Archangel's Heir




by



Ann Marie Olson


Story © 2002 Ann Marie Olson


Chapter 1


     Dimitri laid thirteen white roses on the grave. Dry leaves rustled in the chill breath of autumn. Escape from his watchers had been impossible before now, even though he'd tried to place his offering as near to Sharm Lord's Day as he could. A child's tear, worthless as always, spilled down over his cheek.
     Autumn sunlight splintered into impossible rainbows with his tears. Unmourned, the solitary grave mocked the gold and red glory of the leaves soon to bury the plain black placque. "Mikhail Chernoye, 978" There was nothing to speak of the wonderful art he'd created. The joy he'd given four generations of nobility. The beauty he'd given the world.
     His throat too tight for song, Dimitri waited, listening to the wind. At last he could sing and raised his voice in praise of the mad artist. With a high, true, treble, he sang his grief in the loss of his friend. Two years ago, on Sharm Lord's Day, the ancient renSime's heart had given out in transfer. Two years ago, Dimitri had lost his closest friend of all time. Two years ago, he'd lost his own last outlet for the images, dreams and songs crowding his mind to overflowing.
     "I miss you." Dimitri bowed his head to the stone. The words seemed tawdry and cheap. No one knew how old Mikhail had been at the time of his death. Arkay knew Mikhail was older than he was. And Arkay was the oldest person Dimitri knew. Over a century, some said. The black archangel, some called him, had personally watched the rise of the greatest golden age Rodina had seen since the first Sergei took her seat and the last time Fatima sat on Rodina's throne.
     Dimitri traced the simple letters carved into the black granite. So little left of such a great man. Hardly more than a handful of brushes and cheap ceramic containers of pigments. Now they sat beneath Dimitri's bed, as no one else had wanted them. At least no one wanted them for more than the minutes they'd fetch in the market.
     The old rag seller had been far kinder than he would have guessed. Either that or he'd been wanting the child's motley off Dimitri's back in trade for the shabby remnants of the old artist's life. Now the silver day Dimitri'd stolen from his father, that had not been earned. But he couldn't have let Mikhail's things be scattered to the wind.
     "Enough."
     Dimitri turned to see his father looming over him. Not just any of his fathers, his blood father. Rarely had anyone mentioned to him the fact Diomid was his blood father, but he couldn't help but know. Everyone else did. Putting his mask back in place, he let the muscles around his eyes tighten into the beginning of a grin.
     "Don't lie." Diomid's huge hands, so much like Dimitri's own were wrapped around an ancient wax tablet.
     "Of course not." Dimitri let his treble chime. "I was just wondering who'd left these here."
     "Dimitri," his father's blue eyes darkened. There was no way the man could tell Dimitri's true feelings. Not until he established. And most likely not even then. He dropped his gaze as any other child would. "I never knew him."
     Stunned, Dimitri jerked his head up. No child would act so hurt, he chided himself. With what was left of his wits, he turned the gesture into a slip. Pain shot through his arm as his elbow cracked on the hard stone. With a wince, he turned his attention to the injury.
     "Let me look." Diomid knelt at Dimitri's side.
     "I'm fine. Just banged the nerve." Dimitri'd been studying medicine since he'd been able to read. Long before he knew how strong a healer he was suppose to be. At his side, he could now see the tablet Diomid had been carrying. Three images, unmistakably Chernoye's, were imprinted on the fixed wax. A winged angel, a swaddled child, and a man with the look of Sergei.
     "I found it in my father's desk." Diomid's fingers traced the lines of nerve and muscle. Dimitri struggled not to squirm. Something was happening under the skin, as if his body could react to an adult. "Oh yes, a child's body can, under enough pressure."
     "I didn't know that." Diomid kept his eyes wide, letting his lip tremble a bit. The way Diomid had picked up on his inner thoughts gave him plenty of reason to look pained. Was he going to establish soon? He prayed not. There were still things he wished to do. Being locked down into another half dozen years of lessons was not something he truly looked forward to. These last few, between his childhood schooling and establishment, had been a preview of heaven.
    
     Something was making Diomid uneasy. Well used to listening to such inner voices, he pulled back from Dimitri. His firstborn had always been reserved, far more than any of his parents. Suddenly he wished he had Sevrin here. Grabbing the fields, he backed away from the lad.
     A great ebony dragon rose out of the ground between them. Fear tightened his belly as he retreated further. Never before had he seen or felt anything like this. Dimitri's eyes were white as he raised his hands to the creature. One glittering eye reflected the amber colored wax tablet.
     "Stop." Dimitri raised one hand. The huge creature hissed, arching its neck. A tendril of slaver bridged its wide open jaws. Diomid was having a hard time believing this. Usually a Sharm Lord's manifestation was not a separate creature from its person! Had he accidentally Induced Dimitri? All the Gods help him if he had.
     The dragon gained solidity with each passing moment. Cupped in one webbed wing, Dimitri's field spiraled upward. He looked up at last to the beast he'd conjured out of pure selyn. Diomid sucked in a deep breath. Sweat trickled down his jaw.
     Dimitri's eyes returned to normal, even as the dragon rested his jaw across the young man's lap.

Chapter 2


     Dimitri stroked the creature's head. Something in him knew this new being was part of himself, but when it relaxed with a great rustle of scales and a sigh of dry skin on dryer leaves, Dimitri couldn't believe it. "What's your name?"
     "Dimitri, I think." One great golden eyeball glanced upward. "You could scratch ... oh, yes, right there." The thick eyelid closed again as Dimitri found the soft skin right behind the creature's ear hole.
     "You're awfully substantial for a figment of my imagination." Dimitri wondered for a moment what his father thought of all this. But his new friend was far more interesting at the moment.
     "You have a very substantial imagination."
     "I would say so, yes." His father's deep baritone broke in. "You are, as usual, quite unique."
     Dimitri looked up to see his father whiter than the roses he'd laid on Mikhail's grave. "You weren't just saying that to make me feel good?" His voice broke dramatically in the middle of the sentence. Ears burning with shame, he bowed his head over his friend's.
     "You could call me Mitka if it makes it easier."
     He gasped, pulling back a bit. "I prefer Mitka."
     "Are you really so surprised?" The dragon snorted, sending up a wisp of some sort of gray fog from his nostrils.
     "I don't suppose I should be." Dimitri stroked Mitka's head, returning his attention to scratching around Mitka's crest.
     "No, I don't lie." With more than a few creaks and pops, his father squatted down with them.
     Dimitri shook his head. That wasn't true.
     "I don't." Somehow, Diomid knew about Mitka and rubbed him under the jaw. A huge yawn on Mitka's part made Dimitri giggle behind his hand. "Hard work being born, isn't it, m'lad." Then Dimitri got a good look at Mitka's teeth!
     "Of course they're sharp." Mitka's tongue flicked out to swipe him from forehead to chin. "What good would they be if they weren't sharp?"
     "Not a whole lot, I suppose." Dimitri gulped. "Who, excuse me, what do you plan on biting with them?"
     "Your sire if he doesn't get his hands out of my range." The loud crack as Mitka's jaws snapped shut startled Dimitri out of his reverie.
     "I don't feel very well either, papa." Actually he felt as if he were about to vomit, but that would never do in a graveyard. "I wish I could have zlinned you." He turned back to the gravestone. A burning sense of loss wrenched loose any thought of control he might have had. "Come back to me, my otyet, my Mikhail!"
    
     Diomid turned his face away from the scene before him. He couldn't help but sense his son's overwhelming loss and sorrow, now with his field growing to adult proportions with terrifying speed, but even still, to intrude would have been unthinkable. A low, vibrating croon came from Mitka, who had to be the quasi-physical manifestation of Dimitri's nager, but how, Diomid had no idea.
     He put his fingers to his lips as Mikhail Fatima and his partner, Tzer came down the path. Chernoye had been buried at Fatima as he's spent his last decade as an often indigent guest of Arkay, Sharm Lord Fatima. Now Diomid wondered just how indigent he'd been. For his hands and remaining tentacles had still been as dexterous as ever, even though he'd been completely blind for over twenty years. Not that such a thing would ever slow down someone like Chernoye. The only reason Diomid had known of it was because Arkay had told him.
     "You didn't like him." Mitka hissed, fangs showing longer and sharper by the moment.
     "He was a distraction." Diomid kept his voice down. "Domi had to study."
     "He doesn't like that name." Gold eyes turned brassy as Mitka rose up over Dimitri.
     "He's never said anything." Diomid refused to wipe away the sweat beading his brow. "If he didn't like it, why didn't he pick a better one?"
     "He did." Mitka rose to nearly three meters, towering over everything and everyone.
     "Is that what I think it is?" Mikhail had his head craned around to see the now long, slender form shadowing all three of them.
     "A dragon," Diomid shook his head. This was all such a mess. "We have to talk, Mitka."
     "I'm sick of talking." Dimitri spun around, his eyes wide with madness. "You've ..." he slumped in on himself. Mitka struck at Tzer, who dodged behind a headstone.
     "And you meant to do that?" Tzer did offended well. One silver eyebrow raised. For a moment Diomid wondered if it was sire or son standing before him.
     "No, not really," Mitka lowered his head, now rocking it back and forth over Dimitri's form. Diomid felt his heart stop for a moment. Was he breathing? "You idiot." Mitka scowled.
     "So I am." Diomid shook his head. Of course Dimiri was still alive or Mitka wouldn't be glaring at the three of them.
     "Am I hearing this exchange or imagining it?" Mikhail was staring up at Mitka, who hadn't quite relinquished his position, but was getting close. Tzer dusted off the knees of his breeches.
     "And why were you so rude to me?" He, like his father, had the ability to completely stun almost any animal with his charm, human or otherwise. Diomid still wasn't sure what Mitka counted as.
     "Human, I'd hope." He didn't take his eyes off Tzer.
     "I'd hoped you wouldn't hear me." Diomid was not used to being overheard.
     "Then quit babbling at us."
     He waved to Tzer to see if he could get to Dimitri.
     "And you expect me to brave our fine scaled friend?" He'd managed to end up nose to nose with him.
     "You did." Those great gold eyes softened a bit. "I like you. I'm sorry I hit you."
     "You didn't hit me. I ducked fast enough." Tzer managed to scratch the creature over both eyes, where the eyebrows should have been. The lids drooped closed. "Besides, you didn't mean to hurt me, did you, pretty one?"
     "Noooooo," he purred, leaning into the caress. "You aren't bad. You're good."
     "So is Dimitri's father." Tzer shook his head when Diomid tried to move forward. Dimitri was pasty white, his nails turning blue with cold and slowing circulation as Diomid watched.
     "He's freezing, Mitka!" Diomid leaned forward, desperately wanting to help, even if it meant damaging Dimitri's governors. "Let me touch him!"
     "You'll hurt him!" Mitka was fading with each moment that passed.
     "Let him, my friend." Tzer stroked Mitka's crest with his tentacles. "I'll take care of you."
     "NO!" Mitka pulled loose of Tzer, a mere wisp of selyn and thought.
     "He'll die!" Tzer slid beneath Mitka's claws and lifted Dimitri off the cold earth. "He's frozen, Diomid."
     "I can't do anything from here." He clenched and unclenched his hands. "Help him."
     "I'm doing the best I can." Tzer looked to Mikhail.
     "Do it." With what had become a characteristic jerk, Mikhail tipped his head back.
     "You can't induce him." Diomid's blood ran cold in his veins.
     "I can't let him die." Mikhail walked beneath Mitka's claws, just as his lover had. Diomid was left outside, watching, as he'd done all these years of Dimitri's life.

Chapter 3


     Dimitri became aware of the vile taste in his mouth long before he heard anything going on outside his door.
     "Wake up." A very hard nose inserted itself between his ribs.
     "I am awake." He muttered, rolled back over, and wished it weren't true.
     "If you don't want Diomid to see you in dishabille again, you'd better really wake up."
     In an instant, Dimitri pulled the blankets up under his chin and put his hands over his chest as neatly as any corpse in a coffin.
     "Quit that." His favorite father, Vayer made shooing gestures at the door. "I hear you're taking after my father these days."
     "Yeah, something like that." He blushed furiously. Mitka buried his head under the blankets. Most of the rest of him too. Except where he spilled over through the gaps between various silk coverlets. "Although he doesn't have a figment of his imagination tickling his toes."
     "That's me." Vayer winked, running his hands over the various humps of Mitka that stuck up. "Make your nager run his tongue up the arch of your feet."
     Dimitri bit back a howl as Mitka did just that. "Don't encourage him!"
     "Why not? I'm a Sime. I can encourage your field as much as I like until Darya gets a hold of me." The wicked twinkle in his father's eye set little tiny butterflies wandering through Dimitri's belly. For the first time in his life Dimitri became very aware of his own bare arms compared to his father's. He rubbed on hand over the opposite forearm. "I see you're learning to flirt already."
     "I didn't mean it." He put his hands down. Mitka'd escaped from the blankets and was looming over Vayer as if he would bite.
     Vayer looked back over his shoulder and flipped his tentacles at Mitka. The dragon's eyes widened, as did Dimitri's. Brilliant tendrils of light were twining around Vayer's forearms and lithe tentacles. "You like these?" One of those tentacles reached out and brushed Mitka's nose, the soft, warm, delicate sensation sent a quiver all the way through Dimitri, from scalp to toes.
     "Why don't you, well, aren't you bothered by Mitka?" Dimitri did his best to change the subject. He didn't want it any closer. Odd things were growing and stretching in his mind. Until he knew what was happening, he wanted the space of still being a child. One of Vayer's eyebrows rose.
     "Because your mother's field is also very active." He said. Mitka was fascinated, butting his forehead into Vayer's hand. "Yes, I'll pet you, you silly creature. With tentacles even."
     Dimitri closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard. Without the input of his own vision, the world faded to a chaotic wealth of information.
     "You'll never have to ask anyone the state of your nager." Vayer's voice came through the random colors and scents which had to be coming from Mitka.
     "Because Mitka can see us?" Dimitri shook his head at the thought and opened his eyes again. The odd images of light and shadow surrounding everything were still there, but damped by what he knew to be real. Excepting Mitka, of course.
     "Oh, he's as real as you are." Vayer's dark blue eyes crinkled at the corners, deepening the already darkly drawn lines in the skin. "Don't you wonder I can hear your thoughts?"
     "You'd tell me when I was ready." Dimitri slapped his hand over his mouth. Usually he wasn't so forward with any of his parents, even Vayer.
     "You're a young man, Dimitri. Things will fall out of your mouth at random." Dark blue eyes twinkled. "The trick is learning to deal with it gracefully."
     "I'd rather still be a child."
     "So would I." Before he could move, Vayer had slid around and put his arm around Dimitri's shoulders. "I'd much rather be able to run off and play with my friends whenever I wanted. I'd much rather be able to read all the books I wanted every winter. I'd much rather be able to ride out into the forest without thinking of who would miss me." The warmth of his father next to him was the same as it always had been, but now there was a comfort to it, a softness that told him even more than the familiar touch or smell, that he was safe here.
     "I don't want more lessons and more teaching."
     Vayer chuckled softly. "You'll need them." The adult use of the term 'need' brought Dimitri to heel. "Yes, need."
     "Are you going to tell me about Simes and Gens now?" Dimitri gulped. He'd heard all sorts of stories, and none of his family had been so shy about larity he didn't know the difference, but even still.
     "If you're ready." For the first time since he could remember, Vayer was quiet and not rushing off. "It was my place to go attend to business. This morning ..."
     "I'm your business." Came out far more bitter sounding than he wished.
     "Yes." Vayer tempted Mitka into resting his chin across their knees with a few well placed caresses of a tentacle. "Also I feel calmer to you because your body is compensating for my own hyperactivity. A child can not do that."
     "Can most young Gens?"
     "No." The harsh honesty brought Dimitri to heel again. "Not that I'd call you a Gen."
     "Then what am I?" He put out his arms.
     "A Sharm Lord ... or Inducted."
     Vayer knew quite well Dimitri wasn't going to be able to deal with large crowds for months, if ever. Not as a Sharm Lord. Mitka, as he preferred to be called, was too uncontrollable. Beneath his hands, he felt the selyn gathering in Dimitri's body, manifesting itself as poison in Mitka's jaws. Would he kill uncontrollably if he ever touched a Sime in transfer? There were myths of Sharm Lords who had done so in Rodina's past.
     What Vayer did know was he had absolutely no interest in Dimitri for transfer. Far above and beyond the fact the young man was his son! Mitka was beautiful and as deadly as any viper. Right now he was quiet, still calm with his recent arrival into the world.
     "What do you want to do?" Vayer still remembered all too well his own change over, and how everyone pushed at him until he was ready to go crazy.
     "Begin my lessons." Dimitri tried to chirp. Between his voice shattering, Mitka hissing, and his whole body tensing up, Vayer could well determine this was a lie.
     "I'll pretend I didn't hear that." He leaned back with a sigh. He'd missed Aliana's change over and had always regretted the fact. It was her life to live, but a large part of why he hadn't wanted her to leave home so young was so he could see her grow up. But children grew up at their own rate, he'd learned himself, the hard way.
     "Its what you want." Came out in Dimitri's beautiful treble. Vayer covered a smile at his own memories of his own voice traipsing all over the landscape.
     "That wasn't what I'd asked." He kept his own field as calm as possible. Vayer well knew the benefits of being calm and quiet around animated fields. Darya's would have turned his nager into goo long ago. "I'd asked what you want, not what you think I want." He plucked a silver hour out of his pocket. "Do you want another one of these?" Mitka dove under the blankets as Dimitri peeped in shock. "I'm not stupid, Dimitri."
     "Never thought you were." Came out without a tone at all. "I bought Chernoye's pigments with it."
     "I'd wondered what happened to them." He sighed. "He'd never relax around me, or I think anyone at all late in his life."
     "Are you saying he was paranoid?"
     "He was mad, Dimitri." His own eyes stung a bit a the memory of dealing with him. "We all did our best for him, particularly your uncle, but he wasn't lucid much of his last years."
     "Yes he was." Dimitri jumped out of bed, as if he were still a boy and fished around under the bed. Bits of parchment, wax tablets, a few straggly brushes and a couple of dust kittens tumbled out. His behind nearly fell out of his trousers. Yes, he was growing up. Vayer remembered all too well when he'd come in late one night unable to even button his own trousers. It had been very bad timing.
     Although this time was different, Mitka had joined him. As far as Vayer could tell, to Mitka, nothing was really solid but stone, metal and silk, but he could chose to act as if other things had an effect on him. Right now he was looking under Dimitri's bed, side by side with him. Coils draped all over Dimitri's lanky frame. He was going to be a big man, like his father and his uncle. Probably at least as heavy as the former and as tall as the latter.
     "Here it is." Dimitri pulled out yet another wax tablet. Mitka stayed behind, looking at the detritus. His feet didn't seem to actually touch anything, even though Vayer thought he saw a few bits of parchment move, but maybe that was the breeze.
     Vayer looked at the tablet. The hand was not Chernoye's. Sketches of birds bathing in the bath outside the main doors at Fatima were next to snippets of leaves and plants scattered around the grounds. Dimitri pulled out another one. This one showed Shanir at Darya's breast, looking around as if to try to figure out what devilment he'd planned next. Then a third, of Vayer himself riding Chernye through the barley planting.
     "These are very, very good." A sad smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Why do you say Chernoye did them?"
     "He did!" Dimitri insisted, Mitka turning to gaze at both of them. It was not a friendly look.
     "Through someone else, if he did." Vayer put all the pieces together. "You did these."
     "No!" Dimitri pulled back. Mitka licked his lips, baring his formidable fangs.
     "Why are you trying to hide it?"
     "Because he was my friend!" Dimitri turned his face away. With his long, silvery tongue, Mitka licked Dimitri's cheeks.
     "Then why are you ashamed to be his heir?"
     "Because I can't be." Still bony shoulders slumped. "I have years more schooling. I have to apprentice to Diomid."
     "And you don't get along with him very well, do you?" It wasn't much of a question. The one thing Vayer regretted was the fact Diomid and his firstborn seemed to be as miscible as oil and water. It wasn't that they hated each other, but one would say white and the other had to say red.
     "I should." His finger brushed over the image of Darya and Shanir.
     "I'd like a fixed copy of this." Vayer studied it. The picture was more true to life than even the photographs of the West. The slightly harried look on Darya's face was identical to the one she had until she pawned off Shanir on his fathers. And the look of mischief on Shanir's face was captured in its entirety. Not only had the lad learned to run at ten months, but he'd started babbling, in Russian, not too long thereafter.
     "For an hour?" Mitka's eyes gleamed.
     "With interest." He pulled out a gold month. Vayer knew his children. There were few things they responded to better than hard cash. Either owing or owed.
     "You want me in your debt." Mitka was breathing down his neck.
     "Its worth at least a month. More if you are willing to paint it."
     "How do you know I paint?"
     "I'm not stupid." Vayer flicked a tentacle at Dimitri's hands. No matter how well scrubbed, remnants of paints and ink remained.
     "Then how do you know I paint well?"
     "I trust my son." He met Dimitri's eyes. In them was reflected Mitka, in all his glory, meters tall and as brilliant as ever his mother had been and still was. "I love thee, child of my heart, never forget it." Vayer pressed a gold year into his son's hand.
     "Mikhail was given one of these by Sharm Lord Sergei."
     "Then perhaps you should think of what he managed to do with it."

Chapter 4


     Mitka took a deep breath. Blowing it out through his nostrils helped ... some. He didn't like the smell of alcohol and sickness.
     "Come now Tasha. You can tell me." Dimitri stroked his hand over the young woman's forehead.
     "I can't, I can't!" She gasped, thrashing her head from side to side. The contractions were getting heavier with every moment. If she didn't relax soon, she'd wear herself out long before her body would be ready to push the baby out.
     Dimitri nodded, so slightly no one else could see it. Mitka slithered over the bed and placed his long, taloned claws along side Tasha's body. Inside his belly, his guts were squirming into knots. Tasha's eyes looked like they were about I pop out of her head. Mitka didn't really want to hurt anyone. Not really. He rubbed his aching jaw against Tasha's breast.
     "Take it away, I'll tell. It was Lord Gregori." Tears burned in Mitka's eyes. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He wasn't supposed to make people afraid. He wished he could wrap himself around Tasha and help her feel better. Through eyes blurring with tears he looked up to see Dimitri smiling sadly at him, shaking his head no. Mitka slid off the table and under it. Wrapped around Dimitri's feet, he sobbed silently.
     Dimitri held the woman's hands as she finally managed to relax. Lord Gregori, Lord Gregori, why did the name sound so familiar? He pried loose one hand from her tentacles to pet Mitka. "You're crying." There was something more to it than the fact he was Diomid's second here at Sergei.
     "She hurt me." Mitka kept looking at the floor.
     "No more." Dimitri promised. "We'll stop after this one."
     "You can't." Mitka looked up at him, huge gold eyes overflowing with silvery tears. "They require you."
     "You need me." Dimitri told him, realizing just how little attention he'd been able to pay Mitka these last couple weeks. "There you are!" He looked over his shoulder to see Gregori saunter in. Mitka roared out from under his hiding place. "What have you been doing?"
     "What's going on here?" He ran over, running his tentacles through his thinning red hair. Then it dawned on him.
     "You're Kirovich! Why in hell didn't you tell me?"
     Without waiting for a response, he shoved half the blankets off Tasha and put his ear to her belly. He didn't have time to find his damned stethoscope. The child was squirming so madly he could hardly make enough contact to hear.
     "Not like that!" A huge hand pulled him away. Dimitri found himself on his butt looking up at his blood father, lightly running his fingertips over Tasha's belly. He reached for the syringe of keurvon Dimitri'd prepared in case of stillbirth.
     "You'll kill him." Dimitri slapped it out of his father's hand. Glass shattered on the far wall. "He's Kirovich." He pointed at Gregori.
     "What does that have to do with it?" Tasha blinked. Gregory looked like someone had hit him on the back of his head with a board. Then Tasha's field flared into the visible as her son yanked hers down into attrition.
     "Shen!" Dimitri body slammed his father, Mitka following him in pinning his much heavier father. "Give me your hands." He didn't wait. Tasha lunged off the bed with a snarl like ripping canvas. Steel bands wrapped around his wrists. The last thing he saw was Mitka wrapping his wings around Tasha from behind before her lips touched his.
     Before Diomid could recover from the shock of being thrown to the floor like a rag doll, Tasha'd made lip contact. None of them had dared tell the lad he was more than ripe for his first transfer, for fear he'd try to find a Lord to satisfy the need he had to be feeling. The fear, Diomid knew, wasn't necessarily for Dimitri, but quite likely his partner.
     "At least she won't be wanting him to bed her." Diomid snorted to himself, prying his well worn behind off the floor. It was getting harder and harder to recover from these little adventures as he aged. Joints creaked and popped, threatening mutiny. "Thanks." He accepted Gregori's hand.
     "I didn't think to push the point." He stood back, away from Tasha and Dimitri. The lad still had his arms around her, as if he were trying to devour her in reality.
     "Why don't you?" Diomid didn't want to startle Dimitri too badly, but if Tasha were carrying a Kirovich child, they couldn't dawdle too long. And she'd require another transfer within moments of the child being born if her progress so far were any indication.
     "You're the physician!"
     "Just do it." He gave the man a shove. Usually Gregori was as stable and reliable as the rocks under Kirov. It was why Diomid had picked the man as his second. But today he was winning no points for organization or stability. Much less having the sense the gods gave a goose.

Chapter 5


     "There you go, pretty one." Dimitri stroked his face against Tasha's wonderful soft cheek. There was something in the back of his mind, something he had to do. But right now he couldn't think of anything but the amazing sensations running up and down his spine. Her tentacles clamped down again, past the point of pain. He hissed, shocked back into awareness.
     "Ah yes, there we were." As if he'd done it tens of times before, he softened his awareness to feel Tasha's child finally settling down to be born. Dimitri had no idea how he'd known to calm him, or even give transfer, but it seemed he'd done it. A quiet hissing chuckle came from near his feet. He had to look down, and even then, Mitka was as pale as morning mist. A huge yawn cracked open his jaws and he collapsed into a boneless heap of wings and other limbs.
     Dimitri didn't have to look to see Tasha's distended middle contract yet again. But this time her breath came easy with the effort, no longer fighting her son trying to kill her. He was certainly protesting the crushing pressures, but not grabbing at her very life. Much better.
     "Can I cut in?" Gregori tapped him on the shoulder.
     "About time." Dimitri sniffed, giving the older man a wink. Then a yawn cracked open his jaws. Why was he so tired? He'd only been working for about four hours so far today. A little voice in the back of his mind said, twenty-four hours, thirty two minutes and fifteen seconds. Close enough, he figured, sagging against the high bed. His eyes were trying to droop shut even as his skin seemed to tingle happily with some odd sensation he had no name for.
     "Come away," Diomid tugged at his sleeve. Dimitri staggered as he tried to turn. "I'll catch you." His father's blue eyes bore into his own. In them he could see infinite reflections of his own.
     "Will you?" He tried to give a wry grin. It didn't quite come out.
     "Yes," he nodded. "Even if you did knock me down."
     "Oh," Dimitri blushed. "I couldn't let you interfere."
     "I am the senior Sergei around here."
     "But it would have killed the baby!"
     "Come on." Diomid tugged him out of the room. "I think they can manage from here. At least for a few minutes." The door clicked shut behind them. For the first time since Sharm Lord's Day, Dimitri was alone. Mitka was still curled up asleep. The quiet of being alone again rang in his ears. He shook his head, trying to clear the sensation. It only made his head spin like the top he'd made as a child, all lopsided and off balance. "All three of them. You're field is sound asleep at the moment."
     "What happened?" Dimitri tried to lean against the wall. Tried being the operative word, as it slid out from behind him and dropped him on the floor.
     "Well, you saved Tasha's life, gave your first transfer and now have to deal with a possible rape charge." Diomid raised one eyebrow. Dimitri'd always wished he could do that. It was such a useful expression of doubt. Then his father's words sank in!
     "Rape!" He squeaked, his voice cracking all over the scales. "I didn't rape anyone?" Despite his extensive technical knowledge, the concept of sex was still purely academic as far as Dimitri was concerned. And at the moment, he far and away preferred it that way.
     "Yes, you raped Tasha." Diomid frowned.
     "But I saved her life, and the life of her child!" Strength was coming back to Dimitri's legs. He levered himself off the floor. Already he was considerably taller than his father. On the floor he was far too much shorter. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
     "It would if you were actually Sergei." Again the eyebrow. From this perspective, it looked like a silver threaded caterpillar. Dimitri wondered if it would be possible to paint that expression. It was one his father often did give him. That way all he'd have to do was look at the picture and not worry about the words. Diomid snorted and rubbed his face with his hand. "You aren't Sergei, however. You haven't been presented to any Demense."
     "Then present me to Sergei and be done with it." This seemed like a perfectly sensible solution to Dimitri.
     "As what?" He tipped his chin to the door. "A Sharm Lord?"
     "Why not?"
     "You aren't ready." Those blue eyes blazed. The precursor to a fit of anger Dimitri well recognized.
     "If I'm executed or put under ban for rape, then I won't get the chance to be ready, either. Besides, doesn't Tasha have anything to say on the matter?" He was grasping at seconds. There had to be a way out of this. "Aren't the Inducted exempt from some of the rules? At least if you were willing to admit you induced me."
     Diomid went dead white. "Never." He hissed, "I'd rather present you to Sergei as a Gen than Inducted!"
     Dimitri blinked a few times. "You don't have to be ashamed of what you did."
     "Shut up." A loud crack broke the hissed words. Dimitri reached up and touched the handprint Diomid had left on his cheek. Never, never before had anyone struck him on the face. On the butt, yes, countless times, but never like this. "You will do what you are told!"
     "What in hell are you doing, Diomid?"
     "Papa!" Dimitri threw himself into Vayer's arms. Vayer staggered backwards a step. Oops, he'd forgotten how big he'd grown. "Oh papa, papa!" This was safe. He knew Vayer would never punish him for doing the right thing.
     "Again, what is going on?" Vayer tucked Dimitri's head under his chin. His father's broad, strong hands against his back soothed the shaking in his body. "What did you do to him?"
     "He raped Natasha Riayanovna Sergei."
     "Oh, shen!" Vayer leaned back. "Is this true?"
     "Why are you asking him?"
     "Because he's the one accused of the crime."
     "I was there." Diomid growled. "He never once asked if she'd accept his selyn."
     "She was in hard labor and the baby had already taken all the selyn she'd stored." Dimitri tried to defend himself. "She grabbed me."
     "Did she?" Vayer asked over Dimitri's head·
     "He's not Sergei."
     "He was functioning as a Sergei healer."
     "Without my permission."
     "You can't give or withhold permission from the Inducted like that."
     "I'm not Inducted!" Dimitri insisted. "I'm just ... well, there's Mitka." He looked down at the sand on the floor.
     Vayer sighed heavily. "Unless you are Inducted, I'm going to have to say you're responsible. And if you aren't a member of Sergei, under Diomid's aegis, then you're guilty. So which will it be?"
     Dimitri thought long and hard. A baby's cry startled him out of his introspection. Without thinking about it, he went back into the delivery room. Tasha was looking down at her newborn son with the amazing smile all new mothers gave their children. He couldn't help but smile with her. "Thank you." She looked up at him.
     "He did the work." He nodded to Gregori, nearly as blown as his lady. "But since he did, what is his name?" Behind him, his fathers both drew in a deep breath. This wasn't the time or place to bring up capital charges. Tasha had no control over his fate, only himself.
     She glanced quickly at Gregori, who took the child. The youngster howled loudly enough to shatter glass. From here, Dimitri could see the sheen of fire still wreathing the tiny figure. He'd be a strong Lord, nearly as strong as Nashen. For a moment he wondered what it would be like to have a partner like that. Tasha had been sweet, but had only touched the fringes of what he could guess would be possible in transfer.
     Then, before he could duck, Gregory held out the youngster to him. In awe, Dimitri hushed the child gently with a thought. Huge blue eyes stared up into his. He nuzzled the wrinkled red brow, knowing how soon it would change to a pale, luminous pink. Warmth surrounded the youngster, the warmth of a fire on an autumn night or the warmth of the midsummer sun.
     "I name thee, child of my heart and my body, Mitkya Gregorovich Sergei."
     Tears burned Dimitri's eyes and blurred the image of the baby he held. Even if this was the only child he delivered, to have been the source of his name was an honor he'd never forget. "Thank you." His voice cracked through a throat gone tight. "I can't say how much I appreciate this." He brushed little Mitkya's cheek with one thumb. The little one turned to the pressure. But even still, beneath the awakening hunger, he could sense the bright spark of life growing so fast it made his heart nearly stand still.
     "We'll talk later." Vayer's voice came from far away. Dimitri nodded, not wanting to leave just yet.
     "You can't." Diomid's protest was cut off halfway.
     "This is neither the time or the place to speak of such things. We have time later." The door finally closed behind the older men. Dimitri sat on the edge of the bed, still holding Mitkya. At last he had to give him back to his mother.
     "I thought you'd never give him up." Gregori's hand landed on his shoulder.
     "I'll never have a child." He turned from the sight and buried his face in Gregori's tunic. Of all the Sharm Lords Dimitri had known, only Gregori always looked as if he were ready for a formal dinner in his underclothes. Sobs knotted behind his breastbone, nearly breaking it in two.
     "Hush," Gregori stroked his back, "hush. Someday you'll find a Lord to partner you."
     "Not with Mitka." He glanced down to see Mitka still curled up, sound asleep. "Never will anyone accept all of me."
     "The Veiled will."
     "But then I could never have a child."
     "No, you couldn't, nor if you were proclaimed Inducted." Gregori rocked him slowly in his arms. "Thank you for saving Tasha's life, and Mitkya's. I didn't think to remind her I was Kirovich." He shook all over for a moment, the chill of remembered fear spreading through the tiny room on the ambient.
     "You are all fine now." Dimitri reassured him, even as his own fear rose sharp enough to wake Mitka. "Now I have to see what our Lord and Ruler has to say to me."
     "For what its worth, you have my permission for transfer with my partner, if necessary." Gregori's eyes were shadowed to gray. He knew what had gone wrong.
     "Thank you, I appreciate it." Dimitri pulled his tattered dignity around him like an oversized kador. "I do." He didn't have to add, for all the good that it would do.
    
     Diomid waited and waited. Vayer paced the room, not stopping for a breath in his tirade. "How could you possibly think of condemning your own child to the ban." He snarled, turning on Diomid like a great hunting cat.
     "You did!" Diomid snarled right back. He'd had enough of everyone's attitude about Dimitri. Yes, certainly he was a very talented young Gen, but in no way ready for the responsibilities of a Sharm Lord. "The first time we tried to put a kador on him, that nager of his nearly ripped my own to little shreds."
     "Mitka likes me." Vayer shrugged.
     "You give it a name like a separate person." Diomid seethed. "Its nothing more than a manifestation of will and energy, Vayer. It isn't alive!"
     "Diomid, I've known you all of my life, and I've never known you to be so irrational." Vayer stopped in his pacing. "Why are you so upset about this?"
     "Because its my son that's gone and committed the crime!"
     "Only if you insist its a crime." Vayer crossed his arms over his chest, rejecting this idea entirely.
     "There's one law for everyone."
     "Except the Velied, the Inducted, and your own people, Sharm Lord Sergei."
     "Dimitri isn't a child of Sergei."
     "Only because you haven't accepted his oath."
     "He's Inducted."
     "Only if you insist on it."
     "Stop this." The door slammed against the stop. Mitka looked as if he'd had a very rough night of it, clinging to Dimitri's shoulder and sagging down to his chest. One eye opened blearily and then shut again. Dimitri caught him on the way to the floor and held the creature as he'd held Mitkya. "Go ahead and rest here, I'll take care of you." His body language said. Only the very faintest flickers of a normal field surrounded the young man.
     "What do you have to say in your own defense, young man?"
     "The only thing I have to say is that I have both Gregori's and Tasha's permission."
     "Now." He growled, feeling the burn of anger returning. How could the little bastard be so indifferent to his own fate? Even if Dimitri was Diomid's bastard child.
     "Yes, now." He tipped his chin up. "Without asking for it, without reminding them." His lips were drawn into a tight line. It was like talking with a child still, all but for the creature he held in his arms and the knowledge Diomid could see lurking through the features so much like his own.
     "That won't ..."
     "Shut up, Diomid!" Vayer's nager cracked like a whip between them. Mitka flashed out of Dimitri's arms and hissed from behind his ear. "I didn't mean to wake you, Mitka, sorry." The creature blinked a couple of times as he swallowed another hiss. But that didn't make him stop glaring, at Diomid.
     "Ok, so here's what we're going to do. You, Diomid, aren't going to say a thing about Dimitri's little adventure today. He got permission, however it happened. That's the end of it."
     "How very Fatima." He felt his own eyes narrow.
     "Yes, it is." Vayer put his hand on his sword hilt. This time Mitka wasn't the only one who hissed, but Dimitri did as well, but in shock. "Are you saying there is something wrong with Fatima's methods or one of her children?"
     "You are no longer one of Fatima's children."
     "But I am a child of Peace, as well as the leader of Peace." With his reminder of the meaning of his Demense, Mir, or literally peace, Dimitri's shoulder's went back again.
     "You're giving him ideas, Vayer. You can't let him get away with this."
     "Oh yes I can and I'm going to encourage him to follow his talents."
     "You're just soft on Dimitri because he's Gen. If he were Sime, like Tzer ..." The hard slap rocked him back on his heels.
     "I did not put Tzer under ban because he was Sime or give Dimitri special privileges because he's Gen. I am willing to let Dimitri go because he helped people today, even if he broke the literal law in the process. No one has to know he did so, as I doubt Tasha is even aware of his transgression."
     "Then how did she know to give Dimitri permission after the fact?"
     "Because Gregori knew what I'd done to save the life of his lord and child, even when he'd nearly caused their deaths by his own negligence." Dimitri drew himself up to his full height, already taller than his sire by a good six cents. He was going to be a tall man, which only added salt to the wounds he'd received today.
     "How dare you speak so of my second?!" Diomid wiped away a bit of spittle that had escaped from his lips.
     "You are insane." Vayer growled, a cent of seel showing next to the hilt of his sword. "You will accept your own son and heir into Sergei and then step aside when the time comes."
     "I will not, unless he chooses to challenge."

Chapter 6


     "I Challenge thee, Sharm Lord Sergei, for bed, board and Lord!" The words came out unbidden.
     "I am unable to accept." His father looked down his nose at Dimitri, as he always had.
     "You must." Vayer's voice came from behind him. "I am his second."
     "Challenge can only be fought at Midwinter and Midsummer."
     "Then next year, at Midsummer, you will meet me in the circle, Sharm Lord Sergei!" Dimitri prayed he'd get the extra months.
     "To the death?!" He'd gone pale beneath his late fall tan.
     "For Sergei." Dimitri growled, backed by Mitka.
     Then he began to laugh, throwing back his head and giving over his whole body to the exercise. "You little fool. Such extremes, Dimitri. You know I wouldn't actually put you under the ban."
     "Yes you would, if you thought you could get away with it. You're afraid of me. Afraid of what we represent." He scratched Mitka's crest for a moment. "You see your own mortality in Mitka's jaws."
     "I see Rodina's mortality in monsters like you." He hissed, the white around his eyes showing bright in the early morning sunlight. Dimitri'd been up all night with Tasha and now he was about to collapse.
     "She needs strong Lords and Sharm Lords." Dimitri swayed on his feet. "There aren't enough strong ones alive anymore." He left out the phrase, to replace Lords or even Sharm Lords who can no longer hold their places.
     "How dare you?" Pure crimson rage hammered through the room. A vase shattered on the mantle and the only pet Dimitri'd manage to find so far, a very old, tired and peaceful queen bolted from the room.
     "You will not speak so to me in my own rooms." They weren't much by any Sharm Lord standards, but they were the first place he'd had all to himself in his life. "Get out, Diomid." Dimitri pointed to the door. He wanted to reassure Byela that the big bad bogeyman wasn't going to really hurt her.
     "You will give me the respect I deserve."
     "I'm not kicking you in the ass." Dimitri growled, opening the door for his sire. "Now out!" He gave the twist with his mind Arkay'd taught him last week. On unwilling feet, Diomid stumbled to the door.
     "You will regret this."
     "If I live long enough." He sagged against the doorframe as soon as he'd closed the door. "You're still here." He continued the downward path. His butt hit the floor. This was a good place for it.
     "Do you want me to leave too?" Vayer reset his sword in its sheath. "I think you did quite well, actually."
     "I made a fool of myself." Dimitri readied himself to lever his way off the floor. But it was so, well, still. His feet hurt horribly. With a hiss of pain, he tried yanking his new boots off.
     "Hold still, youngster." Vayer knelt down and tugged off his boots, one at a time. "Ouch." His hands ran over Dimitri's feet, a few cents away. If he'd actually touched them, the Gens in the sharm would have been able to hear him scream.
     "Yeah, ouch," he hissed as the warmth from Vayer's hands irritated the open blisters on Dimitri's right heel.
     "Hold still." Vayer pushed him back against the wall as he tried to get up. "I'll be right back."
     "You don't have to do this." He protested from his slump on the floor. Water ran in the bathroom. "Hey, I'll be fine."
     "Let me teach you how a Sharm Lord should be treated." Vayer came back out with a basin full of water and put it at the foot of Dimitri's favorite chair. It was a huge old thing, stuffed with horsehair, and ugly as sin, but even more comfortable. Before he knew it, Vayer had augmented and picked him up.
     "Won't mama get upset."
     "She told me to come take care of you." Vayer set him down, then put Dimitri's feet, blood caked socks and all, into the hot water. Dimitri bit off a scream. "She knows better than to try to deal with her grown Sharm Lord children."
     "As Diomid doesn't?" Dimitri gripped the arms of his chair so tightly his fingers turned white.
     "Exactly." Vayer grimaced as he removed the first sock, the one that had cut into Dimitri's toes. "Who made these?"
     "I did." Dimitri matched his father's grimace. "Didn't do a very good job of it, did I?"
     "No," he shook his head in sympathy. "Buy the next pair."
     "I didn't have the money. And I thought we were supposed to make things like socks."
     "I think Tzer could have knit a better pair, and he has tentacles to get in the way now." Vayer turned the foot from side to side. Knotted muscles in Dimitri's calves tried to snap under the tension. "You, my lad, need a Lord."
     "Not likely to get one here." He looked down into his father's startled gaze. "Do you really think a Lord who could take my whole field would take Mitka with it?"
     "If they are the right one for you, then they would want him as well." One of Vayer's tentacles quivered as he spoke the words.
     "You wouldn't."
     "Of course not, I am your father, after all." Vayer snorted and removed the other sock. This one was stuck worse and Dimitri couldn't help but yelp as it came loose from the new scabs. Raw, weeping flesh opened into the water and stained it pink immediately. "You could have asked your mother for socks."
     "I didn't want to." Dimitri's cheeks burned in a violent blush. For some reason he didn't even want to go near Darya now. It was as if he got too close and all his insides churned themselves into butter.
     "She is your mother." Vayer gave him another of those looks.
     "I didn't want to get into a fight."
     "Not all Sharm Lords will see you as a threat. Particularly not if you ask them politely about things."
     "I don't mean to provoke Diomid." Dimitri wailed, the pain of his blistered feet and exhaustion releasing the last of the restraints on his tongue. "I love him, papa, really I do."
     "I know, but you are too much alike." Vayer's dark blue eyes were so kind Dimitri wanted to loose himself in them, as he had so many times as a child.
     "Why couldn't you have been my sire?" Tears streamed down his face. Dimitri sniffled and rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
     "Have a handkerchief." Vayer handed him one. Dimitri sniffled again before using it. Tears starred his vision. "Because then I'd probably be acting the idiot over you, and you'd be wondering if someone else were your sire."
     "Oh," Dimitri could see the logic in this. "Good thing you raised me, not Dimitri."
     "Indeed," he chuckled. "Although all Sergeis can be a bit difficult when they get their pride up."
     "You're Sergei."
     "Only by blood, and even then I don't have the gift." Vayer shrugged. "Oh, I can heal, certainly, but I can't heal minds and I can't step outside time."
     "What?" Dimitri sat bolt upright.
     "I can't see a time I haven't lived." Vayer caught his eyes again. "As you and your sire can."
     "Can Arkay?"
     "Now," Vayer grinned. "Its not easy and you have to be listening for it. As you did with Tasha today."
     "How did I do that?" Dimitri was shocked. He didn't think he did anything that spectacular. "Any trained healer would have done what I did."
     "No." Vayer shook his head. "Not any trained healer. Only one who could see the course of action and words that would eventually produce the desired result."
     "Its possible to learn how to do that." Dimitri refused to look at what Vayer was doing with his injured feet. He knew it had to be messy and awful.
     "No, not really." Vayer shrugged. "My mother tried, but she doesn't have the gift. All she can do is go on what she's learned. She can't know things she hasn't seen before."
     "That's just talent."
     "Like a talent for arguing with your father?" Vayer chuckled. "No, don't protest. Its good to see you growing strong and straight, my lad."
     "Am I your lad?" The tears were coming back. Dimitri blamed them on his injuries, even though they seemed to be nearly gone. He looked down to see Vayer taking Dimitri's feet from the water and drying them off with a soft towel. They were bright pink from the heat of the water, and increased blood circulation, but there was nothing left of the horrible blisters covering them from toe to heel. The last three days of ill fitting socks, little sleep, and new boots had chewed them up so badly Dimitri hadn't dared to even take off his socks. All he'd been able to do was put salve on his feet and bury himself in his work so far he forgot about them.
     "You will always be my beloved son, Dimitri." Vayer put the basin aside and picked Dimitri back up.
     "I'm too big to be carried like this." But it felt so good to have strong Sime arms around him all he could do was relax into his father's hold. Memories of being so tiny he fit in the crook of his father's arm came back to him, as did images of suckling at Darya's breast and the sweet taste of her milk filling his mouth. Dimitri tried to shake away the frighteningly vivid pictures.
     "Hush," Vayer kissed his brow, as he'd done so many times when Dimitri'd crawled into his lap for a good night story and a cup of milk. "Yes, I can see you remembering your childhood."
     "Its too bright, too clear!" He buried his face in his father's chest. "I couldn't remember things like this before."
     "I know." He murmured, stripping the filthy clothes from Dimitri's body. It had been far too long since he'd had time for a bath, or even to sluice off in the shower. "I'm not going anywhere, my lad."
     "I'm filthy, I stink, go away." The dark shadows of what he now knew had been need returned with frightening force.
     "No," Vayer took off his heavily decorated overclothes until he was down to a simple pair of breeches. Then he closed the blinds and Dimitri could hear him slip out of even those. "Relax against me, my lad." He crawled into bed and wrapped himself around Dimitri's still ungainly body. Mitka crawled in with them, twining around them as if he belonged to both.
     "Mama will be jealous." Dimitri tried his last defense.
     "Never, as you are both our lad." Vayer murmured in his ear. "Nashen slept with me my first night as an adult. Mikhail slept with Tzer. I've even heard Jarmin slept with Aliana."
     "Aliana has a mate?!"
     "Yes," Vayer chuckled softly. "She has a mate, even though she has problems too. Diomid is going to fix them, if he can, this winter."
     "Sergei will need a Sharm Lord." Dimitri breathed.
     "Yes he will." Vayer crooned a lullaby in Dimitri's ear. "You sleep now, held safe in your father's arms, and I'm sure you and Mitka will find your path."
     "Even Mikhail Chernoye found a way."
     "Yes he did." Vayer murmured, still crooning that song Dimitri now could remember with the same clarity as if it had only been yesterday, not fifteen years ago, that he'd first heard it.
    
     Vayer was not at all tired, but Dimitri's exhaustion was catching. He'd dreamed of holding his first Gen child as they came into their maturity, but hadn't dreamed it would be anything like this.
     He knew well, from far too personal experience, the stresses a parent could put on their own child. Vayer had done his best to give his children as much freedom to be themselves as was possible in this world of theirs. Tzer had found his love and life partner in one, even as Vayer had nearly destroyed them both in the process.
     Aliana had fled only months before her own change over. He'd nearly worn out the path between Mir and the Cathedral with his constant demands for updates until the Veiled had slammed the door in his face. Then he'd managed to get a sensitive of his own who could at least eavesdrop on some of his brother Severin's mail.
     When Aliana and Jarmin had vanished without a trace even Tzer could find, Vayer nearly pulled all his hair out. He knew something had gone wrong. So he'd had Diomid track them down, threatening the older man with dismemberment. Well, not literally. But he'd wanted to.
     When Diomid had told him of how close Aliana had come to suicide, Vayer had been ready to jump on the next plane to the West and to be damned with his responsibilities. But Diomid had held him back and told him to wait. He wasn't waiting well.
     Vayer nuzzled Dimitri's neck, trying to get him to sleep and recover some. Without a Lord around, he knew the young man had to be going through hell with his body trying to attract a partner.
     But as he trusted Diomid to know if Aliana would survive her growing up, he wished Diomid would trust him with his child. Dimitri finally sighed and settled into a deep sleep. Mitka was a boneless lump draped over both of them. Boneless but for this tip of one wing digging into Vayer's collarbone. How something so insubstantial could be so bony Vayer wasn't going to question, but rather simply moved the wingtip to a better position.
     Now, after having spent some time with Mitka, he wasn't at all afraid of Dimitri's nager. Actually Mitka was a lot better behaved than Darya's nager, which had an unfortunate tendency to get a bit too playful with his arms at times. Mitka never licked his forearms in hard need or nibbled on his toes in the middle of the night when it was time to roll over because he was snoring. Of course the fact he didn't normally sleep with Dimitri probably helped the latter.
     For a moment Vayer wondered what their other two children were going to turn out like and then quickly quashed the thought. Shanir was Mikhail and Tzer's problem, thank Allah, and Visarin was still very young. Although all three children of that round of fervid breeding were looking to be handfuls. Vayer was not at all sure if his brother was quite up to Sivaya or worse, Viasha coming into their maturity. The two of them were as thick as thieves and with Visarin nearly the same age, well, it was going to be exciting. Vayer was getting old for exciting.
     Dimitri was a soft, cool, trusting weight in his arms again, as he'd been so very often as a child. Quieter than the rest of the thundering herd, Vayer often wondered if he truly were a cookoo. But he certainly looked like Diomid. And he'd been in with Darya in catching Diomid so post he couldn't tell Gen from Sime. Which was what it had taken to get him to have sex with a Gen. Allah only knew how many other Gens had tried to catch Diomid over the years and failed.
     But they'd managed it and Dimitri was the end result, a Sharm Lord so brilliant and strong Vayer felt a lump of pride grow so thick in his throat he nearly cried. As he did so often with Darya, he resettled himself gently around his partner. The soft movements seemed to reassure her he was still there, and watching over her. Maybe it was fantasy on his part, but he liked to think so anyway.
     Dimitri murmured something insensate and settled one bony seatbone even harder against his thigh. Females were a bit more comfortable, Vayer had to admit. But then Darya was quite nicely padded for even a female Gen. Vayer nudged Dimitri into a better spot and got a wing over his face for his trouble. He blew it out of the way and Mitka wrapped it over the top of his head.
     Vayer sighed silently, even as he tried not to chuckle. It would take these two a bit of practice to be able to sleep in company. And he was quite happy to teach them. With his own transfer coming up in about a week, he had utterly no interest in anything but Dimitri's field, and even that was rather academic, as he was fairly low at the moment. But he did enjoy zlinning the lad sleeping so deeply even the quiet intrusion was ignored.
     Oh, some day Dimitri would give some Lord a chase so long and hard they wouldn't know a nager from the sun in the sky. And Vayer prayed to Allah he'd be there to hand the winner his son. For he knew, when Dimitri finally found his Lord, he'd never, ever let go, not even for all the gold in Kirov's vaults.

Chapter 7


    Dimitri had never been a one to quite enjoy getting up in the morning. Mikhail had never liked mornings, even though he'd been a Sime, so if he'd wanted to spend time with the old RenSime, he'd learned to stay up late. This morning was no exception.
     "Good morning, sleepy." And a cold, wet tongue behind the ear, however, were plenty to launch him out of bed. Well, over onto his stomach. This didn't work very well, even in a featherbed. He tried rolling back over and putting his arm over his eyes. "I see you really are growing up."
     Dimitri's face burned with his blushes. It didn't mean anything. He knew that. It was only hydraulic pressure. He'd experienced this before, as a true child, but now it was a bit shocking. "I need to use the bathroom." He growled, not thinking about anything more than how far it was to the facilities.
     "Oh?" Vayer was far too chipper. It must have been a Sime thing. Then he realized what he'd said.
     "I have to use the bathroom."
     "I'm not stopping you."
     "I'm naked." This morning was definitely not starting out well.
     "It isn't like I haven't seen you that way before." The laughter hadn't gone away.
     "But I'm ..." Dimitri really didn't want to say it.
     "I've seen that, too." This time he did chuckle. "Come on with you." The blankets vanished. Dimitri yelped and grabbed one corner. Or at least he tried. If waking up early meant he hurt from his hair to his toenails, he was definitely going into a different line of work. One on the night shift.
     Something was snuffling around his groin. Mortified, he looked down to see Mitka sniffing at his rock hard morning erection. "Oh Gods." He tried pulling him away.
     "You're a little young to be masturbating in the morning."
     Dimitri contemplated slapping his own father and decided he'd probably miss, which would be even more embarrassing.
     "Good morning!" His mother walked in. Mitka forgot all about his investigations. Hissing and flapping his wings, he hovered over Vayer, still completely recumbent. All of him, Dimitri noticed with a growl.
     "Mat'!" Dimitri was going to die of embarrassment.
     "Yes?" She pulled a pair of neatly knitted socks out of the sleeve of her kador. "I am."
     "Don't tease the lad." Vayer chuckled. "Off to the bathroom with you, youngster. You'll feel better once you get cleaned up."
     Darya glanced down and blinked. "He is still too young, isn't he?" For the first time Dimitri could remember, she bit at her lower lip.
     "I'm your love, my black one." His father crooned, sitting up, and in the process knocking Mitka into a heap of wings. "I thought Dimitri might like some company after his first transfer, no matter how it came about."
     "Good for you." The rustling sound of her heavy kador brought back more of those painfully sharp memories. Dimitri knew he'd tugged at them, when they were black, begging for sweets in the market one time so often she gave in to him. To disastrous results. He'd rarely been so sick in his life. "Oh lad," she sat on the edge of the bed and brushed his hair back from his forehead. It was all gummy and greasy with neglect, adding to his unease.
     Mitka was having none of this. Hissing and spitting he lunged for Dimitri's mother, jaws wide open. They snapped shut, cents from her skin. Mitka blinked a couple of times and shook his head. Then he tried it again, missing by only a fraction of a hair this time. Sensing opportunity at claw, he gnawed desperately at the shield surrounding her.
     "You hadn't told me he was cute!" She cooed, somehow managing to scratch the dragon under the chin. This didn't seem to sit well with Mitka. He tried to bite her fingers. "Oh, how adorable."
     Mothers could be far worse than fathers. Particularly when they refused to notice that something was trying to bite their arm off.
     "I don't know if I would call Mitka cute." Vayer was staring at the whole interchange with that bemused look Dimitri had come to know as his "I'm not going to say anything and get myself into more trouble." expression.
     "He is!" Darya grinned, still molesting Dimitri's nager.
     "Mother!" Dimitri wailed, feeling entirely put upon and not at all happy with this turn of events.
     "Sorry," she winked, now scritching a very subdued Mitka. "But I do know how to deal with animate nagers."
     "Oh?" He managed to pry himself out of bed at last. It looked like Mitka was going to desert him again, this time for a set of long fingernails. Then he took a good look at his mother through Mitka's eyes. A dark cloud was twining around her and Mitka. It seemed to be moving of its own accord, giving Mitka a poke and a prod wherever it seemed to feel like it. Mitka squirmed when the cloud began edging under his draped wings.
     "Sorry, didn't mean to tickle."
     It had almost felt like that, but Dimitri was trying not to squirm away for other reasons. "I'll be right back."
     "Would you like your back scrubbed?" Vayer stood up, entirely unconcerned about the fact he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothes. Dimitri snuck a glance downward, trying not to look too obvious about it. This was the first time he'd had a chance to look at a Sime since he'd established. And even if Vayer was his father, he was still curious.
     "I think so, yes." This was the polite answer, anyway. "Please." The thought did have merit. He itched, as well as ached.
     "You're going to spoil him, love." His mother continued to pet Mitka.
     "No, his first true Lord is going to spoil him. I'm just continuing my work as his father to teach him the fundamental ideas of how he's going to be spoiled." Vayer winked at him. "Besides, you're spoiling his nager something rotten over there."
     "Mitka is it?" She cocked her head to the side.
     "Yes, Mitka," Dimitri grinned at his nager, now sprawled over his mother's lap. So much for the big, vicious dragon.
     "I'm utterly fascinated to see another nager so much like my own, but with even more personality." She stroked her hand along Mitka's flank. "Besides, not all Sharm Lords are going to get their fields in a knot over him, nor are all Lords, you just have to find the good ones."
    
     Mitka did wonder sometimes what Dimitri was thinking of. At the moment it didn't seem to be very effective, whatever it was.
     "And then you Challenged him?" The silly little lord squeaked, holding her throat in a melodramatic gesture, entirely unnecessary to her point. Whatever that might have been. Mitka didn't get this whole court thing. It was too stuffy in here, with far too many people crowded into the room.
     He looked up at the rafters again, wondering if he could go hide up there and have a snooze. His jaws hurt again, as they had before his namesake's birth. He wondered how little Mitkya was doing. The lad was undeniably adorable, all warm and wonderful to cuddle around. He'd gotten to do so a couple of times when Dimitri was visiting with Gregori, trying to set up his temporary hold on Sergei.
     Mitka didn't understand why Dimitri didn't just take the Demense and be done with it. Together they were certainly stronger than that old twit Diomid. Ok, so he was Dimitri's sire, but that didn't mean Mitka had to respect him. Mitka respected and loved his real parents, Vayer and Darya.
     "I didn't have a whole lot of choice." Dimitri sipped at the water Mitka had talked him into. He knew better than to drink Starka. He wasn't stupid. Mitka didn't have to find out what a hangover was like to know he didn't want one. "It was that or the ban."
     "But you helped Tasha!" The young lord Trina waved her drink around so fast it nearly splashed all over another young sharm lord.
     "What's this?" Sharm lord Kail looked down his long, bridged nose at the two of them.
     "He's been trying to get into Trina's sleeves for months now." Mitka whispered in Dimitri's ear. Trina backed up a step, right into Kail's arms.
     "I was accused of rape." Dimitri's body went tense beneath Mitka's claws. "For helping deliver a baby."
     "Did you get in Sharm Lord Sergei's way in a delivery?" Kail's eyes widened. "You know he's so shenned possessive of all pregnant lords in Sergei we never are allowed to get near them."
     "I was there. I'd been there all night with her and the baby was nearly dead because she didn't have enough selyn for both labor and him." Dimitri sighed, his eyes closing for a moment. "I couldn't do anything else."
     "No, you couldn't." Kail looked over both of their heads. "And if he does try to press charges, its going to be more than Gregory and Tasha standing up for you."
     "I'm not a member of Sergei."
     "Like shen you aren't." Lord Azov had somehow managed to sneak up on all of them. "And who's this delightful creature?" He reached out and instantly found the delicate ridges over Mitka's eyes to scratch. "Oh you like being scratched, and given attention, don't you?" His falsetto croon was too perfect. Mitka drooped all over Dimitri's shoulder. "Oh, I melted you."
     "You were saying?" Uncle Val could be more than a bit of a Sharm Lord at times, particularly where animals were concerned. Not that Mitka truly thought of himself as an animal, well, when someone was soothing those horrible itches he got.
     "Oh, you're Sergei, whether or not Dimitri decides to pull his head out of his ass." Val's language had not improved any with the time he'd spent with his partner, Sharm Lord Alexandrya. "Sorry, youngsters, I suppose I should present a better example." He winked at Dimitri.
     Chuckling, Dimitri just shook his head. "Yes, but we all know about following examples. Some of them are negative as well as positive. And my sire has been an excellent Sharm Lord for Sergei."
     "You don't think you will be?" Tzer inserted himself into the conversation, even as the lesser lords and sharm lords vanished back into the crowd. Mitka didn't miss them much. They weren't as bright and shiny as the big ones. "Other than Mir, which is a new Demense anyway, all the other Demense have new leaders."
     "Yes, but in your cases your parents stepped down." He grimaced.
     Mitka didn't like thinking of that part of this whole affair either. He didn't want Diomid dead. He just wanted the silly fool out of his way.
     "Not mine." Nivanya had her hand on Ilyan's forearm. This conversation was beginning to go over Mitka's head. He launched himself off Dimitri's shoulder and landed on Val's. This would be a good place to watch. And Val had such a wonderful, delicate touch. He purred, enjoying the attention the pretty Lord kept giving him and listened for a while.
    
     "Is this a meeting of the Demense?" Dimitri hadn't known they'd been invited, not that any invitation was truly necessary for low court, but it was traditionally only for the members of the individual Demense, in this case, Sergei.
     "Informally," Nivanya flicked her crimson hair back from her shoulders. She was the least stable of the three young leaders, often running headlong into trouble while Uncle Ilyan had all he could do to try to rein her in. "I like Diomid, truly I do."
     "But if he's going to refuse you membership in Sergei, I'd like to get my bid in." Tzer winked at him.
     "I was here first." Val tried to glare out at Tzer. It didn't work very well, particularly not with Mikhail quietly watching the proceedings over his partner's shoulder. Everyone knew as soon as Vayer felt he was ready, Mikhail would be the next Lord and Ruler of Russia.
     The first sweep of politics was as heady as the way he'd given over the burning heat choking him last month. Soon it would be time to try that again too, perhaps this time with a bit more long term success. Mitka's jaws, right were Val was rubbing him, were already so swollen and hot to the touch, Dimitri could hardly stand it.
     "So who is going to run the auction?" After countless hours in front of the mirror, Dimitri'd finally figured out how to raise just one eyebrow.
     "Do you want me to?" Vayer's hand landed on his shoulder.
     "You'd sell off you own son like a Gen in the souk?" He put his own broad hand over his father's.
     "I can't have you." He kissed the top of Dimitri's head. "Hey, I won't be able to do that for too much longer."
     "Not very long at all." Val looked him up and down. "Hey, Lexi!" He shouted over the crowded room. His partner tipped her head to the old lord she'd been chatting with and wandered over, stopping to trade witticisms with a stunning redhead Dimitri'd missed in his first scan of the room. Val's chuckle brought his attention right back to where it had been.
     "Darya, what's your brother doing here?"
     "My brother?" She yelped, turning in place. "Khristov!" She ran across the room, nager lancing ahead of her to jump into an older Lord's arms. It was only then that Dimitri realized the other man was tiny. Not even bigger than Nivanya, who was the smallest adult Dimitri'd ever met.
     The two pounded each other on the back and danced around in circles. It was as if they hadn't seen each other in years. Who was he?
     "Vayer, Dimitri, everyone, I'd like you to meet my brother, well, half-brother, well, one of my half-brothers, Gregori being the other one, Khristov." Darya was breathless and her nager twining to the ceiling in great spirals of glee. Mitka launched himself from Val's shoulder to join it. Khristov glanced upward, zlinning the two nagers creating everchanging patterns of shadow against the white tile ceiling.
     "Lord Khristov?" Dimitri bowed hesitantly, trying not to let Mitka's little cousins twining in his middle get the best of him. Something strange, something he didn't recognize at all, was going on.
     "Yes, Veiled Lord Khristov Kirovich," he held out his arms. Dimitri winced, turning his face away.
     "Oh, it was many years ago, my young friend." His voice was a surprisingly deep tenor. As if someone had put the voice of a much larger man into the small body in front of him. "Many, many years."
     "What are you doing above?" Darya still held her brother's shoulders and was grinning like a cat with a whole buttery full of cream. "You took the Veil."
     "We too are looking for a Sergei." This time his voice held echoes of many voices, all piled on top of each other. "Tzakiran had no heir."
     "I'm not taking it." Dimitri stepped back, fear twining around his arms like Mitka's claws.
     "Will you say as much when the only Lord for you is as I am?" He held out his hands.
     "You're here now." He called Mitka down, even as he grasped Khristov's hands. "Are you going to refuse me like this?" Dimitri licked his lips, even as Mitka wrapped himself around the Lord.
     "Neither of us are in hard need." Eyes the color of newly forged steel bore into his.
     "I called my brother first back home to Fatima." Tzer put his hand over theirs.
     "I have the need to take him." Nivanya put her hand in.
     "I will need him for truth." Val nodded to Lexi, already beginning to show in pregnancy, again. And she was not a young Sharm Lord, not for a third child. Dimitri's heart began to pound in his wrists.
     "And we will always have room for our children." Vayer put his hands on both of Dimitri's shoulders. "Mir is their home, always." He bent down, his warm breath sending a shiver up Dimitri's arms. "Be very sure, my son. They play for keeps."
     "I'm too young!" Dimitri wanted to wail. Mitka stared into his eyes, his venom laden jaw against Khristov's. Again those steel gray eyes caught his. Khristov could satisfy his need, but anything else? "I will not take the Veil."
     "Not yet," Khristov's gaze didn't waver a mil. "You will."
     "I know I won't."
     "You can't see for yourself."
     "Ah, but I can see for my family." He trembled all over, inside and out. "I see no great loss for them." Dimitri had no idea if this were true or not, or if he were just making it up.
     "You are but yet a child." Khristov's voice was as seductive as the dark shadows beginning to fill Dimitri's vision. "When it is time, you will know."
     "Never," he pulled against Khristov's hold. Tentacles of pure selyn held them bound. "I will never take the Veil." He held the image of the Archangel's mutilated arms in the front of his mind. "Mikhail Chernoye wasn't forced to the Veil."
     "No, he was executed." Khristov's smile held nothing of joy, only secrets. "Oh yes, we know of Mikhail Chernoye, The Black Archangel. He should have been one of us. Creating his beauty for all time for the Veiled and the Way of the Rus."
     "He was freed by my grandfather, Sharm Lord Sergei and his heir shall remain free." Dimitri swore on the graves of them both. "I will not let their legacy die for my pleasures."
     "You no longer paint or draw, Sergeyevich. Do you not wish to?"
     "I don't have the time." His heart shattered in his chest. He had betrayed Mikhail, in his yearning to prove himself to his sire.
     "Don't do it, Dimitri. I know." Vayer murmured in his ear. Mitka was slavering selyn all down Khristov's tunic.
     "You betray your own oaths to us?" Light and fire outlined Khristov's tentacles sheaths.
     "Madness," Nivanya hissed, her own arms turning crimson with matching Kirov power.
     "No, my mother was no Rus." He continued to stare into Dimitri's eyes. "I will not show the madness."
     "But you carry it."
     "I do." He set his jaw. "Which is the other reason I took the Veil."
     "The first being." Dimitri saw the ancient shame and hatred chase each other to the madness Khristov denied.
     "I was young." Red hot tentacles of pure fire laced Dimitri's arms. But they didn't hurt, selyn flowed over into the visible, twining around both of them and reaching for the sky.
     "As am I." Dimitri closed his hands over Khristov's wrists, accepting him, for now.

Chapter 8


     Still a bit bemused, Dimitri watched Khristov investigate their rooms with undivertable Sime curiosity. The tiny Lord looked out between the drawn blinds and gave a quick shudder. "Its so open."
     "I don't like living below." Dimitri shrugged, settling back into his chair. It was his chair now, no one else's.
     "I've never known anything else." Quick footsteps danced across the still bare floor. Dimitri hadn't had time to make rugs, or the selyn to buy any. All his monthly stipend went for the bare maintenance necessary on the place.
     "You've spent all your time below?" Now a shudder of disgust ran through Dimitri's body. He couldn't stand being locked up in the darkness, no matter how many lights were on. It just was wrong, in his opinion. And now that he was living alone, well, had been living alone, he hadn't had to ask anyone else their opinion.
     "Yes," Khristove nodded and then looked into the bathroom. This wasn't the biggest suite above at Sergei, but it did have a good bathroom. There were some luxuries Dimitri refused to live without, as well as the luxury of living above. "You don't have to share this one?"
     "Only with you." Dimitri coaxed Byela into his lap and began brushing out her long, white coat. It had become horribly snarled with the time he'd been spending elsewhere, mostly chasing down seconds in Sergei's account books. He missed having Kirina around, if nothing else for her extraordinary skill with the accounting. No, that wasn't at all true. He did like his other mother. Often enough in summer, he's spent the long sunny days with Kirina, Miran and Tzanya. In Sergei, unlike any other Demense, his Lord got stuck with the child rearing duties, since his Sharm Lord led the Demense.
     Right now he wondered what Kirina thought of this whole situation, if she even knew. Dimitri had heard rumors of Diomid's often disturbing tendency to not tell his Lord all the things she should be aware of. Particularly as he hadn't seen her once since he established and now she was gone with Diomid to the West, to try to help Aliana. Both Diomid and Kirina had helped raise Dimitri's older sister as well, often enough more than with him. But then she wasn't blood related to him.
     "Indeed," gray eyes twinkled in Khristov's pale face. "I'm sorry I came onto you so hard earlier."
     "You got my attention." He admitted, still brushing Byela, even as Mitka inserted himself as well beneath the bristles. "You can't share with another living thing, Mitka."
     "I can do as I wish." He sniffed, curling up into a ball, occupying the same physical space as the cat.
     "You'll get long white hairs all over your wings." He warned, the cat's soothing purr easing the tension in his body, and his nager as well, from Mitka's reaction.
     "I've never heard a Sharm Lord talk so intelligently with their nager." Khristov was zlinning them, his laterals peeking from their sheathes. Dimitri bristled, feeling as if he were being fondled in a way he didn't much care for. Or maybe it was the way Khristov continued to speak of Mitka as if he didn't have ears to hear with or a brain of his own. "I meant no offense!"
     "You gave it anyway." Mitka raised his head, looking at the Lord with those gold eyes going hard. "I'm not a thing."
     "Didn't mean to imply you were." Khristov raised a hand, nageric tentacles spread in supplication. The thick white knots of scar tissue where his physical tentacles had been only mocked their absence. Dimitri shivered at the thought of the pain that had to have gone into such mutilation. "It was done before they broke out."
     "You didn't even know what first transfer was like!" Dimitri was horrified. "How could anyone do that to you?"
     "I asked for it." He turned his face away, cheeks reddening with ill-hidden shame.
     "As a child?" Dimitri wanted to weep for the loss Khristov had taken, so willingly.
     "It was known that Kirovich was my sire. It was known I'd go mad before my thirtieth birthday. It was known that the only place safe for me to grow up was the veil." The sobs of need choked sorrow were as dry as the winter killed leaves outside. "I didn't!"
     "Then why did you stay?" Dimitri shooed the occupants of his lap out. "Come here."
     "I won't!" He spun, fire again lacing the air with its deadly promise, but never over the edge to actual harm. "I won't hurt you."
     "I know." Dimitri patted his knee. "Come sit with me, Khristov and tell me your tale."
     "Its not very long. The Veiled accepted my oath before my tentacles broke out and they were burned before I could become a danger to others, or myself."
     "But you didn't."
     "No, I didn't." Khristov turned his face back to the window. "They offered to let me go. Offered me my freedom. Freedom after twenty years among the communion of the Veiled. Do you know what it means to be offered freedom when all you want is comfort?"
     "Yes," Dimitri said softly, still holding out his offer. "I do."
     "Oh, you think that being offered the status of Inducted you were being given a great gift?" He sneered, before going back to his pacing. "I don't want to be here!"
     "You do." Dimitri rested his chin on his hand. "You wouldn't be here otherwise. Tzakiran would have killed you."
     "How in shen do you know?" Again that so beautiful fire rose up between them, twining their souls together in a way Dimitri didn't even truly understand.
     "Because I am Sergei." Dimitri stood, going to his new partner, his first Lord.
     "Your Uncle Arkay wouldn't have even known that."
     "Uncle?" Dimitri blinked, suddenly taken aback. Then it all clicked into place. "He's Diomid's brother, isn't he?" Shocked, he stood still for a moment, letting the information come to him. "And Diomid's Uncle."
     "Yes." Khristov went dead white. "There's no way you could know these things."
     "And that Nashen's mother's dam was also her sister. And that Tzer's firstborn will be out of his sister." Dimitri reached for the door to stop the horror of what he saw. A tiny child, nearly left for dead, and then not, to suffer so horribly, as Tzakiran had. A male Fatima Sharm Lord. "My Gods," he put his hands to his head. "What is happening to me?"
     "You are Sergei." Khristov had backed into the window. "A monster!"
     "No," he shook the images out of his mind. "I simply have a better memory than most." Cold sweat had trickled down the inside of his kador, making him feel more than a bit ill. "I have to get a shower, at least." He pulled off his kador with an ease many older Sharm Lords would envy.
     "How do you do that?" Khristov was coming out of his funk. Dimitri hoped he wouldn't stay like this, but Dimitri was also learning not to look. The answers were often more unsettling than the questions.
     "What?" He put the garment on its stand. It was one he'd borrowed from the old Sharm Lord's closet. It didn't irritate Mitka the way a sharm lord's kador did and all of his sire's were too short one direction and too long the other.
     "Get out of a kador so easily." Khristov seemed honestly impressed.
     "Just know." He plucked at the front of his undertunic. It was soaked through, and far too fragrant. The sink would be getting a workout tonight. "Join me or not, as you choose." Dimitri tossed the poor tattered thing into the sink. It would have done well as a rag, but it was generally Dimitri shaped and so would do.
     "Why are you dressed in rags under thousands of days of diamond and platinum embroidery?" Khristov had followed him, like a puppy after a ball.
     "Because I didn't buy the overtunic." Dimitri stripped off his breeches before he realized this might not be the wisest move. He'd been naked in front of his parents before, and with his weird memory, he knew how normal it was. But Khristov was no kind of relative at all. Well, he was Dimitri's Uncle in a roundabout way. But then nearly everyone above the rank of lord or sharm lord was, it seemed. "Why do you keep asking me questions?"
     "Because I don't know the answers." He snarled right back. "Ok, so I'm ignorant as a renSime and haven't got the sense the Gods gave one either, but I am curious."
     "I noticed." Dimitri was taken on the curb this time. "What did you do for the Veiled?"
     "Mostly kept those who did the work entertained." His nager with dark with some hidden shame.
     "You were kept?" Dimitri looked at the Lord's forearms.
     "Yes, shen you to hell." He put his hands over his own wrists. "They kept me around to have some place to put their selyn when they weren't using it. I was ..."
     "You were used." Dimitri put his hands over Khristov's. "They used you like a pet."
     "Yes," Khristov turned his face away. "They needed, so it was good old Khristov to strip another Sharm Lord. I was the only one with enough speed and strength to keep some of them even marginally sane."
     "How did you talk them into letting you go?" Dimitri decided getting cleaned off was a bit more important at the moment than standing around looking like an idiot, but first he ran some hot water into the sink. His only shirt wasn't going to get clean this way.
     "I didn't." Khristov's expression said as plainly as words.
     "You escaped?!" Dimitri splashed water all over the place. "From the Veiled? How in hell did you do that? Why did you do that?"
     "Now you're asking the questions." Khristov sat on the side of the tub, getting his breeches wet. They were far better than Dimitri's own, being all in one piece to start with.
     "Although I do have to say I'm flattered you came to me." Dimitri put down the warmth in his cheeks to the water he was sitting in.
     "I couldn't resist." Khristov brought Dimitri's hand to his mouth and kissed it.
     "Better than the Veiled Sharm Lords?" Dimitri regretted his question the moment he said it.
     "There is no comparison." Khristov held his eyes again, as he'd done earlier. "And I do know how to pleasure a Sharm Lord." His hot Sime tongue flicked gently over his knuckles, making all the hair on his arms stand on end. The promise inherent in the gesture was as sensual as it was wicked. "I'm ignorant, not stupid."
     Dimitri tried to catch his breath. "You ran away from the Veiled. They could do anything to you."
     "After transfer with you, it will be worth it." Khristov held Dimitri's eyes with that incredible knowing gaze. "Trust me."
     "I'll have to." Dimitri tried to pull away. "Its your nager, after all."
     "Never has been before." He stood and broke the eye contact. The simple Kirov crimson silk overtunic was laid on the edge of the sink, along with the wrapped shirt and woolen breeches.
     "You could have stolen better clothes."
     "These where what I wore when I swore to the Veiled." Khristov's nager was as still as ice in midwinter.
     "How old were you?"
     "Thirteen," he shrugged, then he put his feet in the water.
     "Come in." Dimitri invited him, wondering at the control. "And you haven't grown since then?"
     "No," he flicked his hair to the front and Dimitri couldn't help but zlin years of deep scars crossing and recrossing the man's shoulders and back. "I wasn't always in hard need when it was convenient."
     "Why did you let them do this?"
     "I asked for it." Khristov met his gaze, with only the faintest sheen of green crossing the gray of his eyes. "I thought it would keep me from going insane, to know what the whip and the branding iron felt like."
     "It didn't." Dimitri dared put his hands on those slender shoulders. "It simply stunted your growth so badly you, well, you never physically matured entirely."
     "I did in the important ways."
     "Sexually?"
     "Yes," he nodded, hair coming forward to cover his face. "It was inevitable, I suppose."
     "And they used you for their gratification in bed as well."
     "Yes," he nodded, shoulders bowing under the invisible weight of it all. "I accepted it. I didn't protest."
     "But did you ask for it?" Dimitri cursed how close he'd come to rape, and even still it had been nothing like this.
     "When ..." his voice cracked and then he straightened up. "I've never talked about this with anyone, Dimitri."
     "I'd be surprised if you had." He rubbed his knuckles against Khristov's face. "It isn't exactly the sort of thing you'd discuss with the creature about to rape you."
     "It wasn't rape." He turned to Dimitri, jaw set. "It wasn't. I asked for it."
     "Not knowing anything else." Dimitri ran his thumb over Khristov's cheek.
     "Don't pity me, Dimitri." His nostrils flared. "I'm as human as thee."
     "Why did you think the fact your mother acceded to her own rape you had to?"
     "Why are you doing this to me?" Khristov snarled, his temper spilling over again into literal flames.
     "Because I like this?" Dimitri held up a tongue of fire, twining it around his fingers before it vanished. Khristov laughed, a dry brittle sound lacking life with the nearness of true need. "No, because you need it."
     "You're as bad as your grandsire."
     "Or as good." He never had met the old Sharm Lord Sergei, but in a way he felt as if he did know him. The overtunic in the other room winked at him its bright white light. Sergei was his, and would be for life, someday.
    
     Khristov had never met anyone like young Sharm Lord Sergei. For even if he weren't in name, he was Sergei's Lord in truth. Diomid was an excellent Sharm Lord, but had no where near the power of his son.
     Most of the Sharm Lords Khristov had known were far older, set in their ways, and often not at all tolerant of any sort of forwardness in their Lords. Not that he could even physically manage to be forward, lacking handling tentacles or even any idea of how to use them.
     Sometimes, in the dark of the night, he wondered what it would have been like, if he hadn't forced himself on old Master Tzakiran. The irascible old Fatima Sharm Lord had cared for his Lords, he just hadn't expected much of them but bed pleasure and the occasional errand above. For Tzakiran had been bound deep inside the honeycomb labyrinth where the Veiled lived by the congestive selyn disorder which had finally taken his life.
     Then Dimitri cheated. With strong, broad fingers he began kneading at the snarled muscles beneath the scarred skin of Khristov's shoulders. Khristov remembered every whipstroke, every line of fire traced across his flesh. Some of the Sharm Lords he served truly were mad, drinking in Khristov's pain and submission with unholy glee.
     But then Khristov had not been complaining at the time, either. Then it had felt good to be the center of someone's, anyone's, undivided attention. And he knew he had it when he was bound to the whipping cross or over the wooden table.
     "I could work out some of the worst of these scars." Dimitri's soft voice, still uncertain with youth, came through his musing. Khristov had to swallow back selyn filled saliva brought forth by his own musing on past transfers. "I see you are thinking about things other than your past."
     "Actually I was." He arched his neck in the gesture of submission so many Sharm Lords had adored.
     "Ahhhhh," Dimitri breathed, both cooling and warming the skin at the back of Khristov's neck. "So I zlin." He kissed the sensitive nape, the exact spot a Sharm Lord would use to kill. The mixture of promise and threat, so very familiar and yet at the same time, so very naive coming from one so young, made Khristov's roniplin glands fill to overflowing. "I've never known, truly, a complete transfer."
     "You aren't a virgin." Khristov dared zlin again, checking to be sure of what he'd zlinned the first time. No, Dimitri's field didn't have the rapid upward spiral of a Gen who'd never given away their selyn. That particular climbing rate was only seen once in anyone's life.
     "Only sexually. But my first was in practice." He chuckled.
     "It was a strip?" Khristov was aghast. He'd at least had a real transfer for his first, from a very kind Sharm Lord who'd let him wallow in the experience as best as he could until he needed more selyn to finish healing the burns on his arms.
     "No, but it was during the delivery of a baby. My sire called it rape because I didn't risk the woman's life by waiting for her to remember I was there. Besides, she jumped me." Dimitri chuckled, in Khristov's presence, beginning to truly feel need for the first time in his life. "I figured that was good enough."
     "Good enough for anyone but your father, I suppose." Khristov leaned back into the caress. Few people had ever touched him this gently.
     "Oh, my father defended me." Dimitri snorted. "It was my sire who kept trying to get him to put me under ban."
     "For saving a life?" Khristov turned back to look at Dimitri. Blue-gray eyes, the perfect color of ice, looked back at him. Dimitri nodded once. "What a fool."
     "He didn't beat me and he didn't get what he wanted."
     "I heard you Challenged him."
     "Yes," again the nod. Khristov couldn't zlin a thing Dimitri didn't want him too. Even Mitka, his nager, was as unreadable as stone. "I had to. He wouldn't back down."
     "Will you?" Khristov wondered how likely it was that a Sharm Lord Dimitri's age could face down their own sire. In Russia's past, the children always waited longer, even when it cost lives to do so. Valentine, the last Lord Kirov should have killed his own sire years before he managed the feat, but as it happened, only his Sharm Lord's resemblance to Valentine's mother had saved them at all. Valentine had given his own life to his daughter, not fighting her more than his own madness demanded.
     Khristov gulped down the fear he'd lived with all his life, that he'd turn, like his sire and brother, against all he knew and loved.
     "You won't." Dimitri told him, as if telling him it was snowing outside.
     "How do you know? Even Sevrin couldn't read my geneprint well enough." Khristov snarled in the frustration of it all. No one had known for certain if he'd go mad. Even though Kirov Lords always did. But Khristov's dam was from far to the west, beyond the tribes and over the sea. A redhead, like he was and his brother's dam, but she carried no talents beyond those of needlework and knitting. She'd born Lord Kirov three children with Sharm Lord Kirov's connivance. Khristov was the only survivor. Not that he'd ever known any more of her than this.
     "Hush," Dimitri pulled him back into his arms. "I can hear your worries and concerns." He stroked Khristov's arms as if he still had all his tentacles. "Relax against me a moment."
     "I'm not a toy to be played with." As soon as the words were out his body betrayed him by relaxing, as it had been trained to do.
     "I know." Dimitri spoke with more than words in the way he released Khristov. "Do you want peace?"
     "I want to be free." He put his face in his hands, unable to cry for need, unable to scream for the conflict choking his voice. "Who am I, Dimtiri?"
     "Always a good question." Something older, and far wiser than any human lurked behind Dimitri's youthful eyes. "Perhaps a place to start might be learning to become friends."

Chapter 9


     Nervous enough to have a litter of kittens right in the middle of the hallway, Dimitri waited for an answer. "Come in, come in!" Avilan called out, his voice still as youthful as ever it was. Dimitri knew Arkay aged, as did all people, but it seemed Avilan never did. "And I see you've brought your prey with you." Khristov blanched and nearly made his own hole in the door, running back out.
     "Don't mind him." Dimitri stage whispered. He wanted Avilan to hear him. "He's just jealous."
     "With her on his arm?!" He squeaked, still backing up. "I don't think so."
     "Isn't he a little, well, old?" Avilan's frown turned Khristov into a huddling heap of pure terror on the floor. "Oh, lad, you aren't as old as I am." He knelt with numerous pops and clicks. From this angle, Dimitri could clearly see the thick silver streaks in Avilan's gold hair, almost completely replacing the gold. "Come now, I won't bite you."
     "No, I taught him better." Karola put her hands on her hips. For a brief moment, Dimitri wondered if his father had ever had a chance at her, and if so, if he'd fared well enough to give his son a chance. Karola threw back her head and laughed so hard tears came from her eyes. "I've never been quite so flattered, youngster. And you do have great big brass bracelets, even if they aren't visible on your wrists yet."
     "Don't know how much it would have hurt to ask until I did it?" He added a wicked grin he didn't entirely feel. "Besides, I might have gotten lucky."
     "Oh you have as smooth a tongue as your sire." Her violet eyes twinkled with mirth.
     "So he did catch you." Dimitri let his unworldly knowledge come to the fore. "Twice."
     "Ah, but you have yet to learn to guard your tongue, young Sergei." Her expression went hard for a moment and Dimitri well knew the force of will it had taken to raise nine of her own children, and countless others.
     "You, of all people, would appreciate the truth." He offered in riposte.
     "Nicely done, very nicely." She gave him a half smile. "And if you weren't the age of my own grandchildren, and male to boot, I'd take you up on the offer, youngster."
     "Oh?" He leaned on the word. "And you assume I'd have you?"
     Avilan choked heavily, turning around and looking as if someone had smacked him on the back of the head with a board ... hard enough to crack the board.
     "As you're running your nager under my tunic I assume the intent is there."
     "Get back here Mitka!" He yanked at his field with all his might. Mitka was playing deaf again. Avilan snickered. "Get out of Karola's clothes. She fills them quite nicely without your help." At this everyone stopped what they were doing and stared. "Now I bet you all are wondering why I've called you here today?"
     After a moment's stunned silence, Karola broke up laughing again. This was enough of a change Dimitri could get Mitka's attention back. Grabbing his nager by the scruff of the neck, he yanked him out of Karola's clothes and held him up in front of his face. "What have I told you about climbing into people's clothes?"
     "That I shouldn't do that when people are wearing them?" He blinked, obviously trying to look innocent.
     "Then why were you slithering around all over Karola's chest, under her clothes?" He'd learned to be direct with Mitka. As direct as a sharp stick. He shook his nager again, demanding an answer. "Well?"
     "I hurt." He whined, a single silver tear pooling in one golden eye.
     "I know sweetheart. You won't hurt soon. You'll feel really good. I just want to be sure no one gets hurt."
     "I already hurt."
     "Let him come here." Karola held out his hands.
     "Please?!" Mitka begged, a tear tracking down his face. Dimitri brushed his hand over Mitka's swollen jaws. They were burning hot and felt as if they'd burst any moment. "I hurt."
     "I know. If she says its all right." He looked at Karola. She nodded, still holding out her hands. The instant he let go of Mitka, his nager curled up like a child in Karola's arms. She did know what to do with a Sharm Lord in need. There was no sensation of hardship leaving him there, but rather a feeling of peace and quiet. Dimitri gave Karola a grateful smile as he turned his attention back to Khristov.
     "After that little display of nageric obedience, I'm not at all sure why you wanted my help." Avilan stood, again creaking rather badly.
     "As an excuse for me to get my hands on you." The aching joints Dimitri could now sense were driving him crazy.
     "Arkay said he couldn't do anything more." Avilan shrugged. "It isn't too bad, as long as I stay warm." He winked at Karola. "Someone I know very well is excellent at keeping me warm."
     "See, you don't know everything." Khristov stage whispered back.
     "How old are you?" Avilan tapped at his ear, as if knocking something out of it.
     "Fourty going on fourteen." Dimitri provided, knowing full well why Khristov was so odd. "It isn't exactly something to worry about."
     "And you are sixteen going on sixty, like your sire."
     "I simply hope I am not too much like my sire and more like my father." Dimitri was not liking the way this conversation was going.
     "Oh, I've learned a few things over the years, youngster. And one of them is to let the future do what it will, even if you know what its going to be." Avilan opened the door to the hallway. "We have to go take a walk. If you could brink Mitka down to the conservatory, if he decides to stay with you, in about an hour, I'd really appreciate it."
     "You're retired!" Karola growled, still cuddling up to Mitka as she had to so many children, long white fangs, slavering selyn and black scales notwithstanding. "He is young, Dimitri." She went over to a carafe on the table. "Just the thing." She wet a napkin with the moisture beading the outside and held it to Mitka's jaw. The pleasure of the sensation tightened the skin of Dimitri's arms so hard and so fast he gasped. "I think you'd better hurry."
     "I think so." Avilan seemed to look through Dimitri for a moment. "Yes, definitely. Follow me."
    
     Avilan looked up to the hidden artificial sun, waiting for the answers to come to him. They always did, eventually. Occasionally too late, but eventually. "So you've been living with each other for close to a week now and haven't killed each other yet."
     "But I don't know what I'm doing." Dimitri's hands clutched at his knee so hard the fingers turned white. Avilan saw him swallow again. He was certainly ready for transfer, even if his mind was holding him back.
     "Then don't think about it." He put his hand over Dimitri's. The age spots and lines didn't bother him anymore. At least not after Karola had pinned him to the sheets and proven to him they didn't matter to her. "If you think about it, then it won't work." How to explain to a sixteen year old, with all the Sergei gifts of knowing both past and future, that there were some things that could never be known, only experienced? "Trust me."
     "I do." He ducked his head, then looked to Khristov. "But I'm afraid."
     "And that will kill one or the other of you." Avilan stated the blunt truth. "More likely Khristov than you, I'm afraid."
     "Me too." He reiterated, a glint of black humor tracing over his field. "Isn't there anything you can do to be sure I don't ..."
     "No," he squeezed Dimitri's hands gently. "The only way to be sure is not to act." There was something even darker about Khristov.
     "Why are you here?" The answer he got was one that shocked him to the core. The verbal words that came later were less than useless. "No, Khristov, don't lie to me. You want peace."
     "I do." He admitted, turning his face away. "Is that so wrong?"
     "You would destroy Dimitri's life if he killed you today. How can you be so cruel?"
     "Because all he's ever known is cruelty." Dimitri retrieved one hand and put it over his putative lover's wrist and began sliding up the sleeve. Avilan had wondered why a Lord would be wearing sleeves down to their hands. Now he knew. Khristov had been Veiled. "He was their creature."
     "Now he's yours?"
     "Not if I can help it." Dimitri's remaining nager, only the faintest echo of a normal adult's, was as irresistible as the great river Moskva in flood. "He's Khristov Kirovich. Lord Khristov."
     "No," he shook his head. Karola appeared at the top of the path. This was going to be their best chance. He waved her forward and spread her hands. She cast of Mitka as if he were the world's largest falcon. He loomed over all over them, towering over four meters high now and still growing. Dimitri tipped Khristov's chin up.
     Avilan was still worried, but prayed with all his might nothing would break into the sequence he knew was as inevitable as water rushing downhill ... he hoped. Before it could break the mood, Avilan gently brushed Khristov's sleeves up past the wreck the veiled had made of his forearms.
     In the background, he could hear Karola's intake of breath. Avilan nodded to her, knowing through their long marriage, she'd know to hold the fields steady and unzlinnable to any outside observer. He had to watch the two young men for the first sign of hesitation.
     Khristov tipped his chin, as a Sharm Lord would do, submitting himself to Dimitri's lead. Not experienced enough to know better, the first backwash of shen began in Dimitri's mind. *Like this* Avilan sent the image of how very wet and sweet Khristov's lips looked in the cool, misty light. Dimitri leaned forward, catching up the lost thread and opened himself the first fraction to Khristov's need.
     It was a nightmarish whirlwind of night and fear, pain and blood spilled for too many hells. Avilan clamped down on his shock, praying to all the gods Dimitri wouldn't see it. *I know.* Dimitri sent, as if he were simply taking a walk in the park, not trying to give transfer to a suicidal Sime with all the demons of hell raging in his mind.
     "Be careful." He said out loud, knowing this was the last moment either of them could hear anything. Thier lips touched at last and Khristov's hands shot up to grab Dimitri's arms. Avilan had never seen a Veiled Lord take transfer, but the awkward position make his own wrists ache in emptiness. He brushed his fingertips over the backs of Khristov's hands, hoping he could manage to reposition him before his laterals came out.
     Slowly, ever so slowly, they moved back down. Karola came down and knelt beside the three of them. Then she reached around Khristov and put her hands over his. In a flash of light and heat, her tentacles matched the ephemeral ones of Khristov's and Dimitri yanked back. Selyn slammed into the dark night as Mitka struck at Khristov with all his might, sinking half meter long fangs deep into the Lord's chest. A scream echoed off the high stone walls, again and again and again.

Chapter 10


     Dimitri dared open his eyes. Khristov blinked back at him, looking dazed and definitely not sure of where he was or when it was, but alive at least. Mitka was no where to be seen. Fear shattered what little peace he'd gathered from knowing he hadn't killed.
     "He's still here." Someone murmured in his ear as Khristov's back arched in sheer panic.
     "No, no," he tightened down his fingers. Another scream, this time from a voice gone harsh, echoed off the stone walls. A flock of water birds, which had almost settled, rose again in a great pounding of wingbeats.
     "Let him go, Dimitri." Avilan's voice was as flat as the night he'd sensed and Mitka had quenched his fangs in. "Don't hold him so tight."
     "No use." He glanced down, unable to sense fields at all now. But there was no use in being able to do so either.
     "Damn it, heal him." Karola snarled, putting Dimitri's bloody hands back where they'd been.
     "Not without his permission." He kissed Khristov's brow as the older man's eyes slipped closed at last. "I did so once."
     "He didn't ask for peace." Avilan shook him. "Do it. Gods, Dimitri, don't let him die like this! In pain. At least do it right."
     "I don't have the field." His heart ached at the pain written in Khristov's face, now so close to death Dimitri felt Azrael's wings brush his own cheek. This was truly what he'd wanted. "He doesn't want to be here, Avilan."
     "Shen you to hell, Dimitri. Save him. He's your mother's brother." Karola's violet eyes blazed over Khristov's shoulder. "He deserves better than this."
     Thoughts of the images he'd gotten from the older man. Of having been beaten, raped, burned, even cut for various Sharm Lord's pleasure burned in his mind.
     "Do you really want to be like them?" She asked, her fury so harsh her teeth ground together. "I can't heal him. Not at this point. He's too far gone."
     "Since I crushed his laterals." Shame at what he'd done gripped him in talons of ice.
     "No, since Mitka manifested so strongly he pierced his vriamic node and nearly cut it in two in the process. Now grow up and fix what you've done."
     "Shen!" Dimitri swore, realizing how badly he'd misjudged himself. Dropping back into the world of selyn, he saw Mitka, as pale as ice, trembling over Khristov's body.
     "I didn't mean it. Oh Gods, Khristov, stay with me. Oh, I'm so sorry. I hurt so bad and I didn't know what I was doing. Khristov. Oh, please, don't go." Silver tears streamed over Khristov's chest. Here, Dimitri could see the two huge rents going all the way through his nager. Selyn pooled in the holes Mitka had disrupted in the man's nager, even as they flowed smoothly everywhere else. Even on his forearms, where Dimitri had been stupid enough to mistake roniplin for blood.
     Swearing at himself for being a right fool, he put his hands, front and back over the wounds Mitka had left. "Get me a thoracic pack, a ten cent spool of silk-linen wrap, harduran and enough khasti to float a small boat!" Dimitri prayed Karola still knew Azov's infirmary well enough to get the harduran, since she'd have to get into the drug vault for it.
     "I'll get you a drink too, if you pull this one off." Avilan was shaking at his side.
     "Make yourself useful and put your hands over mine." Dimitri's head was spinning so badly he knew he wasn't going to be wanting that drink when he was done, he was going to be noisily sick all over his own shoes. Knowing the future was sometimes such wonderful fun.
     "Don't count your ruined shoes until you've vomited on them." Avilan's blue eyes were dead steady as he looked into Dimitri's. Dimitri winced at the black humor, but it did get him going again.
     "Oh shen, I should have asked for some of the jarli as well." If Khristov survived, he'd have one shidoni of a headache.
     "I always have some with me." Avilan tipped a small vial out of one sleeve. "Want some."
     "I'll want all of that ... when I'm done." Either way it turns out, Dimitri told himself. Gods the transfer had felt so good, with the horrible burning ache threatening to drive both of them mad easing with pulse after pulse of pure pleasure streaming through their bodies. He could remember each frantic strike of Mitka's jaws as he worked the selyn deep into Khristov's body, inadvertently ripping the nageric representation of the core of his selyn system to tatters. If Dimitri could keep the leakage down to a minimum, and slow Khristov's selyn consumption to near child levels, the man might have a chance to heal enough of the damage to get another transfer into him and so heal fully. A normal transfer this time. Not Mitka's idea of a transfer.
     "I really didn't mean to hurt him." Mitka whined, putting his cheek over the wound he'd made. "He called me in. He wanted me. I didn't force him."
     "You did though." Dimitri shivered at how much damage Mitka had done. Together, he and Avilan were stemming the worst of the selyn loss Khristov was suffering, but it wasn't enough. If Karola didn't get back soon, they were going to loose him, no matter what Dimitri did.
     "You also know he may not live because he can't ever face another Sharm Lord." He grimaced, his stomach churning even more. "Mitka, I love you, but you did wrong."
     "I am you, Dimitri." He said, gold eyes soft with love. "You did wrong."
     "I didn't mean to." His own eyes blurred with tears. In the world of selyn, Khristov's broken body would always lie in his memory as condemnation.
     "No, you didn't mean to and did everything you could think of to prevent it." Avilan's voice dragged him out to the physical world again. "Khristov knew the chance when he came to you. And you brought yourself and him to me, probably the best person above to deal with a problem transfer. There is no blame to be laid at your feet."
     "If he dies ..."
     "If he dies, well, you are a Sharm Lord."
     "That isn't right!" Dimitri protested. "It isn't right to kill in ignorance or fear."
     "But it is the law."
     "To hell with the law then." He bowed his head over Khristov's chest. "I won't let you die on me!" Dimitri grasped the lines of fate.
     "Not for this!" Avilan's fear rose rank into the weavings of past and future. "The price is too high."
     "He is human." Dimitri felt the power rise in him like sap in a tree. He knew the price he'd pay for such ill advised meddling. Already the sands of time were sliding out from beneath his feet.
     "NO!" Karola yanked him back to reality. "You can't." She pushed syringe into his hands. "I can wrap better than you." She lifted Khristov's tiny, limp form from the pool of selyn formed around him. "Good thing you were too much for him." She ripped off another length of bandage. "Get on with it!"
     Spurred into action by that irresistible voice, Dimitri drew ten cc's of harduran into the syringe.
     "You're going to murder him with that much." Karola gasped.
     "Not with his pain tolerance." Harduran was an odd drug. The greater the sensitivity of the recipient, the stronger the effect. "He's had all the skin taken off his back, at one time or another." Dimitri injected the drug into the man's veins as fast as he dared. Before he'd gotten the last cc into him, his selyn pulse had dropped to a near standstill.
     "That's good enough." Karola growled, beginning to seal the bandages with khasti ointment. The stuff smelled vile, worsening Dimitri's own problems.
     "Put more on." Dimitri deliberately misinterpreted her. The rotting meat smell of khasti had already sent Avilan off into the bushes. It didn't really, or so most Simes said, but then they seemed to think it smelled more like manure or something significantly less unpleasant. At last he managed to get Khristov stabilized down where he wanted. He pulled the needle out and wiped clean the tiny blood spot on the man's arm.
     "Done?" He asked, meeting Karola's eyes.
     "Is he even still alive?" She blinked, rubbing at her nose. And then grimacing as she wiped the rest of the khasti off on the remnants of Khristov's tattered shirt. "I can't zlin."
     Dimitri snorted and checked the carotid pulse. It was surprisingly strong and steady for all he was nagerically dead, or next thing to it. "No, he's still very alive." Dimitri often had overheard his grandfather Arkay swear the last thing to die on any Sime was their heart. If they had one.
     "Oh?" Karola raised an eyebrow at him.
     "Now if you'll excuse me." He waited for an answer. She nodded just in time as he collapsed into the darkness ready to swallow him whole.

Chapter 10

"I have to admit you did some spectacular work." Karola sat down on the edge of his bed. Then reality caught up with him, swooping and dancing about his head, loosing all track of his stomach. With a lunge, Dimitri tried to at least clear the bed.
     "Oh, Gods, Dimitri, I'm sorry." Karola had jumped back out of the way fast enough. The blankets hadn't. Another heave wrenched at his self control. "Is this better?" She'd grabbed the bowl from under the pitcher. Anything was better than the bed.
     Dimitri reconsidered this idea as his body was wracked by heave after heave. Help me! He screamed in the twisted darkness of his own mind.
     "Hush," Avilan's broad hand held his brow even as Dimitri doubled over in what was now unbearable pain. "Oh, little love, hush." He crooned, his sweet voice finally breaking through to Dimitri's hearing. At last the horrible spasms stopped, even though his whole body was warped and burned by what seemed to be the air clawing at his very skin.
     "Disorientation!" Karola put down the basin. "Here," she took Dimitri's face in her hands and forced him to look at her. "This is where you are." Her violet eyes seemed to be a lifeline to some sort of reality. Even the walls were bowing and spiraling off into impossible shapes against some sort of gray fog. He tried to focus on those two points of reality in the distortions turning everything else into nightmares of instability.
     Finally those two points of reality came so close he had to close his eyes. A burning hot kiss on his brow and he shuddered with release as the universe returned to its rightful course with a violent crack. He still felt ill at ease, as if said reality might duck at any moment and sent him back into that particularly unpleasant experience, but at least he thought he might survive waking up this time.
     "I think I'm going to stop trying to do this transfer thing for a while." He croaked.
     "You haven't had the best of luck so far, no." Vayer wrinkled his nose as he came into the room. "Here, let me get that." He yanked the soiled blankets off the bed. "I've never known you to miss with the basin before, mama."
     "Get out of here." She swatted her son on the butt as he hauled the blankets away. "You surprised me, youngster."
     "Sorry," Dimitri shivered as the cool air hit his sweat soaked skin.
     "I know you don't like being dirty, but you're going to stay in bed for a while anyway." Karola flicked a hand at Avilan. "I've never seen such a horrible reaction to psychospatial disorientation."
     "I have." Avilan sat down next to him after piling fresh blankets on him. Dimitri couldn't help but groan as he leaned back against the pillows the older man had piled behind his back. "I knew you wouldn't be able to get flat for a while." He winked.
     "When?" Karola returned after emptying the basin, with Vayer in tow. His father sat next to him and held Dimitri's hand.
     "Arkay got himself knocked out after a particularly spectacular flight off Kiri one day when we were younger." Avilan shrugged. "When he woke up I swore he really was going to throw up his toenails."
     "Who moved him?"
     "I did." Avilan snorted, his chuckle soft with memory of something many years gone by. "As I remember, the next time we were in the salle together he managed to toss me so hard into a mirror I took a long nap too."
     "I didn't think you had psychospatial orientation." Karola's brow furled in obvious confusion.
     "I don't." Avilan smirked. "All I got was a headache and a single round with the basin for my concussion."
     "You are an evil creature." Vayer chuckled. "I bet you two were awful together."
     "We had a lot of fun." Avilan chuckled. "I miss him in the winters."
     "I know you do, love." Karola stroked her partner's wrist. Dimitri found it utterly fascinating, that after so many years, those two loved each other so much they still put little hearts and flowers in the ambient. "I think in not too many more years, we too will have to go out to Kaon in the winter."
     "I'll miss you." Vayer blinked a few times, his nager graying. "I miss papa."
     "I'll miss Diomid." Dimitri admitted, knowing that now was the time to speak of his fears, when they could all do so together.
     "Are you really going through with your Challenge?" Vayer's glance was as much of a challenge as any Dimitri'd given.
     "Do I really have a whole lot of choice?" He shrugged, not liking feeling trapped into doing something he didn't think was right. "Diomid does do an excellent job with Sergei."
     "And you've found its a lot harder than it looked?"
     "Not really," he tipped his head. "More that I thought I could do more than I can." He admitted, leaning back. "I have so much to learn."
     "You do." His father pushed his hair back from his face. "But you haven't exactly given us much of a chance to teach you, either."
     "When?!" He slammed his fist down onto the mattress. At last he noticed Mitka was missing. "Where is he?!" The scream rasped his bloody throat into a fit of coughing enough to make him forget his fear for a moment.
     "I'm right here, I'm right here!" Mitka came arrowing through the door, literally, to crash up against Dimitri's chest. "Oh, Dimitri, love, brother, friend, I lost you. Then I couldn't find you until you spoke for me. It was so scary. All dark and alone and without you." He rubbed himself frantically all over Dimitri.
     "Hey," he wrapped himself around Mitka as best as he could. Under the discomfort of his earlier round of vomiting, Dimitri now knew the ache of a selyn system badly overtaxed by what had been a spectacularly awful transfer. "What happened with you?" He rubbed the top of Mitka's head with his chin. Mitka squirmed uneasily, wrapping his tail around Dimitri's sore abdomen hard enough to make him hiss.
     "Sorry," he repeated, now shaking all over. "I didn't mean to do it?" Huge gold eyes looked up at him, as sorrowful as any kicked hound. "He moved."
     Karola turned dead white. "I thought I had you tight enough."
     "Obviously not." Dimitri looked up at the fabric over the bed. Gold satyrs had been woven into the green fabric so cunningly that only from here could you tell they were doing all kinds of lewd things to each other. Dimitri blushed. Then more memory caught up with him.
     "Is he ...?" Dimitri hoped he'd know if Khristov had died in the night.
     "He's hanging in there." Avilan reassured him. "The man has a constitution of an ox."
     "He wouldn't be alive now if he didn't." Dimitri forced his way through his guardians to stand. Hunched over the still snarled muscles of his abdomen, he crabbed his way to the door. "Is he in the other suite?" He guessed Mitka would have stayed with Khristov if he hadn't been able to find Dimitri. At least it was his selyn in Khristov's systems.
     "Yes," Karola nodded, grabbing one elbow. Off balance, Dimitri lurched sideways until his father caught the other. "I wish I could get you to stay in bed for at least another hour or two."
     "I got him this far." Dimitri forced himself truly upright. The effort left sweat streaming down his aching flanks. More muscles protested their abuse as he tried to walk normally. Even his thighs and calves were completely snarled in knots. "He's my responsibility."
     Vayer opened his mouth.
     "Don't." Karola shook her head and opened the door. The smell of khasti hit his nose and he retched. With nothing to come up, Dimitri forced himself to keep going. "Dimitri!" Her field was a constantly shifting knot of angles and spikes. "I know you're as stubborn as any other Sergei, but this is beyond the pale."
     "I will." He wrenched himself back upright. Head spinning, he fell the last two steps to the edge of the bed. Finally getting a careful grip on Mitka, he parted the bedcurtains the rest of the way.
     "I curled up on his chest, trying to keep more selyn from leaking out." Mitka's voice was a grating whine on Dimitri's oversensitive ears.
     "You saved his life." Dimitri sagged sideways onto the bed. Khristov's eyes twitched behind closed eyelids. "I'm sorry to have to do this." He reached up to open them. His hands shook so badly he could hardly get close. Instead Mitka slid up and gently licked them open. Dimitri sighed in relief.
     "Thank you." He stroked Mitka's head, even as he looked around for a light. Someone had stripped him out of his clothes and hadn't thought to put their implements anywhere convenient. Karola zipped out and then returned with the little light he'd found among his grandsire's things. It was very convenient. He clicked it on and checked the pupillary reflex. Nothing.
     "Good," Dimitri breathed a sigh of relief. "He's not here right now." Mitka released his hold. With a grimace of disgust, he put his hand over the heavy bandages on the man's chest. Fortunately he hadn't had to go very deep last night into the thoracic cavity, only behind the breastbone itself. The fine, sharp tools in the kit had gone beneath bone and cartilage rather than having to go through them, so at least Khristov wouldn't have to deal with the pain of regrowing them.
     The huge rents in the Lord's vriamic node were healing as fast as Dimitri dared hope they would. Which was not very fast at all, but unless he wanted to open him up completely and try to stop his circulation to heal it directly, was as good as he could do.
     "I wish I had more selyn." He looked at Mitka.
     "I don't want to bite again." Mitka turned his face away, hiding it under his wing. "I did wrong."
     "No," Karola shook her head. "Khristov tried to get free at the last moment and I couldn't hold both of you still at the same time. Not completely."
     "How far did he go?" Dimitri sank his awareness into the man's chest. The gouges seemed to be cents long. Then he blinked clear the double vision and shook his head, which nearly fell off.
     "Open your mouth, if you would, Mitka, please?" Karola nodded to him.
     "Won't again." He mumbled, still hiding his head.
     "Oh, don't be difficult." She tickled him behind one wing. With a yelp, his head shot out and he snapped at her hand. Her tentacles wrapped around his muzzle and held it shut. "Now are you going to do as I ask?"
     "What happened to the nice Lord?" Mitka's tongue wrapped around Karola's tentacles, prying at them one at a time. Well, it came out more as "Mrmpsh mrmphmrph urph mrph mrssss Mrphd?" But everyone got the point.
     "She'll be back as soon as you help us figure out what happened." Karola stared so hard at Mitka, Dimitri averted his eyes.
     "Mrph-mrph." He nodded. Karola released him, still staring at Mitka so hard Dimitri could feel the eye tracks she was leaving behind. Her tentacles twined out, ready to grab again. With one eye on those tentacles, Mitka slowly opened his mouth as wide as it would go. Dimitri'd hadn't looked before and was fascinated.
     "May I?" He asked, holding up a hand. Mitka nodded slowly, still looking at Karola, the very tip of his tail twitching frantically against the sheets. Dimitri'd never seen a venomous serpent, what the books called a pit viper, in real life, but the arrangement of fangs and teeth in Mitka's jaws were very similar. All but for the four, long, incredibly sharp and obviously hollow fangs hidden up in the roof of his mouth and floor. When they came forward, Dimitri could see they'd be nearly touching and anything they punctured would be filled with venom so fast it wouldn't have a chance to get free.
     "A bit like laterals, aren't they." Karola craned her head around to get a good look. A great long string of selyn drooled onto her face. "Thanks, Mitka." She wiped it away and then wiped her hand off on Mitka's back. Mitka snorted, sending more selyn flying all over the place. "You can close your mouth now."
     "Convergant evolution, I'd say." Dimitri took the selyn Karola'd so cavalierly discarded and sniffed at it. Or at least that was the physical analog. "This isn't what you gave Khristov, is it?" The sense of sharpness wasn't there, nor was the life, really.
     "No," Mitka's tongue flicked out and around his fangs. "Its just, well, what happens when someone makes me drool." His glance at Karola was not entirely submissive. "Not like the venom that collects in my jaws and makes them hurt so bad."
     "How much longer is Khristov going to be like this?" Vayer asked, his face a blank mask covering a nager badly knotted in on itself.
     "I'm not going to attack you." Mitka growled, squirming around all over the place. "We did our best." He looked up at Dimitri.
     "Yes, you did."
     "You both did." Avilan's reassurance, again, helped a lot. Far more than Dimitri'd thought it would. But then he did have a reputation for being the best at transfer related problems, even more than Diomid or Arkay. Not that physical healing had all that much to do with transfer difficulties. "And I don't know what to say. You aren't safe, Dimitri, Mitka."
     "I know it. And I knew it." He looked down again, placing his hand over Khristov's chest. Soon enough it would be time to give him some more harduran, but not yet. He wanted him to come to awareness for a moment before he put him back under. "Come to me, Lord Khristov." He murmured as gently as he could with a voice roughened to near incomprehensibility. Mitka crooned, deep in his chest, and lay his head on Khristov's breast.
     "You can't mean to wake him like this!" Karola's shock jarred the ambient.
     "Quiet," he hissed before returning his attention to Khristov. Before their transfer, Dimitri'd studied the man carefully, wanting to be sure the older Lord has some kind of idea what he was asking for. As a side benefit, he'd learned a great deal of what made Lord Khristov unique. "If you could get me some white caps and a small pitcher of mulled cider."
     "What?" Avilan blinked, blue eyes round with surprise.
     "Two of Khristov's favorite things, and they both have very distinctive smells. I want his mind to wake to me, not his nager." He explained, waiting for Karola to return. He wouldn't have much time before he had to return Khristov to unconsciousness. Once again, Dimitri wished he dared use an intravenous drip on a Sime, but the risk of lethal damage to some selyn channels was too great. Dimitri picked up the vial and filled the syringe, this time with only two cc's. He was metabolizing the drug fairly slowly, even as his response was damped more than Dimitri'd originally guessed. Someone had probably used harduran on him before, but not enough.
     "Here," Vayer handed him the items. Dimitri took one of the white caps and carefully scraped the skin with one nail. The things were toxic to Gens, but as long as he were careful not to get any in his nose or mouth, he'd be fine handling them. Khristov's respiration increased slightly.
     "Come to me, Khristov. I am here for thee." He murmured, brushing the milky expression he'd gathered under Khristov's nose. The sweet tang of mulled cider filled the air, nearly overcoming the stench of khasti. After a few more moments, Khristov's eyes opened of their own accord. His selyn consumption was increasing by the second.
     "Mitka?" He mouthed, eyes moving around. They were wild and unfocused.
     "He's right here." Dimitri said quickly, gesturing for Mitka to move up into Khristov's view. "He's fine. Other than very upset at what happened."
     "Sorry," Khristov's eyes fluttered closed again. "Hurt," he breathed. "Let me go." Dimitri closed his eyes in pain. "I failed."
     "No," Dimitri shook his head. "Mitka is crying for you."
     "Loved him." Khristov swallowed. "Love him still."
     "Are you sure you want peace?" Vayer asked, his face drawn as Dimitri'd never seen it, even after he'd put Tzer under ban or Aliana left.
     "Hurt, always?" He asked, his nager driving his vriamic node into what had to be excruciating agony.
     "No," Dimitri promised. "I won't let you be in pain indefinitely."
     "Then help me!" He pleaded with his eyes. "Not yet." His glance at Vayer frightened Dimitri even more.
     As fast as he could, he grabbed up the syringe and drew another three cc's into the barrel.
     "You're going to murder him this time." Karola grabbed his wrist.
     "No, me." Dimitri growled, trying to pull away.
     "I won't let you." Her tentacles locked down on his wrist.
     "You held me last night."
     "I did." Her grasp tightened. "I'll give you peace if you want it. Not like some stage mummer."
     "Next month." He returned the extra drug to the vial. "He'll be well enough then for Avilan and you take me."
     "Yes," she looked at Mitka. "I can take him."

Chapter 11


     Karola looked at Dimitri again, carefully measuring him with her eyes, not zlinning him at all. "You look like hell."
     Dimitri snorted, tugging at his overtunic selfconsciously. "I don't look very good in green."
     "You're Azov for now." She straightened the top toggle. The garment had been made for Arkay, many years ago, and had been hanging in their closet taking up way too much room. It was as fantastic as only Avilan's skill could manage with the sense of wings and wingbeats in the forest at midsummer. "At least for a month."
     "This is going to be the equivalent of my fourth, this month, you know." The lad's jaw tightened. "At least if I'm not so sick again I'm flat on my back." They'd decided to do his one testing strip while Khristov continued to heal. Mitka had submitted to having his selyn taken with amazing grace, but he hadn't been happy about it all, giving Dimitri a vicious headache in retaliation.
     "I'm going to give you a good transfer, and that's all there is too it." She took his elbow and led him from the room. "Don't fuss so."
     "Khristov thought the same thing." Dimitri's skin prickled under her fingertips.
     "Tasha enjoyed it." She winked at him.
     "She was a otherwise occupied at the time." Dimitri said as Mitka licked her ear. It tickled and she wrinkled her nose at him. "Stop that."
     "Oh, I rather like it." She brushed her hand over the bonding earring Avilan had given her all those years ago. "And yes, she was occupied, by your namesake."
     "You win." Dimitri gave a little bow, a bit of sparkle returning to Mitka's scales. "I'll be good."
     "I know you both will." She put her hand on the doorknob. "I'm looking forward to it."
     "Even afterward?" One eyebrow raised, just like his sire's would. The resemblance between the two stunned Karola for a moment. She'd always wished she could have had a complete transfer with Diomid, as they were near an age and the man was quite easy on the laterals. But it had never worked out, not the least of the problems was the fact Diomid was short on her cycle by almost five days.
     "Actually, yes," she grinned, hoping the frantic desire that usually went with fourth transfer would make up for any lacks in her own sagging figure.
     "Stop." Dimitri tugged her to a crashing halt. She turned to face him. His jaw was set as hard as Mitka's in need. "You are stunningly beautiful, Karola. I don't just say that because I remember nuzzling at your breast in a rather futile hope for breakfast sixteen years ago or because I scare any other Lord witless, but because you are a beautiful Sime, well worth attention in your own right."
     A chill ran over her from head to toe. My Gods, what kind of power does he have? She asked herself.
     "I'm Sergei." His lips tightened to a thin line. "What else?"
     "You're Dimitri Mirovich." She touched those lips, hoping to ease them a fraction. His tongue flicked out, catching her by surprise again. "Unique and utterly fascinating."
     "I don't see any Lords beating down my bedroom door." He met her eyes, as few other Sharm Lords would. Most stuttered and stammered around her, as if she were some sort of dragon herself. Of course the fact many of them were her offspring, or children she'd helped raise with Avilan and Arkay didn't help matters any.
     "Perhaps your partner hasn't changed over yet." She took his face in her tentacles. "Perhaps your partner hasn't dared come forward yet. Maybe even you will not have just one partner, but many, who share Mitka's attentions. We don't know yet. I do know that I want you to live for the chance someone may yet be for you."
     "You can't know the future. You aren't Sergei." The mulish lines of stubbornness on his face were so very Sergei Karola had to firmly step on the bubble of laughter rising up in her.
     "Ah, but I've seen many, many young people grow up and find their mates." She stood on her toes to kiss him on the brow. Before too much longer, she'd not be able to manage the feat. He was already shooting up like a weed and looked to end up even taller than Arkay. Karola liked tall Sharm Lords. They made her feel secure. Dimitri chuckled softly, his skin warm to her touch with his blushes. "And you know I'm telling the truth."
     "As you see it." This third generation of Sergeis returned her tentative kiss, this time on the lips. The first spark of rising desire rose so suddenly she hummed with it and leaned into him. With a deftness worthy of Sergei, he softened so perfectly she found herself bent over him, brushing his soft lips with her tongue and asking for far more than he was probably ready to give!
     "Oh," he breathed at last. She couldn't. Not at all. Her heartbeat was pounding in her ears and selyn in her laterals. "Oh my." His blue eyes were so bright she swore they outshone the sky. Well, that wasn't tough right now. Fine lines formed at the edges as he grinned. "Let's try that again."
     "Let's." This time she took the lead from the start, catching him as his body tried to sag to the floor while his tongue danced against hers. The sweet taste of roniplin filled her senses, as well as her lateral sheathes. His soft hum rang in her ears, drawing out her explorations until all she knew was the gentle, beautiful young man in her arms.
     "I thought you didn't like them so young." The door opened behind her back. Avilan's nageric smirk was so familiar she didn't stop at all what she was doing. "Although he's giving as good as your getting."
     "I don't require the commentary." She said at last, still holding up a now quite limp Sharm Lord. "Besides, I think he's old enough."
     "I'd say so." A dark flicker passed through her beloved's field. "Very few Sergei Sharm Lords get the chance to be young."
     "Too true." She tried putting Dimitri back on his feet. He took a while to congeal. His eyes flickered back open.
     "Can we do that again, somewhere a bit more private?" He flicked that eyebrow at Avilan. "I think there are some more things I'd like to learn."
     This time the laughter escaped before she could stop it. "Any time, youngster, any time."
    
     Avilan was no where near as sanguine about Karola doing more than stripping Dimitri as it seemed she was. He remembered far too well what happened to Khristov. Early this morning he'd managed to unload his selyn on the younger Lord, but that was all that could be said for it. Khristov would never be the same after what Dimitri'd done to him. The scars on his vriamic node were such that any high speed selyn movement through it was pure agony.
     Twice a day, Dimitri or Karola would inject more harduran into his veins to keep the pain at bay, but there it had stopped. Avilan didn't like drugs. After dealing with Arkay's halarin addiction, the memories of the agony Arkay'd suffered in withdrawal had never left him.
     Right now, Khristov was down in the sharm, watching over the winter weaving. Not as if he could do anything about it, not having the training or, at the moment, the wits to deal with any problems. But he was more comfortable below, and the position was traditionally one given to a trusted peer of the Demense, often enough one like Khristov, who was not entirely still with them.
     Avilan tried to find a more comfortable position in his chair. His hand covered the arm. He thought of all the times he'd sat here, watching Karola and Arkay together. But this was frighteningly different, with Arkay's kin, Dimitri, being alien in so many ways.
     There was a glassiness to his words and expressions Avilan didn't trust at all. Sure, he cared, and cared deeply, particularly for those he helped. He'd spent hours with Khristov trying to get him to do the exercises to aid in healing the damage Mitka'd done to him. It was quite morbid, actually, to watch Dimitri struggle so hard and long to heal injuries he'd caused.
     Mitka turned one gold eye to him. Avilan stared back at the dragon. Arkay's wings, Diomid's hidden creatures, even Darya's animate shadows didn't bother him the way Mitka did. Mitka was far more like a separate living thing, a part of Dimitri that'd gotten split away and couldn't return.
     Avilan shivered under that unwavering gaze. Last month hadn't been too bad. Mitka'd let Karola tickle his hidden inner fangs into extending fully and then he'd calmly grasped her in his huge jaws while she drew the selyn from him. But the image of him arching over her, gape jawed and dripping selyn stayed with him.
     "How is it going?" Vayer's hand came to rest on his shoulder.
     "What are you doing here?" He hissed, not taking his eyes from Karola and Dimitri still trying to find some way to crawl into each other's skin. It never bothered him, well, not too much, when she took another lover. Particularly when it was a case like this, where the person really did need her. And she had been Lord Azov for many years.
     "I," for the first time in years, it seemed Vayer was at a loss for words. Avilan glanced at him. He'd lost his summer tan and was stark white beneath his silvering black hair.
     "You're afraid too."
     "He scares me." Vayer nodded to Mitka, now joining into the fray. "I don't know what it is, but he is so strong and so uncontrolled."
     "Strong, yes, certainly, but not uncontrolled." Avilan corrected him. "Dimitri has complete control over him."
     "Even in transfer?"
     "Well, no," he continued to worry. The smell of roniplin reached his nose. Avilan gripped the arms of his chair. Over the years, the stuffing had been replaced repeatedly. Right now he wondered if he'd replaced it with stone. "None of us can control completely in transfer."
     "I know." Vayer's hand clenched on his shoulder. "Is it worth it?"
     "With his Challenge this summer?" Avilan knew Arkay still considered Diomid his son. It would shatter him to have Diomid killed. Particularly over something so stupid. "Why in hell won't he back down?"
     "Because he's Sergei." Vayer stepped around the chair and approached Karola and Dimitri. He'd zlinned something off. The cold grue who'd taken up residence in Avilan's skin moved to his middle. It was happening. He could see Karola's laterals begin to lick from their sheaths. In any other circumstance, the image would have sent spasms of pure, unadulterated lust through him. He tugged at the barbell running through his tongue in nervousness. Both Simes glanced at him, for a fraction of a second distracted by the gesture.
     Mitka hissed, rearing up over Dimitri, his eyes midnight black in fury.
     "NO!" Vayer screamed, reaching up to the dragon.
     "I love thee!" Avilan had no idea who had said this, or to whom. He lunged out of his chair. But he was too late!

Chapter 12


     Dimitri felt it go wrong this time. "Mitka, no!" He screamed at the top of his mind. All four venomous fangs were extended. Mitka hissed, fighting Dimitri's hold. "Oh Gods, no." He pleaded, trying to hold back Mitka's strike.
     "I won't do it." Mitka writhed in his hold. "Not like last time. Nooooooooo." His cries tore Dimitri's heart to shreds. "Want. Need!"
     "Not to kill." Dimitri begged, praying he could keep Mitka occupied long enough Vayer could yank Karola out of harm's way. "I love her."
     "I love you." Vayer looked up, his hands full of midnight and stars. Fiery wings reached for the sky, surrounding his father in light and heat. Mitka shrank away, trying to hide.
     "You're killing him." Karola's voice rasped through all the conflicts. Mitka struck. Helpless to stop anything, time slowed down. All of her tentacles caught his wrists at the same time. So close, the circuit snapped closed with the stink of ozone and hellfire.
    
     Mitka rose on wings of night over the abyss. Power surged through his frame. This darkness was his, to fill with light, to conquer. Fire rose up over the emptiness.
     A goddess arose from the depths, spangled in stars and haloed in diamonds. Her beauty stilled his pain, soothed the agony rending his heart. For the first time, pleasure bound his wings in ethereal fire. His cries of agony changed to joy, ringing across the fundament and echoing from the heavens.
     "Yes, my beautiful soul-child." The woman bowed down and took him in her hand. Waves of ecstasy washed through him, wiping away the memory of hurt. On the knife edge between life and death, Mitka sent a last pulse of warmth from his now empty core. "Oh, thou art so wondrous." A kiss on his brow sent him to rest, breathing hard and spent to the last.
    
     This time Dimitri remembered the world of selyn and dreams. His own heart felt as if it would burst with relief and pure happiness. This time when he fell back into the physical world, he reveled in the feel of sleek, smooth Sime skin against his own. Then he felt the serpent at the base of his spine stir.
     "Karola?" He murmured against her lips.
     "I'm here." Her throaty purr called forth even greater warmth from his loins. "Do you want this?" Her hand slid around behind his shoulder, under his tunic. Muscles slid beneath his skin, pressing against the heat of her touch. "I think you do."
     "Is he all right?" Avilan's intrusion startled Dimitri so badly he jerked back a hair. Vayer's eyes were dark with worry.
     "If you don't get out of here right now, I'm going to smack you." Karola's snarl brought a chuckle to Dimitri's throat. He did his best to choke it down. "Both of you." This was too much. Dimitri snickered.
     "If you're sure." Vayer shifted his weight from side to side. The image of Dimitri himself doing much the same thing because he had to use the bathroom made his giggles worse.
     "I could help." Avilan's tone held more than a bit of a chuckle now as well. For a moment, Dimitri contemplated this idea.
     "If you want." Karola murmured in his ear, still exploring his back with her hands. Her tentacles stroked the taut muscles along his spine, freeing the pressure building in him to rise even higher. "I'd like to have you for myself."
     "Greedy," he murmured, for the first time since Sharm Lord's day, feeling whole. "Then it shall be as my Lord desires." Before he could make his request, the door snicked shut. "I think he was playing."
     "I think he was hoping you weren't as picky about larity as your sire." Karola slid his tunic off his shoulders. "You are as gorgeous as a young stag, my lad." Her hot kisses trailed down his neck.
     "Avilan likes such things?" Dimitri ran his fingers through Karola's long, thick hair. It was so much silkier than he'd imagined, or remembered, one of the two. Right now he didn't care. "Perhaps later."
     "He'd like that, I think." She breathed on the spot she'd dampened over his heart. Dimitri's breath hissed between his teeth in shock. The cool bite drew all his attention to his now overheated skin. A sharp pain broke his concentration.
     "Easy," Karola shifted her weight to ease the pressure. Dimitri wanted to pull her back with all his might. He trembled under the onslaught of unfamiliar sensations as she eased him out of his constricting breeches. "Very smart lad." Her thumb caressed the point of his hip.
     "No underwear?" He murmured, rocking in time with the featherweight touches of her tentacles.
     "Exactly." One deft tentacle stroked the underside of his now desperately hard shaft. He felt as if he would burst with the pressure. "Forsight."
     "Might as well hope for the best." And then he hissed again as she exposed the head. Pleasure greater than any he'd ever known blanked out his senses for a moment. Greater than any but transfer, that was.
     "Ahem," she looked down. So did he.
     "Um," at a loss for words, he shrugged helplessly. Still as hard as rock, he tried nudging her hand back into place. "It seems I'm a bit sensitive."
     "Very," she brought her hand to her mouth and licked a bit of whiteness off the back. "Fertile too. I'm impressed."
     "You can tell from the taste?" He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. The life in her body sang against his, calling out to him to fill her with his life as Mitka'd done with his selyn.
     "I'd better be able to." Her sharp little teeth nibbled around the edge of his ear. "Or I'd have had far more than nine children."
     "True," he slid his hands down to explore the now utterly fascinating swell of her hips. They fit perfectly into his hands, as if made for them. "Although I do hope you ..." This was not something he'd planned on having to ask. "Uh, am I going to have to be careful?"
     "No, silly," she rocked against him. "My bearing days are through. Although I almost wish they weren't." She leaned back, looking into his eyes. "You do seem to have a death wish."
     He laughed at this. Laughed loud enough and hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. "No, no longer. I want to live."
     "All for me?" Her lips curled upward into a perfectly kissable smile. So he did. "I suppose I'd better get on with earning such a favor."
     "It is no hardship." Dimitri finally had to look down so as to try to figure out how to get Karola out of her pants. They seemed to be chained to her hips! "Although I'm completely at a loss as where to go from here."
     She reached down and pulled loose a slip knot. As she stood, her pants slid from her hips, landing in a rather dampened puddle on the floor. Whether he'd made the puddle or her was a matter for debate at this point. He could smell the unfamiliar, but still quite recognizable scent from where he sat. "Come on," she beckoned with her hand.
     A flicker of memory crossed behind his eyes, of glimpsing Vayer and Darya, intertwined on their great bed, with Vayer suckling greedily on one breast while stroking Darya's wet lips between her thighs. The shock of it brought him to a trembling halt.
     "Dimitri?" Karola's violet eyes caught his.
     "Oh, nothing, memories," he shook his head, trying to clear it.
     "Of?" She cocked her head. "Nothing bad, I hope." She rolled onto her side, propping her head on her hand. The image she presented was enough to give a statue an erection. Dimitri's will was certainly less set in stone. Karola winced, rubbing at her nose. Eyes alight with laughter, she added, "I heard that."
     "I meant you to." He went to her, hoping he could manage to at least make a presentable showing of himself.
     "Mermories of?" She prodded, pulling him down to her.
     "You don't let go, do you?" He retaliated, putting his thigh over hers.
     "No, I don't." She pressed herself even closer to him. The satin covered corselet she wore slid against his chest, but no where near as nicely as her skin. Thinking about his answer, he slipped the bow at the back of her remaining garment. "Hey!"
     "I want to feel all of you." With fingers made deft by many hours of stitching, much of it on humans, he tugged loose the laces. "I remembered seeing my parents making love."
     "Oh?" One eyebrow rose, even as she wiggled, obviously trying to stop him. But not too hard.
     "Yes," he finally managed to completely loosen the stupid garment. Soft, wonderful, amazing breasts slid free to rest against his chest. Immediately the nipples crinkled into hard nubs. Dimitri chuckled, sliding against her. "They're happier now."
     "You're right." Her rich contralto thrummed. "So what were they doing?"
     "Karola!" Shocked, his fingers tightened down on one of her nipples. She gasped, arching into his touch. Was this a good gasp? He couldn't quite tell. Although from her murmurs of approval, it couldn't have been too bad.
     "Well?" Her hand cupped the back of his head, steering him down.
     "Something like this." He opened his mouth and took her breast into his mouth. Well, not all of it, but the important bits. The remembered sensations of warm milk filling him and comforting him twined uneasily with the heat of her body.
     "Only this?" She murmured, managing to extricate her legs from his.
     "Not quite." He wanted to say, but instead let his hand wander downward. Her curls were so very soft. Softer than he could have imagined, even as they twined around his fingers.
     "I'm glad you caught them." She chuckled, opening her legs to him. One finger slid between her lips. Startled at how slippery she was, he stopped suckling at her breast for a moment. "But you really don't know what you're doing, do you?"
     "No," he admitted, going back to what he'd been doing. Of course he'd had all the anatomy anyone could wish, and had delivered more babies than Tasha's, but now, with his head spinning and all his blood in his groin, it didn't seem to quite apply.
     This time her laughter rang from the erotic bedcurtains. "You are an absolute delight, Dimitri." She said when she'd caught her breath. "Thank you."
     "For?" He grinned at her, more than a bit crookedly.
     "For letting me teach you this." Her beautiful features had gone unwontedly serious. "You are a wonderful young man and I know you will do well, growing strong and straight, into the man you need to be."
     "Don't you mean the man I want to be?" He ran his hand over the ridges her corselet had left, soothing the irritation left by the tight boning with a thought.
     "No," she shook her head. "I mean what I say." Then she slid down his front and took him into her mouth. His breath hissed between his teeth with the shock of it. Again that unimaginable pressure rose within him to the bursting point. "Not yet, my pretty one." She held the base of his shaft. "I mean to take my time." Her breath cooled the moisture covering him.
     "Oh yes," he twined his fingers in her hair. Pleasure mingled with pain as she gently wet him all over with her tongue, then her hands, slick with her own wetness. "Oh Gods, Karola!" He screamed as she stroked him, again and again holding him back with a single tentacle wrapped around the base of his shaft.
     At last, when he was blind with lust and aching with a sweet longing so hard he couldn't hear for the blood thundering in his ears, she relented. Her lips were crimson with her so very intimate kisses and he pulled her up to him. "I want to do the same for you."
     "Later," she promised, even as she put her leg over him.
     "No," he growled, flipping her on her back. "I want this." He brushed himself over her pubis. The warmth of her body was nearly too much, but he'd learned. Oh yes he'd learned. Pulling back for a moment, he breathed deeply, letting the rush of pleasure wash through him without resistance. At last it settled again, as strong and unstoppable as the winter wind.
     "As do I." With fingers and tentacles she tried to pull him to her.
     "As you taught me patience." He murmured, bracing himself against her pull. "So I'll teach you." His hand caught in her hair.
     "Dimitri!" Her eyes widened with shock. "Oh," she murmured, sliding against the underside of his shaft. The slick, hot wet sensations were maddening in their lightness. He could feel her heartbeat flutter against him, a tiny bird desperate to free itself.
     "Yes," he growled, sliding into her at last, one tiny bit at a time. He couldn't go any faster for the tightness of the passage holding him. "Oh, Karola," he sweated, rocking his hips slowly to ease his way in. Nothing, ever, could have prepared him for this moment. Dimitri held her to him and shuddered, desperate to finally take her and make her his, for at least this moment.
     At last he straightened, driving himself into her all the way. She screamed, clutching at him with all her tremendous Sime strength. Held fast, he panted, trying not to spend, unable to for the pressure gripping him. Finally, at the very moment he thought he might well burst, she relaxed enough to let him move.
     With easy gestures, as old as time, he slid within her hold, reveling in each brush over her still frantically throbbing pulse and each gasp as he filled her to the limit. Unseeing eyes looked past him and he captured her open mouth. Demanding her surrender, he played with her lips, dancing his tongue over them and nipping at the corner.
     "Oh Gods, Diomid!" Her misplaced cry only made him chuckle.
     "Yes, my beautiful one." He held her to him, finally speeding up his rhythm. "I'm yours, my beautiful Karola." He raised his voice a fraction, better to match Diomid's. Karola moaned, opening to him further. He grasped her throat in his mouth as she arched beneath him, holding him so tightly he could hardly breath. But he didn't need to, fire rose from the base of his spine to his skull, and then exploded in a passion so deep all he knew was pleasure cascading through his body, surging with such power, he gave himself over to it in ecstasy.

Chapter 13


     Karola blushed as she realized what had happened. "Why didn't you say something?"
     "I was a bit busy at the time." He grinned, drawing little figures in the sweat, roniplin and who knew what else covering both of them. "Thank you."
     "For calling you by your sire's name?" Mortification was too calm a word. No, this was utter death by shame. Karola'd never used the wrong name before. Even if she had to call everyone 'my sweet little cabbage'.
     "Oh, sweetest one." He murmured, definitely too mature for his years. "I know you are sweet on Diomid. Or at least I do now. Although why you never quite managed to get him between your legs is not a mystery I want to get into too far."
     "How did you ... oh nevermind." She waved her free hand around. The other was idly making matching pictures on Dimitri's chest. "I don't know." Karola looked him full in the face again. The harsh lines already burned into his features had vanished with their loveplay, being replaced by those of a young man who still knew too much, but was far too happy with the world in general to complain much about the fact. "It never worked out we were really post at the same time, or he was ..." She put her hand to her mouth.
     Dimitri snorted, looking at her. "Don't bother." He shrugged, dislodging a pillow to land on the floor with an awkward flumph. "I know about his loss of Sasha."
     "How?" This time she insisted. Diomid had never shown this sort of temporal dissociation. Or the odd memories he brought up, from a time when he could not have been aware enough to know what was going on.
     "Sergei," he blinked, a very lazy, sleepy owl. "His gift, if you wish to call it that, is being able to see into the webwork of time, and fate. Sometimes even being able to change the latter."
     "But Arkay, Diomid?"
     "They can both do it, Diomid more than Arkay. But neither of them as well as old Sharm Lord Sergei or a number of his predecessors." He settled down to rest his head on her chest. She should have known better than to wear her corselet, but she'd had to try. One time she'd asked Arkay if he could, well, help with the sagging. He'd laughed, kissed both breasts, and told her they were beautiful as they sagged. "And no, I wouldn't do a thing to change these either." He cupped one breast in a hand the size of a small shovel. "They are delightful, my Lord."
     "Foo," she swatted him on the back of his head. "I didn't ask out loud, so it doesn't count."
     "Is that one of the rules?" He looked up, his eyes twinkling in unadulterated happiness.
     "It is now." She told him, trying not to crow for the joy she felt herself. "You were wonderful, Dimitri."
     "You said as much." He cocked his head to the side. "What was so different?"
     "I took Mitka into my heart, as well as into my need." She tapped him on the end of the nose. "He's really very sensitive, Dimitri. Don't scold him so much. He gets scared and then tries to prove himself to you."
     "But he keeps getting into trouble."
     "He's your shadow sibling, Dimitri." She held him close, rocking him gently. "He's part of you, not something to subjugate or treat like a pet. Be kind to him, love him."
     "Like you did?" A shiver ran through his body.
     "Just like I did. He's really very gentle and means no harm." She smoothed the hairs standing on Dimitri's arms. "Love him, Dimitri. Accept him as he is."
     "As Diomid will never accept me?"
     "He's afraid of you."
     "You mean he's afraid of Mitka."
     "Exactly." She put one ventral to his lips. "I know you have to follow through on your Challenge. But he does not have to accept it."
     "What?!" He reared back, the resemblance between him and Mitka as plan as Avilan's nager the morning before transfer.
     "He can refuse to accept your Challenge, Dimitri." She tapped him on the nose again. "No leader of a Demense can be Challenged against their will."
     "Then why? How?" His ice blue eyes, so like Arkay's, nearly crossed. The similarity, in such an unlikely gesture brought up a giggle. "I like it when you giggle."
     "I sound like a sharm Gen when I giggle." She preened under the flattery anyway. Karola was not a one to let any complement pass without a show of appreciation.
     "I wouldn't know." He grinned, wrinkling his nose at her. "I can't stand being below for more than a few hours at a time."
     "A weakness! I proclaim. You aren't perfect!" She crowed.
     "Nope, never said I was." He rolled her onto her back again. But this time he wuffled her armpit.
     "Ack!" She swatted at him, rather ineffectively. "Stop that!"
     "You didn't." He did it again.
     This was entirely unfair. She wuffled all the babies. Then he got her belly. "No, NO! That tickles!" Her shriek must have carried to the sharm.
     "Hey!" Avilan jumped on the bed. "No fair. You should have asked us to join you!" He waved to Vayer.
     "He's your grown son." Karola blanched a bit.
     "Not genetically." Vayer got Dimitri's flank. Laughter filled the air to overflowing. Karola zlinned up to see Mitka give everybody a huge raspberry before he tucked his head back under his wing.
     "Someone's back." She nudged Avilan in a breathing break, pointing.
     "Good work, my love." His blue eyes shone with approval. Far more than she deserved. "Sorry about spooking everyone."
     "Selyn happens." She shrugged.
     "Although I can't believe you called him Diomid."
     "Avilan!" She shrieked and swatted him as hard as she could on the butt. "That is entirely unfair."
     "You were the one who did it." He danced out of the way, a good trick while sprawled on a bed. "I never messed up anyone's name."
     "Only because of your trick memory." Dimitri lolled in their bed like a giant cat. His deep chest spoke well of the weight he'd someday carry.
     "How did you know that?" It was a lot of fun to see Avilan looking like someone had poked him with a pin.
     "Oh yes," Karola grabbed Avilan's arm.
     "Hey!" He protested, not overly hard. They'd talked about this before and taken the time to rearrange his bracelets. But now he was being difficult. "You sure you're giving this to the right Sharm Lord?"
     High field, Karola had no problems swatting him with her field. Vayer ducked out of the way, laughing. Dimitri creeped out of bed. The little imp was thinking of something. She lost track of him as Avilan pinched her flank. "Hey!"
     "Is for horses." He rolled out of the way, as spry as ever. She sat on his hair. He came to an abrupt halt. Then he screeched at the top of his lungs. "That was cold!" He lunged for Dimitri, missing because of his short tether.
     "Can't catch me." Dimitri bounded across the room. This caught Karola's attention, as given his age, he was already hard again. Vayer snickered and goosed him back toward the bed.
     "I think they have a gift for you." He'd been clever enough to leave his breeches on, like Avilan had. But even so Karola noticed having a naked Sharm Lord running around the room had gotten him going. She didn't mention it, but he did roll his eyes at her. She stuck out her tongue at him. "Hey, you're my mother. You're not supposed to look."
     "I can check and see how you're feeling." She tugged Dimitri back to her. His whole body seemed to glow now with good health.
     "Pretty up, I'd say." Dimitri quipped. Vayer put his hands over his crotch. "Oh, got you!"
     Avilan crowed, tugging Dimitri back on top of him. Karola lost control of Avilan's hair. Watching the two of them tussle was enough to make her jaw drop. By all the little rowdy gods of lust they were beautiful together. Dimitri actually had a lightness to him Diomid'd never had. Good parenting was probably a large part of it. Finally they came to a halt, with Avilan pinning Dimitri. "Got you." He kissed the back of Dimitri's neck.
     Dimitri blinked ... and then shifted his hips.
     "Oh?" Avilan licked his lips. "Is that so?" He ran his hand down Dimitri's side, testing the waters, as it were. Dimitri wiggled like a worm after a spring rain. He did wiggle well. Karola should know. "Perhaps some other time?"
     "Perhaps," the coquettish look made Karola suck in a deep breath. Oh my he was pretty when he wasn't acting his age. Or perhaps when he was. She'd rarely seen a Sharm Lord quite so pretty. Well, other than Avilan and Arkay of course. "Feels good." He kneaded at the sheets with his hands, his hips rocking in time with Avilan's stroking of his back. "It all feels good."
     "Why do you think I like larity so much." Avilan bent down and kissed him on the back of the neck. Together, Karola could imagine the way Avilan and Arkay must have looked together as youths. The imagination boggled.
     "You must have been frightening together." She murmured to him.
     "Oh, well, yes. Actually we did scare a lot of lords off." He winked at her. "We were a bit much."
     "No," she snorted. "I doubt that."
     "Really," Vayer grinned. "My own experience with Sharm Lords was not very far under the level of sheer terror before I got together with Darya. I can imagine what my father and Avilan must have been like together."
     Karola grimaced as she thought of that awful half-brother of Arkay's they'd stuck Vayer with at first.
     "Everything worked out." He looked down at Dimitri, who was idly purring and stroking his cheek against a pillow. Avilan was having way too much fun petting him. "My son." Pride gleamed in his nager.
     "Yes, your son." Now Karola knew why Vayer had come back. He'd wanted to see for himself the changes as the lad grew up, even if it wasn't exactly appropriate. "You have others."
     "But they are each special." He followed Avilan's hand with a tentacle of his own. "So very precious to me." He murmured under his breath, so softly only Karola could hear it.
     "As you all are too me." She told him the same way. "Although he's definitely unique." Karola looked up to see Mitka wink at her. He too was watching the proceedings with interest now, albeit rather sleepy interest. Bits and pieces of him were sagging through the framework of the bed overhead.
     When Vayer's hand brushed the back of Dimitri's neck, the lad called out, arching into the pillow he'd become quite fond of. Avilan chuckled, a low, pleased sound, deep in his throat. "Ah, there you are, my pretty one."
     Dazed gray-blue eyes gazed up in wonder at his benefactor. "Thank you." He goofed and grabbed Vayer's hand by mistake. A flicker of dismay crossed his face before he brought it to his face and kissed the back. "You too."
     "For?" Vayer's smile wrenched at Karola's heart. She knew how badly Tzer's problems had hurt him, then having Aliana gone, and in trouble, had nearly crushed his spirit. "I love thee, my son."
     "I love thee, my father." He put his cheek to the back of Vayer's hand. Tentacles twined in spun silver hair. "Yes, I do. Thank you for my life."
     "I didn't sire you." A touch of sadness crossed his face. Sometimes Karola had wondered at Darya's tendency to choose anyone but her partner for their children. It was her privilege. but she didn't think Darya quite understood how much it had to have hurt Vayer. Particularly as he was probably the only Lord in Russia without a single bastard to his name.
     "No, you didn't." Dimitri sat up. "This does not make a parent." He waved to the mess they'd all made of the bedding. "You are my father, not Diomid. I love thee." His voice cracked so hard Karola winced. "I always will."
     "Oh, Dimitri!" Vayer opened his arms. "Come here."
     "Are you sure?" He bit at his lower lip. The unconscious gesture of desire made Karola incredibly uneasy.
     "Yes," he nodded. "I am human, not just a larity."
     "Papa!" Dimitri threw himself into his father's arms.
     "Ah, my son, my beautiful, wonderful, strong son." Vayer tucked the young man under his chin. There was not one visual indication they were kin. But nagerically, they bound to each other like two halves of a great marble block, cracked centuries ago, but together, became one whole again. "I will never desert thee. Never."
     "Nor I you." He held on so tight Vayer's ribs must have creaked.
     "Thee, my son, thee." Vayer corrected him gently. "We are both adult."
     "Ah, but I will always look up to you." A dimple appeared at in one cheek. "Although to say I love 'you' does seem wrong."
     "My clever, impish, difficult child too." Vayer laughed, pounding Dimitri on the back. "I have no idea how I ever deserved you as my son."
     "Because your heart is so great you let my mother fly free, without jesses, without chains." Dimitri's smile grew so soft and gentle Karola wondered how any human could contain so great a spirit. "Your heart is so generous and warm you allowed the children of your heart find you, rather than by trying to force them to manifest through blood and bone and breath."
     "Ins'Allah, Dimitri," Vayer's throat moved convulsively. A tear trickled down his face, soon to be followed by another and then a third.
     "Yes, as Allah wills." Another dimple appeared, this time on the other side. "Although are you sure you shouldn't be watching your tongue a bit better?"
     "Uh, I` ..." He paled so far Karola thought he was going to flee.
     "We didn't hear a thing." She winked, giving Avilan a let it pass gesture. Neither of them had ever worried about such things. Personally Karola thought it was none of her shenned business what anyone swore by, but some people did.
     Vayer wiped the tears from his face. "You're right."
     "I know I'm right." Dimitri grinned. "Its what I get paid for, right?" Another yelp split the air. "Hey, I didn't deserve to get pinched again."
     "I wanted to be sure your breeches would keep fitting."
     "The third pair in three months?" Dimitri sighed, pointing at them. "I'm tired of outgrowing them. Do you think pinches will really work?"
     "Too clever by half." Karola finally managed to grab Avilan's wrist. This time it stayed still and she slid the bracelet off. They'd both agreed the forged steel and rainbow hued niobium would suit Dimitri far better than any more typical sort of bracelet.
     "Oh my," Dimitri breathed, looking at it. "I," his mouth opened and closed, with nothing coming out.
     "I had to pawn the crown jewels for it, but ..." Vayer pulled an equally fantastic piece, with a week sized firestone set in protective steel and titanium.
     "Where did you get that?"
     "Don't drool, lover." Karola pushed his jaw shut, gently. She too had never seen anything quite so fantastic, with the titanium being in the shape of a dragon and the steel in stylized lightning.
     "As I doubt you will have many lovers, you will have room for the most beautiful jewelry. And just as you will have fantastic jewelry, those few lovers you do have with be so amazing there will be no need for others." Vayer put his bracelet on Dimitri's right wrist, offering himself in transfer next month.
     "Are you sure?" Dimitri breathed. "I don't know if I'll be able to stop this time."
     "It gets easier every time." Avilan's magnificent voice still held the timbre of sun warmed honey. Which was probably a good thing, as Vayer zlinned like he needed a lot of soothing at the moment.
     "I meant afterward." With this, Vayer's eyes widened so far they looked like they'd pop out of his head.
     "I think we can manage." He blushed, even as he tried to hide his face. Not that it would help, being bare chested. The blush reached all the way to his waistband, and probably below. "It isn't like ... uh."
     "There are no children to be endangered." Karola tried to help.
     "I meant that I would feel very strange, actually, in transfer, more than afterward. I mean."
     "I think this is the first time since your establishment I've seen you at a loss for words." Vayer chuckled. "I'd like to."
     "So would I." Dimitri took his father's wrist in his hand. Tentacles came out to bind them. "I'd like to know we are bound, blood, bone and breath."
     "You're going to make me cry now." Karola took a deep breath. She'd never been this close to any of her children, sending them off with a kiss and a hug as soon as they decided to leave the nest. Well, other than Valtanir, who'd had to be pushed, kicking and screaming all the way.
     "Its good for your tear ducts to exercise them on occasion. Take it from me. I'm a Sergei trained healer." Dimitri winked, still holding Vayer's wrist caged in his hand. "I will take thee into my heart and give of thee my life, so that thou may live. As the first Sharm Lord pledged to his Lord, so shall I pledge to thee."
     Karola'd never seen the ancient rite of pledging, or the promise to be bound in honor, Sharm Lord to Lord. Vayer blinked a few times, obviously flicking through his spectacular memory at high speed, trying to find the rest of the words. Finally he had to hold up his hand. An odd sense of presence filled the room, one she'd only felt from the Veiled.
     "I will have thy selyn, to serve thy words in the world, to work thy will upon the surface of the earth, to create for thee the work of thy hands. As the first Lord pledged to his Sharm Lord, so shall I pledge to serve my life in service to thy will." Vayer was shaking by the time he finished his oath. "I had to ask the veiled for the words."
     "I know." Dimitri leaned over and kissed his father on the brow, accepting his word. "I thought you knew the oath."
     "You think parents know everything." He took a deep breath, obviously trying to settle himself. Mitka flitted down out of the bedcurtains and landed on Vayer's shoulder. "I suppose we should probably get to know each other a bit better."
     "I would like that." Mitka surprised everyone by stroking his jaw against Vayer's. "You've hidden from me."
     "Not completely."
     "But that part of yourself that says 'parent' has."
     Vayer ducked his head. "I, well, I don't feel comfortable exposing all of my self to my son."
     "I'm your son?" Mitka blinked and raised his head. "Really?!"
     "Yes, really." Vayer scritched the dragon over the eyes. "I love you, my son, Mitka. There is no difference between Dimitri and you."
     "I ..." now it was Mitka's turn to be dumbstruck. "I thought you were afraid of me. Afraid because you thought I'd hurt him."
     "Only insofar as I was afraid for you both." Then Vayer looked at Dimitri again. "No, that isn't true. I was afraid of you, as I would be afraid of any extremely powerful, untrained Sharm Lord."
     "Oh," Mitka's gold eyes were huge. "I was scary?" He looked at Dimitri, cocking his head.
     "Five meters high, half meter long fangs, slavering venom and selyn all over the place?" Karola pointed at him. "Just a bit. It isn't nice to try to scare Simes into accepting your selyn."
     "But they might get away." This last went down the front of Vayer's entirely nonexistent shirt, but Karola got the idea.
     "Yes, they might." She tugged his head back up to look at her. "But I didn't run away, now did I?"
     "nooooooo." He shook his head, his neck, his body and even his tail. "You didn't. Felt gooooooood."
     "You silly creature." Karola tugged on Dimitri's foot this time. "So are you going to try to force yourself on Vayer now?"
     "It will feel better if I don't." The self absorbtion of Mitka was actually rather a delight. It wasn't as if Karola had to worry about him lying to anyone.
     "It will feel very good, like it did this time." She tugged even harder on Dimitri's foot, trying to get him to talk as well. He cocked his head at her, put his finger across his lips and smiled. True, this was something Mitka had to figure out for himself. At least as things stood.
     "Very good?!" His wings lifted up. "Even better?"
     "Probably so, yes." Karola nodded. "My son's stronger than I am."
     "All of ours are." Avilan's warm attention made her blush a bit. "Arkay and I helped."
     "So you did, both of my loves did." She stroked his back while waiting for Mitka's thoughts to catch up to him. Karola'd noted it often took him a while to think through things. At least when he wasn't slavering after her need. Foreplay had been very interesting with those slit pupiled eyes devouring her every mood. It had been a very good thing she'd given Arkay transfer so often. It was probably the only thing that had saved her life. He too could be very aggressive in transfer and the best thing any Sime could do was duck and wait for the mind to catch up with the selyn.
     Vayer nodded at her. "Darya is much the same way. I've learned to duck very quickly."
     "Duck?" Mitka chirped.
     "Yeah, for when nagers like you get a little too rough. We Simes are more delicate than you are." Vayer chuckled. "Darya caught me by surprise one time and I had the worst headache afterward."
     "Not hurt bad. Not like ... " His face turned to the other room, where Khristov stayed.
     "No," he grimaced. "Not like Khristov. Just a little singed. I healed and next month was great. She was just a bit too enthusiastic and I wasn't paying attention to her enough. I won't do that with you. I'll pay a lot of attention to you."
     "Good." Mitka gave his fangy smile. "Start now." He stuck his chin out.
     "Oh, all right." Vayer winked, giving the necessary scratches. Dimitri stretched, as if he could feel the touch on his own skin. "I think its your turn now."
     "Indeed." Karola looked down at the bracelet she held. It seemed a bit cheap compared to the one Vayer had given her. Mitka's tail caught at it and nearly tugged it out of her hand. "What?"
     "Oh, niobium." Dimitri chuckled. "Not only is it impervious to selyn, but will actually try to move away from it a little bit. Put it on my arm and you'll see."
     "I'd wondered why it was so expensive." She put it on him, careful not to catch his thumb. That always hurt when Avilan nicked his. "We couldn't tell with the rest of his bracelets."
     "Karola." Avilan sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
     "Oh," she smiled. "Oops."
     "I didn't hear a thing." Dimitri gently turned the bracelet on his wrist. "See?" He turned his arm, the bracelet only slowly following the motion, as if it floated over the skin, not on it. "At the end of the month, it will be completely suspended."
     "Won't that get cold?"
     "Not with the heat niobium generates when its in a strong selyn field. I'd always been fascinated by niobium bracelets as a child, as soon as I'd heard of them, but my mother wouldn't have one around her wrists."
     "Who told you about niobium, as I seriously doubt that is in your backwards memory." Vayer had scratched Mitka into such submission the dragon lay on his back with his legs up in the air.
     "That looks obscene, Vayer." Karola pointed.
     "Mikhail Chernoye. He had an earring made out of it." Dimitri snorted in the direction of his nager. "You are turning into a slut."
     "Better a whore than a con." Karola helped, tugging gently at Mitka's tail. He stretched out further, sighing in pleasure. "Although it seems he's not quite as male as you are."
     "Oh?" Dimitri raised that eyebrow again.
     "Yeah, I pull your tail and you do far more than sigh."
     "I'm not that noisy." He looked around, as if checking for recorders.
     "Uh, Dimitri?"
     "Hmmmmm?" His eyes were beginning to sag closed.
     "I could hear you outside."
     The eyes snapped back open.
     "Five stories down and half way across the yard."
     "You're pulling my tail."
     "Nope, Karola is. I distinctly heard you."
     "It was she." He pointed.
     "In baritone?"
     "oh" Figurative steam came out of Dimitri's ears. "Weird acoustics here."

Chapter 13


     Diomid stepped down off the plane with a feeling of both relief and concern. The winter at Kaon had been equally as mixed. As much as he enjoyed spending the time with his brother Arkay, Jarmin's illness had been a very worrying case. Again Diomid shuddered at the awful damage Jarmin had taken from Aliana, and eventually survived. He didn't know if he could have done the same in Jarmin's position, and the thought made him even more uneasy. One thing Diomid had never had to deal with was significant transfer problems. At least not any not of his own making.
     "Could you move your broad behind?" As usual, Arkay was ready to run home and go right back to bed, most likely. He'd taken to retirement as a duck took to flying. With great enthusiasm and ability, but not the most graceful creature in the world.
     "Who are you calling broad?" He looked back over his shoulder. His brother stood in the doorway, massive barrel expanded for breath. Arkay did not look eighty. Hell, he didn't even look sixty.
     "You." His deep voice boomed, startling the last remaining bird for kilometers into flight. "Now move! I want to see everyone. I want to see how Dimitri's coming along. I haven't heard a thing about him for a month!"
     "Settle yourself." Dimitri nearly came up to them with some sort of dignity. It would have been a lot more dignified if Vayer hadn't been in hard need and panting on his heels. "I'm not taking Mitka away."
     "You'd better not." Vayer held the creature, now bigger than he was and still with those enormous fangs. "He's mine." Was Vayer going to try to take transfer off his own son? It was long past the time the lad should have come into his sexual maturity. Diomid's unease grew.
     "Excuse me?" Diomid tried cleaning out his ears. He really didn't think he could be hearing this.
     "We're all taking turns with Mitka here." He scritched the huge beast under the chin. Gold eyes closed slowly in what had to be bliss. At least insofar as any hellspawned creature like Mitka could feel pleasure.
     "We?" He blinked, not willing to move a muscle until someone explained what was going on. Particularly not with one of those eyes focused on him. And not in a friendly way.
     "Will you move!" Someone goosed him, hard! He yelped, bolted forward and landed flat on his face. "You are still so touchy about other Sharm Lords." Akray sighed. "Even when the evidence they aren't really so bad is standing there staring at you with his mouth catching flies."
     "I'm impressed." Vayer stopped what he was doing. "You missed insulting me."
     "Oh, I didn't mean any harm by it." Arkay's hand appeared in front of Diomid. "It wouldn't break your face to apologize." His ice blue eyes were dead serious. "None of us are perfect."
     "Apologize?" He picked himself up off the ground. "I'm not in the wrong." The horrid sinking sensation was back in his middle. Or perhaps it was stronger.
     "Diomid." Arkay pulled him to the side. Dimitri'd turned back to Vayer, deliberately ignoring them. He'd grown tremendously since Diomid'd last seen him. "Listen to me."
     "I am." He set his jaw and turned back to Arkay. "Why did you do that?"
     "Because you had to be taken down some." Dark lines defined lips gone tight in a familiar anger. "Don't make the same mistakes I did. Listen to him when he talks to you. He's no more a fool than Vayer at his age, possibly less."
     "Vayer's Sime." And was acting like a particularly foolish one at that. Doting over Mitka like some sort of overgrown pet. Mitka looked over Vayer's shoulder at them, eyes blazing hot. The muscles of Vayer's neck and back tensed so quickly Diomid could see it from meters away.
     "Stop it!" Arkay yanked him around. "Right this instant. Brother or no, I can still take you in the salle and will if you don't quit acting the fool."
     "He has to learn." A shiver ran up Diomid's spine at a cool breeze blowing through his far too drafty robes. He'd dressed for comfort on the airplane and was now freezing.
     "You have to back off." Arkay clenched his hand tighter on Diomid's shoulder. "You're going to loose him completely if you don't ... if you haven't already."
     "Vayer's truly his father." Diomid clenched his jaw against the gorge rising in his throat. The scene behind him, of Vayer stroking Dimitri's nager so intimately was too close to home. Diomid himself was the result of incest, of the closest kind. To see a father approach his own son for transfer made his skin grow tight all over and his stomach churn.
     "Are you actually still jealous of the fact he had the raising of your firstborn?" Arkay scowled, missing the point entirely. "Let me tell you something. I think it probably stung Vayer just a bit more Darya would bear you a child when she'd told him no more. Think about it for a moment. Particularly as she had to trick you blind to make it happen."
     "You were in on it." Diomid still burned in shame for what had happened that night. He and Kirina had been fighting. She'd threatened to leave him again after he'd thought they'd made up. So he set up a dance and chase to try to win her back. Instead Darya'd caught him so post he didn't know what he was doing and she'd ended up pregnant. Diomid had never been able to quite manage to think of Dimitri as his own. Particularly not as he'd so rarely seen the lad.
     "No," Arkay shook his head. "I like you. I love you as a brother. But for all your Sergei blood, which I don't deny, after Sasha you've been a complete and utter fool where your own heart is concerned."
     "I miss him still." The mention of his long lost first love still sent a stab of pain through his heart. Diomid felt someone's eyes on him. He turned to see Dimitri looking at him, his eyes soft with concern. "Gods, Arkay, why?" Diomid didn't know what he was asking. In this he knew he was as blind as Chernoye'd been those last years of his life. But unlike Chernoye, Diomid had no one to help him see.
     "I don't know." Arkay still held his shoulder. Now gently. "But I do know you have some work to do where Dimitri's concerned." As much as he loved his brother, Diomid knew Arkay didn't have all the Sergei gifts. Particularly not those related to healing with words, not power.
     "Vayer can have him."
     "He loves you." Arkay's voice cracked. "Don't throw his love away. I'm right. I've grown too, Diomid. There is more to counseling than talent or power." The words, so much like his own might have been cracked through his defenses. For a moment, Diomid could see into the abyss he'd dug between himself and his firstborn.
     "Why?" Diomid had to look away from those features so like his own. It was like looking in a distorted mirror, one which stripped away the years from everything but the eyes. Those eyes looking at him were older than the earth they stood on. "I didn't ask for it."
     "All the more reason to appreciate the gift freely given. As Darya gave your firstborn son to you."
     Diomid sighed, feeling far older than Arkay. "I'm ashamed."
     "Of?" Arkay blinked. "Of having a bastard?"
     "Being like our father." Late into the night, Diomid cursed his own lack of official paternity. "He didn't even know all of his children."
     "Oh, he knew." Arkay's eyes grew ice cold. "You and I both share the curse of Sergei and you say he didn't know."
     "But he never acknowledged me." The old wound stung as if fresh. "I was simply Diomid Ivanovich."
     "Never simply." Arkay shook him. "You are as a son to me. And brother. And sometimes father, I think."
     "Never," he protested.
     "When I was so sick? While Tzer was under ban?" Arkay's gaze was unavoidable. "You held me in your hand and saved my life. I wouldn't have listened to anyone else, not even Nashen at that point. You stood as father to me, saving me from myself, when I wouldn't have taken care from anyone. You were Sharm Lord Sergei to me when you faced me down over Vayer, even though you'd always been as my son. Now I'm facing you down. Don't keep going down the path you're on."
     "Who are you to tell me these things?"
     Arkay snorted. "I've been many things, Diomid. Sharm Lord, Lord and Ruler, even a simple sharm lord. I've raised children, seen them grow straight and strong. I've loved many wonderful people, male and female, Sime and Gen. As they've loved me. I've buried my father and seen the beauty of Azrael in person. I've buried more people than I want to ever think of, Diomid.
     "You don't want to destroy your firstborn. No matter what, he'd lay down his life for you. He's Sergei, sworn to life and healing. There's no doubt of that, even as you refuse him his birthright." Arkay paused for a breath. "Hold his oath for the day you're ready to step down."
     "What of Miran and Kirin?" Diomid clenched his jaw. "I can't leave them without a home for some bastard."
     Crack!
     "You speak of your shame in being a bastard. You ought to be if such is how you think of parenting. Would it have helped so much to have been scorned in public for having so obviously been the result of Veiled manipulation?" Arkay's growl raised the hackles on the back of Diomid's neck. "He's your heir, even if you can't see that. And if you refuse to apologize, you're going to be facing far more than one very scared young man in the Challenge circle this summer."
     "Are you threatening me?" Diomid's blood had turned cold in his veins. Kirina's hand had found his and she was looking at Arkay, a question on her face.
     "Yes." Arkay said simply. He turned to face Kirina directly. "Your partner has decided to exclude his firstborn son from any consideration in Sergei. I do not find this acceptable behavior and expect an apology as soon as reasonably convenient."
     "What?" Kirina yanked Diomid around to face her. "What has been going on with Dimitri? I know you've been unwilling to talk about him lately, but this?!"
     "You never told her?" Arkay gasped.
     "Told me what? Did he establish?"
     Arkay visibly sagged. "You bloody bastard. Get the shen out of my sight right now, or I will personally Challenge you. Nashen and I both, together, in the circle, with steel. You will not treat our only blood daughter like this."
     "What is going on around here?" Her voice had turned shrill. "Diomid?"
     "Dimitri established before we left. I accidentally induced him."
     "Oh, hell, Diomid, you did not." Arkay shook his head.
     "The young man with the huge shoulders nearly towering over my brother?"
     "Yes, him." Arkay chuckled softly. "He's changed a bit in the past months I see."
     "He certainly doesn't zlin inducted to me. Actually he zlins pretty good. But then he zlins like Diomid probably did at that age."
     "Other than the dragon." Diomid growled, not wanting to deal with this anymore. He stalked off, barely nodding to Vayer in passing.

Chapter 14


     Dimitri looked away from his sire, the ache in his chest threatening to choke him at any moment. He'd thought he was ready to try to make amends. His Challenge had been the foolishness of a child who'd felt he was backed into an impossible corner.
     "You had been." Vayer rested his hand on Dimitri's overheated arm.
     "Thank you." He said, trying to force a smile. Mitka's croon did its magic though, and he managed. "I look forward to the day after tomorrow."
     "Are you willing to go into seclusion with me?" Vayer's eyes were grayed with the stresses of need and the first stirrings of trade for the year. The trust he'd shown his son, by taking him in transfer at this time, buoyed up Dimitri when it looked as if his sire still refused to accept him.
     "Dimitri!" Kirina chimed, holding out her arms.
     "Mama!" He shouted. She jumped into his arms this time. "You're so light!" He tossed her into the air. She laughed, her gold hair sparkling in the bright sunlight.
     "You've gotten so big." She kissed him on the cheek then leaned back. "I can't believe it."
     "He never told you I established, did he?"
     "No" She ran her tentacles through her hair. "I'm going to be having some words with him." The stubborn look on her face was pure Karola. All the children of the Azov Hegemony could be as stubborn as mules when they wanted to be. The resemblance between her and her mother warmed Dimitri's heart with the memory of having been taken into that wonderful Lord's confidences.
     "More than a few from the sounds of it." He drank in her obvious joy. "Thank you." Dimitri dropped his voice, not wishing to sound vindictive or harsh, even though he ached with Diomid's continued rejection.
     "For?" She wrinkled her nose. "Thinking my beloved mate is a jerk of the first order." Kirina had not moderated her tone. Dimitri looked around, wondering who might be listening to this conversation. Fortunately it seemed all people around were renSimes, and far too busy with their work to be listening in.
     "You're talking about my sire, mama." He couldn't believe his ears, even though Mitka was nodding along with her. "I owe him."
     "Neither selyn nor loyalty from the sounds of it. But I'd really rather not have you end up Challenging him." Her lighthearted tone made all the blood drain from his face. "My Gods, you didn't?"
     "I did." He turned his face away, shame burning in his heart. If he could have, he would have crawled under one of the cobblestones beneath his feet.
     "Why?" The scorn he'd expected never manifested. It was a simple question.
     "He accused me of rape and then refused to take me into Sergei." Dimitri flicked back his still short hair. "I am of the blood of Sergei. Avilan and Karola talked Val into giving me some room at Azov, but it isn't home. I love Sergei. He's where I belong. I can't live without helping."
     "I thought you wanted to paint?"
     The sharp right turn caught him off guard. "How did you know about that?"
     "It was pretty obvious. What with the way you spent all your spare time as a child chasing after Chernoye."
     "I miss it."
     "Because now you're chasing after Sergei?" Her wry grin caught him off guard again. "I had wondered why Diomid hadn't spent anywhere near as much time scrubbing the books before we took off after Aliana."
     "How is she doing? What is Jarmin like?" Vayer spoke up for the first time in nearly four minutes. This was the longest he'd been silent since they'd met at the airfield. It seemed at least his sister could out talk him.
     "Wait, wait! Let me get things settled with Dimitri here first. I think this is a bit more important, since Diomid is here and she is there."
     Vayer yelped and Dimitri felt him swat Mitka. "You don't have to claw me you silly creature. I can listen to my sister, even if she is my younger sister." He leaned heavily on the word 'younger'. "Ok, finish with him so we can go sit down someplace comfortable and have some coffee."
     "Do we really?" Dimitri liked the stuff even less after establishment than before.
     "You can have some tea." One of Vayer's tentacles slid along the thin skin inside his elbow.
     A bit startled, he glanced down to see all of Vayer's tentacles out, as if Vayer were planning some serious havoc. Darya'd always told him to watch the tentacles. No Sime could think with their tentacles in their sheathes. Something about blood temperature and Simininity. Dimitri didn't reach for the memory with his power. Over the last month, he'd learned a great deal from Vayer about controlling his talents for mischief.
     "I haven't had coffee in years." Kirina breathed. "Lets go!"
     "Don't you want to collect your stuff?" He nodded to the plane.
     "Oh, it will all end up at home ... eventually." She shrugged. Dimitri'd missed Kirina a lot. She was the most relaxed Sime he'd ever known. Nothing seemed to really bother her much. "Oh, I save up my bother for important things."
     "Like your idiot Sharm Lord?" Vayer jabbed his sister in the ribs.
     "Yeah, like Diomid." She scowled. "So, as you were saying, you ended up Challenging him?" The look on her face changed to an apologetic sort of pained smile.
     "I didn't really mean to." He clenched his hands, showing he wasn't out to grab anyone. "But I didn't know what else to do." The memory of nearly being condemned to the ban, being unable to touch another Sime until he died of transfer depravation, brought another chill up Dimitri's back, despite the heat of selyn in his body.
     "I tried to stop them both." Vayer pressed himself up against Dimitri's side. He got the hint and flicked a corner of his cloak around him. It was still quit chill out, as the sun was going down rapidly. Kirina nearly teleported to his other side, and he invited her in as well. Between the two Simes, he was more than warm enough. But he knew that she had to be feeling the chill after having come from Kaon, and Vayer always talked about being cold before transfer. "But Diomid was being a horse's rear and his get just as stubborn. For good reason on the part of the latter, mind you."
     "Why do you think he's so adamant in this whole thing?" Kirina was going along just fine until Mitka decided to pop up right under her nose. Her yelp of surprise nearly sent Dimitri a meter into the air.
     "Don't do that!" He gave Mitka a swat. "Very bad." Dimitri would have sworn he'd gotten Mitka over that habit. Bad enough when he scared the piss out of a renSime, but to scare his mother half to death was entirely unacceptable.
     "Ow," Vayer glared at him. "He was just being Mitka. Don't hit him so hard."
     "Apologize." He held his gaze on Mitka until Mitka lowered his eyes. "Well?"
     "I'm ssssssorry." He slithered up the inside of Kirina's shirt!
     "You bastard." Dimitri wanted to smack him again. "Don't climb up people. Particularly not inside their clothes." Or throttle the little beast.
     Mitka had on his best, "I'm too adorable to Simes to resist look."
     "Awwwww, isn't he cute!" Kirina cooed, reaching up to rub him under the jaw. "Yes, you with the big gold eyes and bright scales."
     "You aren't helping his manners any." Dimitri sighed, realizing that once the initial shock had worn off, Kirina would be utterly entranced with his nager. Most Simes were, actually, once they'd gotten used to him.
     "He's improved a lot since your transfer with Karola." Vayer wasn't helping either.
     "You gave mat' transfer?" Kirina gaped at him. "You aren't ready for your fourth yet, are you?"
     "Um, it was my forth."
     "You established before we left?"
     "Yes." He nodded.
     "And you didn't come tell me?"
     "no" Dimitri felt very small. "I should have."
     "You were a little busy at the time." Vayer said in Dimitri's defense. "I distinctly remember Diomid piling account books, reference texts, vault keys and half a dozen other things in your arms at the time. This was of course before you delivered Tasha and Gregori's child."
     "I'd wondered why they'd named him Mitkya." She glanced at Dimitri's nager. "There are no Dimitris in the Kirov line at all."
     "Gregori named him after me." Mitka was drooling again, this time down his mother's shirt. Why he drooled on people was utterly beyond Dimitri's ken.
     "Selyn?" Kirina held up a hand coated in the stuff. It glistened momentarily to Dimitri's sight and then evaporated off into the aether.
     "Very low quality selyn." He sighed, wishing he didn't have such a sloppy nager. "It really isn't good for much of anything but making messes all over the place." Dimitri handed her a silk handkerchief he'd learned to have plenty of on hand for situations like this.
     "Um, yes," she dabbed at her front, which was now covered in the stuff. The silk actually seemed to absorb it rather neatly. "Is there a reason you recommend cleaning up and not just letting it evaporate?"
     Dimitri'd never thought about it that way before. "Its a bit tidier? After a while, to me at least, it can make my skin feel rather spongy, as if I'd spent a bit too much time soaking in water."
     "Oh," she waved the cloth in Mitka's face. He snapped at it, slaver going everywhere. Dimitri wiped a bit off his nose and looked at Vayer.
     "She's your sister."
     "That means utterly nothing where selyn is concerned according to Simes." Vayer sighed. "Besides, I don't think Kirina really knows the meaning of fear."
     "Oh, I do. I fear my idiot husband getting himself killed for infuriating the rest of the Demense. I fear for my children growing up as the butt of some horrible joke because he can't see past his own field. I fear for my mate's son, because my mate is being a complete and utter jerk." Her mouth tightened into a hardened line. "I really wish I could have you in transfer." She cooed at Mitka again.
     "I'm afraid I'm ..." Dimitri winced at what he was going to say.
     "I know I'm the lowest of the ruling Lords in the Demense." She shrugged, flicking her hair out of Mitka's grasp. He'd gotten a lot more clever about affecting the real world, not just the world of selyn. "Until now I hadn't given it a second thought, since Diomid is the lowest of the Sharm Lords."
     "I'm flattered." He tipped his head. "But I think I would be very uneasy with you as a transfer partner."
     "You gave transfer with Karola, and consummated it, would be my guess." Then she looked to Vayer. "And you're going to go with your own father, next?"
     "I'm not likely to get either of them pregnant." He met her gaze.
     "Oh?" Various thoughts chased each other through her nager.
     "No." He said quickly. "Mitka can be very dangerous. I've only had one good transfer so far."
     "What happened?" The simple words, accepting and wanting to know at the same time restored a great deal of Dimitri's faith in the universe.
     "My first was Tasha. She was in hard labor, not progressing ..." Dimitri paused to try to think how to explain the situation to a layman.
     "We all had enough training in medicine to work the wards at Sergei."
     "Oh, I forgot."
     "And I am Lord Sergei. And I do read."
     "But you don't have the gift."
     "Don't require it as a Lord, and sometimes it gets in the way. Look at you and Diomid."
     "A hit, my Lord." He winked, putting his hand to his chest. Mitka sniffed his fingers, as he always did now when Dimitri made that gesture. "Anyway. Her son had drained her to attrition. Diomid was going to murder him with keurvon. No, that isn't right." Dimitri took a deep breath.
     "Diomid didn't know her son was both Sime and Kirov. Nearly any other combination with keurvon wouldn't have murdered the child."
     "How did you know?" Vayer asked, opening the doors to Mir. Dimitri hadn't been back home much since he established, really. He'd been spending all his time at Sergei until this morning, when he'd packed his things for good. Again his odd memory had seen ahead into time and warned him of Diomid's intransigence.
     "Guess." He grimaced.
     "And Diomid didn't figure it out?"
     "He wasn't listening." Dimitri felt the muscles in his neck cord. The events of that day were unforgettable, even to a normal human. To him they were branded in his brain for all time. "You have to listen to hear."
     "Too true." Kirina put her hand on his wrist and much to his surprise, looked up at him. "And he doesn't always stop to think, either."
     "Neither do I."
     "You do." Vayer reassured him. "Far more than any other young man I've ever known. More than I did, at your age, certainly. And I'd been a Lord for nearly a year and half by that time."
     "Oh," he stopped in his tracks, dragging both Simes to a standstill with him. Dimitri often forgot about the effects of his growing mass on Simes around him. Even Vayer, as strong as he was, probably weighed less than Dimitri did now. It was a very strange thing to be bigger than his father.
     "So, to continue the story. He tried to use keurvon. I slapped it out of his hand and then body blocked him out of the way. Tasha lunged for me and I let her." He took a deep, shuddering breath at how close he'd come to harming her the way he'd harmed Khristov. "Well, to make it march, because I was not a member of Sergei and hadn't explicitly asked Tasha for her hand in transfer, my father accused me of rape."
     "Technically it is." Vayer shrugged. "I can commute the punishment indefinitely, but it doesn't look good. We haven't spread it around, but the only thing I can do is pray Diomid doesn't take it to the veiled. At least not officially. There is Khristov."
     "Yes, Khristov. A Veiled Lord who said he'd escaped. There are no records of him below and no one seems to know where he came from, other than his being Darya's half-brother, by the old Lord Kirov." Dimitri'd done some research on his own. "He's as mad as a hatter and hardly knows his own name, really. I can't do a shenned thing with him since Mitka nearly killed him in transfer."
     "How did you let that happen?" Kirina sat in her favorite chair near the hearth. Vayer poured coffee for himself and her. Dimitri got his own tea, the sweet mint blend he preferred.
     "Thank you for keeping this around." He raised his cup.
     "Of course." Vayer snorted. "Did you think I'd throw it out when you left?"
     "Yes, actually." He took a sip. It came from the south and before that to the far east. "Or at least sell the last batch to me."
     "You idiot." Vayer mimed a swing at him with no selyn behind it. "I wanted something to bribe you back home for visits. And Dimitri took every possible precaution to avoid harming Khristov. That's the problem with the whole situation."
     "What happened?"
     "Of course part of why I believed his story about the Veil was he has no handling tentacles." Dimitri took a sip of tea to settle his nerves. "So he couldn't hold my arms still in transfer and we don't have a rest bench up here. Well, Karola held my arms but didn't think to hold him at the same time. He wrenched back, causing Mitka's venom fangs to slip in his vriamic node. Now he has two, two cent long scars through it, which are a problem."
     "Yes, I'd say so." Kirina put a hand to her own chest. "How did he survive at all?"
     "I refused to kill him." Dimitri snorted, now utterly regretting his decision. He should have stayed with his first instinct, which was far more often than not, better than his later choices. Or at least more likely to be in line with the way things were supposed to eventually turn out.
     "I'm sorry." She put her hand on his . "Truly I am. I know most of it isn't my fault, but I do feel responsible for some of the worst of Diomid's excesses."
     "You don't cause them. They're a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that ties into the Sergei gifts. All of us have it to one degree or another." He tapped the side of his head.
     "I don't require books with you around." Vayer shook his head again. "Although I am often surprised at how little your answers resemble any questions I might have asked."
     "I get to the point."
     "Eventually." Kirina added for him. He wrinkled his nose at her and wiggled a finger.
     "You will come to a very messy end, Kirina Azovanova Fatimanova."
     "Oh, Gods," she put her face in her hands. "Not that old chestnut."
     "Oh." He shut up, realizing Kirina's parentage was only known to a handful of people, himself not having been included in that select number.
     "Dimitri?"
     "Yes, papa?" He looked up from his tea.
     "I really should put some sort of sauce on your shirts. You keep ending up with your elbows in your mouth."
     "Don't I know it." He set to work in settling down Kirina's ruffled nerves. At least he had a talent for this as well as telling people what they really didn't want to know.

Chapter 15


     Khristov knelt before Sharm Lord Sergei. Unable to expose his handling tentacles, he lay his hands flat on the floor, palms down. His sleeves had rubbed raw the openings to his lateral sheathes and he hoped he wouldn't have to bare the rest of his arms.
     Another breath of pain in his chest and he bit back a whimper.
     "Why do you come to me like this, Lord ...?" Diomid blinked a couple of times.
     "Lord Khristov Illyavich."
     "Ilya Kirovich?" Diomid's nager writhed, a hundred pairs of bright eyes hidden in the mists.
     "Yes," He put his forehead to the floor. He'd been well trained in how to submit himself to Simes.
     "You're old for a Kirovich Lord."
     Khristov's skin crawled at this inadvertent reminder. He flicked back one sleeve, showing Diomid what he was. The cool air burned on his forearms, and sent another shock of pain through his chest.
     "Ahhhh," he breathed. "What is it you ask of Sergei, Veiled one?"
     Behind him, dozens of bootsoles slid on marble. The attention of far too many peers coruscated over him. Khristov shivered as he fought not to zlin. Zlinning hurt.
     "I ask for healing." Earlier today, Karola'd been called away from his bedside before she could inject him with his drugs. He'd escaped, but escape had turned to agony. Khristov knew Diomid and his get were at odds. If there was anyone who'd help him get Dimitri back, it would be his father.
    
     Diomid felt as if his eyes were going to cross looking down at the tiny, tiny Sime in front of him. The pain of a damaged vriamic node made his own chest ache. What had happened to this man that he'd not only come above, but run across something violent enough to cause such damage? There wasn't anything Diomid could think of off the top of his mind which could cause such harm.
     "Who did this to you?" The simple question caused far more of a reaction that Diomid could have imagined. The little Lord curled in on himself, whimpering so loudly, nagerically, Diomid's field vibrated in sympathy. Then he felt the pressure of the Sergei court all bear down on Khristov and his own field snapped out. "Don't you have your own business to attend to?"
     Khristov's pale, tear streaked face turned back up to him. Eyes the color of the winter sky before a great storm, with the slightest hint of green, caught his. Another shock of pain went through both of them, drawing ink black lines on Khristov's already drawn face.
     Diomid looked out over the court. His people had turned back to their business, physically. Their attention was on the dias and Khristov. "To me." He held out his hands, cupped to accept Khristov's. Kirina'd not come home with him, so he'd gone straight to court, not wanting to think about where she was. At the moment he was glad of it.
     Khristov managed to get one foot beneath him, then another cramp hit. Diomid lunged out of his chair and caught the man before he fell again. "I know Lords are fragile, but this is taking it a bit far, don't you think?" Diomid tried to jest with him.
     "I'm sorry, my Lord Sergei." Khristov turned his face away. His whole body was trembling, as if he expected something horrible to happen. Diomid had never in his life beaten anyone. What did Khristov expect of him?
     "I'm not going to harm you." Diomid wondered what had happened to make this little Lord so scared. "Although there are those who might." He tried to give Khristov as gentle a warning as he could to get himself under control. Khristov gasped, his face turning to a mask of terror. The temptation to hunt, to make Khristov run so he could chase him, sang its siren song to the creatures in Diomid's nager. Diomid sucked in a deep breath, trying to get some kind of control back.
     Two sharm lords, in name only, as they were not Sharm Lords only by virtue of their laziness, turned bright eyes on Khristov. The elder, Padnik, let his tongue trace over his lips in an extraordinarily lewd gesture, even for low court, as it could be seen clearly through his translucent veil. His friend, Diomid still was uneasy at the fact the two were lovers, merely rested his hand on Padnik's arm. The gesture made Diomid look back down at Khristov.
     "Are they usually so bold?" The unspoken question behind Khristov's words was. "Are they really together?"
     "Yes, to both." Diomid reached down to draw Khristov to his feet. The tips of his own ears were burning with his blushes, but there was little he could do about it other than hope Khristov would ignore it as well. "It is probably not something they wish to have gawked at." Diomid knew he wouldn't have wanted to have been stared at for such a thing.
     "They're beautiful together." Khristov murmured before his attention turned back to Diomid. He grimaced and then tried to cover up for his gesture. "No," Khristov shook his head. "You don't approve?"
     "They're Sergei." Diomid stated, keeping his attention on Khristov. There was something about him buried in the back of his mind. "I remember you." Diomid's heels clicked on the marble tiles. "You were in the great bathing pool when I washed Tzarya Fatimanovna. What are you doing here?" His voice had dropped to a growl and he didn't care.
     "Get up." He commanded, not wanting to continue this here. Razor sharp Sergei powered memories battered at his mind like malicious ravens. The images kept coming, Tzarya laughing at his feeble jokes, her head thrown back and silver white hair tangling around her impossibly slender body, neither male nor female, but all the more beautiful to him at the time because of it. Tzarya and her uncle Tzakiran bickering as they played chess in her uncle's spacious quarters while Diomid tried to read and failed for watching her elegant, spare, beauty. "Get up." This time it was a growl. The sharp smell of fear rose on the air.
     "Sharm Lord?" Khristov gasped, sliding backward.
     Unwilling to wait for this idiot Sime to get his laterals back in, Diomid grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him to his feet. He weighed nearly nothing, probably less than forty kilos. "I am." It was impossible to set Khristov on his feet as his knees were shaking so badly they'd never support him. "Quit acting the fool. You're as old or older than I am." He hissed, not wishing to make more of a scene than he already had. Padnik's blue eyes were bright behind his silver threaded veil. "Or I'll give you to Padnik and Lachin right now."
     "Is that so horrible a fate?" Khristov took a deep breath. Or tried. The stab of pain through his chest twisted the ambient into sharp edged light to shatter on the stone floor.
     "I doubt you could take anyone in your condition." Diomid gave in and moved his hold to around Khristov's shoulders. "Come on, you belong below." A dry chuckle pointed out his own wit. "I hadn't meant a jest."
     "I wish I had." Khristov finally straightened completely. For all the good it did, he might as well have not bothered. On average, Simes were shorter than Gens, but Khristov was at the extreme. Somehow, this made Diomid feel protective of the Lord he held in his arms. More protective than usual, that was. Khristov leaned against him, putting his head against Diomid's chest as if they were lovers.
     If Khristov's warm, tight body had held any promise of threat, Diomid would have pushed him away. As it was, he tucked the Sime closer into him. The sense of a purr brushed through their now twined nagers.
     "I am married." He reminded the Lord.
     "And I can no longer bear transfer." Khristov rebutted. Although Diomid could no longer sense the pain of the man's injury as it was being blocked by Diomid's field. "Although you are doing a wonderful job of making me forget the fact."
     "I haven't even tried to heal you." At last they reached the huge Sergei infirmary. One of the Inducted, L'ialo, ran up to them.
     "Papa, papa!" He slid on his knees to bury his face in the skirts of Diomid's kador.
     "I am not your father." Diomid grimaced, putting his free hand on L'ialo's balding head. The Gen sobbed, wringing the wool into a soggy knot.
     "Here now." Khristov matched his gesture. Huge blue eyes, swimming in tears, looked up at both of them. "What has you so afraid, little one? I zlin nothing."
     "She was right there." L'ialo's high pitched countertenor rasped on Diomid's nerves, as it always did. When the young Gen had been inducted, his mind had snapped instantly. His body was in its thirties, his mind barely eight. But he produced selyn. "Papa, where did she go?"
     "Come on L'ialo." The Gen's keeper tried to tug him away. He blubbered, saliva drooling down his chin. "Lets get you cleaned up."
     "Don't let her take me away from you again!" L'ialo's eyes were completely white around the edges with his panic. Khristov's breath was hissing between his teeth, damaged vriamic node clearly irritated by the harsh ambient. "I love you papa."
     "Do it." Diomid nodded at Kacha, the Inducted's keeper. She wasn't much of a lord, but she had a tolerance for nageric chaos far beyond most even while keeping her ability to zlin. Every once in a while Diomid wondered if she were related to Karola Mardinova, but had no real necessity for finding out, and so had never done it. L'ialo slumped against him, a soft, heavy weight. "I'm sorry to have exposed you to him."
     "Is he your son?" Khristov's question sent a shiver up Diomid's arms.
     "No," he shook his head quickly. "I only have one Inducted child, Dimitri."
     "He's not Inducted."
     "How do you know?" Diomid led Khristov into a large examination room. One with a full bed and surgical kit in case something went wrong. When there was a medical emergency with any Sime's vriamic node, it always went quickly. And even though Khristov was still walking and talking, Diomid feared the scars could open at any time and he'd collapse instantly. Khristov slipped out of his clothes and into the exam gown without a word being spoken. He wasn't too horribly thin, but Diomid could see more than the usual three or four ribs clearly.
     "Because I've had him in transfer." Khristov met his eyes when he'd finished changing.
     "I never gave you permission to bed my son." Diomid heard his own voice drop in threat. Sweat beaded Khristov's high brow. The Lord ran his fingers through his brilliant red hair, the gesture badly distorted without handling tentacles. "Who did?"
     "Everyone," Khristov's shoulder slumped. One hand went to his chest, which must have ached horribly.
     "I doubt that." Diomid narrowed his eyes at Khristov and thought for a moment. He really didn't want to give him halarin, and harduran would make it impossible for Diomid to sense what was really going on in the Lord's chest.
     "No more harduran." Khristov stayed his hand.
     "Who?" Diomid said. "No, let me guess, my son, Dimitri?"
     "Yes," Khristov bowed his head. "Avilan and Karola were there."
     "They let a child use harduran?" A slow, burning rage reddened Diomid's sight. "Its a black label drug, like all of the family. I have to sign it out!" Harduran was even more addictive, and more potentially harmful than halarin, given the fact it worked as a pain reliever and euphoric even on Simes.
     "Dimitri's no child, Diomid." Khristov's voice was shockingly low. "He has power enough to rend the heart from any Sime."
     "He's the one who did this to you?" Diomid could hear his own teeth grind in fury. "How?"
     "Mitka," the single word caused the fire to blaze in to conflagration. "Don't kill him."
     "Not until midsummer and our Challenge." Diomid had always been an indifferent fighter, relying on nager and brute strength to cow any possible opponents. He'd never been Challenged before. Now he knew he'd been a fool to consider himself safe. "Let me heal you and then you should rest."
     "I've been resting for two months." Khristov's gray eyes held his for a moment. "Get me at least well enough to take transfer again, and I'll teach you to fight with all the skill of the Veiled."
     "I'll give you that transfer." Diomid drew eight cc's into the syringe. Khristov shook his head. Only at twelve did Khristov nod. "By all the Gods, what did that bastard do to you."
     "Dimitri was not the only Sharm Lord who'd ever harmed me." Khristov glanced backward, as if at his own back. Diomid reached out with his own senses and saw what had been done to the man. "He was at least innocent of harmful intent."
     "Intent means nothing in law or honor." Diomid would have called in Gregori, but he knew the Sharm Lord was on Dimitri's side and would tell the bastard everything. Instead he called in Acheiko, a pale faced lord who looked as if he had spent his entire life below ground, probably because he had.
     Acheiko was one of Diomid's hidden daggers. The man was deaf and dumb. But he had a brilliant mind and had hidden from the Veil for over twenty years in the Sergei infirmary. Even if he'd been able to talk, Diomid knew he never would. Acheiko kept secrets, all of them. "Assist me." Diomid injected the drug. In moments, Khristov was completely still, dead but for the beating of his heart and working of his lungs.
     Diomid reached beneath the cabinet for the hidden catch. A complete thoracic surgery set lay hidden behind the false front of bandages and primitive glassware. He snorted softly at the Westerner's scorn at their lack of technology. He asked Acheiko silently if he were ready. The tiny twitch of the man's nager was enough to know he'd made the right choice.
     He was going to have to put his hands directly on Khristov's vriamic node, inside the thoracic cavity, under the heart itself. Which meant he'd have to stop even that much life in the man's body. With the skills bred into him, blood and bone, Diomid set up the heart-lung bypass system and intravenous drip of harduran through the ankle, where it couldn't damage the selyn transport nerves. Khristov should have been put into surgery as soon as they'd had him stabilized.
     "At least we don't have to worry about infection." Diomid took a deep breath and ran through the procedure in his mind. "Although I do hope you have a lot of selyn in your public system." Acheiko nodded, holding the scalpel in his dorsals. "Thank you." He took the implement and made the first cut.

Chapter 16


     Dimitri looked up from the ledger. His mother had pleaded a headache this morning, only shading the truth in her asking him not to fix it. Not that he could have done anything to ease her tension, only to ease the pressure in the tiny veins causing her headache. But something was tightening bands around his skull now, and not need.
     Vayer had asked him this morning if one more day's work would put Dimitri too out of cycle. He'd been flattered to be asked such a question, although he wondered how much of it was because his father was worrying about their transfer, for which they were supposed to go into seclusion today. Vayer had reassured him they'd still have the entire forty-eight hours, but at this point, Dimitri was in no position to insist. He too was uneasy about the idea of bedding his father, even if it were merely the consummation of a transfer.
     But what was wrong? Nerves sharpened by need reached out to the web of time, as he thought of his abilities. Like a spider at the center of her web, Dimitri's mind felt the vibrations of lines shifting suddenly at the perimeter. But this was nearby. He stood. Something was about to go horribly wrong.
     Dimitri ran from the tiny shack at the far end of the dock. His father was a midnight blue blur in the lowering shadows. He cursed again his rapidly worsening nearsightedness. Dimitri could have worn glasses or fixed it, but for near work he had no problems, which was what he cared about.
     After hiking up his kador, he ran without a thought for his dignity. Dimitri might not be able to move as fast as an augmenting Sime, but he had a head start. Meters away, he saw the supports beneath tons of grain bound for Kirov storerooms give way. Dimitri leaped for Vayer. Shock filled the ambient. Wood screamed in protest before shattering under the impossible load.
     Freezing cold water sluiced over the now ruined pier. A renSime's deathshock ripped through him before he could shield. Mitka arose, hissing in fear and protest at being awakened so rudely right before transfer.
     "Shen," Dimitri swore. He'd not quite managed to get Vayer out of the way in time.
     "A long way from the heart." Vayer's tentacles were lashed around Dimitri's hands. Vayer's foot and ankle had been trapped under one of the largest of the boxes. It wouldn't be long before shock receded and Vayer would be able to feel the injury.
     "But you can't catch mother without both feet." Dimitri struggled through the pain crazed ambient to examine his father's foot. He prayed it had not been crushed completely.
     "Oh, I've caught her twice already. No need for a third." His lewd comment was enough to help Dimitri break free of the sickening ambient.
     "At least I'm not going to have to cut your foot off." He ran his hand down Vayer's leg.
     "But I doubt you're going to get much of a transfer into me." Vayer grimaced. His face had gone dead white. The pain had to be getting through to him by now. Dimitri didn't dare unshield enough to know.
     "Stay with me until the rescue crew gets here." A cold sweat broke out on his flanks. If Vayer passed out now, he'd come to mindless for selyn. With Mitka, he could get killed in an unthinking attack.
     "I never called them." Vayer's tentacles were twining around Dimitri's arms, holding him tight. Without words, Dimitri reassured his father he wasn't going anywhere.
     "I did. When I knew what was going to happen." Dimitri looked up at the timbers. They were hollow and lined with what looked like burn marks.
     "You could have been a little quicker." Vayer required his attention now more than any mystery of what had happened. The past could be dealt with at another time.
     "Hey, you had been under the crates." Another shiver of fear stole his breath.
     "True," Vayer leaned back with a sigh. Selyn was draining out of him from his injury far faster than Dimitri would have liked, but not as fast as it should have given the extent of his injuries. "Thank you, Mitka."
     The dragon had wrapped himself around Vayer's foot and ankle without asking.
     "Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on him." Dimitri stroked Mitka's back. For a moment he saw his hand tremble before he could still it.
     "Maybe you shouldn't be so hard on yourself." Then Vayer sucked in a deep breath as the first of the rescue crew began levering at the box. "I am not enjoying this."
     "I didn't think you would." Vayer's pain, and rapidly growing need, were drawing Dimitri helplessly into the world of selyn. "Hold on a moment longer." His voice, still calm, was a lifeline to reality. Mitka's tongue was slowly laving Vayer's injury in selyn laden slaver. "I finally zlin a use for your drooly nager."
     "So I see." Dimitri swallowed a lump of worry from his throat. Another of the huge crates shattered, spilling grain over everyone, including Vayer to his waist.
     "At least I'll be warm now." He let a handful trickle through his fingers, sending up more dust. "Although when I catch the bastard who sold us the rotten timbers, he's going to be very sorry."
     "It might have been an accident." Dimitri couldn't help but pity the poor renSime if this had all been a horrible accident, with no malice aforethought.
     "Not when a life has been taken." Vayer's jaw was set. "You know the law."
     "I do." He bowed his head over his father's. "Its is simply, well, too often cruel."
     "So is life." Vayer clung to him, as a child would, or his Lord, if he ever found one of his own. "Soon, my lad, soon."
     "Very soon." Dimitri watched the renSimes pull the last of the crates away. Vayer screamed with the motion, a shrill, horrible sound, but it was done. In a fraction of a heartbeat, he turned on Dimitri. Ready for it, Dimitri braced, watching Mitka hiss his own shock at being displaced so suddenly. Then the darkest need he'd ever seen yawned beneath his feet.
     Mitka hissed again, this time in need and fury. No one would take his prey from him this time. Together, Dimitri felt his nager's need to strike, venom heavy in his jaws and spilling into his mouth, as bitter as bile. Dimitri held up a hand, waiting for Vayer's own need to completely awaken.
     Drawn down by his injury, Vayer yanked Dimitri into him far sooner than he'd have guessed possible. Opening to his father, he saw Mitka hesitate, eyes wide. "Come to me." Vayer's huge fiery wings opened into the night sky. Mitka backwinged, nearly falling over his own tail. "Are you afraid of me?" Vayer's amused smile stung like a goad.
     "Of course not!" Mitka hissed, strength returning to him. His fangs opened out, easing a fraction of the pressure in his jaws. Venom slid over his lower jaw and ran down his neck. "I will take you."
     "Then do so." The brilliant fiery angel stayed open, calm to his advance. Careful of the fire, Mitka twined his body around the slender form. Cool skin slid easily beneath his burning hot coils. "Oh yes," the angel murmured, writhing against him. "This feels so very good. I want more!"
     "Then you shall have it all!" Mitka struck. Pleasure sang through his whole body as he drove each pulse of venom from his body with all his will. He keened his joy as he struck again, driving the poison deeper into his victim's veins. Each time he renewed his hold, the thrill of it grew greater and greater. The horrible ache in his jaws turning to the sweetest satisfaction.
     "I love thee, my Mitka." Warm arms came around him, soothing him as the last of his desires faded. He could no longer speak, driven dumb by the lassitude overwhelming his senses. "Rest here. Thy work is done."
    
     Vayer looked down at Dimitri, collapsed senseless in his arms. It had not been Vayer's idea of a romantic transfer, but perhaps it was for the best. He finally looked up into Darya's eyes. The sun had set long ago, but he'd not wanted to move Dimitri for fear of setting off a dislocation effect. The departing renSimes had left them with heavy wool blankets to ward off the evening chill.
     "What happened?" Darya knelt at his side. Vayer's ankle was still horribly stiff, and probably wouldn't bear his weight, but before Dimitri'd collapsed completely, he'd bound the joint and foot so they'd heal properly once Vayer got enough selyn to finish the job Mitka's had started.
     "The Kirov grain shipment fell on Liutvin and me. I had Kirkov and Maki take his body to their warehouse." Even here, in the heart of Mir, Vayer couldn't say they'd taken him to the mosque. It was not done. "We'll bury him tomorrow, if the soil doesn't freeze solid again."
     "So a death. Murder?"
     "Close enough." Vayer clenched his jaw. "And attempted regicide."
     "Oh shen," she brushed her hand over Dimitri's brow. "He's completely out. What happened?"
     "I think he changed the outcome of the accident. I think I was supposed to die, not Liutvin." A shudder passed through Vayer. He knew Diomid had done something similar, but its effect had not been so casual, on Diomid or on fate. Diomid had his memories of the events leading up to his tampering for decades. Dimitri was simply exhausted. "The supports were rotten."
     "Let me check." Darya stood and wandered toward the wreckage he'd stopped the renSimes from cleaning up. Vayer had wanted to at least get a closer look before he had to collapse himself, but Dimitri couldn't wait, things could. A shiver passed through the lad's body and Vayer tugged another blanket around them both. He was so bony and unfinished still. Vayer kissed his mostly smooth cheek, smiling at the thought of how much fun it had been to teach Dimitri how to shave, even if it hadn't quite been necessary yet. "These aren't rotten, they've been charred."
     "By fire?"
     "That's how most wood gets burned." The look she gave him was soft with love, in contrast with her sharp words. One of the many things Vayer loved so much about Darya, he never felt as if he were going to drown in date syrup around her. "Which means Kirov."
     "The grain was supposed to go to Kirov. Most of the shipment is unrecoverable." Vayer knew to the minute Kirov's grain reserves. They weren't so good he could afford such a loss easily.
     "It was insured, was it not?" Darya swept away a pile of barley. "Besides, this is not the quality they paid for."
     "It isn't?" Vayer struggled to get up. Dimitri, and Mitka, were wrapped around him so tight he couldn't move if he wanted to.
     "No," she let the grains spill through her fingers. "This isn't seed grain, its not even milling quality." Darya blew at it and Vayer could see the husks drift free. "It hasn't even been threshed properly. Kirov paid for seed grain from Lord Obran."
     "And got ...?"
     "Its garbage." Darya's mouth tightened. "Someone is playing games."
     "With Dimitri's life ... and now mine." Vayer sighed. "But who could want me dead?"
     "Plenty in the West. You've been hard on the Veiled recently. Nivanya ..."
     "No," Vayer cut her off. "Nivanya would never want me dead. Who else has the Kirov gifts."
     "Khristov."
     "Oh shen," Vayer put his face to Dimitri's temple. "And he has no reason to love Dimitri."
     "Why would he try to murder you then?"
     "To hurt Dimitri. Death is over quickly, but at the risk of flattering myself, I think it would hurt Dimitri a lot to have me murdered in front of him. Particularly when we ... I'd begged him to let me work today because I was afraid of him." Vayer shivered violently, a chill running up his back and lodging at the base of his skull. He knew his fears weren't entirely rational, but then from the graying of his vision and the unease in the pit of his stomach, he knew he couldn't hold off shock too much longer.
     Mitka's tongue flicked out and traced along one tentacle sheath. "You're still with us this time, I see."
     "I think he's worried about you." Darya stroked the now tiny creature from head ridge to the tip of his slowly twitching tail. "I know I am."
     "It isn't like I haven't been in danger of being crushed by falling freight since I was fourteen at Fatima." But Vayer couldn't shake off his sense of dread. He looked down into Mitka's eyes, faded to a dull tan with their recent transfer and probably worry. "I'll be all right. So will Dimitri." Mitka licked his hand slowly, twining his forked tongue around Vayer's forefinger.
     "If Diomid doesn't do him in this summer." Her mouth tightened into a fine line. "What has made him so bitter, Vayer?"
     "Jealousy, shame, fear, I don't know." Vayer smoothed Dimitri's hair back from his forehead, as he'd done so many times when he'd been a child. It seemed like only yesterday the Dimitri he'd held in his arms had been no bigger than Visarin was now. A toddler ready to run off at the slightest excuse. "They grow up so fast."
     "I know." Darya returned from her examination of the wreckage. "I wish they didn't, sometimes."
     "Me too. But not enough to hold them back." Vayer kissed Dimitri's brow. Tonight his son had saved his life. Not only saved his life, but given his own in his selyn. Once he'd taken Mitka to him, all his fear had vanished as if it had never been. The transfer had been as sweet and wonderful as any he'd ever known.

Chapter 17


     Dimitri did wonder if he would ever wake well after transfer. He had once, not exactly a majority. "Can I beg off this transfer business and go back to celibacy?" He asked no one in particular.
     "Your sire did for many years." A warm, so very familiar voice broke into his musings.
     "Arkay!" He sat up and grabbed his grandfather as tightly as he could. Which wasn't very at the moment. "You're here." Amazement warmed him down to his toes. Arkay'd rarely come to Mir, citing wanting to stay with Nashen at Fatima, where he had spent so much of his life. Before Mir had arisen out of the ashes of Maryam, few others of the Demense had seen inside her black clad walls.
     Dimitri could still remember when he and his family had first come to Mir. It had not been pleasant. "Sit, sit," he patted the bed when he felt Arkay pull back.
     "I'm more thrilled than I can say to see you doing well." Arkay's blue gray eyes were now surrounded by a nest of deep wrinkles, many from cares, but more now from sun and age.
     "Despite my sire?" He sighed, leaning back against the pillows. "I am getting sorely tired of waking up the morning after transfer feeling as if I'd been chewed up and spat out."
     "You can choose to be celibate." Arkay's hands came to rest on his. "I think almost all of our family has at one point or another in their lives."
     "Even old Sharm Lord Sergei?" Dimitri chuckled softly, unable to imagine that great man having any lack for bed partners. Particularly not with the number of children he'd sired. If he forgot to not know, he could list all twenty-eight of them, with their ages and their dams.
     "Ins'Allah," Arkay breathed, his eyes going wide. "Please, I do not wish to know."
     "Neither do I." Dimitri took a deep breath and forced the unwanted knowledge away. "However, do you know if he was this strong?"
     "No, he wasn't." Arkay's eyes grayed further. "As far as I know, no living Sergei has had such power in centuries, if ever."
     "Living, not veiled." Dimitri's stomach churned at the thought of taking the Veil, even though he knew it could solve so many of his problems. Even though after having injured Khristov so badly, Dimitri knew he'd never be able to have transfer with a Veiled Lord. Without handling tentacles, Mitka was unable to strike cleanly. Any Veiled Lord Mitka touched in transfer would end up as injured as Khristov, or worse.
     "Usually the strongest of us take the Veil." Arkay continued to hold his hands. The touch was reassuring, as if there were no boundaries between them, as there'd come to be with all other Gens but Avilan. "Yes, well, he taught me love is more important than larity, long before I dropped my veil."
     "You were a sharm lord?" Dimitri gasped, entirely unable to imagine his grandfather veiled at all. Not even the lesser veil of a sharm lord.
     "He and I were sharm lords together under Lord Azov." The twinkle in his eyes belied his years. "We caused far more trouble than even you have, young Sharm Lord Dimitri."
     "I wish I could have worn the lesser veil." He looked down at Mitka sadly. "But I wouldn't trade Mitka for anything." His hand brushed over Mitka's spine. He rolled over, showing his belly. It felt odd, but still good, to rub it gently, as he would a cat.
     "However I'm not so sure about watching my grandson masturbate." His nager twinkled with mirth.
     "I promise not to get carried away." Dimitri continued to stroke Mitka's soft flanks. The gentle touch seemed to be soothing away Dimitri's remaining headache. "Although I don't think he'd mind if you touched him." Dimitri looked away, realizing only too late how obscene a proposal he'd made.
     "I know what you meant, Dimitri." Arkay stroked Mitka's throat and chin. Mitka relaxed even more, resting the top of his head flat against Dimitri's chest. "He doesn't know what we do or care, does he?"
     "No," Dimitri shook his head. "He doesn't know." Dimitri rubbed gently under Mitka's elbows. The dragon splayed his arms, giving him better access.
     "Have you ever physically masturbated?" Arkay's question caught him entirely off guard.
     "Yes," he said, then blushed. "Um, well ..."
     Arkay chuckled. "No, I wanted to know if you were maturing properly. Sometimes Sharm Lords can get a little stuck on intercourse, to the detriment of their overall development. I, too, ascended myself at my establishment, so I know a bit more of what to look for. Although my father was not the one who helped me learn about my body."
     "I thought you were Sergei trained, like I was."
     "Ah, but as I'm sure you're well aware, my father was old Sharm Lord Sergei." An ancient pain crossed behind his eyes.
     "It seems so many Sergei fathers do not do as well by their sons as they possibly could." Dimitri resettled Mitka on his lap, incidentally rearranging blankets disarrayed by the inevitable result of petting Mitka right after transfer.
     "Ah, your words prove you Sergei more than any blatant power." Arkay chuckled, rubbing Mitka so wonderfully under the chin, Dimitri had to rearrange himself this time, rather than the bedding.
     "Although my true father has been wonderful." Dimitri reined in a tremor of worry. Where was Vayer?
     "He's curled up with your mother. I could have sworn they'd stop sleeping together like puppies in a basket as they aged." Arkay shook his head. "He'd wanted to be awake when you woke, but Darya had other ideas."
     "He should be sleeping when he can." Dimitri ran through, in his mind, his frantic splinting of Vayer's lower leg. "A moment." He held up his hand when he felt Arkay begin to say something. "I'm going to have to go back in and rebreak the third and fourth metatarsals. I didn't get them properly aligned last night."
     Arkay's laughter rocked him, and Mitka, back. Mitka swiped at Arkay in protest, claws fully extended. "Oh, hush," he swatted Mitka hard enough to nearly knock him off the bed. Only those outstretched claws saved him from a fall. "You aren't hurt." He glared at Mitka, who glared right back.
     "It isn't a laughing matter." Although Dimitri knew Arkay'd done something, or he'd have been serious.
     "I had wondered how long it would take you to find your mistake."
     "I don't have room for mistakes."
     "That attitude nearly murdered your sire."
     "Then perhaps he should have died."
     "No." Arkay's gray eyes were as hard as stone. "Many, many more people would have died if he did. Perhaps even Rodina. The hardest lesson any child of Sergei, talented or no, has to learn is survive their own errors."
     "Even when their patients don't?" Dimitri knew his face showed his doubt.
     "Even when." Arkay swallowed heavily. "I've had more men and women die under my hands than I can count. And the vast majority of them were people I'd tried my hardest to save."
     "The others?" He asked. Arkay was silent. "I wish I could have been the Archangel's heir in truth. To paint and write and draw for my time, not risk people's lives on the chance I might not be at my best."
     "Dimitri, love, we all try our best." Arkay took both of Dimitri's hands in his. "Yes, following in Chernoye's footsteps would keep you safe. You'd risk nothing in making your way in the world by your art." He looked upward. On the wall, Dimitri could see prints made from the waxes he'd sold Vayer. "You're certainly good enough at it."
     "But what of people like Vayer?" Dimitri didn't know which way he was asking this question. He'd almost crippled his own father in his negligence. He put his face in his hands, not wanting Arkay to see the sudden horror on his features. "I'm no good at healing."
     "Dimitri!" Arkay pulled his hands away. "Listen to me." Blue-gray eyes bore into his own. No matter how he tried, he couldn't look away. "He will be fine. I caught the error before the bones set."
     "But what about next time. What if it isn't simply bones in the feet, but what if I leave a swab or a clamp in someone's body? What if I misjudge a dose and kill someone? What if I ...?"
     "Hush," Arkay put his finger to Dimitri's lips. "I've probably done all those things and worse. Sometimes I don't know why patients died under my care." He took a deep breath, old pain deepening the lines on his face until they looked painted in with black ink. "But many more people would have died if I'd done nothing."
     "How do you know?" Dimitri cried, wanting to push away the knowledge, the responsibility of it all.
     "You never do." Arkay pulled him into his arms. The spicy, sweet scent of him brought back more memories than he could deal with. Dimitri remembered climbing into Arkay's lap with one of his toy renSimes and asking him to give it selyn to heal; remembered hiding behind Arkay's skirts and then falling backward as he turned to introduce Dimitri to his sire for the first time in his role as healer; remembered bringing the broken winged sparrow to him to be healed Dimitri'd found in the forest outside the Fatima townhouse. "Oh, little love," Arkay crooned. "Oh, hush, my pretty one."
     "I'll be fine." Dimitri took a deep, gulping breath. Then another. But the shudders and tears wouldn't stop. Soon they soaked the shoulder of Arkay's black shirt.
     "You will." Arkay crooned a lullaby, one Dimitri knew Arkay'd remembered from his own childhood. Soon he was wondering how many generations of Sergei Sharm Lords had learned the same lullaby, in the same way. "I don't know, Dimitri, I don't know. Ten, twenty, thirty, maybe more. Does it really matter?"
     "No," he shook his head, his nose all stuffed up and hurting. It didn't seem right to heal it, so he sniffled.
     "Have a handkerchief." Arkay handed him one of his own, edged in black and with an 'ah' entwined with an 'el'.
     "Neither of these initials quite work for me." Dimitri wiped away the tears spangling his vision.
     "No, they don't. But they do suit me. Eventually Diomid will realize what suits him may well not suit his child."
    
     In the weeks after the attack on Vayer's life, Darya struggled to discover who had burned the timbers that had collapsed. Certainly she mourned the loss of Liutvin. He'd been quite bright and very good at expediting freight on the crowded confines of Mir's two piers. After the incident, she'd gone through the piers and loading docks examining all weight bearing members with exacting scrutiny.
     She'd found nothing. Even the charred timbers she'd found at the scene of the accident had vanished by the next morning, to be replaced with good ones.
     "No, you didn't imagine them." Dimitri was paler than she'd ever known him, even as a child. He'd spent every afternoon in the salle, practicing with Arkay, Vayer or Nashen. Often enough all three at once. "Those timbers had been burned."
     "The only probable suspect we have is Khristov." Darya remembered very little of her half brother. The only thing she remembered for certain was his brooding isolation from everyone and everything else. He'd never been a one to join in the children's parties or outings above. Nor had he every involved himself in any of the group entertainments at all, really. "I know he's not stupid enough to do something like this when he's so obviously the most likely person to have done it."
     "There are no other Kirovich alive?" Dimitri leaned back in his chair, hissing as he stretched his long, long legs out on the divan. He was still growing. Growing faster than Darya could believe. He'd already topped a hundred and eighty cents and was still growing. With all the physical labor he'd been doing, he'd also been gaining weight at an astonishing rate.
     "Let me get you some oil." Darya fetched the clove and camphor oil she saved for sore muscles out of her medicine chest. "I'll put it on."
     "Mama," Dimitri smiled at her, his expressive lips looking so very much like his sire's Darya flashed back for a moment to the one time she'd managed to trick Diomid into seeing her as a woman, not a Gen. It had been worth it. "If you insist."
     "You, my lad, have to learn to duck better." Darya worked around the massed bruises marring the young man's shins and knees. The ones on his thighs were even more gruesome, black at the center with a number of them radiating fine red lines of deep bruising. "Why don't you have Arkay heal these?"
     "Because I don't have the selyn to spare, really." He rested his head on the back of the chair. "Besides, it isn't like I can't block the pain."
     "But they look horrible." Darya had always figured if she had to fight physically, all was lost anyway, so she'd learned to fight nagerically and let Vayer protect her body with steel. "I don't like to see you so badly marred."
     "I know, mama." He sighed, smiling down at her. "But I can't let Diomid win. Not without a fight."
     "Why not?" She cocked her head. "Take your fall and apologize."
     "I have to be Sergei." His jaw clenched. With each passing week he looked more like his sire and Arkay. "Its something I have to do."
     "Not paint?" Darya'd never teased Dimitri for his passion for art. Allah knew few enough people could pursue their dreams in this day and age. She knew she'd have chosen the life of a scholar and writer if Vayer hadn't taken her out of the Kirov sharm to be his partner, for better or for worse. "You are quite good at it."
     "Arkay said the same thing." Dimitri's hands cupped the arms of the chair. Even from here, Darya could see the faint marks of old knife nicks and accidental needle sticks. She'd asked Arkay about them at one time and he'd replied, "When you're trying to stick sharp objects into Simes, you're going to get cut, stabbed and sometimes thrown across the room. Its all part of being a healer."
     "He's a good man, Dimitri. You could do worse than listen to him." Darya almost goofed and added the word now. Arkay hadn't always been so sensible about his offspring's behavior. Particularly Vayer's.
     "I listened." Slitted blue-gray eyes looked down into hers. Dimitri's were a shade darker than his kins', but they were still the same hue as all of the other Sergei Sharm Lords Darya'd ever met.
     "Are you going to do what he asked?"
     "No," Dimitri's whimsical smile crossed his face. It was a gesture Darya didn't know the origin of. Although she'd seen the same look on Valentine Kirovich's and the thought made her tremble slightly inside. She'd grown up with Valentine as her Lord at Kirov and at one time, fancied herself in love with the beautiful Lord Kirov, even if he had been her half brother.
     "Why not?"
     "Because he didn't ask me to do anything. He only gave me things to think about." Dimitri picked up one of the arm covers she'd tatted last week. "I do wish I could make things like this." He spread the fine lace over his huge hand.
     "I wish I could heal like you do." She finished rubbing the warming oil into her son's legs. "Come on, off with the rest of the clothes. I want to do the rest of you."
     "I ..." he turned bright red, pale skin showing off just how embarrassed he was.
     "I know you aren't wearing anything under your breeches, Dimitri." Her lips twitched as she fought not to smile. "It isn't as if I haven't seen you naked before."
     "But I'm ..." he put his hands over his wrists.
     "Yes?" The grin was running around like a mad thing, frantic to escape. "And I do know exactly what you do every morning."
     "Mama!" His blushes turned the whole ambient crimson. Even Mitka was turning red.
     "So don't worry about it." She swatted an unbruised part of his thigh. "I could care less about your body, other than the fact it has to hurt. Come on, lets get you patched up."
     "Yes mama." He submitted with good grace ... finally. "I love you, mama."
     "I love you, my son." She looked over her shoulder as she led him to the bed. "And I know you will chose to do the right thing for everyone, yourself included."
     "How do you know that?" He lay down on the bed, arms over his head. His whole back was mottled with dozens of bruises, from ones smaller than her little finger, to huge things broader than her whole hand. What had they been doing to him? Beating him with sticks? "When I don't duck fast enough, yes."
     "Because I know you are a good man and a good person." She kissed his shoulder. "Now turn over so I can do your other side. I promise not to tease you about forgetting to wear underwear."
     "Too late." He laughed, tugging a bit of the blanket with him. "But you have seen it all before. And I am Gen, like you."
     "Exactly," she rubbed more of the oil into what had to be horribly sore muscles. "Besides, if it weren't to the death, I'd be the first one cheering you on in giving your sire a good thumping. He gets too big for his breeches and no one else is willing to take him on."
     "All I want is to be part of Sergei, mama. Is that too much to ask?"
     "No, m'lad. Never." She sighed, wishing she knew what to do, what to say. "Its never too much to ask to be yourself."

Chapter 18


    Dimitri winced inside whenever he saw Vayer walk. It had been three weeks since the accident and still his foot hurt. He knew he'd lamed his father with his haste. If he'd taken his time, been sure of what he'd been doing, and not so desperate for oblivion, his father would be sound by now.
     "No." Vayer tipped Dimitri's chin up with one dorsal. "I don't blame you for weakening the timbers that murdered Liutvin and had been meant to murder me."
     "I ..."
     "No," Vayer shook his head, dark eyes level. "Yes, it hurts. But I'm rather grateful I'm alive for it to hurt." Dimitri's cheeks burned in a blush. Such faint praise shamed him to his nager. Even Mitka was avoiding Vayer's eyes. "Look at me." They both looked up. "I love you, my son. You could not be expected to perform such an exacting procedure within minutes of transfer."
     "I should have."
     "Shoulds don't put selyn on a Sime's laterals." One corner of his father's mouth quirked upward in a grin. "Besides, I can certainly move well enough to thump you in the salle."
     "True," Dimitri fought down his own answering grin.
     "Do you want me to touch your ribs to remind you?"
     "No," Dimitri said quickly. Today had been a particularly painful lesson in dodging side kicks. He'd ended up with three cracked ribs and the breath knocked out of him for the rest of the afternoon. The ribs had healed with a minimum of selyn, the humiliation still stung. "Thank you again for the training."
     "It isn't like you didn't study when you were younger." Vayer stood on his toes and kissed Dimitri's brow. "You tried."
     "But I wasn't very motivated."
     "No, you weren't." Vayer rested his hand on Dimitri's shoulder. "Although I am sorry it had to come to this to get you to learn to fight."
     "Me too, papa." Dimitri wished he could lean on his father again, as he'd done so often as a child.
     "You're a Sharm Lord, of course you can lean on me." Vayer opened his arms. It was only minutes until the guards opened the doors, and he didn't want to muss his makeup, but Dimitri couldn't resist. He threw himself into Vayer's arms, glad he couldn't cry for being after turnover. "You're low this month, Dimitri."
     "I know." He carefully nuzzled his face in Vayer's hair. He could no longer hear his father's heartbeat when holding him and missed it dreadful.
     "Listen for the beat of my selyn, my son." Vayer's hand held the back of Dimitri's head. The reminder soothed him, as did the steady tempo of selyn going to warm the life in his father's body. He was alive, so very alive, and Dimitri wanted to cry for the joy of it. He'd come so close to loosing him, just when he was to truly know his father's heart. "Oh, you have my heart, my son, never doubt it."
     "As you hold mine." Dimitri relaxed a bit, warmed by the strength he could feel in his father's arms. His Sime strength. A strength born of whipcord muscle and selyn, not calories. Vayer chuckled softly. "Oh, I do love you."
     "As I love you." He hugged Dimitri so hard his damaged ribs did more than creak.
     "Ow," he protested, but not too hard. His father's strength reassured him as nothing else could. "Lets go in there and give them hell."
     "Lets." Mitka's eyes brightened back up. Dimitri kissed him too, reveling in Mitka's sleek strength as well.
    
     Vayer zlinned the crowd, resisting the urge to put his hand on the hilt of his sword. when he'd taken over Mir, he hadn't had the time to tear down more than the worst of Maryam's excesses. Time in cash or in hours. Gilt angels still loomed over the court and bronze demons snaked along the baseboards.
     The same angels and demons that had made up Maryam's court had mostly come to Mir as well. Only a tiny fraction, the controlling faction, had come from Fatima with Vayer. He'd never been entirely comfortable with the Mir court, particularly as the ambient was always unsettled in a way he'd not known with the other Demense.
     "Welcome to Peace." Vayer always reminded his people of the meaning of their Demense. It seemed to help ... some. "Today I present to the Demense, Dimitri Mirovich Rodina!" It was the best they could come up with.
     "You can't do this!" Nivanya Kirovich came stalking out of the crowd. How she'd hidden her flaming red hair and equally crimson nager was a mystery.
     "Excuse me!" Startled out of all proportion to the event, Vayer lost control of his nager. The ambient roiled over them, sending Mitka hissing for the rafters. Had Nivanya meant to murder him in truth? She certainly had to power to char the timbers from the inside out. "You are trespassing."
     "Not if you're naming him freeholder." She bared her teeth in a parody of a smile. "I call Challenge."
     "You bitch!" Dimitri snarled, turning his ire on her. After having spent so much time practicing the maneuver it looked flawless. Mitka swooped down on her, clasping her shoulders in his talons and backwinging to stay motionless. "How dare you?"
     "You are an unattached Sharm Lord." She stepped forward, high boot heels clicking on the stone floor, scattering sparks from the slate tiles. Only Maryam had such floors, for exactly this reason. Nivanya glided forward, leaving a luminescent wake. The resulting image was spectacular in the dimmed chamber. "I call Challenge on your freedom or demand you submit to my Claim. You will allow the Lords of Russia to attempt to win your hand." Mitka stayed with her, ready to attack at Dimitri's command.
     "You are partnered." Dimitri's shoulders bunched. Vayer was impressed. If Dimitri'd not been his own son, he might have thought of joining the fray to capture him. Allah forgive him, he did think about doing so anyway. "There are none who could take me who are unpartnered."
     "My Uncle is." Her sharp featured face was turned to a mask of fury. "You nearly killed him, Dimitri. Did you really expect to go unpunished?" Mitka mantled, falling away from her. Vayer knew it was because Dimitri'd lost control and didn't want Mitka harming Nivanya against his will, but it also meant he'd lost his advantage over her.
     "Is forcing me on him again worth it?" Mitka licked his lips, showing his fangs clearly. Mitka curled around Dimitri, staring at Nivanya from over Dimitri's shoulder. It was the neutral position they'd taught him, with much swearing and a great deal of patience. At least he was still listening to Dimitri, not savaging Nivanya.
     Nivanya didn't flinch. "No." She shook her head. "But you will be partnered properly. Kirov will not withstand your freedom past the end of the month."
     "I will not be high field." Dimitri backed a step, putting his hand to Mitka's crest. "We won't be ready."
     "Then more than just a handful will be able to test your willingness to submit to your Mother's rule and law." Her voice rasped. "I do plan on trying you, Sharm Lord Sergei."
     "NO!" This time he did stumble, nearly falling to his knees. "I am not." Mitka flailed the air with his wings, buffeting the ambient into wild whirlwinds.
     "You will be." Her smile widened. "I would see Sergei held by my partner, Sharm Lord."
     "What of Ilyan?" Vayer came up and supported Dimitri. Mitka quivered, for fear or eagerness Vayer had no idea. But Ilyan was his brother and Vayer would not abandon him.
     "I support my Lord's decision." He came out of the shadows to stand behind her. Ilyan didn't have to stand to one side of his Lord, but rather towered over her, with his hands on both her shoulders. The trust evident in the stance made Vayer's blood run cold. If Nivanya had irritated Ilyan at all, she'd not let him hold her in any position to make an easy kill. "We will have the next Sharm Lord Sergei at Kirov."
     "Because he harmed Khristov Kirovich? Without intent, malice or legal wrong?" Vayer knew he was gripping Dimitri's shoulder too hard, but couldn't stop. Mitka rubbed his cheek against the back of Vayer's wrist, making his arms tighten instantly. His body knew Mitka's touch and desired it almost as much as Darya's. Almost.
     "You can not join in the Claiming, my brother." Ilyan's smile was as fierce as his partner's. What madness was this? "Oh, I am not mad at all. Dimitri is a prize to be fought for and won."
     "You did this now so I couldn't." Vayer's hand went numb. Having had Dimitri last month, he couldn't try to Claim him this month. Only if Dimitri won his matches, could Vayer then take him as his own. It was no longer a case of incest; Dimitri was his Sharm Lord. "I will not let this farce take place."
     "You may not stop it, even as Lord and Ruler. Not unless you wish for the incident with Mitkya to become common knowledge among all the Demense." Nivanya's emerald green eyes bore into his. "I know what happened with Tasha."
     "Blast you, Nivanya." Vayer hissed, wanting to rend her limb from limb. "I can second my son without your interference."
     "As is rightful in the challenge." She tipped her head, eyes still tight. "How long do you think you can stand against both Diomid and Khristov."
     Vayer felt all the blood run from his face. He'd seen Diomid's power. He'd seen the older man change the outcome of the future while it was still unknown. He'd seen Diomid Veiled in black demanding the death of dozens of people at the Veiled's whim. "Shen you, Nivanya."
     He raised his hands to the roof. All eyes followed his gesture, all but Dimitri's he as still glared at Nivanya, Mitka's fangs bared and jaws wide in fury. But Mitka stayed his anger at Dimitri's command, even as he writhed in obvious desire to rend and kill. "In one week, we will meet at Kirov to determine the Claiming of unbound Sharm Lord Dimitri Sergeyevich!"
     Dimtiri turned on him, eyes narrowed. "I am no child of Diomid's." He snarled, as softly as falling snow. "Hear me out, Lord and Sharm Lord Kirov, people of Peace, as the heavens witness my oath, I will never submit my honor, my justice, my nager, my duty to any Lord!" His voice rose as he spoke until the rafters echoed with it. Thank Allah his voice hadn't cracked.
     Nivanya paled, her hand going to her throat. Ilyan's eyes darkened and he turned his face away for a moment. Vayer wanted to ask his brother if he were proud of having brought another Sharm Lord so low as be fought over like chattel. But Ilyan's mind was closed to his, a blank gray wall.
     "You are a Sharm Lord, powerful, yet incomplete without your Lord." She stepped forward, Ilyan still holding her. "You speak without knowing the truth of your words."
     "I will not bow to you, Lord Kirov." Mitka snarled, his words coming from Dimitri's mouth. "I will never submit to you."
     "Then you will submit to some other Lord, Dimitri. You will give your selyn to the one who bends that stubborn neck of yours."
     "I will not bend it to thee, Nivanya."
     Her slap echoed off the walls, as loud as breaking stone. "You are Gen, Dimitri. You will submit."
     A crimson handprint blazed beneath Dimitri's burning eyes. "I will never give my selyn against my will." He stroked Mikta's jaw. "Any Lord who tries will die at Mitka's fangs."
     "You will murder to save your nonexistent virginity? Don't be such a silly Sharm Lord." Nivanya's purr grated on Vayer's nerves. "It isn't like you haven't had transfer before, and liked it. Your body knows what it wants." Her gaze turned to Mitka. "Isn't that right?" A sweep of midnight black need swept through her nager.
     Mitka's fangs swung forward, selyn flowing freely from the venom ducts.
     "You know what Simes are for, don't you, Mitka?" Nivanya brushed the razor sharp fangs with her tentacles. Mitka shuddered all over and then stroked against them, giving in to her caress. "You will not be even as reluctant as all this in a week."
     "I will be able to resist." Dimitri was trembling, though.
     "I don't think so." Nivanya brought her wrist to her face and licked it. "So very sweet, Mitka." She crooned. Mitka gave her a lazy, half lidded stare, as if entranced. "I would share more than this kiss with thee."
     "Enough Nivanya!" Vayer stepped forward. "I won't have you seducing my son in front of all these people."
     "No, I'll do it in a week, when I'm ripe and he's ready for me." She made an extremely rude gesture with her tentacles. "Oh, I can take him in all ways, and I bet he's good."
     "I wouldn't know." Vayer drew ten cents of his sword from its sheath. "Get out!"
     "Such insecurity." She turned away from him, giving him her back. Vayer trembled with the desire to cut her down like a dog. But he wouldn't let her win her little game. Besides, he had no recourse to murder. She'd done nothing so illegal as to deserve death. And she was the only Lord for Kirov. "Next week, Lord and Ruler Vayer. I just hope afterward no one calls you Lord, Ruler and Pervert." Even Ilyan blanched at this. But the comment was so extreme, so Nivanya, it broke Vayer's anger.
     Dimitri was still sputtering like a wet cat long after the Lords Kirov had left the room. There was nothing Vayer could really do. "I think we'll cut back on your training this week, Dimitri." He leaned to the side so no one could hear them. Vayer'd decided to hold low court anyway, with Dimitri at his side as he'd been since their transfer. It was an excellent way for the lad to really learn how to run a Demense, as he'd gotten himself so tangled in the books at Sergei, he'd not learned much.
     "I have to know more about how to fight." Mitka's tail was still lashing in his agitation.
     "You know as much as is practical for us to teach you at this point. You have to get your field up and heal at least some of your bruises." Vayer put his hand on Dimitri's arm. "And your cracked bones. I know we've caught more than your ribs."
     "Yes, my right tibia, my left ulna and my left collarbone were actually broken." White lines formed around his mouth.
     "Ins'Allah, Dimitri!" Vayer was stunned. "I didn't know we'd done that much real damage to you."
     "Better bruises now ..."
     "Yes, yes," he waived his hand, knowing too well the rest of the line. "Bruises yes, broken bones, no."
     "I have to know." His face was still tight.
     "If you die, it has to be because Diomid is that good." Vayer felt the far too familiar sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.
     "Yes, not because I was too lazy to at least make him work for it." Dimitri's gaze was unfocused. Both he and Mitka had their faces pointed to the front of the room, but Vayer knew they were looking at nothing.
     "If you turn this Challenge into a farce. If you humiliate Diomid completely. Do you really think you will have any choice but to kill him?" Vayer put his hand on his son's wrist. The skin was cold, as cold as death, not hot like a Sharm Lord ready for transfer ... or a fight.
     "I want options, otyet." He sucked in a deep breath, his stomach and then chest expanding to barrel proportions. Dimitri blew it out explosively and turned to him. "I love you, and I love him. I don't want him dead, but I won't give up my freedom for anyone."
     "Not even Mitka?" Vayer was a bit startled at his own insight.
     While Dimitri stood, Mitka a glass statue, Vayer raised his hand. "We have work to do this evening. Enjoy yourselves, children of Mir. As there are no other issues to be dealt with, we will meet again in five days." Vayer'd acquired the habit of frequent, untransfer related court sessions. It kept tensions in Mir from racheting out of control. Mir required such delicate handling. Vayer only hoped Dimitri could find his balance in time before he came to require as much delicacy as Mir for the rest of his life.

Chapter 19


     Dimitri smoothed the ribbons over his forearms. He'd never worn high court garb before. At Year's Turning, he'd barely had time to throw on a suitable overtunic, he'd been so busy. He rubbed at the hinges of his jaw, sympathetic ache making his whole face hurt. "I don't want to kill."
     Mitka rubbed his head against Dimitri's cheek. He'd been nearly silent this last week, only speaking of trivial things and pensive the rest of the time. "I love thee." Mitka's gold eyes met his own. In them Dimitri could see his reflection with a shining halo of selyn surrounding him.
     "Thank you for telling me to recover." He held out his hands, noting how fast he'd healed. There were advantages to no longer being a child.
     "So the next time a Sime clobbers you its on healed flesh." Vayer took his hands. For the first time, Dimitri realized his father had to look up to him. The knowledge stole his breath for a moment. "Yes, my cookoo, you are bigger than I am."
     "I ..." Dimitri turned his face away, rubbing it against Mitka's burning jaw. "Its strange."
     "Indeed." Vayer's lips turned up in a smile so reminiscent of Karola's his heart skipped a beat. Would she be here tonight? "I doubt it." But even so, Dimitri saw the twinkle in his father's eye. "However, she might be. I don't think there's a Sime over twenty-four who wouldn't want you in their bed."
     Dimitri blushed, need notwithstanding. "We're not so attractive as all that. Besides, even a Claiming Challenge is dangerous. I could ... we could kill without meaning to."
     "If you don't risk, you can't win." He kissed Dimitri's cheek. "And you both are a prize well worth risking one's life." He then kissed Mitka's. A long pink tongue flicked out and stroked Vayer's face from chin to forehead. "Wet."
     "Very," Dimitri snorted. "Although he's not the only one." He brushed one fingertip, in the air, over his father's forearms. The roniplin glands were already so full the skin was tight and red over them. A small trickle of roniplin traced over his father's strong wrist. He could smell the sweetness of it.
     "And you are going to make me quite unpresentable." He tugged a handkerchief from his shirt. "I came prepared."
     Dimitri took the square of cloth from him and tried to clean up the mess.
     "You aren't helping." Vayer sighed, stilling Dimitri's hand. "I want you, even though its wrong. My body doesn't know you're kin."
     "Neither does mine." He watched Mitka sway uneasily, the tension in his body tightening Dimitri's to trembling. "He wants you." Dimitri nodded at Mitka.
     "You will not be alone, Dimitri." Vayer put away his handkerchief and took Dimitri's arm. "Although if you could keep Mitka from licking the back of my neck, I'd really appreciate it."
    
     Dimitri braced himself. A thunder clap startled Mitka into a screech of protest. Dimitri soothed him as Veiled Sharm Lord Cadek Sergeyevich called court to attention. The room was hot with selyn and too many bodies in close proximity. The scents of perfume and human sweat burned in Dimitri's sinuses, even partially numbed as they were with need.
     "Ins'Allah." Vayer breathed, his hand tightening for a moment on Dimitri's arm.
     "I can't speak from here, Vayer." Dimitri debated prying his father's tentacles off his arm. He was growing lightheaded with the heat and cloying scent of beeswax candles. "Thank you." He muttered under his breath when he'd managed to free himself.
     "I call Challenge right! Only the one who can take Sharm Lord Dimitri may have him." Dimitri raised his hand, multicolored ribbons proclaiming his status of no Demense. Cadek's nager froze for a brief instant.
     "If you claim no Demense, then you can not Challenge Lord Kirov's Claim." His baritone was choked.
     "I am Rodina's child and of the Demense. Sharm Lord Serge will not take me." Dimitri kept his chin up, fighting the attention of so many Lords on his nager. They were all zlinning him, or at least it felt as if they were. Ghostly fingers twined in his short hair and trailed over the bare skin showing between the loose ribbons on his arms.
     For the first time in his life, Dimitri felt how bare a Sharm Lord could be without his kador. Vayer had insisted he wear breeches and boots, as if he were going to his handfasting. Looking at the hot eyes and wilder nagers of the Simes surrounding him, Dimitri knew this might as well be his handfasting. Rage at being forced into consenting to his own rape tore through him and as one, the gathered Simes slunk back, fear tracing through the ambient like heat lightning on a summer's day.
     "Then why do you protest Nivanya's Claim, young Sharm Lord?" Cadek's voice hummed with the harmonics of the Veiled fellowship. A tug at Dimitri's soul made him gasp. He looked up into the blank mask of Cadek's Veil and wondered what it would be like to join the Fellowship. The ebony seemed to part and he looked into a reflection of his own features.
     From the moment he'd appeared, Dimitri'd known Cadek was one of old Sharm Lord Sergei's get. He hadn't known Cadek was Diomid's twin.
    
     Arkay was too old for this nonsense. "None of these children can stand up to Mitka." He grumbled under his breath.
     "Dimitri can." Nashen laid his hand on Arkay's wrist. The old, familiar contact settled him slightly. Dimitri stood in the middle of the floor, looking up at the Veiled Sharm Lord. Then he paled, stepping back as if struck. The ambient rocked with his reaction, crackling with enough selyn and power to make the stones beneath their feet tremble.
     "Something has startled him." Arkay wished he could tell what Dimitri'd seen. Whatever it was, was not good. "Something about the Veiled one."
     "I don't recognize it." Nashen shook his head. "But then it has been many years since I spoke with any of the Veiled."
     "Its been more recent than that for me, but I don't recognize it either." Although something in him wanted to call the creature he. Some of the Veiled were truly sexless, others chose to act as if they were, this one felt quite sincerely male. "Something seems familiar about the set of his shoulders, though."
     "His?" Nashen's field prickled in question. "Yes, he. And he does seem familiar."
     "First in order, Mir!" The Veiled one called out. The heavy baritone of his voice cut through the chorus of the Fellowship.
     "He's Sergeyevich." Arkay knew that voice almost as well as his own. It was the perfect reflection of Diomid's.
     "No wonder Dimitri is still in shock. He'd have to have known exactly who that is as soon as he opened his mouth." As always, Nashen's nager perked up at the mention of any Sergei Sharm Lord. Arkay thought it was cute, despite the severity of the situation.
     "I call challenge!" A young woman's voice called out from the mass of people surrounding the Mir dias. She looked to be very young, hardly past change over. Her body still held a layer of baby fat but she looked to grow nearly as large as Karola. Dimitri whirled, hand holding Mitka to him. The woman blanched. "I would Claim you, Dimitri Sergeyevich!"
     "You are a child." His brows furrowed. She stomped her foot. Mitka blinked, cocking his head to the side.
     "You are no older." Her hiss was that of a kitten threatening a plow horse. "I am lord Tulna and you'll respond to my Claim or forfeit." The look on Dimitri's face was unforgettable. His eyes nearly crossed as he looked down at her, even though they weren't that different in height.
     "Get on with it then." His scorn rasped a chuckle from Arkay's throat.
     Tulna paled, her tentacles twining around her fingers. She'd at least had the sense to wear bracers.
     "Challenge is rightful. Into the circle with you, lord Tulna." The Veiled one drawled her title. From behind the Fatima dias Arkay could see the little lord's knees shake. Her fingers where white beneath the pressure of her own tentacles.
     "The lord can make roniplin." Arkay gave her at least that much respect.
     "Dimitri isn't going to have to break a sweat." Nashen's comment was both obvious and prophetic.
     "Begin!" The marshall called. Tulna rushed Dimitri. He just stood there, as if stunned. Her tentacles lashed around his wrists ... from the front. Dimitri blinked down at her as she jumped up toward his face. He kept his arms stiff and her body down.
     "I'm going to take you." She growled, still trying to lift someone half again her mass, with no leverage.
     "No, I don't think so." Dimitri kissed her brow. Tulna fell senseless from his hands, not dead, just stunned. He smiled sadly and bowed to the Veiled one. "My opponent is no longer able to continue. I claim my victory."
     "Challenge defeated." The black clad figure's voice held a chuckle. Dimitri knelt at Tulna's side and tapped her cheek. After a moment her eyes blinked open and a soft smile crossed her face.
     "I had to try." Her expression spoke louder than words.
     "I'm flattered." Dimitri kissed her brow again before helping her to her feet.
     "I think that's nearly as silly as when I challenged for Karola." Nashen's field gleamed with good humor. "But Dimitri's going to have to do a lot more work this evening than they did."
     "I'm afraid you're right." A second challenger had come forth from Mir. An older man this time, with a sprinkling of silver in his shoulder length brown hair. The man's eyes were also an exotic brown. Dimitri tipped his head at the lord, as if contemplating this one. A ripple of oily greed traced over the man's nager.
     "Begin."
     This time Dimitri didn't wait. He was on the lord before his opponent could set his field. There was a crack of bone on marble and it was over. "Challenge defeated." Dimitri growled, Mitka's hackles up. Both their eyes blazed in indignation.
     "Challenge defeated by force." The Veiled one's head tipped down. "Remove the body."
     "He's not dead."
     "He'll wish he were when he recovers. Remove it." The command knifed through the gathered Simes. Two of their number scurried out of the crowd and grabbed the lord's limp body. Arkay winced at the psychospatial disorientation he'd go through waking up.
     Another lord stepped out of the crowd at Mir. Arkay counted over a dozen lords at Mir alone. Not to mention three Lords. "Ins'Allah." He breathed, blood suddenly running cold. "Are all these lords here for Dimitri?"
     "Yes," Nashen's tentacles knotted in their sheathes beneath Arkay's fingertips. He brushed his hand over the tiny platinum rings Nashen still wore on them. "Flattering."
     "Frightening." Arkay watched his grandson stand straight and tall in the midst of the circle. Lord after lord tried to claim his hand. Usually Dimitri simply let them wear themselves out against Mitka's strength. But some of them he'd had to strike. With each blow, sweat beaded on his brow and dampened his shirt.
     "I am Lord Salkov." A tall, amazingly handsome Lord stepped out from the shadows.
     "There is no Demense of Salk anymore." Dimitri turned on him. Arkay could see his deep breathing from here as he strained to catch up with the work he'd done so far. So far he'd only survived the challenges of one Demense.
     "There will be when I take you as my Sharm Lord." He strode into the circle as if he owned it.
     "And if I kill you?" Dimitri was still gasping slightly. Arkay knew he wouldn't last the evening.
     "You'll have to kill me to win."
     "Begin!"
     "Never," Dimitri lunged this time. Sarkov sidestepped. The quickness of his movement startled everyone from the reaction of the ambient. Dimitri must have felt it. He dropped to the floor and rolled before Sarkov could pin him.
     Dimitri crouched, Mitka balancing in the air over his head. Arkay held his breath. Sarkov's tentacles twined in lazy patterns around his hands. Mitka danced aside as a net of light reached for his wings. Dimitri's eyes widened.
     Sarkov rushed them. This time it was Dimitri's turn to sidestep. But the Lord was too fast. Light flashed off midnight black hair. A crack of bone breaking froze Arkay's heart. He couldn't tell what had happened.
     Then Sarkov laughed, his hand twined in Dimitri's hair ... from behind. "Will you concede?"
     "Have I any choice?" Dimitri's face was wet with sweat. Mitka was gray and glassy with shock. Dimitri's right shin was bent where there was no joint. Blood seeped through his boot to pool beneath his heel.
     "No," Sarkov's nager softened for a moment. "Yield and I will not demand your selyn."
     "Now," Dimitri clenched his jaw. Arkay could feel his agony on the ambient, carried by the weight of selyn in the room. His heart cried out to him to heal Dimitri's injury.
     "Now," Sarkov said. "I will not lie to you."
     One of Dimitri's eyebrows raised. The reflection of one of Diomid's familiar gestures made Arkay's breath catch. "Make your decision before you pass out, Dimitri." Arkay muttered. If he fainted, he'd have no choice but to submit both his nager and body to Sarkov when he awoke.
     "Then take me." Dimitri held out his hands. The right was bloody and both shook.
     "Not like this." Sarkov bent down and scooped Dimitri up off the floor. Mitka flew up into the air, his eyes wide. "I will never force any Sharm Lord. Even my wife." Then he turned to the Velied one. "I Claim Sharm Lord Dimitri Sergeyevich Sarkov to be my bonded partner until we both shall choose otherwise, or we both are dead."
     "You will not free him with your death?" One gloved hand reached out to the two. Blood continued to drip off Dimitri's heel. The regular dropping sound tied Arkay's stomach in knots. He stepped forward, ready to heal his grandson the instant the ritual was over.
     "No, for he would kill me in a heartbeat if I gave him the option." Coffee dark eyes and a nose an eagle would be proud of gave Arkay the last information he'd required to place where Sarkov came from. He was of the tribes, not the Rus. How could he have been such a fool to let Sarkov claim his grandson? "Stay back." Sarkov held out his hand, tentacles extended toward Arkay. "I know your kind."
     "He is my blood, my selyn, my child." Arkay felt cold sweat trickle down his flanks. Nashen's hand was burning hot on his own chilled fingers. "Let me heal him."
     "He'll not have to move so fast again."
     "Shen you, infidel." Arkay snarled, his fingers spread to grab. "He's my kin."
     "Where's his father?" Sarkov's dark eyes held only gloating. "Where's his mother?"
     "I'm his father." Vayer stepped forward, Darya running into the room moments behind. Her face turned the color of ash as she took in the damage done to her son.
     "Do not let your wife whore herself in front of all these people." Sarkov growled, looking Darya up and down as if she were a dancer in the marketplace. "I would not have my wife's mother exposed for all the world to zlin."
     "Then take him inside and let us heal him." Arkay felt Dimitri fading by the moment. He was in too much pain to keep up with the conversation. Soon he'd faint and then they'd be unable to move him at all until he recovered. "Hurry."
     "Sharm Lord Dimitri Sergeyevich Vayerevich Sarkov nee Mir y Sergei has been Claimed by Lord Sarkov as Sharm Lord to his Demense. Until death or violation of a Lord's vows to his Sharm Lord, Lord Sarkov shall have dominion and possession of Sharm Lord Dimitri's honor, selyn and obedience." Then the veiled added in a tiny voice. "Forgive me my trespass, son of my twin."

Chapter 20


     Dimitri opened his eyes to a dark, shrouded room. The walls throbbed and pressed in on him. His chest ached for not being able to breathe. Panic clenched at his heart. Footsteps pounded on the floor, but he didn't hear them.
     He sat up. His vision grayed as pain shot up from his shin, to his groin, to the base of his skull. The coffin of a room swam around him and he fought the pain and disorientation long enough not to vomit. Mitka was huddled in a tiny ball at the foot of the bed. His wings were shivering frantically, even though Dimitri knew he had to have enough selyn stored up to be overheated.
     With one shaking hand, he reached out to touch him.
     "You don't need to do that." Sarkov's voice shocked him into yanking his hand back. Dimitri turned to see the bedcurtains part. "Now this isn't so bad. Is it?" His speech was now heavily accented by the cadences of the far South.
     "We are still far below ground." Dimitri clenched at the bedclothes, hoping they'd still for a moment before he disgraced himself. "I do not like being kept in a stone cage, Sarkov."
     "Call me Obran." His dark eyes seemed to soften. "Does your leg still hurt?"
     "You bastard." Dimitri forced himself to sit. "You refused me healing."
     "You have no requirement to run again."
     "I want to." He glared at Obran. "Give me at least the freedom of my own body."
     "It will heal well enough on its own."
     "Not without traction." Dimitri threw the blankets back, ignoring his own nudity. Mitka squawked a protest and then tumbled out through the coverings. "The bones will never set right like this." Dimitri, frustrated, hammered his fist on the featherbed. "And I can't do anything about it myself."
     "You'll never have to do anything about it again, pretty little one." Obran put his hand under Dimitri's chin. "As long as you heal out of the pain."
     "Not with one leg cents shorter than the other. I'll be lame for the rest of my life."
     "I don't care as long as you aren't lame on your back." His dark eyes caught Dimitri's.
     "You won't take me against my will."
     "Oh, eventually it will be your choice to submit yourself to me." His voice purred along Dimitri's nerves. He'd lost a lot of selyn last night, but still his body felt the need he'd denied fulfilling this month. What would it be like in another month, two months? His skin tightened all over, in fear or in disgust he wasn't sure.
     Another wave of nausea ripped through him. "I have to get up." Dimitri braced himself to rise. This at least he could do.
     Obran raised his hands over his head and clapped twice. A pair of slender, delicate looking Simes flitted into the room. Their eyes were as dark as Obran's, and as impenetrable. "Care for the Sharm Lord's requirements."
     "At your will." The taller of the two bowed his head. Dimitri clenched his lips on his rising gorge. When he saw their arms, it was too much.
     "Get me a basin." He croaked, trying to hold back his disgust. For they too had no handling tentacles. Sime eunuchs, they were called. Monstrous, Dimitri called the practice.

Chapter 21


     "What have you done with my son?" Diomid paced the width of the room.
     "You are no longer in Sergei, Sharm Lord." Vayer growled, his own loss gnawing at him. He'd not seen Dimitri since his Claiming. "No one has seen him in over a week." A bit startled, Vayer noted Diomid couldn't hear Vayer's internal monolog. Only when he was horribly upset did he loose his 'hearing'.
     "What happened?" He stopped pacing and looked up at him. For the first time since his son's establishment, his nager showed true concern for the young man.
     "Lord Obran Salkov Claimed him. Dimitri is now Sharm Lord Salkov." Shame at his own inability to protect his son made his eyes burn with unshed tears. He'd managed a transfer of sorts off Darya, but neither of them had been able to consummate it. "Lord Salkov did not zlin to be a Sime to let his Sharm Lord out much."
     "Dimitri will go mad confined to the sharm." Diomid's eyes widened. "He won't survive."
     "Like you give a damn, Diomid." Vayer rose from his seat. "Court is dismissed." He hated dismissing court like this, but Diomid had to hear some things Vayer did not want all of Mir listening to. There was a long, drawn out pause while Mir's children left the hall. At last the double doors clanked shut. The echoing silence of the empty room beat on Vayer's ears.
     Diomid didn't fill the room the way Dimitri had. With or without other people, any room felt warm and comforting with Mitka's watchful presence. Vayer's bootheels struck sparks from the slates. "You drove him to Challenge you and now you claim to care about his mental health?" His voice rose with every word until it echoed off the rafters.
     "I love my son. Whatever he may do. I've raised him to be the best human being I know how." It was Vayer's turn to pace. He wished he could augment, burn off the ache of his last transfer, but he wished to cherish the tiny fraction of selyn he'd carried over from last month. Mitka's selyn.
     "He's my son too." Diomid's eyes were storm gray.
     "You show your love in trying to kill him? You take to your breast the viper who tried to kill me? You only find out he's been taken from us over a week after he'd fought for his life and freedom against all comers? He had over fifty lords and Lords after his selyn, Diomid." Vayer could never forget all those Simes desperate to Claim an unattached Sharm Lord. "All you had to do was hold out your hand and he could have been Sergei's for life."
     "He raped Tasha." The words came out flat, as if by rote.
     "Only if you had pressed charges." Vayer held up his hand. "I never took down the charges against him because you did not file them. Think before you do so."
     "If it can get him back."
     "Nothing but your love could ever reclaim him." Another knife of loss struck at Vayer's heart. He turned his face away. Vayer might not be very post, but he was post enough to cry. "And you could take him from me with a single word." His voice cracked. It was for the best for Dimitri to bond to his sire, at last. Vayer knew he should be happy. It was what would please Dimitri. "He's your heir, Sharm Lord Sergei."
     "He's always been such a tremendous artist. I've seen his work." Diomid's voice was soft, as was his nager. "He has no obligation to Sergei."
     "Like hell, Diomid." Vayer turned on him. Diomid's face blurred with Vayer's unshed tears. "He is Sergei."
     "And I am not?" Diomid drew himself to his full height. No, he didn't have the height of his son, but he was more massive.
     "As he's your son, he's Sergei's." Vayer turned away, hiding his face. He knew he couldn't hide his emotions, but he did not want to force Diomid to deal with them if he chose not to. Diomid's broad, cool hand came to rest on Vayer's shoulder. "I am acting the fool." He tipped his chin up. Bright angels swam in and out of focus.
     "No," Diomid's hand squeezed Vayer's shoulder for a moment. "I have been. I've been a jealous fool."
     "Jealous of what?" Vayer put his hand over Diomid's. His tentacles came out automatically to bind their hands. Vayer'd never had transfer of Diomid, even though he'd found at a number of years ago he'd been promised to the older Sharm Lord in first transfer. Instead he'd gotten his own father.
     "You have Dimitri's love and loyalty."
     "Because I gave those things to him." Vayer's heart ached so badly it wanted to break. "Tzer's so focused on Mikhail I haven't seen him in months. Aliana is gone across the ocean. Dimitri is Sergei to his fingertips and loves his sire to the point where he sees no one else. Shanir is with Tzer and Mikhail, gone for months at a time now. Only Visarin is at home, and he's still in Darya's care most of the time." His tentacles held tight to Diomid's wrist, as if it were a lifeline to some better time.
     "I have no child to follow after me, Diomid. My lady did not chose to bless me with an Heir." Again the damning tears wrenched at his self control. "One for everyone else but me." He took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. "After me, what is left?"
     "Visarin." Diomid's voice was hushed. "Dimitri would follow you."
     "No," Vayer shook his head. "He'll never willingly follow in any other path than Sergei's. Not that he has even so much a chance at happiness as he'd had. He'd been your heir."
     "What happened?"
     "Nivanya proclaimed in an unattached Sharm Lord and tried to Claim him. After over a dozen duels, from Mir alone, Dimitri was exhausted. He was too young for such prolonged discipline. Lord Salkov Challenged him then. After only two exchanges, Salkov broke Dimitri's leg. Double compound, tibia and fibula. He'll be lame for life." Vayer damned himself again for not being able to heal his son.
     "Salkov wouldn't allow you to call me in?!"
     "He wouldn't allow anyone to set the break. All I could do was pull it as straight as I could and seal the skin over it. The bones had broken in more than one place, Diomid." Vayer's stomach churned again as he thought of his son, lame and halt for the rest of his life. "All because I wasn't quick enough!"
     "No," Diomid stepped forward and caught Vayer's other hand. His tentacles twined with Diomid's fingers. "You are not an archangel to heal all wounds instantly."
     "Ah, but I would he were the Archangel's heir now."
     "Chernoye's?"
     "Anything but shackled to Salkov." Vayer's jaw clenched. This time the tears spilled from his eyes and he didn't stop them. "Anything at all."
     "Even dead at his sire's hand."
     "Even dead." Vayer went to his knees. He'd lost his son. Not to death. Not to a lover. Not to his own sire. But to chains and the status of chattel. Vayer had recognized Salkov. He'd seen the man in the Southerner's market. He'd been leveraging to found a new Demense for nearly a decade. With a captive Sharm Lord, he'd get his desire.

Chapter 22


     Dimitri gasped as he finally managed to get the leverage right. After a week of nights he'd escaped the cell Salkov had bound him in, Salkov had bound him to the bed, literally. Every two hours, during the day, cut renSimes would come into his chamber with offerings of food, drink and the chance to relieve himself.
     Utterly humiliated, he'd had to submit to their feathery touches at least in accomplishing the latter. Finally they'd left him alone for the night. Bound, Dimitri had no choice but to stay in the bed. However, bound, Dimitri also had the chance to rebreak and set properly his leg. If he didn't hang himself in the process.
     Bracing himself for the pain, he took a deep breath and launched himself over the side of the bed. There was another thunderous crack and he felt the bones in his leg realign themselves. The sickening feeling of bone sliding through his own flesh nearly gagged him. But at last it was done, even if he was hanging from hands and one foot over the edge of the bed. It was decidedly uncomfortable.
     Blood pooled in his head. Why hadn't he thought to shorten the bonds on his hands. Dimitri let his head fall back, trying to rest the now knotted muscles of his neck. This was a very uncomfortable position, even though the traction on his leg was working, holding the bones in a tenuous alignment. Trying not to think about his growing headache, he sank his awareness into his own body.
     "Hello, Mitka," he paused to scritch Mitka on the head. Mitka'd chosen to hide in Dimitri's mind lest he revenge them both on Obran's worthless hide. Lord Salkov had threatened to force Dimitri, and Mitka, into transfer so he could get an heir. Mitka had told him he could go enjoy the pleasures of shidoni. It was not a politic thing to say.
     Obran had struck Mitka so hard he'd fallen into the world of selyn and been unable to get back to the real world. Dimitri hoped he'd be able to return after transfer, but feared the effect was permanent.
     "I should never have said such a bad thing to your Lord." Mitka's gold eyes were nearly brown. Dimitri knew he was stressed, they both were.
     "I'm only sorry he hurt you." Dimitri kissed Mitka's head.
     "Really?" A sparkle of life came back to Mitka's scales. "Are you telling me the truth?"
     "I'd never lie to thee." Dimitri stroked his only friend in this place. The renSimes who served him only served his body. None of them ever spoke to him, only over him. Emptiness gaped before him, offering him peace.
     "If it weren't for me, you could have been Chernoye's heir."
     "Who told you that?" Dimitri was incensed. "It isn't true."
     "If I weren't so big and dangerous, you'd have been just another sharm lord, free to pursue whatever you wanted." Mitka faded again, his whole body dulling to ash. "I could go."
     "No," Dimitri hugged Mitka to him. "I love thee, Mitka. You are my other half. The part of me with passion and love and desire." He stroked Mitka's strong flanks and frighteningly still tail. "I'm empty and cold without you."
     "You would be at peace." Mitka's first tear burned like acid on the skin of Dimitri's wrist.
     "I'd be at peace in Azrael's arms." For a moment, Dimitri debated calling the angel of death to him. Dimitri knew he could do it. All it would take would be a whispered message along those lines of fate he held in his mind. "But you are unique and wonderful, my Mitka, and I will not take you with me."
     "Even if it is what is best for you?" Mitka looked at him from under lowered eyes.
     "You are what is best for me." He held Mitka close and reopened his eyes. His outward vision was starting to redden with blood pooling in his head, but he'd live. "Could you possible manage to drool on my leg?"
     "Anything," the devotion in Mitka's eyes was frightening. "I'm being good, right, right?" He said over and over again as he scampered the length of Dimitri's suspended body. "Here?"
     "Yes, there," Dimitri wished he'd pass out soon. The pressure building in his skull was brutally painful. But he had to try to direct Mitka's attentions to the break in his leg. "It isn't working. You're going to have to bite me."
     "Bite you?!" Mitka sat upright, his eyes huge. "I can't bite you!"
     "Yes you can, pretty one." He stroked the only part of Mitka he could reach, the dragon's tail. "You can do anything you can imagine, Mitka."
     "I want to imagine biting Obran." He hissed, eyes narrowing to slits for a moment. "I want to bite him and rend his heart to shreds in his chest."
     "Like you did to Khristov?" Dimitri shook his finger at Mitka, trying to chastise him.
     "Better." Mitka growled. "I want him dead, dead, dead."
     "He's not that bad." Dimitri was taken on the curb by Mitka's selyn-thirstiness.
     "He made you his slave." Mitka's gold eyes blazed. "He's tried to cripple you."
     "Then bite me and try to heal some of this damage." Dimitri pounded his fist against the side of the bed. The vibration knocked the basin and pitcher to the edge of the bedside table. Dimitri held his breath as the porcelain teetered on the edge. "Do it Mitka. Do it now!" He knew if the basin fell, he'd have guards in here within moments.
     Mitka struck. Dimitri howled. The sound of the basin crashing to the floor was lost in Dimitri's shriek. Pain greater than any burn blinded him. "Papa, papa, papa, VAYER!!!!" He screamed at last, loosing the fight with his agony.

Chapter 23


     Vayer stopped pacing. Dimitri's shriek of agony seemed to come from the very walls. He put his hands over his ears, knowing the gesture was futile as he made it. A thunderclap shocked him back into awareness. "Its you he's calling for." Diomid grabbed him around the waist.
     "What the hell?" Vayer didn't have time to blink. A horrible, fluid, swooping darkness wrenched him inside out. He'd seen the Veiled teleport. He'd never wanted to do it himself. His feet hit the floor again, with the rest of him reforming over an eternity of sickening disorientation. Vayer retched heavily, unable to reorient himself.
     "Stop that." Diomid yanked his elbow. The shock brought Vayer out of his nightmare of illness and disorientation. Nearly a hundred meters below the city, to the east by southeast, lay an ancient bunker built long before Moskva was revitalized after the mutation. Vayer found himself below that bunker, in caves that had been carved millennia ago from solid stone.
     "Dimitri!" Vayer went to the lad. He could hear Dimitri's breath hissing between his teeth. Vayer's boots crunched on broken pottery. The door slammed open. Light spilled over the nightmare scene. Dimitri was hanging from the bed, broken leg pulled up tight against one bedpost. He tried to pick Dimitri up, put him back on the bed.
     "No," Dimitri managed between huge, gulping sobs. "Leave it for another minute, at least."
     "What happened?" He leaned over his son.
     "Salkov wanted to cripple me. He bound me here against my will."
     "Did he ..." Vayer didn't know if he wanted Salkov up on rape charges.
     "Not yet." Dimitri's lips skinned back in a parody of a grin. "Get back." He waved to both of them. Vayer pulled Diomid back into the shadows and tugged a heavy silk wallhanging over both of them. The renSimes who'd been first on the scene were murmuring to each other.
     "I will free you from Obran if you do not speak." Dimitri's voice was a soundless whisper.
     "Free?!"
     "We are geldings."
     "You will have homes in ..."
     "You will have homes in Sergei." Diomid spoke. "Now hush." Vayer looked at him in surprise. "We have the room and the selyn, Mir does not."
     "No, she doesn't." Vayer returned his attention to the outer room, keeping both their nagers under firm control. This far below ground, the lights were dim at best. Salkov lit a lamp near the door with a taper he'd carried with him. The flickering light only showed Dimitri's predicament in gruesome detail.
     "My poor little Sharm Lord cast himself from his block." Salkov's voice dripped with artificial sympathy. "I'll right him again." Dimitri was panting by this time, his nager black with shock. Or at least Vayer hoped it was only shock.
     "It is, mostly." Diomid spoke directly into his mind. "He's faking a great deal of it." Vayer wanted to sag in relief.
     "You are not at all what I'd expected, Sharm Lord Salkov." Obran put his tentacles under Dimitri's chin after he'd put the lad back up on the bed. Vayer simply prayed Dimitri's leg would stay aligned long enough to set properly this time. Getting him out of here could wait hours, if not days, if it came to that. "I'd have thought you'd have seen reason long before now."
     "You are expecting a Sergei to see reason, not their own swinging emotions?" Dimitri's voice took on a bitter, self depreciating cast.
     "I would do anything for you." Salkov's voice took on a wheedling tone. Vayer didn't dare zlin, but was enough a student of human nature to know the man was lying through his tentacles. "I fought for you."
     "You crippled me, you bastard!"
     Salkov laughed. "Oh, I am no bastard, little Sharm Lord." He purred, running a hand over the bones Dimitri'd broken. Dimitri's breath hissed between his teeth. Vayer tensed himself to spring the instant Salkov touched his son. Vayer couldn't stand to see him injured again. "Oh no. But I did not have the privilege of the Demense to guard my back, either." He growled. "I have one thing for you to do, and then you will be free."
     "I don't have time for your games, Salkov." Dimitri's voice was harsh, as if he'd been breathing smoke for hours.
     "I want you for my daughter." He opened the door. A tiny, slender, red haired Lord with huge green eyes came into the lamplight. Vayer recognized her. She'd asked him for directions to Kirov the morning before the crates had fallen.
     "She's no blood kin of yours."
     "She's Kironova and sane." Salkov pulled the young woman into the room. A flash of crimson flame matched her hair and then vanished as fast as it had appeared. Her tentacles were knotted so deep within their sheathes for a moment Vayer'd thought she too had been gelded. "If you don't breed her, Sergeyevich, and get her pregnant in three months, she too will be gelded and damned to Khristov's fate."
     "Shen you!" Dimitri snarled, yanking at his bonds.
     "Don't fight him, Dimitri." The young woman went to him and put her head against his chest. Vayer couldn't watch. She was so close to hard need it made his own laterals ache with longing. "Please. He's my father."
     "Khristov Kirovich is your father, little one." Dimitri spoke so softly Vayer wondered at first if Salkov had not heard.
     "You bastard." Salkov snarled. "You bleeding bastard."
     "You were the one who made me bleed, Salkov." Dimitri curled his bound body around the tiny Sime. "Get away from her." Salkov had stepped toward them. The girl sobbed, the dry sobs of a Sime in need. "Don't fear me little leaf." He called her an oak leaf. Vayer could see the resemblance to a fall oak in her hair.
     "I'm warning you Salkov." Dimitri snarled.
     "Oh, I'm not going to do anything to you, my Sharm Lord. Except perhaps get a grandson." He licked his lips. "No, I'll not touch you. You'll cry rape and your father will not hesitate to condemn me to the ban. You would not cry rape against Boisha, now would you."
    
     "I do hope you enjoy death by shedoni." Dimitri reiterated Mitka's insult. Salkov snarled, his eyes going black with hunting madness. "Move away for a moment, my little one." He murmured into Boisha's hair. Instead of instantly retreating, there was a sudden flash of pain around his wrists and ankles. When Dimitri blinked the spots from his eyes, he was no longer bound.
     "Now do you still feel safe?" He stood, careful not to put any weight on his still fragile leg. It ached like shen, but would heal straight now.
     "You wouldn't dare do anything to me." Salkov backed up a step. Dimitri knew his fathers were watching his every move. All it would take would be one wrong move and he'd be under ban, not Salkov. "You take one more step, and I'll have you put under ban for rape, Sergeyevich. I know your father's been itching to have you removed as his heir."
     "You'll never be able to prove anything, Salkov." Dimitri bluffed. This would have been so much easier with Mitka's assistance. He missed Mitka's company in the real world in ways he'd never dreamed possible. Even more than Chernoye's company, mad as it was, he enjoyed his own madness more. "I can claim inducted status."
     "Not after having been Sharm Lord of a Demense."
     "No legal Demense has ever bound me." Dimitri chuckled deep in his throat, a wild, insane sound. Salkov paled even further under what should have been rich tan skin. It turned him a pasty shade of yellow. "I am bound to no one and nothing, as Mikhail Chernoye was never bound to anything but his passion."
     "You truly are the Archangel's Heir."
     "Yes, I am Archangel Azrael's heir." He snarled, calling up his own selyn lust out of the depths of his mind. "And you will kneel to your master."
     "Never!" He snarled, but Dimitri grasped his heart. Salkov struggled against his hold. Then Mitka rose up out of the stone beneath their feet. He absorbed all light in the room, turning the shadows to solid darkness.
     "You are mine." Mitka growled, his voice so low it vibrated through the stone all the way up Dimitri's body. Unfortunately jarring his leg. Mitka's jaws opened and he hissed Dimitri's pain. "You will no longer curse him."
     "Wait," Dimitri held him back. "This is not right." The pain in his leg was making him dizzy and more than slightly nauseous. He'd have to sit soon or fall. Salkov licked his lips as another spasm wrenched at Dimitri's self control.
     "Then come to me of your own choice." Dimitri kept his voice low, breathy.
     "Are you inviting me?"
     "Never," he said, as flat and uninflected as he could. Mitka swayed hypnotically before Salkov, tempting him to come. Dimitri put his hand down to hold Boisha back. Step by stumbling step, Salkov walked toward him.
     Dimitri did not hold out his hands, did not gesture to Salkov in any way. His eyes, however, seduced the Sime with all his might. Begging Salkov to come to him. Promising Salkov all the joys of his nager. Tempting Salkov with the sharp edged thrill of pain mixed with pleasure. At last Salkov stumbled to his knees, nearly knocking Dimitri's backward.
     "I ..." he choked, his hands raising up to Dimitri's.
     "This is not my choice." Dimitri spoke the words, even as Mitka twined around Lord Salkov. Selyn sparkled off Mitka's midnight black scales. Salkov's brow gleamed with sweat beneath his heavy black hair. Dimitri could let him go. Free him of the compulsion to court his own death. Then he looked down into those exotic brown eyes again.
     "No," he spoke one last time, Mitka yanking Salkov to his feet. Lips like forged steel pressed against his own. Mitka struck, driving his fangs deep into Salkov's chest. Salkov screamed against Dimitri's lips, yanking back against his own hold. Dimitri felt Mitka's fangs slice through Salkov's vriamic node. Selyn poured out over both of them, choking Dimitri in his own wastes. He gasped, trying to get away from it.
     Mitka struck again and again, each time lashing his fangs through Salkov's chest until all that was left of his vriamic node was selyn and a few unidentifiable slivers of raw meat. Even those were dissolving into pulp as Dimitri fell back into the real world.

Chapter 24


     Mitka hissed and mantled over Salkov's body. "I love thee." He told his dearest friend. Mitka stopped and cocked his head. "Yes you." Dimitri's muscles were twitching with exhaustion, stress, and oddly enough, post reaction.
     "You were taken in transfer." Diomid's heavy shoulders were back. He was looking out the door. Vayer reached for Dimitri's hands. Mitka hissed at him.
     "Don't do that you idiot nager!" Dimitri knew he sounded like a mimic with how often he told Mitka those words. Although they'd lost their sting, Dimitri being so glad to see Mitka alive and well again.
     "oh" Mitka turned crimson. "sorry" he ducked his head under one wing.
     "He's excited, Dimitri." Diomid said. Mitka's jaw dropped. So did Dimitri's. He couldn't say a word. "How are you doing?"
     "I ..." Dimitri fought back his first response. "I'll be fine." He clenched his hands behind his back. Boisha's hand stroked up his arm. Dimitri screamed as he put weight on his bad leg, trying to get away. In a sickening swoop, the floor came up to greet him.
     "You aren't going to rebreak that leg again." Diomid's huge hands caught him before he could harm himself further. Dimitri huddled against the bed, not wanting to trust either of them. The sickening feel of Salkov's life being wrenched from his body lingered on Dimitri's hands and tongue. "Dimitri, my son."
     "No," a shiver ran up his back. He'd only thought to tempt Salkov into a facsimile of rape. This was too real, too horrible. He looked over to see the death rictus of a kill on Salkov's face. His stomach heaved uncontrollably. Tears burned in his eyes and fought not to cry. "No," he kept repeating, unable to stop himself. A sudden crack and the world came back into focus. He saw Diomid's face, drawn and lined. The gray-blue eyes matching his own were dark with worry.
     "I'll be all right." Dimitri struggled to catch his breath. More tears wrenched at his self control until the heaves started again.
     "Hush," Diomid put his arms around Dimitri. The cool comfort he'd always wanted from his father washed over his ravaged nerves. "Come here." He opened his hold to Vayer. Vayer shook his head. "Do it!"
     "No," Dimitri swallowed back more fear. Could he stand to be touched by those hot hands again. Know the touch of tentacles against his skin. His own wrists were bruised and both friction and fire burned. Black terror rose up in his mind.
     "Do it." Diomid's voice was harsh.
     "I can't hurt him."
     "Do it!" Diomid's weight shifted. Dimitri cringed away as Vayer knelt at his side. One dorsal reached up and brushed away a single tear. The tentativeness of the contact began stilling the worst of Dimitri's fears. Salkov would have never been so gentle, so timid. He tried to put his fears, his hopes, his love into his eyes. Mitka's face was burrowed against Dimitri's neck. He was trembling all over, a solid ball of grief and terror.
     "I love thee, my son." Vayer murmured, stroking Mitka as well as Dimitri.
     "You don't fear me?" Mitka finally looked up, then looked a Diomid, then looked back at Vayer. His confusion brought a tiny smile to Dimitri's face.
     "I love you." Vayer said, an equally faint smile on his features. "Now I should leave you to Diomid."
     "Don't go." Dimitri reached up and captured his hand.
     "You have every right to be afraid of Simes. At least for a while." Vayer's eyes were darker than Dimitri'd ever seen them.
     "No," Dimitri pushed himself a bit more upright. The hard stone floor was getting far too intimate with his seatbones. "I know you and Boisha and all other Simes are not as Obran was."
     "I'm glad you recognize that." Diomid's voice rumbled low in his chest. For a moment, Dimitri shrank back. Then his own power echoed much the same words to him. "Although I do not think there will be any necessity for charges to be pressed."
     "I already have one rape charge against me?" Dimitri sagged under the weight of forces bearing down on him. His leg would never heal in time for midsummer, less than a month away.
     "It is invalid if you are a member of Sergei." Diomid's answer brought Dimitri's head up so fast he cracked skulls with Mitka. A light traced the bright eyes of Diomid's nager. "Will you come to Sergei and be my heir?"
     Dimitri looked at Vayer. His father had looked away. The lamplight shone glassy on the tears pooling in his eyes. He didn't want to leave his father. But how could he refuse Sergei? "I want both."
     "Go to Sergei." Vayer put his hand in Diomid's. "You will always be my son."
     "He'll be closer in Sergei than at Kaon."
     "True," grief still roiled Vayer's nager into gray storm clouds hiding his fiery wings.
     "Here," Dimitri put Boisha's hand in his father's. "I think Khristov's daughter deserves better than this hell hole." The warmth from both of them told Dimitri louder than words he'd made the right decision. Diomid caught his eye as both Simes turned to each other, as if magnetized.
     "I truly am sorry for what I did to you on the docks." Her voice was soft. Hair the color of amber hid half her face.
     "I know you did not do it of your own free will. The true assassin lies dead." Vayer took her hand in his. "But tell me this. How did you know what timbers to burn, and would be taken away immediately?"
     "Oh, I found these books below Kirov. They had all kinds of pictures and descriptions of how big buildings, bridges, piers, things like that work. Even boats and huge wagons."
     "Engineering books?" Vayer's nager shifted with Sime quickness to curiosity.
     "Yes," her nager brightened to the point they didn't require a lamp to see. "I love putting things together and making them work. Its so much fun!"
     "Hush," Vayer finally laughed as Boisha burbled on. "Yes, you have a place at Mir."
     "After I tried to murder you? And murdered Liutvin." Her nager dimmed to ash.
     "How do you know his name? He was a renSime."
     "I went to his memorial, to apologize to his spirit." Boisha bowed her head. "I didn't mean anyone's death. I only meant to force Dimitri into saving you."
     "Why?" Dimitri asked, having to know the last piece of the puzzle.
     "Because if I didn't, then you'd never take your own son in transfer and my father would not have been able to Claim Dimitri."
     "You know Obran was not your blood father." Diomid inserted.
     "What does that matter?" Boisha's smooth brow furrowed. "He was the only father I ever knew. Khristov was completely insane by the time I grew to know a father."
     "He's not a monomaniac." Dimitri tried to defend the man.
     "No, but he's a masochist and psychotic." Diomid snorted. "I have him under sedation at Sergei. Do you have any ideas what to do with him?"
     "Did you manage to heal the rents in his vriamic node?" A shiver of fear crossed Dimitri's heart. He should have been the one to do the surgery on Khristov. It had been his responsibility. He shouldn't have been in the salle learning to fight.
     "Yes," Diomid pulled Dimitri's hands away from his face. "He will be as well as he ever was. It is not your fault, Dimitri. You can not do everything. You are young and inexperienced."
     "I have had little chance to become experienced." Bitterness as vile as the taste in his mouth threatened to swamp him.
     "You established what? Six months ago!" Diomid shook him. The movement jarred his leg. "Give yourself time to grow up."
     Dimitri bit back his response. "As you were going to kill me, I didn't feel I had time to grow up."
     Diomid closed his eyes and turned his face away. The crimson of shame rose in his nager.
     "No, papa." He said to his sire for the first time.
     "I'm no father to you, Dimitri. Just your sire." The dust and bleak emptiness to Diomid's nager made him want to weep. "I have no right to your loyalties."
     "Not true." Vayer said. "All you have to do is accept his love."
     "I do love you, papa." Dimitri took one of his father's hands in his own. The matching scars proclaimed their mutual vocation. "Do you love me?"
     "With all my heart, Dimitri. With all my heart."

Epilog


     Vayer watched his son walk away from him, as his other grown children had. Dimitri'd given him a daughter in Boisha, true enough, but he'd miss the lad he'd raised from a tiny infant.
     "I do wish we didn't have to walk out of here." Dimitri was hopping on one leg, using a discarded broom handle as a very awkward crutch.
     "Your father and I could carry you on a blanket." Diomid grinned at him.
     "I certainly won't drop my end." Vayer met Diomid's eyes with a smile.
     "You never would." Dimitri put his hand on Vayer's shoulder. "Now be a good Sime and go get the blanket."
     Vayer laughed. It would work out. Somehow he knew Dimitri would eventually find a true partner. Until that day, he'd be content to watch over the archangel's heir until he came into his true birthright, whatever it might be. Now Dimitri'd have the chance to be the Sharm Lord he was born to be. Sergei, artist, dreamer, healer, and lover, even if it took years before he found a Lord to love his body as well as his heart.
     Dimitri grinned at him as if he'd overheard Vayer's internal musings, while Diomid hadn't! "I did." He murmured. "And love, no matter what kind, is worth living for."

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