3:37 | Someplace With Elephants

Quiet, nearly soundless rustling ghosted through the room. Cloth on cloth, the sounds of straps sliding together, knotting, clothing being folded and the occasional muted clink of metal, though Kedean did his best to keep that down. Aside from stirring once briefly when Kedean first rose, however, Baisyl showed no signs of waking, or even being disturbed by the intermittent background noises, and for that Kedean felt fortunate. Still, he took comfort in the added blessing that he had, in reality, very little to pack to begin with.

At least, until he finished. Once he successfully gathered together all the few things he intended on taking with him, he found himself lingering anyway. Hesitant. His attention flicked to Baisyl, sound asleep but visible even in the darkness, his dark hair loose and spilling uninhibited across the mattress, curled on his side and one hand tucked under his head. After a moment's debate, Kedean knelt back down to his pack, opening it back up and fishing deep into one of the smaller, stowed away inside pockets.

Quickly, he found what he was looking for and tugged it out – a package, small enough to fit in the palm of a man's hand, carefully wrapped in soft cloth and neatly tied shut. He considered opening it and leaving just the item within, but then figured Baisyl, too, would need a way to keep it padded and safe, and in any case, he could open it when he woke. That in mind, Kedean returned to the edge of the cot, set the package on the small bedside table which he would be sure not to miss come morning. And then, he gave into impulse and leaned over, brushing the hair from Baisyl's forehead and kissing.

That, of course, roused a stir.

Baisyl's lashes flickered but did not open, and he gave a soft, muted noise as though heading off the beginning of a yawn that never quite came to be. "Kedean…?" was a murmured inquiry, and Kedean waited a fraction of a moment before responding.


Wordlessly, Baisyl reached out, his hand moving blindly until the tips of his fingers met Kedean's shirt front, and there, he gripped, tugging to guide Kedean back down. "You always…aim too high," he mumbled, and, even as a flicker of a smile edged into place, Kedean complied with the implicit command and followed the pull, allowing for Baisyl to lean up the fraction of an inch it took to bring their lips into contact.

Whatever Kedean expected as Baisyl's mouth fit up against his – hot, gentle, and soft – his own heart slamming up against the cage of his chest like some feral creature suddenly overwhelmed with fury at its imprisonment was not it. Except that that was what happened, more or less, not thanks so much to the kiss alone but the treacherous, panicked thought that this might be the last time he ever kissed this man – the last time these fingers folded themselves into his clothes or caught behind his neck. Or brushed along his skin. And it had, rationally, no right to draw any spectacular reaction out of him, but for a single, surreal instant, all Kedean could think – with dizzying force, no less – was that he wanted to scoop Baisyl up, drag him from the bed and take him along with him, propriety and reason be damned.

By the time they drew apart, Kedean's pulse had abandoned his chest entirely in favor of lodging itself roughly in his throat. Suffocatingly so. Perhaps, it occurred to him, he should have left without a sound as he'd originally intended. He swallowed, and found his eyes all but unwilling to open again.

"Don't die…" The instruction flit warmly over his lips, their mouths still close, and Kedean gave a broken laugh, but nodded. When he finally did bid his eyes to open, he found Baisyl's gaze on him: dark, deep green in the nearly lightless room, like a forest at night. The sort men got lost in and were never heard from again.

"I won't," Kedean promised.

Baisyl dropped his eyes, and the trap broke. He drew a breath. "Should you return to Ire before we meet again otherwise and wish to seek me out…" His brow knit together as he gathered his thoughts, "…go to the blacksmith who runs his shop by the far end of the open market on the east side of the docks where we first met. He services the Merseille house often, particularly when it comes to horseshoes and fittings, and he's thus familiar with a number of our stable hands. Ask him to point you towards the residence of Cale Marcrest, a young man who used to work for my family until father fired all the servants in light of my curse in an effort to keep the matter quiet…"

Kedean's eyebrows quirked up, not sure how letting off an entire houseful of servants was to be considered an act of discretion, but he let Baisyl continue without interrupt.

"Cale has contact with both the old set of servants and several of those who moved in with the new wave, and if you find him, he'll know whether I'm home by that point or not and if I am, he can get you in contact with me. Whatever you do, do not attempt to contact my father or make contact with anyone who will report your intentions directly to him. While…marginally better as of the past two years or so, my father has never been – and I expect will never be – particularly fond of any of the men I take to bed, and avoiding his notice is undoubtedly the safest route…"

"Cale," Kedean repeated, tallying it in his head for future reference, and Baisyl nodded. "I'll remember," he said, and as he waited, Baisyl watched him – drew his eyes over him – studying him with an intensity that left Kedean feeling open, bared, and readable as a book stripped of its cover.

Finally, as though voicing a tenuous afterthought, Baisyl added, "Do find time to miss me…" and Kedean's lungs forgot their function.

"Every day," he said, unsure how the words found their way to his mouth over the drumming in his ears. 'From the moment the sun rises…' Their lips met again, but not gently this time—teeth, rough, hungry presses and starving jerks of motion wound in like desperate chords at the end of a tragic sonata, '…until the last fracture of light dips beneath the horizon…' Baisyl's fingers found skin under his clothes, clever, mischievous things that his hands were, and when they ordered Kedean forward, he found he had no choice but to obey; no desire to do anything but obey, '…and then on through the night 'til the first break of morning…'

It was some time before Kedean made his leave. Some time after his clothes fell back in retreat one final time against the conquering force of Baisyl's fingers. After their mouths fought intimate battles on the broad plains of each others' skin and their bodies rushed together in natural tandem as timeless and perfected as the sweeping force of an open sea crashing up against the naked shore.

They never said goodbye, not in so many words, because to do so would have felt final and painful, and in any case, they would be seeing each other again, would they not? Surely, they had no need for goodbyes.

When Baisyl woke for the second time, however, this time to the light of dawn and the vacant, suffocating silence of an empty room which he knew instinctively Kedean had left hours before, he felt the weight of their unspoken goodbyes heavier than the blow of a hammer to the ribcage and sharper than the cruelest poison. He shut his eyes. Drew a breath. And held it, counting.


'When you rise,' he instructed himself silently, '…you will tend to your duties without complaint: Rhyan, our trip to the north country, this curse – all must be seen to.'


'Kedean has left. Missing him is inevitable. Becoming weak, inconsolable, or driven to distraction and uselessness in his absence is impermissible.'


'You have never needed any single person, man or woman, in your life to this point…now is not the time to begin.'

His lashes lifted, rising like stage curtains to let in the rushing light of morning, and he squinted, focusing on a single point on the ceiling. "This is doable, Baisyl," he promised himself, sounding – comfortingly – more sure and steadfast than he felt. "All that remains to be done is to proceed…" One task at a time.

And so he did.

Shaking himself awake, he sat up and reached out instinctively to the bedside counter for his pendant, forgetting that he already wore it. When his fingers hit something else entirely, he blinked, and glanced over, picking the parcel up and drawing it to him. He turned it in his fingers, curious. Only Kedean could have left it, since he'd been the only one in the room other than himself, and Baisyl momentarily wondered if it had been accidentally left behind, but quickly dismissed the notion. Clearly, it had been left someplace Baisyl would find it. For Baisyl to find it.

As that alone dawned on him – that Kedean had left something specifically for him, regardless of whatever it happened to be – a twinge of heat flirted with Baisyl's cheeks. Huffing at his own sentimental reaction, but ever more curious all the same, Baisyl carefully unstrung the package and folded back the wrapping cloth to reveal…

A figurine. Intricately carved, and barely two inches high, if that, cut from cool, heavy green stone – jade, a part of his mind provided helpfully – and smooth. It was an animal, clearly, though not one Baisyl immediately recognized, and he puzzled over it as he turned it in his fingers. It had a stocky, robust body and proportionally large, rounded feet but reasonably short legs, making Baisyl assume that the creature the figurine imitated was, in fact, very substantial indeed and slow moving. Where its nose ought to be, it had a long, dangling appendage which reached almost to its feet, but curled at the end. And its ears. It had huge ears.

Kedean had described this creature to him once before, Baisyl realized in a flash of insight, only to become frustrated a moment later as he found he couldn't for the life of him remember what it was called. He snorted, but ran his thumb once more gently over its surface before quickly swallowing and shaking his head, resolving to inquire about it later and store it back away for now. Surely someone around would know, he reasoned as he folded its wrapping cloth back over it. Someone who traveled; the place was full of travelling mercenaries, it couldn't be that difficult.

Decided, he rose and dressed, tucked the statuette into an inside pocket of his vest, and set out to find his first order of business. He found it – or rather, him – engaged in what appeared to be a dice game, the strategy and rules of which he was actively explaining to his two younger companions: Zyric and Rhyan. Baisyl frowned.

"Teaching my brother to gamble, Alroy?"

Said man held his ground a moment longer, finishing off the tail end of whatever he had been saying, before cracking his neck and then sparing Baisyl a glance. "S'not gambling…not yet, anyway," he answered, and Baisyl pursed his lips. "Just a game, mother duck. Don't get your underfeathers all in a ruffle…"

It took a great deal of effort not to make a sour retort. Luckily-

"You wanted me for something?" Alroy asked helpfully, distracting Baisyl from his irritation.

"Yes. If you would."

Alroy waited.

Baisyl folded his arms, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, and nudged his head off to the side. "Privately, for a moment?"

"Ah." Alroy shrugged, and tossed his dice back to the table before him, making a quick motion between the boys. "You two can…figure it out. Try practicing against each other for a round or two, tell me how it goes." With that, he rose, and together, he and Baisyl left, moving across the room and out the door and stilling just outside in the hall. "Well? What's this urgent, top secret message?"

"It's neither of those," Baisyl said, "…I merely preferred moderate privacy over the open, listening ears of children. You are seeing Kedean's brother home the colony, yes?"

"That is…the current plan, yes," Alroy admitted, though with a touch of something Baisyl couldn't quite place that gave him pause.

"There's more to it than that?"

"Before I left Ire, this last time around…directly after Rhyan disappeared in our little accident and just before I got to chase after him…five elites – not of your mother's portion of the council, mind you – turned up at my door. Black dragons, every one of them…fortunately, I managed to knock out what evidence remained of the spell circle we'd set up before they barged in and…" Alroy shrugged. "'Staggering drunks' aren't typically considered very threatening or useful to those looking for information…"

"Black dragons," Baisyl repeated. "They're the half that wants me dead?"

"You," Alroy agreed with a nod, "…your mother – after Gaevroc passes at least, certainly-"

"Who is Gaevroc?"

Alroy blinked, as if Baisyl had asked a very, very stupid question. "Your grandfather," he said finally. "Mine and Melsinna's father. The man currently holding the dragon council together by the last, thin thread of his life. When he passes to the other world…all will be chaos."

"The elites who appeared at your door," Baisyl said, "…if they had shown up sooner…seen that Rhyan was gifted with magic…"

"They would have slaughtered us both," Alroy said point blank. "Myself because I would have died trying to protect him and then him because I would most surely have failed. Alone I am hardly a match for five more practiced fighters of my own kind…and as soon as it comes to light that Rhyan is gifted, he is in just as much danger as you."

Baisyl shut his eyes. "Why…are you not a target of any of this?" he asked. "As this man's son, are you not the 'rightful'-"

"I am banished. I cannot be pardoned so long as my father holds his position, and when he no longer does, only the new Dragon Lord could remove my sentence. Since that would mean ceding the throne directly to me…it is highly unlikely that will ever happen. Generally, men who work their way to such positions of power are loathe to give them up so easily…"

"If I were to inherit this position-"

"You are in no way prepared-"

"-and pardoned you," Baisyl emphasized strictly, rolling over Alroy's interjection. He earned himself a sudden, frozen stare, but he met it solidly. "You would take over instea-"

"No," Alroy snarled with abrupt, startling ferocity. "I want nothing to do with-"

"And you think I do?" Baisyl jumped back in, just as quick. "What do you expect of me? That I should run, with my brother, like a couple of petrified mutts with our tails between our legs for the rest of our lives, attempting to stay one step ahead of those who would murderus, even as the rest of them fight over their throne in a game of epic scale tug of war?"


"I may be reckless," Baisyl conceded, "but I'd like to think I'm not a fool either. Every man who knows anything knows kings do not live very long…particularly not weak, incompetent kings, which is what I would be if I attempted to take over and hold onto such a role myself. I have no sense for that political atmosphere, no knowledge of dragons or their history or influence, my magic is trivial – all but useless, frankly – and I have no doubt that you're right…I am in no way prepared, and I would likely not last a day. That said…I am not prepared to flee for the rest of my life, either…even less so now that I know Rhyan will be caught up in the same fate…moving constantly, always looking out for someone to kill me, endangering whoever I seek shelter with…it simply isn't something that can go on forever. Surely, regardless of however unfit you feel for the role now, once upon a time…you had it in your mind that one day you would be taking over in your father's place, did you not?"

It was Alroy's turn to avoid his gaze, a shadowed, guilt-wrought frown settling into place over his features like the edge of a storm front rolling in over a sunlit pasture. Eventually, he said, "It has been a very…long time since that sort of intent was anything but a skeleton of a memory in the farthest corners of my mind…but yes," he admitted, quieter. "Once…I was raised with the notion that there was nothing in my future but that…"

"You never wanted it," Baisyl realized aloud.

"I never wanted it," Alroy confirmed. "I did, once, see it as a noble thing…a good thing, a 'destined' thing, if you will, but…time, experience, and…seeing more than one side to any given story…does strange things to notions of nobility and destiny." He seemed to make an effort not to speak those last words with the air of scraping drunken bile from his tongue, but failed miserably.

Baisyl took his time before saying, "This isn't what I meant to speak with you about."

"'Course it isn't," Alroy responded.

"When you return to—if you return to Ire," Baisyl said, "…see to it that Zyric and his father are handsomely reimbursed for Kedean's efforts in guarding my livelihood?"

"Mm…because your father and I have always gotten on so well," Alroy says, the words so pregnant with sarcasm they could give birth to triplets. "'Specially now," he adds, "…since he's likely put two and two together, swapped words with my sister and concluded it wasmy fault his youngest son disappeared into the untold abyss…"

'Which it was,' Baisyl wisely failed to add. Instead, he responded with, "I'm sure the both of you will manage."

"I'll see to it that payment finds its way into the right hands," Alroy promised.

"Thank you…uncle," Baisyl said, hesitating only a moment before tagging on the final title, and Alroy gave him a curious look, as though – if only for a fraction of a moment – Baisyl had let in a glimpse of something from behind a curtain, a surreptitious peak into a well-guarded box.

"Are you alright?"

Baisyl stiffened, instantly back on guard. "Of course I am," he clipped, all chilly business. "Why wouldn't I be?" Now, there were a number of reasons he wouldn't be, naturally, but somehow Baisyl sensed it wasn't any of the reasons that came to mind immediately that Alroy was hinting at – not his brother's new heightened state of danger, not the trip to foreign lands and rulers, and not even what happened when the current Dragon Lord passed or-

There was a softness to Alroy's curiosity now, an off-setting unasked for sympathy, and Kedean's name slipped through Baisyl's brain like a cool stone plinking into a clear, bottomless pool and simply sinking. It felt more like a knot travelling from high in his throat to a final resting place deep in his gut, and his teeth grit.

"I'm fine," he insisted, meaning for it to sound composed and put-together – aloof, even – but it came out as gravel and brimstone, even to his own ears.

"Right," Alroy answered. "'Course you are."

Baisyl opened his mouth, changed his mind, and switched gears entirely. "Where's Natara, do you know?"

That evidently caught Alroy off guard. "Natara?" he asked.

"That is what I said, if I'm not mistaken-"

"Weapons room still, I'd guess," Alroy said. "Killing things. Or-" he amended dispassionately, "-burying sharp objects into inanimate things and imagining that they're meeting gruesome, painful ends…perhaps throwing knives at walls from half a room away and sinking them hilt deep? How should I know, perhaps she's moved onto other ventures by now…"

Baisyl did not swallow. He – he just sort of… He cleared his throat. "Is she…approachable?"

"She's fine," Alroy responded immediately. And then added, less comfortingly, "For the same reason that you are 'fine', I would imagine…"

"Oh," Baisyl said, and blinked. Oh. Well, fuck.

"Was it urgent?"

"It…" Baisyl frowned. "Depending on how you…look at it."

Alroy's eyebrows arched, and Baisyl's jaw set with determination.

"Do pray I return alive," was Baisyl's closing comment as he started down the hall for the weapons room.

The last thing he heard out of Alroy was, "Urgent it is, then…"

A half second from raising his hand to the knob and entering, two resounding thuds sounded from the close wall on the opposite side, and Baisyl might have imagined that the wall seemed to tremble even from this side and that the impact shook free at least a tiny smattering of dust from ceiling to floor. But he still had to work very hard not to accompany that thought with the mental image of two dead bodies being slung roughly up against it like weighted rag dolls. Or sand bags.

He stepped inside.

As he clicked the door shut behind him, his eyes flicked to Natara, sure enough, dragging two daggers out of their sunken positions in the wall in front of her. Only after working them free did her attention turn to him, and the impact of the stare caught him off-guard. Never before had he seen her so…raw.

Like Kedean, she seemed to make a habit of throwing layers over her surface emotions, but this time, she plainly didn't bother, leaving her look frigidly cold, aggressive, and so hurt that Baisyl was the first to drop turn his eyes away, frowning as he swallowed down the unwelcome knot in his throat.

"Can I help you?" she asked, her words like broken flints of ice, and Baisyl second-guessed the wisdom of stepping into the room in the first place. Then, reminding himself that this was a woman he was dealing with and that feeling intimidated in and of itself was embarrassing enough, he cleared his throat and lifted his head.

"Yes. I came for…two things, actually," he said, and when he made himself look at her again, she held his stare. "The first…is to apologize." She scoffed. No hesitation. An immediate, perfunctory response, and he frowned, not quite expecting that. When he opened his mouth, however-

"Why," she asked, her voice so clipped and deadpan that it barely sounded like a question.

"Because…I have spoken out of spite to you, in the past," he said. "I've said…needlessly hurtful things in a childish manner for which-"

"I did not ask what you were apologizing for," Natara cut in, unforgiving. "I asked why. Why do you want my forgiveness? What is it worth to you? Why would it be worth anything to a noble, who can come and go, and have what he likes?" She paused only for a moment before adding, more softly, "What could you possibly need it for?"

"I…" 'I need your help.' He frowned, fully aware that this was quite possibly the worst time imaginable to make the request he was about to. He drew a breath. "I am set to travel north, to the land of the fae and elves, with the fairy captain Fern Desper. I've never been to these lands, and while I have a shaky trust in the captain, I do not know her even remotely well and can't say I'm entirely certain what will transpire once I reach my destination. If it was only me headed there, I wouldn't approach you…but that is not the case. I am taking my brother with me, and…" Again, he hesitated.

"You are concerned for his safety," Natara filled in, a sliver of the ice gone from her voice at least.

"I am out a guard," Baisyl admitted. "Without Kedean, if I left to travel now, I would be the only one present to see to my brother's well being…and I do not fancy myself quite that talented, should things take a turn for the worse. I am only one man, after all."

Natara eyed him, thoughtful for a moment. Finally, she said, "You wish to hire me."

"I'm aware that you're likely not particularly fond of me," Baisyl said, "and you have every right to-"

"How much?"

He blinked. "Ah…" He shook his head, quickly composing himself after his surprise. "Everything that I was paying Kedean. More, if you like, though he was already being more than generously reimbursed for his-"

"And how long will this job last?"

"I'm not sure," Baisyl responded honestly, taking her abrupt interruption in stride. "Anywhere from a month to a year. At this point, I truly couldn't say…"

She palmed her weapons, eyeing them as though looking for answers inside their shape and make—the sharp, wicked metal glinting like a winking star that promised death. When she spoke, the words were so quiet Baisyl barely made them out. "Why me?"

Fortunately, Baisyl was ready for that one. "I know no one else. If Kedean trusted you, relied on you, and lived in your company for years, then I am working on faith and trusting his judgment. I am a stranger here…if I were to head to anyone else, I can't see myself putting my faith in them but for the most basic and trivial of tasks."

"You trust me…" It was a musing, puzzled statement, and she lifted her eyes when she said it, taking them off her weapons to draw her gaze over him, curiously, as if with newfound interest sparked by this unexpected tidbit of information.

"More or less," Baisyl countered, and for the first time, her lips cracked up into the first hint of a smile. The laugh that spilled out to follow it wasn't entirely happy so much as it was…complicated—sad and uncertain as much as it was relieved and amused—and she quickly quelled it, touching her own fingers to her lips and shutting her eyes.

"You leave tomorrow?"

"Today, if I can," Baisyl corrected. "Tomorrow, if I must wait due to outside circumstances."

"You mean, tomorrow if it takes you that long to convince me to come with you?" Natara asked.

"I mean-"

"How do you know I am suitable?" Natara questioned, turning serious on him. "You've never seen me fight…know nothing of my past, my talents, my weaknesses…how can you hope to judge me? I am, after all, just a woman…"

Did she read minds, too? Baisyl folded his arms, trying to ascertain whether she was being purposefully difficult or meant the questions in earnest. They were logical, no doubt – except for perhaps the last jab which he knew for a fact was bait – but he didn't understand why she was posing them at all. Unless she had some ulterior motive, it didn't make any sense to-

"Fight me," she said.

Oh. "What?" Baisyl asked, once again taken completely by surprise.

"I said-"

"I heard what you-"

"Then," Natara said, advancing on him in a slow prowl that – despite his best intentions – immediately drew to Baisyl's mind a great, black cat, fierce and untamable, of the sort that hunted in midnight jungles; she stopped a foot from him, lifting her fist – closed around a blade – and pressing the hilt of it to his chest, "…do it."

She was nearly as tall as he was. He stood over six feet high, and she must have been six herself, or very close to it if not. She met his eyes almost directly head on, and Baisyl mused that there were few women he'd known who came even close to his height, let alone nearly matched it. "I don't-" he started to say, but she flipped her grip, catching the flat of the metal blade itself and tilting it up so that the hilt tapped the base of his chin, ushering it closed.

"What are you afraid of?" she asked, and Baisyl wanted to say that he wasn't afraid, but she went on before he worked a word in. "That you will hurt me?" The word 'hurt' came out so close to mocking that Baisyl knew full well she didn't mean it at face value. Like before, she was baiting him.

Even so, he answered plainly. "No." He shook his head. "Even if I tried, I doubt I could do much damage before you took my head off."

That seemed to surprise – and at least partially appease – her, and she gave him a curious look. "In that case…you have either a great deal of confidence in my abilities…or very little confidence in your own." She lowered her blade. "Given what little I know of you so far, I have to suspect the first."

"Why do you want to fight me?"

She regarded him, taking her time before eventually answering, "If I am to protect you…it would be helpful to first know how easy you are to kill."

"Ah." Wait. Baisyl frowned. "You mean how difficult I am to kill…"

"No," Natara responded, offering up no further elaboration, and this time when she held out a weapon, he took it.

Fifteen to twenty minutes later, pressed flat with his back to a wall and a knife to his throat, Baisyl winced. Natara dropped her hold. "Better," she said, even as Baisyl shot her a dubious, disbelieving look. "You fight more appropriately as a man."

At the outset, he'd insisted that he shouldn't fight a woman at all and Natara had 'helpfully' suggested that he discard his pendant and fight that way to 'event he odds'. It went catastrophically. Natara fought like some superhuman cross between a wild feline and a snake. Her body did things in combat Baisyl had never seen anyone – even Kedean – do, and her definition of 'going easy' was 'not killing or breaking any bones and keeping blood to a minimum.' After ending up on the floor or wall in embarrassingly defenseless positions five or six times in less than that many minutes, he'd consented to re-donning his pendant and fighting in the body he felt more comfortable with.

He'd fared better, then. Slightly.

Reaching up to his lip, Baisyl wiped the back of his hand across it, and brought it down to find, unsurprisingly, a red smear. He sighed. "Well, yes," he responded to her last comment, "I would hope I'd fight better this way…"

"I said more appropriately, not better," Natara responded. "You fight the same in both bodies."

Baisyl blinked, not comprehending. "But when I fought you this way-"

"You were more successful at defending yourself, yes," Natara said, "…but that was because your fighting style – the only style you use – is fit for that body, and you are used to it. When you change…you are still fighting like a man, but in a woman's body."

Baisyl pursed his lips. "And what's wrong with fighting like a man?"

"Nothing," she said, "when you are one. When you're not?" She shrugged. "Everything."

"I don't unders-"

"When you fight, empty handed or with a weapon," she cut in, insistent, "your body is everything. The weapon is merely an extension of your body. When your body changes, so too must your style. As a woman, your center of balance is different. Your size is different, your shape is different, your weight, your reach, your strength—everything…is different…but you fight like nothing has changed."

Baisyl reached up and back, rolling his knuckles along his shoulder in an effort to soften the escalating soreness there. "Alright," he conceded, eyes scrunching shut with his wince as a dull pain engulfed the lower back part of his neck, "…so…that's why I'm hiring a guard?"

"No," she said, "you are hiring a guard for the sake of your brother. And I will accept your offer, but…" She paused there until he ventured to open his eyes again and meet her stare, "…only on the condition that you let me teach you how to fight-"

Baisyl scowled, even through his wince. "I know how to fi-"

"-like a woman," Natara continued. "As a woman. In as many ways as I can think to teach you."

Baisyl shut his eyes, dropping his head back against the wall.

"It is half of what you are right now," she said. "It only stands to reason that you ought to learn how to use it, and the better you are at keeping yourself alive…the easier my job will be."

Opening one eye, Baisyl squinted upwards, doting lavish attention on a single pinpoint on the ceiling. "Why?" he asked after a healthy stretch of silence without looking down. "That is…why bother helping me? Training me? Won't you want to spend as little 'quality time' in my presence as possible? In fact…" There, he shifted his weight, opening both eyes and bringing his head back level to eye his new soon-to-be-guard, "…why are you accepting at all? Asking completely out of curiosity, of course…"

Natara tilted her head, appearing to consider him for a good while before shrugging. "Two different questions. First, why train you? As I said, it will make my job easier. Also, from the job description alone, I will be spending a great deal of time with you regardless. Spending that time fighting will help keep my mind busy instead of letting it wander off to think about…" She frowned, "…all the different ways I could be murdering myself."

Baisyl's eyebrows jerked upwards, but she quickly moved on.

"As for why I am accepting? Bad question. I do not even know myself. It may prove to be the stupidest decision I've made in…" A pause, presumably for thought, "…at least several days."

Baisyl's laugh startled himself as much as anyone. "Several days?" he repeated. "Only that long?"

"I make stupid decisions often."

"Strange," Baisyl commented, "seeing as, all other things aside, you struck me as fairly intelligent."

"Intelligent people make stupid decisions more often than they like to admit."

"Mm. Point," he conceded.

"Was that all you wanted of me…my lord?" The hesitance and awkwardness with which she added the formal title didn't escape Baisyl's notice, but did draw to his attention the fact that it was the first time since he'd entered the room that she chose to use it. He decided to leave the issue untouched.

"My apology and then, my request for you to serve as my guard…yes," Baisyl said. "Those were the only two orders of business I came in wi—oh!" Something occurring to him, he dug back into his vest pocket. "There is…one other thing I'd be inclined to ask you about…" She tilted her head, curious as he drew out the package from that morning. "What is…this?" Baisyl asked as he unwrapped it from its protective encasing, and her eyes widened in open surprise.

"An elephant," she said, "…carved in jade, handcrafted…where did you…?"

Elephant, yes, that was it. When she reached out, Baisyl let her take it, and he watched as she drew her thumb gently over it, eyeing it with sober reverence.

"Very few people would have access to such a thing…" she noted. "There are only two cities in the world where I saw them crafted in any substantial number, and even there, they are rare enough…usually only upper class nobles or members of the royal house, occasionally very wealthy soldiers. There was a tradition, in Kartuk Bhan, where noble women would gift them to their husbands or lovers before they went on an extended trip, often when they intended to go off to war. An elephant, it is said, never forgets, and by keeping it close to his heart, the soldier would always remember his tie to the woman back home…no matter how much time or distance separated them…"

Baisyl dropped his eyes, not quite ready to meet hers as she handed it back. "Thank you," he said quietly. "It…" He hesitated, then said, "I apologize if-"

"Do not apologize." Her eyes followed his fingers as he folded the statuette back up, and he held it a moment longer, lingering, before he tucked it back into its safe pocket. "There must be a story tied in to how he even acquired one in the first place, as it isn't something a common guard would normally find himself owning…and he hasn't been that far east for nearly a decade. He must have carried it with him for years…"

Without another word on the subject, Natara turned, leaving him, and Baisyl watched her exit, his mind already distant, elsewhere.

"Mm…" Baisyl sidles himself back a quarter inch, laying on a thinly-covered wagon floor and fitting himself against the warm, solid body behind him. He reaches back, catching Kedean's fingers in his and pulling them over him like repositioning a favorite blanket, and after making himself comfortable he murmurs, quietly, "After you find your brother, you should run away with me…"

He feels Kedean still briefly behind him, obviously surprised. "Run away?" he repeats, and his thumb traces a gentle stroke over Baisyl's hand in his. "From what, and where to?"

"From…" Baisyl yawns, his body satiated and tired, ready for sleep, "…everything," he says, "and to anywhere." After a moment of consideration, a flicker of a smile, warm like an ember, curves onto his lips, and he decides aloud, "Someplace with elephants…"

The last thing he distinctly remembers before sleep takes him is the gentle press of Kedean's lips to the still-drying hair at the top of his head, and the quiet words, "Get some rest, milord…" and so he does.

A/N: Aaaand, there you have it. Final chapter for this book. There will probably be an epilogue, but I'm not sure. I might just make it the prologue of the next one. Either/or, look out for "The Dragon Lord's Bride" which, barring an extreme change of heart at the last minute, will be the title of the sequel. :)

Would you believe that it was a year and a half ago that I published the first chapter of this on AFF? Time flies.