They had traveled together across Torain to arrive in the capital city where the war had not yet reached. It had involved days hiding upon storage trains, hoping they wouldn't get caught, living off stagnant water and stale bread in freezing temperatures. It had been an adventure, an unpleasant adventure, and he'd been so happy to deliver his sister to the capital where they were expected. Where she had been expected.

He was not attached to the bloodline that was needed to strengthen the resolve of the people and bring peace to the land again. He was not a full brother to his precious sister, just a half brother who shared a mother who had died giving birth to the royal daughter. He was just a half brother who had tried to do right by her and raise her the best that he could.

As soon as they'd entered the palace he'd been taken from her and shoved aside into empty servant quarters where he was told to wait. He had waited for hours, hours longer than those on the train where at least he could entertain himself by talking to his sister. His dear, beloved sister.

"What are you doing here?"

He looked up from the corner he was in, up to the older boy standing in the door.

"This is my room, get out," he huffed, with a scowl.

"I'm sorry," he scrambled to his feet, "they just put me here to wait."

"To wait for what?" The other boy asked as he began stripping off his filthy shirt and moving across the room. Hess pressed against the wall, staring at his feet.

"I don't know, I guess until they summon me? I just arrived here with my sister and I guess they needed us to wait?"

He laughed, harsh and short, "Sounds like you know loads." He dropped his pants just before pulling on a clean shirt.

"I know plenty!" he argued, even if he didn't.

"Of course you do," he snorted and pulled on a fresh pair of pants, strapping a belt over his shirt to create a tunic effect. "Well, there's nothing for you to steal, but you better be out of here by dusk. With the new princess arriving we've all been working double shift and we're going to be tired and cranky." He waved as he left and Hess sunk back down to the floor. Alone again.

It was another hour until the same guard that tossed him in the room told him he was being summoned to the main hall. The strong aroma of meat and mead assaulted his nose as they entered, but while his stomach tightened in anticipation, there was no food waiting for him. Instead, the king was poised on his throne and Hess' sister sat on the throne beside him, clean and newly dressed, primped and beautiful.

She was smiling with a half smile that didn't touch her eyes and it struck him as cold. The expression did not change as he was brought before them, even as his smile faltered, then struggled to stay.

"Go ahead, Princess Delthoria."

She cleared her throat, her eyes on some point beyond Hess. "Please send this boy back to the slums where he belongs."

"What?" he gasped. "Celli, what are you--" a sharp elbow to the gut silenced him and he doubled over, his head cranking to look up at his sister, who was staring disinterestedly away.

The next moment he was being dragged from the main hall by the guards and dropped at the foot of a servant with the order, "Make sure he's out of Upper Limits by morning."

"Yes, sir," the servant responded.

The guard stalked away and Hess struggled to his knees.

"Come on, get up."

Hess glanced up, then rocked to his feet and stood in front of the same boy whose room he'd been in.

"Oh, it's you again. Guess they finally came for you. Well, come, we got to get you out of here."

"But..." he glanced back to the grand hall.

"Oh, I get it, you're the princess' bastard half brother. Lucky you." He grabbed Hess' elbow, "But seriously, they don't take disobedience lightly."

The other boy began leading him. Through the halls, from artistic and beautiful to barren servant passages, his elbow was never released. He didn't blame his guide, for had he been free, he probably would have run back to Celli, try to beg some explanation from her. And probably receive some worse punishment.

Punishment? Is that what this was? What had he done to deserve it? Had he treated her unkindly? Had he not sacrificed everything to bring her here? He realized they had stopped moving as a sob escaped him. The servant was looking at him oddly, like he'd never seen a boy cry. But he didn't care. With his elbow freed, he hugged himself and sobbed again, leaning against the wall when his weight was too much.

"H-hey, are you alright?" the servant boy sounded uncertain for the first time since their meeting and the concern made Hess snap.

"No! No, I'm not okay! My sister just shoved me to the slums! My sister doesn't want me here! She—she--" he choked on another sob and pressed into the wall as he hugged himself.

"So what? She's just your sister."

He looked up, aghast at the words coming out of the boy's mouth.

"Look at it this way, now you don't have to worry about feeding two mouths and scrounging two sets of clothes and worrying if she'll get sick. Now you can just take care of yourself and be okay."

"She's my sister! She's not a bother!" he huffed, glaring. "You've obviously never cared for anyone before!"

The boy was on him in a second, grabbing the collar of his shirt and slamming him against the stone wall, "Don't you dare! Just because I don't see what's worth crying about over some stupid princess…gods' alive," he cursed, slamming him against the wall once more for good measure before releasing him and walking away.

Hess watched for a minute, stunned out of any previous emotions, then chased after, walking beside him in silence. "Sorry," he mumbled, but the boy didn't make any response, just kept walking. Hess assumed they were going to the outside, but instead he found himself being led into the room where he'd waited so long.

"What--"

"You're in no condition to go to the slums tonight, you probably haven't got a half sense to survive. I'll take you there in the morning," he began undoing his belt and Hess looked away.

"Why are you undressing?"

"I'm going to bed. They'll be suspicious if they see me around, and I'm exhausted from getting things ready for the princess."

Hess glanced over in time to see the boy stark naked and stretching before he tossed back the covers. When he was caught staring, his eyes shot back to the wall opposite him. "And what should I do?"

"Well, if you're tired enough, strip down and get in bed with me. If not, you can sulk in the corner until you exhaust yourself. Just don't leave the room and don't wake me up. There'll be two other boys coming in later." He stretched again, arching his lithe body until the sheets hung on his hips. "Or you can keep staring at me. But that seems boring," he grinned and Hess turned away with a huff. "Oh, are you ashamed of liking the male form?" There was a snicker in his voice.

"No!" Hess snapped, glaring back at him. "It's just not…I mean, back home, people aren't…you're very free with your nudity."

He shrugged, "I've nothing to hide. Nor have you." A wiggle of his finger drew Hess closer, even though his legs were shaking. Once his knees were against the bed, the servant began undoing his garments. "I promise not to do anything, but you look tired, and your clothes'll last longer if you don't sleep in them.

Hess said nothing as his shirt was tossed over the headboard where the boy's clothes were. Only when he went for his pants did he jerk away, "I can do that."

"As you wish," he grinned, openly watching as Hess struggled out of the pants and shyly held them in front of his groin until the boy snatched them away and tossed them over the headboard as well. Then he grabbed Hess' hand and pulled him into the bed, tucking the sheets around them and lying beside him, only their arms touching.

"What's your name?"

"Noirut," the boy shifted to his side, "You?"

"Hess," he hesitated. Noirut, sensing his discomfort, rolled onto his back again.

"I'll wake you early, to get you out of the Upper Limits so I can get back in time for my duties."

"Thank you," he said.

"No problem," he shrugged off, closing his eyes and sleeping, or pretending to.

Hess didn't think he'd be able to sleep, but it had been a while since he'd had a bed and warmth. He didn't recall falling asleep, just warm hands shaking him from slumber. After a moment's confusion, he sat up, blinking in the darkness of the room and his brain. Noirut was already dressed and groomed, and he handled Hess like a child as he helped his stiff limbs pull on clothing. They worked in silence, until they were in the hall, where Noirut finally released the hand Hess hadn't realized he was holding.

Still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Hess followed Noirut, first to the kitchen where a burlap sack was filled with breads and some other edibles, then down back paths until they were outside. The sky was still the dark of night, probably several hours until down. They walked in companionable silence off the palace grounds, seeing no one as they left through a side door. The Upper Limits was made of large mansions, tucked together in an artistic puzzle to give the members of court convenience and privacy in their daily lives.

It was a long walk from the warm bed to the final gate of the Upper Limits, and Hess appreciated Noirut walking all this way this early in the morning, although it was as much him following orders as being kind. But he had let him sleep before they left, for which Hess was thankful; he wasn't sure he'd have survived the walk after the stress of the previous day.

Sadness washed over him as he was finally awake enough to realize his sister was still back at the palace, and she was probably in a better place now than he could have ever provided for her. This should have made him happy, but it came with a sense of betrayal, as he was being thrown out of any chance of comfort.

"You should let your hair grow out," Noirut said randomly.

"What?"

"You'll look good with long hair, and it's more common than short here, it'll help you blend in."

"Oh…thank you."

"There's a set of clothes that'll help, too. In the bag, I mean. Wear it anytime you're looking for work. People don't like employing outsiders."

"It's not like I'm foreign."

"I know, but since the war started, they want to help their own first. Too many refugees coming to the city."

"Not like I wanted to," he muttered to himself.

They reached another gate, not as impressive as the others. "Good luck," he clasped Hess' wrist and touched his shoulder. "And…take care."

"Thank you for everything," he hoped he sounded grateful and not bitter, although he was both.

"Yes…and…" still holding Hess' shoulder, Noirut pulled him into a half hug, whispering in his ear, "We shall prevail through all else."

Then he released him, gave a half smile, and turned back the way he came. Hess looked around the Lower Limits and sighed. These conditions were all too familiar, and while this rim of the area was businesses and merchant housing, he knew his bed would be much farther on, in the slums, once again.

He managed better than he thought he would, considering he knew nothing of the city he now called home. The nice thing about the city was that the war was not there, so except for the refugees, it was peaceful. He didn't have to worry about the opposing soldiers invading, or the soldiers that were supposed to be protecting them to abuse them and take what little foods they gathered.

He wore Noirut's clothes when he searched for jobs and found one as a messenger boy for a group of merchants. He explained his short hair by saying his sister had chopped it off while suppressing his accent as much as possible. They either bought the story or didn't care. It paid, that was what mattered.

Home was wherever he could find a warm and dry place to rest, or sometimes just dry. His first pay went to blankets and food, the supplies Noirut provided having long run out. Thankfully he was used to working and living on little, so he ate the minimal and saved as much as he could.

But his first home was not a dingy room that he rented. Instead, one day while out on errands, he came upon a group of boys his age talking in a circle. Wary, but tired of having no friends, he approached. They talked with him for a bit, and then one casually said, "We will prevail…" and looked expectantly to him.

The words were so familiar, but stagnated on his tongue. Just as they were all turning their backs to him, he blurted, "Through all else."

He was immediately welcomed among them and invited to stay in their house. It wasn't a large house, but it had a roof and heat, more than he currently commanded. There were a dozen and a half boys living there, and they made no qualms about adding one more. So he had a home, a job, and food in his belly. It was odd living with so many when he'd only ever lived with one other, but it was nice and had friends.

"Meeting tonight," Jorune said one morning over their flat breads.

"Meeting? For what?"

Jorune raised a brow, "For the purpose."

"The what?"

"…" Jorune bit a lip. "We shall prevail…"

"Through all else," Hess answered.

"Who taught you that?" he asked, eyes narrowing.

"Umm…I don't know if you know him, he's from the palace…Noirut?"

Jorune laughed, "And he failed to mention what it was for?"

"He didn't really tell me it, he just said it to me as I was leaving."

"Hmm, we'll suppose he wanted you to find us anyway." He glanced over him, "What were you doing at the palace anyway?"

"Delivering my sister there."

"Ah…"

"Wait," Kiko interrupted as he grabbed a flat bread off Jorune's plate, "Why were you delivering her?"

"Because we'd been summoned. I mean…she's the only surviving heir."

Jorune choked, "What?"

"Oh gods' alive," Kiko cursed, "She's the princess!"

"Well…yeah…."

Kiko grabbed him, yanking him from the chair and throwing him on the ground before he could react. Reacting wouldn't have been good anyway, since Kiko was roughly the size of a wildbeast and tenacious as a catkin.

"Easy, Kiko!" Jorune shouted, but didn't move to interfere, "Noirut gave him the words."

"What?" Kiko looked up, but didn't get off. "Noirut?" He glanced suspiciously at Hess. "How'd you meet him?"

Hess tried to talk but only choked out a noise until Jorune talked Kiko into letting him breathe. "He was the one who escorted me out."

"Maybe you should start from the beginning…" Jorune suggested.

So he did. How he'd come from his home to deliver his sister to the king, how he'd first met Noirut and how his own sister had given the order for him to be sent to the slums. How Noirut had let him sleep before escorting him out, and then how they'd parted. The boys asked a dozen questions about exactly what they'd said at the end and exactly how they'd shaken hands.

Then they sat in silence for a moment. "Well, we need you to swear silence on the next things we are going to say, will you do this for us Hess?"

"Yeah…" he glanced between them as they glanced between one another.

"We're trying to overthrow the king."

Hess nearly choked.

"You see why you can't say anything?" Kiko said. "That's why we all live together, we're the main faction…we also all happen to be homeless otherwise. So are you with us?"

"With you?" he echoed. "What are you…planning?"

"We can't give you details, obviously," Jorune answered. "But we want a new ruling head, someone who won't start wars with neighboring countries over petty grievances and who will work toward something better than we've got."

"But what will you do to the King?"

"The king will die. As for your sister…Well, that will ultimately be Noirut's decision, and yours, if you join us."

"Is he the leader?"

The boys shared a glance. "He's important to our cause, but we don't really have leaders."

"I…don't know," he shook his head, trying to clear some confusion from it. "Is there anyway I can talk to him about this?"

"He'll be here tonight," Kiko said.

Luckily, Hess had work to fill his time until the evening. Unluckily he still had plenty of time to think as he ran around the city on errands. By the time he headed home, he was just as uncertain and mentally exhausted. He was also anxious to talk to Noirut, but that would have to wait, as when he arrived back at the house, the supposed nonleader was in deep discussion with Kiko.

Hess ate his dinner, then waited in the kitchen where there was relative quiet, instead of the common area where almost everyone was already gathered, either for the meeting or just goofing around. When Noirut came in, alone, Hess stood tensely, but Noirut just smiled and gave him a warm greeting with a shake and a touch on the shoulder.

"You look well," he smiled. "I'm glad you survived."

"Stop playing," Hess jerked away and sat back down.

"Playing?"

"Pretending to be warm when I've seen that you're not."

"Okay," Noirut sat down at the chair beside him. "So now we are all business."

"Why did you trust me with the words?" he blurted.

Noirut smiled, "Kiko asked the same question about you."

"What did you tell him?"

"That I'm a good judge of character and you would be good among us. You belong among us."

"Why?"

With a shrug, Noirut brushed off any actual answer. "You see the world differently, you require equality when you are not given it, and you love freely and passionately."

"You don't know this," he grumbled. "What will happen to my sister?"

"I don't know. It will depend on her, and you."

"That's not an answer!"

"If she is willing to not raise arms against us, then we won't harm her. If you can convince her we are right, then we won't harm her. But it is ultimately her decision."

"Like she won't agree just to save her neck."

"Perhaps, but that is a good thing, from your perspective, is it not?"

"I guess," he shrugged.

"Do you have any more questions?"

For all the questions he'd had while working, none seemed to be worth asking now. He shook his head.

"Then, it's about time I start the meeting. Coming?"

"You invite me, knowing my sister is heir to rule this land?"

"I trust you," he shrugged. "I think I trust you more than you do."

Hess didn't answer, he just followed Noirut into the other room and took a seat toward the back while the other boy was in a more prominent position. Although Noirut started the meeting and kept everyone on focus, he really didn't guide it in any particular direction.

For Hess, he couldn't follow everything that was going on, but people talked about things they did and people they began to educate. They talked about things they saw that needed changed and things they were doing to instigate change. Toward the end, the stress from the day finally caught up to him and he fell asleep.

He awoke to Noirut's fingers stroking through his shaggy hair. How he knew it was Noirut without opening his eyes, he didn't know, but it was definitely him. He was talking quietly with some of the other boys about things going on in the palace and his brushing fingers didn't stop when Hess stirred and opened his eyes.

"How's Berua?" one of the younger boys, Timot, asked eagerly.

"She's fine," Noirut's fingers shifted from Hess' hair and the arm wrapped around his shoulders. "I told her you were staying out of trouble and eating your vegetables."

Timot laughed, "Lying to her again, I see!"

"You've been out of trouble," Saush pointed out. "And you eat loads more tebbies than you used to."

Timot rolled his eyes, but he was smiling proudly as Noirut went on about Berua. Hess shifted, as if to stand, but the subtle press of Noirut's hand on his shoulder kept him as the boys talked a little longer. Eventually the youths left for bed and the two were alone.

"So what did you think?" Noirut asked, leaning into him slightly.

"I don't know," he shifted away slightly. "It was a lot to absorb."

The rough touch of Noirut's fingers stroked up his neck and into his hair.

"What are you doing?"

"Running my fingers through your hair," he stated.

"Yes, but why?"

Noirut didn't answer immediately, stroking Hess' hair and making shivers spread across his skin. "You can't tell that I'm wooing?"

"Wooing?"

"Maybe not wooing, but I would awfully like to kiss you and I thought this would be a good first step."

Hess stood, turning to face him, "You're trying to seduce me?"

"I'm guessing you're not interested," he shrugged and stood as well. "Off to bed then?"

"Yeah…" he shuffled back, uncertain, then turned and headed to his room. Only Noirut was following him. "What are you doing?"

"Going to bed."

"…Where exactly?"

"Your bed. I don't want to wake anyone else up, and you owe me," he flashed a smile, "I let you sleep in mine."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that…"

"I won't molest you in the middle of the night. I have to wake up gods-awful early, anyway. Come on?"

He sighed and continued on to the room he shared with three other boys. Noirut stripped down immediately and slid under the covers, while Hess did the same at a slower pace. But true to his word, Noirut slept on the far side by the wall and didn't touch him the entire night.

Hess couldn't exactly say the same, as he woke in the middle of the night, invading Noirut's half of the bed, one arm wrapped around him, the other trapped awkwardly between them and numb. Sliding his arm off slowly, he inched back to his side of the bed and turned his back to Noirut, trying to ignore his heated groin.

The boy was undeniably attractive, undeniably what his body wouldn't mind curling up with. But he wasn't sure he trusted him. He sighed, running a hand through his hair, thinking about Noirut's words from earlier. It was rather funny, Hess worrying if Noirut was trustworthy when he was being trusted with a much larger secret.

With another sigh, he rolled back over, inching back to Noirut and wrapping his arm around him. Noirut woke enough to hum and shift back in the touch, pressing his shoulders to Hess' chest, but keeping their lower halves separate. It was easy to fall back to sleep.

It couldn't have been long before he was awoken by Noirut climbing out of his arms. He mumbled and grabbed in his sleep and Noirut laughed a breathy sound. Lips pressed to Hess' cheek as his hands were unclamped from the arm they'd found purchase on. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

Then he was drifting back to sleep.

The next morning he'd been happy and cheerful, thinking of Noirut and when he would come back.

A week later, the cheer was gone and he felt stilted and betrayed. Obviously they'd just been sweet words to seduce him, as he'd thought from the beginning. Trying to dig up dirt on him, he asked Jorune one day, "How often does Noirut seduce the new boys?"

Jorune glanced up from his noodles, surprised. Well, Hess had asked out of the blue. "Pardon?"

"I mean, he must be very good at seducing them to stay."

Jorune laughed, "I suppose he could be," then shook his head, "But Noirut doesn't seduce. Boys join the cause because it's the right thing. Boys fall into his bed because they want him. I don't think he's ever seduced anyone," he paused, "Well, except Rounai, but they were lovers, not just a fling."

"Rounai? Who is that?"

"He was..." Jorune winced, "Listen, just...don't bring him up to Noirut, and don't tell him I told you this, okay?" Hess agreed. "Rounai was his lover, but he was a citizen, son of a merchant, and he was scripted for the army."

"Oh..."

"Noirut was really upset when it happened, but he kept in touch with Rounai's family and they sent letters back and forth. And then the letters stopped coming. One last letter was received by Rounai's family...A letter of condolence from the crown."

"Oh..." he frowned, regretting bringing it up. Jorune seemed sad enough telling the story, he couldn't imagine if he'd asked Noirut something on the matter.

"Yeah. Noirut didn't take it well. He's better now, but he doesn't take lovers, just flings." He paused, as if realizing something, "Are you saying he seduced you?"

"I'm saying no such thing," Hess answered truthfully as he stood from the table and dumped his plate in the sink.

"It wouldn't work anyway," Jorune said. "He only gets out of the palace once a month for our meetings."

"Yes, I imagine that would make it impossible." He left the room before Jorune could continue; he already had plenty to think about.

He moped the next few days, torn between hoping Noirut would return soon and knowing that he wouldn't. Jorune was right, Noirut had more important things to do with the revolution he was plotting, and it would become suspicious if he went into the city too often. It didn't make the disappointment any less, knowing he was less important than the purpose, but at least it was reasonable.

A week of this thinking and he thought he'd put it out of mind. Right up until where he stepped into the kitchen, dirty, sweaty and exhausted, and Noirut's arms wrapped around him. He didn't do anything more, just hugged him, resting his nose in the crook of Hess' neck. It took a second for Hess to respond, his arms squeezing around his waist and all the emotions from that one night flooded back.

"So when I asked if he was seducing you, it was a lie," Jorune teased as he slipped passed them.

"I'm not seducing him," Noirut mumbled into Hess' neck. "I'm wooing."

"Well could you not do it in the doorway?" Timot asked as he slid through.

Noirut released him, grabbed a sack off the table and Hess' hand before guiding him out of the kitchen and toward the stairs.

"What--"

"I packed dinner so we could talk in private," he explained, pulling him into his bedroom. He sat by the bed, not on it, and Hess settled beside him with enough room for the sack to fit between them, but Noirut slid over, resting the bag on their thighs.

"How have you been?" Hess asked as he was handed a piece of fruit and crusty bread stuffed with marinated vegetables.

Noirut set the sack aside, his own food in hand, "Well enough, I suppose. Lonely," he smiled, nudging Hess' shoulder. "But the pr—royal family has kept us busy. How about you?"

"Nothing new…just…" he stared at his fruit a moment. "Wasn't sure where we stood."

"Oh? And how do you think I felt? I went to bed thinking you weren't interested and woke with you unwilling to let me go."

"Sorry," he nibbled his sandwich, "It's just, when we first met, you were so aloft, and then you started acting all nice and I didn't think I could trust you."

"And in the middle of the night you changed your mind?"

"I figured you wouldn't risk faking interest, knowing I could endanger all your lives with what I know."

"True."

"But then you didn't show up for so long…"

"I would have been here earlier if I could."

"Yes, but…" when he didn't continue, Noirut leaned over and kissed his cheek.

"I'll be lucky if I can get back here twice a month, but I can work it to have the next day free. I know I'm asking too much, but I think we can try."

"What do you mean, asking too much?"

"Well, I don't want any sharing to go on. I know that's greedy, but I'd be doing the same."

"Noirut?"

"Mmmhmmm?"

"Why did you suddenly start being nice to me?"

Noirut laughed, "I suppose it did seem abrupt." With a sigh, he hooked one arm over his shoulder, the other hand still holding the half-eaten sandwich. "In the palace, people are constantly around, to the point you really stop seeing them. I wasn't really seeing you until you apologized to me, and then I saw you. You have a really warm aura, and it just made me feel warm. I wanted to be close to you."

"You're sisentic?"

He shook his head, "No, I can't really see the aura's, but I'm aware of them a little. Makes me a good judge of character." Leaning over, he kissed his cheek again. "Not to mention you're very attractive."

Hess didn't respond, verbally, as their lips met in their first kiss and their sandwiches were set aside in favor of their hands reaching out to one another and taking hold wherever they could find purchase.

He was the less experienced of the two, having never had a proper lover, having never had time for a proper lover. But he was not shy about his body, or about Noirut's. They spent every minute of the evening together, trying to capture what they could. Noirut had not come down for a meeting, so the only interruption they had was when the other bunkmates returned and their conversation became whispers in one another's ears.

Hess had work the next day, and he woke with a thick head, but with Noirut in his arms. Lingering as long as he could, he eventually had to rush to reach the market in time. He was anxious the entire day, knowing Noirut would be there when he returned. They ended up meeting outside the house, as Noirut was coming back from meeting with group members, and Hess was greeted with a kiss.

Months passed like this. When Noirut could manage, he would arrive in time for dinner, stay the night and leave just after dinner the next day. Twice a month wasn't much, but Hess would take off the day once a month so that they could be together, and they sent letters back and forth as often as possible without drawing too much attention to their location.

Although there were things he would have changed about the arrangement, Hess was happy. His work wasn't bad, he had friends and a lover, and he was taking part in what would hopefully lead to a revolution. But with his history, he should have known that the happiness couldn't last. It started with Noirut's latest visit.

Just before leaving, he kissed Hess heatedly and tied a green ribbon around his neck.

"What's this?"

"To remember me by, if I can't get back soon. They are getting suspicious, and I don't want to draw their eyes here," his fingers stroked through Hess' hair, tucking it behind his ears. "I love you."

"I love you too," and they kissed, already mourning the lost time.

It was not long after that it happened. He heard the news when he was at work and had to muster every drop of strength to not run home to find out how much was true and if it was Noirut.

Arriving home only confirmed his greatest fears. Noirut had been captured, tried by the King, and found guilty of treason. It was all they knew, except that his execution was planned for the equinox, in ten days.

"We have to do something!" he growled at Jorune.

He sighed, resting his head in his hands, scrubbing at his face, "We can't."

"How! How can you call yourself his friend--"

"It is as his friend that I do this!" Jorune cut him off. "He knew the risks in what he was doing. If we were ready, we could, but we're not! If we expose ourselves now we'll be undone and all his work will have been wasted. Why do you think the king is waiting? He wants us to bring down our own ruin!"

No matter how Hess fought, Jorune was stern and the others backed him. His head knew his friends were right, but there was no truth for his heart but that they needed to save Noirut. And if not them, then him.

"I'll go on my own then."

Timot looked up from his breakfast, "What?"

He left the table and the confused boy to stalk out Jorune, who was talking in quiet session with some of the other men. They glanced up briefly when he came in, but didn't break their conversation.

"I'll go on my own."

"What?" Their response was similar to Timot's. Perhaps more of an explanation would help.

"I'll go into the palace and get Noirut out. If they catch me on the way in, I can say I was trying to see my sister. If they catch me on the way out, the cause will not be lost."

The others shared a look. Jorune studied him. "You'll have to memorize the maps we have of the palace, and we don't know exactly where he's being held."

"I have to go."

He nodded. "Corian, get the maps for him, Saush, tell Timot that Berua needs to be expecting one of ours and tell us what rotation of guards is on."

"What if she is a traitor?"

"If she were, we'd all be set to die beside him already. Now go."

Preparation involved memorizing maps, talking with Timot about what things looked like, the few times he'd visited his sister there, and fretting. He practiced running silent and agile as he had in his old town, and tucking into small places, which he'd perfected on the way to the capital. At night, he moved through the house, and then the town, trying to pass quickly in the dark without being noticed. All the while, the black date neared.

He'd told his merchant he needed the days off for an emergency, but really he needed to rest and then make an escape. He and Noirut would not be able to stay in the capital once the breakout was successful. Always when it was successful, never if.

How he slept that day, he didn't know, but he woke to Jorune shaking his shoulder, taking him from his dreams of dark, endless corridors. He was silent through dinner and the evening. Those who knew wished him luck and left him alone. The rest just left him alone, figuring he was mourning the coming death of his lover. Before he left, he shared a few words with Jorune, they hugged, and then he was off.

The night was cool and silent as he slunk through the Lower Limits. This was the easy part; no one would suspect a boy from the slums wandering around late at night, not even this late at night. He ran through side streets, letting his nervous energy flood through him and burn off with his easy loping gait. Noirut's name pounded like an enchantment in his head with each stride, driving him on.

When he reached the first wall, he scaled the closest building and leapt from roof to wall top, pausing long enough to regain his balance, then jumped the distance to the next building. He took a second for his heart to catch up with his body, then he ran. There was a narrow trim that decorated the roofs of most the buildings in the Upper Limit, narrow, but sturdy. It carried his weight as he sped along, nothing more than a shadow passing over anyone lingering outside.

He took a short rest when he reached the final vault, crouched among animalistic architecture. The wall of the palace was topped by sharp shards that would tear into any flesh that dared to touch it. His thick leather soles on his boots would protect him, but if he was the least off on his aim, it would mean failure, and possibly death. That was not an option.

The only preparation he gave himself was a deep breath, and then he was in the air. His foot slammed into the uneven wall, the shards pressing into the thick leather but not breaking through. He was forced to catch his balance with one hand, but went away with only a thin slice across the back of it. Subduing a curse, he brought the cut to his lips, licking away the blood and blowing on it, hoping it wouldn't bleed too much.

He didn't linger, too evident against the sky, no matter how dark it was. It took him a moment to find a dull ring where he looped his rope. It was dyed the same color as the wall and only hung half way down, just above eye level, so it wouldn't catch the guards' attention. Sliding down, he hoped to all that was holy that it would still be there on the way out. If not, option two was not nearly as pleasant.

In his mind, he visualized the maps he'd been shown, tracing the pattern of guards. He ran. Ran where he could and hid when he needed, wishing his heart was not pounding so loudly in his ears. Once he was in the palace it was easier, using all the servant hallways until he was in the holding cells. But Noirut was not among those imprisoned. Holding his curses, he headed to the King's chambers. Berua had mentioned that he had some special compartments attached to his private rooms, and they may have held such an important prisoner.

That was how he found himself in the King's bedchamber, standing silently in the shadows watching the King sleep. Swallowing his fear, he crept across the room, silent on the plush carpet. His knife sliced easily through the King's throat, silencing him before his eyes could even open. He trembled, bile rising in his throat, then settling back down as he backed away, forcing in large gasps of air.

Pulling himself together, he searched through the attached rooms, but there was nothing.

It was only to be expected that his next stop be the princess' chambers. Celli's rooms. She was spread on the giant mattress, her beautiful hair swept out around her in a halo of silken curls. He couldn't help but stare at her, his little sister and her angelic face. He stowed his knife away and slid onto the bed, quickly covering her mouth and holding her body down.

Her eyes shot open and she struggled a minute before he was hissing gentle words in her ear. "It's okay, it's me, Hess. Shh, it's okay."

She froze and he loosened his hold a little. "I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you cause trouble. You'll be good, right?" She nodded. "I knew you would Celli, I knew it." His voice cracked. "I need you to tell me where you're keeping the traitor. Where you're keeping Noirut."

"Mmhph?" she mumbled against his hand, then repeated, quietly, when he removed it, "Why? Are you a traitor to the crown too, Hess?"

"I love him, Celli. He's my lover, and I just want him back. We'll go away, we'll leave you alone, he won't cause any trouble. Please, just give him to me."

"You love him?"

He nodded, his hand briefly brushing his cheeks to wipe away the tears.

"I can't let you just escape with him but," she rushed to add, "I can talk the King into banishing him instead of sentencing him to death."

"Would you?" he hugged her tightly, joy welling in his chest.

"But you need to give me something," she whispered, her fingers stroking along his sides.

He jerked back, eyes going wide, "No, Celli, I can't. It's not right." He shook his head, "It never was right."

"Then he dies in the morning."

He went for his knife, but it was only half from the sheath when he felt cold metal pressed to his throat. She held her knife there, pressed against his jugular. "Celli…"

"I just need you to love me Hess. One last time. I need you to fill me up one last time, Hess. That's all. And then you can take him and live your happy ever after."

"Celli…" the knife pressed against him and he tensed, not tempting fate to swallow. "You'll free him?"

"Yes," she whispered heatedly.

He closed his eyes. "I agree then, to your terms."

She discarded his knife and sheath quickly, along with their clothes. He wished he could drift away and not experience this, not have to know with every thrust that he was betraying Noirut. But she knew his body too well, evoking pleasure where he wanted none. Clinging to the knowledge that this would save his lover was the only thing that let him finish.

He scuttled from the bed as soon as they were finished, groping for his clothes and trying not to be sick.

"Oh, big brother, look at you."

He turned, surprised by the cold of her voice. She sat up in bed, her legs curled under her, the sheets pulled around her naked waist. "You really think I'm going to let a traitor to the crown walk free?"

"What…you promised Celli."

She laughed and he drew his knife, landing on her and pressing it to her throat.

"You promised!"

"GUARDS!"

He tensed, his hand shaking. He had to kill her. Had to end the throne.

"You better do it, unless you want to be caught."

Instinct took over. He ran, haunted by her laughter.

He was not aware of how he got home, just waking up in his bed with a fever, Jorune's pale face over his.

"Hess, what happened?"

He sobbed in reply, moving, curling up, re-opening the gashes in his hands and legs. He couldn't even feel it, but he heard Jorune curse and begin stripping away the sticky sheets and clothes. Hess was vaguely aware that he was bathed and bandaged, that Jorune spoke to him, telling him the King had been killed—had he done it?—but a private execution had still gone on as planned. His friend did not mention the scratches on his back, or the cuts, or ask what happened after the first dozen times. He kept Hess from dealing with people, letting him curl in his bed, only bothering him to force food down his throat. Most times it came right back up, but Jorune kept trying.

It was a week before he ventured beyond the bed and toilet. He was healing well, and he'd begun eating again, although he was never sure what went down his throat. When he showed up at work his boss was surprised, but still had the job for him. Jorune had stopped by to tell him there'd been a death in his family. Hess hadn't even thought of that.

His boss asked how he was doing, said he knew how hard it was when someone died, but stopped talking when Hess' lips quivered. Instead he set him to work and Hess lost himself in the days, in the weeks, in the months.

Queen Delthoria was no better a ruler than her father. She worked to end the war, but levied heavier taxes on the people to pay for her hobbies. The revolutionaries were growing restless, and Jorune mentioned one night that they were going to overthrow the palace.

"Take me with you." It was the longest sentence he'd said, outside of work, since he'd returned.

"Hess, I don't know if that's a good idea…"

"I need to kill her. I need to put an end to this," his body shook, but he didn't cry. The tears that fell did so on their own agenda. When Jorune opened his mouth to argue, Hess shook his head, "I will kill her."

"Hess…what happened that night?"

He swallowed, thick and hard. "I asked her for his life and she said she would, if performed something for her. After I had..." he choked on the word, "fulfilled my part of the bargain, she said she would have him killed. She killed him. She knew I loved him and she killed him!"

Before he could begin breaking things, Jorune hugged him, petting his hair and holding him tightly. Hess did not fall into the embrace and sob. Instead he froze, pulled away, and stared at him with horribly empty eyes.

"I will kill her. I will end this."

"It won't bring him back."

"I know." His face softened, his shoulders hunching. "Please, Jorune, I need to do this, for him."

Jorune sighed, patting his back, "Alright. Alright…"

It was another month before the plan could be put into action. They only told him the basics, where everyone was going, where he should be, and the path he should take to get to her. He had no escape plan, but then, none of them did. If this attempt failed, the revolution as they knew it was over.

Being back in her room was horrid. Being back in her bed was worse. Holding the knife to her throat was almost pleasant. But his hand froze, his heart pounding painfully, then seizing in his chest.

"You can't hurt me, Hess. I'm you're little sister."

"You killed him," he gasped, face crumpled in pain as he stared into her sweet eyes.

"I just wanted us to be together."

"You promised…you said if I…you promised you'd let him go," he tightened his hand on the handle and closed his eyes. He wanted to do it, so badly, but how could he?

A warm body pressed against his back, an arm wrapped around his waist, a second sliding up his knife-wielding arm. It was Noirut's spirit, giving him the strength. He sobbed, once, not wanting the spirit to leave as his hand slid easily across, ending the whimpering noises his sister was making. Immediately he dropped the knife, grasping instead Noirut's hand. The spirit seemed so solid. He sobbed, "Please, don't leave me. I can't lose you again."

"I'll never leave you again," Noirut whispered, pressing a warm kiss to the back of his neck. "Never again, Hess."

When he opened his eyes, he saw the hand he held was very real. He turned his body, tackling Noirut, crushing him in his arms, "You're alive!"

Noirut grunted, but hugged back weakly. It was then that Hess realized there were a few things wrong. Large chunks of hair were missing from his scalp, ripped out, leaving him with clumps of long hair. Bruises covered his face and what he could see of the body, along with scars, and wounds not quite as healed. Gingerly he touched his colored cheek.

"Noirut…" They kissed softly, careful of the split lip between them. "You're alive."

"She wouldn't give me the pleasure of death," he sighed, brushing his fingers through Hess' hair. "For which I'm grateful now."

"I'm so sorry," he kissed him, again and again. "I never should have trusted her."

"It doesn't matter. We will make everything better." Noirut stood, pulling him from the bed, then leaning heavily on him. "We shall prevail…"

Hess smiled, holding on to him, "…through all else."