A Time For Always


Ann Marie Olson

Story © 2000 Ann Marie Olson


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

      There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven:
      A time to give birth, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.
      A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to tear down, and a time to build up.
      A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
      A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing.
      A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
      A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; A time to be silent, and a time to speak.
      A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war, and a time for peace.


Chapter 1

      "Come on, Kila. It's only one month," sharm lord Diomid Ivanovich Azov tried to convince her not to break this month's appointment as well. Last month Kila had snuck off on him before he could deliver her up for her testing transfer with Lord Karola. The shame of his failure still burned at him like a goad. He didn't have time for this. His body was aching with the selyn it had horded for months now. Impersonal transfers were nothing compared to his first. If he didn't get a real transfer soon, he'd go hide under a rock till he died!
      "Don't you want me?" lord Kila Azov's hazel eyes fluttered as her tentacles reached out towards him.
      Diomid had wanted her last month as well and the memory of her betrayal to propriety stung him hard enough to be able to deny her temptation. Even his mouth watering and his arms shivering with desire couldn't make him give in, no matter how much he wanted to.
      Sharm lords like himself had founded the Demense of Russia centuries ago as a place where they could indulge their need to rid their bodies of selyn with their Sime partners as virtual slaves and literal property. At times like these Diomid wondered if giving them even nominal freedom had been worth it. He would have much rather stuck Kila in a cage and beat her till she took him, but that was not civilized.
      "Get it over with. You have to do it either this month or next." His tongue brushed over his own need cracked lips. He wouldn't mind getting his field on Lord Karola. Kila lunged at him.
      The feel of hot Sime skin ripped straight through his conscious controls. Give! his body sang, as frantic as any of his barbaric ancestors. Diomid trembled beneath the onslaught while hardening his will to steel. Kila hissed, her face a mask of mindless desire.
      "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ..." he tried to calm his own frantically throbbing pulse with thoughts of how good even an indirect transfer would feel. Unfortunately what caught in his mind was the one time he'd had a Sime lash their whipcord strong handling tentacles about his own forearms for personal transfer. The lords who'd taken his selyn in the intervening months had been kind, but their impersonal contact had only sharpened his memory of twining souls with lord Cyril.
      "You heartless Gen!" She broke into his reverie. "Avilan at least is a man." Kila smacked him again with her infidelity.
      Expecting a young lord, ruled by their laterals and not their brains to keep their promises was like expecting water to run uphill, but Diomid heartily wished Kila wouldn't keep rubbing his nose in how much she had enjoyed last month. Everyone had said his time would come eventually, even though his forearms burned with desire for eventually to be right now. "Come on, Kila. I'll walk you up," he offered her his arm, sternly reminding himself since he was the Gen, he had to do the thinking for both of them. Kila was not constructed to do any such thing at this time of the month, or any other time really. Beautiful Simes might be, smart they were not.
      Kila swept out of the room, her tentacles lashing about her wrists making Diomid's mouth water again in misplaced anticipation of a true transfer. Swallowing heavily and swearing under his breath, Diomid hooked his veil in place. Right now he was in no condition to be going out anywhere without shielding as much of his nager as possible from the fragile Simes he shared the great Demense of Azov with.
      Being near the same monthly schedule as Lord Karola was not helping Diomid keep his composure. His kador shielded him from the worst of her need, as well as shielding him from the embarrassment of splashing his own need all over the room, but he could taste roniplin on his tongue and his heart hammering under the strain of too much selyn in his body. Gens would die if they didn't manage to get rid of the selyn their bodies produced as wastes of their metabolism. Die rather messily, his less civilized instincts clamored in rude reminder. Diomid caught himself staring at the taut roniplin glands lying swollen at the base of her lateral sheathes and almost missed Karola's next words.
      "I had hoped to be able to draw you down to give to Kila," her violet eyes were intense as he tried to gather his scattered wits. His attempt to overlay his field with a sense of apology must have failed horribly; her eyes widened perceptibly. "If you could give me some help." Sudden hope made his field ring before he could stop it. Karola laid her hand on Arkay's bare wrist below his bracelets. A blush burned beneath his veil and heated his ears. Her request for help wasn't from him. He'd have tried!
      "Sorry," he whispered as he got himself back under control. Arkay raised a heavy eyebrow at him. This was even worse. Would you quit? He pulled at his field to try to draw it all inside his robes. They were far too light, but Diomid had never had the cash to buy any better. He was still trying to pay back Azov for the years he'd spent as a dependant. In only two more months he'd have paid off his initial debt and be able to start saving. He hoped to eventually be able to get a good horse and learn to ride.
      "What do you mean?" Kila grimaced, looking back and forth between Karola and Arkay. She leaned even further away from Arkay. She touched Diomid and flinched away from him too. Her glare made his skin burn.
      The two leaders of Azov looked at each other when Diomid sighed, "I'm sorry Kila is being so difficult. I should have brought her up sooner and ready for you, my Lords." He approximated the formal curtsey of a fully trained sharm lord to their leige. The trailing ends of his field reached out for the two far too enticing Simes, and he grabbed at it in desperation. Kila skittered again and he brushed his field along hers, trying to settle her.
      With a snarl she turned on him and Diomid was shocked to hear the loud ring of Arkay's bracelets. That must have hurt, her laterals had flicked across Diomid's wrist bones. He could feel the wet traces caress his overheated skin and they burned like dry ice on his moistened skin. With a tight whimper Kila drew her arms to her chest and glared at Diomid as though he had hurt her. "Enough, little lord," Arkay's voice was rough and sounded rather weary. "Diomid is only doing his best. Behave yourself."
      "I am so sorry, my Lord Arkay." he cautiously looked into the Sharm Lord's eyes. They only held a quiet sympathy, not the scorn he had so greatly feared.
      "You've said so already, repeatedly," Arkay's ice blue eyes lighted in a silent grin. "That little one hasn't done more than be rude, which is certainly not your fault."
      Diomid felt as if it were and ducked his head, not incidentally letting his hood slip down to conceal even more of his unwieldy field. It was his fault. If he could keep his shenned field under control, Kila would behave herself.
      "It is!" Kila protested. "He can't do anything right," her accuracy made Diomid want to hide under a chair. He wished he could vanish into one of the heavy tapestries lining the walls, but his shabby kador would look decidedly out of place amidst the finery of his leige Lords.
      "If I had better control, she wouldn't be so excitable. I am sor ..."
      "Hush, Diomid," Karola released Arkay's wrist and came over to him. Looking up into her eyes, every nerve in his body ached with wanting her. Diomid quickly grabbed his own elbows within the sleeves of his kador to keep from reaching out to Karola. Her violet eyes seemed to draw on his, making him dizzy with denied desire. What would it feel like to be taken by such a one as her? For a moment he envied both Sharm Lords Azov with a depth he could have never dreamed.
      "Why are you paying so much attention to him?" Kila whined, making Diomid's ears ache. He hated it when she whined. "I'm the one in need."
      Karola flipped her hair back over her shoulder and glared down her nose at Kila. "If you would, Arkay, I would like to get a chance to zlin who we have here and she," Karola flipped a tentacle negligently at Kila, "is likely to get excited if I undress Diomid in front of her." The gesture had caught his eye and he found himself staring at her arms behind the fringe of metal bangles guarding the gap between his hood and veil.
      Then her words sank in, "It isn't necessary, my Lord." Keep your mind on her voice, not her wrists, stupid. Diomid thought of the state of his rather shabby underclothes. His sharm mother had always warned him about the possibility he might have to take off his kador in an emergency, but he hadn't really listened. Not that he'd been able to think this morning. All he'd known was cloying heat choking his body.
      "Oh, he's good enough," Kila's simpering annoyed Diomid even more, but he couldn't take his attention off the dark hair seeming to outline and highlight every curve of Karola's tentacle sheathes. At the edge of his awareness, Diomid felt a dark mist tease at the heat threatening his existence.
      "Diomid?" Karola's questioning tone brought him out of his distraction. He shook his head, making his hood jangle and reminding him of his place. Perhaps the first thing he'd save up for would be a night with a compliant lord. He couldn't learn to ride if he died of after all.
      "Enough, Kila," Arkay came around this desk with the most amazing grace Diomid had ever seen in any Sharm Lord. The quick movements of Simes were mechanical and awkward compared to the smooth motion of a physically adept Gen, and Sharm Lords were the most adept of all. Diomid looked over to see Kila tremble, as if her muscles had been locked in amber. "Now, are you going to keep fighting or are you going to behave?"
      "Just let me get my testing transfer and then you two can do anything you want with him," she said the last word with a sneer. Diomid shrank away within the heavy metal woven cloth of his kador, grateful he was not in the purely decorative kador of a Sharm Lord. His own was to protect nearby Simes from his nager, theirs was to display their strength and warn off any Sime who might think of threatening them. They had the absolute right to kill any they felt to be a threat, Diomid'd earned no such status.
      Not that he had any desire to kill a Sime. What a disgusting thought. Even though Kila had tempted him a few times.
      The few glass beads on Kila's tunic glittered in the bright lights overhead and Diomid realized she was quivering. Poor little one, his pity for her terror overrode his sense "Please, don't hurt her, my Lord. It isn't Kila's fault she's so nervy." he sighed. "I really ..."
      "Hush, Diomid," Karola brushed her hand across his arm. Even through the shielding her contact his knees turned to water and he ached to beg her to take him. A tight whimper managed to escape his clenched teeth. "When was the last time you had a good transfer, little one?"
      Kila answered, flipping her hair out of her eyes, "Last month, of course." Diomid felt cold breeze brush the cents of exposed skin around his eyes.
      "Don't get coy with me, lord Kila." Arkay growled over Kila's gasp. "I am not Avilan. I believe Karola was talking with Diomid and not you."
      "It isn't critical, my Lord Arkay." Diomid tried to pull himself together as his knees threatened to give out at any moment. His belly muscles were trembling with nerves. "I'll be waiting outside," he turned to go. If he didn't get away from the overcharged environment, he'd never get himself settled enough to be content with an impersonal transfer.
      "No you don't!" Karola said grabbing the back of his kador. Her hand near the back of his neck did override his control.
      With a small involuntary cry Diomid collapsed to his knees. "Please," he whimpered, putting his face in his hands before he realized what he was doing.
      "One transfer, four months ago, this should have been his fifth if he were Sime." Karola said gently.
      "One?" Arkay asked. "All the others have been secondaries?"
      "Look at me, little one," Karola's hand was irresistible as she knelt in front of him and let her tentacles caress his cheek under his veil.
      "Yes, my Lords," his voice cracked. His mouth watered and he had to lick his lips again before he wet her questing tentacle with his incontinence.
      Kila snickered and he shivered at her gibe about his immaturity. He was mature enough to need and Gods but it hurt.
      "I think I will take care of young lord Kila right now." Karola got to her feet with a rush. Diomid's back refused to hold him upright and he slumped over his own knees.
      "Twenty, would you say?" Karola asked.
      "Nineteen, now, but about that," Arkay corrected.
      "I don't quite have enough without stripping Diomid," she said and he forced himself to look at her hopefully. Right now he'd give anything to rid himself of the selyn choking his nerves. "No little one, not this month." He bowed his head, disappointed.
      His heart hammered in his chest as if he were already burning up with selyn and not simply letting a little need get to him. "But there isn't anyone for me except Kila." He'd live, he had to. Other sharm lords coped, so could he.
      "What about Dimitri or Kantiran?" Good enough, Diomid struggled to accept her offer. His tongue seemed numb and unresponsive.
      Kila laughed nastily, "Diomid doesn't like boys. Let me have him and none will be the wiser," she tried to wheedle out of her obligation. He could not let her do it again and struggled to return to his feet. His kador bound his weakened body to the floor.
      "If you have been at all civilized I might have said yes," Karola snarled. "As it is, I think not. We will find someone for young Diomid."
      "Kila is plenty," Diomid clenched his hands till his knuckles turned white. He didn't want anyone to think he was greedy for more than he deserved. If he'd accepted Dimitri or Kantrian they would have been too much. He didn't need a twenty or twenty one. He could more than get by with an eighteen. Oh hell, right now he'd take a renSime!
      "No she isn't lad, you are about twenty one or twenty two right now. If you haven't been stunted you'll probably hit at least twenty four, possibly five," Arkay said gently. "In another month or two you would have had to move on."
      "Or not," Kila flipped her hair back again. "There aren't a whole lot of young women in the sharm right now," she preened and he focused on the worn slick front of his plain kador. A few metallic threads had come unwoven and poked through the wool. "Two of them are only interested in each other," her snort made her disgust plain. "I am the best one for Diomid, if he ever grows up," her scorn of his inadequacies cut like scalpels.
      "How short are you?" Arkay asked, biting out the words over his obvious fury. Even Diomid could tell Arkay was about to wring Kila's neck.
      "About one hundred and sixty cents," he muttered. Couldn't Arkay see that?
      "About two," Karola grimaced, glaring at the young woman as well. Oh, they're talking about Kila, Diomid let his hood cover his burning face.
      "Good enough," Arkay snarled in the blackest anger Diomid had ever heard in his life. He looked up to see the older Sharm Lord's face was suffused with red and his eyes were the color of winter's ice. Now he know why Arkay was considered the most dangerous Sharm Lord in Russia. To short a lord by almost a tenth of their normal transfer was to put them through absolute hell for a month. "No you don't, you little bitch," he shook the young woman to break her concentration. "You are not going to do a shunt off me."
      Diomid's heart ached to see Kila so mistreated. "Please, don't do this to her," he begged.
      "Listen to him," Kila whined again.
      A loud crack echoed in the room as Arkay slapped her across the face. "You little cunt. First you degrade him, then you try to use him."
      "It isn't that bad, my Lord Arkay." he got to his feet with a heavy lurch and straightened out his kador selfconciously. The red hand print on Kila's face was startling against her pale skin and Diomid wanted to smooth it away. "She doesn't deserve to be knocked around."
      "Neither do you," he heard Avilan's soft voice from behind Aghast at having this all come out with, now, all three of the leaders of Azov present, Diomid shook his head no and nearly fell again. The room spun as he concentrated on staying upright. "She has never hit me." Diomid carefully hid his hands within his sleeves.
      "There are more ways of abusing someone than hitting them with their fists, Diomid," Avilan insisted. For Diomid's ears only he added, "I am sorry about last month, little one."
      "I never hit him, even nagerically." Kila snarled. "Besides, he likes it. Embarrassed beyond words, Diomid couldn't say a thing to her far too true accusation. Avilan's hand was gentle on his shoulder, but still Avilan made Diomid face him. Diomid couldn't meet Avilan's eyes for any reason at all and stared at the older man's feet. When he noticed Avilan's boots were missing and he was only wearing socks with a hole in the toe, however, he looked up through his lashes. "That's better, my lad." Avilan shared a private grin with him.
      "Now, before Kila manages to dig herself in any deeper, this is my judgement," Avilan nodded to Diomid to look at Kila and he turned back to do so. Although Avilan's arms sliding around him made him feel quite odd at being so intimate with his liege lord. "She will be shorted by three days and sent to Sergei for evaluation and possible treatment for mental instability."
      "NO!" Kila protested. "You can't do this to me," she stomped her foot. "It's all his fault."

Chapter 2

      As soon as the Lords of Azov got Kila sent off, against her voluble protests they all turned their attention to Diomid. He looked up at all three of them nervously. "What ... ?" his voice cracked again, making him stop. No one snickered and he looked at them through the fringe of metal baubles on his lowered hood. "What now?" He managed to get out all in one range.
      "Well," Karola looked at him pointedly before he refocused his attention elaborately parqueted wooden floor. Avilan wiggled his bare toe, making a giggle flutter against his diaphragm. "I think the best place to do an examination might well be where we can all get comfortable. Come along."
      With wide eyes, Diomid followed the three of them up to their private suite. Feeling like the tail end dragging along behind his leaders in all their splendor, he hung back, hoping they would forget his presence. He looked down the hall when they reached the Azov suite. The guards seemed to look over his head with even more deliberation than most.
      The renSime guards had always made Diomid nervous. Their dedication in a harsh position, that of sometimes having to face unrobed Gens, unlike any other renSime, was fantastic. If he were renSime, forbidden by tradition and sense to ever touch the opposite larity, Diomid knew he'd have gone mad in months. Most renSimes never zlinned a Gen other than the great Sharm Lords, who certainly could never be temptation, as renSimes feared the Sharm Lords more than any other force on earth. A Sharm Lord, if they wished, could kill a renSime on pure whim with no explanation ever required of them.
      A yelp escaped him when Avilan neatly grabbed him by the collar and dragged him inside, breaking into his wild musings.
      "What happened to your smooth tongue, my lad?" Karola asked with a grin as she gestured for him to take a seat.
      Gingerly he sat on the edge of one of the overstuffed green chairs. "I think a bit overwhelmed by everyone's treatment of Kila," he said, trying to come up with some way to excuse himself politely and find a lord to take his field down. Perhaps while lord Cyril would not be available for personal transfer, he could be bribed into a hard strip. He'd been kind enough for Diomid's first.
      Arkay sniffed, "Good riddance. I used to weed those out on a regular basis. There are too few Sharm Lord candidates to have one ruined by a spoiled little lord."
      "ME!" Diomid squawked and sat bolt upright. "No, no, not me," it was warm in the room and getting warmer by the minute as Avilan put more wood on the fire. "I'm just another sharm lord, my Lord Arkay."
      Tipping his head curiously, Arkay asked, "Why do you say that?" He looked like a great gyrfalcon eyeing a tasty haunch of rabbit. Diomid was not entirely sure of exactly what Arkay was zlinning for.
      "I'm no one special, my Lord," he saw his own bare hands and drew them back into the sleeves of his kador. They must have splashed poor Karola with his unruly nager badly enough without him compounding their error. Sweat sprang out on his forehead. With wide astonished eyes he watched Avilan shrug out of his robes and toss them across the back of a chair. Diomid would have never thought to treat clothes like that, particularly the beautiful Sharm Lord's kador Avilan had been wearing. While his own might be threadbare and shabby, he did treat it better.
      Arkay followed Avilan's example though, despite Karola's weary sigh, "Don't you two ever hang anything up?"
      "About as often as you do, my love." Avilan said lightly, returning to what was obviously his chair, from the familiar way he picked up the embroidery lying on a table next to it.
      By this time, Diomid was sweating as if it were high summer despite the meters deep snow outside. "What can I do for you, my Lords?" He really wanted to go some place cooler, preferably someplace with an available lord, but at least they were no longer standing over him.
      Karola's ringing laugh startled him and he stared at her, "You are the most stubborn young man I've zlinned in a while."
      "My Lord?" he resisted the impulse to wipe the sweat from his forehead and settled for trying to get something like a draft of fresh air under his veil.
      "Get comfortable, you silly goose," Arkay told him.
      "I don't want to do anything untoward, my Lords," he looked around with his eyes only. He didn't want to be zlinned gaping like the youth he was. Diomid found focusing on the beautifully woven tapestry showing the wheat sheave and shears of Azov on the wall kept him from disgracing himself too badly.
      "You won't, Diomid." Karola voice was soft and he realized she was looking at him. "Now I know what's wrong, I can keep from pulling at you."
      "You don't have to do that," he protested. "I'll be fine. I don't have to have a transfer. I'll get by for another month. Just let me give you a secondary and get out of your way." Diomid flinched at the realization he'd overstepped his bounds horribly. She had two Sharm Lords to be jealous of her affections. Two Sharm Lords who could pound Diomid into the floor like a tent peg.
      "Diomid, you idiot," Arkay laughed. "Don't you know anything about women or Simes?"
      "Some about the latter, almost as little about the former." he was glad his veil hid his blushes. Although he did feel like a right idiot at the moment. All he wanted was to get out of here and get rid of his selyn, any way he could.
      "Quit teasing him Arkay," Karola knelt down in front of Diomid. Timidly he pulled his feet up under his kador to try to keep as much away from her as possible. "It's all right, Diomid. I won't hurt you."
      "Certainly, I would think not." Diomid tried to plead with her, "But I don't know I wouldn't hurt you." Any Gen could badly injure or kill a Sime. It was the way people were. Simes were so much more fragile than Gens they had to be protected, both from Gens and themselves or they'd do themselves grievous harm.
      "Oh you have a glib tongue, my lad." Karola laughed gently. "Please, for me, not as your Lord, would you let me zlin you better?"
      Rendered defenseless by her personal plea he shook his hood back and let his veil drop to the side. "Would you like more?" He asked timidly. The breath of cool air caressed his sweating face like balm from heaven.
      "Please," she stood and moved back slowly, as if not to spook him. What a strange thought. Her diffidence was flattering to his overstrained ego.
      With shaking hands, he stood and pulled his kador off. Concentrating on the motions, he folded it over his arm and stroked the heavy cloth, ignoring the prickle of metallic threads coming loose from their wool partners.
      "Here," Avilan offered to take it and let it out of his hands. Then he noticed the patches and holes in Avilan's clothes. Losing it under the stress and tension of being examined Diomid let loose an amused snort. Avilan shrugged, "No one but family and friends ever see my underclothes," but the wink he added cheered Diomid enormously.
      "Who would you recommend?" Karola turned to Avilan after making Diomid stand for so long he wondered if there was something wrong.
      "I don't know," he grimaced.
      "I don't mean to be any bother," Diomid protested, although he now realized he wasn't going anywhere without their express permission now that he had given up his kador. Without it he wouldn't be allowed anywhere.
      "Hush," Karola said and Diomid felt tiny pull as she released some of her control. He bit at his lower lip. "Sorry"
      "You don't have to apologize to me, my Lord," he tried to hide his hands and only succeeded in making her look at him speculatively. For a moment he imagined hot tentacles tightening around his wrists hard like they had his one real transfer and he gasped. "I'm sorry" he panted as he got himself back together, flailing around trying to get settled without being able to hide the way he was used to.
      Her tentacles flicked out towards him and the brief sight of the those most erotic of organs, a Sime's tentacles, undid him.
      "Here, little one." Arkay's hand was on his shoulder and the touch helped him rebalance.
      "Thank you," he whispered, trying not think about anything. His forearms itched as he clamped them to his trembling abdomen. Getting together his courage, "I'll be going as soon as you let me get dressed, if you would." He held out his hand for his robes.
      "Are you certain you won't accept a male?" Arkay's voice turned the question cheerful by its tone.
      "I don't know," Diomid shook his head. "For my first time, I think, well ... " Even though right now he'd do nearly anything to get a Sime to touch him. But if he had any choice in the matter, he'd really rather a woman. Maybe if they were good enough, he could even manage after another secondary. His curiosity about what had gotten Kila so pleased last month was eating him alive. He had no idea if it would even be close if he were the same gender as his partner.
      "Ah, Kila wouldn't let you?" Avilan frowned forbiddingly.
      "No, I mean she," Diomid wanted to floor to open up and swallow him whole, "I mean I couldn't, well, not with a secondary from ... " The absolute humiliation was more than he could speak of. Kila's harsh accusations ripped at his self confidence again with the memory of her words earlier today. "I did my best, but, well, some things didn't work very well." Diomid couldn't help covering himself in his shame. "I would like to return to my room, if you please," where he could take refuge from everyone. In the cool darkness he could hide his shame from the world.
      "Where is Ilira in her cycle?" Karola asked Avilan. Her ignoring his discomfiture actually helped. If she had made any mention of it, Diomid thought he might have disgraced himself so far as to actually bolt from the room, or worse begged her on his knees to take him.
      "She's a day or so short, but right at twenty one." Avilan grimaced again, "But she's ..."
      "Hush. I think if I talk with her first we can work things out." Karola cut him off. The three of them exchanged another of those looks Diomid couldn't quite interpret. Frustrated at obviously being left out of part of the discussion he tried reaching out with his mind
      "No, little one. Not yet," Arkay distracted him. "You're too young."
      "Too young for what?" Diomid asked, suddenly curious about this too. Curiosity was good. It kept him feeling alive and not half dead or worse.
      Arkay laughed softly, "Oh, you are a bright one when you aren't being stepped on. Why don't we go in the other room and see if we can't find a better place for you than becoming the third watchman over the loom tenders on the eastern estate."
      "At your will, my Lord," Diomid bowed his head respectfully. He had wanted more than simply to be shuffled from estate to estate, but had never dreamed he would get the opportunity. And he'd certainly not expected any such thing so young. Most sharm lords with any responsibility at all were dried up old sticks long past the vicissitudes of youth.
      "What is your will, little one?" Arkay asked unexpectedly after he had seated himself on the couch in the room across the hall. Diomid heard the floor boards creaking as he shifted his weight from side to side. It felt as if he were in class again ... and had not done his homework. "Come, sit," Arkay patted the seat next to him.
      Before he was fully aware of what he was doing, Diomid found himself wrapped in Arkay's arms and telling him his life story. "There's not a whole lot to tell, m'Lord. My mother died when I was young, trying to give birth to another child." His voice cracked again. "I don't know as much about her as I'd like, and obviously, from my patronymic, I have no idea who my father was," the shame of being a bastard rose up within him again and he quashed it before it could disturb anyone but himself. He'd heard Sharm Lords were sensitive to thoughts and all the evidence he had pointed to that being true. Arkay didn't deserve having to deal with Diomid's problems as well as his own. He looked as if he'd had a hard enough life as it was. "I was raised by the Azov sharm. Even before I established, I realized if I were going to make anything of myself, I had better be able to do useful work, so I learned everything I could about management and accounting. Lord Piyetrov taught me some things, but most of them didn't make any sense, so instead I set up my own techniques.
      "Once I established, right around the time Sharm Lord Avilan disappeared for a month, I had made myself useful to the Azov accountants, and so have been working with them. There really isn't a whole lot else to say, my Lord Arkay." he shrugged. "I'm not anyone special."
      "Everyone is special, little one." Arkay's arms tightened around him. Diomid leaned into the caress. He had forgotten how good simple physical contact could be it had been so long since anyone had touched him like this. Kila had either pawed at him or ignored him. "Would you be willing to apprentice yourself to me?"
      "I'm too short!" Diomid protested, even as he longed to lunge for the offer and grab it in both hands. To apprentice to Arkay would be great! From the very first time he'd met him at court, when Kila had been such a flirt, he'd respected him enormously. He'd even stayed up far later than Kila had managed and had heard him sing with Avilan and Karola. Avilan was a tenor, but Arkay's baritone was nearly the same as his own should settle to and he wanted him to go on forever so he could learn to sing like that as an adult.
      Arkay laughed softly, "You won't be short forever, Diomid." It was as if he could see all the thoughts flickering through Diomid's mind.
      "Maybe" he sighed. "I don't seem to be growing very fast though. Besides, don't you want someone better?" Diomid had to be certain Arkay wasn't offering him a job out of pity. No matter how much he wanted to work with the older man, he didn't want to be a burden to him.
      "I don't think I could find anyone better. You are bright, curious, and very, very stable."
      Diomid snorted, "After my almost falling on Lord Karola?" By this point it felt as if his ability to be ashamed or embarrassed had worn itself out. He said this last with weary regret. His heart was too battered to take this any longer. All he wanted was to somehow dump his selyn and be gone.
      "You didn't, even when she tempted you, my lad."
      "I wanted to," Diomid grimaced, looking at his arms. "If you think I am good enough, I would like to become your apprentice." He didn't know how much good he'd be in a few more months of inadequate transfers, but he wanted to repay Arkay in some small part for his kindness today. Besides, he certainly was not going to refuse if Arkay was going to insist.
      "Don't you even want to know what you will be learning?" Arkay asked him with a bit of a laugh.
      "Doesn't matter much to me." he shrugged. Then grinning, even if Arkay couldn't see his face, "Besides, if it is learning, I want it."
      "You know a lot of it will be boring," Arkay warned him.
      "Same with all skills, they take time and practice." Diomid felt himself unfolding under Arkay's attention. Arkay felt almost like a Sime a few days after turnover. In need, but comfortingly so. Not wanting to let such a comfort go, he snuggled deeper into Arkay's arms. Physically he was cool, but so was his nager which was good enough for Diomid at the moment. "Although before I expire of curiosity I would like to know what I have gotten myself into."
      There was a knock at the door. Diomid felt Arkay's weight shift and he hurriedly moved over to allow the older man to get up, not that he wanted to. "Well, three things, fighting of course," as Arkay said this, Diomid's eyes got really big. Only the top fraction of the nobility were taught combat beyond the basics. "medicine, and estate management."
      "I had never dreamed of being able to ..."
      "Hush, little one. I want the help." Arkay grinned and opened the door. "Welcome, lord Ilira." he waved the newcomer in.
      With a bow, a tiny, exquisitely beautiful young woman paced into the room. She had dark blond hair had barely grown out of its renSime short crop and an impish smile lighting her hazel eyes. "Thank you, my Lord Arkay," with unusual self confidence she took the older man's hand and kissed the back of it. Although as she caressed Arkay's hand with her tentacles, Diomid had to fight down the urge to pull them apart.
      "Don't tease him too much, Ilira," Arkay cautioned her. His eyes focused on her tempting tentacles stroking Arkay's hand. He wondered what they would feel like on his own hands and another wave of pure lust tried to drag him under.
      "Only enough," she grinned and then turned her attention to Diomid. He felt it like a draft of the sweetest mead he could imagine.
      Forgetting his ragged clothes and insecurities, Diomid flared his field in a great sweeping bow. "If my lord wishes to forget her cares in my arms, I would not find her desires amiss." Right now he didn't care who she was, she was Sime and that was good enough.
      Ilira's eyes widened and for the first time he saw a Sime flash over into hunting mode. Her immediate stalk thrilled along his nerves. Power sang its temptation to Diomid's soul. It would be so easy dominate her. Arkay's hand clamped down on his shoulder, reminding him not to force. Thanks, his heart was poinding so fast he feared it'd explode. Diomid had never felt anything like this.
      As gracefully as he could, he caught her up and slid her back to physical awareness. Her caress sang over his skin with a whisper of cool promise. "Who was it you warned about teasing, Arkay?" She asked softly, staring into Diomid's eyes as her fingertips caressed his face. The gesture was more sensual than he'd ever dreamed he could earn.
      "Only you. Be careful, Ilira," Arkay's voice echoed in his woefully empty skull. Diomid shook his head, trying to clear the worst of the fuzz. It didn't work. Her hand was too tempting.
      He'd always wondered what tentacles tasted like. He flicked his tongue out and caught one. There was the faintest trace of bitterness underlying a sweet muskiness which seemed to tighten the skin on Diomid's arms even more. Her quiver emboldened him and he licked along the length of one of her ventrals, finding his nose brushing the soft skin beneath her arm. "Yes, please," Ilira murmured and Diomid caught a sweet tang of what had to be roniplin as let his mouth wander to her lateral sheath.
      "Easy," Arkay's voice held him back. "Careful."
      "Go ahead," her warm breath stirred his hair. "Just be very careful to keep your teeth covered." There was a tremble in her voice. Diomid's eyes widened as he felt her hand shake.
      "I won't hurt you?" How he wished to touch. The tempting fragrance seemed to be removing any common sense he might once have had.
      "Not if you're careful," he could feel her pulse beneath his fingertips. It was racing nearly as fast as his own. With only a breath of pressure he brushed his wetted lips over the opening to her lateral sheath. It tasted like nothing else. Sharp, sweet and in some odd way purely Sime. There was a bite to it entirely unlike the roniplin flooding his own mouth.
      A sharp gasp rose from her throat. "More," her breathy plea made all the hair on his arms stand on end. This was what he wanted. With only the lightest touches of his lips, he nibbled his way up to her now filling roniplin glands. They were hotter than he could have imagined. Her deep groan seemed to rise from the earth itself.
      "Who are you?" Her question broke his utter fascination. He blinked in shock. There was no way he could catch his breath.
      "Take it easy on him, Ilira," Arkay's voice finished pulling him out of his distraction. He looked up. What? A soft, if tight chuckle made him shake his head. Oh, there she was. He had the unique experience so far in his life of looking down at another adult. His eyes crossed.
      "Thank you," she gave him an equally cross eyed grin and he managed to get his wits back. "I do like to know who's about to toss me on my back."
      "Uh, yes, my name is sharm lord Diomid Azov, m'lord," he managed to get out, hopefully coherently. "And I hadn't planned on forcing myself on anyone," he backed up a step, feeling his body's tug to force like he'd never known. Gods it hurt, but he was not going to rape her!
      "Easy, Diomid," her hand traced over his hammering pulse. His vision grayed as he fought need. It would be far too easy shove her onto the couch. He was heavier and far more desperate. His entire body trembled from head to foot. Give! it sang, trying to seduce him to violence. "How long?"
      His tongue had blocked his voice again and he struggled to speak. All he could taste was her roniplin on his tongue and feel the soft velveteen of her tentacles against his skin. Need was rushing in his ears, deadening his hearing. He wanted her like nothing else.
      "Oh," she stepped forward. His arm muscles cramped as he fought not to grab her. "Yes, Diomid," her fingertips slid over the rock hard muscles. "It's all right."
      "Are you sure?" He wanted to be sure. No one could want him like this. He was nearly insane with desire.
      "Yes, Diomid, I am willing," her hands bracketed his face. "You can't rape me," her hazel eyes seemed to dance with amusement. Then the meaning of her words sank in. His very own Sime! Her hands were the closest thing he could reach and he turned his face to nibble at her slender fingers.
      The heavenly, wonderful sensation of need pulling at him deepened and strengthened. Blinded by desire Diomid thought heard a soft chuckle from the doorway. He wrapped his arms all the way around her and wished he could get even closer to her. Her body heat was intoxicating to his remaining senses. To try to get some more control, he turned her around.
      With shaking hands, Diomid slid off Ilira's shirt. The smooth skin of her back tempted him. Not so delicately he nipped at the back of her neck. Ilira gave a small cry, like an animal, but her field pulled at him even more sharply. For one brief instant, Diomid lost control. Ilira writhed in his arms and ended up facing him. "Now, my friend." She growled and pulled off his shirt. When her tentacles lashed around his arms all his resistance dropped. This was what he'd fantasized about for months, and it felt better than he'd ever imagined.
      Now she teased at him, at first nipping at his shoulders lightly. "Harder," he begged and heard Arkay's shocked gasp from the doorway. Ilira looked at him in surprise. "Please," he leaned his head back, exposing his throat, offering himself to her. With bruising force her tentacles clamped down. "Yes," he hissed, pulling back against her to seat her laterals more firmly. Her tentacles loosened slightly. "No, don't let go," he stilled his struggles, despite his muscles locking in their desperate desire to pull back against her with all his might so he could feel her selyn fueled strength overwhelm his resistance.
      "You like this, do you?" Ilira murmured against the base of his throat. She yanked at his arms in her grasp.
      "Take me," Diomid pleaded, letting his body continue its game of trying to pull free.
      Her chuckle was deep and dark. "Oh my little Gen. You don't really want to get lose, do you?"
      "No," he whispered, to let her know it was a game. Diomid was rewarded with the most incredible flare of darkest need he had ever felt. He whimpered and looked at her as her tentacles slid back along his arms. "Don't go."
      "Strip. I want to see what I have." Ilira's eyes were black with need and desire.
      A stranger intruded, "Don't, Ilira." Diomid turned on him and snarled in purest hate. The stranger backed off. "I see" for a brief instant Arkay was recognizable and the bright flare of laughter almost broke the mood. "Never mind, Ilira."
      Sharp, searing desire yanked Diomid's attention back to Ilira. "Strip," she repeated, gesturing tightly with her tentacles. The image of aroused Sime as he'd only seen in pillow books was more erotic than he could have imagined. Even in the best of them, they could never portray the quicksilver fluid movement of those tempting digits. "I want to feel you against me afterwards," she had slipped out of her clothes during the brief interruption. Without taking his eyes off her, he untied the drawstring on his pants and let them fall to the floor. "Very nice, my little toy," she purred, offering her hands again. Playing up to the game, Diomid backed away.
      In one sinuous move, Ilira was on her feet. Backing slowly towards the bed, Diomid let a frission of fear lace through his field. He'd read how this could tempt a reluctant Sime and wanted to see how excited he could get her. She snarled, low and deep. The sound tugged at the core of Diomid's entire being.
      Diomid chuckled softly in the back of his throat, even as he longed to simply throw himself at her feet and beg to be taken. Never before had he felt this incredible shifting balance of power, back and forth. As long as he wasn't touching her, he had all the reins. Teasing at her for all he was worth, Diomid let his field flare in defiance. "Mine!" she lunged, knocking him backwards onto the bed.
      With her touch all his barriers dropped. GIVE! his body and mind screamed. Selyn flared as she yanked him into the fifth contact. He drove the selyn from his burning body with every last atom of his being. Bright, searing pleasure washed over and through him with a violence he'd never imagined. From beginning to end, Diomid learned the true meaning of ecstasy, soaring free of selyn and screaming his pleasure into the now glittering bright world of sprit he'd lit with his soul.
      Arkay shook his head in amusement as he watched Ilira pounce on Diomid. He never would have guessed the young man would truly wish to play Ilira's games, but from the look of hate Diomid had given him at his interruption, it seemed he had been wrong. Tense to be certain no one would get hurt, he watched carefully as Ilira yanked hard enough at Diomid to make Arkay flinch. Ouch, his own shoulders flexed in sympathy at her extremely rough handling of her partner. It only seemed to make Diomid even more enthusiastic.
      Before, they had problems finding partners for the young woman because she could be so hard. Diomid was taking all she could give him and begging for more. Selyn flared and Arkay focused his attention on the transfer. Absolutely perfect despite all the unusual preliminaries and how little foreplay they'd managed. Diomid must be physically tougher than Arkay had thought. And far more desperate, he chuckled to himself. The nageric link finally dropped both of them back into the physical world. For a moment Arkay wondered if they had so exhausted their enthusiasm in their brief but frantic foreplay they would slip and not instantly strike off into post reaction.
      A shattering flash of what felt like pain to Arkay blinded him. He blinked his vision clear to see Ilira's teeth sinking into the skin of Diomid's shoulder. It obviously didn't feel like pain to Diomid, from the hiss of lust rising from his throat. Feeling a bit like a voyeur, but too curious to leave immediately, he consoled himself with the thought he was making sure she wouldn't damage him permanently. A small trickle of blood appeared on Diomid's shoulder and Arkay started to step in to separate them. He blinked when Diomid growled, "Yes," and pulled Ilira even closer.
      Shrugging and trying not to laugh, Arkay quietly slipped out of the room. After closing the door behind him and making it back to the Azov suite, he couldn't take it anymore and howled with laughter. He leaned against the wall and still laughed.
      "What is it?" Avilan asked quickly.
      "What's wrong?" Karola chimed in.
      Arkay shook his head, unable to stop laughing for a moment. "Remember how we were all afraid Ilira would be too rough on Diomid?" He finally managed to get out.
      "She didn't!?" Avilan turned to the door.
      "Wait, wait," Arkay bit back another giggle. "She did, however ... Diomid, well, lets just say Diomid has odd tastes."
      "He didn't," Karola giggled.
      "Yes he did, teased her till she lost control then wallowed in her yanking him around." Arkay shook his head again, "I think the young man will be wearing very loose shirts for a few days."
      "Did you ever see the bites she left on her last partner?" Avilan looked a bit disturbed.
      "Avilan, love, I don't think you will want to see Diomid after Ilira is done with him. Trust me, he's having the time of his life." Arkay tried to reassure him while not giggling some more. "Seriously, I did step in once and Diomid almost attacked me he was so mad at the interruption. He's happy, she's happy and while they will probably be very sore tomorrow, I doubt if either of them will have any regrets."

Chapter 3

      Gently, Diomid let his hand trace over Ilira's wonderful curves. The memory of his first fumbling and far too quick attempt shamed him. "I'm sorry sweet," he ducked his head. Oh how he wished he could have managed to pleasure her as much as she'd pleasured him in transfer.
      "For?" her touch was far more sure and direct, grasping him firmly in her hot palm. He was still slick with his abortive attempt to take her and her long strokes did nothing to distract him from wishing he could have done better by her.
      His breath hissed between his teeth, "I'm not much of a lover, it seems."
      "It seems?" she grasped him even harder, stroking him firmly. His vision grayed as all the blood fled from his brain.
      "Well, I didn't exactly manage a success," he stilled her hand before she could tease him into wanting more than she'd possibly be able to enjoy.
      Ilira's eyes widened, "Your first. You mean you have never done this before?"
      "No," he leaned down to kiss her, regretting his poor use of her kindness with all his heart. How he'd dreamed of being the perfect lover. All the books he'd read had led him to believe it would be far simpler to hold back his desire to wait on his partner's pleasure.
      She licked her lips before he could kiss them. After pushing him back onto the bed, "Lets see if I can help remedy the situation." Ilira proceeded to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt some Simes could manage more than once, despite the books he'd read.
      Diomid stretched, hissing as bruised and strained muscles rebelled. "Ow," he complained, rolling his shoulders. Gray daylight spilled across the wooden floor. For a moment he forgot where he was, then his memory caught up with him. Almost afraid she would have slipped out on him, he turned and was relieved to see Ilira looking at him with hot eyes. "Again?" he winked at her with a grin.
      She stretched and he purred as he watched her catlike grace. From tentacle tip to toes, she tensed and the loosened all her muscles. Absently he stroked her smooth flank. "I think, I want another hour or two to recover, my sweet," she touched the back of his hand. "You aren't the only one who is a bit sore this morning." she grinned back. "Thank you, Diomid."
      "For?" he couldn't think of why she would be thanking him. "Thank you for accepting me." Nothing, ever, could have prepared him for how wonderful she'd been. Now he knew why Kila had been so intent on wanting more from him than he could give.
      "You are easy, sweet one," her soft hair tickled his chest as she rested her head on it. "Thank you for transfer and letting me have my way with you."
      "Letting you have your way?" Diomid asked with a grin, daring to be forward and caress the curve of her ear. Her neck arched and she pressed into his hand, urging him on. Amazed, he took advantage of the situation and rubbed the soft skin a bit more firmly. "It wasn't as if I weren't willing," the memory of their game playing made his body react despite the fact most of it was sore.
      "I can get a bit rough when I get excited," her words were demure despite the actions of her wandering hand.
      For a moment Diomid forgot what they were talking about. "I am not complaining. Far from it," for while he did have some soreness, the absolute contentment he now felt made it all worth while. Now he knew why generations of sharm lords had catered to their lord partners. This pleasure was beyond any possible fantasy ever dreamed of by man.
      "You really did like it when I grabbed you?" Her hand stopped suddenly and she looked up at him. Her eyes were wide with what Diomid could only guess was surprise. I thought she was the one who could zlin? Then he remembered very post Simes couldn't and felt warmly flattered.
      "I would think you could tell, since you are the Sime around here," he twitted her gently. "As long as you aren't disgusted by my tastes ..."
      "No, no, you taste just fine," she grinned wickedly, returning to her previous occupation. "However I do think Arkay was a bit shocked."
      "Oh no!" he blushed furiously. "He was here when we ..."
      "I think he left a bit before your enthusiasm got the better of you." she laughed softly. "Although I think that would have not bothered him at all. He was a young man once too, Diomid."
      "Do other young men have that problem?" The idea of not being singled out was definitely appealing. His first attempt had been such a disaster he'd have died of embarrassment if any other soul ever knew.
      "Yes, Diomid. I am not quite so young as my hair would indicate." Ilira sighed heavily. "Avilan had me on lord's transfer because I got a little too aggressive with my last transfer partner and she complained about it."
      "More aggressive than with me?" He thrilled at the idea. If she'd been holding back, maybe next time could be even more wild. The idea made his head spin, or maybe it was Ilira's warm hand holding him so tightly.
      She laughed, "Not even close, lover. Sorry to get your hopes up. She bitched about my lack of control when I pulled her to make lip contact. I let her go immediately and didn't even leave a bruise, but the damage had been done." Her fingers briefly traced the interlaced lines she had left on his forearms. They burned now, but Diomid remembered how wonderful it had felt when she'd marked him so. "You are another story entirely."
      Critically he looked at the traces she had left on his arms. "They'll probably fade in a day or two. Or not, I don't really care. Although Avilan might get a bit excited about having one of his people marked up like the loser in a body painting contest." He kissed her gently on the lips, "I like being wanted. Is that so bad?" Diomid knew he sounded like a greedy child asking for another sweet after having finished a basketful of apples, but hoped she'd say no anyway.
      "I don't think so," her tentacles twined among his short blond curls. "The only person who complained was that one woman. Before then, I was just as careful to be certain my partner was not upset by what I wanted. Even with her, I didn't do anything to hurt her, but she was scared anyways. Maybe I am simply making excuses for myself."
      "No, no," he held her tighter. She looked so crestfallen for having accidentally scared someone with actions he'd enjoyed immensely. "You didn't get aggressive until I teased you mercilessly. Even then you made sure I wasn't put off. I had to reassure you it was wanted."
      "So you did, Diomid."
      "I think Arkay will back me up, as well," he was having increasing difficulty thinking with Ilira's gentle distraction.
      She giggled softly, "So he will. I think, once he realized you had wanted and asked for it, he was only surprised."
      "And amused," he said softly, letting his eyes close. Ilira's touch was driving him crazy. "You know I am to be apprenticed to him."
      "Congratulations, sweet one," the flickering, lightest touch of her tongue was added to her hand. "He is a good man, if a bit hot tempered."
      "Why aren't you afraid of him, like most lords?" He was trying to keep his mind on her words and failing miserably, or pleasurably as the case may be.
      "Because I was born to Kirov and knew him when I was a child. I only came here to Azov less than a year after change over when it was determined I had far more affinity with animals than humans." She shifted her weight around to look up at him. "Arkay was the one who got me the move," were her last words before coherent speech became impossible again.
      Diomid looked down at the loose shirt he had worn only the day before yesterday and realized it was not going to cover up a thing. Between his forearms looking like they had gotten caught by a mad snarl of rope and his shoulders looking like they had been molested by a pack of hungry cats, he wasn't quite sure what to do. "Look in the closet," Ilira recommended, trying unsatisfactorily to cover up her own various bite marks. Diomid did as she suggested and noticed everything was in blue. He hadn't even know there was a Maryam suite at Azov.
      Finally giving up, he gingerly slid the shirt on. "Ow," it caught on one of the places where she had actually broken the skin. "I thought Simes were obligate herbivores."
      "Only means we don't swallow," she grinned wickedly, licking her lips.
      "You lie, my sweet," he tickled her nose. "I think I'm going to have to face Avilan to get my kador back."
      "Probably so. Sorry," she looked up at him.
      The fact she was one of the few people who was actually shorter than he was, was an absolute delight to Diomid. "If you really meant to apologize, we wouldn't get out of here till much later," he winked. Her blush startled and delighted him. "Do that again," he crowed, laughing.
      "Quit, Diomid," she placed her hand on his arm. The burn lines stung horribly and he hoped they'd heal quickly. Much as he'd enjoyed getting them, now they were a nuisance.
      He looked down to see a couple of small bite marks on her arm. "At least I gave as good as I got," he noted, gently stroking his hand over them, "Lets go."
      He knocked on the heavy door as both guards turned fantastic shades of red. It looked decidedly odd against their green uniforms. Diomid had no idea if they were blushing or angry, but from the way Ilira refused to look at them, he guessed it was embarrassed. Just about the time Diomid was going to give up and try to find another kador to wear temporarily, the door to the Azov suite opened. "I really have to have my kador back," he grinned up at Avilan's startled look.
      "Come in, both of you," his mellow tenor seemed even more pleasant this evening. Although when they stepped through the door, Avilan's eyes widened in shock.
      Defiantly, Diomid wrapped his field and attention around Ilira. He stroked his face against hers when she winced away from Avilan. "Easy, sweet." he tried to mimic the fierce protectiveness he had seen Avilan wrap around Karola.
      "Back down a bit, lad," Arkay sported a couple of small marks himself. "You don't have to singe Avilan's eyebrows off."
      "I'm not very good at it yet," he still looked suspiciously at Avilan, wanting to make sure the older man wasn't going to be a problem. Ilira was his lord. He'd won her fair and square and wasn't letting anyone take her away.
      Arkay laughed, "If you don't back away, Avilan, he's likely to thump you one. You're too close to his lord."
      "He's a mess, Arkay." Avilan protested, but at least he moved away a little bit. More, Diomid glared at him.
      Ilira trembled on his arm. "What is it, sweet?" he pulled her closer so he could wrap his arm around her shoulders.
      "Please don't let Lord Avilan send me away," she cried against his chest. "Tell me I didn't do anything wrong." He wrapped his arms around her, trying to guard her from any possible harm. Even as high field as she was currently, a Sharm Lord's bare displeasure could hurt her badly. It was his job to keep her safe. That was why Simes had to have a Gen to guard them.
      "Are you willing to say the same thing when Diomid isn't here?" Avilan stepped towards them again.
      "Back down, Avilan." Arkay's stance was no longer relaxed.
      Diomid's breath hissed between his teeth. Get away from her, he glared at the threat to his lord. There was no way in hell he'd let Avilan hurt her. She was his.
      "What in hell is going on out here?" Karola rubbed at her eyes. Then she turned to Diomid and Ilira. "Oh dear, it seems we have a problem."
      "Only if he keeps pushing at her," Diomid narrowed his eyes at Avilan, then wrapped himself even more firmly around Ilira. "Oh, lover, no. You were wonderful. If you go away I go with you, Ilira," he murmured for her ears only. "Believe me sweet." She fit so perfectly into his arms, which was as it should be, as she'd been made to be protected by a sharm lord.
      "Ilira didn't do anything I didn't want, Avilan." he felt his own teeth bare in threat as Avilan reached out his hand. A low growl came from his throat. Ilira shook violently in his caress, her knees trembling so hard he feared she'd collapse. "Mine."
      "Don't do it, Avilan." Arkay was suddenly standing next to him. Although when his hand touched Diomid's shoulder, his muscles knotted as he forced himself not to move away. Diomid had to remind himself Arkay was not displaying threat to his Sime, Avilan was.
      "I can feel that from over here." Karola blinked. "What did she do?"
      "We made love." Diomid closed his eyes and grasped Ilira to him with all his strength. He vowed to learn to fight. Right now if Avilan forced the issue, he'd not be able to protect her. Her heart had slowed from its mad panicking rush and he wanted to keep it that way. "I love you, Ilira," he murmured, lipping her ear.
      "I love you, my Diomid, even if ..." she looked up at him then looked away. "Even if he sends me away, I'll always want you and love you." Her fingers dug into the muscles of his back.
      "He won't send you away," he repeated. "He can send you away from Azov but not from me."
      "You win," Avilan gave them a crooked smile. "I'm sorry about getting you all riled up. Really, Ilira, if Diomid doesn't mind I don't have a problem. Although I would like to take a look to be sure you didn't get him too badly."
      "Actually what I would like is something I could wear that didn't catch as badly." Diomid gently let Ilira go as her shaking stopped. He slipped his shirt off, grimacing. "The cotton snags."
      "I can see why it would." Arkay whistled. "I'm tempted to check to see if it's the full moon," he teased.
      Ilira blushed, "I don't think I'm a werewolf, m'Lord Arkay."
      "We'll see if Diomid gets fuzzy next month." Karola laughed. "Oh dear. Come with me." she blinked a few times and pursed her lips. "I know I can be bad, but Ilira ..." her exasperation was more amused than annoyed.
      "I'll be fine." Diomid protested, not wanting Ilira out of his sight for any reason. All he wanted was a soft shirt and his kador back.
      "You can't get all the marks on your back," Karola tapped a finger thoughtfully against her lips, which twitched upwards at the corners.
      "Oh," he hadn't thought about that.
      "You come along too, Ilira. If you're going to be playing so rough with your partners, you should know how to put them back together afterwards." Karola seemed to have the common sense and wisdom around here. Docily they followed her into the bathroom.
      "That was quick," Avilan looked towards the bathroom where the young people had disappeared.
      "Diomid had been so starved for the sort of affection he wanted, I'm not surprised at his reaction once he found it." Arkay poured himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the end table. "You want one?"
      "Sure, a little." he watched Arkay pour a second. "Leave the rest for the youngsters if they want." After they had settled themselves, Avilan took a sip of the rather rich, fruity port. "Do you really think he wanted to end up like that?" Avilan couldn't understand why someone would want such abuse. It looked frightfully painful. The last time he'd gotten bitten he'd scolded Lukian so harshly the poor man had nearly crawled under the bed. What Ilira had done to Diomid had been far worse.
      "What Kila did to him was abuse, Avilan." Arkay looked at his wine and then drank a bit of it. "Ilira asked."
      "She did?" Avilan had held the young woman who had accused Ilira of attacking her while she cried in his arms after having finally managed to give transfer to another lord. Thinking back on the case though, he wondered if he had done right by Ilira. She had seemed contrite at the time, but underlying it all he'd known subconsciously, that she hadn't truly felt she'd deserved punishment, which was why he'd put her on lord's transfer. The girl who'd complained against her hadn't a single mark on her, unlike Diomid's well marked arms.
      "When she grabbed him, Diomid pulled and she released him immediately." Arkay shrugged. "I stepped in and got snarled at by Diomid for interfering. Ilira did nothing Diomid didn't either explicitly or implicitly ask for."
      Avilan shook his head, "I don't know, Arkay. His arms are a mess, not to mention his shoulders and back." His own skin burned where Diomid's arms had been rubbed raw.
      Arkay laughed softly, "You didn't see Diomid tease her past control, Avilan. Even then she didn't mark him till he goaded her into it. On top of it, she made him get out of contact to test him."
      "She released him after seating her laterals?" Avilan was astonished. "Most lords can't retract once they reach that stage." All Simes were rather mindless once their laterals came out. He didn't blame them, usually once he felt the touch of wet tentacles on his arms, all he could think of was transfer too.
      "Not only released him, but forced him to stand up and back away from her." Arkay sipped some more of his wine. "I can't think of more definitive test, Avilan. I admit I wouldn't want what she has to give, but Diomid certainly does." And before he could ask, Arkay went on, "And yes, Diomid was a gentleman and made sure he had permission. A good thing too, as otherwise I would have had to have at least put him on report if not under ban for a while. It was a close thing."
      "How so?" Avilan tipped his head. It looked as if Diomid were the one who'd come out the worse for the experience.
      Arkay snorted and took another sip of his port, "He nearly raped her, Avilan."
      "After Kila?"
      "He was desperate," Arkay grimaced. "Do you have the records of recent establishments handy?"
      "Because I want to be sure all the young sharm lords are managing to give personal transfers at least half the time. Doesn't do us any good to run sharm lord high if only the older, more experienced ones are actually getting good transfers out of it. The younger ones can be a bit too shy in pursuing partners and get left out."
      "I'll look into it," he couldn't remember any of them being as timid or shy as Diomid though. He was so self effacing, even Avilan had forgotten about him. "Particularly the ones coming up on, or having recently passed their fourth." That was the typical age of sexual maturity, when a Sime or Gen discovered, often overwhelmingly, physical desire for the opposite larity as well as nageric. It was often a rather traumatic and stressful event.
      Avilan's own fourth had been quite unusual, with an older lord who would seek out young sharm lords and lead them through their first experiments with all the facets of sexuality. He'd deemed himself extraordinarily lucky for having caught her laterals when he was facing his fourth. She'd only shared a bed with him for the two short weeks between transfer and turnover, but Avilan still remembered every moment of those glorious weeks. He'd gone from being so timid and shy he couldn't even open his mouth around a lord, to knowing so much of what he would be missing, he could even manage to join in the dances after high court.
      "Anyways, I'll be taking Diomid as my second." Arkay added rather unexpectedly. This was a good thing, Avilan thought. Arkay was still quite fragile, for all his and Karola's care the past month and more. Working with someone who depended on him, would be good for his old friend. Arkay'd always enjoyed the company of young people, and it seemed Diomid had a serious case of hero worship for Arkay.
      Avilan thought again about taking a second of his own. He wished he could find someone who was better with animals than he was. His own training was in the fabric arts, not the barns, kennels or mews. Usually his Lord had taken care of the livestock portion of Azov's business. Maybe with Arkay spending time with Diomid, he could give Avilan some leads.
      "With Kila, Diomid was trying to get the reassurance he wanted by submitting himself to an abuser." Arkay sighed. Sometimes Arkay's lightning fast mind made Avilan feel like an utter idiot. He had to review the last five minutes three times before he remembered what it was they'd been talking about. Finally it dawned on him; Arkay had gone back to Diomid's mindset and his new relationship with Ilira. "It was probably the worst thing he could have done. Diomid is a very timid young sharm lord. He has to have a lord who will take control or he'll dither himself into burning up."
      "I don't understand how such relationships work." Avilan toyed with his wine glass. He himself had never had any sort of urge that way at all. It was usually lords who had to be reassured of their worth, not sharm lords.
      This was given he was tracking the right conversation at all. He was still a bit dazed after their mutual transfer with Karola. It often took him a couple of days to get back up to speed after transfer with her. Arkay's recovery was amazing to him. He'd not been so quick before he'd gone to Kirov, but then having to deal with a mad Lord probably explained it. That and the fact that everyone was smarter than Avilan was.
      "Diomid is not comfortable taking control. Kila told him what to do for her own selfish interests." Arkay nodded towards the bathroom, "Ilira is mature enough, and aware enough of herself to know Diomid's tendencies and not to take advantage of them except in very limited circumstances." Avilan wondered how he did it. Right now all he wanted to do was loll around in bed, preferably with both Karola and Arkay.
      "Such as sex and transfer?" Avilan asked, managing to finally, hopefully, sound intelligent.
      "Exactly. She wouldn't abuse Diomid by making him submit to her in public or on a whim." Arkay laughed. "Although Diomid might get a little worn out once a month, he'll probably be a lot more steady with someone to back him up."
      "How do you know so much about it?"
      Arkay's arm was comforting around his shoulder despite his words, "Because I have seen it before, although usually the other direction."
      "No" Avilan automatically rejected the idea he could ever perpetrate such a thing. He wouldn't dominate someone for bed pleasure. Never!
      "Silly," Arkay's brief kiss was sweet with the wine and affection, "Why do you think you drove Karola's ascension transfer so hard she double ovulated?"
      "I love her. I don't want to hurt her." Avilan protested.
      "As it seems Ilira loves Diomid." Arkay rubbed at the side of his neck and gave Avilan an off center grin, "Speaking from my own experience, a few nibbles here and there are not exactly crippling wounds."
      "But why did she hurt him?" Avilan couldn't understand this. "I mean, he looks like he was dragged through a bramble bush by his wrists."
      Arkay laughed. "I bet you a case of this wonderful port, Diomid would say it didn't hurt at the time."
      "I'm not going to take you up on that, Arkay." he had to laugh and shake his head. "I remember the last time you suckered me into a bet."
      "Oh, when I convinced you girls really were as interesting as boys?"
      "No, the time before that when we almost go caught fooling around because the forfeit was to hide behind one of the tapestries in the great hall and watch Lord Azov swear in Sharm Lord Giardin." Avilan put his hand on Arkay's knee.
      Arkay clasped his hand, "It wasn't my fault we were both post as could be and it was very close behind the tapestry."
      "But you planned it that way," Avilan grinned.
      "So I did," his kiss was as sweet as it had been on that day so long ago. "However, what I want to know right now is what is keeping the three of them." *so long?*
      Avilan overheard Karola's response as well as Arkay's sending, *both of them* With a sigh, he put down his glass and with Arkay in tow, wandered over to peek in the door.
      "Someone bites," Karola laughed as she examined Ilira's tentacles.
      The young woman was looking over at Diomid with an obviously infatuated gaze, "Yes, well. We got a bit carried away."
      Arkay snickered. "I would say." So would Avilan from the various places Karola had anointed young Diomid with the salve they used for recently healed skin. Although Ilira sported almost as many little shiny places. "You might not want to get so enthusiastic every time, you two."
      "Your words are going in one ear and out the other, Arkay." Avilan pointed at the two of them, looking into each other's eyes with the gaze of the hopelessly besotted.
      "I heard you." Diomid said absently. Then he leaned forward and kissed Ilira, making her twine her extended tentacles around Karola's.
      "Wait till I'm done." Karola deftly convinced one still rather sorry looking tentacle to heal a bit more quickly. "I think this is the first time I've had to heal tentacles. They usually do it on their own before I get to them," she patted the appendage fondly. It coiled around her finger in a brief caress.
      "I hadn't really noticed," Ilira looked up through thick dark lashes.
      Avilan sighed as Arkay gave him yet another, 'I told you so', look.
      "When is the hand fasting?" Karola asked suddenly, almost throwing Diomid into a blind panic. Ilira looked even more stunned than he felt.
      "I think we'll wait a while." Diomid took Ilira's hand possessively. Her relief would have been obvious to a corpse. "There's no rush." He wasn't even an adult yet and wouldn't be for years. Diomid knew he had many more years of growing up to do before he bound himself with more than tentacles.
      "Thank you, Diomid." Ilira squeezed his hand back, twining her tentacles among his fingers in a sweet echo of their earlier private bonding. "Really Karola, I don't think right after our first transfer is the time to be talking marriage."
      "I think you'll manage just fine." Arkay beamed. "Truthfully children, I think you both want some time to grow up. But if I'm going to get my apprentice," his gaze bore into Diomid's, "then we have to find something for you to do upstairs." He pointed at Ilira.
      "In every season but winter I work in the stables full time," she shrugged. "I am one of the few Sime large animal specialists."
      Diomid looked at her in surprise, "You're so tiny." He tried to imagine someone so small trying to convince a stubborn horse to do something the animal had no intention of. It didn't work. Any horse larger than a child's pony could flip her around like a bit of sack cloth.
      "So?" her look was a direct challenge.
      "I mean a horse could just toss you around if they decided to get difficult." Diomid didn't know a whole lot about animals, but a five hundred kilo horse could easily do bad things to a forty five kilo woman from what he did know.
      "That's why you have to be smarter than they are." Ilira cheated him of any chance to protest further by snuggling against his side. With her warm body so close he could no more deny her anything she wished as he could fly to the moon by flapping his arms.
      "Not always as easily said as done." Arkay led them back into the sitting room now Karola had finished her various ministrations. Diomid wasn't ready to put a shirt on again, particularly after having noted the rust colored spots he had left on his last one. He really didn't have the clothes to spare to blood stains.
      "I think this is ready for rags." Karola looked askance at Diomid's favorite shirt.
      Without thinking of propriety he took it out of her hands and carefully folded it despite its wanting to be washed.
      "Is there some kind of hormone thing about men and their underwear, Karola?" Ilira asked, making him blush furiously and hide his face. It was a perfectly functional shirt. What was wrong with it?
      "I think so," Karola looked at Avilan closely. Diomid could see nothing wrong with the trousers and shirt Avilan was wearing, except for the frayed cuffs, see through seat and elbows, various stains and not a few holes.
      "Don't look at me." Arkay neatly retied his belt which had slipped sideways a centimeter or two. "But as we were talking about," everyone settled into what seemed like practiced positions, with Karola firmly caught between the two men. "I think something can be arranged once spring comes. Diomid will probably be working strange hours, as will you, Ilira, so I don't see why we can't set it up so you get quite a bit of time together."
      Ilira had arranged it so she ended up sitting between Diomid's outstretched legs, "Sounds good to me. Although I do have to warn you," her tentacles twined between his fingers, "during the spring particularly, I tend to be very busy."
      "As long as you eat and sleep occasionally." Diomid hugged her tightly. "I'm not going to stand between you and your work."
      "Good lad." Avilan smiled. "Are you sure you aren't full grown?"
      "At a hundred and sixty cents, I hope not." Diomid chuckled ruefully. "Do you know how hard it is to find anything to wear when you are shorter than almost everyone?"
      Yes!" Ilira agreed. "I get so tired of having to roll up cuffs and hem everything myself."
      "You sew?" Diomid was surprised at the idea of a Sime willing to have anything to do with the normally Gen oriented craft. Their tentacles could so easily injured by the sharp needles. Besides, that was what Gens were for. They stayed at home and kept it while their partners worked in the world above.
      "Not well," she grinned. "At least on cloth. Animals are another matter."
      Diomid realized there was something missing here, "Ilira, you don't have to answer if you don't want to, but how old are you?"
      "Its all right, Diomid." she patted his hand. "You should know. I'm almost twenty five."

Chapter 4

      "What a little tramp." Ilira looked around the tiny room, the corners of her mouth turning sharply downwards. Not all of this was Kila's fault. He'd felt so sick the last couple of weeks, he'd not wanted to do much more than read and do a little sewing.
      Quickly, Diomid slid the rather obscene romance he had been reading a few days ago under a book on military history he should have been reading. Looking around at the various garments Kila had left out when she had insisted on trying to find something to tempt him with yesterday, Diomid couldn't quite disagree entirely with Ilira's assessment entirely. "I don't have a great deal," he gathered up his spare kador and the few undergarments he had use of.
      Before he could stop her, Ilira picked up the history book. "High Simelan?" Her eyebrows raised. "I didn't know you knew the language. Most residents of the sharm never both to learn it."
      "I've always had something of a gift for language," he tried to distract her from the damning romance by focusing his attention on the history book. "There are a lot of books written in it I wanted to be able to read." He wrapped his tongue and nager around the tonal language with a decided lack of practice turning his words halting, but hopefully understandable.
      "Quite an accent," she grinned, replying in the same tongue but with an odd overlay.
      "I learned it as a child," he tried to imagine what it would zlin like as he said the words. This came out a bit more like Ilira's easy use of the tongue. It was restricted to the peerage, with use by rens punishable by the Hunt. As Diomid had read through some of the treatise written in the language, he well understood why. Many of the concepts inherent in High Simelan were antithetical to the ideals of the Rus, such as freedom of the nager and a rather overwhelming tone of Sime superiority, both from the heavy emphasis on nageric inflection inherent in it.
      "Impressive." she finally turned entirely away from the damning evidence on the desk. "With practice you should do quite well." Diomid reached under the foot of the bed for one final item. A peal of laughter rang out as soon as his back was turned.
      "However I don't think you learned Low Simelan just for being able to read the propaganda from Maryam." she giggled.
      Diomid turned back to see her opening Heart's Passion. Blushing furiously, he stammered, "I don't suppose you would believe it was Kila's."
      "I doubt if she knows how to read at all." Ilira was shaking her head.
      "She could have wanted to look at the pictures." he said as Ilira flipped to one of the plates in the book. He hoped it wasn't the one showing a sharm lord being pinned against a wall and being taken from behind. It was one which had fueled many of his fantasies, but the position itself was quite dangerous and not one he'd care to try just yet.
      With a snort Ilira said, "There are entire picture books, Diomid. Far more explicit than this."
      "Really?" his curiosity got the better of him. Perhaps he could learn to be a bit more adept at the arts of seclusion if he worked at it. His previous research had not seemed to have a great deal to do with reality.
      "I have been known to collect such things." she winked. "Although I do prefer a bit more elegance than one can find in Low Simelan."
      "I haven't heard of romances written in High Simelan."
      "I wouldn't call them romances, lover," she closed the book. "Rather they are more along the lines of erotica. This is pornography." Ilira sniffed in disdain.
      "I thought if I read up on the subject I might do better." Diomid's blushes returned. "Kila was not at all pleased with me after I couldn't satisfy her last month."
      "What about you, sweet?"
      "I really did try, but since I couldn't give her what she wanted." Diomid rattled on. "I did want to, but, well, my body, after a secondary ..."
      "Hush," her fingertip touched his lips. "Did she do anything for you?"
      "Scolded me," the memory of the humiliation stung worse than any physical injury. "Told me since I couldn't get it up, she would rather bed a dog than let me touch her." Diomid carefully smoothed out the wrinkles his clenching fists had made in the faded green cloth of the lightweight kador in his hands.
      "What a little bitch." Ilira snapped. "And I take it she did nothing at all to try to help."
      Diomid looked at her in surprise, "No, of course not. Young males are always supposed to be ready, or at least that's what she said."
      Ilira shook her head frowning like a thundercloud, "Maybe in the world of romances and the sharm. Every single sharm lord I have ever known who had enough of a field to live above can't get aroused between turnover and transfer, or after an unsatisfactory transfer."
      Her statement startled him. "I didn't know that," he looked at her curiously. "Anything else I should know?" Of course Simes often had a hard time between turnover and transfer, but that was because their blood was in their forearms. Not that he'd been any better, being honest with himself. After his last turnover, all he could think of was getting a set of wet laterals on his own forearms.
      She laughed, "Only that unless you are really post, you won't be fertile at all."
      "How did you learn all this?" Diomid really wanted to be able to do some research of his own. This was fascinating.
      "Shop talk between the veterinary staff and the medical staff," she grinned. "We were gossiping about estrual cycles in mammals one day when one of the physicians happened to wander by. Never did decide if modern humans were estrual or not, since in the sharm renGens are not restricted to the need cycle for sex and all Simes are but it was very interesting."
      "I wonder if Arkay would have any input," Diomid mused. The older Sharm Lord had a reputation as one of the best healers in the Demense after Sharm Lord Sergei himself, particularly in regards to reproductive medicine.
      "Arkay has input on everything, Diomid." Ilira laughed. "After I got over my surprise at seeing him with Avilan and Karola, I realized Azov will never be the same. The man has a passion for work you would not believe."
      Diomid paced nervously. He looked up at the clock against the wall for the fifth time in as many minutes. Grumbling, he threw himself down into an overstuffed armchair. His work with Arkay filled a desire to help he had never known before, now need pulled him to his feet again. Where is she? he thought.
      At first they had spent long, wonderful evenings in each other's arms. Talking about his work and how much she looked forward to getting back to hers. Diomid had known things would change with spring, but he missed her company so dreadfully when she was gone. Once he had mentioned possibly spending some of his free time with her while she was working but when she snapped at him to mind his own business, he gave up on the idea.
      It had gotten even worse when the mares began dropping their foals. Two weeks ago she had barely managed to spare the time to sleep over with him for her turnover, hurrying off as soon as the worst of it had passed. Diomid hadn't even gotten a chance to tell her how much he appreciated the contact with her to help him over the end of his own turnover, which was getting worse and worse with every month that passed. Although now it was more than a complete day ahead of hers and his shortening cycle, he knew, did nothing to help his moods as each transfer was less satisfactory than the last.
      "I think we well be able to manage without you this afternoon, my lad." Arkay had taken to calling him a lad shortly after they had begun working together. It made Diomid feel wonderful, as if he did have a blood father. The sharm nurses had done their best, but they had been so busy with the many children in their care, he hadn't wanted to take them away from those who required their care more.
      "It isn't necessary," Diomid damned his hands shaking with the nearness of transfer which restricted him to the most menial tasks in the infirmary. "Ilira probably won't be back until this evening." he tried to smile to show his nonchalance. Roniplin rich saliva flooded his mouth and he had to swallow heavily, ruining the effect.
      "You don't want to have to make her wait, youngster." Arkay's hand was cool against his own. "You're ready even if she isn't."
      "Don't I know it." the pen he was holding snapped in his fingers. "I'm sorry." he tried to gather up the pieces of splintered wood.
      "You've been ready for the last couple of days." Arkay stilled his hands. Diomid looked up at him, shaking his head in rejection of this appraisal. "Ask for a shunt transfer, Diomid. It won't hurt her pride to know she has a sharm lord overproducing for her."
      "Everything hurts her damnable pride." Diomid jumped to his feet and paced the room. "I feel like a failure."
      I feel like a failure Diomid repeated his words to himself, wanting to rend the bed curtains from their hanging in frustration. Even by the clock, Ilira was now late. Desperate for anything to take his mind from the horrible, burning, desperate desire for transfer he dug through the few garments he managed to trade for during lonely evenings down in the sharm. Finally he settled on a shirt and trousers he had modified himself. He had loosened the seams on them so they would come off easily, hoping to tempt Ilira with being able to rip the clothes off his body. He'd do anything to get another good transfer. Right now he was frantic for the feel of hot tentacles lashing about his wrists.
      It was tacky and probably not anything which would truly appeal to her, but he wanted to give it a try. At this point he wondered if she would even show up at all. After changing his clothes, Diomid sat on the chair, careful not to give his game away by making the weakened seams gape. Finally giving up on even that, he curled up and hugged his knees to his chest. Diomid's eyes stung with wanting to cry as he stared at the clock.
      The door opened behind him. Before Diomid could get to his feet, Ilira said, "Where are you? I have to get back to work, damn you, Diomid."
      Crushed by her callousness, Diomid simply stared ahead of him in absolute shock. "Here," he finally managed to croak out. He unfolded his stiffened body.
      "Stay put." Ilira told him. As she came around the chair, Diomid gasped as her need hit him. She hardly seemed to be affected by it. Ilira barely looked at him before she took his arms and pulled him to her. Diomid knew sharm lords felt need in their entire body, while lords only felt it in their arms, but this was beyond any mere monofocus.
      Wanting at least some attention out of it, Diomid pulled back. Without even a blink, she simply leaned forward and made lip contact. Stunned, Diomid let her take what she wanted without really even feeling it.
      Absolute despair washed over him as she stalked out, not even looking back at him once. "See if you can't do better next time." Ilira slammed the door behind her. The hollow sound echoed in his ears.
      "Come back," he reached for empty space where she'd stood so briefly.
      Arkay was absolutely aghast to see Diomid show up for work the next morning. There were huge dark circles under the young man's eyes, and his hands shook even worse than before his transfer. Even worse, he still was high enough field to satisfy some of the least of the lords. "Diomid, you don't belong here." he tried to urge him back to bed, with a lord.
      "I don't belong anywhere else," he snarled, quite uncharacteristically, then Arkay saw the tears forming in Diomid's eyes.
      "Hush, lad," he tried to offer Diomid a hug by holding out his hands. Diomid crossed his arms over his chest, refusing him any contact. "You should be in bed with Ilira, not at work."
      "Don't mention that bitch's name to me again," Diomid snapped. "I'll be all right in a few days." angrily he rubbed at his eyes then, worse, rubbed at his forearms.
      Arkay saw faint red lines running up them, as if Diomid had been scratching at his arms. "No lad," he gently took Diomid's hands from his own arms. "Don't hurt yourself."
      "Why not?" Diomid pulled away. "I'm no good."
      Discreetly, Arkay closed the door to his office, "You are good to the people you help heal, Diomid." He tried again to get Diomid to come to him. Without him being ascended, Diomid couldn't directly sense fields, but he was normally rather sensitive anyway.
      Diomid's back stiffened. "What, with my hands shaking and my eyes so full of tears I can't even see?"
      The question wrenched at Arkay's heart, "These things will pass, Diomid." This time he didn't wait for Diomid and simply caught him up in his arms. For a moment Diomid struggled against him and then he collapsed into heartbroken weeping.
      "I'm no good. Even Ilira doesn't want me anymore." Diomid cried against his chest. "Why can't I be good enough to keep her?"
      "Sounds like she rejected you, my lad." Arkay stroked Diomid's trembling back. "What happened?"
      "She came home, took transfer and left." the bland recitation spoke volumes.
      "Would you like some company?" Arkay tried to think of a lord who might be post right now and realized he should have been better prepared when he couldn't come up with anyone. He wished he had Avilan's memory.
      "Yours?" Diomid looked up at him with half a smile through his tears.
      Arkay grinned down at him, "Sure, although wouldn't you rather have a lord?"
      "No, I think I'd rather be safe." Arkay hid his flinch at Diomid's bitter tone.
      Diomid was startled to see Karola laugh gaily and throw a peach pit at Avilan. "What are you doing back so early?" she asked as they appeared at the door to the inner chambers.
      "I think a second breakfast wouldn't hurt either of us." Arkay gently pulled him forward. If he could have, he'd have run from the room. He didn't want to be rude though and submitted to Arkay's tugging.
      Karola made a very obscene noise, "You never ate your first, and from the looks of him, neither has Diomid. What are you trying to do, starve the lad?
      "I wasn't hungry," Arkay protested.
      "You are never hungry, Arkay." Avilan poured two mugs of tea, putting honey in the first. Hesitantly, Diomid reached for it and Avilan put honey in the second as well. "Heathens." Avilan sniffed, "At least you don't drink coffee."
      Coffee, where? Diomid looked around intently as he dropped his veil. He had only managed to get some once, when, quite by accident, he had ended up working alongside one of the Fatima work gangs as a child.
      "You've corrupted him so much already?" Karola seemed amused then she stopped her reach for a sweet roll and looked him over carefully. "Oh, lad. What happened to you?"
      Cursing his overly fair skin and reactive nager, "Nothing of importance, my Lord Azov."
      "Don't you 'my Lord Azov' me at my own breakfast table." she got to her feet and stood before him. Standing there, tea mug in hands, fuddled by his condition, Diomid couldn't think of what to say. "Come with me," Karola demanded.
      Meekly, he bowed his head to her, unsure of what she had in mind, "As the most exquisite Lord in all Azov desires."
      "You do have a smooth tongue. Let's see if you can do something else with it than talk." Karola grabbed him by his collar and started pulling him behind her towards the bedroom.
      "You can't be thinking of stripping him down the rest of the way?" Avilan protested.
      Diomid leaned back against her grasp, "You don't have to do that for me. I don't want to cause strife between you and your mate, my liege."
      "Hush," she shook Diomid, as a hound would a rag. "My tentacles are itching for work, sweet. I'll be fine."
      "It's your transfer nerves I'm worried about." Arkay said pointedly.
      "They're fine too, or will be after I stretch them a bit. Now either let me cart him off to the bedroom and take care of him, or I'll do it right here in front of you."
      "No, no, I'll be fine, really," he looked up at Arkay, pleading, trying to beg as silently as possible to get him out of this.
      "Go on with you then." Arkay gave him a bit of a smile. It was almost encouraging. "Give the lad a thrill." A chill ran down his spine at the fang Arkay showed with his comment.
      "I intend to," Karola steered him into the bedroom and shut the door behind them. It sounded like the drug vault door slamming, loud and final. "Now, my lad, stand still." Diomid still held his mug of tea, untouched. Standing there like a statue, his hand shook so hard a bit slopped out onto his fingers. Karola took the mug and put it down on the table next to the bed. "For later, maybe," she grabbed the shoulders of his kador and Diomid at least had the presence of mind to slide out of it. He didn't have one to spare.
      "Very pretty lad," she said, despite the fact he had slept in his underclothes all night in the chair, or at least tried to sleep. She tugged at his sleeve and it came off in her hand. "Oh-ho," she grinned widely and Diomid could feel the first faint flickers of need pull at him.
      Unwillingly, he closed his eyes to better savor the sensation. It flickered on the edge of awareness and Diomid reached for it. "Yes, my pretty," Karola purred, now all Sime to his senses. "There is something you want?" Tentacles twined about her arms, catching his eyes with their hypnotic patterns.
      "Need," he growled softly, flaring his field to try to attract her. The training Arkay had given him in the salle made his stalk that much more effective. Diomid managed to brush his hand along her arm before she skittered back out of reach. The hot feel of Sime skin made his fingers burn. For a moment he was discommoded by how tight and sparse his own field felt to him.
      "You'll not catch me that way," Karola laughed, mocking him. Need pulled at him suddenly, ambushing his thoughts.
      "I'll catch you as I find you." Diomid promised, forgetting his earlier hesitance. Quickly, he slid off his shoes to better be able to move. Toes now digging into the thick pile of the rug, he judged the distance between them. This time when he neared her, Diomid got more than a light brush, almost catching her hand in his, but he left his other sleeve behind.
      "I like this game," her need taunted at him, strong and only barely out of reach. "Come here to me," she purred, waving him forward.
      This time, using guile rather than speed, he bowed his head meekly and simply walked up to her. He focused his attention on the tea she had left on the table. The heat rising off her body as he neared her almost distracted him from his stealth. Before she could react to his change in thoughts, Diomid quite neatly caught her around the hips and managed to get her onto the bed. In a flurry of blankets and other bedding, he landed holding her with his knees alongside her thighs.
      Sputtering in surprise, Karola sat up, neatly landing in Diomid's arms. He flared his field again for all he was worth and the hot, wet feel of Karola's laterals on his arms made him gasp. "Take me," he offered himself to her, tugging back against her hold.
      With a snarl, she leaned forward to make the lip contact. With maddening slowness, selyn began to flow. Teasing at him then trickling off to a near stop. No! he growled, flicking his field away briefly, trying to draw her out. Close to stasis, the trickle began again. This time Diomid resisted, pulled back nagerically. Need flared and with a mental gasp of relief he filled it, thrilling to the exquisite sensations of transfer.
      Soft, smooth lips parted under his in a kiss of honeyed sweetness as Diomid pulled her to him the rest of the way. A small kick made him hesitate. He looked down into Karola's violet eyes. They were gentle, not matching his passion, but loving all the same. Reluctantly, he sat back, trying not to display too violently, his now desperate desire for her person. "Let's see what other trouble I can get into." she smiled wickedly. Before he could stop her, she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled sharply. His shirt came apart in her hands. "This is fun."
      Her hot look at his bare chest made Diomid beg, "Please, if I am too forward, I don't mean to be."
      "Hush," she pulled him close and this time there was far more fire than sweetness in their kiss. "You are a beautiful young man and I mean to take advantage of your delightful presence and clothes." Karola suited gestures to words, and soon Diomid found himself in her hands. "Yes, quite wonderful."
      With what he knew had to be a silly grin, he returned to the sitting room with Karola an hour or so later. He sipped at his now cold tea, not caring a whit. Then he caught the smell of coffee. As if sleepwalking, he set down his tea and eyed the carafe hopefully.
      "Go ahead, my lad." Arkay laughed. "Its good to have company in the morning, even if it is almost lunch time."
      "Why is he wearing my clothes?" Avilan asked. Diomid blushed furiously and pushed up the sleeves again so they wouldn't dangle in his coffee.
      "You should make sure the seamstresses do a better job." Karola grinned, "Diomid's clothes fell apart in my hands."
      Diomid sipped at the coffee. It was even better than he remembered and he let the rich taste of it roll around in his mouth. "Oh my, this is good," he sighed. "Life is good." Suddenly the aroma of food hit him and he realized he was starving. Not recognizing some of the oddly shaped and colored fruits on the tray, he boldly decided to try something different. One of them, a small brown, slightly wrinkled piece was so sweet he thought it was pure sugar. "Sime fruit," he grinned, knowing full well the yen Simes had for sweets.
      "A date, actually." Arkay smiled at him. "And yes, Sime fruit."
      "Not all Simes go into raptures over sweets," Karola grinned, then looked at the honey she had put on her sweet roll.
      "Certainly not you, my sweet," Avilan grinned, making them all laugh.
      "Although with the way Arkay drinks coffee, and now Diomid, I'm thinking sharm lords like bitter." Karola looked at them. "However, with the way you two react to it, I'm not complaining," she added quickly.
      "Its good." Diomid cupped the warm mug in his hands.
      "I'll agree with you, although few others will this far north." Arkay took a piece of bread and nibbled at it. "Where, in the world, did you learn to like coffee?"
      "Fatima," he grinned at the older man.
      "Figures," Avilan flipped his heavy braid over the back of his chair. "She can certainly corrupt some young people. Do you know I lose half a dozen renSimes to her every year?"
      Arkay snorted, "Yes and you get at least that many back in trade, and occasionally a renGen. Don't complain too loudly."
      "You weren't supposed to mention that." Avilan grinned, taking some more of the bread. "It makes it so much harder to keep 'em in line if they know they can wander off."
      "Hardly," Arkay shook his head, "Its better to let them go than deal with them as troublemakers."
      "True enough, my old friend." Avilan stroked Arkay's hand. Diomid was feeling a bit left out until Karola put her arm around him.
      He caressed her hand with his cheek, "Thank you."
      "You are quite welcome." Karola whispered back.

Chapter 5

      "Get Lord Karola for me." Arkay snapped, releasing the tourniquet on the young renSime's arm momentarily. Diomid bolted for the door, not even thinking to ask where. By the time he hit the steps half-way to the sharm, an image of Karola in the laundry flashed before his eyes. Veering towards the servant's quarters, he ducked to the side. Only after he looked backwards did he realize it was to get out of Karola's way.
      Even seven months pregnant, the woman can move. Diomid noted absently, retracing his steps. Now he could run all the way down and then back up all the stairs snaking through the Azov city residence. Last winter he would have collapsed in a gasping heap simply running across the lower quarters. Barely out of breath, he stood at the door way as it looked like Karola was repairing the renSime's arm. It looked like it had been savaged by a wild animal and was hanging by a thread. Although the forearm was almost completely untouched.
      The young renSime stirred and Diomid went to her head. As her eyelids fluttered and tried to open, he thought at her as hard as he could to sleep. Concentrating on thoughts of oblivion to keep her under, Diomid lost track of the work being done next to him.
      "She's going to come to in hard need." Arkay warned him suddenly.
      "Let her go?" Diomid asked, not wanting to take his attention to look and see if they were done with their repairs.
      "Can you take her?" Arkay asked.
      As Diomid tried to think about it, the young woman screamed and opened her eyes. "NO!" she howled and threw Diomid across the room. Stars crossed his vision as Diomid's impact with the far wall tried to send him into darkness. Clawing his way away from barely avoided unconsciousness by force of will, Diomid tried to push himself back into the fray. Karola was in his way and he sidestepped her. The renSime's arm was bleeding heavily again, the crimson stain under the table growing frighteningly fast. He tried to clamp the arm wound. Arkay shoved him away before he could get a hold.
      Diomid fell, hard. He tried to scramble to his feet again. The renSime shuddered and then was dreadfully still. Diomid stopped what he was doing. Rudely, Arkay shoved Karola out of the way and then slumped in on himself. "Damn!" Arkay swore, head bowed.
      "If I could have gotten here sooner." Karola left a bloody hand print on Arkay's shoulder. Before either of them could realize who was really to blame for the young woman's death, Diomid ran.
      Lungs burning, Diomid tried to force his legs to move faster. He ran down the stairs, taking them three at a time. Trying to escape himself, he pushed even harder. Finally coming to the dank, dark, abandoned storerooms at the bottom of the sharm, he threw a door open at random. Rats squealed and skittered at his intrusion. Blinded by tears, he closed the door on the lighted hallway and burrowed between two empty crates. Splinters dug into his shoulders as they rubbed against the rough wood, but he hardly felt them for the pain in his heart.
      "I murdered her," he hugged his arms to his body, trying to press out the memory of her lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling. Shivering at the chill, his muscles began to cramp. The smell of blood still clung to his hands and he scraped at them savagely. Scratching at himself, he drew more blood. The pain of his body was a welcome shield against the pain in his heart. Frantically, he dug his nails in even harder. Wracked by sobs, he tore at his own hands and arms.
      Finally, exhausted and alone, he felt the warm pulse of his heart spill through the rents he had made in his own wrists. Relief at his success made him giddy. He soft laughter murmured sweet words in echo from the nearby crates. Diomid licked at the salty, metallic warmth, pleased by its sparkling life coursing over his shredded arms. Still chuckling madly at his own cleverness, Diomid slipped under the dark waters of unconsciousness.
      Arkay damned himself for having pushed Diomid too far. When the guards had left the renSime who had foolishly tried to separate two dogs fighting over a bitch, he hadn't thought she would live and so sent Diomid off to get Karola so he wouldn't have to face his first patient death just yet. When Karola had come so quickly, for a brief instant he had hoped the young woman had a chance to survive, but there had been nothing he could do. There had been the slimmest chance a sharm lord transfer might give her the selyn to be able to survive, but her imprintation against direct transfer had been too strong.
      When Diomid had been thrown back, both he and Karola had tried to keep Diomid from exposing himself again. In at least that much they had succeeded. What incredible dedication, Arkay shook his head sadly as he closed the young woman's eyes and covered her face.
      As he turned his attention away from the dead to deal with the living, "Where is he?" Arkay couldn't find a trace of Diomid anywhere. The door was standing open, he noted.
      Karola leaned against the table for support. "I don't know, Arkay," she sighed heavily. "Poor lad to have to deal with death so young."
      "Indeed, I made a mistake and should have sent him away entirely." Arkay admitted, tightening his jaw against his own failure. Beating himself over it wouldn't help, no matter how much he deserved it. "Do you have any idea where he could have gone?" Diomid was obviously not here.
      "No," Karola shook her head. "Ilira is currently at the north west estate, too far for him to run to easily."
      Arkay snorted, "She wouldn't be much help right now. For all her experience with animals she is not the most compassionate woman in the world."
      They washed up. Looking down the hallway, Arkay felt the first frission of true fear for Diomid. "I don't trust Diomid's stability, love." He knew Diomid was not the most stable person in the world and right now he had no one with any sense he could turn to. Arkay had certainly proven his own incompetence.
      Karola clucked at him and looked down the hallway. "Neither do I," she took a deep breath. "Do you have his pattern?" Arkay concentrated on the feel of Diomid; his smooth, graceful tongue and elegant wit foremost in his mind. Karola finally said, "Got it." She took off running.
      "Diomid, you idiot," Arkay cried as he got the image of clammy darkness from Karola and took off after her.
      "I lost him." Karola stopped suddenly at the top of the stairs. Arkay caught her as she began to overbalance. He was not going to let her get hurt today too.
      "Where was he going?" Arkay asked.
      She shook her head, "All I got was 'away'. His mind hasn't been opened yet, has it?"
      "No," he hurried down the stairs to the sharm, hoping Diomid would just keep going in one direction. "I didn't want him to grow too fast." He cursed his own idiocies. Arkay himself had been ascended at his establishment and he survived the experience, barely.
      "Good idea at the time," she looked around carefully.
      "Great lot of good it does us now." Arkay groused.
      The sharm guards held the doors open respectfully, "If'n yer lookin fer yer lost lamb, he ran through not but ten minits past now, m'Lords."
      "Thank you," Arkay nodded absently, not wanting to waste time on formalities. Oh how he wished he could go back in time and tell the guards not to just let people, even sharm lords bolt through the doors.
      "Would do more harm than good, love." Karola stopped at the first intersection.
      As she headed for the stairs straight ahead, Arkay stopped her, "Don't those lead to the kitchens?"
      "Yes," her violet eyes were questioning.
      "If Diomid has lived here most of his life?" Arkay meant this to be a question.
      "As far as I know he has." Karola shrugged.
      "Then he'll probably not want to go near other people." Arkay grimaced, "He's probably going to want to hide. I caught a glimpse of damp and dark through you. What's the shortest path down?"
      "That way," she pointed towards the awkward steps to their right.
      "Lets go down and then start searching from the bottom." Arkay swore silently at the rabbit warren design of all sharms. Up stairs and then down and around, all of them placed for maximum inconvenience of rapid movement. "Damn all our ancestors for making this snarl."
      "Yes well, better some exercise than a kill." Karola slid her hand along the banister. "No dust," the stairs here were so steep it would have been slower to try to run them without a hand hold. Arkay took heart from her observation. At least Diomid wasn't suicidal, he prayed.
      Finally they came to the bottom floor, hardly more than raw cut stone walls and damp, musty dirt on the floor. "You take one side and I'll take the other." Arkay wished he could wave the lights up further, but this far underground they were lucky to have any light at all. For what seemed like hours, they opened doors and peered in at centuries worth of abandoned and neglected store rooms.
      They came to the end of the lowest common level of the sharm, no further along in their search than when they started. Arkay wanted to hit something and so pounded his fist futilely the wall. It echoed hollowly in the near darkness.
      "Stop that," Karola grabbed his wrist with her tentacles extended. Nothing less would have stopped him. "I want to bite something too, but I'm not going to let it stop me."
      "Where could he have gone?" Arkay had rarely felt so impotent. From the last glimpse Karola had gotten of the young man's emotions he was in no condition to be left by himself. I should have never let him bolt.
      "I don't know, Arkay." Karola leaned against him heavily. "I don't know this sharm as well as Sergei's."
      "Do you think Avilan would know?" Arkay was grasping at straws. For all he knew, Diomid could well be dead by now. He shivered at his own thoughts. Of course he wouldn't have suicided over this, but then a cold grue ran up his spine. Arkay had not reacted well to his own first sight of death and he'd been prepared for it.
      "Maybe," she closed her eyes heavily. "Although I have another idea."
      "Tell me" he looked down into her eyes. Right now he would do anything to find the lad, hopefully healthy. Even though as every moment passed where he couldn't sense Diomid's presence, his chances for survival got slimmer.
      "Right after I first met Avilan, your father, Vanya Sergei, opened Avilan's mind. He didn't touch him to do it." The hope in her eyes was brilliant. He hoped it wasn't misplaced. "I don't know what kind of range that kind of thing takes."
      "Less than sending, but considerably more than healing or ascension usually takes physical contact." Arkay thought about it for a moment. "It's worth a try, but you know this means he will have to be ascended eventually."
      "No gain without a cost," she shrugged. With these words Arkay leaned against the cold stone wall and concentrated. Arkay tried to remember everything he could of Diomid, his voice, the way he moved his hands, the brilliant wit, his eagerness to learn, even his submissiveness to anyone Sime, and his fascination with Ilira. Sweat trickled down the side of his face as he strained to reach out to Diomid and call him.
      Arkay shivered with exhaustion, "I can't find him."
      "Try again" Karola's arms went around him, dispelling the chill of the stone with the warmth of her body.
      One last time he reached out, leaning on Karola's strength as much as he dared. Finally he caught a flicker and latched onto it. *Open,* he sent with the gestalt of how to do so. For a brief instant the other mind returned to awareness. Arkay screamed as excruciating pain, even worse than Ilya had given him, ripped through his forearms. Blackness threatened to overwhelm him before the other mind returned to its stillness. Panting in reaction, Arkay turned his head towards Diomid. "There," he pointed to the fourth door on the right. His hand shook in reaction.
      "I already looked," Karola gasped, running towards the door. Arkay shook his head clear and followed after her. He knew Diomid had hurt himself, but not how or how extensively. Now all he hoped was he hadn't hurt himself as badly as he feared.
      "Stand back," he opened the door quietly. There was absolutely no light in the room. Rodents and other small creatures skittered. Arkay entered the room, waving Karola back. From what he had gotten, he didn't want her to accidentally run across Diomid. The store room was huge, although with the low ceiling, and all the boxes and crates piled around, it was a maze. Closing his eyes, Arkay let his other senses show him where the debris on the floor was. He couldn't sense the field of another person in the room, but with all the junk in here it wasn't surprising.
      Finally, wedged back in between two crates in a hidden alcove, Arkay found him. There was blood everywhere, on his hands, his face, and trailing off across the floor. Arkay knelt and tried to pull Diomid out, but when he touched Diomid's wrists he realized what had happened.
      "Karola! Stay back," he shouted and slid one of the crates away from the young man. Diomid slumped to the floor and Arkay grabbed his limp body before he could hit his head. His body was cold, as if he were already dead, despite the fact Arkay could sense hesitant selyn production at Diomid's core. Careful of Diomid's mutilated hands and wrists, Arkay crossed them on Diomid's chest. The bleeding started up again and Arkay stopped it with a thought. "Poor little lad," he carried him from the room.
      "What happened?" Karola asked softly as he emerged back into the hallway. From the way her tentacles were lashing though, her body was reacting to the damage Diomid had done to himself.
      "Let's get him someplace warm and safe," Arkay knew she would probably react badly to such an injury. He fought not to think of how much of Diomid's horrible wounds were Arkay's fault.
      "Do you want me to get Ilira?" She asked.
      "No, get Alexi." he thought of the sweet, calm, soft spoken young man he had heard of last week. "I think Ilira might be a bit upset, which Diomid wants right now like he wants another idiot mentor who can barely keep him alive." Arkay was disgusted with his own incompetence.
      "Arkay." Karola went ahead of him up the stairs, "You are human, you know."
      Arkay just looked down at the young man he may well have crippled for life.

Chapter 6

      Before lord Alexander Azovich Azov could even timidly knock on the door, it opened. Startled at the sudden movement, he jumped back quickly. Even more of his straight, very plain brown hair fell across his eyes. With a toss of his head, he cleared his vision to see Sharm Lord Arkay looking right at him. He asked as calmly as he could with his heart pounding wildly, "You called for me, my Lord?" Never before had he been this close to any Sharm Lord he was not related to.
      "Yes, please come in," Arkay's voice was a beautiful soft baritone, not at all what he would have expected from the terror of the lords who had spoken of him or his commanding presence in court. Bravely, Alexi looked up into the older man's eyes. They were actually almost a soft blue gray and quite beautiful despite the worry lines framing them. With Arkay's invitation he opened the door and as gracefully as he could, Alexi entered the room.
      Then he stopped before his heart could betray him. Sharm lord Diomid was asleep, as pale as the sheets beneath him and unnaturally still. Ever since he had first zlinned the beautiful young sharm lord, Alexi had wanted to get even the chance to simply talk with Diomid. In a daze, Alexi walked over to the bed without making a sound, afraid he would wake the young man. With the lightest of touches of a ventral, Alexi stroked Diomid's whisker roughened cheek.
      Diomid didn't stir at all. Trying to figure out what was wrong, Alexi let himself zlin. All his tentacles retracted as hard as they could into their sheathes. Looking down, he saw Diomid's forearms and hands wrapped in thick layers of gauze. His arms were bound away from his sides with heavy leather straps above his elbows. What happened? he wanted to ask, but didn't want to disturb Diomid with any noise.
      *I did,* Arkay's hand landed on his shoulder. Alexi bit at his lower lip nervously. No one, but no one he knew could hear thoughts like he could, or at least so Alexi had thought.
      Tentatively, Alexi framed his next words carefully in his mind, *You can hear me?*
      Arkay's hand tensed on his shoulder briefly and he looked down at Diomid's pale face again. Remembering the basic lessons all lords were given in healing, Alexi tried to think of need. Diomid stirred restlessly, pulling on his bonds to try to bring his hands together. Even in their wrapping, they looked like claws reaching for each other. *No, pretty one,* Alexi stroked Diomid's arm above its restraint. The smooth skin was even more delicate than he'd imagined.
      Diomid's eyes snapped open, unseeing and he pulled against his bonds. "Let me go!" He screamed, his voice a harsh parody of the sweet low baritone Alexi remembered.
      "Easy, Diomid," Arkay dared to be forward.
      "I murdered her," Diomid thrashed even harder. "It was my fault. I murdered her!"
      "No you didn't, Diomid," Arkay sighed.
      "I hesitated. If I had been quicker, she wouldn't have died." his field was black with the darkest regret Alexi had ever zlinned.
      "She didn't have a chance when she came in, Diomid. You gave her a chance, but sometimes no matter what we do, they still die."
      Only knowing Diomid was hurting, Alexi asked, *What happened?* again. In one huge rush, his mind was inundated with images and words of all that had happened. *He tried to suicide?* He put his hand lightly on Diomid's chest, trying to give him something to focus on other than himself. This was not how he'd imagined introducing himself to the fey young sharm lord. He'd dreamed of doing some fantastic deed, covering himself in glory, and so winning a moment of Diomid's time.
      *Without a knife,* Arkay also sent an image of what was under the bandages.
      The horrifying image only made Alexi more sympathetic. *Let me,* he waved Arkay back.
      Sitting on the edge of the bed, Alexi took Diomid's face in his hands. "I'm going to give you this straight, and it is going to hurt," he said bluntly. Inside, he wondered at his own daring. But when it came down to cases, what Diomid required took precedence over other considerations.
      Diomid's eyes widened in shock and he heard Arkay gasp behind him. *Don't interfere,* he sent Arkay, only a little surprised at his own boldness. If it were anyone but Diomid, he looked into the bare face he had so longed to see. With a little jerk, Diomid asked, "Go on?"
      "Do you think Arkay would feel any better if you killed yourself after he just lost a patient?" Alexi made his voice as hard as he could. "Or do you think that by giving up your life you could repay the life which had been lost?"
      "No" Diomid turned his beautiful face away. Alexi's heart ached at the rejection, but he knew Diomid had to hear what he had to say.
      "Don't you think trying to become the best healer you can be might not be a better thing to do with your life?" Alexi knew this was his last chance to ever speak with Diomid. After this, he'd never see Diomid unveiled again, but at least Diomid'd live.
      "I couldn't stand to lose anyone else." Diomid was at least now crying and not trying to hurt himself. The tears tracing Diomid's arching cheekbones pulled at Alexi to ease them, but in his mind he knew Diomid had to cry to put his pain behind him, no matter what it cost Alexi personally.
      "It happens, Diomid." Arkay said heavily. "People die. Healers can only do their best. I'm more sorry than I can say you had to deal with it so young."
      Alexi wrapped himself around Diomid defensively, trying to make him feel secure through his next words, "Then you'll let them die because you aren't willing to take the risk?" He did his level best not to grab, but it was hard. He wished he could place himself between Diomid and his pain, but Diomid had to do this for himself. The only thing Alexi could do was keep Diomid from getting a chill as his field fluctuated madly.
      "Someone else, anyone else," Diomid sobbed heavily, his field crashing harder than Alexi had ever zlinned in any sharm lord.
      *Why is he taking this so hard?* Alexi had to ask.
      Arkay sighed heavily, *Because he has the potential to be a great healer.*
      Suddenly Diomid's eyes widened and he stopped crying, "I heard that." Diomid shivered in Alexi's arms, feeling far younger than even the years Alexi knew he had.
      "I think it was best you did," for a very brief instant, Alexi hugged Diomid harder. He didn't want to hurt him more, but he braced himself to drive the lesson he'd learned with so much pain home. "So, are you going to let your talents go to waste and possibly let even more people die because you are afraid, or are you going to try again?" Reluctantly, Alexi sat back and waited while Diomid obviously thought about what he had said. Flickers of images and sounds, too brief to comprehend, fluttered through Alexi's mind. He didn't dare open himself up to Diomid's churning thoughts. His twisting nager was bad enough, if rather too complex to let Alexi sort out Diomid's true feelings from his body's distress.
      Looking back and forth between the two of them, Diomid said, "I want to learn." Alexi held back his shout of triumph and Arkay gave him such a quick wink he nearly thought he imagined it.

Chapter 7

      Diomid leaned back against the pillows with a sigh. His field had gotten drawn down so far, he felt nearly empty of selyn, while his body still quivered with need. It was a nauseating sensation, as if he were both in need and post at the same time. The pounding headache subsided a bit as the strange young man gently rubbed at his temples. The stranger's fingers were so delicate against his skin he wondered at the strength he could feel through their calloused tips.
      "Better?" the stranger had the most fascinating pale green eyes Diomid had ever seen.
      Wishing he could touch him in return, Diomid was startled at his own response. "Yes, thank you," he said shyly, afraid of startling him away. "If you don't mind, what is your name?"
      The young man ducked his head, dark chestnut hair falling into his eyes, "I am lord Alexander Azovich Azov. I'm sorry I was so rough with you, Diomid."
      For a moment Diomid started at the fact the other young man knew his name and then realized Arkay must have told him. "I'm not upset, now at least," he tried to grin. Although in addition to his hands itching, Diomid cataloged quite a few other physical discomforts. "Do you think I might be able to get up now, Sasha?" He tugged at his bonds in example.
      "Actually I prefer Alexi, but if you want to call me Sasha, by all means, go ahead." His grin was infectious and Diomid matched it with an unforced one of his own. "Although I'm not sure if I should."
      "Alexi in public, Sasha in private?" Diomid winked. What am I doing? He thought to himself.
      *Flirting, I hope.*
      Diomid felt his cheeks burn in a violent blush. "I didn't mean ..."
      "It's all right." Sasha's hand was gentle on his face. "I didn't mean to corner you when you couldn't get away." He nodded at the restraints.
      If possible, Diomid's blush got even worse, since he well knew who had put the eye bolts in the bedframe.
      "Oh," Sasha giggled, not sounding at all like a girl despite his fairly high tenor. With an exaggerated leer, he said, "I'm not going to ask."
      "Don't," Diomid grinned. "Since you already know."
      "Then why would I ask?"
      "Silly," he tipped his head at Sasha, as if stroking against him. "So, either you release me or you can fetch a bedpan." Diomid looked around and realized Arkay had left without a trace. Although by now Diomid was quite used to Arkay's habit of slipping in and out of rooms without notice, it still sometimes bothered him.
      "I'll have to think about that." Sasha laughed when Diomid made a look of dismay.
      "I'm going to want help anyways." Diomid tried to reach Sasha with one of his bandaged hands.
      "Then I suppose there isn't any advantage to a bedpan is there?" He unbuckled the straps rather quickly.
      Diomid raised his eyebrows, "Practiced?"
      It was Sasha's turn to turn crimson. He shook his head in the negative.
      "Not from what you're thinking about." Diomid teased.
      Sasha stuttered through his blushes, "Why would you think such a thing of little innocent me? Really, I usually work with the horses."
      Trying to sit up was a chore in and of itself. Sasha's arm came around his shoulders and Diomid gratefully leaned into it. "Do you know Ilira?"
      "Not well," Sasha's hand went cold on his arm. "Come on," he gently helped Diomid to his feet.
      With his new sensitivity, despite his pounding head, Diomid knew there was bad blood between his new friend and his lover. Saying nothing about it, he let Sasha half carry him to the bathroom. Trying to distract himself so his thoughts wouldn't broadcast, Diomid realized how very warm and caring Sasha's arm around him was. There was a sweet, soft musky smell to his skin which went straight past Diomid's brain and lodged somewhere a great deal lower.
      When Sasha helped him with the ties on his pants, Diomid became entirely overwhelmed by a fit of shyness. The heat os Sasha's slender fingers went right through the thin cloth. Unable to think of anything to say, he stood there helplessly for a long while, now unable to relax at all.
      Embarrassed to the core, Diomid looked up at the other man. Sasha's face was in profile as he looked away. Struck by his beauty, now Diomid had even more of a problem. Frustrated and in increasing pain from his predicament, Diomid muttered, "Thrice damned son of a whoremonger," in High Simelan at his recalcitrant body.
      Sasha snickered, still looking away. His profile with its high cheekbones and fine arched nose distracted him even more.
      "Don't tell me you know the language." Diomid wanted to whimper.
      "I am the son of Lord T'aszo Azov." Sasha turned those wonderful green eyes back on him, making things even worse when he had almost gotten them under control.
      Giving up on his demolished dignity, Diomid looked down pointedly. "If you would."
      "Now for a bath." Alexi's hand tingled from where he had managed to actually get to touch Diomid. Wanting far more than a single, impersonal, hold he hatched a plan. Alexi had no reason to believe he would ever get another chance and so decided to grab this one for his memories, or something.
      Diomid sputtered, trying to reach for his now discarded trousers. "I can't get the bandages wet." He complained, his thick eyelashes casting shadows over his heavy features. Alexi wanted those fantastic light blue eyes turned to him again, although he had no problems with Diomid nearly nude standing before him. He'd tried to imagine what he'd look like without his heavy kador, now he knew, and reality was even better than fantasy. Diomid's broad chest tapered smoothly to hips not at all too slender for beauty. His tentacles twined out as he imagined grasping those wonderful hips in his hands.
      "Then I'll have to help," he carefully reached over to run fresh hot water into the oversized tub. Hopefully this would keep him from getting too forward. Bath, you're going to give him a bath! He'd much rather be planning on getting Diomid to require a bath. "You'll feel much better afterwards." I'll probably have to go take a cold shower. Alexi was not in this endeavor to get clean.
      "I would, wouldn't I?" Diomid's grin made his dimples reappear on his newly shaven face. For a moment Alexi debated the wisdom of this plan. "But you don't want to get your clothes wet either." There is nothing wise about getting Diomid naked and in your lap, Alexi, his conscience reminded him rudely.
      Alexi's last transfer had been less than a week ago. Caressing Diomid's face while helping him shave had been enough temptation to make Alexi very careful about his tunic hem. After surreptitiously rearranging himself, Alexi took off his tunic and shirt.
      After making sure of the temperature of the water with one toe, Diomid stepped into the water. With a sigh, he began to sit down and Alexi saw his knees give way. Without thinking about it, he jumped into the tub and caught Diomid before he could fall. "Nice catch," he felt Diomid's chuckle through his hands. Oh how he wanted to sink his fingers and tentacles into the soft, pliant flesh ... not to mention other things.
      "Wet pants," Alexi grimaced, feeling them cling to his calves. Figuring better wet clothes than full exposure, Alexi slowly lowered Diomid into the water and sat behind him. Despite the relatively cool water, sweat trickled down the side of his face.
      Alexi shifted his hips back. Diomid's cool, broad back leaning against his chest was no help. Concentrating on getting his hands soapy, Alexi managed to get himself under some control. Although sliding them across Diomid's chest made it far worse. The first traces of fine hair tugged softly at his fingertips.
      Slowly, cautiously, Alexi managed to get Diomid well soaped up without giving himself away. Scooting back a bit, he managed to talk Diomid into letting him wash his still short hair. As he ran his hands across Diomid's scalp, Diomid sighed softly. Taking this for encouragement, Alexi gently tried to rub away the headache he was getting echoes of from Diomid. "You have all week to stop." Diomid murmured.
      "The water will get cool," he whispered, tapping Diomid gently on the nose. Gray blue eyes looked up at him. Unable to help himself, the massage slowly turned into caresses. Diomid's eyes unfocused and he rested the weight of his head in Alexi's hands. Alexi bit back a groan with extreme effort. Daringly, Alexi relaxed some of his own controls and found himself surrounded by a field of cool gray mist all focusing on him.
      "I'm not so sure of that." Diomid's eyes focused on his again. "I think it might be warmed by other means."
      "Like my blushes?" Alexi stroked the side of Diomid's face.
      "Or mine," Diomid grinned. Alexi's muscles knotted as he fought to keep his tentacles where they belonged, in their sheaths and not on Diomid's face. "I think my headache is almost gone," he pressed back against Alexi's hand.
      "Lets make sure." Alexi did not want to push his luck. Going back to the massage, he carefully worked out as many of the tense muscles as he could. Diomid hummed in his dark, rich baritone, making Alexi respond even more sharply. Glad Diomid's eyes were closed, for an instant Alexi let his desire show on his face. Careful not to make a sound, he kissed at Diomid.
      Diomid chuckled deeply and Alexi realized he had been trapped. "I'm sorry," he looked over at Diomid's bandaged hand on the edge of the tub.
      "I think I've had enough of being waterlogged." Diomid slid his entire length back against him. Without stopping to think, Alexi pulled him closer. The cool feel of Diomid went straight to his head. Unable to control anything now, he watched himself lean down and bite Diomid on the shoulder. The taste of his clean skin was like nothing he'd dreamed. Only slightly salty with the lightest trace of sweet.
      Aghast at what he had done, Alexi released Diomid. "I'm sorry," he gasped, trying to pull away.
      Still a bit light headed, but feeling immeasurably better, Diomid managed to get himself turned around to face Sasha. His nip had gone straight to Diomid's groin. "There is something else wanting to be cleaned."
      Sasha's tentacles twined around his fingers, as if wanting to grasp but being held back. "What do you think I'm made of, steel?" He turned his face away. His chest heaved, as if he were fighting something.
      "Possibly in places," Diomid tried to draw Sasha out again. Unable to use his hands, Diomid leaned forward and gently brushed Sasha's hair away from his face with his lips. With a little lick, he lifted some of the sweat dampened strands and then moved them behind Sasha's ear.
      "Please, don't," he said and Diomid wondered where he had gone wrong. Although he lightly nibbled at Sasha's ear before leaning back again. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, if Sasha didn't want him, Diomid wasn't going to force the issue. He had thought Sasha might be interested in him. It seemed he was wrong.
      Drinking in the sight of his beautifully sculpted features, Diomid realized it was probably just the timing. Maybe if I mange to get really post, he might let me touch some more, Sasha's gentleness called to Diomid on a level beyond instinct. "I'm sorry if I pushed you after turnover," although to his own senses Sasha should be quite post still.
      Brilliant green eyes turned on him, "No, no, it isn't that." His voice was breathy and strained.
      "Then it must be my lack of respect for the dead." Diomid said heavily and got out of the tub.
      Sasha's hand was burning hot on his arm, "I would be surprised if, after having decided to live, your body didn't react."
      Startled and taken aback, Diomid thought back over the events earlier today. "You know, I think that may well be some of why I reacted so badly," he lowered his head in shame. "After I ran away, all I could think of was Ilira and wanting her, physically. I think I was trying to punish myself for such a horrible thing." Diomid looked down to see his hands ineffectively trying to remove the bandages.
      "I think we don't leave you alone, my friend." Alexi was horrified to see Diomid so easily revert to trying to get to his arms. Carefully he pulled Diomid's hands apart, although the resistance wasn't very great. "Wanting someone after being close to violent death is normal, Diomid. Its carved into our flesh and bone," he tried to put all his heart into his words, but Diomid's mention of Ilira had shaken him. He sounded as if he truly loved her. If so, he'd not deny someone so wonderful the person they actually desired. Alexi was not so desperate as to force himself on anyone, even if the only coercion involved was that of circumstance. To do such a thing to Diomid would be disgusting beyond words.
      "You don't mean it." Diomid glared at him with those wonderful eyes of his. The hardness of them startled Alexi. No one so young should be so suspicious. He didn't think he'd done anything to Diomid to create such a reaction, perhaps someone in his past had abused his trust.
      "What would convince you?" He struggled as Diomid strained to get his hands together again. Even with Sime strength it was a losing battle as Diomid had all the leverage and didn't care about hurting himself. Black howling despair ripped at him. Desperate, he spun Diomid around and locked his elbows behind his back.
      "Yes, kill me," Diomid's field flared in the most alluring promise Alexi had ever felt. Alexi found himself with his own lips brushing the back of Diomid's neck as he leaned down to kill. How had things degenerated so fast?
      "No!" he snarled at himself and fire ripped at him as he shenned out of the contact. "I won't!" He dropped Diomid. Alexi caught Diomid up in one of the large towels before Diomid could move. Trussing him up in the heavy cloth Alexi quickly immobilized him. Blinking to clear his head of the brutal headache, Alexi briefly leaned against Diomid's now swathed body.
      "What is going on here?" Alexi heard Ilira's despised voice coming from the other room. This was not an intrusion he had any desire to deal with.
      "Oh hell," he tasted bile at the back of his throat.
      "There was a bit of an incident in the infirmary, Ilira." Avilan's velvet tenor replied.
      Oh great, two Sharm Lords in the same day and I'm standing here in soaking wet pants with a sharm lord bundled up in towels to keep him from killing himself, just great. Alexi couldn't think of how things could get worse. The door to the bathroom slammed open. Alexi jumped between Diomid and the intruder. "Out!" He hissed, defending Diomid from the intruder. Diomid was sick and in pain, he was going to make sure no one was going to make it worse.
      "Get away from him!" Ilira's cold eyes blazed and her field strike smashed against his barely raised shields.
      "No," he growled, stalking towards her, testing her defenses for any weakness. "He's hurt and I won't let you hurt him any more." he saw an opening and took it. Sparks rained down on the tile floor. Ilira was a vicious bitch and he was not going to let her mistreat Diomid any more.
      Ilira gasped, "You again, you disgusting little catamite." Alexi caught a purely physical blow on the chin and struggled to keep his vision clear.
      "Stop it, both of you," a brilliant, golden, adamantine barrier dropped between them. Futilely Alexi threw himself at it, trying to get to Ilira. Unthinking, he snarled at Avilan, a house cat challenging a war horse. He saw Avilan's eyes grow wide and the barrier dropped. Not a one to question his unexpected bounty, he smashed at Ilira with a hammer blow of pure hate. She dropped to the tiles, stunned.
      His foe vanquished for the moment, Alexi turned his attention back to Diomid. The towels had fallen to the floor and Diomid had almost managed to work his way through the bandages. "No you don't," he wrapped his arms around Diomid, forcing him to stop. This time though, he stroked the young man, holding him close and trying to show him how much he was wanted, at least by Alexi.
      Diomid looked up at him, blue eyes unnaturally wide, "You fought for me." His hands stopped their thrashing.
      "So I did." he looked aside at Ilira. Alexi had wanted to beat the little bitch to a pulp for the last year or so, but he hadn't realized it was literal. A tendril of unease tickled his spine as he saw her sprawled on the tiles. Normally he wasn't violent, but he couldn't have stood by and watched her snipe at Diomid.
      "Against my express command," Avilan's voice sounded a bit more amused than angry. However only a bit.
      Alexi spoke before he thought, "She had it coming."
      "Yes or no is despite the point," Avilan knelt down to the young woman and helped her sit back up. "You might have been a bit more cautious, Ilira. I had told you Diomid wasn't alone."
      "I didn't know he had the little ass kissing bastard in here."
      "I'm no bastard and you know it quite well, Ilira." Alexi clung to Diomid possessively, trying to make sure Diomid didn't do anything he didn't know about, even breathe.
      "Who exactly are you, lord Alexi?" Avilan asked softly and got a glare from Ilira.
      "I am lord Alexander Azovich Azov, by Lord T'aszo Azov out of lord Diona Azov."
      Avilan looked like someone had stuck him with a pin, "You should have taken the Demense, not me."
      Alexi shook his head, "No, m'Lord, I didn't want it then and I certainly don't want it now.
      "What you want should have come after the good of the Demense." Ilira glared at him again.
      "Like it did for you!" Alexi snapped.
      "That's different." her voice was haughty. "You didn't have to give your body over to a little parasite for nine months."
      Alexi felt Diomid take a deep gasping breath and he looked down at the white faced young man he held so carefully. *I'm so very sorry you had to find out like this.* He caressed Diomid's head with his cheek. "No I simply had to give up my life to take a position which was already far better filled by Sharm Lord Avilan." Alexi tipped his head respectfully to the older man. "I feel my decision was for the good of the Azov Demense as he had proven himself a quite able administrator and far better suited to the continuing health of the Demense than an untried stripling."
      "Very wise, young Alexander," Avilan looked up at him respectfully. For a moment Alexi could well understand why both his father and his sib had taken Avilan as their Sharm Lord. The man was exquisitely gorgeous and had a field Alexi wanted to wallow in.
      "But you have the Azov talent," Ilira glared at him, breaking the fascination.
      "So?" He snorted, "Great lot of good its done most of my relatives."
      "True enough, lad. Although I'm surprised the veiled haven't yet ..." Avilan broke off as Ilira struck out at Alexi again. "Stop that," he shook her and Alexi shuddered beneath the blow Avilan aimed at her.
      Diomid held him in return, hiding his face on Alexi's chest. "Why is she so mad at me?" He whispered.
      "She isn't mad at you, my friend. She's mad at me." He stroked Diomid's broad back. This was not how he'd wanted Diomid's affections, after having beat up his lover. Diomid shivered and he feared he'd get a chill.
      "I'm furious, you little sheet faced whore." Ilira gasped and tried to hit at him again, only to be restrained by Avilan. "It was all your fault I couldn't become Lord Ilira."
      "That is the most incredible piece of illogic I have ever heard, Ilira." Alexi grabbed a warm, dry towel to try to keep Diomid warm. Gently, he wrapped it around Diomid's shoulders. "Better?" He whispered, wishing he could do far more.
      "Diomid likes it when I make him do things." Ilira growled, reaching out towards the young man. Again, Alexi drove her off. Diomid shivered again and Alexi felt his knees shake.
      He looked at Avilan and tried to contact him, *Diomid is about to collapse. Can we continue this at another time?*
      *Go on,* Avilan's mental tone was laced with the deepest respect.
      Alexi picked up Diomid before he could fall and carried him into the other room. "Get back here, you perverted bastard." Ilira shouted at him. No, staying in their suite would be a bad idea.
      Diomid's teeth were chattering. Worried about him, Alexi took him down to his own tiny cubicle almost in the sharm. Not even bothering to wave up the lights, he tucked Diomid into his own, rather narrow bed. Quickly he dug through his clothes chest and found a couple of spare blankets. With one hand he stripped of his wet pants and tossed them over the back of his chair where they would have a chance to dry.
      Throwing off the blankets in his confusion, Diomid thrashed in the bedding. Carefully keeping his forearms safe, Alexi tried to pin him back to the bed. "Ilira!" He shouted, reaching for her.
      "No, its only me, Alexi." He stroked Diomid's now sweat dampened hair back. If he could have trusted her, he'd have let Diomid stay, but there was no way he'd let her possibly hurt him. Even when she was on her best behavior, during the late spring, Ilira was a horror.
      "Not only, Sasha," Diomid grabbed his wrist. With horror, Alexi realized Diomid's hand was wet and he smelled the heavy, copper scent of blood. Wanting to see how bad it truly was, Alexi waved the lights up slightly.
      Diomid had managed to remove almost all the heavy bandages from his hands. The gauze lay in shreds over the open gouges Diomid had made. In the low light, black blood seeped from the newly opened sores on the insides of his wrists. Without hesitation, Alexi projected the darkest, deepest need he could. Bright promise flared from Diomid. "No sweet, I'm trying to get you to heal some." He murmured, hoping Diomid could still hear him.
      "Such a pretty word, sweet," Diomid whispered and leaned back. Alexi dug through his memories to try to bring back anything he could about healing. He concentrated his projection of need on Diomid's forearms. Slowly at first, and then faster he zlinned, fascinated, as Diomid's selyn production soared in response to his artificial need. Cool energy twined around Diomid's arms and the horrible seeping wounds closed, covering the bare flesh and tendons where he had dug the deepest. Finally he couldn't hold it anymore.
      "Easy, sweet," Diomid murmured, twining his fingers with Sasha's tentacles. They were so very welcome after he had felt Ilira's irrational fury. Diomid had feared he would never feel the incredible sensation of hot tentacles again. She'd been his last chance at a partner. Neither Avilan nor Arkay would want him hopping from bed to bed like some sharm lords. Both men had expressed their displeasure with such behavior in no uncertain terms in Diomid's hearing.
      Sasha's tentacles quivered against his palm and he tried to stroke them. "I can't do any more." Sasha looked at him from under lowered lashes. "I'm not much of a healer, I'm afraid." one corner of his mouth turned up in half a grin. He looked so crestfallen, as if he were ashamed he'd not managed the impossible.
      "Better than I am." Diomid's memory hammered at him.
      Before he could move though, he felt Sasha's hands grasp his wrists, "No you don't."
      "I wasn't going to ruin your work, Sasha," he grinned wryly. "I think I am beyond that." the horrible compulsion to hurt himself was fading as he focused on Sasha's presence. "Just, please, don't leave me alone."
      "No sweet, not if you want me here," tentacles twined around his wrists, relaxing him even further. They promised him a security he'd never known. You can't simply abandon Ilira like a used towel, Diomid. His conscience stung.
      "Why wouldn't I?" Diomid asked, not really sure of what he was asking. Ilira's arrival earlier had rocked Diomid's trust to its foundations, which had none to steady to begin with. He wanted to make himself continue to love her, but if she'd truly cared for him, she'd not have attacked Sasha on sight.
      "Why would the most wonderful young sharm lord in Russia want a scrawny little, half-trained, incompetent lord like myself?" He pushed his dark hair out of his eyes again.
      Diomid couldn't help but stare, the gesture was so fantastically graceful.
      "I'm sorry Diomid. I didn't mean to take out my own insecurities on you." Sasha's tentacles resumed their gentle stroking of his wrists. "I think I am a bit tired and out of sorts after the fight with Ilira."
      "Why did you fight her?" No one had ever tried to defend Diomid before. That was his place. He was the one who should be the protector, not the protected.
      Even in the darkened room, Diomid could see Sasha blush, "I guess because I wanted to protect you."
      "Don't be ashamed, Sasha." Diomid reached out and wrapped his field around him. "No one has ever wanted me so much they were willing to show it."
      "Not even Ilira?" his words were heavy. "It was rather obvious you two are partners and I really had no right to come between you."
      "Particularly not Ilira. We only really see each other during our seclusion, actually." He tried to draw Sasha back out. "I was as surprised as you were when she showed up."
      "Why wouldn't she?"
      "She has her work and I have mine." Diomid looked at Sasha curiously. "Should she have?" Many of the other words Arkay had dropped in his ears over the past months rattled around in his brain. Things like "she shouldn't have taken you and walked out" and "she should have had some consideration for her partner" came back with stunning force. Maybe he had been hinting Diomid should find someone else.
      Sasha was muttering something under his breath, "Yes," he paused, "If you were my partner and you got hurt I would be there as fast as I could."
      Amazed at this sort of loyalty, Diomid turned Sasha's face to him, "Do you really mean that? Even though I did it to myself."
      "Especially then. I don't want to see you hurting, Diomid." Sasha hugged his arms to his body. "I'm sorry, I had no right to say that."
      "You have the right to say whatever you wish, Sasha." Even though Diomid didn't understand everything going on in his heart right now, he did know he should not repay kindness with coldness. "Please, I want to hear what you think and feel."
      Sasha laughed bitterly, surprising Diomid. "No, you don't." he protested and got to his feet. "I won't leave you alone, but ..."
      "Please, don't go," Diomid interrupted. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and tried to get up. Before he could even sit up all the way, he collapsed back with dizziness.
      "I'm not going far." Sasha dropped the blankets he was holding and came back to Diomid. "Only across the room."
      "It's your bed." Diomid pushed himself up stubbornly. "I won't kick you out of it. You didn't even eat crackers in it."
      "At least not since last time I made it." Sasha's beautiful grin lit his face.
      "Besides, I don't think either of us are up to any sort of impertinences at the moment. If nothing else, I'm starving." Diomid commented. Sasha looked aghast. "Its all right. Even I forget to eat some times," he managed to capture Sasha's hand as he returned to the bedside.
      "I usually don't." Sasha's hand felt wonderful in his. "Although I don't want to leave you to get food either."
      "Aren't there guards down the hall?" Diomid was confused.
      "Oh" Sasha grinned. "I forgot sharm lords who live above get servant privileges."
      "Makes life a lot easier than having to get bundled up to get a snack." Diomid grinned back. "How did you manage to forget?"
      "The sharm lord I wanted for my own was taken by another before I had a chance."
      "I'm sorry. Who was it?" Diomid was not thinking before opening his mouth.
      "I would rather not say." Sasha tried to pull his hand away. When he insisted, Diomid finally relented.
      "Possibly you might get a chance at them." Diomid had no idea who could be good enough for Sasha. "But if you do get who you want, if they hurt you I'll flatten them." he let his field shift to a fierce defensiveness.
      Sasha chuckled sadly, "I don't think he ever would. I'll call for food."

Chapter 8

      "While we're waiting, would you let me clean off your hands?" Alexi ventured.
      "Please, they itch." Diomid put out his arms, almost as if offering a transfer and Alexi had to still the catch in his breathing. Even damaged, they were so incredibly tempting. Without looking away, he poured some water into a basin and brought it over to them. Taking a soft cloth, he gently wiped away all the traces he could of the injury. Although once he started, he lingered over the task.
      Finally taking some fresh water and a clean, slightly rough cloth this time, he carefully cleaned around each fingernail and tiny wrinkle in each finger. Unable to hold back any longer, he dropped the cloth and licked each fingertip. The cool, broad finger pads tempted at him and he nibbled at them lightly.
      "So hungry?" Diomid asked, his voice even lower than its usual rich baritone.
      Unable to form the words, he pressed Diomid's palm to the side of his face. Alexi turned his face and licked between two of Diomid's fingers. "Such beautiful hands," he murmured, lost in the feel of them. Normally it was only sharm lords who went into raptures over hands, but Diomid's were as close to perfect as he'd ever zlinned.
      There was a knock at the door and he snarled at it before he could stop himself. "I'm sorry," he released Diomid's hand. That was embarrassing, Alexi was normally fairly calm for a lord, at least as far as he knew. He'd had few complaints, if never any long term partners. Even the months when he couldn't be bothered to hunt down a sharm lord, taking lord's transfer was not really a come down. It was rather relaxing occasionally not having to court and cosset a sharm lord for their favors.
      "It was an ill timed interruption." Diomid's fingers stroked down his neck. Was Diomid courting him? Alexi'd never had a sharm lord caress him so boldly. "Please, bring it in"
      The door opened. Diomid's field danced in surprise. "My Lord Arkay," he managed to squeak out when he realized he was standing there. How could he accept someone so grand as Lord and Ruler Arkay in this tiny little cubby of a room? He dwarfed Alexi's meager possessions and space even standing in the doorway.
      "It's your room youngster, please, no formality." Arkay's field was relaxed and amused. "Do you mind if I join you for a bit."
      "Certainly not," Alexi waved towards the small table at the head of the bed. 'Where does a twenty eight day Sharm Lord sit? Anywhere they want.' The hoary joke threatened Alexi's composure.
      Arkay set the tray down and then looked around the tiny room. Inside the room, he towered over the undersized furniture Alexi had managed to get cheaper than anything else. Arkay's finery looked as out of place as one of Avilan's Sharm Lord kadors on a renGen against Alexi's faded wall hangings. He'd never bothered to decorate in anything better than bachelor cheap.
      "A moment," he grabbed the wet pants off the back of the single chair. He wasn't going to throw them in the shower. That would be tacky. Arkay looked at him curiously. Flustered at the attention, Alexi looked down. Loving Diomid's hands had left him in a state despite his otherwise run down condition. Now embarrassed, he covered himself with the pants.
      Cold! He bit back a yelp. Although it did solve one problem.
      Now both of them were looking at him intently. Desperate, he tossed the pants over his shoulder and moved the chair towards the bed. Looking at the large wet spot, he bent over to pick up one of the blankets he had dropped on the floor. Someone, he didn't dare guess who, caressed his hip. Startled beyond control, Alexi straightened suddenly. The pants flew off his shoulder.
      Smack! Alexi turned to see Arkay peel them away from his face. "Oh gods, I'm sorry." Alexi wanted to grovel before the older man for his ineptitude. He thought about grabbing one of the blankets but really didn't want to turn his back again. Awkwardly he tried to reach down and still face Arkay. It didn't work very well and he fell on his backside. The floor was not very warm, as he'd never managed the trick of making rag rugs.
      "Easy, lad," Arkay knelt in front of him. One of Arkay's hands gently stroked his ankle.
      "Mine," Diomid snapped, his field an icy lance aimed at Arkay's hand.
      "Ow," Arkay released his hold and shook his hand. "You hit hard." He grinned, seeming pleased.
      Alexi looked up at Diomid in absolute shock, when he recovered from wanting to hide under his own bed, with the dust lions and wikkies. "You didn't have to do that." He said softly, awe coloring his tone. No one had ever defended him. Some of his past partners hadn't even bothered to wait until he'd woken the morning after transfer before vanishing on him. He didn't blame them, he hardly even knew half their names. They had come together in need and both left satisfied.
      "It slipped out." Diomid's arms tensed. Before he could get further, Alexi quickly sat beside him on the bed and took his hands in his own. He kissed the palms, licking them gently. Oh Gods he tasted good. Even to his tongue, Diomid was sweeter than any sharm lord he'd ever touched.
      "Enough love play, you two." Arkay sat down in the chair after having draped one of the blankets over the back of it. "By the way, that was perfect Alexi," for an instant he clasped their joined hands.
      "We aren't lovers, my Lord Arkay." Alexi tried to hold back his regret at the fact. Although to prevent a repeat of his earlier embarrassment, he deftly slipped a corner of the bedding across his lap before it was necessary. As one of Diomid's hands slipped down to rest on his thigh, the cloth made it just in time. He'd never wanted a long term partner before, but if said partner were Diomid he'd give it his best shot. The young sharm lord was so sweet. Most were rather hardened and abrupt. Of course that might be because he rarely put any effort into it.
      "I couldn't tell." Arkay grinned. "You two should eat, and Diomid should be sure to get enough to drink." He pointed out. "That's why I came down here myself. Avilan is still trying to calm down Ilira."
      "Is there anything I can do?" Diomid straightened up. Alexi let him go. If there was one thing Alexi knew, it was to let any sharm lord do anything they wanted, as long as it wouldn't hurt them. "I abandoned her." Diomid's field darkened. Alexi wanted to cheer the shadows away. Diomid's field should be vibrant and alive, as it had been when they'd been in the bath together. Stop that, he twitched the blanket into a better position.
      "No you didn't lad. Don't quote me Alexi, but sharm lords have the absolute right to go with whom they chose. We may let the lords think they have some say in the matter, but, well, you know how lords are." Arkay's grin turned wicked.
      Alexi giggled, despite his trying not to, "Don't worry, Arkay, I won't let your secret out." Nor would he ever gainsay it. He'd always believed it. To woo and win a sharm lord was a pleasure, to coerce one was anathema. To even think of using any leverage against Diomid was unthinkable. Alexi didn't want a slave or a servant. If he did, he could have bought the contract of a very willing ren. They would serve him well and willingly for the mere freedom of living with a single master.
      "I knew you were a lord with sense," his wink was more than cheering. Most older sharm lords had treated Alexi as if he had no brains at all. He didn't particularly mind. They could be a bit easier to catch if he acted the butterfly brain.
      "But I can't just let her flail around." Diomid protested. "She needs me."
      "Yes you can, Diomid." Alexi made sure Diomid was looking at him. "You needed her as well and she wasn't there for you." As I would try to be for you if you'd let me, he didn't dare speak anywhere other than the deepest corner of his mind.
      "That's because she has her work." Diomid's jaw was set so hard Alexi's could see the muscles twitch at the hinge. "She came as soon as she could." He was not a happy sharm lord and Alexi dared to snuggle him a little closer. See, not all lords are as frivolous. He wanted to show.
      "Yes and then she picked a fight with Alexi. If she had really cared about you she wouldn't have been distracted by his presence." Arkay broke off some of the bread and handed it to Diomid.
      Nibbling around the edge of it, Diomid said, "Still, I owe her Arkay. She was the only one who would take me."
      Alexi took some of the bread as well, "I think it is telling you don't speak of your love for her." He tried not to let hope enter his tone.
      "I should love her." he bit at his bread savagely, as if he were fighting himself.
      "The words should and love do not belong together youngster." Arkay gestured with a slice of melon.
      "I did love her." Diomid looked down at his hands. "Really I did."
      "I'm sure you did." Alexi caught Diomid's gaze. "There's no shame in it." Please believe me on this, if nothing else. It is your choice and I'll not force you in any way. If he could, Alexi would give Diomid any thing he asked for.
      "You hate her." Diomid snapped, suspicion etched throughout his trembling nager. He wasn't zlinning, but Diomid's emotions were so strong, they impinged on his consciousness anyway.
      "I do." Alexi shrugged, wanting to be as honest as possible. "I can't change what I feel for Ilira and I doubt she feels any differently. I'm not going to try to trick you." Diomid's mouth dropped open. Alexi noted the strawberries in cream on the tray. Careful not to get too much of the juice on his fingers, he grabbed one and popped it in Diomid's mouth.
      "You would let me go back to her?" Diomid looked surprised. Least of all would I deny you someone you care for. I'd be no better than her if I tried.
      "I never thought you left her, Diomid." he wistfully eyed the strawberries, remembering loving them as a child. With a sigh of regret, Alexi picked up a slice of honeydew and began nibbling on it. "I'd not bar you from the woman you say you love." There was a hard lump in his throat and he had to remind himself again this arrangement was temporary. When Diomid returned to health, he'd return to Ilira.
      Diomid caught Arkay taking his leave this time. Thank you, he thought to himself. He'd made up his mind, with Arkay's help. Now all he had to do was try to win Sasha. A tremor of fear made him shiver. Having abandoned Ilira to Avilan, he couldn't go back.
      *You are welcome, my lad* Arkay sent with a wink before he closed the door silently behind himself.
      Trying an experiment, Diomid picked out one of the strawberries. A big, juicy sweet one. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the scent of it. Then he licked it, thinking of the sweet tang overlying the prickle of the seeds on the smooth skin. Sasha's lean body seemed to try to wrap itself around him. Diomid could feel Sasha's chin resting on his shoulder. The tart, sweet, unique taste of strawberry filled his mouth as he took a big bite out of it. Letting the taste of it linger on his tongue, he heard Sasha lick his lips. In only two more bites it was gone, and he deftly licked the last of the juice off of his lips.
      "Tease," Sasha's breath was warm against his ear. "Thank you though, it was as if I could taste it myself."
      "I thought you might enjoy it, at least second hand." he took a bit of the cantaloupe off the tray. Always appreciative of summer's bounty of fruit, Diomid was thrilled with the selection Arkay had brought from what must have obviously been his own table. Even Ilira didn't eat this well. Diomid leaned back against Sasha and offered him one of the dates.
      "What's this?" He looked at it dubiously. One tentacle touched the sticky fruit as if to see if it would wiggle.
      Diomid grinned, "It's a date."
      "Want one?" Sasha's tongue flicked out at it. The delicate gesture tugged at Diomid's awareness of Sasha's warm smooth body next to his again. He'd played with Ilira over the winter with food, but she'd never had the deftness of touch Sasha showed in his every move. Nor had she ever shown his smooth beauty.
      "We're naked, alone and in bed together. Now you asks me for a date." Diomid laughed. Then he laughed even harder at Sasha's look of absolute bliss as he bit into the very sweet fruit. He wondered what Sasha's fantastic green eyes would look like hot with passion and felt his loins tighten again with longing. Not being particularly post, he wondered at the strength of response to such a simple gesture.
      "Those are good!" then he turned those so fascinating eyes on him. "Would you say yes?" Dark lashes fluttered down to trace over his high cheekbones. The image of innocence so soon after his expression of desire intrigued Diomid like nothing else.
      "Only if you tell me who it was you wanted. I might be able to help you catch them." Diomid looked at him slyly, hoping he knew the answer. There'd certainly been enough hints, not the least of which was the tent pole in Sasha's lap. His heart was pounding frantically. This was not the world's most romantic proposal, but as he'd said, they were naked in bed together. It was a little late for modesty, he hoped.
      "They're partnered with my worst enemy. I don't stand a chance." He shook his head, hair falling across his eyes again. Diomid's fingers itched to brush it back. He wondered if it were as soft and fine as it looked.
      "Worse than Ilira?" Diomid slipped in. In contrast, Diomid knew how rough she'd been, when he didn't want it. If she'd kept her aggressiveness to seclusion, he'd have reveled in it, but sometimes he wanted his partner to be gentle with him as well. Sasha seemed to be able to do both, from the way he'd handled Diomid's outbursts.
      "No one could be worse." Sasha sighed, his tentacles twining with nerves.
      "I do wonder who this mystery sharm lord could be." Diomid chuckled knowingly. "Whoever could it be?" he turned to look into Sasha's absolutely stunned green eyes. With a gentle hand, he stroked Sasha's chestnut hair back from his face. The red brown hair was even softer than he would have thought. It drifted through his fingers like silk threads. "I hope it isn't someone so foolish as to waste their time on a lord who neglects them for one as sweet as you are."
      "He would never do that." His sun darkened skin burned against his fingertips.
      "Are you sure?" Diomid took Sasha's hand in his own. "Does he even know your name?"
      "He doesn't know I've wanted him since I first set eyes on him." Sasha sighed, seeming to forget who he was talking with. "He's the most beautiful, wonderful sharm lord I've ever zlinned."
      "If he's so wonderful then why doesn't he know the most fascinating, brilliant lord in Azov wants him?" Diomid teased gently, feeling a bit overwhelmed. No one had ever expressed such paeans of praise to him. He'd heard of other sharm lords being courted with poetry and music, but no lord had ever come forward with any for him. Ilira had been far more technical in her pursuit of pleasure once she was sure she'd caught him.
      "Because I'm the one who wants him." Sasha's shoulders seemed to bow under a great weight. The gesture of hopelessness stung Diomid to the core.
      "Foolishness," Diomid snapped. "He would be a fool not to want you and I would prefer not to think of myself as a fool." He couldn't stand to see Sasha tearing into himself. This was no longer a game.
      "No, no" Sasha protested, "You aren't a fool. I am." He blushed furiously, "I'm sorry, I have a big mouth."
      "Please tell me his name." Diomid turned around and faced Sasha. "I would like to hear it." He maneuvered Sasha so he was pinned against the wall between his arms. Sasha shook his head no, hair falling across his eyes. "Then perhaps I should drag it out of you."
      "Please don't," Sasha's plea was amazingly insincere. "He'll never have me."
      "Then perhaps you won't mind making do with me." he straddled Sasha's thighs and pulled him close. As he wanted to since he first saw him, Diomid brushed his hair away with his nose. The smooth skin of Sasha's temple pulsed with life beneath his lips. He kissed at the few sun streaked hairs which refused his gesture.
      "Diomid," Sasha gasped.
      "I didn't hurt you?" Diomid chuckled, the wonderful feeling of hot Sime in his arms making him forget his earlier reticence about not knowing what to do with another man.
      "No, the sharm lord I want."
      "He knows you want him." Diomid held him even tighter. "Although he is not entirely sure what to do now," he looked down to see Sasha gaping at him. "Yes sweet, I may be dense on occasion, but I would not hope to be so much of a fool as turn you down after all you've done for me."
      "I didn't do it to woo you into my bed." Sasha's hand stroked his face. Diomid managed to catch one of his fingers with a lick.
      "I know." he kissed Sasha's hand. "You are far more kind than to try to trick even a foolish young sharm lord who was too busy looking at bodies and not hearts."
      Alexi's heart pounded in his chest. From the heights of terror when Diomid had trapped him into admitting his interest to now, when all he could think of was Diomid's strong body in his hands. "Come here to me," he slid himself up so he was eye to eye with Diomid. Diomid let him, even though Alexi could zlin his field quiver with unease. There was still something else holding Diomid back. Alexi thought for a moment, "Ah, I understand." He chuckled wickedly. Diomid actually blushed, all the way down his chest. Alexi caught Diomid's hands in his own. "I think it would be best if you could relax for a bit."
      "I might fall asleep." He lowered his head.
      "If you do, you do." Alexi squeezed his hands gently. "If you want the rest there is always morning, sweet. You and I have had a rough day."
      "True enough. Although there is one thing I do have to take care of before I can sleep." Diomid twitched away nervously.
      "I do have a sliver of a bathroom."
      "Thank you."
      Grumbling at the narrowness of the bed, Alexi arranged the bedding. Then he rearranged the bedding. No, the green cover should go over the brown, he pulled everything off the bed and set the covers to his liking. The glimpses he'd gotten of Ilira's quarters made his own look dreadfully shabby. The tapestries on the walls were faded and threadbare. There were no soft rugs underfoot. Even the mattress was stuffed with rushes and not feathers. Alexi tried to convince himself the rushes were at least sweeter than feathers.
      Diomid stood at the door to the bathroom. At that moment, Alexi saw the racks of bridles to be cleaned hanging over his bed and the saddle he'd been repairing taking up half the floor space. He put his face in his hands.
      "Hush," Diomid's cool hand seemed to burn against Alexi's heated skin. "I'm not offended at sleeping in the tack room." Alexi dared to look up. He cringed as he saw what Diomid was looking at. The crops and bats in the umbrella stand were not normal decor. Then it got worse. Diomid picked out one and slapped it against his other hand. The smacking sound was loud in the tiny room.
      "Don't do that," he breathed. Unfortunately, the one he'd grabbed had rarely been used on horses.
      "Why not?" Diomid raised an eyebrow. "This one is very nice." His fingers traced over the fine weaving on the shaft. This was not a comforting thought to Alexi. He had far too many fond memories of the application of that same crop to sharpen his own need.
      "Because I ..." he had to swallow as Diomid tapped the popper against his own cheek. This was an absolutely fascinating image. "You were tired?"
      "Yes, actually," he put it back in the stand. Alexi breathed a hugh sigh of relief, silently of course. Maybe now he could think of something other than sex. It would be a nice change. For the first time in his life, he really did want to talk with a sharm lord and his body was telling him it was time to get laid. Annoying to say the least.
      "Come here, pretty one," he patted the bed next to him, hoping he'd not made too much a fool of himself. Maybe I should have put the blue one on top, Alexi eyed the mismatched blankets softening his pallet. Diomid's weight made the frame creak as he sat, only the edge of his broad shoulders touching Alexi's. Even this slight contact made his heart pound in his throat.
      Alexi could also zlin Diomid's weariness gray his field. This would never do. More than anything, Alexi wanted Diomid's first time to be as pleasurable as he could make it. "Relax, sweet," convinced Diomid to lie down with him. If nothing else Alexi knew he was at least reasonably competent at sex, even if there was nothing else he'd learned so far in his life. How could he want me for more than a night, Alexi had no illusions about his sophistication.
      Diomid spoke with Sharm Lord Arkay as an equal, if not quite yet a true peer. Alexi was only a lord, and not a very well educated one. Certainly he knew High Simelan and court rituals, but that was because his far older brother had made sure Alexi would be at least competent if something happened to Avilan. Lukian had doted on Avilan, for good reason now that Alexi had met the Sharm Lord, but he had worried Avilan wouldn't have the nerve to take Azov for himself and wanted to be certain Azov would not dissolve with his death.
      This Alexi could understand and support with his whole heart. He'd never wanted the Demense of Azov in his own tentacles. He couldn't stand to change leadership every decade. There were too many decisions to be made which require a long term perspective. It was this reason Lukian had said he'd wanted a Sharm Lord to follow him. They always had better perspective for long term plans. It was simply a difference between the larities. Alexi had agreed with him entirely and hidden himself in the sharm and later the barn to open the path for Lukian's chosen successor.
      He'd never planned on getting involved with the leadership of the Demense after Lukian's death. His encounter today with Avilan had been entirely accidental. Perhaps if he made himself a shadow of a lesser lord again, they'd forget about him. Even though if he bonded to Diomid, such did not seem to be an option.
      Quit counting your fillies before they're foaled, Alexi reminded himself. There was no way Diomid would want more than the romp other sharm lords had given him and this was probably for the best. He did not a have a lifetime to give anyone.
      Diomid's smoothly curved backside settled against Alexi's loins. This was not a good place for it. His body decided to try to find his painful erection a home immediately. Later, he fought to get it to go away. Grumbling silently at himself, he rearranged things to at least manage a modicum of comfort. Diomid would not get a restful night's sleep with Alexi poking him in the back. Hopefully he wouldn't mind a bit of dampness.
      "This feels so much more safe than Ilira's quarters." Diomid sighed as he curled up against Alexi. "I guess growing up in the sharm made me more comfortable in tight quarters, but they do feel more secure to me."
      Good, it zlinned as if Diomid was not going to make a fuss. Even though as he thought it, Alexi realized Diomid would never make a fuss, even when he probably should. "Me too, sweet," he realized he had left his public field still set slightly to need and watched Diomid's body finishing up its healing as Diomid drifted off to sleep. "In the morning, my love," he nuzzled Diomid's short blond hair.
      Before he was even completely awake, Diomid became aware of hot, wiry Sime fingers stroking him. "Yes," he let his hips rock, sliding within the incredibly deft grasp. The velveteen feel of tentacles added their touch. Lost in a haze of early waking desire, he whimpered as he was released.
      Easy," a voice whispered in his ear. The hand returned and he moaned at its now slick touch. At first teasing and gentle, Diomid whimpered again at its too light temptation. For what seemed like forever, he verged on the edge of exploding, only to be held back by not quite getting enough of what he wanted. Diomid growled deep in his throat.
      The hand left and Diomid thrust futilely into the air. "We'll get there." Sasha murmured into his ear. Too aroused to worry, Diomid tried to press back against him. "Not yet, my friend," he chuckled. Strong fingers and tentacles worked their way down to his lower back, timed with his still slowly shifting hips.
      "Yes," he carefully rolled over as Sasha worked his hands down.
      "Don't cheat," Alexi said, a bit too late as the friction of the bedding was too much after all the teasing. "I warned you." this time Sasha's touch was like fire. He had to fight not to whimper as Sasha's work roughened hands stroked his now far too sensitive skin. He crouched backwards, trying to get away from the sheets. Sasha chuckled and placed a hand on his back.
      The hand on his back slowly slid downwards. Diomid arched nervously.
      "Easy," Sasha murmured again, lightly stroking him. "I won't hurt you," he purred. "Trust me," Sasha leaned his weight across Diomid's back. A nip on his shoulder though, made him sink down completely. "Yes, my sweet." a tentacle stroked him so very delicately for a moment he believed he imagined it.
      Ilira had not been exactly reticent with her tentacles, but she certainly had done nothing like this.
      Diomid relaxed to it, trusting Sasha completely. So very slowly at first he felt just the tip of it tease at him. On and on it went, till Diomid couldn't take it anymore.
      Leaning back, he tried to push himself back at Sasha. The maddening, feather light touches promised untold pleasures if he could only grasp them. He squirmed against the slippery, elusive digit. If only it would hold still!
      Sasha's low chuckle spurred him on. Desperate now for his touch, he tried to move back even more. Diomid cried out at the exquisite feeling of Sasha's touch as he slid inside.
      "Oh, my pretty one," Sasha murmured against his back. Diomid writhed madly between the touch of tentacles and hands holding him. "Is there something you might want?" his gentle tentacle slid out.
      "No," Diomid whimpered, missing him already.
      "There isn't something you want?" Sasha rested his entire weight across Diomid's shoulders. The pressure teased at him in a way he'd never known. It was as if there were something primal about having hot Sime weight pressing down on him. He gasped as now two velvet covered tentacles buried themselves in him.
      Diomid felt Sasha's palm come to rest on his lower back. He shivered as waves of pleasure ebbed and flowed through him with every tiny flicker of movement of Sasha's exquisite tentacles.
      "Please," Diomid desperately wanted him. "Take me." Trying to come up with some way to tempt Sasha into doing more than simply tease him, he sank down into the bedding with his chest. Maybe this would be enough of a hint. He was certainly ready.
      "Not yet," Sasha's sharp teeth nipped at the base of his neck. Diomid groaned, drowning in all the new sensations bombarding him. There was an emptiness begging to be filled, as he'd filled the Simes he'd had transfer with. Now he knew some of what they felt and moaned. It worked for them, didn't it?
      Sasha gasped and his gently stroking tentacles stilled. They threatened retreat. Diomid grasped at them frantically, nearly sliding out from under Sasha. They couldn't get away. They'd almost managed to sooth the aching itch threatening his sanity. "Easy," he purred in Diomid's ear. He didn't want it easy, he wanted it hard.
      "Please, now!" Sometimes this worked. Even a tiny bit more. Anything. He squirmed frantically, trying to get them to go back to where they'd been, but instead they left. A chill at the absence of their hot touch made him shiver all over.
      "Is this better?" Sasha's slid over to lie on top of him.
      "Getting there," he growled, wanting to let Sasha know how much he wanted him.
      Something nearly as smooth as a tentacle, but far more tempting pressed up against him. This was what he wanted. Deep inside him there was an itching, burning place he wanted rubbed again. He knew all about arousing a woman by stroking himself over where her nerves were closest to the surface and this felt far too similar to be denied. If only he could catch Sasha's temptation.
      Diomid quivered all over as he succeeded part way. Sasha was in. The unfamiliar, wonderful feel of being taken, as he'd taken Ilira was far more pleasure than pain, despite what he'd heard it could be the first time. "Easy, sweet." Sasha's first slow, short movements teased at Diomid like nothing else ever had. He was almost there. Only a few more cents and he'd reach the nerves begging for attention. Why had he waited so long? Ilira had certainly enjoyed being taken, why had he thought he wouldn't?
      "More," he begged, trying to open himself even further. If he could only get there. Only a little bit more. Now all he knew was how close.
      "Oh gods, Diomid." Sasha's hands suddenly clenched on his hips. Diomid could feel him hold back and he leaned against his hold. Using all his greater mass, he forced himself backwards. He was not taking refusal for an answer. Diomid was going to get what he wanted when it was millimeters away.
      "Yes," he sighed, moving on Sasha's still form. He no longer cared for anything but scratching the fierce demands of his body.
      There, he breathed, gasping as waves of pleasure shivered up and down his spine. Oh how it felt good. He could feel himself throb with each heartbeat. Pressure built within him, demanding release. If he could have, he would have wanted to hold back, but it felt too wonderful to stay still.
      "Still a moment." Sasha's fingers dug in even harder. The pleasure/pain of his steel grip blinded Diomid with utter lust. He had to move and couldn't. Harsh, quiet cries came from his throat each time his own muscles clamped down. He could feel the blood pulse within what he held. Forced to stillness, his hips tried to rock and only drove his passion higher with being held so tight. Finally Sasha's breath slowed from its frantic pace. "Yes, my sweet Diomid," slowly he pulled most of the way out and then teasingly and even more slowly entered him again. Each time he reached bottom, Diomid cried out, not knowing more than the glorious sensations driving though and over him.
      Again and again, Sasha moved at the same torturous pace. Sweat slicked both their bodies and Sasha easily slid across Diomid's back. His hot length in him and on him tormented Diomid with its sweetness. If he would only move faster it would be perfect! Sharp teeth biting at his shoulder made Diomid scream his desire and rear back to drive himself onto Sasha. He was going to get what he wanted or die of frustration.
      Startled by the sudden movement Alexi lost control for a brief instant. Of their own accord his hips began to pound at Diomid far too hard. Alexi well knew Diomid had been a virgin in this regard and had been doing his best not to get too rough.
      "Yes, oh yes," Diomid begged unexpectedly.
      The guttural plea bypassed any thoughts of restraint Alexi might have had. "You like this, do you?" he didn't wait for an answer but nipped at Diomid again, this time not very careful about how hard. Diomid squealed and bucked back against him. This time Alexi was ready for his reaction and he pulled Diomid all the way upright. "Oh yes, my pretty little stallion," he snaked one hand around to grasp him. Diomid's head fell back on Alexi's shoulder as he gave out another wailing cry. The sound spurred him on like nothing else. For a moment his shivered in pain with holding back. How he wanted to release his passions right now, but he wanted Diomid to learn how very good sex could be first.
      From Alexi's point of view the position was perfect, now Diomid didn't have the leverage to move against him. Leaning around, he licked the front of Diomid's throat, tasting his sweet salty sweat on his tongue. "Yes, my pretty." he gently rocked Diomid front to back on his lap. Never before had anyone, male or female responded to him like this. "My sweet, my love." he nipped at Diomid's shoulders.
      "Please Sasha, harder," the name only Diomid used for him spurred him on like nothing else. His hand tightened and Diomid bucked wildly in his grasp. Tormented beyond his late cycle endurance Alexi drove Diomid forward onto his hands and knees. With a savage snarl he grabbed Diomid's hips. "Like that," Diomid hissed, bracing himself.
      So hard? Alexi hesitated.
      Diomid snarled and disabused any notions of Alexi being gentle. If he didn't get rough, it seemed Diomid would do it himself.
      Leaning back, Alexi concentrated on the exquisite sensation of Diomid yielding to him. Smoothly he drove him. Diomid matched him easily, sliding back onto him tightly with each stroke. If he hadn't known better, he'd have said Diomid had been far more experienced. Not wanting to leave Diomid hanging, Alexi wanted to stop and catch his breath again.
      "No," Diomid snarled and writhed around so they were facing the wall. The deep moaning sigh as he sat back this time made Alexi cry out.
      Now almost completely passive, Alexi watched Diomid move on top of him. "Feels good, my sweet?" He took Diomid in his hand again and realized what had been going on. "Yes, I do see you like." He felt the familiar throb fill his hand. "Oh my yes," this time he didn't hold back.
      With all his strength he moved Diomid on top of him. "Yes," Diomid hissed, head thrown back. Harder and faster Alexi moved him till with one final thrust he clamped Diomid to him. Alexi screamed as wave after wave of searing passion washed over him. Diomid writhed in his grasp, opening even more to him.
      With a final shudder Diomid slumped back into his arms.
      "Oof," Alexi wobbled as Diomid went limp. Checking to make sure he was all right, he stroked the side of Diomid's face with his knuckles. Blindly, Diomid turned towards his touch. Even when he opened his eyes, finally, there was no sense in them.
      Diomid whimpered, high and piteous when Alexi slid out.
      "It's all right, sweet." Alexi stroked his face again, starting to worry.
      "It sure is." Diomid's grin was the silliest, most heartstoppingly beautiful, thing he had ever seen in his life. I doubt I've ever been so gorgeous to anyone. Alexi noted a bit sadly. Knowing full well this might be the only time he had Diomid, he savored every glance and moment.
      Alexi gave him a gentle laugh. "You, my sweet, look like the proverbial cat who got locked in the buttery all night long." Actually he looked like an angel who'd come to earth and found it better than heaven.
      "Happier," Diomid sighed. "Thank you!" The pure joy in his voice was something Alexi had never had directed at him. He'd had lovers who praised his skills, but never with such unfettered purity.
      "Thank you, Diomid." he purred, leaning on Diomid's shoulder. "That wasn't exactly what I had planned." He wished he could express how truly wonderful it had been to be accepted with such great warmth. If he didn't know better, he would have said it was love, but Alexi no longer looked for any such thing. Love was for sharm tales and romance novels. It wasn't for lords who had less than a decade ahead of them, a face like a hatchet and less than a hundred days on account.
      "And what had you planned, my love?"
      Alexi thrilled at Diomid's words, even though he knew they were mere politeness. "I wouldn't have thought you would want to be taken, since I had thought you preferred women. Or at least I would have thought you'd require a bit more gentleness." Now there was an understatement. Alexi could play a bit rough sometimes, but usually only in an excess of enthusiasm. Diomid seemed to have gone straight from diffident to ravenously passionate in a heartbeat. How could someone so obviously innocent as Diomid have so quickly turned so passionate? No, therein lie madness. It couldn't truly be he did prefer to be taken. Alexi had to remind himself again, Diomid preferred women in his bed. He was simply convenient, as he had been for many other sharm lords.
      "No, no, was wonderful ... lucky, lucky women. So many times!" Diomid babbled.
      "You are a very lucky man, Diomid." Maybe he was one of those rare men who did prefer other men. There were some. Even though he didn't truly act like it. Many of them hunted out partners, particularly sharm lords who could often entice any lord they wanted, or so it seemed to Alexi.
      "I am. You want me," he sighed, stroking Alexi's arms.
      "You are also very silly right now." Alexi chuckled. Diomid's wild flattery was going straight to Alexi's arms. If he didn't stop soon, he'd require a new pair of bracers before long.
      "Not silly, happy," Diomid was still babbling. "Very, very happy."
      "Very sticky, my sweet," he nipped at Diomid's shoulder lightly. Diomid cried out and shivered again, finally settling down to murmuring something absolutely unintelligible. Alexi shook his head, "Shower?" No matter how his body still hummed with pleasure, his skin was sticky with sweat and other things. He probably didn't smell very good at the moment either. His quick bath with Diomid yesterday had done little to get him clean.
      "In the shower?" Diomid turned hot eyes on him. He couldn't want Alexi again ... could he? That was impossible. No one had ever wanted a rematch so quickly, particularly when they were not right off transfer.
      "No, no sweet," he stroked Diomid's quivering thighs. He did not want to wear him out. Gods, he didn't even know where Diomid really was in his cycle. He'd gotten so messed up yesterday, he could have been anywhere between transfer and hard need. Taking advantage of a sharm lord who'd gotten low field from blood letting was not to Alexi's taste by any stretch of the imagination.
      "Aw," he pouted. "Maybe later?" Even though it seemed Diomid didn't care.
      "Maybe later, love." Alexi grinned. If he didn't mind, Alexi figured it would probably be best to never know.
      "I like it when you call me love." Diomid leaned back even more. "I like it lots. Good lover ... very good lover." he grasped Alexi's upper arms. A shiver went through his body. He hadn't meant to use the 'l' word to Diomid. Much as he might feel it, he didn't want the sharm lord to feel obligated to him. That wouldn't be fair to him. Diomid shouldn't be levered into staying with Alexi simply because he thought Alexi would die without him, no matter how it might feel to Alexi.
      "However my legs are about to fall asleep, love." Alexi shifted his weight uncomfortably. 'In for a day ...' he figured his little slip went unnoticed so far. Maybe if he brazened it out, Diomid would think he called everyone love. Actually he'd never used the 'l' word with anyone before, even though the sharp ache in his heart sure felt like the love spoken of in sharm tales. But right now this little scene was becoming far too intimate, far too quickly. He had to give Diomid time to settle himself and decide what he wanted to do. Cornering an intimate of Sharm Lord Arkay was not healthy, nor was it fair to Diomid. The latter actually meant far more to him really.
      With a heartfelt sigh, Diomid leaned forward. Alexi slid out from underneath him and then had to catch Diomid as he slumped boneless sideways. Oh Gods, did I hurt him? He thought back on how hard he'd taken him and his heart stopped in utter terror. How could he explain to Sharm Lord Arkay Azov, part of the Azov household, how, after having sworn to take care of Diomid, the young man came to require medical care for rape.
      "Come here sweet," he gathered a limp Diomid into his arms. Worried sick, Alexi dared zlin Diomid without asking permission first. Diomid made a deep, rumbling sound in his chest. He's purring?! Only once before had Alexi zlinned anyone so content, and she hadn't been human.
      No human had ever trusted Alexi like this. It was as if once he'd given his heart, he'd held nothing at all back. Could it truly be Diomid had given Alexi his heart? He hoped so, but wasn't betting on it. Probably it simply the fact Alexi had taken his virginity. He'd had one sharm lord declare unending love for his person after their first time. Less than a month later, they were cooing and courting a different lord. Often a lord looked far less attractive to a sharm lord after turnover. Not that he blamed them, his own temper was none too sweet at turnover or within a few days of transfer, or worse if he had to run over a day or two. That hurt!
      "No, like this," Diomid turned him around. A deep sigh gusted Alexi's hair back into his face. Diomid pulled him down onto the bed. Now he knew what a rag doll felt like, from the inside. Diomid seemed to have no comprehension of what he was doing, even though it felt wonderful. Alexi reveled in the differences in the larities, and the greater mass of sharm lords was a delight he never tired of.
      "Feel good," Diomid murmured into his ear and with that, Alexi felt Diomid relax completely into sleep. Completely overwhelmed by the strength of Diomid's compulsion to sleep with him, Alexi barely had time to flip one of the sheets over them to keep from getting a chill before he too dozed off.
      In a daze, Diomid glanced around the room, trying to figure out what time it was. Sasha was still sleeping in his arms and he didn't want to wake him for something so trivial. Although he would have to get up soon no matter what time it was. He kissed the back of Sasha's neck gently. His skin was so perfectly soft, again Diomid was amazed at the strength in those sleek muscles. Oh how perfect he felt. Even Ilira had never trusted him like this, startling awake at any move Diomid made when she was asleep, no matter what time of the month it was.
      "Good afternoon, sleepy," Sasha whispered.
      "I was going to ask what time it was," he chuckled. There were a few slight aches from their sporting, but he felt so good all over they were nothing. His whole body seemed to buzz with a certain manic contentment.
      "About four."
      "Argh," Diomid tried to get up and got defeated by the bedding wrapped around both of them. It had taken on a life of its own. Not that he really wanted to get up. What he wanted to do was to stay here and examine every centimeter of Sasha's smooth skin with his mouth and tongue. Experimentally he gave a tiny lick. It was as if he could taste the sunlight which had soaked into the smooth column of his neck. He was so perfect, Diomid wondered anew at the bachelor quarters. Certainly Sasha had to have a regular partner.
      "Its all right. Avilan stopped by and said we were considered to be in seclusion." Sasha said far too calmly.
      Diomid sniffed the air, "You didn't let him in. Please tell me you didn't?" He knew Avilan would not be able to resist looking smug the next time he saw him. Sharm Lord Azov he might be, but he never could resist twitting anyone with a well placed 'I told you so.' Even though being entirely honest with himself, Diomid deserved it. He hadn't even imagined how wonderful bedding another man could be, despite all of Avilan's insistence it was larity which made the difference, not gender.
      "It wouldn't have helped, Diomid." Sasha chuckled. "Why do you think we are both under seclusion?"
      "Oh," he sighed. "True enough." he caressed Sasha's slender hip. His Sime physique sent a frission of longing through his entire body. "Thank you for last night."
      "Thank you, my sweet," Sasha wiggled back against him. This was entirely too tempting, but ...
      "First things first."
      "Do you think Arkay would mind if I tagged along for a few days?" Sasha asked him suddenly.
      "Don't you have your own work to do?" Diomid looked at him in surprise. The past forty-eight hours had been a piece of heaven, but now it was time to get back into the fray. His knees shook at the thought of having to face the infirmary again, alone, but knew he would have to do it some time. Sasha's words of challenge, that if he were to be a true healer, he'd have to go on, spurred him back into action.
      "None of it is critical and there are others who can take my place for now." Sasha shrugged. "Besides, being a son of Lord Azov does carry some privileges."
      "I don't want you to neglect your obligations for me." Diomid told him softly. Ilira had always told him how critical her work was. It wasn't as if sharm lords had the same obligations to work. Many of them did little more than take care of their partners. He wouldn't mind if Sasha wanted him to stay at home. It was what sharm lords did. It was Ilira's insistence on the triviality of his work which had grated on Diomid's nerves.
      "I won't be. Besides, I think it would be good for you to come out with me some time." Sasha grinned. "You should get out more." His openness was like a breath of fresh air. Ilira had never wanted him around the barns. She'd said he'd only be underfoot as he knew little about any animals other than humans.
      "I don't know if Arkay would like that." Diomid sighed. As he knew about horses and he'd never offered to teach Diomid about them, He probably didn't want Diomid around the barns either.
      "I think you're wrong, my sweet." Sasha shook his head. "Ask him."
      "Besides, I don't know a thing about horses." He protested. Finally it struck him why. He didn't want to look the idiot sharm lord in front of Sasha. Admittedly, his first encounter with the man had probably zlinned none too pleasant, with Diomid trussed up like a sheaf of wheat.
      "If you don't want to, you don't have to." Sasha looked up at him from tying his bootlaces. As usual, his hair fell into his eyes.
      Fascinated by it, Diomid brushed it back again. He never tired of running his fingers through Sasha's soft hair. "I've always wanted to," Diomid admitted, "but I never had the time."
      All sharm lords liked horses. Particularly the Tekes the nobility rode. They were so beautifully Sime like, with their sleek muscles and flowing gaits. He'd never dared think he would get to ride one of them. Most people rode the far more placid and mundane Trakhs, which also made good driving horses.
      "Then we'll teach you." Sasha's insistence was odd. Could he really want to share his life with Diomid, not just his need? He didn't dare think it could be true. Most of the pairings Diomid'd seen were far more convenient than affectionate. Then the plural struck him.
      "We?" Diomid squawked. Of course we, he had to have a partner. Diomid didn't want to meet the paragon of Genininity the sharm lord who'd caught Sasha's wrists must be.
      "Yes, we." Sasha grinned. "Arkay is one of the best horsemen in Russia."

Chapter 9

      "Actually I think that is a great idea." Arkay glanced at the two young men in front of him. Diomid looked healthier and happier than Arkay had ever seen him. There was a light in his eyes and bounce in his step now. And while Alexi looked like he had gotten into the sharm with unlimited privileges, he also was completely focused on his new friend. "You and I both should get more exercise, Diomid."
      Diomid groaned and looked away. Dragging him into the salle every day was a chore Arkay didn't much enjoy. Diomid had the body to be a competent fighter, but he had very little talent for it. Although as the actual strength building exercises seemed to suit him quite well, Arkay figured he'd manage if it ever came down to a challenge. If nothing else the lad would be able to flatten any Lord alive except for Karola by sheer mass when he'd gotten his final growth. He was going to be quite heavy, if short. "Come now, lad. You'll probably like riding more than sparring." Couldn't miss.
      He perked up at this, "You mean I can replace some of my time in the salle with riding horses?"
      "Yes, youngster. You still have to learn how to fight, but you should also know how to ride competently." He turned to Alexi, standing there most patiently, "Speaking of which ..."
      Alexi blushed quite red, "Yes, m'Lord?"
      "No, you goose. Riding horses. I admit, most reluctantly, to my having neglected my poor Kiri." He blinked at the thrill of covetousness coming from Alexi. "How is he doing?"
      "Quite well," there was even more light in Alexi's eyes. "We had a great time with the advanced obstacle course last weekend, and I took him out for a long ride to inspect the new plantings in the northwest last week." A small grin touched the corner of his mouth as he looked down shyly, "There should also be at least four foals of his next year, possibly five, I'm not entirely sure of one mare."
      His audacity surprised a hearty laugh out of Arkay. "You are a scheming young man. Don't try to deny you hope for a good filly." He shook his finger at Alexi.
      "Then I won't," he grinned back. "I couldn't just let him stand, Sharm Lord Arkay. He's so gorgeous and not very young any more." An image of riding the silver bay through the forests surrounding the city in spring came to Arkay's mind from Alexi tinged with great joy, both from man and horse. He'd heard of the Azov gift, but this was the first time he'd sensed it in action, even second hand.
      "Does anyone else ride him?" Arkay worried a bit. Even gifted, Sasha was taking a risk around Kiri. The stallion had learned to hate all Simes at Kirov except those few he knew very well. Part of why he'd thought it would have been best to leave him at Kirov before Valentine convinced Yosef to give Arkay back his horse. Arkay'd been of mixed mind about the situation until now.
      "No one else can." Alexi snickered. "He threw Ilira across the barn when she tried to get close to him." He supposed this was a justifiable pride in his abilities, but the way he tossed it off so nonchalantly made Arkay worry a bit. If he was so blase about Kiri's affections, would he be any less about Diomid's?
      Arkay sighed, "He can be difficult about Simes." How was young lord Alexander going to respond to this challenge? Far bolder Simes than this youngster had quailed at any expression of displeasure from Arkay. Let's see how he does if I really do frown at him.
      Surprisingly enough, Alexi didn't even flinch. Arkay could sense his field instinctively try to link up with Diomid's, even though they had never shared transfer, but that was all. It was a good sign. Arkay did hope Diomid would find a true partner. Ilira had seemed promising until she let her job get in the way of her life. There was no necessity in this day and age for any lord to neglect their partner for their work. Only barbarians worked all hours of the day.
      "I don't have a problem, but then I don't augment around the horses." He grimaced. "Some people don't have the patience for horses and should only work with cattle and sheep." Arkay was glad Diomid had no idea how bad an insult this was, even though it did seem he was sensitive enough to get a glimpse of it and reddened slightly.
      "Now, now, Alexi." Arkay did his best to glower, although he was far too amused at Alexi's politic way of putting things to be truly upset. He was also too impressed at Alexi's easy way of dealing with Arkay's displeasure. Unlike most lords, Alexi neither cowered nor sucked up to him. Ilira had hid her unease around strong willed Gens with a facade of arrogance. Alexi was too secure in his place to try to hide from his larity driven insecurities.
      "I was thinking of renSime Galen, my Lord Arkay." Alexi said with a wink. "Although I was a bit surprised at how well he took to being ridden astride." He polished his nails with his tentacles. Arkay had rarely seen this gesture in a lord, and it amused him no end. Usually it was only stable hands who were so easy with their tentacles. Most lords were more reticent about showing them, feeling they would be too arousing if any Gens in need were nearby.
      Arkay looked out the window at the greening trees, "I have all my horses started astride." By myself, not that I am going to say it out loud. Too many bright horses could learn some really bad habits if they were started aside, and Arkay had little use for stupidity in any animal, including humans.
      "Of course, my Lord." Alexi added an exaggerated flutter to his elaborate bow. "Not that I would accuse you of riding astride, at least in public." You'd better not, Arkay thought and noted Diomid's eyes brightening with amusement. Arkay wondered how long it would be until he ascended himself as he was obviously overhearing a great deal of subvocal banter.
      "If you can ride as well as you talk, then my Kiri is in good hands. Thank you, Alexi." Arkay nodded his head to the young man. That was a load off his mind he'd hardly realized before now. There was so much still to be done in setting Azov to rights after his last few years under the failing Lord Lukian. "Do you want to teach Diomid or should I?"
      "I think it would be wiser if you did, at least at first." Alexi looked over at Diomid with calf's eyes and Arkay stifled a groan at the sweetness of it all. "I don't think I could be objective enough to give him a good start."
      Diomid stroked Alexi's face, "I think you would be wonderful at anything you tried, Alexi."
      "Now, now you two," Arkay grinned. "I think Alexi is right. Although I do think Diomid should have the teaching of you in healing." Karola was damned good in the infirmary, but her manner was a bit abrupt for many of the more timid members of Azov. Besides, this late in pregnancy, he did not want her giving emergency transfers, which was the most common use of a lord in healing.
      "I don't have any talent for the work, but I would like to learn." Alexi turned back to him respectfully. Lad, you'd work in the pig sty if Diomid did, Arkay kept his thought under the tightest wrap he could manage.
      "All lords can heal to a certain extent and it would be good for Diomid to learn the limitations of your abilities so he knows where to concentrate on the things he is better at." Arkay stood from where he had been sitting against the corner of his desk. If nothing else Diomid would learn how talented a healer he was by comparison. The only person more talented as a healer was Arkay's father, Sharm Lord Sergei himself, the head of the Demense specializing in healing and medicine. "Let's get on with the morning and this afternoon we'll go out to the stables, sound good?"
      "At your will," Diomid said, making Arkay look at him hard until he gave himself away by grinning. "Thought it sounded good." Diomid laughed and put his arm around Alexi. They were adorable together, Arkay only hoped this pairing would last longer than Diomid's earlier ones.
      Diomid stood under Arkay's intense gaze. "Alexi!" Arkay called out suddenly. He jumped in place, startled.
      "Yes, m'Lord?" Alexi called out, looking back at them.
      "I don't think my saddle is going to fit Diomid."
      "You are probably right." Alexi grinned. "He is a bit on the short side in one way." The hot look Alexi gave Diomid with this comment banished any shyness he might have had about his height.
      "I wouldn't know about the other." Arkay gave Diomid's lover a glare. Diomid didn't know if he should protest or be embarrassed. He settled for pinching Alexi's behind.
      Alexi gave one of those beautiful, sinuous shrugs, "How about starting out astride, he could probably use the old saddle that happened to show up with Kiri and fits him perfectly."
      "Isn't that dangerous?" Diomid thought of the possibility of a truly debilitating injury. There were certain parts of his anatomy he really did not want to risk.
      "Only if you don't listen to your teacher." Arkay warned him and Diomid vowed to pay very close attention in these lessons. He was far too fond of his testicles to want one of them squished. That would hurt! "Go ahead and put Val's saddle on Kiri. I think I'll use him to start Diomid on."
      "Are you sure, Arkay?" Alexi said as he followed Arkay's instructions.
      Diomid wondered what he had gotten himself into. Wasn't Kiri the horse they'd been talking about earlier who was dangerous?
      "Yes, I know how he's trained and I can control him from the ground." Arkay seemed to be completely confident and so Diomid relaxed a bit. "There's another lesson for you lad. Act like you know what you're doing and people will follow." Diomid watched all the things Alexi did carefully as he saddled the silver bay. There seemed to be far more steps to all of this than he could ever hope to remember. "You'll be doing it all yourself soon enough, lad. For now, just watch."
      Watching Kiri was something Diomid could do all afternoon. He was a beautiful animal. His sleek silver hide shone with health and wiry, lean muscle slid easily beneath the surface. Together with Sasha, they made an image beautiful enough to make a renGen weep.
      He looked up over Alexi's head and pricked forward his black tipped ears.
      "Listen to me, Kiri," Sasha tapped the stallion on the neck. Kiri tipped his head away. "To me!" He shook the horse's crest. An ear flicked back. "Yes you," Sasha tugged harder. Kiri sighed and lowered his head. "Yes my lad, I know, beginners." He rested his chin on Kiri's neck for a moment.
      Kiri flipped his head from side to side, making some of the metal on his bridle jingle. Sasha chuckled softly and went back to tacking him up.
      "Interesting conversation there," Arkay murmured softly.
      "I only heard Alexi talking," Diomid almost called him Sasha, oops.
      "Oh, Kiri talked back, only quieter," Arkay chuckled. "Kiri tried to tell Alexi he was bigger."
      "Isn't he?" Diomid measured the relative sizes of the two in front of him. Kiri had to outweigh Sasha by at least a few hundred kilos.
      "Not as far as he knows, or so we keep telling him," Arkay rested his hand on Diomid's shoulder. "That's the trick to dealing with horses. We convince them we're bigger and stronger than they are."
      "But we're not." Diomid looked up at Arkay. "That's lying."
      Arkay shrugged and grinned, "So it is. Kiri's pretty good about it. His son, Kika, is a bit of a pip. He's going to be a bit more difficult than his sire."
      "You're going to train him?" Diomid thought that would be interesting to see. He'd always wanted to know more about horses. The bits of insight Arkay had given him so far were fascinating. Ilira had never mentioned any of these things. She'd told him stories of interesting things her charges had done, but never why.
      "Yes, Kiri is getting quite long in the tooth and I'm going to retire him as soon as Kika has grown to bear a saddle. I hadn't though I'd get to train his successor." Arkay was more relaxed out here than Diomid had ever seen him. This was a part of his mentor's life which seemed to mean a great deal to him.
      "Yes, it does," Arkay grinned, answering his unspoken commentary. "They," he tipped his chin at Kiri, "don't care about my rank or my selyn. It is a pleasant and useful way to spend my free time."
      "I didn't know Sharm Lords had free time." Every time Diomid'd seen one they'd been quite busy.
      "Oh yes, we don't work constantly. We'd go mad if all we did was work and sleep. Admittedly, I spend far more time actually working than a renSime, but rarely more than eight or nine hours out of the day on average." He shrugged eloquently. "Did you get the impression we work so hard because the only other unveiled Sharm Lord as Azov has been Avilan for many years?"
      "Well, yes," he grinned. "I've never seen Avilan do anything but work."
      Arkay chuckled, "That's because his favorite hobby looks like work, lad. He loves his embroidery." He ran his hand over the black and green cutwork on his sleeves. "I don't think I've ever seen him spend any time sitting when he didn't have a piece of work on his lap. I've even seen him look for his embroidery when court gets slow." He gave a conspiratorial wink.
      So had Diomid and he chuckled. It was a sure sign a petition would be denied when Avilan looked over the arm of his chair for something next to it. Diomid hadn't known what it was, but Arkay's explanation made perfect sense. The light clipping sound of steel shoes on hard packed earth brought their attention back to matters at hand.
      Arkay looked around, "I think we'll chase everyone out of the covered ring so Diomid and I don't have to worry about spooking the whey out of some stray renSime. It's a nice day out and they can use the outdoor arenas. Besides, riding naked is fun!" He gave Diomid a conspiratorial wink. Now he knew why Sasha had made sure Diomid's underclothes were whole. He'd originally fretted it was in case he fell off.
      "Fair enough." Alexi grinned. "I think I can cope though. Do you want me along?"
      "If you would, on Ila?"
      "I would rather not be on a mare, Arkay." Alexi laughed. "Kiri might get distracted." Bad idea, very bad idea. Diomid did not want Kiri looking at mares and not minding his business. He had no clue what to do in such a situation.
      Arkay gave him an odd look, "You don't much care for mares, do you?"
      "Well, no." Alexi looked away. "Particularly after getting to ride Kiri for the past few months, I've gotten spoiled."
      "Go on with you then, pick who you like and tack up someone for me too. Go ahead and use my sidesaddle. One of us should give Diomid a good example." Arkay grinned down at him. "I don't much care for riding aside, but it is traditional." he whispered.
      "I could ride aside as well," Sasha gave him an odd wink.
      "You can?" Arkay blinked, remarkably resembling a Sharm Lord who'd been pinched on the behind. "And where did you learn to ride aside?"
      "At Azov," Sasha's look of innocence was patently false. Arkay closed his eyes and cringed.
      "Ask a stupid question," he muttered. "So, why did you learn to ride aside?"
      "Because it was necessary," Sasha managed to make his eyes look as if light were shining through them from behind. Diomid was fascinated. He didn't know it was possible for someone as intelligent as Sasha to look quite so brainless.
      "Why was it necessary?" Arkay was getting taller by the moment.
      "Because Lukian told me to," Diomid could hear the giggles in the back of Sasha's mind.
      "Why did he tell you to?" The tips of Arkay's ears were turning red.
      "Because he wanted me to be able to ride aside," Sasha's expression became even more vacuous. Diomid wouldn't have believed it possible if he hadn't seen it. He wondered if he should look around to see if he could find Sasha's missing brain. It seemed to have vanished without a trace.
      "Why did he want to you be able to ride aside?"
      "Because he thought it was necessary," Sasha flipped his hair back. Even Kiri's eyes seemed to dance with amusement.
      Arkay closed his eyes. Diomid could feel a pressure building in the air. "If you don't give me a straight answer, I'm going to thump you Alexander. Why did Lukian want you to be able to ride aside?"
      Sasha cracked up laughing. "Because he wanted a number of horses trained for members of the Azov court. I am the primary horse trainer at Azov. It doesn't look too weird, as long as I wear an apron like some Sharm Lords do hunting." He shrugged looking far too Sime to ever pass as Gen.
      "I had wondered about all the fuss. I take it Simes ride astride?" Diomid whispered back.
      "Yes, on mares, sharm lords ride mostly geldings aside and Sharm Lords ride stallions, again aside."
      "Where did those rules come from?" Diomid looked up at his teacher.
      "Tradition." Arkay shrugged as if he'd explained everything.
      Ilira seethed as she watched the three men come strolling into the courtyard on their horses as if they hadn't a care in the world. Almost three weeks ago she had received a message something had happened to Diomid and when she abandoned all her responsibilities to make sure he was all right, Ilira had found that young bastard of Azov holding him like he never meant to let go. Now she was ready for her transfer and Diomid still was hanging around the little idiot and making her stand around out in the courtyard waiting for him.
      Need had rubbed her nerves raw this month. Two mares had decided they didn't want to be bred this year. There were five ewes out in the back pasture who'd only delivered singletons and one of the oxen was still suffering foot rot despite the fact they had been scrubbing down the tie stalls twice a day for the last two months. She was exhausted and hoped Diomid would forgive her rudeness last month. She'd had to get back to a pedigree cow who'd nearly lost her calf because Ilira'd had to get a transfer or go into deep attrition before she could finish the job.
      She kept a watchful eye on the silver bay Arkay was riding. Although Diomid was also riding a silver bay who looked enough like Kiri to give her second thoughts. Ilira knew Arkay would never let anyone else ride his precious Kiri though. She no desire to ever get close to that devil horse again. They'd never gotten along despite the fact Ilira had done her best to win him over. Maybe if she'd had more time to spend with him, she'd have managed, but she had more than horses to deal with at Azov, unlike Azovich. Jealousy of the way he could spend all of his time with horses and didn't end up doing all the animal work made her seethe again.
      "Where have you been?" Ilira said loudly as she stepped from the shadows. Her plan worked perfectly, with the dead headed horse Diomid had to be riding standing still at her threatening approach and the other two skittering backwards. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Alexi desperately trying to get his mare back under control. Although as soon as he did so, Arkay held him back. Thank you, Arkay, she didn't think a whole lot of him anymore after he let Diomid get hurt, but at least he had Diomid's best interests in mind. Azovich couldn't keep his mind out of the barn long enough to partner any sharm lord for more than seclusion. Ilira'd spent weeks with Diomid last winter and as soon as the snow flew, she'd do so again.
      "Working," Diomid shrugged, seeming to look down his nose at her. His place wasn't in the stables. He was a sharm lord, and a very good one. Ilira would have been more than happy to support him in whatever took his fancy. She did not lack for cash, unlike Azovich who frittered it away on tack and sweets.
      The saddle he was using seemed to be quite new and Ilira snickered, "Couldn't find a side saddle for someone our size, could they?" She actually was surprised they'd bothered. He couldn't be done growing yet at his age and he'd have to get a larger saddle before he was done. That was expensive for someone who'd never have to ride. She was originally going to teach him to ride when he'd gotten his final growth and to find him a stallion who'd be the envy of the stables. She had her eye on a young colt out at Kirov, who might well be one of Kiri's get.
      "Actually it is from Kirov," Diomid rested his hand on the fixed head. "Is there something you want, Ilira?"
      "What do you think, Diomid?" she tried not to snarl, but knew some of it had to show in her voice. "Are you done playing around with your silly games yet?" Need was shortening her temper to the breaking point and she didn't want to dribble roniplin all over her arms here in public.
      The silver bay stepped forward and Ilira reached for Diomid's ankle.
      "I wouldn't do that, Ilira." Diomid warned and the horse backed up a step.
      "Why not?" Ilira felt the horse's warm breath against her back.
      "Because no matter what you say, I'm not going back with you, Ilira."
      "You're going to abandon me for that little wet behind the ears lord Alexi?" she reached out for him again. She'd made the mistake of attacking Alexi head on once. She wasn't going to do it again. Arkay'd kill her if she dared any such thing. Even though from the zlin of it, he was letting things play out as they would.
      "You abandoned me," the horse danced backwards.
      "I did no such thing." Ilira glared at him. "I came as soon as I could to find you with him. Do you really want someone without the backbone to give you what you want?" she smiled at him softly. "I can give you a home. He's so poor he's living nearly in the sharm."
      "You call my work and my life silly games, insult my partner and then try to seduce me in the courtyard. I don't consider that to be particularly attractive." The little chit actually stuck his nose in the air. What sort of stories had Azovich been telling about her? Of course a sharm lord's work was less important than hers. Without her, there'd be no meat for the Gens or leather for saddles like the beautifully tooled one Diomid sat on with surprising ease.
      "What do you know?" She growled, trying not to let her need get the best of her.
      "I know you don't want me enough to be able to compromise a single thing." He said flatly.
      "Why should I?" She choked back her anger. With Diomid in this sort of a mood, showing her need induced irritation would do little to tempt him. "It isn't like you are doing anything important with your life." The horse pranced nervously and she suddenly noted its ears flattened back against its skull. "Control that beast, Diomid. I know you aren't much of a horseman but you can't let it get away with threatening people." This was why sharm lords should stay home and tend to it. They had no business running all over the country side on horses like a Lord.
      "Alexi thinks what I do is important enough to spend time learning about it and helping me." Diomid reached down and scratched the horse's crest. For an instant the horse's eyes lost their look of anger, but when he stopped it returned.
      "That's because he doesn't have any real work of his own. I'm busy and don't have time for this nonsense, Diomid." Ilira glared at him. "Get down off that horse and meet me in our rooms." As soon as she got him alone, she'd certainly be able to sweet talk him into transfer. He was the most responsive sharm lord Ilira'd ever zlinned. Daydreaming of his abandoned response to her touch had been all that had been keeping her body and soul together for the past hellish months. This month she'd be able to take her time with him.
      "No, Ilira," his voice was gentle and she knew she could talk him into it.
      "Please, Diomid. I want you." She pleaded, adding a catch to her voice. She'd do anything to win him back.
      "You want a play toy you can order around, Ilira." he shook his head. "Not a flesh and blood human being you have to talk to for the rest of the month." His false accusation stung to the quick.
      "Like you talk with Alexi!" she sidled around so she could get to Diomid's side away from the horse's teeth. How dare this little chit talk to her like this? He was nothing before she'd taken him under her wing. He'd been a virgin for pity's sake and a particularly timid one at that. Alexi had all his brains in his arms. She knew the stories. He lived from transfer to transfer. He could barely read and write. Last winter she'd debated poetry and philosophy with Diomid through the long nights. Alexi hadn't the mind to do more than give Diomid bed pleasure. How dare he speak of wanting to talk with him? Alexi wasn't bright enough to talk about anything more sophisticated than sex!
      "Like I talk with Alexi." the fool let his horse do whatever it wanted and now she couldn't get to him again.
      "You won't be doing it for long." She sneered. "Don't you know Azov lords die young."
      Diomid's face drained of all color. At first she'd felt her heart leap with triumph, then it fell. He looked as if she'd truly hurt him. "I do now and it makes no difference, Ilira. You'll pay in hell for your ill timed words, but I'll have nothing to do with it."
      Her own emotions driven to white heat with the emotion charged scene, Ilira lunged for him. A vise clamped down on her shoulder and ripped her out of Diomid's hands as soon as she reached him. Bones snapped in her shoulder. Ilira screamed in fury. Something flipped her around and she felt herself crash backwards into the cobblestones of the courtyard. Before she could move again, a shadow covered her face. Without thinking about it she rolled to the side. A horse's hooves came down where her head had been.
      "Kiri, no!" Diomid yelled.
      "Catch her." Arkay commanded.
      Ilira screamed again as strong hands wrenched her arms behind her. "Don't move, Ilira." Alexi told her. "I don't want Diomid to have to watch you bleed to death."
      "All you care about is that little sharm lord." Maddened by pain, she spoke without thinking.
      "You got something right in your life." Alexi purred.
      Finally she managed to blink the tears of pain out of her eyes and look up. Arkay had dismounted and was grimly holding Kiri back. "Your choice, Diomid. Ilira attacked you with intent to strip."
      Slowly, Diomid got down off Kiri. His boot nails struck sparks on the flint in the stone paving as he walked over to her. "I loved you at one time, Ilira." He whispered. "If you ever approach me again with such evil intent I will kill you."
      Diomid turned to Arkay, "I will not take her life in cold blood."
      He had to get up, again. If he didn't soon, his discomfort would soon wake Sasha. Their first transfer together was late tomorrow evening and Sasha was already extremely sensitive to Diomid's moods.
      This evening had been a prime example.
      A heart stopping crash brought Diomid out of his book with a snort. The book went flying into the air. Metal flashed in the lights. No! Diomid grabbed for it. A heavy object smacked his sensitive wrist. Good thing that wasn't Sasha's wrist, a Sime could be crippled or killed by such an injury. That was why they wore bracers in combat. Of course Sasha's wrists were bare, the only time he ever wore his was in the salle.
      "What do you think you're doing?" Diomid eyes what looked to be a tangle of metal created by an insane Kirov blacksmith. Some of them looked like bits, but what in the world was the one with four rings and the hookey things on the ends?
      "I have to polish them," Sasha put his vulnerable hand among them.
      "You'll hurt yourself," Diomid saw one which looked like the chain off a high speed saw! He grabbed for it. Their hands collided.
      "Ow," Sasha rubbed at his wrist.
      "Sorry," Diomid hadn't meant to bang into his lateral sheath. They were the most vulnerable to injury of any part on a Sime. "Are you all right?" Images of Sasha's wrists slashed to the bone by the vicious metal flashed through Diomid's mind.
      "Diomid, lover, these aren't torture devices. None of them are sharp," he held up one in the shape of a hinged corkscrew. It looked like a torture device. If someone trapped a Sime's forearm in the thing, all it would take was a few ounces of pressure and the Sime would be dead. Sasha held onto it by one of the rings and tossed it into a bucket in the corner. The other end of it came within millimeters of his wrist.
      "Don't do that!" The clatter as it hit more metal made Diomid jump again. Only this morning had a renSime come into the infirmary with a badly bruised lateral sheath from having a cow bump her into a wall. Simes couldn't zlin the intentions of an animal well enough to get out of the way if they decided to be obstreperous.
      The woman would be all right, but it was very lucky for her she'd had transfer only last week. That was how lateral injuries murdered Simes. If the nerves were damaged, the Sime couldn't take selyn and would die of attrition. The catch was healing injuries required selyn. It was a horrible damned if you do and damned if you don't situation.
      Sasha's jaw clenched and his hand wrapped around another of the pieces of metal.
      "You're mad at me, aren't you?"
      "Well, yes," he shook his head. "I'll be fine Diomid, really."
      Now that he'd calmed down some, Diomid realized he was overreacting as well. The walls which had once seemed comforting loomed over him. The back of his neck was a snarled mess and he rubbed at it.
      "Let me get that for you," Sasha dropped what he was doing and sat with him. His instant attentiveness sometimes made Diomid feel more than a bit guilty. He hadn't done anything to deserve this. All he'd done was move in with Sasha. Admittedly he absolutely loved the things Sasha did for him, emotionally and physically, but he did so little for Sasha in return.
      "A minute for your thoughts," Sasha's wonderfully skilled hands dug into the tight muscles of Diomid's neck. It felt so good all he could do was moan for a moment. "Tomorrow," a light lick along the curve of Diomid's ear made him shiver in anticipatory pleasure.
      "Yes, tomorrow," sometime he worried he wouldn't fulfill Sasha's expectations. They had to be sky high. After all the sharm lord's Sasha'd had in his life, how would Diomid compare? He'd only had two others, and the first only once, for his own first transfer. Would there be things Sasha would expect he'd have no idea how to manage.
      Some lords could be picky. Diomid had heard all about ones who wanted unusual transfer positions or particular nageric manipulations or they'd shen out. He never wanted that to happen to Sasha. It was frightfully painful from every thing Diomid'd heard.
      "You're thinking very loudly, lover," Sasha kissed the back of his neck.
      "Oh," Diomid hunched his shoulders. He must have sounded the right idiot. Now Sasha would think Diomid thought he might be some sort of pervert.
      "Hush," Sasha chuckled, "I don't. I'm flattered you're concerned."
      "But what if I get it wrong?"
      "Be yourself, Diomid," Sasha's request was even harder to fulfill. What if what he really was, was not what Sasha wanted. What if what ...
      "Hush," Sasha breathed again. "You're acting like a colt in a panic."
      "I'm what?" His heart was pounding so fast he could hardly think. He was an idiot. Sasha would think he was an idiot. Everyone would think he was an idiot. He knew he wasn't, but how could he show it.
      "Hey, hey," Sasha's wiry strong arms surrounded Diomid's chest. "Relax," his voice was soft and soothing. Diomid tried to lean back into his grasp. His muscles locked. "You're all right, Diomid. It will be fine."
      "No it won't," he clutched Sasha's arms to his chest. "What if I mess it up."
      "Then we'll know for next time," his reassurance wasn't. What if there wouldn't be a next time. What if he got hurt? What if something came up? What if ...
      "Hush," Sasha's tentacles came out and bound their wrists together.
      "Not yet," the image of an early, and unsatisfactory transfer made Diomid cringe away from his touch.
      "No, not yet, tomorrow," Sasha's voice was honey smooth, as it had been when they'd made love. It was as if he were already trying to seduce him. "I have been all month, lover."
      "Silly question," he lipped at Diomid's ear. "Because I want our first time to make love in all ways to be as wonderful as I know it can be."
      "How do you know I'll be any good?"
      "Because you are wonderful, Diomid."
      "No I'm not," he looked down at their intertwined hands. "Ilira didn't think so."
      "Then why did she nearly attack you?"
      "I don't know," he sighed. "Because I was readily available?"
      "With the number of sharm lords currently hunting partners in Azov? I don't think so." Sasha's words made a certain amount of sense, but not so much Diomid could really relax.
      "But she knows I like certain things."
      "So do other sharm lords," Sasha nibbled on his ear. "I do."
      "No," Diomid leaned back. Sasha had been too gentle with him. If Diomid pulled back like he had with Ilira, Sasha'd let go! Most lords wanted their partner to at least act willing. The game playing he'd indulged with Ilira was now a thing of the past. He sighed. It was a fair trade.
      Sasha's wicked chuckle intruded on his thoughts. What?
      "Play all you like, Diomid," he purred. "I'll catch you."
      "It isn't that I don't want to be caught," Sasha couldn't be offering what he thought he was.
      "Oh but I am," his rough cheek slid down Diomid's neck. "You can't run fast enough or far enough to escape my tentacles." A shiver ran up Diomid's spine. "As long as I know it is in play, I am more than willing to chase."
      "It is," his back muscles unsnarled in the heat from Sasha's body. "I like being wanted."
      "Wanted or needed?" A sharp bite of Sasha's teeth brought a gasp from Diomid's throat. "I think I'd say needed," he nuzzled aside Diomid's loose shirt and made his way across his shoulder with little nips. A red haze of desire stilled Diomid's voice. "Yes, I want you, I need you, and I look forward to tomorrow evening like no other transfer, even my first.
      "Your nager is more glorious than the mists rising off the mighty rivers and more beautiful than the moon above. You could not do other than entice my laterals to leave their loving traces on your strong arms. Your lips tempt my own to redden them with sweet kisses to draw out your need into a blazing corona of lust."
      Diomid groaned and sagged into Sasha's arms. How he wanted him, right now, in all ways.
      "Yes my love, as I want you," he purred so softly Diomid could hardly hear him over his own pulse. His forearms were burning beneath the sleek touch of Sasha's tentacles. "I want it to be perfect, and so I want to wait until our desires match in complete harmony."
      "Oh yes," Diomid rested his head back against Sasha's shoulder. "Anything you want, my beloved."
      "Then wait for me."
      "For always."
      "Let's go room hunting." Alexi suggested to Diomid, nibbling on his neck. The tight walls seemed to be pressing in on them. Diomid had neatly cleaned and rehanged the various harness bits and pieces around the room, but there never seemed to be enough room. He wanted his first transfer with Diomid to be as perfect as he could make it. His tiny, cramped little bed was not conductive to the sort of sport he had in mind.
      After Diomid's little display of insecurity yesterday, Alexi knew he had to show Diomid he was wanted. Most sharm lords took for granted their abilities in seclusion. Diomid's frantic plea for reassurance had touched Alexi's heart in a way no one else ever had.
      "Right now?" Diomid's magnificent field wrapped around him. "We're less than six hours from transfer, love."
      "When better? That way no one can find us till we crawl out of seclusion." The idea of having Diomid entirely to himself for forty-eight hours, with a transfer this time, was a slice of heaven. And maybe by hiding themselves away, Diomid would be able to stretch his poor little cramped ego and really fly. Alexi knew he'd been holding back, but until yesterday, hadn't known why. Diomid was so shy and reticent, it had been like pulling teeth to get him to talk about anything more than work. Maybe somewhere both of them could call their own, he'd be more willing to open up.
      "Crawl is the right word." Diomid snickered. "I have plans." his eyebrows wiggled lasciviously. Thank the Gods! For a while, Alexi had worried he'd been a bit too overbearing last night. He'd zlinned Diomid fussing and fidgeting for hours before he'd managed to get to sleep. And even then it had been restless, with him up and down every hour or so.
      "So do I and I want a large tub to enjoy them in." he thought of getting his hands all over Diomid's wonderful body. There were many things Alexi had dreamed of doing with his hands slippery with soap and plenty of room to splash around in. "Besides, Arkay can find us no matter where we hide and he's going to be busy soon." Alexi wrapped himself around Diomid. Come enjoy with me, he wanted to say, but felt Diomid's nerves jitter and decided not to push things more than he already had.
      "True enough, although I don't want to go beyond the blast doors." Diomid grinned tightly. "Having the guards breathing down my neck is not fun." Ick, Alexi had been squandering over half his monthly income in his efforts to keep out of the sharm. He was not going back.
      "Agreed, let's grab the important things and get going." Alexi rummaged around in the drawer next to the bed. Hunting for new rooms was the occasional hobby of many of the residents of the sprawling Demense great houses. The huge old buildings had far more living quarters than even half the current population could hope to fill. Most of them were kept clean and aired for the migrations which occurred as people formed new partnerships, outgrew their rooms or simply got bored with them and moved on.
      Occupied or reserved rooms sported large placards proclaiming the names of their residents, so any room or suite not so labeled was up for grabs. "Our clothes and what not will follow us after our seclusion." Diomid shrugged, looking around.
      As soon as Alexi was sure they hadn't forgotten anything critical he started for the door. "A moment." Diomid fished around under the bed and brought out a small wooden case. "I don't want to forget this."
      "What is in there?" Alexi had seen it before, but had no idea what it contained.
      "You'll see." Diomid grinned back at him. "After transfer."
      "Lets go then." he looked at the case curiously and then took down his own placard, leaving a note tacked to the door with the symbol for a move and their signifying runes so the servants would know what happened to them. Up here the renSime servants couldn't read and required pictorial cues. The one they identified Diomid with was rather interesting, a serpent for his healing and a nageric representation of a heart. The latter wouldn't be recognized by anyone who couldn't directly sense fields, but it suited Diomid perfectly. RenSimes only gave such a designation to one they liked.
      Need itched at him, but the prospect of having Diomid in far more congenial surroundings than his tiny bed was plenty to get him moving.
      The first few rooms they came to were much like Alexi's own, little tiny caves with a sliver of a bed and only one or two chairs. One of them didn't even have its own bathroom. "Definitely want a large bathroom this time." Alexi pulled Diomid closer.
      "Me too, I do miss Ilira's."
      "I want one like they have up stairs." He pointed to the great suites for the top rank of nobility. There was no way he could ever afford to maintain one of those. Certainly Diomid could, but wasn't a lord supposed to support his partner?
      "Let see if there are any open." Diomid's grin was too wonderful for Alexi to deny him anything.
      "We can't take one of those. They're for Lords and Sharm Lords." And you have to pay extra for the non-standard servants, the linens, the water, wood for heating and even clothes. There was a reason most of the general rank of lords lived so close to the sharm. It was cheaper.
      "If the suite is available, I don't see why not." Diomid looked at him carefully. "It isn't like we don't work with Arkay enough to make it reasonable. Besides, we won't be putting anyone out."
      "True enough." He grinned weakly, "Lets see what's open." Maybe I can come up with some way to afford it.
      They quickly packed their meager belongings and went up to the top floor. Up here the hallways were much wider and there were actually rushes on the floor rather than the sand of below. Diomid sneezed once and looked around. "I had forgotten about this," his toe evened them out. "It gets cold up here too."
      "Really?" Alexi looked around brightly. "I think it might be nice to know what the weather is like before I have to go out in it." Maybe the last occupant will have left enough things lying around we can use. Abandoned clothes and linens were fair game to anyone. Oh Gods, laundry costs so far above! Days were pouring through Alexi's fingers with each step they took. Diomid could tap fifty or a hundred days with a flick of his nager. Alexi had to pay for his selyn. And tack, and horses, and ... , his conscience reminded him of where most of his income usually went.
      "I thought you liked close, little rooms." Diomid looked at him curiously.
      "What I want is some of both, a place to be safe and one to look out of." Alexi ran his hand over the ornate carving on the door to the Sergei suite. Most of the suites had reserved signs on them, but finally they came to one which was open. Alexi stuck his head in and looked around, "No, I don't think so." the floor plan was completely open with a large fireplace in the middle of the room. If he was going to be home poor, he was going to make the best of it.
      "I agree, what's next?" Diomid walked down the hall a little way. They were getting close to the main Azov suite and Alexi eyed the guards nervously as he hurried to catch up with Diomid. This time Diomid opened the door, "Not bad."
      Alexi looked in to see a room paneled in white oak with pale carpets and ivy painted over the lintels. There was very little furniture left and the overall impression was one of snow. "Not particularly good, either." He'd end up spending months trying to get it to feel warm alone.
      "True," Diomid closed the door behind them. Quietly, they walked past the guards and resumed their search. One of those guards costs ten months to maintain. Ouch! The next suite had potential, with dark maple paneling and a large fireplace, but the bathroom was relatively tiny. It was barely larger than the one Alexi had left. Finally crammed in at the end of the hallway, Diomid pointed out a door which almost vanished into stone work. Not feeling particularly encouraged by the lack of decoration on it, Alexi opened the door. Although from the lack of squeaks, it had been kept up.
      Diomid whistled in appreciation, "Who's was this?" Alexi looked around in wonder. Unlike the other rooms, this one did not look particularly Russian. Dark cloth wall hangings accentuated the red stained and polished oak of the paneling which went all the way to the floor. A large collection of pillows and soft looking embroidered throws occupied a sunken corner of the room. On the far wall from what he could only think of as a nest, was another sunken area with more pillows surrounding a large open fireplace. He thought he saw a heater built into the fireplace, which would help.
      "I have no idea." Alexi wandered into the room, closing the door behind him. Even though the room itself was surprisingly cool and he looked up. There were signs of both heating and cooling ducts in the ceiling. That would help a lot.
      "What else is here?" He opened a door to fairly prosaic sitting room, although darker than most. "This is normal." he opened the next door and gaped. "Come here, Diomid." Alexi whispered, looking around him in awe.
      Someone, possibly ages ago, had seriously wanted a large bed. This thing looked large enough for eight without crowding. It was set into a corner of the room, draped in rich browns and golds. "Definitely not Russian in origin." Alexi noted the muted, warm colors. Although he found them actually rather pleasing once he got over his initial distaste. One wall was mostly window and Alexi pulled aside the heavy drapes to see the dark forest to the west of the city stretch out over the horizon. In the distance the sun glimmered on a tiny lake set in amidst the trees. This and Diomid in his bed would be worth any amount of hardship.
      "I think the bathroom is large enough." Diomid whispered. Alexi let the drapes close and went over to him. Even better! Again, it was decorated mostly in earth tones, but this time with accents of emerald green and gold veined blue stone. The tub was almost half as large as the bed. Alexi looked up to see silver stars set into midnight black tile. A crescent moon was inlaid in the near corner. He also noted there was no far door, so this suite didn't share a bathroom.
      "I think this suite was originally designed for visitors from the South." Alexi wracked his brains for anything he knew of them. "They no longer send dignitaries to anyone but Fatima so this suite has probably been unused for at least two centuries."
      "We'll rattle around in here." Diomid grinned, looking up at him. "I like it though."
      "No one else wants it." Alexi shook his head at the amount of work it must take to keep all these unoccupied rooms livable and how much it would cost to keep them clean now. It wouldn't be fair to ask Diomid to keep their rooms tidy and work as hard as any lord on the outside as well. "I like it." he set his few things down on the dresser along the wall. If Diomid wanted it, somehow Alexi would make it happen for him.
      "Then lets claim it." Diomid laughed. "It may be hubristic, but I think we got one of the best suites in Azov."
      "I think so too, love." and together they tacked up the placard claiming their new home. I might be home poor, but it's in a good cause. Diomid cuddled up to him so neatly Alexi nearly hit his thumb with the hammer. Anything, he abandoned the job half way through and gave his lover a long kiss. In the back of his mind he could zlin the two guards down the hall staring and didn't care a whit. Diomid was his and no matter what he had to do, he'd make him happy.
      *Where are you?* Arkay's sending woke Diomid with a snort of surprise. For a moment, Diomid forget where he was as well.
      *Down the hall,* he called back, quite a bit softer than the original bellowed message. Alexi had also awoken, although far worse and Diomid cuddled him briefly to calm him back down. *We aren't off seclusion until this evening!*
      *Karola had her babies!* Arkay sent so loudly Diomid could almost hear that one with his ears.
      *Be right there,* he kissed Alexi thoroughly. "Do you want to come with?"
      "Yes!" Alexi crawled out of the large, quite soft bed. "Where are my clothes?" Diomid enjoyed the view so much he almost forgot entirely what they were doing.
      "Check the closet, there might be something interesting in there." Diomid stretched, now distracting Alexi.
      "Tasty," Alexi licked his lips and then opened the door. "Oh my goodness."
      Diomid hurried over to him and looked in. "I think this is where garments go when no one wants them taking up closet space anymore." They walked into the room together. Along one side were countless variants of robes, from Sharm Lord kadors made from little more than silk and a few strategic bands of embroidery to some of the heaviest kadors Diomid had ever seen in all colors of the rainbow. Along the other side were various pants, tunics, trousers, breeches and simple unshielded robes. On shelves above and below were boots, belts, gloves and numerous other small items.
      "No I think this is where good clothes horses go when they die." Alexi looked around himself. "Where does all this stuff come from?"
      "No one ever wants to throw anything away." Diomid laughed. "I can see why," he eyed an exquisite burgundy kador of no Demense he could think of. Even looking at it closely, with its embroidery of running horses, gave him no clue as to its origin. "This is a beautiful piece of work." There was absolutely no order Diomid could see to how the clothes had been put in here, "I think we are going to have to rearrange this some day."
      "Yes," Alexi was practically drooling over the fancy clothes.
      Diomid finally found something which looked like it would fit and was almost Azov green, although it was embroidered with stars rather than the more earthy symbols typical of Azov. "Probably Mir, although I haven't a clue how it got here." He looked through various dresser drawers until he found underclothes which fit. They didn't match but then Diomid's underclothes never matched. Shrugging into the heavy kador he turned to see Alexi walk out of the closet in an exquisite pair of forest green breeches, loose silk shirt with the collar embroidered in trailing ivy and holding an emerald green tunic.
      "Here, let me help you." Diomid took the garment from him and settled it over Alexi's shoulders. With deft hands, he laced up the sides, making sure the shirt underneath it was smoothed out. "Gorgeous, my love." standing on his toes, he took Alexi's face in his hands and kissed him lovingly.
      "Do you really like." Alexi said with a grin, turning around.
      "Yes, pretty one." he gently swatted Alexi on the rear. "But if you keep showing off like that, we won't make it out the door."
      "If you keep kissing me like that we won't be going anywhere either." His green eyes reflected the brilliant green of the tunic, making them even more exquisite to look into.
      With a sigh, Diomid opened the door and waved Alexi through once they had put on their shoes. "After you, m'lord."
      "Get up here." Alexi waved him forward with a laugh. Arm in arm, they walked down the hallway.
      An older man, but still quit obviously very active, waited for them in the sitting room of the Azov suite. A shock of recognition ran through Diomid for no reason he could tell and he grasped Alexi even tighter. "You must be my son's apprentice, Diomid, and his partner, Alexander. I am Sharm Lord Sergei." Looking closely Diomid could suddenly see the family resemblance and figured that was where the recognition came from. He dropped his veil and Sergei gasped. "No! You can't be."
      "What is it?" Alexi put his hand over Diomid's.
      "Nothing, nothing. Just an old man's imagining." Sergei said suddenly, still looking closely at Diomid.

Chapter 10

      Alexi looked back and forth between Sergei and Diomid. He had also felt the brief shock of recognition, but knew it wasn't from him as he had seen Sergei before and now the resemblance between him and Arkay was explicable. Then he looked at Diomid again and gasped. *He's one of yours,* he sent.
      *He can't be, he looks like my daughter Lord Gitanya.*
      "She was my mother." Diomid said out loud. "You were both shouting in my ear."
      "I hadn't meant to be overheard, youngster." Sergei looked down at them.
      "Doesn't help much." Alexi stroked Diomid's chilled hand. "Its all right, love," he looked into Diomid's wonderful gray blue eyes, now uncertain as he faced his grandfather. "I don't care who your parents were."
      "Thank you, sweet," Diomid cheered up, smiling again. "Sometimes I do wonder though."
      "You may not want to know, Diomid." Sergei said heavily. "I think I do."
      "NO!" Diomid cried out and hid against Alexi's chest. "You can't be right." He cried, too post to contain his emotions. All Alexi could do was hold him close and hope it would help.
      "I think you should leave us for a bit, my Lord Sergei." He said sadly, holding Diomid tighter. Sergei simply nodded and left. "You're all right love, he's gone."
      Diomid hiccuped suddenly and looked up at him, "You didn't hear, did you?"
      "No, love. I didn't." Alexi couldn't keep the sadness at being excluded out of his voice.
      "You, of all people, should know. Sharm Lord Sergei thinks he might well also be my father." Diomid sighed heavily. "I didn't think, well, people still did things like that."
      "If you really want to know, ask the veiled." Alexi shivered at the thought of facing them again.
      "Don't you have problems with them, Sasha?" Diomid rubbed at his face. Alexi leaned down and kissed his tears away.
      "Let's go in." Alexi didn't want to go into it right now.
      "Later?" Diomid tucked his head almost under Alexi's chin.
      "Yes, love. When we're alone." Alexi promised him, glad beyond words for Diomid's gentle acceptance.
      Alexi giggled at Arkyana's little tiny hand trying to wave one of his dorsals around. "Bright little girl." Her blue eyes widened at the sound of his voice. "Like that, youngster?" He began to hum an old lullaby one of the sharm nurses had used on him. Her eyes fluttered closed and she relaxed into his arms, asleep.
      "They are still at the eat and sleep stage, I'm afraid." Karola said cheerfully. "Even though Arkay seems to want to show them off to everyone."
      Diomid had skillfully taken Arkyana's twin brother, Vanya into his arms, "I'm not so sure I like being called everyone." He grinned at the sleeping child. "They are so tiny."
      "Because they are twins." Arkay whispered. "I forgot to ask, exactly where were you earlier?"
      "Down the hall, like I sent." Diomid grinned. "We moved right before transfer although our things haven't caught up with us yet." He looked pointedly at the kador he was wearing.
      "I'm not so sure I want to go back to wearing third hand trousers and wool tunics." Alexi loved the feel of the silk and leather against his skin.
      "Whose bright idea was it to move upstairs and I'm still not exactly sure where you landed?" Arkay grinned at them.
      "His," they said in unison and then laughed. "We are literally at the end of the hall, what looks to be like a suite set up for Southerners."
      Avilan laughed, "Oh, the one with the huge bed?" He winked.
      Alexi blushed, "Well, yes." Reluctantly, surprising himself, he didn't want Avilan to take his daughter back when he asked for her. Arkyana's trusting weight in his arms felt far more wonderful than he ever thought it would.
      "As long as you let her go when its dinner time." Avilan stroked his daughter's face with his fingertips. "I don't suppose you want to let Vanya go." He looked at Diomid.
      "Not really," Diomid snuggled the child closer.
      "If you aren't careful the boys are going to steal your children, Avilan." Arkay leaned back in a rather tattered old arm chair. "Make one of your own, if you want children, my lads."
      Alexi looked over to see Diomid actually looking back at him with far more interest than he would have thought. Possibly getting back on the good side of the veiled would not be so difficult after all.
      The festival for the birth of Vanya and Arkyana Azov lasted for three days. By the end of the first, Diomid and Alexi retreated to their rooms to escape the often too rowdy revelry. "This was a wonderful idea." Alexi sprawled over the pillows in what they both now called the nest in the corner of the front room. Although after the first time one of the maids walked in on them in the midst of entertaining each other, they had quickly found the lock on the door.
      One of the big soft pillows smacked him on the back of the head. "It was your idea in the first place. You really don't have to pat yourself on the back."
      "But what if I want to." Alexi grabbed another pillow and swatted Diomid right back.
      "You'll sprain your arm." Diomid grabbed the pillow and pulled Alexi off balance. Not that he was trying too hard. He burrowed in among the pillows and hid.
      When Diomid took away the one from in front of his face, Alexi hit him right over the top of the head with another one. Stunned, Diomid stopped and stared at him. "Got you," Alexi kissed him quickly.
      Diomid hummed and leaned into the kiss. Before they could get any further there was a quick knock at the door. "Damn," Alexi complained and leaped up to unlock it.
      "Thank you," Arkay said quickly as he scurried inside, slamming the door behind himself. "Thank you both. I don't think I could stand another hour of the mob."
      "You are quite welcome to our home." Diomid waved Arkay to him. "Come, sit with us."
      "Different," Arkay smiled gratefully. "I really appreciate this, you two. Avilan and Karola are far more social than I am."
      Alexi laughed gently, "You lasted longer than we did."
      "Mostly because everyone knows where I live." Arkay sighed as he sat down. "This is quite nice actually."
      After curling up around Diomid, Alexi said, "We like it." Diomid stroked his flank and he purred softly.
      "I know you like history, Arkay." Diomid said conversationally, "You might want to have a look in our closet before we move anything."
      "Oh?" Arkay sat up straighter. "I saw the things you wore to see the twins when they were born. There's more?"
      "A whole closet full. I didn't recognize a third of the colors or insignia."
      Arkay got to his feet suddenly, "Can I see?"
      Diomid laughed, "Sure, I don't think we left anything embarrassing on the bed."
      "What about the silk scarves we found in the armoire?" Alexi found himself blushing again.
      "Only if you've manage to create new knots." Arkay winked and strode off.
      "Now, where were we?" Diomid asked archly, running his hand along Alexi's thigh.
      "With Arkay in the other room?" Alexi hid his face in a pillow.
      "He'll be occupied for hours and I think he well knows what we were doing when he interrupted." Diomid chuckled, "besides I like you in that position." Diomid's hand on the small of his back made him settle down into the pillows with a heavy sigh.
      "Please?" he murmured, forgetting all about their unexpected house guest.
      Arkay couldn't take one more lord skittering away from him like he was the devil incarnate. He didn't have a whole lot of use for the Way of the Rus, but sometimes some of their descriptions seemed far too apt. Arkay gave the twins each a quick kiss and slipped out of the Azov suite. Making sure there was no one in the hall to see him, he hurried down to the far end. After almost missing the door, despite the new occupants placard next to it, he knocked quickly.
      With a huge sigh of relief he made his escape. "Thank you," he told his young friends, whom he had obviously interrupted entertaining each other rather than the horde of guests currently traipsing through the halls. When Diomid had mentioned the intriguing clothes, Arkay had taken the excuse to be alone for the first time in days. Normally he liked people well enough, but there were times when he did want a bit of peace and quiet as well. Neither Avilan nor Karola seemed share this requirement.
      To him the warm browns and golds of the suite reminded him of the time he spent in the horse market among the tribes people. Looking over at the bed, Arkay grinned at the evidence of some rather elaborate hand and foot holds the two of them had installed.
      Actually he was a bit interested in clothes, so he went and opened the closet. There were kadors worn by Demense who died over five centuries ago either resurrected for historical dramas or originals, he wasn't sure which. For the longest time he concentrated on cataloging and trying to remember which might have belonged to whom. Finally on the back shelf he saw a plain wooden box. Curious, he opened it to find one of the very rare, extremely valuable, all metal flutes. Investigating further, he noted it was still in excellent condition.
      Not having anything better to do, he went back out into the bedroom and put it together. For an instant, he thought he had a memory of a woman he had seen playing a flute exactly like this. Must have been in a painting, he figured. Thinking of an old love song he had heard one of the Azov musicians play last winter, he began to play. The instrument had a wonderful, clear tone, so very unlike the more common ceramic and wooden flutes.
      Diomid's head snapped up as he heard the unmistakable sounds coming from the bedroom. Their immediate passion spent, for now at least, they lay cuddled up in the nest of pillows.
      "What is it, love?" Alexi asked him softly, stroking his flank hard enough not to tickle.
      "Do you hear that?" Diomid shook, thinking of the last time he had heard anyone else play his mother's flute.
      "Yes, it's a flute." Alexi unfolded himself and went to the door.
      Diomid stalked after him, unsure of what he would do when he got to the bedroom. Sitting there, on the edge of the bed, was Arkay, obviously lost in making music. Well aware of the inadvisability of startling him, Diomid waited. Although long before Arkay came to a good breaking point, Diomid no longer felt violated by someone else touching what, until now, he had kept hidden away like some dark secret.
      "I'm sorry," Arkay said softly, "I found this in the back of the closet."
      "I know, I left it there thinking it wouldn't be disturbed." Diomid smiled wryly. "Not your fault you tripped over it."
      "Do you play?" Alexi asked.
      "My mother would come back from her grave if I didn't, my love." Diomid held out his hands for the familiar instrument.
      "I didn't know Lord Gitanya played." Alexi said.
      "Your mother was Lord Gitanya Sergei?" Arkay asked.
      "Yes, although it is true, I don't know who my sire was." Diomid grinned wryly, "Not that it much matters." he began to play before Arkay could say anything further. Looking into Alexi's astonished eyes, he put his heart into a love song he had composed for him on those occasions when he had awoken at night simply to wonder at the magnificence of his lover. For the first time, Diomid had an audience. Before he realized it he had drawn them into his music, letting his field reflect his emotions and feeding back their response.
      "Do you know this one, my lad?" Arkay hummed a quite familiar tune.
      Diomid shook his head no, he didn't know the words, but Alexi smiled and sang to him.
      I'll love thee past the end of time I'll love thee in need's cold rhime I'll love thee 'yond all thy charms and I'll love thee in Death's own arms
      "Sasha, what have you been doing with yourself?" Diomid caught him by the shoulder.
      "Nothing," the automatic response brought a grin to his face he had to hide quickly. It did not fit with playing the stern sharm lord.
      "Then why do you look like you've gotten dragged face down through the muck pile?" His eyes had huge dark circles under them. Their turnover had been a week ago and he'd been sagging ever since. Diomid himself didn't feel very good, but not quite as dimmed as Sasha.
      A brief flicker of humor showed in Sasha's dulled eyes, "Because a three year old I was training did?"
      "I didn't mean literally, sweet," he pulled Sasha into his arms. His lack of resistance spoke volumes. Usually he was ready to run out the door by this time of the morning. "What is it?"
      "Don't feel well," his need tugged at Diomid far harder than it should.
      "Have you been augmenting enough?" He nuzzled Sasha's dark hair, trying to figure out the problem. He'd sat down with Arkay and gotten the basics of what Sasha would be going through in his short life and this was not it, it was far too soon. Lack of augmentation and post would make his degeneration far quicker though and Diomid was not going to let some foolishness steal Sasha from him even an hour sooner than necessary. Even though if he'd been holding back on augmentation he'd be far higher field.
      Diomid narrowed his eyes at his lover. "You're stripped out in your public field!"
      "Yes," he admitted, leaning against Diomid with all his slight weight. This was not good. Far too often lords had to use the excess selyn they carried in their public fields to augment in the course of their duties. Or so they could give emergency transfers to the renSimes under their command.
      "Why?" He asked as gently as he could. "I'm not mad, so you know."
      "But ..." Sasha looked up with his green eyes grayed with stress.
      "But what, lover?" Diomid stood on his toes to look Sasha in the eyes. "You can tell me, really."
      "You'll be mad. It will be all right," he flipped his hair out of his eyes again. The gesture tugged at Diomid's heart, as it always did. "I'll be fine."
      "What are you planning on doing today," they'd been splitting up a bit more of late since Sasha had a mare he was trying to cajole into some kind of civilized behavior and Diomid had been learning about the use of various drugs from Arkay. This was going to stop, today. *Arkay, barn or infirmary?*
      A startled snort came from him and he sent back, *barn of course!* "Now that we have that issue settled," Diomid dragged Sasha back to the bedroom. "Sit."
      "Yes, m'lord," Sasha sat, blinking. Diomid pulled off his indoor kador and substituted his riding habit. His fingers flicked easily through the laces. It had taken him a few weeks to get used to the more revealing garment but now he reveled in how cool it was, relatively. "Don't you have work to do?"
      "So do you," he fastened the lightweight veil over his face. This one was far more firmly attached than his other and a great deal more comfortable outdoors. "Arkay will take any excuse to be outside."
      "But doesn't he have work?"
      "Nothing which either can't be brought out to us or put off," Diomid shrugged. "Or we can do some of it standing on the rail of the arena watching you or on horseback, for that much matter. I want to go for a ride." He narrowed his eyes at Sasha, daring him to keep coming up with excuses in the face of Diomid's displeasure.
      "Uh, no," Sasha shook his head, his entire demeanor brightening considerably. "If you're sure we can manage," he then ducked his face to the side.
      "Manage what?" Diomid made him look at him. Through his silk gloves and kador, Diomid could sense little of Sasha's need, but his expression was painfully clear.
      "To keep things up," he looked though his dark lashes, blushing furiously.
      The servants will be in this afternoon," Diomid flicked a finger towards the pile of coins they left for such services. He hadn't yet gotten around to organizing the household books as he wanted them. It would be a few more months before he'd feel comfortable going into a long term contract with the housekeeping staff. Diomid wanted to vet the teams who did such work before he decided on who he'd hire. That was one thing he'd learned from Ilira, how to deal with his own money. Diomid made far more of it now than he'd ever hope to spend.
      Sasha's eyes widened as he looked towards the table. "Where?"
      "Mine," Diomid shrugged, wondering what was wrong with him. "Do you require some?"
      "No," he said quickly, looking away. Sasha was dreadfully transparent. The wonderful earring he'd given Diomid last week for their mutual turnover seemed to grow a bit warm. Diomid fingered the simple gold ring and watched Sasha's expression go through a multitude of changes. From fascination and adoration to a certain wistfulness.
      "I wish I could have gotten you something better," he looked down again. "It's not much."
      "It's from you, Sasha," he held his lover's hands. His tentacles twined with his fingers holding him tight. "You take wonderful care of me."
      "No when you have to pay for everything," he grimaced.
      "Is that what this is about!"
      "Yes," he blushed a brilliant Kirov red. "I'd shower you with gold and gems, Diomid. But I'm not very wealthy."
      "You silly Sime," Diomid grabbed him in a big hug. "Quit"
      "What?" Sasha squirmed. "I'm supposed to support you. You're the sharm lord!"
      "So?" He grinned, dropping his veil and kissing as much of Sasha's exposed skin as he could reach. "Tasty Sime," too early for transfer, the feel of Sasha's skin against his lips was still fascinating. He promised his lover the best transfer he could imagine with his touch. "So, what has you so flustered about letting me pay for things?"
      "That's an awkward way to put it," Sasha shook his head.
      "That's right, you can't get out of it, can you?" Diomid lipped Sasha's earlobe. Right there, now that he knew why Sasha was being so reticent about accepting adornments from him, maybe Diomid could bully him into more.
      "No," he sighed, leaning into Diomid's caress. "I feel like a failure, Diomid."
      "Because I make so much more than you do?"
      "I wasted so much of it," his voice rasped with the beginning of a growl. "If I'd thought about it, I could have saved up money like Ilira did."
      "Oh hell, Sasha," Diomid nipped his neck. Sasha yelped and stared at him. "No such thing. Ilira has a lot of money because she doesn't do anything but work. You have something to show for all your work and you spend far more time with me than she ever did."
      "Lots of bits and pieces of horse harness," he blushed again. "No baubles and bangles for my love."
      "Hardly," Diomid chided. "They were and are your loves. I'm a newcomer. I'm sure you'll catch up eventually."
      "But I can't keep up this place!" He wailed, squirming to be loose again.
      "Hush," Diomid nipped him again. "What is Avilan paying you?"
      "Five hundred and twenty a month," Sasha wouldn't meet his eyes.
      "That is robbery." Diomid put his veil back in place. *We have to go talk with Avilan.* He sent Arkay.
      *Meet you there,* Arkay sent back with the image of him finishing off the last of his necessary book work for the day.
      Avilan looked up from his desk at the quick knock. "Come in," he called out, wondering why the guards hadn't simply opened the door.
      "This is a formal visit, Sharm Lord Avilan Azov," Diomid swept through the door, towered over by both Alexi and Arkay. The two Gens had the poor Sime bracketed as if they were afraid he'd run off. From Alexi's parchment white skin, it might have been necessary. He braced himself for a possible disciplinary problem, no matter how unlikely it was Alexi would have done anything to require Avilan's chastisement.
      Alexi wouldn't look up though, and his tentacles were twining about his fingers in frantic unease. "What is this about?"
      "You've been robbing my lord of most of his wages." Diomid's eyes were blazing over his veil. "Fix it!"
      "No, Diomid, you don't have to do this," Alexi bumped into Arkay as he skittered backwards. He yelped and nearly landed on Diomid as he jumped forward. He then danced sideways until Diomid grabbed his hand and yanked him back. Even from here Avilan could see Alexi's pulse pound in his throat. He was quivering like a bird. Poor little Sime, Arkay's attention couldn't be doing him any good as his friend glowered.
      "Well, Avilan," Arkay crossed his arms over his chest.
      "Well?" Diomid echoed. Avilan cleared his throat noisily. Alexi leaped half a meter into the air and would have tried to climb into the chandelier if Diomid hadn't hauled him back.
      "Sorry," he tried to send soothing thoughts to Alexi before he exploded with nerves. "What seems to be the problem, precisely?"
      "You're cheating him, Avilan," Diomid tugged Alexi forward and leaned over the desk. "Where else are you going to get a lord who can ride and train any horse in the stables. He even can train horses for sharm lords to ride."
      "Drive too," Alexi said in a tiny voice.
      "There, see, you've been shorting him," Diomid's eyes narrowed. The inference he'd been doing Alexi out of his selyn made Avilan bristle. Poor Alexi whimpered and tried to crawl inside Diomid's kador, with him still in it.
      "Easy, Alexander," Avilan met the young lord's eyes. They were white with terror. "Would you two Gens knock it off! You're scaring him to death."
      "Sorry love," Diomid took down his veil and stroked Alexi's face until the worst of the fear had left it. "I didn't mean to scare you." The phrasing made Avilan chuckle. From the wording Diomid had meant to try to scare Avilan. Alexi let out a deep breath and leaned on Diomid.
      "Now, calmly if you can, what seems to be the problem?"
      "What are you paying Alexander Azovich, lord Azov, stud master and head trainer in Azov?" Arkay's question bypassed his conscious mind and pulled out the answer before he could think about it.
      "Five hundred and twenty a month," Avilan answered. "By all the little blue and green Gods, Alexi! Why didn't you say something?" Avilan pulled out the payroll for Azov. This was a part of the accounting system he'd never had a problem with.
      "There we are, Alexi Azov, lord," Avilan scanned the entry. There was nothing else. Not even his patronymic or mention of T'aszo or Diona. No wonder Avilan never knew of T'aszo's son. This was ridiculous. He'd been listed as the lowest of the nobility, a lord who's only function in the Demense was as a storage vessel for selyn. "How did this happen?" He tried not to growl at Alexi.
      "Never wanted to be noticed?" His sun darkened skin reddened like a ripe tomato. Oh dear, Avilan sighed. He should have known a son of T'aszo would be painfully self effacing and should have taken care of his status when the lad had come to his attention.
      "Well, you have been," Avilan pulled out his favorite pen. Unlike Arkay's, this one had not been chewed on. "Let's see," he looked up and scanned Alexi carefully. "Twenty-four?"
      "Yes," Arkay nodded in agreement, sitting on the edge of Avilan's desk. He really wished he would sit facing the other direction. This was distracting. For some reason he'd shown up in the lightest possible kador imaginable and it only accentuated his gorgeous body. He wasn't post enough to follow through, but he did like to look.
      Diomid raised an eyebrow at him in question. "Yes, anyways," Avilan tried to get his mind back on business and out of his pants. "Twenty-four, which is a standard 1344, rounded up to 1350 for the purposes of a starting point," his fingers danced over the keys of the wonderful adding machine Arkay had given him for midsummer.
      "But that should be going to Diomid!" Alexi protested.
      "Indeed, it is," Avilan began listing items. "I'd be paying him that much every month for his selyn, but as its going to you, you get the cash to keep him. One way or the other Azov is out that much every month for his production."
      "But I should be paying him!"
      "Hush, lover, I'll explain it all later," Diomid murmured into Alexi's ear.
      "No," he shook his head, looking far more mulish than Avilan would have guessed any child of T'aszo's could. But then Lukian could get his back up too when he was feeling difficult, so he figured it was simply a family trait.
      "Okay, the quick and dirty explanation. You are taking my selyn for Azov. Azov pays for that selyn by giving you the money to support me. We'll get around to dickering over quality and exchange rates over the total. Understand?"
      "Oh," Alexi blinked in utter astonishment. "I've never had a long term partner."
      Avilan laughed. He looked like someone had hit him on the back of the head with a board. "If you are not bonded to your partner, they get the cash to do with as they see fit every month as long as they don't run over twenty nine days total for their cycle. At which point the money is withheld until their selyn is given up."
      "Oh," he said softly, looking at Diomid in wonder. "Is that how some sharm lords end up so fat?"
      "Yes, lover," Diomid kissed his brow. "Some of my fellow sharm lords aren't very energetic."
      "Down right lazy if you ask me," Sasha muttered under his breath. "So, as you were saying, my Lord Azov," he tipped his head respectfully.
      "Yes, there's the thirteen fifty for Diomid's services," he let a bit of a snicker enter his tone. Arkay glared at him. "The five twenty living stipend, the eight hundred for the stud master position, and four hundred for your work as head trainer."
      "Tack on two hundred for his work with the grooms and stall cleaners." Arkay said over his shoulder.
      "He's heading the equestrian renSime contingent?" Avilan punched in three hundred. That was a nasty job and it was being very well done at the moment. "So, our total is 3370. With the tithe to our mother, we end up with 3033."
      "Shall we start the debate now?" Diomid leaned on the desk as well.
      "What did Karola say about our young sharm lord here, Arkay?" Avilan couldn't remember what her impression of him had been the time she'd stripped him. They couldn't afford to loose a twenty-four of Diomid's quality, nor could they loose Alexi now that Avilan knew he was the one responsible for the smooth operation of Azov's equestrian facilities, but he also couldn't afford to go broke for a single pair, no matter how good they were.
      "She said he would be one of the best, with time," Arkay put his finger to his lips. Diomid was now sweating beneath his hood. Good, the little chit deserved it for scaring his partner silly. "Call it ten percent."
      "He's worth more than that!" Sasha snapped, his field whipping out madly. Avilan hid his bark of laughter behind a cough. What he wouldn't do for himself, he was enthusiastic enough to do for someone else. "Twenty."
      "Call it fifteen, on the selyn only." Avilan would have wanted to cut it to ten, but he couldn't fault Alexi's loyalty.
      "Done," Diomid narrowed his eyes, as if could overhear Avilan's ruminations. Well, he probably could.
      "Fair enough," Arkay rolled his eyes at Avilan for being a sucker. "Particularly with the six you threw in for free. So that makes 3154 and twelve hours." Sometimes he wondered if the adding machine had been one of Arkay's barbed comments about his wits.
      "You can round it off to thirty one hundre..." Diomid slapped his hand over Alexi's mouth. Murbling sounds came from him.
      "How about rounding it up to thirty two hundred?" Diomid flipped his hair back. "Make it for the additional cost of our living above where Arkay can find us more easily."
      Avilan realized he'd better get while the getting was good or he'd be talked out of his kador, "Done!" He wrote the revised entry in after Alexi's name before anyone could come up with anything else.

Chapter 11

      Alexi felt like a complete and utter fool. After the excruciatingly embarrassing scene in Avilan's office, Diomid had immediately dragged him into a round of redecorating, bragging about how much Alexi was making now. A third of it was rightfully Diomid's. Alexi didn't have any right to spend any of it on fripperies!
      "Lover," his eyes caught on the fantastically woven overtunic. Diomid would look magnificent in such a thing. No, no matter how beautiful it was, actually it was for a lord. He turned his gaze away to see Diomid staring at it as well. "Look over there," he pointed to the leatherman's stall. The belt Diomid wore under his kador was becoming more effective by prayer than any strength left to the material.
      "Sure," Diomid gave an odd flip to his field. He was near enough to transfer his field was glittering through his kador as if it were made of oiled linen. RenSimes were zlinning Diomid nervously, one of them tripped over a tent peg and only her Sime reflexes saved her from a nasty fall. Diomid turned his head and three more skittered back out of range. "This is embarrassing," he muttered, pulling in the skirts of his kador as if it would do any good.
      "Why don't we look over there," Alexi pointed towards the Azov stall. One of Avilan's few sharm lord kadors held pride of place by the front door. A good chunk of this money he was being given was supposed to go for Diomid's welfare by tradition, even though Alexi would have given all of it to him if he could. He knew he was lousy with money. It trickled through his tentacles like water. Maybe if he spent it right, he'd get into less trouble with it.
      Everyone in the courtyard knew it when Diomid spotted the kador. Other than the workmanship, Alexi wouldn't have thought the garment would have so enraptured him. He walked forward as if dreaming.
      Alexi loved to hunt, so he'd spent more than a bit of time with the hounds and hawks as well as the horses. Most portrayals of hounds were of those bred for the great Hunt, or the hunting of a rogue human. Avilan had instead shown the far heavier, shaggy coated wolf hounds.
      Their breath seemed to steam from their mouths as Alexi could imagine them give tongue as the chase was on. The hairs on the back of his neck stood upright, the image was so perfectly rendered. Diomid's gloved fingertips slid over the floor length sleeves. As he neared, he could see the clever slits Avilan had made in the sleeves so a sharm lord could extend their hand if he wanted to, but didn't have to wear gloves to keep his nager contained.
      "Do you like to hunt?" It would have been to fantastic a coincidence if Diomid did.
      "Never tried it," he grinned. "But from this it looks like fun."
      "Really?" Alexi blinked in utter shock. Few healers could stand to shed blood, even if it had to be done. Hunting to manage the game near the city was not a sport for most people.
      "Does it bother you?"
      "No, not at all," he shook his head. "I actually rather enjoy it."
      "The hounds," he could feel their shaggy ruff in his fingers as the image brought back memories of many late season hunts. The wolf population had to be thinned out every winter before they could threaten the renSimes living in the great stands of timber surrounding the city. They didn't take many, but when they'd caught a few, the rest would leave for the remainder of the winter. "I always grieve for those who get caught, but the rest are better off for it."
      "A time for all things, my beloved?" Diomid's eyes were bright behind the glittering fringe on his hood. Alexi looked at the kador and noticed it had a full face veil. Blinking, he ran his hand behind it. He could zlin nothing of himself through the whisper fine cloth, but as he turned it over, he realized he could still see through it.
      "It is not for sale, my lords," the renSime shopkeeper kept a solid rack of kadors between himself and Diomid. There was a fortune in cloth inside the tiny stall. Diomid flicked his nager around behind the clothing. The renSime yelped and dared glare at him, but burrowed between the shielding robes nonetheless.
      "It is for an Azov sharm lord," Alexi tried to guess how much such a piece would be worth. The simplest possible kador for a renGen was worth about five-hundred days. How much would something like this cost? There had been nothing in their closet even remotely suited for high court at Azov and Alexi had been hoping to find Diomid something.
      "True," he cocked his head. "Hali!" the man shouted towards the back of the tent. Someone swathed in layers of gauzy robes drifted into the tent.
      "Yes?" a beautiful alto answered shyly.
      "Could you help these gentleman find something more suitable?" He licked his lips nervously. "The sharm lord Azov requires a far heavier kador than the one he's currently wearing." With this he vanished into the shadows.
      "You'll have to excuse my mate. He's a bit nervy around high field sharm lords." Like a child's motley, her robes were all colors of the rainbow, but her voice was entirely adult. "One of them raped him when he was young."
      "Hali!" A sharp voice remonstrated her.
      "He's a healer you ninny!" She shouted back, entirely the in charge renGen. "Sorry, he sometimes forgets who's in charge." Grumbles came from the back. "Go find some of the gauze." She yelled over her shoulder. "I think you might like a bit more than our showpiece, no?"
      Alexi thought of the state of his wallet.
      "I think you might well be able to afford it, as you do know Sharm Lord Azov, do you not?" She tipped her head down as if scanning their clothes.
      "Some," Diomid let his veil fall when Alexi dropped the tent flap. It was only half an hour to official dusk and the market would be closing then. If someone wanted something, they could knock. The spill-over from his nager rocked Alexi back on his heels. Something had gotten Diomid excited, probably the kador. Hali too dropped her many veils. Her fine features were nearly as hound like as the ones on the kador Avilan had made.
      "Well, yes, I do prefer to go veiled for more than my nager," her wry grin dropped years from her face.
      "You have a beautiful voice and silken nager, it is a shame to cover either of those for a mere excess of character to your features," Alexi bowed over her hand and kissed it through her sleeve.
      "You stole my line, Alexi," Diomid gave him a playful jab with his filed. Hali giggled at them and curtseyed in a flutter of gauze. "Your voice more vibrant than the green of my lovers eye's or the chestnut of his hair."
      "Oh my," she straightened up proudly. "You make me feel as if I were beautiful."
      "You are!" her mate shouted from the back of the tent.
      "Keep him, Hali," Diomid offered her his arm. "So, what can we do for you?"
      "That's my line, Diomid," Alexi nudged him with an elbow. Hali giggled again, covering her mouth with her hand.
      "Would you like some tea?" She waved towards a pile of cushions in the corner of the tent.
      "We would love some," Alexi sat at Diomid's far side so as not to threaten Hali's mate in any way.
      The conversation turned to the unseasonably cool weather they'd been enjoying this summer. It wasn't so chill the crops were threatened, but it had relieved the usually beastly heat of late August.
      "Do you know if Sharm Lord Azov has created any new sharm lord kadors?"
      "No, I'm afraid not," he sighed. That had been part of his problem. Those who had even more than one of Avilan's sharm lord kadors or his overtunics weren't parting with them for love or selyn. He'd made one Sharm Lord's kador for Arkay this past year, but most of his energy was going into adorning Karola and their children right now.
      "Are you interested in historical garments?" Diomid sipped at his tea.
      "Do you have any Otreyevich or Chernoye?"
      "Who?" They asked in unison.
      She grinned and waved her hand. "Many of the freeholders like the Demense style kadors, but don't want to usurp Demense colors. Otreyevich was a Demense from about four centuries ago who was consumed by Maryam after the rise of Sergei. His colors were red, gold and blue. Chernoye was taken into Fatima in the eighth century, but his colors changed little being originally gold and black."
      "I can zlin why freeholders would like those two." Alexi wondered if it would be considered reasonable to sell off any of the garments they'd found unused in their closet. It seemed Diomid had no such qualms.
      "We have an overtunic which looks as if it could have been Otreyevich, with abstracts like Fatima fancies?"
      "Yes, exactly," Hali leaned forward. "We'll be interested in seeing it, of course."
      "Of course," Diomid sipped at his tea.
      "There is the kador you said would suit a Demense renGen," Alexi tried to remember if it was gold and black or silver and black.
      "Yes, I think that one must have been Chernoye," he tapped at his lips. "Very heavy piece, nearly forty kilos."
      "Yes, Chernoye was even more reticent about showing nager than Fatima or Mir even." Hali was so excited she was panting. "I've wanted one of their kadors for years! They never come up for sale because they're worth more for the metal in them than the garment. No renGen can afford a Chernoye kador."
      "Then perhaps this renGen can," Diomid slipped his arm around her shoulders. "There's a beautiful piece you could replace Avilan's with in burgundy with running Tekes on it."
      "You have a Halimir!" She bussed Diomid thoroughly. "Done."
      Diomid laughed at her enthusiasm. "Don't you want to see them first?"
      "I trust you," she slid her eyes to Alexi. "For you," she pursed her lips. "I think I have some things in back you'd like to zlin."
      "No, that's fine," he was feeling a bit crestfallen. He'd so wanted to do something fancy for Diomid and he'd stolen Alexi's thunder entirely.
      Diomid could tell something had caused Alexi to suck in his laterals as if Arkay had field slammed him, but didn't know what. He knew Alexi had wanted him to have the wonderful kador Avilan had made. "If you could excuse us, Alexi," Hali took Diomid's arm and pulled him to his feet.
      "Sure," there were stress lines around his mouth and eyes as he sipped at his tea.
      Hali yanked Diomid back behind the curtains at the back of the stall. "What do you think you are doing, Mister high and mighty sharm lord?"
      "What?" He reared up to his rather mediocre height. "I wanted to help him."
      "Cut his laterals off is what you did!" She hissed. "Stop it or he'll shen out on you when you next get your hands on him."
      "How so?" He looked towards the closed curtains as if he could still see Sasha. "I didn't want to hurt him."
      "No, instead you took away his trying to give you something, you incompetent oaf." She shook him hard. "Now keep your mouth shut and I'll see if I can repair his poor little Sime ego."
      "Hey, I didn't mean it," he ducked his head. "I only want what's best for him. If, well, if you could tell me what I did wrong ... ?"
      "You are young, aren't you?" Now he could see the lines around her eyes showing she was not a young woman.
      "Well, yes," he wished he knew what he'd done wrong.
      Hali shook her head and looked to the ceiling, as if praying. "What you did was undercut Alexi's ability to provide for you. He wants to take care of you."
      "But I make more money than I know what to do with." He figured at this point honesty was the best bet. Even if he got skinned alive in bargaining with her later, he'd have learned something more valuable than selyn.
      "Don't rub it in, Diomid," her dark eyes bore into his. "You keep the books for your pairing, right?"
      "Yes, of course," he nodded.
      "Then, well, do you know how to cook them?"
      "Yes," he thought of all the things he'd been taught to look for when doing an audit. He'd even gotten a chance to corner one of Fatima's bookkeepers and wheedle an afternoon out of her. The stories she'd told of crooks who'd managed to hide millions of days of selyn in their accounting had scared the whey out of Diomid.
      "Then cook 'em. He'll never know or care, Diomid, as long as he thinks he's the one who's earning his selyn."
      "Isn't that dishonest?"
      "Not really," her grin was wicked. "Set it up so you pay him for the things he does for you. That isn't dishonest and it will make him feel a lot better."
      "Pay him for ... ?" Diomid couldn't say it.
      "Yes, pay him for sex. He's good at it, isn't he?"
      Diomid choked at this. He'd always been far more reticent in talking about transfer and sex than anyone he knew.
      "You are very Simelike, you know," she rested her hand on Diomid's arm again. "It's cute."
      "Thank you," he blushed a bit more. "So, how do you suggest I patch up this little mess."
      "It's more like a crater, Diomid," she grimaced. "Leave it to me."
      They returned to the other room. Sasha's dark hair had fallen into his eyes again and from the way he let it lie there, he was truly depressed. "I decided it's not my place to give away garments which do belong to Azov." He didn't have to fake the catch in his voice as he thought of giving up the beautiful kador, but he'd do anything to keep Sasha happy. A garment was not worth hurting his love like this. He cuddled Sasha to his side.
      "But no one else wanted them," the play of emotions on Sasha's face was worth it all. "I think we can manage something with Sharm Lord Azov."
      "No," Diomid shook his head. "If you were willing to sell it, how much would it be?"
      Hali ran her hand over the gold and silver embroidery. Of course it had no gems woven among the metal, such was reserved for Sharm Lords, but the smooth stitching seemed even more fantastic without being overwhelmed by their bright colors. "If we were willing to sell, it would be twenty thousand, no dickering."
      Diomid felt like someone had kicked him in the gut. His own kador looked better and better. Alexi had paled under his dark tan, but there was a scheming look in his eye. Diomid desperately wanted to stop him from paupering himself for a year to acquire a garment Diomid knew he'd eventually outgrow. Even though there was nothing stopping a Sharm Lord from wearing a kador of lower rank.
      "Are you going to be here tomorrow?" Alexi's tentacles were idly tracing his fingers, as they did when he was thinking hard. The light and life had come back to his lover so brilliantly, Diomid knew he'd done the right thing. Hali winked at him.
      "Yes, until noon," she tipped her head. "We won't be open for business, but we will be able to receive you if you make an appointment."
      "I would like to see you at eleven," Sasha got to his feet with a grace utterly belying his state of need. Diomid scrambled to follow him. His joints creaked in protest. This next transfer was going to be so good!
      Alexi tucked Diomid into bed. He yawned so wide it made Alexi's jaw hurt in sympathy. "Sleep my love. I have a couple of errands to run," he kissed Diomid's brow as his eyes flickered shut. Excitement kept him wide awake even as Diomid's sleep tried to suck him under. He didn't have much time before tomorrow morning, and knew he'd better make the most of it.
      The rushes crackled underfoot as he hurried down the hallway. A cool breeze bit through his thin indoor clothes, but he didn't dare dawdle around and put on something else. He hoped Hali's bondmate had gotten his zlinned message even if she didn't. The pilfered Chernoye kador was so heavy he smacked into a wall. This would never do.
      As he'd seen Diomid do so many times, he struggled into the garment. It was very loose on his slight frame, but far easier to carry. It took him three tries and looking into a conveniently lit window to get the veil straight. Now he was plenty warm and knew quite well why Diomid slipped out of his the moment he walked in the door in summer. This thing is hot! He panted beneath the weight of fabric and metal. He couldn't justify taking the other two, and so had brought his entire savings with him. The bag seemed a bit heavier than he remembered, but then he'd not been counting his stash of coins for years and had only been adding to it.
      The banister creaked as he grabbed at it before he tripped over the hem. He couldn't see his feet for the wide bell of stiff cloth and prayed the railing would hold as he leaned on it. A guard did a fantastic double take as he escaped into the courtyard. "De ye need and escort ... my lord?"
      Alexi thought about it. "Yes," he finally answered, figuring the guards would probably drag him back inside if he acted like he looked, an escaped renGen. The woman gestured to her partner with her spear and he realized he couldn't zlin a thing in here. So this is what it's like to be Gen. It was actually rather nice to be protected from the constant buffeting by other people's nagers. Soon there were four of them, two in front and two in back. They did think he was a renGen. A giggle made him bite his lip before it could escape. One of the guards stared at him as if she could zlin through the veil.
      Silver tinkled as he shook his head negative.
      "Very well," she looked forward. "Yer orders?"
      "Te market," he picked up the hem of his kador as he'd seen Diomid do. Both guards flicked a quick backwards glance. Oops, not flashing his nager was harder than it looked. He lowered the hem to the ground. It would get a bit dusty, but better that than banished to the sharm. Even though as he looked, he noted the cheap cloth lining the hem where the fabric rested on the ground. Clever, he'd never been so aware of the construction of these things. Diomid made it look so easy. Alexi tripped over a crack in the paving.
      "Easy ne," a hand steadied his elbow.
      "Thanks," he breathed softly, hoping the renSime could hear and not take his word as an invitation.
      "Ne problem," a chuckle and the hand left. Alexi's eyes widened as he watched all the goings on around him. He'd rarely come into the city at night and hardly recognized it. The renSimes dropped into their own heavy Russian dialect, only understandable by another renSime or someone who worked as closely with them as he did.
      "Look at the Black Cat." One gave a flick of a tentacle towards a brightly lit building.
      "Heard they have a couple sharm lords working there who like renSimes," one of the women said under her breath.
      "Male or female?" The first asked.
      "Both, I've heard."
      "Brrrr, don't know as I'd like it, even if it were within my purse."
      "Me neither, but I'd like to zlin a sharm lord in bed."
      "De ye think it would be as good as a lord?"
      "Better, I've heard tell," one of the women added a rather obscene gesture. "Want to zlin it sliding in?"
      "Tentacles or other?"
      "Oh yes, then get me a good renSime afterwards."
      "Hope you have the selyn."
      "Ah, that's what I'm saving for." Her chuckle was wicked. "Don't want to starve fer my selyn. I like being a guard. What I want is a lord who'll do me afterwards."
      "And how much is that!"
      "For a good one, oh, only about a hundred and fifty for an hour."
      Alexi blinked behind his veil. A hundred and fifty! Over five months worth of selyn for an hour's entertainment!
      "How much for the night?"
      "Now that's expensive," she made a flipping gesture with her tentacles. "Just like transfer before."
      "How much?"
      "Five hundred, a thousand if they take their own right before. Get 'em when they're really post, maybe even get a big belly out of it."
      "Never happen."
      "That's the thrill of it." With this one of the men whistled. "Hush, our friend here might figure out were talking about getting laid."
      "Don't want that," they dropped into silence for a while. A tiny lantern was lit at the entrance to the tent.
      "This is the end of the line," he tipped his head to his companions. Dropping into renSime Russian he added, "And thanks for the information about the Black Cat." They gasped and turned bright red. "I'll never tell, but I am flattered," he dropped his veil with a grin. "Be well and do your best."
      "At your will, lord Azov," the very bold woman managed to stutter out. The rest were too tongue tied to do more than nod. They skittered off into the dark night. Alexi knocked at the door frame.
      "Come in, m'lord," Hali was still up as well. Good, she should see what she was bargaining for. He ducked his head and stepped into the tent. "Oh my," she breathed, coming forward. She'd shed her layers of robes and wore a simple shift and trousers. "Its gorgeous."
      "And heavy," he breathed, trying to somehow get out of it.
      "Here," Sime hands grasped the shoulders of the garment. No how does Diomid do this? Alexi could vaguely remember him dropping down out of the bottom ... somehow. "My name is Yarmir, by the way."
      "Thanks," he forgot to undo the laces and got tangled up. Yarmir laughed and got him unsnarled from the mass of fabric. His shirt was soaked to his waist and he sniffed the air, glad he'd taken a shower this morning.
      "Smells good," Hali teased. "Thank you."
      "I have cash as well," he fingered his heavy pouch.
      "This is a magnificent piece, but it won't do more than replace part of the value of Avilan's. His work is still quite salable and brings people into our tent." Hali offered him tea again.
      "I figured," he sat and accepted it. "Partial payment though?"
      "Certainly," she nodded. "Half."
      This was more than fair. He only hoped he had enough. He opened his pouch and gaped at the contents. Gold winked in the lamp light. There was far more than he'd remembered putting in there, but not so much he really thought Diomid had added to it, even though he did contemplate the idea. No, Diomid worked with money on paper, not in coin like this.
      He spilled the coins out into his hand. Together they counted out his stash. Nine thousand, five hundred and forty two. Four hundred and thirty eight short. Alexi cursed under his breath. He looked at Yarmir and Hali hopefully. They frowned.
      Then he let his laterals flick out to scan Yarmir gently. He blinked and zlinned him back. There was a partial blockage to the great artery feeding his heart. "I think there is something I could do," he held out his hand in offer to the rather elderly renSime.
      "You heal?"
      "Some," he smiled. "I'm not great at it, but I think I can help you." The problem was a simple one to correct, unlike some of those he'd worked with Diomid on.
      "Then it will be a done deal," he clasped Alexi's proffered hands. Their tentacles twined and he tugged Yarmir into transfer position gently. The blockage relented to his now deft show of need. Yarmir's quiver of reticence tempted him deeper. There was a cool, lifeless trace of scar tissue over the deepest of his transfer nerves. Praying he'd get it right, Alexi thought of how they should zlin and tugged them through the old scars. Yarmir gasped and shivered.
      He released the contacts and looked into Yarmir's dark eyes. They were wide with wonder and surprise. "Oh, bless you, lord Azov," he breathed. "This is more than I would have dared ask for. You didn't' have to do so much!"
      "I can feel it," Hali looked at her mate. "This is wonderful. Thank you." She cut out eight thousand worth of the coins stacked before Alexi. "Was there anything else you wanted to get him?"
      Alexi was utterly tongue tied. He'd wanted to get Diomid some fancy underclothes if he found himself with any money left over, but saying such a thing to a Gen, even one in her own underwear was a bit much for even his own rather uninhibited nature. He stuttered and stumbled.
      "Hali, if you would get us some more tea?" Yarmir seemed to understand, thank all the little blue and green gods.
      "I could help," she gave him a wicked look and he blushed furiously. He was close enough to hard need he could zlin whether he wanted to or not and her field spiraled in amusement. "The back rack, with the tapestry over it."
      Alexi breathed a sigh of relief as she vanished into the back of the tent. "Good."
      "There's some things a Sime don't want a Gen around for," Yarmir gave him a conspiratorial wink.
      Diomid blushed down to his toenails as he eyed the garments Sasha had laid out for him. He prayed Sasha hadn't had help picking them out. Their seclusion would begin this afternoon, right after high court, and he was having a hard time waiting. This one would confirm their permanent bond, after they displayed themselves to the entire court as a bonded pair. It was not a true handfasting, but it was nearly as binding.
      He put on the feather light trousers and undershirt. The mirror on the wall caught his reflection. He bit at his lip. If he were Sime, he'd be utterly fascinated at the translucent garments. They hid nothing even to sight. It was like wearing nothing. He took a deep breath and hoped no one would see him in them other than Sasha.
      Then he opened the closet door. He did get it! Sasha had said he didn't have the money! Delight made him want to dance in place. It was even more beautiful among the fantastic kadors in their closet. He could see it was even better made than the most heavily gem and bead encrusted garments already present.
      Careful not to bend the delicate metal work, Diomid slid into it. The thirty odd kilos of metal and wool settled onto the shoulder pads. Oh wow! He tightened the underlaces to distribute the weight over all its supports. It felt nearly as light as his undergarments. Only the best kadors ever made were so constructed. "Oops!" He realized it had been made for someone quite a bit taller.
      With a few judicious adjustments, he managed to get it almost off the floor. "Hmmmm," he looked through the rack of boots. "There we go," he grabbed a pair of built up shoes. With the additional cents, he managed to clear the hem to the dust edging. It was warm, but not unbearably so.
      Diomid decided to do this right. Usually he didn't bother with cosmetics, but he wanted to make this display as perfect as he could for Sasha. Thinking of some of the fantastic displays Avilan sometimes put on, he stood at the vanity. He didn't have much ... he blinked in surprise as he opened the drawer. Someone, probably Sasha, had done some serious shopping, it looked like it had been with skilled help.
      All of the delicate colors were fresh and new, and well suited to his own coloring. He could tell Avilan'd had a hand in this. He'd not done this very often, but he couldn't have gotten out of the sharm without knowing some of the tricks. Oh perfect! Diomid spotted the dark gray he preferred over black for eyeliner.
      It took a bit and Sasha was knocking on the door moments before he was finished. "A moment," he called out and put on the final touches. "Come in!"
      He was clasping his veil as Sasha walked in the door.
      "My gods!" Sasha breathed, his eyes wider than Diomid had ever seen them. "You look magnificent," his gliding walk turned into a stalk. Diomid's heart was pounding frantically. He wanted Sasha now!
      "You grew," Sasha blinked as they met nose to nose.
      "Heels," Diomid grinned behind his veil.
      "Cheater," he had to stand on his toes to kiss Diomid's brow. This was a pleasant change. "I like you short though," his fingers traced Diomid's cheek beneath his veil. "I like you anyway I can have you."
      "Then will you have me?" He flicked his tongue over one of Sasha's fingers.
      "Yes," his green eyes were level. "In high court garb or in rags, Diomid."
      "Then shall we go so you can see what I have under my robes?" His mouth was watering at the thought of showing off for Sasha in his new lingerie.
      He made no mention of having selected it. Some Simes it seemed could manage romantic. "I'll be ready for you." The slightest tang of roniplin filled Diomid's senses to overflowing.
      "For now and always, beloved," he freed his hand from his sleeve and took Sasha's arm. "They are waiting for us."
      "Let them wait," Sasha unclasped his veil. Need sang on his nerves as the shielding garment fell. As his lips met Diomid's his head swam with the heady sensations. "For always," his eyes met Diomid's. "I love thee for all time and in all ways."
      Avilan couldn't believe his eyes. He'd thought the kador he'd made for himself as a sharm lord had been lost forever. He hadn't seen it since the day he'd accidentally ascended himself and T'aszo.
      Diomid's light blue eyes were fantastically adorned above the veil. The pewter lines he'd drawn to accentuate the gray in his eyes made him look far more mature than his years. It suited him well. Alexi had his arm and looked as if he had saved Azov with a single tentacle.
      "We come before Azov to pledge our love," Alexi bowed to the floor, placing his tentacles on the smooth marble tiles.
      "We ask you witness our oaths," Diomid turned to his partner and nodded. The look of utter adoration Alexi gave him was not in the ceremony, but it was beautiful. Alexi bowed his head as Diomid rested his bare hand on Alexi's scalp.
      A murmur ran though the court. Avilan could hear mutters of "pretty" and "don't you be getting ideas". He wished Arkay and Karola could see this and called for them silently. It was a bit of a breach of protocol when they arrived, but he didn't really care. Each of them had a child in their arms. There were a few giggles from the younger members of the court.
      *May we go on?* Alexi's sending was pink with amusement.
      *Go right ahead,* Avilan wrinkled his nose as Alexi's silliness. Diomid's field trembled making Avilan's nerves quiver. He was in hard need even if Alexi was a bit further out.
      "I take thee, Alexander Azovich Azov as my mate and beloved," Diomid slid his hands down Alexi's arms. Everyone in the audience sucked in a hissing breath at the intimate gesture. At the end he held the tips of Alexi's tentacles in his fingertips.
      "I am thy mate and beloved, Diomid Ivanovich Azov. For all time under heaven and all ways under the skies." He leaned forward and kissed the backs of Diomid's hands. Diomid's breath hissed between his teeth and Avilan caught Alexi's flick of his tongue. "I pledge my life, my love and my future to thee."
      Diomid brought Alexi to his feet. "I pledge my selyn, my heart and my years to thee." He dropped his veil and they both looked at Avilan. Avilan was extremely glad Diomid's nager was not spilling over the court. He was about to take Alexi on the dias!
      "Let no one come between Alexander Azovich and Diomid Ivanovich without both their consent or knowledge!" He proclaimed them pairbonded to the entire court. Now anyone who threatened their bonding would answer to him. Arkay and Karola framed him, adding their weight to his words. "I am Sharm Lord Azov, Lord of Azov and master of his children." The words nearly tripped him as T'aszo's son stood before him.
      Alexi shook his head quickly.
      Relieved there were be no fuss, Avilan went on, "May your bonding outshine the stars and outlive the forests." Avilan well knew how a true bonding could outlive either of the partners. He only hoped he'd not loose Diomid when it was Alexander's time.
      "Thank you for your blessing, my Lord Azov," Alexi's tentacles twined with Diomid's fingers. "May our bonding shine as T'aszo's."
      Avilan experienced a moment of panic. The proper response was to refer to the bonding of one's namesake. Diomid, of course, sailed smoothly on.
      "Thank you for your blessing, my Lord Azov. May our bonding shine as Azov's." He met Avilan's eyes squarely, implying he was referring to Avilan himself. He flushed a bit at the complement.
      "Be well and enjoy the bounty of your labors freely," he placed his hands on their heads. "The rings?" He whispered under his breath. Alexi's field danced in surprise. Diomid winked and handed Avilan a pair of them. At first he panicked. Which one was to go to whom, then he looked at them.
      One was a beautiful if relatively typical bonding piece of two strands of gold braided. The other was an exquisite work of art, obviously Kirov in origin. It showed a nude Gen entwined around a stylized lateral. Fortunately it wouldn't be obvious at first glance what it really was.
      Alexi licked his lips as he saw it, probably for the first time. Diomid snickered softly. "Do you have the needle?"
      "Yes," he pulled out the thick hollow lancet used for such things. It would be barely big enough for Alexi's. Diomid faced Alexi again and flipped his hair back.
      Avilan forced his hand to steadiness as he pricked the tip of his finger. "By the blood of Azov," he had to force himself to go on under Alexi's gaze, "I bond these two of his children." Alexi cupped Diomid's ear, sliding his hood out of the way.
      It was a simple thing to do, but Karola handed Vanya to Arkay and stood behind Avilan. "Thanks," he whispered and heard her soft chuckle in return.
      "Thought I could help," she added her display of need to Alexi's.
      "Hurry up!" Diomid snapped.
      Avilan bit back his comment recommending patience. Diomid would not appreciate such a thing right now. He hissed a bit in shock as the needle bit into the skin but then held perfectly still as he forced it through the cartilage. This was the first time he'd performed a bonding since Vanya Sergei had opened up the rest of his own talents and he had to force himself not to flinch at the echoed pain.
      He consoled himself with the reminder Alexi wouldn't feel a thing.
      "I'd like to do it," Diomid gave him a crooked grin when he was done.
      "Sure," usually when they were so young, the sharm lord didn't want to expose himself to even this small bit of pain right before transfer and Avilan hoped Diomid knew what he was doing.
      "May I never hurt thee more than this," Diomid's whisper swept through the silent room. Avilan could feel the warmth of affection they held for the two young men before him. It seemed they too thought this was a good match. With a perfectly steady hand, Diomid placed the beautifully erotic ear ring on the bottom third of his ear. Only now did Avilan realize there was only one other. Hadn't Alexi had other partners?
      *Never for more than a single month,* he responded with the faintest glimmers of tears in his eyes. Within hours of transfer, even so slight a show of tears was as if he'd broken down in hysterics. Diomid pulled him close and after kissing away the tears, he took Alexi in his arms and bussed him properly. The crowd cheered so loudly Avilan was taken back to his own handfasting to Karola. From the impish grin on her face she was thinking exactly the same thing.
      Don't they have to breath? Avilan wondered at how long they were taking. Then he saw Alexi's laterals slide over Diomid's neck. *Do you really want to be post on the dias?*
      "Foreplay," Diomid's gaze was the wickedest Avilan had ever seen.
      "Uh, yeah," Alexi was panting. "I'm ready," now he showed as much need as Diomid had. By the gods, Diomid did a shunt and then stopped, Avilan realized what had happened.
      "Get out of here," Avilan wanted to boot both of them in the rear. Spoil all their fun. What Diomid had done was shenned dangerous. If Alexi didn't get his transfer soon, he'd end up badly burned even if they could get the selyn into him.
      "At your will, m'Lord," Diomid replaced his veil and turned back to the court. Even through the heavy kador, Avilan could sense Diomid's production rate skyrocket. The man should have fallen on his nose, but instead he raised the hand Alexi was latched onto like a limpet and received an even louder cheer from the court. "From the blood of Azov, to the blood of Azov. We are his children and his guardians. Through the generations and for always!"
      All the bonded pairs of Azov formed the traditional arched line. Tentacles and fingers intertwined, they stood to watch over the new pair. Many of them shouted raucous cat call and quite obscene suggestions. Avilan could sense Alexi trembling with denied need by the time they were done, but it was done. Now the only thing holding them back was the distance to their rooms.

Chapter 12

      "Dio, come on, I want you to meet some of my friends," Diomid had been putting off meeting Alexi's friends for months now. He was starting to worry Diomid didn't want to meet them. He'd run with a pretty rough crowd before bonding to Diomid, but they weren't that bad, were they?
      "Sasha, lover, I don't know," he plucked at the bit of thread coming loose from his cuff. For informal court, all he was wearing was one of his old kadors, not the fancy new one. "I'm not dressed for it."
      "You look beautiful, Dio," no one could have looked more gorgeous. The pale green of his kador perfectly matched the shade of his eyes
      "You only say that because you're post," Diomid's ears pinked a bit, as they always did when he mentioned sex. Alexi thought it was dreadfully cute.
      "If I weren't post then I would say you zlin fascinating," actually he zlinned wonderful right now, even less than a week after transfer. Alexi wasn't entirely sure which he enjoyed more with Diomid, transfer or sex. Both were wonderful, only the latter he could managed to do more than once a month. With that as a tradeoff, they were too close to call. Thinking of which, Alexi lipped the graceful arch of Diomid's eyebrow. The sweet taste of his lover made his loins tighten, again! They'd only made love this morning.
      "For me?" Diomid arched his neck and looked up out of the corner of his eye as he brushed his fingernails over Alexi's now shrinking pants.
      "Not right now," he looked around. The doors were wide open and there were guards standing not two meters away.
      "You started it," Diomid's eyes twinkled above his veil. "Shall we go in?"
      "Like this?" He squawked, trying to duck behind Diomid so he could rearrange himself. Diomid only turned around and looked back over his shoulder. The stance did nothing to help. Even in his kador, Alexi could zlin Diomid's perfect backside. "You have to wear your heaver one all the time now, lover," he finally managed to get his mind on Diomid's field and not his body, and so managed to get rid of his problem.
      "Are you sure I should?" Diomid's coy looks were doing nothing for Alexi's blood pressure, or that of the now zlinning guards. They were asking to get hurt, zlinning in public like that, but Alexi figured it was their sargent's business, or Diomid's, not his to correct them. "You don't want your friends to zlin me?" His weight shifted in the beginning of an about face.
      No you don't! Diomid could be tricky and now Alexi caught on to his ploy. "I'd love to show you off," he took Diomid's arm and steered him right past the now openly gaping guards. Diomid's nager splashed all over the ambient with surprise and a bit of chagrin. Didn't think you'd have to go in if you were half naked, did you?
      One of his old cronies, lord Cyril did a fantastic double take. "I can now zlin where you've been," he even slipped so far as to show a flash of bright pink lateral. Alexi tried not to snicker.
      Gregori had no such restraint and guffawed at Cyril's slip.
      "Please let me express my sympathies for your having to tolerate such ill-mannered cretins, my lord ...?" Now Dimitri could be a problem. He was nearly as slick as Diomid. To make it worse, he offered Diomid his arm, as if to imply Alexi was one of those ill mannered cretins.
      "I am sharm lord Diomid Azov," Diomid's hand curled more firmly around Alexi's bicep. One of Cyril's eyebrows tried to vanish into his already receding hairline.
      "Diomid Ivanovich?"
      "Yes," only Alexi could feel his fingers dig into the muscles of his arm. Alexi rested his hand over Diomid's. "I have no desire to claim something I have no proof of."
      Cyril flinched at the barb of being the only thing worse than a bastard, a cookoo. "I didn't mean it that way." His tentacles were knotted into their sheathes.
      "Then how did you mean it?" Gregori's overtunic, showing his lack of color sense flashed in orange, gold and green in the lamp light. It was nearly eye hurting.
      Cyril stammered and looked over Diomid's head.
      "And you were so sweet for my first, even though I had no idea ..." Diomid flicked his hand towards Cyril's waistband, as if he'd taken Diomid to escape having to consummate a transfer. "You gave no sign of any further interest." His shrug was pure Arkay. Cyril flushed Kirov red.
      Alexi clamped on Dio's hand, trying to tell him 'enough'. "I'd only wanted to be certain you were the same Diomid who showed such promise."
      "Not enough to find out what had happened to me," Diomid's field was throwing off nageric sparks into the ambient. What had gotten into him? Enough Diomid! Alexi clamped down on his hand even harder.
      "I couldn't find you again, you didn't come to court," Cyril's nager was burning hot with shame.
      "Stop it," Alexi hissed in Diomid's ear. "As you can see, you should have looked a bit harder."
      "Indeed," Cyril gave Diomid the same bow he'd have given a Sharm Lord. "Your nager has grown into far more beauty than I would have ever guessed. If you hadn't so far outstripped my wildest dreams of fulfillment even then, I'd have bound you to me."
      "I'm eternally in your debt for having given up the most beautiful sharm lord in Azov to my tentacles." Alexi tipped his head to his old friend. Diomid was now purring on his arm.
      "My regrets are as eternal as your luck, Azovich," Cyril gave him a tight grin. "If you ever have any second thoughts about this reprobate, come look me up. I could support you beyond your wildest dreams of avarice, Diomid." He seemed to be recovering all right.
      "Not likely," Diomid's fingers traced Alexi's tentacle sheaths. All the nearby lords watched, a flock of birds all trapped by the same serpent. Usually he only touched Alexi like this in bed and his body's reaction to the gesture was as instantaneous as it was unwelcome. "My lord supports me in the style I have become accustomed to."
      Gregory flicked a bare tentacle at Diomid's threadbare kador. "In rags?"
      "This one is far cooler than the one Avilan made," he fanned himself with the front of it. The gesture sent glittering sprays of nager to surround them. Alexi bit the inside of his lip. If Diomid didn't stop being such a tease, he was going to get taken right here in public.
      "Who's your new friend, Alexi?" Marya's sultry alto made his heart stop. This was not a good idea. As usual, Diomid had been right.
      Diomid looked her up and down. She ran her tentacles through her waist length hair and batted her honey gold lashes at him. Alexi didn't stand a chance. He knew Diomid preferred women, and bonding or no bonding, he was going to be off like a shot after Marya. No sharm lord could resist her charms, particularly compared to him.
      With his free hand Alexi fingered the fantastic ear ring Diomid had given him. It was not a shackle, "If you want," he offered to let Diomid go play.
      "We are a pair, m'lord ...? I'm afraid I don't know your name," with this he shocked everyone and turned Alexi around and tugged him over to an alcove.
      "Diomid, lover, what is it?" Alexi took his shaking hands in his own. Here, behind one of the heavy wall hangings, they would be relatively private. He could swear he'd seen Avilan nod at their exit, but other than that, everyone else seemed entirely stunned speechless. To ask a name and walk off was the height of rudeness. If Marya chose, she could challenge Diomid for the offense.
      "What a tin plated bitch!" He snarled. "I've never ...!"
      Alexi had never seen Diomid so furious. "What has you so upset?" Marya was always ready, like her father, Sharm Lord Avilan, some said.
      He sputtered, grasping at empty air with his hands. "Couldn't you hear her?"
      "No, what?" He ducked his head, knowing he was missing something vitally important. "What did she say?"
      "Her body language, her tone ..." Diomid went back to sputtering. Alexi wondered if he should ask Arkay for help.
      "Marya has always been a tease," he hoped this was a good guess.
      "She undressed me with her eyes!"
      "Well, yes," Alexi blinked in surprise at his lover. "So did everyone else." What did he expect showing up half naked at court. Of course most of the lords would be zlinning him for all they were worth. Risk of getting slapped or no, they'd not be able to resist such temptation.
      "You too," he wailed. "Why?"
      "Because you're drop dead gorgeous," he couldn't think of anything else to say but the truth. "Why are you offended at having half a dozen lords drooling over you?"
      "I don't know if offended is the word," Alexi recognized Diomid's sheepish look. It was the same one he gave when he'd made some mistake and was trying to figure out how to make it look as if he had intended for things to go wrong. Cats did it too.
      "You could try flattered," he grinned at his love in invitation.
      "But I made a right idiot of myself with Marya," Diomid threw himself into Alexi's arms. "Oh Sasha, love, I am an idiot. How could you let me do something so stupid! They're never going to forgive me!"
      "Hush lover," Alexi stroked his broad back. "Relax, take a deep breath," he thought furiously. "Tell them you were overwrought," he lipped the rather plain ring Diomid wore for their bonding. Alexi wished he could have gotten his lover better, but soon he'd be able to replace it with as fine a piece as he could want.
      "That's so Gen," Diomid buried his face in the curve of Alexi's shoulder. He slipped his hand inside his lover's veil and caressed the back of his neck.
      "You are, my love," he murmured into his ear. "There's no shame in it."
      "I acted like a butterfly brain," Alexi could feel Diomid's blushes burn his skin.
      "Tell you a secret," he lipped Diomid's ear.
      "Hmmm?" Diomid's response was painfully obvious through his thin kador. Was he wearing anything under it? From the feel of it, he wasn't. The thought derailed Alexi's next words and he kissed his way down the solid column of Diomid's neck. "You were going to tell me a secret?" The breathy tone made Alexi as unpresentable as Diomid. He murmured how very much he loved him and continued to burrow his way into Diomid's kador. "Lover?"
      Alexi gently pushed Diomid further back into the alcove until the tapestry covered them both entirely. "I love you, my mate," he slid his hands up inside the sleeves of Diomid's kador. His cool, soft, smooth skin fit his own work roughened hands perfectly. "I want to as well."
      "Here?!" Diomid's quiver sent shivers of heat along Alexi's nerves.
      "Yes," he growled, biting at Diomid's shoulder. "Now!" The taste of his lover's skin was sweeter than mead.
      "What if someone comes in?"
      "Then hurry," he pressed Diomid back against the stone wall. The quarters were tight but definitely manageable. He'd heard about couples taking advantage of the heavily shielded tapestries, but had never had the chance to try it for himself. Diomid's fingers fumbled at Alexi's belt.
      His hands slid under Diomid's kador. He wasn't wearing anything under it!
      "I want you, Sasha," Diomid's teeth clamped down on his shoulder, making his breath hiss in his own ears. He could care less if he had the entire court watching. He was going to have him!
      "Mine," he thought of Marya's blatant proposal and then plundered Diomid's mouth in a savage kiss. Diomid groaned softly, the sound echoing like thunder in Alexi's ears. He readied himself and then nearly fell as Diomid threw his legs around Alexi's waist.
      "Good thing you were prepared," Diomid muttered as he let himself down onto Alexi.
      "For you, always," he panted at the sharp pleasure singing its siren song. He was going to make this last! Diomid drew a deep breath. Alexi's eyes widened. No you don't! Alexi knew his lover was about to scream. He covered Diomid's mouth with his own, swallowing the scream with his kiss.
      He had to augment to hold him up. Alexi placed him against the wall and drove into him. Diomid's head fell back and Alexi had to kiss him again to silence him. A high pitched wail threatened to escape his own throat.
      Diomid bit at him, pulling out even more of his desire. Alexi suckled at Diomid's lower lip. "Now, lover," Diomid's short nails drove into his rear.
      "Yes!," he barked, bucking and filling Diomid with his release. Diomid whimpered, grabbing at his waist and shuddering as they came together.
      Alexi's knees tried to give way as he let Diomid stand again. Diomid flipped down his kador and leaned against the wall. His eyes were bright, if quite dazed. "I love you," he purred, looking as if he'd just had all the lords in the hall.
      "I love you," he put his arms around Diomid's shoulders. "Oh and thank you," he murmured against Diomid's sweaty neck. It was warm back here behind the tapestry. The faint bands of light edging it seemed to halo Diomid's gold hair. "Thank you."
      "You are quite welcome," Diomid pulled him down to sit on his lap. "I think I want to catch my breath."
      "Good idea," Alexi panted. He'd rarely augmented much, and now that he was trying to save selyn, he almost never did. It made him feel water logged, but there were so many things he wanted to buy for Diomid!
      "Here, catch," Diomid held out his hands. Without thinking about it, Alexi caught them in his. A flicker of need tugged out his laterals and they seated. Diomid leaned forward and dumped nearly a hundred days of selyn into his private system.
      "What?" He leaned back.
      "New trick Arkay taught me," Diomid's grin was infectious. "If I strip down a bit at the beginning of my cycle, he says I can manage to squeak out up to a couple of hundred extra days." He winked.
      "So that's how sharm lords buy goodies," he'd always wondered why they were so flush. Alexi had to work for every single hour!
      "For you," Diomid blushed. "You earned it."
      "By... ?" He ran his hand up Diomid's bare thigh.
      "Yes," Diomid licked his lips. There were few gestures more erotic. "For my favorite stallion."
      Alexi giggled at the reference. He always called Dio a stallion in bed. Even if he wasn't built like it was said Avilan was. Some day he wanted to find out if that particular rumor was true. Most for his own curiosity, really. He had no desire to bed someone built like a stallion. He'd seen too many of the real thing in the breeding shed.
      "Then your stud fee is accepted," and if he'd managed to get Tira in foal, the other stud fee he'd get the percentage of for Kiri's services, should well pay for the ear ring he'd picked out for Diomid!
      Diomid did not want to go back out there. Behind this tapestry was safe! How could he have made such an utter and total fool of himself. He'd seen Marya and panicked.
      Baiting Cyril had been for mere entertainment. Even before Sasha had told him to quit being a tease, he'd regretted having been so harsh. "Cyril really didn't know what had happened to me," he hanged his head, still panting a bit. Now relaxed by their impetuous lovemaking, Diomid was feeling more than a bit abashed.
      "Then perhaps you should apologize to him," Sasha's strong arms came around his shoulders. "He does deserve it then."
      "I know," Diomid couldn't face Sasha. How could Sasha love him after doing something so stupid. There was no earthly reason for Diomid to have been such an ass. Cyril certainly hadn't deserved it and he had never met Marya before in his life! "Why did I do that?" He muffled his wail against Sasha's warm neck.
      "Because you are still learning how to deal with mixed crowds," Sasha's hand spread across his shoulders, making him feel wonderfully safe and protected. "You learned to defend yourself with your tongue and when your upset you strike out."
      "But why?"
      "Because you felt trapped," Sasha's warm breath curled around his ear. "Because you didn't know what else to do. Because you didn't trust me."
      "No, Sasha," Diomid pulled back and looked him in the eyes. "You were perfect. I was the idiot." Oh Gods how he wished he could go back in time and do things differently. It was Simes who were supposed to be flighty, not Gens!
      "You are young Diomid," Sasha's hand cupped the back of his head. "Give it time."
      "I don't want it to take time. I want to be good for you now."
      "You were," Sasha's soft chuckle made him blush. He hadn't meant to seduce Sasha behind a tapestry. It just happened. "Thank you again."
      "You are quite welcome," he dared to nuzzle Sasha's ear in return. His heartbeat was slowing from its frantic pace finally. "And thank you."
      "My pleasure," Sasha gave him a rib cracking hug. "Yours too from the way you kept trying to scream."
      "Oh ..." there was little Diomid could add to this. If anyone had heard them, Diomid swore to himself he would die of utter embarrassment. "What was the secret you were going to tell me?" Maybe if he changed the subject, he could manage to get himself under enough control they could get out of here.
      "Huh, what, oh ...?" And now Sasha buried his face against Diomid's neck. "Most of those lords out there are surprised you are with me because I am known for being about as intelligent as a feather."
      "So to show up with a sharm lord with a tongue like a razor would be quite unexpected, hum?" Diomid thought about this for a moment. "It makes you look rather brave, doesn't it?"
      "I hadn't though of it that way, only that sometimes people act dumb for reasons other than hormones and age," Diomid could feel more than hear Sasha's laughter. "How it makes me zlin was the farthest thing from my mind."
      "It shouldn't be," Diomid hugged him back. "I care about how you look and what your status is with your friends. I don't want you to end up isolated from them."
      "I don't know, lover, I am bonded now and they are still bachelors," Sasha rested his chin on Diomid's shoulder. "Maybe I should ..."
      Diomid couldn't let Sasha do any such thing, "Lets go back out there, lover," this time he was going to make his lover proud of him.
      Avilan watched the shift and movement of his court with a practiced eye. He'd been doing this for years and the byplay among the various factions never failed to amuse him. Right now there were a knot of young lords all dancing around each other in an elaborate game of one upmanship.
      He'd seen Diomid and Alexi scamper off after a bit of an altercation earlier and was wondering if they would return while everyone else was present. Those alcoves could get awfully stuffy after a while.
      At last he saw a flash of Diomid's faded kador. Avilan had underclothes in better condition than that thing! He'd wondered at Diomid's showing up at court in a kador that left nothing to the imagination of any Sime. All of them were zlinning him avidly.
      Surprisingly enough, Alexi had shown no signs of jealousy and only a certain wistfulness when Marya had waved her tentacles beneath Diomid's nose. It took a very secure sense of self in a Sime to not get possessive when their partner flirted with another. Diomid was flirting with the whole room.
      Avilan rested his chin on his fist. This would be interesting. He hated to leave the twins for any reason, but he did have his responsibilities. There was no way he could leave Azov's children to the winds of fate either. They did have to be watched over. Low court was often deadly dull, but every once in a while tempers got a bit heated and there had to be someone in charge to be sure no one got hurt.
      He hid his grin behind his hand. From the slightly dazed expressions on both their faces, he knew exactly what had gone on behind the tapestry. Good for you, Alexi! He cheered the young man on silently. Diomid had been more than a bit out of control from the flares of irritated lords on the ambient earlier. A good fucking had been exactly what he'd required to relax a bit. Avilan hadn't thought Alexi would have had the balls for it though.
      It took a lot more incentive than most young lords ever learned to overcome a sharm lord's upset. Alexi had done it with style. The look he gave Diomid explained it all, it was one of the most loving he'd ever seen. No, Alexi was not the brightest lamp on the Cathedral, but he did have a sweetness Avilan had rarely seen.
      He sighed and flicked his attention over his court again. Everyone else was looking at the young couple, and zlinning Diomid again. More than one lord snickered. A couple of yelps as their sharm lords swatted them stopped such foolishness.
      Diomid's voice was clearly audible over the now silent gathering, "I would like to make my apologies to lords Cyril and Marya. I'm afraid the warm air in here was a bit overwhelming."
      "There is nothing to apologize for, lord Alexander's sharm lord," oh but Marya was being formal. A few more snickers were heard from the elder members of the court. Avilan could hear one or two of the more timid sharm lords sigh longingly.
      "Sharm lord Diomid is my sharm lord, but I hold no shackles on him," Alexi's hand neatly wrapped itself around Diomid's wrist. Neat gesture, Avilan applauded Alexi's determination to both leave Diomid free and yet protect him from possibly unwanted advances.
      "I would not mind conversing with you in the presence of Alexander's other friends," beautifully done, Diomid. Even in a kador as light weight as his own, Diomid was settling the ruffled tentacles he'd left behind with an deftness worthy of ... Vanya Sergei.
      Avilan's jaw dropped. By all the Gods in heaven and on earth! He sat bolt upright. Old lord Giardi clutched at his heart and Avilan reached out with his field to steady him. He stroked the poor man's field as he settled himself first. When he could keep himself under control, he returned his thoughts to what he'd discovered.
      They all knew now lord Gitanya was Diomid's mother. He was listed on the Azov books as a bastard. Even though in the transcribed notes from Sergei, Gitanya had refused to name his sire, not that she had said she didn't know who his sire was. That meant there had been something she'd been hiding.
      There was absolutely no reason for any lord or sharm lord to hide the parentage of a child under law. A father had no rights to a child other than those given by the mother, whether genetic or adopted. Women of the upper classes bore to whom they chose, if not when or how many. Such things were determined by the requirements of the Demense.
      Why would a lord not want to state the paternity of a child? Was Diomid's sire so impecunious he couldn't support a child? No, such a thing was unthinkable. Even at the bare minimum, Gitanya'd had more than enough wealth of her own no regular lord could have even made a great deal of difference to her financial status. Besides, she could have simple not requested it. She certainly had that option.
      No, there had to be something more. Avilan watched, not listening, as Diomid threw his head back and laughed at something Alexi had said. Now all the young lords were showing off for him, as it should be. Even though Alexi was not leaving Diomid's side for a moment, which was also a good thing from the way lords were circling around the pair like a school of hungry pike.
      From the looks of it, there was no way any of them could even draw Diomid's attention away from his partner, much less woo him into impropriety. For the first few months after a bonding, it was not a good thing for either partner to go off and sport with another. Such bonds required time to settle into solidity before either could be entirely comfortable with such excursions.
      There was something about the way Diomid laughed which reminded him of someone. Immediately Arkay's face came to mind, relaxed and laughing at Karola's having tickled him into submission. That made some sense. Gitanya was one of Arkay's half sisters. But there was more to it than that. Avilan wished he could remember what she'd looked like.
      A very irritated bellow nearly singed his eyebrows off. Oops, he'd interrupted him with Karola, again.
      *So sorry,* he went on quickly, before his interruption could cause too many problems, *What did Gitanya Sergeyenova look like? A flicker of an image and Arkay was gone.
      That's odd, Avilan mused over the image. He held up Gitanya's image in his mind beside Arkay's, Diomid's and Vanya's. This was a trick it seemed neither Karola nor Arkay had. Avilan could perfectly reproduce images in his mind no matter how few times he'd seen them. He'd seen Gitanya Sergeyenova as a young woman no older than her son at Sergei, but had never learned her name. He'd never seen her again and shortly thereafter Sharm Lord Sergei had sent Arkay to Azov permanently.
      Something had maddened Vanya for a while. What had it been? Diomid looked Avilan's direction, as if he could hear Avilan's whirling thoughts. Perhaps he could. Arkay had mentioned Diomid was a frighteningly strong telepath even though he was not entirely ascended yet.
      Diomid's quizzical glance sent another shiver of unease down Avilan's back. There was something else Arkay had said. What was it?
      Avilan was no closer to an answer when a blinding headache clamped down on his skull. It was as if someone didn't want him to think about such things. He shook his head and felt ghostly fingertips catch at his hair. "Stop it!" He hissed under his breath. He'd felt the manipulation of the Veiled before, but never this blatantly. "I'll keep your shidoni silence." He snarled inaudibly, knowing full well who ever was tormenting him would hear it.
      The insubstantial fingertips brushed over his lips and then left with the velveteen feel of tentacles.
      Looking down, he saw Diomid kneeling before him. "I'm all right," he shook his head. It didn't fall off. This was a good start. Diomid's eyes were the exact same color as Arkay's, right down to the gray sheen. Avilan looked into his memory again. Gitanya's had been dark. She hadn't shown the typical Sergei eyes. Wasn't there something about the unusual coloring and the healing abilities of Sergei Sharm Lords?
      Diomid's bare hand came to rest on his. He'd clamped down on the carved stone arm of his chair when the veiled had induced their headache. He turned his hand over and saw the bruising coming up where he'd gripped a carved edge a bit too hard.
      With his broad fingertips, Diomid traced the line. It vanished without a trace beneath his touch. Even Arkay couldn't heal so easily. The corners of his eyes crinkled in a grin. "Anything else, m'Lord?"
      Avilan swallowed heavily. He knew who Diomid's father was. There were too many things pointing to it. No wonder Gitanya hadn't wanted anyone else to know. What a hell to have gone through. "No, youngster," he cupped the large hand, so very like his half-brother's and, at the same time, uncle's, Arkay's. "Nothing else."
      "Let me know then," Diomid got to his feet. His extremely heavy frame was filling out beautifully under Arkay's tutelage. He'd never be tall, but he was going to be very strong. Inbreeding, Avilan realized Diomid's shortness was actually stunting. His hands and feet were those of a much taller man.
      "Go play," he winked. It looked as if Diomid were learning to enjoy the attentions of Alexi's friends. This was a good thing. He'd gain the experience he required in social situations far better on Alexi's arm than going it along. "Even though Diomid..."
      "Yes?" He turned back briefly.
      "Wear some more clothes next time," he bit his tongue against adding anything at all about teasing poor lords until their laterals stuck out. Diomid would learn, and hopefully Alexi would be lord enough to keep him safe until he did.

Chapter 13

      It was time to go home. Alexi could zlin Diomid fighting to stay awake. All the older sharm lords had gone home and only the young lords were hanging around. When he was single they'd gone on to play some pretty wild games with dice or cards after all the sharm lords had left, but he wasn't up for such anymore. Diomid's ill hidden yawn behind his veil was plenty of reminder it was late.
      "Come on, love," he put his arm around Diomid's slender waist. "We can come back next week."
      "But ..." his eyes flicked over Alexi's arms. It felt as if someone had brushed a silk cloth over them.
      "Your choice, Diomid," Marya flipped her leg over the arm of a chair. A glass of wine threatened to slide from her fingertips before she wrapped a tentacle about the stem. "We certainly wouldn't mind a sharm lord in need around."
      "I bet you wouldn't," Diomid's eyes gleamed as he grinned back at her. "Even though I do plan on following Sharm Lord Azov's suggestion and putting on some more clothes."
      "Awww," Gregori pouted, rolling his eyes. "You're so cute!"
      "Flatterer," but Diomid pressed himself up against Alexi's side. He'd been wonderful all afternoon. Flirting was fine, but he never strayed from Alexi's arm for a single moment. He'd had fun, as it seemed had everyone else.
      "I am honestly jealous, Alexander," Cyril filled Marya's glass again. "You got the best sharm lord in the place."
      "Thank you," Diomid shook his head, as if fighting to stay awake. "Perhaps some time in the future..." Alexi caught his breath. If Diomid wanted to, he'd let him play, but he hoped not for transfer.
      "No, you're too far above me now. Neither of us would really enjoy it. But perhaps in a few months, like now, who knows?" He gave Alexi a wink. "I'd not mind finding out what I could have had."
      Diomid filled his glass for him one last time. "You were very sweet for my first time, but I don't know what ..."
      "I don't hold you in chains, my love," Alexi whispered in his ear. "If you like, Cyril is certainly a gentleman."
      "Then perhaps later," Diomid's field glittered in a suddenly shy grin. "Even though I'm not too sure after Alexi."
      Cyril laughed softly, "I'm sure you're spoiled. I've heard he's very good."
      Of course Diomid barged right in there, "He is." Alexi tried not to blush. Bragging about his prowess in front of his lord friends was one thing, having one of his friends bring it up in front of any Gen was quite another.
      "We have to be going," Alexi gently steered Diomid away before the subject could turn back to sex. He'd managed to keep it clean so far, but as tired as everyone was after the long day, he knew it would degenerate soon. Their little parties always did.
      "Good night all," Diomid waved, again showering the ambient with his nager. Alexi had to catch him before his tripped over his own kador.
      "Good night," Cyril chuckled. There were no further incidents as they made their way home. The guards at the Azov suite raised an eyebrow at their swaying walk to their doors, but said nothing. Their own guards opened their door before Diomid could walk into them.
      Alexi had never so appreciated servants or guards before tonight. With Diomid so tired, he could hardly stand upright. When he was single, he'd never packed it in before three in the morning and it was hardly after midnight now. Oh well, the joys of being bonded.
      "Would you trade it for late nights?" Diomid's voice was muffled as he slid out of his kador.
      "Gods no," he helped him get untangled. "Without our differences, life would be so dull."
      "Short too," Diomid gave him a tired grin. "That was fun!" He ran his fingers through his hair.
      "I'm glad you enjoyed," Alexi hanged up his good overtunic and tossed his shirt into the hamper.
      "Very much," Diomid sat at his feet and tugged his boots off. "Good people."
      "I think so," he yawned again, echoing Diomid's exhaustion. "Shouda called it quits earlier love."
      "I was having too much fun," Diomid rested his head against Alexi's knee. He finger combed Diomid's silky hair. How he loved the feel of it sliding between his fingers. This was certainly a wonderful life. His display bridles and harnesses had been hanged on the far wall by the servants, brass and steel polished to a high gleam. Even his saddle trees had their place beneath one of the windows where he could work on them when he had the time.
      He didn't have as much time for such things any more, but then again, it too was worth it. Diomid scooted closer and rested his chin on Alexi's knee. He could see his lover's beautiful eyes sag closed.
      "To bed with you," he gathered him up in his arms.
      "Don't have te," Diomid protested verbally, even as he curled up with a contented purr to his field in his arms. Alexi'd had other friends pair off with sharm lords and now he knew why he so rarely saw them afterwards. His whole being was focused on the gentle, amazing sharm lord trusting him.
      Careful not to disturb him, Alexi tried to slide Diomid into bed. It looked so easy in fiction. He ended up on his face.
      Diomid chuckled and pulled at him. "Never works like in books," his cool fingers slid Alexi's breeches off. "Willing to cuddle with me for a bit?
      "Certainly," he yawned again. "I feel as if I'd been awake for three days in a row."
      "Like when you had all those mares foal right in a row," Diomid settled into the curve of his arms.
      "Thank you for coming out with me," he lipped his soft blond hair. "It was wonderful."
      "You liked dozing in the barn with the horses and me," Diomid's tired field sparkled with humor. "I liked it too." It pinkened a bit.
      "It is always amazing to be there when any living thing is born," Alexi tried to nudge Diomid into sleeping rather than chatting. Even his selyn production was slightly sagging he was so tired and fighting sleep. This wasn't good. Not that the tiny internal quiver that Diomid wouldn't have enough for him at the end of the month drove him, but rather it was a sign Diomid had overextended himself way too far. "As I am reborn every month in your hands."
      "Pretty," Diomid's muscles relaxed and he finally succumbed to sleep.
      Gods he was gorgeous. How did he ever deserve such a wonderful partner? He hadn't really done so much. All he'd done was treat Diomid as he would want to be treated. Of course not being able to support Diomid without the money for his selyn still galled.
      Alexi figured it was his place to support his sharm lord. Maybe it was old fashioned, but he'd always imagined, one day, he'd be wealthy and only then would he bond. Diomid had torn that plan into countless pieces. He could have no more asked him to wait than he could fly to the moon by flapping his arms.
      Almost half his monthly income was coming from Diomid. It wasn't right, but he had to take it to keep up this place. He'd seen the books. It took two thirds of Alexi's new income alone.
      Even though it was a good thing he trusted Diomid's bookkeeping. There were entries under Alexi's name he had no way of recognizing. Of course Alexi could manage a charge account and basic interest calculations, but the magic Diomid held in his pen was utterly beyond his ken. Somehow he managed to make it so Alexi had far more cash on hand than he'd ever had before in his life while still living in a way he'd only dreamed of.
      The smooth, freshly cleaned linens were smooth beneath his roughened cheek as he held Diomid tightly. The musky, slightly earthy scent of post sharm lord reassured him. He'd always had a good sense of smell, and knew the health of his companions nearly as well as the four footed creatures he also called friend.
      They too had accepted Diomid as they accepted few humans. He had a way of moving which didn't startle or upset even the most skittish of the young horses. The barn cats loved to come sit on his lap and tell him of the mice and small bugs hiding in the walls they'd managed to lure out and kill. The dogs who had befriended the stable hands also liked Diomid, licking between his fingers until he laughed and shooed them away.
      How could Ilira have denied Diomid such joys? Sure they were simple joys, but then so were sex and larity.
      His hand wandered over Diomid's incredible body. Gods he was wonderful to touch. Such perfectly smooth, soft skin over firm, responsive muscle. Now, in sleep his entire body was relaxed as it so rarely was when he was awake. The steady pulse of life growing within him fascinated Alexi as no other sharm lord's ever had.
      Certainly he'd slept with sharm lords at all points in their cycle, but rarely had he spent so much time with any of them. He simply hadn't been so interested in them as people, nor had they expected more of him.
      After the amazing, wonderful experience of sharing so much with Diomid, Alexi knew he could never live with anything less. He hardly knew how he'd managed before. Of course none of the sharm lords he'd known had been as brilliant, or beautiful, or sweet as Diomid. For once in his life he'd been right.
      The very first time he'd zlinned Diomid had been at his presentation to the court. Right after Avilan's handfasting to Karola, she'd raised his bare hands to them all and shown them the new sharm lord in their midst. There had been two others, but neither of them had struck him to the very heart the way Diomid had.
      He'd zlinned so beautiful, with a field like the mists over the rivers in late fall, with the moonlight dancing off the snow and reflecting in the fog. At that time, Alexi had figured someone far more sophisticated than himself would snap Diomid up in a heartbeat. Even the slight metallic tang of his fey shyness had aroused all of Alexi's desires to have this sharm lord.
      No one he'd ever zlinned had aroused such a desire to protect in him. There was a sweetness to Diomid's field which deserved the best. Alexi had known he wasn't it. There were a few Lords who chose to live below, and Alexi knew one of them would grab Diomid before he knew what was happening.
      Not that this would have been a bad thing, Alexi had consoled himself with. They were far older than either of them and would have shown Diomid the ways of the world with a deftness Alexi could have never matched.
      Diomid snuffled in his sleep and Alexi let him roll over. He did like to sleep on his back and snore fit to shake the bedcurtains down. Alexi rested his hand on Diomid's broad chest. He could see Diomid still had years of growth ahead of him. Right now he was all feet and hands, but he was incredibly heavy boned. When he reached his adult stature, there would be few things short of a force of nature which would be able to physically overwhelm him.
      The steady rise and fall of Diomid's chest was accompanied by his soft snores. At least he hadn't worked up to full volume. Actually it was rather pleasant and Alexi rested his cheek where his hand had been. Utterly content, he went back to his earlier ruminations.
      How had he been so lucky to have earned this time with Diomid? He hadn't dared ask, but somehow Arkay had known about his infatuation with the young sharm lord. After having gotten to know him better, he could zlin the occasional flashes of insight from both Arkay and rarely Diomid.
      It was the same thing he'd sensed working even more strongly in Sharm Lord Sergei. Lukian had told him about the gifts the rulers of the five Demense held. Kirov and his ability to control fire with his field, Fatima and weather, Azov and animals, Sergei and healing and lastly, Maryam and large groups of people. There were lesser talents as well, empathy, true precognition, telekinesis, teleportation, and others.
      Part of what defined the difference between the ascended and the lesser lords and sharm lords were those gifts. Any Gen could kill with frightening ease. That was why they were kept apart. Something startled a Sime badly and they would grab the nearest Gen and end up killed. Alexi himself had only been saved a couple of times from accidentally rushing a Gen because he couldn't zlin them clearly through their kadors. The shielding garment had given him a split second to get himself back under control.
      Diomid was not entirely ascended yet. Alexi knew there would come a time when he could sense fields directly. Right now he was still working off his own body's reactions to the fields around him. All sharm lords worked that way.
      The Sharm Lords could 'see' fields in much the same way Alexi zlinned. He had no idea how they did it, but was not going to argue with them over it. Arguing with a Sharm Lord was often a great way to shorten one's life expectancy.
      He found himself hoping he'd be there when Diomid finally broke through the last barriers holding him back. Diomid would be one of the great ones. Alexi knew it like he'd know nothing else. He could zlin the power in Diomid's field and mind struggling to be set free.
      The fact Diomid said he loved Alexi only made it sweeter. He couldn't figure out how he'd earned such an amazing gift. It wasn't as if he'd really done anything special. He'd slain no dragons. He'd freed no ensorceled maidens. He couldn't even house and feed Diomid on his own.
      But Diomid didn't seem to care, Alexi felt Diomid's hand come up to hold Alexi tightly. Even in his sleep and post, Diomid wanted him close. Alexi sniffled back tears of pure joy at how lucky he'd gotten.
      Being able to show Diomid the simple pleasures of his life had been amazing. Even more incredible had been how much Diomid had enjoyed them. Alexi would have never dreamed a sharm lord would like the often dull, repetitive tasks which kept an equestrian facility up and running. Most sharm lords would run and hide if faced with a curry comb and brush.
      Diomid seemed to revel in getting dirty and being outside. Of course Arkay's example of wanting to do everything himself probably helped.
      Alexi was amazed at the speed with which Diomid learned. It had taken him well over a year to learn to ride aside, and he'd been riding astride for over fifteen years at the time. Diomid was going to be ready for cubbing season after only a few months around horses at all!
      And even more exciting, he was looking forward to it. Arkay had promised to keep an eye on him, freeing Alexi to work the hounds as he always did as whipper in. He'd introduced Diomid to the hounds last week and he'd been delighted by them. They had like him too, which was a good thing.
      The sight and scent hounds used for the late season meat hunts were not easy to get along with. They were nearly as aggressive as Kirov's pack of great Hunt hounds. Hunting bear required very aggressive, solid hounds.
      Diomid had gone into the kennels and even the big, heavy wolf and bear hounds had licked his hands and accepted him. Their minds had been as calm as Alexi had ever heard them. Diomid smelled like pack to them, with an easy leadership the hounds had instantly respected.
      If only he had half a century or more to enjoy Diomid's company. He wished they could grow old together. There was nothing he wouldn't give to be able to see their children grow to bear children of their own. Time was the one thing he couldn't give his lover. There were so many things he wished he could do and see with Diomid. How could all this joy end so cruelly, so soon.
      Never before had Alexi wanted to rail against his fate with such violence as to tear apart the heavens. It wasn't fair. He'd only now found his true love, and there was so little time for them. Lukian had told him to live his life as the horses and hounds did, in the eternal now, but with Diomid in his life he couldn't not see how he'd be cheating his love of the one thing he likely wanted the most, a future.
      Diomid woke to feel Sasha sobbing heartbrokenly against his chest. Burning hot tears trickled down the side of his chest. "Hush my pretty one," he brushed Sasha's wonderful soft hair back from his face. "Hush," he rocked him gently, as Sasha'd shown him to do with young children.
      It was truly amazing someone as wonderful and beautiful as Sasha would put up with him. Diomid knew he had a vile temper and would take it out on whoever was nearest when his ire was up, but Sasha never seemed to take offence or injury but rather held him close until he settled again. This was what he wanted when he was upset, but never before had anyone been willing to do it.
      Sasha sniffled and looked up at him. Even in the darkness, Diomid could feel the heavy ache in his own heart reflecting Sasha's sadness. "Here, beloved," he handed him a handkerchief. It was the least he could do.
      He didn't know how he'd ever earned Sasha's love. It wasn't as if he'd ever pursued him. Before Arkay dropped him in Diomid's lap, he'd not even known Sasha was alive! The young lords at his presentation had all been a formless blur in his mind's eye. After his testing transfer with Lord Karola, he'd been in a total daze for weeks.
      He knew she'd never even remember his name, but her touch had gone through him like lightning. A soft chuckle at the memory and Sasha looked up at him questioningly.
      "Thinking of how Karola didn't even remember giving me my testing transfer." He grinned, wiping away Sasha's tears. Maybe if he told his love of a funny, he'd cheer up. Sasha was so rarely saddened by anything, it burned Diomid like acid. There were few things more beautiful that Sasha's smile, and most of them he'd shown Diomid.
      "I remember your presentation," Sasha's gentle hand caressed his cheek. "I remember trying to think of where the nearest dragon was so I could try to win your attention."
      "You are the sweetest man, Sasha. You didn't have to slay a dragon to get my attention." He ran his hands over Sasha's slender body. There was so little to him for all his amazing strength and grace. It was as if someone had created the perfect man and added not one ounce extra to mar that perfection.
      "I am not the sweetest, you are," Sasha's white, even teeth flashed against his tan in the dark room.
      "Flatterer," Diomid kissed his brow. "You've shown me things far more wonderful than I could have dreamed."
      "Letting me share your life," he thought of sleeping with Sasha in the barn and being woken to see a young colt wobble to his feet and take his first drink of milk. As if they were truly of one mind in two bodies, he felt Sasha's presence slide along side his own. In response, he thought of the warm, gentle welcome of the great hunting hounds with their soft brown eyes and slick, wet tongues. He thought of riding through the forests surrounding Azov and Sasha pointing out the birds against the rustle of the leaves of the towering aspen trees. "I don't want to live in a stone box, Sasha."
      "Of course not," his eyes were bright in the light of the moon coming through the window. "I'd never want to lock you up."
      "Ilira did," his chin threatened to quiver.
      "Tell me about it?" Sasha's hand came up to caress his face. The light feel of his tentacles undid Diomid. But it was his love asking, so he forced the words out past his tight throat.
      "She said she loved me, but I don't know now," he looked up at the canopy overhead. "You know I'm pretty good with account books?"
      "Gods yes," Sasha gave him a snort. "Better than I am. Hell, I can't add three numbers and get fewer than two different answers." As Diomid had breezed through his math classes with an ease which astonished even his teachers, he had to stare a minute. "Different people are good at different things. Betcha can't remember ten generations of horses in your head and what crosses produced what results."
      Diomid had to laugh. "No, can't say as I can," he rubbed at Sasha's tight neck. "Anyways," he dug his fingers in and got a moan of pleasure from Sasha. "Ilira could do everything better than I could. She always double checked my figures, she questioned every scrap of clothing or stick of furniture I wanted, she even wanted to know why I wanted one sort of personal cleaner and not another." A blush came to his cheeks. That had been dreadfully embarrassing. "She wouldn't take 'because' for an answer, even when it didn't affect her."
      "I'd never second guess your bookkeeping or housekeeping. I figure you know what you're doing and try to stay out of your way."
      "I would enjoy your input," he dared to forward. Sasha's been so reticent about domestic things, Diomid worried he was running right over the top of him. He didn't want that either.
      "When I have any," he relaxed some and stroked Diomid's ribs with his free hand. "My tastes run more towards functional, I'm afraid," he gave a small shrug.
      "What about books?"
      "They're horribly expensive," Diomid could see his eyes widen. "I do know how to read, but I've rarely had the time or inclination."
      "Why?" Diomid couldn't understand this. He loved to read and often spent a great deal of money on his hobby.
      "Too dull?" He could feel Sasha's face heat in a blush.
      "Not the sort I'm thinking of," Diomid chuckled. "Close your eyes, lover," he waved up the lights a bit and slid out of bed. Here was something he could do for Sasha. Diomid knew how very much Sasha enjoyed sex, more than anything else but his horses and hounds. And sometimes he wondered about that priority.
      "Can I open them?"
      "A minute," he flipped through the half dozen volumes he'd acquired after having left Ilira. There was an older artist by the name of Mikhail Chernoye, no Demense, no patronymic, whose work Diomid adored. That was one thing Ilira had done for him, taught him where he could buy books. With literacy restricted to the upper class and parchment so expensive, books were frighteningly so, even though they were worth it.
      The gold leaf on the spine made him grin. He was surprised Sasha hadn't noted it. Albeit tasteful, the sexual motif should have caught his eye.
      The earring he'd given Sasha had been designed by Chernoye as well. The man was amazing. He sat on the bed and motioned for Sasha to sit beside him. "Boring, huh?" He opened the book to the front piece. Sasha's mouth dropped open.
      "High Simelan?" He gasped, his tentacles tracing the brilliantly illuminated capitals of the title, An Exploration. Even though it wasn't the words, but rather the nageric implications of the accents casting the exploration into the realm of the sensual and exotic.
      Diomid knew the work well, and so enjoyed Sasha's reactions more than the rereading of it. The book told the story of a young lord from his capture by a band of wild renGens intent on fulfilling their depraved desires over the long Russian winter to his rescue the next spring.
      In High Simelan, even Diomid could zlin with the protagonist. The absolute submission the renGens had demanded of their captured lord had at first titillated him beyond any other desire. With Sasha here beside him, he felt a quiver of unease.
      "You don't want to do things like this to me?" Sasha's tentative question broke into Diomid's abstraction. He couldn't tell which way Sasha wanted him to answer and so stuttered something like no.
      "Are you sure?" His green eyes were bright in the low light, reflecting the gold leaf and brilliant pigments of the illuminated scene in the book on their laps. Chernoye's inimitable brush had picked out both the lord's fear of his captors and his nascent desires growing beneath their harsh demands.
      "No," he replied honestly and blushed furiously. The lord's sky blue eyes seemed to be pleading with him to be gentle while his body was calling for him to dominate him heart and soul. Diomid had heard Sasha's body calling him in much the same way and had so far managed to contain himself.
      "We aren't so fragile as you might think."
      Diomid had to close his eyes. Immediately the image of Sasha's green eyes, hot with lust came to him. This didn't help. He opened them to see Sasha's lips curved upwards in a knowing grin.
      "I trust you," Sasha rested his hand over Diomid's. His tentacles came out to lash their wrists together. "You would never harm me."
      "How can you know that?" In the story, the Gens had driven the lord's field down by teasing him into augmenting constantly. He knew Simes liked to augment, but Chernoye had portrayed the young lord as so tormented he contemplated suicide! He couldn't do that to Sasha.
      "Because I've known you," in High Simelan, Sasha's referent to their bonding transfer sent shivers of renewed desire through Diomid's body. "And I would know you again, all of you."
      "You can't tell me you'd enjoy being shackled and teased until you brushed Azrael's wings." Diomid couldn't say death. The idea of Sasha dead was too horrible to contemplate.
      "You'd save me from him," Sasha's eyes were burning hot, as was his hand.
      "You'd enjoy it!"
      "Yes," Sasha cupped his face and made him look at him squarely. "I would, if you did."
      This was far beyond any of the games he'd played with Ilira. She'd never trusted him with a chair, much less her life. He shivered despite the warmth of Sasha next to him.
      "Truly," Sasha shifted his weight. "I love thee, my mate and trust thee with my life. I've known thee and would know thee in any way which would please thee."
      "But what of thy pleasure?" Diomid licked his lips. To have Sasha at his mercy would be sweeter than honey. He'd be able to show his love how very much he wanted him, in all ways. Bound, he could overwhelm all of Sasha's senses, as he'd no longer have to do anything. Diomid had played submissive once to Ilira's dominance, and knew quite well what it was like.
      "Oh, I think I can image I would like," Sasha blushed a bit.
      "You've never played such games?" Diomid blinked. Sasha had not been at all reticent about the more tame endeavors they'd played with.
      "Not for transfer," he licked his lips as well. "I never had a partner I trusted so far."
      Diomid had to fight not to gape at him. He never dreamed Sasha's trust ran so deep already. Certainly Diomid trusted Sasha with his life, and always would, but he had no idea it was returned in equal measure.
      "Only if you would do the same for me at some time," he looked at him through his lashes. He truly did revel in being able to give over all control sometimes.
      "Yes," Sasha's hand slid around behind his neck and drew him close for a deep, devouring kiss. Diomid melted into his arms. Steel strong tentacles bound him. From only a few cents away, Sasha breathed, "I love thee for all measure and all time, Diomid."
      "Then love me, Sasha," he brushed his lover's lips with his own. He closed the book and set it on the bed side table. "In all ways for all time."

Chapter 14

      Kiri sidled beneath Arkay's seatbones. "Easy, my old," he stroked the stallion's heavy neck. Kiri champed at his bits in protest. "We're only going cubbing." But the stallion was not to be calmed by such simple measures.
      Alexi looked at them and chuckled. For once he was on a mare, as was proper and riding astride. He looked fantastic in his tan topped boots and feathered hat. "He thinks this is either a mean joke since it's too early for hunting, or a great Hunt."
      "Neither my lad," he gave Kiri's crest a hard shake. The horse flipped his head in protest. "We're going cubbing." Neither of them had gone out for cubbing season, or the first forays of the young hounds outside the exercise rounds, in years. Since Kiri was six or seven if Arkay remembered right.
      Diomid sat his elderly, but still quite sound, gelding with amazing ease for his first time out. He too was ready to run free and this would be good practice for him as well. All their breath steamed in the cool morning air. In another couple of hours, it would be plenty warm but the first nip of fall was in the air.
      Kiri danced sideways again, and then pawed at the turf.
      "Easy, my lad," Arkay hoped Kiri was not going to be an absolute idiot today. The first few times out with the hounds were usually as dull as Maryam's wit, as long as one's horse didn't decide to be a butterfly brain. "I promise you watermelon when we get home."
      Surprisingly enough, Kiri stood perfectly still as if frozen in stone. "Did you translate that, Alexi?" He asked under his breath. He had no idea if Alexi had told Diomid about his talents.
      "Yes," Alexi grinned at him. "He's really looking forward to it."
      "I didn't know horses could look forward to things," he blinked in surprise. He'd always thought they were like all other animals and had no sense of past or future.
      "Some do," Alexi shrugged. "It's not the same as ours, but it works." He turned his attention back to the rest of the group. "This looks like our huntfield. Today we are going to go out to the thicket to the northwest and see if we can get a feel for the numbers we have to deal with this fall. If we can, I'd like to see if we can get a good line or two to find out how the new hounds are doing. That is all."
      Arkay was a bit surprised to find Alexi acting as huntmaster and then realized he was the only one of the hunt staff here. Where is everyone?
      *Bad timing. Both the huntmaster and the other whippers in are dealing with a round of mange running through the kennels. We are to keep everyone out here until this afternoon. Help?* Alexi looked a bit nervous at the size of huntfield. Usually cubbing had far fewer people show up.
      *No problem,* he stepped Kiri forward to act as whipper in. *Stay with lord whatshisname for right now, Diomid* For the life of him, Arkay could not remember the name of the tall blond lord standing next to Diomid.
      *I heard, as if he'd been doing it for years, Diomid slid back towards the other members of the hunt.
      Arkay unlimbered his whip and eyed the twelve and half couples. There looked to be at least eight first year hounds. This was going to be rough. There were renSimes holding the hounds for now, but when they were slipped, it would be very difficult to keep the hounds from picking up bad habits. *Who else is experienced here?* Arkay didn't recognize any of the faces surrounding him.
      "Gregori, Cyril!" Alexi called out. "Up front." Unfortunately Diomid came with them. Alexi blanched a bit, but then he must have decided to just deal with it. Diomid was a solid enough rider if he could remember not to get in the way of the hounds. Of course that was the tricky bit for most beginners. Arkay prayed the older gelding Diomid rode knew enough of his business to keep Diomid out of trouble.
      Diomid stuck to Cyril like a green shadow as they surrounded the copse Alexi proposed to start the hounds on. As always, the sound of the horn call telling of the slipping of the hounds sent a shiver up Arkay's spine. Kiri's front feet came off the ground half a meter before Arkay hissed at him to behave.
      He came back down with a thump and sheepishly back turned ears. "Sokay," he whispered to his oldest friend. Arkay's heart was pounding frantically in excitement as well. He knew the chances of flushing anything good were vanishingly small, but he still felt the incredible rush of the hunt.
      One of the hounds gave tongue and Arkay's head whipped around to see where. Others picked up the call. These were all the smaller, lighter fox hounds and could give quite a run on everything from hare to the smallest wolves. Even though they weren't supposed to run anything but fox.
      "Halloo and away!" Diomid's voice was high pitched with excitement, but his call was absolutely correct. His hat pointed towards the line the hounds followed. Alexi's mare obviously had spent many years hunting as she was off before anyone else could even get themselves organized, including Alexi. Oops, now Arkay remembered why he liked cubbing, no one was ready yet. Only Diomid managed a correct presentation, waiting for the huntmaster, still trying to collect his reins, to go by, followed by Kiri, who knew his job quite well and Cyril and Gregori on their mares.
      "Should I step off and let you do this on your own?" Arkay asked his horse under his breath. Kiri's ears were pricked all the way forward as he watched the hounds. Alexi got himself back together and was obviously checking to be certain the hounds didn't go off on a bad line.
      Kiri snorted at him and dug into the heavy turf. His gallop was stiffer than it had been a few years ago, but he was certainly game. The wind whipped through his hair and echoed in his ears. The first fence came up ahead, and as always, Arkay prayed. Please, Gods, let everyone get over the first fence! It was always the toughest.
      The horn sounded on landing for a hold. "Damn," Arkay muttered, turning back to see who they'd lost. Only one of the older lords was standing on the far side of the rail fence muttering vile imprecations at his Trakh mare. None of the hounds wanted to quit. He tipped Kiri back into a good gallop to try to collect them before they barged into the ripening wheat. This was much of why they so rarely had a good hunts during cubbing. Fair enough as the foxes were not mature yet either.
      He was sweating with effort by the time they got the hounds back in one pack. Half of them had barged off after what Alexi said was a hare. Diomid, still shadowing Cyril had actually done quite well, backing up the obviously inexperienced lord.
      Alexi looked up towards the sun, "Let's try this one more time."
      Arkay gave him a hard look and took a swallow from his flask. He coughed and stared at it. Karola must have filled it, as it was far more alcoholic than he normally preferred. Avilan probably had told her stories about hunts where the two of them had gotten roaring drunk by half way through the day.
      He got a raised eyebrow from Alexi and an out held hand. Cringing a bit, he handed it over. Alexi sniffed, blinked a bit, and then took a big swallow. "Too much of that and you won't care about how good the hunt is."
      "True," he recapped it and replaced it in its holder. "Lets teach these kids how to move the hounds."
      "Good plan," as soon as he said it, Arkay realized this might well have been a mistake. Oh well, they had to learn. No hounds got kicked, even though one sharm lord did fall in the mud and two lords got their hands nipped for augmenting. Bramble scratched and panting, they managed to get back to the original copse. It was warm enough in his lightweight kador and he wondered how Diomid was coping.
      The hounds spread out and searched the dense thicket again. Arkay sidled over to Diomid, "Having fun?"
      "Yes," his eyes were bright with excitement. Oh to have the enthusiasm of youth again. "We really found one!"
      "Yes we did," he kept his voice low, reminding Diomid to do the same.
      "Oh, sorry," his grin was infectious and he looked back towards the heavy cover. "Do you think we'll find anything else?"
      "Probably not," he sighed, resting his elbow on the fixed head. "It's already getting a bit too warm for a good scent. But we'll see."
      "Alexi was talking about bringing up the sight hounds for hare this afternoon."
      "Really," Arkay blinked in surprise. "Are the crop managers complaining?"
      "A lot, he said," Diomid matched his posture. "He said they were beautiful to watch in action."
      "They are," Arkay nodded. "I like running the sight hounds. Is he borrowing some of Kirov's?"
      "No, he said something about some small ones he's been working with the kennel masters on breeding back up."
      "Oh wow," Arkay always loved to see the smaller sight hounds run. They were quicker than their larger kin. Alexi sounded the call to gather the hounds.
      "Nothing here and the dog carts should be here soon!" He raised his hand and flared his field for attention. "For those who don't know, that was the call to gather the hounds."
      "Hopefully with a bit more skill than earlier," Arkay couldn't help but mutter. Alexi wrinkled his nose at him. It did go a bit better, but only because the hounds were bored and tired of finding nothing. They'd at least gotten one good run out of them.
      Two large carts drawn by Trakhs showed up on the nearby lane. The exchange of hounds did not go smoothly. Even Alexi got snapped at. He growled at the offender who whined and backed away into a couple, who snapped at him in return. Eventually everything got sorted out. It was nearly noon and Arkay hoped Karola had at least gotten his sandwich right. He was also dreadfully thirsty.
      "If you'll excuse me," he asked Alexi as he tried to remember where the nearest stream was.
      "Break time," Alexi called out. "Me too," he muttered, glowering a bit at the mess of horses, hounds and people.
      "Take it easy on them, Alexander."
      "But I want Diomid to have a good time," he sighed.
      "He is, trust me," Arkay winked as the sharm lord in question came up to them.
      "Yes," Arkay gasped. "Someone decided brandy would be appropriate for cubbing."
      Diomid snickered and led them off a bit. A moss lined stream looked like heaven to Arkay's parched throat. Not waiting for a leg down, Arkay slipped from Kiri's back and scooped up liters of the clear, cool water. Kiri stuck his nose down right next to Arkay's.
      Alexi chuckled and sent, *Better than watermelon, he says.*
      "Quite true, my old friend," he brushed Kiri's cheek with his own.
      Diomid dropped his veil and joined them. "This is so good."
      "Very true, my love," Sasha held their horses so they could drink as well. Simes didn't require quite as much water every day as Gens or the horses. Even though smart Sime Alexi was, he drank as well. Better too much than not enough.
      "Back to it," he sighed. "We should come back here some time."
      "Good idea," Diomid's hand came to rest on Alexi's wrist. They were very cute together, as cute as they'd been at first. It was an excellent sign for their continued relationship. Alexi helped Diomid back on his horse and before he could be shamed into asking, Alexi offered him a leg up as well.
      "Wouldn't me much of a lord if I made you mount on your own," Alexi's hand boldly slid up the back of Arkay's thigh. He blinked in surprise and looked down at him. Alexi only winked and remounted his mare. No mere lord had dared touch him willingly in years. Alexi's normally cheerful face fell a bit.
      *Not you,* he sent quickly. *I'm flattered, actually,* Kiri's neck was silky beneath his hand.
      *You deserve it,* his brilliant grin returned.
      Alexi felt much better after running the sight hounds. Diomid had cheered on the hounds with everyone else each time they were set to run. At the end he'd even slipped one of them and done a fine job of it.
      These guys were fit and ready to run after a long summer of running hares already. For some reason the numbers had been very high this year. He hoped they wouldn't have to go after wolf this winter with so much regular game for them to hunt. The evening breeze was rising by the time they were done.
      Each of the hounds had run well and was snoozing in the cart waiting to return them to their kennels and a good feed from the steer slaughtered for them this morning.
      Diomid and Arkay were both drooping in the saddle. "Time to go home!" He called out.
      There was a flurry of motion and Arkay came up to him holding out his hat. It was filled with coins. The cap fee went to the huntmaster! He looked around before realizing he was the huntmaster today. With a sheepish grin, he took it. "This morning wasn't very good," he rolled his eyes.
      "But this afternoon was great," Arkay grinned at him, his eyes bright in his heavily lined face. "You earned it."
      "Bless you," he weighed out the coins in his hand before slipping them into his belt pouch. They were astonishingly heavy and he realized most of it gold weeks and not the more common silver days, and there were even a few heavy gold months in there. They must have really enjoyed this afternoon. "I like running the sight hounds."
      "I can tell," Arkay winked. "Next week?"
      "Sight hounds only?" If he was going to be hunt master, he was not going to try running the scent hounds again. He'd leave them to the experts. This morning had been an utter disaster.
      "If you like," Arkay looked around. "You did pretty well this morning with no experienced staff and not normally running the hounds as master yourself."
      "Thank you, Sharm Lord Arkay," he felt the man was flattering him, but Sharm Lords were allowed to do that. "Do you feel up to next week?"
      "Wouldn't have asked if I didn't," he convinced Kiri not to try to finish consuming the meadow they were standing in. He grumbled about the unfairness of it all in dark, cloudy shadows.
      "Even though you might want to take Kiri home the fun way. He's complaining about being bored." He felt sorry for the grand stallion who'd spent most of the day napping under his rider. Such was the nature of hunting some times, but Kiri couldn't understand that.
      "Think you and Diomid could keep up with me?" Arkay grinned, looking nearly as young as Diomid.
      "I'm game," Diomid clamped his leg firmly against the leaping head. "I have a great horse here and I've wanted to let him play all day."
      Alexi felt a flush of pleasure at Diomid's comment. He'd thought about getting Diomid a really good stallion like Kiri but realized at the last moment an older gelding who knew everything would probably be a lot more fun for Diomid. Alexi had spent a fortune for Baryan but he knew the horse would see Diomid through any disaster from his own enthusiasm to hail storms.
      "Then let's go, if you can keep up with me!" He challenged them to pursuit. Lyra, his own mare, knew that tone of voice and took off for their favorite course through the trees at a dead run.
      Arkay whooped with glee and he heard the heavy pounding of hoofbeats behind. Kiri would be faster than Lyra anywhere than here ... Alexi set himself for the four meter slide. Kiri's eyes nearly bugged out as he saw where the trail went and Arkay leaned back. Alexi laughed in delight as Baryan calmly leaped into space, only sliding the last meter or so. That was the fast way down. Kiri finally felt outmatched and slid down to follow.
      The next obstacle was a simple meter high coop and Diomid actually managed to crack his whip in mid air. Alexi was impressed. He led the two Gens on a merry chase. The scrambled up over stones piled since the time of the ancients and even through a horse high cave he knew of near one of the rivers.
      Lyra bucked in glee and nearly unseated him. "Easy lass," he chuckled, clamping his knees against her sleek sides. She was sweating, but not heavily lathered yet. "Let's get 'em wet," he gave Lyra the image of the great swimming hole they'd shared for years.
      The brass bangles on her bridle jingled as she shook her head and then she flattened her ears and ran full out for the river. The pulse of her muscles felt like his own. He could see all the way around them through her eyes. Motion behind them caught his attention. Kiri was goining on them!
      "Now, lovely," he leaned forward the rest of the way and slipped her the reins completely. Blue sky filled his vision. She bravely leaped off the top of the river bank and into the deep water. Their splash much have reached the heavens. He turned back to see the most amazing sight, Kiri refusing a jump. If Arkay had been aside, he'd have come off. As it was, he was wrapped around Kiri's neck like a barbarian's necklace.
      Alexi crowed his laughter. Then he cursed his common sense. Baryan took one look and jumped right into the water with them. Alexi got water up his nose and snorted it out. Lyra shook the remaining water out of her ears. Diomid untangled himself from his saddle and came up grinning. "That was fun!"
      Even Baryan's mind was alight with good humor. He wasn't the smartest horse, but he wasn't so stupid as to be dull either. The sense of cool water feeling good was foremost in his mind.
      "Gotcha Arkay!" He shouted up the overhang. Arkay managed to somehow pull himself upright again and glared down at them. Diomid snickered, wetly of course. Kiri's knees trembled. Uh-oh, Alexi moved everyone over just in time as Kiri made a convulsive leap into the water. The zlin on Arkay's nager was priceless. Alexi had never zlinned anyone so stunned.
      Kiri came back up and snorted out the water he'd gotten up his nose. *Showed you,* his acerbic comment made Alexi laugh so hard he got even more water up his own nose. Arkay looked as if someone had tried to drown him.
      "I admit I was a bit warm, but this is excessive if you wanted to cool us off."
      "You did ask for water earlier," he slid over Lyra's back again and clucked for her to swim to the edge of the pool. He didn't make it. Someone grabbed his ankles and pulled him under.
      "Well trained horse, says he," Diomid's laughter took all sting from his words.
      "He didn't refuse," Arkay laughed and he got dunked again. Lyra's mind was on the grass on the shore. This was fine and he sent to the other two they could eat as well.
      *Good,* Kiri's comment was amazingly complex, with overtones of finally, forgiven and happy to be cool overlaying it. Baryan was simply interested in a snack.
      The cool water felt great and he let the two Gens take turns dunking him under the surface. Finally he got creative and grabbed Diomid's kador and pulled him under. Diomid came up spitting out water. His veil had fallen away as had his hood and he zlinned too tasty for words. Finally the two of them tired of their sport and they swam to the bank. His boots would never be the same, he looked at them mournfully. Oh well, they were an old pair, and splitting down the back where he'd had to let them out as he grew.
      Arkay sighed and leaned back on the grass. His hair was a mess. "May I?"
      "Oh, sure," he turned around and Alexi applied himself to wringing out the worst of the water. He had more hair than his horse. Diomid chuckled and ran his fingers through his still short hair.
      Figuring he had enough fingers and tentacles for both, he applied himself to untangling Diomid's hair as well. "Forgiven," Diomid sighed, leaning into the caress.
      "Thank you," he gave Diomid a quick kiss.
      "Yes, forgiven young Alexi," Arkay sighed. "That felt wonderful."
      "I thought it would," he basked in the attention of both Gens. This was heaven. Arkay's field was sharper and far stronger than Diomid's, but it was stunningly beautiful. Almost as beautiful as Diomid's. He sighed and wallowed in the shimmering ambient.

Chapter 15

      Why me? Arkay asked the ceiling. It didn't have an answer either. "What are you doing here ... alone?" He asked Alexi pointedly. Literally, he pointed his nager at the erring young man like a stick. He expected stupid adolescent shit from Diomid, not from Alexi.
      His hair fell in his eyes and he hid behind it. "Diomid kicked me out."
      "What!?" Only yesterday they'd been laughing and playing together. "What happened?" Arkay braced himself for the worst. He really didn't want to see Alexi and Diomid break up. That would be too sad.
      "He said he wasn't feeling well and for me to go away," all the spark and vitality seemed to have gone out of Alexi. His tryingly energetic field was as dull as a comatose renSime's. "Tell me not to?" Alexi's heartbroken plea went straight past all Arkay's defenses.
      "What happened, little one," he tipped his door shut and offered Alexi his arms. Shockingly enough, Alexi took the offer. If he'd stopped to think about it for an instant, he wouldn't have forced the rejection on him. And here he'd taken it.
      For a moment, Arkay forgot himself and merely hugged the poor, delicate little lord who'd shown him such amazing trust. Alexi's hair was as soft as thistle down as he tucked his head under Arkay's chin. Now he understood the fascination with the Azov lords. Their beauty was not that of the surface, but rather they loved with all their heart and soul behind it. No wonder Avilan had so cared for both T'aszo and Lukian.
      To an empath, even a latent one, their caring must have been irresistible. Arkay nuzzled Alexi's hair, drinking in the sweet scent of him, even through the bitterness of his recent turnover. He murmured the soft words of the lullaby he used on the twins when they were fretful,
      Hush little childlet Hush little one, Pappa's gotta dreamlet A pretty one.
      Hush little childlet Hush little one, Pappa's gotta cutelet A tiny one.
      And on and on, through at least six or seven verses. Arkay lost track after the first two, aching for the dry sobs Alexi left on his chest. He'd learned the song years ago because it often cheered worried or nervous parents as well as the infants he sang it to. Eventually though, Alexi snuffled and rubbed his cheek on the front of Arkay's kador.
      "Ready to talk about it?" He had a good guess what had happened now. Diomid was still a fraction behind Alexi and would be going through turnover any time now.
      "Dio doesn't want me around," Arkay heard the unspoken, through his turnover and knew he had been correct.
      "When young people are growing into becoming Sharm Lords, they often get very secretive about turnover." He continued to stroke Alexi's broad back. He wasn't as heavily built as some lords, but he wasn't a willow reed either. Actually if Arkay had been looking, he'd have thought Alexi quite fine.
      "Why?" Alexi looked up at him through sticky lashes. Arkay realized he was even more upset than he'd first thought. To cry at all between turnover and transfer was very rare for most people.
      "Because he's growing very rapidly, Alexi." Sometimes Arkay felt as if he were talking with a child when dealing with the young lord, his responses were so open and unfeigned. "Turnover probably makes him very uncomfortable."
      "He was sick to his stomach last month and if I tried to show need like you've taught me, it made him sicker," he sniffled again and rubbed his eyes. I don't know what to do."
      "When a sharm lord is sick during turnover, the worst thing you can do is show need." Arkay knew, for all his childish behavior, one way in which he wasn't naive was with the truth. It was actually a rather pleasant combination and if he'd had any tendency towards jealousy, Alexi might well have raised it in him.
      "Then I should show high field?" A bit of life came back to his nager.
      "Not quite," he spread his hand over Alexi's back. "What you have to do is show a tiny bit past the crux of turnover." He honestly doubted Alexi had the nageric discernment to manage, but knew he'd want to try anyways. "Let me get you something to give him to settle his stomach."
      "Like this?"
      Arkay nearly dropped the bottle of Jarli syrup. His own stomach felt poised on the top of a slope. "Perfect," he blinked, feeling how very perfectly he'd managed the delicate balance. Alexi's tongue peeked out in a quick grin and he let the fields go again without even a bobble. "Where'd you learn to work fields like that?" He tipped out a few doses into a smaller bottle. Arkay often would take a bit of Jarli when his own turnover was being difficult and he had to keep working. It was a very mild anti-nausea agent, combined with an amazingly non-addictive euphoric.
      "From you and Diomid," he said, flipping his hair out of his eyes again. The color had returned to his field, even though it was obviously sliding rapidly towards transfer.
      "From us?" Few lords could learn much of anything watching sharm lords work fields. The techniques were radically different, then Arkay realized Alexi had been using his private field. "Don't do that!"
      "Don't do what?" He did drop the bottle Arkay had just handed him. Arkay grabbed it before it hit the floor.
      "Don't use your private field for show purposes." He was sweating just thinking about it. A lord could mess up their cycle horribly doing such a thing.
      "But it works." His green eyes showed no more guile than they ever did.
      "It's hard on you, Alexander," he tipped the man's chin up so he could look him in the eyes. "Lords should only manipulate the ambient with their public field."
      "I rarely have enough selyn to do anything with it," he looked up through those long, thick lashes of his and Arkay sweated even more with the effort not to give in to those big green eyes. This lad was more temptation than he needed.
      "Then fix it," he told him. "You're working in the infirmary. You should never be below half in your public field."
      "Yes, m'Lord," his field colored redder than the sunset. "Sorry. How should I pay for it?"
      Arkay counted to ten, in Arabic. Children, he swore to himself. "Charge it to the medical department, you goose!"
      "Oh," he looked up again, this time biting at his lower lip. Don't tease me like that, little lord. Arkay's wiped his sweating palms off on the skirts of his kador. Hopefully he hadn't left wet streaks. He was further along in his cycle than young Alexi and felt every minute of it at the moment. "I'll do that."
      "Good, see that you do," he folded his arms inside his robes. They weren't as concealing as a sharm lord's, but they were better than nothing. "Now, go back to him and see he takes care of himself."
      "I'd rather be able to take care of him," he nodded his head bashfully. "This is four doses?"
      "Yes," he nodded, glad Alexi had moved away. "Go on with you." He waved towards the door. "Take this afternoon off and I'll see you both in the morning?"
      "Bright and early," he left Arkay's office a far more cheerful looking young man than when he'd arrived. Arkay, on the other hand, now itched with wanting a transfer, even if he was still over a week out. Grumbling at the unfairness of life, Arkay rearranged his office.
      It had been so simple! Alexi had gone down to collections and gotten hundreds of days of selyn, just for the asking. Amazing. For a moment, he wondered why he hadn't thought of such a thing and then his conscience bit him. No, he wouldn't fritter it away. It was Azov's, not his.
      He stopped for a moment and looked at the beautifully woven banner over the blast doors to the sharm. The wheat sheaf and shears of Azov were brilliant in their gold against the green wool. No, he wouldn't have more Lords of Azov to torment into an early death.
      That wasn't fair, Alexi looked at his own thoughts. Azov had done everything he could for Alexi, from housing him and feeding him as a child, to giving him the selyn he needed to live now. It wasn't Azov's fault his body and mind were damaged by ill considered actions on the part of his ancestors. Besides, after having known the minds of the animals he worked with so closely, he'd not have given up his inborn curse/gift for any amount of selyn. Only for Diomid's love would he have given it up, and that would do no good.
      With a heavy sigh, he resumed his interrupted journey. His feet hissed against the sand covered floor as he reached the top floors of the town house. Alexi liked staying in the townhouse over summer and riding out to the estates. The main country estate was too isolated for his taste. He liked being around more people than could comfortably live there.
      But then with two Sharm Lords and a Lord at his head Azov may well grow again to be able to keep up two large houses. Alexi knew quite well Azov's long spiral down in numbers and wealth had been because of his family. Without continuity in his leadership, Azov could not have competed with even Maryam for the best people.
      Even in the few short months since Avilan's handfasting, Azov had blossomed under Karola's steady hand. She was young and volatile, but amazingly vibrant which Azov had needed. With Arkay to provide his indomitable strength and Avilan to provide the gentle warmth which had always been Azov's hallmark, Azov had come alive again.
      Even here, in such a small thing. Alexi smiled and rubbed his toe in the clean sand on the floor. It was white and perfectly even, as it should be. Few Demense had the selyn to support as many renSimes as they would want. This was not something Azov had ever lacked. What he'd lacked was direction, which he now had.
      There were even noises about an Azov hegemony. That would be a good thing, Alexi figured, his hand brushing the deeply carved wood railing. Azov should have his day in the sun again. It had been centuries since he was more than the poor, if well fed, little brother of the other Demense. Everyone came to Azov to fill their dinner plates and clothe their backs, but few ever thought of him for anything else.
      Alexi knew full well the value of selyn, the only good Azov was truly wealthy in. Problem was his selyn was in people, not hard cash.
      His tentacles twined about his fingers in protest at being dismissed. He pulled them back and wondered again and how enthusiastically all sharm lords reacted to them. To him they were simply a part of his body, handy for strong, precise manipulations, but not anything special. To Diomid they were exciting and exotic.
      Good thing, he figured. Without them being erotic, he'd have an even harder time enticing Diomid into transfer. He could be a bit sticky sometimes unless Alexi got him really aroused first, in which case Diomid tended to jump him with a franticness which was almost frightening in its strength. Alexi did hope Diomid would settle himself a bit with age. It wasn't as if Alexi were going to vanish on him in mid-transfer.
      But then maybe that was what Diomid feared. Ilira had practically abandoned him. Kila had literally done so. How could Alexi prove he wouldn't? Well, he figured, first off I'll not leave him to suffer turnover alone, even if he doesn't like it!
      The tiles were cool beneath his seat and he wondered that his body heat didn't crack them. Gods he felt awful. Not that the tiles cared about his complaining. Diomid groaned and rested his forehead on his knees. He'd guessed this turnover was going to be rough after the increasing severity of the last two, but this was horrible.
      He hadn't felt this sick since his last cold as a child. Whenever had he thought becoming an adult would mean the end of such misery? Other adults didn't go through this, did they? Right now he would have loved to know, if it didn't mean having to talk with anyone.
      Even the skin inside his ears ached. "At least no one else has to suffer," he told the uncaring marble. Echoes of his voice grated on his oversensitive skin. He was so glad he'd been able to spare Sasha this misery. Sasha's turnover, before dawn this morning, had gone quite smoothly.
      Diomid could feel his body start the ramp up in production heralding actual turnover. Millions of ants bit and clawed the flesh of his arms and the back of his neck. His own hiss of pain rattled like hail on a metal roof. The last two turnovers had been nothing like this. "Sasha!" He screamed, unable to help himself.
      Sharp, real, human pain brought him back to himself. Bright red trickles of blood traced his shins from where he'd dug his own nails into his flesh. The heavy coppery scent of blood mad him gag and his mouth water at the same time.
      It was all too much and he grabbed for the basin before he could disgrace himself further.
      "Hush my love," the voice of an angel told him. "Trust me, Dio." Warm gentle traces over the back of his skull felt so very good. It was as if someone had wrapped all his nerves in the finest cotton. "Drink this."
      He wanted to say can't, but as he opened his mouth the green eyed angel tipped the tiny bit of fluid onto his tongue. "There, now swallow," a firm hand stroked his throat.
      "I'm not a hound," he managed to get out as he finally recognized Sasha kneeling next to him. "I'm not a carnivore."
      "I'm getting an earful," his lips turned up in a grin. "Arkay says that's part of your problem. You should eat some meat."
      His stomach growled so loudly they probably heard it in the sharm. Diomid reddened and looked down at it. "A few minutes ago you were telling me I was the most vile person to walk the face of the earth." A pleasant, cool haze drifted between Diomid and his discomfort. "Jarli syrup?" He licked his lips experimentally. They felt rather large and numb, but otherwise functional.
      "Yes," Sasha stripped his clothes off him. "Oh hell, I forgot to put out the laundry."
      "What's left?" Diomid tried to crane his head around to see what was hanging near the bed and fell over. It was a slow process. First one seatbones fell off the floor. Then the second one. Amazingly, his hip seemed to roll perfectly, as if it were round and not rather odd shaped.
      "Whoops!" Sasha slid between Diomid and the rocking floor reaching up for his shoulder. "There's your riding habit."
      "Good idea," Diomid lurched to his feet. This worked. He was surprised. The floor didn't buck him onto his rear end. He tried to shake his head and ended up swaying. "Arkay works taking this stuff?"
      "Many Sharm Lords will take a bit of Jarli for a bad turnover," Sasha didn't seem as sure of this as he sounded.
      "I'm just a sharm lord," from what Diomid could vaguely recall, which was everything at the moment, his entire world was vague ...
      "Hold on there lover," Sasha's arms came around him. "Lets swipe you off with a damp cloth." This tickled, particularly when he washed Diomid's sweaty armpits. "Fun?"
      "Yes," he kissed his lover, not sure what he was doing. This was even more fun. Diomid hadn't had so much fun in months, except in bed of course. This was fairly close to ...
      "Done," Sasha tapped him on the nose, distracting him from his mind wandering. The butterflies in his brain were very happy ones. "Now, lets pour you into your habit and go on a picnic."
      "No ants?" Diomid hoped.
      "I didn't see any," he grinned. "You're even cuter when you're stoned, my love."
      "Really?" Diomid took a deep breath and fluttered his eye lashes. He even let one of his hands trace over the opposite forearm.
      "Tease," Sasha's eyes grew hot for a moment as he grasped Diomid's questing hand. "We have nearly two weeks."
      "I want to make love, Sasha," Diomid put his arms around his lover's neck. Just as intercourse was not the extent of sex, he'd heard the transmission of selyn was not the be all of transfer. No one he'd known before had wanted to do such a thing, but he needed the reassurance. He felt so alone in his admittedly fuzzy skull.
      "On the grass, by the stream, my love," Sasha's eyes met his. "I would love thee."
      "I do love thee."
      Alexi's heart threatened to burst. He knew much of Diomid's unusual gentleness was mere reaction to the drug, but he'd never known anyone who'd wanted to be taken care of at all. To have Diomid cuddled up to him and looking at him with worshipful eyes was spectacular.
      "I love thee," he murmured against Diomid's soft lips.
      "As I love thee," Diomid's tongue flicked out lightly. Oh it felt good. Precursor to transfer and far more than he could have ever dreamed. A slow breeze tickled at the few damp hairs sticking to the back of his neck. Diomid's broad hand brushed them away, caressing the knot of sensitive nerves directly below the surface of his skin.
      A cream colored butterfly flittered through the warm summer air. It landed on Diomid's bare shoulder. He'd complained still of his clothes rubbing his skin, and so Alexi had spread a blanket he'd brought along for that very purpose. Golden sunlight draped its dappled cloak over Diomid's strong flank.
      Arkay had promised them he'd only truly work on getting them fit this winter, and Alexi couldn't image how much more beautiful Diomid could be then. His youthful perfection was blossoming into even more spectacular glory as he grew into his promise.
      "A minute for your thoughts," Diomid's gray blue eyes were still far softer than he'd ever known them. How he'd wished he could erase the last lines of tautness he'd always seen in them. He'd take Diomid's relaxation any way he could get it.
      "Only enjoying being able to do this," he spoke the complete truth and hoped Diomid would accept it. His lover's hand came up and brushed between Alexi's eyes.
      "Why so tense?"
      "Afraid you'll reject it," he traced his fingertips over the tiny, hairless patch of skin on Diomid's upper arm. There and inside his wrists were the only places Diomid's skin was truly bare on his upper body. Alexi took Diomid's hand and laid a delicate kiss on his broad palm. "I don't like being rejected either."
      "Even when I'm being greedy?" His lips twisted back into his harsh, self depreciating smile. Alexi hated the way Diomid ran himself down.
      "No," he nipped at the base of Diomid's thumb.
      "Bad hound?" He chuckled. Startled, Alexi looked up to see Diomid's face return to its earlier, wonderful, amazing calmness.
      "Sort of," he said shyly. "Speaking of which," he pulled over his saddlebags. Diomid had been more or less unaware of his surroundings when Alexi had ordered the renSimes to pack their bags, and he hoped this would be a bit of a surprise. "Close your eyes, love."
      He did and looked so wonderful the first thing Alexi had to do was kiss him. Diomid's field flared so brilliantly Alexi moaned and kissed him deeper. Diomid gave to him as he never had before. There was none of his usual desperation, only a soft, warm life surrounding them and echoing the warmth of the sun.
      "I have a treat for you," he breathed against Diomid's warmed lips. They were moist and far too tempting. Instead of doing as he planned, he nibbled at them, tasting his lover as he so rarely could.
      "I have my treat," Diomid's muscles gave way even more and they slid down onto the blanket. Alexi gave thanks yet again for having gotten Diomid a gelding and not stallion as both horses decided to investigate their people. A stud would have been far more enthusiastic in his nibbling on Alexi hair.
      "Shoo!" He told them, waving his hands. Baryan made a great show of being scared, turning and running off with his tail over his back. Lyra simply looked at him. "Go eat." He tried again.
      Diomid chuckled and nuzzled Alexi's neck. This wasn't helping. Their fields were so tightly twined he couldn't talk to her at all. "Get on with you, Lyra," he blew at her nose. This didn't work either. She lipped more of his hair towards her mouth. "No wonder your foals eat tails!" Frustrated, he swatted at her.
      She made a great show of backing up with huge, terrified eyes. He knew she was lying. Her tail was a jaunty as it ever got. "Go on," he kissed at her. Finally she gave up and trotted off to join Baryan. "Now, where were we?" He asked Diomid, who was giggling.
      "About here," Diomid bit his neck. Diomid's tongue, wet and slick against his skin overrode all conscious thought. Sunlight dissolved into glittering sprays of selyn. A loud groan echoed in his ears as the real world went away.
      Even here Alexi could tell it was Diomid he held in his arms, Diomid's field so far outshone any other sharm lord's. He made the sun seem dim by comparison. Light and heat and life streamed around his tentacles.
      Any other time he'd have worried. There were few things he liked less than an abort or early transfer, but here, safe in Diomid's hands, he relaxed into his lover's gentle insistence with ease. Warm, soothing waves of selyn washed over his transfer nerves.
      He moaned, a ruddy amber wash of color. Faint shadows only highlighted the warmth of Diomid's promise. Faint still with unfulfilled depths of need, the first darkness was enough to rouse his interest.
      "I like this," Diomid's voice was more than noise. It was a warm hand grasping his on a cold winter night. He slid into his lover's nager as Diomid stroked his field. Falling into the rhythm of the selyn dancing between them, Alexi resisted.
      "Oh yes," a brief flicker of Diomid's mouth opening to his before the world dissolved into light and heat again. His unique taste was sweetened by the soft loving of their fields. Alexi thrilled to Diomid's promise, not denied, but not fulfilled either.
      "I love you," he pulled against Diomid's shifting nager. He felt, for a brief instant, Diomid's soft silky skin beneath his tentacles. The crisp feel of soft hair on his forearms drove Alexi's desires even hotter. Even without his laterals, Diomid's wrists in his grasp were fantastic beyond words.
      "My lover," Diomid's field grasped his and stroked the very border of his still newborn need. Pleasure called out for release as he grasped Diomid in return.
      "Yes," he cried out against Diomid's lips as release flared through their entwined souls.
      Diomid brushed Sasha's silky, chestnut hair from his eyes. Dark lashes draped over his cheekbones as he burrowed his face against Diomid's shoulder. The dark shadows of turnover and newly awakened need had faded from his skin.
      "Thank you," Sasha's lips curled up in his unique, beautiful smile even before he opened his eyes. "I liked that." His nose wrinkled as smile turned to impish grin.
      "I wanted to make love," a bit of color burned in his cheeks. Aspen leaves rustled overhead in their last song before they fell.
      "And we did," Sasha slithered over to lie on top of him, like a warm, living blanket. "Wonderfully well."
      "I didn't do too badly?" Diomid wished he knew more. There were times, like now, when Sasha's experience made him feel his youth with a sort of bitter regret.
      "Not at all," he murmured against Diomid's ear. "I'll have you know, I have no basis for comparison though."
      "You?" Diomid gasped. "Not possible. I thought ..."
      "I'm not so old as all that, beloved," he leaned back and looked him in the eyes. "You are my first true love." His voice broke as if he feared rejection.
      "As are you mine," he brushed Sasha's cheek.
      "No, you loved and do still love Ilira. I do not chide you for it."
      "Even if you hate her?"
      "Even if," his velveteen tentacles traced the curve of Diomid's ear. "It is between she and I, not between you and her." Diomid felt as if he were holding Sasha's very heart and soul in his hands. "I would never chide another for love, no matter whether I understand it or not."
      Diomid hugged Sasha to him with the desperation of love renewed. "I love you as no other, my beautiful Sasha. In mind, heart and spirit you are more beautiful and wonderful than any other alive on this earth and all the spirits of heaven."

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