*Magnify*
SPONSORED LINKS
Get it for
Apple iOS.
Creative fun in
the palm of your hand.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/1406727-Desert-Blood
by Arwen9
Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Serial · Fantasy · #1406727
Step into a world where life exists from one drop of water to another.
[Introduction] For lovers of the original campfire, Crystal Fire, here is another one set in the same world. But this no longer follows the Dragonian woes, but rather, the struggles of the strictly isolationist T'Ollo. The "Lost" tribe of Dragonians, now scratching out a meager existence in the barren Mara Desert.

The original campfire, where this is loosely based, can be found here:
 Crystal Fire  (13+)
The tribe of Shinar flee for their lives from the Eloin. Where do you fit in?
#1215633 by Arwen9



First, the dreaded rules. *Frown* Yes, we have to have a few.

1. Keep it 13+ please. I rated it there for a reason. I strongly prefer made-up profanity, based on the character's religion, mindset, and other more creative things.
2. Please, no magic spells or shape-shifters...etc. I do not mind use of the Gift (which I will explain in detail after the rules) but with that, there are certain limits to it. Please take note of them.
3. One week to add an addition, unless I receive an email or some such thing explaining the delay. The first time, I'll send a reminder. But after that, if I don't get some sort of "heads-up", you will be skipped.

Okay, enough of that, right? *Wink*

The Gift can best be described as telepathy and/or telekinesis. Those with a moderate amount of Gift can see farther, hear better, and move quicker. Higher can sense shifting moods and "life forces". The highest can manipulate inanimate objects (like flinging a dagger) and can use a "Path" to speak to another within their mind. However, there are limits.

The person must "seize the Gift", thus limiting it to those who have at least some willpower. The other limitation is that the Gift drains on the natural strength of those wielding it. A severely wounded man cannot wield the Gift without risking his own death.

In the Mara, there are 4 provinces. Each has their own culture and is known for something. Besides Common, they each have their own dialect as well, save one.

Lodear: (North)

Eastar: (East)

Apollar: (South)

Settar: (West)

Loquiri:


For more detail on each, see here:
 Invalid Item 
This item number is not valid.
#1407085 by Not Available.


Remember!!

First post should always be your character's profile. BUT, please don't tell us everything. Give us just enough to whet our appetites. *Wink*

Name: Naftis

Age: 28

Appearance: Just under 6 feet tall. Dusty brown hair, angular features, and dark eyes. Rather than advertising his loquiri heritage with the long queue, his hair is cropped close to his ears. He bears a scar on his throat, close to the life vein, and one other across his chest. The first, from a battle that nearly cost him his life (and did cost the life of his "master") and the other from several...attempts.

Province: Loquiri--Eastar

Personality: The constant ache of losing his half gives him a quiet, pensive air. He is a cunning fighter when need arises, but is not quick to anger.

Special skills/Misc: Very detail-oriented. Attuned to subtle shifts in body language, tone, and his environment, as he was trained in that manner. Not a blademaster, as many loquiri become, but adept with the sword if need be. Prefers a shorter dagger. Only Gifted enough to form a pair-link, but otherwise, it is useless to him.

Name: Jaara

Age: 25

Appearance: Jaara is lean, hard and graceful, and stands only about 5'4 feet tall. Her hair is an auburn so dark it appears black except under direct sunlight. Although her body is all lean, hard muscle, her face is surprisingly soft and childlike, with large eyes the color of flint. Any apparent innocence in her face, however, is marred by a scar extending from her right temple to just below her right eye, and the knowledge and determination in her eyes.

Province: Apollar

Personality: Jaara is a dependable, very determined young woman. A keen follower and protector of tradition, she is also one who, if a new idea or method arises and is proven to work better than old ways, will support change. When making decisions, she pays special attention to details and is inclined to think first to carefully plan out her actions. However, once her decision has been made, she pursues her goals with a grim determination and it is nearly impossible to dissuade her. She has a very strong sense of right and wrong and is slow to express emotion even when pursuing justice. Her anger at the death of her Loquiri boils beneath a stony countenance, but drives her relentlessly across the desert in pursuit of his murderer.

Special skills/Misc: Jaara has seized a high amount of the Gift and has the abilities that go with that level. She is also a stunning fighter, although a good deal of her talent seems to come from the close entwining of her Gift with her skill with the sword; without her Gift, she is an average fighter, and even with it she is not a bladesmaster.
Name: Caylia

Age: 21

Appearance:Tall, just under 5’9” with lots chestnut colored hair containing hints of red and gold. She has a small triangular face and bright green eyes. Her body is finely boned and her hands are slim with calluses at the tips of her fingers.

Province:Settar

Personality:Quiet and intelligent. A listener, loving to hear the tales and stories of others. As a harpist and storyteller herself, she speaks only when necessary. She is innocent in many ways, but also hopelessly curious and drawn to learn and discover the world and whatever tales it contains.

Special Skills/Misc.: She truly speaks through her harp. Stories, tales, and emotions are formed on the tips of her fingers and the strings beneath them. Her use of the Gift, when she chooses to use it, allows her to sense moods and changes so she can suit a song or a tale to her audience if needed, changing it or feeding their emotion.
The wind rising from the sands teased his hair, fingering the edge of his cloak. The joyful play meant nothing to him. Its whispered promises were never fulfilled.

Naftis studied the rising sun, bright rays spilling out over the quiet town. It was still too early in the morning for any to be up. No one would see the lone man on the infirmary roof. A bird chattered at him once, but he stepped past it and ignored the cheerful call.

Pacing nervously, he listened for a change in the sounds below him. A cough, a soft snore, someone muttered in their sleep. He could barely hear the quiet sounds; another man, could not.

One hand slipped into a pouch, feeling the cool glass of the vial hidden there. He wanted to do it now, do it and be done with it. But a moment ago, another sick man had awakened the Healer and her assistants.

Too soon and she would be sure to find him before the nightshade could do its work. A dose of kolinar would still save him at that point. Naftis had no desire to be saved again. Though sympathetic to his plight, the Healer had threatened to lock him in his room if he tried again.

All was quiet below. If the Gods were merciful, she had gone back to bed. The opportunity he had been wishing, and pleading, for. Naftis withdrew the flask, studying the dark liquid shimmering within. So beautiful.

The ebony fluid gleamed as if studded with stars, scintillating in the sunlight. To an unknowing eye, it could be a rich wine to gladden the heart. It would gladden his, but not in the same manner as the wine.

Something scraped on the roof. Naftis stiffened, whirled. His shoulders slumped in defeat. They had found him, again.

The Healer shook her head, sighing. "Naftis, whatever are we going to do with you?"

He turned away, not willing to meet her gaze. "Just let me die."

"You know I can't."

"Why do you prolong it? I do not desire it. There is no other who would take notice if I should fade away."

She sighed. "I would. Give me the flask."

Naftis handed it over. It was no use arguing with her now. Not for that, at least. But if he oculd keep her talking...

"Why do you care what happens to me?" He sidestepped, edging toward the roof. "My kind die every day, in the same manner."

The Healer tucked the flask away and shook her head. "I cannot allow any to die, no matter who or what they may be."

Naftis took another step, keeping his eyes down at his feet. "I suppose you can't."

"True." Her voice gentled. "Wait, Naftis. Another will come."

That caught his attention. His head snapped up. "How can another take his place? This emptiness, this...broken part of me. You do not understand!"

Her eyes glinted with sympathy. "No, I cannot understand your lot. But you must wait."

Naftis glanced away. "He never should have gone."

He took another step closer, resting his hands on the edge of the roof. A leap, a quick motion, and there would be no more.

"He believed it to be the right thing, as did you," she reminded him.

"It does not change what happened. I should have known it was a trap."

"You cannot blame yourself."

In his mind, Naftis felt along the ragged edges of the link. Hollow. Nothing there. It used to hum with the knowledge of Rath's mind and feelings, the missing half of his Essence fulfilled, but no longer. Not since an assassin's blade had found Rath's throat in the night, and nearly finished him as well.

The assassin had been expecting a drugged loquiri, and panicked. But Rath was already dead. Naftis had been too close to death to understand, until later. Awakening, he had reached for Rath without thought and found, in its place, his mind flinging itself against a solid wall. Nothing. Empty.

He had not left the infirmary since then, three months ago. They prevented him from joining Rath, as they always had. But this time, he hoped to outwit them all. Naftis leaned over, as if staring at the houses below. His body tensed. He shifted to the balls of his feet.

He would have only one chance to make the leap. Her voice broke into his thoughts.

"Naftis." The imperious tone echoed in his head, rather than out loud. The Gift. He wanted to groan. There was no resisting it. If he were stronger-willed, maybe, but not now. At her repeated command, he stepped away from the edge and followed her down below.

Before she left him, pensive in his room, the Healer squeezed his shoulder. "It's all right, Naftis. You will find what you need someday."

She stepped away, pausing at the threshold to glance back. "I will have Agar take you with him tomorrow, if you wish."

The grizzled veteran of many wars, and the Healer's husband, would be more than a match for him, if he attempted it again. Naftis sighed. At least he would not remain in his room all day, with nothing to do but think of what he missed. "I would like that."

"Good. Rest well, Naftis."

"I shall try."






Jaara's footsteps in the bone white sand left no sound, but were vividly marked in beads and thin ribbons of crimson. Some of it was fresh, dripping freely from the sleeve of her rough, charcoal gray tunic, or making its long, thin journey down her body to be flung in angry droplets from her feet with every fall of her boots. Some of it was a strange brownish-blue and thinner than her own, and dripped from the deep gash in the scaled snout of her Derk-ra. A minuscule amount of it was old, rusty looking when she found it, again and again, in the shifting face of the desert. There was not much of that left for her to find after the hot desert winds had their way, but it was enough to follow.

A day's walk into Settar, a day and a half from her camp in Apollar. She was making good time; the last of her quarry was close, and the murderer's fellows had died but seven hours before in the rapid but brutal battle that had cost Jaara's Derk-ra his mate and had earned her the plunge of a dagger into her shoulder.

The sun was riding high in the sky but just beginning his descent into the west when she neared the cairns of Settar's dead and saw a black shadow unfold from the piled stones.

"Another ghost to haunt this place of weeping?" Mern's cool voice pierced the desert air. For all her bravado, the murderer walked with a pronounced limp, and she'd been without water as long as Jaara.

Jaara spit dust and stalked rapidly across the sand toward her. "Not yet. Not ever, if I take the rest of your leg."

Mern chuckled but fell back a step at her approach. "Ka!" she shouted, kicking sand at Jaara with her good leg as her executioner charged.

Jaara didn't see the fall of the other woman's Derk-ra from the funerary stones, but her Gift did, and she snapped to the side, twisting her torso, as the beast alighted in the sand beside her rather than on top of her. Hissing and bearing razer-like fangs, it swung its tail toward her feet, attempting to trip her. Trusting the thickness of her boots to protect her from those fangs, she thrust her heel into its scaled face, scraping sharply downwards as she did so. The beast was faster than her, whipping backwards out of her reach, but it was not fast enough; its swift nip to her calf met with air.

Already she felt the effects of using her Gift for the third time in a day while injured---the rapidly expanding fatigue and growing pressure of powerful headache---but she pushed them aside. Mern had to die, whatever the costs. Her brothers had helped her abduct and beat Dasik, Jaara's Loquiri, but she had been the one to drive the blade into Jaara's poor Loquiri's heart.

Still, she had to act fast, for the use of the Gift would soon rob her of her strength. Reaching over her shoulder with one hand, Jaara grasped the leather-wrapped hilt of her sword and slid it free of its scabbard at her back, bringing it sharply to bear before her. In the corner of her eye, she saw her Derk-ra streak across the sand and slam into Mern's beast. The two lizards rolled in the sand, hissing, as she crossed the gulf between the other woman and herself.

To say that she defeated Mern would be an understatement. Both women were equally injured, equally thirsty, equally hungry, and equally tired. But Jaara had long ago seized her Gift, whereas Mern never had, and Mern was a soft, pampered thing and not a swordmaster or even a warrior. Jaara slaughtered her, cutting her down where she stood before the other woman even had the opportunity to draw the dagger with which she'd murdered Dasik.

This wasn't about fairness, or honor; this was about justice. Mern collapsed, dying before she even had a chance to scream, Jaara's sword through her heart. Meanwhile, the two Derk-ra fought on.

Jaara intended to fall upon the corpse with her dagger and claim a lock of the murderer's hair, but instead she simply fell.
He crossed the desert with his coal black eyes and hair the color of bone. Alone, all alone except for his steed, a spotted horse with horns like two great branches that sparked silver in the moonlight. He rode from shadow, to starlight, and into sunrise and came to a place where the wind whipped his hair and circled about a tower made of the reddest sand that the desert could make. At the very top there was a room with seven windows and seven doors…

“I haven’t heard this one before.” Ru was stretched out like a tiger next to the pool, face half shaded by an overhang of palm. A book lay in front of him, a quill in his hand, and he watched her out of eyes like liquid amber. “A white haired man, that is new. Where did you find it?”

Caylia shrugged and lifted her fingers from the strings of her harp. “Somewhere. I don’t know where I find them half the time.”

A laugh over the trickle of the fountain and a young woman with hair as smokey as her eyes joined them at the edge of the pool lined with marble. “Ru,” she chided, mirth dancing in her eyes. “You broke her spell with your questions. I’m always ensnared by that harp, that tone. The notes are like bands of binding gold.”

Ru laughed and grabbed his lover of two months by her waist, kissing her sun browned cheek. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be off with the economists? Sitting on your little rugs and tossing dice?”

“That’s not how it works and you know it,” she frowned pinching his nose. “And what are you doing lazing around? You who inscribe the calligraphy of this place?”

“Becoming ensorcelled of course. Do you know someone else who was ensorcelled? Our dear Uhl. Ah yes, I see that light in your eyes Caylia. Yes she was ensorcelled once by a stranger who disappeared with the rising sun. I’m surprised you haven’t heard that tale, of all people. If it’s true, I don’t know. But that doesn’t matter does it. Like you’ve said a tale doesn’t have to be true to tell a story.”

Caylia nodded and looked out over the pool, darkening with the setting sun and the palm and fig trees. Down the a path with flat black rocks set on sand, her eyes traveled and soon she rose and let her feet follow her eyes. Under the great archway that separated with school for the bards from the other buildings for different learnings, she went, and into another courtyard with desert roses blooming and another fountain trickled away in the distance. Father off were green patches where kolinar grew, outlined with irrigation ditches, first proposed by the Elder thinkers of ages past. By the roses lay clay tubes, poked with holes in intervals so only drips of water could get out at a time. Even if they had the water, they knew to use it wisely.

They were lucky, she knew, as they all did, and blessed with plenty of water. Enough to keep the bathing pools, and have enough to drink without worrying about it spilling. Enough for the palms and the figs and the dates and the flowers. She had read in tales of father away lands, where ran fell once in a year if they were lucky maybe even less. Here, there was abundance.

Her sandals crunched on the sand, then silently stepped on the marble steps, hands delicately tracing the curving calligraphy on the column. This one was Ru’s work. She could recognize the ornate script as it chased an unfamiliar hand up and around before making a complex pattern of words and letters and the base. It was beauty, Ru had said once, art. As much as playing an instrument or drawing.

She passed through a doorway and up the steps to a high tower room, where with a knock and a word she gained entrance. The Uhl was standing by one of the wide arched windows, hair, black as night laced with hints of grey. At the sound of feet the woman turned blind eyes toward her, and Caylia smiled and touched a string with a finger.

“I know that voice. What brings you here?”

“A hint of a tale told at the setting of the sun, about a man who left when it rose.”

The Uhl’s breath caught and she didn’t need to use her Gift to know what music to play. The strings flowed like water beneath her fingers, longing filling them, arching, crashing into hopeless love. They sang with the beauty of dark nights and secret places and the Ul held up a hand and she stopped.

“You always were talented, beyond anything and anyone that ever crossed through the doors of the school. Born under the horned moon and the circle of stars is what the stories say.”

“That’s what is says,” she acknowledged, finding another string and letting forth a gentle rhythm of sleepless nights.

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “When it calls for an answer I will find it, and set it in my strings to play for whomever listens. But for now, there are other stories I seek.”

“You’ve been talking to Ru.”

“Ru does most of the talking.” Ahh-oooo The south wind gusted through the opened windows, catching the curtains of gauze, and they billowed inwards toward the candlelight, bringing with them the cool night air scented with the last remnants of the day’s heat. The Uhl, white eyes caught in a memory, brushed them aside and sank into a chair.

“Ru always talks as do most people in this province. A healer said they found a woman half dead among our dead, with a still warm body beside her. That’s the talk now.” Caylia nodded and found a note. “I don’t know,’ the Uhl responded. “Maybe a new tale or maybe something else for the Justice scholars to discuss.”

The wind blew and the curtains billowed and the harpist rose and lit a stub of a candle on the Uhl’s table. “You know I cannot see that,” she said.

“I know,” Caylia replied softly, then after a moment breathed the question between them both. “Where did your tale end?”

“I do not know. Maybe somewhere far from here or maybe over the next ridge of sandstone. I do not know.” A sigh, a breath, and the candle flickered in the breeze. “Now, don’t spend your evening speaking with an old woman. The desert is alive at night.”

Name: Hamen

Age: 27

Province: Apollar

Personality: Hamen is talkative. He's had far too many occasions where silence only deepened worries or awkwardness, so he actively tries to fill in any voids in speech near him. He is generally pleasant and kind, but true to his origins has a truly frightful temper if pushed far enough.

Special Skills/Misc: He has an excess of essence, but very little talent with the Gift, largely a result of his unrational fear of siezing it. He is skilled with the staff he carries, and has trained Derk-ra in the past, though he does not have one currently.
Tagging behind Agar, Naftis studied the bustling marketplace around him. The sand had been packed into a firm trail from hundreds of passing feet. Not even the wind could stir it up, and there was always wind. A slow, steady flow from the sea of dunes just beyond the small village's boundaries.

Carts, drawn by horse and man, scattered without pattern along the main thoroughfare. A variety of items draped, piled, looped, and dangled from them. Linkas, the sheer veils so common in Lodear, floated in etheral strands above a pyramid of coconuts and dried dates. A finely crafted urn and golden torcs shared the same table. Even the glitter of imported Aquila glass, for those who wished to pay the price, could be seen.

Few of those hawking their wares paid him any mind. He could have passed as a Healer's apprentice, a novice in a craft, or even a passing traveler. The cut of his clothes were Eastar, but even that was little distinction.

Naftis unnecessary, and unwanted. A loquiri lacking his Match; a loquiri without need, purpose, or desire. He sighed and turned away. Agar flicked him a glance, dark eyes narrowing in his weathered face, but let him wander. Not a prisoner, but the Healer and her husband kept him as well-leashed as a prized Derk-ra.

Roth's Derk-ra had not saved him. That was one quirk of his Match that had taken time to grow accustomed to. The creature had "escaped" the night before Roth's death, and never retrieved, for obvious reasons.

Naftis shoved the memory of Roth away ruthlessly. If he dwelt on it too long, the restless keening would rise again and only make him miserable with longing. He fingered the different objects, plastering a smile on his face when the owners came closer. Sometimes, he would haggle over a price. It was expected, even if he had no intention of actually buying anything. More importantly, he gained news.

The Hybrid threat had not diminished. They had grown stronger with help from the Eloin, though the Eloin king and his lords denied it. But the appearance of broadswords, shields, and warhorses in the Hybrid ranks could not have come from any other source. More unnerving than that was the rise of both Hybrid and Eloin in Crossroads. The trading town had been founded where several boundaries crossed, as a neutral town, but it held great importance for most T'Ollo. They all knew the risk.

The provinces relied on the Aquila port at Crossroads to import and export food. Without Crossroads, Lodear and Settar would starve, and the other two would soon follow.

Naftis left the men gabbing and crossed to the other side of the path. A bard, Guildsman, blacksmith--so many different people passed through Eastar. It was overwhelming. He picked them out easily, as his loquiri training ensured. Each province had its own distincitive fighting style, and its own set of cultural differences. The right knowledge could prevent a fight altogether, which was much safer for both he and his Match.

He clenched his teeth and drove it away again. No matter where he went or what he did, the memory returned. A hand rested on his shoulder. Naftis glanced up. Agar, of course. "Tired?"

Tired of life, of emptiness eternal, of unsatisfied longing---but he only nodded and kept his thoughts to himself. They knew him to be self-destructive, but if he expressed deep depression, they would keep him in the infirmary, or even send him home. He grimaced at that thought. The latter would be worse than anything that could happen to him.

Agar shook his head. "You really should perk up, boy. Stayin' in the dark won't help you none."

He shrugged. Agar sighed. "Here now. Take this." Naftis jerked at the feel of cold metal, and then dashed the hope away. It was only a few silvers.

"Lena wanted some Apollar poppies. Find some, six or seven will do, and then use what's left for some lennara."

Naftis cocked his head. "The wine?"

"Yes, or whatever. I'd rather you drunk than moping around all day." With that, Agar whirled and disappeared among a motley crowd. A blacksmith rubbed shoulders with a Guildsmen and a bard. A faint smile did break free this time. A bard and Guildsmen were sharp opponents at any other time. Though both believed in the Oracles and prophecies, the bard welcomed the arrival of Kyda-El, or Great One, but the Guild did everything they could to discourage and prevent those who might be Kel.

Naftis did not want to think of the Guild. Twice, they had tried to kidnap Roth. It had been Hybrids that got to him first. At least, that's what he had been told. Without evidence, accusing the Guild would get him nowhere.

He found the poppies. Haggling proved to be an enjoyable exercise. With his notice of subtle clues, Naftis worked and snapped and huffed them down to a much lower price than even he had expected. He ended with plenty of money to get lost in a tavern, maybe even a companion as well. If he wanted to, which he didn't. Naftis fingered the silver, cocking his head the clink. He could imagine Agar's reaction if he brought it back untouched, and himself sober. But lennara or a woman would not ease anything.

With a sigh, he tucked it away again. No, not back to Agar yet. But not the tavern either. Some silver to Kyda, who was supposed to bless loquiri in the same ranks as soldiers, might increase his favor. Maybe then he would be given an opportunity to join Roth. The rest might buy a lune, which he would give to the Healer Lena later. At least he could tell Agar he bought something for himself, and keep the soldier satisfied.

Naftis found the Guildsman in a knot of awe-stricken villagers. He displayed various sized lunes on his elaborately decorated table. The sheer drapes of linka fabric fluttered and reflected the quicksilver glow of the glass spheres. How the Guild managed to get the delicate light within the glass, and then keep it perpetually glowing for seven years baffled him. They did not come cheaply either. Four would buy a horse.

Naftis fingered a glass teardrop, this one with a blue-white gleam. The Guildsman sniffed at him, one hand rising in his direction. He didn't stir, though he felt the man's stiff probing. The Guild searched for Kel at every opportunity. Naftis had no fear of them; his Gift did not merit even light interest from them. The probing slid away. The man spoke, his accent the slurring lisp of Lodear. "Ah, you hide your heritage well. These are not what you truly seek, yes?"

Naftis flicked him a glance. The ragged edge of a pair-link broken could be detected with some probing, but it was highly insulting to speak of it aloud. "What would you price these shoddy works?"

The man stiffened. His lip curled slightly. "For you, much more than you have. These I will not waste on one who will not...outlive them."

Naftis glared at him, but a glint in the Guildsmen's eye made him pause. With a sly smirk, he palmed something in one hand and laid in a slanting ray of sun. It shimmered in a manner that hinted at lune, but this was thin, almost a slender line. "What is it?" he said.

The Guildsmen hefted it again. With a twist of his wrist, he whipped the, as Naftis realized, slim blade in the air. "A dys-knife. Dip it in blood and it will bind to you until your death, gleaming when you draw near. Or, dip it in the blood of an enemy and the same begins." The Guildsmen smiled, like a Derk-ra's baring of fangs. "You intend to end your life?"

No use denying it. "Aye."

"But you are barred from it."

A nod.

He grinned. "If I grant you escape, on condition of one favor, would you perform it?"

"It depends."

He stepped closer. "This dys-knife has already been anointed, but I cannot match the strength of the blood it searches for. You could."

"Ah, I see. Me do your dirty work. An assassin."

The Guildsmen shrugged. "Perhaps. But I do not care if you live or die, once you have finished."

Naftis' eyes narrowed. "And why me?"

"Is there a place a loquiri is barred from?"

They both knew the answer to that one. "And if I should say no, and report you?"

"Then..." his gaze turned inward, hooded like a cobra. "...you'll never know the truth."

"What truth?"

"Of Roth's death."

Naftis flinched. "How did...but they said--" He moved forward, fist upraised. The Guildsman did not cringe.

"I do not say the Guild had a part in it."

"Then what do you say?"

"I say that we know more than you, more than you have been told."

Naftis held his gaze, longing for even a whit of Gift strong enough to crack the man's mind. What did he know? How had he known? "You were sent here, looking for me."

A grin curled. "Perhaps. Do you agree?" He held up the dys-knife.

Naftis hesitated, considering. His hand closed over the hilt. "You will tell me what I wish to know?"

"Not I. Seek Gyas of Apollar, where he may be found."

"How will I know him? Is he a Guildsman as you?" Naftis tucked the blade into a sheath on his forearm, one that had not borne a dagger in many months.

A soft smile. "Gyas the White he is also called."

Naftis stared at him. "Gyas the...How does that help me?"

But the Guildsman had turned his back to him. Agar's firm hand found him next. "Where have ya been? I was worried after an hour passed."

Naftis shrugged. "Speaking with him on a lune for Lena."

"Ah." Agar's look at the Guildsman was distrustful. "I would not speak to such as they, unless I had no choice. Come on."

He followed the soldier's broad stride, aware of the gentle tap of the blade on his arm. How could the Guildsman free him? Was this a sign of Kyda's favor? How had he known about Roth?

Naftis did not sleep well that night either, his mind whirling with restless questions.





Reclining, bathed in gentle sunlight, upon clean white sheets within the cool shade of the village healer's home, Jaara scowled.

"I am bandaged," she pointed out, dipping her chin to where her arm rested against her chest in a crisp white sling. Her shoulder, beneath a new, clean white tunic, was nearly twice its normal size, swollen with gauze and poultice. "I have rested. I have eaten the food you gave me." She needed toward a discarded bowl of stew beside the cot. "Now, I must go."

The healer, a strongarmed woman with a matronly face like rising dough, grunted with displeasure. "Yesterday you were half-dead in our graveyard. Last night your sleep was fitful, fevered. This morning I saw you vomit into the bushes when you went to the privy. You have not moved your wounded arm even once. You are not ready to leave. Another day or two, perhaps, but not today."

Grimacing, moving stiffly, Jaara levered herself into an upright position. "You underestimate my strength and determination. I have business to attend to. It cannot wait. I am not yet well, but I am well enough to go, thanks to your aid. Thus, although I thank you for your help, you have no right to keep me here.”

The healer sighed and sat heavily upon the edge of the cot. It rocked beneath her weight with an alarming creak. “Yes, I have no right, it is so. However, you were found with a woman dead at your side. This matter must be settled before you can go, and it is the lawmen, not I, who say you must remain here."

Jaara had the strangest urge to draw her dagger and plunge it viciously into the feather mattress beneath her, but her weapons were under her bed with her scant other belongings. Biting off each word, she snapped, "Send a message to your lawmen, then. The woman you found me with was called Mern. She is not one of yours, but a Loquiri from Eastar. I did not murder her, but executed her for the crime of murdering Dasik, who was my Loquiri and husband. I intend to travel to Eastar to notify my husband's parents of his murder, and bring Mern's corpse to her family for burial. I will not be detained."

The healer had a spine of steel too. "I will approve of your leave-taking from this infirmary, then, if you can deliver this message yourself to the lawmen. I will not have any patient of mine wandering off into the desert if she cannot walk across the village on her own two feet."

Jaara was already stripping back the sheets in a crisp, businesslike fashion. "Leave me, then, so that I might get dressed to speak with your lawmen."

*~*~*


An hour and a half later Jaara stood, trembling but upright, before a horse lent to her by the healer herself. Her Derk-ra stood beside her, impatient to leave. The gash on its snout had been tended with some kind of foul smelling salve, but the beast did not seem to mind; it trotted around the gelding's legs, nipping at his tail playfully, and earning nothing but a swish of long hair in its direction for its trouble. Behind Jaara's horse, Mern's mount---or rather Mern's corpse's mount---shifted uneasily, but tied as she was to Jaara's saddle, the mare could not flee.

“Two days and you will be in Eastar,” the healer said, helping boost Jaara into the saddle.

Injured limb cradled in its sling before her, Jaara glanced down at the other woman. “I know,” she said tersely. Then, gentler—“Thank you.”

The healer bowed her head in acknowledgment. “You’re welcome. Heal well, and… I’m sorry for your loss.”

Jaara did not say anything to that, merely swallowed hard, nodded curtly, and kicked the gelding into a lope.

*~*~*


Another horse thundered behind her a mere five minutes later, raising dust and mud alike on the oasis road. Cursing under her breath, Jaara knee-reined the gelding so that she could look behind her, and saw a tall, slight young woman with flowing chestnut hair.

“What?” Jaara demanded impatiently.

“I’m coming with you,” the other woman declared, fixing Jaara with an intrigued apple-green stare. Jaara’s Derk-ra hissed at the newcomers, but beyond sidestepping out of his way, neither horse nor rider paid the lizard any mind.

“I don’t need a keeper,” Jaara growled.

A short, bell-like laugh. “I’m not a keeper. There’s a song in you. I’d like to bring it out… if you’ll permit.”

Jaara spit mud on the beaten path. “I don’t have time for a bard’s antics.”

“I won’t get in your way or hold you back. I just want to watch. And write.”

Jaara turned her horse back to the road. “Fine,” she tossed over her shoulder. “Just don’t get in my way.”

*~*~*


Jaara would have pressed onwards through the night, but Caylia persuaded her to rest. “Your message will not arrive on time at all if you pass out from exhaustion and hurt yourself further. And my song will not be very interesting if it consists entirely of you laying about unconscious.”

It was not so much Caylia’s silver bard’s tongue that convinced Jaara, but the rising wave of nausea that had been coming upon her, on and off, all day long. Dismounting, she paused to gag into a scrub bush, but her stomach was empty and nothing came up. Grimacing, she spit the acrid taste from her mouth.

“Yes,” she agreed hoarsely, dragging her pack off the gelding with her good arm. “We may rest.”

“Supper,” Caylia said, pulling a small pot from her saddle. “I’ve rations… not much but—“

Jaara dropped her pack to the ground and returned to her horse to grab her bedroll. “I’m not hungry.” The very idea of food made bile rise in her throat. "I won't stop you, however."

“You need to eat.”

Jaara hesitated. Perhaps she did need a keeper; she was behaving irrationally and she knew it. “Fine,” she said reluctantly. Her lip quirked a tiny bit. “If it tastes good.” Some part of her doubted it would. Bards were not often known for their culinary skills, spending far more time on writing artistic recipes than actually cooking them.

Caylia glanced down at the pan in her hand, then at Jaara. The other woman was gathering small twigs for a fire from the sparse, dry foliage. “You shouldn’t….” she sighed. Jaara glanced over her shoulder, a handful of sage in hand and eyebrow raised. “Never mind.”

*~*~*


Caylia has humming a tune in the thin midday air. Jaara grimaced and reeled in the saddle, feeling the sun and the notes beat down upon her mercilessly. It wasn't that Caylia was a bad musician; quite the opposite, in fact. However, she was a rehearsing musician, and kept pounding the same notes over and over, only altering her drill by changing keys here or there, muttering a few snatches of lyrics, or experimentally changing a note or two. The constant music, combined with the heat and the growing stench of Mern's body, assailed the injured woman's senses.

Jaara leaned over in the saddle, coughing up the meager contents of her stomach into a nearby bush as a wave of misery washed over her. Caylia's song faltered, stopped, and then Jaara heard the other woman's horse approaching.

"You are not well," the bard's clear voice said.

Jaara straightened, uninjured hand rising to touch her forehead lightly. The desert was like a furnace at this time of day, but her skin felt cool and clammy to the touch. "Thank you for stating the bloody obvious," she murmured. At least she was not feverish.

"You need rest," Caylia insisted. "We are but five hours from Eastar. Surely you can spare an hour or two to rest. I can pitch my tent for shade, and we've plenty of water..."

Jaara was not listening to any of that. "Five hours, you say?" she asked. Yanking her waterskin from her belt, she swished a small mouthful, then spit it out upon the sand before swallowing a long pull.

Caylia's emerald eyes were wide and concerned. "I.... yes..."

Jaara wiped her mouth determinedly. "Let's go."

The bard sighed heavily. "Well, I would have liked the rest, at least," she muttered under her breath.

*~*~*


Draped over her gelding's neck and drowsing fitfully, Jaara followed Caylia into Eastar.

"We're here," the bard whispered, nudging Jaara gently. The other woman peeled bloodshot eyes open and gazed about listlessly. They had just passed the outer wall of an Eastar town. Dusk had fallen perhaps an hour before, and the lamps were lit. Caylia, however, had been navigating the way by the stars; Jaara was impressed.

"Here?" Jaara said dismally, sitting up. She felt shaky and nauseous, and the stench of the body being dragged behind her made the gorge rise in her throat. Her shoulder burned sharply and throbbed in time with her heartbeat.

Caylia's eyes flickered over her worriedly. "Yes. Your... your husband's hometown," she said, having heard some of Jaara's story during the ride.

Grey eyes, almost black in the growing darkness, narrowed. "Mern's, too." She flicked a glance behind her at the corpse, then wavered in the saddle and threw up.

Caylia grasped the other woman's reins in one hand. "Healer, first, then you can see to your business."

Jaara wrenched the reins back, eyes flashing. "I will bear this news to my marriage-kin, first, then deliver Mern, then, if I feel so inclined, see the healer."

"But---"

"Don't try me, bard!" the smaller woman snarled, voice nearly breaking. "Dasik's mother and father must know. This cannot wait. His little brother... oh god." She twisted the reins sharply to the right, bitting back a sob. Her Derk-ra, weary though it was from long walking, hissed softly at Caylia and followed.

Torn between anger and compassion, the bard stood on the spot for a moment, then remembering her song, turned to follow as well, making sure to stay upwind of Mern's corpse.

*~*~*


Dasik's family home was anything but modest. More estate than house, the villa was bounded by green-barked desert trees and decorative boulders. Two servants bent over the well at the rear of the property, lifting a heavy bucket of water from deep within the dry earth. They started when the three horses entered the gates, hooves clattering on the cobblestones.

"May we help you?" one of them, a waifish twig of a girl with a strong and authoritative voice, asked. Her companion held the bucket in two arms, not seeming to care that the dampness upon the wood soaked the fabric of her tunic. It was night, but the night was warm, and the water was surely refreshingly cool.

“Yes,” Jaara said, slipping from the saddle stiffly and clinging for a moment to the side of the strong beast. “Our horses and my Derk-ra are in need of water. Also, there is a body, here, that needs to be delivered tonight to the Kirea residence. I will take it myself, but if you could load it onto a cart for me, and send to the flower shop for funerary flowers, that… I…” She swayed.

“Come,” Caylia said, dismounting and grasping the shorter woman by the elbow. “They will see to it. Let’s get you before your marriage-kin.”

*~*~*


Dasik’s mother, Nevi, was a slight, fragile looking woman, aged already by the untimely death of one child. Yeif, at least, had been ill; her death was tragic, but not unexpected. Dasik though…. Jaara could not bear to etch another line of sorrow on Nevi’s forehead.

“Jaara, dear!” Nevi said, pleasantly surprised for a moment, then rapidly concerned. “You’re hurt! What happened?” She pressed outside, cradling Jaara’s face between her hands for a moment, then reaching down with a feather light touch to her shoulder.

Jaara had intended to deliver her ill news as calmly as possible, to be strong for Nevi rather than burden the woman with her sorrow. But the moment she found herself held in her marriage-mother’s gentle and compassionate embrace, her resolve crumbled into desperate, bitter tears, and she collapsed, sobbing, at Nevi’s feet.

Her marriage-mother knew. Jaara did not have to tell Nevi anything; her tears said it all. For a moment, Nevi’s hands lifted from Jaara. “Oh… oh god,” she choked. Then she was gathering the younger woman in her arms, calling over her shoulder for her husband, stroking Jaara’s hair and soothing her like a child until Masu came.

The younger woman was done. Exhausted, dehydrated, weak and grieving, she had no strength or will left in her limbs. Nevi didn’t seem to expect it; with a soft whisper she instructed her husband to lift Jaara. The young woman felt strong arms surround and bear her away, and she clung to her marriage-father’s chest and wept and wept and wept.

Caylia, hovering uncomfortably behind, followed on the heels of the mourners, her clear voice saying something about water and a healer during the commotion. Jaara was laid upon the ottoman with a blanket wrapped about her while Masu went to fetch a cart and give instructions to the servingwomen to deliver Mern’s corpse to her family.

Meanwhile, Nevi knelt at her marriage-daughter’s side, coaxing her to drink a few sips of water and carefully freeing her arm from its sling. Seeing the injury, she tsked but did not touch the wound.

Jaara, sipping at the ladle of water she was offered, began to feel a little better and sat up, still sobbing but more softly now. Through her tears she saw Caylia standing beside the small fountain in the entryway, cooling her hands in the small trickle of water and dabbing some of the moisture onto her forehead. Glancing at Nevi, she saw that her marriage-mother too had tears streaming down her face. The two women said nothing, merely sitting squeezing hands until Masu returned.

“Thank you for bringing her,” Nevi told the Caylia as Masu helped Jaara onto the cart.

“I did not bring her,” Caylia said. “She brought me.”

Masu blinked in confusion, but did not question her. “We will take her to the healer, now. She needs rest. But you are more than welcome to stay with us.”
She watched as the water trickled through her hands, caught the light and then gone, disappeared somewhere beneath her feet. Is it recycled? Do they have an underground canal here like we do in Settar? But it was gone and her eyes found the face belonging to the fingers that touched her arm.

“She is doing better,” the healer said. Her eyes were blue. The desert doesn’t like blue except in its sky. She is from far away then if her eyes betray her such, as many are in this strange city. The tales are almost so mixed her they buzz. I can almost reach out and touch them. There’s so much more here than I have found in all the books in the home of the Uhl or in all the land of Settar.

Caylia nodded. “Good. She rode hard, stubborn.” She was still trying to fit those qualities into a tune on her strings. Ru had laughed at first when she said she was leaving. She had never left Settar, she would never survive. The stranger would eat her voice and take her name. Maybe that was true, but if she didn’t go the memory would eat her soul, and even if the stranger ate her voice, oh what a tale that would make and her harp would sing her tale. Already she had found a new melody tuned to her harp that saw through the layers in the other’s voice. “I will tell her marriage-kin, don’t worry,” she said to the blue eyed healer. “Is she staying put this time?”

“For the time being. She is barely awake.”

“Good.” And how long would that last? She had run away from the best healers in the schools of scholars in Settar, would she run away again? No, not from her kin.

They had been kind to her, welcoming her into their home among sweet scents of cooking, tinged with scents of sorrow. She had helped where she could, trying to stay out of the way and out of their grief. They spoke with their lips and their eyes of a lost son, the daughter near death and Caylia, stirring a bit of dried saffron from her stores from Settar into a soup, said nothing. After dinner she played a dirge, crying a song with the strings and bringing comfort she heard in the boiling of a pot, a cry of greeting, the warmth and friendliness of a home. The next day she told them she would bring them news of Jaara.

Out of the healers and into the sun she stepped and was blinded for a moment. She found her vision again by the red sand at her feet, doused in sunlight. In her home, the walls of the buildings were built high to trap cold air and give the rest of them shadow from the worst of the sun. Here was not the case. Some buildings were tall, some were short, some where squat and around her people spoke or shouted in foreign tongues. Ru would marvel at the blankness of these walls, and Mara would be astounded by the activity…it is as if this place buzzes… She had caught a glimpse of another bard, as they were called here, but disappeared before she could catch more than a glimpse. She doubted she would know him. Most from her school stayed in Settar, reading and singing, or if they went beyond it was to the courts of the rich where they were highly valued for the music makers of Settar were worth their weight in gold.

She shouldered her way through a market place and paused by an olive seller in the shadow of an awning. Suddenly her skin prickled and she found herself being sized up by a large man with salt and pepper hair, close cropped to a weather worn face. She eyed him back, wondering where the malice came from in his deep set eyes and then with a lip curl he was gone. She released a breath she didn’t know she had been holding and left the olive seller’s to find her way back to the home of the marriage kin.

“That was a Guildsman,” Nevi said, a questioning look in her eyes. “Didn’t you know?” Caylia shook her head as she sliced some green plant that oozed white juices. “Be careful of them then.”

Hamen crossed his arms in frustration. Always with the haggling

"Look, I don't care what you think it's worth, I'm telling you I simply haven't the heart to part with such a fine-bred Derk-ra for such a pitiful sum as you have offered, dear friend. Perhaps I can go a few coppers lower for him, but certainly no more."

Hamen gritted his teeth at that and jerked out his hand, one of his daggers held in it comfortably to lift the Derk-ra in question's lip to show the teeth beneath before the snivelling merchant could make another insultingly high offer. "This Derk-ra was not finely bred, and may have even been inbred from the looks of it. Her teeth are dull and discolored, her scales scratchy rather than smooth, and her tail was cut short recently, likely in a fight over food in a breeding pen. Perhaps next time it may be useful to be certain of the sex of your wares, at least, before you try to trick someone into paying you so much more than you should ever be able to get from anyone with any real knowledge of the subject."

The merchant stuttered and sputtered while Hamen leaned in close to the obviously-mistreated animal, offering it a single treat from his pocket. She licked at it, then grabbed the morsel tentatively in her jaws from the scarred and worn hand. Hamen silently cursed whoever it was who'd raised this poor creature to make it so afraid of honest kindness. May your next offering to Kyda flow until you do not!

He straightened, slightly shorter than the merchant at only five and a half feet, but his eyes made the man cower. "Take care who you offer such a neglected creature to. If I weren't certain you could not have raised it yourself I would be likely to do you ill for such cruelty."

He turned, the cloth wrapped around his shoulders flying out behind him in his haste to put the distasteful scene behind him. He'd seen just about enough of Eastar. No one who had any real appreciation for a well-trained Derk-ra needed one or was willing to pay for the training. Hamen shook his head slowly back and forth. His own Derk-ra had gotten killed his first night in Eastar, waking him before a trio of thugs made off with his purse. He wished he hadn't trained poor Nima so well. If she'd been a little more careless they'd have taken his purse and not felt any need to draw blades, but few cared to deal with an enraged Derk-ra bare-handed, and fewer still a well-trained one.

He kept his hood close, hiding his unusual platinum hair from view. He'd yet to be recognized by someone he cared to talk to based on his hair. He stopped as he passed the healer's home, cutting his finger and letting a single drop of blood fall to the ground in silent blessing. He continued on past the abode towards the inn where he was lodging. He wouldn't remain here much longer. He was good at what he did, but there were very few who were willing to pay for his services in this place, and of those that did, he had no interest in training Derk-ra specifically for fighting. He found the very suggestion insulting.

A figure crossed his path farther ahead. Nice hair. Hamen's eyes narrowed a moment later when a man appeared from the same direction. He was being fairly inconspicuous, but the woman was moving fast enough that he was having to be a little too obvious in following her. And he is a guildsman, clearly. This is why I need a job. Money's fine, but if I keep running out of excuses to be curious I'm going to get myself killed one of these days. Probably just a suspicious husband given the way that girl looks.

Nevertheless, with nothing else to do or distract himself with, Hamen couldn't help but smile and squeeze his staff as he started to push through the crowd, with considerably more sublety than the man he was following, he was pleased to note. If it was a suspicious husband, it would at least be worth a laugh and a story at the inn, and if it was something else, it would still be worth the same, and perhaps a bit more in the bargain.

He trailed the guildsman back towards a -very- nice home, managing to catch the woman knocking and entering on the edge of his sight. The man he'd been following paused and remained where he was, decently well-hidden for a city man. Hamen just leaned on his staff and waited. He'd leave when he got hungry, but until then he saw no reason to rush anywhere for anything. His green eyes watched patiently, ready to step in if anything got too heated. Jealous husband or no, it wouldn't do to have him strike his wife even if she was unfaithful, and Hamen was beginning to be more and more sure that this was something else entirely more interesting.
A Non-Existent User
Name: Kharme

Age: 27

Appearance: She stands at 5'8", and is very slender. Her hair and eyes are dark, contrasting sharply with ivory colored skin. Her feet are the only rough part of her, since she usually walks barefoot.

Province: Lodear

Personality: She has a quiet and gentle temperament fitting to nobility. There is a strong stubborn streak in her, but the worst she has ever done was run away, only to be dragged back home. She is only obedient to her mother and the cook, who treat her as more than property. Her father, however, is another story...

Special skills/Misc: There are few that know she is an experienced fighter, as she tries to avoid violence. She has a strong connection to other beings, and can often use the Gift to bend them unknowingly to her will.
Naftis patted the gray's broad neck, quieting the welcoming snort before it rose. Clucking low in his throat, he led the horse from stall to stable, and finally out in the cool night. Since his encounter with the Guildsman, two other men had approached him, bearing tokens of the Guild and providing him with everything he asked for, within reason.

Blacker than Eyrie's dungeons, the sky arched above, speckled wtih a faint dusting of stars. One pale crescent hovered at the edge of the horizon. Two-moon rise would not be for several more hours, and by then, he planned to be long gone. The Healer would not miss him until morning, most likely, not with the new patient demanding most of her attention.

He fingered the saddlebags draped across the gelding's back.Crossing the vast desert took careful preparation. Roth and he had done it several times, not always with an honor guard. One loquiri was worth five men anyway, if you believed the stories. Besides flint and steel, some sheaves of tight-bound buffelgrass, and a few pots for cooking, the packs carried food and water, mostly the latter.

Naftis cocked his head. A rustle? The Gift, like a warm sun at his shoulder, flared, but out of reach for him. Without Roth's help, he could only manage to calm a panicked horse or light a small fire, nothing more. Growing up in Eastar had its advantages, however.

Sliding into the saddle, he neck-reined the gray to the west. The Twins, two Y-shaped constellations, sat in the crook of the Telf Peaks. Around them, the rough outlines of the Rim's snow-capped jaw curled to either side. The horsehoe shaped mountain range protected those in the desert from the vicious Eloin on the other side. A narrow pass, Dike's Folly as it was nicknamed, was the only route from the desert into the Findor plains.

Naftis nudged the gray's ribs. At the foot of the Telf Peaks, a sprawling trading town, Crossroads, sat at the far western end of Eastar. With a thriving Aquila port on the seacoast, it catered to every race willing to travel the distance. If a man wished to hide for a time, Crossorads was the place to be.

He had enough supplies to make it to Crossroads. From there, he could either trace this Gyas, or purchase more supplies and cross into Apolla, a scant four days journey from Crossroads. Either way, he would be far from the reach of the Healer, or his loquiri clan.

Again. The soft rustle, like feet whispering over sand. Naftis paused. The gray's ears flicked back. Behind? He slid the dagger from its sheath, but held it low at his side. Moonlight would glint on friend and foe's blade alike. An odd sound, like the jangle of strings, made Naftis cock his head.

A dark shadow crept away from the barn, one arm clutched close, while the other led a horse. A second one soon joined the first. The arching curve above its back suggested a harp. A lord and his bard perhaps? Why would they be sneaking out at night, and from under the Healer's care at that?

Naftis backed the gray farther into the shadows. Either way, he had no desire to meddle wtih politics or another's business. Freedom's siren call was much too strong to dabble wtih anything else. A hiss made him stiffen. He wheeled the gray about.

The sinous motion of a Derk-ra met his gaze, stalking close to him. It crouched, the thin gold band in the crest shining in the pale light. An owned Derk-ra. One of those two fugitives must own this proud beast.

It bared its fangs, snarling again, a low warning rumbling deep in its throat. A gash across its snout had nearly healed, but the pale white scar would never disappear.Naftis tightened his hold on the reins. No horse liked the beasts much, unless trained for it, and the gray was not.

The gelding tossed its head, stamping a foot in the soft sand. Sides trembling, the gray yanked on the bit, ears flattening against its head. If the gelding were to bolt, his chances of evading pursuit were zero. He whispered soothingly at the gelding, patting the sweaty flanks.

The Derk-ra snarled again, sniffing the air. Naftis continued to back slowly away. His pair-link, even broken, irritated the creature. Roth's Derk-ra had taken to nipping him when he passed. A crouch, a whistling hiss, and then the Derk-ra launched into the air.

Naftis kicked the gray forward, whirling away from the talons shearing the air. The Derk-ra loped after him. The gray danced away from the advancing lizard. The two circled each other, the Derk-ra mindful of the gelding's hooves. Naftis sawed on the reins, whispering hoarsely, "Call it off. Call the bloody thing off!"

To his surprise, a woman's voice answered him. "Khyr. Down."

The Derk-ra dropped to its belly, still snarling in his direction. He glanced at the woman, ducking his head to keep his features in the shadow of his cloak. "Thanks."

She shrugged crookedly. One arm was still in a sling. The Healer's new patient? Naftis studied her from the safety of his hood. Why would she be out in the middle of the night? Some nobles could be stubborn when it came to waiting for bones to knit, but those were rawboned, big men with more brawn than brain. Why would she flee? And in the company of a bard, also a woman. Two women, one wounded, traveling the desert in the midst of the night? Madness. Pure madness.

He nudged his horse to the south. If questioned, they would not know his true direction. A hand grabbed his horse's bridle. Long fingers. The bard. "Why do your kind lurk about in shadows, following women to their homes?"

Naftis started, staring at her. The emphasis on "your kind" he had not missed, but he looked nothing like a loquiri. Besides, what loquiri would harass a women?

"You must be mistaken."

"Then why hide your face? Afraid I will know you from this afternoon? Leave us be."

Naftis stared at her. Worry and confusion gnawed in his gut. "Whose kind do you think I am?"

"I do not have to guess." She gestured at the gray's flank. The brand, four intersecting triangles, was also the sigil for the Guild. A Guildsman. She thought he was a Guildsman. But what would the Guild want with a bard, save to mock?

The other woman stepped closer, resting her free hand on the bard's shoulder. "Caylia, we must go." She glanced at him, dark eyes narrowing. "Do you bar our way?"

The warning note in her tone sent her Derk-ra to its feet. Curiousity spurred his lips. "Do you intend to travel alone?"

"What is it to you?"

"It is not safe. You are not from Eastar, as I can see. The desert here is unforgiving, especially if you are wounded." He gestured at her arm. "Why leave the Healer's home?"

"I answer no questions from a man whose name and face I do not know, and hides them as some criminal."

Naftis hesitated. "And what of yours? Perhaps you are a fleeing murderer?"

She flinched, but didn't respond to the taunt. The bard broke the impasse. "I am Caylia of Settar. This is Jaara of Apollar."

Naftis slid the hood free, shifting so the moonlight illuminated most of his face. "Naftis of Eastar. And I repeat my question. Why leave the Healer's home before you are healed, Jaara? Apollar is a long way from here."
Jaara’s frown deepened into a scowl. “I am hardly answerable to you, but if you insit upon knowing every miniscule detail of my business, then I will tell you,” she told him sharply. “I am not going to Apollar; I am returning to the house of my marriage-father, so that I may mourn the death of my husband and loquiri with kin, as is proper, rather than upon a healer’s pillow. Now have you other questions to ask me, or might I get on with my day? Answer quickly, Naftis of Eastar, for as you so aptly pointed out, I am not well and would prefer not to stand about in the street any longer than necessary.” She was shaking almost imperceptibly with fatigue, and her mood was darkening by the second.

The stranger, so calm and cool a moment before, seemed stricken. “I’m sorry,” he told her awkwardly, then amended, “I’m sorry for your loss.” His gaze darted back and forth between the two women. “I don’t like to pry, but Lena would skin me alive were she to discover that I saw one of her patients sneak out and didn’t at least try to reason with you.”

“I am quite reasonable, let me assure, you,” Jaara informed him coldly, but gray-faced and trembling above her white sling, she did not seem particularly convincing. Caylia snorted and then signed a moment later, and Naftis opened his mouth to retort, but Jaara cut him off before he could utter the words on his lips. “Now good day. If you wish to follow to be sure no assassins set upon us during our walk, you’re free to do so, but do not stand in our way any longer, and once you have reassured yourself that we are safe, you must leave us.”

“Lena will---”

Caylia jumped in before Jaara’s angry, flashing eyes could be echoed in her words. “You may tell the good healer what you witnessed and assure her that you tried to stop us to no avail.” Her eyes slid wryly toward Jaara, who would have crossed her arms if she’d had the freedom of motion to do so. “I’m sure she knows well enough already how stubborn her patient is, and surely she will not fault you. She may even commend you for accompanying us home. If you would be so kind, will you tell her that she may call upon Jaara’s kin later today to do whatever her craft and Jaara’s health demand?”

“Am I now a messenger boy?” Naftis snapped, but there was a strange light of panic and embarrassment in his eyes.

Jaara’s eyes were narrowed into two thin, honey colored slits. “You are already a self-appointed spy and bodyguard,” she said with a sardonic smirk. “Is it really such a terrible burden to play the messenger as well?”

Naftis’s tensed and his hands clenched into fists. “I was only trying to see to your welfare, ungrateful woman! But if you don’t want my assistance, then I will gladly be on my way!”

“Excellent,” Jaara started to retort, but Caylia stepped forward a bit so that she stood firmly between the quarreling noble and loquiri. Gently, she placed a hand on his arm to stop him as he began to turn his gelding to leave. “No, please, do not take her words to heart, Naftis! You must understand, she is ill and grieving. I myself would most assuredly welcome your vigilance as we walk home. If the way is as dangerous as you imply, well… Jaara cannot even hold a sword right now, let alone swing one. I, at least, will be comforted by your presence. And I’m sure” --- she cast an exasperated glance over her shoulder at the other woman --- “Jaara will as well, once she stops to think about the matter with a cool head.”

Jaara’s eyes were narrowed in the direction of her companion by the time Caylia had finished having her say. As soon as the bard’s lips closed, Jaara’s opened to say something sharp and unpleasant, but Caylia silenced her with a look of sheer aggravation Jaara’d never seen from the pretty, optimistic girl. The bard would have grasped the injured woman by the arm then to haul her toward her marriage-father’s house, but a glance into Jaara’s exhausted and pain-lined face stayed her hand. Instead, she simply nodded down the road. “Shall we, then?”

For once, Jaara did not argue. She was too tired, and longed only for the warmth of her bed at Nevi’s estate. Nodding, she turned to face the dust of the road.

The small group set out. By cart, the journey from the estate to the healer’s had been half an hour’s journey, but on foot, slowed to a pace Jaara could stomach, the walk was twice as long. Naftis kept a respectful distance behind the two women, leading his gelding by the reins for a time, then offering the horse---almost as an afterthought---to Jaara when she began to falter. The woman refused once, then accepted a few moments later. She was stubborn, but hardly an idiot.

In the steel grayness of the early morning, nobody set upon them to rob them of their scant belongings or attempt to take their lives. Indeed, there was nobody around even to look upon them oddly, although Naftis glanced over his shoulder so often that even Caylia began to become uncomfortable.

“It is almost as though you expect someone to round the dunes,” the bard pointed out, a note of fear in her voice.

Naftis did not look at them when he answered, and there was a cryptic note in his voice. “Yes, well, Lena does not take well to the leavetaking of her patients, and is well known for coming after them and bringing them back to her home and into her care.”

Jaara may not have been paying attention enough to understand the meaning of what he said, but Caylia was a sharp woman, and raised an eyebrow. “Are you then also a patient in Lena’s care?”

“No,” Naftis said, pulling the hood up about his face to hide his features from the slowly rising sun.

They said no more on the matter, nor anything at all really, until they had arrived by the well at the edge of Jaara’s marriage-father’s estate. This time no serving women rushed to greet them, for the morning chores had already been completed hours before while the sun was still not yet in the sky. Jaara dismounted stiffly, cradling her arm despite the sling the moment her feet touched the ground, and released the injured limb only to hand the reins to Naftis with a quiet, stern, “Thank you.”

She clearly expected him to go away then, but he merely nodded to acknowledge her gratitude and led his horse toward the house proper, and feeling very strange about the notion of being led by a stranger to her own marriage-father’s house, Jaara frowned in displeasure and followed.

Caylia seemed especially nervous now, and kept glancing back and forth between the noble and the loquiri as though she expected one to strike the other at any moment. But Jaara actually help her peace for once, and once Nevi had opened the door to greet the trio of youngsters, she was momentarily too distracted with hellos and cries of “You should not be out of bed” to even notice Naftis, let alone be annoyed about his presence.

Then, as Nevi stepped aside so that Jaara could follow her marriage-father Masu into the coolness of the house, Nevi smiled at Naftis. “I thank you for seeing to the safety of my marriage-daughter and her companion, although I wish you could have convinced her to stay put at the healer’s. Truly, I do. Would you come inside and have a bite to eat and some water?”

Jaara froze with a silent groan, and allowing Masu to continue down the hall without her for a moment, she fixed Naftis with a dark glower from behind Nevi’s shoulder. The young man seemed positively uncomfortable all of a sudden, like he wanted nothing so much as to leave, but Nevi would not be denied. The older woman’s wide, though sad smile and some gentle words coaxed the young loquiri inside to accept her hospitality.
“Only two kinds of creatures stalk at night,” she told Rue one night, a book open on her lap as she studied for a testing. Rue frowning at a chunk of marble, responded half-heartedly.

“Calligraphers and music makers?”

“Hunters and the hunted.”

That night, so long ago, now echoed back, seemingly half a lifetime ago as she watched the two in the house. It had been in a legend about two kings, one with a crown of iron, another with a crown of wood who lived hills facing each other across a gorge of rushing water. One left and one came and when the sun rose only one king remained.
She and Jaara were hunted, sneaking away from the healers in the middle of the night with no ill in mind. And this other? A hunted as well. The look in his eyes, the slant of his shoulders, he was harmless but running from what she couldn’t tell. She looked back at him as Masu ushered him in, scared, awkward as if he was unsure of what to expect. It’s as if he’s some creature…some scared and lost creature. Lost. That’s it. She fingered a string, found a note, plucked it. What tale does he hide? I’ve only read about loquiri. But he was lost among arms and drinks and she knew she would find him later. Until then Masu would take care of that look, and take care of him. Jaara’s marriage kin’s temper did not match their marriage-daughter’s.

Masu looked back at her and she shook her head. If they were the hunted, then where was the hunter, stalking the night not running away.


She had seen it. A slip of a shadow here, the spark of starlight on metal beneath the watchful eye of the moon. They were being followed, but the last thing she needed was the headstrong woman to die in a new fight when she had barely healed from the first. That wasn’t the way her story ended. Slowly she shifted her harp from her shoulder to her hands and drew from her gift strands of peace and calm. Artfully she wove them into her strings and began to pluck. Slowly she gathered pieces of the wind, of the dark, of the moonlight until it blended seamlessly with the evening. A simple melody, a complex melody that touched and rode with the wind.

We are the poets, the storytellers, linking us all to the words of our ancestors, the worlds of the past and the worlds long forgotten except by us…and even sometime by us. We forget these words, we forget ourselves.

Play me a song Caylia. Where did you find that one? Beneath a Fillion tree?
The music is all around you. Listen and take from it what you need.
Where do you go to find them.
Here, there, everywhere.


Her fingers hesitated on a string, choosing a new one. A small stab of fear touched her belly, and she noted it, savored it for a moment, then spoke. “Come out. I know you’re there.” Her breath misted under the cold stars and shadow spilled onto pavement. “Is this what they do in the city? Hide behind fig trees?”

“I suppose it’s just as common for people to run from healers in the middle of the night. You can’t begrudge me a hint of curiosity.”

“Not me, but the woman who is in this house would split your throat in an instant and wouldn’t mind coloring the sand with your blood.” He wasn’t dangerous, she could tell that now, and adjusted the tune on her harp.

He shifted, staff he carried tapping the ground. “Do you live here?”

She shrugged. “No, but you should make yourself known to those who do. I do not think trespassing is the polite thing to do.” Masu would be kind, Jaara would be angry. Another person to know of her escape, and one more set of peace making. She was already tired from the first and was grateful that Masu now stood between the loquiri and her living tale. “Why were you following us?”

“Curiosity. One thing followed another. I saw you and a guildsman in the square, and followed from there.” She only nodded, remembering the man who had disappeared in her memory as quickly as he had into the crowd. A nervous silence followed another only broken by a few low notes. He shifted, face lost in the shadows of his cloak. “I mean no harm to any of you, and I was afraid harm would come. What happened to her? And why does she want to leave?”

A question, an answer she had and her fingers itched to find the tune. Now, however, it wasn’t hers to play. “Ask yourself, but I do not know how kindly these people take to strangers.” If he followed, I wonder if anyone else did too… Fear for a moment stabbed her a second time and she let it go as she unfolded herself to stand and rap on the door. She would have to mention something to Jaara.

Hamen stood as he was while she rose, keeping himself relaxed and at ease. No reason to introduce myself if she's willing to do it for me.

He turned to glance back out over his shoulder. The guildsman had gone, but he doubted that the Guild itself was finished with this woman and her companion. His voice was a whisper as he thought to himself, "But which one was he following?"

He didn't see any change at all in the bard. No tightening of her shoulders, no shift or hesitation in her stride or her hand's movement towards the door was visible. He couldn't help frowning though. If she heard me approaching, she heard that. Damn. Now she'll be worried and trust me even less. This could get even more awkward.

Even as he had the thought, his smile widened. Of course, that would be very interesting, wouldn't it?

His smile only widened still more at the realization of how insane that thought was. Her firm knock, though still somehow... soft... almost as musical as her voice, snapped his face back to normal and mind back to the present.

He didn't slouch, but kept himself from being tense. The last thing a stranger in the night needed was to actually -look- like he was lurking. The one who answered the door was a servant, and aware enough for Hamen to be certain that he'd been awake and near the door already. He nodded in approval as the servant went away into the home for someone else after a word with the woman he'd spoken to. The bard turned back to him but offered nothing while they waited. "You're a very patient person, aren't you?"

She raised an eyebrow at the words. "I am in comparison to many people, though not at all compared to some. How do you mean that?"

"Well for starters, you haven't asked for my name. Most people would ask immediately, 'Who are you' on being approached by a stranger in the night, even on armed only with a staff. Perhaps especially with only a staff if they thought it meant he was desperate."

She shook her head. "You're too well-groomed to be that desperate, and I am less concerned with your name than with your purpose when you approach me in the dark. Your name will come on its own, without any help from me."

A nod was all he had time for before the door opened again and a woman wearing a sling stepped out, trying not to look like she was tired and succeeding inasmuch as she wasn't leaning on anything. The bard sighed almost inaudibly. "I asked the servant to fetch Nevi. You need your sleep, and I have a healer's word backing up the assertion now."

The newcomer didn't bother responding to the woman's words. "Who is this?"

Hamen tilted his head in her direction, leaning his staff to one side as he did in respect. "I am Hamen, trainer of Derk-Ra and curious insomniac, and I apologize if my presence has disturbed your healing. I had no intention of bringing any distress with me."

The injured woman's tone wasn't quite so polite. "Well then perhaps you should have come at a decent hour Hamen, trainer of Derk-Ra."

The man's smile didn't waver, but his eyebrow raised slightly. "I am sorry then. I can take my leave of this house if you wish, I truly do not have any truly urgent business of my own to conduct here."

The bard's voice cut in before Hamen could have that suggestion explained to him. "Jaara, would it not be simple manners to offer this man a bed for the night, as late as it is? Even if just with the servants?" She turned to face the man more fully. "I am Caylia, and I am confident that one with so little malicious intent as yourself would be more than welcome to stay by Nevi or Masu, though I daresay they are going to start getting curious as to what trick the gods must be playing to gather so many at their home."

Hamen waited for Jaara to respond first, which she did with a slight huff after a moment. "They would say that, most likely. Fine, but this one better be at -least- as well behaved as the other visitor we've got right now."

The man only bowed in place, though his mind whirled at the new question.

And is this other visitor also here because of the Guild?
A Non-Existent User
Kharme backed away from the door, fear spreading through her like veins of ice. The man was still reclined in his chair with a smug smile, knowing full well that he had just destroyed her happiness.

Of course, she should have seen it coming. Her father had always had his eye on the duke, hoping to secure a position for himself the only way he knew how.

Arranged marriage.

The words left a bitter taste in her mouth. Perhaps she would not have minded, had the duke been remotely kind. But she had heard the rumors of his beating the servants, hunting anything that moved, and even striking his mother when she displeased him. She could not enter that life. If she did, she would be dead within the year.

The familiar creak of her father's floor broke into her thoughts. She ran down the hall to her own room and quickly shut the door. Relief was fleeting, though, as she realized that they were coming toward it.

She leapt into her bed, covers up and eyes closed by the time they entered.

"She is beautiful, as you said." the duke muttered approvingly. "I think we will have a happy marriage."

Kharme forced herself not to flinch at his words.

"It is a pity she is not awake, for I am sure she would have loved to meet you." her father lied.

"I shall send my men for her tomorrow. Do not take offense, but I have heard she has run before."

Her father growled. "She still has that childish disobedience, but that is easily corrected."

They continued to talk as they shut the door. As soon as she heard the click, Kharme's eyes popped open.

Tomorrow?

----------

"When will you be back?" Bane asked, boosting her into the saddle. He had accepted her idea pretty quickly, but she could be convincing.

Kharme shook her head. "I do not know. Perhaps when father forgets his promise to the duke."

"Let me come. I can protect you."

"No. They will notice you are missing. Besides, you are my cover."

He nodded. "I saw you walk into the wood for your lesson. You will be back for lunch."

She smiled, tears already filling her eyes as she handed him a sealed envelope. "See that mother gets this."

"I will." he said, backing away.

"Are you ready?" her tutor wheeled his impatient horse toward her. "If we are going it has to be now."

"Farewell." she whispered. "I will return."

Then the two broke out of the edge of the forest, riding hard into the night.
Naftis felt utterly miserable. It was bad enough Jaara glared at him every chance she had. Then Caylia's smooth questions kept him scrambling for lies to satisfy her quick mind, and struggling to remember what he had said before. Something as simple as parentage had him tripping over his own tongue.

It only worsened as the night progressed. Jaara's Derk-ra, lying contentedly at her feet, had taken a special dislike to him. If he just reached out to steady the sick woman, it snarled and hissed, once nipped his ankle hard enough to bring blood. He avoided it as best he could, though he could feel both Caylia's and Masu's eyes on him at its reaction.

Jaara retreated to her room shortly after, and the rest of them settled for a quick meal of hard bread, dipped in kolinar to soften it. That the Dragonian tea had spread to the Mara was hardly surprising. A handful of small, wrinkled berries finished the meal.

Nevi seemed more spry than her frame suggested. She hovered over him and Caylia alike, murmuring and concerned, a mother hen in all respects. He wondered absently how his true mother fared. He had not seen her in several years, since Roth came...

Naftis shook the memory away and forced a smile. "Surely Jaara needs more tending than we."

"The wound is knitting. She will mend, with rest and food."

"It was not her body I referred to."

"Aye, but that will mend to, in time." Nevi "You will need to rest as well."

Naftis smiled and shook his head. "Do not trouble yourself. My horse gets lonely."

She put her hands on her hips. "No guest of mine sleeps in the stables."

"I am no guest, only a passing traveler, content to journey with your kin until now. I will part your company in the morn, thankful for your hospitality."

"And where will you go?" Masu said.

"To Apollar."

"The South? You do not seem a spice merchant, nor do Derk-ra take kindly to you." He cracked a smile.

Nevi interrupted them both. "He is weary, Masu. Do not pester him now." She inclined her head at Naftis. "I will prepare a place for you--do not argue."

He cut his pleas short as she continued. "You, my dear," she said, facing Caylia, "I'm sure would like to wash off the dust and grime from the road."

"But the waste..."

"Do not fret. We live within the city, with cisterns and wells." She patted Caylia's shoulder lightly, her smile warm. "This is not Lodear."

The two women disappeared to another part of the house. Naftis could hear them chattering like good friends within a few minutes. Masu was content in silent contemplation. His quiet stare was as unnerving as Caylia's many questions.

Naftis leaned back against the sitting cushions, crossed his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes. He willed away his worry and the itching desire to flee. Lena might have discovered his disappearence by now, but it was unlikely. If she had, it would take her several hours to round up the proper men, warn them of his state of mind, and then get them on the trail. It would take ven longer if the Guild helped shield his passage.

The horse's shoes would have to be changed, and quickly. A good tracker could follow the notch in a hoof, or curve of a nail. Best to make sure non one could trace him from Lena's house to these quiet people. Of course, if his kin were on the trail, he was as good as found. A loquiri cannot hide from another loquiri.

Naftis shivered. He could well picture his cousin binding him tightly, dragging him back to the loquiri community in Eastar. He doubted he would ever leave then. It would all be for his own good, of course, but good and misery often coincided. Mind scrambling with plans and worries, Naftis drifted into sleep.

---------

The tramp of feet spurred him into action. Still groggy with sleep, he reacted without thinking. He lurched to his feet and drew the dys-knife in a smooth motion, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet and moving into a defensive stance. Naftis blinked, weight balanced. Enemy? Friend?

Masu smiled at him, placing one hand on his wrist to lower the weapon, albeit with gentle hesitance. Another stood behind him, one Naftis did not recognize. "All is well," Masu soothed. "It is only another traveler. I daresay, Nevi and I should build an inn."

The newcomer said nothing, but his shrewd eyes darted over Naftis' lean form and slender knife, before returning to his face. More questions, he suspected, would fly from this man's lips than from Caylia's. Rather than pausing to answer them, Naftis rubbed his eyes wearily and sighed. "If I may take your leave, Masu. I have a long journey in the moring."

Masu nodded. The other man scowled. Masu's reaction was enough for Naftis. He retreated as quickly as he could manage without appearing furtive. He had no intention of staying the night, rest or not. The more space he placed between himself and Lena, the safer he would feel. Only a madman or determined hunter would track a man through the borderlands between provinces. He only needed to reach them, turn west, and make for Crossroads. This would be a minor detour, nothing more.

Naftis crept away from the main room, where Masu was questioning this Hamen. Out into the growing dawn, he padded on careful feet to keep his passing quiet. Gray at the horizon gave way to ribbons of amesthyst, saffron, and scarlet. Both moons had faded already, taking the Twins with them. The only star remaing was Elrond Ast, the Guiding Star, and she would disappear in another hour. Elrond Ast led directly west, to the foothills of the forbidding Rim. Naftis shuddered. He would not head that way.

He slunk past the well, one hand trailing on its cool lip to keep his bearings. The barn stood beyond and to the left of it. His horse and provisions, his freedom, waited there. A pebble rattled underfoot, a soft rumble to his straining ears. Naftis slowed to a crawling gait, flicking his gaze to either side. A clump of well-tended shrubs, green with health, poked spiked leaves against his arm. He preferred the shade of its bulk over the slight pain.

Another rattling pebble, a large rock this time. Something was wrong. Naftis froze. He always trusted his intuition. Dropping to his belly, he wriggled closer to the dark shadow of the shrubs. A crunch of boot, no boots on sand. A horse snorted, answered by another. And then, a group of riders came into view.

Their clothes were dusty and worn, but not ragged. Their cloaks bore mute testament to a hurried journey. Deep chested with long legs, the horses were bred for endurance and speed. Their sweat-coated flanks suggested a much longer, or speedier ride than a trip from the market or city. Naftis' heart sank as he examined them further.

Though their hair varied wildly in color, from coal black to a rich auburn, they wore it in the same style, one he knew all too well. Locks shorn short at the ears, but with a single queue braided down the back. They were loquiri.

---------------

Jaara started when he clambered through her window. Apologizing for the broken glass now spread across the floor, he hurried away from the sun's probing light. "You have to help me."

Her pale features and slender form, partially covered by a thin blanket, did not match the hard look branded on her face. "What are you talking about? Why must I help you?"

"My..." he choked on the word kin. "There are men in your courtyard, searching for me."

"In our courtyard?" She sighed, slumping back against the pillows. "Why does everyone come to this house?"

Naftis decided against answering it. "I just need my horse and some way for me to leave, unnoticed. Then I'll be gone."

"You climb into my room, make odd demands, and accept me to be a docile woman and obey without question or argument? It will not happen."

"I don't have time to bandy words with you," he hissed. "Those men will search this house, and when they find me, I will be trussed up better than any sheep for the slaughter. Then how will you feel?"

Jaara scowled. Her voice was mocking. "Why should I care? You may have killed someone. Or stolen a valuable horse."

"I have done nothing but be what I was born to be."

She cocked her head. "There is truth in that statement. I think it is the first time you have not lied to me."

Naftis bristled, but held his tongue. "My lady, the time is growing short."

Even as he spoke, someone pounded on the door. Jaara flicked him a wary glance. "Masu will not allow marauders into our house, especially with the city and its guards so close at hand."

"Masu will invite them in as simply as he has all the rest of us. They will speak of me, as a friend or...kinsmember, and your Masu will lead them to me."

Jaara hesitated a moment more, until boots tramped on the floor and male laughter drifted into hearing. She grabbed his arm, dragging him toward the window and its draft of hot breeze. "Flee this way," she said, gesturing to the left. "You will find the smokehouse, unlocked. Hide there and I shall find you."

"Naftis," Masu called, and then quieter, "Can it not wait until he has rested? He escorted my marriage-daughter many miles."

The answering voice made Naftis' blood turn to ice. He didn't listen to hear the rejoinder to Masu's plea, and barely heard Jaara's whispered call of "Hurry. Quickly now."

Dropping from the window with cat-like grace, he sped toward the smokehouse. For the first time in ten years, he prayed fervently to Kyda. If the owner of that voice found him, he would go utterly mad. His father would have no mercy.





Jaara sighed, watching Naftis's figure retreat into the darkness, then slumped down upon the edge of her bed and reached wearily beneath her bed for her boots. It was very awkward, grasping left handed after the tough leather with a right shoulder so stiff she was forced to drop to the floor with a sigh and rummage beneath the bed on her knees. Her hand found a fistful of laces, and she dragged the boots out against the rough stone floor, then sat, snarling on the ground, as she began working one handed to get the first on.

Caylia knocked on her door as she was struggling to loosen the strings on the second boot.

"Yes?" Jaara demanded.

"It's Caylia. I heard glass shatter. Are you well?"

Jaara sighed. "Come in, Caylia."

The bard pressed the door open with the tips of her slender fingers and regarded the woman on the floor with knit brows. "You do not seem overly surprised by the state of your window."

"Yes, well, I was surprised at the time, but now I have more important things to focus upon." She grasped the tongue of the boot in her teeth and tugged at the boot with her good hand, trying to make enough room to slip her foot into the boot with ease one-handed.

Caylia regarded her with a somewhat exasperated frown. "Like follow a fleeing loquiri into the night?" she asked, then, before Jaara could respond -- "Do you need help with that?" She knelt down beside the injured woman.

Jaara spit out the flavor of old leather and, pointing her toe in a strangely dainty way, began trying to get her foot in the boot. "I am not a toddler, to have my shoes tied for me," she growled.

For a moment she contemplated simply removing her sling and doing the task two handed despite the pain, but the Healer had been very stern about not using the injured arm, and considering the way it felt presently, Jaara didn't particularly feel the desire to be contrary.

The bard shrugged, watching her work, and pointed out, "I know you're perfectly capable of doing it yourself, but your family can only hold off those men so long, and it'd be much faster if you were to simply suck up your pride and let me help you. But if you don't care whether or not Naftis gets caught--"

"Of course I don't care, he could be a murderer for all I know!" Jaara asserted, although she did not stop trying to put on the boot.

"--then I won't help you," Caylia concluded.

Jaara sighed. The boot was halfway onto her foot and it seemed no amount of left-handed tugging could get it the rest of the way on. "Fine." She plopped the semi-booted foot in the bard's lap. "Tie me up."

Caylia's lip quirked, and Jaara scowled deeper but let the bard make short work of pulling on and lacing up the boot. They both rose to their feet, Caylia somewhat faster than Jaara, and Jaara grabbed her woolen cloak from its peg on the wall. "I will need you to stay behind for a bit and let my marriage-kin know where I have gone. Wait until Naftis's pursuers have departed. In fact, may I trust you to do what you can to lead them in the wrong direction, so they are less likely to follow?"

The bard frowned, and Jaara quickly added, "I will be leading him to the patrol stop a half day's ride from here. You know the one? Good. I you wish to accompany us, you may meet us there this afternoon." She glanced down at her night-shift and sighed. "Bring clothes, if you will. And try not to be followed."

"I will bring some provisions," Caylia nodded. "Are you... do you intend to go through the front door, or slip out the window?"

Jaara shook her head. "It wouldn't do for them to see me leave. I'll steal out the window. If they ask questions, I suppose you must endeavor to make them think this is your room and that no one is missing." She paused at the window sill and glanced over her shoulder with a small, ironic smile, realizing that would be no easy task with Masu and Nevi there. "Good luck."

Cradling her arm close to her chest and carefully avoiding broken glass, she climbed onto the window sill, paused there for a moment in a crouch, then leapt down into the dirt below and ran with decidedly less energy than Naftis had for the smokehouse.

Hamen turned over in bed, blinking for a moment before his thoughts came to him. There's someone outside, at the door. He woke quickly, rolling out of bed and to his feet before stopping himself. If it is the Guild and they wish harm, would they be so bold as to knock? This is not an insignificant house. This place would be missed, the people disappearing noticed. That would cause the Guild a great deal of trouble. How much is that woman worth to them?

He turned to grab his clothes, slipping into them quickly, before opening his door and stepping into the hall. He felt for his daggers, wishing he could take his staff. He could hear voices down the hall; there were at least a couple of men. One of the voices sounded like one of the family; Hamen's memory was too hazy yet to recall the name.

He'd just decided to move closer to hear better when the bard exited one of the rooms farther down the hall. He nodded politely, but remained silent. She gave a tilt of her own head, but was equally silent. He took a few steps closer, and was met halfway. He kept his voice low, though it was a little louder than he intended for the first few words. Still waking up...

"Do you know what's going on? Individual wanderers are suspicious enough, but groups of them? I'm beginning to think I wandered into something far more exciting than I had originally anticipated."

Caylia frowned down at the floor for a moment, then nodded to herself and looked up at Hamen. She did a far better job controlling her own voice. "I know only that more visitors have arrived, and that the other wanderer who was staying here for the evening was not pleased by their arrival."

They both looked down the hall towards the voices. They were still talking in the quiet tones reserved for late hours. Hamen frowned and closed his eyes, straining to hear what they were saying without running the risk of getting closer. If any of them came down the hall, it would be hard enough not being noticed as it was. He strained, and very suddenly could hear them. He could hear clearly. His eyes jerked open. He could see, too. As dark as the hallway was, he could see things more clearly than in daylight. He felt the air moving in the hallway. He could even hear Caylia's breathing, she was close enough for his ears to pick out her heartbeat.

Hamen's eyes shot wide open as he gasped in his breath and released his Gift. He hadn't realized he was straining his senses so much that he was in danger of embracing his gift like that. How much of my life did I just throw away? A few seconds? Minutes? Years?

He fell over against the wall to his right, left hand moving up to cover his eyes and face while he fought to control his breathing. "Are you all right? What happened?"

He straightened, swallowing and again trying to control his voice, taking much of the waver he felt out of it, though he was still louder than he intended. "I'm... fine. It was nothing. I can't hear what is being said, though. There's a very good chance we'd be noticed if we went any closer, though. Wh-What do you think we should do?"

Caylia studied his back quietly for a moment before answering by walking past him down the hall. He took a deep breath, straightening up and making himself as presentable as he could before following a few steps behind her.

The gathering they came upon looked about as Hamen had guessed it would. A group of men in traveling garb, speaking with... Masu. That was his name. He couldn't see from behind her, but he guessed the bard was smiling something worth any oasis in Lodear from the way some of the faces looking their way softened. He did his best not to ruin it with his own grin. He doubted he would have succeeded if Caylia's voice hadn't helped.

"Forgive me if I am intruding on business not my own, but I could not help but wake at the sounds of voices I have yet to listen to. May I request the secret of your appearance here this evening?"

Hamen had to try not to smile. She had the voice of a bard even when she was just talking. He was glad that she hadn't decided to try and make a fool of him yet with wordplay. He had little doubt how it would go.

The man at the head of the group turned towards Caylia, but Masu answered. "These men say that they have come looking for Naftis. They are concerned that he may be sick, and even more so that he may be hiding it to try and protect them. They wish to take Naftis to the healer to be sure."

Hamen looked around for some possible hidden meanings in the words. It might help if I'd actually met this Naftis. Caylia didn't miss even the slightest beat, her words as genuine and understanding as any he'd heard his mother speak when he was a babe. "I fear what you say may be far more true than Kree would have. He fled this place just moments ago, and would listen to no words of questioning or suggestion."

The men did not seem to be very surprised to hear this. So they fully expected to be chasing Naftis. Whatever their reasons, they have no intention of bargaining for it.

Masu looked distressed, however. "I hope he manages to find Kree's blessings, it was very kind of him to offer to accompany Jaara as he did."

The tallest of the travelers spoke. "Do you have any indication as to which way he may have gone? It sounds as if his sickness is getting serious if he is going to such trouble to shield us from it."

Hamen only had a moment to think of a few possible destinations before Caylia spoke. "I could only guess. He was out of water when he arrived at this place, and he had no time to go for supplies before he left, so wherever he goes, it would have to be close and have a supply of water to allow him to replenish. If he wished to shield you from disease, then I doubt he would have wandered towards town, but there is a fairly remote well less than a day's ride from here. He would have nowhere to run if you came upon him there."

The tallest of the group nodded, then turned to Masu. "For your hospitality, I thank you. We must be going now." Waiting only for the polite bows of the residents and guests of the house, he turned and left, the others in tow. Caylia waited only until they were out of earshot before turning to Masu. "Jaara is taking Naftis to safety at the patrol stop I mentioned to that man. If you send a pair of riders with builds similar to mine and Hamen's, it will go a long way to securing her safety, as would granting me a horse, clothing, and provisions to take to her."

Masu nodded and gestured to the nearest servants. Hamen only smiled. "Very well-played. There are three possible places your wording could have referred to as a destination. They would not have left without asking for better directions if they did not intend to wait and see if any from this household will go after their quarry."

The bard smiled. "It is not difficult to see when someone is suspicious, and even easier to play to that suspicion if you know what they want."

Hamen bowed in respect. "If you would not be threatened by my presence, I would like to extend you the offer of my company on this journey, as Naftis apparently did for Jaara on your journey here."

"I am uncertain how long this trek will last. What of your business here?"

The man shook his head. "My business here is trying to find business here. If I have an excuse for activity, I would thank Kyda to be allowed to take it."

Caylia nodded. "Then I welcome you to travel with me at least as far as the patrol stop. We will leave shortly after the riders heading towards town. How soon can you be ready?"

"As soon as I can get properly dressed, I will be ready to go."

He turned and strode to his room, slipping one dagger from his sleeve and pricking his left thumb, leaving a drop of blood on the floor in the thanks he had promised the Red Dragon.
A Non-Existent User
Kharme woke disoriented. The sunrise revealed a quiet wood, one she did not remember. Only when she saw her tutor dousing a fire did the night's events come to her. She shivered and pulled her blanket tighter, looking around. This was the farthest she had ever been from home, she was both excited and frightened beyond belief.

"I see you're finally awake." Lade growled. "I thought I would have to douse you with our water supply."

She smiled, stopping when her dry lips began to crack. Lade offered her the water, warning her not to drink too much. It would be a few days before they reached the stream. She took a careful sip, just enough to ease the pain so that she could eat. The dry bread only made it worse, but she knew she would need it, so she did not complain.

Her entire body ached as she mounted her horse. This was the first time she had ever slept outside, at least without a pallete. Something told her she would get used to it soon, especially after riding until the sun disappeared behind the hill once more. They could not slow until they reached the nearest town. She glanced down at her already dirty dress. She would have no problem blending in.

Lade seemed uncomfortable, and she knew it was because of her. She did not know much about setting up camp, so he had ended up with most of the work. Pangs of guilt hit her stomach. She remained silent, forming a resolve to learn enough to pull her own weight. But one thing still bothered her.

"Lade?" she asked quietly, wondering if he heard her.

"Yes." came the reply.

She let her breath slowly through her teeth. "Did you ever resent me?"

He was quiet, and she knew he would tell her the truth. That was something she loved about him. She was always too sheltered. "Once."

"Oh."

"You were nine, I believe. I was assigned to give you your lesson, but you would have none of it. You kept looking outside, then at me, blinking your large eyes so slowly. At first I was firm, insisting that your father would be angry if you did not learn... I don't even remember what it was. But you have that way of wearing people down, and I always had a hard time saying no to you. Why do you think I am riding with you? Eventually we ended up in the creek, and your dress was torn and muddy. Your father came riding home from the hunt, horrified that you appeared that way in front of his companions. I was immediately taken and whipped, forced from my station until the incident was forgotten. It took me a long time to earn my freedom once more. But only for a minute did I blame you."

Kharme closed her eyes, trying to recall it. She had a few glimpses of a dull study and water splashing into her face, but that was all. Again the guilt came. At least now she had a chance to begin again, and make it right.

-------------

"We will stop here for a few minutes. The horses need their rest."

Kharme nodded, dismounting before Lade could offer to help. That much she could do. Then she began to ask him more question, so that he no longer had to work alone. How do you know if water is good for drinking? What is the best way to set a trap? Which constellation do you follow to find the town?

He answered them one by one, smiling as he sensed her reasoning. She was always so eager to learn, but he had never thought to cover this in their lessons. He should have anticipated that this day would come. Her father had always planned to marry her off, handing her to the nearest man of station. But her will was so strong he never worried she would be forced into what she could not take. That was how he knew she would easily survive this.

After a time, he stopped the questioning and they began their journey once more. He knew Kharme was rested now, even if she refused to admit her exhaustion in the first place. Perhaps he had taught her restraint far too well. He never thought he would have to fight against what she learned.

They were making better time than calculated. It was possible they would reach the stream in two days, and the town in five. Even Kharme expected it would take at least half a fortnight. She grew excited as they passed each landmark, happier still that she was finally free.

"How do you think father will deal with the scandal we just created?" she asked.

Lade chuckled. "That is the only thing keeping me going."
Naftis leaned low over his horse's neck, clucking sympathetically when he stumbled from weariness. He hated driving the horse so hard. But the need, the burning desire to flee as fast and far as he could could not be silenced or curbed. Their strides devoured the miles from sand dune to sand dune. The town behind them dwindled into thin shadows, and then disappeared behind the curve of the horizon. A few sketchy outlines and a shimmer of light ahead revealed the distant patrol stop.

I can't let them catch me. I can't. I can't. He recited it like a mantra, desperation fueling his fear. They'd drag him home if they caught him. And they knew all the tricks and techniques of a loquiri; they shared his training and knowledge. If he did manage to escape from them a second time, they would shortly track him down again and pinion him far worse than before. He knew the excuses and reasoning. A deprived loquiri was worth his weight in gold. An assasin, who cared little whether he lived or died? A thief whose training was one of the best, yet one whose own conditioning made him immeasurably loyal, uninterested in gold or women--a swift and efficient pirate. He could be any one of these with little effort.

It was to prevent that, they would say. Or, for his safety--no use wasting his life, training, and abilties only because of a simple loss. Simple. Naftis snorted at the thought.

Jaara glanced his way with a scowl. Naftis blinked and pulled his horse slower. She was still wounded. And he had driven her hard all through the last few minutes. "Sorry," he muttered, and slowed to canter abreast of her horse.

"You're going to kill that horse."

Of course Jaara would have a sharp comment. "He is strong. And I will let him rest and graze at the patrol stop."

"And if he collapses before you reach it?"

Naftis looked away. She was right. He wouldn't admit it, of course, but she was right.

"Why are you in such a bloody hurry?" Her eyes narrowed. "Is one of those men your Match?"

He winced. She shook her head, taking his reaction as an answer. "How can you run from him? I didn't think loquiri could. He doesn't beat you or torment you--like a bound slave? Surely not."

Naftis sighed. "None of them are my Match. Those men are from my loquiri hometown, but they have other...ideas for me."

"What did you do? Wait. I know. Be what I was meant to be. But what was that? What could you possibly be that makes them chase you so?" Jaara cocked her head. "You're not Hybrid born, are you? Or carrying some dreadful disease?" She blanched.

He shook his head. "No." His tone sharpened. "They have their reasons."

Jaara fell silent. Though their pace had slowed, they still reached the patrol stop in a short time. The horses slaked their thirst beside their riders, and then wandered off to graze on the thin grass ringing the pool. Naftis filled every waterskin he had, carefully checking each seal for security. Just a small leak could spell an early death in the borderlands. And there, water was as effective a bribe for bandits as bags of gold. Gold and silver he lacked; water, at least for now, he had plenty of.

Jaara had disappeared into the small stone dwelling by the edge of the pool. When she emerged, she held a loaf of dry bread and two linkas. The gauzy veils danced and twisted in the slow breeze. "Here. I have not broken my fast since you awakened me this morning. Traveling on an empty belly is not to my liking." She threw him one of the linkas. "As you well know, we will need some of these in case the wind turns contrary. There are plenty here. Patrols and shepherds only rarely use this stop. Two will not be noticed."

She settled on the sand and munched on the bread. Naftis slid the linka on, arranging the bits of fabric to shield his mouth and nose, but leave his eyes exposed. He turned away from Jaara and studied the horizon. How long? They would catch up, there was no doubt about that. How long could he stay out of their clutches?

The dys-knife felt heavier. He could do it now, do it before they reached him. A sting of pain, a gasp for air, and his heart would stop, pierced through by the dagger. No one woujld grieve. His family would claim him to have died in some obscure bandit attack or Hybrid raid, nothing more.

But what of Jaara? Naftis bit his lip. Though he would be well out of danger, his family could easily use Jaara as a way to ease their loss of respect among the loquiri community. She might be accused of murder, or of aiding him in some outlandish crime they trumped up. No, using his knife was not the answer.

Cool air nudged the back of his head. The pleasant feeling spread across his scalp, trailing down his neck. The awful keening in his head abruptly stopped. His heart slowed, muscles relaxing. It was nice. A nice feeling.

Eyes closed, he swayed on his feet. Not empty, or alone, or unfulfilled. Complete. Whole. The Gift's subtle glow at his shoulder flared into reach. He could draw on it if he wished...Naftis jerked his head up and spun around. "Stop! Don't you use the Gift on me!"

Jaara quirked an eyebrow. He glared at her, eyes narrowing. "Don't. That is improper, rude, and very--very wrong of you. Keep out of my head."

He swiveled, his gaze on the wandering horses. Time to go.

"Your Match isn't with the men at all. You were telling the truth."

A rock settled in his gut. He held her gaze over his shoulder. "Don't." he whispered.

She cocked her head. Sympathy flickered in her eyes. "Your Match is dead."

He winced. Turned his head again.

"Is he?" she said.

His shoulders slumped. "He is. Roth is dead, killed by an assasin, with the Guild's help." He hissed the last as if it pained him. "Those men wish to take me home, before I harm others or...myself."

"Is it really so hard? Wouldn't it be easier if you returned to your family and friends? To those who understand you and what you're going through?"

"They do not understand. And going home would not be a pleasant thing." He whirled to study her face, eyes narrowing in frustration. "You were not born loquiri. And your husband was born to normal parents, not deep within a loquiri community."

She said nothing. He plowed on. "Go home? Certainly. But not as a wounded soldier. As a prisoner, an aberration from what is normal and expected. I know what my family would do to me. My closest friend was Matched before I. His Match was also captured by the Guild, tortured for a confession to his supposed 'treason', and then executed."

Jaara winced. She certainly had felt the blade pass through her husband's heart, via the loquiri bond. To experience torture second-hand, and be unable to come to the rescue would be far worse. "But the Guild did that to him, not your people."

He chuckled sardonically, mouth twisting in bitterness. "No, of course not. He returned home broken, beaten down, wounded. My people starved him for three days, to make him weak, chose a man to be a temporary Match, and then forced a link on him."

She winced. Forcing a link was equivalent to rape. "Why?"

"He was a danger to others. A danger to himself. And where is he now? He is home, a raving lunatic, a child trapped in a man's body." He studied her face. "That is the fate that awaits me, if they catch me. I ask you, Jaara of Apollar, what will you do with me?"

Jaara swallowed hard. "Nothing," she said. The word tumbled more brutally than she intended from her lips. "I will not force a link upon you, if that is what you mean to ask. Nor will I hand you over to your kin, for I... know what it is to defy the wishes of one's family, and I would not deny others the right. And so I will do nothing." Then her lip quirked in a small smile. "Well, nothing other than accompany you, as I promised to do. Speaking of which... we must make the waystation. By noon tomorrow." She glanced up at the stars and frowned. "I mean today."

Naftis glanced toward the heavens too, and cursed. "Stars and Crescents! We're running out of time!" Grasping his horse's reins in one hand, he swung onto the gelding's back, and kicked him into a canter. The poor horse tossed his head irritably as Jaara swore and climbed to her feet.

"Thanks a lot for the help," she grumbled. She slipped her left foot into the stirrup and then pulled herself into the saddle with her good arm, groaning as her heavily bandaged right shoulder inevitably screamed in protest at even this simple strenuous movement.

Halfway into the saddle, she suddenly froze, feeling bile rush to her throat, and hurriedly jumped back to the ground. Rushing to the nearest scrub bush, she bent over, retching violently for a few moments until the bread she'd just eaten was no longer in her stomach.

The thundering hoofbeats of Naftis's horse suddenly halted. "What are you doing, woman?" he shouted. "We haven't the time to tarry like this!"

Jaara wiped her mouth slowly, eyes narrowed. "Go ahead if you must," she snapped. "I'll catch up. When your horse dies under you from the exertion," she finished under her breath.

The loquiri's "Crescents!" carried up toward her on the wind, but he began to walk toward her. "Have you a weak constitution, lady?" he asked mockingly, tossing her a waterskin, which landed with a spray of sand at her feet. "I've never seen another human being spew as often as you."

Jaara would have scowled, but the only answer she could manage was to bend again over the bush and, half sobbing, vomit again.

"Kyda," Naftis growled, dismounting. "If you knew you were still this ill, why did you not remain home to recover? The desert in the middle of the night is no place for a weak, injured, puking woman."

Jaara thrust her sword up toward him---still sheathed---without turning to look. "I'll show you weak. I told you to go ahead if I'm such a burden to you."

The loquiri threw his arms above his head and screamed at her. "I can't just leave you here, you infernal woman! I'll not have your blood on my hands, especially not when those who follow us would gladly make use of an event like that to destroy--"

Jaara straighened, clutching her stomach. "Oh, so it's not even for me you linger, it's for you?" She pointed toward Naftis's horse. "I will not die without you, you fool! I am far, far more capable than you take me for, and, and--" Again she turned to the bushes.

"Here," Naftis sighed, dumping a sack of rolls into his saddlebag and tossing it to her. "Hardly the most appetizing place to store food, but when one is on the road, one must do what one must do. Use that to get sick in while you ride, and get on that infernal horse! I will not leave you, but really, we can't wait any longer."
Watch over my marriage-daughter…

Caylia drew a veil over the lower half of her face with the rising of the sun. It was no more intense here than in the deserts of Settar, but it seemed so with no palms, or fig, or date trees for shade. Hamen on his bay, followed suit.

“Do you know how far to the way station? I do not know the lay of this land.”

The other nodded. “Not much longer now. I thought you knew.”

She shook her head. “I’m from Settar, and haven’t been here long. I knew the general direction thanks to Jaara, but beyond that it’s been guess work.” She frowned, hidden behind her veil and her thoughts strayed to the medical kit in her pack. Watch over my marriage-daughter. Jaara was still in no condition to travel, and as the hours passed she wondered if the woman was still alive. I was right though. I did find a story, they are following her, clinging to her like spiderwebs.

“I am from Apollar,” Hamen was saying, “I’ve been here several times. Business.” He said that a lot. Business. But what kind? He kept himself hidden enough. Another story attracted to the spiderweb perhaps. “A waypost though…It maybe guarded, or it maybe not. Maybe word of the travelers have spread once those that were following discovered it wasn’t us under those robes, or that the others weren’t where they thought.”

Caylia nodded. “Then we will have to think of something. But now they might call us accomplices. I wonder who they were…”

Hamen didn’t respond but was focused on something beyond the hard packed red sand, sprinkled with small cacti who opened yellow flowers toward the sun. She followed his gaze until the sky met the sand, broken by silloutte, a shadow. “It’s the waypost,” he said, “a tent really, but very large. There’s a small oasis there and a few palms, and a gathering point for all sorts. If we’re lucky there will either be many people there and we can blend in, or there will be few enough people that we’re not remembered. It depends on the trade routes. If we’re unlucky…well this could turn out very interesting.”

And what a tale it would be… Her finger tips tingled and she could feel the call of the strings of her harp. Now, no, not now. And if there were more people, what kinds would they be? Friendly, or maybe some nomadic tribes that she had read about, somewhere, someplace, or maybe she had heard it in a story breathed on the wind. Or maybe it would be empty and deserted, with only the four of them. If the other two made it.

“Hullo…there are two horses almost there…”

Caylia pursed her lips. “How did we make better time then they…” The second figure wobbled in her saddle. Take care of my marriage-daughter… That would be why. She caught herself in a tangle of thoughts, loosed herself, and caught her traveling companion who had quickened his pace. Not for the last time she wondered what business truly brought him here.

{c}~*~

“You need to rest.” Her gentle words caught the woman off guard as she stumbled, clutching clumsily for her blade, turned, relaxed.

“I am not weak.”

Caylia bowed her head. “I didn’t say you were. I said you need to rest.” That again, the ride must have been harder than she thought, making Jaara even more uncomfortable with her injuries. “Where is your companion?”

She made a motion to the tent. Large and circular it was the color of the moon, red patterns decorating the insides of the door flaps, held open to let air inside. It must be bigger than Jaara’s marriage-kin’s house. Not as big as some of the School’s buildings but still… She turned her eyes back to Jaara, now was not the time to let her mind wander. “Sit,” she commanded. “Let me see your wounds. I am no healer but I will do what I can.” With a grunt, the woman obeyed, and Caylia began changing the dressings. “You encountered no trouble on the road?”

There was a pause, so slight it may have been lost, before a quick denial. No, something did happen, but not the trouble I am speaking about. “You?”

The harpist shook her head. “Not exactly, but we cannot stay here nor can we return. Or at least I don’t believe it wise. Whoever those people were, they saw us, and we gave them directions to several possible places you two may be. Thus, now, they probably look for all of us. I do not know what would come of that but I suggest we do not tarry here long.”

Jaara cursed, and Caylia heard things she hadn’t before and wondered what Ru would say. He would probably laugh and Illa would disapprove. For the first time since she had left, she thought about the Uhl. She hadn’t told her where she had gone or what she was doing, a riddle for her to solve. Jaara was eyeing her and Caylia let a ghost of a smile flick over her lips. “Just thinking of another story under a different set of trees.”

The wind shifted suddenly, bringing with it dust and the shouts of people. Jaara’s face tightened, and Caylia stood then they relaxed together as they realized it was coming from the wrong direction. “No,” the warrior growled after a minute, “we can’t stay here for long. We should leave now.” She struggled to her feet with Caylia’s help.

“And go where? Besides, we have some time left, if this dust gives us warning. Any more time to help you rest is a good thing.”

“I can make it!” the woman snapped and Caylia lifted a brow. “Even still…” she said after straightening, and brushing the last of the fine sand from her clothing, “we will need to discuss it with the others.”

Hamen let Caylia speak up first. He only waited long enough for the two to start talking before glancing around. No sign of him out here, so… He stepped inside the tent, letting his eyes adjust to the relative darkness well enough to make out the furnishings. This tent was massive. Whoever it was who paid for it must be more than wealthy. This tent and the beds within represented more money than Hamen would make for any Derk-Ra, and given the prices some of the pure-bred lizards could go for, that was impressive.

All this space hidden from the sun lets the air cool surprisingly well. Money well-spent if the patron in question happens to travel this way personally. I'd hate to be the one to tell him when a storm comes through, though.

After another moment, he could pick out details well enough to see the only other person in the room. He looked quite different now. Most men do after being reminded that they are hunted. He had lain himself down on one of the beds, but he didn't look asleep. He was on his back, but wasn't breathing quite as easily as he should have been. A few steps closer, and Hamen could see that his eyes were open.

"You realize that the point of a bed is for sleep, yes?"

The voice answering him had none of his good humor. "The point of a bed is to be used. What it is used for is not something it can control, either by action or by nature."

Now that is an interesting train of thought. Hamen moved closer, setting his staff and leaning against it with practiced comfort. "True enough, I suppose. But then, a bed cannot tell anyone if it dislikes the use to which it is being put, now can it?"

Naftis turned to look at him, narrowing his eyes. "What do you want? If you seek conversation I am sure that you could find someone more interesting to talk to. I would assume at least that if you are here that Caylia is as well, or some servant of the household's."

"What makes you so sure?"

The reclined man's face showed the lessening patience he felt. "I doubt that you were the only person Jaara told of our destination. I doubt she would have told you at all, for that matter."

Hamen smiled and nodded. "True enough. Us vagabonds rarely find much trust so quickly, and honest help or support would be unheard of, now wouldn't it?"

Mild confusion showed for an instant on Naftis's face before being hidden again. "As for what I want, I want to have at least a basic understanding of those I am traveling with even when one or more of them aren't being actively hunted."

"Have you gained this understanding in watching me lie here?"

Hamen shrugged. "Some. It doesn't take a genius to recognize what those men at our place of rest last night were. No one sends that many loquiri after just anyone." Naftis shifted. This one knows his stuff. I was watching for that and I barely noticed it. "That means you are one of two things." He held up two fingers, ticking them off as he went. "Either you are a murderer, thief, rapist, or noble important and dangerous enough to scare people badly enough to sic a death squad on you, or you are also loquiri." Naftis didn't take his eyes from Hamen, but the standing man just smiled. "Or both. Personally, I doubt you'd have kept from using whatever that is hidden at your side for so long if it was the former. Besides, you have that look in your eye."

For the first time, Naftis's brow relaxed. "What do you mean by that? What makes my eyes so different from any other man's?"

Hamen removed the cloth wrapping from his head and neck, enjoying the air moving through his hair and on his skin. "Every man and woman in the world is missing something. Every single one of them. Some are missing something specific that they can get someday in time to realize they are missing something else. Others are missing something more abstract, such as purity or happiness, something that they will never be able to get enough of. What makes your eyes so different?" He leaned down closer. "They show me that what you are missing is strong enough that you know what it is."

Silhouettes appeared in the tent's entryway then, cutting off further talk. "Come in, ladies. There is plenty of room for everyone. Have a drink, take a seat. Let us not be strangers in someone else's home."

Jaara took a couple of steps in the room, Caylia following along slightly behind, waiting for her eyes to adjust. "We don't have time for games, Hamen Trainer of Derk-Ra. We need to keep moving."

Hamen started to speak, but Naftis found his words first. "No. I am continuing alone, the rest of you have no further reason. I thank you for assisting me so far, but I cannot ask any of you to go any farther with me."

The other man just listened, unsurprised when Jaara responded in her familiar angry tone. "Dragons' blood, will you not give up? You entered my marriage-kin's home, do not try to claim I have no reason to follow you after I helped you flee in the night."

Caylia nodded her agreement. "I am also not so easily dissuaded from a tale such as this, and had enough of a hand to play in the misdirection of your pursuers that I doubt they would take kindly to finding me farther back on your trail alone."

Hamen shook his head with a quiet laugh. "What sort of man would I be if I stepped back where a bard and a sling-ridden only stepped forward all the more insistently? Unless you think you can escape from your current pursuers and us at the same time, it appears as though you are going to need to adjust your plans slightly." His smile faded slightly. "Though if we are going to leave this place with enough time for the desert to cover our trail, we must do so soon. Those men could arrive here in little time if they come straight here from town, and it would only take a few days to go through all of the places our good bard could have referred to."

The tent was quiet for a moment before the loquiri spoke again, barely loud enough for the others to hear. "Apollar. I am going to Apollar."

Jaara relaxed slightly, having been ready to fight longer if need be, but Caylia only looked more concerned. Hamen just shifted to lean his chin on his staff. "There are several ways to get there from here without much trouble, and at least one that is slightly less well-known. At this point, we just need to decide how we wish to get there."

"And how long we wish to rest here before going."

Jaara huffed at the bard's words while Hamen laughed again quietly. Kyda must have really liked my last offering to make life so interesting.
A Non-Existent User
Kharme tucked a sweat-soaked lock of hair behind her ear. The day had grown remarkably hot, and she began to wish she wasn't forced to wear her cloak. Her father's spies were most likely watching the road, waiting for her to show her face. She could not allow herself to be dragged back there, not after coming this far.

"Enjoying the view?" Lade called out crankily.

She urged her mount back up to speed, stifling a moan. She hadn't meant to slow, but the days were beginning to take a toll on her. It had been difficult for Lade, who knew they needed to reach the town as quickly as they could.

They travelled for several more hours, until at last the river was in sight. Kharme felt her strength renewed, as well as her hope. It felt that every tight muscle in her body suddenly loosened. They would be there before nightfall.

She smiled at last, ignoring her dry tongue, still clinging to the roof of her mouth. It took everything in her not to kick her horse into a gallop. The end was near at last.

"Do not raise your hopes too high." Lade chided. "We will not be safe until we reach the town."

Kharme pulled her tongue away. "But it is so close. Can you taste the freedom?"

"I will taste freedom when I have it. Not before."

She rolled her eyes. He could not bring her down today. There was too much excitement growing within her.

A horse rode alongside them. Though they slowed to let him pass, he remained close to Lade.

"This is why I do not hope." he muttered to himself. "Because then this happens."
Naftis knew his eyes were red and swollen, face gaunt and thin, pale with the strain. Three days across the dunes had left the group exhausted and worn, but that he could handle. Instead, his pair-link tormented him, haunting his dreams and waking moments. The nearer they came to Crossroads, and the mutitude of Gifted people, the worse that eternal emptiness became.

He had relinquished the lead to Hamen when the burden became too much, and now trailed after them all. Knuckles shoved into his mouth to keep the sound quiet, Naftis sobbed brokenly. I can't do this. Kyda ... O Kyda, please-- Groaning, he bent his head and dropped the reins. The horse would follow those before him.

The intensity of the rampant emotions made his stomach churn. He clenched his teeth to keep the contents of his earlier meal in its place. Desire, need, yearning--piled one atop the other, like stone on his chest. His heart felt crushed beneath the load. He pressed splayed fingers over his ribs. "Roth," he muttered, the rest lost in a renewed wave of heavy grief.

The miles passed in relentless yearning and loss. How long they tramped on, Naftis lost perception of. Only that his pair-link burned with each passing hour. Relief. I must. Can't stand it. No more. His head snapped up. The shadow of Crossroads stretched across the sand. They were almost there. In the town, people would stop him; they always did.

Naftis felt the heat on his skin, feverish, but ignored it as simply as he did the hammering pain in his skull. He drummed his heels against the horse's ribs, wheeling him about. Can't go closer. I can't. Voices called after him. They spoke only gibberish to his panicked mind. Harder, faster. Naftis yanked the linka from him, flinging it back in a trailing streamer to grace the sand. A laugh escaped him. Free. Free!

He stripped his shirt, dragged the dys-knife from its sheath, and slid from the horse's back. Naftis chanted the kor-bakach,rite of death, bringing the blade up to rest against his ribs. Cool steel pressed against his skin. He shivered in anticipation.

Strong hands wrapped around his wrists, yanking back before he could finish. Naftis swore and jerked against his attacker. The grip tightened. His fingers were pulled away from the dagger. It fell with a soft hiss against the sand. The loquiri squirmed, feet kicking uselessly against the ground. Blurry faces, familiar voices. A man's voice--Hamen? Had he been traveling with someone named that? "Bind him. Just do it! Please--for Kyda's sake--do what I say."

They were arguing, women and the man. Naftis let his head loll and felt the man's grip loosen. He waited until the argument heated into rapid cursing before making his move. He shoved his hand up toward Hamen's face, heard him grunt at the impact. The loquiri scrambled to his feet and dived for the glint of sunlight in the sand. The blade slid away from his grip. He fumbled with it and Hamen was there, using weight and strength to take it from him.

Coarse rope wrapped around his ankles and wrists. He squirmed against Hamen's hold. The Derk-ra trainer sighed, but didn't relent. "You'll thank me for this later, when you come to your senses again." HAmen rapped him on the head with his staff, and darkness swallowed him.
Jaara, still mounted, stared down at Caylia, Hamen and the unconscious Naftis with a carefully closed expression. "He will not thank you," she muttered, shaking her head.

Unbidden, the memory of Dasik's voice flitted, feather light, through her mind. I love you so much, but the bond... I could survive if I lost you, but I could not survive if I lost our bond.

She remembered also the terrible shock of Mern's dagger as it plunged through heart and bond and mind alike. The memory was nearly as raw and sickening as the actual event had been. Jaara was no loquiri, but even she knew well the agony of having a bond severed suddenly and without mercy. At first, before she really comprehended that Dasik was gone---murdered in cold blood by a jealous woman---the emptiness at the edge of her Gift had been the most terrible thing she'd ever experienced. And it was a hundred times worse for a loquiri, who relied upon the bond simply to be stable and complete.

Hamen bent to finish lashing the rope about Naftis's wrists and ankles. His motions seemed almost unreasonably harsh, but Jaara could tell from the look of disquiet on the man's face that he was more afraid of Naftis getting free and ending his life than he was of the loquiri being uncomfortable. And Jaara knew that any pain from the bindings would be thin and pale in comparison to the the mental and emotional anguish Naftis was feeling.

"We should get him into the shade," Caylia urged them, biting her lip.

Jaara frowned and glanced about. "Do you see shade?" she said sharply. "I don't."

"We'll make shade," Hamen said. "We've got camping supplies. There's no reason not to stop now."

Caylia frowned. "We should rest briefly, but not stop. Jaara's ill and Naftis now has a head wound thanks to you. They should both see healers as quickly as possible."

"I'm not ill," Jaara snapped.

Hamen shook his head slowly in exhasperation. "This ride has been hard and the rest of us are tired and hot too, but you don't see us wavering in our saddles or throwing up our breakfasts every morning and afternoon," he said softly and reasonably.

"I'm well in the evening," Jaara pointed out. "Perhaps I'm a little... Perhaps I have not yet recovered my full strength, but I'm hardly in need of a healer. And Naftis... well... he should wake up any moment now, and I doubt a healer can fix what's really ailing him."

Caylia unfastened her waterskin and began unscrewing the top. "Jaara, a healer is far more qualified to make such calls than you, don't you think?"

"Healers know nothing of the pain of a broken bond," the injured woman murmured.

"And you do?"

Caylia's voice was gentle and innocent, but it struck Jaara like a blow. Jaw tense and face impassive as stone, she stared for a moment at the horizon, blinking away the tears that wanted to come to her eyes, and waited until she could find her voice. "Let us set up a tent here and rest for a bit," she said finally. "We can decide where to go and what to do once we've seen to Naftis' head. And he should have a say in the matter, don't you think?"
The sun beat down heavily in the mid afternoon and Caylia set her harp to rest in the sand, sitting down heavily behind it. The loquiri was lying nearby, still unconscious with his hands bound, shaded by the overhang of canvas. They had set up a temporary camp near two Agro trees, their spiky succulent bark holding the canvas like two great tarps laying out a wide swath of cool, shaded sand. When they were thirsty they bored holes in the bark with their knives and drank the sweet juice to save their water.

Removing her headscarf and veil, Caylia touched the strings, running her fingers over each one. This one…this one I tuned to the sound of the wind that night in the garden by the base of that tower of ivory. The fountain was running and somewhere chimes were calling out…this…She plucked it gently, yes this is it. She looked over at the man, lying prone and still. The smack by Haman and just yielded a small knot on the back of his head but it had ended the sheer emotional torment that had given Caylia a headache.

Her eyes flicked to the horizon, toward a ridge of sharp sandstone and small clouds of dust forming and reforming under the sun. She frowned, but a groan frightened it from her lips and drew her eyes back to the man slowly stirring in the sand. His lids flickered, slowly opened and her finger found the harp string.

“You’re not dead,” she said before he found himself. Slowly he lolled his head over only half seeing her. “As much as you want to be, you’re not. I can’t way I was completely unhappy with what Haman did, considering all that emotional thrashing around you did earlier was giving her a headache.” My peace string, a second for harmony, the third, tuned to hall at feastday, the tone of laughter, only as an undertone. She opened herself up to her gift, and let the music flow in her veins.

“Stop it…” he croaked. She raised a brow but her fingers didn’t leave the strings. Keep calm, help him find a little peace for a while was all she wanted. “Stop…”

“I don’t play all the strings on this harp,” she said, conversationally. “I found the sixth one, the smallest one, in an old library and I haven’t had the courage to see what it says. All the strings speak but in different ways. These ways I’m finding now don’t hurt, just a temporary help.” She smiled a little. “I don’t know much about loquiri so I will not stand in your way. Neither,” she looked pointedly at his bonds, “will I help you.”

He looked at her, eyes still a little muddled and fully suspicious. “Then why are you sitting here.”

“I like stories and tales, and I like to hunt them. Where are you going and why? If you are so bent on killing yourself, then why didn’t you do it that night when we first met? You had a mission, or maybe had, and I wonder where you are taking us. Apollar is a big place.”

He appraised her for a moment, hands turning in his bonds, and opened his mouth to speak, but a different voice answered.

“You’re awake.”

“Jaara, I thought you were resting…”

The woman viciously shook her head and sank down in the sand next to them. “I am not anymore. If we need to make time, we need to discuss with him and then leave as soon as possible.” Caylia frowned but conceded. Another time, perhaps, she would get her answer. She drew out her waterskin and uncorked it, letting Naftis take a drink as Haman joined them.

“So...” he said slowly, “we thought you should wake to speak, but we would like to stop at a settlement, the closest one if possible, and see a healer.”

“They would like to,” Jaara clarified. Caylia eyed her. So set that she wasn’t sick.

Haman shook his head. “And if you die? You were sleeping not long ago and have been sick. What if you’re exhausted.”

“I’m fine.”

“I don’t need a healer.”

The was the loquiri. Caylia reached back and touched the knot and the man winced. “What if your skull is cracked?” she asked gently.

“More the better.”

“Then you won’t get where you’re going.”

At that he lapsed into silence. So, Caylia released her gift, but kept the music low. It was still peaceful and it might be needed. Whatever it is is important enough for him to want to continue. I guess sometimes the other burdens get to be too much to bear.

“Look,” Jaara was arguing, “if we’re trying to avoid suspicion then we should not stop.”

“Unless we go somewhere with enough people that a sick woman, and an injured man won’t make a person flinch.” Haman sat back on his heels. “Besides, if we are caught how will you escape?”

She was outnumbered and she knew it and for a moment Caylia was concerned that the woman would fight her way out like she had done in other situations when she was surrounded. Instead she looked at them all and sat back with a growl. “Fine…” she muttered, “we’ll find a healer. At the very least for him.”

"We came to the healer; we are not staying here for the entire night! We need to keep moving, else we are going to find out exactly how we'll escape if our pursuers catch up to us."

Hamen shook his head. "If we are followed here it will be noted that people in the kind of shape you and Naftis are in left without even staying one day. We may as well throw wet leaves on a fire as leave so obvious a sign. Waiting one evening, just one, will make our passage through here all but invisible. We have enough of a lead that such invisibility is far more valuable than speed, and the lack far more dangerous."

Jaara remained stubborn and scowling. "We can slip away in the night. No one will notice the empty beds in the morning except to fill them."

Caylia stepped forwards, her words calming the situation rapidly. Hamen didn't even stay long enough to hear what new take on the same old argument she took to calm Jaara down this time. He made his way to the healer himself, confirmed they'd be staying the evening, then continued on into the night. This town was more than large enough to have at least one or two decent taverns.

Hamen stopped in his tracks as he passed through the market. It was getting dark; the merchants were collecting their wares. Lying on the ground beside one of these merchants was a single Derk-ra. Hamen took a few steps closer, a smile growing on his face as he and reptile studied each other. The merchant looked up, bored look suddenly gaining interest. "Oh, you have a good eye for Derk-ra to be studying Maheen so closely. You're not likely to see a finer beast in all your years."

The usual retort caught in Hamen's throat. "I suspect you are not exaggerating, and that is a rare thing. How do you finish the day with such a fine creature unsold?"

The merchant waved a hand. "Maheen knows how fine she is. She is not easily tamed or controlled. Few desire a wild Derk-ra, no matter how magnificent a specimen she is."

Hamen only smiled.

* * * * *

Caylia was sitting outside the healing house when Hamen returned. She finished the tune she was swaying to before turning to face him with a nod. Her gaze quickly moved to the Derk-ra and the lash on it; one was end around Maheen's neck with the other on the man's staff. "You appear to have acquired a straggler. Is there a reason you aren't holding the leash yourself?"

"Maheen is no straggler. She could run every one of us into the ground. The leash is tied to my staff because she hasn't yet decided that I am a worthy partner to travel with, and Derk-ra strike in the direction the leash pulls from. There is a reason I still have all of my fingers."

Caylia nodded, her fingers caressing across the strings as she studied the Derk-ra for a moment longer. "How did you convince Jaara to calm down and get some sleep for a change?"

A ghost of a smile crossed the bard's lips before she answered. "I implied that the rest of us were growing weary and needed the rest, as her continuing on her own would defeat the purpose of her coming in the first place. As I do not yet believe she knows exactly why she has come at all, she fell to quiet grumbling and then to sleep in far less time than I will confess to her when she wakes."

Hamen shook his head and moved over to lean against the building, being sure to lead, not pull, Maheen along. "So now she can rest assured that we do not think any less of her for actually being human." The two sat in silence for a few moments before Caylia's fingers found a tune they couldn't resist, a quiet melody. Almost a lullaby. "Why do you suppose she is here? That she would be restless waiting to heal is obvious, but why is she here?"

The bard's trained fingers continued, though the tune grew softer as Caylia answered. "People are drawn to do as they do. There are not always reasons that we can understand or recognize. I am here for the story, to have an adventure all my own to spin to eager minds for the rest of my days, yet I have found that I'm pushing myself harder than I would have expected. Why do you suppose you are here?"

"For the same basic reason Jaara and Naftis are. And you, for that matter. I am missing something. Our two sleeping comrades, I think, know what they are missing. You are in the process of realizing what you are missing. I have found one thing I was missing, " he glanced down at Maheen before continuing, "but am once again in the same trap everyone gets into when there is nothing obvious that they need. I am missing something, and I hope that by being here I may find it. Call it boredom, if you will."

Caylia's tune grew louder again, delicate and soothing in the night. "I will call it curiosity. Everyone is striving for something, or else they are not truly alive. That does not mean they are missing something, only that they have not forgotten desire." She stood slowly as her music faded away at its end, then turned towards the healer's. "Don't forget to actually get some rest tonight, Hamen. Jaara will accept no excuses on the morrow, and Naftis will need attention paid to him."

Hamen nodded to the bard as she left him to the night. He looked down to Maheen, lowered his hand slowly, then thought better of it after seeing the look in her eye and dropped the treat he'd been holding to the ground in front of her instead. She flicked out her tongue, just touching the treat, then looked up to him before snatching it up and swallowing it. The man from Apollar smiled. I will need to continue on foot. It will be good to feel the ache in my legs again rather than my backside.
The four travelers stepped at last within the white sandstone walls of Crossroads to the hiss and screech of agitated Derk-ra.

“Keep her away from Khyr!” Jaara snarled, as once again Hamen’s new companion lunged at the smaller male, who lashed out a clawed forearm in retaliation. She dismounted stiffly and strode to her Derk-ra. Kneeling beside Khyr, she glared at Hamen over her shoulder. “You call yourself a Derk-ra trainer? You cannot even control one Derk-ra. Look! She has sliced open the wound on Khyr’s snout anew.” The Derk-ra’s brownish-blue blood splattered the hard-packed dirt beneath his claws, and he growled softly at Jaara and anyone else who dared make eye contact with him.

“Is it very bad?” Caylia asked, concerned and also trying to break up the argument.

Jaara glared at her, too. “He is not going to die from it, if that’s what you mean. But it surely pains him, and it will scar if it’s not treated properly.”

“Perhaps we should find a healer and see if he or she can treat Khyr,” Caylia suggested slowly and cautiously. “Naftis too could use a healer’s touch.”

Jaara glanced up at Naftis on his horse. He lay draped over the mare’s neck, deeply asleep. That morning, and the one before that, Hamen had carefully collected a small measure of venom from Khyr and Maheen. They’d coated the tip of the blade Naftis had tried to kill himself with in the venom, and then scratched him, very lightly, upon the arm with it. Naftis had felt the bite of a Derk-ra’s venom before, as had nearly every man, woman and child of the Mara; it did not paralyze him as it did those who first experienced the poisoning, but it left him too drowsy and his limbs too weak and sluggish to do anything other than sleep or stare, half-conscious, about himself. He had been sleeping for several hours already, and showed no clear signs of being ready to wake yet.

Unfortunately, this morning it had taken more of the venom to effectively sedate him, and this time he’d remained awake afterwards long enough to realize what they’d done and to be angry about it. Tomorrow they likely would have a fight on their hands if they wanted to sedate him again, and even if they did manage to get the venom into his veins, it might not take the same way it had the previous two days.

“Yes,” she said, glancing from Naftis to her Derk-ra. “Let’s find a healer to take a look at Khyr’s snout, and to see to Naftis. Hopefully, he or she will have something else with which we may keep him quiet. I’m not sure Derk-ra venom should be used in this way.”

They went down the lanes slowly, searching for a telltale blue and green tent with silver trimming that marked a healer’s shop in Crossroads. They did not find one, but they did find an apothecary, and Jaara and Caylia ventured within to make inquiries while Hamen remained outside to make sure Naftis did not fall from his horse.

The old woman scooping willow bark into cloth bags scratched her chin. “Well, old Aja died last spring, but there was a Hybrid in earlier to pick up supplies. Not sure how long he’ll be in Crossroads, but he’s here now, if you’re interested.”

“A Hybrid?” Caylia said doubtfully, and Jaara sneered.

The apothecary scratched her short-cropped gray hair. “Aye. Aquilan, judging by his hair, but dresses, speaks and is armed like Dragonian true-blood.”

“Are there no others?” Jaara demanded.

“Not right now,” the apothecary said apologetically. “It was nice to have business, I must admit. The Hybrid knows his herbs, I’ll give him that.”

Caylia bit her lip. “Well, if that’s the best we can do… Where might we find this Hybrid?”

“There is a Dragonian refugee camp just outside the Southern wall. You will find him there. Way I hear it, his entire tribe has fled the Eloin to Crossroads.”

Caylia nibbled her lip. “Have things become so desperate outside the Mara?” Her clear green eyes looked troubled.

“I hope not,” Jaara said snidely. “Crossroads is already infected with enough foreigners without giving succor to every demon-blasted ael kinth fleeing the Eloin.”

The apothecary gasped and Caylia looked somewhat dismayed. “The lady has a tongue on her!” the old woman said, her hand grasping the white muslin fabric of her tunic as though Jaara’s words had given her a heart attack.

“She is not feeling well,” Caylia explained, sounding simultaneously embarrassed and exasperated. She took a deep, calming breath. “Anyway, there’s time enough to worry about the Eloin and onrushing foreignors in the future. For now, we should just be grateful that this tribe’s ill-fortune has brought Crossroads a much needed healer. Speaking of which…” She nodded toward the door. “We should seek him now.” She grasped Jaara’s good arm, and dragged her bodily toward the door. “Good day!” she called over her shoulder to the scandalized apothecary.

It was not at all difficult to find the Dragonian camp beyond Crossroad’s walls. The apothecary had not been exaggerating when she said an entire tribe had fled to the Mara. Men, women and children hurried about busily, performing daily tasks with the carefree efficiently of those well accustomed to a nomadic lifestyle. Women knelt tending the cooking fires, and beyond, a man with a shock of red hair sparred with a Dragonian adolescent while a young boy looked on.

“Unless they’re littered with Hybrids, that’ll be our man,” Jaara stated the obvious.

They crossed to the clearing where the two combatants sparred, and stood watching for another five minutes until, bowing, the two ended the fight. The redhead turned to them with a grin, spotted Jaara and Naftis, and then---his eyes widening in concern and dismay---crossed over to them quickly, calling “Come Elam,” over his shoulder.

“Forgive me!” he said in faintly accented Dragonian, and the young child---his son?---came to stand before him. The Hybrid placed his hands on the child’s shoulders. “I knew Joran and I were being watched, but I didn’t realize you were hurt. Please, all of you, come to my tent and I’ll see what I can do.”

One hand still on the boy’s shoulder, he gently touched Jaara’s upper back to guide her away, but she shrugged out of his grasp and nodded toward Khyr. “It is for my Derk-ra---and for Naftis---that we come,” she told him.

The Hybrid suddenly became very still and his pale blue eyes followed hers to the Derk-ra. “Oh.” He took a slight step back.

“You have Derk-ra as pets?” the little boy asked, seeming to want to touch Khyr’s snout, but being pulled back by the healer. He twisted to look up at the Hybrid. “They’re nice, like the ones I saw when Da and I met my uncle!”

The Hybrid shushed the boy gently, then turned to Jaara. “Is it trained?”

Jaara smiled dangerously. “He hasn’t taken anyone’s fingers without permission yet.”

The healer swallowed. “Very well. Well, uh, let’s not keep him waiting, or your companion either. He is unconscious? Ill? Injured?”

“Drugged,” Caylia said. “He has had a rough few days.” She glanced uncomfortably at the little boy Elam, not wanting to continue in his presence, but the healer seemed to have no intention of sending him off. “Two days ago, he attempted to end his life. Hamen had to strike him to prevent him from doing harm to himself. He was quite determined.”

“Why would he do that?” Elam asked, and again the Hybrid hushed him.

“This way,” the healer said, leading them to his tent. Hamen led Naftis’ horse by the reins, and once outside the tent, they pulled Naftis from the saddle. The loquiri stirred and was able to walk, with help, into the tent, but did not seem particularly aware of his surroundings. “What did you drug him with?” the healer asked as he and Caylia helped Naftis into the tent, Elam and Jaara following behind. Hamen remained outside to tend the two Derk-ra, especially Maheen, who could not be trusted yet around people.

By the time the healer began his examination, Naftis was awake enough to sit on his own, though he was slumped forward slightly, as though about to succumb to sleep. Although only half awake, his anguish simmered quietly under the surface of his drugged mind.

“You seem mostly intact,” the Hybrid told the loquiri quietly, and Naftis grunted a little, disinterested. “It looks like this was washed and bandaged shortly after you were hit?” He glanced at Jaara for confirmation when Naftis said nothing, and she nodded. “Good. It’s healing well. I’ll just spread a little salve over it, cover it back up, and give you some kapa bark for the pain.” He glanced at Jaara and spoke in a low voice. “I have something you can give him. Something better than Derk-ra venom. Remind me to prepare a bag of somna for you before you leave.”

“That’s right,” Naftis growled, anger rolling through the room and washing over them. Jaara frowned and Caylia looked guilty. The Hybrid and the young boy jumped a little, and Jaara looked at them curiously.

Naftis’s eyes settled on the healer. “Do not do that,” he hissed, anger bringing some strength to his limbs and awareness to his eyes. He straightened slowly, but did not have the command of his body to rise.

The Hybrid’s hands fluttered away from his head. “I’m sorry, did I hurt you? I am trying to be as gentle as I may, but you took a rather nasty blow to the skull.”

“My head is fine,” the loquiri snapped. “Leave me alone. See to Jaara.”

The Hybrid frowned, but obeyed. “He’s right,” he told Jaara. “I’ve done what I can for him. You now, my good woman.”

“I am not your good woman,” Jaara said, and instead of approaching him, opened the flap of the tent and called Khyr inside.

The Derk-ra hissed softly at the Hybrid, who moved with liquid reflexes to stand protectively before the boy Elam.

“Do not be afraid,” Caylia laughed gently. “He is tamer than he looks.” She had not even risen when Khyr entered the tent.

“Sit, Khyr,” Jaara commanded, pointing at the Hybrid’s feet. The beast did so obediently, settling down into the ground with an agitated growl.

The healer swallowed and carefully reached out a hand to touch the Derk-ra’s snout. When Khyr did not snap at him or make any sudden moves, he took the animal more firmly in hand and tilted his head toward him. “Looks like this is an old wound that reopened. Was he in a fight today?”

“Yes, less than an hour ago,” Jaara said.

The Hybrid nodded. “A moment. I’ve some things to clean the wound with. It does not require stitching, but there’s a salve around here somewhere that will help protect against infection and foster the healing of the flesh.” A little quickly, he backed away from the Derk-ra and, with obvious relief, retreated out of the tent to fetch his supplies. The little boy followed, his hand held tightly in the Hybrid’s own, although it was clear the child was fascinated by the Derk-ra.

“Did you see his arm?” Caylia commented.

Jaara nodded. “He learned the hard way to respect a Derk-ra. Which is good. I doubt he’ll be trying to steal from us.”

With the child at his heels, the Hybrid returned and made short work of cleansing and salving Khyr’s snout with aromatic water and soft cloths. He was clearly frightened, but did not let his fear interfere with his craft. Nor did he allow the little boy to approach the Derk-ra, although it was quite clear the animal was not going to attack. “Will you allow me to tend that shoulder, my good woman?” he said to Jaara after he was done.

“It has been tended.”

“Two days ago!” Caylia protested, sounding exasperated enough to strangle the other woman. “Besides, if the other healer was right, now is time remove the stitches. You should be grateful for that, at least.”

Jaara was grateful, but she still sighed heavily. “Fine.”

She sat very still while the healer examined the wound, poking and prodding as healers tended to do.

“You are like my Fay-el,” he commented quietly with a little chuckle as Jaara endured his ministrations stoically.

“I am no Dragonian,” Jaara snapped

“That doesn’t stop me!” the Hybrid grinned to diffuse the situation, indicating his red Aquilan hair and then Dragonian shitans. Elam giggled.

Jaara’s eyes came to rest upon the crimson crest adorning the hilt of the finer of the two weapons and she gritted her teeth. Caylia did not seem dismayed at all at the notion of a Derk-ra being hunted to adorn the hilts of weapons, but she was from Settar, not Apollar. Naftis did not even seem to be listening to their conversation, but was beginning to slump toward the ground again, clearly still too drowsy to stay awake for long stretches of time. Yesterday, he hadn’t woken from the venom-sedation at all.

“Yes, well, true blood is a much truer thing within the Mara than without,” Jaara sneered, earning a deep frown from Caylia. The little boy watched the exchange in confusion with wide, innocent eyes.

The Healer paused above the stitch he’d been about to remove. “Let us just stick to the business at hand,” he said firmly, his jaw tense. “You’ll want to keep this arm in your sling for another two weeks, at least. If you rest it properly, it should be completely usable within a year, unless you sustained nerve or tendon damage.”

Jaara laughed and Caylia stared at the Hybrid as though he’d suggested putting leeches on the wound. “I’ve seized enough of the Gift to Mend it long before then,” Jaara said, slightly offended that he thought so little of her Gift. “I just…” She nodded toward Naftis, who had straightened a bit and was staring at the healer incredulously. “Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea just now, you understand.”

The loquiri ignored her, staring instead at healer. “You do not know the Mending?”

The Hybrid blinked at him. “I… excuse me?”

Naftis exchanged a glance with Jaara and Caylia. Jaara frowned. Was he not Gifted after all? “Interesting,” the loquiri said, but he did not sound particularly interested, and his anguish flowed thickly through the room.

“Why are you so sad?” Elam asked the loquiri, who ignored him except to stare dolefully at him, as though he lacked the willpower to speak.

The Hybrid’s lifted a hand to his temple. “Leave him alone, Elam.”

“Headache?” Jaara asked, raising an eyebrow and glancing again at Caylia. The same headache was rising in her own skull, as her body attempted to deal with the emotional backlash of Naftis’ anguish.

“A bit. But I’ll be fine. Um.” He seemed distracted as he looked about the tent. “Oh right. I can give you some kapa to help with the pain,” he told Jaara.

Caylia snorted. “She won’t take it, trust me. But… do you have anything for an unsound stomach?” Jaara glared at her.

The healer’s eyes snapped back to the injured woman. “Stomach problems?”

Jaara grunted something that may have been, “Yes,” and the Hybrid, having decided that the Caylia was more forthright about providing information, turned to regard the bard with a raised eyebrow.

“Every morning, without fail---and sometimes into the afternoon as well---she becomes very ill and cannot hold anything down.”

The healer frowned. “How long has this been happening? Did she suffer from an infection early on?”

“It has been happening since she was first wounded ten days ago, and no, I do not believe the wound was fouled,” the bard said.

“And this happens everyday, without fail?”

Caylia nodded. “And at the same time of day, without fail.”

“Talk to me, not about me!” Jaara snapped, wanting to throw something at them but not having anything readily available.

The healer paused and regarded her for a long moment. “Any fatigue, mood swings, unusual cravings, faintness or heat flashes?” he asked finally. “Unusual weight gain?”

Caylia’s jaw dropped open. “Isn’t that a bit of a leap?”

Jaara looked confused. “Yes? No? I don’t know. Are you calling me a glutton?” Her lower lip started to quiver against her will. Dasik had always said he wanted her to have more meat on her bones and that he’d feed her until she was as plump as any rich man’s wife. He’d loved to cook, and always reminded her that if she put on a little more weight than she wanted, he’d just work it off of her in the sparring ring.

“What’s wrong?” Caylia asked, springing toward her but knowing better than to touch her. Instead, she hovered at Jaara’s shoulder. “He’s just considering the options!”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Jaara insisted, but to her horror, she felt her eyes filling with tears. “You’re the ones with the problem.”

The healer cleared his throat. “Could you give the lady and I a moment alone?”

Caylia fixed Jaara with a concerned look. “Do you want me to leave?”

She considered for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I’m in no danger.”

His mouth opening slightly to protest, then closing, the healer said simply, “Thank you. Elam, go sit in the corner and be quiet, alright?” When Caylia had gone, he shook his head slowly, looking closely at Jaara, then glanced at Naftis, seeing that he was asleep again. “This may be a somewhat personal question, but…when was your last moon day?”

She blinked at him. That was the last question she’d expected. “I don’t know. I’ve been concerned with other things.”

“Alright. Well, would you be so kind as to gift me with a drop of your blood? There is an herb I can blend it with that will tell me what I want to know.”

Jaara extended her hand, palm up, in assent. Gently, he nicked her with his shitan, then carefully gathered the blood that welled on the flat of the blade. “A moment,” he said, stepping outside of the tent, gesturing for Elam to follow.

“Jaara?” Caylia asked a few moments later. “May I come in?”

“Yes,” the woman grunted.

The bard gave her a reassuring smile, and knelt beside the sleeping Naftis. “What did he say, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“He took my blood and left,” Jaara responded irritably. She was not in a mood to talk, and so passed the time listening to Caylia’s soft humming.

The Hybrid returned, ducking in the tent flap and sidestepping around Khyr, who’d returned to Jaara’s feet. “Oh, you’re back,” he said to Caylia, then turned to his patient. “Um… Jaara… What I have to tell you, you may prefer to hear alone…”

She fixed him with a stern look. “I am not easily frightened or dismayed. You may speak before her.”

The Hybrid scratched his head, as though thinking of how to say what he wanted to say, and then grinned at her. “Well, I’ve got some great news. You are most definitely with child. Congratulations!”

Caylia turned slowly to look at Jaara, concern crossing her face. Jaara stared at the healer in shock. “Excuse me?” she said flatly.

“I said you’re with child,” the healer said, still smiling, but sounding somewhat uncomfortable now that he had not received the reaction he’d expected to receive.

Jaara wilted a little, looking utterly defeated and exhausted. “You have got to be kidding me,” she murmured, then half-growled, half-sobbed, “Is this some kind of blasted joke? I don’t have time for this.” Snapping Khyr’s name, she strode out of the tent, the Derk-ra following close at her heels.
Naftis opened one eye and then sat up all the way, blinking away the sleep. Too much noise...blasted, noisy place He could hear Jaara and Caylia alike outside the tent, and neither sounded very happy. The Healer, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen.

He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, using the pain of a venom hangover to force him fully awake. Swearing helped too. He started with Jaara and worked his way to the bloody Hybrid Healer. Someone giggled.

Naftis' head snapped around. The young boy of before sat there, head cocked like an inquisitive bird. "What?" the loquiri growled.

"You feel...different."

The pair-link awakened. It spread through his skull like a falcon unfolding its wings. The grief was tangible. He cursed and dropped his head. "Go away."

"If you want me to. I'm not mean like that Jayara."

That forced a smile. The Mara accent wasn't an easy one to master. "Jaara," he repeated for the boy's benefit, "And I agree. She acts much like a Derk-ra off its feed. But I'm not nice either."

"Aye, but you're broken."

Naftis blinked. "What?"

The boy shrugged, his face scrunching as he thought. "You feel like that. Like something's missing."

He glanced at the boy. A better description of his pair-link he could not have asked for. Tentatively, the loquiri seized his own Gift. His hold wavered, sliding out of reach, but not before he felt the faint focus. "How do you have the Gift? Dragonians are not born with it, as we are."

"The Gift?"

"The Gift. The Glow, if you be Aquila."

The boy laughed. "Kor is Aquila, but he doesn't glow."

That's right, the Healer has some Gift, even if he doesn't know how to use it The man in question chose that moment to step into the tent. He flicked an annoyed glance at Naftis and then focused on the boy.

"Elam, why don't you go find Daliah?"

"Why?"

He sighed. "Because I asked you to. Your Da will be upset if you stay up all night." The Healer rested a hand on the boy's shoulder, nudging him gently. "Just find Daliah and see if she can help you--"

A tall Mara stepped through. His dark eyes flicked from the quiet loquiri to Kor, and then he grinned. The smile held no humor. "Why, Kor. Long time, eh?"

The Hybrid had straightened, moving Elam behind him. "Ravin." He said stiffly.

The man, Border Guard juding by his clothes, smiled wider. "You remember. How nice. Meet my friends, if you please."

Two more men, these bearing the royal seal on the brooch fastening their cloaks. Behind them, a Guildsman stood with ready ease. He cocked his head at the Hybrid. "I warned you."

The Healer backed away. "What's going on here?" His eyes were wary, fixed on the Guildsman. Perhaps they had met before.

"It seems a certain Hybrid bought herbs from the apocethary," Ravin drawled. "One of which was somna."

"There is no harm in that."

"Ah, but our beloved Chrys had his loquiri poisoned today, with somna. Interesting, don't you think?"

"I was nowhere near Ratacca Korr."

"Then you won't mind if I search your pack?"

The Healer frowned. "If I refuse, you will anyway."

Ravin shrugged. Scowl deepening, the Hybrid motioned at the bag by Naftis. "Do as you please."

As the Border Guard moved, the Healer bent down to whisper in the boy's ear. Elam nodded soberly, and the Hybrid straightened again. Ravin turned, hiding something in one hand.

"Have you used your somna yet? On him perhaps?" He motioned at Naftis.

The Healer shook his head. "Not yet. I planned to."

Ravin opened his hand. A flask of pale purple fluid lay in his grip, half-empty. THe color drained from the Healer's face. "I swear---I swear on Kyda's name, I had nothing to do with that."

Ravin's eyes hardened. "Take him. And anyone with him."

The Hybrid spun, shoving the boy. "Go!"

The youth darted away. The Border Guard waved a curt hand at one of the guards. "Get him. Use your Gift to find him. I'm sure Chrys will want the boy in safer hands than this."

Naftis stood slowly, aware of the dizziness licking at the edge of his mind. "Leave the boy be."

"You have no place to argue," Ravin said. "As aiding an attack on a Fay-el's loquiri is a capital offense, 'tis better if you say nothing at all."

He frowned. "How can we be involved? He was a Healer and I was wounded."

A shrug. "It is not my concern."

A snarl of Derk-ra was followed by angry voices, and then another set of guards appeared. Jaara, Haman, and Caylia glanced from the hard face of Ravin to Naftis."What is happening?"

"It seems our Healer is accused of harming a royal loquiri."

"Royal--" Jaara's eyes widened. "That cannot be."

Naftis motioned at Ravin. "Tell that to this one. He plans to bring us all into question."

She turned, and started arguing with the Border Guard. Ravin's expression was easily read. No amount of cajoling or pleading budged him. He waited until the last man returned, dragging a bedraggled Elam. Kor swore. "Let him go, Ravin!"

The Border Guard ignored him. The lone Guildsman reached for the boy's arm. Elam shrank back from him. His voice wavered. "Kor!"

The Healer reached for a shitan. And Ravin reacted, obviously waiting for that. He twisted Kor's wrist, shoving him back until he lost his footing and hit the floor. Ravin smiled. "Your weapon?"

The Hybrid handed both of them to him with obvious reluctance. Ravin glanced back over his shoulder. "Bind the Hybrid. And his friends." He stepped back as the men moved forward.

Naftis started to rise, but was pinned by Ravin's hard stare. "If they resist," he growled. "Use your Gift."

When they were bound, Ravin led the way through the camp, the winding paths of Crossroads, and on past the broad courtyard of Ratacca Korr. By the time they reached the inner corridors, Naftis was staggering. So many people--so much Gift. It was overwhelming. There had been no time to take somna. Gods, he would take Derk-ra venom before he would suffer through this.

Through the haze, he realized they had entered the throne room. He should be bowing. He moved, and felt strong hands tighten on his shoulders. Naftis looked up as a Lord, his back to them and a set of Derk-ra at his feet, spoke.

"Sire, this is not acceptable to any of us. If you should perish, Kyda forbid, you cannot expect a boy such as Elam to take the rule of Mara. Name a proxy and we will be content."

The scowling Mara (Lodear-born, his mind noted absently) could only be the hot-temepred Chrys. He glared at the Lord with undisguised irritation. "You will never be content. I will not have any bloody, Eyrie-spawned proxy of your choosing to rule over my people."

Naftis saw motion at the edge of his vision. One man paced restlessly, fidgeting and tapping his feet. The other was a Dragonian man, pure-blood judging by his looks. He stared at their group with obvious surprise, followed by shock and then the faintest bit of fear. An unusual sight on a Dragonian warrior. Naftis watched him lean close to Chrys. The other man tensed. He clenched his eyes closed, muttering something.

The Dragonian frowned, but backed away slowly. They discussed urgently, and then Chrys stood again. Naftis could hear him speaking to Ravin, including a command to unbind all but Kor. He tuned out most of it. It did not concern him, and he would probably never get to see the inside of Ratacca Korr again.

Fine stone, interlaced with veins of scarlet, blue, and emerald spread from pillar to pillar. Tapestries, illuminated by the occasional lune lined the walls. A broad skylight shed the paling light of dusk across the floor. The Lord who had spoken earlier spun away, scowling. The Derk-ra at his feet caught the change in move, shifting and growling low in their throats.

Naftis cocked his head. Their scales didn't look healthy. The play of light made them look gray, no, white. White? His eyes jumped from fine clothing to the inlay of a white eagle, the Lord's coat of arms, and up to the dark gray eyes. Wide with kolinar. He couldn't turn away. The eyes held him steady. He knew the man was smiling softly. Something buzzed at his side, as if the knife beneath his sleeve was transforming into a bee. He blinked. Felt the Gift wash over him.

His head ached. Confusion flickered into his mind. A Match? He had not had a Match in over a year. Hadn't he? But his link was suddenly fulfilled. He knew the man's name. Gyas. Gyas the White, for his sigil and his passion for breeding Derk-ra and other animals of the same color.

Chrys took a step forward. The Fay-el was arguing with a Guildsman on what to do with the young boy. Gyas glanced at the approaching man with dread and fear. Naftis felt the link prickle. Too close. Back off. He inched toward Gyas. All his instincts drove him forward. If this was his Match, then nothing mattered but his safety.

Chrys inched closer. He ignored the Derk-ra's hiss of warning. Shot Gyas a frustrated glare. The Lord's uneasiness rose. Strengthening into intense fear. The link carried warning, danger. And Chrys was so close. So very close to his Match.

The humming was louder. Naftis couldn't think. Not beyond that eerie sound. Not beyond the simple fact of his Match and the danger to his Match. I have to do something. I won't get hurt again.

"Naftis?"

He shook his head. "Not now, Caylia. I'm trying to...to think."


[By the way, for those of you who don't know--the character Kor belongs to the original campfire, Crystal Fire. I would suggest reading at least the last two additions of that before adding your addition here. It might help with continuity. *Smile*]




The rhythm of Caylia’s heart changed, speeding and taking her breath. What had happened? Something had changed within the loquiri, something noticeable as he seemed to gain height and a squaring to his shoulders. Something so sudden and so abrupt as he had looked at the lord in white. The lord in white…Why would someone need that much kolinar here? I see it in his eyes, and Windrunner take me I should know after how much we grow in Settar. Why would someone really need that much Gift? For what point and purpose? Here…trinity I can feel it. Her skin prickled.

“Naftis,” she tried a second time but now he didn’t even respond, one moment his eyes fixed on the lord, then next moving, thinking and she looked a little desperately at Jaara. The warrior woman had noticed it too, her eyes fixed on the loquiri and her jaw tensed. She could almost see the muscles coiling, ready to spring, cat like. How many others had noticed?

Hamen’s eyes were fixed forward, focused at the white creatures at the lord’s feet. (And what happened to his? They took them after…That man’s hand…But they took them from someone falsely accused, Hamen should demand them back.), the healer’s eyes held fear, (Do we owe him a debt for Natis and Jaara, or were his actions simply a matter of honor? How many masks does Honor wear and how many of them are true? That’s how that riddle went, the tincture? Too many and too few…) not for himself but for the young boy that was still held by a Guildsman, the border guard (His name? Ravin…) looked irritated, as if someone spoiled his dinner, a frown suddenly tugging at his lips and eyes starting to look over the room, and the Fay-el? Harried, harassed and lost. None of them took notice of the loquiri who now took a step closer to the lord in white and the Fay-el.

The danger was almost tangible, the line their little group was walking so fine it could have been a thread of silk. Caylia closed her eyes. Think…I must think too… She had never been to Crossroads, and most definitely not Ratacca Korr, and yet she had read about it, in new scrolls and old and of other men who had fallen in its halls long ago. And how often had she heard the justice students discussing the Fay-el in the far away, far removed way they could. Still, what she knew still applied here. The centrality of their people, the honor of their own and the underlying unity that was first founded in the original laws. Chrys had honored that by letting them go. Or maybe he simply didn’t care. Not let go Caylia corrected herself wryly, simply unbound. How many invisible restraints do we have? And then there is the Law. The law that honored the bards of Settar freedom of movement to record histories that would eventually pass into legend. Now invoked so infrequently for so few bards wandered beyond Settar in recent times, she wondered if anyone really remembered it. I could invoke it, and leave all this, maybe with Jaara and Hamen and Naftis too. It would be my right since I was bound beneath this roof but…but no…The danger is not from Chrys but rather what might come to pass. What with Jaara, as usual, ready to slit someone’s throat, if not with her sword then with words, and Naftis doing trinity knows what. Silence is a better weapon for now...I may need the Law later. Until I know more, I think it is better to remain quiet and forgotten…forgotten is best. Anyways, something is still odd with…

Footsteps, drew Caylia out of her thoughts, and the little boy ran across the room into the arms of a woman the bard hadn’t seen enter, all eyes, except for a select few following him. Whatever he was, above all he was a victim and as for heir? She had heard whispers here and there besides the bathing pools but soon passed off to more interesting things, and her eyes, always lowered in a book or on sheets of music, or finding fingers on a new instrument, had quickly forgotten. Even now she found her interest slipping away again as Naftis caught her eye back from who held it before.

He was inching closer. No, not inching, beginning to move. Trinity, we need to get him out of here but…what is going on? Is he going to hurt they Fay-el? He’s going to get himself killed or…that lord, so much Gift. She could almost sense Jaara behind her. If Jaara stepped in…Watch over my marriage-daughter…

She plunged into her Gift, drew it forth and molded into notes and melody in her mind, with so much so nearby, no one would notice more Gift…she hoped. The loquiri’s emotions flowed around her, desire, fear, desperation, determination, disorientation all focused on the white lord. He moved, she breathed, harp too far away and too noticeable, and began to hum lowly, quietly. She directed her Gift, feeding the disorientation, the confusion and lessening the determination. It was harder than she thought, emotion slipping falling, caught by a net of gilded notes, softening the sharps into naturals and flats, binding them with her Gift. Sometimes they resurged and she longed for her harp, whose strings held a stronger voice. Naftis was still moving, but now less determined, wobbling somewhere between the white lord and the Fay-el. She gritted her teeth, she wanted him to stop, wanted him to turn but perhaps it was too little, too late, and it was all happening too fast. The guards were turning, the Fay-el’s eyes were on him, and she one last effort. And, in between a breath and a word, his movements turned into a stumble and he fell forward sprawling between the lord and Chrys.

There was a shout, Caylia released the Gift, breathing a sigh of relief, Good enough and sank into shadows fighting the urge to rest against the wall. She saw Jaara, then, moving forward, with little regard to the guards, but some of the tension was gone. Good enough for now. No one is hurt, everyone is alive. Good enough for now.

[Sorry for the length, posting the latest from Crystal Fire right before mine so that it makes sense. Enjoy!]

Kor's wrists burned where they had been chafed raw by the coarse ropes with which Ravin had bound him, but his physical irritation was nothing compared to the seething burn of his pride. How dare that kinth-spawned Fay-el accuse him---a blasted healer!---of deliberately poisoning a royal servant? Of deliberately poisoning anyone, for that matter? How dare that smug, conniving Ravin arrest him? And that thieving, scheming Mara… Kor knew the man must have stolen the somna he and Elam had purchased from the apothecary, and then had turned around and made Kor the scapegoat for his crime.

Kyda, he hated the Mara more and more with each passing second! Their only redeeming quality was Chrys's insistence that little Elam be shielded from the drama of the court that evening and released into Daliah's capable care. He’d felt positively flooded relief as he had watched her escort the child out of the throne room, and he desperately hoped she would be a better guardian for the boy than he had been.

When at last he was permitted to speak, he strove to keep his voice calm but to also convey the urgency of his words. Seeking out the gazes of Jin in the chair beside Chrys, and Terran at Jin’s shoulder, he felt slightly reassured, although both men looked very grim. "Please, my lord, think past your distaste for my mixed heritage and see that it makes no sense for me to have committed this crime. I have no interest in the affairs of your court or country, beyond any refugee's hope that the land in which he seeks sanctuary will be secure and flourishing. I bear neither you, nor your royal loquiri, any ill will whatsoever; indeed, I have never even met you before my arrival with my Fay-el today, let alone had the occasion to come to know you well enough to take some unfathomable offense toward you."

The ruler of all the Mara leaned forward, his eyes like daggers, pinning Kor to the spot. "Your Aquilan heritage alone is enough of a cause for concern in these trying times. Do you think me an idiot? It cannot be mere coincidence that on the very same day news of the alliance between the Aquila and the Eloin is made known to this court, a half-Aquilan Hybrid with a healer's education---who somehow managed to weasel his way into my kinsman's tribe---stands before me accused of having poisoned my loquiri with an herb only known to healers, loquiri and the occasional bard. I’m given to understand you are two of these things, and a Hybrid besides."

Kor's eyes slid to Veritas, where the royal loquiri stood, clearly tense, behind Chrys. Despite the fact that the man accused of being his poisoner stood on trial right before him, the loquiri was hardly even paying attention to Kor. Instead, his focus seemed to be divided between Jin and Chrys, sharpening to a tension so strong it nearly vibrated through the room whenever the Dragonian Fay-el leaned a little too close to his Mara kinsman to whisper furious appeals to the livid ruler. Terran, for his part, seemed more intent upon encouraging Jin to keep a healthy distance away from the High Fay-el, and Kor wondered at it. If he would ever be released, he’d have to ask Jin about that.

The bard sighed heavily, smothering the urge to wordlessly bellow his frustration at Chrys’s idiocy. "My lord," he said through gritted teeth, "Reason alone will inform you that I am a mere scapegoat for some plot within your own court. You must be blind if you cannot see it. I've no cause whatsoever to trust---let alone align myself with---the schemes of the Eloin, and numerous reasons to despise them. More than two years ago an Eloin raid saw my mother slain and our village nearly burned to the ground. I have spent the last twenty-six months attempting to convince my countrymen to take up arms against the Eloin, to no avail, and only then did I ‘weasel my way into your kinsman's tribe’, as you so quaintly put it. My tribe too, by the way, for my father was a warrior of the Shinar. So now, here I stand before you, accused of a crime for which I have no conceivable motivation whatsoever, and yet you insist it is I, and not a more obvious threat that already dwells within your court, who is at fault."

Chrys waved a hand dismissively. "I care not for how you came to be in Jin's retinue, ael kinth. All know that the loyalties of Hybrids are as impure as their bloodlines and as fluid as their mothers’ amorous attentions. Gold coinage would have been an easy salve for whatever ill-feelings you might bear toward the Eloin."

Even Veritas looked scandalized about that, and began to turn to speak furious words to the High Fay-el, but then his attention snapped to Jin as the man surged to his feet at those words.

"Chrys, you go too far---"

Veritas's jaw was very tense as he turned to regard the angry Dragonian Fay-el. "Jin, I am going to have to ask you to sit down now."

Normally Kor would expect a sharp retort from Jin after such words, but Jin grew very still, and then nodded very carefully and sat down as though upon eggshells. Behind him, Terran relaxed, clearly afraid of what a confrontation between Veritas and Chrys would lead to. That Terran could be so wary of one man frightened Kor somewhat; what kind of warrior must Veritas be, to make Terran so ill at ease?

Kor, for his part, felt a surge of hatred flow through him at the High Fay-el's callous dismissal of his very real, and still brightly burning grievances. He felt the royal loquiri's eyes come to rest dangerously upon him, and he struggled to find the breath to speak through his anger.

"My lord," he said finally, "if you want to search for treacherous motivations, look to the individuals who have brought forth these vile accusations. Elam and I saw these two men---" He thrust his chin toward the kinth he'd overheard arguing against Elam's succession when Ravin had escorted them into the throne room and the one who'd been rummaging through his pack at the beach earlier "---just today. They were watching us as we left the palace, and when Elam and I returned to our belongings after taking a brief walk down to the sea, we found that man searching through my bag. He easily could have taken the somna from my bag at that time, used it to poison Veritas, and then brought it back when he came with Ravin to arrest me. He even promised me that he would be seeing me again! Meanwhile, as I was brought before you, his companion was busily standing before you making known his strong reservations about Elam's succession. Why look beyond your own court for treachery when the seeds of discontent have clearly already been sown within?"

The smirking man who had earlier spoken against Elam fixed his eyes upon Kor, and the Hybrid noticed for the first time that they were dilated, so much so that they were nearly black. What in Kyda’s name?

The Lord smiled charmingly as he spoke. "This one has a sweet tongue, my lord, but like all ael kinth spews poison with every word. Surely it is no transgression for a pureblood Mara Lord to convey his subjects' concerns to his High Fay-el? Indeed, as I'm sure the ael kinth knows, being a learned man as Hybrids judge such things, feudal obligations within the Mara demand that a Lord oversee the welfare of his province, and speak on the behalf of his people before the Fay-el. I am hardly alone in my reservations about the boy Elam, and it would be deeply improper of me to refuse to bring Apollar's concerns before my lord Chrys."

The Fay-el did not look in the least bit persuaded by the Lord's speech, and indeed appeared even more angered by it. "Lord Gyas, you speak more for the Guild than you do for your province, and everyone in this room knows it," he snapped, taking a single step toward the man.

"Surely, my lord, you do not mean to suggest that the Guild, alone out of all your subjects, has no right to make its concerns known to you?" Lord Gyas said nervously, taking a small step backwards, his eyes suddenly shifting about the room.

“Naftis!”

Kor twisted over his shoulder, his eyes widening in surprise as his heavily-drugged recent patient, with a look of strangely dazed determination, broke away from his companions and headed toward Lord Gyas’s retinue despite Caylia’s attempt to call him back.

On the top of the dais, the High Fay-el looked just about ready to launch himself into the crowd and punch Lord Gyas in the face. "Lord Gyas,” Chrys said, enunciating each word with infinite care as he strode down the steps of the dais toward where Lord Gyas and his retinue stood among the other supplicants, “if you do not cease this pathetic attempt to dominate my court, I will have you physically removed. I have already addressed the matter of Elam’s succession, and this court has moved onto other business. Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly, my lord,” Lord Gyas said silkily. He opened his mouth to say something else, but broke off an instant later with a gasp of surprise and dismay as Naftis, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, abruptly stepped in front of him and, tripping suddenly, sprawled at his feet.

Kor thought he might have heard Caylia humming softly, but if so, she abruptly broke off at the unexpected spectacle. What is Naftis doing?

Chrys took a single step back from the fallen man, more in disgust than surprise. “What in Kyda’s name is this!” he snarled, gesturing sharply from Naftis to Lord Gyas. In three short strides, he crossed the distance between himself and the Guildsman, who recoiled, eyes wide. “What game do you think you’re---”

“Chrys, no!” That was Veritas, springing abruptly to his feet on the dais and launching himself into the crowd.

The High Fay-el started to turn toward his loquiri, but it was too late. Moving faster than any man with Derk-ra venom running through his veins had a right to move, Naftis twisted on the ground, rolling onto his back and pulling a dagger in one smooth motion and throwing it with a practiced snap of the wrist.

Chrys crumpled, his hands clutching his side and his eyes wide with shock.

Kor didn’t even realize he had tried to run forward until he felt something catch at his bonds, jerking him harshly to a halt. Cursing at the pain in his shoulders from the sudden jolt, he twisted over his shoulder. “Let me go!” he shouted at Ravin. “You know I’m a healer!”

Ravin tugged him backwards roughly. “You’re not going anywhere near him. You and your friends have already done enough.”

Not really thinking, Kor kicked his leg out behind him, hooking it around the Border Guard’s ankle. Ravin toppled, pulling Kor with him, and uttered a sharp exhalation of air as the Hybrid landed on top of him. Not bothering to catch his own breath, Kor wiggled free, making a point of stepping on Ravin’s belly as he rose, then sprang toward Chrys, who lay in a growing pool of his own blood surrounded by frightened courtiers.

Veritas was kneeling beside the fallen High Fay-el, but his attention, for the time being, was upon Naftis, not Chrys, as he restrained the dazed loquiri. That attention snapped immediately to Kor as the Hybrid rushed forward.

“No!” Jin shouted from the dais as Veritas sprang to his feet and drew his sword in one motion. Instinct or insanity alone propelled Kor to dodge sideways and twist his back toward Veritas as the royal loquiri, moving with the same blinding speed Naftis had employed, brought the sword down viciously.

The blow should have cleaved Kor from shoulder to abdomen; instead, it touched him not at all, slicing through the bonds at his wrists alone. Veritas gaped a little, his eyes widening in shock, but his expression was still grimly determined as he flipped the blade and brought the sword up in a follow-through swing. Shaking the severed ropes away from his hands, Kor dove beneath that strike, and then he was kneeling on the floor next to Chrys, holding up his hands and staring up at Veritas. “Please, I’m a healer! I can help!”

The loquiri paused, staying the blade where it was poised, ready to stab the Hybrid through the heart. Hesitation warred with viciousness in the loquiri’s eyes, and then, as abruptly as Kor had decided to turn his back to Veritas’s blade, Veritas decided to trust the Hybrid. Saying not a word, he sheathed the sword, and turned back to Naftis, who was murmuring, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.

Kor turned to the High Fay-el. “Get back,” he snapped at the flustered courtiers crowded about, throwing up a hand to motion them back as his eyes surveyed Chrys’s condition. The wiry High Fay-el was writhing on the ground, but his eyes were filled with hatred and no small amount of fear as he looked up into the healer’s face.

“Kyda, not you,” he gasped, his hands wrapped around the hilt of the dagger buried in his side.

Kor slapped his hands away. “Do not pull that out, you hear me? Here, lie on your back and bend your knees up,” he commanded the ruler of all the Mara, helping him adjust his position to alleviate stress to his injured abdomen. “Good.”

Swearing loudly, Ravin was rushing toward them, but Veritas bounded to his feet again to intercept him. Kor did not hear what the loquiri said, but definitely heard the Border Guard’s response. “Are you serious? That ael kinth---”

“You heard me,” Veritas growled. “Where’s Lord Gyas?”

“Gone,” the Border Guard said. “Do you think he was the one…?” Veritas nodded, and Ravin thrust his finger toward Naftis. “What about him?” His lip curled into a sneer. “Are you going to have him fluff our lord’s pillows? Draw him a bath?”

The loquiri glanced down at the despairing man, who was, at this point, positively in tears over what he’d done, and utterly incoherent. “I’ll treat him myself.”

“What?” Chrys snarled, struggling to sit up. Kor held him down firmly, and a worried Jin knelt beside him, placing a restraining hand on the High Fay-el’s other shoulder.

“Stay down,” Kor told him calmly.

Jin echoed the sentiment. “Marriage-brother, you need to stay still.”

“I’m not your bloody---”

Ravin’s eyes had just about popped out of his head at Veritas’s pronouncement. “Treat him? This man just tried to kill our Fay-el!”

“How is he?” Jin asked Kor quietly.

The Hybrid’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. “Lucky. The blade shouldn’t have hit any organs or arteries here. But I’ll need to remove the blade to be sure, and stop the bleeding. It’s deep.” He eyed Jin’s shirt. “Take that off and fold it.”

“No,” Veritas was saying in response to Ravin’s question as the Dragonian Fay-el slipped out of his tunic and began folding it obediently. “No, he didn’t try to kill him. He tried not to kill him.” He finished tying Naftis’s wrists and then spoke to the confused Border Guard in a low voice. “This here is a depraved loquiri, and if I’m understanding what he’s saying, Gyas just tricked him into believing he was his Match. The Guildsman felt threatened by Chrys, and Naftis reacted precisely as newly pair-bonded loquiri always act.”

“Yes,” Chrys said through gritted teeth as Kor’s fingers closed carefully over the hilt of the dagger, “he tried to kill me.”

Veritas bit his lip. “At first, maybe. Yes. But he says he sensed the pair-link between you and I and could not bear to make another suffer what he has suffered.” Two palace servants appeared at the loquiri’s shoulder. “For that reason, and that reason alone, I will treat him myself.” He addressed the servants. “Take him to my chambers. See that he is under guard, but unharmed.”

“Can you treat me, too?” Chrys hissed as the depraved loquiri was taken away, and Kor, focused on the dagger in his patient’s belly, could not tell if the Fay-el was serious or joking. A gentle pull revealed that the dagger moved easily beneath Kor’s fingers; good, it would slip easily out of the wound without doing further damage or needing to be cut out.

“No. The Hybrid knows what he’s doing,” Veritas said, his lip twitching slightly in a smile which turned quickly into a sympathetic grimace as Kor pulled the dagger free to the sound of his patient’s choked cry.

“Tunic,” Kor commanded, holding out his hand to Jin. The Fay-el placed the folded cloth into the healer’s palm, and Kor placed it against Chrys’s wound, pressing firmly down. Chrys cursed robustly, and ignoring the insults, Kor handed the dagger to Veritas and turned to Ravin. “All of my medical supplies are in my bag. I’ll need that.”

The Border Guard scowled. “I confiscated what was needed from it and discarded the rest.”

Kor fought to control his temper, taking a deep breath before speaking again. “Very well,” he said, with iron politeness. “Then you can gather what I need and bring it to the High Fay-el’s chamber. Hot water and a sponge. A funnel. Valla. Lichen. Kapa bark and kapa salve. Anderberries too, if the salve is not already made with it. Bandages. But before you go get them, send a servant with a litter. Go!”

Ravin looked from Veritas to Chrys. The latter was still busy cursing, and the former merely shrugged and said, “You heard him. I’m given to understand you know where the apothecary is, if you cannot find what you need here.”

Ravin grunted. “All of that should be available in the barrack’s infirmary.” He glanced down at Chrys, worry clearly written on his face, glared at Kor, and disappeared.

“Where is Gyas?” Chrys demanded, craning his neck and trying to see around him. Kor didn’t care, so long as the Fay-el did not actually try to sit up.

“Gone,” Jin and Veritas both said at the same time.

The Fay-el of the Mara frowned up at Kor. “It seems you were right.”

The healer frowned absently. “Yes.” He spotted the litter-bearing servants and gestured them over. Carefully, Veritas and Jin lifted the injured man, then bore him away to Chrys’s chamber as Kor continued applying pressure to the wound in his side.

An hour passed as Kor treated the wound, irrigating it with a warm valla, lichen and anderberry boiled water to help ease the pain, stave off the blood flow and guard against inflammation and infection; coating it in kapa salve to numb it heavily; placing careful sutures; and finally bandaging it with fresh linens. He had just given the overactive High Fay-el a heavy dose of valla tea to keep him quiet for at least the rest of the night, when suddenly there was a loud knock on the heavy ironwood door.

Veritas glanced at Jin, nodded to Kor, and pulling his sword, disappeared into Chrys’s reception room. There were loud, urgent voices, and then the loquiri was back, helping Caylia support a dazed and bloodied Daliah. Jaara and Hamen followed behind them.

Jin rushed forward, taking the woman by the shoulders. “Where is Elam?”

Kor followed at the Fay-el’s heels, taking Daliah’s chin gently in hand and tilting her face toward the light. The side of her head was matted in fresh blood.

“I don’t know!” Her eyes were very wild, and very dilated as she looked around. Definitely a concussion.

Chrys was trying to get up from bed, but was having a hard time summoning the strength after all the blood he’d lost and the valla Kor had given him. He finally settled back against his pillows. “What happened? Who struck you?”

“I don’t even remember being struck, let alone who struck me.” She turned to Jin. “I’m so sorry!”

Jaara slipped out from behind Veritas, and Hamen with her. She knelt, bowing her head, with fluid, practiced and business-like grace. “My lord, we found her outside, pulled behind some bushes. It looked like she’d been headed southward away from the archery range on the west side of the palace grounds, probably on her way back to the Dragonian camp on the far side of Crossroads. There was no sign of the boy.”

All of the blood had drained from Jin’s face. “None? There was not… please tell me there was no sign of a struggle or of violence…”

Jaara shook her head. “Beyond the blow this woman took to her head, nothing my lord. There were no marks of a fight in the dirt, no blood except that upon this woman’s head. In my educated opinion, someone struck her from behind and snatched the boy. A child that young… well, he could not have put up much of a fight. Nobody I questioned heard a thing, and neither were there footsteps leading away from the scene, which, my lord, is notable, as the ground was fairly damp.”

Chrys blinked at her. “You seem to have done a fairly thorough investigation for someone who simply stumbled upon a crime scene…” He sat up a little straighter against his pillows and squinted at her. “What is your name?” he demanded.

“Jaara, my lord.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Jaara of no particular family?”

She lifted her chin slightly. “Jaara na Harad lo Arvan,” she said, stating her clan and father.

Chrys laughed, then grimaced, then stopped laughing abruptly, holding his stomach. “I knew your name was familiar! You’re Lord Arvan’s unruly daughter, the one who refused to wear women’s skirts, dared to marry her loquiri, and then became Inquisita to my infernal cousin, Kinyth!”

“The Fay-el of the Harad clan in Apollar,” Jin whispered to Kor for his clarification. "Lord Arvan’s royal nephew and therefore Jaara’s cousin and clan Fay-el. Chrys’s cousin as well, the son of his maternal aunt, which makes Chrys Jaara’s, um… let me think… In any case, House Harad has been the rival of House Liyl---from which Lord Gyas hails---for nearly twelve generations. Lord Arvan was just replaced by Lord Gyas this winter, at the changing of the terms. House Harad will not have a Lord in court again for... four winters. It's unfortunate; House Harad lacks House Liyl's unfortunate allegiances to the Guild and is known for being far more evenhanded with the people of Apollar."

Jaara nodded slowly. “Yes, it is so, my lord. Our royal cousin Kinyth would… ah… send his greetings… if he knew I was here.”

Chrys frowned at her. “Kinyth did not send you to Crossroads?”

“Indeed, no. A few days ago, he granted me leave to see to… personal business.”

“Personal business that bring you to Crossroads and find you in the company of an assassin?”

A muscle tensed in her jaw. “Personal business such as blood-debt, my lord. A woman of Eastar took the life of my loquiri and husband. I followed her to Settar and executed her, as is my right, then traveled to Eastar to bring her body to her kinsmen and word of my husband’s death to my marriage-kin. It was there that I met Naftis, and he became my travel companion as I made my way back to Apollar.”

Chrys settled back on his pillows, apparently satisfied. “I have heard tell of you. You are a ruthless investigator, quick to bring justice where our cousin desires justice be brought. You are sworn into our cousin’s service and I would not interfere with that duty, though it is my right. Nor are you truly my kinswoman, to beg favors of. But I ask a favor of you nonetheless.” He swallowed and glanced at Jin. “My heir is missing. My kinsman’s son is missing. You and your companions have spent some time in the company of a man who proved to be the tool of Lord Gyas of your native Apollar, a man who does not desire to see Elam inherit my throne." He turned to Caylia. "I'm given to understand that you are a scholar, a bard." He turned to Hamen, "And you train Derk-ra and are a fine weapons master.”

“And quite adept at hiding in shadows and following those who do not want to be followed,” Jaara commented lowly.

Chrys nodded. “Also, all of you are Gifted, and you two---" He nodded to Caylia and Hamen "---are mine to command. I would like the three of you to find Elam and bring him back to his father and I.”

Caylia stepped forward slightly. "My lord Fay-el, I am not yours to command. I am a bard, and cannot be detained without good cause."

The Fay-el slammed his hand down on the bed sheets. "Is finding and liberating an innocent young boy from his kidnappers not a good cause?" he thundered.

She nodded frankly. "Yes. And it is for that reason I choose to help you."

He stared at her for a long moment, nodded, then glanced at Hamen. The Derk-ra trainer inclined his head, then said, "I’m yours to command at will, my lord. But… I do ask a favor… I would like to see my Derk-ra returned to my care." His eyes slid sideways to Jaara and he grimaced. "And hers as well," he said in distaste.

"Very well," Chrys started to say, but Jin cleared his throat.

“Chrys… no. Please do not send these three to look for Elam.” He turned to the three Mara. “No offense, but I am not ready to entrust my son’s safety to individuals who may be accomplices in his kidnapping. I've no reason yet to trust you, and quite a few reasons to distrust you.”

Chrys held up a hand, “Jin, I cannot speak for these others, but if you knew the reputation of my cousin's Inquisita, you would not think---”

Jin shook his head, looking very tired and very frightened. “No. No, Chrys. Let Kor and Daliah go after Elam. They are competent individuals who have earned my trust, and they know my son well. He will be far less frightened if it is they who find him and not these three strangers. If you’ve a need for the Inquisita and her companions, then perhaps have them investigate the matter of your assassination attempt instead.”

Chrys turned to regard Jaara, Hamen and Caylia in turn. His eyes were becoming very bleary with valla, but his voice was still strong. “The matter of the assassination attempt, then. As you saw today, I cannot trust my court incredibly well these days. It is better that I make use of the services of outside investigators. Are you willing? Answer quickly, for this valla is beginning to wear on me.”

Caylia looked less than pleased. "My lord..." She sighed. "Yes. If it will help prove that Naftis is an unwitting tool in someone else's schemes---an individual who needs healing, not punishment---then yes, I will help."

Jaara, however, looked positively angry at the request. “My lord, I am in mourning. I have been released from my duties for a year in order to mourn my husband as is proper. I have been traveling for days on end, and expected to find some time to recover from my own wound. I am also…” She swallowed, her good arm wrapped around her stomach. “My lord, if I grant you this favor, I demand one in return.”

“Demand?” Chrys asked dangerously. “What does the daughter of my marriage-uncle’s brother think she can demand of me in return for seeing this humble request granted?”

Jaara did not let his belittlement of their distant relationship quell her. “There are people who may come to Crossroads soon seeking Naftis. His kinsmen. Keep him heavily drugged, locked in chains and guarded at all times, if that is your will, but do not let them know that he is here, or that he has been here.”

Chrys blinked. That was clearly not what he’d expected. “I... Very well. Your request is granted.” His gaze shifted to Hamen. “Your Derk-ra will be returned to you, and hers as well. Do you require aught else?”

"Ah… yes… sort of…"

"Why am I not surprised?" the Fay-el murmured. "What? What is it?"

"Don't... hurt Naftis. He has already been hurt enough."

Chrys scowled. "What kind of man do you take me for? Yes, yes, your request is granted. You need not have even asked."

He turned to Kor and Daliah. “Ael ki---Hybrid, see to Daliah’s head. The two of you have work to do. Get to it. Also… Ravin will accompany you on your search.” He smiled darkly. “To ensure you do not misremember whose heir Elam is.” His gaze shifted to Jin. “And you… you will remain here, with me. I’ll not see my royal kinsman killed in the crossfire of the Mara’s troubles. Despite today’s, erm, events, Ratacca Korr is safer than the rest of Crossroads.”

Jin would have reached for the reassurance of his janin, had he been permitted to have it within Chrys’s presence. “Nor will you see your heir’s father attempt to find his son and return to Shinar, leaving the Mara’s troubles behind.”

Chrys nodded, his eyes drowsy but no less shrewd. “Aye, that too.”

* * * * *

"Well, that could have been worse."

Caylia looked sidelong at Hamen with a curious expression. Jaara just fumed. "I'm sure it could have. Naftis could have actually killed the Fay-El, then we'd all be put to death for bringing him here. Or his loquiri could have ripped Naftis to shreds before we can get any answers. Or we could have gotten dragged into -two- plots to overthrow the central seat of all the provinces instead of just one."

Hamen nodded. "Exactly." Jaara huffed loudly, but the man continued. "We did seriously get off very lightly considering our traveling companion just threw a blade into the High Fay-El, you know that as well as I do, Inquisita."

Caylia stepped between them as Jaara turned. "We should focus on the task at hand. While there are obvious possibilities as to who is responsible for this, we need to find out for certain and we discover the reason why or else all may be lost." The bard let herself frown. "Very few good stories end with 'all was lost'."

Hamen sped his pace, moving in front of the guard leading them as the pens came into site across the grounds. He almost smiled to notice that Jaara's own pace had also increased slightly, and he nearly laughed aloud at the fresh, bright red bandage on the left hand of the handler nearest the door leading in.

Jaara moved to crouch down beside Khyr as soon as they reached him. Hamen waited only long enough to be certain Khyr hadn't been hurt or mistreated before continuing down the line of pens alone. As he expected, Maheen was in the last one, glaring viciously at him as he appeared.

"Well. We've gotten ourselves into quite a mess, haven't we?" The Derk-Ra continued to glare at him stubbornly. Hamen sighed and slung his pack around in front of him, setting it on the ground and reaching for the staff Maheen was still tied to. Maheen just watched as he took hold and pulled it free of the gate's jamb where it had been wedged. Still the Derk-Ra just watched, then moved out of the pen with a gentle tug. Hamen raised a brow, then nodded and dropped a treat down in front of the lizard.

Jaara's voice came from behind him, breaking the moment in his mind. "At least it doesn't have to be dragged everywhere anymore. Those handlers probably beat some sense into that beast."

Hamen shook his head. "No. They are not breakers, not good enough to defeat Maheen, anyways. It is far more likely that she simply has had her fill of fingers for the moment."

No one spoke for a moment, then Jaara straightened, keeping herself between Khyr and the larger female beside Hamen. "We need to get started. The information we need will become harder to find as the Guildsman gets farther away."

Caylia nodded while she spoke. "Certain information, yes. Memories of the small details that betray courtly plots tend to fade and be replaced quickly with gossip of more recent events and intrigues."

"So we need to move quickly. Okay. This is my first assassination investigation. How do we do this, Inquisita?"

Jaara frowned at the man, but his use of the title this time was genuine enough that she simply answered, "We split up. We will need information from all different angles of this conspiracy to be able to make the correct judgment with the certainty judgment requires. You, Hamen, Trainer of Derk-Ra, will speak with the servants and bondsman and guards." Hamen opened his mouth, but she continued before he could say anything. "You are not a servant, but if you are as skilled a trainer as you claim you have been contracted by powerful men before, so you know how to move under them and how to move among servants." He smiled and nodded, leaning against his staff and listening.

"Caylia, as a bard you will be welcome beside every hearth in the Mara. While Hamen pries information from the servants, you can sift through the rumors and piece them together into the most honest portrait of this place we can expect to get."

The bard held her arms before her as if strumming her harp. "If the gentlefolk will listen to my melodies and tales, I shall listen to what they both say and do not."

"I will speak to the landed and wealthy. I can invoke title and rank more readily than either of you in order to force my questions to the ears of people who would normally just try to avoid them." The three stood silently for a moment before Jaara frowned. "What are we waiting for? We just agreed we need to move now."

Hamen's smile was gone. "We need to know what exactly happened back there before we start questioning others. What do you two think happened?"

Jaara's frown twisted with a snarl. "He forced a pair-bond on Naftis. That Guildsman made Naftis think they were linked using his Gift and then deliberately provoked Chrys into getting close enough to seem threatening."

Hamen's eyes widened, but Caylia only nodded. "That makes sense. I tried to keep Naftis confused and uncertain, but all I could manage was knocking him from his feet for a moment."

"Not at all, Caylia, I can't imagine how much that little extra time and interference could have helped our unfortunate friend. All I could sense was the Gift from Gyas touching Naftis, I had no idea he was doing such a…" Hamen didn't even finish, shaking his head to hide his gritted teeth. If I could afford to use my Gift more I might have known, or been able to help…

Jaara's body was visibly shaking with the tension. "Forcing a pair-bond on a loquiri who has lost his bond is unthinkably cruel. Naftis could have only known that the emptiness inside him was gone, not why or how. It's too sudden, and that- that… -Guildsman!"

Caylia's hand reached back to lightly strum a soft chord on her harp. "Calm yourself. I think we understand how wrong this was."

Jaara shook her head. "Even if he hadn't lost a bond, hadn't been feeling that hole, I can't imagine anything more terrible than stealing someone's will so blatantly, so selfishly. And especially for Naftis."

Hamen nodded, his own expression hard. "Naftis certainly values his independence. But he is being seen to and treated by someone who can understand what he is going through. And now that I understand what exactly happened, I am not going to fail."

Caylia nodded, but the fury in Jaara's eyes was enough of an answer from her.

"Let's go learn a few things, shall we?"

* * * * *

Hamen watched the two women go their own directions, leaning against his staff just outside the pens. I doubt I'll find a better place to start than right here. He took a few steps closer to the injured handler, who turned to face him before recognizing and glaring at Maheen. "Can I help you with something?"

The trainer shrugged. "I'm mostly just trying to waste some time, although I am rather curious as to what exactly you did to your hand."

The young handler pointed his healthy hand at the Derk-Ra standing proudly lashed to Hamen's staff. "That happened! Your Derk-Ra is wild, totally untrained. She wouldn't respond to the most basic commands. I was just about to unlash it from the staff, but it bit my hand. Came near to biting right through it too. If I hadn't have had other things I'd have given it a lashing so you wouldn't have to, but I decided the imminent danger from my blood loss and the venom took precedence over training your beast."

Hamen's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Maheen shall never feel a lash if I have anything to say about it. I will train her, I would consider it nothing less than a sin to try and break such a creature."

The handler just shrugged. "If you say so, they're your fingers."

"Perhaps if you hadn't handled her so roughly you might not be injured now?" I may be here for information, but I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate that sort of ignorance and stupidity in a handler. There are plenty of others I can talk to if he takes too much offense.

The mocking smile he was answered with was not entirely unexpected, but was close. "Then show me. If it's a matter of handling, then handle your animal the right way so that I know what I did wrong."

Maheen was watching Hamen when he glanced down at the Derk-Ra, eyes willful and intelligent. I would normally wait at least another three weeks before trying to touch a wild Derk-Ra… He knelt down, bringing himself to her level vertically, keeping just out of arm's reach. He wouldn't need to tell the handler he was very much close enough to get lunged at, who had fallen completely silent out of both disbelief that his proposal was being taken seriously and respect.

Hamen remained as he was, keeping his eyes locked on Maheen's for the entire time. Eventually, Maheen glanced back up at the other handler for a moment. Once she turned back to her owner, he raised the hand not on his staff and slowly drew it across his open mouth, licking the upper side of it as it passed his lips. Maheen watched the act closely, but gave no other reaction. He took a waddling step closer, then stretched out his arm very slowly, stopping whenever the lizard's tongue slipped out to test the air.

His hand did not tremble, did not flinch, but inched steadily closer, until finally within a hand of the Derk-Ra's snout. He held the pose silently, remaining still. Maheen watched him, but made no other move. Stubborn one, aren't you? I hope I don't regret this… Hamen lowered his body as much as he could, getting as close to the ground as possible, and eventually managing to get his head lower than Maheen's. She let him hold the awkward position for a few seconds, then stepped forward once and let her tongue slip out over the back of his arm and hand.

The handler behind him gasped, but Hamen remained motionless. After a second lick he began to straighten up slowly, bringing his face back up to the same height as the magnificent creature's. When she didn't move, he let his hand fall forward, resting lightly on Maheen's cheek just below the jaw. He smiled widely, turning slightly. "That, my friend, is how you train a Derk-Ra."

Almost on cue with the last word of the sentence, the Derk-Ra twitched, a single tooth drawing a thin, shallow red line in the back of his palm. The trainer flinched, then looked back to the lizard and smiled, showing no teeth. "I am sorry. I took your permission for granted, I will not make the same mistake a second time, Maheen."

Hamen knew she couldn't possibly understand his words, but the moment his soft voice finished speaking, Maheen closed her jaw again. He brushed his hand across her cheek twice more, then withdrew the hand as slowly as he'd initially extended it and backed away, dipping his body to the ground again as he reached the spot he'd originally been standing in. He almost fell over when the Derk-Ra returned the gesture to him, pressing her body closer to the ground. He stood and turned back to the handler. "How was that?"

The younger man clapped his hands once, then grimaced in pain before the smile returned to his face. "I've never seen anything like that before in my life! You've got to show me how to do that. I bet that would even work on that lord's white monsters!" The handler apparently missed Hamen's sudden frown. "How do you suppose he got white Derk-Ra, anyways?"

The answering voice was calm, but had a harsh edge to it. "I can think of three ways. The first involves luck and a great deal of inbreeding. The second involves malnutrition and a very specific diet. The third is even less pleasant." Those poor things told me everything I needed to know about that Guildsman even before Jaara explained what he'd done.

Recognizing the tone in Hamen's voice, the handler's smile wavered a bit before he re-asked his question. "So… could you show me how to do what you did with your Derk-Ra?"

Hamen laughed, but shook his head. "I'm afraid that for now I just want to know what's going on amongst the handlers this afternoon."

The young man smiled again. "Oh, they've got a game of Drik'Drah going behind the main servants' quarters. Come on, there's nothing for me to do here for a couple of turns of the glass, I'll show you."

* * * * *

Hamen picked his way through the various servants' quarters carefully. His guide new the way, but how he traversed the chaotic landscape so easily was beyond his tiny, heat-damaged Apollar brain. Finally, he heard a shout up ahead, followed by laughter.

"Drik! Hand over my new vest, everyone! Hah!"

"Make sure you get it two sizes larger than the last one, you haven't been chasing the lizards farther than the pantry lately!"

Hamen and his most recent friend entered the room amidst the laughter. "Gifnas? Who's this guy?" The questions cut off as Maheen made her presence in the room known with a proud and impressively deep hiss. The room was quiet for a moment, followed by more questions half-whispered, mostly answered by Gifnas in the same tone.

"Where did he find that beast?"

"How's he planning to break her?"

"Train? Train that?"

"How many fingers does he have left?"

"He did what?"

Within moments Hamen was sitting at the table with a handful of gold on the table, eyes glancing between the strips of marked hide in his hands, the marked bones setting the game's starting and ending point in the table's center, and the other player's wages. Everyone was using local currency, aside from two men using currency from Apollar.

Hamen recognized both of them from the audience chamber earlier that day, even without their guards' uniforms.
A Non-Existent User
It took Kharme only a few seconds to interpret Lade's signals. She glanced back at the other rider and nodded, digging her feet into the horse's side. He lurched forward, and her head jerked back with the momentum. Quickly, her body remembered and adjusted. Her knees tucked in, the rest of her leaned into the saddle, reducing friction.

She heard hoofs beating the dirt behind her and risked a look back. Lade was just behind her, but so was the rider, and he had been joined by several others. Kharme cursed and returned her concentration to the road in front of her. They were incredibly fast, certainly not her father's riders. She did not know which was worse.

Her reflexes kicked in, leaving her time to process this information. If not her father's men, who could they be? And what would they want from her? She was worth little for ransom, even if others knew of her escape. They were too persistent for mere thieves, and if they planned to kill them, they could have easily done so with arrows.

Hot blood pounded in her ears, slowing everything. She was able to see a rider suddenly come through the trees, an attempt to block her path. She pulled hard on the reins, forcing her mount to the side to dodge the attack. For a split second, they lost footing and stumbled, but the horse was well trained. He regained his speed with no time lost, though Kharme had to duck to avoid the rider's reaching arm.

Lade must not have fared as well, for she heard his familiar voice cry out. She looked back again, only to see him forced from his saddle.

"Don't hurt him!" she yelled, wheeling around so that she faced them, then stopped just far enough away that they could speak. "Please, this man means much to me."

One that appeared to be the leader came slightly closer, scratching his stubble thoughtfully. "Is that so? He does not seem important to me. His clothes suggest a low position, unlike yours."

She backed away as he came closer still. Her horse bobbed his head back and forth, surveying the situation. Kharme cleared her throat that she might be heard better. "How do you know I did not steal from a gentry?"

"Because you would have taken something much finer. Instead, you seem to be hiding your position." He lowered his hand to play with the bit of silver around his neck. "Am I right?"

At this point, Lade gained enough sense to speak up. "She is no one, I assure you. Only a servant in the same house as I. My daughter, in fact. We were released to visit my wife on the other side of the river."

The man now scraped the flat of a dagger across his chin, waiting for Kharme to confirm this story. She nodded, hoping her eyes did not betray her. Agonizing minutes of silence followed as he considered this. Kharme was aware that the ring of men had completely closed her in.

"All right, then." he said at last. "We will send a message to your wife to meet us at the court of the louquiri Chrys. He shall provide for any needs you might have at that point."

"I would not dare intrude..."

"There is no intrusion. I only bring you with me out of caution. I have received word that the Kyda-blasted daughter of Baernu has escaped his care. She may harm any she finds on the road."

Kharme knew by his face that he knew who she was, and was playing along for sport only. Perhaps she could persuade him as she did Lade, however she did it. She reached inside herself, trying to find that same place. Her expression became pleading, her lies firm, her words smooth as honey.

Yet he was untouched, strong in his determination to bring her with him. She did not know any weakness she might appeal to yet. She knew that at the moment she was trapped.

He dismounted and took her reins from her, leading her to a place she'd never been. Kyda help her.
Crossroads’s Guild Citadel was surprisingly quiet when Jaara stepped off the cobblestone streets into its lune-lit courtyard. She would have expected the palace guard to have already paid the city’s central Guild stronghold a visit, if not to search for Lord Gyas and the missing scion of the Mara, then certainly to protect the Citadel from the wrath of Crossroads’s citizens.

However, word of the attempt on the Fay-el’s life had not yet reached the people, and Jaara supposed the palace guard was still too busy securing the palace to bother with the Citadel.

Well and good; Jaara had her own way of dealing with the Guild.

The Citadel was, truly, a citadel. The courtyard was bounded by stores and workshops to the north---all closed for the night, although Jaara could see a pale green light that she doubted was a lune leaking from beneath a closed door---the triple-story Guild academy and chapter hall to the west, and the stained glass library, squat dormitory and the refectory to the south. The layout was very spacious, but with the only entrances to the east and northwest and the curtain wall towering above her, she felt very closed in.

The feeling only increased as she strode with long, purposeful steps across the walkway leading between the buildings and the greens to either side of them, stepping into the antechamber of the chapter hall. Non-Guild individuals were not permitted within, but a tired clerk sat behind the oak desk at the end of the room, poring over an assortment of pale blue feathers, coiled metallic twine and what appeared to be thick pieces of glass, far too rough and opaque to be part of a lune. He glanced up at her when she crossed rapidly to his desk, and something about his crisp jaque paired with his drowsy eyes made her realize that he’d probably just woken up, rather than was getting tired due to the late hour.

Guildsmen were an odd bunch, even when they weren’t blackmailing, deliberately deceiving or murdering people.

“May I help you?” the Guildsman asked impatiently, scooping his project toward himself with both hands and staring at her in drowsy displeasure. She felt his Gift probe her unsubtly, and his scowl practically engraved itself in the lines of his forehead. How one Gifted individual could despise another so much never made much sense to Jaara, although she’d heard all the usual Guild arguments about the vices of improperly-trained Gift use.

“Baraq L’or,” she said curtly. “He’ll want to see me.”

“You? Why would he want to see you? Who in Kyda’s name---“

Jaara’s smile was tight. “Tell him Lady Jaara na Harad lo Arvan is giving him ten minutes to kneel at her feet and beg clemency before she declares him in violation of his feudal obligation.”

The Guildsman did not look particularly impressed, but he did rise to his feet and bow slightly. “Yes my lady. Would you like him kneeling in his nightclothes, or will you permit him to dress first?”

“I haven’t the time for games,” she growled, leaning against the desk with her good arm and staring across at him. “Get him down here.”

Bowing again, this time somewhat stiffly, the man turned to leave, then paused, turned about to shovel his feathers and scraps into the spacious front pocket of his jaque, and disappeared out the front door. Through the wide antechamber windows, she saw him crossing toward the dormitory, mumbling angrily to himself.

Seven minutes later Baraq L’or was on his knees before her in his nightshirt, head bowed. “How did you find me, my lady?”

“Irrelevant,” Jaara snapped. “Rise.” He did so, studying her with a guarded expression, but his eyes widened slightly as his gaze settled on the sling supporting her arm. Her gaze snapped to the other Guildsman. “You. Out.”

The two Guildsmen exchanged glances. “Ah, my lady, you are not permitted within the chapter hall without an escort…” the clerk said sourly.

Jaara gestured impatiently at Baraq. “I’m hardly unescorted. Get out.”

“But… if he is under arrest…”

“He’s not. Go!”

The Guildsman shrugged at his companion and strode out of the room. Baraq watched him go with trepidation, which turned to open terror when he turned his eyes back to his liege and found her dagger pressed against his throat and her small body driving him backwards into the wall.

“My lady! Forgive me, I---“

“I haven’t time for your apologies,” Jaara hissed. “You will tell me what I want to know, or I will bleed you like a goat here and now, and then drag you back to Apollar and throw you into penitentiary service for ten years. You won’t even have the honor of fighting; you’ll carry water for the real men.”

Anger gave him a bit of a spine and he straightened beneath her knife. The blade followed his throat “You came all the way from Apollar for me? Now? Why?”

She snorted, lowering the blade but not sheathing it. “No. But I will drag you back by your hair if you do not answer my questions. Do you know what passed tonight?”

He eyed the dagger nervously. “My lady came in person to remind me of my feudal obligation?”

Her eyes flashed. “The Guild arranged to have our Fay-el assassinated. Fortunately for you all, the attempt was not successful. What do you know of this matter, and of Lord Gyas?”

His face drained of all blood. “Nothing, my lady! I have not heard anything about such matters! Lord Gyas was to come to Crossroads and convince our lord Chrys to disinherit that hybrid nephew of his. That’s a long way away from assassination!”

“The Fay-el refused to submit to the Guild’s wishes. Is that why you want him dead?”

He shook his head desperately. “I do not want him dead! My lady, the Guild does not seek the life of our lord Chrys. There must be some mistake.”

She shook her own head. “There is no mistake. A high-ranking Guildsman dared try to strike down the Fay-el. If you know nothing of it, then perhaps I might consult you about a matter which has troubled me… Explain this: A depraved loquiri showed up in the Fay-el’s court so drugged with Derk-ra venom and maddened by the press of the Gift that he was barely able to stand. A half point passed, and then suddenly he overcame the weight of the Derk-ra venom with a loquiri’s reflexes and buried a knife to the hilt in the Fay-el’s side. And why? Because apparently he believed Lord Gyas was his Match. A depraved loquiri, L’or, believed a man he’d never met to be his Match. How is this possible?”

Baraq bit his lip. “My lady, I cannot speak to the unitiated about such matters, or I will suffer more than penitential service for opening my mouth.”

“I will kill you just as surely as they will, if you do not speak,” she assured him lowly. “You know it is my right. You have five seconds.”

His hands grasped his hair. “No! I mean… my lady, you can’t---“

“Two seconds,” she said, laying the dagger against his throat.

“A conduit,” he blurted out. “Please! There had to be some kind of conduit!”

“What do you mean by conduit?”

“Something to augment the Gift.” He was on his tiptoes now, trying to escape the blade. “Manipulating the mind that thoroughly, overcoming the physical weakness imposed by Derk-ra venom… the Gift alone would not suffice. Lord Gyas would have needed to place a conduit for his Gift on the loquiri’s person. Something touching the skin, if he wanted to take advantage of the full effect.”

“An article of clothing? A pendant or earring?” She didn’t remember Naftis wearing any necklaces or piercings.

“I don’t know! It could be anything!”

She lowered the blade slightly. “Very well, then how is such an item made?”

His jaw tensed. “I can’t tell you. Please, my lady---“

“You will speak, or you will die. Tell me.”

“I can’t,” he whimpered. “I don’t know. I don't know!”

She sighed. Studying his face revealed nothing but fear. “Very well,” she said finally, lowering the knife. “Then pray tell, give me the name and address of someone who does.”
Caylia rested her fingers on the door for a fraction of a second as if trying to feel a heartbeat through the wood. No, she couldn’t see Naftis, she was told. He was being treated, he needed to be left alone. Sighing she let her hand drop, feeling, not for the last time, that a key was hidden behind that door, hidden with the loquiri. Yes, she did want to see how he was doing but also something was tickling her memory. She had asked him a riddle on the way to Crossroads, one he hadn’t had the time to answer. Where are you going and why? If you are so bent on killing yourself, then why didn’t you do it that night when we first met?

Ever since they were charged with their task by Chrys, Caylia’s mind had wandered to that question she had asked on the hot desert sands. Why didhe come this far? Was he really coming here to kill the Fay-el and fooling us all? She had eliminated that question earliest. Naftis’s pain had been too real, and then there was that outside focus of the Gift on him by Gyas, almost as if he had been attacked. Had this all been a coincidence or was Naftis being used. And some of her answers were there, beyond that door. So close…

It was then she noticed the guards were glaring at her, and probably had been for a while as she stood, chewing thoughtfully on her lip. Whoops… Nodding hastily, she scooted away.

She couldn’t get to Naftis now, as much as she wished she could, but she did have other tasks to do. Where to start, where to begin, and that was an answer she knew as she went in search of a hang.



“Excuse me.” The shop was small with a flat topped roof and slits for windows to keep out the heat. Made from hard packed sand, the walls seemed to absorb any light that glinted from the jumbled oddities hanging from walls, ceilings, and piled on the floor. The chimes outside were what had lured her in, and now she found herself standing among a variety of copper cutlery, and while behind her twelve brass plates were displayed on the wall. The proprietor, preoccupied in hanging a tapestry filled with holes, at first didn’t see her and she tried again.

“Oh? Ah.” He wore spectacles, and eyed her curiously as she moved carefully through his store. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a hang, do you have one?”

“A hang?” Wind caught the chimes and tinkled in the air between them.

“Yes.”

You’re using a hang for testing?

Of course.

For your first green star of beginning intermediacy?

Of course.

Not the sitar? Or the five pipe?

No.

But it’s a hang. A basic. A peasant’s instrument.

I would play the hang before kings if I could.

And have them be so insulted they would take your life?

Maybe one day that won’t happen.


She smiled. The Masters had been surprised too, but that evening she had walked away with a new star embroidered in her collar. It seemed so long ago now and she had always been fond of the hang. A cloud of dust and an, “Oh, ah! Here…” and the man presented her with an instrument, shaped like two wide brass bowls, sealed together at the seams.

“You’re a bard?” She nodded with a smile.

“Of Settar.”

He raised a brow. “You’re a long way from home.”

“I know. How much?” He gave a figure and she gave him the coin. “I came to explore a bit I suppose. I did not know the Fay-el still had no heir.”

The man frowned and shrugged. “No, no Mara born lad. He has a hybrid from one of the wetter lands.” She raised a brow in askance and the man continued. “His mother was the Fay-el’s sister but…” The man trailed off and she nodded. How much will people be put off by his half-blood? I myself have some doubts, not about his blood but he is not from the Mara. He has never grown up here, been here, known this place, loved this place. So, how can he rule it? After this will he bear any love for it? And if Chrys does take him from everything he loves to rule here, he might be something terrible. However if he stayed and kept things familiar around the boy, then we might have a chance. Better yet, Chrys chose someone non-Guild appointed. She smiled a little wryly. But what are the chances of that.

“I don’t know,” the man was saying. “The Guild is pushing for a proxy and that seems to be the best for me and I’m surprised the Fay-el doesn’t see it. I mean I’ve never been fond of the Guild but I’ve never had anything against them.”

“So you would support their choice?” With his nod, she wondered how many else would and how deep the Guild’s roots ran here in Crossroads. With backing the Guild would be more bold and the chances of the Guild being involved in the assassination were almost certainty, but now how far did their fingers run?

“Not everyone feels like me, do you want a box? No? But I would rather have a Mara blood then a hybrid.”

“Elam,” Caylia corrected absently. “And I’m sure many would want Chrys to have an heir of his own blood.”

The proprietor frowned a little, remaking the creases in his brow but nodded. “Oh aye, that would be the best, but after so many miscarriages we have to be realistic.”

Thanking the man, she left the shop, ducking low under the lintel with the hang on her back. That would allow her into the homes of many if she needed it but now she was having doubts. The miscarriages led her back to Ratacca Korr, which led her back to Chrys and everything that was hidden between those walls. What had happened with Veritas? She had heard whisperings of drugged wine. And were those miscarriages accidental? There was more to this tale than only Gyas and where did the roots lie?

She caught herself again in the market traffic, moving past a barrel of spikey fruits, and another of green nuts from the farthest reaches of Apollar, until she turned a corner and the castle was in her view. Sitting against a wall she placed the hang across her lap and ran her eyes over the stone. How many ways in, how many ways out, who was coming and going. She hit the metal with the heel of her hand, letting it toll lowly and watched.

Hamen dropped another small morsel for Maheen. She was getting used to the food from him, and was starting to snatch it in the air before it got past her nose. He grinned as he turned back to what was left of the game. He'd long since left, as had most of the men present. Now there were just three men still sitting around the table, mostly trying to decide which two of them would go home with almost nothing while the third just beat breaking even. Hamen had been pleased to see that most of the men here felt it was perfectly appropriate for a winner to bow out while they were ahead. Pleased and frustrated. Pleased, as it had made it far easier to actually make some coin off the game when he didn't have to guard it for a dozen games after earning it, frustrated because the two men who'd used Apollar coins had also done well and gotten out early. Sitting with them and talking hadn't revealed much either, except that neither of them was from Apollar. Their alibis for the coinage were sound, if a little conveniently similar. How many guards of a royal nature accidentally ran into the same overly-confident, overly-wealthy Apollar youth in the same night, whom they both fleece, and neither run into the other?

It was possible, but unlikely enough for Hamen to smell something else entirely less honest, other than the normal smells soldiers and stable hands acquired after hours of drinking and gambling. Now he just needed an excuse to get away. These guards worked several posts on a rotating shift to keep them from getting too bored, in theory, with any one place. They'd had some useful information from their duties. Veritas had been more paranoid than usual after he was poisoned, as if to try and make up for being at less than perfect alertness for a time, but apparently he'd still been slower than normal when Naftis had struck. Hamen suppressed the shudder he felt at exactly what sort of trouble he'd be in if he found himself on the angry side of a healthy loquiri and moved on to the next bit of information, ticking things off in his head.

The biggest question was how, exactly, bribing those two guards would be useful. It was very clear that not all of the guards had been offered bribes, and not just for the obvious reason that at least a few of them would report it. He'd established that these two guards had covered, in the past few days, the main hall, the courtyard, the armory, and three separate less-important passages within the complex. Now he needed to know what was in those areas.

Maheen leaned against the leg of his chair, head still proudly held high, though the rest of her was clearly fading fast. Hamen rose, excusing himself to return his Derk-Ra to the pens where she could rest more comfortably. He was barely half-way there before Maheen was alert again and glaring up at him every few steps. Hamen shook his head with a smile, then turned to go see what he could find in each of the locations his two friends had been.

* * * * *

After going over the courtyard, being politely and then not so politely refused entry into the main hall, and practically gotten physically intimate with the first of the less-important guarded posts, Hamen was starting to have a hard time hiding his frown. There is something here important enough to bribe those two, and nothing being schemed at this time can be reasonably assumed not to be connected in some way. But what am I missing?

He'd just gotten to the second guarded post, a rather uninteresting-looking storeroom, when Maheen tugged at the lash holding her. Hamen turned, ignoring the suddenly less-sleepy looking guards. "You never make me drag you like that." He didn't pull on the lead again, watching the lizard. She was looking at the wall, far more alertly than Hamen had ever seen anyone study such a plain stone wall before. He leaned down, looking at it more closely. His frown faded into a smile. "Your eyes are sharper than I ever would have guessed, my girl. I wouldn't have noticed the lack of dust on the stones here, you have to go back seven feet to get to dusty rock." He didn't even get a chance to start poking stone before Maheen moved closer, causing him to raise a brow at the proximity. She ignored him, tongue flicking out against one particular stone.

All he had to do was grip the edges and the stone pulled right out of the wall. Hamen could only nod in half-understood appreciation for the finely-made hiding place before frowning at the cubbyhole's contents. The crystal phial he could tell with a sniff and light touch of his tongue to the rim had held somna. Maheen backed away slightly as he pulled it out. At least now I know how she found this hole. The other two objects were more interesting, and he somehow knew equally as pertinent. The first was a fairly ornate goblet, likely one used in the banquet hall, that was veritably covered with golden Guild insignia. This cup cost more than a trained Derk-Ra. Someone really enjoyed their drink. If it had held somna-laced anything, Hamen could detect no sign of it, though he frowned when he noticed that Maheen wouldn't so much as sniff while it was out.

The final item was a single coin, bearing guild markings on one side, and a stylized eye on the other. Hamen collected all three items, then headed back towards the meeting-place he and his companions had agreed upon. He somehow doubted he needed to look any farther alone, and he was starting to feel the length of the day. He left a single red drop behind in the hallway for Kyda as he left in thanks.
A Non-Existent User
Kharme felt her heart beat faster as she took in this new place. Now that her horses were taken away and Lade was separated from her by several men, she felt extremely small and vulnerable. She tucked her now cold hands beneath her arms, though that did little good. Thankfully, Lade's tutoring taught her to disguise her emotions. So even if she was a little more than frightened, the rest of the world only saw a face of stone.

"I still do not see why I must be here." she commented to the captain. "I have done nothing to deserve it."

"I tire of your games, girl." he growled. "But you will soon enough see why you are here."

She sucked in her cheeks, thinking this over. There was no way to see Lade's signals, even if he had figured this out. She was on her own now.

When they brought her into what appeared to be the main hall, she still had only ideas. She did note, however, that Lade was kept outside. That only increased her fear.

They stood waiting for what was only seconds, but felt like an eternity in her mind. A man finally stepped into the room, looking her over carefully. She could tell by the way he carried himself that he was loquiri, perhaps even...

"I am Veritas." he introduced himself, cutting off her thoughts. "I speak on behalf of the Fay-el."

She remained silent, waiting for him to explain the situation. He did not seem particularly threatening at the moment, but she did not want to reveal anything about herself just yet. Though she did watch him carefully as he began to walk around her.

"I hear that you have fled your father, Kharme. Yes, I know who you are. You may think that you merely escaped an arranged marriage, but I assure you that your tutor was aware of a larger plan. A rebellion against your father's class, if you will. I imagine he was aware of your Gift-"

"Now listen to me!" she interrupted angrily. "You know nothing. It was my idea, not his. He promised me to a monster-"

"Then why did you run before? You were not betrothed then."

She clenched her teeth. "I was young and reckless. He had nothing to do with it. And I DO NOT have the Gift!"

He chuckled. "Very good for no training. I almost believed you for a moment. Now, think about it. Who convinced you to run?"

She looked away and furrowed her brow, frustrated and defeated. "What do you want with me?"

"Ah, finally a rational question." he began to pace once more. "You were brought to be offered a truce. Surely you know of the punishment that would await you should we return you to your father?"

She sucked in her breath at this threat.

"We are aware that you have extensive knowlege of the Guild, and of the Gift, if you will not admit it. There have been recent events that triggered us to ask for your help. We are prepared to exchange protection for you help."

"And my tutor?"

"He will be cared for as long as you stay here."

She bit the corner of her lip. "What kind of help?"

---------

"You will stay here for the night. Your new companion, Jaara, should be in shortly."

Kharme looked at Veritas uncertainly. "I- I have not eaten since..."

"Food will be brought up to you, and the situation will be explained once you are comfortable."

He left after that, and she sat down on one of the beds. It was comfortable enough, she supposed. Certainly better than the forest floor. She fell back and pressed her palms over her eyes. There was so much to take in now, too much for a sheltered girl.

She thought back to his mention of the Gift. How could she have it? Her father would have mentioned it, wouldn't he? She sighed and rested her hands across her stomach. Maybe once she met this Jaara, the pieces would fall together.
Jaara's charge---for that was how she regarded the girl, rather than 'assistant' as Veritas would have it---must have either been incredibly exhausted or incredibly lazy. Jaara had to clear her throat not once, but three times before the other woman started awake, sitting bolt upright where she'd fallen asleep at the edge of her bed.

"Wha--- How did you--- Who are you?" the noblewoman sputtered, looking from the door, which was closed, to Jaara, who stood with the hand of her good arm firmly planted on her hip. Kharme's face started to relax upon seeing the small, plainly dressed woman with the child's face, but then their eyes met and she froze.

Jaara knew what she must be seeing; a hardened deep desert woman with a ragged scar stretching from ear to eye. She did not allow a smile to comfort the other woman. "I knocked, but you were too deeply asleep to hear, and so I let myself in." She tossed a warped hair pin onto Kharme's bedsheets. "My name is Jaara. I am the Inquisita in charge of the investigation of the attempt on our lord Fay-el's life." She didn't bother to explain that by 'in charge', she really meant 'should have been in charge'; she doubted the others would agree---or even care---but she wasn't particularly concerned about the matter so long as Kharme proved to be an obedient and industrious assistant and did not get in the way.

She was mistaken if she thought the other woman would simply let her walk in and take charge. "You should have knocked louder, Inquisita," Kharme informed her sternly, rising and straightening her kirtle and all the while glaring at Jaara. "You've no right to enter my personal chambers." She hesitated somewhat when Jaara did not respond. Curiosity tinged her next words. "And... What's this of an attempt on the Fay-el's life?"

Jaara strode to the door. "I'll leave you to get ready. We depart in ten minutes. I will explain the situation to you once you have... refreshed yourself."

Kharme frowned. "Leave? Where are we going?"

The other woman fixed her with a steel gaze. "We're going to investigate a lead. The royal loquiri, Veritas, tells me you know somewhat of the Guild. I will need your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. I am going to go speak with a master craftsman... of sorts. A maker of weapons and other goods that are apparently more than they seem."

Kharme's eyes widened. "There is a conduit-maker here in Crossroads?"

"Well, you may be more useful than I thought," Jaara said, raising one eyebrow.

Twisting her hair neatly into a knot at the nab of her neck, Kharme crossed quickly to Jaara. "I am ready to go now. If you're as inept at diplomacy as you are at etiquette, you will need me with you to see, listen and speak. Let's go."
Everyday the boy with the limp walked out of the small door on the left side of the castle and disappear down the main path in the direction of the sea. Everyday he would return a short while later with a basket full of fresh fish, while a woman with a white apron visited a booth run by a man with a black beard and over large stomach. They would speak, they would talk, he would laugh, she would flirt, and then she would be gone, back into the confines of the castle. And those were only two.

On the second day out in the desert sand, hang between her knees she began making a list. At the beginning she had no idea how many servants crawled over the castle like ants, but after the first day she realized that her memory, trained to learned a song or a tale in a single night, was lost. Soon, not only did she record the servants, but who they spoke to, what stalls they visited, after all, who knew who was involved with whom. There was one who visited a man who sold lunes, herbs, and figs, and that went down on her list on a separate page.

By the third day, the people began to regard her presence as a fixture, enjoying her music and beginning to truly speak freely to her. From them she learned that the man with the black beard claimed to have come over on a ship from one of the wetter lands, and had a wealthy family across the sea, when in reality he was from Lodear and of a poor miners. He baked, however, some of the best bread around and Caylia herself could attest to that. It was no wonder the servant woman visited every morning. Another man sold crystal and kept to himself, while the butcher was loud and gregarious and made friends with everyone he met. He sold cuts of lamb and goat and hung them in great spits in his shop. Were any of these connected to the Guild? She didn’t know and was afraid to ask.

Looking at her list on the fourth day, she frowned. I wish I knew more. Hamen and Jaara…they may have more pieces to this puzzle. What is being eaten could lead to miscarriages and in that case is it the wife or is it the servants, or is it anything at all. And if any of these are Guild connected they could get the somna into the palace, and the servent to serve it to the royal loquiri. But…I don’t know who that could be or what they look like... She growled quietly to herself and chewed on the end of her quill.

“Problems, my dear? You look disheartened.” A steaming plate of curried lamb was placed next to her, with a side of almonds and goat cheese. She looked up at the butcher, a half smile finding its way to her lips.

“Thank you.”

“You’ve earned it, don’t worry. With your playing my business’s doubled in the last few days. No thanks to that wench!” He shot a glare to the woman across the way, his eternal enemy who shot a vulgarity back and shook her fist. “Every day she becomes more attractive.” He flashed a grin as the soapstone carver wandered over. Caylia moved the plate to where the hang had been and began to eat ravenously. When was the last time I ate? Trinity, I need to be better about eating while working or I’ll end up starving myself.

“I hear our Fay-el is doing better with each day, Kyda be blessed,” the soapstone carver said as she licked her greasy fingers. “Good for us, good for us all.”

“Who did you hear that rumor from? Your camel?”

“No, your sister,” the carver leered at the butcher.

The butcher paused for a breath and then laughed. “She has lips like one. But it is good, good for us all.” When word leaked out of the attempted assassination the people in the market place had been, to Caylia’s delight and pride, angry. The Fay-el was well liked and an attack on him was also an attack on them, the Mara people.

“Any idea who?”

“I heard an Eloin assassin.”

“I heard his own loquiri.”

“You know that’s nonsense,” the butcher snorted. “Who did you hear that from?”

“That woman across the way.”

For the second time that day the butcher made eyes at her. “Saucy wench!” he called and Caylia grinned as the woman glared.

“It wasn’t his loquiri,” she said with amusement then added, “I don’t know who, but I know it wasn’t him.” She paused. “Do you know how the Fay-el met his wife?”

The butcher blinked, lost by her sudden change in direction. “No. I know she’s from Settar.”

“Hmm.” Caylia’s hands drummed idlly on the hang, metal sounding light and bell-like beneath her finger tips. I could write a letter to Ru, no, maybe Illza, she knows the hereditary records. Of course how long would that take? It may not be worth it.

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m just thinking,” she replied. “Sometimes I think I do too much of that.” She unfolded herself and returned the plate to the butcher, hangfinding a place on her back. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

She left them then and wandered feeling frustration build up inside of her. What am I doing? What I have is useless if I can’t apply it to anything. I have a scrap here, a scrap there, a Guildsman selling herbs to a servant, and rumors of a soapstone carver. I won’t know how deep the fingers go until I can actually get inside. Who gave the loquiri the drugged wine? Are the miscarriages accidental? And Naftis…he has another answer for me. Shadows were growing longer stretching nipping at her feet as she traced the outline of the castle with her eyes. That’s where the answers are.

Her feet found a short cut, a side street and then her vision went black. She stumbled, mouth filling with cotton, choking stale air and she found her back pressed against rough sandstone bricks. A hand curled around her throat as she fumbled for her dagger, drawing it and finding it easily knocked from her grasp. It clattered across the cobbles and she cursed silently as she searched for breath. Bloody fool…can’t even hold on to a knife… She had never learned defense and had been able to get by before on good luck and quick, clever thinking, now, however, as her hands scrabbled for a loose stone in the brickwork, she doubted the Luckbringer would be kind.

There was a raspy chuckle somewhere near her ear and her head connected to the wall. Stars swam in her vision, pulsing and swirling as she tried to keep conscious and a voice like gravel murmured words the chilled her. “Found you, little bard. Be careful with what you do. Do not repeat what you did in the throne room or you will find yourself in much worse straits than this. Much much worse. Let this be a warning.”

She was falling then, falling and her hands and knees found the cobbles and she gasped for breath as footsteps faded away. She didn’t know how long she sat until she felt like she could move again and she removed the cloth sack from her head with shaking hands. Shuffling back against the wall she touched one hand to her throat, then her head and rested her brow against her head. For the first time, she felt how young she was, and that she was very very far away from home.

Windrunner…Windrunner, and Luckbringer, and Stargatherer, help me. She saw the green fields of Settar, the grapes in the arbor in the market place, and Ru’s calligraphy against white stone walls. She swallowed and a wave of pain ran through her head. What am I doing here? Is this a song I must write? Of course it is…it’s…brilliant in the making and there is so much wrong here as it is. There is so much tragedy and sorrow and it’s a riddle, a great riddle that calls me. I must be careful, I must be less obvious… A thought hit her that drove all her worries aside and made a corner of her lip curl. I…or we rather…must be close to something. And gods curse it, those riddles have answers that lie there.

She stood, swaying slightly and she put a hand against the wall until she regained her balance. She kicked her dagger out of the shadows and made her way down the streets in the direction of Ratacca Korr.

Caylia wasn’t stopped as she made her way through up a set of stairs and into a main hall, perhaps because she had been seen there before, perhaps because she was a bard, or simply perhaps she was no where suspicious. It was in the hall outside of the throne room that she found who she was looking for.

“Lord Veritas.” The royal loquiri stopped and turned at the sound of his name and she nodded politely. He looked, in a word, tired. His eyes were dull and smudged, area around his mouth lined. “How is the Fay-el?”

He gave her a long telling look. “Too well.”

It was hard to keep the amusement out of her eyes. It must be hard to deal with a match like Chrys, but it only proved that the rumors were true and he was getting better. “I’m sorry to hear that. If you would like, I earned my fourth black star of High Mastery last year, and I would be honored to play for him. With guards of course. It may help…speed the healing process. Or at least give those around him a much needed break.”

“That,” he breathed with much relief, “would be wonderful. And he will listen whether he wants it or not.”

She smiled. “I will just need a sitar, my lord and,” she hesitated. “And how is Naftis?” It was her real reason for coming after all.

Now Veritas grew hesistant. “He is…recovering.” She nodded reading the words beneath the words. No she would not get to him. A dead end. At least he was recovering. “How is the investigation coming?”

“It’s…coming. I haven’t seen Jaara, the Inquisita,” she clarified, in case he didn’t remember, “or Hamen, the Derk-ra trainer, to see what they have, and all I have are pieces. Possibilities. Maybe scraps of nothingness. That’s why I would like to see Naftis. Of course I’m concerned for his health, he is my companion after all, but I have questions for him, that’s all. Do you know what happened to him?”

Veritas shook his head, pressing a palm to his brow. “No. Anyways I’ve been to busy keeping Chrys resting. Or trying. But,” he paused, “there was just a knife the hybrid took from him. Nothing out of the ordinary other than that.”

“A knife?” her brows knit. “Do you still have it?” She knew of no knife on him, and if he had one, would he have tried to use it to kill himself? Unless…

“I do, I think…” he took a breath and look of irritation passing across is face.

“After I play for the Fay-el.”

Yes.” he said with feeling. “We should have some instruments stored here. Ask a servant, they may be able to find a sitar for you.”

“Thank you my lord.” A thought tickled, and snagged on her lips. “Oh, my lord, for the purpose of the investigation, you were poisoned with somna yes? Do you remember which servant gave you the wine?”

“No servant gave me the wine. Jin…the Dragonian Fay-el I should say, got the wine from a servant. I doubt he’ll remember who after…everything.”

She closed her eyes briefly. Of course…I couldn’t expect that either. “I’m apologize for detaining you any longer than need be,” she answered opening her eyes. “Let me get myself together and I will be along as quickly as I can.”

"Kyda's Blood! You are as stubborn as you are magnificent!"

Hamen jerked once again on the staff, tugging the lead tied to Maheen. She remained exactly where she was. "I haven't had to drag you anywhere. Not ever. And now that we can finally contribute to this thrice-Kree-bled adventure as more than an extra set of arms and legs and eyes you want to just sit there?"

The Derk-Ra looked up at him as proudly as ever.

The man slumped down against the wall, shaking his head and finally letting loose a laugh. "I've been wandering around, getting involved in fleeing loquiri, grieving Inquisita, kidnapped heirs, and High Fay-El's who just can't catch a break. I started out looking to witness a bit of domestic drama, and find myself in the midst of a genuine traitorous conspiracy. I even find myself, for the first time in my life, just happening across what is perhaps the finest female specimen of the reptilian variety to ever grace the Mara. And only just now, after everyone else has proven their worth and given me dozens of tales to tell later in life have I finally managed to make myself truly useful, and I can't -get- to anyone to tell them!"

He frowned at Maheen. "So what, exactly, is the problem? You've been doing so well, why this now?"

The Derk-Ra, naturally, said nothing.

"Feh."

He pulled out the coin again. The guild markings were easy, but what did the eye mean? He twisted the coin a few times, letting it dance between his fingers while he thought out loud to the empty hall and Maheen. "If there's anything really special about this thing, I sure can't see it. Either it needs the gift to show itself off, likely as a guild trinket, or the magic in this thing is entirely in the meaning that certain people give it." He tossed and caught the coin, smiling on noticing that the eye was facing up before he pocketed it again.

He sighed and rose back up to his feet, looking to his companion. "Well, what do you say we go back and wait to see who, if anyone, goes to that little stone cubby-hole you found? Is that acceptable to you, oh Radah of our glorious two-strong pack?"

Maheen seemed to take no offense at all, and actually rose after a moment. Hamen stared at her for a moment, then started walking back the way he'd come, stopping after two steps when the lead pulled taut. Again.

As proud as he was of the latest slur he'd just invented, Hamen glared daggers at the beast. "Listen, I've tried being respectful, I've tried being dominant, I've tried praying to Kyda that you transform into a woman half as beautiful so you'd be easier to get through to. What do you want?"

The Derk-Ra listened, then reached out, grabbing the lead with her teeth and yanking on it. Hamen nearly lost his staff, then dropped down to look Maheen in the eye. "Well, I suppose that would get annoying, but I'm not so sure I can tru..." His words died in his throat. With a sigh, he reached his hands forward to remove the lead. Maheen didn't even nip at them.

*****

As hard as it was to make himself, Hamen looked away from the Derk-Ra again. She was still there, following him diligently as if she'd always trundled along right beside him since the day he was born. He considered offering a new drop to Kyda every time he felt the need to glance back to be sure she was there, but quickly realized how soon he'd give himself wholly over to his faith if he did. "Would you guard my body, or eat it?"

Maheen didn't answer, as usual.

The two got back to the spot they'd found earlier, to find no apparent change. Hamen gave the guards nearby a wave, then smiled as he glanced back down. "Our friends from the game... Shall we stick around a little?"

It didn't take long to find a way to watch. The two guards were assigned to watch more than just the one room, so he just asked if it would be okay to take a nap in one of the other rooms. One that happened to be right down the way from the little niche in the wall. A few shared jokes from the game later, as well as one very awkward implication about Maheen going with him, and Hamen was reclining comfortably among bags of vegetables on a cold bench with Maheen under it munching happily on another little treat. The door was cracked, but barely. It wasn't enough to see through, but it let sound into the room quite nicely.

"Well. I hope you're comfortable, Maheen. We could be here for a while."

He hadn't even finished closing his eyes to yawn before Maheen darted towards the door. He twisted to his feet, just as the door started to creak open slowly, a dagger-blade entering the room first. Maheen tensed, then leaped the instant the arm holding the blade came into view, latching on and shaking her head side to side for an instant before releasing and falling back to all fours, tensed and ready.

Hamen ignored the pained screams, throwing open the door and planting his staff against the injured man's throat. He was... "You're awfully old for this, aren't you?"

The man was wrinkled and weathered, easily old enough to have fathered Hamen. The man gave no answer, but stifled his cries as the pressure on his neck grew threateningly.

"You don't have long before Maheen's venom knocks you out. I need answers. Offer them up freely now, or to my Inquisita friend involuntarily later. Choose fast, your arm needs attention either way."

The man frowned. Too hard. Hamen barely had a moment of realization before his vision started blurring. He tried to slam down with his staff, but his arms were shaking. He fell to his knees when his legs followed suit. What is he doing to me? I've never seen the Gift used like this... He couldn't see Maheen, couldn't hear anything over his heartbeat, couldn't even see the deceptively old man anymore. The blurs started going black, and somewhere he felt his staff pulled from his hands. no... No!

He screamed and his Gift flooded through him, blasting out around him. Glorious! The world was clear, perfect. Every stone was exactly as it should be. Every mote of dust hanging in the air exactly where it must be. Every... Every...

Hamen collapsed as he released his Gift again, panting. The man lay in a heap against the wall across the way, Hamen's staff pressed far too deeply in his neck. The man sighed heavily, leaning against the doorjamb. He felt Maheen beside him. He didn't even ask where she'd been, he could see a pair of fingers and the old man's dagger still clenched in her teeth. "So he didn't go for my staff first..." Maheen went past him, wrapping her teeth around his staff and pulling it over close. The old man fell forward as the staff was removed, head bent around underneath his chest.

Hamen took the staff, but didn't try to stand. "Thank you, Maheen. Let me just... rest for a bit."

The last thing he saw was Maheen turning and growling at the approaching guards.

Stubborn beast...
A Non-Existent User
Kharme rubbed the edge of the coin with her thumb. It was cold, but that did not surprise her. This was all happening too fast, and she was only now getting a slight chance to adjust. As she began to piece it together, she grew dizzy. Who would construct such a terrible plan?

Jaara glared at her. "Why did you not use your Gift? You could have found which ship it was, if he knew."

"I don't have it." she hissed. "I would have been told... would have felt it."

"Unless you were blinded." the woman replied. "You could know all the facts, but never the feeling. That could be why your father refused to let you off the land unless you were with a guildsman."

Her mind was screaming, but Kharme refused to let it show. She closed her eyes for a second, searching for that inner peace. She just barely touched it when she heard a rustle. Her eyes popped open to see Jaara squirming on the floor, clearly fighting off some invisible nudge, but she was smiling all the time.

"You are powerful, you know. It is a shame you will not use it."

Kharme shook her head in frustration.

"Prove me wrong, then. Speak with the man."

Kharme scowled, but moved over to Tyre. She knelt before him and leaned forward, watching his eyes carefully. He fidgeted, uncomfortable.

"They hurt you, did they not?" she whispered. "Stole your family in the twilight, left you alone in the red dawn."

She knew not if he had family, but he nodded, tears in his eyes.

"A boy was stolen away. He, too, has a father. He is an innocent, much like your child. Young, free, too beautiful for this world."

His face softened. "They would kill them if they knew." his eyes drifted away in conflict. She forced him back to her before she lost him to the strength of his mind. She was beginning to tire, and could not afford any waste of time.

"We will save them." she whispered.

He began to weep. "I only heard it whispered. Ver... Ver Lack..."

"Vera Lach." she replied, smiling. "I do thank you."

Then the effect was broken and his face twisted into rage once he realized what he had done. "Why you..." he rolled to his knees and sent insults upon her head in a flood.

In her exhaustion, she could think of nothing better than crawling back and whimpering. She must have looked a fool, but all sense was gone after the strain.

"I thought I told you to be silent!" A hand siezed a place on his neck and pressed deep. Tyre fell forward into an unconcious heap.

Kharme finally caught her breath as the Dragonian woman knelt over him. "I had been meaning to do that." she laughed. "Are you all right?"

Kharme nodded dumbly, looking from Tyre to this new face. Now that she knew her heritage, it was shown ever the clearer in the fire light. The high cheekbones, the fierce edge of the jaw, the protective nature. But telling her now would only distract her from what they had to do.

Daliah seemed to sense her stare and a small crease of a frown appeared at her chin.

"Vera Lach." Kharme stumbled over the words, embarrassed. "The ship is Vera Lach. That was all he knew."

Daliah nodded and rose once more. "I will tell them, thank you. But do watch him, though he should not wake for some time."

She left then, and Kharme and Jaara were left alone with the sleeping man. Jaara sat beside her, restraining pride for the newcomer.

"I shall make you a drink, and you can rest." she said softly, though she kept her face hard.
Kharme, Jaara and Daliah had not been alone with the Guildsman for more than an hour before a great expanding wave of the Gift caused the two Mara to jump to their feet in alarm, and knocked their Dragonian companion to the ground.

"What was that?" Daliah sputtered, allowing the two other women to help her to her feet. She looked around in confusion. One moment she'd been standing---pacing, really---and the next it'd felt as though someone had shoved her hard in the back, throwing her to the ground. Yet there was nobody in the room with her other than the two Mara women and their bound captive, and the two Mara were whispering furiously back and forth about what had just happened.

"An attack, I think," Jaara said. "From the east? I know you felt it as well." She frowned at Kharme.

The noblewoman nodded slowly. "I felt... something. An attack, you say? What kind of attack?"

Jaara bit her lip and pointed at Tyre. "Look."

"What are you doing?" Daliah hissed, rushing the man and taking his chin in hand with a hard grasp. The Guildsman was smiling, and Jaara had to hurry to prevent the warrior from ripping the blindfold from the Guildsman's eyes.

"He's using his Gift," Jaara said grimly. "He cannot do much, without his sight. Probably consorting with whoever attacked Daliah." In one swift motion, drew her dagger with her good arm, and rammed it smartly against the back of Tyre's head. He collapsed forward against his bonds.

Jaara and Kharme looked hard at Tyre’s unconscious form. Two blows to the head in as many hours could hardly be good for the man, but then, Jaara did not particularly care about his wellbeing at this point, and Kharme wasn’t inclined to complain either. Here was a man who was undoubtedly involved in some way with an attempt on the Fay-el’s life, and who they’d just caught using the Gift, possibly to consort with whoever had attacked Daliah, knocking her clear off her feet with the sheer force of a Gift-pulse.

Daliah shook her head. "I'm going to the docks," she snarled, starting for the door.

"Wait!" Jaara called, but the other woman was already one.

“What should we do with him?” Kharme wondered aloud as Jaara carefully rechecked the bonds on the man’s wrists, ankles, and the blindfold around his eyes. “We cannot leave Daliah unarmed against the Gift.”

“Kill him.” Jaara spat, then glanced over at Kharme’s shocked face. “Only jesting. But perhaps it would be good to give him the…” she rustled through her bag, at last pulling out the bottle she was looking for.

“Poison?” Kharme’s voice was suddenly very small.

“No, it is only to keep him asleep for a little longer while we look for Daliah and the others.” Jaara glanced at the bottle in her hand; somna, for the deadening of the Gift when one wanted to pass unnoticed through heavily populated cities without the Guild taking note of the presence of one whose work was delicate enough to require anonymity. A very useful trick her husband had taught her; a triple dose should boost the drug’s effects to help ensure the Guildsman remained sedated.

“Fine, then. But do it quickly.” Kharme watched nervously as Jaara emptied the contents down the man’s throat. “Now let us go.”

Both women began to run toward the docks. Because of all the years of horseback riding and foot races, Kharme was a near match to Jaara in speed. But if it came to fighting, she had great fear.

***


Daliah stumbled to her feet and continued to run. She still did not quite understand what force had struck her back there in Tyre’s home, but she could not let it slow her. All she could do was hope she found the ship in time. Her feet flew evenly over the ground, light as any deer’s, leaping over fallen carts and boxes of salted meat.

The ship was in sight now, and by the shouting alone she knew there was trouble. She ran faster, crossing the plank in only a few steps. She leapt aboard, sword drawn even before she landed. Chaos met her, but she knew how to handle it.

Her sword clanged against those of the sailors, but hers rang clearer and sharper as each stroke felled another enemy. But there were so many, she needed a way to balance the scale. There was at least one she was repeatedly trained in.

She cut the arm of one of the men, causing him to drop his sword. It fell into her outstretched hand as he stumbled back, and she proceeded to wield both blades against her opponents. She did not fight with flash, but with a raw viciousness. Her blades did not spin in her hands before they ran through flesh, but moved only with speed and power.

Another man jumped in front of her, and she noted his athletic form and strong sword. He had obviously been trained in battle. She let him attack her first, and blocked him easily with both blades, pushing them forward so that he was forced to back away. His arm flashed out, grasping the weapon of one of his fallen comrades. They were now evenly matched.

He grinned at her and started forward once more. They fought in circles it seemed, and Daliah had to spin more than once to dodge an attack and gain force behind her blows. But he continued to drive her back, and she let him, a plan already formed if she read him correctly. Her back was now pressed against the rail, and she leaned out over the water, fighting for her life. She could hear the waves sucking hungrily at the ship, ready to swallow her.

She shoved him away and readied herself. He flew at her, eager to finish this. She ducked at the last second and lifted his legs over the side. He fell, but managed to grab the collar of her shirt and fumbled to get in one last attack before she threw him over. By the time she forced him away, he had sliced deep through her thigh and she was hanging to the side with only a hand, her other clutching the wound tightly. She glanced down for a moment until she was sure he was truly gone before she began to pull herself up.

The blood made the railing slippery, but she dug her fingers into the grooves and swung her legs over. She pushed herself up from the deck, clutching her leg and trying to catch her breath.

***


“I see that the time for subtly is over,” Jaara grinned harshly, as she and Kharme skidded to a stop to behold the skirmish that had spilled out onto the dock. Apparently that ael kinth and his Border Guard “friend” had found an ant’s nest of angry, armed men, and even now were whetting their blades in freshly spilled blood, working their way along the deck.

They were also, it appeared, running away from their opponents, moving adroitly down the gangplank in a series of jumps, slides and rapid footsteps. The red-headed Hybrid had a small, hooded form slung over one shoulder, and was clutching his shitan in his other hand as he ran. Ravin guarded his back, weaving around the Hybrid once their feet touched the ground again to fend off their pursuers with wickedly powerful slashes and stabs. He spotted the two approaching women and his dark eyes widened. “Go!” he shouted, pointing with one hand before slashing at a stocky Hybrid with the other.

“Where is Daliah?” Jaara shouted back.

***


Daliah groaned as the pain seared her thigh. Something was wrong, now. She’d been wounded in battle before and it had never hurt this much, and now the pain was spreading rapidly until she struggled for breath. Her vision began to blur and darken as she felt something invade her body.

She had never encountered the Gift, so she did not recognize the feeling, as she should have. A shadowy figure at the corner of her vision stepped closer, and the pain increased greatly. She screamed in spite of herself, drawing attention from those around her.

Jaara and Kharme heard it, and soon found themselves running across the deck. Both knew the cry of a woman in pain, and they knew of only one other woman on the ship. Neither stopped to think about how easily they were able to cross, how the other men stepped away from them with a simple push from their Gifts. Their minds were on other matters.

“What is he doing?” Kharme cried, quickly spotting the man that stood staring at Daliah in silent concentration as the woman froze in midstep and began to sink to the floor in agnoy.

“The Gift,” Jaara snapped. “He’s killing her with it,” she explained flatly, rushing the Guildsman. “Let her go!”

He turned to them slowly and his hold loosened enough for Daliah to suck in a quick breath. He smiled, but it faded as Jaara expanded her own---comparatively feeble---Gift between the Guildsman and his victim, breaking his hold.

Kharme stood for a moment, unsure of what to do, before circling over to Daliah. The strange woman was nearly unconscious now, and didn’t seem to recover even as the Guildman’s Gift released her. Kharme was not a healer, but she knew the gray cast of the other woman’s skin and her rapid, shallow breathing were not good signs. Still, she saw little that she could do at the moment except attempt to help Jaara.

“Come on!” Jaara yelled, fighting off a sudden attack from a sailor at her side as she focused her meager Gift upon the Guildsman. She was sweating from the strain of just trying to fend off the man’s attacks, which washed, one after another, against her own Gift. If she could only find a break in his attacks, she could take the offensive… but he kept slamming her again and again, driving his Gift like a knife between her ribs, into her stomach, between her eyes…

“Stop!” Kharme tried tapping into her Gift, but he was too determined to fall prey to her undisciplined attempt.

“That will not work!” Jaara gasped in pain and frustration.

“Then what do I do?” Kharme asked herself quietly. But she knew she had to at least try.

She leapt into the struggle and started to search within herself. Necessity allowed her to find it quickly, and they were soon pushing him back. Kharme felt like a knife was carving out her ribs, slicing them apart slowly. She could only imagine what Jaara felt.

“We have to go. Hurry!” This order came from Ravin, who continued to fight for the Hybrid and the boy. They were extremely outnumbered, and could not afford to waste much time.

Jaara cued Kharme and they both pushed with their Gifts at once, so that the man landed on his back a few feet away. Kharme moved to help Daliah, but found the woman already on her feet with her cloak pressed against her wound. She had a strange look in her eyes as she reached for her knife.

“We have to go.” Kharme pulled her away.

“Is he all right? Is he hurt?” Daliah asked as they jogged out, though she limped slightly.

“Is he---Oh, the boy.” Jaara took her other arm and tugged her faster. “He seems to be fine, but that will change if we do not leave now.”

Daliah nodded and pressed forward, slicing out with her knife whenever one of the sailors came too close. It was a weak effort, but it helped some in combination with Jaara’s Gift and Ravin clearing the way before them as they fought their way slowly, laboriously, up the docks and toward Ratacca Korr. It wasn’t until Ravin procured horses in “the Fay-el’s name” that they were able to escape their enemies.

Daliah began to black out again as she mounted, so she did not complain when someone mounted behind her. It comforted her that she would not have to latch herself to the saddle. She was grateful, but fainted before she could tell who it was.

“..a lot of blood,” Kor was saying. “I think the great artery in her leg…”

“Use your Gift,” Ravin snapped.

All she felt was someone shaking her and gently slapping her cheeks as the horses’ hooves clattered against the stones of Ratacca Korr’s inner courtyard, and, somewhere, Jin cried---“Elam!”
There was no sitar in the storeroom the servant led her to, but after a bit of rummaging and sneezing through a cloud of dust she found an instrument lying on a high shelf, strings resting next to it between two sheets of oiled paper, and thanked the Luckbringer. An Apollarian dulcimer she smiled, running a finger down its length. It has a beautiful voice. A perfect for a Fay-el…I think so at least.

Her hang murmured softly as she set it on the floor next to her harp, then her pack followed. She drew forth her bard’s coat, reserved for playing for formal occasions, and slipped bone ties through leather loops on the front and straightened the high collar that covered her neck almost to the chin, and hiding a few tell tale dark smudges. Shining a brass cup with the aid of her breath and a sleeve she studied her reflection, words of her Master of Etiquette whispering in her mind. Collar up, sleeves full, stars shown…you are a bard of the School of Settar, trained to play for kings, act it, be it, breathe it.

She followed a servant through halls of stone, sandaled feet making little noise on the stone, a door marked with lances. A knock and the door came open. “He’s…grumpy,” Veritas told her as he ushered her in.

The Fay-el was in bed, propped up by pillows and glaring a little at his loquiri. “I don’t need to be here right now…I don’t need any of this.” He waved a hand a little as Caylia bowed uncertainly.

“Yes, you do,” the loquiri told him smartly. The Fay-el’s eyes narrowed and the two had a stand off in silence. Caylia, caught somewhere between interest and confusion was about to issue a well placed cough, when Chrys grumbled something and turned his attention to her.

She bowed again. “Is there something you’d like to hear, my lord? A request?”

He took a breath, ready to let the words go but then thought better of it as he closed his eyes for a long moment. His face relaxed and she could almost see his shoulders begin to sag. “Something from Lodear,” he said finally, eyes opening, “anything from Lodear.”

Play me something from home, said his secret words, tinged with home sickness and longing. She nodded, bowing slightly from the waist, keeping her face as straight as she could. “It would be an honor my lord.” She retreated to the side and laid the instrument across her lap, fitting the strings and drawing the music into her mind.

She pulled in her own memories of her home, and the feeling of homesickness to match his that thrummed like the lowest string on her harp, like the north wind. From his will she began to gather the flavor of the place, matching the low flats with the dryness, and something very wild, and yet ordered. An enigma within chaos. To that she tuned three of the strings. The last were hers to tune and she chose her story, the story or one version of it, of the founding of Bren Am and the man who did so. She made them supporting strings ones that would add the story to the flavor and the love of a place and with a last brush of her fingers over the strings she was ready. Drawing a pick from one of her voluminous sleeves, she rested the instrument across her lap and depressed the strings.

He came from a land between two hills
Into a land he thought he knew,
Into a land he thought he loved.


It was an old song, different from her usual style of story telling to music versus a simple song but it was still a good one and versions different depending on where one found it. She moved her fingers on the dulcimer, making the notes scrape as Dahmir ventured from his small village through the war torn tribes of the now country of Lodear. She drew in what she knew, and some of what she guessed to reflect the folds of the land, the dryness in the air and followed the story through his capture, escape, and recapture by the various tribes of the Lodear countryside.

“You’re a spy, you’re a coward, you’re a merchant you’re a lover.”
“You are nothing.”
“You are mine.”
And he said, “I will fight you ‘til the Windrunner takes us all.
To the end of time.”


He fought for his freedom and won, defeated the tribes chief warrior. They begged him to stay and help them and she tied opposing strings to match the young warriors thoughts as he warred with his desire for peace and his desire for the clan chief’s young daughter.
They fell in love but knew they would never find peace as long as war ran rampant among the clans. Never unless he brought a star from the stargatherer’s domain, or so the daughter told him. She pulled other strings now, drawing on a different longing and hope.

He said “I’ll go beyond that band of stars between the sky
Beyond that peak
For you.
Yes I’ll do it all
For you.”


The notes softened as he took leave of his lover for the mountains, then called the Roofs. She quickened the tempo as he climbed, almost fell until he reached the very top and reached out to grab a star from the sky. He returned in glory to the place where the clan chiefs fought and buried the star in the earth. A day later a spring bubbled into the dry sand and the chiefs lay down their arms to him, the chief’s daughter sprang into his arms and the first Lodear city was founded with a great crescendo, tapering off into whispers.

As the last of the notes died, she became alive again and found the Fay-el, eyes closed, asleep on the bed. Veritas, starting as if waking out of a dream when she moved, breathed a sigh.

“Thank you. Good choice.”

“He chose it as much as me,” she replied, stilling each string with a finger. “He’s homesick, so I tried to give something back.”

“He is,” his loquiri affirmed and she quirked a smile. He hadn’t needed her to tell him that. “It’s been a long while since he’s been home and he can’t fight all the time. Kyda blessed he sleeps…for now,” the man eyed the sleeping Fay-el and uncurled from where he had been sitting.

“Is it odd,” she asked suddenly, “be so tied to another life?”

He blinked, blindsided by her sudden bluntness but then shook his head. “It would be still odder not to be. Like missing an arm or a leg or something…something else that goes beyond the describable.” He looked over again at the sleeping Fay-el and rubbed the back of his neck. “Thank you again. I’m sure Chrys would like to hear you play again, but for now I’m sure he will be fine that he is asleep.”

“Of course. But I must unstring the instrument first. That takes care and time.” Their eyes met, she raised a brow, and he rubbed the back of his neck a second time. Then with a sigh he dropped the hand.

“I could just have you taken out, you know.”

“But you’re not going to.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I think…”

His words stopped when a moan came from the bed. Chrys twisted in his sheets, sweat beading on his forehead. Caylia’s eyes went wide as the air seemed to constrict in the room and Veritas went to his Match’s side. Even she could tell this was something different from a normal nightmare. The Fay-el moaned, and twitched as Veritas murmured something to him. Whatever it was didn’t work as the twitch turned to a thrash than a growl and the loquiri suddenly motioned to her.

Me? She didn’t move until Veritas gave her a pointed look and she forced her heart back out of her throat and came over to the bedside. “I was hoping for this,” the loquiri murmured, eyes training on Chrys’s face, “and so I left his dreamstone elsewhere. But if you’re here…you might be able to help. Even get this over quicker.”

She looked at the Fay-el, pulsing, erratic, emotion lay over emotion and she put a finger to her temple before she looked back at his Match questioningly. “Is…is this what I think this is?” He nodded. “I had no idea…”

“No one does,” Veritas affirmed. “If anyone at court knew their Fay-el could foretell then they may decide he has too much power. That and…it’s not something he likes to talk about.” Chrys moaned again, twisting the sheets around his arms. The muscles around Veritas’s lips tightened and he swallowed.

“What can I do that you can’t?”

“See him. Talk to him…at least for a little while.” A pained expression graced the other’s face for a fraction of a moment. “To me…he’s like mist. Insubstantial and not really there. I reach out for him with my Gift and I…pass right through him. We need to find out what he’s seeing. So I need you to find him and talk to him.”

She nodded slowly, the butterflies in her stomach turning to lead. “I’ve never done this before.”

“I’ll help.”

“And if I kill the Fay-el, I will blame you.”

A snort of amusement. “Of course.”

She looked at the dreaming Fay-el on the bed before her. Find him… She concentrated on the flurry of emotions, clanging and jarring and so layered they almost consumed her. She sorted through them. They were all Chrys in one way or another but Chrys at different times and different places so it was as if there were three people in front of her instead of one. Then, she found him, or what she hoped was him, a low chord of anger and fear. She wished for her harp. Then she could match the tone with one from a string and use that to keep a hold on him, but instead she had to use her voice. Slowly carefully she matched her words to the string she saw as him. “What do you see?”

The chord pulsed, jarring against her subconscious and she took a breath glimpsing for an instant the enormous power the Fay-el really did have. Chrys spat a string of unintelligible words and she frowned. I thought I had it… “Too much,” came Veritas’s voice. “That’s too much at one time. Start simple. Start with his name.”

There is power in names. Matching the right notes to the right intonations. Now is not the time to experiment though. she plucked the string lightly in her mind and breathed his name. He grunted and Veritas urged her on. “Again.”

“Chrys.”

The Fay-els eyes opened, wide, blank, unseeing. Caylia felt a stab of fear until she saw Veritas relax. “Good,” the loquiri said. “Now…ask him where he is.”

She took a moment to reach for the dulcimer and play a few calming notes before she did so and after a moment the Fay-el answered. “Gyas…Gyas,” he snarled and Veritas and Caylia met each other’s eyes. Not what they were expecting, their look read, but it would do.

“Where is Gyas?”

“Running…coward!” the last was shouted and Caylia unconsciously put a steadying hand on his arm.

“Ask him where he sees him,” Veritas pushed and she nodded and did so.

“Dry river valley,” came the snarled response. “Nearing two great pillars of limestone, baked and weathered white.” His fists tightened. “He is going to escape. Escaped…gone…” He trailed off and shifted once against the pillow.

The loquiri breathed a sigh. “He’s coming back. I’m beginning to feel his gift again.”

Caylia relaxed, trying to let the tension out of her shoulders. Actually finding Chrys had taken more of her Gift than she would have liked. She looked at him again as he face passed into calm. “Has he…ever done this before?”

“Yes,” Veritas responded. “That’s why normally he sleeps with his dreamstone. The last time this happened he dreamed of Turina miscarrying again. They did everything possible to prevent it. Bedrest, special teas, special herbs but she lost the child. And in the seventh month no less. He took it…hard.”

The loquiri’s words caught in Caylia’s throat for a moment and she gripped his sleeve. “Don’t you find it odd…” she murmured, urgently, “that the Guild is trying everything they can to put their own heir on the throne, and at the same time the Fay-el’s wife miscarries every time the Fay-el will have a legitimate heir and…a royal maidservant buys herbs from a shop marked with the Guild’s own seal?”

Veritas looked at her a moment, then cursed.
Chrys knew he had been Foretelling. The sour taste in his mouth, the sweeping dizziness, the bone-weariness of the Gift—they were all signs he had grown to know and hate.

He didn't bother opening his eyes. "Ver?"

"I'm here." The strengthening link and faint footsteps signaled Veritas' approach. Chrys opened one eye. "Give me the stone," he growled.

The loquiri handed it to him wordlessly. Chrys sat up, scowling. "You know I hate that."

"Aye." The loquiri's smile was faint. "But Elam and Gyas must be found."

The Fay-el rubbed his temples wearily. "Doesn't mean I have to enjoy it." He sighed, "Did I say anything helpful?"

"You don't know what you've said?"

Chrys' head snapped up, eyes widening. Caylia stood there. "She was here?" his gaze jerked to Veritas. "She was here!"

Caylia cast an uncertain glance Veritas’ way. “Forgive me, my lord, perhaps it would be best if I…” She was already looking over her shoulder at the door.

“No,” Veritas said softly, holding one hand up to stay her words. “What better witness than a Bard? And he owes you gratitude, I should think. Unless of course he wants to still be wandering in the Foretelling.”

Chrys visibly shivered. “No, I do not wish to be there.” Some of his Foretelling had lasted for hours. “How did she help, when you cannot?”

“She is not limited by the pair-link.”

Veritas always stated things so matter-of-factly. He scowled at the loquiri. “Fine then. What did I say? Who did I see?”

Caylia straightened somewhat, all confident bard again. "You witnessed the escape of Lord Gyas. You said that he was in a 'dry river valley' and 'nearing two great pillars of limestone, baked and weathered white'." Not only did she quote his words back to him verbatim, but also with matched emphasis and inflection.

“Dry river valley…” Chrys mused, “Not Apollar or Settar, most likely. Two pillars—surely he’s not trying through Sharik Gorge?”

“He might,” Veritas said. “Few caravans pass there.”

“There’s a Border Guard camp—two days’ ride?”

“Aye,” the loquiri frowned. “If your Foretelling holds true to normal—“

“—then we have two or three days before it actually happens.” Chrys finished. Paused. Frowned at his loquiri. “What?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re holding something back. What? Did I see someone die too?” His heart beat increased. “Elam?”

“No.” Caylia answered. “Just the escape of Gyas.”

“Then what is it?”

“It can wait until I have checked myself.” Veritas said.

Chrys’ eyes narrowed. “No. What is it? Don’t hide things from me.”

Veritas sighed. “Thanks to Caylia, we have a lead on…” he took a breath, as if steeling himself. “The Guild may have a hand in Turina’s miscarriages.”

The blood drained from his face. “They wouldn’t.”

Bard and loquiri stared at him, the weight of their grim conviction on their faces. It was Caylia who pointed out the obvious, her musical voice gentle but firm. “This is a body of men known for kidnapping and murdering those who get in their way, burning the Gift from people they cannot manipulate, intimidating everyone from street-corner tradesmen to Fay-els, destroying honest businesses out of a sheer desire to maintain a monopoly on the Gift and all trades that arise from it, and various other, smaller offenses. They dared kidnap your one and only heir and attempt to take your life, my lord. Is it so difficult to believe that they would also seek to prevent you from producing an heir of your own body?”

“No, but…” He swallowed. “A woman—to harm her in such a manner.” He clenched his fists. Anger flared, burning into his chest. And more. His Gift flooded. Veritas winced, hand to his temples. Caylia’s eyes widened.

Chrys closed his eyes and forced the Gift out. Took a deep breath. When he felt slightly calmer, he growled, “How did they reach her?”

“A maidservant buys herbs from a Guild-owned shop,” Caylia answered. “Whether by purpose or accident, I know not.”

He opened his eyes again, flicked a glance at his loquiri. “Not you. And Asaph...”

“If the girl has done nothing amiss, her reputation would still be destroyed.”

“Aye.” He looked at Caylia. “As a bard, you have learned much of etiquette. Could you pass as a lady’s maid? Perhaps a short time as such.”

One eyebrow arching, the bard curtseyed in a very convincing imitation of a flustered young lady’s maid nervous obeisance. “Of course, my lord, if you wish it.”

He laughed. “I think you will do then.” Chrys frowned. “Let’s see. The matron must let you pass—“ he frowned, and then brightened as an idea struck him. Slid his sigil ring from his hand and held it out to her. “This will grant you authority as an inner Inquisita.”

“But sire, I don’t think…”

“You must have the right to do what is necessary.” His eyes narrowed. “If the Guild is involved, they have killed three of my children.”

Caylia took the ring between slender fingers and curtsied again, this time in the graceful bardic fashion. "Shall I report to the matron now, then?"

“Yes. I want to know if the Guild is involved or not as soon as possible.”

"I will go straightaway, then. With your leave, my lord."

Chrys nodded.

The bard curtsied a last time and stepped lightly out of the room, slipping the sigil ring onto her finger.

_~_


Veritas frowned at the pacing Fay-el. “These things take time. And you are wearing yourself out.”

“If I need a nursemaid, I shall summon one.”

The loquiri sighed. The combination of Foretelling and Guild-tampering had placed him in a nasty mood. “Be calm.”

Chrys glared at him, and then resumed his restless stalk from one end of the room to the other. Veritas shook his head. “You’re hopeless.”

“Would you be quiet?”

“Chrys, you must not—“ his voice trailed off at the sound of someone rapping solidly on the door.

Chrys whirled. “Ah! She’s fast,” and he darted for the door. The loquiri sighed again, deeper. He knew better than that. A quick tweak of the pair-link, and Chrys stopped short, grimacing.

“Hold, firebrand.” The Fay-el scowled at him, and at the pet name. Resting a hand on his shoulders, Veritas nudged him back. “If an assassin were waiting there?”

“But—“

“If?”

Chrys sighed, crossed his arms, and stood still. “Fine.”

Smiling, Veritas turned away and crossed into the alcove. Asaph stood at the door, a bedraggled Hamen beside him. He held a sack of something in one hand, and the other clasping his staff as if it were going to be ripped out of his hand. His Derk-ra stood a few feet behind him, sniffing at the air.

Frustration clanged in the back of his head. You can come. Veritas sent. And then turned his attention to the motley trio. “Yes? What have you found?”

“Some items that I for one do not recognize, but may be important,” Hamen said. “A Guildsmen tried to wound me for them.”

Chrys’ presence burned bright and clear behind Veritas. He didn’t turn, but saw Hamen and Asaph both glance up, the former quickly bowing. “Get up,” the Fay-el growled, “What did you find? At Hamen’s stare, “Well? Come on.”

He whirled, stalking back into his room. Hamen glanced uneasily at Veritas, who only sighed. “He’s in a.... nasty mood. Don’t mind what he says much.”

Hamen stared at the cup in his hand. “It’s a… well… I’m not sure, other than the obvious. See the Guild markings?” He turned it over in his hand, his fingers shaking somewhat. His color was very pale, and he was leaning unsubtly against Chrys’s doorframe. “But I do not know what it does.” He dug through his pockets and produced two more objects. The first he tossed to Veritas, who caught the coin with ease and a curious glance. The second he held up to the light. “The phial held somna, until recently. The coin I do not recognize. There is a Guild symbol on one side, but on the other? I have not seen this eye sigil before.”

Chrys plucked the coin out of his loquiri’s grasp. He studied it for a moment. With an annoyed growl, he returned it. “Neither have I. I know but little of their—“ he trailed off when Hamen started to slump.

Veritas and he moved in tandem, the loquiri grabbing for the items even as Chrys caught the swaying trainer. He seized his Gift from habit, strengthening him. Hamen gasped, stiffening in his hands, eyes slightly wide at the feel of his Fay-el’s Gift. But he straightened.

Chrys released his hold, stepping back. He felt Veritas disapproval. The Fay-el pushed the Gift farther away. It was easy to slip, especially after the Foretelling.

“Now then. I have seen this chalice before,” he tapped a finger against the edge of it, and returned it to Hamen. “Gyas brought it, said it was a gift from a bandit chief, a bribe he didn’t heed. Not that I believed him then, or now. However...” he frowned at Hamen, now staggering again. “What is the matter with you?”

“I, ah.” The trainer glanced around briefly, as though unsure about where he was. Beside him, the Derk-ra’s nostrils flared in uncertainty and her tongue tasted the air near her master’s arm. “The assassin. I think. He was Gifted.”

The man was clutching the goblet tightly in both hands, like a drunkard clings to his tankard, as though it would hold him upright. He glanced down at it briefly, his eyes widening. “Though this… I started feeling drowsy, then lightheaded, after I picked it up, and before the assassin…” His grip on the cup slipped so that he was holding it with only the tips of his fingers, and he extended it away from his body with one shaking arm. The Derk-ra took a lithe step back away from the thing, hissing.

Chrys reached for the chalice again, and then let his hand fall. Veritas grabbed it instead, with a pointed glare at him. The Fay-el shrugged. Veritas swore under his breath, directed at him certainly, and then turned it over in his hand.

He seized the Gift. His eyes narrowed and he frowned slightly. "There's quite a pattern woven onto this. One I do not recognize." Veritas glanced at Hamen. "Do you know what this odd design is supposed to do?"

Hamen blinked at it. Some of it was obviously Guild insignia… that much he knew, but anyone who’d ever walked past a Guild Citadel would be able to tell that much. The interlocked triangles were hardly obscure. But the others… “I do not know, my lord. I had hoped you might be able to tell me something.” He scratched his head. “Is Lord Gyas the only individual who has ever touched this? Other than me, that is. I find it odd that he would deliberately touch something with the kinds of affects this has. Unless, of course, he is unaware of its affects. But then… why hide it, and in a wall no less?”

“I don’t know,” Veritas frowned. “I really don’t understand all that the Guild does. Perhaps…” he glanced at Chrys, already aware what his reaction would be. “Andros might know.”

“Andros? Certainly not.”

“Who?” Hamen said.

“Andros,” Veritas sighed. “A Guildsman of the Riv sect.”

“Guildsman? You want to question one of those type against their own kind? I doubt it will work.”

“Andros has his own secrets. He will never risk falling into my disfavor.”

Chrys sighed. “Let Andros be. I’m sure we can puzzle it out.”

“I think not.”

Hamen shook his head. “I don’t understand you. The Guild tried to murder your Match, which would, in a sense, murder you. Yet you come to a Guildsman for help?”

“Let’s just say,” Veritas responded, “He and I have much in common.”

Hamen had the distinct impression the two men were talking over and around a topic they didn’t want him to understand, and he shrugged and let it be. After all, royal business was hardly his business.

…Well, except when, like now during this investigation, it was. Clearing his throat and reaching down to idly stroke Maheen’s snout, he asked, “You and the Guildsman have much in common how, precisely?”

It's...complicated." Veritas sighed. "Andros is...is different than any other Guildsman you will meet. Most with his particular--bent--would be dead already."

"His Gift is killing him?"

"No--" the loquiri shook his head. "If the Guild knew...knew what he is, that is could be, they would have killed him years ago. He, his parents, his children, and any relatives."

Hamen still wasn’t understanding. He couldn’t think of a single bent that the Guild wouldn’t willingly make a use of, let alone one that would prove a danger to one’s entire family. “What is he?”

Veritas sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "Andros is a loquiri. He hides it well, but the bent is there." He glanced at Hamen. "This Guildsman will never betray me, because I can betray him."

The trainer nodded his understanding. The Guild would never willingly allow a loquiri into their midst. Loquiri were aberrations in their minds, subhuman and twisted. At best, they were pitiful; at worst, they were repulsive. No wonder this Andros was unlikely to betray Veritas.

A courier charged into the room, cutting them all short. Chrys glared at him. “What? Speak, man.”

“A attack…” he gasped, “Guildsmen. In the courtyard. With the boy—with Elam, sire and…”

Chrys was already moving, shoving past him. Veritas scowled and tagged after him. “Chrys!”

He swiveled, shrugging at Hamen. “We’ll find Andros in a moment, after this. I cannot leave Chrys, and Andros will not talk to me without him anyway.”

Hamen nodded, clutching his staff tighter. “Perhaps I can help. And Maheen.” He smiled fondly at the Derk-ra.

Veritas nodded. “Good enough. Come on.”


Hamen grinned down at Maheen before striding through the door after the Fay-El and his shadow. The Derk-ra's return expression was a little unusual. "I'm not so sure I should get used to seeing you... seeing you doing anything but glare at me." The only answer was a tilt of the lizard's head. He straightened a bit, taking some of his weight off of his staff. His legs felt very weak, but he could at least stand. He'd need to run to catch up though.

"Come on, Maheen, let's get moving."

His staff started thumping into the ground regularly with his hurried footsteps, Maheen pacing him without any actual effort. The trainer kept a grin on his face, hiding the grimace and fatigue beneath it. And it feels so much more tiring after feeling my Gift again. I've resisted it for so long. If it makes me this weak just from using it for one instant... He took a moment to rest his weight against the wall to his side as Veritas came into view in front of him. He slumped. "Maheen, I don't think I'm going to really be much help. I've spent far too much time today being a chump."

He looked down at his hands gripping the staff. The grip tightened, but not as much as he wanted it to. I'm always the one holding the horses, am finally starting to prove useful, and now I can barely move. Kyda's Blood! I will not wait outside again!

Hamen shuddered slightly as he felt his Gift, just begging him to use it. With a visible shudder, it swept through his body. Burn my life away, Kyda! I will live now, rather than the years I'd have otherwise. With a snarl at the unfairness of it all, he charged after Veritas, stride strong again with a very pleased-looking Derk-ra following along right behind.

Veritas tensed. He popped his wrist, sliding a hidden dagger from its place beneath his sleeve. He whirled at the sudden prickle racing down his spine. And then scowled at Hamen. “Would you warn me before you do that?” He shoved the slim dagger back into its wrist sheath. “I’d rather not wound an ally.”

The trainer nodded, though his expression didn't change. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just warn me first. Especially with him nearby.” He jerked a hand over his shoulder at the Fay-el. Veritas turned away and hurried to catch up with Chrys. Hamen followed closely behind him, but wisely did not try to move between him and Chrys.

Surprised shouts and a clatter of—hooves?—effectively pulled his attention away from the trainer. Chrys had paused too. Veritas crept in front of him, peering down the corridor. Caught a snatch of Ravin’s voice. Chrys’ tension and anticipation both doubled and he took off.

“Wait! Blasted—firebrand—“ Veritas sighed, flicking a hurried glance at Hamen. “I can’t leave him. Go where you please. I have to follow a bloody, cresent-blinded, star-blasted…” he swore hotly as he ran after the quickly vanishing Fay-el.

Out in the courtyard, sticking close to Kharme’s right side to help defend the inexperienced---but not, to her relief, incapable---woman from their attackers, Jaara grinned in greeting as Hamen slipped into battle behind her.

Half of the Crossroads Guild Citadel’s militia seemed to have been guarding the ship with Elam, and they had followed the rescuers all the way back to the palace, trying to recover the boy. Now that the child was safely inside, the focus of their attacks changed unsubtly from attempts to kill the rescuers and recover the boy, to a simple goal of leaving the battle scene. But the palace guard seemed grimly un-inclined to allow anyone who had dared threaten the palace leave alive, and the Guild militia was fighting fiercely for their lives alone now, the heir all but forgotten.

Jaara, too, would gladly have seen the entire lot of them killed, but she, at least, knew the value of a captive. One of these un-Gifted militia men would do, but she wanted to put one of the true Guildsmen to the question. Those two, however, were lingering far back from the battle, letting the hired Guild mercenaries do their work for them before they so much as deigned interfere with the battle. But once, glancing over her shoulder at them, she noticed them conversing quietly, pointing at her, at Hamen, and at Kharme in turn.

They’re planning to take out the Gifted defenders, she realized, and wished she’d killed that Kyda-forsaken Guildsman when she’d had the chance.

“Hamen, Kharme!” she cried. “Be wary!”

Hamen heard Jaara's warning, but couldn't do anything about it just yet. He twisted, spinning his staff around his own body and over Maheen's to slam into the chest of a Guildsman, the new grip braced against his side so that he could swing once to each side, knocking the men there off-balance as he charged forward. His expression shifted steadily from the anger and rage he'd felt at the necessity of his Gift to a blissful smile.

I can see everything, feel everything... This is all so very easy...

Maheen leapt forward, slicing her jaws across the fallen and off-balance men Hamen left in his wake. He could almost hear her laughing as he planted his staff, flipping himself over it as a pair of blades struck it. His feet both shot forward into the chest of one of the men attacking him, a quick spin on landing sending the other one reeling, trying to cope with the extra force Hamen's Gift lent the strike. The Derk-ra was there again, slipping into the man's guard and sinking her teeth into him.

He laughed, sweeping his weapon before him and flourishing. "Come ON! I am alive!"

Hamen's laughter continued even as he felt the first probing tests of his Gift from the Guildsmen.

Terran whirled through Raven’s Claw, driving his shitan up through the throat of one foe and blocking with the other. He twisted aside from the falling body. Danced through Reaper’s Scythe, a sweeping move that sent a Guildsmen to the ground with one hand clamped over the ragged gash, and took a quick diagonal step to launch into Waving Grain.

A cluster of three more Guildsmen backed away from him, eyes flicking warily at the blademaster tattoo emblazoned across his forearm. “Come on, sand-crawler,” he hissed.

Anger leaped into eyes. One flung his body at him, ducking down to slide beneath one shitan. He did not miss the second one. Seeing one of their own killed in front of them did not encourage bravery. They whirled and headed for Jaara, heartily hacking her way through them.

At her shouted warning, Terran glanced at the other Mara. Guards would have been down a long time ago, if this Gift affected all of them. But Jaara’s concern seemed to be on the other, younger girl and—ah, that would not end well. The man was plowing through most of the Guildsmen, his staff as deadly at cracking skulls as Terran’s own shitans were at ripping flesh. The Derk-ra close by was handy as well.

A Derk-ra trainer then. Those kind had never cared much for blademasters; not with the emblem of his profession marking the deaths of at least five of the beasts. Terran frowned, but still began working his way toward the two of them. Mutual dislike aside, they should help one another.

And then the trainer jerked. The Derk-ra snarled, leaping over her master as he slumped. The young girl—Kharme? Is that what Jaara said?—cried out in pain. And Terran made his move. Shitans flashing, he forced his way toward them.

It felt as though a knife were being driven between Jaara’s ribs into her lungs, but she pushed the pain aside, slicing her sword downwards viciously in a reverse Reaper’s Scythe to hamstring the Guild militiaman who stupidly attempted to block her path to Kharme. .She didn’t bother finishing him, but left Khyr to it, as the Derk-ra gleefully fell upon the screaming man, cutting off his cries and his life in one powerful snap of his jaws.

“Kharme!” she shouted, and noticed in the corner of her eye Maheen jumping over Hamen as he crumpled. Khyr rejoined her, licking his snout luxuriously for an instant before snarling at a new assailant pressing from Jaara’s side and leaping. Jaara paused in her rush toward Kharme, twisting sideways with a slight pull on her Gift for rapidity to avoid the unexpected stab coming in from her injured right side and driving her sword across her body to strike home in the throat of the blade’s wielder. He fell, clutching his throat, unable to draw the breath to scream. “Kharme!”

The other woman was breathing hard, her face white, but she still held her weapon in a white-knuckled grip and moved to duck under the blow of the militiaman to her right. There was a lull in the battle as a rather large Dragonian bladesmaster imposed himself between the two women and their attackers on his way toward the two Gifted Guildsmen. “Kharme, listen to me. You’re not wounded!”

“It hurts!” Kharme hissed, clutching her side.

“No.” Jaara pried the noblewoman’s hands away from her ribs. “See? No blood. I think he causes pain with his Gift, but not damage.” She glanced across the courtyard at Hamen, who seemed to have heard her and was taking a deep breath to try to ignore the ghost pain.

He knelt, then twisted underneath his planted staff, letting it block an incoming blow before another wave of pain shot through his chest. Not my chest, my heart... Can they speed the Gift's penance?

His vision blurred, then went black. He gritted his teeth and snarled, his hand reaching up towards where he felt the pain coming from. The trainer fell over, a heavy weight knocking him sprawling again. His eyes focused once again, just as Maheen leapt from his chest again into the man who'd tried to strike the Derk-ra's distracted master. He snarled again, looking towards the two Gifted guildsmen. Another wave went through him, blinding him, but he remained standing through this one. His fist shot out towards where his memory told him the two were standing. His vision returned almost immediately, the pain vanishing.

One of the guildsmen was holding his head, an incredulous look on his face. Hamen laughed again, jabbing at the men closing on either side of him, giving the guards behind him time to move up around him. "Kyda strike the defilers of your Gift!"

The guildsman shook his head, Hamen could hear the growl from where he was with his Gift pounding in his veins.

Everything went black again. The trainer threw his fist out again, but the pain only intensified this time. He fell to one knee, screaming in frustration as his Gift amplified the pain shooting through him. He clenched his fists and threw his essence out as he had earlier the same day. His vision became blurry, then blackened again. Something brushed his leg, then another, new pain jerked itself through the haze surrounding his head. He looked down to see Maheen's jaws clamped on his leg, tightening slowly. He reached one hand down to rest on her head while his other dropped the staff he was carrying. He twitched the arm, a dagger one would expect in Settar falling into his hand. He focused , then pulled back his arm and threw, releasing his Gift the moment it was out of his hand and collapsing, leaning heavily against his staff.

The scream as the impossible throw buried the thin steel in the guildsman's thigh was almost satisfying enough to overcome the weariness Hamen felt spreading through him.

Terran was almost close enough to reach the Guildsman when he suddenly twitched, screaming in pain. Grinning, the blademaster circled around him. The other man with him flicked him a glance and moved to intercept. Jerked his head back, frowning at Kharme and Jaara.

The blademaster moved quickly, while he was distracted. The butt of one shitan sent the bleeding Guildsman down, out for the count. The other one whirled, but Terran was already whistling the blade toward him. Hands flew to a deep tear in his throat, eyes widening as he gasped for air. And then crumpled, fingers clawing at the ground briefly, before they too ceased to move. Feet tramped up behind him. He brought the blade up, and then lowered it. Jaara, Kharme, and a bedraggled trainer.

She glanced at the dead Guildsman with a frown. “You’re lucky, blademaster.”

“I am never lucky. I do precisely what I intend to.”

She scowled at him. “If you had wounded him anywhere else, he would have healed himself and used your own blade against you.”

Terran arched an eyebrow disbelievingly. Jaara swore and turned away, kicking at the prostrate Guildsman besides his companion. The man groaned. Her swearing changed to excitement and she tore a piece of fabric from one sleeve, winding it over his eyes.

“Kharme and I have… questions… for this one,” she said. Her eyes briefly assessed Hamen and there was concern there for an instant, dull but very real. “You’re not hurt?” He shook his head. “Good. But you look like you haven’t slept in days. The Gift?” Again he nodded, clutching his staff and leaning upon it as though for support. “Sleep it off.”

Ravin strode into the courtyard, looking with a strange mixture of dismay and pleasure at the spread of dead bodies across the courtyard. Already the palace guardsmen were cleaning their weapons and speaking in low voices with one another. “Weell,” the Border Guard drawled, sheathing his shitan deftly and giving a fallen Guild militiaman a casual poke in the side with the toe of his boot. “It seems you’ve done all the work without me.”

Jaara ignored him, having just bound the capive’s wrists and dragging him to his feet roughly. She glanced over her shoulder at Kharme. “Tyre…”

“I can handle him. Shall I bring someone with a litter? You hit him rather hard earlier…”

The Inquisita considered. “Yes. No use in you having to support him all the way back to Ratacca Korr. He might feel inclined to place a dagger in your side, or figure out a way to use his Gift even blindfolded.” Hamen was still standing there, and she spared him another glance. “Hamen… You look like death on two legs. Go to sleep. What needs to be done tonight has been done. Rest now.”

“If that’s not a familiar tune…” Ravin murmured, but the trainer had already nodded and turned back toward the palace. Maheen strode along beside him, glancing up every time he took a little longer to shuffle his staff forward. He couldn't quite help but chuckle quietly at the beast. "I do believe I owe you my life at least twice just today, magnificent Maheen. I take it that you are starting to warm up to me?"

A man carrying a healer's kit stopped near him, bending down beside the bleeding bite Maheen had given him. "Hold still, I'm going to try and bleed some of the venom out before binding your wound." Hamen waved a hand down towards him. "Don't bother. If Maheen's venom can hurt me, as many times as I've been bitten, then she really is perfect. Just stop the bleeding."

Chrys's loquiri walked up as the bandage was tied off. "We were having an important talk when this happened, but since you look like you're about to fall asleep where you're standing, I've instead arranged a room for you. I can have someone show you to it and take Maheen to a pen."

Hamen shook his head. "Tell whoever you like to lead the way to my room, but Maheen stays with me."

The man who escorted him to his room kept glancing back, as if afraid he might need to drag the Derka-ra trainer the last few yards. Hamen didn't even wait for him to close the door before falling on the bed and closing his eyes. He didn't even hear Maheen settle on the ground beside the bed, only getting one thought out before losing the ability.

I wonder how much sooner I will die after that little bit of usefulness on my part...
Kor woke in mid-afternoon with a good amount of irritated confusion to the sound of something heavy falling against his door, followed by a crescendo of concerned shouting.

"Wha---" he groaned, sitting bolt upright in bed, then growling under his breath in Aquilan as the voices only continued to get louder. "Brine and Tide." He clutched his head and drew in breath and energy, glaring shitans at the door. "Will you kindly be quiet?"

The voices ignored his shout, and grumbling, he half crawled, half-tumbled out of bed and strode to the door. Throwing it open, he spat, "What in Kyda's name is all the blasted---my lord?" His eyes widened at the Fay-el, sprawled just outside his doorway with a golden chalice clutched in his hand and a very agitated Veritas and worried Hamen standing by to urge flustered servants and guards to stay back and give the Fay-el room.

"I'm fine.” Chrys muttered. “Just …ooh." He closed his eyes as the hall did a merry dance. "It's just the Gift on that cup."

Kor frowned. "Doesn't look like the Gift to me," he said with professional confidence, pressing his fingers to the Fay-el’s wrist. He would bet his shitan that Chrys had done too much too quickly after sustaining his injury less than a week before. To confirm, he reached for the edge of Chrys's tunic, suspecting to find that the overactive Fay-el had burst his stitches.

Chrys pushed Kor's hand away. "I said….I'm fine." He tried to stand. The floor shifted, room spinning again. Chrys staggered and then fell, landing heavily against Kor's shoulder.

"Of course you are," Kor sighed. Eyebrows knit in concern, Veritas eased the dizzy Fay-el off the Hybrid. Kor opened the door to his room wider. "Bring him in here. my lord, so he can get his breath back without all the servants gawking at him."

"It's the chalice" Hamen murmured to Kor as Veritas lowered Chrys onto the bed and instructed him to bend forward with his head between his knees. "It did the same thing to me yesterday."

Kor shook his head. "Overly strong, racing pulse, rapid breathing, pallor, dizziness? The Fay-el took a dagger to the stomach just four days ago. He is probably still suffering blood loss…"

"No," Hamen said firmly. "I'm telling you, I felt the same thing."

Kor bit his lip. "Hmm. Well, I want to make sure anyway." He strode over to the Fay-el, who was now sitting comfortably, glaring at his loquiri. "My lord," Kor said politely. "Do you mind if I examine a drop of your blood?"

"No, you may not," the Fay-el growled.

"Chrys," Veritas began. "Please. Just to be safe."

"I said no." He scowled at Veritas, and the voice he could hear in his head. "Don't threaten me," he hissed. He yelped at the sudden sting of pain. "I said—ow!—no. I won't—" He winced, shifted, but the pain was there. "Stop that! I'm not a—ouch—not a child, to be ordered—" he jerked. "Leave me be. Ow—ow…All right, Ver. All right!"

"Light that candle, will you?" Kor instructed Hamen, fishing though his medicine kit and overturning it on the floor when he didn't immediately find what he was looking for. By the time the Derk-ra trainer had lit the beeswax candle beside the table, the Hybrid had found the needle he was looking for and straightened.

"What in the world are you doing?" Chrys asked, eyes wide with dismay as the end of the needle turned crimson like a brand.

Kor laughed. "Never fear, I'll let it cool first before I touch you with it. I just want to eliminate any impurities that may be upon the needle. Even the smallest prick from a filthy needle can make a grown man ill if it has come into contact with the blood or illness of others."

Chrys snorted, eying the needle as it gradually turned its natural color again. "Sounds like an ael kinth superstition to me, passing a needle through the flame like that." At Veritas's stern frown the Fay-el flinched. "Ah... but... whatever makes you comfortable, Hybrid. Just get it done with."

Lifting the Fay-el's hand, Kor selected the middle finger and carefully pressed the point of the needle into it, then watched the blood well, squeezing gently to encourage a small bead to form. He held it up to the light. "See?" he said victoriously. It was clear they did not understand what they were supposed to be seeing, and he explained. "A man who has recently lost an undue amount of blood still needs blood in his veins. His body will draw some water into his veins to help maintain blood pressure. The blood appears very bright red at this time because it is diluted with water. Normally, it should be a deep, dark crimson." He turned the Fay-el's finger, so that they could see.

"Superstition..." Chrys murmured.

Kor ignored him. "Thus... he's not suffering the affects of the Gift at all." He turned to Chrys. "My lord, you're merely recovering from the wound you took last week. But in another week or two, you should be mostly back to your full strength."

Hamen cleared his throat. "And what of me?" he said, stroking Maheen's head idly until she shrugged away from his touch, more interested in the candle for the moment. "The chalice affected me the same way yesterday, I swear it."

Kor looked pointedly at the bandage covering the trainer's lower leg. "Bloodloss is sufficient to..."

Veritas shook his head. "He had not yet sustained that wound."

"Still---"

Chrys swore. "I don't have a wound anymore, Hybrid. I am sore and nothing more than that." At Kor’s look of disbelief, his lip curled back. “Do you think Veritas cannot mend me as well as he did Daliah? Must I show you the wound to prove it to you? I have nothing but scars now.”

"Fine," Kor sighed, rubbing his temple. It was too early for this... even if it was past noon. "If you insist it is the Gift that plagues you and not blood-loss, then at least answer me this? Why a chalice? And why does it make you feel as though you've lost a good deal of blood… although, of course, you have not?"

Veritas cast a somewhat uncertain look at Chrys. “Andros should be able to answer these questions.” He spoke quickly to cut off the Fay-el as Chrys started to open his mouth in protest. “Andros knows more of the Guild than any of us, and he will help us." He glanced at Chrys again. "That is, if you are there, asking the questions."

The Fay-el sighed. "Might as well get it over with." He stood, slowly, one hand on Veritas' shoulder, before straightening on his own. He stalked out of the room with the loquiri and trainer tagging behind him and, to his annoyance, the Hybrid as well. He flicked him an irritated glare. "What now? Are you afraid I will faint again?"

"Yes," Kor said simply. He turned his shoulder to the Fay-el's scowl.

"Bloody ael kinth, there are plenty of other healers in the palace, and far more skilled than---"

"Chrys," Veritas sighed his warning.

The Hybrid arched an eyebrow to hide the pang of hurt. "More skilled than this magnificent specimen of a physician?" he demanded, thumping his chest grandiosely. "Surely you jest!"

Chrys hesitated, pausing to study him. His eyes narrowed. "Are you mocking me?"

"Nay, my lord." Hamen did well to hide his growing smile and the laugh waiting beyond it.

"Be quiet," Chrys growled, glaring at his loquiri. Kor arched an eyebrow. "Not you," the Fay-el snapped. A pair of servants gave them a curious glance. He lowered his voice. "Kor, I am certain you are a fine physician in your own land. But here, we do things…differently." He sighed. "But if you wish, you may come with me. I do not ignore all that you have done."

Kor was contented---enough---by that. He certainly knew they did things differently in the Mara; their reliance upon the Mending to heal probably meant their actual medical knowledge was less advanced than in Aquila or among the Dragonians. He wasn't going to begrudge Chrys's people their primitive medicine, so long as they did not interfere with proper medical care!

***


Andros knew he was coming. The tendrils of Gift whispered through his head, soothing the aching gap in his mind. He focused on his hands, willing the unsteadiness away. Carefully, the Guildsman pushed the lune he was working on to the side of his worktable, arranging his tools for etching and shaping the delicate lune-glass neatly in their proper place.

A dove, wings spread, with each feather carefully detailed. A second, smaller dreamstone for Chrys, etched with protective runes and his House sigil—a dragon hiding its head behind one membraned wing.

The Guildsman sighed. Each had taken him several weeks, and would take several more before he was satisfied. Patience was not a Guild-taught virtue, but he had acquired it, from necessity. At least his skill enabled him a place here, and a steady income.

Andros stood and took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he did a simple calming exercise, forming a bow in his mind and stringing it with care. Not that he did archery, but the imagery was more essential than true knowledge. Andros opened his eyes again and tried to ignore the sudden increase in his heart rate. Rubbed one hand absently across the tattooed eye on his wrist.

When the knock came, he was already moving across the room. Veritas stepped through first. Andros just resisted the urge to swear and shove past him. Loquiri instincts were powerful things. There were other people too, but he searched for one person. As soon as Chrys stepped into the room, Andros headed toward him.

Kor watched the Guildsman approach the Fay-el and noted how Lord Veritas tensed as he immediately and automatically slipped into place at the Fay-el's right side. The way the Guildsman was pressing up into the Fay-el's personal space was almost unseemly. No wonder the royal loquiri was uncomfortable!

The Fay-el stepped past them both, placing the retrieved chalice on Andros' worktable, careful to not allow his hand to linger. Even that brief touch sent a prickle of dizziness wafting over him. He didn't stagger, but the sensation must have been enough.

Veritas moved to steady him, in tandem with Andros' own shift in position. The two loquiri collided. Chrys sighed. Why is it always like this?

Kor's concern for the Fay-el barely smothered the surprised chuckle that nearly bubbled to his lips as the two men ran into one another with a decidedly painful-sounding thud of head on shoulder. Veritas was quite a deal taller than this Andros, and the smaller man rebounded off the loquiri's bulk and crashed gracelessly to the floor.

The collision gave room for Kor to step forward and take Chrys's arm. "Please, my lord, you should sit do---"

Suddenly he found himself grasped by the throat and driven backwards away from the Fay-el, the Guildsman's voice hissing harshly in his ear, "How dare you touch him, ael kinth?" He hadn't even seen the man rise, let alone cross to him.

His response was at once instinctual and idiotic. Throwing himself onto the Gift, he seized whatever his mind could grasp and threw it outwards, as Ravin had accidentally taught him the day before, until it shoved the Guildsman far enough away from him that he could catch a breath.

Andros squirmed against the Gift's hold, but it was either much stronger than what he had experienced before, or arranged in a different pattern. When it released, he managed to scowl at the Hybrid. "What are….what misbreeding is this? An ael kinth with the Gift? He should be gel—"

"If you say it," Chrys growled, "I will hand you over to Master Govan myself."

Andros cringed. If the Master knew his secret, he would drag him to the loquiri school and keep him there, willing or not. "I'm sorry, sire. It just…surprised me."

Chrys only shook his head, and then glanced at Kor. "He didn't hurt you?"

"No. I'm…fine." He wheezed.

Hamen flicked him a sympathetic look, though Chrys noticed the man's hand slipping out of his sleeve. Sighing again, Chrys motioned at the trainer. "Explain, if you will, how you found the chalice and what it did to you. Perhaps then Andros can tell us its purpose."

"Of course, my lord, though Maheen was really the one who found it…"

Chrys nodded at Hamen's explanation, but he was only half-listening. He had already heard, and experienced, most of it.

Andros shifted, one hand lightly brushing down Chrys' arm. The Fay-el moved aside, flicking him a berating look. Twice in the last few minutes, the Guildsman had managed to touch him in some way. A hand on his shoulder, fingertips resting—feather-light—on his back.

At least he's trying to be subtle about it. Chrys thought. He moved away again. Which shifted him closer to Veritas, spawning a stab of jealousy from Andros, and a visible shiver from the royal loquiri. Hurriedly, Chrys moved back to the middle ground. And Andros' hand was back, on his shoulder this time.

Kor could not help the slow ascent of his eyebrows nearly into his flame-red hair. As strangely tense as the relationship unfolding before him seemed to be, it was becoming more and more reasonable to assume, with every passing second, that the Fay-el and his servants were, in fact, lovers. That, or men were much less uncomfortable about physical affection in the Mara. Which was good, Kor supposed… although somewhat uncomfortable from his position. He had nothing against such things, but he also had never encountered men who were also lovers. Interesting.

"What?" Chrys snapped.

The Hybrid realized he'd been staring at the Fay-el as Hamen described his experiences with the chalice. His lip quirked. "Oh. Nothing. I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"Chrys..." Veritas warned.

The Hybrid shrugged. "It's not by business."

The Fay-el scowled. "Probably not, but tell me anyway."

"I just have never seen the kind of… dynamic… the three of you seem to share. Even your Gifts seem to be tied together."

Chrys frowned. "They are tied together. Veritas is my royal loquiri. And Andros…he is loquiri as well, though not royal."

The Guildsman flinched, glancing at both Hamen and the Hybrid.. "Sire."

"The Hybrid has no reason to share your secret with the Guild, nor with Master Govan."

"And the Derk-ra trainer?"

Hamen shrugged. "I'm Maran. I'd feel awfully stupid if I hadn't guessed what was going on already. I have no love of Guild laws. Your secret is safe with me."

Kor frowned. "Secret? Why hide that he is protecting you?"

Chrys stared at him. "More than just protection. Loquiri. The Guild kills loquiri, and their families."

"Whatever for?"

"You don't…he doesn't know," the Fay-el shook his head incredulously. "A loquiri is not just a bodyguard. He…he belongs to me, in a way."

"You don't…own him, do you, my lord?" Kor's look of subdued distaste suggested his feelings on that one.

"No. Not slavery." Chrys scowled. "Of all the—"

"More like a Derk-ra." Hamen supplied. Kor's confusion only grew, as did Chrys's scowl, this time shared slightly by Andros.

Veritas cleared his throat and interrupted with a soothing tone. "He means no harm, Chrys, and I assume Hamen has a unique perspective on the relationship he spoke of." The royal loquiri smiled, cocking his head slightly. "I was born a loquiri. At my birth, I only had half of my…my Gift, and mind…my soul or Essence, if you will. Andros was also born that way. All loquiri are."

Kor nodded his understanding of that much, though confusion still reigned on his features. Hamen stood close by, attentive.

"When Chrys was just flowering, he came to the loquiri school, where I was trained and prepared," Veritas continued. "It didn't take long for me to realize that he possessed that other half of me. The pieces that I longed for. Once the Master approved us, we were Joined. My mind, my very Gift, indeed every life-thread that I possessed, were interwoven with Chrys' own."

Kor did not understand the intricacies of the Gift yet, but he did understand that it was part of---if not the single most----fundamental part of a person's being. "They… they bound you to him?" He stared from Chrys to Veritas in horror. "Will you ever be freed?" He could not quite resist glaring at the Fay-el. "My lord... slavery of the soul is worse than slavery of the body. How can you... Why...?"

Andros stiffened, moving toward the Hybrid with a curse. Chrys grabbed his arm and yanked him close again. The Guildsman shivered once, and then relaxed, sighing softly.

Veritas spoke instead, though his eyes were on Andros. "It is not so severe as that, Kor. I chose to be bound, as you put it." He glanced at Kor. "Would you live with only half of yourself? I think not. I am happy, now."

"We all lack for something we want. Many such things are dangerous, or at the very least unnecessary. It is better that we not live our lives, enslaved to all the things we want but do not need. "

"It is a choice, bloody Hybrid," Chrys growled. He gave Andros a light, but firm shove. The Guildsman looked hurt, but he backed away. The Fay-el sighed with relief and studied Kor again. "As you say, a loquiri can live without accepting the permanent bond. And some never do find Matches, or achieve only shallow, temporary pair-links. But they would be…different." He flicked a glance at Andros, gesturing at him. "Do you see the difference in the two of them—or are you blind as well as stubborn?"

The Hybrid's eyes narrowed into two thin slits. He wasn't going to say anything at all about his observations, but the Fay-el asked for it. "My lord, I see that you have an exceedingly unfair hold over them both. This one---" he jabbed a finger at the Guildsman, ignoring Hamen's growing displeasure, "craves the comfort of your touch like an abandoned child craves the affection of his mother. Yet you spurn him like he is an unwanted burden, even as you bend his need to your own uses to maintain a hold over this Guild and see your questions answered. And he---" his red head dipped in Lord Veritas's direction, "is jealous, tense and preoccupied whenever anyone so much as comes near you. Yet you use this unfortunate sensitivity to your advantage, to help ensure you have an ever-vigilant bodyguard. And you call this happiness? It is no way for a man to live."

Hamen stepped forward before the argument could get any worse. The situation seemed plenty volatile enough to him already. "Then pity the men on whom Kyda bestows this burden, but not on those who willingly offer to help with it. Losing a pair-link is difficult for the other who accepts it as well, or have you not noticed how angry and hurt the Inquisita I arrived with has been?"

Kor's response came immediately. "All the more reason to avoid this altogether, I would think. A person can live with an sense of being unfulfilled, yet this is slavery. I see no reason Kyda would smile on this."

The trainer frowned, then seized his Gift and all but yelled at the Hybrid with both voice and essence. "It is of the Gift itself, and comes directly from Kyda! It gives happiness to a person's soul in ways that those of us without such links can never know, much as a man and woman in love can never truly explain it to one who hasn't felt it." He stepped back, his anger fading slightly as his Gift slowly diminished with the outburst.

The Hybrid stared at the Maran, unimpressed. “Are you quite done? Because---“

“We are all quite done,” Veritas said wearily. “This is an interesting conversation, but this is hardly the time or place for it.”

"But---" the Hybrid started to argue, glaring at them all.

"But nothing," Veritas insisted, his face reddening in anger. "You will be silent, or I will make you be silent, even if it means dragging you from the Fay-el's presence without your wits about you." Kor crossed his arms but looked abashed. The royal loquiri glanced at Andros, and tossed the chalice to him. “Tell us what this is and does, so that we can get on with our day.”

Andros studied the goblet with a wary hand, careful to keep his fingers well away from the Gift spread across the Guild symbols. “It is many things, designed for one but used for others.”

“No riddles,” Chrys growled, “Or mystic Guild-speak. What does it do?”

The Guildsman looked up. “Drains blood.”

“I said no rid—“

“That explains it!” Kor said, eyes flashing with excitement. The Fay-el and both loquiri swiveled to give him a silencing glare. Hamen on the other hand looked at him curiously, though with a guarded expression, as though expecting to hear nonsense or blasphemy. The Hybrid hesitated for a moment, and then dropped his voice to a lower tone. “No, remember the blood loss? If it is draining blood, then you would be losing blood as I said. That would explain the racing heartbeat, the pallor, the faintness…”

“Then, pray tell,” Chrys sneered, “Just where is the blood now? The chalice is as dry as bleached bones.”

Andros snorted. “If it did, there would be warning of its affects, which would be counterproductive to its purpose. This chalice is a tool of assassination.”

Chrys still looked amused by all the nonsense being spewed around him. “Assassination? Might I remind you that this is Gyas’s chalice? Do you mean to tell me that the Guild wishes to murder their own assassin?”

The Guildsman bit his lip. “Ah, some might. But it is not always used that way either.”

The Fay-el sighed. “I can tell you are Guild-taught. Just say it outright!”

Andros tensed, taking a quick step back. Closing his eyes, he spoke again, reciting steadily as if reading from a distant book. “The chalice was first used to assassinate secretly, draining blood by the Gift’s power. But it did not empty the veins quickly enough and required physical contact, and its victims often released it before its work could be done. Only later was it used to collect blood, the serum that keys specialized tools, such as those used in Culling or when anointing a particular weapon or tracer, typically those used in assassination. The anointment helps ensure the weapon finds its mark.”

“And where does the blood go, when it is collected, as you say?” Kor questioned, his tone blatantly skeptical.

The Guildsman’s eyes snapped open and he smirked. “Into whatever vessel was linked to this. A vial, or glass, or another cup perhaps.”

Hamen cleared his throat. They all turned to him. “Answer me this, then,” he started. “I found this ‘tool of assassination’, as you call it, hidden in the wall with a somna-laced vessel. Do you mean to suggest that whoever was involved in the drugging of the Fay-el’s royal loquiri was also trying to kill the very man who tried to arrange the Fay-el’s assassination? That makes no sense.”

There was an awkward pause. The trainer had a point.

Kor broke the silence, ignoring the glares of the four Marans. “I think it is significant that Lord Veritas was only drugged, and not outright killed. Would not it benefit an assassin more to murder the Fay-el’s loquiri and thus greatly diminish his protection, rather than simply drug him? Perhaps Lord Gyas’s agent served two masters within the Guild, and Lord Gyas only thought this agent was loyal to him when in fact this agent worked for a faction of the Guild that wanted to countermand Lord Gyas’s plans and see Lord Gyas dead.” He glanced at Andros. “Is that even possible? Are there any such divisions within the Guild?”

Chrys’s lip lifted in a snarl. “I should hope so, otherwise I would have compelling reasons to end Andros’s life.”

“Aye, there are divisions,” he flicked a wary glance at Chrys. His Guild-training demanded he hold his peace, speaking in half-truths and veiled lies. But the pair-link compelled honesty; he could not lie without Chrys knowing. The Guildsman bit his lip. This accursed bent! “I know that Gyas…that he is soon to be killed, or Culled. His…er, usefulness is nearly passed, and his antics have compelled them to wish his silence.”

Chrys frowned. “I think I understand. By poisoning Ver, they made him sensitive, touchy. When Gyas attempted a subtle assassination, by bringing a ‘Matched’ loquiri into the courtroom, they expected Veritas to overreact, kill Gyas, and spawn some unrest for the practice of loquiri.”

“Or,” Kor added. “To kill two birds with one stone, if you’ll pardon the expression. Use Gyas like a tool, and allow your guards to make short work of him after he has killed you.”

“While spiriting the heir away to be conditioned into a puppet of their own,” Hamen finished. “A very neat plot.”

Andros shrugged. “That is possible. Though, it seems a much complex idea for one sect to attempt, without revealing the same to the other.”

“More than one?”

He shook his head. “We do not…we care little to cooperate with each other. Our own dogma compels it such. It would take a strong leader to gather sects in concord and keep a plan such as this in secret.”

“Hmm,” Veritas mused. “I wonder if we can locate the agent who hid the chalice in the wall.” His eyes narrowed. “And the somna. Regardless of whether or not he was trying to thwart Chrys’s assassination or ‘kill two birds with one stone’, as the H----as Kor put it, there are questions I’d like to ask him.”

Andros eyed the chalice. “If the agent and the maker of the chalice are the same---and there is no reason to assume they are not---then his Gift should have left its imprint on the chalice. If it is there, I can find it.”
“Did the Fay-el really ask to prepare the room?”

Another girl, clad in the white apron of a kitchen maid, giggled. “Must be sure to give his sheets a good washing on the morrow.”

“Could be the next day.”

“Wash them every day then. And scent them with lavender and jasmine!”

“Oh hush you silly girls!” the First scolded and they hustled away giggling under her scowl. “Honestly,” the girl murmured, “you would think they would never suspect that the Fay-el and Lady Turina are man and wife and never share a bed. So soon…” she trailed off.

“You worry for her.”

The First looked sharply at her then sighed. “Aye. But that will never change. Here, the room for lord Veritas will need bedsheets,” she said, dumping a pile of pale blue linen into her arms, “I trust you do not need instruction in that.”

~*~



The chamber of the royal loquiri surprised Caylia with its starkness. Besides the simple bed, there wasn’t much else to show someone would ever live in the room. A rug, bound and woven with strips of colored cloth covered only a small portion of the floor, a desk, a quill and three half-burnt candles, all covered in a fine layer of dust. A home for ghosts she thought, setting the bundle of sheets on the bed and no more.

She hadn’t come for ghosts, nor for dust and silence. Silence? No… She paused and closed her eyes. A vibration, a thrum, and then as if from far away a note as if coming from the third horn of a tripipe. Mournful, sad, hollow. She took a tendril of her gift and let it fill her and become louder. Slowly she followed it to the edge of the room and set three fingers against the dark stony wall. It was there only farther away, maybe rooms away, tripipe mingling with a higher chord of crying lonliness. Naftis…

She let her hand drop. If she had her harp and was closer maybe she could play something for him, ease the ripped soul but what would that solve in the end? Nothing. And she couldn’t walk through walls. But if I can find that knife that may help with something in the end.

There was a sword on the wall, hilt jeweled and carved from gold, far too uncomfortable to handle and when slick with sweat and blood, near impossible. Ornamentation. Nothing more. She ran a finger over it, and coughed as the dust swirled into the air. The desk at first was nothing special, until she noticed the lune and next to the lune, a knife. It was slim and caught in an errant strand of light colors chasing each other from one end of the blade to the other.

Caylia’s breath caught. I do not need to be knowledgeable in the Guild to know this is Guild work. Her hand reached out, touched the hilt, the blade and her fingers slid as if she had touched a fish. This is it. I’ve never encountered anything like this in my travels but a description should be kept in the libraries at Settar. It shimmered again and a breath of wind found its way through the window stirring the dust into clouds in the room. She swallowed. This is what the Guild focused their gift on to control Naftis. This is it. Finally… She handled it carefully, examining it with interest then finally The hilt was plain, unadorned and easy to handle and Caylia took it lightly and stuck it firmly in the loops of her belt. Jaara would want to see it. That and the Inquisita would have a better idea what to do with it.

She turned to go, but at the last minute her lips twisted and she stopped and unfolded the sheets. It is the least I can do. They’ll have to send another maid for the dust.
Turina smiled and sat up, leaning on one elbow. Chrys was asleep. She brushed her fingers through his hair lightly before rising from the bed. With questions of the Guild, his heirs, and even the health of his wife, Chrys was worn down, like bone left too long in the desert. He had Mended her as well, even when she protested.

She had listened carefully to his tale, at once afraid and elated. Even now, she could hardly belive it. Turina rested a hand on her belly, biting her lip. It had not been her womb, not Kree's wrath, not even a mistake or or touch of fate--but the act of Guildsmen that had taken their children from them. She could bear him a child, a son if Kree willed it.

Soft footsteps drew her attention. Their subdued quiet drew her attention. Not the harsh tramp of guards, not the hurried rush of messengers.

Veritas Turina sighed and crossed to the door, resting her fingertips against the smooth wood.

When she had first met Veritas, they had hated each other. Both of them had been swamped by jealousy. The loquiri himself had attempted to break them up several times during their courtship. It had been resolved only after spending several weeks in Veritas' hometown, learning what struggles and instincts drove a loquiri. Only then had she accepted him, and learned to deal with him as best she could.

Opening the door quietly, Turina peered out. No one waited patiently at the threshold. She frowned, brushing her hair behind one ear. She had been certain that was him, coming to find his Match. But no, he would have stood there, or knocked softly.

She leaned farther, glancing down the hall. A lone sentry slouched at the far left of the corridor, lance in one hand. His footsteps would have been loud and annoying, not the soft whisper she had heard. Turina looked the other direction. A figure paused in the distance, before disappearing into Veritas' quarters.

She smiled. The loquiri must have chosen to give Chrys and her some time. She was grateful. It had been many months since Chrys had spent more than a few minutes alone with her.

Stepping back, Turina returned to Chrys' side. She retrieved the dreamstone from its place and slipped it over his head, whispering his name. His eyes fluttered and then he stirred. One hand cupped the back of her head, pulling her close.

"Beloved," he muttered, "You are well?"

"With you--always." His hands tangled in her hair. When she rested her hand against his chest, she felt his heart beat faster. Their lips met. Thoughts of Veritas and the Guild fled.

< >

Veritas leaned against the edge of the wall, staring out at the desert sky. Morning had come and gone with Chrys absent. Now the midday sun streamed in golden ribbons over Ratacca Korr, glinting on the guards' lances.

With a sigh, Veritas stepped away from the wall. No matter how many times he experienced this, it did not get any easier. Even with the link toned down to a dull awareness, he was quite aware Chrys was with Turina, and that they would need to be left alone for another hour at least.

He rested his fingers against the hilt of his sword. Terran's offer was becoming more appealing by the moment. It would give him a few hours to think about something other than the quiet link. Besides...Veritas smiled. He had not forgotten what Kor had said about the pair-link. Sparring with the Hybrid should be great fun.

He stepped past the roof guards and left the ramparts behind. His loquiri stride went unnoticed as he left Ratacca Korr and headed for the Dragonian camp.
The trainer of Derk-ra stared out over the courtyard, enjoying the shadows sunset was throwing over the area. Jaara had not been pleased to learn that her next 'guest' was the old man whose neck had wrapped itself so comfortably around Hamen's staff near where he'd originally hidden the tools of his trade. They were leaving in the morning to catch and capture Gyas. The Inquisita's Derk-ra had kept its distance from Maheen this time. He hoped neither Jaara nor Kharme knew enough to recognize it as behavior granted towards a pack matron in wild Derk-ra packs. He doubted Jaara would appreciate the irony.

The game he'd joined in his first night sounded to be just getting started, but he had little interest in it tonight. For once, he'd had his fill of excitement for a while. His eyes lit up on noticing how empty the courtyard was.

*****

Hamen sighed and shook his staff at the Derk-Ra staring up at him calmly. "You Eloin-Sired beast! I've shown you this more than enough. Stop playing dumb when we both know you're not. We are not stopping until we get this right!"

Maheen just kept looking at him, then flicked her tongue. The trainer shook his head and turned back towards the practice dummy he'd been trying to get her to react to. He fell naturally into Flagellant's Scale. His side was to the dummy, chest puffed out slightly with both hands behind his back clutching his staff, one high and one low, the weapon held parallel against his spine. He slid one foot forward slightly, then glanced behind him to see Maheen tense and ready.

Whether she knew the commands yet or not, Hamen used one. "High!" He twisted, staff placed to block a downward chop. His body tensed to resist the impact, and then relaxed, bending farther while releasing the weapon with one hand and pulling hard with the other, knocking the imagined weapon away and to the side harmlessly. Hamen stifled a laugh as he heard the Derk-ra's banshee cry sail over his bent body, into the dummy. Hamen kept his staff moving, spinning and sweeping the air above Maheen to give her the second her jaws and claws needed to make the dummy's face, carved wood, little more than splinters. The trainer then slid his left foot forward, returning the staff to hang above his beautiful Derk-ra, the beast's tail and hindquarters falling in the shadow of his body, the two of them holding in Sun-Shadowing Claw.

They held for another second, then Hamen straightened slowly and crouched down to bow respectfully to his partner. "See? Was that so hard you beautiful, stubborn creature?"

"Weeell. That was certainly an interesting display. Would you like to scare the horses further? I'm sure there are a few that didn't die when your little beast screamed."

Hamen turned and rose to face the border guard. "Aren't you supposed to be, I don't know, guarding the border?"

"There are more borders than the strictly physical ones, and I guard them all, beast-trainer. Keep your creature from screaming in the courtyard like that. You don't want to know what the royal loquiri would do to it if its scream knocked his match from his mount." Ravin smiled. "Although I'd be a little interested. I'm pretty sure I've seen everything that can be done to a Derk-ra by now, but I could be surprised, I'm sure."

Hamen's eyes darkened, Maheen catching the mood and tensing. The border guard just laughed. "You might want to keep your beast leashed until it's trained, by the way. It would not end well if it attacked one of my men."

"You'd need a new man, certainly."

Ravin shrugged. "Either way, you'd get to watch what happened to your little monster. It is a rather impressive specimen. Was it wild-caught?"

The trainer nodded. "Yes. Much closer to a settlement than I've heard of before."

The Derk-ra and border guard studied each other. Hamen couldn't quite resist being amused at the similarity in their faces. "I doubt she's interested after that earlier quip."

Ravin chuckled as he turned and walked back into Ratacca Korr.

The trainer shook his head, then looked down to his partner. "Perhaps we should move to someplace less sensitive to your rather impressive vocal abilities."

The Derk-ra seemed as agreeable as it ever was, but another glance skyward tempered Hamen's eagerness. "Maybe we'll get a chance on the road. We need to get rest tonight."

The Derk-ra still seemed equally as agreeable.

Hamen passed back through Ratacca Korr swiftly, nodding to guards and servants alike. He stopped before reaching his room, though. There was music in the hall. He held a finger to his lips and whispered down to Maheen. "One of the benefits of having such a dedicated Bard as a traveling companion." He slid down into a cross-legged seat leaning against the wall. "I sure hope that's Caylia. I'd feel awfully silly otherwise having assumed so. That sure sounds like her."

He closed his eyes, letting the song flow over him and resisting the twinge of sadness that he wouldn't hear any more from the Bard for days. "Her music is so... comforting..." Maheen eventually set herself down on the ground nearby, rousing enough to growl quietly at anyone getting too close to her peacefully sleeping partner.
A Non-Existent User
Kharme sighed as Jaara caught up with her. "She does not trust me, does she?"

She snorted. "What gave you that impression?"

Kharme raised a brow pointedly as she caught the woman's eyes. Now that she had a few days to get used to her surroundings, she was becoming bolder and firm in her objective.

"I am used to not being trusted." she continued. "My father did not bother to tell me I was about to marry a member of the Guild. No one told me I had the Gift." Her grip on the reins tightened as anger swelled in her chest.

Jaara put a hand to her side to fend off the attack that Kharme unknowingly sent her. "Deception is a powerful tool. But you must not compare Caylia to your father. If she does not trust you, it is only out of caution. I am sure that after you have been here for a while..."

She calmed herself, staring straight ahead into the city. It was so beautiful in this light, even more so than her part of Lodear. Perhaps the while that Jaara spoke of would not be so terrible. She could easily see herself making a life in this city, making her own choices, not those that society deemed correct. Her fear of the unknown was slowly falling away, and she felt that this new place was where she was always meant to be. Besides, if she returned to her father after this, she knew she would be beaten to within an inch of her life.

"What are you thinking about?" Jaara interrupted, and Kharme sighed. She was in the real world now, and those thoughts were but fantasies. She had been born into a life with few freedoms, no matter where she spent it.

"I was only wondering what I should pack for the journey." she finally replied.

Jaara shook her head. "These lies will not inspire trust in anyone, especially not with me."

Kharme set her face as stone, knowing Jaara would only think her foolish. But lying was useless. "If you must know, I was thinking about what would happen to me. When I am no longer useful to Chrys, I have no talents or connections that will bring me anything but trouble."

"Worry about that when the time comes, just focus on surviving this day. Besides, I do not think you will have any trouble. You are of marrying age, are you not?"

Kharme knew by Jaara's face that the last comment was only a jest. She gave her a quiet smile, the first of the day. "I believe that at this point I would rather wander the desert."

"Why so?"

"Let us just say that my sampling of men has been rather... lacking."

Not wishing to speak further, she pulled her feet out of the stirrups and tucked them under her. She slowly crouched in the saddle and turned to Jaara, who sat looking at her strangely. "Try it, it is rather refreshing."

She snorted. "When you fall and break your neck, I am leaving without you."

Kharme could have stood then and even urged her horse into a faster pace. But she sensed a queasiness in the woman's eyes, almost motherly fear. So she sat back down and rode without risk.

She gestured toward the knife. "Are you going to tell me our next move?"

Jaara shrugged. "I have word of a man in the city that may be... useful. We will interrogate him before our journey."

"May I at least ask a few questions of my own before you string him up by the ankles?"

"I make no promises."

Kharme rolled her eyes. Travelling with Jaara was certainly never dull.
The sun was melting over the horizon in warm peach and rose as a dust storm churned in the West. Jaara and Kharme stared out into the growing storm through a spacious window of Ratacca Korr's great hall. The Inquisita's arm was securely bound once again in a black silk sling, and both women wore simple black clothing, which they would not regret destroying with rain, dirt or blood.

"We will leave once it rains," Jaara said. Her good hand was thrust into the pocket of her tunic, running over the blade of the dys-knife. It was sharp, a killer's weapon, and not merely a channel for the Gift. Soon, in a day or two, perhaps even less, if she had her way, it would be anointed anew in Gyas's blood.

"Where are we going?" Kharme asked for the fourth or fifth time that night.

All she got for her question was a rapid, annoyed glance over slight shoulders. "I already told you. We are following a lead."

The noblewoman sighed. "Should I bring anything?"

With an irritated curl of the lip, the Inquisita turned away from the storm to face her. "A closed mouth, open eyes, and open ears."

Kharme snorted delicately. "With all due respect, you are hardly the most conversant---"

"Do you seriously think this is to be a diplomatic mission?"

"Ah, right, I forgot. You hurt people."

The words were probably supposed to sting. Perhaps they would have, in someone who did not readily practice interrogation and torture. "Yes, I do." She thrust herchin toward the dais, where Caylia sat playing the lyre for assorted courtiers. "Enjoy the music, Kharme." She started for the door.

Kharme was at her side immediately. "Wait, where are you going?"

"I have business to attend to. Stay here. I will come get you."

Her eyebrows knit in concern and a small amount of suspicion. "What business?"

"Mine."

Lord Veritas was not in his room, and when she tried to call on the Fay-el, she was, unsurprisingly, turned away.

"I will tell him you came, Inquisita," the guard at the door said.

Jaara looked him up and down. He was lder, but wore the scars of battles well. "No," she said. "It is actually Lord Veritas I seek."

"Ah," the guard nodded. "The royal loquiri has gone to the Dragonian camp. To challenge that red-haired interloper."

"Uh huh..." Jaara could not quite believe the loquiri was wasting time on fun and games when there was still so much work to do, but it was no concern of hers.

She found Kharme chatting amiably about fine Lodear wines with a hopeful young suitor. The Inquisita stepped up beside the noblewoman and stared at the young man coolly until he was inspired to try his luck elsewhere. With scarcely an excuse and nothing of an apology, he fled.

"Now?" Kharme asked, not seeming particularly bothered by the courtier's disappearance.

Jaara looked out the window. The dust had settled beneath the weight of rain and the sun had set. "Follow me."

The woman could not resist the question. "Where are we going?"

"Ravin."

"Excuse me?"

Jaara sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "We need Ravin to come with us." She lifted her injured shoulder slightly. "I am hardly useless, but I could use another blade."

"I can fight, Jaara."

The Inquisita stared at her skeptically. Kharme's hands were folded demurely before her and her eyes were lowered to the floor. "Perhaps" Jaara said. "Still. Come."

They found Ravin in the courtyard, bridling his horse. The Border Guard and stallion were both drenched, but only the latter seemed at all bothered. Ravin seemed to be truly content for the first time Jaara had seen him. That contentment slipped away, however, as Jaara strode up to him.

"What is it, Inquisita?"

"I've need of your blade."

The Border Guard raised an eyebrow and quirked a smile. "Weell, unfortunately it is attached to my arm. You cannot have one without the other."

"You know what I mean. Can you come now?"

Ravin frowned. "Where?" He gestured vaguely at the sky. "It is getting late and, in case you've forgotten, we are departing tomorrow. I've work to do."

"Yes," Jaara nodded impatiently. "I've work for you to do. I put the Guildsman to the question today. He gave up the name of Gyas's agent in the court. It is a man who guard's the Fay-el's own door, who chose to join the Guild rather than have his Gift burned out of him in the Border Guard. I suspect he will need to be... quelled. And I have no illusions that I am in a position at the moment to do it alone. Kharme will come to help overcome his Gift. I need your blade. And the arm it is attached to."

The Border Guard slapped the hilt of the blade at his hip. "Well then, lead the way Inquisita."

They did not, it turned out, need much back up at all, Gift, blade or otherwise. Erastus had fled, apparently without a word to anyone. Jaara, standing with the others in the barracks, stared at Ravin in confusion. "Now, that is interesting."

"What?"

"He left. I tortured a man for hours today to get his name. There were no witnesses. No way the man could possibly know he'd been given away, or even that the questions I asked were in any way related to him. Yet he chose this day to flee?"

Kharme nibbled her lip. "Perhaps he knew it was only a matter of time before he was found out."

"Or," Ravin added, "he seeks to join his master. We may find him, when we find Gyas."

Jaara chuckled humorously. "Perhaps, but it will not be to Gyas's benefit. That man was Gyas's agent, but he also wanted him dead. If they meet again, I suspect we are likelier to find Gyas's corpse, alone, than the two of them together. But it is irrelevant right now. Erastus is gone and tomorrow we depart to find Gyas."

"Yes," Ravin said, "and as much as I've enjoyed this wild derk-ra chase, I have, as I said before, work to do. I expect to see you first thing in the morning if you intend to come. Do not be late, or I will leave without you."

"You're not leaving without me," Jaara told him firmly. "I'll be there." She flicked a glance at Kharme. "Come."

Gritting her teeth slightly in irritation, the noblewoman followed.

It was not until Kharme had already retired for the night and Jaara had spent a good two hours pacing before the royal loquiri's quarters that Jaara finally found Veritas.

"Where have you been?" she hissed, as he strode toward his door.

He paused. "Excuse me? Did you need something?"

Slowly, knowing from personal experience how fast a loquiri's reflexes could be, she reached into her pocket. "Yes. I was wondering how long you intended to keep this to yourself?" She held the dagger out into the light. "Naftis's dys-knife, if I am not mistaken. Why do you still have it?"

His eyes narrowed. "Where did you get that?"

She slipped it back into her pocket. "Do you really need to ask?"

"You have no right---"

"The Fay-el himself charged me and mine with the investigation into this matter, my lord. This weapon is evidence. You withheld it. Why?"

He took a step toward her. "I am not a common criminal, to answer to you. But because you are Naftis's friend---"

"I wouldn't say that---"

"Because you are his friend, I will tell you. That 'evidence' you hold is the key to understanding how, precisely, Gyas wielded control over Naftis."

"Which is what I am investigating!" Jaara snarled. She wanted to strike the man, but even she knew better than to try it. "It should have been given to me. Do you know why? Do you know that knife has been anointed in the blood of Gyas himself? That's right. It seeks his death, because someone or a group of someones in the Guild wants him dead. It could have pointed us toward him within hours of his disappearance!"
Caylia’s head hurt. A slow minor dull pounding that seemed like nothing compared to the chaos around her. Just trying to go back to her room, relax, escape from a group of chattering nobles who spoke of things that seemed so far removed from the sand below. But this had to be in her way.

The room seemed to surge. A turn on his heel, swift, fluid, and the Dragonian was close enough to Chrys that one could barely pass a hand between the space. Chrys spat something and the Dragonian’s hands clenched as he growled something back. Veritas surged forward against the hands holding him with an almost desperate need and a horrible chill of understanding washed over Caylia. Someone’s going to die.

Neither would hear her if she spoke. They were too far gone. Desperately she touched her own gift but both of them were too strong will and their anger was too intense. Notes and chords took on a different life, turned to water in her hands, slipped away and reformed as something else. They disappeared, reappeared and struck concordantly no matter how she tried to combine them. She clenched her teeth in frustration and let go. Something else, anything else.

A thought struck her and she said in accented Dragonian that would make several of her old Masters grimace. "Fay-el...gently now..." It may have been simple, but it was enough. The Dragonian paused, surprise written clearly on his face as Chrys’s glance swung towards her. The tension in the hall had not eased but the murderousness of the situation was dissipating on the air.

"I am Fay-el!” Chrys snapped at her. “Not this bloody, thorla-bred halfbreed."

"Hush,” she told him tersely, ignoring the bite in his voice. She was not about to let them start again. So called kinsmen were behaving like children. Chrys gawked at her and fell silent. "Of course you are, lord,” she agreed levelly returning slightly to her trained formality. “But he is as well. That is one thing you share. Another thing you two share is this foolishness in the hallway. After all that's happened are you two so eager to see yet more blood shed? Come now...I'm sure both of you are wiser than this. At least...I hope you are."

"All I want is my son. Now,” the Dragonian snapped.

"I already told you," Chrys growled back, eyes hard stones and anger on his breath. "I don't have him"

"Then where is he? Your guards could not stop the Guild from taking him again?"

Caylia closed her eyes, feeling a different headache build. Trinity don’t let them start up again. Despite everything, she felt a quiet pride in her Fay-el. He had been struck, coated in lune and yet he hadn’t struck back or ordered his kinsman killed. And his quicksilver temper even seemed more restrained than usual. The Dragonian Fay-el was a lucky man. She took a breath, squared herself for another quiet battle and opened her eyes. "My lord Fay-el, please,” she soothed Chrys. “He has already lost his son once, you cannot blame him for being extra cautious. To lose him twice must be heart breaking. And Fay-el,' she addressed the Dragonian this time, "please remember my lord of the Mara is good for his word...dangerously so. And...subtly and intrigue," she paused, thinking of the most delicate way to phrase her thoughts, “aren't really weapons he exercises. Flinging accusations carelessly will not help." Neither will flinging lunes, she added silently.

“Perhaps so,” the Dragonian sent another glare at Chrys “Perhaps if I knew where the guards you gave me have gone? Perhaps they will know where Elam is.” The bite was gone from the man’s voice.

“If you are suggesting they are—“

“Nay, I only wish to find him, before someone else does.”


Caylia drummed her fingers idly on the leather strap of her harp. He had posed a riddle, a puzzle and she ceased on it eagerly. "I think there is a better question,” she said, thinking aloud. “If Elam is missing, and he was originally in the room, he had to get outside the room at some point. So did he leave the room of his own free will or was he removed forcibly? I would think those in the room would notice if it was forced. So if it were free will...why?"

The Dragonian was shaking his head. “It could not have been forced. I was with him until…” A pause as the man ran through the past hours in his head. “That is, until your messenger came, Chrys. I spoke with him and took the message with me into my room, away from Elam in the outer alcove.” He shrugged. “He does not know his mixed parentage yet. I have no desire to enlighten him until he is Confirmed.” He sighed. “Afterwards, I slept, expecting him to stay there. He could have left while I was asleep. But … why?”

“Agreed,” Chrys nodded.

Earlier that day, before she was pressed into service by a group of idle nobles, she had found herself wandering corridors, looking in the spaces between the stones. As a child she did it too. "Maybe, and I don't presume to know your son Fay-el, but maybe he was going to explore? Or get something to eat? After kidnapping I'd be surprised if he could sleep, Windrunner, I couldn't. Maybe he just simply got bored. Has anyone seen him leave the castle?"

Chrys glanced at the nearby guards. They had relaxed as the situation had, and had since released the struggling Veritas. “Where are Loya and Fatan?” the Fay-el spoke.

“Who?”

“The guards I gave you,” Chrys answered his kinsman. “They are Lodear-born and would not betray me.” He turned back to the guards. “Where are they?”

“We saw them last, sire, near to Lord Veritas’ quarters.”

The loquiri looked perplexed. “My quarters? Why would he leave to come there? We have never met but in the throne room.”

“Should we see if he is still there?”

Veritas nodded, pausing to raise a hand. “However, I would suggest Caylia, Chrys, Jin, and I go. But no one else. Too many people can harm Naftis, who is still nearby.”

“I knew it,” Caylia slapped her thigh, forgetting suddenly the gravity of the situation. That had been him. The sorrow, the loss…it really was. Maybe I can finally talk to him.

Veritas was frowning. “I did not say we would see Naftis. Only my quarters, in case the boy has wandered there.”

Caylia hid her disappointment. Naftis had been their traveling companion after all. The group passed a corridor marked with marble columns that were streaked through with frozen fire. She quirked a smile. She would be able to find him later. At the doorway they paused and the loquiri’s eyes narrowed. On instinct Caylia reached for her gift as he did and his words echoed in her ears. “He’s gone.”

She frowned. "He's nearby though. Very close. Down the hall."

“I mean that the grief is gone. The loneliness and emptiness I have always felt.” His eyes widened in sudden realization. “Surely the Guild are not meddling with him again?” He jerked his hand at Caylia. “Come.”


"Aye and we must go carefully but..." she grew quiet. A tripipe, low a gentle, matched an octive higher by a flute. They dodged and danced around each other but always there was one note of harmony, stuck, flowing, and melding. "This is odd, very odd..." she murmured, something tickling at her memory. She looked at Veritas, suddenly remembering and raised her brows. "Interesting...Do you sense that too?"

“Aye, I do.” The loquiri’s eyes clouded slightly. “This is not a forced pair-link. Else there would be pain, confusion…but how—“ his hands found a door. "I have read a lot of things, lord Veritas,” she murmured, following him into the room. “Traveled all over Settar hunting for stories. While the gift and loquiri has never been my specialty, I have never read of a loquiri being Matched twice."

“I have read it but once, in a dusty volume of loquiri history. And then it was the child of the first Match to whom the loquiri pair-linked again. But Naftis’ Match bore no child, no relative old enough to have his Gift flower, nor one that could be near to link with him.” He bit his lip. “Could it be?”

They passed through an outer alcove, stepping on dappled sunlight from a nearby window and were swallowed by a second room. Caylia’s eyes widened in surprise and Veritas nodded. “This explains much.”

Elam sat on the edge of the only furniture in the room, a plain bed. Naftis rested his head against the boy’s shoulder, his eyes closed in abject contentment. Elam’s attention was on the depraved—or lack of it—loquiri. He was giggling at something nameless. It took a moment, but then Caylia remembered when playing for the lord of the Mara in his chambers and the air was a buzz with silent words. That’s what it was like now, between Naftis and the boy who must be Elam.

As if on cue with their understanding, Naftis opened his eyes and leaped upright, fingers reaching for a nonexistent dagger. The motion was fluid, as smooth as all Veritas’ movements were. And nothing at all like they had been before.

Caylia took a step forward and Veritas hissed urgently, “No. Not yet. He is definitely pair-linked. Do you remember his reaction when Chrys came too close to Gyas?”

She nodded. He was right, after all, and had saved her from doing something foolish. "Aye, I do.” She slipped her harp from her shoulder instead and pulled on her gift. She gently touched the strings, coaxing a gentle tune into the air. Bring back some something familiar, pleasant. We’re friends, Naftis, we’re not going to harm him.

Naftis’s eyes slid from one to the other, confusion playing on his face. Even through Caylia’s harping, the loquiri remained tense, the link stronger than anything a normal gift could penetrate. Veritas spoke smoothly, “We are friends here. We will not harm you, nor the boy.”

Elam stood and moved forward. Naftis rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, pulling him close to him again. “No one will hurt him. Not as long as I live.”

“Agreed.” Veritas nodded carefully. “I would not come between you and your Match.”

Naftis blinks and Caylia felt a slight slump of tension in the room. The loquiri then glanced at Elam, who turned his head to study the man with a grin. “You’re in my head,” Elam chirped. “It’s neat. Can anyone else do that?”

“No. Just me.” Naftis smiled and glanced back to Veritas. “Match? Can a loquiri pair-link twice?”

"You must be able to, Naftis," Caylia smiled gently, moving to her lower strings, "because you have. How are you feeling?"

He smiled softly and rested a hand on Elam’s head. “Wonderful.” He sighed, voice holding a satisfaction she had never heard before. “Complete.”

The royal loquiri stepped forward slowly. “Naftis, the boy’s father is very worried for him. The Guild kidnapped him earlier, and then he disappeared an hour ago.”

Naftis’s eyes narrowed. “The bloody Guild? What do they want with such a youngling? His Gift is not strong, nor well-trained.”

“It is a long story,” Caylia replied. “I only know a small part of it and it is probably better told by Elam’s father. May he see that his boy is unharmed?”

“He does not trust me?” Naftis snapped.

"He does not know you,” she answered gently. “Nor does he know of your link. It's his right to be worried."

“True.” Naftis nodded and glanced questioningly at Veritas. “Lord Veritas, may I…?”

The royal loquiri nodded and stepped aside, allowing Naftis and Elam to pass by. Elam moved forward to stand to Naftis’s right but the loquiri tugged him back, moving him to the left. The boy frowned.

“That’s not what Da taught me.”

A sweep of a hand, soft and gentle across Elam’s hair. “Only with me will we switch,” Naftis said. “Our special secret. Understand?”

Elam nodded, grinning. Naftis steped into the hall, with Veritas and Caylia close behind. Relief was plain on the Dragonian’s- Jin’s, Veritas had named him earlier- features who made a move forward but stopped short at a glare from Naftis. “Something has changed,” he said. “What is wrong?”

Veritas spoke carefully, tone gentle. “Nothing is wrong. This man, Naftis, is loquiri such as I. You knew of Karli’s lineage.”

The other flinched, a flash of deep sorrow in his eyes quenched suddenly. “Aye. But the boy is…” he broke it off. “Surely you don’t mean—that practice is forbidden in Dragonia.”

Veritas smiled slightly. “It is too late now. I would suggest against separating them, if you value your health.”

Jin started to swear and cut himself off, eyes finding Caylia. “You are a bard, as your harp suggets. You know the stories. Tell him how foolish this is. How long ago was it that a Dragonian took a loquiri?”

Caylia raises a brow, not about to be commanded. Foolish? Are we not from the same peoples? “A long, long time Fay-el,” she answered finally. "Are you suggesting, Fay-el, that it would be far wiser to separate them and leave them as tragic shells? Not to mention leaving your son without a valuable form of protection? I honestly do not understand your logic."

“Because it is a bloody, demon-bred practice!” The Fay-el’s explosion was even more surprising and Caylia lost her words for a moment. Then are we a demon-bred people? And what of Veritas and your very own kinsman? A giggle from Elam cut through the silence like a knife as if breaking a spell. His father flushed and bit his lip, then regaining his composure, he growled, “It is not fair to him,” he gestured toward Naftis, “Nor to my son, to have them bound to each other, for life.”

“And what is the role of your Second?” Chrys said softly.

Jin turned to face him, frowning. “I do not kill my—I will not die if Layole should perish.”

“But if you died while Layole guarded your life—what then?”

The Dragonian’s face fell, question answered by his silence. He was caught, that much was easy to see and Caylia chose her words carefully. “The Second only came after the loquiri ceased, to take their place. Even you know that from your history.”

Jin sighed. “Perhaps. It is too much for me right now. May I just have my son, safe and sound?”

“Aye.” Naftis nodded and stepped back. Elam moved closer and Jin enfolded him in an embrace and out of the corner of her eye she saw Naftis shiver. She swallowed. In its own way, this is more tragedy than joy. The Fay-el loses his son, gets him back, loses him again, and now in a way he he’s lost him again. No…not lost. But he has to share. Share in something he doesn’t quite understand and live with the idea nothing will really be the same. And Naftis does too. He’s found himself again but at what cost? I only pray that time heals, or at least allows for adjustment.

Naftis was still shifting uncomfortably at the corner of her vision and she realized that now she needed to seize the opportunity while she could. "Naftis, it's been a while but...if at some point when you have time. I have some questions, just to satisfy my own curiosity, regarding Gyas. Long ago, or it seems that way now, I asked you a question. You never answered it and now it seems important." Naftis looked at her, confusion and suspicion fighting for a place in his eyes. "If you were so bent on killing yourself, why did you wait so long? Before we met you had every chance, on the trip many times you didn't have the same drive as you did right before we got to Crossroads. Why? Why were you keeping yourself alive?"

Naftis hesitated, searching within himself.He had wanted to die. “A pull,” he murmured finally, and then glanced at her. “Something drew me. Tugged on me to journey westward, toward Ratacca Korr.”

She frowned in thought. Unmatched and depressed it must have been a strong enough pull to keep him going westward, but he never seemed particularly anxious to get where he was going. "Did you know about the knife?"

“No.” Naftis closed his eyes. “Not that it would draw me to Chrys and to try….try to…” He swallowed. Kill Caylia finished silently. Loyalty in the Mara ran deep and contemplating killing the Fay-el was hard. “I suppose it had some measure of effect. But it was not all.”

He suddenly tensed and opened his eyes, sweeping the room with his gaze until he spotted Elam again. The boy giggled. “Can’t I talk with my Da first?” Jin scowled, eyes narrowing in confusion and apprehension. Naftis cocked his head.

Elam smiled. “Of course I’m safe. Da and Terran and you are here.”

Naftis’ tension relaxed slightly and he returned his attention to Caylia. “Not all?” she prompted.

He paused, eyes thoughtful, before continuing. “After Veritas had me brought up here, he took everything from me. Even the knife. But the pull remained. Though…” he bit his lip. “It lay southwest then, as if it had moved.”

“The Dragonian camp.” Veritas interjected. He smiled at Caylia’s questioning expression. “From my quarters, the Dragonian camp lies southwest, beyond Crossroads’ boundaries.”

Caylia raised a brow at Elam and smiled in understanding. "Ah. The Luckbringer has an interesting sense of humor sometimes." She put her hands on her knees and sighed. "Naftis, I do not doubt that you had no ill intentions toward our Fay-el but...there are still a few riddles left unanswered. And left unanswered could make you at risk for guilt. So, please...where did you get that knife?"

“A Guildsman merchant. He spoke to me of someone who they wished dead, and that they…they might give me information on Roth’s death, if I should help them.” Naftis frowned. “He spoke as if he were….were from Lodear.”

Chrys flinched. “That I find hard to believe. Perhaps they only imitated the accent. It is a simple one to master.”

With a smirk, Veritas recited the first two lines of an old poem, his voice slurring in the same, broad-vowel tone that Chrys used. The royal loquiri stopped, glancing fondly at Chrys. “Of course, I have heard it often. But he is right. It might be a trick to make it seem as such. A plot from Lodear is hard to believe.”

“The lord of Bel Heim had three sons once, even though most tales only spoke of two,” Caylia murmured. “His eldest were his pride, the lifeblood of the Mara running through their veins, but it was his youngest, black eyed and black haired like the ravens, that held his heart. He was spirited away one night, out of his cradle, while his father was doing battle in the shadows of the dunes in what is now southern Settar. Battle against the people he thought were his enemies. There were three men among his personal guard, sons of men who were more loyal than death, but where the fathers were loyal the sons were not. When the battle was over and the three men were gone along with his son, the lord of Bel Heim killed himself in the shadows of the dune for his own foolishness and from grief.”

Chrys bristled. “What are you implying?”

“Merely that it would be foolish to completely discount everything because of how surely you believe in something. I know how loyal the people of the Mara are, and I would like to discount your homeland as well but there is more than a homeland that shapes a man’s soul or even a group of men.”

Chrys said nothing. He studied the floor, face pensive, eyes thoughtful, before lifting his head to study her. “You speak wisely, Caylia of Settar. I am twice grateful.” He turned, focusing his attention on Naftis. And his tone sharpened in determination. “I grant you the right to bear arms, within Ratacca Korr or anyplace of Crossroads. Any man—be he Lodear or noble-born—is subject to your discretion. If any seem to be a threat…” his eyes narrowed. “Kill him.”

Caylia's brows rose but her tongue stilled at the last instant. The thought of any man having an order like that chilled her but then again, Naftis wasn't any man. He was loquiri after all and could sense real, acute danger better than even the best Maran guards. He would use the power just given to him wisely. Hopefully.

"Well," she murmured to Naftis, "it appears as if you are absolved of any guilt."

When the Gift nudged him playfully, Jin glanced up from his message. He may not have understood the strange power the Mara were born with, but he knew the feeling of its touch.

Frowning, Jin glanced around him. Only this Naftis and Elam were sitting near him, resting beneath the pavilion’s shadow. The latter laughed and rested his head on the loquiri’s shoulder. Naftis grinned. “You missed.”

“I know. It felt funny.” Elam laughed again. “Are you sure I’m doing it right?”

Naftis smiled. “Quite sure. I can see its glow.”

“That sounds silly. Glowing in the sun?”

The loquiri grinned and draped an arm over the boy, pulling him close. “The Gift is very special.”

Jin grimaced and returned his attention to the message. He had written two whole lines already. With a sigh, he put quill to paper and continued, adding words while his mind wandered. Bloody Mara. Guild takes my child, Fay-el twists my words…

Naftis said something. Though it was muffled for Jin, Elam heard it clear enough to whoop in delight. Jin’s hand jerked, ruining the last symbol. Clenching his teeth, Jin tried to ignore the sound. Now this. This blasted, star-spawned, Azreal-bred loquiri thing…he isn’t mine. Not mine anymore.

Elam said something in the desert dialect, before gushing in Common, “Did I say it right? Did I? The stuff for when you pair—pair what?”

“Pair-link,” Naftis responded.

Snap. Jin glanced down. He had broken the nib of the quill against the parchment. His hand was clutching the quill tight enough to ache. Jin jerked to his feet and, with a strangled curse, threw both quill and parchment down. He whirled, stalking out of the tent.

Elam called, “Da?” but then Naftis interrupted, explaining things away.

Curse that bloody man! Curse him to Edad Ti’ !

Jin prowled through the camp, ignoring tribesmen no matter what the request. He paced mindlessly, stopping only when Terran’s sparring line of earlier this morning caught his attention. Unsheathing the janin, Jin strode to the center of the circle, saluted, and then sat down heavily. For the first time in a long, long while—he wanted to cry.

< >

Terran found him there. "Jin, I need to talk to---What are you doing?"

The Fay-el glanced around himself in confusion. Spread his arms. "Getting away for a moment."

Terran looked around the camp, at the assorted tents, and back at Jin. "In the middle of the sparring circle?"

Jin sighed heavily. "Yes. My tent is not my own right now."

"The loquiri?"

"Yes. He is in there. With Elam."

The blademaster hesitated. "There is no better man than a loquiri to protect him---"

The Fay-el held up a hand and grimaced. "Not now, Terran. What do you want?"

Terran bit his lip, but did not push it. “I had a favor to ask of you.”

“Ask.”

“Tonight we are planning to sponsor Kor. Yes?”

“Aye.” Jin smiled faintly. “The Keeper has been braying worse than a mule bearing twins. We’re moving far too fast for his taste.” He swiveled his head to peer at Terran with unbridled suspicion. “Why are you dancing around the point? What do you want?”

Terran smiled. “For now, I would like to satisfy a curiosity. Layole needs to spar some. He has been too busy with his betrothed to bother, until now. I would like you to team with Kor, against Layole. Keep him on his toes.”

Jin’s eyes narrowed. “You have something else in mind. I know it.”

Terran squeezed his shoulder. “Perhaps. Will you spar?”

“Aye.” His voice softened. “I’ll be here."

Terran stared awkwardly at him for a moment. He was not a man accustomed to giving personal advice. "Perhaps the three of you should sit down to talk things over together."

Jin waved a hand idly. "There's no talking with them. All they do is talk to each other."

"Have you tried telling them you want to talk?"

"I don't want to talk!" Jin snapped.

Terran sighed. "I will see you in the sparring ring. Outside of camp."

"I'll be there."

***


Jin waited impatiently for Terran and the rest to arrive. He could do nothing against Naftis—and being near his son was nearly impossible. And now this. Terran was definitely up to something, no doubt about it.

The Hybrid glanced around impatiently. "Where is that demon-spawned Terran?" He kicked at the dirt. "He wants to put me up against you?"

Jin shook his head slowly. "No. He wants to see how well you fight at my side against him."

"Oh." Kor raised his eyebrows and grinned widely. "You mean, there's actually a chance of beating him?"

Jin laughed for the first time in hours, and it was still more cough than chuckle. "Beating Terran? Even the two of us together probably cannot best him."

Kor's face fell. "Am I to be beaten bloody before my Confirmation?"

Jin's lip twitched slightly. "And afterwards as well, most likely. You know Terran."

“If you step out of the Fundamentals,” Terran called. “I guarantee it.”

Kor started, but Jin only shook his head and turned to face him. “Do you always sneak up on people?”

“Do you?”

Jin shrugged. Layole joined the blademaster, grinning from ear to ear. He dipped his head courteously at Kor. “Good day to you. At least, for now.”

The Hybrid’s frown deepened. Jin fidgeted uneasily. “Come on, Kor,” he snapped, and stalked to the other side of the circle. “If we do this quickly, perhaps there will be time for Turoc to tend you before your Confirmation.”

Practically pouting, Kor strode into the circle and took his place beside Jin. The Fay-el nodded to him reassuringly, his face very serious, as though his joke a moment before had already been forgotten. Kor tipped his shitan at Terran and Layole in salute and stepped back into an easy stance. “Ready,” he sighed.

“No,” Terran said flatly. Hybrid and Fay-el both looked askance at him. “Other side, Kor. Jin is your Fay-el, so you must always be on his left.”

Nodding his understanding, Kor moved. “Ready,” he signaled again, and everyone flung themselves at one another.

Terran closed in on Kor from one side and Layole on Jin from the other. The blademaster shifted into Lizard’s Scurry and darted toward the Hybrid. He was halfway to Kor when he suddenly took a Diagonal Step and, twisting around him in a quick Dust Devil, dashed toward Jin. With a curse, Kor followed the blademaster and darted hastily between him and the Fay-el, rocking back on his heels but not losing his place as the blademaster drove him back a step with a powerful blow barely deflected by his shitan.

Layole hammered at Jin, forcing him to parry again and again. The Fay-el slashed beneath Layole’s guard briefly, but a quick ringing parry with a shitan turned the blade aside. Grinning, the Second linked two Fundamentals together, a quick Scorpion’s Sting combined with Rushing Bull that forced Jin to wheel aside in a quick Sparrow’s Hop that left him stumbling for balance.

Terran slashed his shitan viciously toward his pupil’s eyes. Kor started to bring a shitan up to parry, but was too slow. The blade sliced a shallow line just above his eyebrow. Small or not, the cut was to the face, and blood welled, blinding him on one side. Terran chuckled and Diagonal Stepped into the Hybrid’s blind spot. Kor wheeled around, wiping blood from his eye with one hand, and just barely managed to duck another rap upside the head. Terran flipped the shitan in his other hand and smacked the back of his neck. “Duck and twist aside,” he growled. “Just ducking will lose your head.”

Layole slashed in Reaper’s Scythe, low at Jin’s ribs. The Fay-el jerked his janin up into Rising Star, but too high, leaving his middle exposed. Layole scowled. “You always do that.” He dragged the blade across the now-created opening. Blood welled where Layole’s shitan had found its mark. “I’m going to break that habit out of you, even if I have to beat you bloody to do it.”

Terran, spotting an opportunity, suddenly leaped forward, knocking his elbow into Kor’s chest as he swiveled around him, and swept Scythes at Jin’s head and feet. Jin ducked the first shitan, but not the second. He hit the sand with a thud, knocking the breath out of his lungs.

Layole was closing fast, trying to beat Terran to the “kill”. The blademaster was faster, however, and bent down to place a knee on Jin’s chest.

Kor imagined a lyre in the air, and filled it with the rowdy “Tankard Ballad”. The pulse of his Gift swept outwards, slamming into Terran and Layole alike. Even Jin let out a sharp exhalation of air.

The Fay-el scrambled away from Terran and to his feet. Transitioning into Raven In Flight, he slashed Layole across the forearm before the man had recovered from Kor’s trick. And Terran rose from the sand, directly behind him.

“Jin! Watch—“ Kor cut off as the blademaster yanked back on Jin’s hair, arching his head back.

The blade of his shitan pressed against the life-vein in his throat. “Yield.”

Jin swallowed. “I yield.”

Terran released him with a shove. “Always watch your back. Always.”

***


Sitting by the dead campfire’s ring of stone, Jin rubbed his aching shoulder. The wound Daliah had given him may have healed, but the muscles beneath the skin were not prepared for the strenous exercise of a spar—and most definitely not two. After Kor had returned to Joran, his blademaster friend insisted he needed practice with Rising Star, and had Layole drub him thoroughly.

Kor seemed perfectly fine. He had seen him in the distance twice, speaking with Joran and reciting something. Probably the oaths.

Jin shifted and winced at the spike of pain. Curse that bloody blademaster.

He felt a sort of warm prickle on his back, very light. For a moment he scowled, turning to look for his son or that Star-forsaken loquiri. However, he found Kor’s eyes resting on him from the other campfire. The Hybrid was frowning slightly. Jin groaned inwardly as the man waved away Joran’s question and rose to walk toward him.

“How is the shoulder?” Kor asked, kneeling down on the ground in front of the Fay-el.

Jin scowled. “How do you think it is?”

“I think it hurts. It saw a lot of action today.”

“Did you sense that, with your Gift?” Jin asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Yes.” He grinned. “And I saw you rubbing it.” He nodded toward Jin’s shoulder. “Do you want me to Mend it?”

“Ah…like what you did for Daliah?”

The Hybrid nodded. Uneasiness rippled through Jin. Having any sort of “magic” touch him was hard to wrap his mind around. But then again, Kor seemed to know what he was doing. Jin bit his lip. “Anything you do can’t be worse than Turoc’s attentions,” he said, smiling faintly. “Do I need to ah…lie down or anything?”

Kor smiled. “That is how I was taught, so just in case, I would suggest it.”

With a sigh, Jin stretched out flat on his back. He flinched but didn't move as Kor leaned over him, fingers probing the ache.

“Just some minor muscle strain,” Kor said reassuringly. “The wound has knit, but there is scar tissue, inflamed by over-activity.” He glanced over his shoulder for the glow, and barely resisted reaching out to touch it with one hand. Carefully, he began tracing the blessing points in the air above the Fay-el. Each was a little whirlpool, flowing naturally into the next. He marked smaller spirals over Jin’s temples.

“This is a Mending?” Jin asked skeptically.

“No…” Kor said slowly, concentrating on filling the lyre in his mind with music. A sea lullaby this time. “This is.” Jin jumped as the Hybrid let the Gift flow out of him slowly, and picturing the whirlpools he’d just traced, reformed the pattern in his mind with infinite care as he fed the Gift into it. The briefest headache flickered behind his eyes; this was the fourth time he’d seized or been seized by the Gift that day.

The song of the pattern and the answering roar of Jin’s vibrantly healthy spark warred discordantly. Grimacing, Kor changed the rhythm of the pattern to three-four and lowered it to E-flat. It was still too loud, though, and he pulled back on the Gift, changing the dynamic from fortissimo to forte.

There. The pattern formed of Kor’s own Gift and Jin’s spark finally rang harmoniously in the Hybrid’s mind and he wove them together, then he gently lowered the pattern onto Jin. They both shuddered.

The sensation was similar to that of Elam’s touch, but much stronger. Unlike what he had expected, Jin found the feeling of this Gift a pleasant one. The pain in his shoulder vanished and, sudden enough that he gasped, all the tension and pain in the rest of his body disappeared as well.

“Did I hurt you?” Kor asked worriedly.

“No,” Jin said. “This is….amazing.” He blinked, feeling drowsy contentment fluttering in the back of his head.

Kor at back on his heels and smiled. “You should go to your tent if you want to sleep.”

“Hmm?” he said absently. “Oh.” Jin sat up, rubbing at his eyes with his hands. He scowled at the Hybrid. “I’m fine. It is just different.” And then stifled a yawn.

“Go to bed, Jin,” Kor laughed.

With a wry frown, Jin said. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll be up most of the night anyway.”

Kor watched the Fay-el walk back to his tent, stumbling slightly in drowsiness. He shook his head, then wandered up to Joran and Talen.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing," Talen said, shaking his head. Nodding goodbye, he left the two brothers to rehearse Kor's oaths.
Hamen stifled his yawn. Maheen glanced up at him, then turned and directed an unmistakable hiss at the pair of white Derk-ra tied up underneath the pen's awning. I'd like to be able to use them, to save them, but I'll be thrice-blooded if they aren't ready to eat any face or finger that gets too close.

He sighed and walked away, crossing the courtyard with a sleepy shuffle. Maheen fairly danced around him the whole way. "Show off. Not all of us sleep so well propped up against a wall." He smiled. He had slept quite well.

Jaara was nowhere to be seen, though her horse was saddled and ready, with Kharme already mounted on her own steed. "No need to be in such a rush. We'll all have plenty of time to get tired of sitting in a saddle over the next couple of days."

It was the Inquisita's voice that answered, Jaara herself walking out of the stable, wiping her mouth. "She was going to go remove you from Gyas's monsters if you weren't here by the time I was done being sick."

Hamen quirked an eyebrow, still smiling. "You actually planned out how long you would be sick? You realize the child itself won't be so predictable, right?"

"Then I suppose I shall have to send Kharme after it, as well."

Kharme smiled, then frowned. "Wait, are you kidding?"

Hamen's laugh was not reassuring.

*****

The trip itself was uneventful, other than Maheen's hisses at Khyr whenever the two Derk-ra got too close. Hamen had to give Kharme credit, she was doing much better on the hard ride than he'd expected. Kyda's blood, at this rate I'm going to be the one who's complaining about how sore he is. They'd covered more ground than he would have guessed they could in one day. His gaze lingered longingly on a communal resting spot. Those tents looked inviting... "Do you suppose we should find a place to stay for the evening, Inquisita?"

Jaara didn't even turn in her saddle at the slightly sarcastic tone after hours of riding. "We have another half hour of daylight, at least, and there is almost certain to be more than one Inn or stopover on a road this well-traveled. We'll continue to the next one. I don't want to give Gyas a chance to get ahead of us. Even if he is taking a roundabout path, there's no reason for us to give him any more of a head start."

Hamen opened his mouth to speak again, but sputtered when Jaara interrupted him. "Now be still. Someone's approaching a little too directly to intend to pass us by."

The approaching rider led a second horse and rider. Both wore hoods shadowing their faces completely in the evening gloom. The lead rider raised both hands as he approached, showing himself to be unarmed.

His voice was husky. He doesn't sound like he uses it very much. "Greetings, messengers of Ratacca Korr. I have a message and a token to present to you."

The thin dagger's handle felt reassuring in Hamen's hand. He could have it out and halfway to the rider's chest in a heartbeat if he should need to. Kharme couldn't resist her curiosity. "A token?"

Jaara glared her into silence, then spoke. "You know more than you should if you know where we ride from. Who do you ride for?"

"I ride for the Guild."

Hamen's dagger slid a half inch from its sheathe before he caught himself. Either he means no harm or we're already dead. Kharme looked around them nervously. You won't see the ambush until it's done.

"That's a very bold statement for someone who knows where we ride from. You must also know what has recently transpired there, and likely our mission as well." The Inquisita wasted no time. "Deliver your message and token, we have little time to waste."

The rider bowed, and remained so as he spoke. "The Masters of the Guild humbly acknowledge their guilt in allowing such a heinous crime to be committed by one of their members. The Guild wishes to assure Ratacca Korr and those who dwell within that the Guild has purged itself of such treasonous individuals and the plots they had developing, whether against the High Fay'El or no."

Hamen grinned despite himself. So don't kill us all on sight, because that would make our lives a lot harder and we like things to stay cushy.

The Guildsman stepped from his saddle, striding over to the horse he'd been leading. "I am also to give you a token of our goodwill, to offer proof of our sincerity." He slashed something on the side of the saddle, and the rider fell off into his arms. He carried the thrashing, and now clearly bound, body back towards them, then dropped it onto the sand before them.

Jaara glanced at Hamen. He nodded and lowered himself to the ground. Maheen kept beside him as he approached the weakly struggling form. Whoever it is, they're gagged. They aren't doing more than groan. He reached down, lifting the hood aside so he could look beneath, then stumbled backwards in shock. Kharme jerked, but Jaara held one hand out before her and waited for Hamen to find his words. He swallowed before speaking. "It's Gyas."

Jaara glared at the Guildsman. "Does the Guild believe this will excuse an attack on the High Fay'El's home?"

He bowed once again. "Of course not, the Guild acknowledges that it will be many years of dutiful service towards the betterment of all the Mara before we are forgiven. We can only offer this first token as a start."

Jaara lowered her arm to her side, then jerked her head around behind her. "Get him on his feet, Hamen. He can walk back." She waved a dismissive hand at the Guildsman. "Go back to your masters. Your message is delivered, your token received. Now they await the pleasure of the Fay'El." He bowed and turned away.

The trainer nodded at Jaara's command, then sighed quietly as Kharme spoke up. "Shouldn't we ask Gyas some questions now? For example: Is this man who delivered him telling the truth?"

Jaara glanced at Hamen, then frowned when he shook his head. "Gyas can answer no questions we may have."

"I don't understand. That sounds like a simple enough question, and if he's not conscious he's sure doing a good job of standing up."

The trainer stared at Kharme, all but holding the former Guildsman and Lord on his feet. "To answer he would need a tongue to speak, and eyes to know who had brought him. The Guild has claimed both."

Kharme's eyes widened, then she visibly swallowed back something. Jaara only glared at the rider as he rose back onto his mount. "His eyes have seen things none outside the Guild may see, his tongue can say things none outside the Guild may hear. He forfeited them when he betrayed the Guild."

"And his Gift? Was that a possession of the Guild's as well?"

"Of course. He will not give you any trouble on your way back."

Assuming he even wants to breathe. No sight, no voice, and he can no longer feel the pulse of Kyda.

Raw fury seethed beneath Jaara's voice. "This is not a very generous gift you offer to your Fay'El, Guildsman. If I thought the Guild was afraid of Kyda I might say you just didn't want to kill him yourself."

"It is not our place to deliver the Fay'El's punishment, only our own. Go in peace, and know that the Guild will ever be watchful to safeguard the High Fay'El in the future."

The Guildsman bowed one more time, then turned his horse and rode back the way he'd come.

Hamen sighed once he was out of earshot. "I suppose we should head back to that last batch of tents and stake ourselves out a spot far enough away from everyone else that we won't need to worry about Gyas here."

He grunted, pushing the former Guildsman ahead of him, then fell back with a curse as the blind, mute man fell back onto him. Kharme screamed. He slipped out from under the man, biting back the curse he'd been about to level at him at the sight of the shitan jutting from his throat, blood burbling around it as Gyas tried to scream his last breath. His own dagger was out and ready to fly when he heard a familiar voice.

"Hold yourselves. I'm not here to humble you, just to make sure you get things done. Aaaaaaand I seem to have done just that."

Jaara glared daggers sharper than the one Hamen held at Ravin as he trumped forward, brushing off his sand-cloak. He waved at Gyas's prone form. "Goodbye, Gyas. I enjoyed meeting you far more than most I am forced to meet over the course of my duties, if it's any consolation." Gyas's death rattle didn't sound very relieved.

Kharme found her voice, and loudly. "You murdered him! We had him! We were going to take him back to Ratacca Korr! He couldn't even see, and you murdered him! Why!?"

Ravin smirked at Jaara, then Hamen. "Oh? So no one else is going to state the obvious to our less-than world weary friend?" He chuckled, causing Kharme to gag. "He was going back to Ratacca Korr to be questioned. He was going to be tortured until we couldn't get any more information out of him, then he was going to be killed. He can't talk, or even see to write anything, so we couldn't very well do that. All that was left was killing him. So I saved us all the trouble of having to watch him stumble back." He smirked up at Kharme now. "Now we can tie him to a horse and drag him."

Kharme sputtered. "You have no right to just murder him! Do you have so little respect for life that you would condemn him like that?"

Ravin shrugged. "Clearly." His smirked shifted into a sarcastically apologetic look at the expression on Jaara's face. "Aw... Someone looks jealous. As the ranking Inquisita in attendance, it would have been your responsibility by default to kill him, now wouldn't it?" His cruel sarcasm vanished. "Unless another person was appointed to do the deed."

Jaara ignored Kharme's ever-more-horrified stare. "If we return and find that you have overstepped your bounds, we shall see exactly how well a culled sand-swallower does in chains with a slighted Inquisita wielding the tools of her trade."

"You should have added pregnant to that description. Now that's terrifying."

Hamen sighed. It was going to be a long trip home.
A Non-Existent User
It was indeed a long trip for Kharme, for Ravin found sport in describing every gruesome detail in the Guild's silencing process. She was sorely tempted to strike him across the face with the back of her hand, but refrained. Who knew what sway this insolent brat held over the Fay-el? That may be the quickest way back into her father's grasp, who might do far worse than arranging a marriage.

Jaara looked at her absently, then gave her a slight nudge with the Gift. Kharme then realized that she was pushing her own, and it was giving her horse quite a fright. She patted his neck gently and closed her eyes, picturing the way Ravin's feet might fly over his head if she struck him hard enough. It brought a small smile to her lips and calmed her spirit.

She let her mind wander away for a moment, ignoring Ravin's many grim comments. Unfortunately, the only thing that she could think about was the way Gyas' face looked. She may have wanted to see him tortured and killed at one point, but she had assumed that justice would have been done first, and by the proper authority. It was a terrible world where all were meant to accept such a horrible fate. It was too much like the way her father ruled things. This whole kill first ask later mentality sickened her.

She was then struck by a sudden familiarity. She stopped her horse abruptly, nearly causing a collision with Hamen, who reared back his mount with a frustrated glare. Ravin and Jaara both turned to her, annoyed.

"What is it now?" the woman snapped. "I would like to reach the Fay-el before the body begins to decay."

"Are there any teeth missing?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Gyas' teeth! Are there any missing?"

Ravin sighed and pulled the sack from head of the bloodied man, dropping open his mouth with faint disgust. "Just the incisors. Will that be a problem for you, princess?"

Kharme's heart stopped. "That was his trademark."

"Whose?"

"The duke! The man I was supposed to marry! He is with them!" She dropped her head to her chest and brought her hands to meet it. "It really is true."

Ravin looked to Jaara with raised brows. "It could be that I am new to this, but I fail to the significance."

Kharme groaned. "It means he lied to me. I am such a naive idiot."

"Well, that is beside the point. We confirmed that a long time ago."

But Kharme was not listening. She had already dug her heels into the horse's side and lunged ahead. Within minutes, she was nearly out of sight.

Jaara sighed and turned to Ravin. "One of these days, I fear she will get herself killed."

"At least it would be quieter." he agreed.

----------

Kharme burst into the room, nearly knocking Lade from his chair. "I cannot believe you lied to me!" she nearly screamed. "I thought I could trust you!"

"Well, Kharme. It has been some time since I saw you. Is there a problem?"

"Don't you dare pull that with me. How could you not tell me that the duke was involved in this? Did you think I was that stupid?"

"Involved in what? Oh, you mean the business with the Guild and the Fay-el?" he busied himself with copying a map. "I know a lot of things that I do not tell you."

"Like the fact that I have the Gift?"

He looked up at that.

"I had to find out from a stranger, Lade. My own friend would not tell me!"

He shook his head. "I am your teacher, Kharme. There are some things you cannot learn from books."

"So you knew?" she closed her eyes, trying not to believe it.

"Yes." he stated matter-of-factly. "But I could not tell you. First, you would have wanted to learn that which I was not equipped to teach. Even if I was, your father would have discovered you, and either stripped you of it or involved you in this mess. I would not see that happen."

"I see, lying to me was much better."

"Kharme, in hindsight-"

"Hindsight, nothing. The truth is that you did not trust me to handle it. You only thought of me as a child. Well, I am not a child. I saw a man die today, and the duke is responsible for it!"

"Ah, so you found Gyas?"

"Yes, no thanks to you." she sighed and rubbed her head, which began to ache. "I cannot believe that you would do this to me. Lade, I think it may take some time before I can begin to trust you again."

"Kharme-"

"No." she stepped out the door and slammed it behind her. For a moment, she simply stood and shook, trying to regain her bearings. Instincts plagued her. The first was the one that Lade always taught: run. But she could not do that now. Where would she go?

She walked down the hall, nearly blinded with rage. How dare he decide what she could and could not handle? She felt tears come and began to run, without any thought as to where.

After she was thoroughly exhausted, she dropped down, finding herself in the garden, completely alone.
After the longest ride of her life made all the more exhausting by the Border Guard commander’s constant prattling, Jaara dismounted in the cool early morning shadows of Ratacca Korr's courtyard and, with scarcely a glance, dropped the reins of her stallion into a servant's capable hands.

"You," she said curtly to another servant as Hamen dismounted behind her, rubbing his lower back ruefully and, from the stiffness in his walk as he stepped toward her, probably wanting to massage his aching rump as well. They'd ridden straight through the night, knowing that the message they'd been sent to give the Fay-el could not wait.

Nor was Jaara particularly tolerant of spending undue time being a corpse-deliverer again in only so many days.

The servant came to stand obediently before her. "Notify the High Fay-el that Inquisita Jaara na Harad lo Arvan and her retinue have returned and urgently request an audience with his Majesty."

"Her retinue?" Hamen grumbled as the servant turned obediently and retreated into the palace.

Jaara stared at the derk-ra trainer for a long moment, cool gaze unwavering. Then she frowned as though she'd swallowed something distasteful, briefly turned an unflattering ashen-gray color, and promptly turned on her heel. "I've business to attend to." She was headed straight for a bush.

Hamen winced. "Should I go find Kharme? I mean, the rest of your 'retinue'?" He glanced around, brow knitting in irritated confusion. "And where is that bloody Border Guard?" Ravin had ridden into the courtyard with them after Kharme's flight, but was now nowhere to be seen.

Jaara was too occupied with the far more pressing business of impending motherhood to deign to respond.

The derk-ra trainer sighed, and headed for the cool shadows of the palace beyond. "I'll be in my quarters."
***


For the second time in two days, Ravin had ridden through the night. His men would call him soft, if they knew. Few Border Guards used horses, but he couldn't allow the others to reach Ratacca Korr before him, now could he? And so, the instant his horse's hooves rattled on stone, he dismounted as Jaara spoke with the servants, and stalked alone through the halls of Ratacca Korr.

The throne room was empty; court would not be for another two or three hours. The few Lords who wandered there glanced at him curiously, but ignored him after taking in his Border Guard garb. The Fay-el, normally accustomed to rising early, was not there yet.

Whirling, Ravin strode out of the throne room and across the halls. He checked the stairway, but found a pair of guards waiting at the top, blocking anyone’s access to the royal quarters. He cursed at them, but neither would let him pass. Under orders from Lord Veritas.

Fine then. I can get to him on my own path.

Ratacca Korr had been built to withstand any attack and hold out against any danger. Even if the way to the royal chambers was held by an army, thus blocking help to the Fay-el, there was always a way to reach him, if you knew it.

Ravin headed to the guard towers. Before Chrys had been Fay-el, he had shown him this way to get away from Endry’s watchful gaze, and return without anyone being the wiser. From the tower, with a wink at the guard who rolled his eyes and left him be, Ravin slunk across the wall. It narrowed until he had to put one foot in front of the other to keep from toppling. It was a long drop below him.

Between the wall and the third floor’s vast skylights was a slim pole, bedecked with Chrys’ royal banner. It had once held Endry’s sigil. Ravin inched halfway and then leaped, landing spider-crouched on the roof. The thump was faint. He held still and waited, but no cries of alarm came to him.

With a smirk, he crept across the way and found the third skylight from the right, notched on its upper pane. The pane, as always, was loose. He slid his shitan beneath the glass and popped it free, before sliding through. He was on the third floor with the royal quarters within a few feet.

Still grinning, Ravin strode down the hall. The Fay-el needed a wake-up call.

***


Chrys scrubbed at his eyes groggily, frowning at his loquiri. “It's bloody early. Why are you waking me?"

Veritas yanked a shirt down over his Fay-el’s head and reached for the laces. “The Inquisita returned and requests an audience with you. It is urgent." The loquiri rummaged around, returning with the rest of his clothes. Chrys dressed quickly and sat through the other preparations his loquiri knew by heart.

Veritas stepped back to study him with a critical eye and then laughed. “You still look like you’re half-asleep.”

“Thanks, you’re so helpful,” Chrys growled.

“Getting hungry, hmm? I’ll go get you something to eat. Don’t go away.”

“Kyda, where would I go? To the Lordling lions undoubtedly gathering down below?”

Veritas smiled at him again. “Well, I can tell you’re waking up. You’re growling again.”

Chrys scowled, but his loquiri had already stepped out. He turned and fumbled with his dreamstone. He slid it over his neck. Someone crossed into his room. His Gift unfolded in direct warning. Chrys whirled, clawing for a dagger and the Gift at the same time.

Ravin laughed at him. “Jumpy, eh?”

“Most people do not mess with me, especially with my loquiri absent,” he snapped back.

Ravin shook his head. “Ah, but I’m not most people.” He moved closer.

Chrys backed away from him. Distantly, he felt his loquiri's brief startled concern, then amusement. “I thought you were with my Inquisita.”

“I was. Now I'm not.” He rocked back, smirking. “I didn’t take you to be the lazy type.”

Chrys’ anger flared. “I am not.”

“Weeeel, it's past sunrise and you’re still abed. Or was recently. Like Endry.”

Chrys stalked closer, feeling his anger rise even higher. He bit his lip and took a deep breath. Ravin always knew how to get under his skin. “Do you have a reason for being in my quarters, besides trying to annoy me and getting your tongue culled with your Gift?”

Ravin flinched.

Chrys smirked. He could give as well as take. The Border Guard scowled and moved into his personal space. The Fay-el shifted away again. “Well? So what are you doing here?”

“I bring tidings, my lord. Gyas is dead.”

“And how do you know that?”

Ravin held his gaze. “I killed him myself.”

***


An open door was an invitation and Caylia was brought through it, drawn by the sound of the shouting angry voices. With ink stained fingers, she appraised the Border Guard and the Fay-el, seeing them both together at once for the first time.

Abin dinw!” Ravin snarled directly into Chrys's face. He smirked. "Kinth-el."

Quirking a smile, she cocked her head. "Yes, in this light you really can see it. How much you two look alike, I mean. But... Ravin, how do you hide the eye tilt so well?"

Silence descended as two sets of eyes focused on her.

Ravin gaped. “H-how? Oh gods.”

Chrys chose that moment of distraction to hit the Border Guard with a clenched fist, shoving him forward as he staggered. “Don’t you ever call me that again!”

Ravin caught his balance and twisted to glare menacingly at the Fay-el. “Ai deid ayt fah ye-ah!”

Caylia cleared her throat, snapping their attention back. She had a puzzled expression—which Ravin realized was from their use of Lodear dialect—and then her face cleared. When those steady eyes descended on him again, he wanted to wince. He had faced down Derk-ra, but this was something else.

She smiled slowly. “If you’d answer my question. I truly am curious. Your eye tilt is very hard to see.”

“We don’t…” he hesitated.

Chrys finished for him, as he always had since they were young. “We do not share the same father, only the same mother.”

Ravin glared at him. “Stai…” he caught himself this time. “Stop it.”

Chrys shrugged. “It’s that blasted drawl of yours. No one wants to wait around for you to finish a bloody sentence.”

“And no one wants to hear your lisp.”

Chrys glared at him. “At least I have my Gift.”

“Weel, at least I’m no kinth.”

The Fay-el cursed. Caylia sighed. “But both have a Lodear mother, yes?”

“Aye,” Ravin growled. “I take after Arioch, however, who was Eastar born. Besides, when are we together…” He twisted to glare at her. “Weel, that brings up another question. For you, my dear. Few know our relation—but you do. How?”

"I was doing a little research," she responded with a wave of her hand and a hint of amusement sparked in her eyes. "And I'm sure less people would discover who you were if you both weren't shouting in Lodear with your door wide open. What is it with this place that makes kin quarrel so?"

Not waiting for an answer, the bard shifted her weight, and tilted her chin appraising them. "You may have not shared the same sire, but you have the same bone structure, and hints of the same coloring. Fascinating. Now what would someone related to the Fay-el be doing as a Border Guard? And hiding his relationship no less?" She tapped her lower lip in thought. 'Now that is a very interesting question."

Ravin shrugged. “Which deserves no answer, save this: I am the youngest of my father’s children.” He flicked an annoyed glance at Chrys. “And not easily controlled by any man, be he brother or Fay-el.”

“I have never had a desire to—“

“Be quiet, my lord.”

Caylia, however, would not allow the matter to rest. “That answers no questions, and only raises more.”

Ravin rolled his eyes. “Another time, bard. I have no desire to remain here any longer.” He dipped his head in a mock bow. “I have delivered my message, do with me and it as you will.”

Chrys scowled. “You knew my orders. We could have discovered how deep this plot ran.”

“Have you listened to nothing? The Guild claimed his speech, his eyes, and his Gift. He could have told us nothing.”

“Who?” Caylia said, glancing at them curiously.

“Lord Gyas,” Chrys snapped. “The late Lord Gyas.”

She raised her brows. "You killed him." It wasn't a question.

Ravin answered with a smile, a brief flash of teeth against his skin. "He may have met an unfortunate end by falling into my knife."

Chrys snarled. "My orders are not to be taken by your whimsy."

Caylia sighed. "What's done is done. Unfortunately. I suppose when Jaara comes to take your head off I should inform her that killing Chrys's kinsman may not be wise."

Ravin shrugged. “She would have to find me first. And that would be difficult. Ask him,” he gestured at Chrys over one shoulder, dipped his head, “By your leave,” and whirled away before the Fay-el could respond.

Chrys sighed but did not move to stop him. “One day, someone really is going to kill him. I wonder how many will mourn.” He flicked Caylia an annoyed glance and stalked to the nearest chair.

“Did you need something?” he said.

"Ah, maybe, Fay-el. I was just doing some research and came across Ravin's birth record." She paused, awkward for the first time in a long while. "I'm trying to expand my notes on... everything that has happened here. It is my job, in a way. And I was trying to find out a few things about Elam's mother." She eyed him and frowned. "But now doesn't seem to be the best time. Would you like me to play for you, my lord?"

“If you wish.”

“Not yet,” Veritas broke into the conversation, stepping into view with a sour smile. “Ravin is gone?”

Chrys nodded. The loquiri’s smile brightened. “Good. That man has no sense or respect.” He tipped his head in Caylia’s direction in recognition. “Please do play for him. Later. He must eat now, and then speak with your companions.”

“I'm not hungry. I've business to attend to.”

“Uh-huh,” Veritas set water and fruit before him. “Eat first. Argue later.”

Chrys glared at him. The loquiri grinned. Mumbling under his breath, Chrys took a date and started munching.

Caylia nodded. The royal loquiri knew better than she what needed to be done. "If you are busy, I will call on you later then, yes?"

“Aye.” Chrys gave Veritas an uneasy scowl. “If my jailer will allow it.”

The royal loquiri smiled. “Perhaps. You may remain, if you wish, or wander the castle. There are few Lords today and the servants will not stop you.”

Chrys frowned. "If you see the Inquisita, tell her I already know what happened. With Lord Gyas and Ravin, I mean."

Caylia frowned. "She will not like being dismissed like that..."

He scowled. "Remind her who is Fay-el here."

***


"This matter cannot be so easily dismissed. I suppose I shall just have to draft him a report," Jaara mused, standing over a freshly-warmed bowl of water with sponge in hand. It was an elegant dish, of blue and green tiles. The beauty was utterly lost on the Inquisita, but not on her bardic companion.

Caylia absently twisted a lock of chestnut hair behind one ear and frowned. "I do not believe the Fay-el is in a mood to receive messages, Jaara."

"Perhaps." The desert-brown woman carefully pulled her linka free, and wiped the dirt of the road from her face and throat. She paused, sponge pressed to her collarbone. "Court is in three hours..."

Caylia lifted one graceful eyebrow. "You intend to bring this matter before him in front of all the Lords?"

Jaara shrugged unevenly and frowned. "If he will not hear it in private." She slipped her arm carefully out of its sling and gently patted the wound beneath dry. It had knitted nicely, but it would take some time for the muscles and ligaments beneath to heal completely.

Apparently Caylia was thinking the same thing. "You should check in with the healer before Court."

"No," Jaara said. "It needs rest now, not medicine."

"A Mending could---"

"I'm with child." She'd seen a sister's little die that way, and over a mere slice from a slip while cutting agave at that. It was difficult enough to align the sparks of healer and patient during a Mending. But the slightest misstep with a fragile babe in the womb could end in miscarriage, a stillborn babe, or worse...

Not my babe.

"Yes," Caylia said with a concerned nod. "You are right." She smiled wanly at Jaara's attempt to sponge right handed. Jaara's arm yet lacked ease of movement and the Inquisita was wincing, but she seemed determined to use the injured arm at least while the sling was off. The bard frowned a little. "You should ask the palace healer to give you some exercises to help you regain ease of movement, at least."

"Perhaps later," Jaara said grumpily. She had laid aside the sponge, and looked a little green. A light sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead. "I've other... exercises... to perform, this morning."

Caylia laughed sympathetically and backed away from the Inquisita, who was eyeing her washing bowl and was obviously waiting for the bard to go away. "At least we know your present misery signals future joy."

The Inquisita merely glared, clearly not trusting herself to open her mouth. Her fingers were white-knuckled where they clutched the edge of the table.

Shaking her head, she departed to go play, as promised, for the Fay-el.

Chrys looked far less grumpy now that he'd eaten. He sat enjoying a mug of kolinar as he read through a few scrolls pertaining to business that could easily be handled now, before court actually began. Across from him, his loquiri handled a stack of the scrolls, sifting through them for matters that could be addressed immediately and passing them to a small pile placed before Chrys. The Fay-el laid scrolls and quill aside as Caylia was announced. "Ah, Bard," he said with simple pleasure as she entered.

"My lord," she said in greeting.

“Here to play, or with other concerns?”

She smiled faintly. “Both, my lord.”

“Ah, I see.” Chrys leaned forward slightly. “If it pertains to Ravin, you’ll have to discuss with him. He has made decisions without my knowledge or approval for many years.”

“It pertains to your Inquisita, sire.”

He frowned. “That bloody woman that is demanding I see her?”

Caylia smiled. “Aye.”

“Did she send you now to harass me? I am half afraid she is going to barge into court and blab about Ravin’s blatant disobedience to every Lordling there.”

“She is considering it.”

Chrys winced. “Do try to convince her against it.” He sighed. “Is that what was worrying you?”

“Nay, sire. It is that her wound needs more tending than what she can give herself. She needs a Mend.” Caylia shifted her weight uneasily. “However, she is…is with child, sire.”

Chrys sat back, stunned. Veritas raised an eyebrow. "I... had not taken the Inquisita for the breeding type," the Fay-el said. What he really meant, the bard sensed, was that he had not thought anyone capable of getting close enough to the Inquisita to get her with child, or the Inquisita particularly capable of providing maternal care to an infant.

Caylia smiled dryly. "Well, she was married, sire, and recently."

Nodding thoughtfully, Chrys glanced at his loquiri. "Between Veritas and I, we could probably handle a complicated Mending. But in all honesty, there is here at Rattaca Korr, lately arrived, one who should be able to manage the kind of delicate work the Inquisita requires."

He dug through the scrolls on his desk, but it was Veritas who came up with the one he was looking for. The loquiri passed it to Caylia.

"A Master?" she asked, eyes rapidly scanning the neat scroll on the papyrus.

The royal loquiri nodded. "Aye. Who better to carefully navigate two sparks not his own than a man whose craft it is to weave two souls together?" He smiled. "He is in the room three doors down from the Inquisita. Why don't you and he pay the Inquisita a visit, and you can play for the Fay-el when the task is done?"

With a small bow and a nod, Caylia departed. Chrys muttered something and rummaged through his scrolls, returning to the previous message. Obviously, he had already put the matter of the Inquisita from his mind.

“I really hate how he addresses me in this.”

“Hmm?” Veritas said absently.

“Lord Avern. Either his scribe is messy and only listens half as well as he writes, or Avern wishes to get on my bad favor.”

The royal loquiri turned, eyebrows arching. Chrys shoved the scroll across the table. Veritas picked it up, skimming once. Lord Avern was getting older, and more feeble-minded. He had not used Chrys’ royal title once in the message, and here and there referred to him as “Endry” or “Endry’s heir” depending on the mood and tone of the sentence.

Veritas shook his head. “I’m sure he means no harm.”

Chrys snorted.

Veritas shrugged, and set the message down. “What about the Inquisista?”

“Eh?” Chrys glanced up, confusion on his face. “What about her? The Master will Mend her and all will be well.”

“You should find another Inquisita.”

“Whatever for?”

“She’s pregnant, Chrys. With child. How can she…” Veritas sighed. “She should be at home, preparing for the child’s arrival. Not here, with Guild and politics.”

"This again?" Chrys sighed. "Ver... the woman is highly qualified, and has months yet before the growing babe becomes an encumbrance."

His loquiri looked uncomfortable. "She seemed qualified, yes, and capable as well. But that was before..."

"Before this pregnancy business reminded you that she is a woman?" Chrys snapped. It was an infrequent, but old argument between them. The mothers, daughters and sisters of loquiri were made to bear sons who would become loquiri, not to be loquiri themselves. Not to learn swordplay. Not to learn to defend another. To bear sons. The loquiri tended to assume such was true of all women. But traditions in the Mara were slowly changing, with new generations of strong-willed women branching out from the home. Chrys’s own mother had been one of them. If he ever had a daughter of his own… He smiled a little, thinking of Turina.

"Frankly, yes," Veritas said stubbornly. "I was not unaware of her sex, but at least she'd seemed to have put aside womanly things in the pursuit of her duties as an Inquisita. But now? Her duties as a mother and as an Inquisita are mutually exclusive. Don't you see?"

“No, I do not see. My mother raised me and my sisters, Kyda—even Ravin, with more than just a mother’s caress. You know as well as I that she taught us all our first Fundamentals, while my step-father was working in town. When the rains came late and food was scarce, I remember her returning with food she had killed herself.”

Veritas shrugged. “It is not….normal. A woman should stay at home, cooking and cleaning and—“

“Bearing children?”

“Aye.” He scowled. “Always.”

“To be a Sha?”

Heat rose into Veritas’ face. “Not exactly.”

Chrys rolled his eyes. “If and when the babe becomes an encumbrance, than I will replace her. But in the meantime, she remains my Inquisita. So far she has proven valuable, woman or not.”

Veritas frowned, but let it drop. Once Chrys made a firm decision, the loquiri knew better than to try pushing him farther.

< >

The palace healer offered a professional smile and shook his head to the sound of relieved sighs from Caylia and Jaara. "No, there is no need for me to cleanse this anew before the Mending. It appears to have been properly tended." He helped Jaara slip her arm back into the sleeve of her tunic and nodded to Caylia. "You may tell the Master that I have completed my examination and he may come in now."

The bard nodded, giving Jaara a brief reassuring glance. The Inquisita did not look as though she needed comfort. Caylia threw the bolt to the door, and admitted the loquiri.

He entered slowly, surveying the room as he walked. He was a young man for a Master, little older than Veritas. Either he’d been pair-linked to an elderly man, or his Match had probably died naturally of illness, for him to be so young.

He nodded at the healer in greeting, then smiled gently at Jaara. She did not smile back, but that did not seem to bother him. "I hear you injured yourself on your way to Ratacca Korr. But never fear, I shall put you to rights again." He patted her hand in a kindly way and she scowled at the tone of his voice. He did not seem to notice her annoyance as he turned from her to the healer. "So, what do we have here?"

"The woman is twenty-five years of age and is approximately one month along with child. She sustained a stab wound to the shoulder some weeks ago, but has refused Mending until now. It should be noted that the woman is Gifted."

"It should also be noted that the woman's name is Jaara," Caylia said dryly.

They ignored her. "A stab wound?" the loquiri asked, raising an eyebrow at the woman scowling up at him from the bed.

"Indeed," the healer said. "I will be monitoring the procedure," he continued, voice broking no argument. "However, before you begin, is there anything you require?"

The loquiri looked at Jaara consideringly. "Somna. I will need her Gift as still as possible while I work."

"I've work to see to once this is done," Jaara said crossly. "I cannot be sleeping the day away..."

Caylia rolled her eyes. "You rode for a full day and night. You need the rest as much as any of us. Hamen is already asleep." Besides, our lord Chrys does not want you interrupting his court, she finished silently with a private smile. It would be easier than she thought to keep Jaara away from the irritated Fay-el.

"It is no matter," the loquiri said, waving away Jaara's concerns. "This Mending will not be performed without the somna."

"Oh, very well," Jaara grumbled. Caylia raised an eyebrow. The Inquisita must have been more exhausted than she'd thought, to give in so easily.

Jaara took the sedative with little complaint. The loquiri and healer, both carefully watching her Gift wane, exchanged a nod as Jaara's eyelids fluttered, then closed. A moment later the healer nodded. "The babe is calm as well. You may begin."

For a Master, who regularly bound loquiri and Match together, the Mend was a difficult one, but not unfamiliar. He held his Gift in rigid control, using it precisely as he wished to slowly form the pattern and gently separate the babe’s spark from the mother’s.

It took more time than he would have liked because the babe’s spark seemed to cling to his lightly. He had suspicions, borne of many years; a skilled Sha would do that, supplying a loquiri with a weak pair-link during their time together. But the child may just have had an unusual bent. The loquiri pushed the distraction aside. For now, he worked with more concentration, until he was satisfied that all was well.

Then, carefully, he laid the pattern across her. Jaara shivered slightly, and then was still. The Master stepped back, releasing his Gift. “There. She has been Mended. I suspect she will need another, perhaps, but if she does not, it will still heal faster than it was.” He glanced at the bard, smiling at her. “Are you a close friend of Jaara?”

Caylia smiled back. “A traveling companion, but yes, I would consider us friends as well.”

The loquiri nodded. “I would try to keep Jaara abed, if you can. It would not do to harm the daughter by pursuing the duties of an Inquisita to their utmost.”

"Daughter?" Caylia asked, a small smile lighting her face.

The loquiri smiled as well. "Aye. Will she be pleased?"

"I know not, but I cannot imagine why she would not be."

The Master nodded, but it was clear from the distant look in his eyes that his mind was already elsewhere. "The father of the babe..." He hesitated. Such arrangements as he was imagining in his mind were uncommon, and not entirely approved of within loquiri communities or without. But when the Match was female and the loquiri male... sometimes these things happened despite tradition.

"Was the father a loquiri?"

Caylia nodded. "Yes. They were husband and wife, as well as loquiri and Match." She glanced down at Jaara again and smiled. "And apparently mother and father to a little daughter as well."

"Were?"

"He was killed. She earned the wound in her shoulder pursuing and claiming blood-debt against his murderers."

“Ah. That is unfortunate.” He shook his head. “Although, a woman should not pursue such things. Had she no male kin?”

Caylia frowned slightly. “He was her husband, and her loquiri. And Jaara is capable of besting any murderer. I think it fitting that she claimed the blood-debt.”

The loquiri sighed, but did not correct her. He rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. “Just see that she sleeps and takes her rest if she can. Any child is precious, but a loquiri-born one even more so.” He stepped back. “And now to speak with our Fay-el. Good day,” he nodded his head.

The bard dipped her head in absent greeting, already with her mind and eyes on Jaara’s sleeping form. The Master Lyrin left her there and crossed to the Fay-el’s court, waiting patiently until there were no Lords remaining, and only a sour Chrys and tired Veritas.

"Master Lyrin," Veritas said by way of greeting at last, as he walked down the steps of the dais to the other loquiri's side. "Shall we retire to the Fay-el's personal chambers?"

"Indeed, my lord," Master Lyrin agreed, frowning around the nearly empty throne room. "The matter we have to discuss is best pursued privately."

The Fay-el rose from his throne and stretched, half groaning and half mumbling his general displeasure at the long court session. Then he smiled at the Master. "I noticed my infernal Inquisita did not make an appearance in court after all. I suppose I have you to thank for that?"

"Yes, Sire," the Master said, looking questioningly at the royal loquiri, who merely rolled his eyes as the trio stepped past door and the guards into the hallway beyond. "Between the Mending and the heavy dose of somna I gave her to quiet her Gift, she should be asleep for hours."

Veritas winced at the mentioning of the drug. Chrys scowled. "Somna? I did not wish my Inquisita to be impaired."

“To Mend safely, with the babe, it was necessary to keep her Gift and that of the child steady.” Lyrin shrugged. “As it were, she should not be your Inquisita at all, my lord. Not when she is with child.”

Chrys scowled. “Not this again. I am certainly allowed to choose who I will to be my Inquisita, be they woman or man. If they do the task well, what they are makes no difference to me.”

They passed into the royal chambers, Lyrin holding his peace until then, before sighing, “Fay-el, you cannot choose a man to bear a child, nor a woman to be a guard. There are roles a woman fulfils, and roles a man fulfils. None can do both.”

“I believe they can,” Chrys snapped. Behind him at his shoulder, Veritas shook his head at Lyrin. Chrys was obviously not in the mood to discuss this matter.

The Master let it drop. “I did not come to argue with you, sire. I had other business to consider. For one, your loquiri has not been to a Sha in well over a year.

“And will not for another.”

Veritas glanced at the Fay-el and then returned his attention to Lyrin. The Master shrugged. “He does not seem to agree.”

Chrys flicked Veritas an annoyed glance. “My mother bore a child of a man she did not know, and who did not care. Is it wrong that I wish to prevent you from being an Endry?”

“Not if I wish it. We need children, Chrys. The Guild continues to kill us, kidnap the young, and paint our kind as foul aberrations. You know that.”

The Fay-el scowled. He gave Lyrin a frustrated glare. “Fine. He and I will discuss the possibility. What else did you want?” The last of his words grated sharply, barely hiding the anger.

“There is a man, whom Veritas has written to me of, whose bent is toward light and fire. He is un-Matched, if I understand the notes correctly.”

Chrys nodded. Lyrin continued. “I brought a few men with me, whose bents are close to that. If the man could be placed in my care, I will present him to these Seekers and see if any Match with him. Where would he be?”

Veritast interrupted. “They must also have much forgiveness. That is…that what he was, that it would not…”

Lyrin smiled. “The men I selected are prepared for a loquiri who is unsure.”

“No—it’s not that simple.” Veritas frowned. “Andros is….he is different than any other because…”

The arrival of the man in question, eyes wide and searching for Chrys, cut him off. “Sire? You are well?”

Chrys groaned audibly. "Andros..."

"Sire?"

"No no," the Fay-el snapped, waving one hand absently. "I am well."

The Guildsman was glaring at Veritas too intensely for a moment to notice the Master standing in front of him. But after a moment he turned, and his eyebrows rose nearly into his hair before his expression darkened terribly. "Oh," he gasped, backing away and shaking his head vehemently. "Oh no. My lord... Sire, you didn't!"

The Master was staring at the Guildsman in distaste, taking in his slender form, his aquiline features and---perceptively---the eye tattoo upon the inner side of his wrist. "A Guild loquiri?" he said incredulously, and began to chuckle dryly.

Andros blanched and spun on his heel, dashing toward the door. Veritas moved in pursuit, just beating the panicked man. He grabbed Andros’ shoulders and, when the Guildsman began to fight back—kicking and cursing—wrapped arms around his waist and dragged him across the floor to the Master.

Veritas shoved him to the floor and held him there, sitting at Lyrin’s feet. When the Master seized the Gift and reached for him, Andros twisted again.

“Easy, easy now.” Lyrin crouched down to Andros’ level. “I won’t hurt you.”

Andros shivered. “You promised….” he said softly. “Promised me.”

“I promised that I would not force you to the loquiri school. That is all I said,” Chrys snapped. “You cannot live un-Matched.”

“I—I can’t. You can’t have me…” He swallowed hard. “The G-Guild will kill everyone. If I am Matched they….th-they will.”

“All the men I brought are from Apollar or Settar. The Guild branch here, in Crossroads, will not know,” the Master said softly.

“Men?!” Andros jerked against Veritas, who shoved him down again, much firmer this time.

The Guildsman winced and cringed as the Master cupped his chin and brought his gaze up. “I promise not to Bond you against your will. Or to force you to come back with me. If you will promise me, by the Gift in your veins, to allow these men to see you. To be presented to them. Agreed?”

Andros swallowed. Lyrin smiled. “Yes? Agreed?”

“Aye,” he whispered.

Lyrin nodded. "Let him up," he told Veritas.

Veritas rolled back on his heels, releasing Andros at once. As expected, the Guildsman jerked his arms up, breaking Veritas's hold even as the royal loquiri let go of him. It was more a matter of pride than necessity. "Do not ever touch me again," he snarled, both at Veritas for pinning him, and the Master for having probed him with the Gift.

He rose slowly to his feet. One hip was sore where it had connected solidly with the floor when Veritas had knocked him down, and one shoulder felt nearly wrenched from the socket from the firm grip the royal loquiri had used to pin him.

"Come with me, now," Lyrin said gently. He bowed his farewell to the Fay-el and royal loquiri, then led Andros quietly away. "You are much more fortunate than most loquiri," the Master explained with a quirk of his lips. "Usually it is one potential Match who comes to survey several loquiri, and not a loquiri who has his choice of several potential Matches."

"You can hardly expect me to feel honored, Half-Soul," Andros snapped.

Lyrin ignored the insult, and indeed seemed to have failed to hear it. "There are two and ten men with me," the Master continued calmly. "Seven of them are of Apollar and five from Settar. Most are young---under thirty, and one barely eighteen---but two are older, one in his fifties, the other nearly in his sixties. Four among them are noblemen, and two are highly Gifted."

"And how are their teeth?" Andros sneered. "You present them to me as though attempting to sell me a horse, or a Derk-ra!"

"Their teeth are in excellent condition," Master Lyrin responded smoothly, and with infinite patience.

“Perhaps you are trying to sell me—as if a prize pig at the market.”

Lyrin glanced at him over his shoulder. “You are hardly a prize.”

The Guildsman’s eyebrows arched in abject surprise. “I am Gifted, of a line of high Gifted. With all the training and knowledge that the Guild has given me.”

Lyrin shook his head. “The same training that has suppressed your loquiri instincts?”

Andros gaped at him, struck speechless. Lyrin smiled. Probably speechless for the first time in his life. He stepped into the rooms prepared for him, checking to ensure the Guildsman was still following.

Two of the men he had brought were already there. They gave Andros a curious look. He cowered, backing into the wall. Lyrin sighed. “Don’t fight your desires,” he said softly.

The Guildsman dropped his head. “It’s wrong,” he whispered. “Wrong that I feel…that I want…”

Lyrin forced his head up, holding his gaze. “There is nothing wrong. No matter what the Guild has said—no,” he cut off Andros’ protest. “What the Guild teaches is a lie, and is harming you now more than anything else.”

He shivered. Lyrin grabbed his shoulders and firmly guided him into the middle of the room. “Sit.”

Andros obeyed, but sat tense and stiff. One of the two stepped closer, glancing at Andros before returning his attention to the Master. “This is the one you mentioned?”

“Aye.”

With a smile, the nobleman bent down and caught his wrist, turning it palm up. Andros flinched and pulled away, but the nobleman was stronger. “Ah, I see why he is afraid. It is a wonder you survived, my friend.” He tipped Andros’ chin up. “Do you have a name?”

“A-Andros.” He dropped his head again.

The nobleman smiled. “There is nothing to fear from us.” He glanced at Lyrin. “Not enough. I don’t completely Match.”

“Aye, I know. His instincts would take over if you did.”

Andros inched away from him. The nobleman rested fingers against his shoulder. “No one will hurt you here.” He straightened. “I will send the others.”

Lyrin nodded.

Andros had to endure the parade of another nine potential---but ultimately failed---Matches before his chair before one sang true in his blood. He shivered. The Apollar youth standing before him scowled.

"A Guildsman?" he demanded, addressing Lyrin rather than Andros himself.

The Guildsman in question did not know whether to shrink away from this man---no, this boy, barely eighteen!---or snap at him. He did neither, leaning slightly toward the youth. Behind him, Lyrin nodded. His hands rested lightly on Andros' shoulders, comforting and infuriating at once.

The boy sighed. "We Match. Perfectly." He did not look pleased about the fact. But then his dirt-brown eyes narrowed consideringly at the man sitting in the chair. "It could be useful, having my own Guildsman..."

Andros's lip curled. "I will not feed you Guild secrets, you whelp of a lordling."

The boy stepped closer. "Oh, you won't?" he said softly.

Andros shivered, and his eyelids drooped a little as contentment washed over him. After days, nay months, no years of feeling half a person, the sudden relief was as exhausting as a mug of valla, or a Mending. Still, he found the energy to glare. "I have a... a choice."

“You do have a choice,” he said. “But can you make it? Unlikely.” The boy rested a hand against his arm, tracing the tattooed eye lightly with one finger.

Andros shuddered. He wanted to jerk his hand away and stop the uncanny sensations flooding through him, and yet he wanted to move closer and keep the boy’s touch on his skin. So strange, to feel as though for the first time in his life he was complete, and all because this arrogant stranger simply stood nearby. Even when being near Chrys, he did not feel so completely… himself.

The lordling chuckled. The Master’s hands shifted. Andros knew he had stepped back, and couldn’t decide whether he was relieved or disappointed.

“You are allowing your feelings and plans to get in the way,” Lyrin told the lordling quietly. “He is a loquiri. Desperate to please you and fulfill his needs. Not a tool to be used for your purpose. Did you enjoy being used by your father?”

“That is true.” The boy pulled his hand away.

Andros groaned softly. Heat rose into his face and he dropped his head to study the ground. And the lordling tipped his chin up. “No. Do not be ashamed. You cannot help it.”

They were eye-to-eye. Andros searched his face. Buried deep, but there the same, was a compassion, an understanding.

The boy smiled slowly.

It took every scrap of will that he had to voice the words. Even he was not sure, however, that it was the small concession that made it so difficult, or his decision not to accept on the spot. "I---I will think on it."

The youngster nodded, releasing Andros's chin. "Good. For now, that is all I ask. My name is Atjeh na Harad lo Kinyth. When you make your decision, send word."

The Guildsman nodded slightly. As the boy stepped back, and Andros’ desire spiked, he closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists. He felt physically unwell, and although in truth it was no different than the way he’d felt when he’d first entered the room, now that he knew what it was like to be complete, the lack was infinitely more tangible.

The door clicked.

Lyrin patted his shoulder absently. “I would say you should not see anyone else today.”

Andros sighed. “Aye. No more.”

The Master chuckled. “He sleeps four doors down. Though I doubt I need to tell you.”

Andros stiffened and twisted to glare at him. “I am not like some common…I do not sneak in the night. What I say is true. I will think of it, that is all.”

Lyrin smiled and patted his head as if he were a much younger man. “Two days, at the most. Once the link is active, it is much stronger than you think.”

Andros glowered. He could last two days.

It did not even penetrate that he had not considered lasting forever.
“Hamen? You're alive!” Caylia laughed, more relieved and happy to see the derk-ra trainer than she realized. She felt the robed figure with the ever present leashed companion grin. Jaara and Ravin she had seen but not her fellow steady level headed companion from the road.

“Yes but, Kyda, I'm glad I'm back. Did you know I had both Jaara...”

“And Ravin, I know. I ran into the border guard. Windrunner, I thought about you. I cannot lose my only sane companion it feels like.”

He leaned against his staff. “It was a long trip back,” he said slowly and distinctly. “A very long trip.”

She wrinkled her nose in sympathy. “At least you got Gyas.”

“So you heard. Ah I should have expected it.” She chuckled and he shook his head. “I even slept and I'm still tired thinking about it. Where is Jaara?”

“Sleeping,” Caylia responded and she saw her own thankful look in his eyes. “She received a Mending and somna so she'll be resting for several hours at least. I have a feeling she may not be happy when she wakes. The healer said she should rest more but his reasonings were a little more foolish than anything. I do not plan on passing those on.”

“Aye, she was a strength on our journey and not that she shouldn't rest, it's just...” he paused and sighed. “We just have to remind her of it more often than not. I hope her child is just like her.”

She chuckled. “Come, lets take tea and you need to tell me about the trip. It's the ending to all of this and I cannot finish my triad without it. Especially as the piece transitions from a mouth harp to a sitar.”

Over steaming cups of honey water and orange peel Hamen related the last details of their trip, patiently answering the bard's questions as they came. Finally, she drummed her fingers against the porcelain and sighed. A relatively anti-climatic end to a very good tale. She frowned. It could even ruin it if she didn't choose her words carefully and create the right atmosphere. “That's it then.”

“That's it. For the moment at least.” He stretched and Maheen hissed and he fed her a scrap from the table. She quirked a brow at him and he nodded. “Yes I've got something on my mind.” His eyes wandered to Maheen and out the window.

“Those derk-ra?”

“Aye.”

“The white ones?”

“Of course. I need a closer look at them.”

“Because of their color?”

His face darkened, pulling at shadows from his hood. “In part. I have an idea but I want to get a closer look. I don't have a good feeling about them.” Abruptly he stood from the cushions, pushing away from the low table. “Don't worry, I'll share once I let them know I'm here.”

~*~


True to her word, early evening found her again playing for Chrys. She was playing a Settar flute, made in the mountainous portions of the region where the other arm of the Rim reached down from the North. There, legend had it that the old man of the mountains would capture the wind that blew through the valleys and steep slopes and store them in the wood of the scraggle pines. When harvested and carved the sound they made was low and deep and haunting, whispering of the secrets of the Rim. She took the melody there, lifting it high as she spun it up the slopes, weaving in and out of the peaks, and sliding lower along meltwater streams as if following the path of a bird. Then down, dropping through a pass and out toward the sea. As the last notes trailed off with the edge of sea foam, she let it drop from her lips along with his name.

"Fay-el?" His eyes opened, met hers, and he nodded for her to continue. "If I may," she paused. What she was asking for could be tender, and she changed the pitch of her voice, finding something a little gentler, "earlier I mentioned I was doing some research, actually a part of my triad, and I wanted to know a little about Elam's mother." While it wasn't a complete lie, her triad did need some information for the academic discussion portion, curiosity drove her just as much.

The pain was there, faint, but it washed across his face. “Karli, my—“ he swallowed. “My sister.”

Caylia nodded. He took a deep breath and stood, walking slowly across the room and to his desk. He pushed at the pile of scrolls absently, before responding. “What do you want to know? How she looked, or how she and Jin became betrothed, or how she….” His voice caught. “…died,” he finished softly.

She had always been empathetic, it was one of things that made her what she was, but even without her empathy it would be impossible to ignore the sorrow. It had been worse with Jin, and she had been hoping to avoid it by coming to Chrys. It seems as if he was closer to his sister than I thought. I have been a fool. Not enough of a fool not to hear about the death from the servants as she sat one evening by the fire eating flatbreads and cheese. Childbirth, they had whispered, lots of blood. Too young, too young. Instead she asked gently, “how did she come to leave the Mara? For I have heard Elam wasn't born here.”

He sat down again, hesitant for a moment, before explaining carefully. “Jin and Corin’s father was working for a Dray-Mara alliance. Had been for many years. He spoke to Endry some, but my blood-father…” he glanced at Caylia, a small smile twitching. “He was not known for diplomacy. It is him who gave me my temper.” The bard nodded, but did not interrupt. Chrys glanced away. “When I became Fay-el, their father brought Corin and Jin to be presented to me. And began the talks again. I agreed to sponsor Jin through the bardic school, and he agreed to betroth and marry Jin to my younger half-sister. Karli.”

He closed his eyes. “It was done with agreement on both sides. Four months before Jin was to return and escort her to his tribe, she left the Mara early.” Chrys sighed. “She was always strong-willed. Karli arrived safely, but Jin was absent from Shinar and most of the tribesmen. Hybrids attacked. Corin was killed and she taken….Dameon released her four months later when the….when the child could be seen.”

She swallowed. She had known the child was hybrid but not the rest. Interesting story but tragic. “Fay-el,” she began looking for words that would be perhaps more diplomatic but stopped and simply spoke. “I am sorry. Truly I am. Does Elam know any of this?”

“No, he does not.” Chrys shrugged. “He knows that his mother was Mara, and thus he should look different than his playmates. But he has never seen a Mara, save Keeper drawings, until now. He will figure it out on his own, I suspect, and very soon.”

"That could be interesting," she said a little sadly and without her usual enthusiasm. She hesitated. What was she like, I wonder? An answer from one person would be different from an answer from another. That one she would save. "The wetter lands outside the Mara seem to have brought much heartache to it, it seems, over these past years," Caylia commented, beginning to rise. "Thank you Fay-el, that is all for now. And," she paused, “so you know. When I do record the things you tell me, I do realize how important the words are to you and see they will be treated well. I will leave you in peace if you have nothing else for me.”

“Thank you, bard. I have nothing else for you, at the moment.” Chrys shifted slightly. “And do not hesitate, for your research, to ask more questions. It is…difficult for me, but her memory should not be lost or forgotten because I cannot speak.”

She smiled and dipped her head. "Of course not. It is wise you understand that. If I need more and if it fits I'll return. I can even write something separate from my triad, an aside perhaps." She cut her musings short and said farewell.

Wandering through twisting corridors, thoughts, words, feelings flew through her mind, and twitched on her fingers. Should she write a proper aside to the triad? No, a sixth sense told her, that's another story. Where do you find them, Caylia, your stories? Some are my own, some just come to me. She paused in her own memories. Or some I follow she added wryly. Jaara, even now, was still resting in her room at Ratacca Korr. It would do the woman wonders for certain.

She found herself outdoors now, the sun was low in the sky, spreading a pleasant coolness through the air. As a habit, she began composing finding the notes as they came to her, stringing them together, and reached for her harp slung over her shoulder. Her fingers touched the leather strap, but paused as her eyes found something new. A woman on a bench among the gardenias. Even with her face in her hands she realized suddenly that she knew her.

Close up she could see the marks of nobility, so unapparent in the desert travel garb. The pale skin, slender figure, delicate fingers. Not for the first time she wondered what she had been doing riding with Jaara.

“My lady, are you well?”

Her head came up and her fingers dropped. “I am tired of people planning my life for me. I am tired of people telling me what I should and should not know! Should and should not do! Can I not trust anyone?!” Caylia blinked, surprised. People easily spoke to her but sudden explosions weren't quite so common. The girl saw Caylia's startled look and tried to regain her composure. “I...I apologize.”

“No, it's alright,” Caylia soothed. “It needs to come out sometime.” She cocked her head. “I saw you before, riding out with Jaara, if you don't mind, who are you?”

A slight smile brushed her features. “My name is Kharme,” she responded in a cultured voice. “And yes, I was riding with Jaara. Until recently.”

“She stopped you?”

“We...we finished our task. However I left the group early.” Her fists tightened at her side. “I had other matters to attend to. Specifically matters that had to do with me that no one told me about!” Her voice had risen and she turned her eyes on the bard. “First my father forces me into an arranged marriage, to a member of the Guild! I had my suspicions the Duke was a Guild member, my father was. How he could do that...” she trailed off and her lips tightened and she sighed. “I suppose by now this shouldn't surprise me. People seem to enjoy lying to me.”

Caylia appraised her for a moment. The woman had seen more summers than she had and acted as if she had seen many less. Arranged marriages among the nobility were the norm, especially where bloodlines were concerned. Preserving and keeping the best blood had always been a common practice, but more recently, in terms of history, and the hold on position become so prominent. Many women knew arranged marriages were likely. However even more recently more women had had a choice.

“Excuse me, Kharme, but arranged marriage among your class...”

“Is common, I know,” she said with a wave of her hand. “But to a cruel man is...”

Also common However Caylia kept her thoughts to herself.

“It's not only that,” she continued, “its the lies and the ignorance. No one even told me that I have the Gift,” she added bitterly.

“You didn't know?” And I did not know it was anyone's place to tell her. Windrunner does the woman have no curiosity or try to do things for herself?. She paused. No she was being unfair. As a bard, especially a bard of Settar, she was independent, free, unhampered by such ties as Kharme. It was, she had always felt, one of the greatest benefits of what she was. Even if she accepted a commission, she would still have a degree of freedom that the noble woman wouldn't. It wouldn't be in Kharme's nature to even think of such things if she had had a very strict upbringing. She frowned suddenly. If that is the case, then how is she here?

“Is your father in court?”

She shook her head and her jaw grew stubborn. “No. I left before I could be married to such a man.” Caylia raised her brows. “A runaway then. Perhaps she had not given the woman enough credit. But then the other's face fell and she shook herself. “But I do not know how long I may stay out of his grasp.”

“Whose?”

“My father. I fear the Fay-el may send me back.”

That almost surprised a laugh out of her. “My lady, may I?” she asked, gesturing to an empty spot on the bench. Kharme nodded and she sat. “The Fay-el is the Fay-el but we are still Marans. The desert runs in our veins and we have our own degree of freedom, the Fay-el does not hold absolute crushing rule. Besides, you have helped in the investigation of the Guild and his kinsman's son, he will not order you anywhere. You don't need to fear him.”

She swallowed and looked off into the distance. “Then what do I do and where do I go?”

Here, there, everywhere. She wanted to respond. To the Valley of the Gods, and the place known as the Needles. To the parts of the desert that filled with nothing but pillars of stone, and those that are nothing but sand. To where the first Fay-el was born and the legend of clouded man was born by the ancient peoples. Everywhere... “Lady,” she said at last, giving her other words over to the silence, “I am going to speak frankly. Moping in the garden hasn't helped you. You may have been wronged in the past. People may have with held information that you feel you should have known, but so far wailing about it in the garden has only watered the flowers. I fail to see how any of this is helping you nor why you should deserve to know.” She opened her mouth to retort but Caylia held up a hand. “I am trying to tell you lady, to let it go. Getting angry about the past is not helping you, even if you find it righteous. I don't mean to be cruel but...you are in a very different world now, and you are now responsible for yourself.”

She was silent, for moment jaw working, then turned to the bard. “I know, I am not a child any longer. But I need to start somewhere. I know nothing of the Gift. It was hidden for me,” there was a ironic twist to her smile, “as I've been told with good reason.” She looked at the other, appraising. “Could you help me?

“With the gift?” Caylia smiled and shook her head. “Unfortunately the Gift is not my specialty. I have read about it enough but couldn't instruct you very well. The Gift appears to different people in different ways. For me, being a bard, I see it as music. Other bards more than likely see it similarly, but may manipulate it differently or use it differently than I. I have a stone cutter friend who is very weakly gifted and he sees the Gift as a pattern. Others see light, or the sun, or the ocean or even something that they can fashion into tools or weapons. I don't know how you would use it, or how you seize it. I don't think I would be the best person to help you.”

When her own Gift had first flowered her natural empathy had blended with finding the new chords and rhythm with surprising ease and was as natural to her as harping. It was so much like playing any other instrument so she researched, taught herself rather than seeking out help. If I did at the time, then people might have claimed I had no actual talent with my harp or my flutes, or the ways stories find their way to my fingers She eased uncomfortably out of another memory, long before her Gift had come and to the woman again. “Ratacca Korr is filled has many people rattling around in amongst its stone. Perhaps you should seek someone out. It's better than sitting in the gardens and untrained Gift lies somewhere between useless and dangerous and maybe once it is trained you can find a purpose, a new life here in Crossroads. Perhaps even a marriage that is not arranged.” She said the last with friendly amusement and a small smile flashed for an instant on the others lips.

“Aye. I left my father and came here.” Her back was straightening. “I can do this too.”
The ride back to Crossroads was, to Jin's vast relief, moderately less tense than the journey to the loquiri community had been. Naftis and Elam were fully focused on one another. The loquiri was carefully teaching the boy how to separate his own emotions and sensations from Naftis's.

It was a difficult process; Elam was a little boy, and a full two years younger than was typical for a Match. He simply did not possess the kind of emotional literacy that, say, a girl of his age or a child two or three years older would have had.

Naftis found himself not only having to explain that, "yes, that is my insecurity you are sensing, Elam," but also that "it is not fear, precisely, but a sort of nervous hyper-awareness borne of the newness of the bond. Like when you cut your finger, and later have the bandage removed. The skin below is whole, but new and sensitive, and so you are much more aware of it than you would be if it were not so new or sensitive. Do you understand?"

Kor watched that part of the child's education with curiosity. Much of it was silent, yes, but occasionally Naftis or Elam voiced their thoughts out loud. The Hybrid got the distinct impression that the man and boy were not yet as adept at silent communication as the royal loquiri and Maran Fay-el, as evidenced by snippets of their intriguing discussion of emotions and the identification thereof.

Although a sense of unease and disgust nearly strong enough to bring tears to his eyes still sat in Kor's belly over the whole affair, even he could admit that this was all very interesting. He wondered if perhaps it was possible to sense physical sensations in another with the same kind of precision, such as when he'd sensed pain in Jin's shoulder. Was it possible to detect more subtle indicators of a person's physical condition?

Jin, for his part, was very quiet on the ride back. Although the Hybrid did not like the retelling, he had dutifully explained the Bonding to Jin from a Gifted point-of-view, and could tell that Jin was troubled. Yet the Fay-el, thus far, had not felt inclined to share his concerns with his Second, perhaps due to the nearness of Naftis and Elam, perhaps due to the Hybrid's own explosive personality when it came to this matter, and perhaps for reasons entirely his own.

When at last they arrived in the shadow of Crossroads, they split apart with some relief. Elam and Naftis disappeared to find the privacy required for the loquiri to teach his Match the Gift. Jin simply wanted to nap, but Kor was not sure it was a good idea for the Fay-el to wallow in dark thoughts.

"I would like to find Lord Veritas," Kor said quietly to Jin, "and ask him some questions about my Gift. Perhaps... you should come as well? It would benefit you, I think, to learn more of what I am capable of, don't you think?"

“I am quite…tired of the Gift at this point, Kor.”

“But not of me, surely?” Kor grinned.

Jin gave him a sideways look. “Must I answer that?”

The Second laughed. “You’ll get used to me. One day, you might even miss my company.”

“I doubt it.”

The Hybrid chuckled lightly. “Be that as it may, you should come with me. I’d rather you not stay here.”

“I am perfectly safe in the day, Kor.”

“I know.”

“I need to rest. It has been a long, weary journey.”

“Ah, but you won’t.” Jin scowled at him, but Kor only shrugged. “You’ll just lay there and worry. Just come with me instead. At least you’ll be doing something.”

“I don’t want to be anywhere near the Gift, or its use.”

The Second gave him a long-suffering sigh. “Fine. What about Chrys? You are still angry at him, yes?”

Jin looked away. “Aye. Somewhat.”

“So…why don’t you spar with him? Give you a reason to hit him, without Veritas taking your head off.”

A slow smile quirked the edge of the Fay-el’s mouth. “I think I would like that.”



They made their way to Ratacca Korr. It was late afternoon and had been a short day for state business; court had ended perhaps an hour or two earlier. Escorted by a page, the Fay-el and his Second were led to Chry's chambers, passing along the way through the wing of the palace set aside for high ranking royal servants and visiting nobility. One doorway was open, revealing Caylia sitting on a chair tuning her harp idly, and beyond, a rather impatient looking Jaara sitting at a small writing desk, drafting a letter in a neat script.

Caylia flushed prettily and rose to her feet as the visitors came into view. "Fay-el!"

Jin grinned, leaning in the doorway. "Ah, what did I say about using my title, Caylia?" he teased. He nodded to the harp. "This is it, then?"

She smiled, hand running down the arc of the instrument. "Indeed. Have you come to hear me play?" she asked hopefully.

He raised an eyebrow. "Will you be gracing the High Fay-el's hall this eve? If so, then I would love to listen, but for now I must seek out my kinsman." His gaze darkened. "We have some unfinished business."

"That can only be resolved by beating on one another," Kor said cheerfully.

Jaara rose to her feet. The Hybrid raised an eyebrow at the woman's long tunic and trews, black on black. They were perfectly cut and made of the finest materials, but although they flattered her form, they were not a woman's clothing. "You are going to see the Fay-el, my lord?" she said. It was barely a question.

"Yes," Jin said, looking at her curiously.

"I see you have put aside your sling," Kor said in simple pleasure. Perhaps the wound was not as severe as it had seemed when he'd seen it, or mayhap it'd been Mended.

She did not even grace his lowly Hybrid presence with a glance. Instead, she reached back and snatched the letter off of her writing desk and began folding it crisply. "Will you deliver this missive to his majesty for me, my lord?" She handed it to Jin, and then scowled briefly at the bard, who regarded her with wide-eyed innocence. "He will not see me, and Caylia seems intent upon keeping me confined to my chambers."

Jin nodded, tucking the letter away. “Aye, I will give it to him. I can ensure he will see me.”

Jaara arched a brow lightly, but said nothing. Caylia smiled. “Your kinsman should be in a good mood. I played for him earlier.”

When his eyes turned to the bard, Jin’s expression softened slightly. “You must have much patience.”

She smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Pardon,” Kor said, “But if I may—have either of you seen Lord Veritas? Is he with the High Fay-el?”

Jaara snorted and turned away, stalking out of sight. Caylia glanced after her with a frown and a sigh, before returning her gaze to the Hybrid. “Lord Veritas was with him earlier, but I know not if he still is.”

They said their goodbyes, Jin and Caylia speaking a little longer than was strictly proper. Then they made their way through the halls of the palace, into the royal wing. Guards stopped them at Chrys's door, recognized Jin a moment later, and opened the door to announce him.

Chrys, apparently of a mind with Jin, was dressing for the practice ring. His face fell when he spotted Jin and Kor. "Oh, bloody Star," he sighed.

Jin grinned stiffly. Beside him, Kor smirked. "I, at least, am here to speak with Lord Veritas. Where might I find him, and do you think he would be able to spare time to speak with me?"

Chrys cocked his head slightly and regarded Kor. "I cannot fathom... oh, your Gift." He waved a hand idly. "He is around. Check with Master Lyrin."

"Master?" Kor said darkly.

Chrys looked confused. Jin cleared his throat. "Perhaps Kor can remain here until Veritas is free of his present engagement?" He looked Chrys from head to foot. The High Fay-el's scowl only deepened. "I've a mind to spar, myself. Are you willing?"

Chrys grinned fiercely. "Oh, aye. You need a good beating, and I'm keen on giving it to you." He jabbed his thumb at the table in his reception room. "Sit there. The guards will keep you company until Veritas arrives."

The guards in question did not look particularly excited at the prospect.

< >

Jin had not sparred with Chrys in many years, but things had not changed. The Maran Fay-el led him to a lower level of Ratacca Korr, where Border Guards on relief, royal guards, and the occasional soldier practiced and sparred in the wide space.

Few Lords would deign to practice in sight of those beneath them. But Chrys did, one of the few of Endry’s practices he maintained. Whether he lost or won, his men gained camaraderie with him, a mutual respect.

Especially when he stripped to the waist and stalked into the center of the circle etched into the stone. Derk-ra had mauled him badly during the first few years of his reign. The white scars were vivid against his dark skin, and a stark reminder that he had survived against them---a pair of nesting Derk-ra.

Chrys stepped lithely back, resting his heel at the edge of the circle, and drew his janin, shifting easily into Dragon’s Fang. “Ready, kinsman?”

"Oh, aye," Jin grinned, his own janin arcing up behind him to mirror Chrys's stance.

The High Fay-el was stronger, faster and more experienced than his younger kinsman, and had the benefit of years under a loquiri's tutelage. Jin, while hardly unskilled, was simply not as strong a fighter, but that did not prevent their spar from being a good workout for them both.

Chrys worked through the paces, using the stances and Fundamentals to warm and stretch his muscles and to gently train his younger kinsman. Jin, on the other hand, pitted his own arsenal of abilities against Chrys, using the older man as a whetstone against which to sharpen his own skills.

At last they both came to a stop, breathing hard, weapons hanging at their sides. A small crowd of noblemen had gathered to watch. Chrys led Jin to the side, wiping sweat from his forehead, and passed Jin a waterskin. "So why did you really come here?"

Jin quirked an eyebrow. "To spar, Chrys. Obviously."

"Obviously." Chrys's lip curled slightly. "You could have sparred in your own camp. You've many fine warriors in your own tribe, not to mention a new Second to try your skills against..."

“My Second wished to speak with your loquiri.”

“And Terran was indisposed?” The Maran Fay-el responded, lip twisted into a sneer. “I doubt it. Why are you here?”

Jin clenched his teeth slightly. “I want to spar with you.”

“Me? Why? You know I’ll simply best you again and again. At least with your own men, you could win sometimes.”

“You have a loquiri who has trained you. It is not a fair fight.”

Chrys waved a hand. “Don’t make excuses. I would still defeat you.”

“If I were as old as you, and had a loquiri of my own, then I could beat you,” Jin snapped.

“Hardly.” Chrys stepped back into the circle. “You’re a Dray. Much better at bedding women than sword-play. I’ll bet you’ve already sweet-talked several of my servants into your tent.”

Jin drew his janin with a rattle and stalked into the circle. “Take it back.”

Chrys smiled. “No.”

Jin leaped at him. He sidestepped, laughing. “Getting angry?”

The Dragonian Fay-el whirled, slashing his janin toward Chrys’ face, who ducked and smirked. A few of the men around them frowned. That had most definitely not been the flat of the blade.

Chrys backed up slightly. “Come on, ra. That’s why you’re here. I know it. You know it.” He took a Diagonal Step away from the darting janin. “I bet you could not land a mark on me.”

Jin glowered, closing the distance between them. Chrys smirked, so like his loquiri's smile when Veritas had faced Kor with that same confidence. The royal loquiri, at least, had looked like he wanted to teach Kor something. His Match only wanted to prove to Jin who was the better fighter.

"So," Chrys taunted, moving the minimal amount to dodge Jin's downward hack with a reckless grin, "is she pretty?"

"She is not why I am here," Jin snapped.

Chrys raised an eyebrow and chuckled. "Oh, so there is a woman?"

The younger Fay-el gritted his teeth. "None of your business."

Chrys scowled. "Oh? If it is a palace servant you've come to bed---my servant, then it most certainly is my business."

"I am not here to bed one of your servants," Jin snarled, and in his anger barely noticed the fall of Chry's sword. His kinsman opened a shallow cut on his shoulder and knocked him to the ground with a hearty shove.

"They why are you here?" Chrys smirked.

Jin rolled to his feet and swept a quick Scythe at his legs. The Maran Fay-el dodged easily. “Why do you insist on humiliating yourself?”

With a growled curse, Jin threw himself at the Fay-el in reckless anger. Chrys sidestepped and rapped the top of his head with the hilt of his janin. He plowed facefirst into the stone and then twisted to his feet, swiping at the now-bleeding gash on his forehead.

Arms folded carefully and janin point grounded in the stone, Chrys flashed a cocky smile. “Well?”

“I’m here because of you!” Jin growled. He whipped the blade toward the Fay-el’s face again, was parried aside, and Diagonal Stepped out of reach of Chrys’ own blade.

“Ah. I see.” Chrys lowered the janin slightly. “You blame me for Karli?”

“I blame you for everything! Why didn’t you keep her here? Why won’t you name a bloody proxy? How could you allow the Guild to dominate so powerfully, that they could take your heir, my son? And then, you blithely place my child in the path of a loquiri! I had no choice but to have him bonded, no matter my feelings.”

He hacked at him again, finesse gone in place of anger. Chrys disarmed him easily. The janin skidded across the stone. Jin snarled wordlessly and tackled him. The second janin pinwheeled aside as Chrys hit the stone with a thump and a muttered curse.

Chrys was the better swordsman, but Jin was the better brawler. He pinned Chrys down by the shoulder, and for the second time in less than a week, landed a satisfying blow on his kinsman's jaw.

Chrys snarled wordlessly at him, upper torso bucking, knocking the lighter man aside. He managed to grasp Jin's hair and get in a good punch, before the Dragonian snapped a knee into his groin. Chrys howled, and grasped his Gift, striking his kinsman with a similar, entirely non-physical blow.

"Kinth," Jin spat, rolling away from him. "Using the Gift on me..."

By then, the onlookers had finally realized that the spar was over and the two men were fighting as shamelessly as a couple of ra, no matter their cut hair.

The guards rushed them both, pulling Jin away from Chrys, then grabbing Chrys and hauling him bodily backward as the High Fay-el lunged for his younger kinsman.

And then Veritas was coming, running full tilt toward them both.

< >

The royal loquiri glanced from one to the other. Both were hissing and snarling profanity, struggling against the men who held them. In his head, Chrys’ anger was a fiery mass of flames.

The simmering anger had finally boiled over it seemed.

Veritas felt Kor’s Gift a moment before the Second arrived, doing the same as he had done, glancing from one to the other.

“You hit him again, didn’t you?” Kor said.

“Bloody…star-blinded…kinth-bred…” Jin lunged for Chrys and was yanked back forcefully. “Aye, I’d beat him bloody if I could get near him.”

“They fight like Derk-ra,” Kor muttered.

“They fight like brothers,” Veritas responded. He glanced at Kor, eyebrows arching. “With your permission?”

The Second nodded. Veritas returned his attention to the two. “Let them go.”

The guards gaped at him. Veritas scowled, gesturing sharply. “Let them be. Clear the area, step back, and leave them.”

With a shared, uneasy glance, the guards obeyed. Jin and Chrys glared across the circle, breathing hard. And then, as expected, lunged for the other.

< >

Kor watched, wincing, as Chrys got in another punch across Jin's jaw. Veritas patted his back comfortingly. "He'll be well enough. Chrys doesn't want to kill him. Not really."

"Aye, perhaps," Kor sighed. "But they'll both be black and blue, after this."

Veritas shook his head slowly. "It'll be good for them both. They've been so angry lately... let them work it out the only way they seem to know how."

Jin had managed to pin his larger kinsman once again, but Chrys had both of the younger Fay-el's hands and was pushing them away from him. Or maybe Jin was trying to force Chrys's hands down.

The loquiri and Second both felt Chrys's Gift pulse. Jin flinched, and Chrys freed one of his hands, striking his kinsman across the face.

Kor noticed Jin's lips move, and raised an eyebrow, grinning.

"What?" Veritas asked.

"He's counting," Kor laughed.

< >

Blood and sweat streamed down Jin’s face and into his mouth. But he didn’t care. It felt so good—so good to hit him for once, and no one to stop him.

Each time he forced the Fay-el to use his Gift, the better. Again and again, he felt the prickle.

Just a few more. A few more times, you bloody kinth!

Chrys shoved an elbow into his belly. Jin grunted and rolled clear. He was halfway to his feet when Chrys hooked a leg around his knees and knocked him to the floor. His chin snapped against the stone. Head spinning, he twisted about and buried his hand in his kinsman’s hair.

Chrys yelped in pain, clawing at Jin’s hands. Gift spiked. The Dragonian Fay-el bit his lip, ignoring the pain, and tightened his hold on Chrys. Again, the Gift shoved against him.

Distantly, he heard Veritas hiss. Ah.

“Do it again, bloody kinth,” he growled into Chrys’ face. He jerked him by the hair, banging the Fay-el’s head against the stone. “Use that womanly talent against me.”

They both staggered awkwardly to their feet. The Maran Fay-el snarled in Lodear and seized the Gift. And then flinched, stumbling forward. Jin caught him as he fell. The two of them collapsed together in an exhausted heap.

"I hate you," Chrys hissed in pain.

Jin patted his back once, tiredly. "No, you don't." He grimaced, rolled onto his back with a groan, and lifted one hand to dab the blood from his nose. It streamed down his face, from forehead, nose and lip. Both eyes felt sore, and his jaw throbbed painfully. "Kyda, you hit hard."

Chrys snorted. Jin felt it coming, too, and willed it away; his ribs ached. But then they were both laughing painfully and helplessly, until two shadows fell over them. Kor stared down at them disapprovingly, Veritas with a wide grin. The loquiri handed them both waterskins.

"May I?" Kor asked. Jin felt the telltale prickle as Kor seized his Gift.

"Fine," the younger Fay-el said grudgingly.

Kor cast his senses lightly over him, so that Jin barely even felt it. "You're a mass of bruises," he sighed, releasing his Gift. "And one loose tooth." He eyed Chrys critically for a moment, then nodded to Veritas. "I suppose your Match is much the same?"

"Aye," Veritas agreed.

"Shall we Mend them, now?" Jin scowled under his Second's glare. "Or do the two of you still have some anger to work out? I'll not do this for you twice today."

They glanced at each other, sharing a grin. The laugh sputtered within reach. Jin bit it back, for his ribs’ sake, and nodded. “I’m finished.”

Chrys held out a hand. “Forgiven?”

He clasped it. “Aye. For now.”

They laughed together, and winced, and fought to control their laughter. Kor only shook his head. Veritas arched a brow at his Match.

“I know you’re not angry anymore.” Veritas smiled. “Ready?”

Chrys nodded. The loquiri slipped one supporting hand around Chrys’ shoulders, and rested the other against his chest. The Gift tingled through the room. The Maran Fay-el slumped, blinking drowsily.

“Better?” Veritas said.

“Yees,” he drawled, sounding for all the world like Ravin.

Kor’s hands rested on Jin’s shoulders and he pushed him back onto the floor. “Now you.”

Veritas watched Kor quickly and neatly trace the blessings over Jin, seize his Gift, and deftly lower the pattern onto the young Fay-el. The loquiri raised one eyebrow as Jin yawned widely and blinked. “You’re already doing that in half the time I would have expected,” he commented. He regarded the Hybrid thoughtfully. “It won’t be long before you need not trace the blessings at all, I think. Hmm… I believe I may know what your bent is.”

“Bent?” Kor asked, straightening. Grasping his Gift, he again swept his senses over his Fay-el, noting faded bruises and no pain. Behind him, Veritas nodded to himself.

“We’ll talk about it later. Let’s get these two back to Chrys’s chambers and see them fed.” He cast a critical eye over the young Hybrid. “Us as well.”

They led the suddenly calm and almost docile Fay-els back to Chrys’s suite, installing them both at the table and ordering food brought. The four men enjoyed a light meal together, and then Veritas’s arm rested on Kor’s shoulder. The Hybrid glanced up from the piece of cheese he'd been nibbling.

“Come. Let them talk in privacy. I would like you to meet someone.”


As the loquiri and Second stepped into the small room, the man within turned and smiled at them, sweeping his Gift over them both in a cursory way. Kor shifted uneasily, but Veritas didn’t respond.

“Good day to you,” he said.

“Good day, sair. Is Chrys feeling ill?”

The loquiri grinned slightly. “Chrys is well.” He glanced at Kor. “This is the palace healer. Yasej, this is Kor, the man who tended Chrys after Naftis wounded him.”

“Ah.” His eyes lit up. “A fellow healer. Though…” he glanced up and down. “You look nothing like what I would expect.”

Kor shrugged. “I am Hybrid, though with naught of Eloin blood.”

“That is good.”

Veritas nudged him forward. “He has also only recently discovered the Gift. I suspect, however, that his bent is close to yours.”

Yasej raised an eyebrow. "How old are you, young man?"

"Twenty-two, sar," Kor answered politely.

The healer scratched his bald head. "Twenty-two, and only now flowering?"

Veritas cleared his throat. "Ah, no. Forgive me. He has used his Gift the Aquila way since he was perhaps twelve, but only now has learned its true nature and began grasping it."

Yasej nodded. "I see. Most interesting. I've a simple test to decide the matter. Allow me a moment?"

Kor nodded absently. The palace healer moved to the back of his infirmary, and dug patiently through a pile of supplies. After a moment he turned to Kor, both hands clenched into fists.

"Which hand?" he asked.

Kor raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

The healer smiled. "I have pierced one of my fingers with a needle. It is a very small thing, barely painful. You should be able to sense it, and pinpoint---forgive the pun---which finger was pricked, using your Gift alone."

Kor seized his Gift, holding it lightly, then swept his senses over the healer as he'd felt the healer do to him and Veritas when they'd entered the room. He frowned a little in concentration; it was a very faint impression, but he found it, and focused upon it. His frown turned into a grin. "Left hand. Third finger. Inside of the second knuckle."

“No need to show off,” the healer scolded lightly. “Good. Aye, you seem attuned to physical sense. “ The Healer nodded. “Aye. A healing bent, it seems. Very unlike your bent, my lord.”

Veritas nodded. “And have you heard of the Aquila way? This allowing the Gift to control you?”

The Healer’s eyes widened. “I have heard rumors. Though it is very dangerous.”

Kor snorted. Yasej frowned. “Nay, it is. If it is in control, then it always chooses the easiest route, if the stories be true. What if the easiest route is to die upon a blade?” He grimaced. “I much prefer controlling my Gift.”

“Agreed.” Veritas smiled. “I will teach him our way. And I know his bent now. It should make the teaching easier. On both of us.”

Veritas led Kor to the stable, smiling his greeting at the stablekeeper as they went into the barn. "There are a wide variety of rodents and other pests that plague our stables here in the desert," the loquiri explained quietly, glancing this way and that as though looking for one such pest. Horses snuffed at him, and stableboys glanced at him curiously.

He gingerly pulled back a heavy board that had been leaned up against the wall, and pointed. Kor bent over and grimaced at the creatures clinging to the wood. Some were black, some brown and some a pale tan. All had eight legs, long tails, and painful looking stingers.

Veritas explained. "In addition to the normal mice and insects, we also have scorpions, which are somewhat of a problem. The larger ones are not so bad; their stings merely hurt. But there are tiny ones, the color of sand, that are nearly impossible to see, and the smaller and paler they are, the more likely they are to be deadly."

"Please do not tell me these are part of your lesson," Kor grimaced.

Veritas smiled. "No. I am not sure what, if anything, your bent could do about their stings. We are actually looking for a different predator, which we employ to eat the scorpions. Ah." He grinned, and pointed.

Kor's eyebrows knit as he looked at a tiny kitten curled in the window of one of the stalls in the barn, quite asleep. "A kitten?" he said dubiously.

"Aye," Veritas said, speaking more softly now. "Cats are swift enough to avoid being stung, seem to take a singular delight in hunting and eating scorpions, and their skin is tough enough that we're not even sure the stings can penetrate."

"Very well..." Kor said in confusion.

Veritas glanced around until he located a chair, and then pulled it over and encouraged Kor to sit. "Before, I sought to teach you your Gift with the lunes, but I see now that was not the best way to go about this. So I will have to improvise somewhat." He bit his lip. "Endurance and control are always vitally important with the Gift, but more so with a healing bent. So. Rather than lighting a lune, which is delicate enough work, I would instead like you to focus upon that kitten."

He smiled gently. "See how peacefully she sleeps? I'd like you to brush your Gift over her as quietly as you can, as you did with Jin earlier and Yasej a moment ago. Tell me all that you sense, but make sure she remains asleep." He grinned. "Cats are remarkably sensitive to the Gift. You will likely wake her, at first. But never fear, she has plenty of littermates lounging about." He nodded to the cat. "Your first goal is control, a delicate touch. Endurance is your secondary objective. Begin when you are ready."

The Hybrid nodded. He seized his Gift and brushed the cat lightly and, as Veritas expected, she stiffened and rose, before leaping from her perch. Kor scowled. “They are sensitive. Even more than Jin.”

“Aye.” Veritas laughed. “See if you can find another.”

And so the hour went, with him startling the kittens several times, though each time a little less, and the two of them searching for another to torment. The Hybrid adjusted much faster than Chrys ever had with the lunes, which only confirmed the healing bent.

Once the kittens no longer stirred, Veritas began prompting him for more information than the general sense he was getting.

Such as one full-grown cat whose belly was rounded with more kittens. “How many will she bear? Are they all male? Does she feel happy, contented, or uncomfortable?”

Kor winced a little at the cat, but held his Gift lightly and swept his awareness over her. It was becoming more difficult to seize his Gift, but still Veritas urged him on; it would help him gain endurance, he said, and Kor had to admit that the royal loquiri was right. Already Kor had grasped seven times this day, and the last time he'd done so much, he'd passed out cold.

"There are... four... no, five kittens. One is smaller, and nestled up close to another. Three female, two male. I am not sure the little male will survive... his heartbeat is not steady, but the others seem strong enough." He grinned a little. "They are full term."

"And the dam?" Veritas urged quietly. He held his own Gift lightly, focused on Kor and on Kor's Gift. He could barely sense the Hybrid's fatigue, but it was easier to watch Kor's Gift wane, and judge how much more he would withstand based on the brightness of his Gift. Once it began to flicker, he'd have him stop for the day.

Kor squinted, then closed his eyes. "She... ah." He smiled. "Her temperature is a little low. Today, perhaps tomorrow, she should deliver of them. My educated guess is today. She... she..." He swallowed, a light sheen of sweat breaking out on his forehead. "She is already having minor contractions, unfelt as of yet."

“Good.” He nodded in pleased satisfaction. “You’re picking up a great deal more, but with much more control. Now, I warn you that it is dangerous to Mend a woman bearing a child. Not without much control and much hard work. But, for now, see if you can tell between her spark and the spark of her children. Do not lay any pattern upon her, but just lightly probe.”

With a sigh of minor pain, Kor seized again and probed over her. This took much longer, and much more control. Finally, the Hybrid released his Gift with a whoosh of released air. “Ah. Aye, I can, but it is…difficult.” He rubbed his forehead wearily. His Gift was a slender flame, lightly flickering.

“That is enough,” the loquiri said quietly. “Keep practicing on whatever you can in your camp,” he chuckled. “And on Jin. Whether he likes it or not.” He cocked his head. “For that matter, with Naftis bonded, he should be much calmer. If you can, get him to help you as well. He needs to learn how to distance from his Match himself. Speaking of a Match…” Veritas paused, reaching across the pair-link.

Drowsiness wafted back, and a mild curiosity. He could tell Chrys would prefer sleeping, but was keeping himself awake. Waiting for me? Veritas teased lightly.

No. Jin wants to know more about being a Match.

No horror stories, Chrys. He warned.

The answer was a soft chuckle and Chrys retreating from his mind. Veritas shook his head. “I believe Jin is not ready to go home as yet. I will send him to you, in safety. Unless you wish to wait?”

"And listen to them bicker nonstop like a couple of quarelling children?" Kor said. "No thanks." He regarded Veritas for a moment. "Actually, I had one quick question, which Yasej can probably answer better, but perhaps you can help. The Mending only heals wounds. It does not cure illnesses. Is there a technique Gifted healers can use to treat infections, poisoning and the like? You yourself were poisoned with somna... was there nothing your palace healer could do?"

Veritas shook his head. "I know not of any such techniques, within the Mara or without. Once, when Chrys was injured, his wound became infected. The illness was treated by an Aquilan healer, Gifted like you, although he did not know to seize the Gift as you do. Even he could not treat the infection except with herbs and the like." He considered. "I do not know if it is impossible, however. We lack the medical knowledge of other lands, although do not tell Yasej I said so. Perhaps if you were to combine your knowledge as a healer with the Maran way of seizing the Gift..."

Kor nodded, already contemplating the possibilities. "Aye... I think it can be done. The body's healing processes is not homogenous. It involves many systems and mechanisms within the body. It stands to reason that if some can be affected by the Gift via the Mending, others can be affected in other ways. We know for a fact that you can use your Gift to trigger that part of the brain which governs sensations of pain." He grinned at Veritas's confusion. "Aye, I did not think you knew precisely what you were doing. When you punished me for failing to keep to the Fundamentals, you were using your Gift to directly affect my brain. I was able to do the same with Jin, although more selectively. So that is two ways the Gift can affect the body... no, three." He snapped his finger, remembering. "Guildsmen can stop the heart. One tried, when I was with Ravin... So there are probably several ways the Gift can be used. Perhaps a therapeutic system can be worked out..."

"Aye, that makes sense," Veritas said. "But I am afraid I cannot help you much. Your bent is very different than mine. I think this is something you will have to develop yourself."

"Aye..." Kor thought, already contemplating the possibilities.


< >

Chrys slouched in a chair, wanting nothing so much than to curl up and sleep. He toyed with the dreamstone around his neck, which Veritas had insisted upon before the loquiri left with that Hybrid.

It would not do to frighten Jin, if he did begin to Foretell, after finally allowing the Fay-el to be less afraid of the Gift and its dealing. The younger Fay-el was weary too. He sat on the floor, cross-legged, with his head in his hands.

After a moment of companionable silence, Jin straightened. “What is it like?”

Chrys glanced at him, eyebrows arched. Jin stirred uneasily. “You are…you have a loquiri. You’re the Match of the bond. As Elam is. Does it…how does it…” He sighed and dropped his head again. “I cannot even speak of it easily.”

“Jin.” The Maran Fay-el waited until his kinsman looked up. “It is wonderful. There is nothing painful or unhappy about it.”

“Not at all? No…” he coughed uneasily. “You’re not lovers or anything?”

“Certainly not.” Chrys frowned. “It is like….like an arm or a finger. I can’t imagine being without him now. And he’s always there. I’m never alone, even when Endry took me from my family, or when they hid me from the Guild as Endry was dying—I was not alone.” He shifted slightly. “Think about it, Jin. He will never be alone in this world, even as an Eloin Hybrid, there is someone always on his side, ready to protect him.”

Jin nodded, though his eyes were still troubled. Chrys smiled reassuringly. “Ask me questions. I will answer as best I am able. I assure you, it is not something I endure. I enjoy being linked to him.”

Jin frowned in thought. Fiddled with the edge of his tunic. Frowned again; his clothing was fllthy, blood strained, and sweat-soaked. He smelled terrible. As did Chrys. He shook his head, and voiced what was on his mind. "How much... influence does Veritas have over you? Can his moods affect your own? Do you find yourself adopting his attitudes? Can he make you do things you do not want to do? Do... did his thoughts and opinions mean more to you than your father's?"

“I have never cared for the opinion of my blood-father,” Chrys responded, his accent suddenly heavy at the mention of the man. Jin winced. Chrys despised the man who had sired him—and then taken him from the only family he knew to be used as a tool against the Guild. Endry’s death had been the best thing to happen to his kinsman.

“However, no. He can…calm me, somewhat. Cool my temper. Surprising as it may be—I was once worse than I am now.” He shrugged lightly. “Aye, his moods affect mine. And mine affect him. At first, it was difficult to keep from being sad when he is, or he feeling angry when I was, but not anymore. I know when it is his frustration and not my own, and it is rare for him to feel so strongly, or I, that it affect the other.” Chrys smiled at him. “Besides, we both can control how much of the other we feel, to an extent.”

Jin’s brows arched. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Chrys said with a bemused grin. “It just is. I can mentally quiet him to a small awareness. Such as when I am with Turina. Or open to a wider one, like I do after any time with Andros.”

“Who?”

He waved a hand idly. “Andros. He is no matter, but he makes Veritas jealous.”

“Jealous.” The concept of a man being jealous, and not over a woman, obviously confused him.

Chrys shook his head. “You will need to instruct Elam too, of how a Match should acct. A loquiri can be jealous, strongly so. They wish to please their Match, wish to be near him, wish to have his entire attention. When Elam begins to find women attractive, or even has to deal with a sponsor for your Confirmation—Naftis will feel jealous. Angry. Rejected.” He shrugged. “They cannot help it, but it will be there. Elam must ensure he eases Naftis’ feelings of unease and rejection.”

“Why? Won’t they work it out on their own?”

How do I explain this to an unGifted? Chrys rested a hand on his shoulder. “Jin, our life-threads are bound together. If he should keep me tamped down low, unable to feel him, for very long—it is uncomfortable. With each passing day, both of us would start to feel…imbalanced. Within much time at all, I would be weak, struggling to draw on my Gift. He would sicken, stop eating, struggle sleeping.”

He grimaced. “This bond is very….complex.”

“Aye.” Chrys paused. “The point I am making is this. When Elam begins to woo a woman, he should also spend time with his loquiri. Time alone, with no interruptions and no one else. Until Naftis feels safe and secure.”

Jin frowned. He did not particularly like thinking about the day he would eventually have to start dealing with an adolescent son whose only interest was chasing after women. Elam was a handful enough as it was, and he was only ten.

And even worse than imagining a future wherein his little boy would be busily trying to bed every pretty woman he encountered was the idea of his son actually lying with some of them. He groaned inwardly. Kyda willing, it would be years yet before he had to face that.

Although it did bring up an interesting question... Jin flushed hotly. Chrys caught it, and grinned. "I know what you're thinking."

"Aye..." Jin said slowly. "Will Naftis be able to sense... Will Elam be able to ever truly have privacy with a woman?"

“Yes and no.” Chrys shifted again, aware of drowsiness fluttering brighter in his mind. “When I…I wish to be with Turina, in that manner, he knows. The intention is there. Veritas will tone his awareness of me as low as he can manage, and then slink off to be busy, whether sparring or putting distance between us. There is still sense of me, of what I am doing, but faintly.” He yawned, blinking away drowsiness. “The pair-link does adjust to changes. Such as a new friendship or affection with a woman.”

“Or affection from a father?”

Chrys arched a brow. “Ah. I see. Aye, it will adjust, especially now that they are bonded. Ver no longer flinches when a healer touches me.”

Jin grinned, feeling a little better now. "Aye, as evidenced by the fact that he did not snap Kor's neck the night he tended you."

"Indeed," Chrys agreed. He blinked suddenly and his gaze became briefly distant. "What the---" He seemed to come back to himself with a puzzled smile.

Jin frowned. "What? What is it?"

"Your Second, and my loquiri, are... chasing kittens."

"Whatever for?"

The High Fay-el shook his head. "Who can even begin to guess?" He glanced at Jin. "So, have you any other questions? I do not mean to be inhospitable, but I am weary, and you are as well. And if I know Veritas, your Hybrid will be tired shortly also."

“Then I will allow you to rest, kinsman.” He smiled and Chrys returned it. “The Star bless and keep you.”

The Maran nodded, waving his hand. “I would find your Second, even Veritas is tired of his questions.”

With a chuckle, Jin stood and went searching. It did not take as much effort as he had thought. One question for a fiery-red haired Aquila for the servants sent him to the healer’s quarters and clinic. There, he found a very weary looking Maran and his hyper Second, who held a bottle of kinsleaf in one hand and was trying to sweet-talk the healer for some valla as well.

Jin leaned against the doorframe and smiled. “Kor, this has been a long day for me.”

"One moment," Kor said, and ignoring Jin's frown, he turned back to Yasej. "The sooner you just give it to me, the faster I'll go away," he said sweetly.

Yasej could not seem to decide whether to scowl or laugh. The latter won out. "Oh, very well," he said at least, shaking his head and going to his shelf. He fetched a small drawstring linen pouch and scooped a measure of valla into it. "But," he said, pressing it into Kor's outstretched hand, "Do not come whining to me when this ridiculous idea of yours goes awry!"

"What ridiculous idea?" Jin asked.

"You don't want to know," Kor and Yasej answered at the same time.

"Now I do," Jin argued, raising one eyebrow.

Kor grinned. "You'll know soon enough." He smirked at Yasej. "When I'm the greatest healer the Dragonians, Aquila, or Marans have ever seen."

"He'll be whining at you shortly, my lord, I'm sure," Yasej whispered conspiratorially to Jin. He shoved Kor lightly toward his door. "Now out with you, young man. Get your Fay-el home."


For once, Jin did not feel like arguing with his Second. He could barely keep from yawning every few minutes, and his eyes burned with weariness. The Mend seemed to always do this to him, though he did not understand why. Something to ask Kor. Eventually.

Kor kept a firm hand on his shoulders and pushed him to his tent and then onto his bed. “You need to rest.”

“Aye.”

The Hybrid arched a brow. “No argument? Are you feeling well?”

He gave his Second a drowsy grin. “Never better.”

The Fay-el stretched out with a contented sigh. Kor chuckled lightly and stepped away, but did not leave. Jin turned his head. “You can go wandering,” he murmured. “It’s day. I’m safe.”

“Oh, I will, but I want to mess with this project first.”

“Project?” Jin felt like he was sinking into the pillow. He would sleep very well.

“Just an idea. Gifting and healing and such.” A glass vial clinked and the faintest tinge of valla wafted through the room.

Jin rolled to his side. After spending so many years with Elam’s half-baked ideas and plans, this was nothing new. “Don’t make a mess,” he muttered groggily, and then sleep wrapped him in its warm embrace.


Jin woke four hours later feeling rather refreshed to the sound of his Second's muttered cursing. He rolled over, and glanced sideways at Kor. "What are you doing?"

The Hybrid was kneeling on the carpet, one arm wrapped around his middle and the other furiously scratching with a quill on a piece of parchment. Jin's parchment.

"I cannot get it right and I can't grasp the blasted Gift anymore," the Hybrid growled. He immediately ignored his Fay-el and went back to mumbling to himself. "Maybe it acts on the area postrema portion of the brainstem? But does that cause gastrointestinal stasis, or is it a response to it?"

Jin blinked in confusion and sat up, then rose and crossed to his Second. Kor did not even look up as his Fay-el stood over him, hands on hips, to see what he was working on so furiously.

"Kor... you are a bloody madman," he said, cocking his head to see better from the strange angle at which Kor was writing his notes.

The Hybrid had drawn some disgusting rendition of a man's innards, from brain to belly, and had written tiny scribbled notes all along the the side of the image, with lines pointing to this or that organ. Beside him was a sealed but overturned vial of kinsleaf, one-fourth of it empty.

"Kor?" Jin asked. He rested a hand on the Hybrid's shoulder.

"What?" Kor snapped.

Jin raised an eyebrow at the irritated tone. "What are you doing?"

“I think I can use the Gift to halt the progress of a drug on the body. Such that I could feasibly stop the affects of somna. I was testing myself with kinsleaf, but I’m off somewhere.” He winced, clenching his teeth.

Jin shook his head. “Kinsleaf? You dosed yourself with that vile stuff?”

A nod. Kor obviously dared not open his mouth.

“You truly are a madman. How soon until it wears off?”

Kor shrugged. Jin sighed. “And I suppose any kolinar you drink will come right back up again?”

He nodded. Jin smirked slightly. “You get yourself into the most amazing trouble.” He ignored his Second’s annoyed glare, and fought a laugh as Kor stood abruptly and left the tent.

Probably heading for the nearest bush the Fay-el thought. He waited patiently for the Hybrid’s return.

Kor wandered back into the tent some four or five minutes later looking miserable. "I really am an idiot sometimes," he grumbled.

"Yes," Jin agreed amiably, "you are."

Kor glared. "Are you not supposed to have sympathy for one who is ill?"

The Fay-el snorted. "Not when he made himself ill to practice some stupid healing technique on himself. Why did you not use something milder?"

"I did," Kor growled. He plucked something out of the pile of failed experiments and tossed it at Jin. He caught it. It was the bag that had contained the valla, only half of it was gone.

Jin rolled his eyes. "Truly, some must learn the hard way."

"At least I did not poison myself with Derk-ra venom," Kor pointed out. Then he froze. "Jin. Jin!"

The Fay-el groaned. "That sounds like another bad idea in the making."

"Do you have any calaba? I'll get a needle from Turoc."

And just like that, he leapt out of the tent into the late afternoon sunlight.

< >

When he returned, Kor dumped a vial of calaba onto the floor, as well as setting a smaller flagon of yellowish slime onto the table. He held up a needle in triumph, a broad grin across his face. “I’m certain this will work.”

“What will work?” He frowned at the slime. “What…surely…how in the world did you manage to get that?”

“Talen and Terran helped me, and the High Fay-el has plenty of tame Derk-ra in his mews.”

Jin rolled his eyes. “Truly you are moon-struck.”

Kor shrugged and poured a small measure of calaba into a flagon, before scraping at the slime with his fingers, mixing it carefully.

Jin watched the proceedings with a bemused smile. “Just what do you plan to do with that?”

"Stab you with a needle coated in it," Kor said sweetly. "If you'll just give me your arm..." He dipped the needle into the mixture.

"What?" Jin barked.

Kor rolled his eyes. "Oh come now, don't be such a ra. It's just a little needle."

"It's not the bloody needle I'm worried about," the Fay-el growled, backing away from his Second. "Kor... No Kor, absolutely not."

Kor stalked toward him, needle glinting in the dim light. "Come here. You're really being quite unreasonable. This will work, I know it will." He paused, and glanced at the needle. "Well, it'll work after a couple nights, in any case." He started once again toward his Fay-el.

"Can you not test this moon-brained idea on yourself?" Jin snapped

"No," Kor said, as though speaking to a child. "I do not know how the venom and calaba will react to the kinsleaf and valla."

Jin was circling toward his tent flap, but before he could get away, Naftis pushed into the tent, followed by Elam. "Look who is here to see you---" The loquiri froze, eyes settling on Kor and the needle. “Am I interrupting something?”

Jin grimaced. “No. Kor wants to try a bloody stupid idea. On me.”

The Second lowered his hand as he took a step closer. “I believe I can make him immune to the venom of a Derk-ra.”

“Oh?” Naftis arched a brow.

Kor grinned. “If venom creates a reaction, and calaba stops it, and the cure for calaba is venom. Then if I combine them, the reaction should be light.” He moved another step closer to his glowering Fay-el. “I just need to—“ With a sudden motion, he caught Jin’s wrist and jabbed him quickly.

He jerked his hand free, but it was too late. He gave Kor a sour glare. “I said no.”

His Second shrugged.

Jin muttered a curse and swiveled away from him. The Fay-el glanced at his son with obvious longing, but did not move forward. Naftis gently nudged Elam toward him. “I have been rude and cross with you, sire, and quite unsympathetic of your feelings. Please forgive me.” The loquiri dipped his head in a polite nod.

Kor arched a brow, but said nothing. Jin managed a faint smile. “Aye. I forgive you. It is a matter I have little understanding of.” He reached for Elam, and then pulled his hand away. “May I?”

In answer, Naftis nudged Elam forward again. The boy beamed at his Da. Jin crouched to his level and tousled his hair gently. “Are you well?”

With a giggle, Elam threw his arms around Jin’s neck, who accepted it but glanced at Naftis for a brief moment. The loquiri closed his eyes, but did not respond. Jin refocused on his son. “I see that’s a yes.”

“Aye, Da. He is fun, and nice.” A cock of the head. “I miss you too, though. And Kor with his silly songs.”

Jin laughed and rested his chin on the top of his son’s head. “I missed you too, Elam.”

Naftis and Kor remained silent, allowing the two of them to speak for a moment. When Jin finally released the boy and straightened again, he flashed the loquiri a wary smile. “Thank you.”

Naftis lifted one shoulder in a quiet shrug. “It would be unfair of me to keep him isolated. I wish his safety, but not at the price of his unhappiness.” He cocked his head and took a deep breath. “If you wish, I can leave him here. For a time.”

“He may remain with you.” Jin flicked a sidelong glance at his Second. “I suspect I will not be myself in a few minutes.” He held up the jabbed arm. “I can feel it tingling already.”

“But just tingling?” Kor prompted. “Slight numbness, but nothing more?”

Jin scowled. “For now. Tomorrow morning, I will poke you with the needle.”

"Only if your arm does not fall off, or something," Kor smirked. The Fay-el rolled his eyes.

"Sit here," Kor said, gesturing before the pile of papers, herbs and writing utensils he'd spread out on Jin's floor. The Fay-el had a sneaking suspicion he might soon need to ban a certain Hybrid from using his tent as a workspace.

Kor sat down across from him, and grabbed the quill. Naftis gave Elam a gentle nudge. "I am sure your Da would like another hug, Elam."

The boy walked to his father, smiling sheepishly. "Can I stay with you for a little while, Da, please?" he asked, sitting at Jin's side and leaning into him. The Fay-el ran his finger's through his son's hair affectionately, feeling much more at ease... hovering loquiri and Derk-ra prickles or no.

Speaking of which...

Kor pointed his---no, Jin's---quill at his Fay-el. "So. Tell me. Everything you feel."

Jin sighed. It was going to be a long evening.

Kor blanched, skin abruptly turning an alarming shade of green. "Ah---" He rose to his feet and hurriedly headed for the tent flap. "A moment."

Naftis watched the Hybrid go, eyebrows raised, and Jin shook his head. Aye, a long eve indeed.

The tingling changed to an uneasy numbness, and then twitches that were annoying but withstandable. He was more irritated at his Second, who regaled him with questions until the Fay-el wished only to gag the grinning Hybrid.

Elam remained snuggled up to him, slumping against his shoulder. He finally curled up with his head in Jin’s lap and fell asleep.

The Fay-el scowled as Kor returned from yet another trip to a bush, with one hand wrapped around his belly. “Eppa’s balls, that stuff is awful.”

“That’s why we use it for deserters,” Jin responded. “You really should not have used it.”

Kor shrugged. “Had to know.” He glanced at him. “How are you feeling now?”

“Tired. Tired and annoyed,” he shot his Second a pointed glare.

The man only shrugged again. “If I make you immune to the venom, you will be much safer.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” He stroked Elam’s hair absently, then paused, flicking an uneasy look at the loquiri. Naftis had settled in a corner of the tent, eyes half-closed in drowsy contentment. Was his soothing Elam also soothing the uneasy loquiri? Jin frowned.

Kor’s voice pulled his thoughts away. “Other than being tired and annoyed, you feel fine otherwise?”

“Aye.”

The Hybrid scribbled on the parchment. “Good. It took an hour or so, and you’re over any lingering effects of the venom.” He bit his lip. “The question is how quickly to administer the second dose.”

“Right after I administer a dose to you,” Jin growled. “You should be immune too, or at the very least, suffering whatever I do with your bloody ideas.”

Kor laughed. "I'll let you stick me with needles tomorrow. Although I'm not sure what the effects will be on me." He scowled. "Some people did not get poisoned two nights in a row."

The Fay-el shrugged, unfazed. "The first time was your own bloody fault, and the second was Terran's. I am hardly to blame." He ruffled his son's hair gently, until Elam opened tired eyes. "You should eat, ra," he said gently.

"You too, Da," Elam grinned. In the corner of the tent, Naftis seemed to unfold, going from drowsy contentment to full alertness in a speed that was, frankly, uncanny.

Kor, for his part, merely leaped up from his spot on the floor, and ran out of the tent. Jin smirked.

Naftis watched the Hybrid go, then turned to the Fay-el. "Why did he dose himself with kinsleaf again, sire?"

Jin shook his head slowly and stood up, gently and regretfully nudging his son toward the loquiri. "Let's just eat. Trying to navigate that bloody man's mind on an empty belly is nigh on impossible."
A Non-Existent User
Kharme had been embarrassed at first, as Caylia's talk felt a bit like a slap in the face, but she was glad for it. She forgot what felt like the loss of the last person she could trust, and the spirit of determination awoke in her. She felt inspired by her anger. Anger at being weak, at being taken advantage of, at being too trusting.

Once the other woman left, she began to think hard. Her heart was pounding loudly in her head and her hands were shaking, but she ignored it. The old Kharme must disappear, and a stronger version must stand in her place. She took out her purse and dumped the coins in her lap. As she counted, a grimace marred her face. There was not nearly enough for her to get what she needed.

But she was not to be deterred now. She hastily slipped off her armbands and necklace, even her ring went into the pile. There, the last signs of her station were gone, to be used to recreate herself.

She walked back into the palace, back to her room for the rest of her things. The door nearly bounced from its hinges as she went in, but she did not notice. Her eyes were intent on her riding clothes and worn boots. She did not bother with any more than what she absolutely needed.

Everything was shoved into her pack, dumped out, and repacked properly. She did not realize that her breathing was fast and heavy, that her eyes were filled with tears, or that Lade was standing in her doorway.

He knocked on the already opened door to draw her attention and stepped in. She glared at him for a second, and then returned to her packing. He sighed, positioning himself awkwardly at the edge of the bed.

"Leaving so soon?" he mused.

She slammed her map on the bed and looked up. "What do you want?"

"I came to apologize for-"

"For what? Lying to me? Trying to use me? Do not bother, I am fine with it."

He scanned over the torn apart wardrobe and her hurried gathering. "Yes, I can see that."

She fastened her cloak and slung her pack over her shoulder, whirling to look at him. "If there is nothing else, then I really must be going."

"Now? It is nearly sundown."

"I am aware of that. But if I do not leave now..."

"Then you never will. Logic will take over your passion and determination, as it used to." he stood aside. "Make sure that you dress warm. This city catches a chill at night."

She started out, but hesitated as she passed him. Her hand came to rest on his shoulder, and she finally made eye contact. "I should be gone for a three days at least. If there are any Gifted that can teach me, I will find them. If not, I may return sooner. And perhaps once I know a bit about what is going on, I can find it in myself to forgive you. But I cannot start now."

Lade watched her leave, already stronger than he had seen her a week ago. He smiled.


“I must speak with Veritas.” she told the guard. “Now.”

He crossed his arms. “I am afraid I cannot do that.”

“Is he with the Fay-el?”

“Er, no.”

“Involved in matters of life and death?”

“No.”

“Then why?”

“Well…”

“Looking for someone?” the loquiri was suddenly behind her, amused at her plight.

She turned around and tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “Yes. You, actually.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes.” she readjusted her pack and forced herself to look at him firmly. “I have to leave. Not permanently, but…”

“Is there a reason for this?”

“Of course. I am searching for one who has mastered the Gift.”

“And Jaara could not accommodate your tastes?”

She sighed. “I think you know better than I that Jaara has her hands full between torturing suspects and bearing her child. Besides, I would rather that my teacher did not know me. I want a fresh start.”

“Agreed.” he nodded. “Remember that you are welcome when you wish to return.”

She could not help smiling. “This is quite a change from the threats the first time we met.”

“I needed to find some way to inspire your help. I think it was worth it.”

She clasped her hands and bowed her head out of respect. “Call on me again if you ever need my help.” She started to walk away, but turned her head to call back. “By the way, it was worth it. Thank you.”
The moment the camp began to rise the morning following Daliah’s handfasting and Jin's honor guard wandered out of their tents scrubbing sleep from their eyes, Kor promptly and gratefully fell asleep.

He'd been out for perhaps a grain or a mark or a point---whatever it was, it was not bloody enough---when suddenly he was cold and could not breathe. He sat bolt upright, coughing and not understanding why, and found Terran standing above him with a bucket full of water and a thoroughly displeased smile.

"You thought it was time to sleep?" the blademaster demanded.

Kor felt like a great pile of manure... just as he always did after a night of heavy drinking. "I was up all night on duty," he said with a low groan.

"Well, now your watch is over, Second, and the day has begun. Get up. You've sparring to do."

"But I haven't slept, Sair," Kor complained, not rising to his feet.

Terran jerked him up by the collar. "Here is how it will be. You will watch. You will spar. You will eat your breakfast. Then you will sleep. Then you will work with the loquiri on your Gift. Then you will spar again, until evening, at which point you will be back on duty."

Kor groaned. "Can we go back and just have Lord Veritas stab me in the heart, please? End my misery?"

"You want to be Jin's Second and you know it."

"Aye," the Hybrid grumbled. "Although I cannot imagine what is wrong with me."

"Let's go," Terran said, and Kor followed obediently.

The vindictive blademaster released him after an hour of torture---although Kor was relieved to note that Terran was careful not to hit him in his already quite bruised jaw---and then steered his weary pupil, staggering, toward the cook fires. He gobbled down two bowls of porridge, then was allowed, at last, to sleep around ninth point.

Around fourth point, he woke---again, earlier than he would like---to a toe in his ribs. This time it was Naftis, staring down at him disapprovingly.

"Do you normally sleep the day away?" the loquiri asked.

"Shut up," Kor said brusquely. Behind Naftis, Elam giggled.

The loquiri frowned at the Second. “I have no more desire to teach you than you desire to have me do so—blame it on your Fay-el. But if I must, I will not dally. I have you an hour—and I plan to use every moment of it. Come along.” He turned and started to stalk away.

“Naftis.” Elam said the word quietly, but the loquiri froze.

He took a deep breath and glared back over his shoulder. “Please come along, Kor.”

The Hybrid smirked, but held his tongue. Barely. “Aye, sar.”

Naftis’ eyes narrowed. “Somehow, that is still a slight against me.” He cocked his head as if listening, then grinned slightly. “Sair, shouldn’t it be?”

Kor glanced at Elam with a mock frown. “Now, what happened to being on my side?”

The boy giggled, and laughed aloud when the Hybrid winked at him. “See?” He said, grinning up at his loquiri. “He’s nice. You shouldn’t be mad at him.”

Naftis’ expression was cold and hard as he studied the Second. “I will try, Elam.” He rested a hand on Elam’s head and nudged him forward. “Get the lunes and that new toy I showed you. I need to see how big his sun is.”

The boy beamed at Kor once more, and then trotted off. Naftis frowned as he left, but did not chase after him.

“You can handle him out of your sight?”

The loquiri’s frown deepened. “For short moments of time. I must learn how if he is ever to marry and, perhaps, lead these people.” His eyes narrowed. “This is not a time to discuss my link, however.” He seized his Gift. “Let’s see how much of your Gift I have to work with.”

Kor winced and staggered as the loquiri's Gift shoved roughly at his own. "Ow!" Naftis' eyes narrowed and the Hybrid shifted uncomfortably. "Kyda. Ow!"

Jin, passing them on his way to one of the cook fires, where Caylia sat with parchment and quill, started a little at his Second's protest, then grinned snidely. "Don't be such a ra."

Kor glared at his Fay-el's retreating back, then relaxed when Naftis' Gift finally retreated. "Eppa, I was more gentle with you than that when I probed you!"

The loquiri shrugged, unconcerned. "You're a healer. You're supposed to be gentle. I'm not." He smiled (gentle despite his words) as Elam came running back with two lunes and the "new toy" the loquiri had mentioned.

Kor frowned. "What in Kyda's name is that?"

“A top,” Naftis said bluntly. He set it on the sand and cupped his hand over it, seizing his Gift. The rounded piece started to whirl across the sand, before slowly righting itself and continuing its spin. The specks of metal on its surface glinted gaily in the sunlight.

Naftis pulled his hand away and it fell limply. “This is used by Gifted children, as a toy that helps aid in control.” He motioned for Kor to sit across from him and set the top in the sand between them. “You must use just enough Gift to start it spinning, then control your Gift well enough that you keep it upright.”

Kor nodded, reaching a hand for it. Naftis caught his hand, shaking his head. “Also,” he continued, ignoring the Hybrid’s scowl and struggles to free his wrist from the loquiri’s grip. “It will not work if you use your Aquila way. There is no pattern or sequence that can make this move. You will need to seize the Gift, not this strange…courting it to yourself, as it were. It is not as easy as it looks.”

Kor rolled his eyes. “I can Mend and seek another. This can’t be that hard.”

Naftis smiled slightly. “We’ll see.”

Kor seized his Gift, then directed it toward the strange little top, sensing as he did faintly glowing sparks on its surface and, more strangely, several within. Immediately, the thing went into a wild spin and snapped away from them, arcing right past Naftis' eye and continuing a good few feet away until it landed in the sand.

Elam laughed, then darted to his feet and ran after the top, bringing it back and plopping it into Kor's outstretched hand.

Naftis twitched his index finger toward the ground between them. "Try again."

The second time Kor tried, directing the tiniest tendril of Gift he could at it, the Kyda-forsaken top did not move at all, except in the faintest of jerks. The third time, it flew up and smacked Kor in the forehead---to the light sound of Elam's laughter---then bounced off his face and landed on the ground, again perfectly placed between Kor and his Sair.

"Try again," Naftis instructed.

Kor glared at the top, and the air fell apart around him. Naftis' eyes narrowed. The top did not move. Then the unsettling stillness faded away, and a satisfied smile curled across Naftis's lips.

"Thank you," the loquiri said.

"For wha---" Kor flinched as the loquiri jabbed at him with his Gift. "Ow!"

"Your blademaster's suggestion," the loquiri smirked. Kor cursed.

"Now that you so kindly showed me how to tell when you are using your Gift the Aquila way, I can punish you afterwards for doing it, just as you punish your Fay-el when he does his Rising Star improperly." He gestured to the top. "Try again."

The Second tried several times, but each time the top went flying as if it had sprouted wings, or simply crawled through the sand like a snake on its belly.

When he did use the Aquila way, which he did slip and do nearly as much as he threw the bloody thing, Naftis jabbed him with a grin.

After it became clear Kor was not going to grasp the concept anytime soon, the loquiri finally picked up the top, shaking his head. “That is enough with this today.”

“Good. By Kyda—that thing is irritating!” His eyes narrowed at the loquiri. “I don’t think it’s a toy at all. No child could manage that.”

Naftis arched a brow. He set the top down again. “Elam.”

The boy glanced up from the two lunes he was vainly trying to make light and scrambled over to his loquiri’s side. “Show Kor how to play.”

Elam nodded enthusiastically and held out his hand. The top obeyed him as if he had spoken a command. Its spin was more wobbly, and much shorter in duration, than Naftis’s had been, but it clearly responded to his Gift.

Kor scowled. Naftis smirked. “It is you who lack control, and not the fault of that top.”

“Bloody….Fine. Am I done now?”

“Almost.” Naftis cocked his head. “I still have ten marks left to train you, and I’m supposed to wear you out.”

“Pardon?”

“Your blademaster is either very hateful, or very determined. He has such a wealth of suggestions and ideas for your training.”

Kor groaned. Naftis crooked a finger at him. “Now then, according to Terran, you use your Gift the wrong way most often in a spar. Elam and I do not use weapons, yet. Which is fortunate for you.” He grinned. “You have bruises enough from your gaff last night.”

"I don't want to spar you! I'm going to be sparring bloody Terran again here soon!"

"It's fun!" Elam piped. "I promise!"

The smile Naftis gave Kor suggested it would be fun for one of them, at least.

Kor dragged himself to his feet. The loquiri led his student and his Match across the camp to the sparring circle, then pointed insistently toward the circle for Kor's benefit. The Hybrid grumbled and stepped to the center as Naftis had Elam sit down outside the circle a few paces away from the edge. Just standing there, he had cause to regret his heavy drinking the night before---especially because he knew he had himself to blame as much as Jin---but he perked up a little as Naftis handed his weapons to Elam.

"We're really not going to use weapons?" he asked.

Naftis stepped into the circle. "You sound as though you have delusions that this will be easy."

Kor shrugged, tossing both of his shitans out of the circle. "I got into many fist fights as a ra."

"Why am I not surprised," Naftis said dryly.

Kor started to turn toward him. "So, are we going to bow in firs---"

Naftis rushed him, leg intertwining with Kor's and his arm snaking around in front of his face to push the Hybrid's head back. Kor went over backwards with a surprised shout and a sudden stilling of the air, and somehow just managed to twist his body in such a way that he landed more or less comfortably on his side, rather than cracking the back of his head on the loose but not particularly forgiving sand.

The loquiri stood over him, waited, and once the stillness faded away smacked the Hybrid with his Gift. Kor winced.

"My, this is going to be even easier than I thought," Naftis said, backing away to the other side of the circle to give Kor room.

The loquiri allowed the Second to rise to his feet, then came after him again, knocking him from his feet. And then again the next time, Bull Rushing him from the circle. Then again, with an elbow to the stomach despite Elam's shouted, "Come on, Kor!"

"Traitor," Naftis laughed as the Hybrid spit out sand. "Again, Hybrid. Get up. And do say 'yes, Sair' this time..."

Kor dove automatically into his Gift three times during the ten minute spar, and tried to hold onto the stillness the third time in order to prevent Naftis' inevitable jab. The loquiri only waited patiently above the pretty much already-defeated Hybrid, smiling. "Go ahead. Wear yourself out."

Kor glared up at him, eyes narrowed in concentration, then grimaced as they both felt the stillness at last fade away. With his Gift no longer quieted, Naftis struck with a smile, to Kor's satisfying flinch, then probed the Hybrid quickly and roughly to check on his Gift. He grinned wider at the wavering flame that he sensed.

"All right, ael kinth, that's enough Gift-work for today. You may get up." He smirked as Kor rose unsteadily and staggered a little. "One last thing..."

"Kyda!" Kor groaned, "What now?"

Naftis curled a finger toward Elam, and the boy sprang toward them, grinning. He dug through his pockets, then pulled out a vial of dark liquid Kor thought he recognized. "Here ya go!" Elam piped.

Naftis took it and passed it to Kor with a sober expression that did not quite reach his eyes. "Terran needs to be sure you can protect your Fay-el, even if you've overused your Gift, been drugged, are ill or are injured. Unless you Aquila are hardier than I thought, you've already got a hangover. Also, I've worn you out, you've not yet eaten and with a little somna to prevent you from accidentally overusing your Gift, you should be ready for Terran." He snorted. "Or rather, he'll be ready for you."

"You've got to be jesting---" Kor started.

Naftis held up a hand. "My, Terran's right, you do say that often!" He started for Elam. "Drink up! And hurry; you're already a mark or so late for your session with your blademaster."

< >

Terran’s smile made Kor nearly turn around and head back the way he had come. The blademaster was certain to hunt him down and still insist on his spar, however. Instead, the Hybrid wearily unsheathed his shitans and stalked to the center of the circle. “I’m ready, sair.”

He laughed. “Eager, are we?”

Kor groaned lowly. “Just beat me into the dust so I can rest.”

“No. I’ll beat you into the dust and then you’ll guard Jin. And then sleep.” Terran stepped into the circle and shifted into Ravin in Flight. “Don’t slack and—“ he straightened slightly, “You did take the somna?”

“Not yet. It will make me drowsy, and I need my wits where you’re concerned.”

“I’m flattered.” His eyes narrowed. “Drink it.”

“Terran.”

“You die and I have to find another Second all over again.”

Kor snorted. “How terribly inconvenient for you.”

Terran grinned. “Aye. Drink the somna.”

The Hybrid pulled out the bottle, plugged his nose, and gulped down several swallows. He shoved the bottle back into its place and scowled at Terran. “Ready.”

“Good.”

The spar passed quickly. Kor spent most of it on the ground, or headed for the ground. Without his Gift, when Terran did corner him, there was no way for him to escape. He was beaten, thrown, knocked, and kicked over the circle’s edge until, mercifully, evening shadows lengthened across the sand.

The blademaster sank his fingers into Kor’s tunic and hauled him to his feet. “That is enough for the day.”

“Praise Eppa,” he groaned.

“Now you can guard Jin until morning.”

Kor’s sigh was long and dramatic. Terran rolled his eyes. “It is only until dawn. You can manage a few hours, can’t you?”

“Aye.”

Terran frowned. “Was there something about needles, by the way? Jin was muttering about it when I saw him this morning. Did you do something to him last night?”

Kor grinned, but said nothing. The blademaster shook his head. “It’s a wonder Jin hasn’t killed you yet.”

Kor nodded cheerfully enough. "He does not have to like me, he just needs to let me keep him safe."

Terran sighed ever so slightly. "It takes him time to warm up to new people. You should spend more time with your brother. And your sister, as well." He nodded when the Hybrid spread his hands pointedly. "Well, aye, you're busy now. But Naftis will not be training you forever, and if you work hard, eventually you'll only have to face me once a day." He grinned ferally. "Eventually." He gestured for Kor to go away. "Go eat something. Then go to our Fay-el. He will not get used to you until he's been stuck with you for a while."

Kor winced a little inwardly at that. Stuck with me? Then he shrugged it off. He was just hungover and in a bad mood because of it.

"I'd better go talk to him before I eat. I'm going to need his permission for what I'd like to try on him this time."

Terran shook his head. "You are his Second. Remember that. You do not need his permission where his safety is concerned."

"Perhaps," Kor grinned wearily. "But in this, I'd be more comfortable with his consent."

Terran nodded absently. "I do not suppose you are going to explain what you are talking about---" The Hybrid offered a secretive smile and Terran nodded again "---so I will just leave you to it."

"Aye," Kor grinned. "Good night."

"And you," Terran said. Then, as Kor was walking away--- "Oh, and Second... if I ever catch you drinking to excess again..." He did not need to finish the sentence for Kor to hear the threat in his voice.

Kor nodded soberly over his shoulder. "Aye, Sair."

<>

When Gift prickled down his spine, Jin turned with a resigned sigh. Kor grinned at him as he approached.

“Miss me?”

“Terran and Naftis already finished with you?”

The Hybrid nodded. “Until tomorrow, at least. I think they are determined to exhaust me.”

“I doubt that is even possible.” Jin turned back and sorted his messages once again, reaching for his lune in habit—and then jerked his hand back, feeling heat rush into his face.

Kor squeezed his shoulder. “Looking for something?”

Jin shook his hand away and stood, fumbling through Elam’s pile of “treasures” until he found something heavy and broad enough—a rounded stone—to weight his messages against the desert winds.

He frowned as he scanned the tent. “You could clean up this mess, Kor.”

“I will. Eventually. I have projects I am working on.”

Jin sighed. “Aye.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “You might as well jab me and get it over with. I would like to sleep.”

“A little early for you. Did Caylia return to Ratacca Korr?”

“She is speaking with Rowan—ah…” he glared at Kor. “Not that it is your business.”

The Second shrugged. “Perhaps not. Healing and the Derk-ra venom is more my business, eh?”

Jin groaned lowly. “Just get the needle and get on with it.”

“Actually, no needle today. I have something else in mind.”

He flicked a sidelong glance. “Somehow, I know I shall dread this.”

"Perhaps not," Kor said. He did, however, know the Fay-el would not like the idea he had, and took a deep breath. "I need to do three things. None of which you will care for, I think, but also none of which should truly harm you."

"Just speak frankly," Jin growled. "I do not wish to play mind games with you."

Kor tensed ever so slightly. "Very well. First, I would like to draw a blade across the palm of your hand, like was done during my Confirmation. Well, perhaps a little more shallow than you cut your own hand. A fine line..."

Jin already looked displeased, but turned two of his fingers about in a slow circle, encouraging Kor to get on with it.

"Then I would, um, like to spread Derk-ra venom over the cut and---"

"Absolutely not!" Jin snapped.

Kor winced. "Jin... Fay-el... I need to test to see whether the needles from these past nights have successfully granted you immunity."

"Then you can wait until the next time I fight a Derk-ra and am poisoned with its bite," Jin insisted. "You are not going to deliberately poison me, Second."

Kor shook his head. "And if you are alone and away from aid, the next time you are bitten?"

"I always carry calaba with me, and you or someone else will undoubtedly always be at my side."

Kor shook his head slowly. "What if I am killed when we are together, and in the battle that claims my life something happens and you too wounded to prepare the calaba for yourself, or you lose it, or it is taken from you?" He rested a hand on Jin's shoulder, but the Fay-el shrugged it off. "These things are unlikely, yes, but they could happen. I would rather test to see if you are immune, here where I can watch you and address any problem that may arise."

Jin gritted his teeth. "Very well. I do not like it, but I see the logic. And what is the third thing that I will not like, Second?"

Kor smiled a little. "After I test your immunity, I'd like to Mend the cut."

Jin relaxed a little. "That is not so bad." He glanced sideways at the Hybrid. "Well... Will it make me so tired, if you are only tending a shallow cut?"

"I do not know," Kor said honestly. "Each time I was Mended, it tired me equally, but..." His hand rose to his chest in remembrance.

"Aye, Veritas laid you open pretty harshly." He bit his lip, then sighed. "Very well, Second, just do it."

Kor bit his lip too, eyes slightly darker than normal. "Yes, Fay-el," he said, and without his normal mocking smile.

< >

After disappearing briefly to pass his shitan through the fire, Kor withdrew the jar of venom and motioned for Jin to lie down. The Fay-el obeyed, and laid his hand at his side, palm up.

Kor used his free hand to pin him slightly, and dragged the point of the blade slowly across his palm. Blood welled immediately. Dipping his fingers in the thick venom, he smeared it across his hand and then rocked back on his heels with a satisfied smile. “That should do it. If you feel anything odd, make sure you tell me.”

“Aye, Kor.” He closed his eyes and relaxed into his pillow. “If I do have a reaction, however, no more poking with needles.”

His Second sighed. “Aye, Jin.”

He didn’t realize he had dozed off until someone was gently shaking his shoulder. “Jin?”

His eyes fluttered open and he sat up. “What?”

“How do you feel? Actually…” Kor’s Gift brushed over him. He smiled. “Ah, besides a slightly higher pulse, you’re fine.”

“Wonderful.” Jin said dryly. He held out his hand, and Kor took it.

The Fay-el shivered as the Mend wafted over him. The weariness was still present, but not as powerful as the first few times.

“I hated to wake you before.” Kor said quietly. “You slept so peacefully.” His eyes narrowed and he took Jin’s shoulders in hand, firmly pushing him back onto the bed. “I don’t need you awake now. Go back to sleep.”

“Make sure you eat, Kor.” he said, and shifted to his side, stretching out to his full height.

His Second chuckled softly. “No argument? Are you warming up to me, Fay-el?”

“Be quiet, Kor,” Jin muttered drowsily.

With a quiet snicker, his Second draped a blanket over his shoulders. “Good night, Jin.”
She squinted at the sun as it found its way lower on the horizon. Late. Later than she meant to be at least. But then again she had slept later than she meant in the comfort of Rowan’s tent. The woman had been kind, but at the same time had taken her quite firmly in hand, providing her with shift and blanket and bedroll. Caylia had provided the light.
What is it?” the Dragonian woman asked, watching her.

“I don't know.” She paused shook herself, quirked a smile. “I mean it's a lune. But,” she pursed her lips, running a thumb over its smooth surface. “I don't know if that's all it is.”

“And what does that mean?”

“I'm not sure. But once I know I'll set it to my strings and let them tell you.”


The lune. Her lune now, she supposed, and smiled softly. It was safely tucked away with her wood oil. And Jin had given it to her. To her. She felt warmth uncoil in her belly for a moment, and shook her head to take the color from her cheeks.”

She had already congratulated Daliah and Layole when they had emerged, latest of all, that morning. The Dragonian woman looked a little flushed, but the new husband and wife still seemed distracted from others and disappeared as quickly as they had come. Now there was only one other person the bard needed to speak with before she took her leave, and she found her stirring a cook pot at the edge of a new campfire.

“Rowan.”

“Caylia of Settar.”

She smiled. “Thank you again for your hospitality. And the use of your tent.”

“And you’re most welcome. Now what else was it that you wanted to ask?” Caylia raised her brows and the other grinned. “Come now, dear, you thanked me this morning when you left. I’m not as young as you, but I’m not old either, and neither is my mind. You certainly asked me enough things last night.”

Caylia grinned little sheeplishly. “Aye. Forgive me. I forget what I have done and haven’t done sometimes and sometimes questions and riddles take me places before I even realize it.” She shifted a little awkwardly. “I’m not sure what the tradition is among the Dragonians, but one of the many things Maran bards do is keep the Mara’s history, and record cultures. Not only does it keep our identity but it strengthens us. Knowledge is more powerful than a sword sometimes,” she let a wry grin touch her lips, “though I think that’s not always appreciated nor realized.” Without advisors could a king rule? Without a history, could a country know itself? Could treaties be made? She sighed and shook herself. “So…with that being said you were a..Sai…Sae?

“Saie.”

“Saie. And you serve as a mentor to all the young women in the tribe?” A nod. “Did you know Karli? She was Elam’s mother of course.”

A pause, a moment of silence. “I knew her. I knew her quite well.” She tapped her chest. “I was her sponsor in a way. Introducing her to Dragonians ways and taking care of details that men don’t think of. They can be sloppy sometimes, for all they pretend not to be. So yes, I was a mentor for her as well.”

Caylia raised her brows. Aha... There had been too much pain in Chrys's voice for her to want to continue and the records in Ratacca Korr had only provided a birth and deathdate. That and the surprise of Ravin. But here...She paused, and the words found their way off her lips.

“What was she like? His Karli?” It had been the question she had been wanting to ask, but not letting herself and what was worse and even a little embarrassing, the woman seemed not surprised in the slightest, nor needed to ask who ‘his’ was.

“Ah, Karli, so you know about her?”

“I am Maran and a scholar. I know of our Fay-el's sister. And...Jin has spoken about her as part of something larger, but his speech hasn't always been in words. I need it of course for my notes,” she added hastily.

She nodded knowingly. “I see. And I'm sure it is only for professional curiosity that you're asking?” Caylia colored. “If you know Chrys, then you would understand when I say Karli was a more female version of Chrys when it came to temper. After all, she was his sister. Her temper wasn’t as quick as Chrys though, she was far too feminine for that, but when it came it was just as explosive as her brother’s.” She shook her head, remembering. “It was surprising coming from that fine, delicate body. In that she was more like Elam. The same long fingers, the same face, the some honey browned hair. When you look at him, when the sun catches right, you see her.”

“One of the reasons Jin’s so protective on him then.”

“One of the reasons.” Ah more secrets then. Caylia marked it for another time. “In person, don't give me that look child, I know you want to know, she was laughter and chatter and light. She could cook and sew and loved simple little things. She loved to dance and she would chatter to Jin when no one else would when he first came to Chrys's court.”

There was silence for a moment before the bard spoke softly. “He still loves her.”

Rowan shrugged a little. “Of course. She was his first love.” Silence descended for a moment and Caylia found herself focusing on the desert behind the woman's shoulder, the late sun throwing colors of reds and golds from the sand and a lump formed in her throat. Then in that way of seeing that was so much like the Uhl, the older woman chuckled and placed a hand on Caylia's shoulder. “There are all sorts of love, young one, and it is never as narrow as one could possibly think.”

She paused as thoughts came and went then shook herself, trying to shed the worry like water but instead letting it curl tightly and lodge somewhere in her belly. “I'm sorry, this isn't like me,” she laughed, patting at her cheeks which had turned pale rose, “not like me at all. Or maybe it is and I just never noticed, too wrapped up in what other people were doing, writing, being. I follow stories, hunt them down, bring them to life even. Find the little nuances that don't make sense and discover a new one, or disprove what was once thought as fact. I'm the observer, but this one has drawn me into the middle it, caught me and I'm suddenly somewhere I've never been before. I honestly don't know what's wrong me.” I've earned four bloody black stars and here I am flushing every moment like some beginning child! Thank the Luckbringer Ru isn't here. Or any of the Masters for that matter.

Rowan lifted her shoulders and smiled but asked instead, “Will you be returning here?”

Caylia shook her thoughts away. “To the camp? Aye. Well..I’m going to Apollar to see if your men find some derk-ra. And I’ve been invited, or…maybe I invited myself, I don’t remember,” she waved a hand. “No matter, but Jin has allowed me to come along into the wetlands, to see how this story plays out. It’s going to be a good one,” she flashed a grin. “I feel it in my blood.”

The woman raised her brows. “Oh?”

“Aye.” She paused and tapped her lip in thought. “He is interesting though isn't he? The Fay-el I mean. Not what I expected when I first met him, when I thought someone was going to get killed in Ratacca Korr, or what I expected from a Fay-el. And I've met many of those, annoyed some too when I refused their commissions. But he's interesting. Her eyes got distant for a moment, considering. He reminds me of someone from tale who got caught in another and can't get out again. As if he's trapped between two worlds sometimes. Ah but that makes little sense…, A wind came off the nearby Rim and brushed by them, laden with the scent of the high places of ice and snow, and she remembered where she was and shook herself. “Ah but I ramble. It was nice meeting you, Rowan.”

The other woman smiled warmly. “And you, Caylia.”


~*~


Caylia found Jaara rousing herself from a nap and leaned against the doorframe of her room. The woman stretched, shaking cobwebs from her head, saw Caylia, and scowled. The bard frowned. “Do you need a bowl?”

A pause, a slow shake of her head. “No…not. No.” She eyed the girl. “Where were you? With the Dragonians again?”

“Aye. We…well Hamen and I will be traveling with them soon.” She flashed a grin. “The Second had a pretty bruise from you this morning.”

Jaara grunted. “The ael kinth deserved it.”

“In that I agree.” She found her way to a chair and drew up her feet. “But well, they plan to go to Apollar, your homeland, to find some derk-ra to train. Hamen is going, as he is a trainer, and I am going…will you?”

“Derk-ra to train? Or derk-ra to kill and hang their crowns from their weapons like barbarians?”

Caylia blinked and rubbed her neck awkwardly. She had forgotten about that. Such a practice would not go over well in Apollar, any other province, maybe, but not Apollar. “No…not that. They would like to use derk-ra in battle as you use Khyr. It is your home province after all, they would benefit from your knowledge of not only the land but of derk-ra. That and well…we’ve been together as a group for so long, you, Hamen, and I. At least it seems that way sometimes. I wouldn’t mind your company.”

The woman frowned in thought, fingers drumming a beat on a side table, then a firm nod. “Yes, I think I will. I can’t expect Dragonians and an ael kinth to be able to manage derk-ra. Or rather Hamen to be able to handle all of them without help. But,” her face darkened, “if I see a crest adorning one of their shitans I will make sure they understand how...”

Caylia raised her hand, letting the threat go unfinished. “Of course. And if we pass through lands of your Fay-el?”

She shifted and sighed. “I will handle it of course. Although if the high Fay-el’s kinsman is along I do not think it will be a problem.”

The bard grinned again. “I don’t think our Dragonians quite know what is waiting for them in the deeper areas of the desert. I don’t even think the Second has a tent.” Jaara snorted and reached for a brush to smooth her sleep tousled tresses. “I plan on speaking to Fay-el Chrys and see if he can provide some extra gear.” They would need linkas, that was for sure. Away from the sea, the sun was so hot it burned the moisture right out of the skin if they weren’t covered from head to toe with the clinging fabric, and a man could dehydrate without even noticing. And then there were the storms that blew up from nowhere bringing flashes of rain and Windrunner knew what else. The larger tents of the Dragonians were meant for living, not desert travel like the tents she, Jaara and Hamen owned. A tent too large or set in the wrong direction could be blown away or collapse in the middle of the night on a sleeper. And then there were the temperature changes. She shook her head. You always know who the Luckbringer favors in the deep parts of the desert.

< >

Jin checked his stallion’s saddle girth with a careful hand, chuckling as the big horse snorted, tramping a hoof against the sand. “Ready to run, are you Doblo?”

The stallion turned his head to nip at his master’s shoulder. Jin shoved the muzzle away from him. “None of that now.”

Snorting again, the stallion mouthed the bit and pawed at the ground once more. Jin smiled. Weeks of racing around the horse pens did little to ease the proud horse’s restless energy. He patted Doblo’s neck affectionately and left him there, returning to his nearly empty tent.

The supplies Chrys had provided would make their trip much easier. Smaller, lighter tents, dried meat and dates, extra waterskins, and these filmy linkas.

With a frown, he unfolded the neatly arranged linka cloth spread over his bed. He could make out a hood and ties to help keep it still, but make no other sense of it. Too much like a woman’s shift.

“Sire?”

He glanced up, and then smiled. “Yes?”

Layole stepped cautiously into the tent, glancing about out of habit. Jin laughed. “You’re not my Second anymore. What do you need?”

“Are you certain—that is—I could just wait here.”

The Fay-el shook his head. “There is no need for the tribe to remain in the desert. I am ready to go home.”

“Aye,” Layole murmured. “But me lead them to the borderlands?”

“You’ve led before.”

“Aye, but this is not the wetlands. I am crossing the Mara, even if just to the borderlands.”

“Chrys has already promised you two Border Guard guides. You will be safe.” He took a step forward, clasping his shoulder. “I have confidence in you.”

Smiling to himself, Jin moved into the warming sunlight and stretched, before scowling at the linka cloth again. He slipped the cloth around his throat, trying and failing to arrange it into the hooded cloak he had seen Ravin and Hamen both wearing.

It blocked his vision and he clawed at it, throwing his head back to clear his eyes. Jin muttered under his breath and rearranged it. No use. Now the edge of the cloth was digging into his neck, catching on the rest of his clothing.

He fumbled with it again, and only managed to make it worse. Frustrated, he pulled it free and scowled down at the bloody cloth. “This is nearly as annoying as Kor,” Jin muttered.

"At least it doesn't try to talk back." Jin looked up to see Caylia, arms crossed and trying unsuccessfully to bite back a grin. "And you said you went to school in the desert," she teased gently.

He grimaced sheepishly. "It's been a long time."

"Do you need help?"

“Aye, if you please. I fear I’m going to choke myself on this.”

Caylia laughed lightly and stepped closer to him. She took the linka from his hands and, as he bent down a little, tucked it over his head. Her scent flooded into his nose—floral mingled with an herbal soap. Jin didn’t move, barely breathing as she pulled it over his shoulders. Unawares, Caylia’s fingers brushed against the back of his neck.

He swallowed. His eyes had shifted to her mouth, lips pursed slightly as she concentrated on her task. She leaned forward slightly to tuck one end of the cloth beneath the other in a hard to reach spot behind his neck and stretch the hood, warm breath brushing his cheek, his ear.

Then she pulled back, two ends of linka cloth in her hands. “Chin up, please,” she commanded gently. When he obliged, she pulled the ends back around themselves and tucked them beneath one another, hooks catching on the fabric. “There, that’s done. Now the hood…” her arms reached back again and, with an impish smirk, she pulled the hood up and low over his eyes. “Ah, perfect.”

Jin smiled. She returned the expression, mirth broadening across her face until she was nearly beaming. Her eyes danced with a lovely light. Jin’s hand moved of its own accord, cupping her chin lightly.

His voice softened to a low, husky note. “Thank you, Caylia.”

Her hand came up, touching his lightly. “Any time.” He felt her swallow. “Jin.”

His eyes slid to her mouth again, and then his head moved, dipping lower. Her breath quickened. Jin could feel the warmth brushing against his face and mouth as he moved closer. His other hand slid around her back, tangling in her hair. She shivered.

“Jin, Terran said to tell you about..” Kor’s voice began and then cut off.

The Fay-el blinked and abruptly pulled back, turning away with a feigned cough. Heat rushed into his cheeks. Kor glanced at him quizzically, and then his eyes shifted to Caylia with an amused look, before he continued as if nothing had been seen or noticed.

“He said that you should ensure Hamen keeps those white monsters under control, perhaps with a few of your tribesmen who are already immune to their venom.” Kor smiled, shrugging. “And to warn you that Talen refused to be ‘jabbed by barbaric needles’.”

Jin frowned. “I will speak with him.”

Caylia took a few more moments to finish her intense study of the ground before she licked her lips. “Erm…I um can assure Hamen knows what he’s doing. He’s…he’s very good. I need to speak with him anyways about the Derk-ra and I probably should be going to do that now.”

"No rush, I think," Kor said casually. "I had better go deal with Talen."

Jin cleared his throat. "Yes," the Fay-el said. "You do that." Beside him, Caylia's cheeks positively flamed, although she studied the ground carefully, breathing softly and trying to calm herself. She had tilted her head slightly, trying to hide her face with her hair.

Cursing himself a little silently, Kor crept out of the tent. Jin and Caylia had been sort of dancing around one another for the last few days, casually but unofficially courting one another. And now, when they'd finally... He shook his head ruefully.

He found Talen in the practice ring, sparring with Joran. Kor's little brother was darting agilely around the warrior, worrying his every side as Talen fended off each attack firmly. The warrior looked almost bored, and barely even distracted as he glanced Kor's way.

"Halt," he snapped at Joran. The teenager immediately broke off, stepping back a measure and allowing his janin arm to fall to his side. He flashed a grin at Kor, who smiled back in greeting

"I don't even know why you're bothering," Talen snapped, striding toward the Second. "I already said no. This business of jabbing people with needles, it's---"

"---Worked on every warrior so far who agreed to it," Kor interrupted impatiently, "as well as on Caylia... the Fay-el... and every child in the camp whose parents allowed them to be immunized. Why are you being so difficult?"

Talen smiled arrogantly. "Hybrid... I have fought Derk-ra many times. Never once have I been bitten or even so much as scratched."

"There is a first time for everything," Kor pointed out.

"Not for me."

The Hybrid sighed and shook his head. "Very well, have it your way. But when your time finally does come, and you're bitten, do not bloody well come crying to me!"

"My time will not come," Talen assured him, then began striding back toward Joran. "Now if you'll excuse me," he said over his shoulder. "I need to continue training your brother." He smirked. "His sword arm is already better than yours."

Kor nodded, smiling proudly at Joran. The boy beamed back, swinging the janin lightly. "I'm sure it is."

< >

As Caylia excused herself once again and left him, Jin held his peace. She left and he stalked into his tent, slumping down onto his bed. His heart beat pounded against his ribs. Closing his eyes, the Fay-el took several deep breaths, but his body was not cooperating. He could still feel the warmth of her body in his arms, the softness of her hair, the faint scent of her skin.

Cursing Kor and himself, Jin jumped to his feet and strode to Doblo’s side. He needed to clear his mind, to think clearly and not with his feelings. Mounting the big stallion, he turned his head toward the open desert—toward Apollar for scouting, if anyone should ask—and squeezed his legs.

The stallion obeyed without anymore urging, unfolding into the long, loping strides of a Dragonian war-horse.

He didn’t go far. Kor would be upset, and find him with Gift, painfully. But Jin wandered out of camp, riding his stallion until his flanks specked with lather, before coming back to find the restlessness only slightly appeased.

His tent was gone. The last of his belongings put away on the back of the pack horses or in the different travois that Layole and the tribe would take to the borderlands. Kor said not a word when the Second walked up to him, obviously waiting for his return.

He patted Doblo’s neck absently, sidestepping the nip at his hand with a solid slap to the muzzle, and pointed at the closest cook fire. “You should eat, Jin.”

“Aye.” Jin dismounted and stalked away. And still the restlessness—the longing twisted and muttered in his chest. Even while he ate, and made last minute preparations for their departure in a few hours, he felt uneasy, distant from what was being said and done around him.

Finally, frustrated, he jumped to his feet and stalked away. Kor’s Gift touched him, lightly, and then withdrew. At least the bloody Hybrid had learned some tact. Though, judging by his timely interruption, not much tact.

Jin paced through the camp, not really seeing anyone, until his eyes lighted upon Caylia, back to him and his lune cupped in her hand. He came up to her slowly, hesitantly. “Caylia?”

She glanced back at him, red rising into her face. Jin pretended not to notice—his mind scrambling for some reason to speak with her. “Ah…I was wanting to ask you if….horses. I saw that you were….just your feet.” He sighed, and closed his eyes. The Fay-el sorted through his thoughts, before trying again. “Do you have your own horse for this journey?”

“Ah…um,” she hastily tucked the lune away. “I…my own? I borrowed one from the School when Jaara made her appearance in Settar and since arriving at Crossroads,” she frowned, brow furrowing slightly in thought. “Trinity, I haven’t the faintest idea where it is. I suppose it’s in the stables at Ratacca Korr.”

“Well, you certainly can’t travel on your feet.” He smiled. One hand reached for her arm, and then withdrew. “This way.”

Jin walked away slowly, checking over his shoulder several times until he was certain she followed. They headed for the horse pickets, where the tribe’s equine wealth was kept safe and well-cared for.

A rough, temporary horse pen had been built for the few that would simply root up their pickets. Doblo was one of those—his wild nature and stallion instincts driving him. Caylia glanced at the big red, eyes on the sweat-drenched flanks.

Jin answered the unspoken question. “I went…scouting. I don’t know the route to Apollar well.”

“Oh.” She rested her hands against the wood.

Jin gently nudged her away. “I would not. He is very…wild. Doblo has tried to kill me before, and tramples anyone that gets too close.”

“Then why do you keep such a mean-tempered beast? What if he does manage to kill you?”

He glanced at her. Worry flared across her features. He smiled. “That beast has trampled my enemies too. And no man has ever managed to steal him.”

Caylia managed a weak smile and looked away. Jin tapped her shoulder once, lightly, and stepped to the side. “These are much tamer.”

She held out a hand, palm up, toward the cluster of horses. Each had a small brand on their flanks—though whether the bard recognized it or not he did not know. The emblem was a simplistic form of Bran-Kir’s sigil. A snake pinned beneath a dragon’s claws, reduced to a squiggly line pinned by two diamonds.

The bard laughed softly as one snuffed at her hand, and another nipped at her hair.

“They’re looking for some sugar,” Jin said. “Lunra there will go for your pockets.”

True to his word, the speckled-gray mare dipped her head and nudged at Caylia’s waist. The bard’s laugh was louder. Jin smiled. He was beginning to love that sound.

The Fay-el moved closer, pushing the mare’s head aside as she turned her attention to him. A thought slid into his mind. Jin glanced at Caylia, grinning a little wider. “Pick one.”

“Fay-el..”

Jin, he emphasized. “You need a horse for the journey. We have plenty for everyone. Choose a horse for yourself.”

She hesitated eyes darting between him and the horses. "Jin," she said lowly, "really, this is too much. I mean...I've traveled by foot before and I'm sure I could borrow some that weren't so...nice." Her face looked a little pained for a moment. "It's very gracious..."

"You mean to travel the wetlands on foot?"

"No, but..."

"And you need a Dragonian horse for travel in the wetlands. If you borrowed one from Chrys you would be taking him far a field."

Her eyes found his for a moment, stayed then tangled unwillingly free and she quirked a smile. "You're right. You are. Right." She looked again at the horses. "I'm no judge of horseflesh, though. I don't know what I'm looking for."

Jin nodded. “That I can help with. I know horses relatively well.” He caught the halter of one, patting its neck. “This one will have speed, but that uneasy flick of the ears—she is likely to bolt the wrong direction as the right one.”

He glanced over the others, moving on to a darker chestnut. “This one has endurance—see the deep chest—but he will not be very fast.” Quietly, he pointed out a few others, helping her to notice a few of the signs, before turning and leading the same speckle-gray filly as before. “If I were to choose one…for you…” he swallowed. “Lunra is very steady, with a smooth stride and long legs. She has most of her sire’s endurance, but none of his temper.”

“Then I think that is the one I will accept.”

“Good.” He laid the lead rope in Caylia’s hands. “She is yours.”

Her eyes snapped up. Jin swallowed. “For the journey. Yours for the journey.” And longer, if you would but talk to me again, friends again. I am sorry—I should not—I just wanted— He pushed his thoughts down and said instead, “Her name means fairy dust.”

She smiled softly. "Thank you," she murmured, patting the horse's neck. "Really Jin, she's beautiful. Fairy dust...That is supposed to be a good thing too, I believe. Who named her?"

Jin bit his lip and looked away. “I did.”

Caylia inhaled sharply. “Jin.”

“It is my choice, Caylia. I would…worry if you were…” He sighed, words and thoughts caught up in a web of longing and concern and hesitance. “Just take her and do not argue. Please?”

“Aye, Jin.” She said softly.

Their eyes met again. Somewhere, deep inside, that restlessness eased away, into a weary ache. He reached up, brushing hair away from her face. “Take care, Caylia,” he said, voice deep and husky.

And then turned away, before he stumbled and reached for her once again.
Jin went searching for Kor.

He slouched down at the redhead’s side, turning his back to the Second. “Put me to sleep.”

“Say what?”

“Your Gift. I’ve seen Veritas do it to Chrys before. Make me sleep. Please.”

Kor frowned, eyes flicking over the lines of his Fay-el's back and neck worriedly. "Why?"

"Just do it, Kor." There was a note in his voice that made the Hybrid's heart ache for him. If only I had not interrupted them... What if she rejected him? He has seemed so happy around her...

The Second rested his hand on Jin's shoulder. When the Fay-el did not snap at him to leave him be, he rubbed his back in a slow circle worriedly. He did not even need to seize his Gift to feel the tension in the other man's body, to sense his bone deep weariness. But it was not a physical thing that ailed him. At least, not precisely.

"You would do well to talk about it," he said soothingly.

A sharp note entered the weary voice. "I do not wish to discuss it, Kor." He turned a little to glare over his shoulder at the redhead. "If you will not do this, then what good are you?"

Kor winced inwardly but continued reasonably. "If something is bothering you, it would be better to work it out, rather than sleep and have to deal with it later."

Jin's green eyes looked very dark. "Second, perhaps I did not make myself clear. I do not want to talk to you about this."

Hurt flashed briefly across the Hybrid's face, drowned almost immediately in a bright, if uneasy smile. "Well, then," he said lightly. "Who would you like to talk to, Fay-el? Tell me, and I will fetch him---or her---for you."

“No one.” Jin stood abruptly. “I will see if Hamen is nearly ready. I want to leave within a point.”

A Derk-ra’s scream punctuated the end of his sentence. The Fay-el scowled. “Kyda,” he snapped, and stalked away.

Kor allowed him to go unaccompanied. The Fay-el would stay within camp boundaries, and this was one time the Hybrid’s presence would not be tolerated. It would be even better if Caylia stumbled across him, while he was alone.

As the screams rose again, feral Derk-ra on the hunt, Kor stood and left the fire. At the very least, he could make sure the sentry circles remained intact.

Two sentries and Talen were laughing, using the flash of moonlight on their shitans and their own, crouching leaps to keep a young male Derk-ra within sight. A youth stood nearby, shitans held in trembling hands, waiting for them to wear the beast down a little.

Kor leaned against a tent and watched from the shadows. Talen continued to worry its side, back and forth, glancing up only to motion the boy forward. “Come on, ra. No crest if you don’t do something.”

The youth inched forward, then paused, shuddering again. Talen frowned. “Come on.”

This time, the youth leaped into an attack, driving his shitans uselessly at thick neck scales. The blade turned in his hand, flying away to land with a thump in the sand. Without thought, the youth turned his back on the excited Derk-ra and scrambled for the blade. Talen cursed as the beast leaped for the youth.

He threw himself into its path, driving the blade toward its chest, but the Derk-ra saw his movement and twisted in midair. Talons sinking into his side, the beat bore Talen down, knocking the breath out of him with an audible gasp. He shoved his arm up into its jaws, and scrabbled for his shitan with the other. It was simple, then, to spear the beast through the tender exposed neck underneath.

As it twitched in death throes, Talen shoved the weight free and stood. He glanced at his bitten arm and sighed. “Kyda…” His gaze came up, landing on the smirking Hybrid as he strode closer. “ Kyda,” he snapped, emphatically.

Kor curled a single finger toward him. "I told you. I bloody told you! Come here."

Talen continued taking the gods' names in vain as Kor examined his arm and the scratches on his side. "Not too deep," the healer mumbled, releasing Talen's arm. "Won't need stitches, in any case, but I'll Mend it anyway."

"I don't want---"

"I don't care what you want," Kor said sweetly. He turned to the youth trembling nearby and gestured with one shitan at the body of the derk-ra. "You'd best clean that up before either of our Apollar guests notice that you're killing their cuddly, fanged, venomous little friends."

"Kyda---" Talen cursed, as Kor wrapped a hand around the man's upper arm, and began to lead him away, leaving the ashamed youth behind with the body of the dead lizard.

He strode back into camp and led Talen to his tent. "You only get to rest an hour before we leave, but I know for a fact one can ride on calaba." He scowled, remembering Terran's tender treatment of him before his Confirmation.

By then, Talen was starting to slump. "Back... numb," he mumbled. "Lips too."

Kor pushed him to his bedroll. "Aye." He glanced around. "The Fay-el has all of you carry calaba, no?"

Talen lifted a hand slightly to point in the corner of his tent, where a change of clothes was folded neatly. "Pocket... trews..." He seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes open.

Kor nodded, and fetched the small satchel of ground bean. "And do you have any of that nasty honey whiskey?"

"B---b..."

The Second sighed. "Stay here, I'll find it."

Talen did not say anything. Obviously, he was not going anywhere. Kor grinned ruefully in memory, then stalked away to find whiskey to blend the calaba into.

He swept his Gift out, searching for Jin. A resigned grumble behind the next row of tents greeted him. He smiled, and went to the Fay-el.

Jin glared at him. "Why can you not look for me like a normal man?" He was helping Naftis and Elam pack to go with Layole.

Kor shrugged. "It's faster this way. Besides, time is of the essence right now." He cocked his head. "Say, where does one find some of that honey whiskey?"

“Are you planning on getting drunk before the trip?” Jin’s voice was almost hopeful.

“No. Talen needs calaba. Besides, Terran would kill me.”

The Fay-el’s lips twitched in a small grin. “I know.”

Kor scowled, hands on his hips. Jin shook his head. “Fine, have it your way. Rometh is usually in charge of that—as his brew is always the best. His tent is about…four tents down that way.” He gestured vaguely to the left.

His Second nodded. “Thank you.”


When Kor returned to Talen’s tent, the warrior was unable to move a finger or even flutter his eyes. The Hybrid poured out measures of whiskey and calaba, before bending over the warrior and tipping the flask to his lips.

“This should help rather quickly.”

Talen sputtered, jerked as the calaba took effect, and then cursed Kor robustly.

Kor shrugged, then snatched one of the warrior's twitching arms. "You should have allowed me to immunize you," he pointed out, finding Talen's pulse. It was strong and fast, but not dangerously so. "That child you dragged out there after that Derk-ra would not be lying here groaning if he'dbeen chomped on."

"He'd... no choice. Parents made him," Talen said through gritted teeth.

The redhead released one of the warrior's arms, only to grasp the other one firmly. "Well," he said, gently turning Talen's arm to inspect the shallow wound left there, "now you, too, have no choice. Tomorrow you will report to me at sunset. I will require no more than five marks of your time."

"I will not be stabbed with your bloody---"

"Yes," the Second said, grasping his Gift. "You will." His eyes narrowed as he began scanning Talen's arm and sides for malignant sparks. "That's an order," he added distantly.

“An order? You cannot bloody order me, you thorla-bred ael—“ Kor’s hand at his jaw, turning his head so they were eye to eye, cut him off.

“I can. I have. Report to me or I will find you.”

Talen’s eyes widened once, briefly, and then narrowed again. Rebellion flashed in his face. Kor released him, sighing inwardly, and returned his attention to the few sparks in his wounds. It was obvious he and Talen would butt heads for a while.

After a few moments, Kor smiled and rocked back on his heels, before laying a blanket over the still-twitching warrior. “No more sparks. I can do that much for you. That and a quick Mend to heal that wound.”

Talen rolled his eyes to glare at the Hybrid. “No.”

Kor shook his head. “It doesn’t hurt. And I’ve done it to Jin several times. It won’t take long at all.”

“No,” Talen growled. “Keep your bloody Gift away from me.”

Kor sighed. “You are a stubborn one. As you wish.” He patted his shoulder, ignoring the warrior’s annoyed sneer. “Better enjoy your rest. Someone will awaken you in an hour.”

< >

The hour to rest was not long enough—and the hours after much too long. Talen clung to his horse with sweat-drenched fingers, bending low over the beast’s neck as the spasms came and went.

He clenched his teeth to keep from groaning aloud. No need to give that bloody ael kinth any more reason to bother him. Hybrids—and this star-struck Gift—just a bother all around.

The other warriors glanced at him sympathetically from time to time, but did little. They made sure his horse continued plodding after the rest, and left him alone. Kor, for his part, glanced back from his place at Jin’s side, a slow grin on his face.

Talen cursed him in his thoughts, but kept his opinion to himself. It would only waste energy that he needed to endure these Kyda-blasted cramps.

Jin utterly ignored him, eyes distant. There was something bothering the Fay-el, but the warrior lacked even that much mental energy to work it out. Nor was it likely—with Jin’s natural reticence—that he could puzzle it out.

Gritting his teeth, he nudged his horse alongside Jin's. Kor watched him approach with narrowed eyes, then seemed to shrug slightly and, with a smile, pulled his reins short to back off a little and give them room. His smile was mocking, and Talen glared over his shoulder at him, then turned to Jin.

"Fay-el?"

Jin smiled absently at him, eyes passing over him assessingly. "Yes, Talen? How do you feel?"

"It is not... so bad," Talen lied. "But I would feel better if you would tell that ael kinth to respect my decision regarding those barbarous needles."

Jin frowned a little. "Did he not tell all the warriors that you are to submit to this cure of his?"

"He tried," Talen growled. "I said no, but the bloody Hybrid told me to report to him tomorrow night."

The Fay-el's eyes hardened, and he nodded to himself. "Ah. Well." He fixed Talen with an iron stare. "You have your orders."

“What? Fay-el!”

“You cannot obey my Second?”

Talen stammered, mouth gaping but no words came. Jin’s eyes narrowed. “As I said—you have your orders. I expect you to be cured of Derk-ra venom by the time we reach Apollar.” The Fay-el shifted his attention away in an obvious dismissal. “Kor.”

The Hybrid nudged his horse forward, shouldering his way to the left side once more, eyebrows arching at Talen. The warrior scowled and jerked his horse about, retreating from the bloody Hybrid’s presence. Hitting the Fay-el’s Second, with the Fay-el present, was a terribly bad idea.



By the time they halted, the cramps had nearly eased, but Talen did not feel entirely well. He nibbled at gruel, prepared over one small cookfire, and then paced about the camp. Walking helped ease his tight muscles and sooth the other leftover symptoms from the bloody calaba. Most of the men were lounging, dozing lightly as weariness overtook them.

Talen found four warriors who looked the least sleepy and ordered them into the sentry circle. They cast him baleful looks, but obeyed. Talen busied himself ensuring several men for the next watch, and was moving toward the following knot of men when he spotted the Hybrid. Kor smiled at him, and continued speaking with a sentry.

Talen could have cursed himself. He was doing the Second’s job—making sure sentries were assigned—without even thinking about it. Layole had given that task to him before, when it had seemed likely he would be chosen to take his place. Not any longer.

The warrior whirled. At the edge of his vision, he spotted the slowly sinking sun. Kyda take the man if he’d come crawling to that Hybrid!

Talen went searching for Jin. Spotting the Fay-el with his attention on someone else—the bard it seemed—the warrior came up behind him, and then paused.

The Fay-el fidgeted uneasily. He drew small circles in the sand with his hand, or tapped a restless finger against the hilt of his janin. Whatever is the matter with him?

Abruptly, Jin flashed an annoyed glance at him and stood to his feet. He unsheathed his janin with a fluid jerk. “Spar with me, Talen.”

The request, nearly worded as a command, threw him off guard. “Fay-el…I…”

Jin cursed and turned away, catching the eye of one of the warriors seated near him. “You. Come with me. I need to spar for a few marks.”

The warrior glanced at Talen, eyes wide. He only shrugged. With a sigh, the man followed his Fay-el a few feet away, unsheathing shitans as Jin drew a rough circle in the sand.

Talen almost winced for the warrior. Though Terran and a few others were his equal, most of the sentries and other tribesmen could not keep up with Jin’s fast-paced spars, especially with a weapon as unique as the janin.

It was painfully obvious for the warrior, who was disarmed again…and again…and again. The other tribesmen watched the spar with mild interest, though a few frowned slightly. Jin was making quite clear he was still capable of being a strong chieftain.

Someone cleared his throat behind Talen. He turned, and scowled at the Second. “What?”

“It is sunset.”

He clenched his fists. “I want nothing to do with your bloody needles.”

Kor smiled lazily. "I thought I made it clear that I do not particularly care what you want." He fished through a pouch at his waist, and came up with a needle and a small jar of blended venom and calaba.

"I said no," Talen snapped, and turned to stride away. "Leave me be."

Suddenly he felt himself pulled short by the back of his tunic, then forcefully spun around. The Hybrid's face was abruptly very close to his own, faded blue eyes little more than slits in the pale Aquilan face. "I do not want to have a problem with you," the Second said quietly, searching Talen's expression.

Talen snapped his hands upwards, breaking Kor's grasp, then slapped his hands into the Hybrid's chest to shove him away. "Get your bloody hands off of me!"

Kor abruptly closed the distance between the two of them, and Talen stepped back slightly, bringing his arm up in a punch aimed at the Hybrid's nose. The Second ducked fluidly, then rose behind the warrior's follow up swing and caught his arm roughly, yanking it toward his own body and pinning it tightly in the crook of his arm. Talen found himself pulled a step toward Kor, and then snarled directly into the Hybrid's face as he felt a small point of fire pierce his shoulder.

The Second shoved him away in disgust, then pocketed the needle smoothly. He pointed a finger toward Talen. "For my brother's sake, I will pretend you did not just try that."

Jin's shadow fell over the warrior. Talen snapped around, and cringed slightly at the expression on his Fay-el's face.

I am not in the mood for pretending,” he snapped. “You know what I said. And you are quite aware that he is my Second, and thus has the right to order you to bloody well do as he pleases.”

“Jin…I…”

He grabbed Talen by the front of his tunic and hauled him closer, leaning into his face. “You are pushing your luck, Talen,” he snarled. “Obey him. Unless…” The Fay-el shoved him to the ground, standing over the wide-eyed warrior.

Over Jin’s shoulder, Talen could see a handful of the warriors had moved away from the campfire as Jin’s voice grew louder. “Do you think I am unworthy to lead, Talen?” He snapped. “Do you believe my choice of Second was in error?”

The Fay-el drew his janin, whipping it about so the point was close to Talen’s neck. “Challenge me to Coro.”

The warrior gaped at him. He shook his head firmly. “No, sire. I…I simply…”

The point drew closer. Jin’s eyes were alight with green fire. Talen swallowed hard. “I don’t wish to challenge you. Nor your Second. Nor your authority. Please…Jin…”

Kor moved to Jin’s side and laid a hand on his shoulder. “No, Jin,” he said firmly.

“He hit you,” the Fay-el growled.

“He tried to hit me.” The Hybrid squeezed his shoulder lightly. “There is a difference.”

Some of the tension bled out of Jin. He took a deep breath and the point of the janin dipped lower. The Second spoke again, voice quiet but firm. “Talen has served the tribe for many years and always been faithful, a good sentry and warrior. Every man can make a mistake.”

Talen slowly stood and dipped his head respectfully. “I plead your forgiveness, Kor. And yours, Fay-el.”

“Granted,” the Second said. Talen glanced at Jin. The Fay-el scowled, flicking a glare at Kor, and then nodded, before whirling away from Kor’s touch, shoving his janin into its sheath, and stalking out of sight.

Talen found himself being regarded by the now-expressionless redhaired Second, unsure of how he should feel, or what precisely he even was feeling. Resentment, yes, and fear---Kyda, yes that too---but there was gratefulness and relief as well, fueling yet more resentment.

"Tomorrow," Kor said after a moment, all earlier hints of humor gone. "Sunset."

Talen bowed his head in submission and acquiescence, gritting his teeth so that he did not say something stupid.

Without another word, the Second whirled on his heel and stalked across the camp, leaving Talen standing there, humbled.

< >

The Second found Caylia in the unwed maid's section of the camp, pitching her tent alongside Rowan's. The bard had tied her linka back to keep the filmy cloth off of her shoulders as she worked, and she brushed a sheen of sweat from her face as she turned to greet him with a small smile.

"Just to warn you, Second," she said, smile widening but her eyes wincing a little in sympathy, "Jaara only stepped away for a moment." She dipped her chin toward the small, neat tent across from where she was placing her own.

Kor nodded. It would not do to be around when the surly woman returned. He'd only seen Jaara a few times in the past few days---he was avoiding her, in all honesty---but each time he had met her eyes, he'd been sure she was just waiting for an opportunity to deck him again.

"I will not tarry long," he said. He frowned, regarding her for a moment as he thought about what he wanted to say, and she arched her eyebrows. "You... and Jin... need to talk," he said at last.

“Talk about what? Is he asking for me?” Her face flushed. “I mean, there are so many questions I’ve been bothering him with lately, I thought I would give him some time before pestering him again.”

“Please pester him.”

Caylia grinned. “Is he annoying you, Second?”

Kor shook his head. “No. It is not like that.” He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck as he sorted his thoughts. “Caylia….Jin is…is—“ Kor frowned. If he were to say what he suspected—lonely—the Fay-el would probably want to kill him next.

He gestured vaguely toward where he could sense Jin’s presence. “Jin is over there, waiting for you. He wanted to…to ask you something. Or speak to you on some matter.” He quirked a feigned grin. “I should have had him write down his message.”

Caylia laughed. “Somehow, I doubt that is the full truth from you.” She shifted her gaze to something behind his shoulder. “I suppose I can speak to him, as you are certainly giving me no clear message.” She winked at him. “Jaara is back. I don’t think she’s pleased to see you.”

Kor blanched. “Then good day, Caylia.” He strode away, half-turning at the last moment. “Please. Talk to him?”

“Aye. Now shoo.”

< >


"Jin?" The Fay-el turned at the sound of her voice. She looked as if she were about to say something, appraised him for a moment, then, "Did...someone told me you had something you wanted to ask me?" Her eyes were still appraising. "Are you alright?"

“I—I’m fine.” He held her gaze for a moment. “Just fine,” he muttered.

Caylia frowned and moved closer. “What’s wrong?”

His thoughts jumped from one topic to the next, then settled on a likely excuse. “I yelled at Talen, a moment ago. Shouldn’t have.”

“With the way he’s been glaring at your Second, he likely deserved it.”

Jin shrugged. “Perhaps.”

The bard stepped forward and circled in front of him. He frowned. She smiled at him, but did not move out of his path. “What’s wrong, Jin?”

"It's nothing."

"Liar," she responded fondly. "I'm a bard, not a fool. I don't need my Gift to recognize a change in emotion." She frowned slightly in thought. "It can't be good for you, whatever it is."

He looked at her for a moment, and sighed. "Caylia...I don't..." He let it hang and her face softened. She rested a hand on his arm.

"Later then. Instead...let’s play. I want you to try my harp and...I want to show you something. A trick." She smiled a warm smile just for him. "It might be helpful." Her voice softened a little. "Please?"

“Ah…if it…if it makes you happy.”

She beamed at him and Jin’s heartbeat surged. Caylia turned away and found a place to sit, before glancing up at him and patting the ground beside her. Jin hesitated. “Caylia, perhaps I should—“

Some of the light faded from her face. Jin winced inwardly and found himself moving toward her, settling at her side, without thinking about it. She brightened again. He swallowed. “I’m…I have not touched a harp in years, just the lola. So I could…it might not be as good as…why don’t you play and I just listen?”

“No.” Caylia shook her head emphatically and slipped her harp from its place, handing it to him firmly. “You play. I can show you the trick better that way.”

"Besides," her eyes sparkled. "That is the trick. Or part of it. It doesn't matter if you can play it officially or not. One note on my harp before we get started. All these strings are fair game for your fingers, except this one," she touched the smallest. "I found that one somewhere and I'm not sure what its voice is yet. It may be something dangerous, or nothing at all. It would be very irresponsible of me to let you be the one to discover it.” He handled the harp hesitantly and she placed one of his hands firmly against the curved wood.

“ In the school, when you first learn music, they teach you the notes, you learn a pattern, a rhythm and practice it over and over and over again. You learn lays that are predetermined and only start composing your own in the upper levels of the intermediates, and even then it’s only a repetition of what other people have done. They don’t teach you what they should teach you in the beginnings, even if they say other wise,” she grumbled.

An old grievance. “Anyways. I haven’t always made music at the School in Settar, but I have always made noise. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in the kitchen at the School banging pots around and tossing water into pits to make that hissing noise the fat makes when it drips off the spits. Or sneaking into the music rooms where I wasn’t supposed to be. You remember them, the ones on the lowest level? All just to make noise.

You see it didn’t matter if I could play anything the way they teach you, but that noise was music in and of itself and it teaches the most fundamental thing about being a bard, or at least how I think of it. Emotion. Your listener’s reaction to it, your reaction to it. What good is a lay if you can’t make the listener feel what the hero was saying, going through? Understanding that is how you become a Master. And probably how I got to my Masteries as quickly as I did.”

“And it all starts with noise. Notes, patterns, rhythms,” she flapped her hands for a moment, “forget about them. You have to get what’s in here,” she leaned forward and placed two fingers over his heart, and tapped once, “through here,” she ran it along his arm, “out here.” She tapped one of his hands. “It will be noise, but it will be noise charged with whatever’s in here,” she tapped his heart again, “and from that music will form on its own and it will be great. So that’s the trick if you can even call it that. Forget everything you know and just start plucking strings.”

Jin swallowed hard. He was acutely aware of every place her fingers had touched. “Caylia, I’m not sure if that, if I should—“

“Just try it. Please?”

He looked up and was caught in her gaze. His heart beat sped up once more, tapping against his chest. His stomach suddenly twisted, as if butterflies were trapped there. He dropped his head. “Ah…like this?”

Jin plucked a note lightly, and then another, before tripping his fingers through a soft chord. Caylia rested her hand on his and he froze. A tingle raced up his arm. The bard gave no sign that she noticed his sudden quickening of breath. “No. You’re still making music. I want noise.”

When he lifted his gaze to her face again, searching the expression, she laughed lightly and tapped his nose. “Close your eyes and feel, Jin.”

Heat rushed into his face. Jin jerked his head down and studied the curve of the harp, his hands, anything to calm this odd feeling.

“Jin?”

Swallowing again nervously, he clamped his eyes closed and started to pluck strings, not caring where his hands landed or what sound came out.

"Good," her voice came softly. "Good. Forget about your thoughts. Feel the rhythms of your body, the shimmer in the air, the silence in the stones."

And he played, notes flying randomly, coming together for an instant before disappearing. As he played his body relaxed, losing a hint of its nervousness. Then a higher pitched sound joined in, weaving in and out of his notes and Jin opened an eye.

Caylia, looking slightly sheepish, put down her mouth harp. "Sorry," she shrugged. "Couldn't help it."

“It’s fine,” he said quietly. “Don’t stop.”

She nodded and brought the mouth harp to her lips again, arching a brow in silent question. The edge of Jin’s mouth curved into a slow smile, but a smile nonetheless.

He slid his fingers over the strings, plucking and tapping. This time, he kept his eyes open and watched her nod her head, sliding her notes in between his own. And slowly, gradually, it shifted from noise to music. Chords and flats and sharps mingling and dashing aside, in a wild pattern that shifted from minor to major and back again.

The worry and tension drained out of him. His smile grew, softening into a wider grin. When he laughed aloud at a particularly playful tune from Caylia’s mouth harp, the bard paused to give him a pleased look.

"It's good to see you like this again," she murmured. "I was beginning to wonder where you were." She flashed a grin suddenly. "Very good. I'll make a Master out of you yet."

Jin flushed. “I am not that skilled.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

The heat in his face was warmer. He looked away. “Perhaps.”

His hands slowed, and then stopped and he pressed his palm to the strings to quiet them. “Thank you, Caylia. I needed this.” Jin handed the harp back to its owner.

She nodded. “I know.” Her hand rested, feather-light, on his shoulder. “You feel better now?”

“Much better.” Jin took a deep breath. Knowing that Caylia was not angry at him helped a great deal. He stood and held out a hand to help her up. She took his wrist with a spot of red in her cheeks.

He pulled her to her feet. She stumbled and he threw his arms out, catching her before she fell.

Jin blinked, realization flooding into his mind. His arms were wrapped firmly around her shoulders and back. He could feel the curve of her body against his chest, the warmth of her skin burning through his tunic.

Caylia had her head tilted up, eyes on his face, but neither of them moved. They barely breathed.

Jin gently eased her to arm’s length again. Desires he had not indulged in years hummed in his veins. “Ah…Caylia…are you…all right?” he managed weakly.

Her eyes were very wide, but she simply nodded. “Aye, Jin. I’m…fine. Um…Good night.”

“Goodnight, Caylia.”

She flashed a weak smile and turned away, leaving him there. Jin watched her go. “Oh Kyda…” he breathed softly.

What exactly he wanted the god to do—even he was not sure.


“Kor, are you sure about this?” Jin began, shifting the quiver looped over his shoulder uneasily. “My Rising Star is better than my archery skills."

His Second cocked his head, hands on his hips. “If you back out of your side of the agreement, then I can hover as I please.”

The Fay-el scowled. “I’m not backing out. You should be worried is what I’m trying to say. I’ll likely kill someone or worse. You certainly can’t learn the longbow from me.

Kor grinned, inclining his head toward the edge of the practice circle. “I know. We’ll both learn from him.”

Jin followed his gaze, and his frown deepened. Joran stood there, longbow held loosely in one hand and a quiver at his shoulder—both worn and held in a way that bespoke his own property, and not the borrowed bow Jin held with obvious discomfort. “Kyda!” His voice dropped lower, “Kor, he’s not even Confirmed.”

The Hybrid smirked. "My brother knows the longbow better than I do, and I can be pretty bloody sure my handling of it is better than yours, Fay-el! So I think Joran is an appropriate teacher, Confirmed or no." He beamed at the fourteen-year-old, but kept his voice as low as Jin's had been as they approached the teenager. "Besides... He would have been Confirmed by now, if our father were still alive. He is untried, not unskilled."

The ra was practically glowing with pride. "Fay-el!" he greeted, bowing slightly. There was more dignity---and respect---in that simple movement than Kor would have been able to manage at his brother's age. Or, for that matter, at his current age. Apparently irreverence ran in Kor's mother's side, not his father's.

"Hello, Joran," Jin said, smiling despite himself. The boy was one of his own son's closest playmates, almost like an older brother to Elam. Jin had helped train the ra himself, at times, although certainly not in the longbow.

The teenager looked from his brother to his Fay-el eagerly. "Are you ready now? I set up a couple of the practice targets," he grinned.

Jin glanced at Kor warily, but the Hybrid simply arched a brow and motioned at him. The Fay-el sighed and shifted the bow in his grip, grateful the same man he had borrowed it from had nocked it already.

He pulled an arrow from his quiver and turned to face the targets, shifting into what he hoped was a halfway decent shooting stance and drawing the bowstring back. “Sire,” Joran began. “You’re not….”

Jin released the arrow. It sailed through the air, missing even the stone the target had been placed on by several feet. Kor muffled a laugh. Jin flicked him a steely glare, but the Hybrid simply grinned wider. “Terran was not exaggerating.”

“Shut up, Kor.”

Joran cleared his throat. “Sire, if you’d adjust your stance it might be—“

“Let me just hit the bloody thing,” Jin growled. He drew a second arrow and pulled the string back, before releasing it amidst Joran’s quiet protests.

Both teenager and Hybrid winced as it connected with the stone—and not the target—and snapped in two. Jin glanced at him. The teenager’s eyes were a little wide. With a frown, the Fay-el grabbed for a third arrow—and Joran’s hand closed over his wrist. “No. You’re just going to hurt somebody.”

Jin glanced at his Second, eyes narrowing. “Aye.”

Kor simply grinned. Joran released him and stepped back slightly. “Draw again, sire.”

“Just Jin,” he growled, “If you’re teaching me, then you might as well.”

“Aye, J-Jin.”

The Fay-el drew the longbow once more, holding his stance. Joran cleared his throat. “You’re standing wrong, si--” He cut himself off. “Shift your weight forward and bend your elbow a little more.”

Jin tried to obey, but somehow whatever he did was wrong, because Joran sighed.

"It is a Fundamental, si---Jin," the teenager said, frowning at his Fay-el's form.

"I know!" Jin snapped over his shoulder.

Joran sighed. "You've changed it, slightly, because of the bow. You're leaning back too far, and not bending your knees enough."

Jin shifted his stance. Joran sighed louder.

"What?" he snapped.

"Hmm... Give me the bow?"

Jin handed it to him with a scowl, but felt a brief surge of relief. "I told you," he snapped at Kor. "You can learn to use the bloody thing if you want, but I---"

"Forgive me, sire," Joran blushed. "I... I am not done with you." He held both bows in one hand, and gestured for Jin to resume his starting stance again. "Take up Dragon's Fang, if you will." He held the bow out of Jin's reach when the Fay-el reached for it. "Just the Fundamental for now, Sire."

Grumbling, casting a glare at his grinning Second, the Fay-el obeyed, albeit without a weapon in hand.

Joran approached him cautiously. "Now.... without straightening your legs or bending your back at all, hold this." He handed Jin back the longbow.

"And now what, Sair?" Jin sighed, but smiled a little at the boy.

Joran smiled back a tiny bit. "Now, without changing your legs or back at all, draw the bow again."

Kor grinned and seized his Gift. "If you do not keep your back and legs as they should be in Dragon's Fang, I'll give you a reminder to try harder next time."

“Kyda—must you always poke me with that bloody Gift?”

Kor grinned wider. “Always.”

Rolling his eyes, the Fay-el began to draw his bow slowly. He made it halfway before Kor poked him hard. “Ow! Kor!”

“You’re bending back.”

Joran chuckled lightly. “He’s right.” The teenager rested a hand on his Fay-el’s shoulder and pushed him forward, “Right there. Don’t move. Draw the bow again.”

Jin swore under his breath, glaring at his Second, but complied. This time, no Gift sent prickles of ghostly pain winding through him. “Good,” Joran murmured. “Can you feel how that stance should be?”

“I know the Fund… Aye.” Jin had a very vivid memory of Terran’s reaction when he had claimed to know the Fundamentals.

“Alright, you can relax now.” Joran smiled. “Kor’s turn to draw.”

Jin shifted out of the stance and handed the bow to his Second. “I wish I had Gift,” he growled, “I’d poke you and probe you and see how you like it.”

Kor ruffled his Fay-el’s hair, ignoring the sudden jerk of his head back and Joran’s muffled snicker. “Good for me you don’t.”

Kor drew the bow, settling comfortably into the proper stance.

Joran grinned. "You have done this before."

His brother spared a glance his way briefly, smiling back. "Only on Faire days. There was a contest... Shoot the target, win a prize." His smile widened. "I liked the woman who ran the booth." He loosed the arrow, which connected weakly with the far upper corner of the target. "Not," he sighed, "that I always won the, uh, grand prize," he said, eyeing his shot critically.

Jin could well guess what kind of grand prize the Hybrid had occasionally won. "Kyda... I am surprised I did not have to Confirm you and start planning the Confirmations of a whole wagon-load of your children."

The Hybrid smirked. "I said I knew how to give a lass a good time and still not---"

"Kor!" Jin gaped. "Your little brother!"

Joran smiled smugly at them both. "I may be un-Confirmed, but I'm not a ra," he informed them.

Kor laughed broadly, and clapped his little brother on the back heartily. Jin just groaned inwardly.

After the Second fired several more arrows, actually hitting closer to the middle at one point, Joran turned back to his Fay-el, grinning. “It’s your turn again. I think you can at least hit the target.”

Heat rose into his face slightly. “Ah…Of course,” he snapped, yanking the bow from his Second’s grip and shifting to face the targets. He started to draw and felt a tiny prickle of Gift. He flashed a sour look at his Second.

Kor simply shook his head. “Stay in the right stance, Jin.”

Jin snorted. Kor poked him. Wincing, the Fay-el muttered something about ‘arrogant Hybrids’ and drew the bow. His stance was close, enough so that instead of Kor jabbing him, Joran caught his arm and repositioned him.

“There. Now the arrow.” The teenager commented on his mistakes almost incessantly. “Good, now take a deep breath and let it out slowly, releasing the arrow. No, too fast. Try again. No.”

Joran leaned over him slightly and brought his arms around, trying to show Jin how best to hold both bow and arrow, drawing it back to an anchor point by his mouth. Their difference in height, however, made it an awkward thing.

“I wish you were a little shorter,” Joran muttered absently.

“Do you want me to get on my knees?” Jin said dryly. “It might help my aim.”

Joran jerked a hand and, for a brief moment, looked as if he was going to smack the back of his Fay-el’s head. And then the teenager caught himself, flushing. He cleared his throat. “Try again, Jin. Draw like I showed you, back to your mouth.”

How long they tried to hit the bloody target, Jin had no idea. Only that his irritation with the blasted archery lesson grew higher and higher, until he finally relaxed his arms and shoved the bow at Kor. “Kyda! I told you this is too hard for me. Let me stick to my janin and I should be…”

“You’re not giving up, are you Fay-el?” The Second cocked his head, eyebrows arching in silent question. Jin scowled, thinking of Caylia, and Kor haunting his footsteps.

“No,” he grated out. “Just…taking a break.”

“Uh-huh,” Kor took the bow from him, smirking at Joran briefly as his brother returned the smile, before flashing that same annoying grin at Jin. “Are you going to stay here and wait for me?”

“No. I’m going to find Ca…a friend. Someone to talk to.”

“Ah,” Kor winked. “Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” Jin said dryly.

< >

"Kor."

The Hybrid glanced toward the voice, but did not rise from where he lounged on his back in the sand, staring up at the stars. A slow, gently mocking smile spread over his face. "Why Fay-el, what's this? You are actually seeking me out for once?"

Jin chuckled quietly as he shifted more directly into the lazy Hybrid's line of sight. He was in a good mood, having spent most of the day riding alongside Caylia, with his honor guard grumbling all the while about the change of form that had them riding among womenfolk. "Yes, I suppose I am." He cocked his head at his Second, who finally smiled and sat up.

"What?" Kor grinned.

Jin shrugged. "Caylia and I were talking. She is... very fascinated by the fact that I have a Hybrid for a Second, especially one who knows little of Dragonian ways. We were talking today about how a new Second is taught his duties, and she mentioned that she would love to see some of that training in action. We thought, we thought---" He actually blushed a little, smiling in pleasure. "We---She said we should write a little song together..."

Kor cocked an eyebrow. "A song about what, pray tell? Me learning your bloody janin?" He smirked. "Because that is not as interesting as you learning the longbow, Jin."

“They are entirely different, Kor. At least the shitan and janin are both blades.”

“I see no difference. All three are weapons. You didn’t answer my question you know.”

Jin’s eyes narrowed slightly, and then he brightened. “Ah yes, our song. We thought we’d write it about some of your new duties. Such as your leading the tribe tomorrow morning.”

“What?” Kor sat up, lazy relaxation draining away. “Whatever are you talking about?”

“Your training, of course.”

“But…me…Talen already… No, Jin. That is a terrible idea. I’ve only been a Second for what…a few weeks?”

His Fay-el’s smile was less than pleasant. “Long enough. You need to learn how to lead this tribe, get them accustomed to you at their head at least.”

“You’re here, why should I?”

“If I were too ill to do so, or injured enough that the Mend left me unable to do much of anything… What would you do then?”

“Panic and summon Terran.”

Jin scowled. “No.” He grinned slightly. “But that is exactly why I’m certain you should lead the tribe tomorrow morning.” He patted his Second’s shoulder lightly. “Better get some sleep. You’re going to need it.”

< >

The next day did not begin particularly differently than other days of travel. Camp roused with the sun, quiet mumbling about the frost on the ground and the smell of steaming morning mugs of kolinar gradually giving way to louder conversation, the clash of weapons as warriors engaged one another in morning warmup spars, and the quiet tuning of Caylia's hang and Jin's lola.

Wrapped in a woolen blanket, Kor tracked down Talen to check the wound the warrior had earned from the Derk-ra a couple days before and to try and convince him to allow him to Mend it.

"No," Talen snapped. "Do not use your foreign magics on me."

Kor sighed. "Fine. It'll heal much faster if you let me, but I was healing with a needle and thread long before I learned to use my Gift." At the widening of Talen's eyes, he grinned. "No, it doesn't need stitches. But have you been using the salve I gave you? It'll prevent infection."

"Aye," Talen growled. "Now will you please leave me be?"

Kor shrugged. "Aye. Be ready in a half point. We'll be moving out."

The warrior's eyes narrowed. "The Fay-el hasn't said---"

Kor gritted his teeth but patted Talen once on the shoulder. "He put me in charge today."

The warrior glared at him for a moment, then nodded curtly. "Fine."

Kor sighed, and walked among the warriors for a while, passing the message on that it was time to pack up camp and make ready to leave.

"We should have left a point ago," Jaara snapped when he told her.

Kor stiffened. "Well... we didn't," he said, and quickly took his leave.

He finally came to Jin and Caylia. "We'll, ah, be moving out in about twenty marks."

Jin smiled. "Good. So... What did Talen and Jaara say when you told them it was time to get ready to leave?" Caylia, too, seemed particularly interested in the answer, hands hovering lightly over the strings of her hang.

Kor sighed. It was going to be a long day.

< >

The first part of the day went relatively well. The honor guard grumbled about riding with the women again, but with Jin utterly refusing to go anywhere else, they reluctantly spread out around their Fay-el.

Riding alone at the head of the tribe felt a little strange, but Kor had ridden here before at Jin's side, so it was not too much different. A scout came and went, notifying him of the utter lack of danger, at least for the moment, before riding out again.

Talen, for his part, stayed far away from him, slinking closer to the tail of the procession and speaking quietly to Joran. Kor noted it, more because of the handful of other warriors who had joined him. Jin caught his gaze once, green eyes shifting to that same knot of people and then back again, brow arching.

Aye, he would have to deal with that eventually. Though he expected the mistrust from the other warriors, it still stung. Lord Veritas had been convincing enough on that night that he truly thought it was him or Jin, and had acted accordingly. But none of these men seemed to regard him the same way.

When the time to camp finally came, Kor was grateful for the respite. He immediately slid off his horse and went searching for Jin, finding the Fay-el tuning his lola once more, humming a few bars experimentally.

“Alright, that wasn’t so bad. Now you can take over again.”

Jin arched a brow. “Your day is not over yet.”

“What? What else is there?”

Jin strummed a chord, hiding a grin, before glancing up at him. “Kor, I know you’re usually sleeping through the day, but you at least have been awake in the Maran court. What does their Fay-el do?”

“Oh. You mean like…holding court?”

“Aye. Go to your tent, I’m sure there are messages galore waiting for your attention, as well as needy tribesmen.”

Kor groaned. "When will I be done?"

Jin smirked. "When night falls. You can't be Fay-el and Second, you know."

The Hybrid rolled his eyes. "Fine."

He had only had a tent for the duration of this journey. Although he pitched it nightly, he had yet to use it except when wanting to give privacy to the few tribesmen who came to him for the treatment of minor ailments.

To his dismay, in the mere few marks since he'd pitched his tent and sought out Jin, ten scrolls had been stacked on the small rug at the center of his tent.

"Oh Eppa, surely you jest," he mumbled, then knelt down, grumbling, and picked them up.

Jin peeked his head into the tent. "Draft the responses you'd pen back. I will take a look at them later and keep whichever ones are suitable." He glanced behind him, smirked, and said sweetly to someone, "Oh, forgive me."

Winking, the Fay-el ditched his Second as a young warrior ducked into the tent.

Kor glanced at the scroll in his hand---which he had not yet even had a chance to unroll, let alone read---and then looked up at the warrior. "Yes... Aero, is it?"

The warrior nodded stoically. Kor sighed inwardly; this was one of Talen's friends. "Second, I drew sentry duty last night, and the night before. Can someone take my place tonight?"

Kor frowned. "You all draw lots, you know that. The system is random."

Aero shrugged. "But it's not intended to have the same people taking watch every night..."

Kor frowned. "Fine. Then tell, ah, Iarian that he is on duty tonight in your place."

Aero grinned. The Hybrid frowned. "Very well! Thank you!"

Kor shook his head at the man left, then turned back to the scroll, unrolling it and bending his head to read.

Onerible Faell,

It has com too my notise that their is a womon in camp that is karying a weapon. I am woried; is this not impropper, and likely to enspire a chaleng of the varayity that causes braking of the Tenets? I am of corse only conserned for the womon's welbean.


Kor rolled his eyes, dipping his quill and mumbling as he wrote. "Although I thank you for notifying me of your concern, ah..." He turned the missive over in his hand, frowning. It had no name. Sighing, he set the missive aside and reached for the next.

"Second!"

He wilted a little, and glanced up. "Hello, Iarian."

The black-haired warrior frowned. "Aero says I'm to have his watch tonight."

Kor nodded. "Yes, it has come to my attention that he has had the misfortune of drawing a stick three times in a row. I need you to take his place."

The brown-eyed man scowled. "But Sar... I was on watch with him each of the last two nights... Why does he get out of a third watch, and I don't?"

“Oh…um…erm, perhaps…because he asked me first.”

The warrior’s expression darkened. “Perhaps I should camp at your tent then, to ensure no one else does as such.”

“No! Iarian, why don’t you…can Hazor take your place?"

His face brightened instantly. “Aye, sar.”

The warrior whirled and was gone. Kor scowled at where he had been. “I think I’m being had,” he muttered.

The Hybrid unrolled the next scroll, and had only read half of the missive—this one actually of some importance, regarding Lord Aretas’ recent raids to the southwest—when someone else barged in, with an imperious, “Sar!”

“What?” Kor growled, not looking up from his message. No wonder Jin was always in a surly mood.

“Sar, you really should take care of this,” the warrior said.

Kor glanced up, frowning at the quiet sentry. “Whatever is the matter?”

Wordlessly, he pointed to a spot outside the tent, and out of sight. Kor stalked to his side and glanced that way. “Eppa!”

Apparently, the three sentries he had spoken to were all brawling. “Should I stop them myself, sar?”

“No. I’ll handle it. I’ll bloody handle everything!”

Kor launched toward the three men, yelling as he ran. "Stop it! All of you!"

They ignored him, obviously. Face darkening in anger, he shoved Aero hard to remove him from his path and muddle the man's punch toward Hazor, then grabbed the front of Iarian's tunic. "Stop it!"

Iarian tried to shake out of his grip, and started to raise his fist to punch Kor, then realized who, precisely, he had been about to hit.

Kor was mildly relieved to see the reason in the man's eyes, but for the moment it did not entirely end the problem. Behind him, Aero and Hazor had collided with one another again, barreling into each other with their heads lowered like rams. Both collapsed to the sand, snarling and cursing at one another.

The Hybrid pushed Iarian roughly away from him, assuming---correctly, it turned out, as the man stepped a few feet away, breathing hard and clenching and unclenching his fists---that Iarian would now stay out of the fight. He managed to get one arm around Aero and haul him to his feet, then did the same by clutching a fistful of Hazor's tunic. "Both of you, stop it!" he snapped, shaking them hard and physically holding them away from one another.

They struggled. "Ael kinth started it!" Aero snapped. "We just came to tell him---"

"You two always do this! I'll bloody bash your teeth in!"

They seemed rather determined to come together again and resume their fight, and so, sighing, Kor simply reached up to grasp the back of each of their heads, and knocked their skulls together.

"I said stop it!"

Dazed, the two slumped to the ground. The softest whisper of music drew Kor’s attention away from the two sentries. He half-turned, and scowled. His Fay-el stood there, strap of his lola looped over one shoulder, one hand idly strumming. He was grinning widely.

“So, are things going well?”

“No! Does it bloody look like they are?”

Jin’s grin widened, but he simply shrugged. “We’re almost done with our song.”

“Why, good for you!”

“Make sure you finish those missives. If you don’t, they’ll simply pile up and be worse in the morning. I’ve learned that the hard way.”

“What? You’re taking over again tomorrow.”

“Perhaps.”

Kor stared at him, aghast. “No, Jin. No. Perhaps... This is…” He swept his hands out, encompassing the tribe, the scowling sentries, and Jin’s smiling face. “This is impossible!”

Jin dipped his head slightly. “Two points until nightfall, Kor. I’ll see you then.”

“But…Jin…”

The Fay-el had already turned away and was walking back to where Caylia waited, hang in hand. She smiled at him, waving with her free hand, and then her smile softened as her eyes shifted to Jin.

Kor groaned. He turned back to the sentries, the two he had wounded rubbing their heads. The Second planted his hands on his hips. “All three of you are going on watch.”

“But Sar—you said…”

Kor’s eyes narrowed into thin ice-blue slits, summoning the look his mother had given him when she did not want her word questioned. All three paled. “Aye, Sar.”

He whirled, snapping his hand at the sentry who had drawn the brawl to his attention. “You. Keep an eye on them. If they fight again, let me know and I’ll deal with it accordingly.”

Without waiting for a response, he stalked back to his tent. Kor’s eyes widened in disgust and frustration. “Eppa!”

Besides the pile of scrolls to the side, three more had managed to appear on the rug.

Kor was a man who enjoyed writing, enjoyed thinking, enjoyed learning new things. Nevertheless, he was not having a good time penning Jin's missives, trying to think of the appropriate way to respond to each situation presented to him on the scrolls, or learning how to deal with a tribe.

No, he realized with a groan. Not even the full bloody tribe. Just the warriors. He frowned, glancing briefly outside the tent, but the troublemakers were no longer there. Though they're bad enough on their own.

He managed to get through all of the scrolls, slowly, penning responses in between the petty complaints warriors presented to him. It was not until three marks before he was---finally!---to be free again to pursue his much easier duties as a Second that a problem actually worth his time was brought to him.

Unfortunately, it was delivered in a very small, very feminine, very surly package.

"I was told I could speak to the Fay-el here," Jaara snapped, eyes scanning his tent as though looking for assailants hidden in the shadows. Or Hybrids she'd like to punch in the jaw.

Kor put his quill down, and with great effort resisted the urge to rise to his feet and retreat from her. "I... ah... the Fay-el, that is, he said..." He rubbed the bridge of his nose as Jaara's frown turned into a scowl. She was clearly waiting for him to get to the point. "The Fay-el is... taking a break, today," he finally said pleasantly, and crossed his hands before him. "How might I help you, Inquisita?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I did not accompany your warriors merely to provide Caylia with companionship."

It seemed that was all she intended to say for a moment. He frowned, clearing his throat. "I... see. Then... what is your complaint?"

Behind her, Jin slipped into the tent, smirking at his Second, then glancing questioningly at Jaara, who promptly turned to him. "Ah, Fay-el. Good."

"Evening, Inquisita," Jin said, cocking his head curiously at her. "May I help you?" He cast a glance over his shoulder at Kor, who merely looked at him pleadingly.

She placed her hands on her hips and glowered up at him. "Is it your intention to prevent me from practicing my art?"

“I beg your pardon?” Jin arched a brow.

Jaara’s scowl deepened. “I have gone to the sparring circles many times now, and every time they simply turn me away. Not one will allow me to practice my swordplay, and absolutely gawk if I so much as step near the circle.” She jerked a thumb at her once-wounded arm. “How do you expect me to heal completely and exercise this wound if they will not allow me to practice?”

“Inquisita, you must understand them.” Jin held up his hand, stalling her protest. “No, listen to me. The warriors of my tribe, and of any Dragonian tribe that is well-led, will not spar with you. To do so profanes the skills they were taught both before and after their Confirmations.”

“They will not spar me because I am a woman.”

“They will not spar with you because of the Tenets,” Jin corrected.

“Bloody Tenets!" she spat. "That is pure foolishness. The rest, perhaps, such as anger, makes sense. But you yourself have failed in that, I am certain many times.”

Jin’s eyes narrowed. “I did not come here to be criticized by you, Inquisita. You have spoken your complaint and I have given you reason for the problem. No Dragonian would lift a blade toward a woman, and you are a pregnant woman no less. You must spar with Caylia, or Rowan, if you must spar at all.”

His Second cleared his throat mildly. “Um, Jin, if I may…” He flashed a grin at Jaara. “I’ll spar with you, if you’d like.”

“Kor!” Jin snapped. “You certainly will not!”

Jaara was scowling at the Hybrid just as deeply as the Fay-el. Kor ignored both of their displeasure, simply beaming at them. "Bah, Jin, I am not worried about breaking the Tenets."

Jin's eyes narrowed. "Kor, you should be worried. No honorable warrior would take his blade to a pregnant woman. It is not right."

The Hybrid arched an eyebrow. "With all due respect, Fay-el, this---" He indicated Jaara with a grandiose sweep of his arm. Her eyes narrowed further "---is not a woman."

Jin's eyes widened in disbelief at the audacity of his Second. Jaara stiffened, hand tightening on the hilt of the sword at her waist, but before she could draw it or speak, Kor continued.

"This is a warrior goddess, an avatar of death on the battlefield, a veritable valkyrie of victory and valor who---"

"I do not want to spar with you, Hybrid," Jaara snapped.

He smirked at her. "Inquisita, the only thing you want less than to spar with me is not to spar at all. And I seem to be the only person making an offer."

"Kor!" Jin snapped.

“Hush, Fay-el.”

Jin gawked at him for a moment, but it was all the Hybrid needed. “Do you wish to train that sword arm of yours once more, strengthening it for battle?”

Her eyes narrowed. Kor grinned. “You must spar with someone, and no one but I will dare sidestep the Tenets. What are you going to do about it? Ignore me and still get nothing for your efforts? I am fine with that.”

He turned away, rummaging through the pile of scrolls. “I replied to all of these, Jin, but I think a few… You definitely should read them.”

“Oh, I plan to,” The Fay-el muttered.

Jaara huffed and shifted her weight, before snapping. “Fine.”

Kor glanced up, eyebrows arching. Jaara swallowed hard and then grated out, “I will spar with you, Kor." The words sounded as if they were being forced from her.

The Hybrid grinned. “Excellent. When shall we begin?”

“When you’re off duty as Second,” Jin responded. He dipped his head at Jaara. “Good day, Inquisita.”

Her eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips as if to speak, but held her tongue and whirled away. Jin waited until she was gone before whirling on his Second. “Are you mad? The Tenets were taught and learned for a reason. You cannot harm a woman.”

“Jin, I will not harm her,” he rolled his eyes. “This is a woman, to begin with, pregnant now, and with an injured arm no less. If anything, I will have to be careful not to beat her too terribly.”

The Fay-el grinned slightly. “You sound confident. I don’t think she’s as helpless as you think.”

Kor waved away his comment. “I am not concerned.” He glanced at the scrolls and stepped away from them as if they were sand vipers, “No more being Fay-el for the night, thank Kyda.”

Jin chuckled, gathering up the scrolls. “You almost sounded reverent that time,” he commented, settling on the rug himself to peruse Kor’s attempts.

While his Fay-el was distracted, Kor darted out of the tent, ignoring Jin's call of, "Wait!"

"One point until sunset! I'm not on duty yet!" Kor called over his shoulder, then breathed a sigh of relief as he strode too far away from the tent to hear Jin's reply.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Jin step out of the tent with an armful of scrolls, frown at him, and then---rolling his eyes---take his burden to his own tent.

Kor found Jaara sitting before one of the cook fires, eating the stew Rowan was preparing and talking quietly to Caylia. Two of the three women smiled at him in greeting, but although he returned their smiles politely, he only had eyes for one at that moment. "Jaara!"

She jumped, then swiveled to glare at him. "Yes?"

He held his shitan out away from his body, gesturing away from the tents and fires. "Spar?"

"Now?" she frowned.

He rolled his eyes. "Yes. Sunset will be in an point and then it will be too dark to see."

She nodded slowly, rising. "I'll eat later," she told Caylia and Rowan.

"Make sure you do," the older woman said sternly. "You've two to feed, now."

Jaara ignored her utterly, and followed Kor away, snapping at Khyr to stay. Kor smiled when she found a good spot, testing the sand beneath her feet for firmness and then beginning to trace the practice circle with her janin. "Ah, you fight with my Fay-el's weapon. Although... the blade looks a little different. Interesting. Hmm, you know, you can make the circle smaller if you want. No need to---Very well."

She glanced up from where she finished carving the circle into the sand, a perfect thirteen by thirteen spreads in diameter. "Do you always prattle on so much, Hybrid?"

"Are you always so harsh to the people who agree to help you out, Maran?" he countered.

"Let us do this, Kor. As you said, soon the light will fade."

They bowed to one another, Kor with a smile, Jaara watching him with narrowed eyes. The instant he rose, she was upon him, and his smile faltered a little. He ducked under her janin, scrabbled around behind her, and reached out to tap his shitan against the back of her head, but only met with air.

"Eppa," he groaned, as Rolling Water brought her suddenly to his left side in a handless cartwheel. She tapped him upside the skull. "Ow! Woman!"

Alright, maybe it was safe to fight her with both of his shitans...

But by the time he had the other one in hand and had turned to face her, the Inquisita was already in motion again, taking a neat Diagonal Step around him so that she was now behind his left shoulder. He ducked instinctively, Gift flaring against his will for the first time in a few days.

The spar quickly became a farce. Every time he turned, she was there, blade flashing for his face, his eye, his leg. Kor was kept busy deflecting the janin away from his body and darting out of reach. When he pressed the offensive, she was never there.

Dust Devil, Rolling Water, Tumbling Rock—whatever she used, Kor could barely get close to her, much less actually strike with either of his two shitans.

Sweat drenched his tunic and he gasped for breath, dancing more and more agilely as he strove to land just once—just once, Kyda blast it!—on that surly, beautiful, arrogant skin of hers.

Jaara was smiling slightly, one side of her mouth curved upward in a wry grin. Twice more, Kor’s Gift flared without his notice, saving him from a nasty gash from a darting Derk-ra’s Fang, and then shifting him aside when her hand came toward his ribs in Offered Bowl.

She nodded once, as if in slight approval, and came after him again. “Kyda—woman—“ he gasped. “Do you have Derk-ra blood running in your veins?”

“I am simply a woman, ael kinth. Don’t you remember—be careful not to beat me too terribly?”

His face fell. “You heard that.”

Her grin was as feral as any of Ravin’s. “Oh Aye.”

“Eppa!” He scrambled back away from her as she grimly pursued him, janin arcing up between them to flash at his eyes. He ducked hastily, then twisted aside as the echo of Terran’s earlier reminder passed through his mind. “May a man… not say stupid things… in the privacy of his own… thoughts?” he gasped.

“Aye,” she responded again with that same dry, pitiless smile. She brought one strike toward his face, then two, then three, blade whirling and jabbing so quickly it was all he could do to get away. But now she was wincing slightly, favoring her healing shoulder. “If such thoughts are actually voiced in the privacy of one’s own mind. You keep saying them out loud.”

Drenched in sweat, his entire body flushed with exertion, Kor still managed to blush. She had a point, but he did not really feel capable at that moment of contemplating it, so intent was he upon simply avoiding her blows. He was beginning to have trouble recalling why he had volunteered for this spar.

Around and around they went, until Kor began to feel as sore and weary as he did after one of Terran’s torture---wait, “training”---sessions. Jaara, for her part, did not seem to be tiring at all, but she was favoring her right arm more and more now, until at last she left a large enough opening in her defenses long enough that he could take advantage of it. He darted in, feeling a surge of irrational elation, and drew a shallow slash across the top of her hand.

“Halt,” he gasped, barely able to breathe after the workout she’d put him through.

She frowned, but responded immediately, stepping back and lowering her janin. “I hope you did not stop because of this,” she warned, glancing absently at her hand.

“No,” he said. “Well, yes. Sort of.”

Her eyes narrowed into two amber slits. “Do not coddle me.”

He gulped air, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. “I’m not! I’m not making you stop because of the wound, exactly, but because of what it means.” He chose to take her blank stare for an invitation to continue. “You… ah… are much more skilled than I. The only reason I got that slash in at all is because your shoulder is still weak. It is telling you that it has exercised enough this day.”

She glared at him for a long moment, eyes assessing. Then she nodded curtly. “Very well. Tomorrow, then?”

He felt a small thrill of pleasure. Maybe she didn’t hate him after all. Or maybe she does, and she wants to thrash me again, he thought ruefully.

“Yes, tomorrow,” he said, then nodded to her hand. “If you’d like, I’ll Mend that.”

She scowled again. Eppa, I’ve offended her again?!

“Do you not think I would have Mended such a minor scratch myself already, if I were not with child?”

He blinked. We can Mend ourselves? “Oh. Ah… I apologize? Yes, I apologize.”

She nodded. “Tomorrow, then. Same time.” And with that, she stalked off, brushing the dust from her midnight black tunic and trousers and sheathing her janin neatly.

“You’re welcome,” he mumbled, then slipped his shitans into their sheaths, shrugged and went to find Talen.

The warrior was lounging in his tent, looking slightly pale. “How do you feel?” Kor asked.

Talen shrugged, glancing up at him. “Arm hurts.”

Kor gently began unwrapping the wound, then frowned. “Have you been using the salve I gave you?” He seized his Gift, and began destroying foreign sparks, only half of his mind on Talen’s response.

“No,” Talen said, light challenge in his voice.

Kor sighed. “Fine. Well. This is infected. But I can clear it out without difficulty. You will not feel a thing.”

“I said I do not want you using your Gift on me.”

“This time, you have no choice,” Kor said, still killing the infection steadily. “The Fay-el needs all of his warriors with their limbs intact. If this spreads, you could lose your arm, if not your life.”

Talen started voicing protests, but Kor only smirked at him.

“What?”

“I’m already done,” the Hybrid said. He patted Talen’s arm while the warrior cursed at him. “You should really let me Mend this. If the wound is completely closed, infection cannot settle in. I’d rather not have to visit you each night.”

“What, you’re not going to just do it without my permission?” Talen grumbled.

“Not unless the wound is a severe danger to your health.”

“Good. Well. No, then. You may not use your barbarian magics on me.”

“Talen…”

“No.”

Kor sighed, and drew his shitan. Talen flinched, and he smiled sardonically. “Don’t be stupid. I just want to show you. The Mending is not something to fear. Watch.”

He drew the shitan point over his own palm, watching the blood well in the shallow wound, then seized his Gift.

The sensation was a little odd, as he probed himself, in a way. His spark was easy to find, and easy to harmonize. It took him but a grain to bring them together into the proper pattern and then power it.

Warmth surged, flooding through him and congealing at his hand. He grinned in triumph. It worked!

And then the heat dropped out of him in a sudden chill. Kor blinked, legs buckling as he staggered and then collapsed.

His next conscious awareness was of firm hands holding his mouth open, and the bitter taste of kolinar coating his tongue. Kor swallowed what must have been the second dose, and groaned, prying his eyes open.

Jin was leaning over him, a slightly exasperated look on his face. “How do you get yourself into these things?” the Fay-el growled, releasing his hold on the Second’s jaw.

He set a half-full flagon of kolinar down with an angry thump. “Besides kolinar, Naftis had you…you walk, I believe.” He grabbed the Hybrid’s forearm, hauling him to his feet. Kor started to protest. Jin simply shoved him forward.

“Keep moving,” He paused, steadying his Second for a moment, before commenting, “You frightened Talen quite well. I don’t think he’ll ever let you place a Mend on him now.”

Kor glanced around, struggling to focus his eyes. Tan, crimson and gray washed around him, then resolved into separate things. Canvas walls, a patterned woolen blanket and sand beneath his feet. Talen was nowhere to be found, although apparently Kor was still in the warrior's tent.

"Where's Talen?" he mumbled as Jin steered him outside.

He glared at the sunset, a wash of vibrant tangerine and magenta from a distant sandstorm, then surveyed the cook fire. Talen knelt there, gesturing wildly with his hands as he told the other warriors eating around the fire something. They all stared as the Fay-el and his Second staggered out of Talen's tent, then bent to whisper furiously.

"Ugh," Kor groaned, starting to twist to go that way. "Have to explain."

Jin's grasp on his shoulders was firm. He steered him the other way. "No, you have to walk. Although you can explain to me. How, exactly, did such a small Mending make you... what.... overuse your Gift?" He grabbed Kor's hand, lifting it to nod at the no-longer present scratch. then pushed him relentlessly forward. The Hybrid just wanted to lie down in the sand and sleep.

Kor shrugged. "Don't know. Jaara. She said... something..."

Jin sighed behind him. "Fine. Then we'll walk you over to her."

They staggered into the small cluster of tents where Jaara, Caylia and Rowan were unpacking some of their belongings and building their campfire.

Caylia's and Rowan's eyes widened at their approach. Jaara merely frowned. "Our session together was not that hard, was it?"

"He attempted to Mend himself," Jin growled, the question in his voice unspoken but clearly there.

The Inquisita's eyes narrowed at Kor. "Because of what I said? Hybrid, I have a high Gifting and was Bonded to Das---to a loquiri at fifteen summers old."

Kor tried to mumble something coherent. He managed to get the words "healing bent" out clearly, at least.

Her eyes narrowed further. “That makes no difference. In a normal Mend, two share the drain of Gift together. When you Mend yourself, it drains on you and you alone.” She shook her head. “A high Gifted—perhaps—should risk it, but someone such as yourself…”

At that, Kor scowled, but she continued on, “…You should not try it, especially if you have already used your Gift that day, as you did in the spar.”

Kor shrugged. “I am still…ah…learning about my Gift. I tried it to see if you could truly Mend yourself and,” he held up his hand, revealing the Mended scratch, “It did.”

“And then you collapsed,” Jin muttered. “Why must you try everything that comes into your head? Your foolish ideas are going to get you killed eventually.”

“It’s those same foolish ideas that made you immune to Derk-ra venom,” Kor retorted, “And discovered how to cleanse infection, including your lovely sinus trouble,” the Second tapped his Fay-el’s nose emphatically, grinning as Jin pulled his head away and scowled at him.

“Kor,” he began, and then sighed and shook his head. “I swear, I don’t know if you’re a blessing or a bane.” He tipped his head toward the women. “Thank you for your time. I’m sure my Second needs to rest now.”

“What? No. I’m on duty.”

Jin turned him about and shoved him forward. “I won’t go anywhere.”

“I’m supposed to be awake,” he protested. “Besides, I have to speak to Talen and the others before they—“

“No. Later.”

“Jin.”

“No. You’re on duty.”

He dragged his Second into the tent, scowling more as the Hybrid continued to protest. The Fay-el shoved him onto his pallet—of course Kor would end up back in Jin’s tent—and pointed to the pile of scrolls. “I will be here, checking your messages and correcting them. You’re going to lie there and rest.”

Kor’s eyes narrowed. Jin cleared his throat. “If not, then I will take you to Caylia and Jaara, have one of them put you to sleep with their Gift, and I’ll carry you back here slung over my shoulder like a deer carcass. Which do you prefer?”

Kor smirked. "I do not think Caylia knows how to do that, or else she would have done it to Jaara a while ago, right? And somehow I do not think Jaara is interested in helping me---"

Jin lifted an eyebrow, then drew a deep breath. "Inquisita!" he bellowed.

Kor's eyes widened. "Oh please, Eppa, no!" Hastily, he lay down.

The Fay-el rolled his eyes, then turned back to his scrolls. An few moments later Kor sat upright again---much more slowly than he'd laid down---and Jin turned over his shoulder to snap at him.

Kor held up a hand. "Just taking off my boots, Fay-el," he said wearily.

Jin shook his head as the Hybrid did just that, then crinkled his nose when Kor lay back down. "Kyda! Put those things back on!"

Kor smirked, then closed his eyes and sighed wearily.

Jin frowned at him. Kor's clothing was sweat-soaked and covered in sand. "You're filthy."

"Jaara... beat me. Woman..."

The Fay-el rolled his eyes. "You're filthy and in my bed," he grumbled. The bedrolls in which the tribe slept during the desert's cool midwinter nights were already prone to collecting sand and the odd scorpion. Still, one usually tried to lie down clean.

"Sorry," Kor mumbled.

Jin sighed. "Why don't you get out of those clothes? At least that Kyda forsaken tunic. I'll get you something else to wear so you don't stink up my blasted pallet."

Again, Kor sat bolt upright. "Can't go without me!" he said, half panicked.

Jin frowned at the disoriented Hybrid. Kor was exhausted enough that he wasn't being particularly reasonable. "Second, I'll only be gone a grain," he said patiently. "I'm just going to get a change of clothing from your tent."

Grumbling, Kor set about removing the soiled clothing, and also grumbling, Jin left his tent and headed to the Hybrid's own smaller tent.

Jaara met him on the way back. "You shouted for me, my lord?" she demanded irritably.

He shrugged. "I thought I needed you, but Kor decided to be reasonable."

She did not seem to appreciate being called over for nothing, but went away willingly enough when he dismissed her.

"Kor, here," he said, leaning over the Hybrid with the clothing and shaking him lightly. Kor did not respond, but only mumbled something in his sleep. Jin sighed, and set the change of clothing aside. The man could sleep in his skivvies for all he cared.

"My lord, I---"

Jin turned around to see Hamen pause awkwardly in the tent opening, his eyes falling to Kor's clothing strewn about the tent, to the Fay-el, to Kor asleep in the Fay-el's bed in only his underclothes.

“Ah…Hamen…it’s not…He was tired and worn out from…ah….that is,” The heat rising in Jin’s face only flushed warmer. “His clothes were filthy and as he was sleeping in my…um…”

Hamen kept his face impassive. “If you are otherwise occupied, my lord, I can return at a better time.”

“I’m not busy, not anymore at least.” The way his words could be taken flashed through his mind. “I mean…I have time for you…because my earlier activities…my duties, they…” Jin closed his eyes and sighed, rearranging his thoughts before his mouth got him into more trouble. “What do you need, Hamen?”

“My lord, there is no, ah…shame in this. I have heard that many Aquila find this sort of thing…um…to their liking.”

“No, Hamen,” Jin growled. “I am most certainly not involved in that. You have seen me courting Caylia, have you not?” He crossed his arms triumphantly.

The trainer managed an artful shrug. “My lord, there are tales that Aquila prefer both, for variety’s sake.” Hamen’s cheeks reddened ever so slightly. “It is not my business what you do when you relax.”

“Hamen…I…” He squeezed the bridge of his nose wearily. “Never mind. Is there something the matter with your Derk-ra?”

“No, my lord. I wanted to tell you that they seem to be resting comfortably. I would, however, suggest your men stay away from their pens for now. If these feral Derk-ra get overworked, it could turn dangerous.”

“Aye, I will tell them.”

“Also, my lord, Talen…I believe it is…and another sentry have replaced the crests on their shitans.”

Jin sighed, deeper. “I will correct this as well. Thank you, Hamen.” He glanced up, sweeping a hand toward Kor, who was now snoring. “This is…is not what it seems. Truly. He is simply my Second, nothing more.”

“Aye, my lord,” Hamen’s expression utterly belied his agreement. “I will say nothing of this.”

Jin suppressed a groan and instead waved his hand at him in dismissal, browsing through the rolled scrolls until the trainer had left. The Fay-el stalked toward his Second, glowering down at his sleeping form. “Even in your sleep, you cause me trouble,” Jin growled.

Bending down, he seized the edge of his bedroll and dragged him out through the tent flap. The Hybrid did not stir, which was well and good, as Jin yanked the pallet and threw the Second into the sand.

“Bah!,” Jin snarled at him and spun on his heel, leaving the Hybrid to spend the night outside.

< >

Kor was exhausted, and lay in leaden sleep straight through the night, but five things contrived to bring him about the next morning. First, something gritty was in his mouth, halfway up his nose, and pressing uncomfortably against the side of his face. That was a familiar sensation; he always slept outdoors. The light filtering into his right eye from above was normal as well. This was hardly the first time he had awakened to sunlight.

Nor, unfortunately, was he unaccustomed to waking with a beastly headache; that seemed to become a far more regular thing over the past few weeks, as he'd started learning to use his Gift.

Less familiar was how cold he felt upon waking, and the strange tingling burn on his shoulders, back and neck.

Groaning, he levered himself upright to lean on one elbow, staring around in confusion. The camp seemed to be alive and well around him, people hurriedly taking down their tents, breaking their fasts, and tying bedrolls and other necessities to their horses. Jin stood before one of the cook fires, snacking on some fruit Rowan had apparently scavenged, and the look the Fay-el cast Kor over his shoulder was not friendly.

Kyda... What did I do?

That was, of course, a fantastic question, and became a more pressing one as he sat up and glanced down at himself. He had a vague memory of lots of scrolls the previous day, and Jaara's darting blade. But that did not do much to explain why he was sleeping facedown in the middle of camp... without a blanket to protect against the night cold... in nothing but his skivvies.

He struggled to get his mind to work. I... pretended to be Fay-el for an entire bloody day... then... sparred against that infernal Inquisita... then... Talen? I... cleared out the infection and... overdid it with the Mending... then... went to sleep... in Jin's tent...

He glanced around in confusion again, frowning at his Fay-el. Jin met his eye, looked slightly guilty for a moment, and started to walk toward Kor with a mug in hand. Then he froze, and suddenly flushed scarlet as Hamen walked past, and turned abruptly away from his Second and back to the campfire.

Kor groaned in confusion and flopped back down in the sand, hiding his eyes in the crook of his arms. Kyda blast it... I'm going back to sleep.

Joran’s voice snapped him awake again, or more specifically—Joran’s shouts directed toward the Fay-el. He rolled wearily to his feet, scowling at his younger brother.

The warrior stood with hands balled into fists planted at each hip, feet spread into a fighting stance, yelling at Jin with a voice little more than a snarl. The Fay-el took it with good grace. Besides a slight narrowing of his eyes, Jin did not react.

The tribesmen around them glanced at Joran, but did nothing. As an unConfirmed youngling, Joran would not be harmed unless he were foolish enough to draw a blade, and even then, he would likely be disarmed, not killed outright.

Kor stalked closer, intending to scold his brother. When he made sense of what Joran was saying, however, Kor’s frustration shifted targets.

“Why did you do that to him?” Joran growled anew at Jin. “It isn’t right, dragging him out there and just leaving him. What if the Derk-ra came stalking?”

“He was within camp boundaries, Joran.”

“They can sneak in and steal children. I have heard the tales.”

“Tales, Joran. He was safe.”

The youth clenched his teeth. “From the Derk-ra perhaps. But the cold? The burning sun? What if he sickens?”

Jin snorted. “Him? I could only hope so.”

There was muted chuckles from those nearby. Joran scowled at them all, but reserved his darkest look for the Fay-el. Jin sighed. “He can Mend himself now. I am sure he will be…” His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Kor. “Ah, Second. Good morning to you.”

"What in Kyda's bloody name happened?" Kor demanded.

Before Jin could respond, Kor's little brother snapped, "Our good Fay-el---"

"Enough of you," Kor cut him off, grasping Joran's upper arm and tugging him away from the simultaneously annoyed and amused Fay-el.

"But---" The boy was slightly difficult to pull back; either he was stronger than Kor had expected or, more likely, Kor was more tired and weak than he'd thought.

"Shh," he said, then glared at Jin so that the Fay-el found himself facing the ice blue and steel gray displeased gazes of both brothers.

Kor swayed a little on his feet, then steadied himself by jabbing a finger the Fay-el's way. "Now... I'm confused. I wake up in the blasted sand and my bloody back and neck and---Kyda---the backs of my legs are all sunburned. Yet last I remember, you made me go to sleep in your tent, and---Why are you blushing?"

“Would you keep your voice down?” Jin hissed softly.

Kor blinked. “Whatever for?”

The Fay-el’s eyes flicked away and then back again. “Just hush, Kor. I will explain later about—“

“No. You will explain now. One moment I’m asleep in your tent and you're bringing me my clothes and—“

“Kor!” He snapped. “Please stop allowing your mouth to run away with you. Please? I will explain it all. Later.”

The Hybrid’s frown darkened. “I can get louder you know.” His eyes narrowed and he did precisely that. “I do not like being sunburned, or cold, or away from you,” Kor growled. “Explain very quickly or I will start asking questions and find out myself.”

Jin threw up his hands, “Fine. Fine. Look, can we at least go—“

Kor turned away, eyebrows arching at Joran. “You tell me. What happened?”

“After Jin came back with your clothes, Hamen came to speak with him. When Hamen walked away, he was…blushing, and so was Jin. I went to bed, then, and this morning learned that the Fay-el dragged you out here and left you.” His eyes narrowed at Jin once more. “I don’t know why he would mistreat his Second, and fellow tribesman.

Kor scowled, glancing at Jin. “What does Hamen have to do with this? You are the one who insisted I stay there and—“

“Shh.”

“No, I will not. You had better—“

Jin dropped his voice lower, stalking close. “Hamen has heard tales…as have I…of Aquila sailors who, well, they…ah…so long away from women that they…” His cheeks were very red. “With you nearly…ah…undressed and asleep, in…in my bed, it certainly looked—Hamen thought you and I were…”

Kor grinned cheekily. “A Dragonian Fay-el taking an Aquila as a lover?”

Joran’s eyes went very wide. Jin simply dropped his head, massaging the bridge of his nose. “Somehow, I just know this is something you will not let me forget.”

Kor rolled his eyes. "Why are you so worried? You and I know we are not in that sort of relationship. Kyda... Caylia certainly knows that you do not prefer men." He waggled his eyebrows. "So who cares what Hamen or anyone else thinks, hmm?"

Jin shifted from one foot to the other, glancing furtively about him. "Shh, Kor."

"No! This is a stupid reason to---"

The Fay-el shoved a mug of kolinar at him. "Look, I'm sorry. Here, drink this, it'll make you feel better, alright? Just be quiet."

"I do not need that," Kor complained. "I just---"

"I'll believe that when you stop holding your head, Second."

Kor paused. He was holding his head, wasn't he? Well, it was not his fault the Kyda-forsaken sun was so bright, or that it felt like the bloody light was stabbing through his temple. Lip curling, he snatched the mug from Jin. "All right," he said, admitting defeat. He slumped down in front of the campfire.

Jin looked worried for all of a grain. Then Joran, hands on hips, turned to him. "Well?" the boy demanded.

"Well what?" Jin scowled.

Joran smirked, and said quite loud enough for all the nearby tribesmen to hear, "Are you not going to give him back his clothing, at least?"

Jin cringed, and then sighed. “You’re both impossible. Do you hear me? Impossible!”

He stalked away, returning a moment later with the bundle of clothes from last night, dropping them at Kor’s feet. He glared at Joran. “Satisfied?”

Kor's brother grinned. “Almost. What about his sunburn?”

Jin rolled his eyes. “Joran, I am not Gifted, thankfully. I cannot Mend.”

“Then what are you going to do about it?”

Jin scowled. “There is nothing I can do. There is a plant, I think it is called aloe, that can help. But I doubt Turoc has any in his stores.”

“What does it look like?” Kor muttered, tugging his tunic over his head. “This plant?”

“It is green, sometimes speckled with white. Low to the ground, with tough, serrated leaves—as if it had teeth. You break it open and rub the salve on burns or bruises.”

“Ah…, maybe Turoc or the Keeper has some drawings of this?” Kor stood, tugging on his breeches as he muttered half to himself and half to them. “I don’t think I’ve seen it used before.”

Jin shrugged. “It doesn’t grow well with water. Better in dry, arid areas. Aquila is more wet than dry, yes?”

Kor grinned. "Aquila is more water than land." He flicked his gaze to Jin. "You should go find me this
After Jin had stopped seeing to his "personal" problems, the warriors at last were ready to move out. The Fay-el drew his men about him in the early morning sunlight, dividing them into two groups. The first, smaller group would remain behind with Rowan and Turoc and begin hunting for the evening meal. Food was scarce in the desert, even here in Apollar's somewhat more fertile lands. The remainder of the men---along with Caylia and Jaara---were going to try their hands at capturing Derk-ra.

"Today, you are to obey Hamen as though he were your Fay-el," Jin commanded sternly. "Anyone who disobeys him and endangers the rest of us will be given kinsleaf. Now listen to him well." He nodded to the Derk-ra trainer.

Hamen stepped forward, Maheen at his side glaring imperiously over the party. The tilt of his brow and straight line of his mouth matched the serious tone in his voice. "The idea is simple enough. Maheen here will send out a challenge for the territory here. There's always a Derk-ra pack in hearing distance of that in Apollar. -If-, and that is an if, the Derk-ra pack in this area has settled in for a bit, they'll answer that challenge out of curiosity, at least. That is the easy part."

He lifted the tall torch in his hand, designed to be planted on the perimeter of a camp at night, at head level. The seven-foot torches tended to be more effective at blinding the sentries of any merchant foolish enough to need them for their own sense of security, but they were perfect for this.

"When they get close enough, we will light these torches. For each person with a torch, there will be three with nets, with an extra net folded for throwing for each. When a torch is lit, the Derk-ra will move very quickly to douse them. Move away from the torch, and wait for your net-throwers to catch your target. Once your Derk-ra is in the net, just back away. These things are designed to hold, and if you try dragging the thing anywhere right after catching it, it might call for help from its pack."

The trainer leaned back, holding two fingers before his mouth and making a strange, half-whistle, half scream. He took a moment clearing his throat once he was done. Maheen didn't give him the chance, cutting into the silence that had fallen under Hamen's words to send her own call for help into the air. It was higher, longer, and piercing. More than one person watching shivered. Hamen reached a hand down to Maheen, making no move to touch her. She nuzzled the hand on her own.

"Thank you. Now, if you hear that sound, get away. Just run. At that point, any Derk-ra we haven't netted will be in one group, and it's thrice-damned impossible to split them up again to catch them once one's called for help. Now, other than asking how long the wait will be, since we may not be in an active territory at all, are there any questions?"

The warriors shook their heads, though a few looked past him to the silent desert, frowning pensively. It was one thing to speak of hunting Derk-ra when none were near, and quite another to try to bring them in close enough to attack.

At the back of the clustered group, a few began to mutter, too quietly to make out what they were saying. Jin glanced that way, eyes narrowing. Hamen, for his part, waited patiently. It took a great deal of slow, steady work to make a feral Derk-ra into a willing companion; tarrying on a few surly Dragonians should not be any more taxing.

Jin was not so calm. “Well? What is it?”

The group spread out, dispering somewhat, but loosely around one warrior with dark eyes, now turned to flask disapprovingly at Hamen. “And just where do we keep these bloody beasts, once we’ve caught them?”

Jin sighed. “Talen, do you truly think I have no wits to consider this?”

The Dragonian warrior’s eyes slid immediately to the Hybrid standing at the Fay-el’s side. The two traded glares, Kor setting his jaw and sidling closer to Jin.

Talen looked away, focusing on Hamen once more. “Well? What have you arranged? We certainly can’t drag them in nets for the rest of the time.”

Hamen smiled, reaching his hand down and offering his knuckles to Maheen. The Derk-ra sniffed his hand, forked tongue darting out briefly to taste his skin. "Derk-ra run in packs. Hutches, we call them. There are usually several mated pairs, and a matriarch, a larger female that the others defer to. Maheen may not be part of the hutch or hutches we will capture, but she is a strong, willful creature. They will fall in line beneath her."

Talen's eyes narrowed. "That's it? We will capture these beasts, and then they will simply follow us all the way back to the wetlands like---" He snapped his hand toward the horses. "---foals following a dam?"

The derk-ra trainer offered an amused grin. "If only it were so simple. No. They will need to be tethered and led. At night, they will need to be tied or, if possible, penned. But Maheen will be able to help keep them under control." He smiled and nodded to Caylia, who stood at Jin's side, her hand loosely entwined with his own. "Caylia will also be able to help. She has been spending some time familiarizing herself with derk-ra."

The warriors glanced at the bard in confusion. She smiled gently, blushing a little. "Hamen refers to my Gift," she said quietly.

Talen---of course---scoffed. "Another Gift?" he asked, scowling at Kor, who only rolled his eyes.

Jin frowned sternly at him. Caylia only squeezed his hand. "My Gift is somewhat... different... than your Second's." Talen's expression suggested he did not particularly like thinking of Kor as his anything. "I should be able to help keep them calm. Docile, even."

"Alright," Talen said, and Jin's jaw tensed. The Fay-el did not interrupt him, however. "I have only one more question. I do not know these beasts as well as you, but I do know that they do not come out during the day. So where is it, exactly, that we are going right now?"

Hamen smiled. "I'm glad you asked. There are saltwater pools throughout the Mara. They do not help much to bring greenery to our lands, and the derk-ra can hardly drink from them, but they do have a particular use where the beasts are concerned. Derk-ra... harvest... the salt of the water to make their venom. They often rest near these pools. The nearest is several hours from here."

It took them two nights to locate their first Derk-ra hutch. Around midday, Hamen led them to the third salt pool in this part of the desert, and smiled as he crouched beside a low, flat rock. Ravin came to stand at his shoulder and nodded, glancing from the boulder to the nearly-dry lake bed.

"There seems to be an active hutch in this area," Hamen told the warriors as they gathered around. Kor frowned, pressing a little closer to Jin's side protectively. The tribesmen glanced around nervously, fingers resting on their shitan hilts.

Only Caylia, Ravin and Hamen looked unconcerned. The latter grinned at the uneasy warriors. "Never fear. They are asleep now. They will not emerge until sundown unless something disturbs them from their rest." He glanced around sharply, then spotted the dark-eyed warrior he was looking for and crooked a finger.

Talen kneed his stallion forward, frowning. "What?"

Hamen pointed at the rock over which he and Ravin stood. "What do you see?"

The warrior's face briefly flashed with annoyance, and then he cocked his head and actually studied the rock obediently for a moment. "Ah... scratches, in the rock?"

Hamen nodded, and gestured for another warrior to approach the pool. "And there, in the mud?"

The youth shrugged, leg reining his horse parallel to the water. "Salt deposits and.... oh." He grinned up at Hamen. "One of the beasts was lying right here, it seems, half in the water and half out."

The Derk-ra trainer nodded. "Set up the torches so that they will be ready by nightfall."

They did as they were told, both that afternoon and that evening as well. The tribesmen had many opportunities to be grateful that night that they had been granted immunity to Derk-ra venom. Most of the men Jin had brought with him---Terran’s young son Duncan included---had fought Derk-ra before, but it was much harder to capture one of the beasts alive without being injured than it was to kill one and remain unharmed.

After Maheen rumbled a challenge in a horrifying sound that began as a high whistle and slid down into an obscenely loud, jarring hiss, the tribesmen stood ready beside their unlit torches, waiting for Hamen's signal. As expected, the Derk-ra began to slink into the capture zone, hissing inquisitively as they smelled not only humans, but also an unknown female Derk-ra.

Jin and Kor stayed out of the action for the most part, Jin simply observing with a watchful eye on Caylia, who in turn watched the entire scene, eyes sparkling as she memorized the details that were relevant in her bardic mind. Jin and Kor had expected Jaara to join the men in capturing Derk-ra, but instead the Inquisita took up a position at Caylia’s side very similar to Kor’s at Jin's side, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her janin.

The Derk-ra trainer’s plan was sound. There was only one injury severe enough to require more than a couple stitches. Terran’s son Duncan was also the only warrior to blatantly disregard Hamen’s orders, releasing the torch he’d been assigned and taking up Hazor’s fallen net after the slightly older warrior failed to capture a Derk-ra. In the sudden dark that should have been chased back by his torch, had he been holding it, the fifteen-year-old failed to see the Derk-ra’s mate spring on him out of the darkness.

At Jin’s side, Kor tensed. But he did not leave his Fay-el, only watching anxiously as Ravin snapped to the boy’s side, pulling him free of the Derk-ra. Duncan was screaming, but when Ravin brought him close to Kor’s side, the Hybrid saw that the boy was not hurt badly, although the gash on his lower back was painful, especially for a youth unaccustomed to being injured.

Before Kor could even examine the child, Jaara knelt by Duncan’s side. “Hush, ra,” she said softly, resting her hands on his shoulders. The Gift peaked, and Duncan shivered, but calmed immediately. Gently, she levered him up to his feet. “You’re all right,” she assured him, as the child drew in a shuddering, exhausted breath.

Duncan was alright, although he kept casting fearful glances at his Fay-el until the group at last made their way back toward camp with the three Derk-ra they’d successfully captured. Caylia’s Gift prickled gently all the while.
Jaara felt like the derk-ra these Drays had captured, not quite angry but certainly uneasy. She wanted to be doing something, but there was nothing to do. She’d cleaned her janin, exercised her shoulder, seen to Khyr… It was too early for supper. Far too early for sleep.

Rowan glanced up in mild irritation from the tunics she was darning. “Jaara, could you help me with these?”

Jaara paused briefly in her pacing. “I do not sew.”

Caylia smiled. She was carving a flute from a length of derk-ra bone, bleached white from the desert sun. “Our Inquisita does not idle well. Especially without a sparring partner. Speaking of which, how is he? And,” her eyes assessed the other and she arched a brow, “you? I don’t think I’ve seen you rest in a long while.”

“How am I supposed to know how he’s doing?” Jaara snapped. Then she paused, clenching her jaw, and turned to the bard. “Sorry. But I do not know how the ael kinth is, Caylia. And it is not my concern.”

“And how are you?” Caylia prompted again, gently.

Jaara frowned, fingers dancing over the hilt of her janin. “I am well.”

“You Mended him. Surely you need to rest…”

The Inquisita rolled her eyes. “One Mend is hardly enough to tire me.”

“Perhaps you could Mend him again, then?”

“No.”

“No?”

“He is too weak to have a Mend draw upon his Gift again so soon.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you keep bringing him up?” A brief smile quirked her lips. “Perhaps you are looking for an excuse to visit him? Or rather the Fay-el?”

Caylia’s eyes widened, then a laugh flowed easily from her throat, despite the spots of color in her cheeks. “Well played, Jaara, well played. Aye I would like to see him but I don’t think I need an excuse.” She rested her chin against the heel of her hand. “But I bring him up because he was badly injured and is the reason for why we are staying at least another night. The better question is why you are so touchy about it.”

“I am not ‘touchy.’”

“Of course not.” She smiled and let it drop. Instead she put the flute aside and leaned back on her hands. “But…you’ve been working very hard and you’re pregnant...”

“Hardly news to me. Perhaps you should stop fretting over me and go visit your Fay-el.”

Eyes sparkling, Caylia countered, “I will. If you come with me and allay your worries.”

“I am not worried about the ael kinth.”

Caylia turned her half-formed flute over in her hands. “The Fay-el will need a break from his own fretting eventually. Perhaps you could watch Kor to give him time away.”

“Why would I want to…”

“It would at least give you something to do. Come.” She stood, ignoring the woman’s protests.

Huffing, Jaara rose reluctantly to her feet. Rowan watched them go with a small smile.

The Fay-el was sitting on the ground in his tent, his legs stretched out before him and his back pressed up against his saddle. A lantern upon a wooden writing desk cast a warm glow over the tent, bright enough to allow him to read the scroll in his hand, but not enough to disturb his sleeping Second.

"How is he?" Caylia whispered.

“Resting now,” Jin whispered back. “He woke briefly, but did not seem to be in much pain, thankfully. He’s weak, though. He lost a lot of blood, most out in the dunes, but a good deal beneath Turoc’s knife.” He glanced at the chart in his hand---one of Kor’s apparently, with notes on the Mendings the Hybrid had given or seen given to Daliah, Chrys and Jin. “It looks like the Mend cannot do anything about that.”

”It has its limitations,” Jaara said.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Caylia rested her fingers lightly on his shoulder. “You should take a break.”

“I can’t.” He set the chart across his knees and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want to leave Kor alone. He shouldn’t be left alone. Not till the herbs wear off.”

Caylia tilted her head toward the Inquista. “That’s why Jaara is here.”

Jin frowned, eyes darting from one to the other. “I don’t think---forgive me Inquisita---that would be my first choice.”

“She can Mend, and so probably can help better than anyone else in our company. Medically at least.”

“He cannot handle another Mend yet,” Jaara pointed out again, frowning. Caylia was not normally one to so quickly forget what she’d already been told.

The bard rolled her eyes and gave her an exasperated, pleading glance. “Well, you know better than most what condition he is currently in because of it…” She said persuasively, her eyes saying something very different to her friend.

Jaara sighed, frowning from Jin to Caylia. “Oh very well. Fay-el, I would… like… to watch him for a time, if you will permit.” She glared at Caylia. “Provided you are not gone long.

Jin looked far less pleased by the pronouncement than Caylia, but a brief glance at the bard relieved his concerns. “Alright. For a time.”

The half point Jaara spent being stuck with Kor was not as trying as she’d expected. He did not wake, did not even stir, even when she lifted his head to give him water. She swept a probe over him lightly, but she was not a Healer and could tell little beyond that he was deeply asleep and would probably not be able to touch his Gift for a few days.

She sighed, and waited impatiently for the Fay-el to return. At last he did so, looking more relaxed than he had been when he’d left the tent, and Caylia ducked in behind him, cheeks faintly flushed.

< >

Kor slept steadily until about midnight, his body effectively still sedated by the Mending he’d received long after the herbs he’d been given had worn off. Jin was, by that point, beginning to contemplate sending someone to bring him a spare pallet upon which he himself could sleep.

As he had been doing every point for the last eight points, he knelt to feel Kor’s forehead before tipping the waterskin to the Hybrid’s lips. This time, Kor started to reach up with his bandaged hand to grab Jin’s wrist, then groaned and pulled the injured arm in toward his chest instead.

“Shh,” Jin soothed, setting the waterskin aside.

Kor’s eyelids fluttered. “Jin?” he croaked.

“I’m here. How do you feel?”

Kor swallowed and was quiet for a moment. “Weak. Like… fingers just smashed, not lopped off.” He laughed weakly and bitterly, opening his eyes.

Jin sighed. “It’s late, Kor. You should go back to sleep.”

“Late?” Kor shifted slightly, glancing around Jin’s tent and taking in the lantern and the night sky outside the slightly ajar tent flap. “Supposed to be on duty.”

Jin winced at that. “No. Not right now.”

“But… said it was late. You said.”

Jin shook his head. “I said no. Not tonight.”

Kor stirred, then shifted upright, face paling as he did so. Jin started to push him down, but Kor tensed, and it was easier to just let him sit up than risk hurting him by pushing him down while he was resisting. “Supposed to be...” he muttered.

Jin sighed. “Alright, fine. But first you must drink this.” He reached up to the writing desk, retrieving the mug Turoc had brought in an hour before.

Kor frowned blearily at it when Jin handed it to him. “What is it?”

His Fay-el shrugged. “I do not know,” he lied. “Turoc brought it. He said it would help you when it was time for you to be on duty.”

Kor drained it thirstily, then frowned halfheartedly. “Tastes like valla.”

“That’s because it is.”

Kor cursed at that, but was not able to stay awake very long after, and slept straight through the night until the camp rose and packed the next morning.

< >

For the second time in less than a month, Talen clung to his horse in misery. The calaba had been terrible, but he could bear it, knowing the necessity. But this… the only reason for this was that bloody Hybrid, and Jin’s prickly temper.

His stomach twisted. Talen dropped his head against his stallion’s neck and clenched his teeth, breathing hard through his nose.

“You look ill,” a familiar voice said.

Talen jerked upright, clenching his teeth against the rising nausea, and glared at the Second. “I don’t need your help,” he snapped.

Kor shrugged lightly, moving awkwardly with the sling across his chest and shoulder cradling his injured hand. “I cannot help anyone.”

His tone was so quiet, almost as ploddingly slow as Turoc, that Talen frowned and peered closer at him. The Second was pale, paler even than his Aquila heritage should have granted him. His eyes were half-lidded, the blue more the washed-out tint of a robin’s egg than the icy sharpness he knew him for.

A muscle in his jaw twitched. Talen blinked. Kor was clenching his teeth—just as he himself had done—but for entirely different reasons. He nudged his horse closer. “You’re in pain.”

“Turoc just… cleaned the wounds…” Kor gritted. “Kyda take his unsteady hands.”

In front of them, Jin swiveled on his horse, eyes narrowing as he noticed Talen close to Kor. “Leave my Second be,” he growled. “Or I’ll remind you again who is chieftain here.”

Talen clenched his teeth and nodded sharply. "Sire." He wrenched the reins and turned his horse away. The other warriors stopped whispering as he rode toward them, and averted their eyes.

"Again?" Kor asked Jin as the Fay-el rode abreast of him.

Jin's eyes narrowed in the direction Talen had ridden. "It is nothing, Kor. I just turned him over to Turoc and kinsleaf last night."

Kor nudged Keddina closer to the Fay-el. Jin glanced over him assessingly, face softening.

"Kinsleaf? Whatever for?"

Jin clenched his jaw. "Disrespect bordering on insubordination." His gaze shifted backwards past Kor again, narrowing into two thin slits. "That man is---"

"You had Turoc give him herbs as a punishment?"

"Yes."

Kor bit off a curse. He glared at his Fay-el, then abruptly turned Keddina about and went toward Talen.

“Are you mad?” Jin snapped at his retreating back. “That man hates you.”

Kor ignored him and continued on. The warriors fell silent once more as the Second passed them. Talen’s face darkened as he approached. He wrenched his stallion’s head about as if to flee, but the steed’s sudden prancing buck against the rough handling was enough for the warrior. His face abruptly paled and he leaned over the horse’s side, knuckles whitening about the reins.

Kor reined in close and nodded in sympathy. “Will you be alright?”

“Once my breakfast decides to stay where it belongs,” Talen growled lowly. He straightened gingerly and flashed a glare the Aquila’s way. “Can’t you leave me alone?”

“I’m… sorry Jin did that to you.”

The warrior’s eyebrows arched briefly in genuine surprise, and then knit together again. “A chieftain has his right to do as he pleases.”

“Not with herbs.”

Talen shrugged. “ ‘Tis a common punishment for my offense.”

“You do not use healing to punish,” Kor said sharply.

“Perhaps not,” Talen responded judiciously, “But we have for many generations.”

Kor sighed, and chose to shift the matter aside. “There is mint and chamomile in my packs,” he said, “They will help soothe your stomach, if you can find time to brew them. Perhaps when we pause at midday.”

The dark eyes narrowed further, but his tone stayed noncommittal. “Perhaps.” Talen studied his face for a moment, and then looked away, eyes drifting to the injured hand before meeting the blue of Kor’s gaze once more. “You need herbs more than I.”

The Second smiled wanly and shifted the kapa bark tucked in his cheek, holding it between his teeth briefly. “This is enough for now. The Mend last night helped. I’ll survive.”

Talen did not look convinced. After a moment, he snorted and leaned back, pulling a small flask from his own packs. He extended it toward Kor, mouth turned down in an annoyed scowl, “Here. Take some of this and you won’t feel, or at least not care.”

Kor glanced at the flask, then away, swallowing.

Talen's eyes widened. "Sorry." He unscrewed the flask for the Second while Kor sat very still upon his horse, studying the ground, chin tilted away from his injured hand. Talen handed him the opened flask.

Kor nodded and sniffed lightly. He sighed, closing his eyes. "I thank you, but..." He handed it back. Talen's dark eyes narrowed, but Kor continued. "I cannot drink spirits so soon after..."

The warrior frowned a little, eyes passing briefly over Kor's face. "Aye," he said quietly. "I suppose you should not."

Kor's lips spread in a thin, halfhearted smile. "I had better return to Jin."

“Aye, that is…true,” Talen looked away, tucking his flask into his pack again, before refocusing on the Second. “If you…” he hesitated for a moment, and then blurted, “If you should need it…later…just ask.”

“Aye. I will, Talen.”

They studied each other for a moment, eyes unwavering, and then both turned their mounts away—one for Jin and the other for the cluster of honor guards.

< >

When the sun rode high in the sky, Jin called a halt. He swiveled slightly in his saddle, catching Turoc’s gaze and then inclining his head toward his weary Second.

With a sigh, Jin dismounted and dropped the reins to keep his stallion steady. He stepped to Kor’s mare, patting her neck absently as Kor stared down at the ground consideringly. “You can’t get down on your own,” Jin said.

Kor’s eyes snapped to him. “I can.”

“If you fall, you could wound your hand more,” he said bluntly. Jin stepped closer and reached up, sliding an arm around his hips. “Lean so I can help you.”

“Leave me be!”

Jin tightened his tone into command. “Do as I command, Second.

Kor’s expression was sullen, but he obeyed, leaning aside to shift his weight and tucking his good arm around his Fay-el’s neck. Jin eased him from the saddle to the ground, and then pulled him against his shoulder when the Second swayed on his feet. Jin had seen his pallor change, what little color in his face draining away.

He must have jostled his hand... or so he thought until Turoc cleared his throat, and then spoke in his old, familiar tone. “This will only take a moment, Kor. Then you may sleep until we move forward again.”

Kor shivered. “Please…” he muttered.

Turoc took his body in hand and pulled him away from Jin’s support, gently but firmly easing him to a sitting position on the ground. “Now none of that. I will not allow gangrene to take the rest of your hand, or your life. It must be kept well-clean, or the risk is there.”

Deft fingers began loosening the sling. Kor shuddered anew, but did not pull away from Turoc’s rough ministrations. Jin patted him on the shoulder lightly. “I’m certain you are hungry, and likely thirsty as well. I would guess the others will have kolinar brewed in no time and I will—“

“No!”

Jin blinked. Kor’s eyes were very wide. “No. No kolinar. Not for me.”

“Whyever not?”

“Just…no… Not now, Jin.”

The Fay-el frowned, but did not continue his argument. “Very well.”

The healer cleaned Kor's hand with a blend of valla and anderberry. Kor kept his eyes tightly closed the entire time, trembling like a leaf and growing whiter by the moment until Turoc at last was finished.

"I will leave this uncovered for now," Turoc said quietly. His hand passed over Kor's brow, and then he sighed. "And I’ll bring you willowbark before you sleep."

Jin stepped away from where he had braced his Second's back with his shin, and gently squeezed his shoulder. He glanced around, surveying the dismounting warriors, and finally spotted Rowan's retreating back. He rested his hand briefly on the top of Kor's head. "I'll get the Inquisita." Kor only nodded.

Striding after the Saie, he followed Rowan to where Jaara and Caylia were gently tying their mounts to a tough, green-barked tree.

“Inquisita,” Jin said quietly. “I do not wish to tire you unduly, but if you have Gift remaining, my Second needs another Mending.”

The Inquisita’s lips curled upward in a wry smile. “It will take several more Mendings to tire me, Fay-el. I will Mend him. He may be strong enough to handle two today, in fact.”

Jaara strode away, leaving Rowan and Caylia behind. The latter had dropped the reins of her horse and moved toward him. He smiled wanly and held out his hands to her. Instead, she moved past them and leaned into his chest, arms wrapping around his waist.

Jin accepted the hug without a word, content to allow her to hold him. Gently, she rubbed his back with one hand. Her voice was muffled against his tunic. “You’re worried about him.”

“Aye.”

“With Jaara to Mend him, and your healer to tend him—surely he will be fine.”

“I hope so,” Jin moved out of her embrace, one hand brushing the hair away from her face. “I dearly hope so.”

Worry overshadowed his desire to remain. Jin patted her shoulder lightly and turned away, striding across the camp. Already, warriors were busily pitching tents or working on small cookfires. The scent of kolinar wafted through the air as he passed.

He ducked into his own tent, already crowded with Kor, Jaara, and Turoc. The latter was calmly running his fingers over the Second’s brow and holding a flagon of something in the other. He frowned slightly at Jaara. “Will your Mend take away his fever?”

“No.” She crossed her arms. “A Mend heals injuries, not illnesses.”

Turoc nodded. “Then you must have some of this, Kor. Willowbark will help.”

Kor accepted the mug wordlessly, simply draining it down as if it were a shot of weak ale. Jaara seized her Gift and reached for him.

Kor’s eyes met Jin’s. "You're weary."

"I'll survive, Second. You need watching more than I."

The Aquila shifted away from the Inquisita's hands.

“Kor!” Jaara snapped. “Hold still.”

Kor held up his good arm to stall her. Eyes narrowed, she simply caught that arm and pulsed the Mending through him impatiently.

He fell back on Jin's bedroll as though he'd been struck. "Bloody---" He cut off, eyes growing unfocused and closing.

Jin nodded his thanks to the Inquisita as Turoc bent over Kor, taking his injured hand. He gave a small, pleased grunt, lifted a surprised eyebrow at Jaara, and then withdrew a small set of tweezers from his medicine pouch.

The bloody Hybrid pried his eyes open and his gaze drifted around the tent until he settled on his Fay-el's face. "You... sleep," he mumbled, voice tight with exhaustion as he tried and utterly failed to glare sternly.

A small, tired smile played at the corner of Jin's lips. "No, you."

Kor closed his eyes but continued to argue with him. "You... no more sleep... last night... me. Less, fact."

Jin shook his head, settling back on his heels then sitting down in the sand with his legs stretched before him in the same place and position he'd been in most of the night before. "Hush, Second. I am not wounded. I can handle it. You've a fever; you need watching."

Turoc shook his head, but did not look up from the suture he was carefully removing. "Sire, a mild fever after such an injury and its treatment is to be expected and is little to worry about. I will check in on him while he sleeps to ensure it does not worsen, never fear."

"Thank you, Turoc, but I would prefer to keep an eye on him myself."

"No..."

Jin glared at Kor. "You need to rest."

"Not... till you..." Bloodshot blue eyes found Jaara. "You... him sleep?" He patted the air vaguely with his uninjured hand.

Jaara frowned at Jin. Jin frowned back.

The chieftain’s face had flushed a bright shade of red, eyes jumping to Jaara and away again. She frowned at him. “What’s wrong?”

His Second chuckled dryly. “Not…what I meant….besides…I’m first,” he rasped.

Jin flushed more, and nudged Kor’s ribs with his boot. “Hush.”

Jaara still appeared confused, which was good. She would likely hurt him, or at least an important part of him, to ensure his thoughts did not wander.

"Second," Kor muttered, lifting one finger of his uninjured hand to indicate himself. "Do it."

She glanced between them uneasily as Jin rose to his feet. “ Second implies someone else is first.”

Turoc cleared his throat lightly. “Jaara, he has the right. A Second can command the Fay-el, if the decision is for his health or benefit.” The healer glanced up at Jin, the barest hint of a smile at the edge of his mouth. “As your healer, I agree with his assessment. You need to rest.”

“Use…Gift,” Kor muttered, eyes sliding closed again. “He’s…stubborn.”

Jin scowled down at his Second, and then flinched as long fingers closed over his shoulder. “Jaara, no. I don’t—“

The rest was lost as he cringed beneath the prickle of her Gift. Warm, soothing weariness washed over him. Jin slumped, finding his feet no longer held him.

"Kor..." Jin grumbled, sliding liquidly to the sand with Jaara's supporting arms clutching his shoulders firmly. The small Inquisita was stronger than she looked.

"Shh," Kor whispered, and apparently satisfied that his Fay-el would be well, fell promptly to sleep.

"Find a spare bedroll for the Fay-el," Turoc instructed Jaara quietly, replacing his tweezers in his pack and carefully beginning to re-splint Kor’s hand.

She nodded briskly, allowing Jin to roll onto his side, head pillowed in the crook of his elbow.

Jin glared at her as she departed, but of course she did not even flinch. And then he was asleep, waking only briefly as hands gently pushed him atop a soft bedroll and arranged a cool, damp linka against the back of his neck to ward off the afternoon heat.

"Good night, Jin," Caylia said quietly.

< >

Talen’s hand shaking his shoulder brought Jin around and he sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

The warrior did not exactly glare at the sleeping Second, but his expression lacked any warmth, and only a slight glint of worry.

Jin ignored him. He stood and glanced out at the sky beyond the tent, frowning slightly. It was bit later in the day than he had planned for them to be moving out again, but the camp and the warriors within it probably needed the rest. As did he.

The Fay-el flexed his shoulders, feeling more refreshed and relaxed than he had in several days. This soothing into sleep seemed to loosen his body, muscles limp as he slept, and not the tension that he sometimes carried with him into his dreams.

“If Kor ever learns how to do that….” Jin mused aloud, and then smiled, turning back to his Second. “Time to rise and shine, Kor.”

Rousing Kor was easier said than done. Mend-induced sleep did not relent easily. Jin helped the drowsy Aquila to sit up, then coaxed a bit of broth down his throat—fetched by an annoyed Talen—before leading the staggering Second out into the fading sunlight.

Kor winced at the light, but did not balk his gentle guidance as Jin led him toward the horse lines, where hobbled steeds munched contentedly on what forage they could find. At least, he did not balk until Jin turned aside—toward where Turoc’s tent lay near as well.

Kor tensed, shaking his head dully. “No. I’m fine…much better. Mends work well.”

“That wound must be kept clean.”

Kor scowled at him blearily. “ ‘Tis fine. Turoc can bother me later.”

“No.” Jin turned his shoulders about and nudged him forward. And then paused, thoughtful. “Then again, I did forget your Gift. Use your Gift to cleanse the sparks. If you can tell me, truthfully, that they are gone, I will not take you to Turoc.”

Kor paled abruptly. “No,” he muttered.

Jin rolled his eyes. “I said I would not take you to Turoc if you use your Gift.”

"I said no."

The Fay-el looked at him closely. Kor looked right back, eyes drowsy but jaw stubbornly set. "Is it that your Gift is too weak after yesterday?"

Kor swallowed. "Yes," he said instantly.

Sighing, Jin stood. "I suppose that makes sense." He studied Kor's face carefully, but Kor now avoided his eyes. Then, shaking his head, Jin levered him up with a supportive hand beneath his Second's elbow. "Turoc then."

Kor was most certainly not pleased at the news, balking against Jin’s hand as much as he could in his weakened state. But the Fay-el simply half-dragged, half-carried him into the healer’s tent and settled him on the rug in the center.

Kor endured it, but not at all as stoically as his Fay-el. He squirmed and winced and hissed, but did not jerk his hand away.

Turoc patted his arm when they were done. “You will not need this much longer, ra, at the rate you are healing. Nor the splint.”

Jin slipped his hand beneath Kor’s forearm and dragged him upright, before guiding him toward the horse lines.

Kor stumbled along with him for a moment, unresisting as they came up to his docile Keddina. At least, until he looked up and saw Joran already on the horse, smiling faintly.

Kor twisted to glare at his Fay-el. “I can ride, Jin. I’m not that bad.”

“Not after Jaara Mends you again. You need some help.”

“No, I don’t.”

Jin firmly held his shoulders and turned him about. Kor swore, but Jin and his brother would not be denied. He was hauled onto the horse in front of his brother, both legs on one side of the saddle like a woman. Joran slipped a strong arm around his waist to hold him steady and a cleared throat drew his glare.

Jaara smiled grimly up at him. “Now, Fay-el?”

“Now.”

Her hand slapped Kor’s thigh, and Gift pulsed. He slumped forward. “Not…fair…” the Aquila murmured.

Joran chuckled and shifted his brother, resting Kor’s head against his chest. “Good night, ri.”

Kor was already asleep.

< >

The warriors made their way slowly back toward the tribe, dragging along several unwilling and resisting Derk-ra and one dazed and---half the time---insensible Hybrid.

Jin rode with his honor guard, alternately leading from the front, drifting along beside Caylia to the combined amusement and annoyance of the warriors who guarded him, or plodding worriedly alongside his Second.

He need not have worried. Kor was healing well and Joran had the injured man well under control.

Not that Kor was much capable of being a bother, to his younger brother, his Fay-el, or anyone. On the first day that he had been thrown onto horseback in front of his brother, he slept a solid six points, rousing only for brief, confused moments when the warriors paused to rest for ten marks, or eat or set up camp. Once the tents had been pitched, Joran dragged him from horseback and into his own tent, bundling his brother in blankets until Kor woke around midnight...

...and promptly snuck out of the tent while his brother slept.

Jin was not particularly amused to wake the next morning and stumble out of his tent to find Kor sitting in the sand, bandages unwrapped all around him, inspecting the stumps of his missing fingers in the early morning light.

"Morning," Kor muttered.

"Please tell me you have not been sitting out here all night," Jin growled back.

Kor shrugged. "I am your Second." His pale blue eyes darted up to Jin briefly, and the slightly questioning tone in his voice gave the Fay-el pause.

"Yes," Jin said carefully, "You are. But you are also still healing."

Kor slowly opened and closed his hand, wincing either in pain or at the appearance of the stumps. "Yes. Rapidly, thanks to the Inquisita."

"You should eat breakfast and have Turoc see to that hand."

Kor grimaced but nodded, then rose, pressing his good hand into the sand to push himself up. Jin moved to help him with a hand on his arm, but his Second shook him off and rose without trouble. Jin had to admit, although his hand looked terrible, swollen and vivid blue, purple and pink, Kor was much stronger and more alert now than he had been the morning before.

That changed, of course, after he received his fourth Mending just before the warriors moved on again. This time, he slept only five points, waking at noon and taking over watch---despite Jin's protests---when the rest of the camp settled in to rest during the heat.

"What?" Kor snorted, "I have already rested."

Jin let him go, but did not protest when Ravin, rolling his eyes, slunk off into the desert behind the Hybrid.

They set out again after the sun had started its descent toward the horizon. Kor refused a second Mending that day, explaining when Jin tried to curse and cajole him into submitting that it was time for him to begin exercising his hand.

He did so, returning to the first semblance of anything like normalcy for the first time in a couple of days. He ate supper with the others after they packed up their midday camp and rode to their new stopping point for the evening. That night, once again, he kept watch over his Fay-el, and Jin did not protest in the morning.

On the third day of travel, while Kor was still sleeping off his fifth Mending---snoring into his brother's chest, no less---they finally crossed Pike’s Pass on their way to rejoin the tribe.

< >

The walls of the pass loomed high to either side, banded with red and white sandstone and throwing back the echo of the horses hooves interrupted now and again by a thin tinkle of water. It was the first time Caylia had ever been through the pass, the outlet from the Mara into the wetlands beyond, but she was paying little attention to it.

“Windrunner,” she muttered under her breath, “This path seems to go on forever. Are you sure these wetlands of yours really exists beyond?”

Jin, riding at her side, grinned. “Aye, but we have to ride through the width of the Rim. And I’m sure any length would still probably seem like forever to you.”

She flushed lightly. Her eagerness was more apparent than she’d like it to be. “Perhaps.” A gust of wind, funneled into the pass by the mountains, rushed by them. Linkas now gone, it caught her hair and smelled of water, and even worse, was cold.

“Not too much longer now,” Jin murmured, and true to his word, the rocky outcrops around them tapered lower and spread open, revealing sandy soil, sparse shrub land but even more shocking, large swaths of green grass.

She goggled, grabbing her reins tightly. “Windrunner…” she breathed, barely noticing as Lunra pulled up sharply and a Dragonian behind her grumbled as he was forced to correct. She lost words at the lushness and the color. She sputtered trying to find words. “It’s so…so… green.

Jin chuckled, leaning over to catch her horse’s halter. “This? This is not green at all.”

Her eyes slid to him. “Truly?”

His grin widened. “Would I lie to you, Ly?”

Caylia frowned slightly. Jin had started calling her that last week, at almost the same time small gifts had appeared at her tent.

“I suppose not,” she sighed finally. “I think you’re getting enough amusement out of this as it is but…what do the rest of your wetlands look like if this isn’t green? It's a wonder you don't go mad from the color. Trinity…I shudder to think of what your…forests, that is the word? look like.” She had read descriptions in a few writings, but the closest thing she could imagine were large clusters of palm.

“You’ll see soon enough.”

“There’s a forest near here?”

Jin smiled and released her horse, gesturing vaguely forward. He nudged Doblo forward and Caylia tapped her heels against Lunra, following at his side.

“The tribe is camped within sight of Kaama Forest,” Jin said. “It’s the safest place for them.” He shook his head at her puzzled look. “The Eloin. They fear the forests.”

She frowned. “Why? They’re not desert bred like me, shouldn’t they be used to forests? Or is there some other danger you haven’t told me about?”

“There are other dangers, of course, but no worse than your desert Derk-ra. We have wolves…canine versions of the Derk-ra, and no venom,” he shrugged, “They howl at night too. And bears, other creatures…but nothing that I cannot protect you from.”

Caylia glanced up at the gentle warmth to his tone, and was caught in his emerald gaze. His eyes flicked to her mouth…and Doblo, thankfully, broke the moment as he snorted, baring teeth as he reached to nip at her mare. The Fay-el jerked his attention back to his mount, slapping the stubborn stallion on its muzzle.

Doblo tossed his head, ears flicking, but left her mare alone. “But the Eloin,” Jin continued, “Their territory is sparse, with less trees than we have here. And they have these stories…I think…once, an Aquila merchant came through Shinar when I was a boy, and told us tales. Something about…dryads… Some sort of spirit in the tree, spiteful and malicious.” He blinked, cocking his head at her slightly. “Have you heard of them?”

She paused for a moment, thinking. “Aye,” she said slowly, “I think I have. The second man to become a High Master bard was the last real Settar bard to make any sort of study of the wetlands. I think I remember the word, but…more as something of legend.” She looked up at him. “Truth to it?” She chuckled a little, warm and rich. “I fear I may already have enough problems being distracted by the trees to be distracted by malicious spirits.”

Jin nodded. “Aye. I suppose you will be distracted on this journey,” she jerked her eyes to him, reading the unspoken promise in his expression, the same impish look she had seen on that first night.

Jin grinned and looked away as her cheeks reddened “I have just heard of these spirits. I think it is partially what the Eloin fear. At the very least, it keeps them away and gives us a place to rest. The only danger is Kor clan that claims that forest—but they are little concern.”

“Are you sure? Hybrids are…dangerous, are they not?”

“Some are.” Jin jerked Doblo’s head away from Lunra again. “This particular clan is led by a man who is half-mad already. It is like dealing with a blind viper.” His hands tightened on the reins, “I’d dearly like to kill him, but he can strike in the most unlikely places. Neither of us have been able to do more than raid each other.”

Caylia let the redness fade from her cheeks, quickly changing her thoughts before the blush would rise again and spread. Instead she pieced together what she had heard from Rowan and gossip. “Would this be this Dameon character? Or is he even still alive?”

Jin’s jaw tensed, and his tone shifted into a curt, almost clipped cadence. “Yes, that is Dameon.”

Caylia raised her brows and murmured a simple, ‘ah,’ before turning her eyes back ahead. The horizon was marred by…something. She frowned. “Is that your tribe up ahead…or the forest?”

“Both,” the ghost of a smile passed over his face, brightening as he studied her face. “We’ll reach the tribe first, but the trees are easily visible. They’d be hard to miss in fact.”

At her puzzled look, Jin simply laughed and nudged his horse into a faster pace. “It is easier to show you than to explain it.”

The honor guard around him frowned, but picked up the pace as well. Jin flicked them an amused look, and then winked at her. “Want to race?”

She looked at him, a little startled then a grin spread across her lips until she laughed. “A challenge is it, Jin? I’ll take that. Maybe I have some desert tricks up my sleeve that you could learn from.” Caylia grinned mysteriously, even though they both knew she knew nothing of the sort.

Jin laughed and gathered the reins, drumming his heels against the stallion’s ribs. Doblo snorted and lengthened his stride. Caylia did the same and Lunra moved into a smooth canter. With a shared smile, they both urged their horses on and shifted into a gallop. Jin’s honor guard cursed, but they could do nothing but chase after them.

Doblo’s long strides and powerful body ate up the distance between him and Lunra. Jin leaned low over his neck and loosened the reins. The stallion’s ears flicked forward once, and then the horse seized the bit in his teeth, charging across the open field.

Caylia copied the Fay-el’s move and felt Lunra respond, lithe muscles bunching as she galloped after her sire.

It was like riding on the wind. The mare’s gait was smooth and long and Caylia kept her eyes focused on the Fay-el’s back. She saw him shift, just slightly and soon the smaller horse was catching up.

Soon they were neck and neck, and sentry shouts barely echoed above the sound of the hooves. The first circle of tents was in sight as Lunra passed Doblo, and the bard urged the horse further. She was almost a full length ahead of him when the tents loomed and she reined Lunra in.

Turning the mare’s head, she grinned and shook her head as Jin slowed the warhorse. “You let me win,” she said.

He raised his brows, face picture of innocence, but there was a glint in his eye she was starting to recognize. “I don’t know what you are talking about. You rode well, you don’t do yourself justice.”

She laughed. “Ah yes, a Dragonian Fay-el, a race known for horsemanship, loses to a desert bard who often travels by foot? Ha, I do not believe…” she paused and eyed him, “unless you force me to believe that you must truly be a really bad rider.”

“Ah, my lady, you have discovered my dark secret,” he passed his arm over his brow in a dramatic gesture, as if it pained him to speak, “I am such a terribly bad rider that if my men were to see, they would surely demote me where I stand, and I should be left to feed the horses for the rest of my poor, sad days.” He shifted enough to wink at her, “Please, dear Ly, do not speak of this, for my sake.”

She laughed and pulled Lunra closer. “I promise, Fay-el,” she said, face taking on a mask of seriousness, “I will keep your secret. But secrets always come at a price.”

“Oh? And what price would that be?”

Caylia grinned, bit her lip. The amused look they both shared softening. She studied his face and he studied hers, air between them becoming heavier. His head started to dip as she leaned closer, but then the honor guard came clattering to a halt around them and she shook herself. “They are going to be angry.”

The Fay-el shrugged. “They can deal with it.” Jin flashed a smile at Caylia. “Come on. I want you to see the forest.”

They left their horses with the tribe and continued to the line of trees on foot. The feel and give of soil beneath her feet was unusual and a little odd, almost springy, very unlike the sand in the desert. The trees before rose, slim and tall, to heights greater than the palms or the other trees that spotted the protected areas of the desert. Caylia tipped her head back looking at their bare spreading arms, some holding the remains of bird nests. “Windrunner,” she breathed, “where our trees gather…well they’re not this tall. They don’t have leaves because of the winter, yes? I read somewhere that in the wetlands, trees drop their leaves when it becomes cold.”

“Aye,” Jin patted a tree trunk with one hand, and then shifted, leaning against it. “Most of the trees do so. A few stay green all winter long, however. Forever green.”

“Ah,” she smiled. “I wonder why they can do so when the others cannot.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.” Jin straightened again, walking closer and taking her hand gently. “However, there is one thing I know. We’re standing under a…a oak tree,

Her eyebrows arched. “And?”

The Fay-el cupped her chin in one hand, bending his head toward her. “It is good luck to find one, and even better luck if one should kiss beneath it,” he responded, voice deepening huskily.

“Ah,” she breathed, voice barely above a whisper, “then I suppose we should take advantage of the opportunity.”

“Oh, aye,” he agreed. They tasted each other’s breath for a moment before their lips met, softly and gently and yet very firm. Warmth curled from Caylia’s toes until they broke away and she grinned a little shyly.

“It’s a good tradition you have here in the wetlands.”

“Oh Aye, very good.” He grinned and trailed his hand down her shoulder and arm, intertwining his fingers with hers. “This way.”

They wandered for a time, stepping over fallen logs as he pointed out the tracks of deer and the marks of their teeth and antlers on the bark of the trees. “If a winter is bad, there will be many trees marked like this. The deer can’t paw the snow away to reach the grass, and they eat the bark instead.”

Her eyes widened slightly. “Snow? Will I get to see it?”

“Aye, a little.” Jin cocked his head. “Winter is nearly over now.”

“Oh,” her face fell.

The Fay-el smiled. “Once we reach the plains, you will see it in more abundance. Here, the trees block much of it from falling through.” He tugged on her hand lightly. “Come now, I want to see if there is some holly nearby.”

“Holly?”

“Another wetland tradition. If we are very lucky,” he winked at her, “It will be growing at the foot of an oak tree.”

She laughed lightly and squeezed his hand. “Well with the luck we must have gotten earlier, we just might.”

They did not need to go far before Jin murmured a quiet, “aha,” and led her over to a small green shrub not too far above the dead leaves. He squatted down and she did the same. “Holly,” he said, gesturing at the bright green leaves, red berries peeking out among the leaves like tiny eyes. “Be careful,” he warned gently, “the leaves are prickly.”

“Like cacti.”

He smiled warmly. “Aye, like cacti. Holly can usually grow much bigger than this but it doesn’t get much light here. The berries are poisonous.”

“Beautiful but deadly. Like the gilded sand vipers.” She flashed a quick grin. “Only not quite as mobile. So what is this tradition? I’ll need it for my notes.”

“Oh…almost the same as the oak tree, though worth even more luck than the first,” He grinned as he shifted closer, one hand sliding over her shoulders and then down to the small of her back. “It also involves a more ardent approach,” Jin said, nudging her closer.

If his first kiss had curled her toes, this second one stole her breath away. He pressed his lips to hers firmly, then pulled away enough for her to gasp his name, before his head dipped once more. When he finally broke free, Caylia sagged in his arms, leaning forward to rest against his chest. She heard the rumble of his chuckle beneath her ear and looked up.

Jin’s eyes flashed with a familiar glint. “Ready for the rest of the tour?”

She smiled weakly. “I’m honestly not sure.” Her hand ghosted up, brushed an errant strand of hair from his face, ran her fingernails lightly over the back of his neck. “If I didn’t know better, Fay-el, I’d say you were making some of this up.”

“Me? Would I lie to you?” His grin mimicked a young boy caught filching treats behind his mother’s back.

“Yes, you would.” She punched his shoulder lightly, laughing, and stepped back.

His look turned innocent and she laughed again. “You don’t do that well,” she grinned.

He caught her hand and kissed her fingers. “You wound me.”

“I’m sure.” Their fingers tangled again. “So what next? Or do you have to go off and be a Fay-el for a while?”

His face fell slightly in a mock frown. “Are you tired of me already, dear lady?”

“No, but your tribe might be tired of me taking all your time.”

“They’ll survive,” he said dryly, trailing his fingers through her hair.

She laughed and pulled away. “Come now, Jin. You can’t stay away forever.”

“Depends on whom I am with,” he muttered.

Caylia flushed slightly and said instead, “I wish to see you hold court. I’ve never seen a Dragonian Fay-el at his duties.”

He dipped his head in a low bow. “As you command, Ly.”

She smiled. "Why do you call me that? I've been meaning to ask...does it mean anything?'

Red flushed his cheeks. He bit his lip and looked away. “Oh, just another way to say Caylia. I thought the smaller version would be easier to say, or rhyme.”

Jin glanced back, grinning. “You must admit, Caylia would be harder to rhyme then Ly. Yes?”

Caylia flicked a brow. “Aye, but that’s not the whole truth is it?”

Jin shrugged. She laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. “What does it mean?”

“Is it…interesting, Ly?”

She scowled teasingly and gave him a gentle shove. “Aye, it is. Come on, Jin. Tell me.”

He shook his head, humor widening his mouth into a smirk. “You’ll have to figure it out on your own.” He slid his fingers beneath her chin, bending down until her breath tickled his lips. “You’ll always be my Ly,” he said huskily, and his mouth covered hers, not firm or playful, but a gentle, subtle promise.

When Jin pulled away, neither of them moved far. He held her captured in his gaze, eyes alight with relaxed joy. And Talen’s voice interrupted. “Sire?”

The Fay-el rolled his eyes, the moment broken slightly as he leaned back. “I think I have to be a Fay-el again.”

"Or perhaps your warrior also believes you should tell me and so is giving you a nudge in that direction." He blinked, a laugh startled out of him and he took her hand again.

"I don't think that's the case, Ly."

"It was a worth a try. I wonder," she gave him an evil smile as they began to make their way back toward camp, "how well does your Second know Dragonian? Maybe I should ask him?"

He flushed anew. “Ah…um…he might, but he is a Hybrid, and Aquila born at that.” Jin shrugged as if unconcerned. “He probably would not know.”

“Ah, so I’ll just ask Rowan then.”

More color flooded his face. “You…could, but she is likely busy catching up with all the news among the tribe. You will be hard-pressed to find her, or for her to have time to speak with you.”

"That is alright. I will ask both anyways. In fact I am in a tribe full of Dragonians...I am sure I could ask everyone. And tell them why I am asking." Her grin widened as his obvious discomfort increased. "See? I can be evil and sneaky too."

“Terribly evil,” he flicked his gaze away and then back to her as they walked out of the forest, “It’s just a….a nickname that I thought would fit you well.”

“Oh? Then tell me already.”

“No, I’d rather….rather not. You blush so prettily when I tease you with it.”

Caylia’s cheeks burned with the blush he spoke of, and she swiped her hands against her heated skin quickly. He grinned. She scowled at him. “Like your teasing about those traditions?”

“Oh, there is one about kissing,” he smirked, “Just under mistletoe.”

“Pshaw,” she slapped his shoulder. “I do not believe you.”

“Truly.” He planted a hand over his heart, eyes wide with innocence.

Caylia rolled her eyes and then responded, “I think you should be punished for your lying ways, Fay-el.”

“Oh? And who is to punish me? Will you switch me, Caylia?” His eyes gleamed with a mischievous look. “You’d have to catch me first.”

The honor guard was coming toward them now, looking slightly annoyed but no worse than that. Caylia saw his attention shift to them briefly, and then back to her. “Well, Ly?”

Impulsively, she moved to her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck. He bent with her weight, eyes widening, and—when she kissed him—they widened even further.

She released him, enjoying the confused, off-balance look spread across his face. “Is that punishment enough?” she whispered.

Around them, the honor guard muffled a laugh. Jin was blushing fiercely.

"I will take that as a yes," she continued when he didn't answer. Her grin was almost triumphant. "Trifle not with desert blood."

With a slight flick of her hair behind one ear, Caylia walked away. Jin just stared at her back, struck speechless for the first time in a long while. One of the honor guard warriors patted his back absently. “She has some spirit, doesn’t she?”

“Aye.”

“Desert blood and dragon fire,” The man muttered, “I can’t wait to see your children.”

Jin started, turning to face the speaker, but whoever it was had already joined the rest of the guard. It was impossible to guess which had said that. Instead, the Fay-el scrubbed a hand at his heated face and stalked away.

< >
<