fast and actually blocked them, sliding himself right in my way. Well, shit. That couldn't be good.

"You," he said, his face hard and shoulders set. And fuck, that blind eye was creepy, especially because it didn't look like it was looking anywhere. But his other one was narrowed right at me.

"Yeah, me," I said, already getting ready for a fight, or needing to defend myself, or something. I was just not on this guy's buddy list. This couldn't be just a friendly chat.

"It would have been so much easier," Asaed said, "to have simply gotten rid of you before. You were troublesome enough the first time."

"Yeah, I know, I fucked up your plans," I said. "Still not sorry about it."

"It is fortunate," he said, taking a step closer, "that you were stupid enough to get yourself noticed, arrogant enough to believe you could come here without consequences, and that you still foolishly seem to believe yourself untouchable. It's almost a pleasure to prove you wrong."

I wondered if Kir and Hahd and all the other guys would be able to hear it if Asaed started trying to kill me down here. Would any of those guards care, try and stop him, or...was that the whole point? Leaving us alone like this so he could do whatever he wanted. Nobody'd come back down yet to see what was taking us so long.

"So what're you gonna do?" I said. I could defend myself well enough, but I'd seen how fast this guy could move, with Hahd. He'd definitely get the first hit in, and that was probably all he'd need.

"Taking you to haemasach Aleif directly," Asaed said, which was—what? Not what I'd expected to hear. "You wanted so badly to see her before, you must not mind being brought to her again."

Hah hah, you're fucking hilarious, I thought, but didn't actually say. He might've slapped me for it.

"That's seriously all?" I said. He just wanted to take us to Aleif, the agistar here? Then what was with the creepy conversation right now—trapping me here and getting all intense.

A muscle ticked in Asaed's jaw. "It's not what I would do," he said, practically growling it out. "But I have orders."

"Then shouldn't we get on those?" I said, because I didn't want to spend another fucking minute down here alone with this guy.

Asaed kept staring at me for a couple of long, long seconds. Then he grunted and stepped aside, motioning me towards the stairs. What the fuck had been the point of all this, then? If it was just to tell me how much he didn't like me, I'd already known that. I didn't even get intimidated very easy anymore, not after all the shit I'd been through with...well, like half the people I'd met in the past year. So Asaed's little act here didn't impress me much.

But if what he'd said was actually true, if I was going to Aleif again—I wasn't sure how to prepare for that. She'd been...sort of decent, the first time I'd met her. But I'd been trying to help her out that time, in a way. And I hadn't snuck into the city with a couple of enemy soldiers. That just looked bad. And Aleif was one person who actually could make me nervous, because I didn't understand her at all or why she did any of the things that she had.

The stairs took me up to a round room with a domed ceiling and lots of fancy carvings in all the pale stone on the walls. There was one door, a big arched metal thing, and it was closed. Yellow light shone in a thin line beneath it. Kir and Hahd were already sitting on separate benches against the wall, two guards each on either side of them. The last ones had apparently been waiting for me, because they got me by the arms and hustled me over to another bench.

Asaed had come up the stairs right at my heels, and he now he strode across the room to the door. He put his hand onto a sort of an engraved flat panel in the metal, and did something with his energy. I could feel it, just a little spark that ran through me like a shiver.

"Taho ekei inpahetta annai," Asaed said over his shoulder, and every single guard nodded at the exact same time. That was kinda creepy. Then he pushed the door open and disappeared through. It clanked shut behind him.

The guards with us stayed right where they were, not moving from their spots around the room. Still six of them, too many for us to take, otherwise I might've been tempted to try it. Because there was no fucking way this was turning out well. What I wanted to know was how we'd been found out. And why Asaed, who was some real high-up war commander guy, had been in charge of arresting us. Maybe they thought we were just that much of a threat.

The one thing I really wanted to do was to tell Kir and Hahd that I was sorry. They shouldn't've been here, they didn't need this. But I couldn't say anything to them without yelling across the room, and Kir was leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed so I couldn't even snag his attention. Hahd was rubbing at his jaw and frowning at his knees, not looking my way either. I knotted up my hands and pressed my forehead to them, staring at the shiny marble floor under my feet.

We waited there for a long time. At least an hour, maybe two. Asaed didn't come back, and no one else showed up either. The guys standing around the room were pretty impressive at standing completely still; sometimes I almost forgot they were there, or alive. The bench started to get really fucking uncomfortable after the first thirty minutes, but whenever I moved around too much one of the guards would give me kind of a look.

Finally—finally—the door pulled open again. I looked up, expecting Asaed, but it wasn't him. There was a tiny little person in the doorway instead, small enough to definitely be a kid, wearing a long hooded robe and no shoes. I could see one bare foot poking out from under the edge of the fabric.

I'd seen these kids before—they'd been popping up all over the place the last time I was here. The kid didn't say anything at all, or do anything, but apparently just standing there in the doorway was good enough. A hand dropped down on each of my shoulders and the guards next to me started dragging me up to my feet. The other guards pulled Kir and Hahd up at the same time, and we were all shuffled out of the doors into a long stone hallway with an arched ceiling. The robed kid scurried along in front of us—almost running because of how small it was and how much longer of a stride the rest of us had.

We took a couple turns down different hallways, which all looked the same and I had no idea how this kid knew where it was going. Finally we ended up in a really short hall, with one single dark wood door at the end. There was a woman standing next to it, dressed in pale leather with a sword at her belt. When we got up to her, she and the hooded kid exchanged a quick nod, and then she pushed the door open for us and led us through.

Behind the door was a smallish room with red wood floors and huge tall windows along one wall, covered in white metal designs. And I recognized it. This was Aleif's office, or the place where she met with people like me who kept showing up to bother her. Either way, I'd been in here before, and it looked exactly the same. There was the same fake light coming in the windows, the same tall bookshelves, and the same really tall spindly desk with the really tall chair. Aleif was sitting in it, just like last time.

Her long ice-blond hair was pulled back in the same way, and she was wearing a long dress in the colors we'd been seeing all night; blues and whites. Had she been at the festival? Maybe she'd been the one who'd picked me out and recognized me. I seriously wanted to fucking know how we'd got found out, because everything had been going so good. Where'd we fucked up? Okay, yeah, maybe going to the festival hadn't been such a winner idea, but unless it really had been Aleif, I was pretty sure that wasn't where I'd been recognized. It'd been somebody else, somewhere else.

Aleif waited until the three of us had been shuffled into the room, and then she slid neatly down from her chair. A whole bunch of extra fabric fell around her feet. It was a really long dress. She came closer to us, and made a little movement with one of her hands. Right away, all six guys who'd escorted us in here about-faced and went right out. Just like that. The only people who stayed were the hooded kid, and the other woman who looked like some kind of personal guard.

"Please take all that off," was the first thing Aleif said, gesturing one hand at Kir and Hahd. Or more like at their hair. Hahd glanced at me, and I nodded. What could it hurt; she clearly knew they weren't actually clarbach. Hahd frowned, then pinched at the air like he was snagging an invisible thread. Black spread out from the roots of his hair down to the tips in a couple seconds flat. Kir's took a lot longer, spreading down his whole long ponytail like a sponge absorbing ink. I pulled the energy that I'd been letting float around both of them back at the same time, so the feel of their real energy was there instead.

"Much better," Aleif said. She looked at me. "Now. I know who you are, Alan," she said. Christ, she even remembered my name. "But who are these others?"

"Friends," I said. "My friends." I almost asked her not to hurt them, but she was the agistar and could do whatever she wanted and technically, we were enemies. She had every right to do whatever she wanted to them, or me.

Aleif moved closer to us, the end of that long dress sliding behind her like a tail. I could feel Hahd and Kir both tensing up next to me, and there was a sudden buzz in the air I hadn't felt for a long time—not since the last time I'd been around oenclar and clarbach getting this physically close to each other. The entities in them were reacting to each other, now that I wasn't blocking them from each other with a bunch of throw-off energy.

I saw Aleif's eyes flick down to the split in Hahd's lip, which wasn't bleeding anymore but was swelling up pretty good. "Asaed's work?" she asked him. Hahd gave one curt nod towards the wall behind her. "I thought so. My apologies for it."

Hahd startled, and glanced at her. So did I. Why did Aleif have to go and keep being a perfectly nice lady? It made it so fucking hard to think of her as the force behind an entire half of the war. Hahd didn't say anything back to her; probably still remembering getting smacked in the face the last time he'd talked.

Aleif moved on to Kir then, glancing him over thoughtfully. He stayed totally still, but unlike Hahd, he met her eyes.

"You are bautan," she said. Kir drew in a little breath through his nose.

"Yes," he said.

Aleif reached out and touched the back of his hair, at the leather strap where it was all pulled up into the ponytail. Kir closed his eyes under her hand, like he was waiting for something awful to go down. But she dropped her arm without doing anything. "You have a wife as well," she said.

Kir didn't even hesitate. "A husband," he said.

I was pretty surprised he'd said that, but maybe he figured he was already in deep shit here and it couldn't get worse. Even telling her he was married to another man. But it gave me a sudden big punch of guilt about pulling him into this, bringing him here, and then getting him caught. He and Darban had only been married for two weeks and half of that time Kir'd been on the road with me. Jesus. It shouldn't have been him; why had I fucking dragged him along? Because he was one of the few people Keyd trusted enough—fuck that, I shouldn't have picked him anyway. Sure he'd been flattered, but…it was still unfair.

Aleif was still looking closely at Kir, but I couldn't tell what the hell she was thinking. She definitely didn't seem like she had an issue with it, but who really knew with her. "I see," she said. And then, "houlm dao doné epri."

Didn't mean anything to me and didn't translate, but Kir's jaw nearly dropped.

"You…" he said, "you as well?"

"One, but not the other," Aleif said. She touched the braid that was flipped forward over her shoulder. Kir just kept staring at her, and now I was too. Wait wait wait, she was bautan? That...made no fucking sense. I knew something about Kir's religion, enough to know that it was based on peace and harmony and new-agey kind of stuff. The word even meant 'peace', for fuck's sake. So if Aleif practiced it, why the hell was she also backing up a massive war?

"I don't understand," Kir said, which had to be the first time in my life I'd ever heard him say that.

"Yes, well," Aleif said. "Sometimes responsibility goes beyond personal beliefs."

I was getting so damn confused here. I knew from my last time here that Aleif had wanted the agistar position and worked hard to get it—she hadn't inherited it, or been pushed or stumbled into it. If she didn't like war, if even her religion was against it, then….nope, I had no fucking idea what was going on. Not even a good guess.

Kir obviously didn't either. He still looked as confused as I'd ever seen him. Aleif seemed sort of amused by everything, but she didn't explain any more than that.

"I would speak with you about the differences the sect has evolved between our people, and the similarities that remain," she said. "Unfortunately, this is neither the time nor the situation to do so. You—" and now she was talking to all of us, looking around at me and Hahd too, "—have entered our city uninvited and unannounced. Even in less dangerous times, this would hardly be considered friendly."

"It has nothing to do with the war," I said. This whole thing had been my idea, I'd hauled Kir and Hahd along on my crazy scheme, so it was my duty to take responsibility and speak the hell up. "I just came here to talk with...somebody. A friend."

"The matter must be quite important," Aleif said, "for you to risk yourself and two companions with such a journey."

"They risked themselves. I wanted to come by myself."

"You have loyal friends."

"Yeah," I said. "I do." I had amazing friends, actually, and if I got them killed I was never gonna fucking forgive myself. This was why I'd wanted to come here alone. Even if I was really aware by now of exactly how far I would've gotten without their help.

"And is your business here finished?" Aleif asked me then.

"No," I admitted. In fact I was probably missing it right now. Shit. Fuck. All this fucking way and we get caught right at the worst goddamn time. And it was my own stupid fault, because I'd had the bright fucking idea to go and run around in public in the first place.

"Ah," Aleif said. "That is unfortunate."

"Yeah," I said. "It is."

She just kept looking at me, like agreeing with her wasn't enough and she wanted something else out of me, some other kind of explanation or justification or something.

So I decided to just go the fuck ahead and give it a shot. "What I need here, I can't get anywhere else," I said. "I wouldn't have come here, I know how stupid it is, I know we're the enemy and we shouldn't be here and if there was anything else I could have done, I'd've done it. And I'm really sorry you have to deal with us but frankly we weren't planning to get caught. We would've just left afterwards, you know, quietly—no harm done."

I had to take a breath at the end of all that and I held it in hard, waiting. Then, I heard Kir add quietly, "it is a matter of keppha."

I knew that word, knew what it meant. It was a thing in Kir's religion—so Aleif would know exactly what it meant too—that was basically the reason why Kir thought that Keyd and I had a kind of destiny thing going on between us, that we'd always been meant to be an important part of each other's lives in some way. I didn't think I believed in it, but Kir did, and even Keyd did, and if Aleif really was bautan then she probably did too, and it would mean something to her.

So I lied. "Yeah," I said. "It is."

Aleif gave me the hardest and most assessing look I could ever remember getting from anyone, in my entire life, and I was dating one of the most intense people I'd ever met. I held my breath the whole time she looked at me, which probably wasn't the best way to look natural, but I couldn't've relaxed even if I wanted to.

"I thought, when we met before, that you were unusual," she said, finally. "But I seem to have underestimated just how much."

"Thanks, I think," I said.

Aleif smiled. She had a nice smile, and it felt genuine, but I was still fucking terrified. I didn't know what she wanted, what she thought of all this, what she was going to do with us.

"This is quite an unusual situation," she said then, and I almost laughed because—hell, understatement. "I expect your loyalty is much more embedded elsewhere now than it was when you last came to me. Still, I cannot consider you as an enemy." Aleif turned away from me, to look over at Kir and Hahd again. "But not so for these others. They will be confined in the barracks outside the city, guarded, but allowed to leave when your business here is done. I won't have them free within our walls. You must agree to this."

There was an unspoken or else it won't be good for any of you tagged onto the end of that sentence. Kir and Hahd both looked pretty unhappy to hear it. But it made sense and, honestly, it was a hell of a lot better than anything I'd expected. Like that we might all be killed, or held for ransom, or put in jail forever. All of the things Keyd had been afraid of happening. And she'd said, when your business is done. That at least sounded promising.

"Guys," I said. "You have to."

"I promised K—I made a promise that I would protect you, Alan," Hahd said. I was glad he'd caught himself before saying Keyd's name, because I was still sure that telling Aleif I was the agistar's boyfriend, or even close to him at all, was a bad idea. "I can't do that from a prison."

Kir looked a little more thoughtful before he said anything. "Agreeing is the way to protect him. Alan has managed himself here before, on his own. And we are enemies who have come here in secret. Imprisonment with a promise of freedom is more than we could have expected. I'll accept the terms."

Kir really had a head on his shoulders, and I was so goddamn thankful for that. But Hahd looked startled and a little angry, and definitely like he wasn't thinking the same way.

"Kir," he said, through his teeth. "Hyje genjaral bahn anit akalan halava." Out of frequency, so Aleif couldn't understand. I was too rattled to think about translating it. Something about leaving.

Kir looked at him hard. And then he pulled rank.

"Kasjre Koya," he said, in a voice I'd never heard him use before. It was real firm and absolutely military. I hadn't expected it, and obviously neither had Hahd, because his eyes widened and he actually leaned back. "You will agree to these same terms."

Hahd still looked totally taken off-guard and honestly kind of stunned. Kir did outrank him, but maybe Hahd figured they were brothers-in-law now and he wouldn't pull something like that. But Kir really meant business. I didn't think I'd ever seen him mean so much business.

And it took a couple of seconds, but it did get Hahd to back down. He set his shoulders and stared down at the floor, breathing hard through his nose. "I'll agree," he said.

"Excellent," Aleif said at once. "I am glad of that; it will make this far easier for all of us. And I assure you," she added, looking at Hahd, "that Alan will be quite safe here. I will have people to personally make sure of that."

#

So Kir and Hahd were taken out to the barracks that were outside of the city walls. The guards that had brought us here in the first place took them down into the underground tunnels again, and they were just gone. Then I got put in a locked room by myself. It looked out on the plaza, the pointy spire in the middle, and the blue lanterns that were actually strung in a giant eight-pointed star shape over the whole area. It was probably pretty late by now, and the festival was over; the streets were empty except for groups of stragglers moving through the rain that had started to come down. All the carts and stands were still there, but shut down and dark. Water wiggled down the windows, and there wasn't much else for me to do in this room but sit in front of them and watch the drops race each other down the glass.

Aleif had kept her promise to me once before. I could really only hope that she'd do it again, and that Kir and Hahd would be all right. I hoped they'd be all right with each other after what Kir had done. It was legit of him to pull rank like that, but I could see Hahd not appreciating it much. Especially when he was taking his promise to look out for me so damn seriously. But out of the three of us, I was pretty sure I was the safest one. Aleif didn't seem to mind me very much, or at least she thought I was unusual, and she was letting me stay until I'd finished my "business" without even asking what it was.

But not on my own. I was stuck here in this locked room for a reason—I had to wait until a personal guard detail showed up. Since I was being allowed to stay in the city, I had to be kept track of at all times. Not only to keep me safe, but to make sure I didn't get up to anything weird. And to make sure I didn't go anywhere without someone tailing me. It was gonna be restrictive and bad and all I could think of was that somehow I had to get to Ociir's secret meeting later on tonight. Or this morning, hell, I had no idea what time it was now. It was late o'clock, that was about all I knew.

I couldn't go back to the temple to get in contact with him, either. I couldn't implicate Ociir in any of this and drag people working for Aleif right to his door. I probably couldn't ever get back to the temple again, at this point. The only thing that mattered back there anyway was the sword Keyd had given me, still hidden under the bed in the room we'd been staying in. It might be safe enough for a while, but I would not leave this goddamn city without it. I had to get that back no matter what.

It was probably about half an hour later that my guard detail showed up at the door. They were dressed the same way as the city guards had been, so I figured that's what they were; not regular soldiers. The guy was blond but the girl was closer to being completely white-haired, and for some reason she looked familiar. Which made no sense, because I really hadn't met anybody here the last time except Rysa's family and this girl definitely wasn't one of them. Her eyes were light lavender and her face was kind of average and I had no idea why I thought I'd seen her before.

They introduced themselves as Hson Unare and Oalne Isoel, like I was actually gonna remember those names for more than two minutes. They knew my name already. Isoel seemed kinda bored with the whole thing, like he was bummed about getting stuck with this detail—he didn't talk much, and made a lot of unimpressed faces that kind of reminded me of Rhet. Unare was pretty much all-business too, and I wasn't real hopeful about how fun it was gonna be to have these guys dogging me around.

I'd thought they were going to have me stay here in the government building so I'd be right under everybody's noses—but that wasn't what happened. Instead they took me out of the place entirely, into the rain and all the shut down dark stalls from the festival, and back into the city. And kind of surprisingly, we went to a laemenna. When Law had been in Uillad way back when, he'd been staying in one of these places—they were kinda like a hostel or a dorm. They hadn't made a lot of sense to me last time, but they did now that I knew there actually were a lot of other cities around here and people came through here from them. Last time I'd had no idea Uillad wasn't the only city around.

I got assigned to a room there; a twelve-by-twelve foot box on the third floor. Wood floor, pale brick walls, wooden shutters over a small half-circle window. There was a little bed, a shelf, a stool, and a table that folded out from the wall. Every single room around me seemed to be crammed full of people. Had to be for the festival; there were families and couples and little kids everywhere, and it sounded like all of them were still awake even at whatever time it was now. I could hear them through my walls, talking and banging shit around and laughing and making noise. Sometimes singing. It was almost like being back in the college dorms.

After Isoel had checked the room over for me pretty thoroughly—who knew what the hell he was actually looking to find— he and Unare got into a quiet little discussion in the doorway. It wasn't in frequency, so I had no idea what it was about. I sat down on the little bed, leaned over my knees, and waited for them to wrap it up.

If it was an argument, Unare looked like she'd won it. After one last glance at me, she bumped Isoel out of her way and disappeared through the doorway. Isoel gave her back kind of a dirty look, and then turned to me.

"There are facilities at the end of the hall," he said. Oh, man. I didn't want to think about what a communal bathroom was gonna be like. "You are allowed to go only there, and back to this room. Don't attempt to go anywhere else."

I fired a half-assed salute at him and lay back on the cot. "Okay," I said to the ceiling. "Gotcha."

Isoel hung around in the doorway for a couple more seconds, and then finally stepped out of the room and shut the door behind him. Without the light coming in from the hall it was suddenly a lot dimmer in here, with just the one little globe light on the wall. I heard footsteps going away, and I wondered where he and Unare were gonna hang out all night; up on this floor or downstairs or what. It didn't matter a lot, since the only real way out was the one front door on the first floor.

I really had to work on a plan to throw them off me. They were here to make sure I did not leave. Or, if I did, that one of them was with me. All the time. I couldn't go to Ociir's super special secret guerilla task force meeting tonight with Aleif's yes-men on my ass. And there was no way I could get any kind of message to Ociir about what had happened and where I was. Unless he somehow heard about it from somewhere else, he wouldn't know where the fuck I'd gone. It'd look like we went out to the festival and just never came back.

But before I did anything, I slept for about an hour. Just enough to get recharged, and to let everything settle down some out there. I thought I might need the extra energy for whatever I was gonna have to do tonight. I'd trained myself to nap pretty well by this point; sometimes with all the world-jumping and traveling and war camp outs and meeting with foreign leaders that Keyd and I did, a nap here and there was all the sleep we'd get for days.

When I woke up again, I even felt a little better. More prepared to get this shit done—sneaking past my guard and getting out of the laemenna, tracking down Ociir, getting to this secret separatist group and getting whatever information out of them there was. I could do it. I had to fucking do it. It was why I was here, the only reason, and I was so fucking close that I couldn't just roll over and give up now.

It was quiet in the rest of the building now; everyone'd finally gone to sleep. But that meant I couldn't make any noise without calling attention to myself. I climbed out of the cot carefully, went right to the window and checked that first. It had shutters over it, with no hinges on this side. So they either opened out or not at all. I pried up the little bronze latches keeping them together, then got my shoulder against them and shoved. The wood creaked and scraped against itself and then gave. Both shutters popped open.

Hell yeah.

Cold air snapped right in, bit through my clothes and whipped my hair around. The window was super small, and about ninety-five percent of the clarbach population couldn't have fit through it. But I would. For once around here, being smaller was giving me an advantage. It'd still be a hell of a squeeze, but I could get out of this building without needing to go past my guards. I really wished they hadn't stuck me up on the third floor. I'd have to climb out of the window and then scale down the building. I mean, I wasn't in bad shape, but I wasn't goddamn Spider-man. And I still had leftover aches from all the horseback riding.

But at least I had a fucking plan. Now I just had to get dressed and get out of here.

I started pulling on my boots as quietly as I could, wincing at every tick from the building and distant noise from outside. The floorboards squeaking softly under my feet sounded like the loudest thing I'd ever heard in my life. I even tried to hold my breath because breathing sounded too noisy.

When I heard the real quiet creak of wood outside my door, I froze; on instant alert. The back of my neck prickled and I really did quit breathing. There was still a dim light on out in the hall, and a thin line of it shone under the door. A dark shape moved in front of it, blotting out some of the light. Someone's feet. They stopped right there, right in front of my door. I heard a soft clinking sound, which even I could recognize as the noise of some kind of metal weapon in a sheath.

Ah, shit. Okay, new plan. Hide.

The only place to do that was right next to the door. I scrambled across the room and pressed myself up against the wall, just as the hinges creaked right by my ear and the door pushed open. A square of yellow light washed across the floor and the bottom of the bed. Then a shadow moved into the doorway, blocking out most of it. Adrenaline started pumping through me, but I tried to keep my breathing as light and quiet as possible. There was no way that someone sneaking into my room in the middle of the night was going to be a friendly visit.

The shadow at the doorway came into the room; slowly and almost noiselessly. They had a thin build and I couldn't tell if it was a dude or a lady. They probably had a couple inches and several pounds on me, but I didn't see the weapon I'd heard. At least, not in their hands. My palms were sweating against the wall, and my heart was beating right in my throat, blood rushing in my ears.

My visitor saw the open window. I saw them tense, and then go right across the room to it. They put their hands on the frame and leaned in, looking through. Looking for me. And as soon as they turned around they were gonna be finding me, because my hiding spot was shit. And there was no way I could sneak out the door. But right now their back was entirely towards me, and I saw my shot.

I shoved myself off the wall and dove forward, tackling the person around the waist and knocking us to the bed. We bounced together off the corner of it and thumped to the floor, neither of us really on top. The person grunted—it was a woman, I could tell that now—and rolled us both by throwing her shoulders. I went with the move and got enough force behind it to send us over one more time, pinning her. Sparring with Rysa had gotten me used to this, and this woman was shorter and smaller. I almost had an advantage. Except that I hadn't gotten a good enough grip on her left wrist—and suddenly I wasn't holding on to her anymore.

"I'm not trying to hurt you," the woman hissed, and clipped me right in the jaw. Hard enough to daze me and knock me back, so she could duck out from under me, grab my shoulders and slam me back against the frame of the bed. "Stop."

"Ahh Christ, then I'd hate to see you trying," I said, because now my neck and jaw and back of my head kind of ached. The woman let up on me a little and sat back, but she was still holding my shoulders and I definitely wasn't going anywhere. Beat by a girl. Again.

"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to scare you. I didn't expect you to ambush me, either."

"Yeah, well," I said, running a hand over where she'd cuffed me, and deciding it wasn't really that bad. I could shake it off; the hit had mostly been to rattle me, not do any real damage. "What the fuck're you doing in here? Who are you?"

Instead of answering, the woman fidgeted her hand around, and a pale light glowed up between us. Not very bright, and I had a thought that it was on purpose—that she was trying not to call attention to herself, or me, or this room. But it was enough to let me see her face, her near-white hair and lavender eyes. It was Unare.

"You," I said. What the hell was she doing, sneaking around into my room in the middle of the night? She could have just knocked.

"You remember me then," she said, and I blinked at her.

"Uh, yeah, I just saw you like an hour ago. You didn't hit me that hard," I said, and Unare made an impatient tsk noise.

"Never mind," she said, but it had been such a weird question that I started to think harder. She'd looked familiar before, but I'd thought I'd been wrong. Because the only people I'd really met here last time besides Ociir's family and Aleif were...other people Ociir knew.

"You know Ociir," I blurted out. "Wait, you—you were one of the ones who helped send me home, with the rift, last time I was here!"

Unare jerked her eyebrows up once, as if to say you got it. "Come on," she said. "We already ought to be moving."

"I—what? Where?"

"You haven't guessed?"

"It—oh," I said. "You know Ociir, and so you're taking me to the—Jesus Christ I'm dumb."

"From what Ociir has said about you, you're anything but," Unare said. "Though you are poor at dressing."

I glanced down at my feet, where she was looking. I'd only managed to get one boot on before she'd come creeping in, and it was laced up really goofy since I'd been doing it in the dark.

"Uh, right," I said. "Gimme one sec."

#

While I'd been sleeping, the city streets had filled up with a low fog. It swirled around our legs as we moved and made everything look like a 1940s horror movie. Some of the papery blue lanterns strung across between buildings were still lit up. It must have been really late by now—there was nobody out in the streets, almost every window was dark and the only sounds were of our boots on the flagstones. It was freezing out here, too. Unare had a couple of hooded cloaks for the both of us, which were dark and thin and rough and probably more for keeping us hidden than warm. We didn't even have any kind of light with us, and we were taking every back alley and dark passageway this girl could find.

I still couldn't believe this was happening; that one of the people set to guard me was now helping me to do something that I was definitely not supposed to do. When we'd left the laemenna Isoel hadn't even been anywhere in the building, so either he was in on this too or Unare'd gotten him out of the way somehow. But it couldn't just be chance that even one of them was some kind of spy for Ociir; there was no way.

"Does Ociir just know every fucking thing that goes on in this city or what," I muttered to myself, as we slipped along under eaves and ducked through narrow alleys. But Unare heard, and answered me.

"Ociir has many eyes and ears working for him, as usual for his position," she said.

"And...what position is that? A priest?"

Unare gave me a look, like she couldn't believe I didn't know. "Ociir is hndatah lamaat. Aleif's religious advisor," she added, when I made a dumb uhhhm noise. "He is meant to conduct the wants and concerns of the devout community directly to the government. It's an exclusive standing, being in her council. Only a few others share that kind of status. You know another of them; Asaed."

"Yeah, I know him," I said. Wished I didn't. "But you're serious about Ociir? Why didn't I know that about him?" Maybe that explained how he'd gotten me in to see Aleif at all the first time I'd been here. He didn't just have connections, he was a connection.

"It isn't a position he takes up unless there is some unrest about an issue in the temples, or if Aleif wants an opinion from them directly. So his place within the government is significant, but infrequent. Still, he has many dedicated to him in many places. He can do things without Aleif's notice or restraint."

"Aleif never really seemed like that bad a person," I said. After all, she'd agreed to abandon the war effort on Earth in exchange for pretty lame insider information. I'd never understood why she'd done it, but it was impossible for me to really think of her as a real Bad Guy because of it. And she'd always been nice enough to me. I knew worse people on the oenclar's side of the war.

"She inherited the war," Unare said. "She neither began it nor approves of it—but she, as we all do—fights it for survival." She took a sudden turn, heading down a long and narrow set of stairs that ran right down to the river's level. I scurried after her, wondering if I'd even heard that last thing right. Dark water lapped up against the edge of a narrow stone path here, and reflected wiggly lines of blue from the lanterns strung over it.

"Hey, wait up—what?" I said, jogging to catch up with Unare. Girl had a really long stride. "You know the oenclar want this whole thing to end just as bad! They'd stop if you guys would, I'm pretty fucking sure of it."

"That's not what I meant," Unare said. I didn't get a chance to ask her what she did mean, because we hit the underside of a bridge going over the river and Unare stopped at a tiny door set back into the stones below it. The wood was damp and dark and growing moss along the bottom and edges. Unare opened it via a heavy metal knob, put her hand on the middle of my back, and pretty firmly pushed me inside into a dim little space. She closed the door again behind us, shutting us into total darkness.

I didn't have much of a problem with tiny dark spaces, but this whole thing was so unnerving already that a prickle of adrenaline went right up my spine. I held my breath and waited, and a couple seconds later something started to glow through the dark. It was Unare—she lit herself up the same way the oenclar could do, but instead of creepy purple it was all blinding gold light. I winced and threw my arm up over my eyes.

"Jeez, warn a guy next time," I muttered. She was like a fucking halogen light.

"Sorry," she said, not sounding it. I could hear little noises, like something rasping on stone, but I had no idea what it was because I couldn't see a damn thing. Then there was a really long, drawn-out grating noise, and I thought I saw a part of the wall moving away when I tried squinting my eyes open. Then I closed them right away because ow fuck.

Unare caught my arm and steered me forward blind, I heard that grating noise again, and then everything suddenly went real quiet and a lot darker. I could tell that even with my eyes closed, because I was seeing a lot less red flashy spots behind my eyelids. When I risked cracking my eyes open, there was just blackness in front of me. Nothing to see at all.

I heard a weird little hiss and then a sputtering sound at my back, and when I turned around I saw that it'd been Unare lighting up a torch. An actual torch, a stick with a big burning orangey-blue blob of fire on the end of it. It lit up her face with weird shadows and turned her nearly-white hair reddish. And it also let me see a good ten feet to either side of us.

We were back in the underground tunnels, or at least an underground tunnel. It was a lot smaller and lower and narrower than the other tunnel, or just felt that way because of the flickering creepy torch lighting. Unare had to stoop down to keep her head off the dirty ceiling, and I was about an inch or two from needing to do the same. It was also wetter and smellier.

"Um," I said, and my voice bounced back off the walls three or four times and faded weirdly away down the tunnel. Unare put a finger to her mouth, and then put a hand to my shoulder and started walking us forward, keeping the torch held out in front.

There was an air current in here, blowing a damp moldy breeze past us and snapping at the flames. Something somewhere was dripping, echoing from behind us or maybe in front of us. Everything seemed wet. Our feet splished on the floor. There was a weird sour smell in here that I could almost taste. I was starting to get pretty sure we were in some kind of sewer system. Well, if you had to have a secret guerilla meeting that nobody would ever stumble across, down a toilet was probably a damn good place for it.

Still. Gross.

But we didn't go real far. Maybe a minute and two or three turns later, we ended up in a short dead-end tunnel. On the left wall was an opening with hazy orange light glowing out of it, flicking along the wet floor and walls. That had to be where we were heading.

The opening was a kind of low and wide arched doorway, and even I'd need to duck to get through it. On the other side was a smallish room, not a whole lot bigger than a high school classroom from what I could see. There were more torches, more actual burning fire, stuck in holders along the walls. The ceiling was low and vaulted and there was a line of pillars going down the center of the room, and an identical low doorway on each wall. Everything was kind of damp and water-stained and grimy under all the wavering light from the torches.

And the whole place was all filled up with tall blonds. There were probably about thirty or forty people in there, about equally split guys and girls. I wasn't sure if that was a lot. Thirty or forty would have been a pretty good-sized group with the oenclar, but they were so spread out over so many worlds that it was hard to tell how big their population actually was. Smaller than the clarbach's, I would've guessed.

It was also perfectly and creepily quiet. I couldn't hear a single noise coming from inside the room, not even one voice, until Unare nudged us both forward a step through the doorway. Then sound broke over us like a slap in the face—a bunch of mutters and low voices, the torches spitting on the walls. They had some kind of spell up. Smart. Nobody really looked at us; most of the people were busy with each other in little clusters, none of them talking very loud even with the sound barrier going on.

And then Ociir came out of nowhere, just one of a couple dozen blond heads that suddenly turned into somebody I recognized and knew. He was wearing his whole priest outfit still—I'd almost never seen him in anything else—and all the dark symbols on the long flat sash thing around his shoulders glinted orange from the torches.

"Excellent, you were able to get here," he said to me, catching me by the upper arms like he had to check I was actually here.

"Yeah, thanks to her," I said, jerking my head towards Unare. Ociir threw her a fast look and a tiny nod, and then started steering me towards the front of the room. Christ, was I gonna have to like...talk at all of these people? I didn't think I could get through another round of talking about Keyd, especially with a fucking audience.

"I, uh, look, I don't think I—" I started, but Ociir just squeezed my arm.

"Don't worry, you won't need to say much," he said. "Most of them already know your story. I only want to introduce you."

I was famous here too? Shit, it'd been weird enough when Jaryn's son had told me that he was learning about me in oenclar school, but now these people knew about me too? I guess it wasn't that unbelievable, since Ociir really did like to talk, but it was still pretty fucking surreal.

"Okay," I said. "Okay. If that's all. I can't...do a lot more than that."

Ociir glanced at me, and then stopped the both of us before we actually got anywhere near the front of the room. His other hand dropped down on my other shoulder and he held on pretty firm, looking me right in the eyes.

"Alan," he said, and there was a boatload of concern in his voice and face. "I realize I haven't been thinking about how difficult this must be for you, and I'm sorry for that."

"It's fine," I said. "It's really—it's fine."

Ociir didn't pick up that I didn't want to fucking get into it. "I've known Keyd for a very long time, and of course it's difficult to know what's happening to him. But he's your lover, and that's something very different."

"Look, I don't want talk about it," I said. "I get that you're being nice here, and thank you, but stop. Seriously."

"All right," Ociir said, but he kept hanging onto my shoulders for a couple seconds and looking at me, like he was waiting for me to change my mind and start getting all upset. I didn't have time to be doing that, and this really wasn't the place for it either.

I heard somebody calling Ociir's name right then, and both of us looked over. A tall guy—tall was kind of a stupid way to keep describing these people, they were all tall—was coming towards us. He was wearing something that looked like Ociir's regular priest outfit, just kind of toned down and more boring. He didn't have the sash.

"Excuse me for a moment," Ociir said to me, and let go of my shoulders and moved off to go intercept the guy. The crowd swallowed him up pretty quick, and I couldn't see either of them anymore. I was left standing on my own, at the edge of this bunch of people I didn't know and with nobody familiar nearby. Unare had disappeared too, and I wasn't sure if Ishan or Ierel were here, or anybody else I could possibly know. Actually, those three were really about it.

While I was busy standing there like an idiot, I noticed a guy sitting on an old soggy wooden barrel off to the side, in the shadows against the wall. He caught my attention because he felt weird—in that he didn't feel like anything at all. He had the same dead air-space feeling around him that Ierel'd had; a total blank in the middle of all the background energy crammed into this little underground room. Ierel had said he was the only person like him in the city, but this guy felt exactly the same. I looked at him more closely—he had real close-cropped hair that looked dark brown in the shadows. Actually, the harder I looked, the more it looked like it really was brown. And the more he looked familiar.

"Oh, holy shit," I said, and the guy lifted his head and looked at me. "It's you."

Ahieel glowered at me from under his new haircut. It really was dark brown, all cut neatly short against his head; totally different from the parted cut he'd always had. He looked a hell of a lot better than the last time I'd seen him—well, he actually looked like he'd dropped about twenty pounds—but he wasn't exhausted and shedding dead entities all over the place. Although he didn't look much nicer. Or much happier to see me.

But he was alive, which I hadn't even been sure about. And that was seriously something.

"You are never going to go away, are you," Ahieel said, in a kind of flat non-question. "No matter where I go, you keep showing up."

"Wow, hey, sometimes it's not all about you," I said. "What are you even doing here?"

Ahieel pressed his lips together and glared at me. He didn't answer, and I really hadn't expected him to. He didn't like me much. Understandably, since I'd kind of ruined his life by total accident. I wasn't real thrilled by him, either.

And actually, seeing him again had surprised me so much that it'd taken a couple seconds for the fury to kick in. But when it did, it was fast and brutal. Ahieel had started this, he'd hot-wired this disease in Keyd and didn't even fucking know it. This whole time, ever since those awful minutes in Akyo's tent, I'd been looking for someone or something to get angry at for this whole thing. And here it was, right in fucking front of me.

But then...it all died away just as fast. I could get angry, I could hate him, but it wasn't going to help. It wouldn't do anything at all.

Ahieel and I had been staring silently at each other for at least a quarter minute before Ociir suddenly slid back up to me. He glanced at Ahieel, and only got a slightly less mean look from him. From his own brother.

"All right," Ociir said, getting a grip on my shoulder again. "We're ready."

I didn't stand out here as much as I did with the oenclar and their dark hair, but me and Ociir still snagged the attention of everybody we passed through the room, catching glances and starting whispers. The volume of the whole room slowly faded down as we went through it, and by the time we were up at the front of it, nobody was talking at all. There was a little ledge that Ociir stepped up on and dragged me with him, so we were slightly above the sea of attentive blond faces staring at us.

I started to get sweaty and kind of clammy. Shit. Exactly what I didn't want; a bunch of people I didn't know looking at me like I was some kind of...answer. I'd come to them for help; helping them with their separatist thing wasn't really my priority. It was all related, but I had to save Keyd before I could do anything for anybody else. I couldn't promise them anything; I didn't even know what they wanted.

But Ociir didn't actually make me talk. He did all of it. I just stood there next to him while he explained that I was the guy he'd been telling them all about and that I'd just come here from Lojt and that I was still a "good friend" of agistar Keydestas.

When he said that, I quit listening. I just couldn't handle it. I knew why he'd said it and I understood—this was the separatists club, not the gay activists—but it still felt like a sucker-punch. Sometimes I really understood why Keyd had just grabbed me and kissed me that day in front of his dad and the whole damn world and put all the secrecy and hiding shit out of the picture right at the start. Because it sucked.

There was a point at which the entire room all breathed in together and started looking around at each other, and I figured that was the part where Ociir had just told them Keyd was dying. I wasn't sure why they'd care, it wasn't like they knew him, but maybe they knew he was friends with Ociir and that he didn't hate every clarbach just on principle. Actually, yeah, that was probably exactly why they were worried. Keyd had to look like their best fucking chance for any kind of reunion or peace between their races. He had clarbach connections all over the damn place—not just Ociir, but his as-good-as-a-sister had grown up here and he treated her like she wasn't any different at all.

It was so fucking strange—none of these people even knew Keyd, had ever met him, but they cared about him more than some people on the oenclar side of the war. They cared if he died, they cared if he was the agistar. And maybe it was tied in to their whole radical movement, but they still cared. It was nice, for once, to see that. And it made part of me think that maybe Ociir wasn't totally out of his mind with his idea about reuniting the races one day.

When Ociir was done talking, there was silence for a good half-minute, and then the whole room crowded up to us. They wanted to ask me questions. They wanted to talk to me, see me, even touch me. Even just being a foreigner made me interesting, but I was also a foreigner who hung out with the oenclar and was the agistar's "friend" and had once upon a time done the thing that was the entire goal of their group—separating a person from their entities without killing them. And a couple of them had known Rysa when she was younger, growing up here, and the fact that I knew her—had an antshil bond with her—was just one more thing that fascinated them.

But I wasn't fucking handling it well at all. I'd never had a panic attack but this had to be pretty close to it—all these people pressing in, all focused on me, looking at me, I couldn't take it. I felt crushed, my vision tunneled out, I was running hot and cold at the same time and I couldn't breathe. I wasn't even sure if I was controlling my own body—it was just doing things while all my awareness kind of folded up and crawled away to a far away corner in my head.

And the next thing I knew I was back in the slimy little hallway outside the room, with Ociir at my side, nearly holding me up by my elbow. I stumbled into the wall and then stayed against it. It was all wet and cold and gross but I didn't care. I slid down it until I was doing a kind of uncomfortable squat, and Ociir went down to a knee with me. I could hear weird gulpy, gasping sounds and it took me a second to realize it was me doing it.

"m'okay," I croaked out, when I could.

"Stay out here for as long as you need," Ociir said. His voice echoed off the walls. He gave me an apologetic look and rested his hand on my shoulder. "Alan, I'm sorry."

I waved my hand weakly. "No, s'fine, really. Just gimme a sec here. Really."

"All right." Ociir gave my shoulder a squeeze and then stood up again. I watched his feet walk out of my range of vision. I hadn't actually meant that he should leave, but whatever. I lowered my forehead down against my knees and linked my fingers over the back of my neck and just tried to suck as much air back into my lungs as I could.

Eventually, my heart slowed down and my skin cooled off and the pressure eased off my chest. I could breathe easy again. My vision was still a little spotty, but a lot better than before. I lifted my head a little, and felt okay. The only light out here was what reflected out of the doorway, all this dim flickery orange across the damp walls. The open end of the tunnel was just a pitch-black hole. Creepy.

After another minute, I had myself together. Mostly.

When I sat up straight, I felt the necklace Keyd had given me swing back against my chest, cold on my skin. I put my hand over it through my shirt, curled my fingers around it, and closed my eyes for a second. Keyd. I had to get back in there. Sitting out here wasn't doing anything. I'd had my little moment, but now I was okay and it was back to fucking business. I was too close to let stress get the best of me now.

I got myself up and back through the doorway, the sound of voices and noise popping back in my ears as soon as I did. I edged along the wall, hoping nobody would notice me until I found Ociir again. But there were a lot less people in here than there'd been before, only about a handful of them were left. Where'd the rest of them gone? There were those other doors, so it wasn't like how was a mystery, just why. I did spot Ierel's darker sandy hair near a pillar, so he was here.

I found Ociir near the back of the room, and made my way over to him. Ociir's back was to me, and as I got closer I could hear him talking to someone I couldn't see—actually, he sounded more like he was scolding a dog or something.

"I told you not to come," he was saying. "I told you very specifically. You don't understand how dangerous this is, you shouldn't get involved, you should go home."

"But I don't want to go home yet," the person—a young guy, by the sound of it—said. I thought I recognized the voice and a second later, when Ociir shifted to the side, I definitely did. The youngest kid in the Soodun family, Eleon. He saw me the same second I saw him, and his whole face brightened up.

"Alan!" Eleon practically shoved his brother aside and ran right to me. It was the last thing I'd expected, and he nearly knocked me right off my feet.

"Gnngh, whoa, hey there," I said into his shoulder. I think he'd grown since last time I'd been here. He seemed bigger.

Eleon backed off quick, tucking his hands under his arms and shuffling a few steps away. He'd definitely grown; last time I'd been here we'd been eye-to-eye, and now it was more like eye-to-nose. He noticed it too, because he started to slouch and duck his head down. He'd had brown hair for most of the time I'd known him before, and it was still pretty weird seeing all the real pale blond on him. It was a lot longer than before, too, all floppy and layered everywhere.

"You're—not wearing those things. On your face. Anymore," Eleon said, blinking a few times.

My hand went up out of old habit to push at the bridge of my nose, where my glasses had used to sit. Eleon had never seen me without them. "Oh, yeah, not anymore," I said. "So, hey—you're...here. I didn't know you were into this whole thing."

"I'm not, really. I just...heard you were here in the city again," Eleon said. No guesses on how; Ociir's giant mouth would be it. How the guy'd managed to keep a super-secret organization secret for years and years, I had no idea.

"Yeah, for a little bit," I said, clapping him on the shoulder. Behind him, I saw Ociir sigh and kind of throw up his hands in defeat, and he turned to talk with someone else who'd come up to him. "How're you doing?"

Eleon ducked his head. "All right," he said. "It—it's good to see you again."

"Yeah, you too," I said. I really had liked Eleon. He was a decent guy, even if he was really damn nervous all the time. "What've you been up to?"

"Oh. I've just been helping my sisters in their shop," he said. "I—it's all right. I don't know if I want to spend my life doing it, but, for now…it's fine."

"What do you want to do?" I said, and Eleon just fidgeted and shrugged. Okay, so he hadn't figured it out yet. I understood that pretty well.

"And how's…you know," I said. The last time I'd seen Law, he'd made the choice to stay here in Uillad just to be with Eleon. I didn't know anything about the relationship that they had, except that I was pretty sure Law was never going to find a nicer guy. Even if he was an awkward alien kid.

Eleon's mouth got tighter and flatter. "How's what," he said, flicking his eyes back and forth like he was afraid of someone overhearing.

"You and L—uh, Christopher," I said. "You still—?"

"He's not here anymore," Eleon interrupted me, which might've been a first. "Not for a long time."

Well, fuck. "What happened?"

Eleon didn't look like he was gonna answer me at first. Then he just sighed, and stared down at his hands. "It just—we agreed it wasn't going to work. And he left."

"Jesus," I said. "He wasn't an asshole or anything to you, was he?" Law had this habit of being a complete bastard to people he liked. Just like my dumbass horse. "'cause I'll hit him for you, next time I see him."

"No!" Eleon said, quickly. "He was—it wasn't his fault. He wasn't...he didn't feel comfortable here. He left not long after you did. He's never come back." Eleon's voice wobbled, and I really thought he was going to cry for a second. But he didn't. He looked upset, but this seemed like an old hurt that he'd really tried hard to get over. And if Law really had left right after I had, then Eleon hadn't seen him in almost a year.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Man, I really am."

"It's all right," Eleon said softly. "We didn't know each other for very long, after all, and it's nothing like—I mean, with what you're...Keydestas is still your lover, isn't he?"

"Ah," I said. I'd forgot that Eleon actually knew about that. "Yeah. He is."

Eleon's expression crumpled, and then he stepped up real quick and hugged me again. A lot less enthusiastic this time, but just as fierce. He had a strong grip for being such a gawky kid. I ended up with a face full of his hair. After a second I hugged him back, arms around his shoulders. It was kind of nice.

"I'm sorry," Eleon said, and then gave me an extra hard squeeze. "I'm so sorry. I hope you can do something; I hope you can save him."

"Me too," I said. "s'why I'm here."

Eleon unhooked himself from me again and backed off a couple steps. "I really—I should go," he said then. "I came to see you, I—Ociir didn't want me to stay, or to be here at all, I guess he thinks it's dangerous—"

"Well, it probably is," I said. "He's just looking out for you."

Eleon actually looked annoyed. "I can do that for myself," he said. "I'm not a child." Except he was to the clar, even if he was almost exactly my age. "I—um, I'm just glad I got to see you again."

"Yeah—" I started, but that was all that got out before Eleon heel-turned and literally ran away. I watched him sprint for the nearest doorway and disappear through it. His footsteps echoed down the tunnels and then faded completely away.

"Good," said Ociir's voice, right by my ear. I managed not to jump. "Thank you, for whatever you said. He shouldn't have been here at all. I suppose I shouldn't have ever mentioned you were here."

"Yeah, no problem," I said. "Where'd everybody else go?"

"Well," Ociir said. "Not all of them are necessary for what we'll be discussing. Many only wanted to see you. Those ones have gone. I thought it would be better."

Better for me in case I had another panic attack, maybe. Fine, that was fine. As long as the one who were sticking around knew their shit.

I wasn't really surprised to see that most of the people who'd stayed were ones I knew; Ishan and Ierel and Unare, and even Ahieel was still hanging around. But he stayed in his corner on his barrel. I could see him over Ishan's shoulder, just a lurking little blob back there. All the rest of these people kind of gathered up to me and Ociir, and then everybody arranged themselves into a circle on the floor, like a little pow-wow. I figured I should get down there too. The floor in here was dry enough so it wasn't too gross.

I ended up sitting between Ociir and a woman I didn't know. Ociir went ahead and introduced the couple of others here, in a big jumble of vowels that I'd never remember. Although the woman sitting next to me stood out a little bit, because Ociir mentioned she'd been friends with Rysa back when she'd still lived here. That startled me for a second, but it shouldn't have. Rysa'd had a life here after all, she'd had friends and things she did and places she went and it was just weird sometimes realizing that.

Anyway, the woman next to me was named Hiseen. She was kind of hawkish looking, with a real thin face and bony nose, but she had a nice voice and seemed decent enough. Ierel was across from me in the circle, and he lifted his hand and gave me a little nod when I caught his eye. Unare was next to him, leaning casually back on her hands, and I wondered if she was just sticking around because she was my safety escort.

"All right," Ociir said then, a little louder to get everyone's attention. "Alan."

"Me, what?" I said, startled.

"We have to know what ideas you already have, what you were planning to try," he said. "And then we can try to help."

"Oh, right. Well—there's no cure for this disease, right? No way to make the entities stop what they're doing to Keyd. So I just want to get them out of him, completely. Like, uh—you know." I glanced real quickly towards the back of the room where Ahieel was.

Ociir nodded slowly, like he'd expected to hear that. And there really wasn't another option. Maybe with more time, but there was no telling how much Keyd even had left.

"I thought originally that what you had done to Ahieel was a unique event. Unrepeatable," Ociir said. "But...we began to think about it more in depth. About why it had happened in the first place—why forcing the two types of energy together had such a result. Because the energy of the entities are meant to balance each other, and they had done the opposite—annihilated each other."

"So...you don't think it was a one-time thing anymore," I said. This was good news; exactly what I wanted to hear.

"That's what we've spent the last year working on trying to determine."

"...and?"

Ociir spread his hands apart. "And. How could we test it? We've no access to oen at all."

"Oh. Fuck. Right," I said.

"So we have theories. Based off a single event that only you have performed," Ociir said. "And other research we have done, but nothing conclusive without the capacity to prove it."

Well that was fucking helpful. "Theorize this for me," I said. "Do you really think it's possible to do it to Keyd, so that he'll survive it? I want the most honest answer here, I really do."

"I think you might be the only one who can do it," Ociir said. "You've done it before; you certainly have the ability if it is in fact repeatable."

"A more important question is not if, but how," Ishan said then. She was still sitting in my direct line of sight to Ahieel, and every time I looked at her I could see him back there. "Of course it's possible to remove the entities from a host, but it's never done with a positive intent."

"What do you mean?"

"Well. You're aware of how, for certain crimes, the punishment is to have the entities pulled from the body?"

"Oh, yeah," I said, and tried not to wince. "Yeah."

"That is done using our own type of energy, clearly, as it's the only kind we have. That method is harmful, kills almost everyone who has gone through uwilat. It is not done delicately—it takes a great deal of effort and often three or four healers at a time to accomplish it. Yet you did it on your own."

"Wait—healers do it?"

"A certain branch of them, yes," Ishan said. "It's inhumane, but seen as appropriate and just. But the fate a person meets when they present with the wrong kind of entities is not this punishment. Which seems as though it would be fitting—perhaps the most fitting. And yet the punishment is haohyanna."

"That's not translating," I said.

Ishan glanced down and hesitated. Ociir answered for her. "Removal of the heart."

"What the fuck," I said, before I could curb it back. I'd gotten better at not having these kinds of reactions when I heard about weird clar culture stuff—trying not to totally insult it—but this one was pretty fucking intense. And Ociir didn't look like he blamed me.

"We now think that this may have come into practice because of what was happening when healers with the bach entities tried to remove offending oen entities from a host," he said. "That perhaps they were all surviving. And then remaining...well, the way my brother is now. That was something far from desired."

Nobody turned to look at Ahieel, but there was kind of an awkward silence while everybody was clearly thinking about him brooding back there.

"This was centuries ago, but the haohyanna practice has been in place for too long to remember why it even is that way," Ociir said then. "Still, the strangeness of it is at least something hopeful for this situation—for the chance of this being possible."

"Removal of the heart," I said, still kinda stuck on that. That would have happened to Rysa, except Ociir had been ballsy enough to get her out. But some of these people here had to have known someone this'd happened to. They couldn't have all ended up involved with this without some kind of reason, something that'd spurred them into thinking differently about everything. And I noticed Hiseen was sitting there with her hands tight against her knees, white-knuckled.

"I only brought it up because we thought it was significant," Ociir said. "Not to upset you."

"It's just really brutal," I said.

"Most of this is," Ishan said quietly.

Nobody said anything right away after that. I looked around at the stained stone walls and the flickering torches and this little group of people sitting in a circle on the floor who were all trying to do something good. Who were trying to help me, and didn't care which side of the war I was on.

"So, if the question to doing this is how," I said, finally, "then what's the answer?"

"It's going to have to be a matter of the way you make the different energies meet," Ishan said. "Clearly you'll have to do it mainly with ours, but under normal circumstances the energies don't meld well with each other—they repel each other when forced into too close a proximity, despite their nature to balance each other. But you hold both types of energy within you, and they don't harm you at all, or each other."

"Yeah, because I keep them apart," I said. "I'd be really fucked up if I didn't."

"How?"

"I don't really—it's like a...I make sort of a barrier? Not really, though—I just imagine them apart and then they are. It's a lot more mental than anything. I barely have to think about doing it anymore, it's like second nature."

I noticed Hiseen nodding next to me. "This is the type of thing we do in our training as soldiers," she said suddenly. "Learning a mental control that shapes our abilities, and our efficiency with them. It's good that you've taught yourself a similar thing, as you'll likely need to make use of it."

"You're a soldier?" I asked. I hadn't gotten that vibe from her at all.

"I was, once. Injured, and now on the city guard," Hiseen said. "But I completed the training. The mental aspect is a very important part of it."

"But I didn't with Ahi—well, before. That was all..." I pushed my hand forward a little, remembering that moment, "...totally physical."

"But you already have a mental bond with the agistar. It may make things...different. Perhaps easier or more difficult. But I wouldn't overlook the possibility."

"It's such a strange thing, that bond," one of the dudes I didn't know said suddenly. "Such an archaic practice to keep on with."

"What?" I said. "You guys don't do antshil?"

"Oh no," Hiseen said, like I was nuts for even asking. "Not for centuries now."

"...oh," I said. "Huh. Okay."

"But that bond is certainly another aspect of this," said one of the other women. She had a long blond braid, and I was gonna go on ahead and guess she was bautan. "That mental connection might be very important, something you could use to your advantage. The entities can be very sensitive and responsive to that. Do you know of the custom the oenclar call kre ismaret?"

"...yeah," I said, after a second of reminding myself that she didn't even know that I'd actually done the damn ceremony myself; it was just a coincidence. "I know about it."

"Is that still a common practice with them?"

"Sure," I said. "How do you even know about it?"

"I'm a Keeper," the woman said. The people in this group were really from everywhere. "And rather interested in the older customs of both our races. But if you know of it, you may be aware of how much of it is a mental linking through the entities."

"Yeah, I'm aware," I said. "I just...I don't know how I'd actually use that."

"I wish I could help you," she said. "But it is a factor. Though I suppose it would also depend on how much trust there is between you and the agistar, how close you are to him."

"We're pretty close," I said, and noticed Ociir doing a really subtle head-shake at me. So I still shouldn't mention the whole boyfriends thing. "But okay. I'll remember that."

"Alan," Ierel said suddenly. He'd been pretty quiet this whole time, probably because he had no idea what dealing with the entities was like. "The most important thing is that you believe you can do this. It may be possible, and you might have the capacity, but your own conviction is going to be the crux of it. Otherwise, you can't do a thing you don't believe."

"Yeah," I said. "I mean, that's why I'm here. I'm pretty sure I can do this. I have to do this."

#

That was pretty much the end of all the useful advice these guys had to give me. It was better than nothing, and at least they were optimistic about my chances. That was almost the thing I needed to hear most; just that somebody thought it could be done and that everything I was doing wasn't pointless. We talked a little more, but it was just throwing around the same stuff from different angles. And it did give me some kind of a foundation, plus knowing Ahieel was still alive...that was almost worth the whole damn trip here.

But it was still going to be down to me in the end, just me by myself. And whoever back on the oenclar side who believed I could do this, which as of right now didn't really even include Keyd. I'd have to change that first.

Ociir and the others broke up our little pow-wow, and started putting out the torches on the walls and basically getting rid of any signs that they'd been here. I had one last idea though, one last person to try and talk to before we got out of here. The only person who'd had first-hand physical experience with this same thing. He was still sitting over there in the corner.

Ahieel had actually given me the idea to do what I'd eventually done to him, because he'd done it first. Loaded Keyd up with a bunch of light energy and then somehow gotten him to tear out his own wing—and later on I'd done almost the exact same thing to him. At the time, I'd figured it was normal shit to do for these guys, before I'd found out how deep the entities were bound into them, and that taking them out almost always killed them, and how really fucking difficult it was to do at all.

But Ahieel had done it with Keyd, and I'd done it with him. Both those times had involved a massive fucking amount of the opposite kind of energy. Maybe getting that much of their opposite charge had shaken up the entities just enough, shocked them into losing their hold, enough to drag some of them of the host body. That was definitely the kind of thing Ociir's people had been talking about. Ahieel's entities had slowly died and then fallen out of him. I'd hit him right in the chest, right in that core mark, but I didn't know exactly what Ahieel had done to Keyd. Or, come to think of it, how he'd known he could do it.

But I could find out. The guy was right here.

I made my way across the room to him. Ahieel didn't see me coming; he was making a real commitment to glaring at the ground. I sat down on one of the soggy barrels next to the one he was on. He glanced over at me and scowled harder, but didn't say anything.

"Let's talk," I said, and Ahieel grunted and turned away.

Didn't stop me. "Remember that time when you jammed Keyd full up of energy and then made him pull out some of his oen? I need to know what you did and how you did it."

"No," Ahieel said towards the wall. "I'm not going to help you."

Well, at least he was an honest son of a bitch. It still made me want to punch him in the mouth.

"I'd really fucking appreciate it if you did," I said. "You might have heard that he's dying."

"I hope you don't expect me to feel any sympathy," Ahieel said. "I care very little about his well-being."

"Yeah, I know, you want to see him dead and Rysa in jail, or dead too, or whatever the fuck." Like her heart removed. "And me too probably, and that one I don't even blame you for. We're never gonna be buddies, all right, I get that, but this is bigger than you and me here. It's bigger than Keyd and Rysa, even. This is about your whole damn race and fixing your fucking problems. So quit being so petty about it, all right?"

"Why," Ahieel said, and finally turned around to scowl at me again, "would I care about that; or any of this? Clearly I don't. Do I look pleased to be here?"

"But you—"

"I don't agree with Ociir," Ahieel said shortly. "We should be separated, our races. We can't coexist, and we're better off divided the way we are."

"Why the fuck are you even here then?" I said, waving my arm around at the nearly empty room. "If you don't even buy into any of this?"

"Ociir, of course," Ahieel ground out through his teeth. "I'm now his little specimen to show around, proof of the possibility of his crazed ideas. He always forces me here, every time."

"You're a grown up," I said. "Just tell him no, if you hate it that bad."

Ahieel stared at me, and his mouth got even thinner and whiter. "He's my brother."

"And Rysa's your sister," I said.

"Not as she is."

"Fine," I said. "Fine, all right. You're a dick, I get it. And you've hurt Keyd way worse than you even know, so you even win, okay? You fucking win. So gloat about it. Tell me how you did it."

"He's dying of an inherited disease," Ahieel said. "Whatever I did to him is irrelevant."

Don't punch him, I told myself. He'll never talk to you if you punch him.

"Maybe it matters anyway," I said. "Jesus, how hard is it to tell me this. Like two minutes, and then I'll go away and never bother you again, what the fuck will it hurt?"

"I don't owe you anything," Ahieel snarled. "Not after what you did to me."

"Okay, yeah, but you were trying to kill me first—and I had no idea what I was doing," I said. "I really didn't fucking mean to, you know, break your entities like I did. I'm actually sorry about that."

Ahieel sucked in so much air that it felt, for a second, that he was gearing up for a punch. And maybe if he hit me, he'd feel better, and he'd fucking talk to me about this. I'd take a hit for that. I tightened up all my muscles and lowered my head; if he swung a punch at my torso or face I could take it better that way.

But Ahieel didn't hit me. He didn't do anything. And eventually, I leaned back and let myself relax again.

"What do you want from me?" I said. "Because I'll do just about anything. You know, within some reason."

"There's nothing I want from you," Ahieel said, and he sounded a lot calmer now. "I would rather never have to speak to you again."

"Wish fucking granted," I said. "And I'll start on it right after you tell me about this."

Ahieel bared his teeth at the ground, then swung his head up to glare at me again.

"After her," he said, no guesses on who that meant, "having Ociir as a brother was insufferable. Everything he spoke and talked about was the entities, what caused them to do things as they did, how that might be changed or prevented. How to stop the entities from taking new hosts. Once he met that...that ghinpha—" the word didn't translate, but Ahieel jabbed a finger across the room at Ierel, and I figured it was something pretty rude, "—it was worse."

Boo-hoo, I didn't say. I bit on my tongue and just let him talk.

"But they didn't even come up with this newest idea on their own, not even after all their obsessing and endless theorizing. It only became a distant glimmer in their tiny minds once they saw it first-hand in me. It didn't seem to occur to them that entities of one type could be forced into a host of the other. No matter what the result. But it had occurred to me, long before."

"So, then...what," I said. "What you did to Keyd, it was just because you had a handy oenclar there and just decided to see what would happen on a fucking whim?"

"Essentially," Ahieel said, with no remorse what so fucking ever. "Yes."

Even though I was pretty fucking horrified at how casual Ahieel was about his total disregard for Keyd's life, I had to actually be grateful about this. After all, if he hadn't done it, I wouldn't have had a fucking clue where to start on all this. But I still couldn't hang around and listen to this for much longer.

"And, there's no telling the real, full effect," Ahieel said pointedly, watching me closely. "As the process was interrupted."

Right, that was just about all I could take.

"Great," I said, standing up. "All I need. I really hope I never fucking see you again."

"The feeling is very mutual," Ahieel said after me.

I bumped into Ishan, literally, on my way back across the room. She just slid out from behind a pillar and I almost ran her down. I grabbed onto her shoulders to steady us both, and something hard clanked against my chest.

"Uff, sorry—" I said, and looked down. Ishan was holding a sword in a sheath. A sword I definitely recognized.

"I believe," she said, pushing it firmly against me, "that is yours."

"Oh," I said, and kind of clutched it against me. "Thank...thank you, fuck. Thank you so much."

Ishan smiled at me. "Of course," she said. "It's a very beautiful piece. It would have been a shame to lose it."

"Yeah," I said. Fucking understatement. If I'd've lost Keyd's dad's sword in this city I think I would have just...well, I'd've been the worst boyfriend in the world.

Ishan was looking at me closely. "Would you like me to take you back?" she asked. "Or I could get Unare, if you like—you just look very tired."

I nodded. It was really hitting me just how tired I really was, now that she'd mentioned it. "Yeah. I am. That'd be...really great. Thanks."

Ishan leaned forward suddenly, and gave me a light little kiss on the temple. "For all this," she said, "what you've already done and still will have to do. I wish you strength. You know that Ociir and I both have faith in you."

"Thanks," I said to her, and buckled Keyd's sword back around my waist. "That's pretty nice to hear."

#

Unare smuggled me back to the laemenna, through the sewers and the foggy streets and dark alleys. It was dead quiet in the building when we got there, and we snuck up the dim stairs back to my room without running into anybody at all. I had no idea what time it was, and I was bone fucking tired. All I wanted to do was sleep for about a year, or at least longer than an hour.

I actually couldn't remember which room was mine, because it was a really long hallway and all the doors looked the same, but Unare knew. She opened it up for me and I went past her into the dark room, murmuring 'good night' to her through a huge yawn. I hesitated right before closing the door behind me, and stuck my head back out into the hall instead.

"Hey," I said to Unare. "Thanks. A lot."

She just gave me a little smile. "Good night, Alan," she said, then crossed her arms and leaned up against the wall, slouching a little like she'd been standing there all night.

"Yeah, you too," I said, and pulled the door shut.

The window was still wide open from my interrupted escape attempt earlier, and I shuffled over to wedge it shut again. It still left the room cold and kind of damp. I unbuckled Keyd's sword from around my waist and stowed it carefully under the bed, way back in the dark corner. Then I wiggled out of my boots, flopped face-first into the tiny cot, and rolled up in the blanket and the cloak Unare had left me with. I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew, someone was shaking me by the shoulder.

Why was someone always shaking me? There were nicer ways to wake people up. I rolled over and dragged the blanket off my face, and ended up looking at a big pale head. My other guard, the dude one, was leaning over me. I could tell right away I hadn't been asleep for nearly long enough—my eyes were heavy and sore, and I had a really quiet headache at the back of my skull. I groaned and put the blanket back up.

"Get up," Isoel said. He wasn't being mean about it, just firm. He had no idea I'd been out all fucking night and didn't want to go anywhere. But I still kinda hated him.

"All right, all right," I said, when he started shaking me again. "I'm up, all right, I'm up."

I dragged myself out of the cot while Isoel stood to the side with his arms crossed, radiating impatience without actually doing or saying much. It was so cold in the little room that it was hard to get my boots back on; my fingers were all clenched up and didn't want to move. I was yawning the whole time, but I managed to ask Isoel what this was all about, and where we had to go. He wouldn't answer me, and I wasn't really all that surprised.

Unare wasn't around when we left the room. Guess her shift was over. It was early enough that most of the noisy party people from last night weren't up yet, but now there was a young girl and guy at the bottom of the stairs, sleeping against each other. Me and Isoel had to step awkwardly around them. They definitely had a 'been out all night' look, and they were wearing the white and blue colors of the festival.

The fake daylight globes outside were lit partway up, and there was still a low mist hanging in the streets. Everything was kind of greyish and quiet. I was gonna guess that, during this festival time, nobody got up much before noon. Every once in a while someone passed us going the opposite way, or cut across along an intersecting street, but not a lot. And we were even sticking to big main streets and roads.

After not too long it was pretty clear where we were headed. Through the mist I could see the faint shape of that big white spire in the center of the city, right in front of us and getting closer. As soon as we went across an arched bridge into the main circular courtyard of the government buildings, I had to speak up.

"Hey," I said to Isoel. I'd been kind of dogging him a foot or so behind, but now I jogged right up to his side. "Hey, seriously, what's this a—"

"Don't ask questions," he said curtly, and I rolled my eyes but knew a 'don't push it' tone when I heard one. This basically could only mean one thing anyway; Aleif again. There was no reason anybody else would want to bring me here. I just had no idea what she'd want to talk to me about now—if she knew what'd gone on last night I was pretty sure it wouldn't be just me getting dragged here, and it wouldn't be just one lone dude doing it. This was about something else.

We walked through the foggy courtyard, past the spire that disappeared up into mist about twenty feet above our heads, and up a wide set of white stone steps to a pair of big double doors. There were two sorta sentry-looking guys on either side of it, but they didn't say a word to us. Isoel and I went right by them with no problem.

Beyond the doors was a long wide hall with an arched ceiling, all in a tannish rosy stone with marble floors. Soft lights glowed on the walls and the ceiling. It was kind of distantly familiar from way back forever ago; the first time I'd ever been to this city I'd been taken to this building through this hall. There were alcoves set back into the walls every dozen feet or so, some with dark wooden doors covered in carved designs that looked like trees.

A woman stepped right out of the nearest doorway and came up to us, wearing light colored leather and carrying a sword. It was the same woman who'd been quietly hanging around Aleif yesterday, like a bodyguard or something. Isoel basically handed me off to her without much of a conversation; he said a word or two to her, all out of frequency, and then he just turned around and left. Walked right out the doors back to the courtyard, so me and the woman were left standing alone in this hallway, just staring at each other.

"Uh, hey," I said to her. "I'm Alan. We didn't really get introduced, before—"

The woman shook her head, and tapped one finger to her throat. I didn't know that one—I knew two fingers, but not just one. And she didn't seem to want to tell me her name, either. She gave me a little nudge instead that clearly meant I should follow her. So I did.

We went through one of the carved side doors and into a whole new series of little hallways. I was starting to think the entire clarbach government building was only hallways with Aleif's office parked somewhere in the middle of it, like the center of a maze. I'd figured that was where this quiet lady was taking me now, but when we came to a set of big metal and glass doors at the end of a wide hall, I wasn't so sure.

The woman put her hand to some kind of engraved plate in the door, which glowed with a quick white light. Something mechanical clicked inside it, and then the woman pushed on the plate and the right-hand door swung open. Behind it was a kind of garden room, almost like a greenhouse, with tall glass walls and ceiling supported by metal frames. Light came in from everywhere, bright behind the glass without any kind of source.

I remembered this room. Or I thought I did. The walls and ceiling and the light from nowhere were all familiar, but the last time I'd been here this room'd been sort of a Zen garden of white and pastel colors, filled with weird abstract tree things. Now it looked like a regular garden. Sort of. Dark green ferns and twisting vines and huge leaves, big colorful flowers and fruits. A stone path led inside right from the door. There was still something off about everything, and I realized what it was as soon as we walked inside—nothing was real. It was all made out of metal and colored glass.

Maybe the clarbach just really liked installation art. And it was kind of pretty, in a bizarre way.

The path we were on met up with a bunch of other ones in a central circle of pale paved stones. There was a table there, a tall round one made of more glass and metal, with two stools on either side. It was covered in plates and bowls and glasses and food. And Aleif was sitting in the chair at the right side of the table, wearing a long pale green dress with a detailed collar and sleeves. She glanced up when we were only a couple feet away.

"Alan, good morning. Please sit down," she said. That was when I noticed there was a whole other place set, right across from her.

Wait, seriously? We were gonna sit here and have fucking breakfast together? What in the serious fucking what.

"Eihme, Onia, hain haalu alaihetta," Aleif said, and the woman who'd brought me in here ducked her head and disappeared back down the path without a word. Leaving me completely alone with the clarbach agistar for the second time in my life. Sometimes it was hard to believe I'd ever had a normal life at all, when things like this kept happening to me on an almost regular basis. This was stuff that didn't even happen to the people who lived here.

"Doesn't talk much, does she," I said, watching the woman go.

"She wouldn't, as she was born mute," Aleif said. Oh. That'd explain it. Now I felt like a dick. Aleif gestured to the other chair at the table. "Please. Sit."

I didn't really want to. But I didn't think I had much of a choice. So I got myself up on the stool and then just sat, twiddling my thumbs like a complete tool. I definitely didn't want to eat. Instead I watched Aleif's hands as she picked up a piece of fruit and spread something on it with a little knife—she had long, graceful fingers and wasn't wearing any jewelry or anything. She didn't seem to be in any fucking hurry to talk to me, either. She ate the piece of fruit and picked up another one.

The silence between us just went on and on. I stared down at all the food on the table in front of me, just because it was there and there was a lot of it to look at. Three or four different fancy glasses of weird colored drinks, a basket of brown rolls, a tray of cheese, a little bowl of things that looked like nuts, and a big plate of fruit that all looked just a little bit off—not exactly the right colors, and too bright.

For a second, I wondered how they even did food here. They couldn't grow anything, since there was no real light. Maybe they did it like the oenclar; grew everything somewhere else, on worlds they'd taken over, and then brought it back here. Maybe that's why it was all bizarre colors. I pushed at a slice of something that looked like a pink pear, watched it slide around in its own oozy juice. I'd never felt less like eating in my entire fucking life.

But Aleif obviously expected me to, and she clearly wasn't talking until I did. So I grabbed one of the rolls out of the little basket and tore it in half. It looked like wheat bread, all dark and kinda grainy inside, and it was warm. As soon as I took a bite, I realized just how fucking hungry I actually was. I hadn't eaten since...hell, the festival? Yesterday afternoon at least.

But I didn't just want to wolf down everything on the goddamn table. I ate my roll and one of the little cheeses, ignored the technicolor fruit and the weird looking drinks. The whole time Aleif just went on doing her own thing with her own breakfast across from me. This was worse than having her talk to me. The totally calm and peaceful quiet was just about unbearable. Every tiny clink of glass or silverware against a plate made me want to scream.

I put the last half of my second roll down. My hands were kind of shaking. Shit, I was trying not to come off like I was that nervous. Keep it the fuck together, Alan, I told myself. You've done this before, and she was all right.

But last time I'd actually been trying to help their side out—by way of keeping my own planet out of the whole conflict entirely—and I'd come in by myself, announced and vouched for and everything. This time I'd snuck in, dragging two oenclar along with me, gotten arrested and then gone to a full-on resistance meeting right under her nose. Not exactly the same fucking circumstances.

"I hope you slept well," Aleif said suddenly. Real conversational, like this situation was the most normal and casual thing in the world.

Well, my one hour of sleep had been pretty solid, so—"yeah. Uh, thanks, I did."

"And did you enjoy the festival?" she said. Suddenly I was flashing back to the first time I'd ever met her, when she asked me how I liked the city and if was I enjoying myself and all these other really bizarre pleasant questions which had thrown me off then, too. But I could play better this time.

"It was really interesting," I said. "I wish I could've stayed longer."

Aleif smiled, like that was a really good little in-joke between us because my ass'd been caught and arrested and hauled out of there.

"Perhaps next time," she said, over the rim of a narrow glass of a purple drink. I had one of those too. I didn't think I wanted to drink it. It was the color of cough syrup.

"Well, Alan." Aleif put down the glass and leaned forward, and now things had to get serious. "I assume you can guess why I've asked you here."

"I have some ideas," I said. Not a lot of them were good.

"The first I should mention simply to get out of the way, so that it doesn't pose a problem to the honesty of what you say to me here. I know that you are Keydestas's lover."

It was so fucking casual the way she said it, like she could've just been asking me to pass the butter, and it took me a second to realize how really really goddamn bad it was that she knew it.

"Oh," I said. I pushed myself back from the table, rattling all the dishes around. "Oh, shit."

"Calm down," Aleif said, still totally cool and relaxed. "Why do you think I'm speaking to you alone right now? Only I know this. And you should be glad of it, as there are others who wouldn't be as civil about it. You know who I mean."

Yeah. I was pretty sure civil wasn't actually something Asaed knew how to do.

"Okay," I said. My pulse was still banging away in my neck and I was nowhere near calm, but I was hanging onto trying to look like it. Fuck, just fuck. "How did you even know?"

"It wasn't difficult to deduce," Aleif said, and I winced. "The last time you were here, you told me things that only someone who was close politically or intimately with an agistar would ever be told. I had to assume you were not the former, being a foreigner. The way you spoke of him—or rather, the way you tried to avoid speaking of him—made it obvious that you harbored quite strong emotions about him, despite the anger you also felt. He had hurt you in a way only a lover can, and it showed."

"Oh," I said. "Well, fuck."

Aleif didn't say anything to that. She folded her hands on top of each other and looked at me calmly across the table.

"So now what?" I said, feeling completely hopeless and just…stupid. "Am I a bargaining chip now? You'll ransom me back or something? Keyd won't play that way." Actually I was pretty fucking sure he would, because he could be a fucking idiot wherever I was involved, but Aleif didn't have to know that.

Aleif laughed. Not a mean laugh—a genuinely amused one, like what I'd said was really funny. "Of course not," she said. "You would have been arrested and jailed long ago if that were the case. Alan—do you understand what is happening, right now?"

"I don't understand anything right now," I said, and Aleif laughed again. It was seriously freaking me out.

"I am not interested in taking a hostage of your caliber," she said. My caliber, really. "Something like that would only escalate hostilities between us."

"You're already supporting a whole damn war," I said. "What's one more idiot guy who walked himself into your fucking city? I asked for it."

"You assume that I wish to perpetuate this conflict."

I stared at her a little harder. "...then, you don't."

"No, and I never have. While I am agistar, I'm not all powerful in every matter. What do I know of leading battles, of planning war strategy? That is left up to others, those who have trained for it, as I have trained to lead politically."

Was she for fucking real? "That's seriously not how it works in oenclar land," I said.

Aleif tilted her head slightly. "Ah, well. Our governments don't function in the same ways, Alan. It is kalach Asaed who is the true authority in the war, not myself. He is the mind and strategist behind it. I have certain say in things, and can supersede his decisions if there are reasons to do so, but I am not always the loudest voice there."

So. So she was telling me that she wasn't fully a hundred percent in charge of the war. Jesus. I felt like I needed a goddamn drink or something; that was not what I had expected and definitely not anything I was prepared to deal with this early in the morning on no fucking sleep. I wasn't even sure what to say.

I reached for the glass of the cough syrup stuff and drank the whole thing down, just for something to do so I wasn't staring at her like an idiot. It was super sweet and not at all the kind of thing I wanted. I tried not make a face, but it really was like drinking sugar water.

"You may like this better," Aleif said, and slid a fatter glass across the table at me, pushing it with just her fingertips. It was about a fourth full of something clear that looked a hell of a lot like water. I picked it up and down it went. It wasn't water. It burned, but didn't taste like alcohol either. Instead it was almost spicy and made my mouth and throat tingle. It woke me up a little better, not that this whole fucking little breakfast conversation hadn't been a giant eye-opener already.

"Asaed is in charge then, huh," I said, after clearing my throat a couple times and sucking some more air into my lungs. I wasn't real surprised about that, except for how hands-on he'd been with me—I couldn't be so important that the clarbach commander in chief wanted to deal with me personally.

"Yes," Aleif said. "Despite what it may seem to you, he handles the position well. Perhaps too well. He and I have had trouble in the past, coming to agreements over what courses should be taken in the war—including over your own world."

Last time I'd been here, Aleif had told me that the clarbach had almost not picked Earth at all because of how populated it was. Maybe that had been some kind of political dogfight between her and Asaed. Maybe she'd lost originally, or just surrendered to him or something, and then when I'd shown up with my whiney story about how my boyfriend was being a dick, it had been the final thing Aleif had needed and she'd just totally killed the entire idea.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, so...so what now? You're not running the war, and you know about me and Keyd, and—shit, I mean...I know that's not something you guys really like at all."

"Well," Aleif said, and she sounded a little hesitant. "It isn't something that I quite understand. Though it isn't difficult to see how true and strong your feelings are. You wouldn't have come back to this city if not for him, and you being here is advantageous. You are quite a powerful instrument, even though you don't seem to be aware of it."

That was about as tolerant as I could've asked for. And I was really focusing on something else she'd said. Well, a couple of things really, but the one that seemed most important was, "you know why I'm here?"

She nodded once. I shouldn't've even bothered to ask—of course she knew. She knew everything. I had no idea how she could possibly know about Keyd being sick, but at this point I wouldn't have been surprised if she did. But she hadn't actually said that was what she knew...so I had no idea if we were on the same page here or not.

"It's vastly significant, you realize," she said, and of course I fucking did, if we were actually talking about the same thing. She was still staring right at me, real calmly. Her eyes were the kind of Caribbean ocean blue you see in glossy magazine shots of bright exotic beaches. Nothing near the color of Keyd's, but maybe it was just the look in them that somehow reminded me of him. She could do intense and unreadable just as good as he could.

"Keydestas," she said then, since I definitely wasn't starting up the conversation again, "is certainly important in his own right. But even moreso, perhaps, are you."

And that was the other thing she'd said before that'd got my attention. "I don't get it. I'm just a guy. I'm not even a clar."

"We've been at war for a very long time, Alan," Aleif said, and for the first time I'd heard she sounded sort of sad. Almost tired. "To no plan, purpose, or benefit. Of course, we say we have our reasons, our excuses, but in the end it is only hurting us all."

I wasn't gonna say a fucking word about the whole them starting it with taking over other worlds thing, because that would just be a dick move on my part.

"It's very difficult to even open lines of communication with each other," Aleif went on. "The military forces are hostile to each other, governments are wary and suspicious, and civilians never have a chance to interact. Even if they did it would be tainted by biases and internalized resentment. You are the only thing that connects us together; someone who has an ear on both sides. You certainly have Keydestas's, and I would give you mine, were you willing. You are the only person who has such power, and perhaps it is because you are not clar."

"But still, there's—" I said, and then stopped. Because no fucking way could I say anything to her about Ociir's group and how they didn't seem resentful at all, and just wanted everybody to hold hands and sing kumbaya and get along again. I fiddled with the rim of a plate and pretended that I hadn't started to say anything at all.

"Ah, you mean Ociir and his idealists? Oh, yes, I know about that," Aleif said, and I gaped at her. I couldn't help it. "You think that I wouldn't be informed of such a group, especially when one of my own advisors is so closely involved? He doesn't know that I am aware of it. But it's better for him to think it needs to be hidden, secreted away, and better for myself in case the effort is discovered—after all, it is a traitorous way of thinking."

"But...you're the agistar," I said, still trying to get my head around the fact that Aleif knew. That made things really fucking different. "Aren't you the person who decides what's traitorous or not?"

Aleif smiled at that. "Sometimes it is the ruler who chooses these things, but often it is the people themselves. We are set in our ways so deeply—both the ones that strengthen us and the ones that hurt us—that trying to cause a fundamental change upsets everything. The people refuse it, the leader is forced to concede or risk causing unrest, or even rebellion."

"Yeah," I said. Because that's what Keyd and his dad did a lot of, and look where that'd gotten everything.

"If I don't support the war in some ways, it appears to my people as though I am not protecting them as I should. That I am conceding, or even sympathizing, with those who have always been viewed as our enemies. Very few living in this city have ever met an oenclar—and yet, their prejudices are as strong as if they have all been personally slighted. And Ociir is still one of us, a clarbach, no matter his ideals. You are one of neither. Your loyalties are laid with the oenclar because of your lover, the way you were introduced to our world. But you were not born into the influence of either race, or with their prejudices. Once you were unbiased, but you do have the capacity to accept both."

I was trying to follow her, but I'd never been good at this political talk. I wished Keyd were here, or Rysa, or Kir, or just someone who was better at this shit. All I knew was that if any of this was even slightly true, then it was really fucking important.

"You are a bridge," Aleif said then. "A connection. And, forgive the blunt terms, but—we must use you."

I felt like an idiot, but I had to ask, "for what?"

"For a future without this war," Aleif said. "When you go back to Keydestas—because you will go back, you and your friends both—you'll tell him what I've said to you. You will impress upon him the importance of this. I want, beyond all things, to be able to have a communication with him. It is all I ask of you, in exchange for the lenience I have given your presence here."

It wasn't a lot to ask. And if she honestly wanted to try and stop the war, I couldn't not do it. There was no way I could ignore this. "Yeah," I said. "I will."

She smiled, sort of. "You also must understand that this conversation is not to be spoken of outside of this room, to anyone other than your agistar. It would be dangerous for either of us to admit we even spoke of these things, and I am not above my own law."

"Right," I said. "I know how that goes. I'll keep this to myself."

"Good," Aleif said. She fixed me with those crazy bright eyes of hers again, that intense stare. "I'm glad that we understand each other."

"Yeah, I think we do," I said, and I wasn't just saying that. Somehow, we actually did. I had no idea how or why, but it'd happened. She seemed to trust me, and I did trust her in a way. And she sounded completely sincere about all of this, and I couldn't imagine any reason she could possibly have for making any of it up. I was taking it seriously.

"One thing," I said then. "How'd you know I was here in the first place?"

She almost smiled. "It seems that a priest of the temple you stayed in considered you odd enough to make a mention of. Word simply traveled, and eventually came to Asaed's notice. He is a suspicious man by nature, and perhaps simply deduced it was you from a handed-down description."

"Why was he even here? Shouldn't he be out doing...war stuff?"

Aleif glanced at me over the rim of her glass. "Mm. You won't like the answer."

"Didn't really plan on liking it."

"He was originally here to counsel with me, on the outcome of a recent conflict," she said, still watching me carefully. "Here in our world; near Lojt."

So, the Kitsa valley had finally gone hot. Yeah, she was right—I didn't like it. But it wasn't exactly surprising. That'd been building up forever, and it had only been a matter of time. All I could hope for was that all my friends were okay, and that somebody had been smart enough to keep Keyd from fighting in it.

Aleif went on, "when Asaed learned that you were possibly in the city again, he wished to make the arrest himself. He doesn't appear to be very fond of you."

"Hey, well, I'm used to that," I said, and Aleif gave me a solemn look.

"Having enemies—true enemies—only means you are worth opposing," she said. "And to some, worth all their efforts to stop."

Aleif reached across the table then and gripped my hand, which I think was the first time she'd ever actually touched me. Her skin was surprisingly warm, and she had a strong grip. I could feel her energy a lot clearer this way, a bright but slow pulse.

"Don't underestimate yourself, Alan," she said, as I looked at her a little wide-eyed. "As it seems to me that no one else is."

#

Aleif had left me alone in the metal garden not long after that—she had half a country to run, after all. Then the same woman who'd brought me in here escorted me out again. But not before I'd put about three more rolls in my pockets. Now that I knew this girl couldn't talk, the silence wasn't so awkward. I did kinda wish I knew her name, though.

Isoel was waiting out in the courtyard, standing near the big white spire. The early fog had pretty much lifted by now, but I still couldn't see the top of that thing. I wasn't sure I ever had. Aleif's silent bodyguard, or whatever she was, handed me back off to Isoel just as casually as before. This constant surveillance thing was worse than my own team of bodyguards back with the oenclar, because at least I'd picked all those guys myself and I liked them.

Right now, I didn't want to be forced to hang around with Isoel. I was still reeling from the whole conversation with Aleif and I needed to talk with somebody I knew, just see a friendly face. Even if I couldn't say a word about any of it. So as Isoel started heading us out of the courtyard and back in the direction of the laemenna, I sprang a pretty hopeless request on him.

"Hey, look, can I just ditch you for like an hour?" I said. "You've still got my buddies hostage here so I'm not gonna run, and what could I even start to get up to? Just like an hour. I'll come right back."

"No," Isoel said, and stopped us halfway over a bridge. "If you want to go somewhere, I'll take you there."

Where I wanted to go was to see Ociir, but I was still pretty cagey about drawing super strong lines between him and me. Even if Aleif knew all about him, not everybody else did. And frankly I didn't trust this dude very much. But I also didn't want to spend an entire day shut up in that tiny room, with nothing to do but think and drive myself nuts. So I was gonna fucking risk it.

"I want to go to the temple," I said. "The big one—the main one in the market district." I didn't know the name of it, if it even had one, but I knew where the damn thing was and Isoel clearly knew what I was talking about. If he thought it was weird that I wanted to go there, he didn't show it. He turned right around on the bridge and headed us there without saying a word.

The big wide steps of the temple were actually full of people when we got there. Most of them were sleeping all bundled up, in groups of two or three or in family clusters. They all had to be camping out here because of the festival—maybe because there weren't any rooms or places to stay left in the city. The roof edges stuck out over the stairs so at least they'd all have cover if it rained, but it was still damp and cold out here and it didn't look like a fun place to stay for days on end.

There were even more people in the main open room of the temple, some of them awake and digging around in packs, eating or cradling sleeping children or sleepily wandering around. All the stuff in the temple had been pushed around to make room. Isoel and I had to weave between them all and try not to step on anyone.

At least Ociir was actually there, thank fuck. He didn't look all that surprised to see me—or my tag-along shadow—when we found him near the back of the place. It didn't seem like they knew each other at all; they glanced each other over and that was about it. Before he'd leave us alone together, Isoel had to triple-check to make sure there was only one door in and out of Ociir's rooms and that if he stood guard outside of it I wouldn't be able to sneak away, and then he was satisfied. Then Ociir shut the door on him, not exactly politely.

Ociir and I sat down together on the edges of the wood floor that opened up to the peaceful pool of water in the middle of all the priests' rooms here. Ociir leaned back on his hands and hung his legs off but I kept mine drawn up, locking my arms around my knees and resting my chin on them. I closed my eyes and just let the feel of the cool air in here relax me. It ruffled through my hair in a soft little breeze.

I couldn't tell Ociir anything about what Aleif had said to me—not the war stuff, or the separatist stuff, or any of it. It was infuriating, since all I wanted to do was talk to somebody about it. But it had to wait, until I got back to Keyd. It was just for him to hear.

"You're very quiet," Ociir said, after a while.

"Oh—yeah. Just thinking," I said. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"How did this whole...hating and fighting each other thing start? I mean in the way way beginning. It can't be that you guys just decided to get rowdy one day for no reason."

Ociir made a little humming sound, and frowned up at the ceiling. "That's a very involved story," he said. "And it begins a long time ago."

"Yeah, I figured. It's cool, if you've got shit to do—"

"No, I think you should know this," Ociir said. "It's important."

I nodded. "I'm listening."

Ociir took another second before he said anything. "After we first joined with the entities, our ancestors never saw each other as equals. The oenclar were seen as—" he spread his hands out, almost shrugging, "inherently inferior. It was a bias that came from appearance only. But over generations they began to be considered as a lower social class, secondary citizens. They kept fewer and fewer privileges—they slowly lost their land, noble titles, privileges, wealth. Eventually, they were fully a servant race to us."

"Shit. I didn't know that."

"You aren't alone in that," Ociir said. "It was over a thousand years ago, and it's not spoken about, thought about, or well-remembered. Especially here. Perhaps we're embarrassed by it, or don't wish to acknowledge any justification for the oenclar's hatred of us. But the oenclar remember. The biggest differences between our races are all things that grew out of their experiences—their society is built on that history. Their language, traditions, even their names."

I thought about Asaed slapping Hahd in the face and telling him not speak that slave language in front of him, which I hadn't understood at all right then and had kind of put it up to Asaed being a crazy motherfucker. Now it made sense. Sort of. But it was still a really old thing to get riled up over.

"How'd you split up, then?" I said. "Like, the whole living on opposite sides of the continent thing."

"Probably a story better heard from the oenclar themselves, as it's much more their history than ours, but I'll tell you what I know of it," Ociir said. He shifted, getting himself into a different position and leaning back against the wall, resting his hands on his knees. "The oenclar had been a slave race for generations before anything changed. It began as a simple act of anger by one family; the rage of two sons at their mother being put to death for some rather small, meaningless infraction. A careless act by a man who considered her a faulty piece of property with which he could do anything he liked. It was simply the pebble that began the avalanche.

"The sons struck back at the man who had killed their mother, and in doing so brought the entire city against itself. It didn't stop there—it spread, burned through all those only waiting for a chance, a reason. It touched all cities, if not in a full violent rebellion than at least in attitude; in riots and protests and refusals to be quieted. It was worst in the largest cities, where the segregation was the harshest, but just the one act had ignited all of the anger in the entire oenclar race.

"It was the first war between us, but obviously not our last. But perhaps the most violent, and desperate, of all of the conflicts we've had since. Brutal enough that it was eventually decided—by both sides—that it would be simply better if we removed ourselves from each other, as we clearly were incapable of coexisting any longer and would likely destroy each other completely if we tried.

"The continent was drawn into halves, boundaries established, with a region of neutral land in the middle that neither race was allowed to live on so that we would not even have touching borders. Those clarbach living in the eastern cities uprooted and moved west, the oenclar in the west journeyed east, until there was complete separation. After that, communication was banned, all contact was severed. Each side pretended the other didn't exist."

Ociir paused then, and I leaned back a little. I'd been listening so intently I'd actually scooted forward, right to the edge of the floor.

"The oenclar had to rebuild an entire society on their own, out of nearly nothing," he said after a couple seconds. "We know little about that, except what can be seen in them as a result in the present day. But we do know that one of the sons who ignited the rebellion became the first oenclar leader. Generations and centuries later, that family line still exists."

"You're talking about Keyd, aren't you," I said. "I mean, his family and—that's where their agistar line came from. He told me once that they weren't really royal or anything."

Ociir nodded. "Most of the high-blooded family names you would be familiar with are ones that became a new nobility over the years, who had mostly been leaders in the rebellion. But it's just as important to them, what those families did to gain the freedom of the oenclar. To them, that is a legacy of nobility. I'm sure Keyd could recite his entire family line back to that time, if you asked him."

I dragged my hands back through my hair, shutting my eyes and trying to process through this. It wasn't really that hard—or even surprising—but it was just a new angle on this whole damn thing. It wasn't just wars and jerky things like sucking all the light out of worlds that made the oenclar and clarbach hate each other. It was some centuries-old conflict that was kind of like racism, except that they were the same race. It was deep and complicated and no wonder they couldn't just get over it and fix it. The whole separatist idea was starting to make a lot more sense to me.

"These aren't things commonly taught to us, you understand," Ociir was saying meanwhile. "I've learned them through years and years of my own study, very old records in the Keeper archives that even they don't revisit—and they are very difficult to uncover. I would imagine that we've hidden our own history from ourselves, as a lot of it is not particularly pleasant."

"Everybody does shitty stuff," I said. "Your world, my world, everybody. And it's not like you did it, personally, or anything. It was a thousand damn years ago."

"No," Ociir agreed. "But we still tend our old biases faithfully. It's why the separatist movement is so important—we'll never be able to see each other as equals as long as we can't look at each other without seeing our pasts. We have to be cleansed of them, and we can't do that with the entities."

"I don't know," I said. "I mean, none of you guys seem real happy to be fighting each other anymore. Except crazy motherfuckers like Asaed. Maybe it wouldn't be as hard as you think."

"That could be true," Ociir said, without much enthusiasm. "Only, we'd need powerful people on both sides seeing the same way, willing to takes risks to bring about that change."

"Well, I know a guy," I said. "Think you might know him too—name's Keydestas and he's kind of the king of everybody over there."

Ociir smiled at that. "Even a leader can be shackled by his people," he said, which was so close to what Aleif had said that I had to guess he'd picked it up from her. It was pretty weird, knowing that they worked close politically and it was all legitimate and valid and everything, at the same time Ociir had this whole secret revolutionist group that Aleif completely knew about, but wasn't letting him know that she did. Fucking complicated; everything anybody did around here was so layered I didn't know how they all kept track of it.

"If Keyd gets through this, you bet he's gonna be right on top of this thing," I said, and then realized what I'd said. "When. When he gets through it."

Ociir dropped a hand to my shoulder and squeezed hard.

"I believe he will," he said. "If only because I can't imagine a world without him."

"Yeah," I said. "I can't either."

#

One day later, Aleif released Kir and Hahd from the barracks outside the city, and we were allowed to go home.

It happened real early in the morning, in an open courtyard in the back of the government building. Our horses—that I'd honestly forgot about—somehow showed up there, along with a handful of men and women I didn't recognize but figured were Aleif's people. The first thing Ip tried to do when I got near him was to chew some of my hair. Well, at least he recognized me.

Kir and Hahd were brought in a few minutes after I was, escorted by more than a few soldiers and looking worn out but mostly all right. We were outnumbered about five to one, but we were the ones getting side-eyed by pretty much everyone. Most of these other people—except for the soldiers—had probably never seen an oenclar in person before, and what both Aleif and Ociir had said about even the biases of civilians was pretty clear right about now. But it'd be just the same on the other side, I'd bet.

A guy name Aiedek was kind of in charge of this whole thing. I was pretty sure I'd met him before; his face and his name were familiar, and he looked at me like he recognized me. To get back to Lojt we were going to use rifts in the same way we'd gotten here, to cut out a lot of the traveling distance, and they were going to open a temporary one up here for us. They had complete control over where they were sending us, and we had to just totally trust that it wasn't going to be somewhere awful that'd kill us before we could get out again. But we were still the ones under really intense supervision; Aiedek especially was watching our every move real carefully.

While we were getting everything straightened out with the horses I suddenly noticed Ociir, standing in the background with the rest of the non-soldiers. He definitely hadn't been here at first—he must've snuck in at some point. But I was glad he was, because I didn't want to leave without saying something to him. He saw me looking at him, and started moving forward to me.

I gave Hahd a knock on the shoulder. "Hey, guys, go on ahead," I said. "I'll be right behind you."

Hahd looked like had something to say against that, but Kir stepped in again to kind of manage everything—he distracted Hahd by pushing his horse's reins into his hands and in those couple of seconds I got to step away and talk with Ociir.

"I really can't thank you enough," I said to him. "For everything, this time and last time and just—all of it. Everything you've ever done."

"Don't think you owe me anything for it," Ociir said, putting his hand on my shoulder. "You're already doing enough."

"Still," I said. "If there's like...anything I can ever do, just ask. I'm serious."

"I'll keep that in mind," he said, smiling a little. "I hope to see you again soon, Alan."

"Yeah," I said. Once upon a time I hadn't been a big fan of Ociir just because of stupid reasons mostly to do with Keyd, but the guy was so freaking decent that I forgot more and more of those reasons every time I saw him. "I hope so too."

#

The rift from Uillad went unexpectedly to a jungle, a hot and humid riverbank under a dripping wet wall of huge smooth-trunked trees. The air here was like trying to breathe hot steam, and all I could smell was dirt and flowers and rotting plants. Green light came down through the leaves, and the water slugged past brown and slow. The horses snorted at the heavy air and shifted around in the soft dirt and didn't seem to like it much here either. Hahd looked real ready to get out of there quick, but Kir had gone kind of still and tense and weird. He was staring away from us, into the darker and thicker trees where only blades of yellowy light were cutting down through the canopy.

"Kir," I said, and touched his shoulder. It was so fucking humid here that his shirt was already damp. "Hey."

He sucked in a startled breath and turned. "What?"

"We, uh, we should get going, okay?"

"Yes. Right." Kir shook himself a little and turned to Hahd, who looked just as confused about that whole moment as I was. But Kir clearly wasn't going to explain, and I wasn't gonna ask.

He and Hahd made the second and final rift back to Clarylon again, aiming to bring us pretty close to Lojt. We ended up coming through into the freezing dead forest about a five minute ride from the city. So it was up on the horses for the first time in a while, and I discovered I still had some really mild leftover aches from our first ride over. And after even just that half a minute in the hot jungle, everything felt twice as cold here as before.

We hadn't even had a guess at when we'd be back, so no one was expecting us. When we came out of the treeline, we could see the glow of lights from the soldiers' camp, exactly the same as when we'd left it. The city itself was all just dark shapes and outlines against the dim grey sky, and the dark sea cut up against the cliffs. Fuck, we were back, just that fast. It'd taken days to get to Uillad and minutes to come back. Everything ahead of me, all the things I'd have to do, were just that much closer now.

The camp wasn't real set up for riding through, so we stopped the horses at the edge of it. Just as we did, little cold specks of white started drifting down on us out of the sky. Some of them landed on my hands and arms and started to melt.

"The hell is this," I said, mostly to myself.

But Kir heard me and laughed. "Snow," he said. "You've never seen it?"

"Actually, no," I admitted. I mean, yeah, of course I'd seen snow, but it was always already on the ground, like a couple of times when my family'd been up to Big Bear. I'd never seen it come out of the sky. I'm from fucking southern California, and I don't do winter sports. "It snows here?"

"Yes."

"And I was just getting used to the rain," I said, and Kir laughed again. I was kinda glad to hear him doing that, after that weird little moment he'd had in jungle. He swung down off his horse and then caught Ip's reigns for me so I could get down too. The ground crackled under my feet; all the mud in between the stones in the road had iced up. I pulled my big cloak around me tighter, which was probably a good idea anyway since all of us were still wearing clarbach clothes underneath them, and those were sorta noticeable for being back on the oenclar side of things.

Once Hahd was down, the three of us walked into the camp, leading the horses with us. Nobody was really around. They were probably staying inside because of the snow, which was flickering down around the rows of lanterns and melting against the canvas sides of the tents. We had to stick to the big center row because of the horses, and even then it was kind of awkward. They didn't exactly set these camps up for big animals. Frankly we should have found someone to hand them off to, but I was too damn anxious and eager to see Keyd to care about it. I hoped he was actually here in the city, but if he wasn't I was getting someone to take me right to him. Seeing him was the only thing on my mind.

And it didn't take long at all to happen—by coincidence or luck or just plain good timing, especially because I wasn't risking opening our bond even for a second to feel him out. But just as the three of us were getting near the more central area of the camp, Keyd suddenly banked around the corner of another row of tents.

He was with nearly his whole gheret; Rysa, Oredaiken, his uncle Jehraldan, and his cousin. The only one missing was Darban. They all came down the row in our direction, boots crunching on the frosted ground while the little flecks of snow whirled past in the cold wind. Keyd was in the front of them all. He was talking to Oredaiken, the red of his agistar sash flickering behind him, the rest of them in their charcoal grey.

For just a second, it reminded me of the first time I'd come through a rift, back when I'd stumbled stupidly into another world without any clue what the hell I was getting into. One of the first things I'd seen there was Keyd's dad, flanked by his own gheret, looking all cool and commanding just like this. I hadn't known it then, but Maedajon had been sick just like Keyd was now. It was the worst kind of déjà vu.

Keyd saw me as the group got closer. His eyes snapped to mine and my heart just swooped right on up into my throat. He didn't stop walking or even pause. He just veered a little so he was heading right at me. I had a horse to hold onto, otherwise I would have been doing the exact same. But then somebody tugged the reins out of my hands and I was free to go wherever the hell I wanted.

Keyd and I got up right in front of each other and stopped, about a step apart. There was snow in his hair, and his breath came out as faint puffs. His hair was shorter. Shorter than I'd ever seen it before. Which was such a small stupid tiny thing, but it made me think of all the other small stupid tiny things I'd missed by being gone while he was dying and also about Rysa sitting him down to cut it because she was the one who always did it and suddenly it was harder to breathe. He looked thinner, too. Or maybe that was just my imagination. It'd only been two fucking weeks, things couldn't have gotten that bad in two weeks.

"Hey, you," I said.

Keyd just touched one hand to the side of my face without saying a thing. It was really all I could do not to just throw myself around him right then. I managed to just take the last step between us, moving up against him and resting my forehead on his shoulder. Keyd folded his arms around me, and I wrapped mine around his waist and clenched my hands against the small of his back. He smelled like earth and trees and leather and something like wood-smoke. His clothes were cold and damp. But his skin, where it touched mine, was burning hot. He was shaking a little, and I didn't know if that was from being together again or if it had to do with…something else.

We stayed like that for a pretty damn long time. Just standing there, in the middle of everything and everybody. For just a moment, I didn't care who was around or watching. I needed this.

"Fuck, hey, sorry," I said roughly, finally, and pushed him back a little from me. Sorry for being too touchy in public, sorry for getting too close because it was killing him, sorry for leaving him alone in the middle of all of this.

"I really missed hearing you swear," Keyd said, almost smiling, and I laughed and knocked him with the back of my hand.

I noticed Rysa from around Keyd's shoulder right then, standing with the rest of his gheret who'd formed a sort of semi-circle in the background. "Hey, Rysa," I said.

"Good to see you back, Alan," she said. She was smiling a little, but looked tired and kind of worn out. I didn't blame her at all.

"It's good to be back," I said, and Keyd made an incredibly soft noise. I pulled back from him, enough to see his face. "How are you doing?" I asked him, carefully, because I didn't want to get him all defensive and closed off.

"About the same," he said, just as carefully.

I kept looking at him, staring him right in the eyes, and decided he wasn't bullshitting me too much. "Okay."

Keyd breathed out, then slid his hand around the back of my head and moved in like he was going to kiss me. Then he hesitated, and leaned back. Which was disappointing as hell, but we were in public. And he was still sick. Even just being too close to each other made it worse. What we were doing right now wasn't even a good idea.

Keyd's eyes flicked down then, and he reached forward and flipped the edge of my cloak back, right near my hip. I knew what he was looking at. I went for the buckle of the belt around my waist, the one holding Maedajon's sword at my side, meaning to take it off and give it back to Keyd. But he grabbed my wrists, stopped me. He moved one of my hands to the sword's hilt and wrapped both our fingers around it.

"Take care of it for me for a little longer," he said, and tightened his hand on mine. "Please."

I nodded, and kept a grip on the sword even when Keyd let go. After I'd nearly lost the thing I didn't think I was really the best person to be looking out for it, but if Keyd wanted me to...I'd hold onto it for as long as he wanted.

Keyd was still pretty close up against me, and I was getting pretty sure that he was doing it on purpose. Not because of seeing each other again, but because he didn't want any of the people near us to hear what we were talking about. Especially with what he said next.

"What happened, over there?" he said, kind of through his teeth and his mouth barely moved. "Did you learn anything—?"

I couldn't lie to him, but it wasn't all bad news either. "Maybe," I said, because that really was that truth. "Better than what I knew before. I think—no. I'm sure I can do something. I just have to figure out how."

Keyd drew in a slow breath through his nose. "At this point," he said, "I'd try anything."

I didn't like hearing that—it sounded desperate, and hopeless, and not like Keyd at all. "It's something," I said. "Probably shouldn't talk about it right out here in front of everybody, though."

"You're right," Keyd said, and then did that thing where he was suddenly just marching us off together, whatever he'd been doing before be damned. His whole gheret was still here, standing just a couple of feet away. I saw Oredaiken watching us, not looking impressed. I'm sure this was putting another point against me in his Alan Is A Major Fucking Distraction book, but I couldn't care less right now.

Keyd didn't take us far. We barely got out of sight of everybody that we'd walked away from before he was pulling us inside a tent. Inside it was warm and dry and cheerful with orangey-gold lights, and I didn't know whose it was. It wasn't Keyd's or mine, but it was definitely a personal one that someone lived in. Keyd tossed the flap closed behind us and threw out a shield spell in front of it too, so nobody was getting in after us. I saw him tense up and shiver after doing it, like it'd done something to him, something not real good.

If it was hurting him to use his energy, then he shouldn't be doing it at all. But I wasn't gonna tell Keyd that, because clearly he knew it. I didn't want to start this off by being a nag or starting a fight. Argument. Whatever. We hadn't seen each other for two weeks and I just didn't want to fucking do that.

Keyd turned to me and put his hands on my shoulders, cupping the base of my neck. Another thing on the list of shit I'd missed about him; his hands. Big, rough, warm, and familiar. But they were shaking now, with tiny little shivers every ten or twenty seconds, like he was cold. Even though it was snowing outside, I knew it wasn't because of that. The clar didn't get cold as easy as normal.

"So tell me," he said.

"Okay," I said. "Okay. It's—Ociir didn't know a ton, but he has some theories they've just never been able to try, and...actually, Ahieel probably gave me the best lead. So I have some ideas. Just, there's no way to fucking test it. But the thing with Ahieel, it wasn't just a fluke. Ociir thinks it could be done again. That I could do it again."

Keyd still had that lingering hero worship thing for Ociir, so throwing his opinion in there couldn't possibly hurt anything. And Keyd nodded slowly after I said that.

"And Ahieel is alive, for certain," he said.

"Oh yeah, he's definitely alive. Seems just fine. Other than being a completely miserable bastard, but I don't think that's actually new."

Keyd made a small sound that could have been a laugh. "No, it isn't," he said.

"I really think this can be done," I said. "I mean it. It's just the...doing it. Figuring out how the hell to do it where it doesn't kill you. Because I think there's a really thin fucking line there, and, you know—one side's death and the other side is not a damn thing happens but then you fucking die eventually anyway. So it's worth trying. It has to be."

"Okay," Keyd said, and closed his eyes. "Okay. Yes."

"Really?" I knew he'd basically been humoring me up to now on this whole idea, but he sounded really serious. I got a good hold on his arms and gripped him hard. "Keyd, please fucking mean that."

"I do," he said. "I mean it. I can't...do this, for very much longer."

"Okay," I said. I put my hands on the sides of his face then, held him close. Didn't let him look away from me. "Okay. Then we'll do it, all right? As soon as we can."

"Okay," Keyd said again, real softly. He kept looking at me, and this close I could see all the new lines and shadows under his eyes that hadn't been there months ago. Weeks ago, even. He was wearing so fucking thin, there was gonna be nothing left of him if everything went on like this. He was right; he couldn't do this for much longer. Neither could I.

I ran a hand into his hair and dropped my face against his shoulder again. He curled one arm up around me, and breathed against the top of my head. We couldn't stay this close together for long, but I was fucking gonna appreciate it while it was happening. Keyd was still overly hot, burning through his clothes. And those quick staggered chills were still going on. Those were new and I didn't like them, not at fucking all.

But at least he'd agreed to this. I'd honestly thought it was going to be a lot harder than that. Just having him on the same page with me was so fucking relieving, it already felt like things were better.

"Hey," I said then, because something I'd noticed earlier had just come back to me. "Where was Darban at? I didn't see him with the rest of you."

Keyd tensed as soon as I'd said Darban's name, and it took him a second to answer. "There was a battle in the valley, while you were gone. Darban was wounded there. He'll live, but it was a bad injury. He's still recovering."

"Fuck, how bad?"

Keyd shook his head a little. "He might not ever be in combat again."

Jesus, what? "Shit, what happened? He—"

"Do we have to talk about this now?" Keyd asked. Then, even softer, so that I probably wouldnt've heard him if I wasn't right up fucking against him, "I've missed you."

"No, okay," I said. "Sorry. I just. What do you want to talk about?"

"I don't want to talk," Keyd said, and rested his forehead down on the top of my head. "Just be here."

"Okay," I said, and ran my hand down his back and leaned into him. Our bond was still shut, but being this close to him I couldn't avoid feeling his energy in the space around him, and that weird little jagged spike in it. It really didn't feel much worse than before, but it shouldn't have been there at all. I gripped the front of his complicated shirt with my other hand, sliding my fingers between all the stupid buttons on it and holding on tight.

"I missed you too," I said into his neck. "Missed you so fucking bad." It kinda seemed dumb to even say, because obviously, but Keyd relaxed and let out a long breath. He rested his arms low around my waist, knotting his fingers together at the small of my back. He was still curled over me, with his head down on the top of mine.

"Whose tent is this?" I asked eventually, because we were standing in the middle of it, all over each other. Pretty awkward, even if no one could get in.

"I don't know," Keyd admitted, and I almost laughed. But Keyd could probably commandeer anybody's tent he wanted to, being the agistar. "If we'd gone to ours, or the...the one that was ours, I'd...I couldn't—"

He shook his head against me, and didn't finish.

"Okay," I said. "That's okay." I'd actually forgot that we'd been sleeping in separate tents before I'd left. We'd still have to do that now. And my bodyguard team would probably have to come back, too. Nothing had really changed here. Not yet.

Keyd straightened up with a sigh, and tried to move back from me. But I held on to him and didn't let him get far. His hands came back to me and dropped down on my shoulders; maybe to hold me back or maybe because he actually wanted to keep touching me, I couldn't tell. But then he pressed his fingers down on me, feeling around.

"You're tense," he said, and I guess he meant my muscles, which all did feel pretty sore and locked up.

"Still not used to riding," I said, and Keyd kind of smiled. Then he rolled his knuckles into the slope of muscle between my neck and shoulder, and ughhfuck, it felt great. In an aching, agonizing kind of way. I groaned a little and leaned into him, and Keyd worked his other hand up to my other shoulder and did the same thing there. I practically melted into him, and I had to grab his shirt to keep myself standing. I ended up with my face pushed against his neck, breathing hard into warm skin and nearly tasting him, with the smell of leather and damp earth everywhere.

My heart started going a little stronger, and every time Keyd pressed into me I gripped him harder and breathed quicker. I couldn't help it, Jesus, it'd been weeks and he was working me up pretty fast, but we really couldn't do this. But I couldn't make myself let go of him or tell him to stop; all I did was dig my hands into him and force myself closer while he kept working his hands into my back, deep into my tired muscles.

"Fuck, man, I—" I tried, and then couldn't actually go on with words. It just felt so good. Not only to get the kinks worked out of me, but to have Keyd touch me. In any kind of way. I missed him so bad it was like a piece of me had gotten ripped out and even with him right fucking here, standing right in my arms, it wasn't fitting back in. Nothing was okay yet, and we weren't okay, because he was still dying and I was helping it happen just by being this close to him.

Keyd seemed to remember that right about when I did. "I'm sorry," he said suddenly, and wrenched back from me. He raked a shaking hand through his hair and took another step back. My gut was burning and I wanted him so bad I was hurting from it, everything in me hot and aching and desperate. "Alan, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have—I'm sorry."

And before I could do or say anything else, Keyd turned away from me and just walked out of the tent in a rush of cold and snow. I didn't trust myself to go after him, not feeling like this. All I could do was watch him go.

#

I didn't see Keyd again for the rest of the day, and we slept in different tents that night. That was really the worst thing out of all of this. I could sleep fine by myself when he was across a whole damn world, but when he was only three hundred feet away and still completely off-limits it just fucking sucked. I kept his sword next to me instead, right in my reach. It only helped a little. I still rolled around most of the night, staring at the walls and watching shadows move across them and listening to Rhet and Ansa sometimes talk in whispers outside the door. I didn't get much sleep.

The first thing I did in the morning was go see Darban to find out what had happened to him. I hadn't liked what Keyd had said; it sounded bad. These guys had a different idea about what was worth worrying about—it wasn't just Keyd who sometimes pushed himself way too hard through injuries—so when even they thought something was bad, it had to be really fucking bad.

Before I left, I strapped Keyd's sword back around my waist. I was just gonna wear the damn thing everywhere now. Even if it was ceremonial and not for fighting and didn't feel natural to have hanging off my hip, I didn't care. If I could ride a fucking horse wearing it, I could walk around a camp. It was Keyd's and I was supposed to be taking care of it, so I was gonna do a better job from now on.

I was starting to hate the main medical tent. Nothing good ever happened here. At least it didn't smell like a hospital, but that was about the only thing it had going for it. It actually smelled kind of herbal inside, a real thick planty scent everywhere, with an edge of something that almost smelled burned. It wasn't great, but fuck I hated that sterile hospital smell so bad that anything was better.

Whatever had happened in the Kitsa valley had been long enough ago now that it wasn't a mess in here like right after that first battle in Lojt. There were some soldiers in here, but it seemed by this point like most of the wounded guys had either gotten better or...hadn't. And Rhet had told me that the fight had actually been in the oenclar's favor, so there might have been less casualties on the whole. Either way, the atmosphere in the tent was pretty quiet and calm, with a couple of healers moving around in here between cots but not with any real urgency. They kept the lights real dim in here, and the far corners were even kind of murky.

Ansa'd come with me, since my bodyguard brigade was back in full force. Except for Hahd, who I hadn't seen since we'd gotten back, and that probably had to do with Darban being injured. A guy intercepted us at the door, not-so-subtly getting in our way and blocking me off from going in much further than a couple steps.

"Hey there," I said, leaning back and forth and trying to look over his shoulders for somebody I'd maybe recognize, like Akyo or—well. Just Akyo. I didn't know any other healers.

"Do you need something?" the guy said, curtly and in Isji. He had the oen marks that meant he was a healer, covering all of his hands and arms that I could see. Ansa shifted at my side, moving forward like she was gonna get on this guy's case for being rude to me. I appreciated it, but stuck out my elbow a little bit to keep her out of it.

"I'm looking for commander Koya," I said to the guy, also in Isji. That threw him for a second, and then he almost looked annoyed that I could even talk to him in his own language.

"That's very interesting," he said. "Hardly of my concern."

"Well, maybe you could get someone who's concern it is."

"What reason would I have to do that?"

"Just go already, Isryl," Ansa said sharply. "You're impressing no one here."

For a second this guy Isryl looked like was going to keep on arguing, and then he glanced around at the couple of other healers who were within hearing range and obviously listening in. He huffed out a breath, then gave me the most grudging nod ever, and turned on his heel and walked off.

"I'd like to smack him someday," Ansa said offhandedly, and brushed her hand over the hilt of her sword like that was the thing she wanted to hit him with. "Always have."

"So you know him," I said.

"Oh yes," Ansa said. "Grew up with him. Always been insufferable. For a while he was one of Rhet's many, many interests when we were younger. My brother really has the worst taste."

I laughed, for the first time in what felt like forever. Ansa gave me a kind of sly smile back, just as another healer trotted up to us. She was only a couple inches taller than me, with curly hair and kind of a cute round face. It was pretty impossible to guess the actual ages of these people, but I wouldn't have said she was all that much older than Keyd. She just seemed young.

"Tbat Ihenjand," she said, doing a little bow at me. "I am the personal healer attending Koya Darbanyon."

"Alan," I said, doing one back. She really seemed young to be a personal healer; those guys stuck with their soldier families pretty permanently, especially if they were big name high-blooded families like Darban's. "You probably know who I am."

Ihenjand almost smiled. "Yes, I do," she said. "Though I wasn't aware you spoke our language."

"I try," I said. "So, look. I'm here to see Darban. Is that cool?" I didn't know how the whole visiting-injured-people policy went down over here, if you had to be a family member or what. Last time, with Keyd, I'd just barged on in and hadn't cared. And I didn't really say 'cool', either. I used a word that meant something a lot closer to 'legal'.

"Oh, yes," she said, "you may." Then she glanced up at Ansa. "You may not. I am sorry, he is in a private room."

Ansa pursed her mouth up a little, but nodded. She touched my shoulder and said, "I'll wait outside."

Then Ihenjand led me off into one of the side sections of the main tent. This just reminded me of Maedajon, how he'd been sealed off in a private back area the night he'd died, and it didn't make me feel any better about this.

"I should tell you, as you are his friend," Ihenjand said, pausing outside of a closed door-flap and looking at me. "The damage was extensive, and challenging to treat. If he walks again, which is uncertain, it will be difficult for him for the rest of his life."

"Fuck," I said. "It's really that bad?"

"You may see for yourself, if you like," Ihenjand said. "Although, his—" she broke off, cleared her throat, then went on, "Arritja Enten is in with him now."

"Oh," I said. That meant Kir. Well, it wasn't like they were fucking in there or anything, if Darban was hurt as bad as it sounded. The worst I could probably interrupt was making out. And I wanted to talk to Kir anyway, to seriously apologize for dragging him away at the worst possible fucking time. "That's fine."

"As you like," Ihenjand said, and pulled aside the flap and gestured me in.

It was a bigger place than what Maedajon had been in; that'd basically only had space for him, but this area was longer and had five little cots in a row. Three of them had people in them, but they were all asleep. That, or too injured to move around, I couldn't tell. Darban was in the one at the very end. He was awake. A guy with short hair was sitting at his side, holding his hand. I didn't know who that was, but he was being pretty friendly so I was guessing they were good buddies. Darban mostly looked okay, from this distance, but he wasn't moving his left side very much. That arm was just down flat and limp on the bed.

"But you said he could get better, right?" I said quietly to Ihenjand. "I mean, he's not gonna die or anything."

"Most likely not," she replied. "But it will be a long recovery. He was struck near the back of the neck, but the impact was only glancing. Had he taken more of the full force of it..."

She trailed off, but I got the idea. I knew what getting an energy hit to the back of the neck could do to someone. I'd gotten the full thing and it'd actually fucking killed me, for like two seconds until Keyd had made it better. Darban had just got a partial hit, and it'd fucked him up like this. We were both seriously lucky. But Darban hadn't had anyone with him like I'd had. Kir hadn't been there. Because he'd been with me.

I looked over at then again, in time to see the guy I didn't know lean in and kiss Darban on the forehead. Not quick either, kind of long and meaningful. Who the heck was he? And wasn't Kir supposed to be in here? Then the guy leaned up and turned his head and I saw a little more of his face and—shit. That was Kir. With all his hair chopped off.

Neither of them had noticed us yet. I forced myself to leave the doorway and walk towards them. Kir saw me before I was even halfway along the row of cots, and he reached down and cupped his hand around the side of Darban's face, turning his head towards me. Shit, he couldn't even do that on his own?

"Hey," I said, stopping near the foot of the second-to-last empty cot, giving myself some distance from them.

"Hello Alan," Kir said, with a little nod. He looked so different with his hair like this. It was shorter than mine, for fuck's sake, and even ten feet from him I could still barely recognize him. Was this national clar haircut month or what? I didn't know if it'd be rude or totally out of line to say anything about it, so I didn't. But cutting his hair had to some kind of major damn deal.

"Alan," Darban said then. "I didn't expect—ah. Mh. Hello."

I saw the way Kir had given his hand a hard squeeze in the middle of that sentence. And maybe Darban wasn't the one who'd okayed me as one of the people allowed in to see him.

"Hey," I said again. "I just, um. I wanted to make sure, you know, that you were okay, and—doing all right. Keyd said, I mean, that—I just heard you weren't...great. And I'm really sorry."

I couldn't stop staring at Darban as I talked. The left side of his body wasn't moving at all. It was so fucking weird, like he was paralyzed right down the middle. When he blinked, the bad side was even just a little slower. Otherwise he looked fine; not cut up or bandaged or bruised or anything.

Kir stood up suddenly. "I'll leave you to talk," he said. Darban made a little protesting sound, but Kir just lifted his arm—the bad one—and kissed his palm. "Kehld kujkananhi, ihensfe." His voice was muffled into Darban's hand. When he tried to leave again, Darban let him. Kir touched my shoulder on his way past and caught my eye, and I hoped that meant he was gonna hang around so I could talk with him too.

"Okay, seriously," I said to Darban, watching as Kir walked the length of the room and disappeared out through the flap. "Why's his hair gone?"

"Mh," Darban said, and did a weird jerky thing with his head so his face was more or less aimed towards me again. "Custom."

I grabbed the chair Kir'd been in and dropped down in it. Keyd's sword banged into the side of it and I winced. Jesus, I was so bad at this. "Bautan thing, or something?"

"Yes. I told him he didn't have to," Darban said. "But he still likes traditions."

"And is it because you...because of this?" I asked, and made a little gesture at him.

"As I understand it, yes. It can be done as a symbol of different things. A sign of grief or a lending of strength. He's doing the second, for me. Something that grows back, over time...it shows hope, an ability to recover."

"That's kinda nice," I said. "I mean—I actually get it. Makes sense."

"Supposedly it was a common tradition before our races split, but only the bautan sect really does it now. It's still popular with the clarbach—you might remember Rysa doing it once."

"Oh, yeah. Now that you mention it," I said. Right after Maedajon had died, Rysa had shown up with her hair hacked way shorter. I hadn't even asked about it back then. There'd been other things I'd been focused on. "Still, it's gonna take some time to get used to him looking like that. But I bet it's weirder for you."

"It's very weird," Darban agreed. "But he wanted to, and I didn't want to stop him."

Talking about Kir had been a good opener, but now I wasn't really sure what to say. I fucking hated seeing Darban like this; I hated seeing anyone hurt. It made me feel so damn helpless, and I never knew what to do.

"So, uh," I said, tapping my fingers on my knees. "How did this...happen?"

Darban made a sound in his throat, sort of like a laugh. "Well," he said. "The same way one usually gets injured."

"Okay," I said. Maybe he didn't want to talk about it. It got quiet between us again, Darban just lying there and blinking unevenly up at the canvas ceiling. I rubbed my thumb against the outside seam of my jeans and wiggled the toe of my boot against the ground. I wasn't doing any good here; I couldn't even come up with anything to say, how useful was I being? I leaned forward over my knees and ran my hands through my hair, wish I was just...better at this.

A hand suddenly closed around my wrist and gripped. I glanced up; Darban had reached up with his good arm and was holding on to me.

"Alan," he said, sounding a lot more serious than he usually was. "Thank you. For coming here."

"Yeah," I said. "Sure, I—of course, I mean—how could I not? I know it hasn't been, uh, with us—ah, fuck, well, never mind, but...yeah. Any time."

"And I've heard you also took good care of my brother," Darban said, still low and serious.

"Man, I don't know, he took pretty good care of me, too," I said, and Darban smiled. It was sorta lopsided, like he'd had a stroke or something, and looking at it was weird and unnerving.

"Thank you," he said again, tightening his fingers on my wrist.

It suddenly seemed like, for the first time in a good long while, we were okay. Completely okay, that the rough little thing that'd been grating between us was finally worn down and gone. Maybe because it'd just been long enough, or because he'd appreciated me watching out for his little brother, or just because I'd come to see him here when I didn't have to. Whatever it was, I was really damn glad about it. Especially because I'd been the one to drag Kir away from him during all this, and that really could have made things worse.

"Hey really, it's nothing," I said. "I'll come back again. Bring you flowers or something."

"Why would I want those?" Darban said, about half of his face looking confused.

I laughed. "Nah, I guess you wouldn't, huh. Just—get better, okay? You gotta get better."

"I'm trying," Darban said, smiling that off-center smile again. He closed his eyes, and they stayed closed for a couple of seconds before he blinked them open again. "I don't particularly like it in here."

"Don't blame you," I said. "But Ihenjand seems pretty decent."

"Hm, yes," Darban said. His eyes drooped shut again; he looked like he was falling asleep on me. "Chose her, when my other didn't want...once I married..."

His head dropped to his shoulder, and he was out. Totally asleep. He'd still been holding onto my wrist, but his hand lost its grip and his arm flopped off the edge of the bed. I lifted it back up and sort of tucked it back at his side. He was still wearing that leather thing around his wrist from their wedding, the same thing that Kir wore in his hair. Or had used to wear.

When I got back outside of the medical tent, Kir was waiting for me. But I walked right past him without recognizing him. He fell into step with me while I was busy looking around for him, or Ansa, who'd totally disappeared. I startled, and then tried to hide the fact that I had.

"Jeez, hi," I said.

"I told Ansadama that I would escort you," Kir said, without missing a beat.

"Oh, yeah, that's fine, I just—sorry, man, it's just the hair. You don't even look like you."

Kir smiled. One thing the haircut did was make him look younger—kind of boyish, actually. It was the shortest in the back, a little longer on the sides and front. And he suddenly had bangs. "Everyone else has also said so," he said.

"It's gotta be kinda weird to you too."

"Well, my head feels lighter," Kir said, and I almost laughed. But I didn't, because I just felt so bad about this whole fucking situation.

"Kir—I am so sorry you weren't here when this happened," I said.

"You needed me with you," Kir said simply.

"Bullshit. He needed you, way fucking more than I did."

Kir shook his head. "None of us could have known for sure what would happen while we were gone. And yes—the injury is bad, and it will change things for him and for the two of us, but my not being here for the first of it isn't important now. Being there for everything afterwards is."

I really hated how mature and logical and right he was being about this. If Keyd had gotten hurt that bad and I hadn't been right there—I probably would have beat myself up for months and felt guilty about it forever. Way back when our relationship was falling apart and I'd been convinced Keyd hated me, hearing that he'd been hurt had been the thing that had gotten me off my ass and doing something about fixing it. I just didn't know how to deal well with this kind of thing. But all of these people were warriors, and they did.

"I just...I'm sorry," I said. "I'm so sorry. I just want you to know that."

"Alan," Kir said patiently. "You don't have to be."

"Well yeah, I kinda fucking do," I said, and was gonna say more, but Kir swung around and caught me by the back of the neck. It was more than a friendly thing, it was a major sign of mutual trust, and now that I knew personally just how sensitive that place was to someone with entities it had a hell of a lot more meaning to me. Kir'd never done it to me before.

"Why?" he said. His hand was firm and I could feel callouses on his fingers. I didn't think Kir'd ever touched me much at all before this, actually. "None of this you did on purpose. You needed help and I helped you. What happened outside of that isn't related—Darban's injury is neither your doing nor your fault nor something you wanted to happen."

"Jesus, of course not—"

"Then why would you insist that it is?"

"That's not what I—you should have been here, that's all, and I'm the reason you weren't—"

Kir shook his head. "I'll try to explain this way. Do you blame yourself for Keyd's illness?" he asked, in a way where I could tell my answer was supposed to be no.

I couldn't say anything. My throat closed up and I just looked at him. After a couple of seconds, Kir dropped his hand off me.

"You...do," he said, and stared harder at me, like he just couldn't fucking believe that. "Why?"

"Because that is my fault," I said. "I mean—not all of it, but I made it worse. And I—there's so many things, if I hadn't been…it's not my fault, but I'm responsible for a lot of it. I really am, that's just true."

"Is this noble, in your culture?" Kir asked, so sharply that it startled me. "To take the blame for things that no one could have predicted or seen, or assume everything you do controls what happens to others? Because, Alan, it's not an attractive quality. From you or anyone."

And this from the guy who believed in Destiny, with a capital D.

"That's just…a me thing, I guess," I said, kind of at a loss. I'd never thought about this being something selfish, that I blamed myself for a lot of things that I felt I could have changed or done different. But Kir was telling me to my face that I was self-centered for it. He was making me feel like an asshole.

"If you're told that something isn't your fault, that you're not blamed for it, that you don't need to upset yourself with guilt...then you should believe it," Kir said, more gently. He put his hand back on my neck. Something on his wrist pressed into my skin. "I'm sure Keyd has told you these things himself."

"Well, yeah, but—"

"Then don't insult him by not taking his word for it," Kir said.

"I...fuck. Okay. I see your point," I said, rubbing at the bridge of my nose. My head was starting to hurt, from stress or exhaustion or something. "I'm not trying to be a dick here, you know."

The corner of his mouth twitched. "I assumed you weren't."

"I just wanted...I don't know, to take some responsibility for once."

A realer smile this time, but it didn't really get to his eyes. "Alan, I think you're doing enough of that."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess maybe I am."

Kir gave my neck a squeeze, and I lifted my arm and got my own hand around the back of his neck too. I'd never done this to him either, but I still half-expected to get a handful of his hair. But there were only smooth short strands under my fingers.

"Thanks," I said. "Really."

Kir smiled, and we let go of each other. I glanced at his wrist and saw that the leather thing that'd used to be in his hair was there now, the same place Darban was wearing his. It was just a simple strap with a design pressed into the surface. It was the closest thing I'd ever seen to a wedding ring, or even any kind of marriage symbol at all, around here.

Speaking of rings; that reminded me of someone. "Hey, uh, how's Hahd handling this?" I said, as Kir and I started to walk back into the main area of the camp together. "I mean, you know, after...everything else."

"Upset, generally," Kir said. "But all right, I think, for now."

"Good," I said. Hahd had already lost one brother, and even if Ihenjand had said that Darban wasn't going to die, it had to be hard to deal with. I couldn't even imagine it, not with my own brothers. I'd probably be a fucking mess.

We turned a corner in the tent rows and I saw Rysa suddenly, walking right towards us. As soon as she noticed us she veered right in our direction.

"Good, there you are," she said to me, when she got up close. "I want to talk to you." Then she glanced at Kir. "If I'm interrupting anything—"

"It's all right, I can go," Kir said. He started to turn away, but Rysa reached out and caught his shoulder.

"No—" she said, and he stopped. "You as well, if you want. This is about Keyd."

"And you want me involved?" Kir said. He had the same kind of look on his face that he'd had when I'd told him that Keyd wanted him to go with me to Uillad. Like he'd never expected it in a million years.

"If you would like to be," Rysa told him. She flicked her eyes to me, then back to him. "You are trusted, by all of us. There's no reason to keep anything from you, and you know that if it were possible Keyd would have you in a position of much higher authority already." Like in the government, where he really deserved to be, but couldn't because of the caste he'd originally come from. But Keyd already kept him in the loop of a lot of things he probably shouldn't know, and so did I.

Kir actually flushed a little. "Then yes. Of course," he said.

The three of us walked through the torch-lit camp back to Rysa's tent. The sky was lighter than it had once been, but most of it was still a murky charcoal-grey, darkest at the horizon, so there were still always lights lit up. It'd quit snowing sometime in the night and now the air was just sharp and cold, but everything was still damp and there were icy patches on the ground. Everyone's breath clouded around them, and thin little smoke trails from cooking fires steamed up into the air.

Rysa's tent was nice and warm inside. We all sat on the floor around a low table she had in there—I moved Keyd's sword out of the way this time—and right away Rysa pushed a little bowl of dried fruit across it at me. I'd had a semi-breakfast earlier, but I appreciated this anyway. She waited until I'd eaten two or three of them before she shifted forward, leaning her elbow on the table.

"You must have talked to Keyd about all of this, but he hasn't said a word to me," she said. "What happened in Uillad, what you learned." Her eyes were very bright and serious. "I want to know."

So I told her, as honestly as I could. Kir hadn't heard about any of what had gone on either, because there hadn't really been an opportunity once they'd let him out of the barracks. So I was glad he was hearing about it now, especially since he'd put so much effort into helping me get there. Both of them just sat quietly and let me talk, didn't ask questions. Kir just kept running his fingers over the leather strap on his wrist, and Rysa didn't do much of anything.

"So basically your brother is still not real pleasant," I finally finished up with. "But he might've helped the most."

Rysa snorted slightly and leaned back, running her thumb over the edge of her jaw. "But he's alive and...truly, without entities at all?"

"Yeah. He seems totally fine without them. Physically."

"Yes, it must be the worst kind of nightmare for him otherwise," she said, and I couldn't actually tell if she had any kind of sympathy going on for him. I wouldn't've blamed her if she didn't. "Still, everything else sounds...promising."

"I thought so too," I said. "Rysa, I really think I can do this. I can't even explain how I'm actually going to, but...I think it's just something that'll have to happen right in the moment. I can only know what's gonna happen when it happens."

"Not entirely comforting, but understandable," she said. "Alan, you know you have my support on this. I believe Ociir is right, that you may be the only person who can do this with the way things are. This doesn't seem hopeless to me."

"Or to me," Kir added in quietly.

"Good to hear," I said. "'cause I think Keyd barely buys it himself."

"Well," Rysa said, almost smiling. "You know optimism isn't always his strongest quality, especially regarding himself. But he does believe in you, which is perhaps better."

"I guess," I said. "Yeah. Hey, uh—how was he? These last weeks."

"Quiet," Rysa said. "Distant. But he's been careful with himself. He didn't fight at the Kitsa valley, if you were wondering. He was there, but not in the battle."

"Fuck, good," I said. "How hard was that to get him to agree to?"

"Not very." Her voice was real quiet and heavy. "Even using the smallest amounts of energy causes him pain, now. He knew he would have been a liability."

"You've been feeling it, haven't you," I said. "What he is, through the bond."

Rysa nodded tiredly. "Closing it has made little difference," she said. "Our ability to control it is just...less efficient. Things come across now whether we mean them to or not."

"Shit." I reached across the table and held onto her wrist. "I'm sorry." No wonder she looked just as worn out as Keyd did, and it wasn't all from stress. I wasn't sure why I wasn't feeling any of this too, why Keyd and I could still keep our part of the bond closed off—maybe because I wasn't actually attached to him via entities. I was still partially separated from both of them, on a slightly different level.

"We just gotta hang on, here," I said. "We can all get through this, I know it. Just a little longer."

Rysa turned her hand over into mine, squeezed, and then let go. None of us said anything else for a while. I started absently shredding a piece of dried fruit into pieces, and got it all over the table and made my hands sticky. I wiped them off on my jeans and was about to ask Rysa if she had any water or anything when Kir suddenly leaned forward over the table. He'd actually been looking at Rysa for a while, watching her with something that seemed like compassion, or a kind of gentle pity.

"I forget, sometimes, where you came from," he said then. "The family you were forced from, how unreachable they are from you. I'm sorry for it."

"It's been a long time," Rysa said, but she wouldn't look at him, or even at me.

"As it has for me, as well." Kir fiddled absently with the strap around his wrist again. "It can be put away, ignored, but there's no real forgetting."

"Your family never wished you dead."

"But I might as well be, in their eyes. I simply mean to say—I wish it could be different, for both of us."

Rysa finally looked at him again. "I wish that too," she said. "And maybe, one day, it can be."

When Kir and I got up to go, Rysa gave me an unexpected long hug that I hadn't even known I'd needed. I saw even less of her than Keyd these days, and I missed her too. We'd have to fix that, when all this shit was behind us and we could get back to having (relatively) normal lives.

It was fucking snowing again when Kir and I walked out of the tent, heavier than before. I was already deciding I liked rain better, because at least it made noise when it happened and didn't sneak up on you like goddamn ninja weather. Snow was just quiet and creepy.

"You ought to go to Keydestas," Kir said suddenly, and I blinked at him through the snow falling on my eyelashes.

"Huh?"

"I spoke with him earlier today—he came to me to thank me, for accompanying you to Uillad. The way he spoke of you...in his voice I heard the same feeling that I had myself about Darban, while we were gone. He misses you, badly."

I sighed, and then stuck a hand into Kir's hair and messed it all up. "Sorry, just had to do that," I said, and he laughed and then nudged me in the direction of Keyd's tent.

"Go to him," he said.

"Yeah, okay," I said. "Then you go back to Darban."

"That seems fair," Kir said, and smiled.

#

When I ducked into the tent that had been ours but now was just his again, Keyd was actually inside. I hadn't expected that—I'd been planning on having to sit around and wait for him to come back. But he was right there, sitting on the bed, staring down at his hands. He glanced up when I came in, and I stopped halfway through the doorway. I hadn't seen him since he'd walked out on me yesterday, and that hadn't been the best reunion either.

"Hey," I said, and Keyd gave me the thinnest, most tired smile I'd ever seen on him. "Uh. Hey. If this isn't a good—"

"No," he said. "Please. Come here."

I was covered in melting snow and kind of dripping everywhere, but who cared. I went over and sat down next to him, careful not to actually touch him. Partially because of being so damn soggy, but mostly because of...all the other reasons. Keyd looked at the half a foot of space between us like it was the worst thing he'd ever seen, which it kind of felt like it was.

"What's going on?" I asked him quietly.

Keyd sighed and dragged a hand up through his short hair. "A council has been arranged," he said. "To discuss...this. A possible cure."

"So they all know about it," I said. When I'd left, not a lot of people even knew Keyd was sick. His gheret and just one or two other people. But I guess if he'd had to stay out of a major fucking battle, at least a few people would have wanted an explanation for why.

"It became unavoidable," Keyd said. "Though it's still not widely known about outside the government, it likely will not stay that way for long. That's why it's best to do this as quickly as possible, to be given their answer about it."

"What, do you have to ask their fucking permission now?" I said, and then when Keyd just kept looking at me, "...seriously?"

"Of course," Keyd said. "Something that's never been attempted before, that has a direct impact on the health of the agistar, especially when that agistar is rather known for making impulsive and bizarre decisions—a general approval by the full ghereen is needed."

"That's such fucking bullshit," I said, and Keyd cracked a smile.

"I suppose it is," he said. "But I have taken some...precautions. Things to ensure that they have fewer reasons to say no."

"Like what?"

"I named the artaln," Keyd said, casually enough that I wasn't sure he'd actually said what I'd heard.

"What?"

"While you were gone," he said. He didn't sound real thrilled about it. "I discussed it with my cousin, and...for now, at least, Ajhenkein officially bears the title."

Ajhenkein was a one year old little boy; Keyd's cousin's son. Back at the time Keyd and I'd been first talking about needing an artaln, I'd been joking when I suggested him as an option. But Keyd apparently hadn't taken it that way.

"Why him?"

"The title will automatically fall to him, if anything happens to me. And if there's one thing I'm sure even the Worthies won't do, it's harm a child. Even to gain back the power that they so badly want," Keyd said. He sounded like the words were a bad taste in his mouth, like he hated this. "He will be safe in the position, as safe as anyone could be. There will, of course, need to be a warden of some kind until he's old enough, and that job would either go to my cousin or uncle."

"Okay, okay, I got it, quit talking like that'll really happen," I said. "It's just good you did it."

Keyd glanced away, and in the faint greyish light coming in through the tent walls he looked so tired, and so much older.

"Hey," I said. I started to reach for him, checked myself, and then thought fuck it. When I put my hand to his neck, he did something that was almost a flinch. He hadn't expected to be touched. "Hey. It's gonna be okay, all right?"

"You do keep saying that," Keyd said. He leaned, just slightly, into my hand.

"And I fucking mean it."

Keyd's eyes slid back to me. "You know that it's not that I don't believe you," he said. "It's just that—"

"I know. Nobody's ever done it before and there's no reason to think it'll work, I know. I don't even blame you for being kinda skittish on the whole thing. I really don't. I would be too."

"If anybody could do it, you can," Keyd said. "It's only that...I'm afraid to hope too much."

I had no idea what to say to that. I understood what he meant, and it was exactly the way I hadn't been letting myself think. I couldn't hope. I just had to do it.

Instead of trying to say something, I put my hand on top of his, where it was resting on his leg. I could still feel him trembling, quick shudders running through him in waves.

I absolutely could not let this man die. Our relationship was just a little piece in a whole tower of reasons why. He was probably one of the most fucking important people in this world right now; the keystone of so many things that could really change everything here. Without him...it wasn't even overdramatic to say that it would all fall apart. So much shit would be fucked up if he died. People, politics, the war; everything.

"I don't know how my father ever hid this," Keyd said suddenly. He clenched his fingers into a fist under mine, and looked up at me. His expression would have been perfectly blank, to anyone who didn't know him. But I saw how fucking scared he was. It was in every single inch of his face, and most of all in his eyes.

"I'm going to make this better," I said. "Keyd, just—I will. This is not going to happen to you, okay? We're gonna have this talk with the ghereen and then we're gonna do something about it."

"Me," he said.

"What?"

"Just me. I'm going to talk with the ghereen. They...don't want you to speak. Or to even be there."

"What," I said again. "You can't just override that? You've done it before."

"They hardly want to hear me speak on this," Keyd said. "It's is already a...complicated topic. I could force them to allow you, yes, but...it would start it off badly. It's a small thing, but still an exploitation of power. As they would see it. It would make some of them less tolerant to anything I say."

"Yeah, I don't want that," I said. "But I can't even go? I just want to be there. I could sit on the shut up cushion in the corner, I'd be okay with that."

Keyd almost smiled, and then out of nowhere leaned in across the space between us and kissed me. Fuck, how long had it been? Weeks. Felt like forever. I was almost afraid to get into it, in case it wasn't supposed to last. But Keyd kept it going, making everything slow and warm and careful, skating his fingers against my jaw. They were still shaking. I closed my eyes and let one hand get across to him and rest on his hip, pressing against all the layers of his clothes. I could still feel all the feverish heat coming off him even through that.

When Keyd finally did quit kissing me, he bumped his forehead against mine and just stayed there. He rested his hands on my shoulders, and I closed mine around his wrists.

"S'that for?" I said. I didn't want to open my eyes or let go of him or move away. His breath was warm on my face.

"Because you put up with so much, for so little," he said, quietly.

"But it's worth it," I said. "You've always been worth it."

Keyd leaned back suddenly and held me out at arms length, staring me down. "You really think that."

"Yeah. Of course I do. I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I wouldn't fight so fucking hard for you. What this is, what we've got—I don't think this happens twice. I'm not gonna find this again somewhere else, and I don't fucking want to. You're it, Keyd. I want this, with you, whatever I have to do. You know that." I frowned at him, and knocked my hand lightly against his chest, over his heart. "You better know that."

Keyd breathed out in a rush, and closed his eyes. "I do. I do know. It's just sometimes...I think about what you gave up to be here, to be with me. How hard you've worked to adapt here, to respect us and our customs and everything you're unfamiliar with. And you're not even treated well in return. Not like you deserve."

"Hey, there're some people here who like me," I said. Some of the best friends I'd ever had, in fact. Every one of them was worth it too. "It's really not that bad. And, I've got you."

Keyd put his hands back to the sides of my face, pulled me back in. He didn't kiss me again, just held us close together. "But what will you do if I'm gone?" he said, in a quiet voice I'd never heard come out of him before.

"You're not going anywhere," I said. "You're gonna be stuck here with me forever and ever, okay? And for one goddamn minute stop worrying about me and think about yourself. You can do that sometimes, you know, nobody's gonna hold it against you. I could definitely handle you being a little more selfish."

"Okay," Keyd said softly. "I'll try that."

I managed to laugh a little, and curled my fingers up in his short hair. We could get through this. We just fucking had to.

#

The council happened early in the morning the next day.

Since I couldn't go, I had to stew by myself back in Keyd's tent. I spent most of the time either taking laps around it or lying across the bed and staring at the ceiling, thinking. I had all the theories and probably the ability to help Keyd, but I only had one chance to do it right and I couldn't fuck it up. What I'd told Rysa about doing it in the moment—that was true. I couldn't know exactly what to do until I was doing it. I'd have to react to reactions that I couldn't predict; everything would be thinking right on the fucking spot.

I'd probably hurt him. Everything dealing with the entities or their energy ended up being fucking painful—I'd had some pretty good first-hand experience with just how bad it could be. It hurt the clar when they bonded permanently with the entities and there was no way it wouldn't hurt just as bad, or worse, in reverse. It might hurt Rysa too, or me. With the bond, anything could happen. Keyd could handle pain, and so could Rysa, and I...well, I could make myself handle it. As long as we all lived through it.

About two hours had passed since Keyd had left, when the tent flap snapped aside and he stormed back in. He was absolutely pissed off, broadcasting anger from every inch of his body; all in the way he was walking and holding his shoulders, and how his chin was lifted and his face was near-perfectly blank.

"So it didn't go real well," I said. My stomach had gone suddenly hollow and sick.

"Not at all." Keyd hit the back of the tent, about-faced and stalked back the other way. "They've already decided."

I raked my fingers into my hair and gripped it. "And said no."

"Yes," Keyd said, starting a second tense lap across the tent. "They said no."

Shit. This hadn't been just the Worthies he was talking to, it was the whole fucking ghereen, the entire government. I didn't know how many of them were in on this ongoing plan to overthrow Keyd, but maybe just enough to them to think that this was the easiest way. A disease nobody ever recovered from, so it wouldn't be like foul play if he died from it. It'd just be convenient. And their hands would be totally clean.

Or, like almost everybody else in the fucking world, they all thought that it just couldn't be done and we shouldn't fucking bother.

"Keyd," I said, and stood up and caught him on his third trip across the tent. I pulled him back down to the bed with me, and all the tension just sagged out of him. He practically collapsed forward over his knees, and pressed his hands to his temples. I slid my arm across his back and leaned my chin on his shoulder.

"Fuck what they decided," I said into his ear, and he actually laughed.

"Yes," he said. "I assumed they would do this, and I never planned on obeying. The council was just a formality. It had to be done. But fuck it anyway."

Before I got a chance to laugh at that, the tent flap suddenly snapped open again, and Rysa strode in. Keyd and I both sat up as she came right over and knelt down in front of us. She put one hand on Keyd's leg and one on mine and gripped hard, like a definite way of getting our attention. She looked like she meant some serious business.

"I hope you've convinced him to disregard what the ghereen said," she said to me.

"Didn't take much," I said, glancing at Keyd. He looked...I didn't really like how he looked. Exhausted, determined, and so scared that it was hard to even watch.

"Alan is right," he said. "Eventually, this will kill me. But this is a chance, and I don't know how much longer I can—I don't want to spend what remains of my life this way. I don't want to die like my father did."

Rysa shut her eyes for a second, and then nodded. "Yes," was all she said, but that was enough.

"So we're all in this, right," I said. "We know what we're gonna do."

"Of course," Rysa said.

Keyd hadn't said anything, so I squeezed his fingers. "You ready to do this thing?"

"Yes," Keyd said then, and pulled our hands against the middle of his chest. "I am."

#

Everything happened pretty fucking fast.

We got everyone together; everyone who knew about this, anyone we could trust. Which wasn't that big of a group—Kir, his buddy Dahne who'd been at his wedding, Damao, Rhet and Ansa. Darban was obviously out of commission and nobody seemed to know where Hahd was. We didn't want to involve anyone else. We moved our little party up to the rhun, because it was still pretty much empty and we didn't think anybody would interrupt us there. But we still put the whole damn place on lockdown.

Most of them staked out positions downstairs to make sure nobody else happened to wander inside, and Damao was the only one who came along with us to the room we picked to do this in. It was in a totally different wing from where Keyd and I had our room, a couple floors up and with the tall windows looking out over the dead, gloomy forest. It'd probably been a nice view once. The room itself was maybe some kind of healer's area. It was medium sized, with a simple bed under the windows and a copper bathtub in a corner, and lots of shelves and cabinets against the walls. Most everything was in a light reddish wood and lamps glowed gold on the walls.

We'd sent a message to Akyo too, because most everyone figured he should be here just in case. A real healer, if there happened to be anything he could do to help, during or after. Now we were just waiting for him to show up. Keyd and I stood together at a window and watched as flaky snow started coming down against the dark sky outside, touching hands and nothing else. I tried to press the moment into my mind, how it was to be with him like this, how he smelled and the warmth of his skin. I wanted one more good memory, just in case.

Rysa joined us there, holding on to each of our shoulders and staying as quiet as we were. Being with both of them like this was the way I really wanted to remember everything here, the connection between us. Not just the bond we had, but how we'd all gotten so worked into each other's lives over the past year. Both of them were my best friends, and I couldn't lose either of them.

When Akyo showed up, things really got going. Keyd sat down on the edge of the bed, keeping his shoulders set back. Akyo checked him over one last time, talked with him quietly for a minute or two, and then stepped away. Keyd looked calm, but he wasn't. It wasn't hard to see at all. It was in everything; the way his eyelids flickered, the way his fingers tapped lightly against his leg, the way his mouth was set. He was doing a great job keeping it all up for everyone else, but Rysa and I knew.

I didn't want to know how obvious it had to be that I was scared. I was the one who'd had all the confidence about this the whole time, been so sure something could be done, and now it was down to the wire and I had to fucking prove it. And if I'd been wrong, if I'd really completely fucked up about how all of this worked, then...well. I didn't want to think about what would happen.

Rysa caught my eye then, and I nodded. She went and sat down beside Keyd on the bed, and touched his hand. He turned it over into hers. For about a half a minute they just stayed like that, holding hands, looking at each other. Then Keyd pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead, smoothing her hair back from her face while she shut her eyes under his touch. Then they let go of each other, and Rysa stood up and stepped back. They both turned and looked at me.

Adrenaline shot up my spine and rushed out in a wave through my body, down to my fingertips and toes. Breathing regularly was suddenly an effort. Fuck. I was really going to do this, and it was happening now. Right here, in this room. When Rysa moved away I grabbed a nearby chair and dragged it up to the side of the bed. Sitting in it put my legs even with Keyd's, so we were knee-to-knee. He just watched me, quietly.

"Keyd—" I said, and then couldn't say anything else. My chest was so tight it was hard to breathe, and it almost hurt to talk. Keyd put his hands to my face, cupping my jaw and breathing out so hard that I felt it lifting up my hair. "If this—"

"Alan," Keyd said, pressing his fingers against my mouth and stopping me. "Don't think about that. I trust you."

"Okay," I said, but it came out strained. This wasn't like any of the other times we'd ever saved each other's lives—where it had always been a reaction in a crisis. Keyd was just handing me his complete confidence that I could save his life. It was the most terrifying thing anyone had ever done to me. Keyd had so much faith in me, and not living up to that was just about my worst fear. Not even just now, with this, but all the time. He really believed in me like no one ever had.

I reached out and took his hand, which he turned right over into mine. I gripped his fingers so damn tight that the muscles in my arm started to ache. There was roaring in my ears and heat in my eyes. I was about to lean in and tell him something, those couple of words we'd never said to each other after those first godawful awkward times, but the ones I felt like I had to say now because what if I never got—what if this was the last time, I just had to say it, so he knew.

"Alan," Keyd said, before I could even try. He was looking right at me, his eyes so blue and suddenly calm. "I'll wait for you."

"I—what?" I said, dumbly.

"If this doesn't...work," he said, carefully. "Wherever I go, wherever dying takes me...I'll wait for you there."

I didn't know what that meant, I didn't know too much about what he or the clar in general thought about what happened to you after you died—but it was such a simple, sweet, straight-forward Keyd thing to say that I had to hold my breath for a couple of seconds before I could say anything back.

"I'd wait for you, too," I said, and put a hand to his face. He shut his eyes. "As long as I had to."

Keyd nodded and pressed slightly into my hand. When he opened his eyes again, they were as determined and certain as I'd ever seen them. He meant this, he meant everything—that he trusted me, that he'd wait for me, that he wanted to do this because we both knew exactly what would happen to him if I didn't and he didn't want to die the same way his dad had. If I killed him doing this, at least it wouldn't be like that.

I sat back a little, breathing out again. I didn't need to say anything. He knew. Of course he knew—nobody did the kind of shit we did for each other for someone they didn't love. Maybe never saying it was just the way that worked for us. And maybe one day we could change that, but this wasn't the time to start. It would probably just make everything really fucking awkward.

So instead I leaned back in and kissed him. His lips were dry and chapped, and he breathed out against me in a hot rush of air. I pressed into him a little harder, closing my eyes. Keyd caught the back of my neck and held me there for a couple more seconds, then let me go. We sat back from each other, both breathing out. My gut was still all in knots but I felt a little calmer in my head; focused, and almost empty and blank of anything except what I had to do.

I looked around at the rest of the room then. Jesus H. Christ, they were all watching us. Watching me and Keyd practically say goodbye to each other. Rysa had a hand over her eyes, the way she did whenever something got her emotional and she was pretending it didn't. Damao had a hand around her shoulder but he looked pretty upset himself, and I barely knew the guy. Akyo looked somewhere between miserable and touched.

Not a lot of people ever saw me and Keyd do stuff like this, get all emotional and intense with each other. We just didn't let it show. It got us called out or arrested or nearly killed. But if he got through this, if we both survived and there was anything left after this...maybe it was about time that we did. Hiding had never helped us, it didn't make anyone respect us or approve of us more. And if we were ever going to be accepted here, we needed to show that we were proud of what we had, who we were. To everyone.

I looked back at Keyd and took his hand. "Okay," I said, as he slid our fingers together and held on hard. His eyes met mine and didn't look away. "Okay," I said again. "Let's fucking do this."


So this took forever (afjhsdg) and not much of an excuse for it really. But it is nearly 38,000 words. I also have started to do this thing where I'm posting these chapters in smaller chunks each as I finish them, friends-locked in my livejournal/dreamwidth, so if you're following me there you got to start reading this chapter about two months ago. I'll do it with the next one as well. My journals have lots of fun locked stuff in them!